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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

You can probably guess which subject dominated this week's mailbag. And, in a not-unrelated development, this is the first mailbag where more than half of the letters were definitely written by women. It might possibly have happened before, as we don't always know the gender of correspondents. This week, even if we assume that everyone whose gender is unknown is not a woman, the number of woman authors is still above 50%.

Also, we intended to run one last round of proposed theme songs, following the set we ran on August 8 and the one we ran on August 15. However, due to the technical issues we had last week, we didn't run the third round. And due to those same technical problems, the remaining suggestions are now lost. So, if you sent in a suggestion we did not run yet, or if you have one you didn't send in, please e-mail us; we'll run the third round next week. This week, it's more historical dinner guests.

Texas' Abortion Law: It's Personal

B.T. in Franklin, NH, writes: Among this debate about abortion policy, please remember that, to women, access to abortions is a personal issue, not just an abstract topic to discuss.

When I was in my teens and twenties, it was very reassuring to me that if I got pregnant—either accidentally through consensual sex or, heaven forbid, through rape—I could get an abortion if I wanted one. Now that I am in my thirties and in a position where I feel I could care for a child, I still find it comforting that, if I got pregnant, but for any reason (likely medical) felt it best to end the pregnancy, then I could do so.

I do not know if I would ever actually choose to have an abortion, and the choice to have an abortion would follow some deep soul-searching. However, it is clear to me that it would be my personal choice.

L.S. in Ann Arbor, MI, writes: I admire your objective, fact-based approach to the discussion of abortion. I would like to share some facts that seem to be ignored by lawmakers as well as the media. You wrote that Joe Biden "could ask Congress to pass a federal law guaranteeing every woman's right to an abortion at least up to the point of viability." I disagree that intervention to terminate a pregnancy at a very late stage of gestation is inherently bad. I take issue with the apparent public agreement that it's OK to villainize women who undergo such a medical procedure at such a time. Those who know the facts about late-stage pregnancy termination view these women with compassion and an increased disgust toward politicians who think they have any business intervening in such decisions.

I don't think I need to reveal my personal history on this to be seen as credible, but in case you need some reason to trust me, know that I spent 10 weeks in a perinatal hospital wing with a high-risk pregnancy that could have ended unhappily if it were not for amazing healthcare. Every day from my bed I overheard a doctor explain to a woman the (poor) chances that her pregnancy would end with a live birth, and what they intended to do to increase those chances. The vast majority of pregnancy terminations that occur after 20 weeks are cases where a healthy baby is wanted, but something has gone very wrong and that's no longer one of the possible outcomes. How could anyone other than a medical doctor know the exact point of viability? What if a fetus is never going to be viable, or was briefly viable but is no longer so? I have no understanding of the power-hungry self-righteous judgmental people who think they should regulate the decisions between a woman and her doctor in those dark hours when she realizes her choices are to either deliver a baby who won't live (and traumatize her body in the process) or humanely terminate the pregnancy and preserve her ability to try to conceive again.

The point is that women can be trusted to decide promptly if they want a pregnancy or not. Over 92% of abortions are performed in the first trimester. A heartbeat can't be detected until around 8 weeks. Many doctors will not agree to perform an abortion until after 8 weeks or a heartbeat is detected. I know this from personal experience (both types—without heartbeat and with). I struggled for years with infertility and learned the stories of women who tried for years to conceive and had multiple miscarriages along the way. Women's bodies don't always self-clean when a miscarriage occurs. Many doctors recommend a procedure that is classified as abortion to clear out tissues associated with a failed (involuntarily terminated) pregnancy. This decreases the trauma to the woman's body and improves chances of a successful pregnancy next time. Given all the things that can go wrong between conception and birth, it seems to me that every healthy baby is a true miracle.

I would also like to ask you to please cease using "pro-life" unless it's in quotations by someone else. Better words are "anti-choice" and "pro-birth." "Pro-life" is a convenient term that the right-wingers skillfully slipped into our language. Most of us are unaware of the spin. But you have expressed a strong desire and ability to be thoughtful about your choice of words, so please consider using more neutral alternatives.

V & Z respond: We will take it under advisement. We try to give people and groups their preferred names, but it's tough when those preferred names also incorporate a certain amount of spin. Others that we grapple with, besides "pro-life," include "Grand Old Party" and "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," both of which contain some non-neutral assertions about the nature of the group.

C.W. in Haymarket, VA, writes: I have had numerous conversations with diverse people about abortion, and I would like to share my opinion. Most people of faith believe there is a soul/spirit that is separate from the physical body, and that spirit is what makes humans unique. Most major faiths teach that when the physical body dies, the spirit lives on and either goes to heaven or goes to hell or is reincarnated to come back in a different body or the spirit becomes an angel or merges with the divine, etc.

Because of this, the logical reverse question is "When does the spirit enter into the physical body?" Some faiths have very specific teachings; for example, the spirit enters into the body the moment the first breath of air is taken. Some teach that it is at the moment of conception. Some teach that a soul consults with divine guides and chooses which body to enter according to which life lessons they need to learn, and this suggests fetuses are awaiting a soul to pick them. I read one spiritual philosophy that suggests the spirit enters in stages, where 1/3 of the spirit enters the fetus at the end of the first trimester, another third enters at the end of the second trimester, and the last piece of spirit enters at birth. I think any reasonable, rational person has to admit that we are not able to prove any of these beliefs to be either true or false, and each belief is completely based on an individual's personal faith. Given that one of the founding principles of our country is separation between church and state, it is my opinion that there is no way to justify laws forcing women to remain pregnant for nine months when such laws are clearly based on a subset of the population's religious beliefs. For an analogy, many vegetarians believe that pigs, cows, chickens, etc. also have souls, and butchering them to eat them is killing a soul, but they do not have the right to pass legislation forbidding others from eating meat.

One more thing: If people truly believe the soul enters at the moment of conception, then there are a lot of souls trapped in freezers after eggs are fertilized for IVF.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: So, if men could get pregnant, do you think that there would be an abortion debate? Oh, hell no! There'd be low-cost, 24-hour abortion-on-demand services everywhere you looked, no questions asked. And Republicans would probably provide a tax credit too.

I am thoroughly fed up with the hypocrisy of the anti-abortion faction and the conservative politicians who kowtow to it.

C.Z. in Sacramento, CA, writes: What do you call a person who forces another person to have a medical procedure they do not want, and which will cause them hours of excruciating pain, permanent physical disfigurement, as well as possibly resulting in a stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and/or death? I would call the first person a psychopath, a slave-master, anti-abortionist. And now the Texas Taliban has declared War on Women, especially poor women. What's next for women in Texas and other red states? Public stoning? Public beheading? Will women in Texas who lose weight now have to prove that they didn't have an abortion? Will a rapist now be able to also make money on his foul act?

To women, access to a safe abortion is not some philosophical issue that only affects them tangentially. It is their life and possibly, their death.

If Texas really wants to prevent abortions, how about some new rules: (1) Any man who fathers a child out of wedlock is automatically surgically castrated (that should also help reduce prostitution); (2) Any man who rapes a woman must be surgically emasculated (which includes training on how to pee sitting down); (3) Viagra becomes an illegal drug (after all, if God wanted you to have an erection, you would have one).

