Abortion Ban Redux

          Her mother told her, “I had an abortion after you because you were such a terrible child!” Michelle Zauner in Crying in H Mart, a marvelous memoir, writes, “I knew there was no way I was truly to blame for the abortion. More than anything, I was just shocked she had withheld something so monumental.”

          I know women who have had abortions. You do, too, even if you are not aware of it, and there is a good chance that you know women who had illegal abortions, as I do. Many women, however, do not mention their abortions, as Michelle’s mother did not until she had that pique of anger. Too often when we learn much after the event that a woman terminated a pregnancy, we conclude that she kept it a secret because she was ashamed of her action. Instead, as with many things in all our lives, we should see that it was a private decision—it involved her right to privacy–and she has every right not to divulge her action to others. Most people are not ashamed of having had sex. Most do not divulge the details far and wide. These events are private actions, and a woman has the right when, where, or if to discuss them. The passage in Crying in H Mart, however, had me thinking about anovel and another memoir from earlier times that told us, whether we realize it or not, abortion has been an important part of our history.

          Bad Girl by Viña Delmar was a bestseller in 1928. My copy is from its fifteenth printing that year. (Sales were apparently not hurt when the novel was banned in Boston.) In the novel, Dot, a working-class New York City woman, does the unthinkable and has premarital sex. She gets pregnant and marries her lover. She fears childbirth, about which she knows little, and the book has a frank discussion of her attempts to terminate the pregnancy.

          Even though it is against the law, she gets a purported miscarriage-inducing concoction from a pharmacist. Although she takes it “religiously,” it fails to work. Dot then turns to a more upper-class friend, Maude, who urges Dot not to have the baby and tells her that only an operation, not any medicine, will work. Dot asks whether the operation hurts, and Maude says it does “the first time, because most girls are crazy enough to try it without ether.” With the anesthetic, however, “you don’t feel a damn thing.” The friend gives Dot an address and tells her not to pay more than fifty dollars, an enormous sum to Dot. Maude states that the hospitals are open to the woman giving birth, but not to the one who doesn’t want a baby. “High prices, fresh doctors. It’s a man’s world, Dot. To the woman who knows her place they will give their charity, but the woman who wants to keep her body from pain and her mind from worry is an object of contempt.” Dot, not having fifty dollars, goes for a preliminary visit to the doctor, who determines she is pregnant, molests her, charges her five dollars, settles for the only two dollars she has, and tells her to make an appointment soon because she is in the second month.

          Dot and her husband Eddie are constrained from talking freely about what they are feeling. Eddie thinks that a pregnancy termination would be murder, but he also thinks a man “would have a hell of a nerve” to tell a woman to have a baby. “What right had a man to say what she should do?”

          Dot talks with other friends. Edna says a woman has the baby whether she wants it or not. “Abortion” is never uttered. Instead, in a different way from the way we use the term now, that procedure is referred to as “birth control.” Thus, Dot “was not anxious to debate the pro and con of birth control” with Edna, and Edna to herself was trying to figure out, “Who was the birth-control advocate, Eddie or Dot?”

          Edna urges Eddie to oppose the abortion, but he replies, “It’s her business.” Edna then indicates that “nine-tenths” of young married women are ignorant about childbirth and abortion. She states that there are only a half-dozen New York City doctors who do abortions without serious complications such as blood poisoning. For a birth, Edna maintains, a woman can find a good doctor, but “the other way you’ve got a guy who couldn’t make a living the way other doctors do. . . , and in case you have religion, you’ve sinned against it.”

          Finally, Dot decides. “After all, it was her body that was to be the battle-field. She had been wrong. It was her place to do what she pleased, not to stand by and wait for Eddie to pass judgment.” The thought of the horrid abortionist was repulsive, and she feels happy and peaceful as she announces that she will have the baby.

