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Saturday Q&A

The journey today starts in Canada, and ends in...Ohio.

Q: My extended family in Manitoba were expecting to see a continuation of the Jan. 6th insurrection hearings online. At 8:30 a.m. sharp on Wednesday the 28th, they settled into their chesterfields with a few six packs of Molson on the floor (and more in the icebox; hey, it's 5:00 somewhere) next to their wool-covered feet and bowl of (tater-tot) poutine balanced on their Jets-hockey-jersey-covered bellies in anticipation of witnessing the slow downfall of American democracy. But all were shocked to see regular programming.

They were saddened but, they finished the beer and poutine while binge watching the 50's Canadian TV trucking show "Cannonball" on YouTube. A few hours later, as they were about to go curling, they texted me the following questions: "Are the hearings over? Is America still a country? Are the borders unguarded?"

If the hearings are not over, do you know when they plan on continuing and on what days?
F.H., St. Paul, MN

A: We're skeptical of this narrative. So many hallmarks of Canadian culture, and yet no involvement of maple syrup, Mounties, or Tim Hortons?

In any case, as we wrote, this week's hearing was primarily for theatrical purposes; an effort to explain and justify the 1/6 Committee to as many voters as is possible. It is now that they get to the tough work, and the tough decisions. And the Committee met behind closed doors on Friday (apparently), and will meet, again behind closed doors, sometime this next week. What they are doing is discussing what to do next. It is likely that the subject of subpoenas, in particular, is getting a lot of attention. As soon as they have figured out the next steps, they will schedule and announce their next public hearing.

Q: Can you please explain again what recourse the 1/6 Committee has if a person fails to comply with a subpoena from the Committee? I am thinking here of someone like Donald Trump or House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), should they be called to testify and refuse to so do. Would members of the House, like McCarthy, be able to avoid a subpoena issued by the 1/6 Committee? M.O., Arlington, VA

A: If a person ignores a subpoena, then the first step would be for the 1/6 Committee to vote to find that person in contempt of Congress. That would then be referred to the full House, which would also have to vote to find the person in contempt.

Once a majority of the whole House has voted in the affirmative, then there are essentially three options: (1) The Committee can try to negotiate with the person in question, using the looming contempt charge as a stick, and some sort of concessions ("we'll only ask questions about X" or "your testimony will be kept secret," for example) as a carrot; or (2) they can refer the matter to the executive branch, usually the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia; or (3) the Speaker of the House can order the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House to arrest the person and detain them in the Capitol, or at some other location.

The Sergeant-at-Arms option has not been deployed in a very long time (1934 was the last occasion), but might very well be used if a sitting member of the House refused to testify. The Sergeant-at-Arms could be dispatched to escort that person to the hearing room, and if they refused to answer questions or to otherwise cooperate, they could be detained in their office. Obviously, the person in question could counter this by not showing up for work (like the Texas Democrats right now); it's unlikely that the Sergeant-at-Arms would travel beyond the grounds of the Capitol in an effort to compel cooperation from intransigent members.

Q: I watched the entire select committee 1/6 hearing and, like most, found the officers' testimony absolutely gripping and effective. The blue team did an incredible job, but so did Reps. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) in terms of their goals.

What I found most amazing is how obvious it was that if bullets started flying the invaders would have succeeded, at least for a time, in capturing the capital and hostages, to include much of the leadership of our country.

My questions are: What do you think prevented the violence from escalating? It was obviously just on the edge. The better angels in the crowd on both sides, so as to give us some hope? The training and patriotism of the police officers? How do you think things would have played out if gunfire had started in earnest?
P.S., Portland, ME

A: We'd like to give you an upbeat answer, but we don't think that "better angels" is the answer here.

On that day, as is often the case, the authorities were effectively operating with one hand tied behind their backs. They have, for lack of a better term, rules of engagement that don't allow them to deploy maximum force until it is absolutely justified. That applies to the Capitol Police, the U.S. Secret Service and, upon their eventual arrival, the National Guard.

Meanwhile, the folks who invaded the Capitol are predominantly yokels and cowards. Many think of themselves as some sort of modern-day Dirty Harry or Rambo, but few of them actually have the skill set or the necessary poise under pressure.

Should the invaders have given the police/soldiers cause to fully engage, the invaders would have been absolutely destroyed. Though they might not openly admit it while puffing out their chests, and waving their rebel flags, and building gallows, they know it in their hearts. And so, they paraded around a bit, and snapped some photos, and then got the heck out of Dodge.

