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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

You can probably guess who dominated the questions e-mails this week. If not, we'll give you a hint: He has much in common with Benito Mussolini—and we don't just mean Italian heritage, short stature and a squeaky voice.

Current Events

S.W. in Raleigh, NC, asks: Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) seems to excel at dominating the national conversation with his constant performative and outlandish stunts. I get that his words and actions may be effective at raising donations and building his stature within the GOP as the "next big thing," but doesn't this strategy hinge on actually winning reelection as the Governor of Florida later this year?

All of this noise may help him raise money for his campaign, which is no small thing, but it doesn't seem particularly useful in actually getting him reelected as governor, and surely he needs to achieve that if he hopes to make the case that he can win a national election. So, what would be the Plan B for DeSantis should he lose reelection later this year?

V & Z answer: DeSantis clearly thinks he's got this election in hand. And, at the moment, he's not wrong. His likeliest opponent is Rep. Charlie Crist (D), and while Crist has name recognition by virtue of having been governor previously, he doesn't seem to excite anyone. Crist has also got a habit of changing parties, such that he has the rather unusual distinction of having lost statewide election in Florida as a Republican, an independent, and a Democrat (the first two were Senate runs, the third was an attempt to reclaim the governor's mansion). Anyhow, DeSantis consistently leads Crist in polls of a hypothetical matchup, usually by 5-10 points.

Fundamentally, the Governor has made the politically astute observation that there are so many wannabe presidents that you really just have to pick your lane, stick with it, and let the chips fall where they may. This stands in contrast to a Nikki Haley or a Mike Pence, who also aspire to be president, but who have reinvented themselves and changed lanes several times. And look where that has gotten them.

If things do go south for DeSantis, well, he'll cross that bridge when he comes to it. Most likely, he'll run the Richard Nixon playbook, disappear for a while, and reemerge as a "new DeSantis."

J.A. in Puerto Armuelles, Panama, asks: You pointed out some of the risks Ron DeSantis is running by picking a fight with Disney.

My question is: What is your take on the importance of the "I-4 corridor" to the governor's re-election? Is it more of a hackneyed pundit bromide, or is it in fact crucial to DeSantis's prospects?

V & Z answer: For those unfamiliar with this reference, the I-4 corridor is a grouping of seven counties—Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, Osceola, Orange, Seminole, Volusia—that stretch across the middle of Florida:

Volusia is farthest north, and is
the only one that is on the Atlantic coast; the others form an L that terminates on the other side of the state, with 
Pinellas being the last in line, and hte only one that is on the Gulf coast.

As with any grouping that is created to be memorable and "geographically clean," not all of these counties really fit the "swingy" character assigned to the I-4 corridor. For example, Seminole and Polk counties have been consistently Republican, by a margin of 10+ points, for several generations. Volusia, which happens to be where DeSantis hails from, isn't quite as much of a slam dunk, but is also pretty red these days.

There certainly was a time—the 1990s and early 2000s—when this region as a whole was decisive in closely contested state elections (and, for that matter, certain closely contested presidential elections). However, population changes have caused Orange County, in particular, to turn deep blue, while the region south of the I-4 corridor, which was already red, has gotten redder. Consequently, a Republican can lose the corridor by a quarter of a million votes these days, and still win statewide election.

During the 2020 election, The Washington Post did a series where they broke down the various regions within some of the swing states. Here is the article on Florida, which breaks the state down into the Panhandle, Jacksonville, North Central, I-4 Corridor, Red South, and South.

M.W. in Northbrook, IL, asks: I'm fascinated by Ron DeSantis' punishment of Disney, and think it could be a great opportunity for the Democrats. They can make the story about how DeSantis is forcing a huge tax burden on citizens of central Florida (who cares if it is a bit of an unknown or an exaggeration). How about an ad with an orange farmer talking about how he now has to pay thousands of dollars to support a park that he can't afford to go to, just because DeSantis wants nationwide attention? If the political parties were reversed, the GOP would be driving this story, with Fox running 24/7 stories about the adverse effects of DeSantis's snap action.

Do you think the Democrats can go on the offensive here and, if not, why not? Seems like a great way to push some Florida votes from red to blue if managed well.

