Today's mailbag is overall pretty heavy.
COVID-19, Life and Times
D.E. in Lititz, PA, writes: I read this recent article in The Washington Post, and like the author of the piece, I was stunned that our society has come to this nadir of stupidity. If any male out there feels less like a man for wearing a mask, then you weren't much of one to begin with. I know gender roles are changing but when I grew up, the male hero was the protector and the person who would endure any discomfort to keep his loved ones safe. To this current entitled generation of "men," who seem to emulate a certain short-fingered vulgarian, who strut, brag, overcompensate and act the bully to anyone that inconveniences them, let me give you a hint: When the rest of the world sees you not wearing a mask, we don't think to ourselves, "Ooooh, look at that big tough man!" No, we think "Look at that idiot who can't even think for himself, but rather follows Trump's ever stupid suggestion like a submissive dog." Wear the stupid mask, stop whining about it and think of someone besides your own damn self for once!
Z.T. in Baltimore, MD, writes: I'd like to pass along some preliminary work that we are doing at the University of Maryland health care system. It's a system-wide surveillance program designed to test up to 32,000 health care workers, doctors, staff, etc. in the hospital system for exposure to Covid-19 measured by antibody testing.
Very preliminary results (approx. 3,000 people tested) indicate that around 2% have Covid-19 antibodies (tested by Elisa and PCR). This matches a similar result from a program that was implemented in California. These would be people who either never noticed that they were sick, or had a very minor reaction to the virus.
This tells me a little bit. One, COVID-19 hasn't just run silently through the University community. This is good and bad. The good is that it hasn't spread quickly through our health care workers. The bad news, if this number is representative of the population at large, is that there is a rather large reservoir of people who can spread the virus. This would mean that there is no "herd immunity" developing, which would portend a steep rise in cases as restrictions are relaxed.
One caveat is that the health care workers in general are more cognizant of the risks and might take better precautions than the general public. Balance that with the fact that these workers are more liable to be in contact with potentially infected people. Here is a link to some of the work being done at UMD.
C.S. in Linville, NC, writes: We are a family-run small business, a-100-year-old general store, restaurant, music venue and resident-demonstrating-artist facility located in The Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Our neighbors include mountain bike enthusiasts, fly fisherpeople and Bible enthusiasts. There is a large tent of #45's Merchandise set up near the post office. The county has the largest log cabin east of the Mississippi and often the most meth busts in NC. Our population swells to great numbers in the summer season because of second homes and country-club types, mainly from Florida.
Our county currently has 8 reported COVID-19 cases.
We closed our business in early February for two months, like we do every winter, with the plans of reopening by Easter. After COVID-19 hit, we have remained closed and have taken a wait-and-see approach. While nearly every other restaurant has opened up, we have chosen to stay closed. This may be helpful to our employees who, judging by their social media accounts, are thoroughly enjoying their paid time off. Which they should; low wage restaurant workers are some of the most vulnerable and under appreciated.
However, we still have to the pay the bills. Some SBA low interest loans helped initially. They cannot sustain us forever. So we are put in the impossible situation of possibly reopening during the busiest month of the year, and during the height of an airborne pandemic.
It has been extremely frustrating. Every restaurant is hiring because they are busy, because the Floridians have arrived in full force. Our community, which took COVID-19 fairly seriously at first, seems to be operating as business as usual now. Just last night we drove by a free concert in the park with hundreds of people acting normal with no social distancing and no masks. We are worried, scared and stressed.
V & Z respond: We appreciate the report, and we obviously wish you very good luck as you try to navigate the situation.
A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: (Z) speculated that Donald Trump had declared the China trade deal dead, told Peter Navarro, and then cooled off and changed his mind. He also mused that administrations usually improve their messaging over time and get better at the "nuts and bolts" of running the country. That assumes, of course, that the man at the top cares one iota about running the country or about consistent, truthful messaging. Donald Trump cares about one thing and one thing only: Donald Trump. He has been completely consistent throughout his career and his presidency on that score. He will say whatever he thinks he needs to say to get what he wants at any given moment. I have no doubt he told Navarro that the deal was dead. When Navarro announced that, the markets tanked. So, Trump took to twitter and said exactly the opposite and the markets recovered—problem solved. He doesn't care whether there's actually a deal with China and he doesn't care whether China actually buys more soybeans or not. All he cares about is the announcement and appearances and the reaction of his base, his donors and the markets. That's it!
It was the same with the Bidens and Burisma. Trump didn't care whether an investigation was actually done or whether there was any basis for one—all he wanted was the announcement. He doesn't care whether North Korea actually dismantles its nuclear arsenal. All he cared about was the photo op and the announcement of some vague deal. No one believes Trump is actually religious. All he wanted was a photo in front of a church holding a Bible. Likewise, he doesn't care about the outcome of Barr's investigation into the investigators or whether that's proper—all he wanted was the announcement.
It's the same with COVID-19. It's a hoax when he wants to pack an arena and it's a deadly scourge when he wants to restrict immigration. He doesn't care how many people actually test positive; he just doesn't want it announced—that's why he doesn't want any more testing. It was the same in his career, and he bragged about it. How many floors are in his new building? It depends who's asking. If it's the press, it's 100 floors. If it's the Building Department, who will charge more for a permit, then it's 80. If he wanted a loan, his loan application claimed he was rich as Croesus. If it's a tax return, suddenly he's a pauper. The truth is irrelevant. He says whatever he needs to say in the moment to get what he wants in the moment. That's the entirety of what drives him and he has never, ever deviated from that, even as president.