Texas' Abortion Law: The Legal Angle

K.B. in Hartford, CT, writes: By leaving enforcement of the Texas abortion ban (after 6 weeks, yes, but effectively a ban) to individual citizens, the legislature sought to avoid a ruling prohibiting enforcement before it goes into effect. The law is not insulated from eventual judicial review, however. In Shelley v. Kraemer, the Court held that using the courts to enforce restrictive racial covenants was state action and struck down such covenants, even though private parties were the ones enforcing them. Once a plaintiff sues and wins, the defendant can appeal, claiming the law is unconstitutional and the Court can rule then.

All this is academic, though. The Court currently has on its docket a case from Mississippi that bans abortions after 15 weeks, which is before viability, the standard set out in Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania for when the government can control women's bodies. It is not clear to me how the Court could uphold the Mississippi statute without overruling Roe and Casey. The five votes to deny the stay in the Texas case tells me that Roe and Casey will be dead letters by the end of June 2022.

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: The Texas anti-abortion law is many vile things, but it is not an end-run around the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment (except to the obvious extent that it infringes on the fundamental right to choose whether to reproduce). You are correct that "the Constitution contains many constraints on government behavior." However, you overlook that courts are part of the government and cannot enforce unconstitutional laws even between private actors. For example, restrictive covenants in deeds that barred sales to Blacks, Jews, etc., are private agreements, but the Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer held they were unenforceable by the Courts because they violated the Equal Protection Clause. Simply put, the Texas law, which is unconstitutional and should be unenforceable, does not moot the Bill of Rights or Fourteenth Amendment any more than do private agreements not to sell property to disfavored minorities.

I also take issue with your assertion Texas has now created an "army of brownshirts." The brownshirts were Nazis who committed pogroms against Jews and other anti-Nazis. I am not aware of any provision of the Texas law that authorizes acts of violence. The law is an abomination, but comparing its authors and enforcers to the perpetrators of Kristallnacht trivializes Nazi persecution. (That said, I have no problem analogizing the Charlottesville or 1/6 Insurrection mobs to brownshirts; they were violent thugs.)

V & Z respond: It is an end run until the law is stayed or struck down, which the federal courts have thus far chosen not to do. And do you really believe that there won't eventually be violence at abortion clinics or at citizen-monitored polling places, regardless of whether or not that violence is authorized by the law?

M.C. in Newton, MA, writes: You've mentioned multiple times that you don't understand the thinking of the five justices who voted to deny an injunction against the Texas abortion law. I have a theory that might explain it: They know that the law won't survive a ruling on the merits, but allowing it to take effect (even temporarily) is likely to inflict permanent harm on the availability of abortion. Given the Court's preference to avoid issuing substantive decisions on controversial topics as long as possible (for example, by dismissing cases on procedural, jurisdictional, or standing grounds), it's probably going to take several years to get a final ruling one way or the other on this law. In the meantime, abortion providers face a choice between accepting significant legal risk or shutting down, and those that shut down may not be able to reopen after the law gets struck down (doctors may retire, or move to other states that are less hostile; clinics may not be able to keep paying the rent if they can't be open, etc.). I think enough of the justices have enough respect for precedent that they won't let Roe v. Wade burn to the ground, but if it gets a bit charred before they extinguish the flames they'll consider that a positive.

In other words, they know they're going to lose the battle but they're fighting it anyway to inflict casualties on the enemy.

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: As the President of the Board of an organization that runs healthcare clinics in Oklahoma and Kansas that provide abortion services, we are of course devastated that the 5th Circuit canceled the Monday hearing in the district court at the 11th hour, and that the Supreme Court failed to intervene before S.B.8 took effect. The Texas ban will force more women into desperate situations and they will die as a result. The days of the coat hanger are back. But the truth is, if you're a poor woman, they've been back for a long time. Poor women have long been used as a political football and they are the ones who pay the ultimate price for Republicans' callous, cruel, by-any-means-necessary tactics to amass power. Abortion is a public health issue, but, as in the pandemic, public health takes a back seat to Republican lies and scapegoating.

Just like Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Greg Abbott (R-TX) have no business banning masks or punishing businesses that require employees to be vaccinated, the government has no business banning a common and safe medical procedure to end a pregnancy. Make no mistake—as many readers of this site have pointed out—laws banning abortion do not end abortion and result in happy, healthy mothers and children. In fact, exactly the opposite results. We'll have more dead women, either by their own hand or at the hands of an unlicensed, unqualified butcher who will prey upon their desperation. Keep abortion above ground and above board with licensed, qualified physicians keeping women safe to live to see another day, and whose uterus won't be perforated from a botched back-alley abortion, so they can start a family if and when they're ready. That's a decision for a woman and her partner, not the government. And certainly not vigilantes who Texas has deputized to harass women and anyone who helps them, and, let's be honest, abuse the law to settle scores, much like the Taliban—excellent comparison, (Z).

The Supreme Court's inaction is even more cynical and cowardly than it first appears. They are well aware that this law fails on a number of levels. Besides using the shadow docket (which I've commented on a few times before) to essentially overturn Roe v. Wade by allowing a patently unconstitutional law to take effect without analysis, argument or comment, they also know that legislators cannot create standing in violation of constitutional requirements. So, for the same reasons that has alluded to—we don't let private citizens enforce public laws as vigilantes—the courts have strict standing requirements as to who can bring a case in these circumstances. And "because the Texas government said I could" does not, by itself, meet those requirements. And if it does, well, Katy bar the door.

Also, that $10,000 that claimants can recover is labeled "statutory damages"—John Q. Public has not incurred any "damages," as that term is legally defined, by Jane Roe's abortion. Sometimes a statute allows a private right of action to sue on the state's behalf as a private attorney general, but the damages go primarily to the state because the state is the injured party; here, the statute specifically prohibits the state from intervening in the private suit, essentially acknowledging that there is no injured party under this statute. It's also ridiculously vague, which is why providers aren't sure how early it applies. My guess is SCOTUS knows damn well that this law cannot survive but it's waiting for some yokel to sue a doctor or a clinic or the friend who drove the woman across state lines to our clinic in Oklahoma, and then wait some more while that case winds its way through the courts. Maybe it will be enjoined then, but maybe not. In the meantime, the blood of the women who die as a result of this law will be on the hands of the Texas government and all the judges who sat back and let it happen in the most cowardly way possible. This is absolutely shameful.

Readers of this site who want to help women in Texas can donate to an abortion fund through the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). These funds pay for abortions for poor women who will need even more help now that even the meager options for an abortion in Texas will no longer be available. You can also donate directly to the independent clinics who serve women in this area, who are without a national supporting organization and rely on donations to help keep their doors open.

Texas' Abortion Law: The Political Angle

J.F. in Fort Worth, TX, writes: Concerning your item on the new anti-abortion law in Texas, I hope this law, the virtual blizzard of anti-abortion laws across the country, and the placement of Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court has convinced you that Republicans are not just "using" this issue as a piece of culture war rhetoric. They're not "reluctant" to kill Roe v. Wade because it would deprive them of a fundraising issue. They don't fear reprisal from the voters. They're not just giving lip service to the fundamentalists among their base.

They're serious. Dead serious. They want abortion illegal in this country now, not tomorrow, not sometime in the vague future.

