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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

The topic of the week? Education. Though history and politics are going to get some attention, as well.

Politics: Herschel Walker

N.A. in Asheboro NC, writes: Your item "Is Herschel Walker a Preview of 2024?" reminded me of something I've been thinking for years and telling my fellow disaffected liberals since 2016. I grew up in North Carolina attending a Southern Baptist church. Trust me, there's basically no such thing as an unelectable Republican in the South (except, maybe, Roy Moore). If you're going to ratf**k, vote for the moderate/most acceptable candidate. Do that enough times and you might actually drag the Republicans back to some semblance of normalcy.

R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: I recall one Cal Cunningham 2020 Senate race being derailed because of some PG-13 texts to a woman that was not his wife. This episode likely caused him to lose a race he was leading in every poll... and his texts were rather tame; this wasn't some bitter fight where he threatened or blackmailed a woman. There were no racy phone message left (like what former CBS sports reporter Pat O'Brien did). Also, Cunningham never professed to be one of those holier-than-thou candidates.

Now, in the 2022 Georgia U.S. Senate race, we do have a holier than thou candidate in Herschel Walker (R), who said abortion should be illegal in all cases—unless the woman is someone who he slept with and got pregnant. In Walker's view, no exceptions for rape and incest, but there are exceptions for former NFL players who are careless. Walker's scandal is 2022x worse than the aforementioned Cal Cunningham's of the 2020 cycle. It remains to be seen if this results in his defeat, which it should if voters have half the sense of outrage as they did for Cunningham.

Therein is the difference between the 2 parties: Democrats expect their Senate candidates to be people of strong character, whereas the GOP only cares that their Senate candidates are "aye" votes for conservative judges.

Politics: Republicans and Race

J.K. in Freehold, NJ, writes: O.Z.H in Dubai wondered why, if there was a white backlash to Barack Obama, how he could have won two presidential elections? In fact there was a white backlash, but not enough to win presidential elections against Obama.

From the start, and throughout his presidency, the right wing in America constantly declared that Obama "is dividing the country" and "has divided the country." Your analysis of why Obama won twice I think is correct, but this being true despite the backlash that occurred, it was just not a big enough backlash to defeat him. I could never understand what Obama was doing to create this divide except for the fact that he was Black; this never happened to Bill Clinton though his policies were very similar to Obama's. It's obvious that TFG has made it his quest to amplify this divide to the ultimate extreme. So, despite the racial progress having been made, America still harbors plenty of racism. The Civil War has not really ended for a significant portion of the American body politic.

H.F. in Queens, NY, writes: In your item about Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), you wrote:

Whether Scott would be a viable candidate for president or vice president is another excellent question. Whether or not the RNC admits it, there are a lot of racists in the Republican Party, and it's hard to see them supporting a Black man for one of the two top jobs. The general idea, as we also pointed out yesterday, is that Scott would make up for that by pulling some sizable number of Black votes from the Democratic Party. But there's no particular reason to believe that he'd be able to do that; he's never captured more than 10% of the Black vote in his Senate races, and has always been elected on the strength of white, Republican votes.

What I believe your assumptions fail to appreciate is that white Republican voters may readily support Tim Scott not in spite of, but because he is a Black man. It enables them to have a candidate that promotes a conservative (white) nationalistic agenda and at the same time be able to say, "See, I'm not racist because I support a Black candidate."

To generalize, many conservative white people take great offense at being called a racist or a white supremacist (deflecting from actually evaluating their actions, biases, and beliefs and how they have been shaped by the legacy of white supremacy in this country). When there is an opportunity to pluck out a single counterfactual example as proof that the rule is wrong, they will flock towards that counterfactual, and then absolve themselves of having to address issues of systemic racism and white supremest attitudes further.

So we could find Tim Scott able to garner quite a bit of white Republican support (if there is no Trump on the ticket) because it will "prove" that systemic racism and white supremacy are no longer major forces that still influence outcomes in this country as the Democrats would have everyone believe.

Politics: The U.S. Goes to Pot

L.C. in Brookline, MA, writes: I know that a string of puns is too juicy to pass up, but to celebrate the pardons of marijuana offenders is to ignore the wave of marijuana use that will come with decriminalization, followed by a wave of stoned driving and smoking-induced disease like that of tobacco, including second-hand smoke, from which the rest of us will no longer have legal recourse. I have already been forced into an emergency change of residence (during the roaring pandemic year of 2020) to get away from pot smokers, and I have already found certain bus stops to be intermittently unusable due to pot smokers(*), and this is only going to get worse as marijuana turns into Big Tobacco 2.0.