R.J. in Seattle, WA, writes: You noted that Donald Trump's re-election strategy is all over the place and that Trump "is not playing 3-D chess, or 2-D chess, or even 1-D chess (if that is possible). He's not playing checkers, he's not playing tiddlywinks, he's not playing 52 pickup." I concur. But from the chaos, you conclude that the President has no election strategy. I disagree. Most "sane" people want to make order out of chaos and we see that as a coherent message or strategy. Donald Trump is the opposite. He a narcissist who seems to thrive on the very chaos he creates. Besides throwing red meat to his base, his strategy is to divide and create chaos. I am not suggesting that it is a wise or sound strategy, but it does keep the attention focused on one person: Donald Trump.
C.W. in Carlsbad, CA, writes: Strategy? I'll give it to you in one word: Chaos.
He (I won't put his name down) has an advantage as a populist candidate that his opponents do not. He can comfortably lay on both sides of an issue, a move conventional candidates attempt at their peril. By sowing chaos and confusion, he retains his base, while some fence-sitters are fed the story they want to hear.
That said, I think chaos is ultimately a losing strategy. People are increasingly wise to the source of this confusion and realize ("pandemic"-ally speaking) how dangerous chaos can be. But combined with old-fashioned voter suppression efforts and foreign interference, the red team is still in the game.
C.Z. in Sacramento, CA, writes: Although he's been gone for almost 30 years, Father's Day made me think about my dad, and what he might say about our current state of affairs. He was a lieutenant during World War II. After the war, as a civilian, he still often used his military training and military terminology to attempt to "corral" his five rambunctious kids, although he softened his approach and sanitized the terminology for our young ears, substituting "fouled" for the real F word, for example. I think Dad would say that Trump's handling of the COVID-19 epidemic was one big SNAFU (Situation Normal All F**ked Up). He would say that, under Trump, our government is FUBAR (F**ked Up Beyond All Recognition), and that it really made him PO'd (Pissed Off—although Dad told us kids that it meant "Put Out"). I salute you dad, and I promise that this "sad sack" will try to help our country regain the respect and decency that it has lost under Trump.
S.C. in Mountain View, CA, writes: Like you, I was puzzled as to why Donald Trump would want to try to kill Obamacare in the middle of a pandemic. I have come up with three (admittedly far-fetched) theories. Here they are, in increasing order of incredulity:
- Some part of him, perhaps subconsciously, doesn't want to be President anymore. He never expected nor wanted to win in the first place, and while it was fun when the economy was good and people were healthy, it's not fun anymore. (As you yourselves have noted so many times before, who knew governing could be so hard?) So he's engaging in actions that will hurt his campaign without making the intent to self-sabotage obvious. (Organizing super-spreader rallies fits into this pattern.)
- The people who still remain that are part of the "resistance" described by the anonymous author of "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration" are encouraging him to take these actions, in order to increase the likelihood that he loses the election.
- Melania, who never expected nor wanted him to win either, wrote into her renegotiated prenuptial agreement that he had to do things to sabotage his chances for re-election.
C.R.B in Monroe, NC, writes: I believe the explanation for the Trump administration pushing for the Supreme Court to rule Obamacare unconstitutional now is that the campaign has decided to go scorched earth. I believe Trump's interview on Fox News, when he conceded Biden may be the next president, was telling. After all, he doesn't kid. If he really believes that he is only getting one term then removing Obamacare, the signature policy of his most hated predecessor, makes sense.
The re-election campaign will not act differently because the full appearance of lame-duck must be avoided. If my hypothesis is true, however, we will see more extreme actions from this president and his flying monkeys. Basically, anything he has ever hinted at, but not actually done, might come to fruition. I have a small list of possibilities, and don't want to go full conspiracy theory here, but a couple of examples of what I am thinking: (1) Using the National Guard and the military on protesters, and (2) pulling all military from Europe and announcing withdrawal from NATO.
J.M. in Sewickley, PA, writes: Please note that I do not subscribe to this conspiracy theory, but what if Donald Trump attacked Obamacare because he is trying to destroy the Republican party from the inside? It's hard to believe that he's this tone-deaf about what Americans want (and, he did use to be a Democrat).
R.D. in Austin, TX, writes: All the messaging about the horrid things Trump has done is appreciated and combined with the tone deaf responses to the pandemic and racial inequality, Trump clearly has a brand that has lost its luster, becoming the death trap like the old Ford Pinto. But if steps are not taken to deal with new structural inequalities that will be taken advantage of in certain states, key blocs of voters who might otherwise come out and put Trump out to pasture will be left on the sideline, giving him an opening to continue another four years of mourning in America.
S.B. in Hellevoetsluis, The Netherlands, writes: When conventional polls and analysis lately have been comparing enthusiasm for Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and noting that a bigger portion of Trump's voters is enthusiastic about him, the conclusion has been that Biden has a problem here. What these polls (and maybe the Trump campaign?) overlook, of course, is that a very large part of the electorate is very enthusiastic about getting rid of Donald Trump. This group likely fully overlaps with 'voters enthusiastic about Joe Biden' (since it's hard to fathom those folks not being enthusiastic about getting rid of Trump). Which means, ultimately, the election comes down to "voters enthusiastic about Trump" vs "voters enthusiastic about getting rid of Trump." In other words, the referendum on Trump his campaign has been worried about.