V & Z answer: There are absolutely opportunities for the Democrats to go on the offensive here, and you can bet that many Democratic operatives are already filling up hard drives with footage of DeSantis (and of the effects of his policies), and are focus grouping various lines of attack. That said, keep three things in mind:

  • The Democrats are not currently running against DeSantis. Whatever ammo they have is best saved until the 2022 general election season (September-November) or until he launches an actual presidential bid. So, they're going to keep things largely under wraps right now.

  • Democratic voters and center/center-left media have much less tolerance for outright lies than their Republican counterparts. So, if there's going to be a commercial about farmers paying extra taxes, then there better be some actual extra taxes that were paid.

  • On the whole, "the other side's candidate is Satan incarnate" seems to have less impact on Democratic voters than on Republican voters. Recall how much time Hillary Clinton spent pointing out the evils of Donald Trump, and then recall what it got her.

C.A.G. in Athens, GA, asks: It seems as though Ron DeSantis is acting more and more like a dictator as of late. If memory serves, many Latino Floridians (or perhaps just the segment with Cuban roots?) have been swinging more and more toward the Republican side in recent years. What's the chance that this same group will start recognizing the growing totalitarian-adjacent tendencies of El Comandante DeSantis and begin trying to distance themselves from him (or the Republican Party in general)?

V & Z answer: Certainly, that is a line of thinking that Democrats are going to encourage, with Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) getting out a little bit ahead of the crowd by labeling DeSantis an "authoritarian socialist." We could envision commercials, in English and in Spanish, that draw direct comparisons between DeSantis and Fidel Castro or between DeSantis and Hugo Chávez. Even better is if those commercials are funded by a PAC with a neutral-sounding name, like "The Concerned Victims of Authoritarianism PAC."

L.S. in Greensboro, NC, asks: So, Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature are taking Disney's quasi-government status away. But isn't this the same kind of status held by The Villages? I presume within the bill itself the Republicans are positioning the reasoning for this as something other than "we don't like the political positions Disney is taking." But it seems that any such reasoning would apply equally to The Villages. After all, The Villages is happy to take political positions, too. It's just that they are always on the far-right end of the spectrum.

I know that Florida Republicans have absolutely no issue with sounding like hypocrites, but wouldn't the passage of the Disney law give anyone, including the small minority of non-Trump-worshiping Villages residents, grounds for lawsuits to end The Villages' special governmental arrangement?

In other words, are Republicans once again acting without any concern for the consequences of their actions?

V & Z answer: The formal term here is community development district (CDD), and while Disney World is composed of one CDD, The Villages is composed of 17 of them. So, The Villages would indeed seem to be at risk.

However, the Disney CDD, which is the Reedy Creek Improvement District, was incorporated on May 12, 1967. The CDDs that make up The Villages first began to be incorporated in the early 1970s. The new law passed by the Florida legislature, which Ron DeSantis did sign into law on Friday, only affects CDDs created before November 1968. Surely it's just a wild coincidence that Disney falls just on one side of the line and The Villages falls just on the other side.

We doubt that there is basis for a lawsuit against The Villages, since standing would be an issue, and since the state legislature does have the power to decide who gets special privileges and who does not (and The Villages has already issued a statement telling residents not to worry). However, the laserlike timing of the cutoff will certainly come up in any lawsuits that Disney files. The DeSantis administration couldn't have been more obvious, unless they had made the cutoff May 13, 1967, at 12:01 a.m.

R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, asks: I read your comments about Disney and Gov. Ron DeSantis's acrimonious relationship in regards to the Parental Rights in Education law (a.k.a. the "Don't Say Gay" law). Doesn't it seem to you that this law will be very difficult for the state to enforce? The First Amendment gives Americans broad protections against civil and criminal penalties imposed by the government for things they say. How would the state be able to collect a fine or a parent have a valid cause of action over speech protected by the First Amendment?

V & Z answer: Well, the law applies to teachers and other staffers of state schools, and so the state government does have a fair amount of power when it comes to telling them what to do. In addition, the courts have affirmed a doctrine known as in loco parentis, which basically says that there are additional limits on the First Amendment in schools, as schools act as a sort of parent. It's meant to apply to students, and to put limits on what they can say or do, but might plausibly be extended to teachers and staffers.

