Student Debt: Yours, Mine, and Ours (concluded)

          I know how concern about student debt affects life decisions. It had determined my law school choice and how I lived, which was frugally, trying to avoid any further loans. Even so, the issue of student debt was thrust at me earlier than I had expected. During my second law school year, I got a draft notice. I was able to push back the induction date until I had completed the school year. In that era of the Vietnam War, I had many concerns about going into the military. Among the minor ones was loan repayments.

          The undergraduate payments would be deferred if I remained in law school, and the school told me that it would also wait to get its money back until after the army, willing to be stiffed if I became a stiff in a rice paddy. The law school, however, was not so kind and told me that once I left their institution, no matter what the reason, I would have to start paying back my debt. I was both pissed and amused. My memory is that I was to get paid $110 a month as a private, but $40 a month would have to go to the law school. As it turned out, I did not have to find out how I might fare on $70 a month. As I have related elsewhere on the blog, I eventually got a medical deferment and was not inducted. (See post of March 15, 2017, “Big Government Makes Killers” Search Results for “”Big Government”” – AJ’s Dad (

          When I finished law school, though, I went into low-paying positions—first a civil liberties fellowship and then into the public defender’s office. Nevertheless, I had to start repaying the student loans. I owed $80 a month, which might not sound like much, but it was almost 20% of my monthly take-home during the fellowship and remained a heavy burden when I joined the Legal Aid Society.

          Sometimes the spouse and I discuss when it was that we first felt financially secure, and we both agree it was not until we had enough money to know we could make it to end of the month and pay the rent. We scrimped. One time, invited by some friends for dinner, we debated whether the free dinner was worth the four subway fares it would take to get there and back. Eventually, we attained what we considered financial independence, the result of a pay raise and the end of one of my loans. The college debt was less than the law school one, so we paid it off sooner. The removal of $40 from the recurring debit side of the ledger was a big event and a reason we did not have to worry about money every single moment. A few years later, the law school obligation was retired, and the disappearance of those monthly $40 payments almost made us feel we were middle class.

          When I no longer had student debt, I gave the topic little thought for a long time, even when I went into law school teaching. But as my academic career continued, I began to consider the financing of higher education more. The law school in which I taught was a private, tuition-dependent institution. As the costs of the school soared, I realized that most of the students could afford it only if they took out loans. I started asking students about their debt. The figures were astounding. Fifteen years ago, it went from $90,000 to over $200,000.

          I realized that I had little idea about their ability to service such loans because I knew little about the career paths of our typical graduates. Like many academics, I might hear about the outstanding successes but knew little about the average graduate.

          There was little data about our grads, but there were good studies of the legal profession as a whole. The initial salaries of law school graduates did not fall into a single bell-shaped curve as it did in other professions. Instead, starting pay was grouped into two bell-shaped curves that were far apart. The modal point for one group was $160,000 and the rest of the beginning attorneys were grouped around $60,000. The high-earning graduates were corporate attorneys going into large law firms; everyone else fell into the lower bracket. The corporate jobs were overwhelmingly staffed from the elite law schools, and my school certainly did not fall into that category. Nineteen out of twenty of our grads were headed to that lower range. Of course, they could expect a higher income as they became more experienced, but the sociologists of the profession also showed that few of those in the lower bell curve would ever jump into that higher group. Starting with lower pay, our grads would forever have incomes less than those other attorneys.

           I was in the teaching business for those who would not get the high-paying jobs. The corporate law firms were not going to have problems hiring smart, well-trained lawyers, but I was especially interested in a better criminal justice system, and I wanted a hand in preparing competent prosecutors and defenders where starting jobs were at best at the $60,000 point. So I compared the starting criminal justice salaries with what I earned in my first positions some thirty years before. To my surprise the money I was paid was, in inflation-adjusted dollars, more than the comparable attorneys were earning today. Starting salaries in many of the “do-good” and government legal jobs in constant dollars have been dropping. I had not found it easy to pay off my relatively modest debt. How were these graduates going to pay off so much more with less pay?

          I did not have the answer, but I did have some idea as to why present student debt was so large. The costs of higher education have increased at a much greater rate than inflation. For example, in the year I graduated from college, in-state tuition at my home state’s flagship university was around $350. My first two summers after high school I worked at minimum-wage jobs that paid me $50 a week. Living at home, I could have saved enough for the tuition, and working ten hours a week during the school year could have paid for the rest of college expenses. In today’s dollars, that $350 tuition would now be about $3,000, and a minimum-wage summer job could still cover tuition. However, today the in-state tuition at the University of Wisconsin is actually about $11,000, much higher than inflation would indicate. A summer job for ten weeks at even $15 an hour will cover only about half the tuition. And the out-of-state tuition, which more closely mirrors some private schools, was about $9,000 back in my day. Now that tuition is about $39,000, and no normal student jobs are going to pay that. Thus, increased student debt.