When you see anti-Trump groups such as Republican Voters Against Trump run ads like this (in which a 2016 Trump voter explains he'd enthusiastically vote for a tomato can now, should the DNC nominate one), it also suggests Trump may have an impossibly steep hill to climb. Once somebody sees a tomato can as preferable over you, getting re-elected over an actual human being becomes rather tricky. So long as Joe Biden keeps firmly in the "decent guy" territory (and the video suggests he could even dip slightly below that), he should be fine. And it appears his campaign is currently running that playbook, while aiming for "presidential" rather than just "decent guy."
C.J.M. in Denver, CO, writes: You observed: "In other words, if the election were held today, Trump would need all of the toss-up states, all of the "barely Democrat" states, and then would have to pull an upset in at least two of the strong/likely Democrat states."
It should also be noted that on your map, 7 of 15 dark red states haven't been polled this cycle at all, and are still reflecting the 2016 vote totals, two more haven't been polled in 90 days (early COVID-19), and few of the others haven't been polled since recent racial events.
Whether any of these places are still dark red or not is an interesting question.
K.L. in Wantagh, NY, writes: There is absolutely no way that such a weak candidate as Biden is running away with this election, with Democrats burning down the country as if nobody cares. As if people actually want to see police departments defunded and cities taken over by violent, Marxist mobs.
These polls are nothing but Pravda propaganda to boost a failing candidate.
V & Z respond: There has been a significant uptick in e-mails like this one this week. Why, we do not exactly know.
T.T. in Conway, AR, writes: In response to S.Z. from New Haven, while "Finish him!" was used in a similar context in "The Karate Kid," the design of the ad is clearly referencing arcade-style fighting games with the health bars at the top of the screen, specifically the Mortal Kombat franchise. In this series, when one player has been defeated, the phrase "Finish Him!" is displayed and the victor has a short time to perform a finishing move called a "Fatality," which typically involves an over-the-top display of violence (such as an uppercut that rips the loser's skull and spine out of their body). Rather than, or perhaps in addition to, showing Trump and his campaign staff's ignorance of pop culture, I see the ad as yet another example of Trump inciting violence against his enemies.
M.M. in Bloomington, IL, writes: In order to stay properly informed, I have deliberately remained subscribed to the Trump campaign fundraising e-mail blasts. Yesterday, they sent this:We can't let them get away with this. My team just launched new ads to FIGHT BACK against their biased coverage and EXPOSE the TRUTH. The American People deserve to know what they'd be getting into if they elected the oldest president in the history of our Nation.
Do the intended readers not get the irony of this appeal?
D.R. in Harrisburg, PA, writes: You wondered "why they have cropped the cover photo [of Donald Trump's book] in such a distracting manner." Perhaps this is why:
The People v. Donald Trump
R.H. in Macungie, PA, writes: I'm eagerly awaiting the opportunity for former-president Trump to be prosecuted for his crimes and will be happy to chant "Lock him up!", but I wonder if it will ever be possible to form a jury without at least one die-hard Trump supporter who would refuse to convict. Trump might be prosecuted ad nauseam but getting a conviction isn't assured, regardless of the evidence.
A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: A former president in prison? Not as absurd as it might seem. Former Veep John C. Breckinridge surely would have ended up there had he not fled the country. And, in very modern times, we had two former Illinois Governors both in prison at the same time.
V & Z respond: The same is true of former Veep Aaron Burr.
M.M. in Pawtucket, RI, writes: As Joe Biden continues to vet candidates for vice president, a lesser-known name that occurs to me is that of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (D). No doubt she has garnered quite a bit of attention due to her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is not a surprise to those in the Ocean State, because Raimondo tends to be very good in a crisis.
Unfortunately, on many other fronts she may offer very little to the national ticket. For one, her background as a venture capitalist will not endear her to the left. She can also demonstrate a sincere lack of judgment at times, such as when she visited her own mother in a nursing home after having issued an order banning such visits. There was also the ill-advised showdown with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo with respect to the travel restrictions she imposed on New York drivers. She eventually backed down from that, and applied the restrictions more broadly. Finally, there was her quixotic decision to back Mike Bloomberg in the early going, and I am not sure that sat well with Biden. Raimondo doesn't need to be VP, but since she is term-limited, she would be just as happy with a plum Cabinet post, which is what she really wanted if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016.
J.A. in Washington, DC, writes: I'm a 59-year-old white man, born and raised in Virginia, with evidence that 160 years ago, an ancestor in Georgia owned slaves.
Flash-forward to an integrated public high school. In the late 1970's, I wore a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt that incorporated in its design a Confederate flag. When my Georgia born-and-raised father, at the time a history professor at the University of Virginia, finally noticed the t-shirt, he gave me a brief but stern history lesson. And I don't think I ever wore that shirt again.
I realize that in this country, 160 years is a long time ago for white people. But for black people in America, who are descendants of slaves the past, even after a century and a half, it still stings. And now, as I self-reckon, I'm wondering how offensive my Skynyrd shirt was to my black classmates.
Having gotten all of that off my chest, I would like to recommend that Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) be Joe Biden's choice for VP. Not only is she highly accomplished, her history as a descendant of slaves, and a daughter of parents who didn't finish high school but did everything they could to make the future better for their children, is so authentic...and so American. I know that as a two-term congresswoman, she will be called out on not "having the experience" to be president. If I had the opportunity to give my advice to her, or to the Biden campaign, I would say: "Abraham Lincoln was a one-term member of Congress when he was elected president, and I think that most Americans think he did a good job."