J.T. in Irving, TX, writes: I guess the Texas Republican governor and state legislature fail to see they cannot have it both ways. They claim the citizens of Texas have the right to determine whether to wear masks or be vaccinated as a personal freedom, yet they claim they have the right to deny the same personal freedoms to a woman in Texas by denying her access to an abortion. Both issues concern personal decisions about personal health.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, writes: Rush Limbaugh once famously said that the next Civil War will be caused by abortion. He may have been on to something. With the actions taken by Texas this past week, I feel we are inching closer to seeing real battles waged brewing on this topic. That's no exaggeration.

A part of me thinks the Supremes will eventually put the brakes on what Texas did. I interpret their ruling as merely wanting the process to fully play out before they get involved. The fact that Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberal wing should give the pro-choice side some hope that eventually this Texas law will be either overturned or severely pared back. I also say this because the Court really needs to get this right to save their reputation or else risk having another Dred Scott hang over their heads.

In the meantime, this gives fuel and passion to both sides of the argument, as if they needed any more. How this plays out in next year's midterms is anyone's guess. It's possible a blue state will do what you suggest and require gun owners to be a part of a militia. But it has be to a big blue state, in terms of population. Three come to mind. Here in New York, my new governor, Kathy Hochul (D), may want to solidify her liberal credentials as she plans to run for a full term next year. The Democrats have huge majorities in both houses of the legislature. Should California governor Gavin Newsom (D) survive his recall, I can see him asking the Democratic-dominated legislature to act to shore up on his base for next year and get some retribution on the right-wing-led recall effort. Finally, Illinois might do something too as Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) looks to be safe for his re-election hopes.

With red states and blue states getting into this tit-for-tat, the Supreme Court will either have to allow all of this to continue or put a complete stop. Getting back to the Civil War analogy, I foresee a new Underground Railroad developed to provide abortion access to Texas women. So while the politicians and the courts wrestle with this, those on the front lines will push the envelope because they truly believe in their cause. We've heard this before, right?

I, for one, don't like abortion. But I'm also leery of government telling anyone what to do with their bodies. This is such an emotional and personal topic. The Roe v. Wade decision tried to please all sides. It only made matters more intense for nearly 50 years. With hardly anyone giving an inch, and now Texas taking a huge step, one can see how this might play out. It won't be pretty. Incidentally, the last president born in Pennsylvania also had the initials of J.B. He was the one who led America right before the first Civil War.

As I said, Rush may have been onto something.

R.C. in Eagleville, PA, writes: For nearly fifty years the pro-life movement used the romanticized image of a beautiful, fully-formed white fetus sucking on its thumb to sway voters to their side. If five associate justices are successful in reversing Roe, the pro-choice movement will use thousands of actual photos of unwanted babies, toddlers, and children being physically abused, sexually abused, and even murdered to sway voters to their side.

Texas' Abortion Law: Consequences

L.S. in Utrecht, The Netherlands, writes: One wonders about the historical awareness of the Texas state legislature when they passed their contemptible abortion ban. Do any of the Republicans that voted this odious bill into law know about the state of affairs in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall? That was a state in which people were encouraged to rat on their fellow citizens for things that should not even be illegal. Is this the land of the free that they are yearning for?

Every policy has side effects, favorable or adverse, even more so when it regards a shameful law that resorts to legal chicanery to circumvent court challenges, as you described in your item "Under the Roe-dar." This new rule could be the last straw for some liberals to decide that they can't take any more of this far-right thuggery and leave the state (at least, those who can afford to do so), turning Texas more red in the process. It also results in a de-facto transfer of wealth from pro-choice to pro-life folks, who could turn around and donate some of that money to their favorite Trumpublican candidate. Either effect would probably be seen by Texas Republicans as features, not bugs.

But an unexpected side effect might be less sex for conservatives. Any woman in Texas that realizes that it is at least imaginable that she might at some point need to seek an abortion might eschew getting too close to her right-wing friends. After all, if she ever would need to rely on her friends for help or support in a very difficult decision, that is where all the snitches are.

C.R. in Pelham, AL, writes: Readers frustrated by the refusal by the unconstitutional U.S. Supreme Court (Justice Neil Gorsuch currently occupies Justice Merrick Garland's seat, as a result of then-Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's failure to perform his constitutionally-mandated duty to provide "advice and consent" on nominees) to intervene in Texas's equally unconstitutional statute essentially banning abortion in the state may be frustrated at their inability to take action. Internationally, when nations act in a way that others wish to dissuade, they can impose economic sanctions, sometimes known as "non-intercourse" acts—perhaps the most successful example comes from the international pressure placed on South Africa to abandon its racial apartheid policies.

Consumers should immediately cease all economic activity in Texas and with Texas-based companies. A full list of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas can be found here; I cancelled my USAA insurance this weekend. AT&T customers should do likewise, aside from their complete failure to provide vital emergency service in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Drivers should avoid filling up at Exxon, Mobil, Phillips 66, Conoco, or Valero gas stations. Consumers should not purchase Dell or HP computers, should close Charles Schwab brokerage accounts, and should stop flying on Southwest or American Airlines. Colleges and universities should refuse to schedule athletic contests with universities in Texas, and students and faculty at universities outside the state should hold administrators accountable by boycotting all such contests. Students, especially women, should refuse to enroll in higher education in Texas (men would likely follow—who wants to go to a college with no women?). Businesses and academic societies (such as the Society for Military History, scheduled to meet in Fort Worth in April of 2022) should cancel any and all conferences and meetings in the state. Film and television production companies should refuse to film there. Military personnel preparing for assignments within the state (the Air Force conducts all of its basic training at Lackland AFB, near San Antonio) could decline assignments to Texas or consider joining another service.

Any states that choose to follow in Texas's footsteps (including Alabama, which currently has the nation's most restrictive abortion law, passed in 2019 and barred by injunction) should receive the same economic treatment. If Texas insists on imposing its religious views on other Americans and rolling the legal calendar back to 1973, then Americans should feel free to impose their economic views on Texas and roll the state's economy back to 1973.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: Let me give a possible scenario here. Let's have three women, we will call them Mary, Jane and Kate. Mary's pregnant in Texas and wants an abortion.

Mary and Jane both hate Kate. Mary gets the abortion, and is in no way held liable criminally or financially. But Mary and Jane are in cahoots. Kate had nothing to do with abetting the abortion, but Jane decides to sue Kate for abetting Mary's abortion (despite the fact that Kate had nothing to do with it).

What burden of proof is actually required for Mary and Jane, who are in cahoots, to screw over Kate and force her to pay them $10,000? She can't prove her innocence, since you can't prove a negative. Civil suits only require a preonderance of evidence to be successful. So, in support of their case against Kate, Mary and Jane cook up a bunch of phony receipts and whatnot to provide that preponderance of evidence?

End result: Mary gets her wanted abortion, Mary and Jane each get $5,000 and they get to stick it to Kate, who was totally uninvolved but for the fact that Mary and Jane wanted to stick it to her. Kate is now the victim.

I have to think of scenarios like this, being a transgender woman. There are those who hate me for what I am and would gladly take a swipe at trying to hurt me for being who I am. Hell, I fear ever ending up charged with a crime I did not commit—for fear I would draw a jury that would want to hang me for being trans, and not care about any evidence that I was in fact innocent.

That may sound paranoid to you, and it is, but it is also how we must live our lives, which is why I always try very hard to be like Caesar's wife above even the appearance of wrongdoing of any kind.