          There are now important debates about whether student debt should be forgiven. But along with those considerations, there should also be an examination of why the cost of college and graduate school has soared well beyond inflationary increases. Even if all the present student debt magically disappeared, as long as students have to pay the over-inflated costs of university systems, the student debt problem will remain.

Student Debt: Yours, Mine, and Ours

          College debt has become a predominant concern for young adults in America. It prevents them from starting families, buying houses, working at jobs they like. I was fortunate but remember well the financial concerns that attended my own university experience.

Neither I nor my parents could afford my college tuition and expenses, but I did not have to take out a loan to enroll. I had scholarships, but there was a catch. To get the university money I also had to work. I was assigned to be a waiter in the dining halls for freshmen and sophomores. This was a plum job because it paid better than some other possibilities, but I still did not like it.

          I don’t think I resented too much that none of my half-dozen roommates had to work, but that may have been part of it. However, an early morning shift that required me to get up at 5:30 was irksome, especially since almost no one came to eat that early. And weekend work, when I wanted to go to a football or basketball game or go into New York or had just the teeny tiniest hangover, never pleased me.

          I also objected to some of the serving practices that we had to follow. I had no problem with any rule that aided efficiency or hygiene but there were others. For example, we brought out food for an entire communal table of eight or ten once all the seats were taken. That made sense. We carried it out on a serving tray of the kind you have seen many times. That made sense. We had to carry it above our left shoulder. That made sense so that the waiter traffic in the corridors and hallways would not have clashing trays. We had to carry that tray with only our left hand, ideally without resting it on the shoulder. The right had could not be used to steady the tray. That did not make sense. A steadying right hand did not impede efficiency or hygiene. It could, in fact, make things safer. But we could not use the right hand without getting demerits. I was just fine at this requirement and don’t remember any problems carrying the tray in the prescribed manner, but the rule was stupid and was yet another reason not to like the job. (Of course, now I watch waiters and bus boys (persons?) carry similar trays, and I feel superior when they use both hands.)

          In my upper-class years, I continued to work, but now as a research assistant to professors. However, college costs had gone up; I did not get more scholarship money; and I took out loans. The amount was not high, but it meant that I was graduating with debt. This affected my law school choice.

          My classmates tended to agree that there were two top law schools, but if given the choice between them, they picked the one in New Haven. I believe that nineteen of us were admitted to both of the top two, and seventeen picked the smaller one, and one enrolled at the Cambridge school.

          I had some considerations different from others. I had grown up in a small town and had gone to college in a small town. I wanted to experience a big city, and Cambridge was next to Boston, and Boston almost qualified as a big, meaningful city. My first choice, then, was Cambridge. In addition, however, the college debt I had incurred gave me another consideration.

          I did not anticipate coming out of law school going into a job that made much money. I expected that I would never represent corporations or want to, and I remained true to that expectation. I was going to, if not save the world, make it a lot better and this was not, I correctly surmised, going to make me a billionaire. (Look around, though; I don’t think the world is “a lot better” either.) I was concerned about graduating with heavy law school debt that would affect my employment decision; I might have to take employment I did not want because it paid well in order to pay off the loans.

          Just as for college, I needed financial aid, and the aid packages offered by a law school were important to me. So when the admission packets came, I looked carefully at the financials on offer. The favored-by-most-but-not-by-me school offered a sizeable scholarship along with a small loan obligation. The-near-to-a-big-city school offered me a half-tuition scholarship with the rest of the tuition covered by a loan, and I apparently would have to work quite a few hours to pay living expenses. I expected the law school expenses would go up while I was there, as college expenses had, and the loans would grow.

          On the other hand, the law school in Chicago was offering much more in scholarship aid than the other two. A college counselor on law schools had told me that this was an excellent school with a faculty equally as fine as the other two. I was neither an eastern snob nor fearful of the Midwest as were many of my classmates (I had grown up there after all), and knowing that my debt would be smallest in Chicago with the most freedom to accept whatever work I wanted upon graduation, I became perhaps the only one in my college ever to go off to Illinois instead of Massachusetts or Connecticut.

