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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

We have many computer-scientist readers in the audience, and so many of them (and presumably many others) will be familiar with Conway's Game of Life, which starts with a particular configuration of square cells, and then replicates or destroys those cells, based on an algorithm. The result is that the original group rapidly disappears, generally replaced by a bunch of different groups that, while they were spawned from the original, are independent of both it and of each other.

We mention it because that's a pretty good metaphor for the mailbag, particularly today. You'd have to be a regular reader of the site in general, and of the mailbags in particular, for it to make sense why there is discussion of historical assassinations, Donald Trump's penis size, the origin of "vaxx," filet mignon with blueberry glaze, baseball, alternate history, the nuances of the North Carolina Senate race, Afghanistan, America's greatest city, and credibly accused pedophile Roy Moore, all in one place.

The Best Laid Plans of Democrats and Men

R.L. in Alameda, CA, writes: For as long as I've followed politics (since the 80's), it has been clear (and frustrating) to me that Democrats suck at messaging. The GOP has built a brand such that poor, white, uneducated people automatically pull the lever (fill the bubble?) for Republicans while they consider a "D" next to a candidate's name to be toxic. It seems that the Biden team's 2022 strategy is to deliver real, transformative change for the American people, that the people will recognize that they have Democrats to thank for it, and this will overcome the historical trend of the president's party losing legislative seats in the midterms. I'm not convinced that this is enough.

Here's a brief anecdote that illustrates this. I'm a union electrician (IBEW Local 595 out of Alameda County, CA). While the union is politically active and consistently supports Democrats, I find that in the rare political discussions that I partake in on job sites, most union members are pretty unaware. Yesterday, a couple of men were discussing the child tax credit that they had just received. They were befuddled why the government was being so generous. When I mentioned that this is a good thing because they can use the money to buy school supplies that they haven't needed in a year, and that they have Democrats to thank for it, they both seemed unimpressed. It was almost as if they didn't want the money. They were certainly unaware that this was part of the most recent COVID relief package that received zero Republican votes.

During the T**** era, a lot of people, including operatives and strategists, have left the GOP. On the Politicology podcast (consisting of a panel made up of Lincoln Project founders), they frequently discuss strategies that can help Democrats win legislatively and at the ballot box (and, incidentally, they all are willing to try on Biden's big government agenda). They express the same frustration that I feel, that the Democrats are Charlie Brown and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is Lucy holding the football. These people are all available, supporters of President Biden and really good at what they do. For the life of me, I can't figure out why Democrats haven't hired them to improve their strategy and messaging.

H.M. in East Lansing, MI, writes: I am a Michigander. In 2011, our so-called low-tax Republican governor/legislature re-instated the state income tax on my modest public employee pension, and cut taxes on corporations.

Then, in 2017, the Republican president/Congress capped my deduction for state and local taxes, so I can't even deduct the taxes on my pension implemented by the Republican governor/legislature in 2011. And, at the same time, they cut taxes on corporations.

Time for the corporations to feel some pain, too.

A.T. in Vancouver, BC, Canada, writes: You wrote: "Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said he is thrilled with the plan, calling it 'the most significant piece of legislation passed since the Great Depression.' That makes an interesting statement about the GI Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Medicare and Medicaid Acts, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

Sanders would be correct to say it's the most significant. $3.5 trillion, plus the amount of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, would be about the full cost of World War II, which was about $4 trillion in current dollars. That would remake the economy to a much greater degree than the GI Bill, Medicare, or Medicaid did.

And while the Civil and Voting Rights Acts were certainly big deals morally and in terms of equality, they didn't directly change the lives of most white people, as they had already enjoyed voting and civil rights prior to passage, whereas the infrastructure bill would affect every aspect of the economy and therefore every person. The economy of the U.S. would be remade for decades by such a bill.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, writes: CNBC ranked Illinois as having the best infrastructure. It demonstrates how terrible our infrastructure is that the state with the best infrastructure has more than a fifth of its roads rated as unacceptable. I think we are in serious trouble vis-à-vis infrastructure!

B.R.D. in Columbus, OH, writes: Recent polls show that fewer Democrats are worried about the state of democracy than Republicans (who are, of course, worried because they think an election was stolen). Black Democrats are quite worried, with good reason, but Democrats as a whole evidently don't "get it" yet—all Democrats need to join this fight, stand up and become allies of all the groups fighting for the vote, because democracy is everyone's privilege and right. President Biden achieved several things with his speech this week: (1) he educated Democratic and Independent voters about the threat—they hold the key to putting pressure on Democrats in the Senate to do a carve-out on the filibuster; (2) he educated Democratic voters about the voter subversion portions of the laws being enacted, something I suspect many Democrats and Independents are not aware of; (3) he put pressure on Democrats within the Senate to put more pressure on Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and all the other often unnamed filibuster-reform-hesitant folks; (4) he called out the Republican lie for what it was (and is) in the most forceful language I've heard him use yet. I think he achieved a lot in his speech, and it's not as though he can't follow one educational and forceful speech with another. Maybe there's a plan that has several steps to it? What a concept.

His speech, combined with Rep. Jim Clyburn's (D-SC) warning, put Democrats on notice. Democrats in state legislatures should be proposing voter access bills, even if they have no chance in hell of being passed. Democrats in the Senate should be pressuring their colleagues. I heard one commentator say Biden doesn't use the megaphone, he uses the telephone, and I'm sure he continues to talk with Senators Manchin, Sinema, et al. Representatives from Texas are doing the same. Do people in the media really think Biden is doing nothing other than give speeches about voting rights? See Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. The pressure is increasing but, most important, Democratic and Independent voters need to put pressure on their Senators—write and call your own senators, write and call other senators, attend town hall meetings during the recess. Make a lot of noise. If you're worried about democracy, tell your elected representatives! That's what will give President Biden more ammunition for the next speech. For now, let him continue to work behind the scenes, because you know what? Giving hesitant senators a way to see the light, save face, and change will keep those senators on your side in other fights. Using public pressure that's not matched by voter pressure will not. Those particular senators may have heard the word "imperative" differently, as applying to both democracy and their own political futures, thanks to the one-two punch Rep. Clyburn and President Biden delivered (choreographed?).

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I was at a fundraiser yesterday for a grassroots democratic group, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) was the keynote speaker. His message was: Democracy is worth it. It's worth all the fights we have to have against the Big Lie, and Trump, and wannabe Trumps. It's worth the fights to preserve and expand voting rights. And if they make us stand in line for hours to vote, we'll do it. (That's when someone shouted: "And bring our own water!") Because democracy is worth it and I want my country to still be a place where folks can yell at each other at the Capitol and it'll all be OK.

M.W.W. in Port Orchard, WA, writes: I enjoyed the discussion of William Faulkner over the last couple of weeks. He was still being taught when I was in high school in the early eighties. I ran across this article, subtitled "How Faulkner's four narrators delineate Biden-era constituencies," in one of the blogs I occasionally read, and thought I should pass it along. The author makes the case that George Orwell's 1984 isn't the best book for our political moment, and that Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury best sums up current political dynamics. It's a good read.

What do Republicans Believe?

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, writes: In reference to "What Do Republicans Believe? (Capitalism Edition)," I too find myself bewildered by their opinion of Big Business. As per your examples, it does seem that Republicans think it is OK to tell some companies how to do business, while other companies are expected to just donate their money and then shut up because no one wants to hear their pinhead little snowflake thoughts! Although evidently, there is a third type of company that the modern Republican Party considers the most exalted, most sacred, and more holy than the Constitution or the right to vote, such that it deserves the ultimate sacrifice! If you think I'm referring to Big Oil/Coal or the Military Industrial Complex, then I scoff at your naivete. The most Holy of Holies of Corporations is of course, Chick-fil-A, as witnessed by Senator Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) vow to fight a war, and presumably risk dying, for Chick-fil-A to have one of their franchises on the campus of Notre Dame. Damn the Berkeley of the Midwest and their heathen liberal pinko communist ideas!