Now, citizens of Texas are potentially in the same boat, even the ones who have absolutely nothing to do with abortion.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: I would describe myself as moderately pro-choice. I'm male, so the issue doesn't affect my person and I don't feel comfortable interfering with often gut-wrenching medical decisions between a woman and her doctor. The abortion issue is complicated by the paradox of the heap, because there's not an easy line to be drawn, but there is obviously a world of difference between a 22-week fetus on the edge of viability outside its mother and a 5-cell blastocyst in a petri dish created as part of an IVF procedure without which many couples would be childless. The Texas law makes a hard legal distinction between a 5-week-and-6-days past-conception embryo and a 6-weeks past-conception embryo that I believe most people wouldn't recognize, especially because the date of conception is often so vague anyway.

That being said, I personally would have trouble condoning one of my daughters obtaining an abortion (though that obviously depends greatly on the situation). I also would have the means to support her and her child, despite the disruption to our lives. I do believe that people should be responsible because there are much better forms of birth control and these should be widely available. Free tubal ligations and vasectomies should be available on demand for anyone who wants them. I recently heard an NPR news story about a single woman with three kids who had to evacuate to Houston due to the hurricane and who then needed to get her abortion just before the Texas law took effect. While I would never dream of forcing a tubal ligation on that woman, I would want her to be given that option for free.

However, there's a bad argument that's often made on the pro-choice side, namely that abortions should be legal simply because women will then go outside the law and obtain them anyway. That's exactly the argument that is made by anti-gun-control zealots ("if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns"). For that matter, why make laws requiring the use of seat belts since people will break them anyway? Why make laws against dumping pollution in a river if companies will do it anyway? It's a horrific tragedy if a woman dies in a back-alley abortion, but a murder committed with a gun bought at a gun show is horribly tragic as well.

If we want abortion safe, legal, and rare (and most people do), we cannot simply make the argument that "people will do it anyway" because that undermines the idea of the rule of law and, eventually, democracy itself.

G.T.M. in Vancouver, BC, Canada, writes: Isn't it about time that serious consideration was given to giving Texas back to Mexico?

V & Z respond: Alternatively, Texas has experienced what it's like to be part of both Mexico and the United States. How about foisting them off on Canada—er, giving Canada a wonderful opportunity to improve its average annual temperatures—and allowing the Texicans/Texans/Texadians to complete the set?


J.G. in Chantilly, VA, writes: I don't agree that there was nothing the United States could have done to transform Afghanistan from a "high-corruption country." We could have not exacerbated the problem, which we did by sinking billions of dollars each year into an economy that could not productively absorb it. U.S. officials never understood the nature of corruption, because they focused narrowly on the diversion of resources, rather than the inequalities and distortions the war economy created. Money flowed not only from development assistance but also the military, paying salaries of officials at every level, sub-contracts, and other resource flows to a rentier class. Much of those rents found their way to Dubai or other cities without taxes being paid into the coffers of the Afghan State, or without reinvestment in Afghanistan. When it was clear that the war effort was faltering in the late 2000s, the Obama Administration (under the advice of Richard Holbrooke, Gen. David Petraeus and others) added fuel to the fire by dramatically increasing money, troops, and bureaucracy.

There were some very good initiatives aimed at building local capacity, media, and civil society, and while these cannot "transform" a society, they can encourage the building of a foundation of strong communities and a proto-democracy. But all of that was drowned out by the idea that "we can solve any problem with just enough resources." What we should have understood is that with enough money and people, we can drown and undermine a society.

V & Z respond: Note that J.G. knows of what they speak, having served as an aid administrator in Kabul. As always, we are grateful to hear from folks who have expertise we do not.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: David Gilmour points out in The Ruling Class: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj that India was well managed by the British because the native population believed that Englishmen could not be bribed, and that the courts of law administered by the British treated all natives equally regardless of caste or economic status. This allowed the British to administer the disparate parts of the country even handedly and tamped down the culture of bribery and corruption.

The U.S. should have divided Afghanistan into regions governed by the military with locals serving as paid interns, training them to administer government, learn how to conduct elections and participate in a representative democracy. In other words, the U.S. should have operated a self-government school.

One last remark about who to blame for Afghanistan: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld 95%, because before the invasion, the CIA wrote a white paper arguing against a military invasion, instead proposing CIA-led raids by special forces to kill off leadership and acquire computer hard drives that contained the names and whereabouts of the 15,000 troops trained by Al-Qaeda in order to clandestinely mop up. Everything proposed was accomplished in the first month in country, so there was utterly no need to remain there. However, Cheney and Rumsfeld were always convinced they knew better than the intelligence professionals.

D.S. in Palo Alto, CA, writes: It seems to me that the Sunday attack on the Kabul airport demonstrates that our withdrawal, committed to by the former guy, would have been messy no matter when the extractions of civilians had begun (in the absence of a vigorous commitment by the official government and its military). It also surprises me that the number of Afghans that we consider vulnerable because they worked with us has escalated in the news from a few thousand to tens or hundreds of thousands. Vetting and rescuing that many souls would be a challenge in any scenario I can envision. One could only wish that politics still ended at the shoreline, but since that is not the case, Biden, as a proxy for the military and diplomatic personnel who are running this exodus, is bound to take some hits. Best he can do is continue to tell us how he sees things, and move forward where he can.

C.E. in Murrysville, PA, writes: I disagree with your analysis and the official list for the longest of the U.S. "periods of war." I think it is the Civil War. We're still fighting it.

L.M. in Berkeley, CA, writes: I thought the most noteworthy statement in Joe Biden's speech was that the way to advance democracy and human rights in the world is "not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support." What a hopeful—breathtaking, actually—sign it would be if the United States were able to implement this fundamental change in approach to our foreign policy.

V & Z respond: We are in agreement that the most important part of the speech spoke to Biden's plans for the future, even if the media insisted on focusing on the present-day sniping and counter-sniping.

J.C. in Pasay, Philippines, writes: President Obama is my favorite, but the worst thing he ever did was greatly expand drone warfare, especially in the Yemen. Yes, it saves the lives of American soldiers—at the expense of countless civilians who aren't American. The poor of the Two-thirds World bear the brunt of this arguable violation of the Geneva Conventions. It is not a good world we are going into if our wars will be fought without cost to ourselves, so we feel less moral compunction in murdering others.

S.H. in Sutherlin, OR, writes: I must comment on the letter by D.E. in Lancaster. That assessment of the events regarding Afghanistan is so right-on that it almost made me cry! What has happened in Afghanistan during these past days has been so devastating and chaotic that I have found myself beyond depressed and frustrated. I have especially found the finger pointing at Biden and all the criticism leveled at him to be despicable. D.E.'s salient observations on this whole situation brightened my day to an extent that nothing else has been able to do. My thanks to this American who really gets the whole picture. You made my day!

M.B. in Overland Park, KS, writes: D.E. in Lancaster seriously gets the situation. Glad to be among such intellectuals as a reader of your site. I wish John Q. Public had 1/10th the brain power to see through the BS that D.E. does.

Better Than a Bucket Full of Warm...

B.G. in West Hollywood, CA, writes: I've been reading a good bit about Kamala Harris lately, and just thought I'd throw my $.02 into the ring. And lord knows, there could be a bevy of things going on behind the scenes that we know nothing about. That being said...