(continued May 18)

First Sentences

“On a typical Thursday afternoon, before the crisis, before the collapse, before hyperinflation, before the bottom dropped out from under the price of oil, before the bolivar was worthless, before your whole monthly salary went to buy a chicken and then just half a chicken and then some chicken parts, before cash disappeared, before everyone left, before the refugees, before doctors and nurses and engineers and managers and workers with skills and time on the job started leaving the country, before the stampede to the exits, before all of that; simply put, before—on a typical Thursday afternoon there would have been three or four operators watching the computer screens in the central control in Caracas that monitored the electrical grid for all of Venezuela.” William Neumann, Things Are Never So Bad They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela.

“It’s hard to know, ever, where a story begins.” Jennifer Haigh, Mercy Street.

“Seventeen seventy-six was a year of momentous events, not just in retrospect but in the eyes of those who lived through them.” Benjamin M. Friedman, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

“In early times, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells, and other objects used in the practice of sorcery.” Halldór Laxness, Independent People.

“In Iceland, it’s considered bad luck to start a new job on a Monday.” Eliza Reid, Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World.

“She hears him long before she sees him.” Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, The Creak on the Stairs.

“Rose was in existential distress that fateful winter when her would-be earthly master, Robert Martin, passed away.” Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.

“It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York.” Katie Kitamura, Intimacies.

“In 1799, the year of the Rosetta Stone’s discovery, Egypt was a sweltering, impoverished back water.” Edward Dolnick, The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone.

“The red stain was like a scream in the silence.” Ragnar Jónasson, Snowblind. (translated by Quentin Bates.)

“John Kieran created the public Moe Berg.” Nicholas Dawidoff, The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.

“There was a time, it says in books, that the Icelandic people had only one national treasure: a bell.” Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s Bell.


The friend asked “Why?” when I told him that the spouse wanted to sell our second car. And I thought about how much mysterious excitement would be gone from the marriage if I knew and understood all the spouse’s whys.

“It is diverting to note how often people who offer good advice would benefit if you took it.” Old Saying.

The spouse and I got on the subway in midtown Manhattan on a Friday evening. Many people with suitcases got off while a few remained on the train. We assumed that they must be coming from an airport, but we did not know which one as we had never taken this route from an airport; all we knew was that this particular route could not have been straightforward. One of New York’s major failings is that it does not have efficient public transportation to its airports. A couple in their twenties, with suitcases, sat across from us on the train, and when I asked, they told me that they had arrived at JFK and gotten to a subway station. They said they managed that by following the crowd. From his accent, I correctly guessed that they had come from Ireland. He said that they were in NYC for four days, and according to her, “doing everything” was on her list. This included watching an Irish boxer at Madison Square Garden. The young man said that he was from County Cork, and she was from the “north.” He said that they had met at university in Dublin. When asked, he said that it was Trinity, and when I responded, “Oh, the fancy one,” he almost blushed. He told us that he had studied maths and she, almost inaudibly, said “theoretical physics.” There are many experiences and surprises on the subways. This was the first time I had met a young theoretical physicist.

“It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.” Oscar Wilde.

I am surprised that somebody has not already perfected this way to become rich: Find a way to make some women’s shoes so they are larger inside than on the outside.

In the wake of the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft abortion opinion, Clarence Thomas said that people must accept outcomes they don’t like. I wonder if he preaches this to his wife about the last election.

Consultants are those who are smart enough to tell you how to run your

organization but too smart to start one of their own.

This is true for me: The only ambition in life a paper napkin has is to get down off a diner’s lap and play on the floor.

When people say that they will do this or that tomorrow, ask them what they did yesterday.

It seems that often when a politician supports “family values,” he means that for other people but not for himself.

“The measure of people’s real character is what they would do if they knew they would never be found out.” Macaulay.

Putin, America, and the Politics of Being (concluded)

          Russia has recently been meddling in the affairs of other countries. For example, when Germany’s Angela Merkel admitted Syrian refugees causing a backlash among some of her constituents, Russia increased its Syrian bombing creating more refugees. Through Twitter accounts and its media outlets, Russia published false reports about the crime wave in Germany supposedly caused by the refugees. This had me thinking about conservatives who talk about crimes and diseases brought by immigrants to this country. They have little data to back up their claims and seldom mention that almost all seek to come to this country expecting to work hard. Moreover, they fail to mention that birth rates are dropping in the U.S., and we need those workers.     

          Before the vote on Scottish independence, Russian media, hoping to encourage the disruption of the United Kingdom, rattled on about bad consequences for Scotland if it remained in Great Britain. After the referendum failed, Russia cast doubt about the vote’s validity. Internet video suggested vote rigging, and the videos were promoted on Twitter by accounts based in Russia. Timothy Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America states, “Although no actual irregularities were reported, roughly a third of Scottish voters gained the impression that something fraudulent had taken place.” Sound familiar?