Q: You quoted Officer Harry Dunn, who was in turn quoting a Capitol rioter who used a combination of profanity and a racial epithet. I was wondering why you censored the latter, but not the former. In my book, the racial epithet is not nice to call someone, but the word itself isn't a swear. If anything, I probably would have made the opposite choice. At least one TV channel opted to allow both words to pass without bleeping. C.J., Lowell, MA

A: We copied and pasted from the story we linked to, and so replicated the choice that the story made. In our case, and possibly in the case of the original source, concern about getting "n*****" right meant we didn't even think about "fu**ing." However, once it was pointed out, we went back and fixed it.

Q: Can you think of any plausible scenario (short of, say, blackmail) in which the Senate splits 50-50 on a vote, and Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the tie in favor of the side which had more Republican votes? A.J.B., Marbury, MD

A: It's not probable, but not totally impossible. Under normal circumstances, if the bill was something Democrats opposed, it would never come up in the first place. And if it was something Republicans opposed, it would get filibustered.

So, we'd have to be talking about something unfilibusterable, like a reconciliation bill. And given how aggressively those bills are being stretched to include everything but the kitchen sink, it's possible that House and Senate Democrats could put something in there that is a dealbreaker for Joe Biden. For example, some new immigration policy that the President deems to be untenable, like "all asylum seekers must be processed within 24 hours of arrival or granted automatic citizenship." In that case, the bill could end up with 50 Democrats/independents for, and 50 Republicans against (either because of the spending, or the immigration stuff, or both), and Harris could vote to kill the bill in order to force the Democrats to try again without the immigration portion.

Q: If the Senate somehow passes one of the voting rights bills, I'm guessing that ready-to-file lawsuits by multiple red states will follow by the time President Biden's signature dries. What would prevent an eventual 6-3 Supreme Court decision from overturning all or part of the new law? S.F., Pemberton, NJ

A: The current Supreme Court might be very conservative, but the six conservatives (or some of them, at least) have made clear that their rulings have to be based on some meaningful legal precedent or principle. If the Congress fixes the issues that SCOTUS has identified with the Voting Rights Act, and does a good job of it, Chief Justice John Roberts will be loath to rule against the new bill, since that would make him and the Court look bad. After all, he had every opportunity to explain exactly what his concerns are, and how to rectify them, in his majority opinions. If he joins with the three liberals, it takes only one more vote from the conservative wing, and Roberts might just twist some arms to get that vote, if necessary.

It is also the case that it takes a while for a lawsuit to come together. An election would have to be held under the new laws, then a person or entity with standing to sue would have to file, and then the case would have to wend its way through the federal court system. The odds are good that multiple election cycles would take place under the new law by the time SCOTUS got it. And by the end of that, the Democrats' position in Congress might be much stronger, forcing the conservative justices to think long and hard about whether they want to risk court packing or some other undesirable chance. It is also the case that, by then, the 6-3 balance could be back to 5-4, or maybe even 4-5. A lot can happen in 2, or 4, or 6 years.

Q: I consider myself fairly well-informed on how a bill becomes a law, but even I didn't realize there were so many opportunities to filibuster a bill. Can you explain the process and why there is a vote to begin debate and apparently another vote to end debate? When does the vote on the actual bill take place? A.R., Los Angeles, CA

A: The steps can vary based on circumstances, and depending on which chamber of Congress it is, but this is the usual process for the Senate:

  1. A bill is sponsored by one or more members, and may be brought to the floor by the Senate Majority Leader.

  2. If the Leader brings the bill to the floor, a motion is made to refer the legislation to the appropriate committee.

  3. The committee considers the bill, marks it up, votes on it, and reports back to the Senate. Usually, a majority vote of the committee is required for the process to continue. At the moment, however, thanks to the power-sharing agreement adopted at the start of the term, a tie vote is enough to keep the bill going.

  4. A motion is made to accept the report, and to begin the process of debating and amending the bill.

  5. A motion is made to adopt rules for the debate/amendment process for the particular bill, such as how many amendments are allowed, or for how much time each member is allowed to speak. At this point in the process, it is theoretically possible to limit each member's time to some discrete number (5 minutes, for example), but Senate custom is to set no limits, which keeps the filibuster available.