It seems, if one wants to be generous toward the Biden-Harris team, that Joe Biden is at least trying to give his VP foreign policy experience. Normally, and without COVID, that would mean a trip to Europe. Europeans love to host American presidents and VPs, and there are a lot of strategic countries to visit that could throw out the red carpet and host a gala or two that would give her the needed "gravitas" so many on this side of the pond whine about. We'll have to see what happens once COVID subsides.

Another portfolio I would think she'd be ideally suited for is a "commission," for lack of a better idea, to improve race relations in America. In my mind, the country needs a Festivus-like "airing of the grievances." Lots of people are screaming, few people are listening, and Kamala is a good listener. Also, except for a few programs that look to nip at the edges of racial income inequality, not much is really happening on that front. Further, while there are a lot of ideas out there, many are disjointed and few have much traction. Perhaps putting them before the public with less emotion might grease the wheels of progress. Democrats could cement the allegiance of countless Americans if they were able to make even incremental progress on racial issues, lord knows they talk about it enough.

Just a couple wild ideas. I've long appreciated your work and who else am I going to share my ideas with? Besides, it seems like you enjoy hearing from your readers.

V & Z respond: We do!

All Politics Is Local

J.R. in New York City, NY, writes: Regarding the race for New York governor, you mistakenly label Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D-New York City) as a progressive. He likes to call himself a progressive, as did Andrew Cuomo. DeBlasio, in fact, is hated among progressives in the city because he has failed to address any issues he ran on. These include no police reform (he has defended the police on brutality cases), the mess on Riker's Island, his support of the Amazon headquarters in Queens, and his failure to address the housing crises and homelessness, just to name a few.

The progressive candidates would be AG Tish James (D) and New York City Public Advocate Juumane Williams (D).

D.F. in St. Paul, MN, writes: On Friday, with regard to the Minnesota governor's race, you mentioned new entrant Michelle Benson, who you wrote "comes from a town called Ham Lake, which is quite a name." It's also my old hometown, today more accurately described as an exurb of Minneapolis. Given the unique shape of the lake that gives the city its name, I would say the moniker is apt:

The lake is shaped like a slice of ham,
not a full ham

PETA recently made local news by trying to convince residents to rename the city "Yam Lake"—the proposal went about as far as you'd think. No pigs were harmed in the formation of the lake, for what it's worth. The area itself had already been renamed much earlier; Scottish settlers had named it "Glen Cary" ("beautiful valley"), but the incoming Swedes found that hard to pronounce.

On a political note, Michelle Benson is only the latest GOP entrant in the race for the Minnesota Governor's office. Paul Gazelka (R), the Minnesota state Senate Majority leader, recently announced he was stepping down to pursue a gubernatorial run. Clearly the Republicans believe they smell blood in the water. However, Gov. Tim Walz's (DFL) most recent approval ratings were above 50% (down from over 80% when the pandemic started, but still healthy), and he has a favorable combination of political history in greater Minnesota and enough progressivism to keep the Twin Cities happy. Minnesota typically has one of the stronger voter turnout rates nationally and is no Texas when it comes to voting rights. I don't think Walz is as prime a target as his opponents think.

S.Z. in New Haven, CT, writes: In the Thursday item about Florida House elections, you wrote: "With the House so closely divided, every race matters." I think Trayvon Martin might disagree whether "every race matters" in Florida.

K.F. in Berea, KY, writes: In regards to your item about fringe candidates getting lots of money: I wanted to respond to your comment on the viability of Amy McGrath (D) and how she ran a "good campaign." As an avid Democrat in Kentucky, I have to say that this is a terrible take on that campaign. Amy McGrath was never really viable. She and top Senate Democrats alienated a large portion of her base with their shenanigans during the primary. They basically froze out Matt Jones, a very popular candidate who had a top-rated radio and TV show. Maybe no one with a (D) next to their name is really viable in Kentucky right now, but the Democrats in Washington are not really listening to what Democrats in Kentucky want and need right now, either.

Religious Matters

B.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: You wrote "One of the guiding principles of the Old Testament (other than telling you what not to eat) is 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' The New Testament is more 'Turn the other cheek.'"

Grrrrr. Contrary to popular belief—which you seem to perpetuate here—there is nothing in the OT legal code which advocates or legalizes the taking of revenge by a person, by a family, or by a tribe (the Hebrews being organized by tribe). The "eye-for-an-eye" principle limits punishment. You may not believe this, but in Texas right now, if an Uber driver ferries a woman across town and the passenger has an abortion, that driver and his family could be sued into bankruptcy, even if he didn't know that the woman was pregnant. The OT principle mitigates against that sort of absurd injustice. All of us are tempted by the idea of extreme punishments as a means to an end (death penalty for parking violations!), but a wise justice system rejects them. Jesus, on the other hand, was advocating an ethical, not a legal, principle (and there is evidence that he understood this); his ethical principle is in contrast to a custom of revenge-taking and advocates a higher level of behavior, not a different kind of law.

S.K. in New Haven, CT, writes: I was disappointed by your use of antisemitic tropes in the item "Old Testament Meets New Testament--with Newsom in the Middle." You began: "One of the guiding principles of the Old Testament (other than telling you what not to eat) is 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' The New Testament is more 'Turn the other cheek.'" Maybe this was meant somewhat tongue in cheek (the bit about telling us what to eat suggests it might be), but it is no less objectionable even if so. The lex talionis principle appears only three times in the Torah, is not a "guiding principle" of the Hebrew Bible, and in context it is clear that it is not meant literally in any event. In contrast, one might note, the New Testament seems content to condemn most of mankind to hell forever. Anyone tempted by the thought that this last generalization is unfair might pause to consider whether the same is true about the suggestion that the mere expression "an eye for an eye" truly reveals something central about the ethics of the Hebrew Bible.

V & Z respond: (Z), who is most certainly a gentile, is editing this mailbag. And while he did not write that item, he feels a duty to point out two things. First, when one uses the phrase "Old Testament" over "Hebrew Bible," one is also alluding to the Christian points of emphasis rather than the Jewish ones. And Christians (some sects in particular) often posit a more violent pre-Jesus world and a more vengeful God than Jews do, so as to emphasize the redemption and the change that Jesus wrought. Second, while (Z) was consulted on that piece, the fact that he did not write it means it was written by (V), who is of Jewish heritage.

M.R. in Acton, MA, writes: I think you've inadvertently fallen into some antisemitic tropes. (Or inadvertently flirted with antisemitism? Not sure the most appropriate metaphor...)

First, in last week's Q&A, you wrote that Trump "often did the bidding of Stephen Miller, one of the most overtly nativist public figures of the last half-century." Miller's behavior is what we call in Hebrew a חילול השם (chillul haShem; a desecration of God's Name), and his own rabbi even condemned him a few years back. But there's a dangerous historical precedent of blaming the deeds of a gentile ruler on a Jew, claiming that the Jew is secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes. As we have seen, Donald Trump does what he wants, for nobody's benefit but his own. Miller should be condemned for helping Trump, not for making Trump "do his bidding."