          I have not seen many references to Viña Delmar, who not long after Bad Girl, became a screenwriter, but she makes a cameo appearance in the 1935 noir novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. The novel’s setting is a marathon dance held in a hall built out over the Pacific. As the marathon goes on, Hollywood personalities attend. One night the personality to fire the starter’s pistol for the brutal “derby,” where the couples race around an oval painted on the floor with the last couple being eliminated from the competition, is Miss Delmar. Rocky, the emcee, played by Gig Young in the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”—it is hard to say which is better, or more depressing, the movie or the book—explains, “Miss Delmar, is a famous Hollywood author and novelist.” I am not sure why Viña, of all the possibilities was plunked down in this book, but it could have been an homage to Bad Girl. Both books, written less than a decade apart, explore, with sensitive understanding, the difficulties of lower-class life in the 1920s and 1930s. Abortion is at the core of Bad Girl and is an undercurrent in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Early on in McCoy’s book, Gloria, played by Jane Fonda in the movie, urges a fellow competitor who is pregnant to get an abortion. At the book’s end, Gloria worries that she is pregnant by Rocky, and she does not want a child. “Suppose I do have a kid?” she said. “You know what it’ll grow up to be, don’t you, just like us.” The narrator, her dance partner says to himself, “She’s right; she’s exactly right. It’ll grow up to be just like us–.”

(continued June 1)

The Worst of Times? The Indiana Pope, Fluoride, Daniels, and Wilmington (concluded)

          America has been fueled by conspiracies throughout its history, many concerning race. And its government has always been populated with racists. Recently, many of us learned what we had not been taught before, the racism of Woodrow Wilson. But let’s consider the lesser-known Josephus Daniels. I first learned about him in biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Daniels was Secretary of the Navy during World War I, and FDR served as his Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The two became friends, and when he became President, Roosevelt appointed Daniels to be ambassador to Mexico, a position he filled from 1933 to 1941. These biographies told me that Daniels for decades at the end of the nineteenth century controlled and edited the Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer. He held progressive political positions, supporting public schools and public works, seeking more regulation of trusts and railroads, supporting prohibition and women’s suffrage. However, I don’t remember those books telling me that Daniels was a vehement racist and white supremacist. He maintained that America’s greatest mistake was to give Blacks the vote, and his newspaper published vicious editorials, letters, articles, and cartoons about what was labeled the “horrors of negro rule.” Through his newspaper and personal contacts, he was a promotor of a successful overthrow of a validly elected American government, what has been called the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. Yes, this country has had precursors to the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Wilmington was one.

          The oppression of the Jim Crow laws had not yet descended upon North Carolina in the 1890s, but economic disparities had. A populist party with an emphasis on the needs of poor whites allied with the biracial Republican party to form Fusionist slates that won statewide offices during that decade. Wilmington, then the largest city in North Carolina, was majority Black, and Blacks held political offices in a biracial government. Moreover, they held economic power by being successful in many professions and by owning butcher shops, restaurants, carpentry businesses, and a newspaper.

          To regain its ascendance, the statewide Democratic party, with Josephus Daniels as one of its leaders, consciously used white supremacist rhetoric, leaning heavily on the unfounded fear of rapes of white women by Blacks. Finding this propaganda insufficient, a NC Democratic official said, “We cannot outnumber the negroes, and so we must outcheat, outcount or outshoot them!” Blacks had to be either frightened away from the polls or be forcibly resisted when they tried to vote. And in the 1898 elections for statewide office, the Democrats were successful—perhaps, many thought, with the aid of stuffed ballot boxes—in removing the integrated Fusionists. Local officials, however, were not part of this election, and the biracial government of Wilmington remained.

          A self-appointed committee of nine white men who were not happy with such a government issued a manifesto telling the Wilmington elected officials to leave and insisting further that if Blacks were not going to be servile to whites in the future, they, too, should depart. Next day, not seeing the demanded exodus, up to a thousand whites exercised what today would be called their Second Amendment rights by arming themselves, not just with rifles, pistols, and shotguns, but also with a gatling gun. Accurate records of the ensuing carnage were not kept, but the estimates of Blacks killed go from 60 up to 300. The rampaging whites installed their own unelected government officials.