          Russia favored Brexit–anything to disrupt European unity–and over 400 Twitter accounts heavily promoting the “exit” position were traced to Russia. Russian media did not attack the outcome of the referendum. Snyder says, “This time, no Russian voice questioned the result, presumably since the voting had gone the way Moscow had wished. Brexit was a major triumph for Russian foreign policy to weaken the United Kingdom. The margin of the vote was 52% for leaving and 48% for staying.”

          Why should Russia seek to destabilize other countries? There are at least two reasons. Masha Gessen reports in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin that Putin understands strength to mean that “the country is as great as the fear it inspires.” Thus, Russia’s ability to influence the internal affairs of other countries demonstrates its powers. In addition, because Russia has not been able to raise itself up in the world, it has begun to define success “not in terms of prosperity and freedom but in terms of sexuality and culture, and [suggests] that the European Union (and the United States) be defined as threats not because of anything they did but because of the values they supposedly represented.” Russia’s method of moving up in the standings is to tear others down. Snyder points out, “The essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker. The simplest way is to make them like Russia.”

          The reasoning would suggest that Russia seems better or, at least, not so bad when people in other countries doubt their institutions and their society’s values. Russia suggested that a Conservative win in the UK was the result of a rigged election. If it can get Britishers to believe that, Russia’s elections appear similar to British ones. Moscow does not try “to project some ideal of their own, only to bring out the worst in the United States.” Under communism, the Soviet Union tried to convince the world that it had a better system than the west; one that would eventually prevail and bring a better life for the Soviets and people around the world. Russia no longer has that ideology. It cannot produce or promise an improving society; it can only tear down others.

          It is more than a little frightening to picture Putin giggling in triumph, but he must be more than a little pleased with recent American trends as conservatives seek to undermine the basic validity of our elections. If, in this bastion of democracy, our votes are rigged, then Russian elections look better. The Russian portrayal of America as a land of sexual decadence is only promoted when conservatives “find” homosexual groomers everywhere except among themselves. Russia’s own repression of Russians who contest their country’s direction looks sounder when U.S. schools are portrayed as places for racial and woke indoctrination. The conservatives may not be consciously seeking to make Putin stronger, but they are unwittingly playing into his hands. Perhaps when the cameras are off, he runs victory laps around those huge conference tables he often sits behind wearing a MAGA cap. And giggling.

Putin, America, and the Politics of Being (continued)

          Putin, coming out of relative obscurity, was elected Russian president in 2000 with 53% of the vote. He consolidated his power quickly and extensively in ways large and small, such as by nationalizing television, and was reelected in 2004 with a reported 71% of the vote. The Russian constitution then only allowed two consecutive four-year presidential terms. Putin endorsed Dmitry Medvedev for the March 2008 election and Medvedev got more than 70% of the votes. He then appointed Putin his prime minister.

          A constitutional change increased the presidential term to six years after Medvedev’s term, and Putin again ran for president in 2012. The election was viewed by many within and without Russia as corrupt. Masha Gessen in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin reports: “Putin declared victory in the first round of the presidential election, with 63 percent of the vote. Holding a virtual monopoly on the ballot, the media, and the polls themselves, he could have claimed any figure, but he opted for a landslide, and a slap in the face to the Movement for Fair Elections.” The Movement had been part of widespread demonstrations that started months before the election. They wore white ribbons, which Putin tellingly sexualized by saying the cloth looked like condoms.

          Putin won, but it was clear that a significant portion of Russians were unhappy with him and the direction of their society. Putin had invaded Georgia in 2008, which perhaps was initially popular, but became less so as the war wore on. Privatization had put money into private hands, but little of it went to anyone other than what are now known as the oligarchs. Russians could increasingly see the results of wealth, but few had it as Russia became the most economically unequal society in the world. More and more people felt dangerously unsettled. Gessen again: “Many Russians, however, got poorer—or at least felt a lot poorer: there were so many more goods in the stores now but they could afford so little. Nearly everyone lost the one thing that had been in abundant supply during the Era of Stagnation: the unshakeable belief that tomorrow will not be different from today. Uncertainty made people feel ever poorer.” And people took to the streets in numbers that Putin could not ignore.

