Fund the Police . . . And Others, Too

I have avowed or suggested or implied that a police officer was a liar, had been incompetent, had been less than bright, had used excessive force, had been brutal. I have been personally wary and fearful when I have seen a cop. But I respect the police and what they do.

I didn’t have any contact with the police in the small town where I grew up until I was halfway through high school. Then one day I was asked to go the police station after school where I was questioned by detectives. The crime being investigated had occurred in my girlfriend’s neighborhood. I had dropped Wendy off the previous night. (Of course, I had walked her to the door; I was a young gentleman.) I had been driving my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile, and apparently a neighbor thought that the car had been involved in some sort of incident on the previous night. I seldom drove that or any other car, and although the police kept me for an hour, I was eventually dismissed. Perhaps it was my teenage arrogance (which did not necessarily end with my teenage years), but I was never concerned or scared or apprehensive. I was, after all, innocent. I thought it mostly amusing.

My other contact with a police officer in high school was more informal. On summer mornings I umpired younger kids’ baseball games that were held at what was once a minor league stadium. The program was supervised by a police officer, who, after his midnight-to-eight shift, came to the ballpark. He seemed like a nice guy, but I was shy around adults and learned little about him or his work. I regret my inability to talk more with him. I wonder now what it was like to patrol my hometown and the stories he might have shared. I did not think then about who his friends were or about his family. The kids I hung out with came from a wide economic swath of the town. My friends’ parents worked in factories, were tool and die makers, cabinetmakers, barbers, factory owners, lawyers, bankers, tavern owners, manufacturers’ representatives, physical education teachers, insurance salesmen, clergy, and jewelers. But I knew no one whose parent was a police officer. Whatever world this police officer and his colleagues inhabited, it was completely separate from my world.

I had no contact with the police at my isolated university either. I don’t remember ever seeing an officer on the campus. The police certainly did not seek to enforce the drinking laws. As long as we were on college property, we could have our beer and scotch. This only meant finding a senior to buy the goods and carry it across the street from the liquor store onto the campus. (Done in those genteel days without a fee or surcharge other than one beer for the senior.) There were drinking rules on the campus; underage students were not to drink openly on campus, but it was ok in rooms and certain outdoor places. This restriction was loosely enforced by university security personnel called proctors, and violations were usually met with a mere reprimand. Something more severe, such as breaking a bottle or window, might cause a report to a dean. Never once did it occur to us that such behavior could cause an arrest and trip to the precinct headquarters or to court—something I only thought about a decade later when, working as a public defender, I realized that comparable street corner actions in New York often brought out the handcuffs.

In my college years, I did have one contact with the police. I was sharing driving duties with classmates as we drove from New Jersey to Chicago, and I was stopped by an unmarked car for speeding (which I was) on the turnpike in the middle of Pennsylvania. I was asked to get into the cop car and was driven to a Justice of the Peace where I paid a fine while my college colleagues waited for my return. (I was a little miffed that they did not offer to pick up part of the fine since all of us drove over the speed limit.) I was polite and mostly quiet with the officer. As we got to the court, he said, “I could have charged you for going more than fifteen miles an hour over the limit, and I would have, if you were a wiseass, but you haven’t been.” I thanked him and said, “I was being careful to keep it at thirteen or fourteen miles too fast. I only went above fifteen because I saw you behind me and sped up to get in front of some cars in the right lane to pull over and let you get by me.” He smiled a bit. What I most remember about the drive from the turnpike to pay the fine was that this was my first sight of Appalachia and that many of the houses’ sagging porches looked as though they were being held up by a wash line strung between the corner posts.

Primarily, however, as I left college, I had given little consideration to the police, who they were, where they came from, how they learned their job, or the work they did. I, like almost anyone of my generation, had seen the televised police brutality with civil rights demonstrators, but that was in the South. I assumed that the South was a world apart.

I chose to go to law school in Chicago over what some assumed were more prestigious law schools elsewhere.  After growing up in a little Wisconsin town and going to college in a small, isolated New Jersey village, I wanted to live in a city. The University of Chicago certainly provided me with a new atmosphere. It was a beautiful campus in a beautiful neighborhood, but that neighborhood was small and bordered “ghettoes,” which meant black neighborhoods. We were told that these were not safe for university students, which meant young white people. This was the first time that I lived in a community where people were concerned about crime and their personal safety. These concerns, however, did not cause me to reflect much on the police. They did not seem to me to be my protector; they couldn’t really protect me if I were to become a victim. This was confirmed the first time I was mugged.