          Americans often profess a belief in democracy and elections, but in Wilmington a duly elected government was violently overthrown and replaced without any voting. The slaughter was the coup. Then came the revolution. The white insurrections recognized that without further steps, they might face a biracial government again. After the 1898 election, the white supremacist government gave North Carolina voting officials, who of course would be white, broad discretion in deciding who was eligible to vote. They could ask any “material” question on identity and qualifications. Legislators advocated for a poll tax and literacy test, but others pointed out that these devices could also prevent whites from voting. North Carolina then adopted the “grandfather clause” that exempted those who had voted before 1867 or whose father or grandfather had voted before 1867 from a poll tax or literacy test. In 1868, 80,000 blacks were registered to vote; by 1900, it was 15,000, and “perhaps half of them were able to vote.” By 1906, about 6,100 North Carolina Blacks were registered to vote.

          The Wilmington Insurrection pioneered a formula that would be used throughout the South: deny black citizens the vote, first through terror and then by legislation. And even when the Supreme Court did rule in 1915 that the grandfather clause violated the Fifteenth Amendment, the South found other ways to suppress the Black vote.

          Although I consider myself reasonably well versed in American history, I had not heard of the Wilmington Insurrection until recently. For those who want to learn more, I recommend David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (2020). Zucchino goes on to point out that Blacks in North Carolina did not vote after 1898 in significant numbers until after Voting Rights Act of 1965.

          However, NC Republicans in 2012 started collecting data on such things as how many Blacks did not have a driver’s license; how many used early voting hours; how many voted on Sundays. A voter identification law was thwarted by the preclearance provision of Voting Rights Act, but in 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the democratically enacted Voting Rights Act, and North Carolina immediately enacted a voter ID law, which is now enshrined in the state constitution. The crazy, conspiratorial actions of today follow the steps taken in 1898 in Wilmington.

The Worst of Times? The Indiana Pope, Fluoride, Daniels, and Wilmington

          Does anyone think it is the best of times? Many of my friends seem to think it is the worst of times. They refer to the Big Lie claims of a stolen election, the insurrection of January 6, 2021, trying to prevent the consequences of a valid election, conspiracy theories from pedophilia to the great replacement, to racists in office, and so on. They believe that the internet and social media have made America’s worst tendencies worse and that they will continue to spread misinformation, hate, and divisiveness among us. My pessimism about America may not be as great as my friends’, not, however, because I don’t share their feelings, but because I realize that racial hate and violence, attacks on our elections, and dangerous conspiracy theories have been imbedded in this country from its beginnings. American exceptionalism has always contained a heavy dose of craziness.

          Long before the internet and social media, this country was crawling with controversies. Looking back many of them seem comical. But many weren’t. They were taken seriously. Many harmed individuals and families. Many harmed the country. A few examples. Consider North Manchester, Indiana.

          The 1920s saw an extensive resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. We may think of the Klan today as a group of anti-Black organizations, and racism has always been a dominant ideology of the KKK, but a hundred years ago, the Klan also heavily featured antisemitism and anti-Catholicism. The anti-Catholicism was a component of an anti-immigrant animus. The Klan followed a Great Replacement theory. Native-born whites were being replaced by dark immigrants from Southern Europe who held a foreign, dangerous, and anti-Christian ideology, that is, Roman Catholicism, and of course, the leader of this Devil’s brigade, and therefore, the figure for reviling, was the Pope. The politics of many northern states were heavily influenced by anti-Catholicism, including attempts to ban Catholic parochial schools. Bizarre conspiracy theories were rampant, including one that affected North Manchester, then and now a small town in north central Indiana.

          The 2,700 residents of North Manchester in 1923 saw much Klan activity including a cross burning in February that apparently gave concern only because it was windy that night, and a fire might have spread from the oil-saturated burlap that covered the twenty-foot construction of two-by-four timbers. In April, the local newspaper reported a talk by Reverend Blair to a “large audience,” who explained that the Klan was founded in the South during Reconstruction “when the negroes, controlled by unscrupulous white men, were creating terrorism.” He said that the Klan had been recently reorganized and it was now “composed of American-born Protestant citizens to combat existing evils in the U.S. The Klan never took the law into its own hands, but that it obtained evidence and then turned that information over to the proper authorities.”

          A Klan parade in May clogged the roads, and the North Manchesterites saw 129 hooded people participate. In September, 2,500 people attended a Klan picnic and heard Klan speakers.

