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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

We begin with a second installment of responses to the questions raised by R.T. in Arlington back in early January.

What Do You Want from Trump Supporters, Part II

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: R.T. asks "What do you want members of Trumpish tribes to do?" It seems like an easy question. I would like the different members of the Trumpish tribes to act in their own interests. If you're someone who mostly makes your living as a wage earner, then support those who fight for a higher minimum wage (which lifts all wages), who are pro-union (i.e. who supports card-check and opposes phony "right-to-work" laws), who back universal health coverage, free public higher education (maybe you won't take advantage of this, but don't you have kids and grandkids? Nephews and nieces?) and so on. Heck, join or organize a union (no small task) if you're able. Go further: Demand a 30-hour work week with no reduction in pay. Support those who want to reduce climate catastrophe, because, like COVID-19, climate catastrophe is real and is inevitable, but what's not inevitable is its intensity. The fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, massive crop failures from heat floods or freak storms may or may not hit you directly but they will affect your life for the worse.

But then I think again. I'm sure the Trumpers do believe they're acting in their own interests. They just see their interests differently. So to answer the question "what do you want members of Trumpish tribes to do?", I'm left only with the old Apple advertising slogan: Think Different.

Good luck with that.

J.P. in Bronx, NY, writes: I'm a lifelong Democrat, although I have voted for a few Republicans in my time. My advice? Do some critical thinking. Stop worshiping a lying, cheating, racist, incompetent, narcissistic, law breaking, dangerous rich kid who never grew up.

A.A. in Branchport, NY, writes: Read and study the Bible. Yourself. Do not be content with having it explained to you.

Read and study the Declaration of Independence. Yourself. Do not be content with having it explained to you.

Read and study the United States Constitution. Yourself. Do not be content with having it explained to you.

Then we can start to talk.

T.J.M. in West Chicago, IL, writes: I would suggest the Trump supporters stop getting their news from the TV machine and subscribe to a legitimate newspaper for 6 months or longer.

T.M. in Lagrangeville, NY, writes: The first thing everyone needs to do is to go back to arguing with facts. No more claims of "fake news." No more doubling down on exposed lies. There is no path forward without the truth.

There are valid differences of opinion on most difficult issues, but we'll make no progress on solving any of them without a common understanding of the facts.

M.S. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: My answer is that I want them to imagine themselves in the situation of the others they condemn. I want them to use their imagination to envision what horrible circumstances would drive people to leave everything behind and risk their lives to come to a new country with nothing. I want them to use their curiosity to figure out what would drive someone to spend their life savings to change their body to one that conforms to their internal gender identification, bringing upon themselves derision and physical danger. I want them to use their intellect to see themselves as a scientist, and follow the truth where it leads. In short, I want them to walk a mile in other people's shoes.

TrumpWatch 2021

R.H. in Santa Ana, CA, writes: The Secret Service is under the Department of Homeland Security.

As long as it complies with the Administrative Procedures Act, DHS can issue a regulation that states something like "Persons who are in the custody of a Maximum Security Penal Institution are by that fact deemed to be protected in accordance with the Former Presidents Act."

Publish an NPRM, address the public comments, and there you have it.

D.S. in Palo Alto, CA, writes: As a lifelong trumpeter (5 Bb, 1 C, 1 D, 1 Bb/A Piccolo, 1 Bb field trumpet [bugle], 2 cornets, and a flugelhorn), I fervently object to your repeated use of that term, capitalized, to refer to adherents of the former president. Most avoid the term, relying on Trumpers or Trumpists for this sobriquet. I would fervently request that you do the same. Drumpfeters would be OK.

L.X. in Denver, CO, writes: You wrote: "Vance's office confirmed that it got copies of the former president's tax returns just hours after the Supreme Court ruled in the DA's favor, and that city-employed lawyers were already going through them with a fine-toothed comb."

Don't you mean: "...a fine-toothed comb-over"?

Ok, too easy.

A.M. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Thank you for the belly laugh! 800-pound orange-utan is probably the funniest way to refer to Trump I have seen!

BidenWatch 2021

D.C. in Myersville, MD, writes: In your answer to G.T. of Truro, you mentioned the Military Basic Allowance for Housing. Federal civilian employees also have location based compensation. There's definitely an argument for a variable minimum wage.

Here, for example, is the chart for Maryland. As it notes, "General Schedule employees who work within this region are paid 30.48% more than the GS base pay rates to account for local cost of living." 30.48%!

L.B. in Savannah, GA, writes: There is already a regionally-varied model for the minimum wage. The Department of Labor issues regional and local wage determinations for federal construction contracts awarded under the Davis-Bacon Act, and for federal service contracts under the McNamara-O'Hara Service Contract Act. These establish locally prevailing wage rates for the various trades in those areas, and are determined either by survey, or in the case of construction trades, where the local rate has been collectively bargained. This is done to prevent contractors from parts of the country with lower wages from underbidding contractors in higher-wage areas. Without this, it would be impossible for union contractors in places like New York City to win local contracts.

J.K. in Short Hills, NJ, writes: A potential winning argument against a $1.9T fiscal stimulus, which former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has already made, is that the Democrats' plan will trigger real inflation. The size of the projected package is significantly greater than the output gap caused by COVID-19, and can subsequently drive-up consumer prices. Janet Yellen and Jerome Powell counter this reasoning by suggesting that the previous decade is evidence that extremely accommodative monetary policy does not end with undesirable amounts of inflation. Far be it from me to criticize the current Treasury Secretary and Fed Chair on all things related to the economy, but the Great Recession sourced from an endogenous shock while the pandemic, which may be coming to an end, is exogenous and therefore theoretically more ephemeral. Moreover, the amount of direct support from Washington dwarfs that from 2009 and has ballooned savings account balances.

Those in the services sector have been decimated by the virus, yet will benefit from a deluge of pent-up demand when we get to the other side of the COVID valley. They likely will raise prices in response. Rapidly. Commodities, such as copper, oil, lumber, and corn, have already soared with few signs of slowing down while interest rates have been climbing steadily in anticipation. I suspect voters may begin to see their dollars stretch substantially less by the midterm elections. By 2024, it is certainly plausible that the Fed, possibly led by Lael Brainerd, will have to slam on the brakes. Although I do not expect a return to the 1970's, it's never a good time to be the incumbent party when the word stagflation enters the everyday lexicon.