Maybe We Were Rocky Mountain High When We Wrote Those Items
C.J. in Honolulu, HI, writes: You are making some impressive leaps of logic in your response to C.I. from Boulder, CO on the question of the electoral chances of Andrew Romanoff as compared to John Hickenlooper. You wrote that since Hickenlooper has been polling ahead of Romanoff by a lot in primary polling, and since Hickenlooper has been polling ahead of Cory Gardner in general election polling by a little, ergo, it is reasonable to conclude that Cory Gardner is polling ahead of Romanoff in the absence of actual polling.
I think that you are underestimating Gardner's vulnerability in this race. A poll that was conducted shortly before Hickenlooper pulled the plug on his presidential campaign and decided to jump into the Senate race showed that he was polling about the same as "Generic Democrat" against Gardner. This gives every impression that Colorado was going to vote blue no matter who and that Gardner is toast regardless of who the Democrats decide to throw at him. The lesson here is that few politicians whose approval ratings are in the 30's and whose name isn't Mitch should expect to win reelection.
V & Z respond: Note that we did not write that Gardner would outpoll Romanoff, merely that he might, and that the evidence suggests Romanoff vs. Gardner would be closer than Hickenlooper vs. Gardner.
A.G. in Denver, CO, writes: Your recent item "Is Hickenlooper Blowing a Layup?" didn't ring true with this 32-year resident of Denver. While the politically connected classes in Denver may be wringing their hands, Hick's "aw-shucks" likeability will have him easily win the primary against the perennial loser Romanoff and romp to a victory in November, along with Biden.
R.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: E.H. from Stevens Point, WI, wrote that his wife "says the thing that bothers her most is when people accuse her of white privilege. She worked hard to escape poverty and faced sexual harassment and job discrimination without any advocate or court caring."
This is the thing about privilege—one of its aspects is that the privileged person is unaware of it. Part of the privilege is that your condition is the "normal" one. That can be white privilege, male privilege, economic privilege, education privilege, heterosexual privilege and so on.
Conversely, people who lack privilege are acutely aware of it. People of color can never ignore that the United States is a nation designed by and for white people. LGBTQ+ people can never ignore that, despite advances in their legal rights in the past 20 years, this is still a nation designed by and for straight, cis-gendered people.
E.H.'s wife is a perfect example of this dichotomy. She is very aware of the sexual harassment she suffered and the disprivilege of growing up in poverty. But she is oblivious to her white privilege. I'm not picking on her or criticizing—seeing one's own Privilege is really, really hard.
What helped me understand this is listening to people talking about their experiences in life and then analogizing them to my experiences. As a Jew who has Holocaust refugees in his family, I've always been deeply aware of the disprivilege anti-Semites would want to visit upon me, given the chance. But I needed to get past that to see that I never had to worry about being stopped by police because of the color of my skin; I never had to worry about how tight my clothes were because some jerk might decide he had the right to grope me; I never had to worry about being beaten and tied to a fence to die because a band of homophobes were threatened by their thought that I was gay; I've never had to worry about the next paycheck because my parents' finances allowed me to get a top education that led to a well-paying career.
Our goal as Americans—heck, as human beings—should be for E.H.'s wife to ally herself with Black Lives Matter and other disprivileged people, and for people with other disprivileges to ally themselves with E.H.'s wife and the people in her situation. The disprivileged vastly outnumber the privileged. I hope we can all find a way to work together to eliminate all disprivileges.
R.L. in Alameda, CA, writes: A couple of readers wrote in Sunday's mailbag that (I'm paraphrasing) they don't feel they have white privilege because they grew up poor, had to work hard to get out of poverty, and were occasionally harassed by police. They're missing the point.
I'm a white guy who benefits from my privilege every day. But privilege comes in many forms and layers. For example, there is one privilege I do not enjoy. As an electrician, I do not have the privilege of working from home. When our shelter-in-place began, I was furloughed until I was recalled to my job when construction re-started in May. My wife, a psychotherapist, had the privilege of moving her practice to video. She still hasn't returned to her office (although some of her clients are itching to see her in person).
My point is that, while you may have lacked some of the privilege that white people have, such as generational wealth, you don't completely lack for privilege. As you pulled yourselves out of poverty, your privilege undoubtedly helped you. Of course, I don't know your story, but you most certainly found it easier to get into a college, obtain an auto loan, find decent housing, and purchase affordable insurance than your black counterparts did.
The point of understanding our privilege isn't to make white people feel guilty. We didn't ask for or earn our privilege. But if we are going to participate in dismantling the societal and structural racism that holds black people back, we have to start with this awareness. (If this doesn't matter to you from a simple humanity standpoint, there is ample evidence that trillions of dollars of economic opportunity are being squandered due to systemic racism, but that is a whole different letter). And don't take my word for it. There is no shortage of books and podcasts available that can help you learn about systemic racism, how you have benefited from it if you are white, and what you can do about it.
A.J. in Baltimore, MD, writes: I want to comment on E.H. and P.M.'s letters from last Sunday's mailbag. As a white man, I personally think that they, and many people like them, are fundamentally misunderstanding the concept of white privilege and/or buying into the right's counter-narrative on the subject.
The concept of white privilege is meant to highlight systemic racism, not the fortunes of any individual white person. Certainly if someone is said to have white privilege, it doesn't mean they are old money, or that they haven't faced challenges in life. All it means is that those challenges haven't been exacerbated by being non-white. If a white person thinks that their life would not be more difficult if they were black, that's probably because white people don't know what it's like to have to encounter bigotry and struggle against structural racism on a daily basis.