I don't know about you, but I have spent many of a sleepless night tossing and turning at the thought of those Godless long haired hippies of Notre Dame standing in opposition to the most perfect of Companies, the Great, the Powerful, Chick-fil-A. When I saw Sen. Graham, smelling salts in one hand and a sun parasol in the other, give his speech about his dedication to the Chick-fil-A Cause, my heart filled with pride and my loins stirred with righteousness. Stirred, I say! So powerful and moving was Senator Graham's speech that I felt the need to share this, for surely these profound words of inspiration will be carved in marble at the Chick-fil-A location in Arlington National Cemetery:

I love the smell of frying grease in the morning but not on Sunday. My name is Senator Lindsey Graham. I've drunk more Coca-Cola, pissed more Zesty Buffalo Sauce, and stomped more ass than all of you numb nuts put together. I can no longer sit back and allow Hamburger infiltration, Hamburger indoctrination, Hamburger subversion and the international Hamburger conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids. Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his Chick-fil-A franchise. He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his. Only two types of people are going to stay in this fast food joint: those that are already dead and those that are going to die. You see, I can deal with the bullets, and the bombs and the blood. I don't want money, and I don't want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there in that white uniform and with your Notre Dame mouth extend me some fuc**ng courtesy. You got to ask me nicely, "Do I want a Fruit Cup with my Spicy Deluxe Chicken sandwich?" Once more unto the breach, dear Dippers, once more; or close the wall up with our Fast Food dead. Ready your Chicken Biscuits and eat hearty. For tonight we dine on Waffle Fries!

Heady stuff indeed!

For the sake of transparency, note that, as a gay man, I often refer to Chick-fil-A as "Theocratic Fascist Chicken." As much as I dislike their homophobic ideology, I have to admit that I have on more than one occasion been weak of spirit and resolve having succumbed to a unnatural lust for their chicken sandwich and fries (although I have wondered, since the corporation is so pure of heart and so devout, if they are able to partition my filthy immoral gay money away from their other sacred earnings). But damn they do sure serve up some tasty hatred—and with a friendly smile to boot! Now that I have confessed my failings as a liberal, Sen. Graham should thoroughly relish that I have been so resoundily and completely "owned" by his wily politics. Although now that I have been "owned," I'm not sure what to do next.

The GOP: Making the country great again for Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and Chick-fil-A! Say it again!

J.T. in Greensboro, NC, writes: My father—a lifelong devout and dyed-in-the-wool Catholic—always says of the Protestants: "they believe the Bible is the literal word of God, except when it's not convenient!"

He is, coincidentally, also a lifelong devout and dyed-in-the-wool "small government" Republican. Some time ago I adapted his saying to this: "They believe in 'small government,' except when it's not convenient for them." Examples include regulating marriage, regulating reproductive health, a completely uncritical approach to the exercise of state power as it pertains to the military, law enforcement, and the death penalty. While they've remained fairly consistent in their "small government" approach to big business since the Reagan administration, it's no longer convenient in a contemporary era where brand identity is just as important to many corporations as a favorable taxation and regulatory environment and cultural issues matter to businesses.

Looking closely, it seems like an aberration, but if we zoom out and see the bigger picture it's not at all surprising. This iteration of the Republican party has favored convenience, expediency, and opportunism more than any other identifiable principle.

M.U. in Seattle, WA, writes: Every time I see you mention the "gang of 10/20/21 senators," I can't help but see it as a gang of senators in deference to the date October 20th of this year. But, alas, the mystery: Is that the date the gang hopes to have final passage of their bill, or, maybe more likely, the date Republicans hope to string along the Democrats to the bill's ultimate demise? Perhaps I'm being too cynical—Mitch McConnell loves infrastructure and generally uncontroversial legislation...right?

This Week in TrumpWorld

M.D. in Poconos, PA, writes: Interesting information about civil depositions from R.T. in Arlington. Why I read the comments from top to bottom is that I learn so much. But one thing R.T. doesn't take into account is deposing someone who is a clinical idiot that will brag about his crimes, while at the same time blame everyone else including his co-conspirators for the very same crimes. Popcorn sales will skyrocket for when that video is being aired. Trump will say lots of stupid, self-incriminating things because he can't help himself.

R.H. in Santa Ana, CA, writes: A bit more about what is and is not allowed in depositions:

In general, there are no judges present at depositions. The questioner may ask (and the deponent must answer) any question relevant to the matter, with the question of admissibility preserved for a judge to answer at a later time. It is usually improper for an attorney to tell his client not to answer a question. From the Florida Bar:

Instructing a witness not to answer... In federal and Florida state courts, lawyers can only instruct a witness not to answer a deposition question under the following limited circumstances: (1) when necessary to preserve a privilege; (2) to enforce a limitation on evidence directed by the court; or (3) to protect a witness from an examination being conducted in bad faith or in such a manner as unreasonably to annoy, embarrass, or oppress the deponent or party. [internal citation omitted] In any other circumstance, it is not appropriate to instruct a witness not to answer.

Donald Trump would be a nightmare client.

Given his proclivity for untruth and his insistence that he "knows more than the lawyers," any deposition would rapidly descend into chaos, and while it's questionable how much of it would eventually be ruled admissible, all of it would be under oath, and under penalty of perjury.

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, writes: You wrote: "We doubt that the release of any such videos [of him with prostitutes] would actually hurt Trump, though." Trump could possibly convince most of his base that the video is a "deep fake," but failing that, there are many potential ways the video, if it exists, could hurt Trump, depending on the content:

  • The video could show behavior that is repulsive to everyone except people who are similarly inclined; for example: (1) one or more of the prostitutes is obviously under age, (2) bestiality, (3) Trump violently attacks the prostitutes, (4) Trump has one of the prostitutes role-play as Ivanka.

  • The video could show behavior that would be repulsive to social conservatives; for example: (1) one or more of the prostitutes is male, (2) one or more of the prostitutes is transgender; (3) pretty much any act that is not "conventional" sex.

  • The video could undermine the macho image Trump has cultivated; for example: (1) tiny organ; (2) organ that does not work well, or at all; (3) embarrassingly poor performance such as not being able to perform acts for more than a minute without needing a rest.

Of course, I don't know what is actually on the video if it even exists, I'm just saying that there is plenty of potential for it to hurt Trump.

B.B. in Panama City Beach, FL, writes: At first I thought that the picture of what Donald Trump would look like, if bald, was a pic of Bill O'Reilly:

Trump with hair, Trump without 
hair, and Bill O'Reilly; the bald version of Trump does look very similar to O'Reilly, largely because they have the same
sourpuss face

A. H-S. in Brier, WA, writes: The Mystic of Mankato, Mike Lindell, had to change the date of the Re-Ascension of Donald Trump when he realized that most of Trump's supporters would be busy on August 13th celebrating National Kool-Aid Day.

G.B. in Honolulu, HI, writes: From all I have read, doomsday cults tend not to lose followers when the Day of Doom comes and goes without doom. So, I don't expect this to make a whit's bit of difference among the cultists. The only hope is that it moves another tenth or two tenths of a percent of the casual attention folks away from the crazies. There will not be a "smoking gun" tape or event like we had with Richard Nixon. Only slow quiet erosion along the edges and into apathy and disengagement. Which might be enough to save the 2022 elections and our republic. Or maybe not.

L.S. in Bellevue, WA, writes: As a recent refugee from 30 years of telecom network engineering, might I point out that of course a dinky, obsolete OC-768 fiber link would be overwhelmed by the highly chaotic output of Mr. Lindell. Just the overhead involved in the error-checking would be enough to crater the poor receiving ADM/ROADM at the other end.

No, for this level of randomized noise to be fully managed, I fear not even 100G-capable ROADM supporting a DWDM fiber loop would be up to the task.

A.V. in Cedar Falls, IA, writes: Of the ever-changing prophecy that Trump will be reinstalled like some outdated and unwanted kitchen appliance, does anyone else hear "Hail, Zorp!" every time they change the date?

Sorry Albert, The Most Powerful Force in the Universe May Actually Be Cognitive Dissonance

D.N. in Waltham, MA, writes: Yesterday I conducted an experiment and registered on a major right wing conspiracy forum to pose the two responses you came up with in answer to the letter from G.D. in Louisville. I registered with a name that was an anagram of "blockhead," making up a story about having to convince this person's imaginary liberal sister. Unfortunately, not much enlightenment happened:

"If Donald Trump has compelling evidence of his claims, why did he allow his lawyers to lose more than 60 cases, and then allow Joe Biden to be inaugurated, without ever sharing it?"

  • Watch the Arizona senate hearing (the one a couple of days ago where they didn't say anything and needed more time).
  • Remember the courts threw out the cases without hearing evidence, so he didn't really lose them.
  • A large table of numbers of fraudulent ballots per state and reasons (no source provided).
  • Absurd semi-biblical quote picture of their handbag-faced demigod.

"Walking around unvaccinated is about as risky as driving 100 miles on the freeway at night, while drunk."

  • Taking a drug that hasn't been tested is far more analogous to driving blind and drunk.
  • It isn't a vaccine, it's an experiment.
  • A video with a chiropractor telling us everything he knows about the dangers of vaccine technology.
  • The vaccine is exploding with VAERS injuries and deaths (source: a site that interprets VAERS data in ways I couldn't discern, run by antivaccination people).