(*)MGL Part 1 Title XV Chapter 94G Section 13(c) states "No person shall consume marijuana in a public place or smoke marijuana where smoking tobacco is prohibited. A person who violates this subsection shall be punished by a civil penalty of not more than $100." However, this means that at most they will receive a slap on the wrist, which is obviously not enough to deter them even if they think about it at all.

T.K. in Mason, MI, writes: While I support marijuana legalization at both the state and federal levels, and have appreciated legalization's impact on my state of Michigan, I feel my background in criminal records (19 years with the state police) compels me to point out that Biden's pardoning of federal convictions of marijuana possession will only affect a small percentage of Americans. The vast, vast majority of convictions for that offense are at the state and local level—probably over 99% of the cases in the U.S.—and those persons will be unaffected by any federal pardons. Plus the FBI is so strict with their access to federal criminal records that very few people even had access to those convictions. For example, in Michigan, primary and secondary school teachers had to have both a State and an FBI records check, but any university students or faculty would only have a State of Michigan check.

For those fortunate few who are affected, though, the pardons will indeed have a meaningful impact. During my time in criminal records I had hundreds of phone calls with men and women who were in fact denied employment and other opportunities simply for one misdemeanor conviction. Too many people didn't care what was on a person's criminal record, they just disqualified anyone who had any conviction, no matter how minor or how long ago. Biden's pardons will be a blessing for those individuals.

Politics: Other Stuff

R.T. in Arlington, TX, writes: Please don't misread the presence of Gov. Greg Abbott's (R-TX) wheelchair to imply that Texas is open-minded or that Abbott is disability-forward. Its only in the last year or so that we have seen him on-camera in settings where the wheelchair cannot be overlooked. That is really an artifact that he has raised his profile to the point where he can no longer avoid such appearances. But for many years prior, Abbott stage-managed his appearances to hide the chair (just like FDR). This included having custom built "short" lecterns and backdrops for his roles as attorney general/governor, avoiding television appearances, and managing camera angles so that he was the only person in the shot. The reporters in the room knew the score but also knew it would be in bad taste to draw attention to it. He was a state official for many years before I was ever aware that he was paraplegic.

J.D. in Saint Paul, MN, writes: Regarding your answer to D.K. In Miami, I'm sure I'm not your only loyal reader who will remind you that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, established residency in Chasten's home town of Traverse City, MI, in July. His prospects for election to higher office in his adopted state would be much greater than his prospects in Indiana, though I don't think a run for governor or senator in either state is likely. In my opinion, his next position should be secretary of state or defense, vice president, or president, and I don't see the fact that he is gay (which you mention) as an impediment to any of these. Those who would oppose him for that reason would oppose any talented Democrat and are far from a majority of Americans.

P.S. in Portland, ME, writes: Since Star Trek themes run through like the force, I remind people of the Prime Directive and its applicability to Saudi Arabia. We have arrived at a planet that we sure would like to be part of the Federation. Oh so rich in resources and most of the people on this planet are genuinely friendly and good. They clearly want to be members, because we can help defend them from their enemies with our advanced phasers and photon torpedoes.

Uh, oh, though. They repress half of their society, all the women, and are nowhere near sharing our mantra of separation of church and state. Not that we are anywhere near perfect, as we have a ways to go until we achieve that Perfect Federation. But the Prime Directive is clear: We cannot change them without great risk and we gotta go away and leave them alone until they become a planet with a more advanced society. That also means not trading their resources for all those phasers and photon torpedoes.

We should be doing all we can to get off Saudi oil, and this includes, to the Democrats' chagrin, boosting our own domestic oil production while we work to eliminate the polluting oil and gas industry entirely. I myself was a proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, as long as every drop of oil gained went to reducing ours and the world's dependence on Saudi Oil.

W.B. in Salamanca, Spain, writes: I just wanted to comment to J.M.R. in Chappaqua, that the Saudis are indeed making a play for solar energy, having dumped a LOT of money in to KAPSARC specifically for that purpose. But I don't think even they think that once oil ceases to be the lifeblood of society that it is today that they will have the same dominance they do right now—they just want to remain a player at the table.