  6. The bill is debated and amended. Each amendment is offered via a motion.

  7. A motion is made to end debate and to bring up the bill for a final vote.

  8. The vote is held.

Each of these steps is predicated on the previous step gaining approval from the appropriate parties, generally a majority of the full Senate. Any motion can be filibustered, as can the debate process itself. And so, a filibuster is possible during steps 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Q: I favor closed primaries over open ones as open primaries permit "ratfu**ing," and I feel that the members of each party should have a right to choose their nominee without interference from the other. What is your opinion and why? J.M., Silver Spring, MD

A: We don't strongly favor one approach over another, as each has their pros and cons. It is true that open primaries allow ratfu**ing. At the same time, it is also true that they (potentially) give a voice to those whose vote would otherwise be meaningless. If you're a Republican in San Francisco, for example, you have the opportunity to weigh in on which Democrat is least offensive to you. Some folks actually do try to proceed along those lines, as opposed to engaging in shenanigans.

Q: Nevada has a Democratic trifecta. How could they make voting more restrictive? N.M., Essex, VT

A: We based our item on the map made by the Brennan Center. And they, quite reasonably, light up a state on the map if that state has done anything to make voting more restrictive, even if that state has also done things to make voting easier. The Center does not want to be in the position of trying to add up pluses and minuses to decide if a state should be on the map or not.

The new law signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) makes Nevada the sixth state to adopt an "all mail-in" model. Voters will automatically be sent a ballot in the mail, unless they specifically opt out. They can also still vote in person, if they prefer. Because of these changes, the Nevada legislature also increased the number of people per precinct (since there will be fewer in-person voters), and switched the deadline for ballots to be received from "a week after the election" to "4 days after the election." Since these two provisions technically do reduce voting access, Nevada made the Brennan Center's map.

Q: You listed Lyft and Uber among the "major business concerns" requiring employees to get vaccinated. It makes sense for Uber and Lyft drivers to be vaccinated to protect themselves, as well as their passengers. But these companies' entire business model depends on the fiction that the drivers are self-employed "independent contractors" rather than corporate employees. Does the vaccine mandate extend to drivers? S.G., Newark, NJ

A: You're right. On one hand, Lyft and Uber are trying to maintain the illusion that their drivers are not employees. On the other hand, they want passengers to feel confident about their own safety, and so benefit from creating the impression that all drivers are vaccinated.

As a result, the two companies' press releases are a little bit vague on who is, and is not, an employee. However, it appears that only folks who work in corporate offices will be required to be vaccinated, while drivers will be strongly encouraged to vaccinate while also being required to wear a mask.

Q: I love you guys but i have to take issue with this: "...on the other hand, osteopathy is a branch of medicine with a disproportionate number of quacks, and it's not just a coincidence that fully one-third of the dozen are osteopaths."

I am an MD and I have worked with countless DOs. I have never noticed any difference, ever. I think you should provide some data if you ar going to make an inflammatory claim such as that.
K.P., Brooklyn, NY

A: It is true that there are plenty of very good DOs. It is also the case that there's no such thing as the "quackery index," so it's not especially plausible to put our remark on a strict numerical basis. That said, we will offer up what we can.

To start, there are 39 schools that offer DO degrees. They are not as prestigious as MD programs, so they don't usually attract the most elite students. Put more precisely, MD schools tend only to accept folks who score in the top 20% of all test-takers. DO schools tend to extend that to the top 40%. It is also the case that some hospitals affiliated with DO schools struggle to attract enough patients, and often don't have much of a research arm, so students there don't get as wide a range of exposure to different kinds of patients and conditions as MD students do.

Meanwhile, osteopathy was founded as a branch of medicine in 1892 by Andrew Taylor Still, after he had been run out of the mainstream medical profession. He believed in "the body's ability to heal itself" (shades of chiropractic, acupuncture, etc.), and in particular was an advocate of musculoskeletal manipulation called osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT). In fact, that is where the name comes from: osteo (bone) + path (pain). There is no evidence supporting the efficacy of OMT.

The American Osteopathic Association no longer overtly endorses OMT, but they do endorse the following statement of principles:

  1. The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit.
  2. The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.
  3. Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
  4. Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.

You can believe in these things, and still be a science-based MD or DO. However, there is clearly a lot of approval in there for those who buy into OMT and other pseudoscientific practices, like cranial therapy, clinical ecology, chelation therapy, orthomolecular therapy, and homeopathy. Surely it cannot be a coincidence that fully 33% of the "disinformation dozen" are osteopaths? And it's probably the case that the DOs who embrace these things were inclined to pseudoscientific thinking anyhow, and chose a DO degree because they knew that "alternate" approaches would be more tolerated.