Second, on Monday, you said that "One of the guiding principles of the Old Testament (other than telling you what not to eat) is 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' The New Testament is more 'Turn the other cheek.'" As a side note, Jews use the term "Hebrew Bible," since the Christian term "Old Testament" implies something old and worn out, in need of replacing. But this characterization of Jewish text as featuring a violent God—and Christian text featuring a loving God—is also an antisemitic trope, connected with the idea that Jews are law-oriented, and don't care about God's love, which is a Christian innovation. The Talmud teaches that the "eye for an eye" injunction is a metaphor (I know, what a concept) for a type of retributive justice that treats all humans as equal in legal standing—or, as it says on the SCOTUS building, "equal justice under law." But, perhaps more importantly, I would say that the "guiding principles" of the Hebrew Bible are that all humans are valued as being created in God's image (Genesis), and that God cares about the oppressed and frees slaves (Exodus). After all, the commandments most often repeated in the first five books of the Bible are "everyone gets a day off" (we call it Shabbat), and "love and respect the immigrant, since you know what it was like to be an oppressed guest worker in Egypt." Both of these are repeated more than 30 times in the Torah—way more often than "telling you what not to eat."

V & Z respond: We print this comment and the two above so readers are aware of the concerns being raised. However, having responded to the previous comment, it seems prudent to also respond to this one. (Z) did not write the Newsom/Old Testament item, but he did write the answer about Stephen Miller. He's well aware of the Jewish puppetmaster trope, but he also knows that there are actual puppetmasters out there (ahem, Dick Cheney) and that by statistical chance alone, some of them are going to be Jewish. The real question here is the extent to which Miller exercised influence over Trump. Trump does what he wants, yes, but he's also a weak man in many ways, and one who is very open to being influenced by those who know how to push the right buttons. We take the position that there were most certainly people in his administration, both Jewish (Miller, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner) and gentile (Mark Meadows, Mike Pompeo, Steve Bannon for some period of time) who were dictating policy on his behalf.

M.B.F. in Oakton, VA, writes: You noted that Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), et al. have called on most of the Biden administration (it seems) to resign, and that this suggests that they have taken the measure of the Republican base and found it to be, charitably, extremely uninformed about the mechanics of presidential resignation. You also suggested that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) might soon implore George Soros to train "his" Jewish space lasers on the White House.

Speaking as a person raised in Judaism, and supportive of the state of Israel, I can assure your readers this: If these lasers existed, whether or not George Soros controlled one, Marjorie Taylor Greene would not be in a position to make this request, having already been reduced to a cloud of organic molecules by said nonexistent laser.

V & Z respond: This doesn't REALLY belong in a section about religion, but we couldn't figure out where else to put it.

R.L. in South Pasadena, CA, writes: According to Gov. Tate Reeves (R-MS), Southerners don't fear COVID because they believe in "Eternal Life." FiveThirtyEight has a similar take. In her article for FiveThirtyEight, Natalie Jackson, who grew up in Leon County, TX—which is 72 percent white Christian, including 44 percent white evangelical and where the Orange One carried 87 percent of the vote in 2020—recounts the stories of three unvaccinated people she went to high school with who have died of COVID. She says: "When my classmates were hospitalized with COVID-19, there were repeated calls for prayers and proclamations that God would provide healing. When they died, those prayer requests became comments that 'God called [them] home.'"

I propose we call this phenomenon "Self-Rapture" [as-in a self-own or an own goal in soccer]. Of course, it doesn't take a large logical leap to realize this is also suicide by religion. And there is another word we use to describe a person who commits suicide in the name of religion and in doing so takes innocents with them (in this case, by infecting unvaccinated children or immunocompromised individuals): Terrorist.

R.R. in Nashville, TN, writes: A religion of one? Seems in this computer age it's a religion of:


V & Z respond: (Z) thought he made it clear that when it comes to religion, he's nonbinary.


D.T. in Hillsboro. OR, writes: You mentioned three conservative talk radio hosts who COVIDed. There's been a recount on that and it turns out there are actually four of them. You missed Jimmy DeYoung, a Tennesseean.

And am I the first person to verb "COVID"? Probably not, but I haven't seen it done elsewhere.

S.S-L. in Norman, OK, writes: Not a political issue, but maybe your readers will find it useful. I urge diabetics on low-carb diets to be mindful of their blood sugar the day after they receive their booster shots. I had my third Pfizer shot Tuesday. My first two came with nothing more than pain at the injection site. My third resulted in all the usual side-effects, plus dangerously low blood sugar a day later. I was found on the floor by a family member because my blood sugar was so low as to be immeasurable. (Somewhere under 35.)

I've never had low blood sugar before. I'll be reporting this to the side-effect trackers just in case.

V & Z respond: Thanks for the heads-up. We are certain there are some readers who will be glad to have this information, just so they can be properly cautious.

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

R.T. in Arlington, TX, writes: The mainstream media does have a liberal bias. Now, before anyone breaks out the keyboard to tell me I'm wrong, put on your CRT hat for a moment. CRT is a paradigm that explains how a system can produce a race-biased discriminatory outcome even when the rules of the system are not racist or biased. (Note my careful distinction between racism as a matter of the heart and race-biased discrimination as an objective result.) A parallel argument can be made about the mainstream media. The system of mainstream media is designed to amplify discussion of natural disasters, social problems, government errors/omissions, etc. In short, it is designed to sensationalize bad news. By its nature, bad news evokes a psychological impulse to change in some way. And by their nature, liberal thinkers are more open to change than conservative thinkers, who tend to resist it. So even though mainstream journalists don't intend to press a political agenda, their product subliminally presses for change and this pressure aligns with a liberal world view. So, mainstream media "system" has a liberal bias without a biased intent.

A.B. in Chesapeake, VA, writes: Since 2004, when available, I have read every day with my morning coffee. The facts and opinions of the writers put current events and politics into perspective from a left-center point of view with a hefty dose of balance that I loved (not too strong a word). Esoteric information, especially about historical events of which I had no idea—e.g., the California Indian genocide, was eye-opening. Links to books and websites were helpful in understanding the American condition. I really enjoyed Cycles of Constitutional Time and the website Waitbutwhy.

About a month ago, I started skimming the articles and skipping items I found less interesting, e.g. all things Cuomo. Two days ago, I did not read at all and was trying to decide why, when it finally occurred to me this morning and I was prompted to write. I am disgusted with what is going on in the country. Mostly because your discussion in pages past of options to fix what is going on gave me hope, while the failure of Democrats to act (so far) has forced me to distance myself from this stuff for protection of my mental health. I have always been hopeful that our country will continue to advance to a better place, but when the government is so unrepresentative of the citizens and there does not appear to be the will on the part of elected Democrats to consider the options that you have put forth in the past—e.g., a Constitutional Court, then I just really don't want to know about it on a daily basis. A Supreme Court with 7 Catholics is not representative of the will of the people. Having 60% of the people being represented by 40 Senators is not representative. I know there have been times in the U.S. that have been equally as bad—Jim Crow and women without the vote—and occasionally much worse—the Civil War—but this seems to be close to those times. We have the ability to fix some of this stuff now, but it does not appear that it will happen. I can only hope, but I really don't want to be reminded every morning of how disgusted I am and, unfortunately, is doing that. I need a break.

V & Z respond: For what it's worth, and without saying too much at this point, we are working on the possibility of incorporating more "fun stuff" in the near future as a palate cleanser for how heavy the news has become these days.