R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: There are things that are extraordinarily difficult to do. Perhaps at the top of the list would be to turn any lead you have lying around into gold. It can be done, the only things needed are a particle accelerator, enormous amounts of energy, tons of money, and low expectations of how much gold you convert.

A task that is far, far easier to do is confirm judicial nominees when you have a Senate majority (albeit one with no room for error). President Biden needs to nominate Circuit Court judges yesterday, especially for the 2 seats on the D.C. Circuit. Here are two names most progressives will like: Goodwin Liu and Leondra Kruger. There, that takes care of D.C. Circuit, and now we can move to the openings on the 2nd, 7th, and 9th and 10th Circuits. And Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) should keep the Senate in on Fridays and shorten recesses to get these nominees confirmed.

This ain't your father's GOP, when Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Bob Packwood, and even Trent Lott actually worked with Democrats. Today the GOP is the party of Trump and they'll obstruct anything and everything they can.

Let's pick up the pace, Democrats!

T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ, writes: There is no more Republican party. There is the Democratic Party and the whatever-the-Democratic-Party-is-for-I'm-against Party. A party without any tangible philosophy.


P.S. in Arlington, TN, writes: As a Romney-Johnson-Biden voter who spent the first 18 years of my life in Texas, I would be the sort of voter that Beto O'Rourke would need to win the Governor's race next year. I grew up in Flower Mound in Denton County just outside of "The Metroplex." Beto's comments about taking guns from Americans during the Democratic debates would prevent me from voting for him in any capacity.

I'm sure he's a great guy and I recognize all that he's done in an attempt to flip Texas. However, I have multiple family members who are law abiding gun owners with AR-15s. My father uses them to kill hogs on the ranch in North Texas that he runs as a small business. Dad is a Vietnam vet. My brother owns one and I have tons of friends who own them. Would they willingly give them up if the government attempted to take them under penalty of law? Probably. The ones who refused would all of a sudden become criminals when they've lived their lives as productive members of society.

Again, I no longer live in Texas, but I would be the college educated suburbanite he'd need if I still lived there. I've got a feeling that I will be looking at Democrats to vote for again in 2022, given the GOP's continued attachment to Trump. But it's a "No" on Beto for me.

M.W. in Austin, TX, writes: Forget Beto. Keep an eye on Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. She's like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), but even smarter and much smoother. She took office at 29 or so and had to deal with the Hurricane Harvey aftermath and did it beautifully.

Senate Politics

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: Please allow me to speculate about the purpose of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) "game of 3-D chess underlying this Jekyll and Hyde act" of alternatively supporting and criticizing former president Trump. I believe it's something that you often accuse Fivethirtyeight editor Nate Silver of doing: making vague and contradictory statements that allow him to later cherry-pick the ones that make him "right."

If Trump becomes more popular, then McConnell can say, "See! I didn't vote to convict and said I would support him in the general" but if Trump becomes less popular, then McConnell can say "See! I gave a blistering speech criticizing him." I'd look for McConnell to keep alternating between tepid support and highly parsed criticism for the foreseeable future, allowing him to "have it both ways" regardless of how things shake out with Trump and the GOP. Even though I positively loathe McConnell and think he is a symbol of almost everything that is wrong with our political system right now, he is a wily political genius who would make both Niccoló Machiavelli and Salazar Slytherin blush with envy. I'll be overjoyed when he finally retires or gets booted from office!

V & Z respond: Some people's patronus is a snake, and some people's patronus is...a turtle?

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I think I may have cracked the code with respect to McConnell's seemingly contradictory remarks. He knows better than anyone what sticks in the public's mind and what doesn't. A vote to convict would have been hung around his neck by both Republicans and Democrats, but a strongly-worded speech makes him feel a little better, only gets him a few days' blowback from Republicans, and may help pave the way for a behind-the-scenes effort to wrest control of the Party from Trump. He knows many folks in his party agree with him and he also knows the work has to be done stealthily. So, his answer to that question from Fox was a no-brainer: Of course he'll support the Republican nominee. Anything else would have raised eyebrows and he needs everyone's eyebrows to be in the neutral position so he can get back to his scheming in private.

W.S. in Austin, TX, writes: With respect to your assertion that Mitch McConnell would even get behind the reanimated corpse of Malcolm X as the presidential nominee of the GOP, I beg to differ.

A corpse would be fine, reanimation would be fine, radical views would be fine, and zero political experience would be seen as a bonus...

...but the GOP is the party of *white Christian* zombies.

V & Z respond: Does this explain McConnell's discolored hands?

McConnell's hands are both purple-to-black, presumably because of some sort of internal bleeding

L.S. in Greensboro, NC, writes: Your answer to E.W. on Lara Trump led me to doing some research. Since I moved to North Carolina in the late 1990s, it has seemed to me that women tend to do very well statewide against men, regardless of party. The state Board of Elections site only goes back to 2002, but looking at all elections for U.S. Senate and the Council of State involving a woman versus a man, I found that the women won 20 of the 29 races. Of the winners, 15 were Democrats and 5 Republicans.

However, there is a shift going on. From 2002-2008, women were 11-0 head-to-head against men, but since then it's 9-9. So, perhaps the gender advantage is lessening. On the other hand, all 9 of the losing women were Democrats, so maybe it's more due to a shift in the state government toward Republicans.

Regardless, Republican women are 5-0 against Democratic men in statewide races, which could bode very well for Ms. Trump if she draws a male opponent. Just for completeness, there have been 3 woman vs. woman races, with the Democrats winning 2 of the 3, so if she runs the Democrats' best bet may be a woman candidate.

Just thought the numbers were interesting!

S.C. in Scottsdale, AZ, writes: Phoenix does not need a new airport. It already has an excellent one. As far as a watered down minimum wage, Arizona is already at $12.15/hr. To be honest, I am not sure what game Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is playing here. The minimum wage in Arizona is likely to get close to $15/hr by 2025 because of the inflation adjustment built into the voter-passed measure.