          He responded not by trying to distribute wealth more equally, increasing civil liberties, or having fairer elections. Instead, in something that should feel familiar to Americans today, he sought to unite Russians by launching an anti-homosexual crusade. Gessen states, “In the spring of 2012, Putin decided to pick on the gays. In the lead-up to the March 2012 election, faced with mass protests, Putin briefly panicked. . . . And faced with the protest movement, the new Kremlin crew reached for the bluntest instrument it could: it called the protesters queer.” Timothy Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America sees Putin as making this an external threat: “Some intractable foreign foe had to be linked to protestors, so that they, rather than Putin himself, could be portrayed as the danger to Russian statehood. Protestors’ actions had to be uncoupled from the very real domestic problem that Putin had created and associated with a fake foreign threat to Russian sovereignty. [The protestors] were mindless agents of global sexual decadence whose actions threatened the innocent national organism.” These protestors were the tools of a foreign power, a power embodied in the person many American conservatives loathed. “Three days after the protests began, Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for initiating them: ‘she gave the signal.’” A few days later, without providing evidence, he claimed that the protestors were paid.

          The propaganda maintained that the forces promoting sodomy were not just trying to affect Russia. They were also after Ukraine. “European integration (of Ukraine) was interpreted by Russian politicians to mean the legalization of same-sex partnership (which was not an element of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU) and thus the spread of homosexuality.” Gessen tells us that a Russian politician “warned that if Ukraine went west, that would lead to ‘a broadening of the sphere of gay culture, which has become the European Union’s official policy.’ Over the next couple of months, the image of the Western threat menacing Ukraine broadened to include not only the gays but also the Americans, for whom the gays were always a stand-in anyway.”

          Whether or not American manifest destiny (see previous post) compares to Russian exceptionalism, Putin’s turn to sexual matters does have American parallels. How American does this sound? Putin announced, Gessen reports, that he was “defending traditional values.” Russia passed legislation “not only banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ but also ‘protecting children from harmful information,’ which meant, first and foremost, any mention of homosexuality, but also mention of death, violence, suicide, domestic abuse, unhappiness, and, really, life itself.” (The law was entitled, “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.” Perhaps it produces a snappy acronym in Russian.) Russian kiddies should not learn of things that might make them uncomfortable. A similar agenda is being implemented in an increasing number of American schools.

          Putin has adopted the basic political stance that when the topic is about the shortcomings of Russia or Putin himself, shift the topic: “Putin was enunciating a basic principle of his Eurasian civilization: when the subject is inequality, change it to sexuality.” American conservatives have followed a broader path to avoid confronting American shortcomings: the topic may be switched to a number of topics, including critical race theory or Black Lives Matter, but, of course, the staple of avoidance still remains of waving the rainbow flag of gaydom and transdom. American conservatives and Putin share the goal of wanting to make “politics about being rather than doing.”

(concluded May 9)

Putin, America, and the Politic of Being

          The reading for the history book group was The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018) by Timothy Snyder. In preparation, I reread The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012) by Masha Gessen. I read it shortly after it came out, with a postscript, in paperback in 2014. The two books were written of course before Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and our 2020 election with its fallout, but the two books complement each other in their portraits of Putin and Russia and present pictures that aid in understanding the present Ukraine situation and our politics. This reading did not lead to a full-blown depression, but it did not improve my mood.

          Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is longstanding. The Soviet Union, founded in 1922, was a federation of national republics that included Ukraine, but during the 1970s and 1980s in every Soviet Republic increasingly felt as though they were being exploited by other regions. In March 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the USSR, organized a referendum on whether to maintain the Soviet Union as a single entity. Voters in nine of the fifteen constituent republics voted in favor, but six republics boycotted the vote. A few weeks later, Georgia held its own referendum and voted to secede from the USSR. Two months later, Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR, as did Chechnya, which was part of Russia. (In August 1991, President George H.W. Bush went to Kyiv and urged Ukrainians not to leave the Soviet Union, saying “Freedom is not the same as independence.”) More than 90% of the Ukrainians voted for independence.       A coup to remove Gorbachev failed, but in the aftermath, Boris Yeltsin became increasingly popular. He was soon head of the Soviet Union and removed Russia from the USSR and ended it.

          Putin, who came to prominence in Russia after 1991, proclaims religious, ethnic, and near mythical connections between Russia and Ukraine. Snyder says Putin sees Ukraine as “an inseparable organ of the virginal Russian body” and that Putin has said that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people.” The independent Ukraine that came into being in 1991 may have been tolerable to Putin as long as it remained receptive to Russia’s desires. Viktor Yanukovych was elected head of Ukraine in 2010 and, according to Snyder, began his term “by offering Russia essentially everything that Ukraine could give, including basing rights for the Russian navy on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula,” which as it was then understood, would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

          The Ukrainian population, however, increasingly looked not to Russia for guidance and inspiration but to the West, and when Yanukovych canceled an association agreement with the European Union in 2013, demonstrations broke out in Ukraine. After several elections, the present government took power, and as we all know, this is not a Ukraine that takes orders from Moscow.