Q: Given his mishandling of the pandemic in his state, what are the chances that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) faces a recall? For that matter, what are the chances for a recall of any (mostly red state) governor dealing with a troublesome COVID surge? If it can happen to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA)... M.C.A., San Francisco, CA

A: The chance of DeSantis being recalled is zero, and that is also true of most of the other red-state governors. This is because the great majority of states do not have provisions on the books for recalling a governor.

There are only six states that vote on the recall and on a replacement at the same time. In addition to California are Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Of those, only Arizona and North Dakota currently have Republican governors.

There are another eight states that vote on the recall and then, if needed, have a second election to pick a replacement. Those are Oregon, Montana, Minnesota, Illinois, Louisiana, Georgia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Of those, only Montana and Georgia currently have Republican governors.

There are five states that vote only to recall, and then, if the recall is successful, treat the office as if it has become vacant (in other words, the same as if the governor had resigned or died). Normally that means the lieutenant governor takes over. The five states that use this system are Washington, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, and Alaska. Of those, Idaho and Alaska have Republican governors.

And finally, Virginia's system allows the governor to be subjected to a "recall trial" by the state courts. If convicted and removed, then the lieutenant governor takes over. Virginia is currently led by a Democrat, Ralph Northam.

As you can see, if you add it up, there are only six Republican governors who could possibly be subjected to a recall. Further, only two governors have ever actually been recalled: Gray Davis (California, 2003) and Lynn Frazier (North Dakota, 1923). Also, Scott Walker (Wisconsin, 2012) survived a recall vote, and Evan Meacham (Arizona, 1998) was impeached and removed before the already-approved recall election could be held. That's a grand total of four times that a governor has even been in the vicinity of a recall, so it's quite rare, even in states where it's allowed.

Q: In your item on Ron DeSantis, my jaw hit the floor when I read "the governor is either the frontrunner, or one of them at least, for the 2024 nomination, assuming Don Sr. sits that election out (and we think he will)." What makes you think Don Sr. won't run in 2024? The nomination is his for the asking, his health seems to be holding up based on his current rally schedule, and there's no guarantee that he will be in prison, or even indicted, by 2024. I consider Trump to pose an existential threat to the continuation of the U.S. as a democratic federal republic, but I also don't want to engage in wishful thinking. L.B., Savannah, GA

A: That might have been worded with a bit more precision; something like "we think it is more likely than not that Trump sits 2024 out." That said, we discussed it, and agree that the potential strikes against a Trump run, in the aggregate, add up to a considerably more than 50% chance of his not running.

To start, if he's going to be indicted, it's going to happen before 2024. New York, Georgia, and the federal government are either going to make a move, or they're not, but they're not going to drag things out for 4 or 5 or 6 years (due to statute of limitations issues, among other things). And we would say that "indicted" is more likely than "not indicted."

As to his health, nobody really knows the truth, do they? Even Trump himself, he is the type to bury his head in the sand and to avoid hearing unpleasant truths, and so could very well be in the dark about serious underlying conditions. Still, we know he's in his seventies, eats an unhealthy diet, leads a high-stress life, and suffered a serious case of COVID-19. If he were to have a massive heart attack tomorrow, it would not be a surprise. Further, his cognitive function is still an open question, given that the only "test" administered was not the appropriate one, and was overseen by Ronny Jackson, who has revealed his true colors since. If he has some sort of dementia, or Alzheimer's, or something similar, then 3 more years is a long time. Ronald Reagan could still make public appearances 6 months after he left office in 1989, but was seriously compromised by 1992, and had to cease all public appearances by the end of 1994.

Finally, Trump might lose his hold over the Republican Party and/or over some significant portion of the base. Alternatively, 3 more years might be enough to shrink his base to the point of non-viability. There's a strong possibility that he sees polling that tells him that a huge defeat is likely, and that he stays out of the 2024 race in order to save face.

Anyhow, add it up, and we think the chances are he doesn't make another run.

Q: My good friend just posted the following to his Facebook page, and I'd like to hear your thoughts: "I just had the most bizarre thought. Part of me actually wished Donald Trump had been re-elected. Do you really think we would have had all this vaccine hesitancy/refusal if he were still in the White House, pushing his supporters to avail themselves of a miracle cure he personally created? Please. COVID-19 would have been done and dusted by now." J.L., Los Angeles, CA

A: We do not believe that a second-term Trump would be doing better than the Biden administration is doing right now. Certainly not "we've got this thing completely beat" well.