Have you ever had to use crutches or a wheelchair, or have your arm in a cast, for a limited period of time? If so, you've probably found that it presented many unanticipated difficulties, both big and small, that you normally don't need to worry about. But permanently disabled people grapple with those problems every day. And due to systemic racism, people of color struggle with many of their own problems, big and small, that white people not only don't have to confront, but that we don't even necessarily notice or anticipate.
Finally, the notion that Black Lives Matter doesn't care about white victims of police killings is just not true. The most notable example of a white person unjustifiably killed by police in the last five years is possibly Daniel Shaver. Black Lives Matter activists spoke out against the officers who killed Shaver and spread the news story—and the horrific video in which Shaver begged for his life—like wildfire over social media. Why? Because BLM activists are not solely interested in black victims; they are interested in doing whatever it takes to reform law enforcement.
J.M. in Seattle, WA, writes: E.H. wrote about his wife growing up white and poor, harassed by police, now chafing at the mention of her white privilege. I don't want to downplay her experiences, because they sound terrible, and no one should have to go through them, and kudos to her for fighting her way out. However, she still had and has white privilege. The simple question to ask is: Would she rather have been in that environment as a black person, in a black family? Black people have even more obstacles, more prejudicial treatment, and are more likely to suffer harm at the hands of those in power. It therefore follows that white people have less of those things. That's white privilege. While white people can indeed live in some pretty terrible environments, a black person in the same place will almost invariably have it worse. She doesn't have to like it, but it's very important that she at least acknowledge it. White supremacy counts on her to dismiss it.
But if You Go Carryin' Pictures of Chairman Mao...
A.R. in Seattle, WA, writes: While I agree with the overall premise that the "revolution" in the streets right now is primarily aimed at the police and overall racial justice, I think you are also oversimplifying things a bit. Yes, it's true that the explicit demands of the protesters generally do not include Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or one of the other big-banner ideas Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) touted. But those desires and, more generally, the desire to reform our economic system are driving people implicitly.
Currently, our crisis is threefold. Economic depression/recession (depending on your metric), a global pandemic, and racial inequity. For most of the people on the streets, the portion of the Venn diagram of where all of those crises intersect is enormous. Black and brown people are disproportionately working in "essential" jobs that generally pay less with fewer benefits. They are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 and worse outcomes when they get it. All the while dealing with generations of systemic racism that have led to the current wealth inequality and disparity between racial groups that we have today. George Floyd's unfortunate death seemed to be merely the catalyst for an immeasurable amount of misgivings toward our current socioeconomic circumstances. Racial injustice was definitely the straw that broke the camel's back, but the straw was already piled high with lack of healthcare and well-paying jobs and any kind of sense of economic hope for the future.
Did Sanders fail to make better and deeper in-roads in the South than in 2016? Absolutely, as evidenced by his loss in South Carolina. But I think your conclusion is incorrect. He did actually win the vote of black youth in South Carolina, as opposed to Biden, which is important because I think young voters tend to be less conservative compared to older generations. There is a deep mistrust of the government to be sure, but programs such as integration of public schools, social security and SNAP benefits are widely popular. While many a doctoral thesis could be written to dissect what happened to Sanders in South Carolina, I think the calculus of older black voters had more to do with "who would swingable white conservatives in the Midwest vote for?" than any mistrust in government programs and went with the accordingly 'safe' candidate.
The biggest proof of this would be in the recent primaries in New York and Kentucky. While racial justice is playing a huge role in the results, politicians like Mondaire Jones, Jamaal Bowman and Charles Booker are also pushing for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and racial justice. I don't think it's merely a coincidence that a message of economic as well as racial equity is playing well in the current slate of elections.
L.E. in Santa Barbara, CA, writes: Reading your item, "Sanders Got a Revolution--Just Not His" brought to mind a posting in a discussion group that I read:I think there has been a lesson for the progressive left in all of this as well. The left has tried to center class as a lens through which to understand the world and form concepts of justice, and then to use that to form a more broad perspective on race and women's rights and environmental justice. The lesson is that the starting point has to be the perspective of the most oppressed. I think race, especially given our history in America, has to be the starting point—the lens through which we understand the world and form concepts of justice and add perspectives on class.
Black Americans need more than economic opportunity. They need an end to state-sanctioned violence. You start there and build a framework. The classic Marxist framing doesn't meet our needs in 2020. That was the mistake of this primary from the progressive candidates. Bernie Sanders needed to spark a movement like this to ever stand any chance and he was incapable because he was at heart a class reductionist and believed a rising tide lifts all boats. It doesn't. On the contrary, racial justice—true racial justice—actually benefits white people too, just like feminism benefits men. But it's all a question of where you find your center. The Black Panthers understood that. The great civil rights leaders of the last half century have very much understood that. I'm not sure our white leaders have always understood that. And it's time to shift that thinking.
The person quoted above went on to say, "I do think there are certain contexts or countries where a class-first approach is better. My take is just becoming that if we want to build a uniquely American progressive movement, it has to center itself in racial justice first. We have to respond to our reality and be consistent with our history."
This really resonated with me. This is the real revolution in the U.S.—racial justice. Everything follows from that. And I think that this is why Sens. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) appealed to a comparatively small segment of the Democrats and independents. Without this understanding of our own history, progressives, as currently defined, will always fail to grab a larger following.
V & Z respond: This critique of Sanders and his approach was raised many times during his two campaigns, and many of his supporters pushed back against it very strongly. If Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) inherits the Senator's mantle, she will presumably course-correct a bit.