My general observation is that Sinema tends to be a little too cutesy in showing her bipartisan bonafides, which is odd in a state that is rapidly trending blue. She needs to be more careful or she may find herself losing the support of the liberal part of her base.

LGBTQ Matters

S.B. in New Castle, DE, writes: Loved your item "House Passes the Equality Act." In it, you note that the faux reason for opposition is "religious liberty." As an active Presbyterian, as well as an LGBTQ+ community member and activist, I want to reinforce just how true this is.

A vast majority of the LGBTQ+ community I've met has little or nothing to do with the Christian church because of wrongs done against them for a very long time. Recall Anita Bryant's anti-gay rights activism with the invested help of Jerry Falwell in the 1960s and 70s as one widespread case in point. Most LGBTQ+ people I've met who are not open atheists do have a deep sense of spirituality. Generally, it's practiced in non-traditional New Age ways, or loose Buddhism, or if in the Christian faith, often it's the Unitarian Universalist Church, which places very little importance on doctrine and dogma.

I could elaborate on several violent stories I've heard about how "Christian" parents treated their kids growing up, but I want to share a personal story to illustrate just how deeply religious discrimination stabs at the LGBTQ+ culture.

Pre-pandemic, I often visited people in assisted living residences and nursing homes. During one visit, I met a woman recovering from knee surgery. My ministry partner and I visited with her and her visiting husband several times before she was released. They invited us to their home for tea one evening. During the course of the conversation, they mentioned that the housing community in which they lived had requirements that the residents be an active part of a Christian church community with evidence of both participation and financial support to those churches, as well as sign a "covenant" (common evangelical term for "contract") that they would abide by the Christian values set forth by that housing community. I was already uncomfortable at that point, but what they said next blew me away.

"We have a daughter," the husband continued. "She lives with another woman. We tried to explain to her that homosexuality is a sin against God, but she wouldn't listen. Instead, she married that woman and now they have two children."

"How often do you see your grandkids?" I asked.

"Never," both husband and wife chimed. "Until they come to know God, confess their sins and acknowledge Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, they aren't welcome here."

Never have I been so glad to leave a house than I was that one.

The Equality Act is essential to protecting the freedoms and ensuring the safety of all LGBTQ+ people.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: Ask me how many transgender people give a hoot about another person's right to use "religious liberty" in order to consign us to society's scrap heap! There is no loving God anywhere that would sanction this. I know this from their own book, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." So, if there is any vengeance to be taken against us for what we are, it is not the purview of man to take it. Furthermore, they can just start worrying about the planks in their own eyes before worrying about the specks in ours!

I am so done with people using religion as an excuse to consign me and my community to second-class status.

S.H., Phoenix, AZ, writes: In your answer about the right's distorted transphobia, you mentioned conservative talking heads going nuts over the (misunderstood) AP story about Hasbro renaming their "Mr. Potato Head" product line as "Potato Head," writing that "noted transphobe and windbag Ben Shapiro thought it would be funny to wonder what happens if Mr. Potato Head decides he identifies as a squash."

I'm old enough to remember playing with the original Hasbro Mr. Potato Head, where kids were actually encouraged to use "any fruit or vegetable" as the head. Thus, kids decided what he or she identified as. Hasbro only began including the plastic potato body in 1964 due to government safety regulations.

D.G. in Marrickville, NSW, Australia, writes: I imagine you'll get more than a few emails about Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's (R-GA) sign, which was offensive on multiple levels.

It was offensive to people who do not identify as one gender or another. The reasons one might not do so are complex, and often the person has a unique (or at least, undertold) story behind it.

It is also offensive, for the reason you gave, to transgender individuals. The entire point of that sign was to say that Rep. Marie Newman's (D-IL) daughter is in some way misrepresenting herself. She is a person, whose mother decided to run for political office, and she is probably about to find herself the target of the right-wing media for that simple fact. Good luck, whoever you are, and please know that you have silent supporters at home and abroad.

But what I found most offensive, perhaps was the grammar and misuse of the word 'science.' Firstly, why did you capitalize 'the' but not 'are' or 'genders'?

Secondly, where is the quote "trust the science!" coming from? Could she please learn, if she wants to be taken seriously, to properly attribute her quotes, paraphrases and ideas? Or to not use quotation marks?

Thirdly, as I'm sure many have pointed out to her on whatever social media platforms she's on, the science is very much against her on this. There has not been a single article published in any peer-reviewed journal in at least 30 years that has declared gender and sex to be the same thing (which I think is what she was going for). And even if they were, sex is not a binary thing either.

So, what science? Who's she quoting? And most importantly, what idiot staffer is her proofreader? Because that person should be fired immediately.

L.D. in Hamden, CT, writes: The whole reason that there are separate men's and women's athletic events is because men's testosterone gives them an insurmountable advantage compared to women. Women who naturally have unusually high levels of testosterone, or who use steroid supplements (like the East Germans of old), have an advantage that is deemed to be "unfair."

It is my understanding that trans females who have experienced some or all of male puberty prior to transitioning retain an advantage compared to cis females, which puts them at an unfair advantage at the top level of sports.

There is a lawsuit in CT brought by three cis girls about trans high school girls completely overwhelming the cis girls in track, which the cis girls fear will reduce their chances of getting college scholarships for track.

L.E. in Putnam County, NY, writes: Your advocacy of the acceptance of transgender identities has long been apparent, but you did post my link when I noted a case of rape in a woman's prison when someone wrote claiming this had never happened.

So, I hope you'll also remedy the implication from P.S. of Arlington that high school athletes never compete as the sex opposite to that determined by their biology. This is actually the subject of a lawsuit in Connecticut that's been in court this week, and in which the change in administrations led the U.S. Attorney and the Education Department to stop backing the plaintiffs, whose chances for college scholarships were damaged by the inclusion of trans-female athletes who then dominated track events.

There will be a protest against President Biden's executive order on International Women's Day March 8, which I am sure will only be louder if the "Equality Act" makes headway.