That said, the point of these laws is probably not to engender prosecutions. It's to stifle discussion as much as is possible, and, more importantly, to show off to Republican voters that DeSantis & Co. are fighting back against "the gays." The real risks, which we've written about, are: (1) that the laws allow the Democrats to paint DeSantis as a Mike Pence-like religious fanatic, and (2) that a left-leaning, libertarian, or LGBTQ+ parent uses the law to sue after, say, a teacher shows up to class wearing a wedding ring, or talks about their opposite-sex spouse, or mentions the movie West Side Story. After all, "straight" is a sexual orientation, too. And the more ridiculous the cause of action (and talking about a romance/romantic comedy/romantic musical film most certainly does raise the subject of heterosexual romantic pairings), then the better it is, as it will show that sexual orientation, in all its manifestations, is fundamentally built in to discourse, and that cannot be changed with a swoop of the governor's pen.

P.N. in Austin, TX, asks: What do you think would be more damaging to NATO and Western liberal democracies in general: the election of a right-wing populist in France on Sunday, or the election of a non-Trump right wing populist here in 2024?

V & Z answer: Hard question. The non-Trump right wing populists, like Ron DeSantis, are smarter, and more effectual than he is. And right now, they are certainly talking the Trump talk, which means they could very well do things that Trump never had the skill, or the fortitude, to do, like pull out of NATO.

That said, there are no costs to expelling copious amounts of hot air, since DeSantis and his ilk aren't actually in the White House, and so there's no consequence to things like anti-NATO talk. Clearly, the Governor is willing to do harmful things, like basically surrender to COVID-19, to "own the libs." But is he willing to do something as risky as pull out of NATO, knowing full well the consequences could be disastrous? We are going to guess, with relatively little confidence, that he would not be willing, should he gain power. And we'll assume that the same is true of the other Trump clones, like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO).

Mind you, if the U.S. did pull out of NATO, that would be more devastating than anything France could do, possibly short of launching nuclear missiles. But since we assume that a non-Trump Trumper would be too smart to actually withdraw from NATO, then we will say that the election of right-wing populist Marine Le Pen would be more damaging than the election of DeSantis, etc.


W.L. in St. Louis, MO asks: I recently traveled to Florida and saw a commercial on network TV. The product (Plantation Shutters in Naples, FL) was insignificant compared to the verbal message and scrolling disclaimer contained in the ad which was something along the lines of..."if you voted for Biden then we don't want your business..."

Here's my question: As partisan as politics has become, what would it take for an all-out, hot civil war... especially considering that it's not Confederate vs. Union anymore, it's neighbors living among each other while despising each other's beliefs. What do you believe is the future of this partisanship based on history? What are the top three things that need to change to avoid such conflict?

V & Z answer: To start, in case someone wants to see it for themselves, here's the commercial you mention (well, one of them; the company has several):

Moving on, note that it is (Z) who is writing this particular answer. And speaking as a Civil War historian, (Z) can tell you that there isn't going to be an all-out, hot civil war. Not a chance. Full stop.

To start, and as you point out, the actual Civil War was made possible because the incredibly divisive issue of slavery, which was the dominant political issue in the U.S. from the 1820s to the 1860s, broke down along geographic lines. The people who felt strongly enough about slavery to resort to violence were nearly all in the South, the people who felt strongly enough about slavery (or about union) to respond with violence were nearly all in the North.

Second, when the Southerners rebelled, they had a reasonable belief they could match the firepower of the federal government, or at least come close. They were not wrong about that; weapons technology was pretty basic, such that the guns and other tools available to the government were pretty much the same as those available to civilians. Further, the federal government of the 19th century was pretty small and pretty poor, at least relative to today, and couldn't just dump 10% of GDP into quickly buying a massive arsenal and/or pushing weapons research forward at a dramatically increased pace. Today, the government's firepower is orders of magnitude beyond whatever a bunch of civilians could come up with. Even civilians who are militia members and who like to get together and play soldier in their spare time.

Third, the Confederacy's cause was, as Ulysses S. Grant observed, "one of the worst for which a people ever fought." However, there's also no question that the soldiers of the Confederate armies were, on the whole, very brave, and were willing to put their lives on the line for their cause. By contrast—and forgive the strong language here—Donald Trump is a coward, who doesn't even have the balls (tanned or not) to fire someone himself, much less foment a real, armed rebellion. And his followers have shown themselves to be cowards, too. They stormed the Capitol, yes, but then took a bunch of selfies and left. Can you imagine Fidel Castro and his supporters backing down like that? Or Hitler's SS? Or the Red Russians? Or the French Jacobins (though we do understand that Maximilien Robespierre took a mean selfie, except for the ones where his head's cut off)? We do not mean to suggest these folks are admirable, merely to point out that if you're going to wage war against your government and your fellow citizens, you gotta have stones. The Trumpers do not.