A.B. in Reston, VA, writes: K.J., from my mother's home town of Roanoke, VA, wrote to suggest that fear and persecution of LBGTQ people is near non-existent: "you would be hard-pressed to find a single person who is afraid of such people, which is what the suffix 'phobia' actually means. All people are worthy of respect, from homosexual activists to religious conservatives."
As a fellow Virginian, I wish that his implication that anti-LBGTQ bigotry is hard to find were true. Perhaps he has forgotten how the Virginia Republican Party has constantly fanned the flames of prejudice and hate in recent years, blanketed in a thin veneer of religious justification. They have turned their back on moderates and nominated extremists like Ken Cucinelli, and just recently rejected conservative Republican Rep. Denver Riggelman for officiating at the wedding of two gay staffers. Not to mention the influence of "pastors" like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
And although K.J. may not want to recognize it, history is full of examples showing that when politicians use fear of the "other" as a way to rise to power, it is almost certain that some will hear the dog whistles as encouragement to commit violence. The politicians can claim innocence, but it seems much closer to "plausible deniability" to me.
For just one of (sadly) many examples, K.J. needs only remember the incident from his own hometown where a man opened fire in a gay bar in Roanoke, murdering Danny Overstreet and injuring others. I don't think it is a coincidence that this shooting spree happened at a time when conservative political leaders were stoking anti-gay sentiment.
Why is it so hard to just treat other humans well? And to realize that dehumanizing other people leads predictably to tragic consequences?
J.N. in Columbus, OH, writes: This actually came up in my workplace many years ago. A guy insisted that he wasn't a homophobe because he didn't fear gay people, he just didn't want his kids around them. To our credit, my colleagues and I hit him with "Homophobia doesn't require you to be physically afraid of gay people. Just to be afraid of what they represent. You fear they'll make your kids gay, or make it so your kids accept them. So yes, you really do fear gay people."
P.B. in Cayucos, CA, writes: I would place George W. Bush right near the top of the list of least racist presidents. Colin Powell was the first black secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice was the first black person to be NSA, and the first black woman to lead the State Department.
Bush sincerely and truly does not seem to have a racist bone in his body. There is a story about him, as a young man, driving around Texas in his old "beater" drumming up support for a black friend running for office. Not sure I've heard that sort of story about any of the others you listed.
I think you are holding Iraq (a directly descendant of Poppy Bush's Iran-Contra dealings) against him, and so there may be built-in bias.
T.W. in Wellsville, OH, writes: Before statues of Andrew Johnson get toppled, I like to mention a few positive things about him on the issue of race. Unlike his hero Andrew Jackson, Johnson truly was for the underdog. Yes, it was mostly the white underdog, but he considered black Americans to some degree, declaring in 1864: "I am for...labor of intelligent, stimulating labor...talent, of intellect, of merit...of each and every man, white and black according to his talent and industry."
Johnson once bought a slave who requested to be purchased by him because he sensed Johnson a fair man. He never sold a slave and was fond of his slaves and they were fond of him and spoke well of him during his lifetime and after his death. He freed them in 1863 and, as military governor, freed all slaves in Tennessee in 1864. When a former slave asked to purchase a lot of the president's land in order to build a school to educate African Americans, Johnson deeded the land to him without charge.
Yes, Johnson believed in white supremacy, vetoed the Freedman's Bill, did not stop the Black Codes from being implemented, and he belongs on your list, but many do not know these positive things about him.
M.M. in Plano, TX, writes: You need to note that Theodore Roosevelt received Booker T. Washington at the White House. This qualifies as anti-racist in its time.
K.C. in Levittown, NY, writes: You didn't include John Tyler on the list of most racist presidents. If I'm not mistaken, he actually was elected to office in the Confederacy after his term as President. If serving in the rebel government (though I believe he died before actually serving) after being the American president doesn't qualify one to be considered a racist, I'm not sure what else does.
V & Z respond: We considered him, but the standard was "unusually racist by the standards of his time," and support for the Confederacy does not automatically qualify (even if it definitely makes them a racist by the standards of our time). There were some Union leaders (George McClellan, for example, or Fernando Wood) who were just as bad as anything the South had to offer. And there were some Confederate leaders (James Longstreet, for example, or Judah P. Benjamin) who weren't invested in the racial milieu of the South.
D.R. in Ewing, NJ, writes: General Grant was at least casually anti-semitic, but he atoned.
V & Z respond: True, but our remarks were guided by our sense that one sin seems to be determinative in these circumstances.
J.K. in Freehold, NJ, writes: One important thing you left out regarding the removal of Grant's statue in California is that when Grant was in great need of money, he freed the slave he was given rather than selling him. I feel that this act encapsulates the basic decency of the man. Imagine the current president doing such a thing.
C.J. in Hawthorne, CA, writes: I know you love to use Woodrow Wilson as one of your punching bags, but if you take Grant to task for being an anti-semite, you should give Wilson credit for sticking his head out and appointing Louis Brandeis, the first Jew ever to serve on the court. It was no easy call, and many felt Wilson made a big mistake in doing so. In an era when SCOTUS appointments generally sailed through, Brandeis's was very much contested. Brandeis then turned out to be a champion of many causes and beloved as a giant among Supreme Court Justices.
I wouldn't call Wilson progressive on race by any stretch, but I think he was better than often portrayed.
Statues and Monuments and Squares, Oh My!
F.L. in Denton, TX, writes: As you pointed out, Andrew Jackson owned slaves and was a very harsh master. As president, he also initiated the "Trail of Tears," which was ethnic cleansing and tantamount to genocide.