I lived in a terrible one-room, one-window apartment with a decrepit bed that came out of the wall. There was no air conditioning and the window faced a brick wall three feet away. During that first hot summer, the apartment was unbearable. I got up one night from my sweat-soaked mattress and decided to make an after midnight walk in hopes of catching a breeze. Instead, I was confronted by teenagers with knives who demanded money. They got it, but they agreed that I could keep my wallet when I said that I didn’t want to have to replace my papers. One said he wanted my watch. I said that a friend had only given it to me a week ago (true) and I would not give it up. The leader smilingly nodded to me, and they ran away without it.

It never occurred to me that a police officer should have or could have prevented this incident. The mugging took just a few moments, and it would have been the barest coincidence if a cop had been nearby when it happened. That was driven home twenty years later when I was robbed at knifepoint again, this time on the Brooklyn block where I live. I was walking from the subway to my home after work on a winter evening when a man walked past me, turned, and blocked my path. He made sure I saw the knife in his right hand and quietly, but menacingly, demanded my money. He got it, but again I retained the wallet. This only took a few moments. Other people were out on the block. I could see my next-door neighbor over the mugger’s shoulder. She yelled hello. She could not see the knife held by the man I was apparently chatting with. I merely nodded in response, and my robber sprinted off after getting my twenty dollars.

(continued Sept. 30)


            It isn’t often nowadays that a stranger asks to take my picture. (In honesty, it did not happen much, if ever, before, either.) But it happened in a Costco the other day. A woman liked my shirt, and after asking permission, pulled out her iPhone, and snapped away, pausing to request me to look cool even though I already thought I did. She liked my tee shirt that read, “Old’s Cool.” And then that mystifying person who looks at the receipt when you exit my favorite store told me how much she liked the shirt, too. The NBP was with me. The NBP bought it for me as a Christmas present. I was pleased

          Her politics are liberal. She said that the defeat of the incumbent president was essential. She had been an early supporter of Obama. She had proudly announced that she had read White Fragility a while ago. The friend was a member of the community’s diversity committee. But she was not going to go election canvassing again this year as she had four years before because the Democrats then had assigned her to a “bad neighborhood.”

          The finals of the National Hockey League are being played. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that the two teams competing for the championship of North American ice hockey are Dallas and Tampa Bay.

          My Pennsylvania community, pretentiously I think, encourages giving names to our houses or “cottages,” as they are ostentatiously labeled. Flags can be flown, but banners, including political ones, are not allowed. I plan to have a big sign made naming my cottage, “BidenMyTime.”

          The headline: “Pompeo’s Principles.” I was surprised an article followed.

Robert G. Kaiser in Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t, a book about the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act wrote that at onepoint Senator Christopher Dodd tried to shame Mitch McConnell. The author added: “not an easy task.” You can say that again.

“The chief use to which we put our love of truth is in persuading ourselves that what we love is true.” Pierre Nicole.

If men got pregnant, the right to choose would be a holy rite.

          Can you even imagine finding Donald Trump lost in thought?

          Are you like me and feel much safer because of the president’s efforts to save us from the dangers of TikTok? Are you like me and don’t really understand that huge threat TikTok is to us and our national security? Are you like me and conclude that TikTok must be hugely dangerous or the president wouldn’t spend so much of his non-Fox-and-Friends time on TikTok? TikTok is clearly much more a threat to the future of you and me and our country than are Russian efforts to interfere with our elections.

          The headline: “Kids’ Remote Learning Interrupted by Porno.” Apparently the sixth graders already knew everything about the depicted sex acts.

Aphorisms When Thinking About Trump (II)

“O you who complain of ingratitude, have you not had the pleasure of doing good?” Sebastién Roch Nicolas Chamfort.

“Fear not those who argue but those who dodge.” Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach.

“The man who is too old to learn was probably always too old to learn.” Henry S. Haskins.

“A party which is not afraid of letting culture, business, and welfare go to ruin completely can be omnipotent for a while.” Jakob Burckhardt.

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” Dr. Samuel Johnson.

“The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

“The people who are most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all.” G.K. Chesterton.

“Any mental activity is easy if it need not take reality into consideration.” Marcel Proust.