S.P. in Philadelphia, PA, writes: Relating to your piece on whether poll workers can be trusted, the answer, I claim for several reasons, is "Yes."

I am an election judge in a small town precinct in Pennsylvania. We have authorized partisan poll watchers inside, who carefully watch our every move and can report anything fraudulent to their party, their campaign, or the media. (There is no such check at the county courthouse level, so if fraud can occur, it would occur there.) Our machines have battery backup, so if someone from a campaign unplugged our equipment, they will still work. Then our constable will arrest them, and we will plug the machine back in. Pennsylvania has a paper ballot requirement, so even if the machines do not function, we can rescan all of the ballots thereby preserving the vote. Election workers earn about $100 dollars for a 13-hour day, plus setup before and tear-down after the polls close. This is below minimum wage. Many workers are retirees, but in my case, I take a day of vacation from my "real" job to be there.

Increased poll worker training won't help since we have all worked for several years and know our roles. Plus, I would need to burn another day of vacation, which would cause me to give up the role. It is difficult to vet poll workers since we are elected by our municipality, and since it is generally difficult to find people to volunteer for such a long intense day.

K.F.K. in CleElum, WA, writes: T.H. in Albuquerque makes a somewhat typical argument regarding our treaties with indigenous nations that goes something like this: If you later discover that you have shot yourself in the foot with a treaty made 100+ years ago, you can simply ignore it.

It is mind boggling how often this argument has been used to take away rights promised in treaties, "Oops, we want that fish after all," is a common sentiment in both Minnesota and Washington State. By this logic, Mexico could decide that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was a mistake and it wants the Southwestern states back. The 1835 New Echota Treaty promised something specific, not simply enfranchisement in any form the U.S. deemed appropriate, and honorable nations keep their promises.

This Week in TrumpWorld

P.S. in Arlington, TN, writes: As someone who had a security clearance once upon a time, I'd like to reiterate that the federal government isn't really saying to Donald Trump, "We think you have more classified documents." Anytime classified documents exchange hands, it creates a paper trail that establishes responsibility for the documents. The government is actually saying, "We have hand receipts for these specific documents that you accepted responsibility for on this specific date at this specific time and we are demanding them back immediately."

E.F. in Baltimore, MD, writes: I've previously surmised that one purpose of the Mar-a-Lago search was to "flush out the game."

The FBI/Department of Justice had reason to suspect Trump had concealed classified documents elsewhere, but might not have had enough evidence to persuade a judge to approve another search warrant. If, after the initial search, Trump ordered a rushed effort to conceal those remaining documents more securely, he may have inadvertently revealed their existence to FBI surveillance. So now, asking him for those remaining documents, and being assured there are none, or getting a non-response, may give the FBI what they needed.

I expect to see another search soon.

S.G. in Newark, NJ, writes: D.E. in Lancaster wrote: "[W]ithout doing anything more than thinking about it, I received an e-mail informing me [my absentee ballot] should arrive shortly."

Perhaps D.E. should offer declassification services to TFG.

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: Regarding Donald Trump's defamation suit against CNN, you you wrote, "Maybe he's hoping for a miracle run of friendly judges who will allow the suit to go forward."

Funny you should say. The case has been assigned to Judge Raag Singhal, nominated to the bench by Donald J. Trump. The Judge already has one defamation case against CNN assigned to him, that one brought by Alan Dershowitz. The Judge denied CNN's motion to dismiss, holding that the complaint properly alleged that CNN "improperly abridged" Dershowitz's statements at Trump's impeachment trial, constituted mixed fact and opinion (which is actionable; pure opinion is not), and that CNN knew or recklessly disregarded the falsity of the fact portions. That Judge Singhal is in the bag for right-wing defamation plaintiffs is my opinion, so don't sue me.

W.S. in Austin, TX, writes: You wrote: "Maybe [Trump]'s looking for some raw material to use in his fundraising efforts, which are, as we have pointed out, quite flaccid right now (as are so many things in TrumpWorld, presumably)."

I see you realize that your choice of adjectives might dramatically increase the odds of your site coming to Trump's attention, leading to social media comments from him and dramatically increasing your recurring Patreon contributions.