          And during these times, a Klan lecturer warned that the arch-villain, the Pope, was coming on the morning train to Chicago the next day. To protect the native-born Protestants who were exceptional defenders of the country, a thousand people met the train and confronted the one person who disembarked. That man spent an uncomfortable half-hour and finally convinced the concerned citizens that he was not the Pope in disguise but only a corset salesman. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side the Klan acolytes put him on the next train out of town. (See Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan by David Mark Chalmers.) No one was hurt although one corset salesman had to have been terrified and could not do his job, but this craziness was a mere sliver of what affected the country.

          A different conspiracy theory affected my hometown while I was growing up. In the 1940s, scientists learned that fluoride could help prevent tooth decay. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has not been a national leader in many things, but according to the Sheboygan Water Utility Company, in 1946 it became the first water company in Wisconsin and the third in the country to fluoridate its water supply. I drank that water from infancy and do have good teeth. However, in the 1940s and 1950s, far right politicians maintained that fluoridation was a plot to impose a communist regime in this country by sapping the brainpower and strength of a generation of kids. I would explain the logic behind this movement, but I was mystified by it then, and I still am. Even as a pre-teen, I thought that if the communists sought to take over this country by targeting Sheboygan, then those Bolsheviks were a long way away from dominating the world. But the spread of this paranoia had significant success as referendums around the country defeated fluoridated water, and it was not until the 1990s that most of the country had the benefits that it brings.

          We tend to forget now how often the communist label was spread to oppose progress. Rachel Carson writing about imminent ecological damage was a tool of the communists. Martin Luther King, Jr., if not an actual communist, was a dupe of them. The National Council of Churches had communistic tendencies. Medicare is communism. Teachers teaching anything that a red-blooded American might object to was a communist. Rock ‘n roll fostered communism. And so on. The right wing in the era of McCarthyism and beyond trotted out fears of a giant communist conspiracy again and again with as much basis as the Big Lie today, and many individuals and this country suffered because of it. Conservatives then and now could not tell the difference between radicalism to be feared and an idea.

(concluded May 27)


I could not find the book I was looking for in the store. I asked a clerk when the paperback would be available. She replied that it wouldn’t be in for several months. I said that yesterday’s book review announced that it had just been released in paperback. The clerk maintained that the paperback was months away but said that she would check further. She did something with her computer and said, “I was wrong. We will have it Tuesday.” I said, “It is always great when a woman tells me she was wrong.” I asked if she would say it again. Almost laughing, she repeated it.

The health guru pronounced, “Performing a difficult task before breakfast will spoil your entire day.” Now I know what has been the matter with my days. I have been getting up before breakfast.

I had assumed that the Conservative Political Action Committee was an America First group. However, they are meeting in Hungary. I did not know that Budapest is the place to put America first.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, described as an archconservative, said that until Nancy Pelosi was willing to “publicly repudiate” her position defending the “legitimacy of abortion,” she would not be able to receive the holy sacrament of communion, a central element of her Catholic faith. If publicly supporting a right to abortion violates Catholic belief, the judicial action of upholding the constitutionality of abortion should be an even more egregious violation of the faith with similar severe of consequences. Much has been made of what the recently confirmed Supreme Court Justices said about the Roe v. Wade precedent, but the Senators were deficient in not asking the obvious question: “Do you believe that upholding the constitutionality of abortion would violate your religious faith? If so, would you recuse yourself from abortion decisions?”

We hear a lot these days about the great replacement theory. I don’t remember who said it, but it was wise: “‘The great replacement’ is a phrase generally attributed to a French writer, Renaud Camus, who said: ‘The great replacement is very simple. You have one people, and in the space of a generation, you have a different people.’  That, of course, is a good definition of America.”

At a political meet-and-greet, the candidate said what I have heard from many others: “We can do whatever we set our minds to.” Each time I hear this cliché, I think: Poppycock. And, by the way, the candidate lost in the primary.

The announcer said that the player had just returned to the roster after having had an emergency appendectomy. How often does someone have a scheduled appendectomy?

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 (ajsdad.blog))

          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)