V & Z respond: Putting aside the merits of the lawsuit, is it not clear that 99.9% of the people making a big stink here are doing so in bad faith? Do they really care about high school sports, and whether or not a few athletes are in a position to receive a scholarship? Or have they merely seized on this because they know they can leverage it to get people's blood boiling? Surely it is the latter.

American Jesus

M.F. in Cambridge, New Zealand, writes: Your response to S.S. of Elizabethtown regarding Henry Ward Beecher seemed to fall into the convenient-yet-false stereotype that the vast majority of Christians are and always have been adamantly hostile to science. While doubtless many Christians (and many scientists) might have been skeptics about Darwin's theory in the first generation or so following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, your stereotype is based on the faulty assumption that late 20th century American fundamentalist evangelicalism represents the historic norm for all Christianity.

In fact, there is nothing inherently antithetical about science and religion, and many scientists have been people of faith:

  • While Isaac Newton's theological ideas were certainly heterodox, he was certainly no atheist.
  • Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was an Augustinian friar.
  • The first scientist to articulate the theory that became known as the Big Bang, nearly a century ago, was also a Roman Catholic priest. Indeed, the principal early objectors to his theory of an expanding universe were not theologians, but scientists such as Einstein.

These are just three examples off the top of my head.

One of the most tedious consequences of the rise of the religious far right has been the tendency on the part of particularly silly secular progressives to assume that the most extreme voices of an almost entirely American extremist religious minority sect constitute the authentic voice of historic Christianity.

V & Z respond: Well, it is certainly the case that in Beecher's time, acceptance of Darwin was a minority position among clergy, as you yourself note. And as to today, we meant to delimit that to American Christians, as polls show that 68% of American Christians who attend church every week believe in creationism, whereas only 29% believe in some form of the Theory of Evolution.

J.C. in Binan, Laguna, Philippines, writes: You stated, "...there was a robust debate as to how Christians should respond...he took the minority position (then, and now) that Darwin and The Bible are compatible."

I disagree about the now. Considering that Catholics are the largest denomination of Christians in the world and in the States, and that they have no issue with evolution, not to mention the many Protestants who feel the same, I'd say that the majority position is that both are compatible. It's really only conservative American Christians (and those they have influenced around the world) that still have an issue with evolution.

T.I. in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, writes: I disagree with your suggestion in yesterday's mailbag that acceptance of evolutionary theory by Christian churches is the minority position, "then and now," speaking of Henry Ward Beecher.

Most Christian denominations accept the Theory of Evolution as compatible with Christian doctrine. Significant examples are the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican communion. For example, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated: "creationism is, in a sense, a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories. Whatever the Biblical account of creation is, it's not a theory alongside theories...My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it."

J.K. in Freehold, NJ, writes: I fully agree with your inclusion of the 1st Amendment at the top of your list of the Best Amendments, especially the separation of church and state. This reminded me of a statement I read recently that said: "Good people do good things, bad people do bad things, but for good people to do bad things you need religion." This, of course, is an overstatement, but not that much of an overstatement.


L.S. in Naarden, The Netherlands, writes: I had to chuckle when, in your item on net neutrality, you described the relatively cheap Internet services available here in the Netherlands due to that good 'ol "dreadful European socialism".

It reminds me of conversations I've had with girlfriends in the U.S. about health insurance (I moved here about 25 years ago with my Dutch husband). My friends can't believe we pay about €2400 per year (instead of per month) for the two of us, which provides very good coverage including dental care, physical therapy, our choice of provider, etc.—all with one annual deductible of €385 per person. Students are covered for about €120 per month.

And speaking of students: That "dreadful European socialism" also provides really affordable higher education (tuition is €2,000 per year and loans of €1,000 per month for living expenses are available, which have to be paid back with no interest within 30 years). Not to mention the world-class roads and infrastructure available in this densely populated country. Even if you live in the boonies, there are at least 1-2 buses or trains a day to get you to a city.

And what pays for all of this? "But your taxes!" my friends say. Well, before my husband and I moved here, we lived in New York City. Between city, state and federal taxes, we paid the same percentage we're paying here in The Netherlands. It's nice to see and experience our tax dollars at work and to have "nice things."

The Virgin Diaries

E.A. in Seattle, WA, writes: In your response to the question from C.S. in Newport about the possibility of the Virgin Islands joining up with Puerto Rico to form a new state, you compared it to a merger between Delaware and Pennsylvania. While the relative population ratios are similar in both cases, I see a big difference: Delaware currently has outsized representation in the Senate and the Electoral College that it would be losing with this merger; the Virgin Islands do not.

If the people of the Virgin Islands wish to have voting representation in Congress and the Electoral College, joining up with their neighbors in Puerto Rico may be their best chance at attaining that. With a population of just over 100,000, their territory has roughly the same population as my city council district in Seattle. Does Congress have any interest in granting two Senate seats to a territory that small? Seems unlikely to me.

I understand there are cultural and language differences that may make a merger unpalatable to Virgin Islanders in many ways, but these could perhaps be worked around. The Constitution of the new "State of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands" could theoretically be written to delegate substantial autonomy to the Virgin Islands, perhaps even maintaining a separate governor's office. At a federal level there would obviously need to be a congressional district containing the Virgin Islands population, outnumbered by about half a million Puerto Ricans. No way around that.

Would the Virgin Islanders rather have a non-voting delegate all to themselves, or a voting representative that they share with a chunk of Puerto Rico, plus a say in two Senate seats and four electoral votes? I have no idea, and I believe we should generally defer to their wishes on the matter, but it doesn't seem to be as obvious a choice as you suggest.

V & Z respond: Good counterpoint.

500,000 in Context

S.G. in Newark, NJ, writes: You deserve a lot of credit for taking on the thankless task of trying to put COVID-19 into context by comparing it to wildly disparate deadly historical events. And all your many caveats are absolutely necessary and duly noted. With genuine respect for your efforts, though, I must note that the figure for "Joseph Stalin regime" seems understated. Presumably that number accounts only for people directly executed by the regime, and not those who died by famine induced by Stalin's agricultural policies. The famine itself might be worth including on your chart.