V & Z respond: While it would be a great honor if Trump decided to attack us, he would presumably do so on Truth Social, and nobody would know about it.

All Politics Is Local

B.J. in McMurray, PA, writes: I got my absentee ballot for Pennsylvania today. I'll get it in the mail Monday.

The races for both governor and senator have candidates from five parties: Democrat, republican, Green, Libertarian, and Keystone (never heard of it before). The last three could pull 3% combined and maybe affect the outcome, or pull 0.3% and be non-factors. The Green will take Democratic votes, the Libertarian will suck up gop votes. I'm guessing the Keystone is a far-right party, and will be non-factors. But Pennsylvania does not have runoffs. Mehmet Oz hasn't led in any poll and hasn't been over 42%. Doug Mastriano hasn't led and is stuck at 40%. Hello Governor Josh Shapiro and Senator John Fetterman.

There's no Democrat running against Rep. Guy! (Reschenthaler). He voted to discard my 2020 ballot and the other millions of ballots in Pennsylvania, including his own; meaning he supported the coup attempt, meaning he should be removed from office and forbidden to run again. I'll give him the respect that his action deserves: I'll write-in Mickey Mouse.

I didn't capitalize the name and nickname of an anti-democracy party because I have no respect for them, and they deserve that. And I got the Keystone Kops reference. Keep up the good work.

V & Z respond: Just for the record, the Keystone Party is actually a progressive group.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, writes: You're losing your footing on commenting on political missteps! I can't believe you missed the opportunity to go after everyone's favorite helium-voiced authoritarian Governor of Ham-Footed Political Stunts in Florida, Ron DeathSantis.

With the aftermath of the horrific disaster of Hurricane Ian, some speculated that this might provide the Governor with an opportunity to show some leadership skills beyond banning things that are non-existent threats and other political stunts to numerous to mention, even using your fingers and toesies. I guess with some people, hope for the impossible always springs eternal. While not quite yet stepping into the George W. Bush territory in disaster response, ol' Ron is certainly giving it the old college try what with his bickering with the press about the weather maps and why Lee County, where the hurricane made landfall, was late to be evacuated. To give a toehold of fairness to DeSantis, hurricanes are incredibly fickle forces of nature, often making unexpected turns and lurches in their paths, but on the other foot, wouldn't a sane person expect any official in Florida to know that this is a characteristic of hurricanes and not base their emergency preparedness based on where CNN and The Weather Channel have their reporters stationed?

For one thing, the networks are always going to pick the largest nearby cities to locate their reporters based on facilities and name recognition—if a reporter had their byline from Pine Island before the storm made landfall, few would know where it was located. Second, can anyone name a time that, God love him, Jim Cantore was ever standing at the exact spot that the eyewall hit land? So, I would kick the ball back at DeathSantis and say basing your decisions on such poor indicators is as risky as importing immigrants from another state to produce your next performance of Sham Outrage Theater by Leonard Pinth-Garnell.

DeathSantis has also proven in the past few days that he earns that nickname for more than epidemic denial, in that he put his foot in his mouth again with the unwise rebuttal that Ian has "only" killed 101 (and still counting) Floridians as opposed to 2,500 from a storm almost 100 years ago. I guess if you have a reputation as grim as DeSantis' to stand on, that you might look on 101 as some kind of accomplishment. But all that is nothing to compared to this—I'm at a loss of words to describe it—trip-up by wearing these knee-high white booties to go survey the damage!

Ron DeSantis in godawful
white boots that cover his blue jeans up to the knee

Jimmy Kimmel, on his late night talk show, said it best: "I guess he got too fat for the rest of his Stormtrooper costume." What in the world was the Governor thinking? That's definitely not putting your best foot forward. From a purely practical perspective, who wears white foot apparel to walk through muck and debris? But the main problem—and I going to try to tread carefully here as a gay man (oops, I forgot I can't say that around Ron) who has an awareness of gender issues but will put it out anyway without pussyfooting around it—is that the only way DeSantis could look any more "precious" is if those booties had little pink bows and tinglingly little gold bells on them as he goes tiptoeing through the wreckage of people's lives and property.

