Making More Decisions

          We are reminded regularly that the country is divided, but we have always had divisions. Who can forget the Civil War? Now there was a divided country. We have had, however, other divisions, often violent ones, including our many, many Indians wars as well as strife between labor and the plutocrats that took the lives of lots of mostly working people.

          Increasingly, however, we think of divisions that aren’t as stark or cause as much violence. A lot of that comes from politics where vote seekers dice the electorate into more and more groups. The New Yorker writer and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore in her book If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future suggests that 1960 was a turning point. Simulmatics, formed in the 1950s, was a little-known company with big dreams. It sought to collect data about voters and consumers, analyze the information by what was then new computer technology, and predict how people would vote. It tried to take credit for at least some of JFK’s success in winning in the 1960 election, but it is not clear that anyone in the Kennedy campaign saw the Simulmatics reports. I never fully comprehended what the corporation really accomplished other than its many public relations efforts to promote itself before it disappeared into bankruptcy in 1970. However, the book did make me think about the data I might like to collect if I were going to segment the American populace to better understand it for political purposes.

          Of course, we are aware of some categories that pundits and politicos already consider: race, age, education, and income and whether voters live in an urban, suburban, or rural setting. All useful information, but I would want to ask further questions.

          Religion, for example. That seems to be an important piece of information. What is your faith? Do you worship with an established denomination? Would you describe yourself as an evangelical? How often do you attend a House of Worship in a year? What percentage of your income do you give to charities? How much of that flows to non-religious charities?

          Where do you get your news?

          How many books do you read a year?

          What two sports do you most like to participate in? To watch? None is an acceptable answer.

          Do you play video games? Which ones? How often?

          How often do you go to a gym? How often do you otherwise exercise?

          How many sexual encounters have you had that you regret or want to apologize for? (Our questionnaire is, of course, confidential.)

          What social media accounts do you have? How much time do you spend each day with them?

Which is more important for preventing oppression by the government: free speech or possession of a gun? What rights are protected by the First Amendment? The Second Amendment?

How many guns do you own?

          How much money does a family of four need to live comfortably?

When in American history did Italians come to be considered “white”?

Have you ever had a mullet? If so, when was the last time?

Have you ever had teased hair? If so, when was the last time?

Do you find yourself feeling superior to someone with a mullet or teased hair?

Do you know what white guilt is? Have you personally experienced it?

What kind of vehicle do you drive? If you had more money, what kind of vehicle would you drive?

Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

Have you ever served a sentence in jail longer than 60 days?

If you don’t now, would you consider living in a manufactured home?

Do you live in a gated community?

Do you own your own home?

Do you know what stock options are? Have you ever owned a stock option? Do you own stocks or bonds?

          What kind of music do you most listen to?

Where did you buy your last pair of shoes?

Have you served in the military? If so, what rank did you achieve? If you have children or grandchildren of an appropriate age, would you encourage them to join the military?

Would you encourage your children or grandchildren to join law enforcement?

How was your last medical procedure paid for? How much did you have to pay out of pocket?

Define a bell curve, a t-test, statistical significance, a control group.

          Do you think that the following statement is correct?  “If you weren’t a little dirty at the end of the day, you weren’t much of a man.” (Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.)

          What kind of shows have you binge watched?

When was the last time you went to a museum?

What podcasts do you listen to?

Do you agree with this statement? “The greatest pleasure I have known is to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident.” (Charles Lamb.) Has that ever happened to you?

First Sentences

The steamer, Sestri Levante, stood high above the dockside and the watery sleet, carried on the wind blustering down from the Black Sea, had drenched even the small shelter deck.” Eric Ambler, Journey into Fear.

“Ed Greenfield collected people the way other men collect comic books or old stamps or vintage cards.” Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

“Whatever Mum’s saying’s drowned out by the grimy roar of the bus pulling away, revealing a pub called The Fox and Hounds.” David Mitchell, Slade House.

“We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet.” Robert Macfarlane, Underworld: A Deep Time Journey.

“Emma sat on the shingle bank and watched the kids on the beach below build a bonfire.” Ann Cleves, Wild Fire.

“On the morning of October 1, 1907, the hotel bellmen and front desk staff were scurrying about the marble lobby, smoothing their uniforms and making final preparations.” Julie Satow, The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel.