“Unanimity is almost always an indication of servitude.” Charles d Rémusat

“There is no patriotic art and no patriotic science.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Science has promised us truth. . . . It has never promised us either peace or happiness.” Gustave Le Bon

“Perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own.” Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.

“Always mistrust a subordinate who never finds fault with his superior.” John Churton Collins.

“Experience shows us that the first defense of weak minds is to recriminate.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

“The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.” Thomas Carlyle.

“Every man likes the smell of his own farts.” Icelandic proverb.

“When one had not had a good father, one must create one.” Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

“The secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience so that they believe they are as clever as he.” Karl Kraus.

“The triumph of demagogies is short-lived. But the ruins are eternal.” Charles Pierre Péguy

“Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power.” George Bernard Shaw.

Let’s Divide Up America

 We are now a highly divided country, but we have had divisions that have affected politics, government, and our society since the inception of the nation. For over seventy years, we had slave states versus free states, which morphed into South versus North. We have had free trade versus protectionism; the gold standard versus silver; imbibers versus teetotalers; labor versus management; men versus women; everyone versus plutocrats; Protestants versus Catholics; everyone versus Jews; blacks versus whites; Italians versus the Irish; suburbs versus cities; urban versus rural; war proponents versus war opponents (and on a different front, everyone versus the New York Yankees; everyone versus Tom Brady fans; everyone versus Ted Cruz; and almost everyone versus that My Pillow guy).

 We tend to believe that our politics reflects our divisions, but it does more than that. Our politics helps to create the divisions and does less than ever before to bridge them.

The two major parties are increasingly ideological or, perhaps more accurately, partisan. When was the last time that there was a conservative Democrat or a liberal Republican? There are many reasons for this. The successful Republican “southern strategy” killed the old Southern Democratic party and thereby most conservative Democrats. Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay made Republicans, in effect, swear loyalty oaths to one brand of Republicanism that excluded liberal Republicans. Gerrymandering has produced more safe seats in both state and national legislatures creating ing districts where officeholders and seekers do not have to appeal across divides for votes. Robert G. Kaiser in Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t points out that as cooperation between the parties has declined, the demonization of opponents has become more common which further increases divisions. (Kaiser says this trend has been aided because members of Congress no longer spend uninterrupted weeks and months in Washington getting to know each other. Instead, with modern transportation, they have three or four-day Washington work weeks and then go back to their home districts.) Trump is not the creator of this path of demonization and divisiveness; he is merely an extreme example of its danger. He and other politicians seek to divide with the hope that their cries of the devil will energize their supporters who will turn out to vote more than their opponents.

Besides the major chasms that the parties have fostered, however, politics today creates many mini-fractures in the societal landscape that have been deepened by modern media. Jill Lepore suggests in These Truths: A History of the United States that this started with the 1960 presidential election when the Democrats turned to “data science” and hired the Simulmatics Corporation. (Jill Lepore, who seems to publish something interesting at least once a month, has a new 432-page book out about Simulmatics, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. I have not [yet?] read it.) That company got punch cards from pollsters of recent elections, fed them into an early computer, and “sorted voters into 480 possible types.” One category, for example, was “Eastern, metropolitan, lower-income white, Catholic, female Democrats.” Another was “Border state, rural, upper-income, white, Protestant, male, Independents.” Such data dredging revealed shifts in voting patterns not apparent before. So, for example, the Democrats discovered that between 1954 and 1956 a small but significant shift by northern Blacks to the Republicans had occurred in eight key states. This helped to propel the Democrats to put a civil rights plank into their 1960 platform and encouraged John F. Kennedy, who had showed little interest as a Senator about the issue, into supporting civil rights.

We continue to see similar data today. Politicians seem to assume that on many major issues—abortion and gun control, for example—minds are made up, and voters and can’t be persuaded away from the candidate they already support. Accordingly, elections are seldom analyzed along ideological lines. Instead, analysts and strategists turn to the 1960 approach but with increasingly sophisticated demographics. “Male whites without college degrees and over fifty living in a rural area;” “white suburban women with children who work outside the home with family income above $75,000 per year” are now categories that are refined and then refined some more.

Of course, this in some way is just an extension of what has been going on since the Kennedy-Nixon election, but now there is a difference. However it was that JFK decided to be a civil rights candidate, this stance was apparent to all Americans. He was basically the same candidate in every region and with every demographic group.