Perhaps, Governor, this day was the day to pull out your Top Gun drag outfit again—oops again, I forgot if DeSantis went in a drag as a real man, he wouldn't be able to read books to the kiddies in Florida! One really doesn't have to say "gay" here, one just has to show this picture for it to be screamed out loud. And because this is DeSantis, he had to make a his faux pas into a even bigger issue by, of course, kicking the media, and while doing so, with his face appropriately in dark shadow, claiming that he was there to help the victims, who welcomed him with open arms, and not there to stage a photo op, when of course there is video of Florida residents pleading with officials to be let back into damage area but we're being held back because of His Precious' presence. Oh well, at least I get a new nickname for DeSantis, Governor Bootsie, who has already proven himself to be even more of a horse's ass as the last infamous leader nicknamed "Bootsie," the mad Roman Emperor Caligula, which is Latin meaning "Little Boot," and which was given to the Emperor as a child when he rode into a war camp also wearing precious foot apparel. After all, the reign of Caligula went so swimmingly, who wouldn't want to recall it in their rise to authoritarian power!

As a side issue, I would like to offer some advice to Charlie Crist, DeSantis' Democratic opponent in the upcoming election, that if every single ad you run going forward does not feature this photo of your opponent, then you should be sued by every Democrat is the country for political malfeasance! And just for kicks, I will also offer some free advice to the other side: Perhaps instead of holding endless CPAC meetings where you just spew forth venom bile and toe jam, you might want to think about conducting a mini-camp for your "leaders" on how to properly respond to hurricanes and other natural disasters. But, of course, that would mean having to hire a Democrat to teach the seminar.

C.H. in West Linn, OR, writes: Thank you for the coverage of the Oregon race for governor. To set the stage, I'm a male Gen-Xer who has never voted for a Republican to any partisan office.

What I will say, as an almost lifelong Oregonian, is that there is an absolute chance the Republican can win the race. Which is ridiculous. There are two main reasons. First off is that there is a third-party candidate that is running as an independent, but has been a Democrat who always voted with Republicans in our state legislature. DINO? The richest dude in the state, Phil Knight, has donated millions to her and her commercials are running 24/7. She has no chance of winning but is pulling around 20% of the vote.

Second is the weakness of Tina Kotek (D). She is viewed as Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR) v2.0, who is deeply unpopular. I'm a Democrat and I think Kate sucks. Better than the alternative, but that's not saying much.

As a life-long Democrat, I will have to have a barf bag handy while I cast my mail in vote for Kotek. I'm not sure there are other Democrats up for the challenge. Which is why I think the Republican can win.

A.C. in Eugene, OR, writes: You noted "we must assume that most of the Johnson votes are really hidden Kotek votes" for Oregon governor. From what I am seeing and hearing in Eugene, the rural and suburban Democrats who might normally vote for Kotek see her, perhaps rightly, as too connected to the leftmost parts of Portland, a city perceived in-state (and in-city) as badly governed, dangerous and filthy. Thus, we may see some "hold your nose and vote for Kotek" action when the day comes, but there is definitely limited enthusiasm for her.

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: The race for North Dakota's sole House seat is fascinating because Cara Mund is not the Democratic candidate. She's a Republican who's running as an independent because the Republican candidate is anti-choice and she's pro-choice. The Democratic candidate is also anti-choice—or I should say "former candidate," since he was persuaded to drop out of the race. As a result, there is no Democrat on the ballot, just a Republican and an independent with different views on abortion but otherwise similar conservative bona-fides.

And while the media loves to play up Mund's Miss America title (no small feat, BTW), she's also a Harvard-educated lawyer and very politically savvy. She has not said who she'd caucus with if she wins. She's also calling this election Roe-vember, and abortion could very well upend this race. I, for one, would like to see more Republican candidates like her.

Education: Veteran Teachers

A.H. in Columbus, OH, writes: As you wrote in "From the Education Desk, Part II: Veteran Teachers?," this plan is madness. Everyone knows it would be a complete disaster. You wondered "...if there may not be something more nefarious at play..." and I am confident there is. Not so much what you surmised—the idea of countering left-wing teachers—but more along the lines of typical Republican attempts to undermine public schools.

Nothing against veterans but, as you said, without training, they would fail hard and outcomes at public schools would decline. If everyone loses faith in the public school system, the Republicans might be able to completely privatize schooling in America. That's a lot of taxpayer money to redirect into private hands, typically wealthy ones who start charter schools. If there's anything the modern Republican Party stands for, it's further enriching already rich people.