Fourth, and finally, the fight over slavery became a culture war, yes. But it was also legitimately a fight over every aspect of Southern society—its worldview, its social system, its racial order, its economy, its political system, everything. It was reprehensible for them to build everything on a foundation of chattel labor, but that's what the Southerners did. And so, when slavery was threatened, everything was threatened. By contrast, the issues that most seem to motivate the Trumpers do impact them in some ways, but they're not existential threats. In the end, Dr. Seuss books, and trans swimmers, and Disney's stance on LGBTQ+ issues, and Critical Race Theory, and kneeling football players, and even border walls just aren't that important to someone's day-to-day life.

The more apt parallel to today is not the Civil War, it's one of the many reactionary moments present in America's past. Think the Jacksonian populism of the 1830s, the urban violence of the 1870s, the lynching of the late 19th century, the Red Scare of the late 1910s, the antisemitism of the 1930s, the Red Scare of the 1950s, or the rise of the evangelical right and the Moral Majority in the 1970s. Change is hard, and periods of big change invariably produce a backlash.

What this means is that we can certainly identify aggravating factors that led to the rise of Trumpism, like the election of a Black president, the emergence of a vast partisan media establishment, the transition to a postindustrial economy, the much greater interconnectedness of the world's nations, and the Chicago Cubs winning a World Series. But there aren't obvious "fixes" or "changes" that can be made. As with all reactionary movements, Trumpism just has to burn itself out. Sometimes that happens quickly, sometimes not so much.

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: Whenever a U.S. elected official is mentioned in print, it's customary to follow their name with (D) or (R) or (I). Why not identify every federal judge in the same way, by noting the president who appointed them? As they used to say about old Hollywood westerns, "Just cut to the chase!" It would save readers the trouble of looking it up to confirm if a judge appointed by a president of one party overturned or let stand a policy enacted by an executive of the other party. In Tuesday's item about Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle striking down the airline mask mandate, (Z) did parse this in detail, which was enlightening but also disturbing. I realize that there have been judges appointed to the bench by a president of one party, and later elevated to the Circuit court by a president of the other party, but those kinds of judges are about as common as Ford Pintos are today.

V & Z answer: There are two problems with including this information. The first is that it helps normalize the idea that of course judges should be partisan actors, using the bench to help advance the partisan goals of the party that appointed them to the bench. The second is that it implicitly insults those judges who really do try their best to call balls and strikes, implying that instead of having ethics and integrity, they are just party stooges. And note that while the partisan hacks like Mizelle and Trevor McFadden and Reed O'Connor and Neomi Rao tend to make the most headlines, the majority of federal judges really do put the law ahead of partisan considerations.

That said, sometimes the identity of the appointing president is relevant, and is information that readers need and/or will want. So, we take it on a case-by-case basis and we make our best judgment about the judges.


P.R. in Saco, ME, asks: If one Supreme Court justice was off the court for any reason before the Roe decision, could that possibly save Roe? Perish the thought, but one was recently hospitalized and one is retiring. My question is about the timing of the decision-making process. When does the decision get made versus when it is made public? What generally happens on any decision if the deliberative process is interrupted?

V & Z answer: Let's start with this fact: Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization was argued on Wednesday, Dec. 1, of last year. That means that, assuming normal procedures were followed, the justices discussed and voted on the case on Friday, Dec. 3. If there was some sort of delay, then maybe the vote waited until the next week. But whatever the timetable, the case has tentatively been decided, although only the nine justices (and possibly their clerks) know the outcome.

You will note, however, the presence of the word "tentatively" in the previous paragraph. The decision is not actually official until the opinion has been written and has been signed by the justices. So, it is possible for the justices to change their votes, which does sometimes happen. It is also possible for a justice to ultimately cast no vote, if they are somehow unable to sign the opinion (say, because they're dead).

What this means is that the answer to your question depends significantly on what the vote was, a piece of information that is not currently known to the general public. If it was 5-4, with the three liberals and Chief Justice John Roberts in the minority, then it is theoretically possible that the sudden incapacitation of one of the five justices in the majority could torpedo their decision. Of course, in that situation, Roberts might switch sides to make it 5-3, which would render the incapacitated justice moot. If the decision was 6-3, then the incapacity of one justice would not matter, as long as the remaining five remained unified.