Now I need to go and wash my hands even more thoroughly than I have for the last year and a half.

D.D. in Portland, OR, writes: I found the risk analysis you gave to G.D. as a very compelling argument for getting vaccinated, but I'm not the target audience. With that in mind, I'd like to share one positive data point.

Though Portland has a pretty good vaccination rate, we have our share of holdouts. I call them "kooks," but am waiting on your staff linguist for confirmation. One such family lives nearby and our kids play together. This week, my wife reached out to the mother with the text: "What do you plan on doing when school opens this fall?"

What followed was the realization that: (1) Over a year of distance learning is too much already, (2) School is a Petri dish, and (3) Kids bring diseases home.

Both parents got their first shot that day. I suppose the secret is to begin with a question most relevant to that person's situation. It takes time, but is worth the effort.

V & Z respond: Just FYI, the linguist says that "crazies" is more precise.


R.L.D. in Sundance, WY, writes: On George Bush and Afghanistan: Even if he is right that bad things will happen if we withdraw, I'm not convinced that we have the ability to make things better. And if we do have the power to make things better, perhaps the cost of doing so is too high. Also, are we making things better, or are we just the kid with a finger in the dike? It has been his argument for two decades that we can't leave or bad things will happen, and so apparently, we'll have to be an occupying force in Afghanistan forever. No, that should not be the role of the U.S. Military anywhere in the world. Time to get out.

C.R in Fayetteville, PA, writes: 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror came almost a year on the dot before I was born. I was not alive for these momentous events but am feeling the effects of them. From my point of view and that of other young Americans like me, it looks like two politicians holding two of the most powerful jobs in the world, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, capitalized off the grief, panic, and raw emotion following the attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon to further American imperialist ambitions in the Middle East.

I am 18 years old and have never lived in a nation at peace. My country has bombed, ravaged, and pillaged the Middle East and now has decided that its strategic interests are more threatened by Beijing than Kabul and has now set its sights upon the People's Republic of China, leaving the corpse of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria to crash and burn. It is hard not to be a cynic when looking at the myriad nations and the millions of people killed and destroyed by the whims of Washington. We have kept a 60+ year embargo on the people of Cuba and then blame their government for scarcities we ourselves have caused. American foreign policy has been nothing but destruction unless the rest of the world kowtows to the might of Washington.

As a first time voter in 2020, I had a sincere hope that the new Biden administration would do something, anything, to rein in the disastrous foreign policy of the Trump administration, but so far it has been nothing but picking a fight with the Chinese.

The people my age are tired of these endless wars, even in my rural town in Pennsylvania, the youth are calling for an end to these wars that serve no one but the military-industrial complex's bottom line. So far, our cries have fallen on deaf ears. I can only hope that one day American imperialism can be put to rest.

D.M. in Burnsville, MN, writes: Poor, simple ("We'll Walk Him Through It") George. Do thoughtful and thinking people really think that the man was truly in charge of his administration? Without his name he'd never have been considered as presidential fodder (I mean "material"). Without his "advisers," including the recently late Donald Rumsfeld and VP Richard Cheney, as we all knew then, and know now, he was the least competent contender the Republicans had ever fielded. (Up until then, I repeat. Certainly they've done more poorly in more recent contests.)

It does seem to me, as an American who has made serious time, money and career commitments both to this country and this world, that there are no Bushes, living or dead, who are qualified to comment on the many mistaken excesses undertaken in U.S. Foreign Affairs during the first eight years of this century.

If this Bush really wants to tell us his story, then let him write a book. I lived in Afghanistan for a decade before the fatally flawed Russian invasion. Then, I told anyone who'd listen that it was foolish. Again, when the Americans invaded 20 years later, I told anyone who'd listen how foolish that was. I might not have been perfect in my prognostication, but I was damned right because I predicted it would come to this, this thing that poor George is complaining about.

So finally, why and how could I possibly be so prescient? Simple. Look at history. Ask yourselves why there is even a country today called "Afghanistan." It's because they have a warrior culture, and a strong ethnic and religious bond. They've managed to beat back the best empires of any era (pardon my ignorance, but for me it starts with British East India Company), and continues onward through pushing back Russians, Americans, and probably lots of others I've overlooked.

S.M. in Toronto, ON, Canada, writes: To borrow a turn of phrase from the legendary Gorilla Monsoon, the odds of "nothing bad" happening in Afghanistan are slim to none... and slim just left town.

It's pretty clear that the Taliban was waiting on the US withdrawal to launch a fresh offensive and the country will simply revert to what it was pre-9/11, e.g., a terrorist-run state with unchecked and unprecedented human rights abuses. The Taliban already claims to be in control of 85% of the country.

While it's legitimate to argue whether a continued presence was justified, and whether the Taliban can be contained this this time (especially if their Saudi "friends" are watched more closely time around), saying that nothing bad is going to happen is... rather willfully blind.

Potential Speakers

P.W. in Edmonds, WA, writes: As an independent who has "caucused with the Dems" for over 2 decades, I would hope that a new Speaker of the House to replace Nancy Pelosi would be youthful enough to begin to replace the aging Democratic Party leadership, as has been pointed out many times on So, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) seems ideal.

But perhaps it would be wise for the party to elevate Adam Schiff, who could use the platform to better launch a bid for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. Might it take another "older, white guy" to counter the inevitable "older, white guy" as the nominee from the other side? A Schiff presidential victory in 2024 would then allow the elevation of Rep. Jeffries to Speaker of the House at that time.

As a country, I wish we were more progressive. But if a majority of the voting public (state by state, of course) are not ready for a President Kamala Harris, I would prefer the Democrats to continue to hold the office with a President Schiff.

In hindsight, I think this was Rep. James Clyburn's rationale for his monumental endorsement of Joe Biden. Perhaps Rep. Clyburn will have interesting choices in 2024.

Z.M. in Washington, DC, writes: Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) is seen as a dark horse in this race by DCCC operatives. She's smart, ambitious, is very well-liked, and is already Assistant Speaker. No race-based incentives with her, but as you said this is about backroom dealing.

E.G-C. in Syracuse, NY, writes: Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX)?

Primary Questions

D.R. in Yellow Springs, OH, writes: A question from V.M. in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu asked, "Why are things like affiliation, nominations, and primaries/caucuses, which seem to be internal party business in Europe and the Commonwealth, run by the states in the United States?"

Your answer did a good job of explaining why party organizations are based on state committees and why national political conventions are made up of delegations from individual states. But that's not how I interpreted the question. I thought it was about why state governments are in charge of so much party business, and I presume some of your readers would like to know the answer.

This happened as the result of some reforms in the Progressive Era, which ran from about 1890 to 1920. Before this time, political parties decided on their own rules for membership and nomination processes. Progressive Era reformers pushed the idea of primary elections run by state governments. The idea was that opening up the nomination decision to all the people would result in more competition for party nomination and make incumbent politicians less entrenched in office. In theory, it would reduce the kingmaker influence of party bosses.

Occasionally, this achieves the goals originally set. For example, in 2014, Dave Brat won the Republican primary over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary over Joe Crowley, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. However, the overwhelming majority of incumbents challenged in primaries win. Most competitive primaries are for open seats.

In recent decades, some states have adopted other systems, such as having a "jungle primary" in which candidates of all parties run in one primary election and the top two go on to a general election. In an area dominated by one party, this can lead to two Democrats or two Republicans competing in the general election. In theory, this should give an advantage to the more moderate candidate.

But the idea of state governments having a major role in the nomination process is now so entrenched that I think most Americans just never think about taking government out of the process.

M.B. in Montreal, QC, Canada, writes: I think you misunderstood (and certainly didn't answer) the question from V.M. They were asking why primaries were handled by governments rather than by the parties. And the answer is that it is because the primaries are elections and governments have all the election apparatus in place. In Canada, there are no primaries. Candidates are basically selected by riding associations. A riding is a parliamentary (or assembly) district. The choice has to be ratified by the head of the party who can—and very occasionally does—substitute their own candidate.

I would also like to comment on your actual answer. In Canada, people's primary allegiance seems to be to their province. After I moved here, a friend who had grown up in Toronto introduced me as being from Pennsylvania. This startled me a bit. Had he said I was from Philadelphia, I would not have noticed. Years later, I was in Pittsburgh with a graduate student who was from eastern Quebec. He asked me if I felt anything from being in my home state! In Pittsburgh? Of course not.