First, Trump and the people under him botched every single large-scale logistical challenge that was thrown their way. They screwed up emergency relief (think: Puerto Rico). They screwed up the distribution of COVID emergency funds. They even screwed up early distribution of the vaccine. When Biden took office, the administration couldn't even figure out how many doses the federal government actually had in its possession, or where they were, because the Trump administration bookkeeping was so poor.

Second, as reader J.O. in Columbia pointed out last week, some sizable portion of right-wing anti-vaxx sentiment was baked in before Trump ever came along; he did not create it, he adapted to it and utilized it. Part of the reason that he continues to be vague on vaccination is he fears alienating a large portion of the base.

And finally, recall how many people (including, for example, Kamala Harris) said they would struggle to trust a vaccine that came from the Trump administration. There is anti-vaxx sentiment on the left, and there is also a deep distrust of Trump. And so, every current unvaccinated Republican that Trump might have gotten if he'd remained president, he likely would have lost a vaxx-hesitant or a Trump-hesitant Democrat.

Q: Is there a particular instance in U.S. history where a former president has held so much sway over politics as Donald Trump?

From my recollection of recent presidents, they have all exited stage left and gone off to do their own thing, as opposed to remaining involved in politics. About the only former president that I can recall doing anything significantly political is William Howard Taft when he joined the Supreme Court.

And how much longer do you think Trump will continue to dominate what Republicans do?
R.M., Pensacola, FL

A: Most of the really popular and/or successful presidents left office horizontally, or else went to great beyond shortly thereafter. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Washington, and Woodrow Wilson might plausibly have exerted enormous post-presidential influence, had they wanted to do so, but they only had 0 years, 0 years, 2 years, and 4 years, respectively.

That said, the two that had even a brief chance didn't take it because they made a point of honoring the notion that their successor was now president, and they no longer were. This is something that nearly all ex-presidents have adhered to, and that we think Lincoln and FDR would have adhered to, as well.

To the extent that there are significant exceptions, they are with folks whose political career was not over after leaving the White House. John Quincy Adams became an important party leader in his second career as a member of the House of Representatives, and one of the earliest leaders of the anti-slavery movement. Grover Cleveland was pulling a fair number of strings after his first term because he aspired to, and got, a second term. Theodore Roosevelt headed off to Africa and tried to leave his successor Taft alone, but eventually got back into the arena, and wrecked the Republicans' chances of winning the White House in 1912.

The one who would appear to be most comparable to Trump is TR. And TR learned the hard way that when you leave office, a lot of people tend to move on. We've taken the view, including this week, that Trump, because of his temperament or his desire to remain relevant, is flexing his muscles carelessly and in a way that makes clear that the emperor has no clothes. We think his influence will wane pretty quickly, although maybe not quickly enough to save the Republican 2024 presidential campaign. What happens in the 2022 midterms will matter a lot.

Q: I see a lot of stories claiming Donald Trump is the greatest grifter of all time (or something to that effect). Surely, his grifts can't compare to the long term grift perpetrated by Bernie Madoff? I suppose which metric is used for comparison will affect who is considered the greatest—most money, greatest number of marks, most creative schemes, etc. Although Madoff probably wins on dollars ($64.8 billion per Wikipedia), he was a one-trick pony. I would be interested in your analysis on who is the greatest grifter of all time. If not Trump or Madoff, who else makes the list? J.A., Kansas City, MO

A: To start, there is zero chance that Trump is the greatest grifter of all time. A true great is good enough to fool everyone, or nearly everyone, the way Madoff did for so many years. Trump's grifts are so obvious that everyone but the marks sees right through them. He's not that much more skillful than someone who is running the Nigerian prince scam.

Meanwhile, a truly great grifter profits enough from their schemes to achieve financial security. Trump, by contrast, seems to be in a perpetual state of financial turmoil. Perhaps we are wrong about this, but it seems like the latest grift is always about patching the financial holes left from the second-latest grift.

Anyhow, we have no idea who the greatest grifter of all time is, because whoever they were, they were good enough to take their secrets to the grave. However, long after Madoff is forgotten, people will remember Charles Ponzi, who was talented enough that the most famous grift of them all bears his name. Also high up on the list is Count Victor Lustig, who wasn't a count, and who twice managed to sell the Eiffel Tower. And then there is Frank Abagnale, who had a career as a young grifter, wrote a book about it, got a movie made about it, started a consulting practice for those who wished to avoid grifters, and then turns out to have lied about virtually everything. And so, his grift wasn't the actual grifts (which basically never happened), it was the story he told about those grifts. That's pretty meta.