B.K. in Dallas, TX, asks: What kind of information can the 1/6 Committee or the Department of Justice get from the U.S. Secret Service about Donald Trump's actions on or before January 6? Surely, some of them must have been with him the whole time. Does the Secret Service work for the president or do they work for the U.S. (especially during an insurrection).

V & Z answer: The Secret Service works for the federal government, not for the president. And they are not lawyers, so they are not shielded from giving testimony by any sort of privilege.

However, there are two issues here. The first is that the Secret Service does not like to be a part of this sort of thing. Several agents were forced to testify against Bill Clinton as part of Lewinskygate, for example, and they were very unhappy about it. So while it can happen... well, a resistant witness is often a poor witness. The second issue is that the Secret Service can speak to where Trump was (which is already known), but they may not be able to speak to what he said, or who he said it to. Agents do not listen in on presidential phone calls, and they stand outside the doors of the Oval Office and of the executive residence while on guard. So, they might not have much information to offer.


F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: Who are the 10 most influential musicians in U.S. history, and how did they influence the U.S.?

V & Z answer: Let's start with some ground rules:

  1. To make the list, someone has to be known substantially for their work as a musician. In other words, no fair sneaking Harry S. Truman or Richard Nixon in through the back door because they both happened to play piano, or Donald Trump because he is a master of tooting his own horn.

  2. We are not musicians or musicologists, and so are not the right people to make fine-grained judgments about influence on other musicians. What we are in a position to do is make judgments about impact on the larger world. So, that will be our task here.

  3. A person need not be American to make the list, but we will be considering things from the vantage point of impact on American culture, politics, society, etc.

  4. That said, if we think someone bears substantial responsibility for creating a particular genre of music, and we believe that genre had a major impact on American society, then it could qualify someone for inclusion.

  5. We find ourselves unable to keep the list to 10, so we're going to up it to 15. Further, in cases where we do not see a way to disentangle impact, an entry might include multiple people who have a similar claim for inclusion.

  6. There is no rule six.

  7. These folks had such different impacts that we don't see a meaningful way to compare them. So, they will be listed in rough chronological order, rather than in order of importance.

And, with that out of the way, here's our list:

  1. Francis Scott Key: He's the only person on this list who never considered music to be a primary vocation, and he's only got one notable song to his name, one where he merely wrote the lyrics (and, as was characteristic for the 19th century, used someone else's music). But that song, "The Star Spangled Banner," is a biggie. Certainly, the tune has been an inspiration to hundreds of millions of people. It's also been a flashpoint for controversy on many occasions (e.g., NFL kneeling). Finally, because of its militaristic tone, it's fair to suppose that the song has brought out the inner hawk in more than a few Americans. And the more people who support going to war, the more likely the country actually goes to war.

  2. Stephen Foster and George Frederick Root: These two men, the predominant songwriters of the mid-19th century, effectively invented the career of "professional composer." They were also responsible for much of the soundtrack of the antebellum and Civil War years, with Foster—though himself a Northerner—creating many Southern favorites (e.g., "Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Folks at Home"), while Root created many Northern favorites, with his Civil War marching songs (e.g., "Battle Cry of Freedom") being his best-remembered works today. These two men didn't create the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War, but they certainly—albeit somewhat unwittingly—exacerbated them.

  3. The Hutchinson Family Singers: Foster and Root were the first people to make a living as composers, while The Hutchinson Family Singers were the first people to make their living as a musical group (as opposed to just a single individual giving performances). So, they certainly changed the music business. Further, their songs were, to use the parlance of the 21st century, pretty lefty. Undoubtedly, they won over some converts to the causes of abolitionism, temperance, women's rights and workers' rights with their works on those subjects.

  4. John Philip Sousa: As with Foster and Root, Sousa did not create the predominant sentiments of his era, but he did do a great deal to encourage them. In his case, that meant imperialism, and to this day, compositions like "Stars and Stripes Forever," "The Washington Post," and "Semper Fidelis" are remembered for rallying people behind the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and, eventually, World War I. It is fair to wonder if Sousa would have been honored, or appalled, by Monty Python's Flying Circus adopting his "The Liberty Bell" as their theme song, but regardless of his feelings (he was long dead by then, so we'll never know), that is part of his influence, too.