All Politics Is Local

J.K. in Short Hills, NJ, writes: I live in NJ-07, currently represented by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D), who, among Democrats, won by the narrowest of margins in November, per your graphic. The state uses a bipartisan commission, which will require the Supreme Court of New Jersey to appoint an "independent" member to cast a potential tie-breaking vote, to redraw the twelve Congressional districts. Democrats presently hold ten of these seats. In addition to Rep. Malinowski, three others won tight races (Andrew Kim, NJ-03; Josh Gottheimer, NJ-05; and Mikie Sherrill, NJ-11).

The conventional wisdom among analysts is that the Democrats will propose a map, which the Republicans will accept, that will sacrifice Malinowski—who endured a bit of controversy earlier in the year surrounding undisclosed stock trades—in order to shore up support for the other vulnerable districts. Tom Kean Jr. has already announced he is in for a rematch against Malinowski in 2022. The GOP will therefore probably surmise that it has secured at least one flip in the Garden State, assuming Jeff Van Drew (NJ-02) holds serve.

C.G. in Felton, CA, writes: Even as a liberal who wants to see the filibuster changed so that the Senate can accomplish the Democrats' business, I found it a bit hypocritical that the Texan state legislators headed to D.C. to give "Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) ... many earfuls (earsful?), Texas-style, about how it's time to change or kill the filibuster."

I understand that those legislators aren't legally allowed (in Texas) to not show up to a required legislative session, but in effect they created their own filibuster, Texas-style, by hightailing it out of town, forestalling business. In other words, the minority in a legislative body was able to dictate business—which is just what the filibuster in the Senate allows.

J.M. in Portland, OR, writes: The walkout of the Texas Democrats in order to delay/stop the Texas House from approving the voter suppression law puts me in an uncomfortable position. Republicans here in Oregon have also done this in order to shut down the Oregon legislature and I find that infuriating when it happens.

F.L. in Denton, TX, writes: In regard to the Texas standoff where the Democrats left the state to break quorum, so that (ironically) a voter-suppression bill would not pass: It seems to me that the GOP, in calling in law enforcement to herd these particular cats (upon their return), are asking them to arrest people who have committed no crime. But surely that can't be legal?

Oh. Wait...

A.S. and L.S. in Black Mountain, NC, write: We live in the Appalachian region of North Carolina and right now would vote for Jeff Jackson (D). He is getting out and around and has policies we agree with. We have not heard one word from either of the other two leading candidates. We know they are running but that is about it. And we are on every Democratic mailing list (it seems) and by now we should have heard something.

On the other hand, enough of the region voted for Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R) to elect him. Sorry folks!

L.S. in Greensboro, NC, writes: I enjoyed your analysis of North Carolina, but I think a slight modification would be useful. In your discussion of the Piedmont, I think it's worth pointing out that the Piedmont-Triad area of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point is quite different from the rest of the region. Focusing just on the two counties that make up most of the Triad, Joe Biden received 61% of the vote in Guilford (Greensboro and High Point) and 56% of the vote in Forsyth (Winston-Salem). Those two counties have a total population of over 900,000 people.

The rest of the region is, as you point out, highly conservative. So Cheri Beasley may be OK ignoring the rest of the Piedmont, but she definitely needs to put effort into the Triad area, as does any serious Democratic candidate.

B.S. in Raleigh, NC, writes: Not to nitpick, but just a small note:

The Piedmont has three cities which form what is known as the Triad (Greensboro, Winston Salem, and High Point). High Point is the smallest of the three, but its population puts it at 9th in the state (Asheville, by comparison, is 12th, with about 20,000 fewer people). And while it was part of the tobacco belt before (last half of the previous century), this is not where tobacco is grown anymore. The Piedmont used to be a textile, furniture, and tobacco hub, but the current economy is very diverse.

Although the "Research Triangle" (really just the Triangle) includes Chapel Hill, in terms of political prominence, Cary is much more prominent. It's the next-largest municipality (100,000+ more people than Chapel Hill) after Durham and Raleigh and as far as RTP is concerned, a large portion of the park is within Cary's town limits. I mention this because Cary is where those former-Republican-turned-Democrat voters can be fought over. Highly educated, middle- to upper-middle class, predominately white, etc.

And lastly, in Eastern North Carolina, the military bases make up one part, but the other dominant industry (although I'm loath to call the military one, but c'est la vie, close enough) is farming, particularly pork. Funny enough, this is where you'll find what is left of those tobacco farms you previously attributed to the Piedmont.

R.L.D. in Sundance, WY, writes: I can't speak to Rep. Liz Cheney's (R-WY) fundraising and what it means, but I do have further evidence that she's got real problems. This story in The Sundance Times describes (in the kind of detail only possible in a small town newspaper) the discussion between our Crook County Representatives in the Wyoming Legislature and the public at a town hall meeting. The main issue was about changing election law to allow for runoff elections in the primaries, so as to prevent anyone from winning with a minority of the votes. The problem was that there wasn't enough time to get the bill through so that it would apply to the 2022 elections.

The crowd was adamant that it needed to be in place specifically to prevent Liz Cheney from retaining her seat, even though doing so would run afoul of the Wyoming Constitution and many state laws. They were even willing to risk the U.S. government "automatically" taking over Wyoming elections if the legislature "made a mess of it." Now, I've never heard of the Federal Government having the power to automatically take over state elections that were messed up, so I think our county clerk was mistaken on that part, but I think it's pretty interesting that these Wyomingites were willing to risk it even hypothetically. I just moved here at the end of June, so I don't yet have a good feel for the local politics, but this article was telling.

K.H. in Maryville, TN, writes: Sometimes the jokes really do write themselves!

An announcement of a Republican
gathering that will be Titanic themed, wherein attendees are asked to wear period-apropos clothing

V & Z respond: History's biggest metaphor sails again.

P.C. in Austin, TX, writes: Regarding Allen West, you wrote: "he's also kind of kooky," as if that were a negative. I thought that was table stakes in Republican primaries. Is there any other way to be a successful Republican candidate?

P.F. in Fairbanks, AK, writes: Speculation that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) could leave the Republican Party and caucus with the Democrats seems way overblown to me.

She currently lives in both the best and worst of three worlds. Republicans routinely brand her a RINO, to the point where Joe Miller took the Republican primary from her in 2010—energizing the center-left and some Democrats who knew their own candidate could split the vote in favor of Miller. Many independents vacillate over her (myself included) depending on whether her brand of independence has meshed well enough with our own, but we forgive, forget, and fall into line at the ballot box. Democrats simply don't trust her, frequently commenting that her bipartisanship seems to come only when she doesn't have to be the deciding vote.

She has carefully crafted a base of Republicans and Independents that locks Democrats out of enough centrist voters (and even some of their own) to keep her seat. Even with ranked choice voting, I don't see enough Democrats confusing a RhINOcerous for a DINOsaur for that switch to pay off. In fact, with Anchorage and Fairbanks trending to the right, it may even create an opportunity for a "real Republican" to unseat her in 2022.

As an aside—I've always imagined a centrist party with a rhinoceros' head on a dinosaur's body for their logo. I suppose that would just be a triceratops?

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

P.M. of Currituck, NC (but currently in Salt Lake City, UT), writes: Even though I follow this site daily, I don't become involved emotionally with politics until it affects me personally. Well, such an occurrence happened the other day—and it (and what followed) left me disgusted equally with both sides, and very saddened for the state of our society.

I am a teacher, and drive all over the country on my summer vacation. On Tuesday afternoon, I drove into downtown Denver to get a picture of the Colorado State Capitol. On my way out of the city, I ran into massive traffic and people walking everywhere. Once I got to Coors Field and saw "All-Star Game, July 13th" on the side of the stadium, I knew what was going on.

I called a friend who is into baseball, and he confirmed the All-Star Game was happening there and then—and proceeded to inform me it was supposed to be in Atlanta, but was moved to Denver because of the Georgia election stuff.

That got under my skin. I blame both sides for the mess I was in. If they could simply get along and act like adults, I wouldn't have had to sit in traffic in Denver. To paraphrase Mercutio: "a pox on both their houses." When I'm personally affected like I was here, then I care.

And—predictably—this devolved into a political squabble, between two disparate people who do not know each other. I have (reluctantly) been posting pictures of my trip on social media, and described what occurred, with the same "I hate both sides" attitude I present here. A conservative friend expressed disgust at MLB making the change and getting political, followed by a liberal friend saying my "bothsiderism" may be a convenient excuse, but it comes down to either being for democracy and against racism, or not.

I cut the talk by saying I am not letting my vacation posts turn into a political thread. I'm sick of it becoming all-pervasive. This is what our society has come to? Asinine political squabbles about everything? No one can opine on anything without it turning into some sort of "which side are you on?" battle? Disgusting.

A.N. in Tempe, AZ, writes: Your Beasley and Jackson discussion on July 15 attributed "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not," to Yogi Berra.