Q: Any idea who will be doing the official portraits of Donald and Melania Trump? Any thoughts on when? And where they might be hanged, I mean hung? P.Z., Great Falls, VA

A: The portraits themselves, and the unveiling ceremony, are the province of the White House Historical Association. Since Donald Trump was unwilling to be magnanimous for a day, the Obama portraits have yet to have their official unveiling. And since Trump hasn't exactly changed since leaving office, there is zero chance he'll be willing to screw a smile on his face and play nice with Joe Biden for a day. So the odds are that Biden presides over the (pending) Obamas' unveiling, and the Trumps wait for the next Republican president.

Q: Your excellent brief rebuttal to electoral fraud claims—Why would Donald Trump permit his lawyers to lose more than 60 cases?—would be greatly strengthened by adding a more specific clause to the effect that X% of the judges/courts who rejected such claims were Republican/Trump appointees, assuming that X is actually a substantial number. Mark Elias makes the point in general terms that a number of the judges/courts were Republican/Trump appointees, but a meaningful number/summary statistic would add to the punch of your statement without lengthening it by much. Can your staff legal counsel and mathematician get together to provide this ammo? J.S., Cambridge, MA

A: There is nobody who is more on top of this subject, including the "numbers," than Elias. But he's never put a total, or a percentage, on the "Trump judges" or the "Republican judges" because it's not really plausible to do so. To start, the substantial majority of the cases were heard by state, and not federal, courts. And with state-level judges, partisanship can be fuzzy. Some judges are declared party members, others are "nonpartisan" but everyone knows which party they really are, and still others are legitimately nonpartisan.

Meanwhile, even with the federal cases, there is ambiguity. In particular, Samuel Alito, in his role a circuit judge, referred several cases to the Supreme Court, which they declined to take up. In some cases, there was no dissent and there was no vote tally. So, is that 6 Republicans who voted against Trump? Or 5 (the conservatives minus Alito)? Or some lesser number? And do you count those folks once, or do you count every case they declined to hear?

All that can be said for certain is that judges of all stripes ruled against Trump, including several that he himself appointed to the bench. The latter list includes Brett H. Ludwig, Michael Scudder, and Stephanos Bibas.

Q: We were driving behind a car with a "thin blue line" flag sticker. I happened to mention to my kids that it always makes me a little nervous to see that. When they asked why, I was stuck. The best I could come up with is that, to me, it's become almost the opposite of a "Black Lives Matter" sign—or at least, you would be surprised to them displayed together. Of course, when we passed the car, it turned out to be a Black family driving. Is my discomfort with the thin blue line flag misplaced? If not, what is a good way to explain why it bothers me to someone who is unfamiliar with it? M.H., Boston, MA

A: It is entirely possible that someone could just be a supporter of the police, and could feel this is the best way to express that. It is also possible that someone had a great-grandfather who fought in the Confederate Army, and that they have decided that displaying the battle flag is the best way to honor his service.

With that said, the Confederate battle flag is associated with a social theory that posits that Black people are inherently inferior to white people. It does not help that the flag was not only waved by actual Confederates, but also by opponents of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Similarly, the thin blue line is associated with a social theory that posits that various elements of society (for example, white people and people of color) are in extreme conflict with one another, and that thank goodness the police are there to maintain order (even if they have to crack a few skulls).

As we said, it is possible that someone could embrace these symbols without ascribing to the subtext. That said, the subtext is now well enough known that they have to be aware of it. And if they continue to wave their battle flags/thin blue line stuff around, even with that awareness, they are implicitly embracing (or, at very least, tolerating) that subtext.

Q: You wrote: "If we had been doing Electoral-Vote back then [in 1815-25]..." If you, the (V) and (Z) we've come to know and appreciate, had been 'posting' anything back then, you'd have time travel on your side and the knowledge of future events—plenty to write about! The thing I always wonder about time travel is: Do you get to take reference books with you? For example, would I be able to "invent" gunpowder 10,000 years ago, or smelt copper? (I'm pretty sure I could 'invent' the wheel, and maybe a bow and arrow, if I didn't starve to death first!) T.B., Tallahassee, FL

A: That's the problem with time travel (or with genies who grant wishes): There are huge and obvious loopholes to be exploited. That's why nearly all narratives find an excuse to put strict rules on what "can" and "cannot" be done. The obvious thing would indeed be to take an engineering textbook, a medicine textbook, and a chemistry textbook with you. You could also take a songbook with all the works of the Beatles, so you could "write" those. Or, alternatively, a laptop with the entire Internet downloaded to it, accompanied by a bunch of extra batteries.