  5. Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong: These two men did as much as anyone to develop and popularize jazz music. Jazz was not only the de facto soundtrack of the 1920s and 1930s, it undoubtedly also served as "medicine" for Black folks who lived in an era of extreme racial oppression (we would have included a Blues musician on this list for the same reason, but cannot reasonably assign major credit for the Blues to any one artist, even Robert Johnson). In addition, through their performances for white audiences at the Cotton Club in Harlem (and other venues), Calloway and Armstrong helped, in a meaningful way, to lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement.

  6. Al Jolson: Jolson is undoubtedly the most... difficult entry on this list (though Foster is not far behind), given that he is now best known for his blackface performances. However, while that style of performance is strictly verboten today, it's not so simple as that. Jolson, a Jew born Asa Yoelson, knew oppression and bigotry, and spent much of his career fighting to integrate performance venues, particularly on Broadway. He saw the blackface performances not as an insult, but as a way to connect the Jewish experience with the Black experience. That may seem hard to believe, or even self-serving, but for what it is worth, the Black press of Jolson's era was on board with what he said he was trying to do.

    Beyond Jolson's efforts to encourage tolerance, which may or may not have been received as intended, he also took "talkies" mainstream with his 1927 film The Jazz Singer, thus reinventing the movie business (which, at that point, was only about a decade old). He was also responsible for composing several songs that had an outsized cultural impact, most notably "California, Here I Come."

  7. Rodgers and Hammerstein: Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II effectively created the Broadway musical. And while their works—Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music, etc. tended to be light entertainments, they set the template for works of much more penetrating social commentary that came after they had exited, stage right: Hair!, Equus, Miss Saigon, Rent, Avenue Q and Fiddler on the Roof, to take just a few examples.

  8. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger: For many centuries, folk music has been the music of protest. And Woody Guthrie (who was active from the 1930s to the 1950s) and Pete Seeger (who was active from the 1940s to the early 2000s) did more in that genre than any other American songwriters, producing many important and impactful works of (left-wing) protest, including Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" and Dust Bowl Ballads and Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" After all, This Machine Kills Fascists.

  9. Les Paul, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley: We are comfortable saying that rock and roll was the most important new musical form of the post-World War II era, and had an absolutely enormous impact on American culture and society. What we are not comfortable doing is assigning primary responsibility for the genre to one person. Les Paul created the solid-body electric guitar, the instrumental backbone of rock and roll. Berry took the electric guitar and did more than anyone to transform rhythm and blues into a new style of music. And Presley brought that music to the masses, in an era that demanded the face of the new genre be white (recall the words of Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Presley: "If I could find a white man with the negro sound and the negro feel, I'd make a billion dollars!").

  10. Berry Gordy Jr.: Speaking of rock and roll (and soul, and rhythm and blues, etc.), Berry Gordy Jr. saw no reason that Black artists should not have the same commercial success as white artists. And so he founded Motown Records in 1959. Had he tried it a decade earlier, it probably wouldn't have worked out, but the advances of the Civil Rights Movement created opportunities for the Black artists of the 1960s that weren't there for the Black artists of the 1950s (like, say, Chuck Berry). And by making stars of the Supremes, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and many others, Motown also helped advance the cause for racial equality. At the same time, Gordy became the wealthiest Black businessman in America, thus providing a model and an inspiration for Black entrepreneurship. Oh, and in his spare time, he penned the occasional hit song, including "ABC" (Jackson 5), "Shop Around" (The Miracles), and "Lonely Teardrops" (Jackie Wilson).

  11. Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin: There are quite a few prominent Black, female musicians who used their talents to fight the good fight for racial equality, notably Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Trixie Smith. However, we chose to list Jackson and Franklin because they came along later, and both produced songs that took on anthemic status, with Jackson's rendition of "We Shall Overcome" serving that role for the Civil Rights Movement, while Franklin's "Respect" did the same for both Black Power and for the feminist movement.

  12. The Beatles and Bob Dylan: The anti-Vietnam War movement had a profound impact on American culture in general, and also on undermining support for that war and ultimately forcing the U.S. to withdraw, and also on making it much more difficult for politicians to use war as an instrument of policy going forward. The two styles of music that unified the antiwar movement, and helped give it a sense of identity and purpose, were psychedelic rock and folk rock. The Beatles did more than anyone to create the former, while Dylan did more than anyone to create the latter.