The February 1882 publication of The Yale Literary Magazine, Vol 47, #5, on page 202 has the sentence by Benjamin Brewster: "What does his lucid explanation amount to but this, that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is?" Perhaps Brewster plagiarized this from someone else, but I very seriously doubt he plagiarized it from Yogi Berra.

V & Z respond: We didn't necessarily assert that Berra originated the phrase, merely that he said it. That said, people who have looked into the matter can't find documented evidence that he said it, either. Of course, Berra wrote a book subtitled I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said.

G.W. in Minneapolis, MN, writes: The Angels the most beloved franchise in MLB? I gotta believe that's sarcasm. Right?

V & Z respond: Nope, just pure, unfiltered, unflinching truth. And it has nothing to do with the fact that the person who wrote that grew up in Orange County, approximately 6 miles from Angel Stadium.

B.L. in Hudson, NY, writes: About the All-star game, you wrote that "the American League won 5-2, benefiting from both the hitting and the pitching of phenom Shohei Ohtani, a member of the league's most beloved franchise."

I'd disagree with you on two points: (1) The AL team could hardly have benefited from Ohtani's hitting, because he was 0-2 and thus had no hits, and (2) maybe you have numbers that say otherwise, but the Angels are not "the league's most beloved franchise." That honor, I'm sorry to say, goes to the Yankees, and probably close behind them, the Red Sox.

V & Z respond: We do have numbers, but Donald Trump is currently keeping them safe for us. Don't worry, they'll be made available eventually.

RIP, Edwin Edwards (and Donald Rumsfeld)

D.F. in Norcross, GA, writes: I read your item detailing the life of late former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards (D) with a lot of interest. While his final term as Governor expired about nine months before I moved to Louisiana, his presence was definitely felt long after that (and probably still is, even long after I returned home to Georgia four years later). While you captured that presence quite well, I will point that you left off one very famous quip of his that eventually made it onto a bumper sticker during his 1991 race for Governor against David Duke (and one that could be seen throughout the state many years later). To wit: "Vote for the crook. It's important."

C.L. in Boulder, CO, writes: After hearing about Edwin Edwards' death, I took another look at his fading "Gubernator Civitatis Louisianae" signature on my 1977 diploma (hoping it's not autopen signed, à la Donald Rumsfeld). I also pulled out my copy of The Little Book of Louisiana Political Quotes 2, which features his photo on the cover. The back cover of the book has two quotes:

"Huey [Long] still stands out there in a statue and he still runs this place." — Senator Tom Schedler, R-Mandeville

"If we don't get Dave Treen out of office, there won't be anything left to steal." — Governor Edwin Edwards

Background: Louisiana governors are not permitted to serve 3 consecutive terms, so while Edwards waited 4 years to run successfully for governor again, Dave Treen in 1980 became the first Republican elected governor in over 100 years.

H.G. in Orlando, FL, writes: You can't write on Edwin Edwards' "prowess with the ladies" and not mention his third wife, 50 years his junior, with whom he had a baby (and a reality show)!

Quite the character. Oh, and another quotable quote: "Some politicians like to kiss babies. I like to kiss the baby's mommas."

M.B. in San Antonio, TX, writes: The recent passing of Edwin Edwards reminded me of the only time I ever voted Republican. I was living in New Orleans in the early 90s, and was thus party to the infamous gubernatorial election of 1991. It all started when the centrist Democratic governor Buddy Roemer (who also passed away earlier this year) switched parties, in the (misguided) theory that being a Republican would ensure his reelection (those were different times in Louisiana). Edwards, a former governor who was already besieged by allegation of sleaze and corruption, jumped in as a Democrat, as did KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. I couldn't vote for either of those two, so I voted for the Republican Roemer. But Roemer came in third, and Edwards and Duke advanced to the runoff. Ultimately, of course, I had to hold my nose and vote for Edwards, who soundly defeated Duke and regained the governorship. I knew then I had to get the hell out of Louisiana, which I did a year later.

B.J. in Boston, MA, writes: Donald Rumsfeld did not go to the great beyond. He went to the great known unknown.

Fort Retorts

E.R. in Irving, TX, writes: If we're naming military bases for significant and diverse representatives of our military whose service is exemplary, I propose Fort (Robert E.) Lee in Virginia become Fort (Desmond) Doss.

V & Z respond: It would be very interesting to name a military base after a conscientious objector, but he was definitely a war hero, so we think it's a good choice.

L.S. in Warsaw, IN, writes: Regarding the change of Fort Pickett to Fort Dunwoody:

I watched Robert Gates give Ann Dunwoody her fourth star, I think on PBS. It was amazing, historic, and touching, especially her tribute to her father in the audience, who was well into his 90's. Her husband wore a cap with five stars she had made for him. Their pride in her was obvious.

I added her paraphrased quote to my official e-mail tag line and it spoke to my female students navigating a computer science program in 2008.

"Behind every successful woman, stands an astonished man." She is an excellent choice.

D.F. in Norcross, GA writes: How about Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn? It would seem a fitting tribute to a 22-year Army veteran and officer (and Bronze Star recipient) who was murdered by the KKK, just 9 days after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I do doubt there are any bases in or near his native Washington, DC, named after former Confederates. However, I think a good alternative might be to re-name Fort (Henry L.) Benning near Columbus, GA, after Penn, since he had been at the fort and was on his way back to D.C. when he was killed. Jimmy Carter would still be a good person to honor with one of the naval bases currently named for Confederates.

G.C. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: Personally, if I had my way, I would have renamed Fort Gordon from honoring John Brown Gordon to honor Gary Gordon, a master sergeant and Medal of Honor recipient who was killed at the battle of Mogadishu in 1993.

Actual History

J.D. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: As regards your assertion that Lee Harvey Oswald's death led to the proliferation of related conspiracy theories, I would point out that there have in fact been assassinations of a national leader where the assassin still lives and where we have observed the aftermath that has since developed.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination at the hands of Yigal and Hagai Amir has spawned all a manner of conspiracy theories in the same vein as JFK's, many of which continue to resist attempts to debunk them even when vehemently dismissed by the Amir brothers themselves. The NPR show "This American Life" reported on this phenomenon in one episode where they interview various Israelis and their reasons for believing in the conspiracy theories, including one with Amir's own mother while Hagai was in the same room!

K.A. in Miami Beach, FL, writes: Though a gay man myself, I don't really see the connection between Pride Month and attractive U.S. Presidents. Your list of least attractive presidents included Nixon. Perhaps J.M. in New Glasgow would appreciate this photo of Nixon with his closest friend and confidant, Bebe Rebozo, at Bebe's residence near Miami. The photo sparked rumors that they were more than just close friends:

Nixon and Rebozo are dressed in
slacks, casual shirts, and are walking a dog along the beach.

Either way, Nixon looks like a hunk in this photo.

E.F. in Baltimore, MD, writes: While many might have considered Harding handsome, young Democratic veep nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt would likely have beaten him in a beauty contest. Something else must have happened between 1916 and 1920. Wilson's 1916 slogan was "He kept us out of war." Hard to follow that one up with "He won the war."

Perhaps our experience of World War I, along with Wilson's failed postwar diplomacy, influenced many men and newly enfranchised women to switch their support to the other party. And my understanding is, in the vast majority of cases, new women voters chose the same candidates as their husbands and fathers, who presumably did not base their votes on their candidate's looks.

S.B., in New Castle, DE, writes: (Z) cited several books on George Washington in his argument yesterday for Washington's deservedly high presidential rating. I recently read Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life. It's one of a very few tome-sized books that I've ever read and it engaged me from page i to page 904.

Prior to reading that book, I leaned toward Abraham Lincoln as President #1 because the Civil War seemed the most daunting and unequaled task ever experienced by a President before or since. How does any man preserve a nation torn asunder by the economic and ideological sin of slavery that was and remains (see Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson) deeply woven into our culture?

After reading Chernow's book, I was left with the impression of George Washington, however flawed, as a towering figure in world history. He is a powerful argument for Divine Providence, predestination, or a programmed computer simulation in our quantum universe. Without Washington, the United States of America doesn't exist. I will always love and admire Lincoln, but #16 wouldn't have happened if #1 wasn't #1.

E.M. in Milwaukee, WI, writes: I wish to add my own thoughts on useful history books.

When I was a lad in Chapel Hill, NC, I played and hung out with a guy whose last name was Tindall. The guy's father was George Tindall, a well-known scholar of the New South. Dr. Tindall wrote a compact textbook on American history: America: A Narrative History, that is still widely used. I understand (Z)'s dislike of textbooks, but this one is pretty neutral and covers a lot of ground efficiently.