Word Choice

T.C. in St. Paul, MN, writes: It would be very helpful, in your discussions of infrastructure bills before Congress, to discontinue references to the types of infrastructure as "hard" and "soft." As a regular female reader of your site, I resent the notion that the nation's infrastructure needs that disproportionately affect women and children, such as paid parental leave and child care, are referred to as "soft" infrastructure. Whereas other infrastructure needs are referred to as hard, suggesting that they are more necessary to our nation's function.

My own personal experience is that paid parental leave and good quality child care are much more important to me, my husband, and my daughter than a road as smooth as a baby's butt. In fact, I walk my daughter to her pre-school, so we don't need the road at all. Calling this type of infrastructure "soft" is sexist. Let's change the way this is described and reframe the discussion. "Hard" infrastructure is really just transportation/utility infrastructure. Soft infrastructure is human infrastructure. Democrats themselves are doing these congressional bills a disservice by calling it soft, rather than human infrastructure, and thereby suggesting they are less necessary. What horsesh**. Human infrastructure is even more important.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: I was wondering how true the notion that West Virginia is "dentally-challenged" so I did a quick search and found this actual reference. In it, West Virginia is ranked 50th out of the 50 states plus D.C., just ahead of Mississippi. The #1 state is Wisconsin, followed by Illinois, then D.C., then Minnesota. Maybe good smiles are a Midwestern thing? In any case, thought you might like to add that citation so you don't get a bunch of cranky e-mails.

V & Z respond: Thanks for the citation, but it was too late to prevent the e-mails. Keep reading.

J.L. in Chapel Hill, NC, writes: Please stop referring to WV as "dentally challenged." It's obnoxious and it's an ugly stereotype. You wouldn't make an analogous comment about people of color. West Virginians deserve no less respect. I've been to the state many times. It's beautiful and the people are quite nice.

V & Z respond: Except that it's not just a gratuitous cheap shot. It's rooted in the data (see above), and it's very germane to Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-WV) swing vote on the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill.

E.R. in Irving, TX, writes: In the item on Madison Cawthorn inciting people to shoot fellow Americans if Trump or other Republicans don't successfully suppress the vote in 2024, you posed a question as to whether he and his ilk are fascist-adjacent or just plain fascists.

They are neo-fascists.

I read the crowdsourced lead sentence describing neo-fascism on Wikipedia and the current Republican party checks all the boxes; it's practically their party platform: "Neo-fascism usually includes ultranationalism, racial supremacy, populism, authoritarianism, nativism, xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment as well as opposition to liberal democracy, parliamentarianism, liberalism, Marxism, communism and socialism."

There's an old quote about when fascism comes to America. Well, it has and it is, in fact, wrapped in our flag and carrying a cross.

J.P.R. in Westminster, CO, writes: I haven't written in a while. I've been preoccupied by my own mental/emotional health matters over the last several months and my reading—while I have checked the site most everyday—hasn't been as comprehensive since Donald Trump left office. But I wanted to comment on your item about Madison Cawthorn's "worry" over bloodshed, where (Z) called a spade a spade rather forcefully. I am not claiming that this is new or out of character for the tenor of your editorial style, but it definitely stood out to me this morning. I find it a frightening place to be, and as a mental health provider, I don't know what else to do with it right now except to say thank you for doing the work of an historian and data scientist attempting to offer sober commentary in a reality that feels upside down.

V & Z respond: We hope your health is improved. And as to our editorial policy, we try to be as evenhanded as we can with political candidates and issues. However, there are some subjects—bigotry, threats to the democracy, attacks on voting rights, etc.—where we do not feel constrained in that way, as there are not two (or more) valid perspectives worthy of consideration; there is only one.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, writes: Regarding the comment from K.H. in Corning last week objecting to your use of "The Donald" as a substitute for the name of a former president, I do know that Ivana Trump used this affectionately, but I've always seen your use as sarcastic and a reference to DJT's "I am the center of the world" mentality. It would be interesting to know how other readers feel.

In the meantime, I suppose (V) and (Z) could have a good time thinking of alternatives, though if they got too creative, that might be distracting. A friend eventually settled on "Dolt 45."

V & Z respond: Overt mockery of the former president is not great when it comes to trying to be as dispassionate as is possible, but we do indeed feel that "The Donald" carries with it an implicit, if subtle, eye-roll. It is (Z) who uses that construction more frequently, and his thinking was shaped by the "Scrubs" character Dr. Todd Quinlan, a surgeon who gave himself the monicker "The Todd." Because he's a meathead, he doesn't grasp that his colleagues' use of the name is not really affectionate.

F.J.V.S. in Acapulco, GE, Mexico, writes: K.H. in Corning wrote that you should not use "The Donald." I really like when you use it, because for us Spanish speakers, putting "the" before a given name would indicate that you have not much respect (it is not overtly insulting, just disrespectful) for the person and that the person is OK with that. Who in the world might sincerely respect an "El Donald"?

V & Z respond: We are reminded of "El Guapo" from "The Three Amigos."

Conspiratorial Thinking

D.B. in Deer Park, NY, writes: In responding to the recent letters and questions concerning the assassinations of JFK and RFK, I would like to make a few points:

  1. It makes no sense to compare presidential security protocols that existed during the time of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley to those that existed in the 1960s.

  2. John Wilkes Booth was part of a larger conspiracy. Of course, he was the only one firing at Lincoln, but aside from having help in organizing and orchestrating the killing of Lincoln himself, Booth was also part of a plan to kill VP Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Citing Booth as proof that one person acting all by himself can "get to the president" confuses the issue.

  3. I defer to those with more knowledge of ballistics and forensics than I have when they conclude that Oswald was the only shooter. But so much emphasis on the technical aspects of the assassination tends to overshadow the murkier and (to me) more interesting question of "Did Oswald collaborate with anyone in any way before the fact?" I offer no speculation as to who those others might have been or what their motives were, but I back up my belief that they did exist with the words of Captain James T. Kirk: "First rule of assassination, kill the assassin."

J.M.B. in Oakland, CA, writes: Could we hear from (V) what he thinks of (Z)'s argument that things that happened a half-century ago aren't worth thinking about in any detail?

The principle that there are always some details that don't fit is certainly interesting, but when a conspiracy theory has some bits that don't quite fit, that's taken as a sign of its irrationality, isn't it? You're only allowed to use this principle to argue in one direction.

I would be inclined to agree with you that it's not worth going into the Kennedy assassination theories at this late date (though you did, and you spent about 1000 words on the subject) except that I have noted with some surprise that there's still some very well-funded propaganda out there pushing against the idea that there was a conspiracy to assassinate JFK: clearly someone out there still thinks that this is of importance (and a 1000 word essay on this point is available upon request).

V & Z respond: You do realize that (Z) is the one who is a professional historian, right?

History Matters

A.M. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: In your answer to D.M.C of Seoul you made a compelling argument that if the rebels' concerns had been mollified, the British North American colonies would have remained colonies in the short term, but not the long term.

But the independence of the U.S. would likely have been different in such circumstances. If the colonies remained part of the empire, Britain would probably have worked with them to secure their independence as Dominions of the empire, as happened with Canada.

If fact, in these circumstances, the states that were the original colonies would likely be part of Canada now!

How's that for a Canadian takeover?

V & Z respond: We hadn't thought of that...