          The westward turn by Ukraine has been especially troubling for those who have “Mother Russia” feelings about Ukraine. While former Soviet satellite countries and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007, the EU had not extended into any territory that had been part of the original Soviet state of 1922.

          This history and Putin’s viewpoints about Ukraine struck me as Russian. I remembered the first time I read about Raskolnikov kissing the soil at the crossroads and trying to understand a semi-mystical feeling for Mother Russia that seemed alien to American experience. Snyder writes that Russian slavophiles believed “that Russia was endowed with a particular genius. Orthodox Christianity and popular mysticism, they maintained, expressed a depth of spirit unknown in the West. The slavophiles imagined that Russian history had begun with a Christian conversion in Kyiv a thousand years before.”

          But as I thought about these aspects of Russia, I wondered whether there were counterparts in American history. Putin apparently believes that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, and it is Russia’s destiny to include Ukraine. How much different is that from the nineteenth century American faith in “manifest destiny,” that it was the mission of Americans to push onward to the Pacific even though other peoples already populated the land? Didn’t the use of “destiny” imply that this path was preordained by an Almighty? Putin and others believe that Russia is somehow exceptional, distinct and more holy than other lands. And Americans? Of course, America is exceptional, and just below the surface of that notion is a kind of religious belief. When Jesus comes back, perhaps he is going to Galilee, but more likely he is coming to America. (That is if he can navigate our immigration laws, for nothing in them would allow him to enter. He might be able to walk over the river, but what if a border wall keeps him out, and he is consigned to a squalid camp on the Mexican side?)

          Perhaps finding links among Mother Russia, manifest destiny, and American exceptionalism is a stretch, but comparing some aspects of recent Russian and American political history is not.

(continued May 6)


Narcissus was too perfect for sex or pelf—

He longed only to gaze in love at himself . . .

The moral of which is that, even in myths,

Too much reflection may be your nemesis.

                    Kenneth Leonhardt

I can’t get beyond the beginning of my new poem. Maybe somebody can advance it:

Tucker Carlson, Tucker Carlson/ Of smirk and rolling eyes.

Republicans’ new epithet is “grooming.” I was surprised that the conservatives were taking on the Catholic church.

Australians must be different from us. I am watching a Netflix series from down under, and many of the scenes take place in modern homes featuring glass walls. There is never a handprint or other kind of smudge on the surfaces.

The Supreme Court recently heard a case concerning a high school football coach who would kneel at the fifty-yard line after the game and pray out loud. That reminded me of my not-stellar days on the junior varsity high school basketball team when Johnny M. asked our coach if we could pray before the game. I was too timid to object and no one else did either, and the coach okayed it. No one was willing to lead the prayer, so someone suggested the Lord’s Prayer. (There were no Jews and certainly no Muslims, Buddhists, or “others” among the twelve of us.) Before the next game, we said it, and I learned about religious differences as I think others did. We now realized that Catholics had a different version of the prayer from the rest of us–it seemed to end abruptly–and the Protestants’ versions also varied depending on what translation of the Bible the denomination used. It made all of us feel awkward. We did not pray before other games.

I feel better now because I heard it is harder to kidnap overweight old people.

I opened a Twitter account because I read a report of a tweet I wanted to read. Since then I have not used the account. I have never tweeted. I am wondering if Twitter is important in shaping views, or is it merely an entertainment and only reinforces what is already believed?

Conservatives have rejoiced that Elon Musk is purchasing Twitter. They say they believe in free speech and want an open forum, which they believe Musk will bring to Twitter. At the same time, conservatives are punishing Disney for exercising its free speech rights. Go figure.

Luther: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear the scorn.” Thomas More: “The devil . . . the prowde spirit . . . cannot endure to be mocked.” Quoted in C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

I liked the platform of a failed politician. He wanted to remove nationalism from the names of cheeses.

The First Was Not Always the First (concluded)

          The congressional framers of our Bill of Rights did not place our First Amendment rights first. And there is nothing to indicate that the states somehow concluded that the Third Amendment, as it came to them, should be changed to the First Amendment. It is a mere fortuity (see previous blog) that the protections in our First Amendment come first in the supplements to the main body of the Constitution, and no importance should be accorded its placement. The notion that our country’s founders regarded First Amendment protections as the most important because they placed them first in the Bill of Rights is revisionist–dare we say fake–history?