Later in life, I stumbled on a series by Page Smith, the eight-volume People's History of the United States. I ran out of steam for it in the volume on the Gilded Age. But the first one or two volumes on the colonial period and the revolution (called "A New Age Now Begins") were incredibly good. The later volumes are fine, too, but become a little formulaic. There are always chapters on women, Native Americans, and Black people for the volume's period. It feels as if those chapters were Masters theses.

Finally, if you want to read a very different kind of history, I recommend Fernand Braudel's three-volume Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century. This is Western European, not American, history. The first book, The Structures of Everyday Life, is the real gem. It uses statistics from government archives to understand, for example, what people ate and wore and what things cost to buy or make. So much of historical writing is focused on leaders, wars, etc. To look closely at mundane life is rare.

Alternate History

G.B. in from Dallas, TX, writes: I'd noticed the unusual amount of what-ifs lately and considered writing in about alternate history literature, but seeing how quickly you dismissed the genre's best known and most influential author got me to write in.

As someone who's read a good deal of Harry Turtledove over the years, I wanted to state that, in addition to the "impossibilities" of The Guns of the South or the Worldwar series, he's written plenty of more grounded alternate history material over the years. Most notably (and prolifically), this includes the eleven-book Timeline-191 series, in which intercepted intelligence averts the Battle of Antietam. This leads to the Confederacy successfully seceding from the United States and sparring with it for dominance of North America into the 20th Century.

That said, I feel like what you call the "impossibility" side of alternate history still has some value. Sometimes stuff that felt impossible right up until it happened has a big impact on the world. Like Columbus finding a whole new set of continents on the other side of the Atlantic that had been almost completely unknown to Eurasian civilization. Or the Manhattan Project bootstrapping the atomic bomb from theoretical physics to working potential world-ender. Or a washed-up real-estate mogul turned game show host running for President to stroke his ego.

Reading alternate history, both of the alien space bats variety and the more serious kind, got me to take a real interest in history. And thinking about what might have happened serves as a reminder that history only looks set in stone because it already happened. Nothing is really inevitable.

M.F. in Cambridge, New Zealand, writes: One of the very first alternative histories was "If: A Jacobite Fantasy." It posited that Prince Charles Edward doesn't retreat from Derby in 1745, leading to the eventual fall of the Hanoverian regime and the restoration of the Stuarts. Subsequently, as King Charles III, he prevents the American Revolution by travelling to the American Colonies, where he is able to sympathize with the colonists' poor relationship with Parliament.

Also, there is an anthology of short stories called "Alternate Presidents," where each story presupposes a different outcome to a specific election. One story posits a timeline where the North secedes and the South preserves the Union. The story begins by referring to an alternate history novel in that timeline which supposes the actual timeline as its alternate history. The narrator scoffs at the idea of Abraham Lincoln as president, and notes that he died in a fight over theater tickets with some actor named Booth.

Finally, Stephen Fry's novel Making History has a Cambridge grad student go back in time to pour female contraceptives into the water supply of the house where Adolf Hitler's mother lived at the time he was conceived. On returning to the altered present, it eventually becomes apparent that the demagogue who arose in interwar Germany was just as evil but somewhat less deranged and significantly more competent than Hitler. Be careful what you wish for.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, writes: In your answer to the question of S.S., Camp Hill, you wrote: "(Z) actually wrote a brief essay for his students to read that argues that because of the circumstances of Germany in the 1930s, the rise of a demagogue was probable" and "Hitler was more someone who took advantage of his circumstances, and not someone who created his circumstances."

I definitely agree that Hitler didn't create the circumstances as much as he took advantage of his circumstances. However, the other Nazi leaders had their personal weaknesses, so in my opinion it would have been difficult for them to take advantage of the circumstances. I mean, Hermann Göring was addicted to drugs and overweight, Heinrich Himmler was a bad speaker and wasn't a veteran of World War I, and Joseph Goebbels was disabled and wasn't a veteran of World War I, either. So, in my opinion, it would have been difficult for those three to gain absolute power within the Nazi party and later in Germany. Perhaps (Z) can reveal which other demagogue he thinks would have risen to power in Germany in the 1930s if Hitler had died in World War I, or had never been born.

V & Z respond: (Z) has always imagined, taking note of the value of being a veteran of World War I, but also that Hitler rose to power substantially on his skills as a propagandist, that the likeliest person to have taken his place is Iron Cross recipient Julius Streicher, the first person ever to be tried, convicted, and executed for incitement to genocide.

Teaching History

J.H. in Boston, MA, writes: In the 4th of July ode to the United States by J.B of Hutto, a lot of aspects of American life and culture and institutions were listed. It was long and couldn't possibly include everything, but one omission was glaring enough to be worth noting: our schools. From our pinnacle of the world Harvards to our prestigious state universities to our community colleges and trade schools, and even our K-12 public schools. There are certainly ways our education institutions could improve (e.g., your comments yesterday about history education), but there is also a lot to love about the schools of the United States.

J.O. in Freehold, NJ, writes: I wanted to write in to further comment on your response to D.C. from Georgia. I'm a middle-school history teacher in New Jersey and a recent graduate of Rutgers University's Graduate School for Education. I agree with your original assessment that the way history has generally been taught (as a set of facts to be memorized) is poor and doesn't focus on the requisite skills (research, critical thinking) or content necessary for students to thrive. However, I'd also argue that things are changing on this front.

I don't know a single history teacher who still uses a textbook. My graduate school professors—many of whom were part-time professors and full-time public middle or high school teachers—all preached the same advice and pedagogy that you do when discussing strategies for teaching history. Classes at both middle and high school levels, at least in my little pocket of Monmouth and Middlesex Counties, NJ, focus primarily on skill building and analyzing primary documents to allow our students to engage with history.

Here's to hoping this continues to expand over the coming generations!

V & Z respond: Agreed!

A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK, writes: Writing as an archaeologist, I would like to qualify your recommendation of James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. I think it's an excellent book overall, and I've often had cause to consult it as a quick guide to its core topics, but I regret that the grasp of archaeology displayed in the "1493" chapter on the early exploration of the Americas is often poor. At several points Loewen comes close to endorsing pseudoarchaeological hypotheses that are widely discredited within my discipline, and many of those examples are poorly cited.

Loewen's basic points that the history of the early exploration of the Americas is often seen through a Eurocentric lens, that there's often an over-emphasis on Columbus in schools, and that accounts of exploration often underplay the impact on indigenous communities (very much including the Aztec and Inca states) are sound. The specific archaeological examples he uses to question Eurocentrism are, however, often profoundly problematic.

Let's take just two examples to illustrate the point. The first is Loewen's statements that a "map found in Turkey dated 1513 and said to be based on material from the library of Alexander the Great includes coastline details of South America and Antarctica. Ancient Roman and Carthaginian coins keep turning up all over the Americas, causing some archaeologists to conclude that Roman seafarers visited the Americas more than once." The citation supporting these eyebrow-raising contentions is the book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age by Charles Hapgood, a book published in 1966 in support of the author's pseudoarchaeological (and plate-tectonics-denying) "theory" of catastrophic rapid polar shifts. This is work that's long-since been discredited, though "catastrophe theory" continues to influence such fringe figures as Graham Hancock.

The second is Loewen's enthusiastic embracing of the fringe theory that Mesoamerican Olmec colossal head sculptures indicate early contact between Africa and Central America on the basis that their features are "amazingly Negroid." This seems to extensively rely on the discredited work of Guyanese-British historian Ivan Van Sertima, particularly his 1976 book They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America. Van Sertima's hypotheses were robustly refuted in a famous 1997 article in Current Anthropology, and more modern DNA studies have helped conclusively counter Van Sertima. Yet Loewen uses this work to argue that "textbooks should include the Afro-Phoenicians as a possibility, a controversy." In other words, we're being asked here to teach a hypothesis that's widely dismissed by actual archaeologists just because there's a controversy; intelligent design proponents will no doubt be delighted for the implied support.

I consider the profound flaws in this one chapter a shame because Loewen's use of dated citations and support of fringe hypotheses can, at least for the archaeologist, potentially undermine confidence in the rest of the book. As a specialist, I hope I'm able to separate out the bad archaeology in the "1493" chapter from the more robust historical discussion in the rest of the book (and it is just the one chapter), but I'm not sure this would be true for every reader.