M.B. in Shenzhen, China, writes: You forgot the third bird Jerry Cirino (R-Ohio) wants to kill with one stone by putting veterans into classrooms: armed teachers.

J.C. in Binan, Laguna, Philippines, writes: An additional point to add to this: numerous studies have shown how most humans just don't like to kill other humans. The U.S. military found an extraordinary number of its soldiers in past wars were refusing to aim at the enemy, so they had to train them to be willing to kill other humans.

And this is who we want spending time with our most vulnerable, our children?

G.M. in Laurence Harbor, NJ, writes: Though your item suggests that Ohio has made no effort in their proposition to recruit veterans to teach, the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense have programs and funds to prepare service members for jobs upon discharge. There is a specific program called Troops To Teachers that promotes this. It even includes funding that goes beyond the usual educational benefits available. The program is funded from a program in the Defense Department.

I am a veteran who used my 1970 college benefits through undergraduate up to my first year in law school.

V & Z respond: As we wrote, we have no objection to legitimate, substantive teacher-training programs. But that is not what Ohio is contemplating.

Education: The State of the System

J.T. in Greensboro, NC, writes: Your item highlighting the complex issues surrounding the firing of Dr. Maitland Jones Jr. should also highlight for conservatives why they ought to support no-tuition college.

The astronomical rise in tuition has certainly led to a decline in rigor not only because—as you've said—students now (maybe rightly so) look at a good grade and a degree as something they're entitled to in exchange for the mountain of debt they've incurred. This creates an adversarial relationship between teachers and students.

Moreover, college instructors (who are now, in the majority, non-tenure track contingent workers without any protections) are afraid to do anything but pass students because it could potentially cost them their jobs; or, because giving a low-income or otherwise precarious student an F could just mean they flat out drop out of school because they just lost thousands of dollars. No teacher I know wants to be in either position.

The other day I spoke to a German college student who is about to graduate—and this is only one student's anecdote, of course—who explained to me that in German universities it's expected that most students are bound to fail a class or two or three and retake it. The stigma around these grades isn't quite so bad, he explained, in part because you're not out thousands of dollars if you get one.

If conservatives would like to see rigor fully restored they should recognize that debt is the primary thing getting in the way from all angles. My guess is, however, is that they'd just like to see fewer people get educations.

M.S. in Canton, NY, writes: Concerning the saga of the chemistry professor at NYU, D.W. in Benbrook wrote, "Haven't we seen many articles in recent years about the deteriorating quality of education in the United States?"

Well, yes, but as a bit of context, I'll note that I heard that same complaint continually throughout my college teaching career, since the 1970s. And it didn't start then: by total accident I once stumbled on the exact same lament in an article in a publication of the American Association of University Professors from 1954. But let's say D.W. is right, and most of the students who are taking the course just aren't up to task. A full solution to the problem will have to be systemic, and will likely involve tutoring support, rethinking the department's whole curricular structure, and possibly even admissions standards. But there's a saying I have found very illuminating over the years: "Teach the students you have, not the students you wish you had." If a professor is teaching in way that results in most students in the class not learning a thing, then that professor isn't doing the job they were hired to do.

W.K. in Charlottesville, VA, writes: High school teacher here.

I appreciate the context given behind the NYU story, although the results in Jones' classes ought to be compared to trends elsewhere in the university, as well as organic chem performance nationwide over the same time frame students are complaining about.

That said, lower levels of education haven't just been trying to deal with cell phones and the Internet; we've had to deal with Testing Culture in the form of NCLB, RTTT, Common Core, etc. And it's changed how many subjects train their students, and what their students end up being good at.

But wait, there's more. Perhaps the most harmful single source of educational struggle has been the pandemic learning loss. But I'd give a shout out to Standards-Based-Grading (SBG) as a candidate for second place. If you haven't heard of this thing, you're very lucky. Imagine all of the bingo-card-worthy buzz terms you can stuff into a TED talk on education (mastery, proficiency...) and turn it into a way to justify a grading system that just checks off every box of items students must learn, separating the content from all context as to why they're learning it.

Most papers to date have had to do with how SBG affects high school GPA and state tests, but we're just starting to get results on things like the ACT--and the results aren't good. This one points to a 5-7% decrease in ACT scores.