Even if you're not allowed to take any objects (like the time travelers in the movie "The Terminator"), we still know enough stuff without them to create not only the classic simple machines, but also rifled weapons, basic internal combustion engines, light bulbs, and dynamite, among other things. And we could probably get pretty far down the road of synthesizing penicillin and modern fertilizer. So, that's why you not only have to be limited in what you can take, but also how long you can stay in the past.

Q: As long as you're answering questions with a sci-fi flavor, I've got one for you: You've been given access to a time machine which you can use once to visit the past for a year. When you travel to the past you can fully interact with it, but nothing you do will affect history. You can bring back what you learn, and publish it to burnish you academic credentials (presume that the world is aware of this time machine and it's been proven to work), but otherwise you cannot profit off of the trip.

What year, or 365 day span, do you visit?
P.N., Austin, TX

A: The general rule is that the further back in time you go, the less documentation there is, and the less we know. So, as much as an Americanist like (Z) would be interested in seeing the Gettysburg Address, the benefit would be somewhat small, as that event is very well documented. The much greater benefit would come from traveling back to the year that Jesus died. There is much about his life and crucifixion that are unknown, or are only speculated about, and that are of great interest to people, both historians and otherwise. There would also be enough time to visit the Roman Empire in its early years, and also the Chinese empire in a key period of strife. That said, one has to be careful about one's calculations, because the year we think of as 1 A.D. probably wasn't, which means the year we think of as 33 A.D. probably wasn't.

If we're limiting ourselves to American history, then there is much that is unknown about pre-Columbian Native cultures. Assuming there was a way to overcome the language barrier, as well as the "you don't look like one of us" barrier, then a visit to Cahokia, circa 1100 A.D., would be great.

Q: I commented last week about the OH-11 race and mentioned sports. Yes, I'm a fan of the Guardians (nee Indians). Some people wanted "Spiders" but a I assume the creepiness or potential artwork trademark infringements (with Marvel) scared team legal reps.

Is (Z) is as frustrated as I have always been with the name "Indians" for all Native Americans, from a historical perspective? Isn't it a 500-year-old misnomer? Our baseball team should have been called the Cleveland American Natives, or Indigenous Peoples, or First Peoples. An Indian is someone from India. I understand that some guy from Italy called them "indios" and then Europeans started calling the places he visited the "West Indies." Is Eurocentrism so ingrained that it will never correct these mistakes?
D.S., Lakewood, OH

A: Technically, it was an Italian guy working for Spain. But yes, it's certainly a misnomer, and it's not great from a tolerance standpoint or an accuracy standpoint. Also really bad is "Hispanic."

That said, there are two mitigating factors. The first is that many Native Americans have decided that they either like "Indian" or, at least, that they don't care. The second is that anytime you group a vast array of diverse peoples together under one blanket term, a lot of imprecision will sneak in. While Indians doesn't really make sense, it also doesn't make sense that Russians, (the original) Indians, Israelis, Iraqis, Filipinos, and Laotians are all "Asian," or that Moldovans, Greeks, Russians, Britons, Italians, and Finns are all "European."

Q: Can you provide information on where African slaves came from? Who caught them and sold them to the Europeans and Americans? My understanding is that this was done by other tribes, but my knowledge of African history is extremely limited. B.B., St. Louis. MO

A: African slavery pre-dated European contact, although it was closer to "incorporating prisoners-of-war into our tribe" than it was to slavery as we understand it.

Anyhow, as it became clear that the great powers of the Age of Exploration had a near-insatiable demand for slave labor, quite a few folks got into the slave business. Arab traders in East Africa, and European slave hunters, and African tribes as well. However, the Spanish/English/Dutch/French people eventually figured out that the best places to get slaves was West Africa because the weather in West Africa was similar to the weather in the South and the people were adapted to it. Also, due to the similar weather, the crops grown there were similar to those grown in the South, so the slaves had useful skills. In addition, West Africa is much closer to North America than East Africa, making transportation costs (and probably death rates on board the ships) lower. Meanwhile, Africans were far better at capturing slaves than Europeans were. So, the Europeans would trade guns and other important technological goods to African tribes. Either the Africans could play ball, or could decline, and end up as the prisoners of the armed-with-guns tribes who did play ball.

Q: Did any part of the U.S. government, or state governments, ever directly own slaves? If so, how was that organized? If not, why not? D.C., Brentwood, CA

A: There may be a few rare exceptions, but broadly speaking, the answer is "no."