JFK, however, did not have the tools available today. Through social media, the internet and search-engine advertising, increasingly smaller demographic groups can be targeted, and a distinct message can be tailored for each groiup without that campaign reaching all Americans. The candidate I may think I know might appear to be different from the same candidate that you think you know. We may vote for the same person, but we may be voting in essence for different candidates, and a little wedge is driven between us as a result. Instead of broad expanses of shared perspectives, we have a many-fissured landscape that looks different from every perspective.

Our current political process does not just exploit the divisions among us; it helps to create them.

Bar None (concluded)

I don’t know if my neighborhood bar will return in a way that resembles its former self after the pandemic ends, but I hope that it does because I had many conversations there that expanded my life a bit. Some examples:

  1. Twenty-six years old and six foot six, Jordan said he had a beard because it hid his weak chin and his babyface. He was from Ohio, which got mentioned frequently. He seemed to be amazed that raised in Toledo and educated at Ohio State, he was now living in New York City. He wondered how long you had to live in New York before you could call yourself a New Yorker. He was a bit tipsy because he was celebrating having gotten a contract to teach middle school math in a Brooklyn charter school. He had learned about the opening while working at Trader Joe’s. He also took care of kids. He referred to this as a “manny,” a male nanny. He said he was a baseball pitcher with an 86-88 mph fastball. He had not been on the college team, but he played in a Central Park league that he said had ex-major leaguers.
  2. A tall, blonde server from southern Germany said that she was leaving to attend graduate school in Hawaii. I don’t remember what she was studying, but she was convinced that the program she was enrolling in was one of the best in the country. She was also confident that when she got her Ph.D., she would easily get a tenure track position at New York University. I bit my tongue so I would not dampen her enthusiasm, but I thought that she had a lot to learn about the academic world.
  3. I don’t know remember his name, but both his mother and father were half German and half Colombian. He said that there were many German-Colombian couples in Colombia. Although he was born in the U.S., he had also spent parts of his childhood in Colombia and Germany. He could speak English, Spanish, German, and Polish. He had lived in Poland when he was married to a Polish woman. At 33, he was now divorced.
  4. A woman came from a rear area up to the bar to order a beer. I asked who the group of young people in the back were. She told me that they had all been involved in film studies at Vassar. I asked how many of them were actually working in the industry, and she proudly replied that she had just finished co-directing a documentary about public health providers in New Mexico. She had been working on it for four years. In reply to my question, she said that it had taken six months to decide on the three providers that the film focused on. I asked for a brief synopsis and she referred to the “dog line,” a term I was not familiar with. She told me about documentary makers she admired and that her film had been selected by the Independent Lens series on PBS, but she did not yet know when it would air.
  5. A bit later a young man from the group was next to me. He was a producer of what he described as small independent films and listed three or four movies that he had been produced. I knew none of them or their directors. I said that I thought of producers as being rich. He replied that it certainly helped to be wealthy, but he was not. He said that he also produced commercials from which he made more income than from the movies. He had a new movie that had been shown at Sundance and was going to be the closing selection at the Brooklyn Academy of Music film festival that would open in a few days. I said that that must be a big honor and without looking overly proud he concurred. His film had been picked up for nationwide distribution. He had several other movies that were in their final editing phases. He recommended some recently opened commercial movies, but the one he was highest on sounded too scary for me. I told him about some of the films I had gone to over the last couple weeks that he had not yet seen. I enjoyed our conversation but have not seen him since then.

Bar None

          Every so often these days, I have a down feeling, as if I am under a black cloud. I call this mild Covid depression, a covpression. I fret about when the pandemic will end, but before that happy day I wonder whether I will be able to return to the life that I enjoyed. I expect that many of the joys of New York City will not immediately, if ever, return. So, for example, before Covid I had been going to the theater dozens of times a year. Broadway may come back, but I especially enjoyed small, often experimental, theater productions. I was amazed how many of the companies could exist, and I expect that at least some of them will have folded by the time vaccines and herd immunity will make it safe again to sit in a place with barely enough space for a hundred seats and a stage so small that the actors had to be careful not to bump into each other.

          I worry about more than the theater in a future New York. New York City may headquarter large corporations and have powerful investment and legal firms, but my New York is a city of small businesses. On my walks, I enjoy looking into the storefronts and browsing in the cramped stationery and book stores, popping into an ethnic or upscale food place, or having lunch in an establishment not much bigger than a living room. I value the convenience of getting screws at the local hardware store, milk at a corner grocery, and wine from an establishment all within a few blocks walk from home. But, I fear, that many of these small businesses will not have survived by the time I can stroll without a mask.