V & Z respond: It actually includes famine, too. The numbers for Stalin's regime were somewhat exaggerated by opponents who came after him, notably Nikita Khrushchev, and have been revised downward since internal Russian sources became more widely available. Also, sometimes the total for "the Stalin regime" includes World War II deaths, which is not proper.

B.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: As the COVID-19 numbers rose, I had been waiting expectantly for you to put them in perspective. You did a fabulous job of it. I shared it with a number of friends, mostly retired academics, and one spent hours today studying the data. That one article alone is generating a lot of discussion. Thanks again for the work you guys do.

That said, I have not seen a figure that low for the Chinese famine around 1960. 30 million was the widely accepted number last time I looked. I am sure practically everyone wanted to quibble over one or more of the numbers, and I wanted to join the crowd, be one of the herd.

V & Z respond: The 30 million figure extends the timeframe quite a bit (roughly 1949-76). We thought that the 25 million dead/4 years did more justice to the atrocity that took place, as compared to 30 million dead/27 years.

K.K. in Akron, OH, writes: I know you had to pick and choose from literally hundreds of catastrophes, so I understand that you had to stop somewhere. However, it seems to me that there was at least one glaring omission that ought to belong on the list: The Taiping Rebellion. As you probably know, it was by far the most lethal civil war in history, with even the most conservative estimates pegging the death toll at 20 million (and some estimates putting it at greater than 50 million). Even the lowball estimate would put it in the top half of the first chart, and ahead of World War II (worldwide) in the second chart. If one uses a figure of 30 million instead, its index number would be about 4.7 in the first chart and 65.8 in the second chart. Every now and then I have a student who will make an odd kind of American Exceptionalist assertion about the U.S. Civil War being the most destructive civil war ever; and when that happens, I always bring up the contemporaneous Taiping Rebellion to encourage my students to think more globally.

R.T. in New Delhi, India, writes: You didn't include the Bangladeshi Genocide of 1971. Official deaths are few hundred thousand, but investigators (and my Bangladesh students) tell me it was over 3 million. This happened in a few months!

The population of then East Pakistan was about 65 million.

M.M., Centralia, IL, writes: "... Meanwhile, at the bottom of the list, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition."


History Matters

P.K. in Marshalltown, IA, writes: D.E. in Lancaster listed a number of good books and you added some other excellent suggestions. With two graduate degrees in American Intellectual and Cultural History, I could add dozens of titles designed to put one to sleep or swear off reading history forever. I won't. I will suggest two, one being somewhat whimsical and probably of interest to squirrel lovers or Illini:

  1. Winton Solberg, The University of Illinois, 1894-1904: The Shaping of the University. The book uses the tenure of President Andrew Draper to discuss the University's evolution into a research institution, but the best story in it involves the "Squirrel Master." Draper sought to domesticate the squirrel population on campus and to that end created the position of the Squirrel Master (and secured approval and funding from the Board of Trustees in 1898). To my knowledge, based on eight years at Illinois, the position never came about though I would be very interested in serving if there is such a vacancy. (Disclosure: Dr. Solberg was my advisor and continued publishing until shortly before passing at the age of 97.)

  2. Stephen Ambrose Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. The Corps of Discovery was the moonshot of its time and the perfect encapsulation of Jefferson's mindset. So much more than just Sacajawea. I'm fascinated by—and didn't know it until reading the book—the fact that the Corps lost only one member of the party in its two year journey into lands filled with unknown peoples and things. Ambrose spins a captivating yarn.

I guess these are beach reads for the time when we all go back to the beach...

B.R.D. in Columbus, OH, writes: Thank you so much for your reading list in Saturday's Mailbag! I would add Jill Lepore and Heather Cox Richardson to your list. They both find interesting angles and people to focus on, dig deep, and write well. Richardson's recent work, How the South Won the Civil War, provides a lot of fascinating historical context for our current political moment.

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: Regarding U.S. History books for D.E. from Lancaster, PA, please let me plug Jean Edward Smith's biography of John Marshall, the Forrest Gump of the early Republic (in addition to being the great Chief Justice who essentially created federal jurisprudence, he was with Washington at Valley Forge, one of the diplomats at the center of the XYZ Affair, and the guy who didn't deliver Marbury's Midnight Judges Act commission, setting up a fairly obscure Supreme Court case whose name escapes me at the moment).

Smith also wrote a very good biography of Ulysses S. Grant, but my first choice on that subject is Grant's own memoirs. For a man not known for his academic achievements, Grant writes with clarity and vividness instead of the dry and obscure prose for which the 19th Century is better known.

L.M. in Berkeley, CA, writes: I love your site but have never written a letter to you before. I just had to respond to today's question about biographies, in which there was a pejorative reference to David Herbert Donald's biography of Abraham Lincoln. I never met David Donald and thus can't comment on what he was like in person. However, in my view, Donald's book is a masterpiece and the polar opposite of boring. This biography captures Lincoln in all his complexity and traces—through the crucible of the Civil War—the evolution of his views on race and the abolition of slavery.

The early sections of the biography also have wonderful accounts of Lincoln's time as a lawyer in Illinois, when he and other lawyers would "ride the circuit," appearing in different courts around the state. Donald does a wonderful job of recreating that era and showing how Lincoln in those early years developed his skills as a raconteur and humorist. I highly recommend this book.

I know reasonable minds can disagree about the merits of a biography, but I just had to offer my two cents!

P.H. in Meadville, PA, writes: On comparing Henry Ward Beecher to Donald Trump, his views on women's suffrage and slavery don't seem to match Trump's inclinations, although perhaps his personal life did, with many rumors of marital infidelity. He interests me because my father's middle name was Beecher. He was called "Beech," as his first name was "Lewis," the same as my Granddad Hart's. My Aunt told me it was for the author of Grandad's favorite book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. My brother tells me his admiration was for her brother Henry Ward Beecher, however. Granddad was an interesting guy. He was a voracious reader but quit school in 5th grade because the teacher scolded him.

My father was popular, as the name Beecher is sprinkled throughout the Hart family in cousins and a grandson.