“In the spring of 1926 I resigned from my job.” Thornton Wilder, Theophilus North.

“His upper jawbone was massive—a long, curved bone with nine tiny holes meant to hold his teeth.” Kate Winkler Dawson, American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI.

“Castle, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken his lunch in a public house behind St. James’s Street, not far from the office.” Graham Greene, The Human Factor.

“By the time Charity had heard about the young woman, it was too late to help.” Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

“He lay, flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.” Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (The last line of the novel: “He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”)

“John F. Kennedy was a man with a keenly developed sense of humor.” Bill Adler (ed.), The Kennedy Wit.

“The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.” Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing.

The Inclusive Declaration of Independence and the Founding of America

The Fourth of July celebrates the United States of America and its birth, but with our current mood many only want to point out the country’s present and historical shortcomings. Every Fourth, I urge all to read the Declaration of Independence  (Declaration of Independence: A Transcription | National Archives), and in doing so, it is natural to focus on the multiple ironies of its most famous phrase: “all Men are created equal.” However, as we know, in eighteenth century America, women, Native Americans, and indentured servants were not seen as equal. And, of course, slaves were not equal. Any fair assessment of our history acknowledges, as Thomas E. Ricks states in First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped our Country (2020), that slavery was not a stain on this country, it was woven into the original fabric. And that weft and warp made the celebration of liberty painful to many Americans throughout our history, which was perhaps most powerfully stated by Frederic Douglass on July 5, 1852. Just as the Declaration should be regularly read, so too should this speech. (Africans in America/Part 4/Frederick Douglass speech (pbs.org.)

The Fourth of July is our birthday, however. Some might temper a child’s birthday celebration with a discussion of the child’s shortcomings, but I would hope that the major thrust of the party is, in fact, to celebrate the kid. We should be realistic in assessing our country, but there has always been much to celebrate, and the Fourth is a time of celebration. Because it is so easy to mock the Declaration’s equality statement, it is too easy to overlook the many ways that in its founding the country also furthered egalitarianism and inclusiveness.

We know many of the Declaration’s phrases—“When in the Course of human Events”; “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”; and others. But we often miss something about the tenor of the Declaration as a whole. There are no classical allusions or references. By eighteenth century standards, the language is simple. The document was not written for the elite peers of those who signed the document but for a wide swath of what were to become Americans.

Its logic demanded an inclusive appeal. The Declaration asserts that a government derives “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” not from the Divine Right of Kings. It summoned on “the Right of the People” to change government. The Declaration with these contentions could not just be addressed to an elite, aristocratic audience. It not was not directed to the enslaved, but it was seeking the approval of almost everyone else—the farmer, the joiner, the tavern owner, the schoolteacher, the sailors, the ship captain, the log splitter, and yes, the slave owner and trader. For an eighteenth-century document, its intended audience was remarkably inclusive

The notion of the consent of the governed was a radical, egalitarian break from America’s English roots, and the emerging country’s conception of “the people” was much broader than almost anywhere else in the world. This is reflected in who could vote. We now note the shortcomings of a franchise limited to propertied white males, but we seldom consider, as Jill Lepore does in These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), that a higher percentage of people could vote in the colonies than in England. The franchise was narrow by modern standards, but it was broad for its time.

Part of the reason for the inclusiveness of the Founding Era’s America was the high rate of literacy among its people, perhaps the highest of any country of its times. The seventeenth-century Pilgrims, Puritans, and others who settled here held beliefs that rejected an authoritarian church. They believed that the eternal truths came from the Bible, not from an authoritarian church, and, therefore, it was important that people could read the Holy Book. Literacy was stressed as well as the ability of each person to reason. Jefferson and the others may have expected that the Declaration would be read out to those assembled in taverns and inns, but they also knew that many people would read it for themselves, and all were expected to think and reason about the document, which led to its inclusive appeal to the people.