          I do know that the experience in my local bar will be different even if gets back into full operation. Before Covid, I went five or six times a month to a nearby biergarten. I didn’t go to drink much. Most times I would have one or two beers and never more than three. Instead, I went on the days when I had not done some other New York activity, for I believe that every day I should do something in the City. When I had not seen a movie or play or had lunch with friends or gone to a museum or the library, I would go to the bar. I always went with a book and was content to read, but I was always hoping that I would get into a conversation with someone I would not ordinarily talk with.

          I got to know some of the staff and had regular conversations with them, and although I have only seen one of them outside of the bar, I would label them friends. They, however, were laid off when the bar could only serve outdoors. They have had to find some other way to make an income, and it seems unlikely that they will return to bartending and serving at this establishment when, or if, it can fully reopen.

Some of the people who were at the bar frequently have become friends—the Buddhist chaplain raised in an army family from New Orleans; the mixed-race public defender raised by a white mother in Brooklyn who went to law school in Wisconsin—each with a cute kid. Will they be back, or will they have found some other way to spend that occasional hour or two?

These thoughts make me hesitant about returning to the bar. I know that these absences will make me sad and will perhaps bring back memories of the pandemic’s bad times that I will, no doubt, be wishing to keep at bay. If I’m going to feel down each time I enter, I may have to give up the biergarten.

          I may go back, however, if the place continues to attract people who interest me. It is not a singles bar. It is not in a business area of town bringing in people on the make as they pour out of office towers. Its communal tables encourage comradeship. Neighborhood families, especially with small children, come and feel comfortable. People going to one of the nearby arts institutions or the sports arena stop in before or after a performance or game. However it developed or for whatever reason, the place has attracted an eclectic group of Brooklynites, and Brooklyn has a wealth of interesting people.

          Although some of the people I have chatted with are of my generation—a couple from South Dakota; a fireman returning to New York City from his North Carolina retirement home; a father from Georgia waiting to meet his son living in Brooklyn—most I meet are much younger. They are at points in their lives that I have long passed, but the myriad possibilities and paths they present hold a fascination—a writer for CNBC; a commercial real estate leasing specialist; the man with the cover band and a standing gig at a tavern in Manhattan; the advertising guy; the vegan hairdresser; the woman who worked in ESPN films; the trivia-playing woman apparently jealous of me for talking to her pregnant wife. All have offered me glimpses into worlds different from my own.

          (And next time, on September 18, a few more examples.)

When the Government Was BIG (concluded)

I had partially dislocated my shoulder years before I had received a draft notice during the height of the Vietnam War. The dislocation was not a one-off, but something I had done many times since—putting on a coat, turning over in my sleep, placing a pizza in a car’s back seat, playing volleyball, basketball, softball. I knew it would partially dislocate any time I really threw a ball hard. It hurt like hell, but when it happened, I could grab the right elbow with my left hand, pull the arm, and seat the ball of the arm back into its socket. This was a condition I knew too well, but it was not one that had been certified by a doctor. I had gone to the college infirmary the day after it first happened, but by then the joint appeared to be back together properly. Nothing looked wrong to that general practitioner.

But now I started to fixate on the images of army training where recruits had to climb ropes and scale walls and throw decoy hand grenades. I knew that the shoulder would come apart, and all I could picture was the drill sergeant yelling at what he thought was the Ivy League malingerer writhing on the ground. I could not imagine how I was going to get through those first six army weeks. I decided I should see another doctor. I went to a local orthopedist and told him that if I threw a ball hard, I would dislocate the shoulder. He said, “Make the motion.” I told him what I already knew. With simulated throwing, I instinctively held back, and it would not happen. He said, “Try anyway.” Nothing happened, and I was sent on my way, with the “patriotic” doctor’s glance saying, “Hippie draft dodger.” (Yes, I did have both long hair and mutton chops.)

I reported for my army physical. I told the doctor my situation. He, too, told me to simulate throwing. Nothing happened. I was certified physically fit to be trained to kill.

A few months later, I was ordered to another physical in Chicago. After spending twelve hours in an atmosphere that only the finest novelist could capture (one potential draftee had inked antiwar slogans all over his body), I saw the doctor. I told him my situation. He looked at a form and said, “You already had a physical in Milwaukee.” He asked, “What are you doing here?” I replied, “I was ordered here.” He said, “I am not going to waste my time giving another physical to someone who has already had one.”