V & Z respond: (Z)'s grandfather also quit school in the 5th grade, due to the need to help support his family during the Great Depression. However, he always said they kicked him out because he refused to shave. And he lamented that it wasn't his fault he was stuck in the 5th grade, noting they couldn't move him up to 6th because his father was still there.

L.B. in Savannah, GA, writes: Your item on Henry Ward Beecher reminded me of this. I have no idea of its origin.

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
Called the hen a most elegant creature.
The hen, pleased with that,
Laid an egg in his hat.
And thus did the hen reward Beecher.

B.B. in St. Louis, MO, writes: So, the party of Joseph McCarthy has the audacity to complain about cancel culture? The party that for decades has been trying to cancel an economic philosophy, one that says perhaps workers in an industry deserve a share of the profits of that industry, is upset that now some of their viewpoints are too unpalatable for prime time?

But let's look at a more subtle form of cancel culture. Molly Ivins discusses how due to Texas's size, it has disproportionate power in choosing which history texts are used to teach the rest of the country. And Texas politics has a decidedly pro-business bias, so it is not hard to speculate which events are to be included, and which ones left out. Do you suppose that the Banana Wars (U.S. interventions in Central America in the early twentieth century) get even a passing mention, or have they been canceled?

P.M. in Currituck, NC, writes: Here is something which should make the readers here chuckle—or, perhaps, cringe—at how far overboard the crazies have gone...

I am currently a teacher at a rural county school in North Carolina. This past week, I have been discussing with my classes the Gilded Age, and there is one section of the unit on segregation and discrimination in the South, and the era of Jim Crow.

An angry parent called the school and called me a liberal Democrat because I was teaching this topic, and for showing pictures of lynchings to students. That, combined with showing a brief clip of John Lewis discussing what it was like to grow up in Jim Crow-era Alabama, apparently makes me a flaming liberal.

As the readership here can attest, that is not an accurate description of my views. Being a centrist who leans to the right, and whose political views fall somewhere between Bush the Elder and Reagan, I am (apparently) squarely in RINO territory.

I guess teaching the truth to my students is now part of the liberal agenda...

V & Z respond: Stephen Colbert has observed that reality has a liberal bias.


C.C. in St. Paul, MN, writes: As a linguist specializing in ideologies of language, I was fascinated by your response about the debate over Pluto and statement that it was there in spite of the blog being about politics. I say that the debate over Pluto actually is about politics. Bear with me.

Words are human constructs. A word only means what it means because we've all made unspoken contracts with each other about it. So, the debate over Pluto is in fact not a debate about Pluto, but a debate about the meaning of the word "planet." For example, if I say a planet is a rock orbiting a star with a surface area greater than 1 x 10^7 km (thanks Wikipedia), it is a planet. If you define it based on clearing its orbit, it isn't.

People, even experts, don't tend to have much success declaring the meaning of a word when it comes to its use in everyday conversation. Within a field, there is value in having precise definitions of words to facilitate communication. Many in the social sciences, for example, distinguish between "sex" and "gender" to facilitate conversation about what is biological and what is learned, but in everyday conversation, "gender" is a more socially acceptable synonym for "sex."

So the question is, how much should you care if I call it a planet when talking as a lay person with a friend and how much should I care if you don't in academic materials? And that in fact is a very political question. I would suggest astrophysicists don't do themselves, or frankly any of academia, any favors when they scoff at members of the public over it (I'm looking at you, Neil DeGrasse Tyson) or act like the concept "planet" is an objective reality (I'm looking at you, Mike Brown). It feeds the notion that academics are elitist snobs and muddies public understanding of science. Measurements of Pluto, the nature of its orbit, etc., are objective facts. A definition of a planet that excludes Pluto is a choice astrophysics made. It may well have been a good choice or a useful choice (as a non-expert, I am unqualified to say) but there isn't actually an objectively "right" one.

The reason I think this matters is that a debate over the notions of truth, fact and science permeates our political landscape. There is a lot of value to questioning the notion of objective truth because science has so long been dominated by white men, and questioning their right to define all the objective truths is important. But many conservatives have turned that on its head, so that instead of examining the lack of women, BIPOC, queer, etc. voices in science, they are using it to wield power against them. If they want to say Pluto is a planet because you're lying about it not clearing its orbit, they're "entitled to their opinion" and you're just a liberal elitist in the pocket of Big Starchart. Or they'd say my opinion (or more importantly, theirs) on if it was a good or useful definition is in fact equally valuable to that of an astrophysicist, because they don't see expertise as a thing. And before you know it, the MyPillow guy gets to debate public health policy with Anthony Fauci.

V & Z respond: It always comes back to Big Starchart, doesn't it?

A.A.S. in Street, MD, writes: Pluto is not the first planet to be demoted. The asteroid Ceres (discovered in 1801) was considered a planet, as were Palas, Juno, and Vesta, discovered within a few years, but was demoted to asteroid in the 1850s as more and more asteroids were discovered in the 1840s. Now it is considered a dwarf planet (just like Pluto).

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, writes: With all this discussion of Pluto I would be remiss if I did not point out that there are probably nine planets. There is persuasive evidence that there is a ninth planet far out in the solar system that has not yet been found. There are objects far out in the solar system going the wrong way around the sun compared to the other objects. The objects on the weird paths cannot be explained by encounters with the known planets or by our sun capturing interstellar objects, but can be explained by a large planet far out in the solar system. The undiscovered planet would be much larger than Earth, but smaller than Uranus.

In the Beginning I Misunderstood, but Now I've Got It, the Word Is...

J.M. in San Jose, CA, writes: My guess is that the mystery word is "hagiographic." I had to look it up to see what it means.

J.P. in Horsham, PA, writes: I strongly suspect that the mystery word is "hagiographic." What do I win?

V & Z respond: The bad news is that you are wrong, so you don't win anything. The good news is that the people who were right don't win anything, either.

C.C. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: "Hagiographic" is a pretty good one, and it now totally makes sense that it would be the 12-letter word that would be harder to use in the post-Trump era, given that it means "excessive flattery."


Oops, sorry, I forgot to put it in the form of a question. "What is hagiographic?"

"I'll take Anal Bum Cover for $500, Alex."