  13. Gil Scott-Heron: He was, in effect, the poet laureate of Black Power, with his spoken-word composition "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" being of particular import. Beyond his role in unifying and encouraging the members of that movement, the DNA of Scott-Heron's work is present in nearly every hip-hop song that's ever been recorded.

  14. Liberace: At very least, Liberace spent his whole career tearing down the wall between "high" and "low" culture, making him something like the musical equivalent to Andy Warhol. Further, although he remained closeted for his entire life, nobody seriously doubted that Liberace was gay. So, we would speculate that his career and his success helped lay the groundwork for much greater LGBTQ+ tolerance, even if he did not live to see it. And certainly, his death from AIDS (along with those of Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, and several others) helped bring attention to the AIDS epidemic, and to convince Americans that they had a genuine public health crisis on their hands.

  15. John Williams: Williams has composed the soundtracks of nearly all of the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as well as the Harry Potter films. Starting with Star Wars, Williams certainly played a key role in helping to invent the big-budget blockbuster film, and so had a hand in transforming the movie business. Do you think that Star Wars really works without Williams' score? We don't. Further, the films he's worked on have embraced feminism (Princess Leia, Hermione Granger), love of history (Indiana Jones), science and technology (the Star Wars films, the Jurassic Park films), the importance of imagination (the Harry Potter films), and remembrance of the Jewish experience (Schindler's List, Munich). It's not so easy to quantify, but surely Williams has touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people in some way.

And finally, they are not one person, or even one team, so they can't exactly make the list. However, let us not forget Anonymous. There are a great many important songs whose authorship is disputed, or is entirely a mystery. Among the songs on that list: "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd," "Wade in the Water," "John Brown's Body," "Dixie," "Happy Birthday to You," "The House of the Rising Sun," and "When the Saints Go Marching In." The writers of those songs certainly influenced the United States, even if those writers' identities are lost to the mists of time.

If you think we missed someone, send them in, along with some comment as to why they should have made the list. We also welcome comments, of course, about inclusions where you think we erred in some way.

J.M.A in Round Hill, VA, asks: Okay, you have given us satisfying answers about pronouncing country names (e.g., Iran vs Iran). But do you have any idea why some of our country names are just entirely different?

Germany vs Deutschland? I kinda get that "oich" sound in the middle is not something American English speakers would naturally come to. But how about Japan? Why not Nippon, Nihon, or whatever we decided on would be much closer to the actual pronunciation of the name native speakers use, without being too hard to pronounce for English speakers?

V & Z answer: To start, most country names have four basic origins. Most commonly, they are named after a tribe or other grouping of people. France means "land of the Franks," while Afghanistan means "place of the Afghans," to take two examples. Some countries are named after important people, like Colombia (Christopher Columbus), Saudi Arabia (Emir Muhammad bin Saud), and El Salvador (Jesus; it means "The Savior" in Spanish). There are also countries named after geographical features, such as Haiti ("mountainous land" in Taino), Ukraine ("near the border" in Old Slavic, as it was indeed near the border of the no-longer-existing nation of Kievan Rus'), and Iceland (presumably you don't need our help translating this one). Finally, some countries' names have their origins in global geography. Norway's name means "northern way" in Anglo-Saxon, while Australia means "southern land," and is derived from the phrase "terra australis incognita," which was first used nearly 2,000 years ago, and translates as "unknown land to the south."

Moving on, there's actually a term to describe what people call their own country, namely endonym. And there's a term to describe the outsiders' term for a country, namely exonym. When the endonym and exonym are different, usually one of two things is going on. The first is that the foreign country is honoring, or at least being influenced by, the preferred name of the country in question. For example, the Japanese name for Japan, as you note, is Nippon/Nihon, which literally means "land of the rising sun," and which is often understood to mean something like "land in the east" or "land east of China." "Japan" appears to be a middle Chinese (i.e., the language as spoken 1,000 years ago) way of expressing the same concept (Cipangu), which was then mispronounced by European explorers as Giappone, which in turn ultimately evolved into "Japan."