The Declaration did mention “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and the signers said that they had acted with “a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence,” but it did not beseech God, a god, or Jesus Christ for independence. Just as some only criticize the Declaration for its hypocrisies without recognizing its advances, some focus on the listing of God and divine providence and somehow conclude that the Declaration was an act of religious faith, or, more particularly, the signers’ Christianity. But these references, which include the almost anti-Christian formulation of “Nature’s God,” were not invocations of any particular divinity to grant them a new country. Government depended on the consent of the governed, not on divine will, and the appeal was to the people, not to some version of God. The Declaration’s wording was inclusive; it did not exclude any particular believer or any nonbeliever from its ambit. It rejected the too-often divisiveness of religion and relied on the reason of the people.

This lack of a religious appeal is not surprising. Thomas Ricks shows in First Principles that neither Christianity nor any other religious influence was prominent in the Revolutionary period. This only began to change in 1815. He reports that there was one minister for every 1500 people in 1775 America while there was one for every 500 in 1845. Scott L. Malcomson writes in One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventures of Race that in 1790 only one in ten white Americans was a member of a formal church. Jill Lepore in These Truths agrees that the country was founded in one of its most secular eras.

(concluded July 5)

First Sentences

“In a broad valley, at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.” Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth.

“Sir or Lady (as I shall call him) sits on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love.” Hilton Als, White Girls.

“It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more years as the dean of the faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.” Philip Roth, The Human Stain.

“The crowd began to cluster at the corner of Hoffman and Bolton, near the entrance to the Armory, in the late afternoon—a quiet, orderly crowd, more women than men.” Jeff Shesol, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.

“The open door was only yards away, and beyond it lay the outside world, eerily unaffected by anything happening inside the abandoned snooker hall.” Ian Rankin, Doors Open.

“The scientists of the Simulmatics Corporation spent the summer of 1961 on a beach on Long Island beneath a geodesic dome that looked as if it had landed there, amid the dunes, a spaceship gone to ground.” Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor that swung from the rafters.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando.

“The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.” Robert Macfarlane, Underworld: A Deep Time Journey

You now have one choice.” Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y.

“Subrata Roy was reclining on a sofa in a pink shirt, orange pocket square, and plaid blazer, his outfit contrasting sharply with the spare, all-white living room.” Julie Satow, The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel.

“The discourse which follows may appear to the reader as mere fancy or as a dream, penned on waking, in those fevered moments when one is still mesmerized by those conjuring tricks that are produced in the mind once the eyes are closed.” Thomas E. Lumas, The End of Mr. Y.

“Laura Glass was thirteen years old and entering the eighth grade at Jefferson Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she looked over her father’s shoulder to see what he was working on.” Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

First Sentences

“Harry Truman needed a drink.” Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss, Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and 116 Days that Changed the World.

“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Ottessa Moshfegh, Death in Her Hands.

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.” John Hersey, Hiroshima.

“Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.” Fredrick Backman, Beartown.

“It was no sensible place to build a great city.” Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.

“Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.” James McBride, Deacon King Kong.

“White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality.” Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

“Over twenty years ago a gentleman in Asbury Park, N. J. began manufacturing and advertising a preparation for the immediate and unfailing straightening of the most stubborn Negro hair.” George Schuyler, Black No More.

“William Moulton Marston, who believed women should rule the world, decided at the unnaturally early and altogether impetuous age of eighteen, that the time had come for him to die.” Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

“One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing.” Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt.

“In the late nineteen-sixties, I was working in rented space on Nassau Street up a flight of stairs and over Nathan Kasrel, Optometrist.” John McPhee, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.

First Sentences

“Harry Truman needed a drink.” Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss, Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and 116 Days that Changed the World.

“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Ottessa Moshfegh, Death in Her Hands.

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.” John Hersey, Hiroshima.

“Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.” Fredrick Backman, Beartown.

“It was no sensible place to build a great city.” Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.

“Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.” James McBride, Deacon King Kong.

“White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality.” Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

“Over twenty years ago a gentleman in Asbury Park, N. J. began manufacturing and advertising a preparation for the immediate and unfailing straightening of the most stubborn Negro hair.” George Schuyler, Black No More.

“William Moulton Marston, who believed women should rule the world, decided at the unnaturally early and altogether impetuous age of eighteen that the time had come for him to die.” Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

“One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing.” Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt.

“In the late nineteen-sixties, I was working in rented space on Nassau Street up a flight of stairs and over Nathan Kasrel, Optometrist.” John McPhee, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.

“The man in dark blue slacks and a forest green sportshirt waited impatiently in the line.” Patricia Highsmith, The Blunderers.