It's also a shame because it's more than possible to argue that the teaching of the exploration of the Americas is typically profoundly Eurocentric, that Columbus's role as a heroic man of science is often overplayed (if perhaps less so now than in the past), and that more attention should be given to both indigenous and African experiences in the cultural exchanges (some willing, some unwilling, some forced; some positive, some ambiguous, some catastrophic) that formed the Americas as we know them without toying with pseudoarchaeology. We can also be open to re-evaluation of previously more marginal hypotheses, such as Polynesian-South American contacts, where the growing body of evidence, including DNA evidence published in 2020, has helped to strengthen the case that these did indeed occur. Western Hemisphere archaeologists from a range of cultural backgrounds are doing robust, high-quality work on precisely these subjects day in, day out; it deserves to be better known than the work of, say, Hapgood and Van Sertima—neither of whom, it should be stressed, were archaeologists.

Paradoxically, this all helps strengthen a point that (Z) has often made about professional and academic historians: that their training usually leaves them much better placed to assess and interpret historical data than the well-read layperson. The same is true of archaeology. For all of Loewen's well-informed analysis of U.S. history, and of flaws in the teaching of history in U.S. schools, when it comes to archaeology he seems to be little more than a well-read layperson—and one regrettably just a little prone to embracing fringe theories from outdated sources to make his case.

J.M. in Montpelier, VT, writes: Saturday's question from B.B. in St. Louis about whether the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is covered in American high school history classes brought back a vivid memory from my own high school days. The fire and its historical significance were definitely not taught to us in school, but I learned of it from the 1996 debut album of the band Rasputina, the first track of which is "My Little Shirtwaist Fire," a song written from the point of view of a victim of the disaster. The unusual title and disturbing lyrics prompted me to look into the meaning of the song and discover that it was based on a true story, information I shared with other fans of the band. It was usually news to them too.

So, despite all the lies (and lies by omission) our teachers told us, we can at least take comfort in the fact that rock musicians can be relied on to keep the youth of America historically informed.

L.D. in Bedford, MA, writes: As an actual U.S. History teacher (and, in response to the comment by V and Z, possessor of a B.A. and Master's in history; not hired as a coach, but was hired in that era where indeed the first question asked by my peers was "What do you coach?," and subsequently became one in multiple sports), I can assure you that labor issues are part of the standards in Massachusetts and I would be shocked if they aren't in all states in some shape or form.

Only speaking for myself, I can verify I teach the Lowell mill girls, Homestead, Haymarket, Pullman strikes and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (and if I have time, I like to show the Ric Burns' New York documentary series clip on the fire). Also, the GM Flint sit-down strike, A. Philip Randolph's efforts to pressure FDR during World War II to get government-contracted plants to hire and promote Black workers, and Cesar Chavez/Dolores Huerta's organizational efforts and effects get covered yearly.

The differing purpose/tactics/goals of the AFL, Knights of Labor, and the IWW are brought up in my classes, as is the later split and reunification of the AFL and CIO.

General trends get noted (eg., rise of unions to their peak in the 1950s, dropping starting in the 70s/80s and a mention of Reagan's PATCO busting).

It would be interesting to see the standards in all 50 states and see the difference between, say, Texas and New York, or if a place like Michigan has reduced focus on labor issues as of late.

Word and Grammar Choices

J.S. in Plainfield, IL, writes: Thank you for your superb grasp and expression of America's past and present. Your site is a national treasure for many reasons.

I have a small quibble, however. You have referred at times to American military personnel who "won" the Congressional Medal of Honor, Silver Star or some other decoration.

Might I suggest verbs like "received," "earned" or maybe "was awarded" rather than "won"?

V & Z respond: We went back and adjusted yesterday's post.

P.J. in Livingston, MT, writes: While the remarks about toothless rubes in West Virginia and Kentucky were clever and funny, I think they were beneath this blog and inappropriate. One of the big reasons for our current mess is that too many white, rural voters felt alienated by educated, coastal "elites" in 2016. The toothless commentary doesn't help. The generic rural and white residents of Kentucky and West Virginia are human beings and fellow citizens; they are worthy of respect as such.

J.E.S. in Sedona, AZ, writes: As a native white male South Carolinian, who fully embraces and adores that region's sweet and salty and fatty cuisines, I've long ascribed to the concept that the biggest question related to long-term life cycles for folks like me is whether I will have my first heart attack before I lose my last tooth. Ha ha ha. Still, I have to say that your repeated invocation this week of "tooth-challenged hillbillies" felt a bit ... too much? I mean, we Low Country people can be tooth-challenged too. It's not all about the hills.

T.F. in Portland, OR, writes: I've been a reader since 2004, when I Googled something to the effect of "electoral map." I was trying to find a real-time electoral college breakdown a few days before the November election. Your site popped up, and I've never stopped reading it since. I came just to see the maps and polling data. I was pleasantly surprised by the great writing that came with it.

Back then, I was still in my first career as a journalist. I worked in the media for nine years before retiring from reporting and changing careers in 2006. I regret that my first letter to you is a criticism because I love the site so much. But I'm going to ask you to stop using the term "credibly accused" when leveling unproven allegations against people in your reporting.

That term would never have flown in any of the newsrooms I worked in. The presumption of innocence is a tenet of the American democratic experiment. You are innocent until proven guilty. The term "credibly accused" is an end-run around that basic presumption. It implies someone is guilty of the allegations leveled by their accuser(s).

I began to notice the use of "credibly accused" in news reporting about four years ago. As media outlets have become partisan, that term is now being employed as a wink and a nod from the writer to the reader that the subject of the reporting is guilty as charged. Unfortunately, many people who were said to be "credibly" accused end up being proven innocent, or the accuser turns out to not be credible at all.

You two are great writers. But please discontinue this rhetorical trick. Your credibility depends on it.

V & Z respond: Ok, but we're starting tomorrow, because of the letter below.

K.H. in Ypsilanti, MI, writes: Sigh. While I was heartened to see you on the side of righteousness and AP Style by rejecting the (largely unnecessary) Oxford comma, I knew it would also bring the comma-nists out of the wordwork with the usual silly examples that purport to show its necessity.

The fact is, it's just as easy to construct sentences where the Oxford comma creates confusion rather than eliminates it, because it is indistinguishable from a prepositional phrase. For example:

"We invited JFK, a stripper, and Stalin." In this sentence, JFK is a stripper.

"We invited JFK, a stripper and Stalin." Here, it's clearly three people.

The examples from Steven Pinker's book and others that supposedly illustrate the need for the Oxford comma are really just examples of poor sentence construction. Rather than "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God" write "This book is dedicated to my parents, and to Ayn Rand and God" or "This book is dedicated to God, Ayn Rand and my parents."

What I dislike about the Oxford comma is not only that it creates confusion by aping the prepositional phrase, but also because it is clutter, which should be avoided in writing, and signals a pause to the reader where none is needed. Also, on technical grounds, because a comma in a series is a substitute for "and," so when you use the Oxford comma you are actually writing "...God and Ayn Rand and and my parents."

The Oxford comma is useful as an optional tool in limited circumstances, but there's no need to make it a general rule and many reasons not to.

A.H. in Newberg, OR, writes: I do not know who to attribute the quote to, but the apostrophe also needs recognition of its importance: "The apostrophe, the difference between knowing your s**t, and knowing you're s**t!"

Vaxx Attaxx

J.H. in Seattle, WA, writes: S.S-L. in Norman asked why we write "vaxx" as an abbreviation, and you weren't sure about the double "x." I think it's about phonics.

I have not typically seen the double "x" except in the past-tense, "vaxxed." Kids don't tend to be "hooked on phonics" anymore, but most of us know instinctively that when you add "-ed" but want to keep your short vowel, you have to double the final consonant. So we turn "slam" into "slāmmed," not "slāmed."

I think something subconscious leads us automatically to do this with "vāxxed," so we don't all get "vāxed."

V & Z respond: Except that it's "faxed," not "faxxed;" "boxed," not "boxxed;" "outfoxed" not "outfoxxed," and "taxed" not "taxxed."

K.Y. in Seattle, WA, writes: I probably won't be the only person to point this out, but surely the reason for the double x in "vaxx" is that the term "anti-vaxxer" came first. And "vaxxer" has a double x because "vaxer" would be ambiguous in pronunciation.

V & Z respond: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, vax and vaxx actually predate anti-vaxx and anti-vaxxer.

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, writes: Your answer to S.S-L.'s question to why it's "vaxx" and not "vax" must have been written by (Z). (V), as the creator of Minix, would have known that no one wanted the answer to the question "Did you get your vax yet?" to be "No, I'm still using a pdp-11."

G.S. in West Lafayette, IN, writes: In your Saturday comments, you speculated on why the spelling was "vaxx" instead of "vax."