D.A. in Santa Clara, CA, writes: Regarding the inevitability of American independence from Britain: Technology and distances being what they were in the 17th and 18th centuries, the colonies were mostly independent from the start. Until the 1760s, they ran their own internal affairs all but free of interference from Britain. In the aftermath of the French and Indian wars (that part of the Seven Years' War which determined mastery of North America for Britain), Britain started to tax the colonies to pay for the costly war it had just waged for its and the colonies' benefit. That level of direct internal interference was unprecedented. With a local elite and well-practiced in self-rule, and a significant amount of the population accustomed to minimal government, these new taxes without representation were "intolerable."

If this framing is correct, then, yes, a rupture between the colonies and Britain at that precise time in history was inevitable. The colonies were just far enough to be unrulable, the mother country just close enough to be unbearable.

V & Z respond: However, the question was predicated on the notion that the British bowed to Americans' desire for representation in parliament, and thus a voice in the taxes they were being assessed. That would likely have smoothed things over for a while, just not forever.


J.M. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: B.B. in St. Louis offered the great Herblock and Jules Feiffer as their favorite political cartoonists and asked (Z) for his, which was Berkeley Breathed. While indeed there is much talent here, added to the pantheon should be Paul Conrad, whose work spanned many decades in the Los Angeles Times, and Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury."

R.M. in Ocala, FL, writes: Garry Trudeau. Even though he has "retired" to only one new strip per week, I still start every day with "Doonesbury." I follow Berkeley Breathed on Instagram and love his work as well.

T.R. in Palo Alto, CA, writes: Bill the Cat's choice for governor is Kevin Paffrathbbft!

Bill the Cat, who is one of Berkeley Breathed's
best-known characters, is wild-eyed, as per usual, and is spitting out a 'THBBFT,' also as per usual.

Dinner Guests

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, writes: When I first read the historical figures for a dinner party question, my first choice was Oscar Wilde. Glad to see we agree. And on reading your selections I pretty much accord with them, although I might find a substitute for Lenny Bruce and/or Joe McCarthy—although as the Ur-Evil Republican, who spawned Roy Cohn (who spawned Trump) and Nixon (whose disciple was Roger Stone) I bet I could charge a pretty penny selling tickets to punch McCarthy's smug greasy face.

I will give you the Buddha, although I might chose one of his avatars, the Smiling Buddha, instead. But since you cracked open the door to religious figures, I'm going to blast it wide open and suggest Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth as dinner guest, because any guest who can bring His own supply of free wine and perpetually replicating hors d'oeuvres is always going to be the Guest of Honor in my book! Plus Jesus was one... ahem, heck of a story teller with His parables, which when viewed from His historical times were often shocking, provocative and tailored to His audience. And He positively hated the pretentious stuffed shirts of His time, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, preferring the company of whores and other sinners. Frankly, sounds like my ideal guest!

The one religious figure I would definitely not want at my party would be Moses. All his "Thou shall nots" are just a little too judgmental for me and too much of a downer. And when the party starts to get really wild, he has a history of anger management issues and breaking things. Besides anyone who can conjure up serpents, frogs, locusts and the Angel of Death...well, let's just say I've been to some of those parties and they are a complete bummer.

S.G. in Newark, NJ, writes: I really appreciated that C.J. in Redondo Beach chose John Muir as a dinner companion.

My wife's great-great-grandfather, John Swett, lived on a ranch "next door" to John Muir's ranch in the Alhambra Valley. Her grandmother said that she could always tell when Muir was coming to visit by the cloud of dust he kicked up as he walked the dirt road across the dry hills. The two men used to sit on Swett's porch and talk for hours. A photograph of them sitting side-by-side in their rocking chairs hangs in my mother-in-law's home. The Swett house is still in the family.

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: Thomas Cromwell. Hilary Mantel's historical fictional narrative has me completely intrigued. Apparently he's been rehabilitated from characterization as a Tudor factotum to an (the?) architect of the English Reformation. Even if the pendulum has swung too far in that direction, he'd probably be in a position to shed a lot of light on questions that are crucial for understanding the development of the Modern Era. To what extent did dynastic insecurity really play in Henry's infidelity to first Catherine, then Anne, then the others—allegedly searching for a male heir or just lusting after the next court starlet? How conscious were Henry and his ministers of the consequences of the "enclosure movement," a process that arguably jump-started England as an early capitalist economy? Were they just disgusted by the Church? Were they seeking short-term riches for their class allies? Henry went from being an anti-Protestant fanatic to an open rebel against Rome: What was up with that?

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: George Wythe: Virginia signer of the Declaration, instrumental in creating and ratifying the Constitution. He taught law to Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. Wythe was one of the most erudite and complex Americans of his generation. He lived a remarkable life, and his death led to a tabloid-worthy scandal and trial.

P.L. in Denver, CO, writes: Here is my list of interesting dinner guests. I'll give you one of my favorite presidents and then some significant women:

  • Franklin Roosevelt: You included his wife in your list, which I agree with. However, from what I have read, Franklin was quite a social fellow who enjoyed his cocktails!

  • Joan Rivers: She would certainly liven up the party with her jokes.

  • Amelia Earhart: Would be nice to know exactly what happened to her!

  • Harriet Tubman: She would have great tales to tell!

  • Gilda Radner: Miss this funny lady! She would have everyone laughing!

  • Florence Nightingale: Maybe she could convince any anti-maskers about the importance of hygiene.

  • Rachel Carson: For her landmark writings on the environment. However, she would probably be pretty depressed when she sees the world today.

  • Hedy Lamarr: Both brillant and beautiful, she could probably spur a great conversation on technology today.

  • Sacagawea: I would love to hear her travel tales.

A.M. in Olympia, WA, writes: How about Greta Garbo? Music to the ears hearing her calling out to the waiter "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby!" ("Anna Christie")

Her first words ever recorded in a non-silent film. She would have been a fascinating dinner guest...if she was inclined to show up.


S.S. in Kansas City, MO, writes: Thanks for getting that "Too Many Cooks" song firmly stuck into my head. If only there were a veterinarian medicine as effective at cleaning out one's brain as Ivermectin is at cleaning out one's bowels, maybe my sanity would return.

V & Z respond: Well, if you can bear to watch it again, you can see if you can find every appearance of the sociopathic killer. He shows up 22 times, including twice in the first minute.

M.F. in Leamington, Cambridge NZ (but soon returning to my native Canada), writes: Regarding your response to S.S. of Toronto:

  1. The Gretzky trade was 33 years ago. Peter Pocklington is long gone and even the most die-hard Oilers fan is over it.

  2. I couldn't find it, but about 15 years ago Phoenix Advertising did voiceover spots to play at Saskatchewan Roughrider home games mocking the opposing team and their city. The one for the Edmonton Eskimos (as they then were) kept encouraging the listeners to visit Edmonton for its many attractions, such as "the Mall, the Mall, the Mall, and don't forget...the Mall."

D.F. in Norcross, GA, writes: In response to M.C. in Newton, allow to me to clarify. Though the original statement said that there "has never been a person who knew more about hosting 'Jeopardy!' than Alex Trebek," I was really only putting Art Fleming's name out there with the idea that he would know at least as much as Alex Trebek about hosting the show, since he hosted it during its formative years. That said, I find the idea of a one-on-one contest between the two (via time machine or seance or any other necessary contrivance) rather intriguing. It would sure as hell be more entertaining than what passes for "reality" TV these days. I would, however, offer a different suggestion for the theme song. Perhaps "What Do I Know" by Ed Sheeran? Or perhaps even more appropriately, this?

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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