M.R. in Eden Prairie, MN, writes: "Bloodthirsty" is a 12-letter word that isn't terribly relevant to political commentary, although perhaps that is being naive.

R.G. in Alexandria, VA, writes: As a long-time reader, I am keenly aware of your (and, in particular, Z's) love of Monty Python. Therefore I know that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. My guess as to A.D.'s mystery word is "bloodthirsty," which appeared at the end of Wednesday's post "Putting 500,000 in Context" talking about the bloodthirstiness of Tomás de Torquemada. While I love that you were able to tie the mystery word to Monty Python, as a Jewish child of the 80's, I will always prefer the Mel Brooks' version of Torquemada. It's what you ought not to do, but you do anyway...

M.v.E in Kitchener, ON, Canada, writes: I believe the word you're looking for is "emasculating," which appears only once on the site (June 21 last year) according to Google (if that's an acceptable cite). "Emasculated" appears twice, though (Apr 21, 2018 and Jan 21 of this year.)

I wouldn't want to contradict your staff mathematicians, though. They might feel...well...never mind. Either that or the Canadian version of Google censored the one occurrence and missed the other.

V & Z respond: That you can't trust Google Canada is a given, we'd say.

P.F. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Could it be..."astronomical"?

D.R. in Omaha, NE, writes: I love challenges like this. Part of my Real Work has to do with reviewing things such as contracts, RFPs and the like looking for arcane words and easily-misunderstood statements and such.

Having said that, as if moved by an occult hand, my first instinct was to screen-scrape all pages from Monday through Saturday and use the common tools to parse out all of the 12-character words and eliminate the more obvious ones. However, knowing (V)'s background, I might think that the word might be presented to intentionally foil such cheats, and therefore I decided that the only and best way was to re-read this week's submissions and note what appeared to be the uncommonly-used words.

I came down to three. Please excuse the two incorrect ones (in alphabetical order):


Am I close?

V & Z respond: Afraid not; we use all three of those words quite a bit.

B.H. in Westborough, MA, writes: I took on your 12 character word challenge, and in a desperate attempt to get The Votemaster's approval I wrote some VBA code to extract all the 12 character words from last Monday to yesterday's posts. This yielded a 189-word long list of 12 character words. After getting rid of duplicates and obvious ones, I came to this list of possibilities:


Using the clue that it relates to impeachment (as in harder to use the further from impeachment we get), and that the word is not commonly found on the site, I'll go with "flimflammery" with "bloodthirsty" a strong second, and "emasculating" third. Incidentally, you used the first two guesses in your "no one expects the Spanish Inquisition" reference on Wednesday.

V & Z respond: Did we say it relates to impeachment? If so, we did not intend to.

D.M. in Oakland, CA, writes: I went to some ridiculous lengths (and a ridiculous amount of time) to isolate all the 12-letter words in the past week's worth of posts—and wasn't even halfway through that effort when I spotted one that just felt right. So, much like the former occupant of the White House, I'm going to ignore the methodical, data-based investigation and go with my gut.

Was the word "flimflammery?"

J.S. in Jacksonville, FL, writes: I'm a long-time reader (and admirer) of

Most days, it's the first thing I read each morning. As part of my job, I've been tasked with writing an internal blog Monday-Friday, and I find myself emulating yours in style and tone, if not substance (I write about corporate techy-techy stuff, not politics).

So I accepted the challenge and looked through this week's editions for the word. Here's the one I found: "flimflammery."

I believe I first encountered "flim-flam" in the title of the 1967 George C. Scott movie "The Flim-Flam Man."

Keep up the great work. I eagerly await tomorrow's edition to see if I'm right.

V & Z respond: "Flimflammery" is a good guess but, alas, it's a red herring we deliberately threw in to distract attention from the actual word, which was also in that day's posting.

C.E. in San Francisco, CA, writes: Does this challenge mean we can soon expect an version of the Twitter account that notes the very first usage of words in The New York Times?

J.A.W. in San Francisco, CA, writes: Is it considered cheating to use the Unix 'grep' command for this?

If you need more, ahem, pettifogging details, to aid with my search, in particular I'm using:

grep -E -o '[[:alpha:]]{2,}' ElectoralVote.html | grep '^............$'

R.L. in Tucson, AZ, writes: The word I believe is "pettifogging" which appeared in the last line in a letter from G.T.M. in Vancouver, BC, Canada: "Is that pettifogging legal nitpicking? Of course it is, and it is from such pettifogging legal nitpicking that great legal fees are built," on March 22, 2020. And you referenced this word in the item about Henry Ward Beecher on February 24, 2021. This word fits all your clues: it appears twice in a mailbag posting, it is 12 letters and appeared in a posting last week.

There are two other words that appeared just twice in letters from readers, and which you referenced last week. "Depoliticize" appeared in the August 2, 2020 and November 22, 2020 mailbags, but from different readers. You used it on February 23. "Technicality" appeared in the February 7, 2021 and the January 18, 2020 mailbags, but again from different readers. Moreover, you used it twice last week, February 22 and 24.

In any case pettifogging is a much better word and fits the spirit of the challenge. It is my choice and always will be.

And yes, I did cheat. I wrote a program to scrape all the Electoral-Vote pages that appeared to have comments from readers, found all the twelve letter words that appeared just twice, then scraped pages from last week and found the potential matches. Total compute time was less than 7 minutes. (Program development time was significantly longer; oh well, chalk it up to COVID-19 free time.)

V & Z respond: You nailed it, as did J.A.W. (above), J.K. and H.J.M. below, and about two dozen others.

J.K. in Nanuet, NY, writes: My guess for the sneak-a-word: "The most miserable pettifogging in the world is that of a man in the court of his own conscience." The quote itself is not too instructive, unless it's just to show that Beecher used silly old words. In fact, I'd guess that you searched and searched for the word, found an example in Beecher, and went with creating this entry in the "Trump before Trump" series just to get the word in.

V & Z respond: You're part right. Henry Ward Beecher was long ago announced as the next entry in the series, and we knew we would resume the series as soon as the impeachment was done. It occurred to (Z) that the best way to sneak the word by was in a quotation, and the first result in Google for "quotation pettifogging" was...Beecher. So, that was just serendipitous; all that was necessary was to work it in to the already-existing piece.