          However, First Amendment rights, or at least most of them, are essential for a free society. Nations do not need all of what is in our Constitution, but it is hard to imagine a country we would consider free that did not have free speech and a free press. We may not think about the ability to assemble as much as speech and press, but people need to be able to come together for many reasons: comradeship, grieving, exchanging ideas, protestation, worship, laughter, dinner, and much, much more. Without a right to assemble peaceably, a society would not be free. And a society is not free if governmental communication only goes one way, from the government to the people. In a free society, the government is the instrument of those it governs. Freedom requires citizens and others to be able to tell the government of perceived problems and need of improvements. Whether we label this the right to petition the government or something else, it is essential.

          But when Education Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Gonzalez were referring to the primacy of the First Amendment (see Monday’s post), they were not drawing attention to speech, press, assembly, and petition rights. Instead, they were stressing the importance of the Free Exercise of religion clause.

          We take the basic right of freely exercising religion for granted. You can go to your chosen house of worship; read the Bible in any of the multitude of versions of it or the Koran or even Dianetics; pray together with others in your home or elsewhere; watch sermons on TV; give money to religious missions; solicit money for religious purposes; and so on.

Nevertheless, there are those who claim that the free exercise of religion is under attack. However, they don’t mean that our right to worship whatever Being we want in the fashion we choose is not secure. Instead, they mean that the free exercise of religion is under attack because they want their behavior to be exempted on religious grounds from the duties placed on the rest of society. For example, even though the law says businesses may not refuse to serve someone because of race, sex, or sexual orientation, a person claims that because serving a gay person violates his religious belief, he should be exempted from the law. An employer maintains that contraception violates his religious beliefs, and therefore although the law mandates that he provide health insurance that covers the costs of contraception, he feels he does not have to. The claim is not that the government has prevented people from being allowed to attend the church they want or study the text they hold sacred or pray in the form they desire. It is the assertion that because of their religious beliefs, they must be allowed to behave differently in society and ignore the laws that the rest of us must obey.

          The advocates for these kinds of free exercise claims seldom mention the First Amendment’s other religion clause, the one that bars the establishment of religion and comes first in the Bill of Rights.

          The founders knew that free societies and representative democracies could have an established religion. At the time the Bill of Rights was proposed by Congress, several states, including those ratifying the First Amendment, had established churches. These establishments were not regarded as inconsistent with a free, representative government. The Constitution’s Section 4 of Article 4 commands, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government. . . .” If established churches were detrimental to that form of government, Congress would have had the duty to disestablish the state churches. They, instead, did not interfere with the established churches. (Even today countries that seem to have at least as much liberty as ours have established churches, including Denmark, Iceland, Scotland, and England.)

          The Establishment Clause is striking because it has a purpose that is different from the rest of the First Amendment, but also because of its broad language. Picking a church to be established nationally would have been divisive—state-aided churches in the south were Anglican and in New England were Congregational—but the Bill of Rights does not just prevent an established church. It bars any establishment of religion, and it does not just prohibit a formal establishment of religion, it goes much further and says there shall be “no law respecting” such an establishment. The founders did not just want to prevent an established church or the establishment of religion; their language indicates that the United States should not even be on a road that could possibly lead to such an establishment. (This divorce from religion was also evident in Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Some states did have religious requirements for office-holding that lasted into the nineteenth century. New Hampshire, for example, required state officials to “be of the Protestant religion.”) Therefore, all interpretations of free exercise must consider whether a law respecting the establishment of religion is being made.

          The original notion of the free exercise right—I can worship as I choose–produces no tension or conflict with the Establishment clause. I can join the congregation of my faith; read my desired sacred texts; fill the collection plate of my selected church; label my god by my preferred title; worship more than one god; insist that women should be segregated from men during a service; maintain that divorce, homosexuality, contraception, and looking at the behinds of the opposite sex are sins. None of this raises an issue of the government moving towards the establishment of religion.

          However, the modern claim of free exercise that says a law cannot force a person to behave contrary to religious principles is different. If a person is exempt from following the law others must obey because of religious beliefs, then that person is put in a favored spot over the non-religious or those with a different religion. Does creating this privileged position based on religion violate the injunction that there can be no law respecting the establishment of religion?

          If your answer is no, consider this possibility: Assume a law requires employers to provide insurance to employees when ten people are employed. Assume that Sam, the owner, believes in something akin to Christian Science and that healing comes only through prayers without medical intervention. He maintains that it would violate his free exercise of religion to provide the legally mandated health insurance. Of course, if he is exempted from that general law, not only do his employees not get the coverage, Sam gets a financial advantage over other businesses, and perhaps competitors might think about joining Sam’s church.