In the very heart of New Orleans, in the Vieux Carre, there is Jackson Square. Granted, he did defend the city from the British in the War of 1812, but very rightfully, there has been a movement to rename the plaza and remove his presence. I present now, some candidates to replace him:
- Jean and/or Pierre Laffitte: These two pirates, or privateers, probably did more than Jackson to defend the city. Through their smuggling, they greatly boosted the economy of New Orleans, and they rather fit the 'gallows humor' that is traditional in New Orleans. Sadly, they were involved in the slave trade, so maybe not.
- Louis Armstrong: A native son and a pioneer in the city's trademark jazz tradition. What's not to like? Louis was no square, but "Satchmo Square" has a certain ring to it.
- Huey Long: Rather than live in the capitol in Baton Rouge, Huey spent most of his governorship in New Orleans. Although he had his flaws, he was no racist, which was quite unusual for a Southern politician of his era. "Treat them [the black citizens] just the same as anybody else, give them an opportunity to make a living, and to get an education," he declared. He provided free textbooks to all schoolchildren and elevated the standards of black Louisianans in numerous other ways. However, "Long Square" is a rectangle.
- John James Audubon: Although not a native son, Audubon spent more than a little time in Louisiana, creating his Birds of America. The local zoo is, appropriately, named for him, so he already has that accolade.
V & Z respond: Of course, Armstrong already has the airport. And honoring Long, who never missed an opportunity to engage in a litte graft, may be just a little too much on-point for Louisiana.
T.R. in Palo Alto, CA, writes: Let's bring back the naked Trump statues.
V & Z respond: Now that would be apropos for New Orleans. And before anyone clicks on that link, just remember, you can't un-see the pictures.
L.A. in Fort Worth, TX, writes: I was disappointed to read your conclusion at the end of the discussion about the destruction of the three statues in California:Those who support the protesters' message will support their statue-destruction, or else will shrug their shoulders and say "Not what I would do, but whatever." And those who oppose the protesters' message will zoom in on the most outlandish or blood-boiling incidents, as they see it ("What! They got rid of Abraham Lincoln's statue!"), and will use that to justify their position.
Presuming the protesters' message was anti-racism, I certainly support it strongly. However I do not support destruction of property. Protesters become mobs when they destroy, loot, and burn. Several municipalities and states have taken down obnoxious statues through rule-of-law processes. That is the only way to go. Vigilante shortcuts are un-democratic and reprehensible.
V & Z respond: Fair enough, though note we were speculating about how people would respond, not giving our opinion about how they should respond.
D.P. in Arcata, CA, writes: I would like to object to Saturday's response to the question concerning the toppling of statuary. I appreciate your historical analyses of Francis Scott Key, Junipero Serra, and U.S. Grant. I also appreciate that we live in a democracy, and that we have avenues for executing the will of the people peacefully. Our democratic system is capable of executing the removal of statues that disagree with the tastes of the majority of people. I object to the dynamic wherein a relatively small group of physically strong people can topple a statue without bothering with the democratic process. Your quote on Saturday concerning Key's statue was, "So, tear it down." I think that it is undemocratic and dangerous to endorse violent actions by a mob.
I would like to direct readers to a writer who is much more learned than I, Andrew Sulllivan, who shares some thoughts on the dangers of endorsing statue toppling.
V & Z respond: We see why you interpreted our answer in that way. However, we read the question as being not about the process, but instead about the end result. In other words, "should the state of California, or the city of San Francisco, accede to the removal of the statues, or should they put them back"? We generally do not support mob action, with the possible exception of when people in power appear to be abusing the system to achieve an anti-democratic result (like the judge who stopped the government-ordered removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia). Also, we generally agree with the notion that statue-destroyers should be punished in accordance with the law. As Thoreau observed, in "Resistance to Civil Government," people should stand up against injustice, but must also accept the consequences that come with that.
One other thing: Andrew Sullivan is often writes smart and thoughtful pieces. However, he's also been accused of racism more than once. So, probably best to take his column with at least a few grains of salt.
B.B. in St. Louis, MO, writes: Having grown up in Texas, I have long been aware of the significance of Juneteenth. The fact that I was married on June 19th gives the date additional significance in our family.
In the late sixties and early seventies, I attended St. John's School, a college preparatory school in Houston most notable for having Molly Ivins as an alumna, and for being a school to which George W. Bush could not get admitted (he attended our arch-rival, Kinkaid). The St. John's sports teams were then known as the St. John's Rebels, and our mascot was a large Papier-mâché statue of Johnny Reb, proudly wearing Confederate uniform and flying the stars and bars.
Some time after I left, the school administration decided that being on the losing side of history was no longer politically correct and held a contest to come up with a new name and icon for the sports team. I thought they should stick a hard hat on Johnny Reb, knock a couple of fingers off, and rename the team the Roughnecks, but the winning entry was the Mavericks, with a horse as the symbol. I am not certain how many of the current student body or faculty of this rather conservative institution realize the irony of the name, given the history of the name "Maverick." Originally Samuel Augustus Maverick, a Texas landowner and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, had a habit of not branding his cattle, so unmarked strays became known as "Mavericks." His grandson, Fontaine Maury Maverick Sr. and his great-grandson Fontaine Maury Maverick Jr. later became known as two of the most liberal members of the Texas legislature.
P.R. in Saco, ME, writes: E.P. in Pasadena, CA, wrote that "there should not be statues or monuments to anyone who committed treasonous acts against the United States, of which all the Confederate generals and politicians are guilty." I wholeheartedly support this. Benedict Arnold came to mind because he was a traitor, so I wondered if there were any monuments to him. There is the Saratoga Boot in New York, and here in Maine, along the Kennebec River in the stretch of road referred to as "Moose Alley," there is an informational plaque noting the route Arnold took to Canada.