I had gotten the induction date changed from its original fall date until after the school year ended. During that hiatus, friends urged me to go to Canada. Friends urged me to go to jail. I felt too much an American to leave the country, and I never considered those escape routes.

Somehow, however, through the protest grapevine I was told about a doctor in Chicago who had antiwar views. A week before I was to go into the army, I saw him. I told him the situation. He said, “If there really is that problem, I will get you reclassified, but I will not lie.” I told him simulated throwing would not do it. But I came prepared with my baseball. With the doctor agreeing, I walked the three blocks to Grant Park and found a wall to throw the ball against.  I had to screw up my courage with a few easy tosses and then I finally threw as hard as I could. Pain in the shoulder; white flashes before my eyes; arm immobile, but for the first time I did not do what had become instinctive. I did not pull the arm back into place. Feeling the pain every step of the way, I went back to the doctor, up an elevator, and to an x-ray room with my hand stuck skyward. Blissfully, they quickly took the pictures, and I pulled the joint back together before the vomiting started.

When the doctor looked at the x-rays, he said, “You’re right. You have a problem. I’ll contact the army.” Then with a smile, he uttered words that only someone of my generation can truly appreciate, “You can have that fixed.” He waited a beat: “But there is no reason to until you are twenty-six.”

The draft gave men of my generation contact with big government’s bureaucracy and its control of lives. Even though I was not inducted, it still greatly affected me. While obsessing over what the army had in store for me, I had more and more difficulty paying attention to my second-year law-school coursework. I dropped from near the top of my class. A job after the second year of law school was considered an important step for most of us starting a legal career, but I never sought such a job because my induction date was July 1. But, of course, compared to many this was nothing. I did not spend two years in the army. I did not die in combat. I did not have to kill Vietnamese.

When you want to complain that our government is so big today (and only getting bigger) that it destroys the freedoms of Americans, go to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington. Look at the names on Maya Lin’s creation and ask yourself, “How many of these were draftees? How many enlisted because they expected to be drafted anyway?” And then reflect on the big government of today and yesterday.

When Government was BIG

          FDR had been dead for fifteen years, but my social studies teacher remained fixated on him. She would slip comments into class discussions that derided him and the big government of the New Deal. One day she said, “Whenever the government starts a program, the program never disappears. It just gets bigger and bigger.” I knew little about the New Deal then and was not interested in defending it or other government initiatives. Instead, I was a general wiseass, and my mind instinctively searched for counterexamples. I raised my hand and when she called on me, said, “What about prohibition? That was a huge government program, and we no longer have it.” She turned her back on me and did not call on me again for a week. I was not unhappy with that outcome.

She was from that American school of get-the-government-off-my-back, a strain of bitching that always seems to be with us. The examples seem ubiquitous, and we see it now with people denouncing required face masks as socialism. Underlying such complaints is that in the good old days, government was smaller, and Americans had more freedom. Of course, as with prohibition this has not always been true. Big government programs of the past are not all still with us now. Slavery and the many tentacles of the Jim Crow laws that existed in the lifetimes of many of us required a strong government for example, but those “programs” no longer are with us.

Because of my northern roots in a white small town, I was not directly affected by Jim Crow (nor was I directly affected by the myriad laws and government actions and policies that discriminated against women), but I, as were almost all Americans of a certain age, was affected by another, now defunct, freedom-restricting, big government program—the military draft. To someone my age, the draft needs no explanation, but many of my students, a generation or two younger than I am, not only did not know that it existed, but could not believe that it ever was the law of the land. But, yes, men (only men, not women) could be required to join the armed services. Put in slightly different terms, the government could force men from their homes and jobs and families, control their lives for years, and place them in a position where there was the possibility that they would have to kill or be killed. This was big government writ large.

Its reach was so pervasive that it routinely affected people’s behavior even before a military induction. I learned this early. In sixth grade, Glen and I hung out at George’s service station. A couple of high school boys did some work there. One day they discussed what they would do after high school and whether they should get some vocational training. Gary said, “No. I’m just going to get any job I can and wait to get drafted.” He was going to put his life on hold until after his forced military service.