          I am not pretending that I know how those claims should be decided, but in examining them, we should realize that many of the free exercise claims bring a tension with the Establishment Clause.

The First Was Not Always the First

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

          Within the next two months, the Supreme Court term will end. The Court will render all its decisions for the pending cases. The most anticipated, of course, concerns abortion, but many other important opinions will be handed down, including some about religion.

          The religious cases will not get as much publicity as the abortion decision, but they will shape the country’s future in important ways. Before they come, I thought I would revisit the First Amendment, which contains what are often called the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. A popular misconception is that the rights in the First Amendment were considered the most important ones by our founders because they come first in the Bill of Rights.

          For example, Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in an op-ed piece: “There’s a reason why the First Amendment comes first. Our country was founded upon the ‘first freedoms’ it protects. The freedom to express ourselves — through speech, through the press, through assembly, through petition and through faith—defines what it means to be American.”        

          Her statement seems to say something learned about our country, and surely First Amendment rights are important, but can her words be profound when they misapprehend and misrepresent history? DeVos says the collection of First Amendment rights “defines what it means to be an American.” DeVos should remember the old story in which the teacher asked, “Who was the first man?” Glen shouted out, “George Washington.” Miss Wilson responded, “What about Adam?” Glen, showing disappointment in his teacher, said, “Well, if you are going to count foreigners.

          America is not alone in what we label First Amendment rights. Citizens of many countries have the right to express themselves. If that right defines what it means to be an American, many foreigners must then be American.

          Perhaps what DeVos really meant to say is that we would not be Americans without these guarantees, but they do not define what it means to be an American. Happily, we are not the only people in this world with such rights. (The Democracy Index has scores for civil liberties and about twenty countries are ranked higher than the U.S.)

          DeVos made another point. These are our most important rights, she says, because the “First Amendment comes first.” Alberto Gonzalez, Attorney General for George W. Bush, said something similar years earlier, stating that religious freedom is the country’s first freedom because our founders saw fit to place it first in the Bill of Rights. We should give primacy to First Amendment rights because they come first, he said, and following that logic, we should give primacy to the religious provisions because they are the first of the First Amendment. (The First Liberty Institute, which litigates religious cases, does not on its website explain its name, but I presume the name comes from similar reasoning.) It all seems so obvious that a third grader using vouchers could follow the reasoning. But this elementary school reasoning is misleading and historically inaccurate.

          The rights of the First Amendment don’t come first in the Constitution. They come after the seven articles of the Constitution that were drafted in 1787; the initial amendments were drafted in 1789 and went into effect in December 1791. Our Constitution granted rights before the Bill of Rights existed, and if rights are to be measured by their placement, then these original freedoms coming years before the First Amendment must be more important than the religious and speech provisions.

          For example, Section 9 of Article I of the Constitution prohibits the suspension of habeas corpus except when a rebellion or invasion may require it. The next paragraph prohibits a bill of attainder or an ex post facto law. The next Section 9 provision gives another right: No direct taxation unless it is based on the census. This was an important right until it wasn’t a right. The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, wiped out the no-direct-taxation provision by explicitly authorizing an income tax. Our rights, it turns out, are not immutable.

          Section 9 contains two other provisions that we seldom think about but were truly essential foundational rights for this nation, because without them we would not be one country: “No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State. No preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another; nor shall Vessels bound to, or from, one state, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay Duties in another.” We are welded into one entity because goods and transport can freely travel among the states. Without that, we would only be a collection of fifty fiefdoms.

          The founders also placed important rights in Article III, which provides a narrow definition of treason and requires “the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open court.” It also eliminated punishments for treason that had existed in Europe. Finally, Article III, Section 2 guarantees jury trials for crimes. (If the importance of a right is measured not by its placement in the Constitution, but by the frequency of its protection, then juries are the most important constitutional right since juries are guaranteed not only in Article III but also in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments.) In other words, First Amendment rights should not be given primacy because they come first; they don’t.

While the First Amendment’s placement does not indicate the preeminence of its protections, its rights are foundational to what we would consider a “free” society. That is not true for much of what is in the rest of the Bill of Rights. Many of its provisions are America-specific. We have them, but other countries have not considered them necessary for freedom. Most nations do not have the constitutional equivalent of our Third Amendment, which restricts the quartering of soldiers in homes. Many free societies have justice systems that do not rely on juries as we do. Most countries do not have in their constitutions the right to keep and bear arms. Indeed, our overall structure of government mandated by the Constitution with a President selected by an electoral college, a Congress, and separation of powers has not been deemed necessary for many free societies.

(To be continued)