I am surprised, given the background of at least ½ of you, that you didn't mention the potential for confusion with the VAX computer by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). The VAX series of minicomputers were very popular from the late 1970s thru the 1990s, both for their affordability and their flexibility. The VAX were the first machines that Berkeley students used to port Unix, thereafter known as the BSD Unix release. (BSD Unix was a major inspiration along the way in the development of modern-day MacOS and Linux.) The VAX was widely and enthusiastically adopted in academia and research labs; the default DEC operating system was VMS—good, but not the equal of Unix for experimentation and teaching.

The VAX became widely used and was a major part of the backbone of the Internet social media predecessor: Usenet. Not everyone was a VAX fan, however, as there were many competitors such as IBM, AT&T, and Data General that had loyal followings. Thus, there were discussions on Usenet that were sometimes "anti-vax." I vaguely recall it was there (on Usenet) that I first saw "anti-vaxx" used to refer to vaccine deniers, with a parenthetical comment that it wasn't about VAXen (the common name for multiple VAX).

Sadly, the VAX and DEC are both long-gone but not forgotten. Less than a year ago I remember slipping and putting "anti-vax" in a social media post about the current death cult and thereupon receiving a half-dozen tongue-in-cheek comments about the long-gone computer brand.

The Sound of Music

F.L. in Denton, TX, writes: R.C. in Eagleville suggested that maybe your website might have a theme song. Considering the theme of your website is politics and that hypocrisy is frequently pointed out, I think "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival would be very appropriate.

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: For everyone who now has the "Smokey and the Bandit" theme song stuck in their heads, I offer an antidote. Start singing "Reunited" by Peaches & Herb. That removes the other song but that song, for whatever reason, won't then get stuck in your head. It's just science.

V & Z respond: Better that than "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen. It's very, very easy to get "A-well, a bird, bird, bird, bird is the word/ A-well, a bird, bird, bird, well-a bird is the word/A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird's the word/ A-well, a bird, bird, bird, well-a bird is the word" stuck. Very easy, indeed.

B.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: Let's have no more references to Billy Ray Cyrus. He committed three unpardonable sins, each greater than the former:

  1. Mullet
  2. "Achy Breaky Heart"
  3. Miley

V & Z respond: Forgive us for pointing out that writing letters about Billy Ray Cyrus may not be the most effective way to make sure there are no more Billy Ray Cyrus references.

Cooking Corner

J.L. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I wish that I could have sent you this comment last week, when you mentioned that "brown sugar and blueberries don't really go together." Au contraire, mon capitan!

On Monday evening, I prepared this amazing recipe for filet mignon (bought on sale at Vons just before July 4 weekend...saved $22!) with a blueberry glaze reduction. The recipe, inspired by a dish served at Acqua Al 2 in Florence, Italy, contains both blueberries and brown sugar. In fact, as it reduced, I actually doubled the brown sugar to 2 tablespoons (okay, I admit it was closer to 3 tablespoons) to add a bit more sweetness. I also used a sprig of fresh oregano because I didn't have any rosemary sprigs on hand. The result, prepared in advance and reheated once the steaks came out, was truly exquisite. Served with grilled broccolini and Merlot.

Blueberries and brown sugar...who knew? (Well, obviously, the Italians.)

J.S. in Springboro, OH, writes: I feel my wife has improved on the Nestlé Toll House recipe with the addition of wheat flour (which gives them more heft) and higher quality ingredients:

  • Use ½ salted and ½ unsalted butter
  • Farm-fresh eggs if possible
  • ½ cup whole-wheat flour plus regular flour to make 2½ cups
  • Home-made vanilla
  • Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips (not the bittersweet)

And for the record, they are as good without the chocolate chips as with!


J.K. in Portland, OR, writes: I love your answer to the "omens" question. If you ask a large batch of people to predict the flip of 20 fair coins, the chances are really pretty strong that a bit fewer than one in a million (OK, 1 in 1,048,576) will get them all correct by chance alone. (The variation in probability depends on how obviously systematic the actual pattern of coins is; 20 heads or 20 tails will probably do better than my number because people don't guess randomly.) Those who are successful will believe that they know something that other people do not. This type of person was favored by Ronald Reagan for Cabinet posts.

R.R. in Chewelah, WA, writes: I had to chuckle at the question from J.H. in Boston regarding the Holiday Inn Express joke. It reminded me of the time when I called my mother, and my brother, who was visiting her, answered her phone. On hearing his voice, I said "Hey, you're not my mother!" To which he replied without missing a beat, "No, I'm not your mother. But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."

S.W. in San Jose, CA, writes: Wait, are you saying Roy Moore, the credibly accused pedophile, is a credibly accused pedophile?

V & Z respond: No, we're saying that credibly accused pedophile Roy Moore, the credibly accused pedophile, is a credibly accused pedophile. Try to keep up.

That said, after today, in view of the letter above, he will only be accused pedophile Roy Moore, the accused pedophile, who does not like being accused of being a pedophile.

P.W. in Valley Village, CA, writes: You wrote: "Since we've already given so much attention to the mayoral race in America's second most important city, it seems we should give at least a bit of coverage to what's happening in its most important city."

You two have been spending way too much time channeling your inner drag queen. Your claws were certainly out on that one (plus the later subtle swipe extoling the virtues of UCLA at the expense of USC).

I recommend laying in a goodly supply of Lee Press-on Nails should you opt to continue in this vein. There are colors galore to compliment any outfit, and they're ideal for sharpening so as to inflict maximum damage when attacking a hated rival.

A.K. in Sharpsburg, MD, writes: If, as you write, L.A. is America's second most important city, what's first? I assume you were being tongue-in-cheek as it would seem clear that New York City and Washington, DC, are one and two.

V & Z respond: Actually, we wrote that L.A. is America's most important city. New York City and Washington, DC are tied for second. As are the other 19,493 cities and towns in the U.S.

If you wish to contact us, please use one of these addresses. For the first two, please include your initials and city.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul17 Saturday Q&A
Jul16 Is There a Doctrine in the House?
Jul16 Bush Comes Out Against Afghanistan Withdrawal
Jul16 The Cart Before the Horse
Jul16 Take Me Home, Country Roads
Jul16 What Do Republicans Believe? (Capitalism Edition)
Jul16 McCarthy Heads to Bedminster
Jul16 Didn't We Already Know This?
Jul16 Didn't We Already Know This, Too?
Jul16 Another Reason Recall Elections Are Dumb
Jul16 (Un)Mark Your Calendars
Jul15 Biden Lobbies Congress
Jul15 Manchin Is Open to the $3.5-Trillion Reconciliation Bill
Jul15 McConnell Blasts the Reconciliation Bill
Jul15 More Than 150 Companies Back the John Lewis Act
Jul15 House Republicans Raise More Cash than House Democrats
Jul15 Poll: DeSantis Is 2024 Favorite among Republicans If Trump Doesn't Run
Jul15 Vaccination May Be the Next Front in the Culture Wars
Jul15 Beasley and Jackson Are Running Very Different Campaigns in North Carolina
Jul15 Tucker Carlson: The Voice of White Grievance
Jul15 House Republican Losers Want Rematches
Jul14 A Speech Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing
Jul14 Senate Democrats Say They Have a Deal on Reconciliation
Jul14 Two More Trump Books Dropped Yesterday
Jul14 Flake Tapped for Turkey
Jul14 Cheney's Huge Fundraising Haul Suggests That She's in Trouble
Jul14 Kemp, Georgia Republicans Lost Their Balls, Blame Democrats
Jul14 Can You Say EGOT?
Jul14 Today's Schadenfreude Report
Jul13 East Bound and Down
Jul13 Infrastructure Reconciliation Bill Picks Up Speed
Jul13 Who Is the Biggest Threat to Abbott?
Jul13 California Voters Will Just Have to Guess...
Jul13 Who Will Replace Eric Garcetti?
Jul13 Edwin Edwards (1927-2021); Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021)
Jul12 Clyburn Warns Biden: Encourage Filibuster Reform or Lose the Majority
Jul12 Republican Voters Want to Make Voting Harder
Jul12 Biden Is on the Move
Jul12 The Suburbs Will Be the Big Battleground in 2022
Jul12 Biden Supports Capitalism
Jul12 Trumpists Are Running for Governor in Many States
Jul12 Alaska Republican Party Endorses Murkowski's Challenger
Jul12 Yellen Sets Out Timeline for Global Minimum Tax
Jul11 Sunday Mailbag
Jul10 Saturday Q&A
Jul09 Biden Puts Monopolies in His Crosshairs
Jul09 Texas Is at It Again
Jul09 Another Potential Infrastructure Wrinkle
Jul09 The Republican Party Stands for Nothing
Jul09 Trump Says He Welcomes Deposition