But we could really use more data on how students from schools with these grading policies do once they get to college. Hopefully more of that's coming out in the next few years.

B.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: I beefed about this for 30 years or more, but no one seemed to get it: You can major in anything and be allowed to teach history in U.S. schools. The large majority of our high school history teachers have no qualifications at all. It's worse than physics teachers. It's been that way forever. And I am skeptical about your hope that things may have changed for the better.

Education: Tales from the Front Lines of O-Chem (and Biology)

B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI, writes: I was amused with your item on the organic chemistry professor routinely handing out average grades of 30. I myself took organic chemistry nearly 40 years ago with the same grade distributions. In fact, between chemistry, physics, and math, the faculty in my era seemed to be trying to outdo themselves in terms of who would be more cruel and every class distribution was the same. We came to expect that was what "performance" meant: a comparison to a likely unachievable standard. A 70 was nirvana.

Not your kinder and gentler America then, but 40 years later, I have no idea why a faculty member would enjoy doing this, unless he was told in no uncertain terms that there is a need to cull the herd for whatever reason. It also seemed from my experience that for the prof, it was like the sensei teaching the plebes that they had a lot more to learn. Our o-chem instructor seemed to relish explaining what we didn't know. People left the class and the school, other people probably had panic attacks and others likely had mental breakdowns or worse. I'm not entirely sure what the goal was, and whether whatever it was, was achieved. I'm sure I worked harder to insure I didn't fail every class that was a potential chance for even making a sweat equity investment. In that time, school was cheaper and I also didn't have extensive loans, a required campus job for work study, or endless service commitments for extracurriculars, community, family, and other details to round out résumés. I see our students now with many more commitments around me these days.

Some of us got through (I got a C, there was no B- or C+ in my era), took other classes and thrived, and I've been a prof since the early 90s (not in chem). I'm sure students now are closer to the firewall in terms of their intolerance for abuse, given that with loans, there is no margin for failure. Schools and faculty need to rethink their roles, functioning as coach and advocate as much as evaluator. I suspect there is a need to relook at what are the course goals for any class, and to reflect and refine them with new knowledge. I would have no problem with averages of 30 if 35 was an A, and so on and with proper counseling. Without the insights of faculty as coach, I suspect this is where the outrage comes from.

E.F. in Baltimore, MD, writes: My two cents. I took o-chem at an elite university almost 50 years ago. My professors were all accomplished researchers. But o-chem had been designated as the weed-out course for the pre-meds, so they needed to make it challenging enough to actually, you know, weed out half of them. This was done by making the tests impossible to pass without a lot of rote memorization, spit back under extreme time pressure. Which might be useful skills for a practicing physician, I suppose.

Now I'm sure my professors knew that this was a terrible way to teach anything, and particularly bad for the future chemistry majors who needed to be able to learn to apply general principles, but university/departmental politics being what they are, tough luck. Plenty of future MDs and PhDs still managed to pass that course.

What gets lost in this story, is "Why did it only happen now?" The current crop of o-chem students have had their last couple of years of instruction mutilated by COVID-related restrictions. And presumably they were old enough to benefit from online instruction. Imagine what we'll be seeing when the kids who lost their most crucial first couple of years of classroom instruction get to college in 10 years.

P.K. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Maitland Jones, the professor in the NYU firing controversy, taught me organic chemistry in 1988-89. Due to dubious academic advising, I was the lone freshman taking both biology and o-chem (which everyone else called "orgo," ugh). It was brutal; my first semester of o-chem yielded the worst grade I've ever gotten, but that was on me. Dr. Jones was a legendarily gifted instructor when professors at research institutions were not expected to be effective teachers. It never occurred to me that he should be fired for my performance; I worked harder, improved, and eventually did PhD research spanning organic and biochemistry.

His final class of the year was a perfect lecture, using Fischer's elucidation of the structure of glucose to showcase the power of deductive reasoning. I went back for that final lecture every year; in 35 years in academia, I have never seen anyone match it. His classroom may have changed over the ensuing decades, but I don't accept how Dr. Jones was characterized by NYU students.