A.D. in Las Vegas, NV, writes: Congratulations! The item on Henry Ward Beecher was, of course, the perfect place to integrate the word "pettifogging" without it seeming out of place. So much so that when I looked at the topics for Wednesday, I admit I jumped ahead to read it but still almost missed it. Well done! Since I knew what the word was, suspected where to look when I saw the topic, and still almost missed it because it didn't stand out as much as it surely would have in any other article, I wonder how many other readers were perceptive enough to know it when they saw it?

Also, the Beecher article has been in (Z)'s drawer for "well over a month." Did I really challenge you to use this most obscure of terms in an article that you had already written and inadvertently included it, or was it a late addition after the challenge? If it was added later, kudos to you for finding the pettifogging quote from the man who inspired the term "Beecher's Bibles."

V & Z respond: A.D., of course, issued the original challenge.

H.J.M. in Ames, IA, writes: You were given a challenge this week to include a certain 12-letter word in your postings and I have found myself pettifogging over all the 12 letter words you wrote. You gave the hint that this was used twice by the same person in one letter. After a quick search I found that person to be GTM. Now comes the concerning part, G.T.M. wrote in from BC Canada. Obviously this is clear evidence of the subliminal messaging of the Canadian invaders. Today, tomorrow the world, eh.

V & Z respond: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Or to H.J.M. in Ames. Do not labour under the delusion that we have been infiltrated by our neighbour to the North, eh.


R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, writes: Since (Z) is a game show fan, I thought I would share this great game show clip. Besides trying to answer the question correctly, let's see if you can get through this without laughing:

I showed the clip to my 74-year-old father and he laughed the hardest I've seen him in 10 years. This woman's name is real, but it has to be one of the worst names I've seen in my life. Other bad names I've seen are Fátima Fartaría (the accented letters are stressed) and Fanny Love (the latter held by a woman in her 80s).

V & Z respond: Don't forget Dick Pole, Dick Trickle, Ugly Dickshot, Magic Johnson, Dean Windass, Harry Colon and Rusty Kuntz.

T.B.S.S. in Silver Spring, MD, writes: I'll confess I didn't have "Defend the legacy of Jon Voight" on my to-do list for today, but it's incorrect to say that his "last hit was more than 20 years ago." Voight plays a prominent role in both films from the deeply cheesy, historian-baiting, Nicolas Cage-starring action franchise "National Treasure," which were released in 2004 and 2007; each film made hundreds of millions of dollars, and both have been central to my family's tradition of watching very dumb movies on July 4.

It might have been more germane to note Voight's remarkable assortment of work in the Baby Geniuses franchise, given the man's groundbreaking work in "Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2" (2004), "Baby Geniuses and the Mystery of the Crown Jewels" (2013), "Baby Geniuses and the Treasures of Egypt" (2014), "Baby Geniuses and the Space Baby" (2015), and several episodes of a "Baby Geniuses" TV spinoff. I was only dimly aware of the 2004 film, given its vaunted status as one of the few movies to receive a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but suspect that the other projects—which I only just learned about from a glance at Voight's IMDb page—are either home-movie adaptations of fan fiction or made up entirely.

V & Z respond: Ok, so you've summarized his recent career. But can you tell us where we can buy his used car?

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Feb27 Saturday Q&A
Feb26 MacDonough to Schumer: "Sorry, Charlie!"
Feb26 Biden's Team Is Being Put in Place...Slowly
Feb26 House Passes Equality Act
Feb26 McConnell Says He Would "Absolutely" Back Trump in 2024
Feb26 CPAC Begins Today
Feb26 The Horse Is Officially out of the Barn
Feb26 Governors in Hot Water
Feb25 Manchin Will Back Haaland
Feb25 DNC Will Get Involved in Midterms
Feb25 Postmaster General DeJoy May Soon Get a Special Delivery Letter
Feb25 Secretaries of State Are Hot
Feb25 Net Neutrality Scores a Big Win in California
Feb25 Democrats Might Make a Huge Unforced Error That Could Cost Them Next Year
Feb25 Virginia Gubernatorial Election Is Often a Bellwether
Feb25 Rush Limbaugh and the Battle of the Flags in Florida
Feb25 O'Rourke Is Back
Feb25 Democrats Introduce a Bill to Strip Presidents Convicted of a Felony of Their Pension
Feb24 COVID-19 Bill Will Be a One-Party Show
Feb24 Putting 500,000 in Context
Feb24 Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Feb24 Perdue Chickens Out
Feb24 Texas Democratic Postmortem Is In
Feb24 Gonna Turn My Red State...Blue
Feb24 They Were Trump Before Trump, Part III: Henry Ward Beecher
Feb23 SCOTUS Pokes Trump in Both Eyes
Feb23 Tanden in Deep Trouble, Haaland Not Far Behind
Feb23 Garland Is in the Clear
Feb23 Sanders and Co. Work to Save Minimum Wage Hike
Feb23 Florida Republicans Apparently Have Their Candidate
Feb23 Low Blows on Joe
Feb23 Dominion Voting Systems to Go to the Mattress with MyPillow Guy
Feb22 COVID-19 Death Toll in U.S. Hits Half a Million
Feb22 Garland to Appear before Senate Judiciary Committee Today
Feb22 The Race to Replace Neera Tanden Has Already Begun
Feb22 The Two McC's Are Playing Different Games
Feb22 Trump Will Address CPAC on Sunday
Feb22 Democrats Are Doing an Autopsy of the Election
Feb22 Republicans' Strength in the State Legislatures Was Built Up over 40 Years
Feb22 Poll: Republicans Are Still with Trump
Feb21 Sunday Mailbag
Feb20 Saturday Q&A
Feb19 Ted Fled
Feb19 It Ain't Easy Being Prez
Feb19 Shadow Boxing
Feb19 Poll: It's Still Trump's Party
Feb19 Trump to Haley: Pound Sand
Feb19 Ivanka Is Out
Feb19 Video Killed the Radio Star
Feb18 Rush Limbaugh Is Dead