Part of the deal with purchasing a slave is that you accept responsibility for them for the remainder of their natural lives, which could be 2 years, or 10, or 50. Back then, people were very concerned about the government taking on responsibilities that were not explicitly spelled out in law, and there's nothing in the U.S. or state constitutions about feeding, housing, and maintaining slaves. Further, taking responsibility for a slave commits the government to future expenditures, which was arguably illegal, since money is budgeted by the year, and not the decade or the lifetime.

So, when the state/federal governments used slave labor—which they most certainly did—they hired the slaves on a contract basis from the slaveowners. In some states, prisoners were used for forced labor, but those governments already had the responsibility for housing them.

Q: Something I've never understood. I know, of course, that in terms of realpolitik, the winners write the history, and make the rules. But in terms of ethics (and ignoring the rather large elephant of slavery) why was it wrong for the South to secede but okay for the U.S. to leave Great Britain? It seems like it's either wrong to rebel, or it's allowable. J.C., Binan, Laguna, Philippines

A: This was the exact argument that the South made; that they were no different than the American colonists approximately 80 years earlier. If you'd like to read about the nuances and subtleties, then Emory Thomas' The Confederacy As a Revolutionary Experience is very interesting, and is only 160 pages.

The Northern argument was that the American colonists never consented to being subjects of the monarch, they just were. On the other hand, the Southern states willingly joined the United States, not unlike signing a contract. Except, said Northerners, this contract was ongoing, and had no expiration date.

Q: Why is gun control such a divisive issue in the U.S. in contrast to most (if not all) other developed countries? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: There are whole dissertations about this, but the short answer is that unlike most citizens of developed nations, Americans didn't like standing armies (preferring militias), and also had to conquer a frontier. Both of these things made guns a central feature of early American life, and during that time, they came to be strongly associated with freedom, and bravery, and masculinity, and so forth. It's not a coincidence that the most powerful and enduring portion of American mythology is the gunslingers of the Wild West.

Q: Can you provide more insight about Virginia governors not being able to serve consecutive terms? A quick Google search tells me that this has been state law for nearly 200 years, which surprised me. I would have thought this a more recent development, with one party trying to kneecap the other due to hyperpartisanship. I'm curious as to what the reasoning was behind putting this into law since the federal government didn't follow suit for the executive until nearly 100 years later. My best guess is that the writers of the state constitution wanted to codify the "govern for a while, then go back to your farm (plantation? Yeah, definitely plantation.)" idea. Am I wrong about this?

P.S.: Calling it now, Aaron Rodgers to Pittsburgh following Big Ben's retirement in the spring. :)
J.J. Johnstown, PA

A: The folks who led the revolution were, of course, suspicious of strong, central authority. That sentiment was particularly profound in the South, in part because of the culture of the region, and in part because a strong government was the biggest threat to the slave system. Virginia, as the biggest Southern state, and the biggest slave state, was the most staunchly anti-centralized-authority.

And so, when Virginians wrote their state constitution in 1776, they created a weak governorship. Further, to make sure that no one person accrued too much power (even "soft" power), they decreed that the term of office was one year, and that a person could serve no more than three consecutive terms. When the Virginians rewrote their constitution in the 1830s, they decided that having gubernatorial elections each year was a waste of time and money, and so they converted it into one three-year term, and eventually one four-year term. But the "take some time off after a few years in office" dates back nearly 250 years. And in all that time, only two governors have ever returned to power. If Terry McAuliffe wins this year, he'll become the third.

And if you would like to pay a 38-year-old Aaron Rogers $40 million a year for the twilight portion of his career, then have at it.

Q: Speaking of NFL championships, you wrote that there are "6 for franchises that no longer exist." What where the names and cities of the franchises that no longer exist anymore? C.T.P., Lancaster, PA

A: In chronological order, the Akron Pros (1920), Canton Bulldogs (1922 and 1923), Cleveland Bulldogs (1924), Frankford Yellow Jackets (1926), and Providence Steam Rollers (1928). The Buffalo All-Americans (1921) and Pottsville Maroons (1925) also played for a title, but lost.

As you can see, there was a time when Ohio was quite the pro football powerhouse. But then the 1920s ended.

Also, note that elements of the Cleveland Bulldogs became part of the New York Giants, and elements of the Frankford Yellow Jackets became part of the Philadelphia Eagles. However, while the Giants and Eagles still exist, the NFL does not officially consider them to be successor franchises of the earlier teams.

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