The draft led many to enlist. Perhaps part of the motivation was public service and patriotism, but a self-interest was also at work. An enlistee, unlike a draftee, could choose the branch of the armed services he would go into, and the college-graduate enlistee could be an officer while the draftee was a private. In a personal cost-benefit analysis, many concluded it was better to enlist than wait to be drafted. I have many friends of my age, often graduates of the country’s most selective universities, who were officers in the armed services while the draft existed. There are fewer similar people today who are veterans.

The draft affected education and job choices. College males got deferments; that is, they would not be drafted while in school. And for a long time, deferments were also given for graduate school. In my generation, only those from 18 to 26 were drafted. Back then, I never heard of a “gap year” before college or graduate school. We knew that such a time off from school might find us not in Europe with a knapsack and a rail pass but backpacking in Vietnam using military transport. One of the reasons so many of my generation may have gone to law or business school is the draft deferment it offered. (Not so for medical school. Doctors got drafted at 26 and beyond because not enough doctors enlisted. Go watch M*A*S*H).

If, however, you finished all this education by the ages of twenty-four or twenty-five, you still had to make it until twenty-six not to be drafted. Ah, but for some jobs, you also got a deferment. Public school teaching was one. Teach until twenty-six, and then start your real career. Many of my generation had a brief stint as a middle-school teacher.

The draft was not only big government because it could intrude into every corner of a life, it was also big because it produced a huge bureaucracy. Nearly every county in the country had a selective service (the official name for the draft) office with one or more paid workers as well as volunteer (I think) boards. (Does anyone know who came up with “selective service”?) And, of course, regional and national offices. Paperwork galore.

Both aspects of the big government came together for me in my second year of law school. As I began my legal studies during the height (or shall we say, depth) of the Vietnam War, deferments for graduate school ended. And thus, one day during a break in my classes, I found the missive in my mail with what was then the famous salutation, “Greetings.” I was being drafted pending a physical, for which I had to return to my home county.

It wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about being in the army before—all males of my generation did–but the draft notice certainly, how shall we say, focused my attention on an impending military life. It was more than a little hard to concentrate on the law of corporations or the tax code with the army looming. Part of my thoughts that followed the draft notice were about the war that the U.S. was then bogged down in, but many of my thoughts just went to basic training, which I dreaded for good reason.

(continued September 14)


Old joke: I dreamt God sneezed. I didn’t know what to say.

I grew up saying Gesundheit after someone sneezed. When I moved to New York, I taught myself to change this reflexive Germanic response to “God Bless You.”

Why do we say “God bless you” after someone sneezes but not after a cough? A hiccup? Or a fart?

“Truth rests with God alone, and a little bit with me.” Yiddish proverb.

I was watching The Simpsons show with the homage (or at least I think it was an homage) to My Fair Lady. After the Pygmalion transformation, however, the Groundskeeper Willie reverts from the new gentleman created by Lisa to his old self because he is happier that way. I realized that we have no sequel or updating to the classic musical or straight play where it is explained what happened with Eliza Doolittle for the rest of her life. How do you think she ended up?

There may be no free lunch, but apparently there is free shipping.

I am sparkling; you are unusually talkative; he is drunk.

A spokesperson for the FDA had posted on her Facebook page: “I prayed hard for God to use my professional and personal experiences with crisss (sic) to serve Him. . . . In May, the White House called me to ask and asked if I would consider a high level communication role at the FDA. I knew God was directing my path, and I had to come back to DC to work. . . . I will not lie. I will not do anything that violates my personal ethics and values. I ask all day that my Lord and Savior direct my words and actions to do what’s right and to help others through these difficult times for our nation.” Her personal ethics and values and her request that Jesus direct her words did not prevent her from promulgating misleading statements. She was dismissed a few weeks into her tenure. God, apparently, prescribed a short path for her. Or perhaps He slapped his knee and chuckled, “That was a good one.”

Was the Heavenly Father upset when His only Son converted to Christianity?

The right wing spews that Democrats are “socialists.” In the next breath, they shout that Democrats are “anarchists.” You can be neither. You can be one or the other. But you can’t be both at the same time. But then again, if facts don’t matter, why should language or logic?

A young friend told me that he was in a band that does a mashup of surf and punk music. And I wondered: Is this like the Sex Pistols performing Little Deuce Coupe?

Labor Day

On this Labor Day I am not going to labor over another witty, charming, and insightful post. Instead I am going to reflect on the many people who, by their labor, have made my life better. They are such an essential and routine part of my life that I take them very much for granted. This Labor Day I plan to remember their contributions with grateful thanks.