I would think educational plaques like this, or the Boot, are appropriate without actually lauding the traitor's acts. The difference between the two types of markers is that an historical plaque acknowledges history while a statue of a Confederate personage exudes the stench of subjugation and terror.
E.V. in Derry, NH, writes: Monuments seek to honor the person, but also the ideas and actions behind the person. Tearing them down during social unrest and drastic political change is common; Iraq after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, for example, or most ex-Communist countries in Europe after 1990.
Confederate monuments are also preserving an idea. Reading the declarations the Southern states made when seceding, it is clear preservation of slavery was a main motivation. States' rights was just the vehicle and justification for the action. Added to the mix is that most of the monuments were erected decades after the war to support the politics of Jim Crow. Hiding behind the "our heritage" argument does not diminish the anti-black American sentiment.
The idea about possibly keeping some monuments with a plaque that explains the context is a compromise that really does not change the impact of the monument. For example, when I drove through Richmond last December, I passed the Robert E. Lee monument. I had two thoughts: (1) It is huge, and (2) How is it still standing in 2019? Any clarifying plaque would have to be as big as a Jumbotron to make an impact.
Even a museum setting is problematic. You would need a whole display or room to explain why the statue was erected in the first place, and to take the emphasis off the statue itself. And you still have an image with its simple idea competing with an explanation that requires some complex thought.
Lest anyone argue that wanting to tear down the Southern monuments is revisionist history, here is a quote I read last week in Gary Gallagher's book The Union War. The year was 1887, during a dedication of Ohio monuments in Gettysburg. Former lieutenant colonel Samuel Hurst commented on the idea of erecting Confederate monuments at Gettysburg: "I do not believe there is another nation in the civilized world that would permit a rebel monument to stand upon its soil for a single day, and I can see neither wisdom nor patriotism in building them here."
One would hope that enough Americans can now understand that any monument that honors a rebellion based on preserving slavery must be taken down. The likes of John Calhoun, anyone from the Confederacy, and anyone who supported Jim Crow, the KKK, segregation and other racist actions have no place.
How about some memorials and plaques commemorating the events and victims of slavery and racism? For example, in Germany, Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) commemorate victims of the Nazis. A brass plaque is set into the sidewalk in front of buildings. The plaque names the people who lived there and were arrested or killed. Simple yet powerful.
J.L.J. in San Francisco, CA, writes: When I was a kid, I drew up a statue idea that I remain, to this day, enormously fond of. It was to be erected in Atlanta, capital of my home state, featuring General William T. Sherman atop his horse, gazing through field glasses in the direction of Savannah, while holding a Kennedy-esque eternal flame torch.
I have long sworn if I ever came into serious money, I'd try to make it happen. But now, seeing statues of U.S. Grant being toppled, I fear the same fate for my Sherman statue.
S.R. in Wyomissing, PA, writes: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) really tipped his (and the modern GOP's) racist hand in his arguments against D.C. statehood. I would be shocked if it wasn't only the 794th most shocking thing this year—but it was pretty inept. First, he argued that Wyoming was more deserving of statehood than D.C. because it has a good "well-rounded working-class population" of miners and loggers. He might as well have just said "white people." Next, he went on to criticize certain black mayors of the district and said they couldn't be trusted with statehood—it's like the "white man's burden" all over again! I hope he tries to carry the Trumpist mantle in 2024, so the GOP can keep shrinking into a regional party of bitter, old, white men. I think the Democrats are right to stand their ground on the fight for D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood—the GOP's objections should just be ignored. It makes political sense for the Democrats to support statehood, and it also happens to be the right thing to do.
B.B. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I reacted viscerally when one of the letters referred to D.C. statehood as a "power play" by Democrats. Right now we're being run by a tyrannous minority that does not hesitate to use its power in every way imaginable. For years, we have watched Republicans do power play after power play, including bringing the nation to the brink of default on national debt, gerrymandering the hell out of districts to their advantage, holding up a Supreme Court justice, packing the courts, suppressing the vote, etc. I could go on for at least another 3-4 pages.
Democrats need to get over their fear of using power and of public opinion, because adding D.C./Puerto Rico/Guam is necessary to enacting real change and not having to obsess over every election. The D.C. vote really fired me up and I think there are a bunch of other libs who are sick of being "owned" by these bad actors and their troll army. Voters will not punish Democrats for fighting back, they will reward them for actually doing something.
It's time to fight back against the structural challenges to our democracy and D.C. statehood is a good first step.
J.L. in Glastonbury, CT, writes: If we're to deal with statehood, we should do so in a way that promotes our democratic and republican ideals (lower-case d and r). That means everyone should get representation, but not over-representation. We could right-size our states, get everyone representation, and keep it at 50 states:
- Washington, D.C. should be shrunk to non-residential key federal properties and parks, and the rest ceded back to Maryland.
- The Caribbean territories can be a state. One state.
- The Pacific territories can be part of Hawaii.
- Ridiculously overpopulated states should be permitted to split into reasonable sizes, if they want to.
- Ridiculously underpopulated states (5 EV or less) should be encouraged to merge. MT/WY/ID, ND/SD/NE, VT/NH/ME, CT/RI, and DE/MD. I understand that states will not willingly give up political power, but effective politics requires leadership and creativity. Economies of scale have value, too.
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