The other dynamic is that the people who developed the exonym applied, to a greater or lesser extent, one of the four standards used by the developers of endonyms. Germany is a good example, since it came together as a nation fairly recently, and so gave outsiders plenty of time to develop their own names, of which there are many. The endonym for the country, "Deutschland," means "land of the Deutsch/Teutonic peoples." Many languages' terms for Germany are an adaptation of that, including Dutch ("Duitsland"), Italian ("Tedesco"), Japanese ("Doitsu") and Yiddish ("daytshland").

On the other hand, the Romans, and many of their descendants, used "Germanus," or "Germanium," or "Germany," or some variant like that. This appears to come from Celtic, was first put to paper by Julius Caesar, and meant something like "fertile land" (in other words, a geographic feature). The Spanish-speaking and French-speaking peoples use "Alemania" (or some variant), because the first tribe of Germans they encountered were the Alemanni. The Finns use "Saksa," because their first Germanic encounter was with the Saxons. Slavic-speaking peoples usually use a name derived from the word nemy, which means "mute." So, for example, the Polish name for Germany is "Niemcy," while the Ukrainian name is "Niméččyna." This is basically a "tribal" name, because its actual meaning isn't really "mute," it's "tribe whose language we can't understand."

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, asks: I went to an exhibit of the art of Vincent van Gogh and artists and authors who inspired him. There were five different experts on the recordings on the QR codes on the walls, and they all had very different pronunciations of the name "van Gogh." All I'm sure about is "van Go" is definitely wrong and the pronunciation includes a sound like you are trying to bring up phlegm, but the force used for that sound varies wildly. Can your staff Dutch pronunciation expert help clarify the correct pronunciation?

V & Z answer: It is not easy to communicate pronunciation in type, unless you can read the International Phonetic Alphabet, which most people cannot. Though if you can, it's vɑŋ ˈɣɔx.

Failing that, you might want to watch this video, which is a little over a minute long:

If you don't read IPA, and you don't want to watch the video, then the pronunciation is pretty close to "Fun Ho." He'd probably appreciate that.


M.M. in Newbury Park, CA, asks: We were visiting my sister's family in Seattle last weekend and discussing Elon Musk's efforts to purchase Twitter for $43 billion. That led to talk of all the better things that could be done with that much money. But at that point we were kind of stumped, so I thought I'd turn to you. In your opinion, if you had nearly unlimited funds—say, $200 billion—what is the best thing you could realistically do to make the world a better place, preferably without requiring congressional involvement?

Our idea was giving every teacher and social worker in America a $50,000 bonus, to keep people from leaving those profession and attract new folks, but even that seemed logistically difficult.

V & Z answer: As a general rule, you're going to get more bang for your buck in poor countries, rather than in the United States. Bill Gates, for example, spends much of his money on vaccinations for people in Africa (this excludes the money he spends on putting microchips into American COVID-19 vaccinations, of course). Another high-return option is investing in potable water sources. A third is funding microloans through an organization like Kiva.

If you're insisting on spending the money in the U.S., then we would guess the highest return option would be to set up something like the MacArthur Fellows Program, wherein you identify cutting-edge thinkers and researchers, and give them money to further advance their work.

All of this said, we're hardly experts in the subject. If you want a more informed take, then pick up the book How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place (you can just multiply all the numbers by 2.66). Their highest-ranked solution was to spend $3 billion on medicine and micronutrient-rich foods for underprivileged schoolchildren around the world.

D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: Given the generally toxic level of discourse online these days... Have you guys ever received violent threats? Anything that you felt like you needed to report to the authorities?

Please know that your readers really appreciate all of the work you do.

V & Z answer: We know that the great majority of readers are appreciative, though we're always grateful to hear from individuals who have kind words to pass along. As to the nasty correspondents, there's really only one who has gotten to the level of being threatening, and that person lives in Asia, so it's hard to see that the threats are legitimate. This individual is also not exactly the brightest bulb in the drawer; when they do write in, they hurl a stream of antisemitic invective at (Z), apparently unaware that it is (V) who is the author that is of Jewish descent, and that even he is non-practicing.

Note that (Z) has been threatened in a way that could plausibly have come to fruition, but that was due to his being on the faculty of an academic department that was threatened as a whole, and not due to the work on the website.

J.K. in Silverdale, WA, asks: Esteemed readers, here is a question of the utmost importance: As fans of this site, what should we call ourselves?

V & Z answer: If readers have thoughts, we'll certainly run some tomorrow.

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

To download a poster about the site to hang up, please click here.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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