I have been a college professor for 20 years. The pandemic, on top of generational change, left many students more disengaged than I've ever seen. I think they variously don't trust that college matters; that there will be jobs, affordable houses or a livable planet; or that they won't be gunned down or locked in their homes again. Many present with something between PTSD and hopelessness. In spring, I made my tests "uncheatable" because the proportion of students self-destructing by cheating was otherwise astronomical. I gave them two weeks for take-home, open book exams, yet 10% simply didn't turn them in, even with extensions and personal interventions. There are deep challenges here. Maybe a hefty percentage of NYU students got abysmal grades in o-chem, but did they do every problem set; review their answers in a peer study group and with a TA; go to weekly office hours; do all the reading; attend every lecture; take careful notes; make flashcards; and study independently for the recommended amount of time per week, with their phones switched off? I can both sympathize with Dr. Jones and empathize with the students. Ultimately though, I want doctors, pharmacists and veterinarians who earned their grades in school and know their stuff, because lives depend on it. I do not think NYU handled this well or sent the right message.

D.K. in Oceanside, CA, writes: In the early 70s I was an evening student at Laney Community College in Oakland, CA. To fulfill my science requirement for acceptance at UC Berkeley, I took an ecology class from Mr. Wilson and a botany class from Mr. Bourke. Both tough classes. I got one of the few Bs of my college career from Mr. Bourke. It was a hard won B and I was more proud of it than of most of my As.

The following year, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Bourke jointly taught a biology class. No one passed their midterm exam. It had to be given again. There were no complaints and no question of their being dismissed from the faculty.

Education: We Don't Need No... Memorization?

D.M. in Spokane, WA, writes: You wrote that you don't see the point in not allowing lookup on an academic exam, regarding one you once had to take. You further said that you have never been in a situation professionally where you were unable to look up facts. As a retired ecology professor, I can certainly attest that I have been in such situations—for example, when testifying as an expert witness. Also, when collecting data from streams, I simply have not had time or resources to look up things I needed to know to get my job done.

As has been stated many times regarding the organic chemistry prof's firing, many of the students taking organic chemistry are would-be physicians. I suspect that during emergency treatment, physicians are not in a position to look up which arteries go where. Having facts at hand often matters. Do you want your dentist to look up the structure of a tooth before drilling, or to remember it? Perhaps not to historians, but to many other professionals having facts ready at hand does matter. And for most, at least knowing facts rather than having to look them up saves time.

T.I. in Oceanside, CA, writes: Your comment: "If you know a piece of information of the top of your head, or if you know how to get that piece of information quickly, doesn't that produce the same result in the real world?"

In my youth, when computers were room-filling monsters, books were the reference source. Door-to-door sales of encyclopedias made every home a library (and like many libraries, the books sat on shelves, never opened). My mother, now 104, was devoted to TV quiz shows, one of which had the resident expert standing by with a large dictionary to authenticate answers. That was Dean Schmitter (sic), and his name became the synonym for any dictionary or encyclopedia in our home. "When in doubt, check the dean schmitter!" The other slogan, which is pertinent to this discussion was, "Few know everything, everyone should know how to find out everything." Open-book tests were rare in the 1950s because looking "it" up in a book took too long, thus making the test long, or allowing fewer questions. Open computer/smartphone tests should be faster.

K.C. in West Islip, NY, writes: S.O. in Chicago is correct that theory classes are meaningless, and to go a step further, you are all certainly correct that "open book" and "open note" has its merits in a society where we have information at our fingertips. One of the biggest problems faced in adolescent education, however—and I can't speak for the college level but I'd imagine it may be similar but not as pronounced—is that kids simply don't know how to use the resources at hand. As many times as we tell them "no Wikipedia," they still use it. I remember one time many years ago seeing a particular paper on the front desk (thankfully belonging to a student of a teacher I shared the classroom with). It was a printout of a Wikipedia article with the student's name scrawled on the top and "Period 2" written next to it.

We live in interesting times. Many students, at least the ones I work with, seem to be much more interested in the day-to-day intrigue of social media superstars, TikToks, Instagram and Snapchat. I didn't get Internet until I was in 9th grade, and even then, it was through a painfully slow dial-up modem and the service we had didn't support graphics of any sort so it was a text-only experience. I still went to the library to do my research papers in high school, painstakingly shuffling through the card catalog and flipping through the encyclopedias when necessary. Does this make me sound like an old coot? Yes. Yes, it does.

With information overload available on the Internet today, at the click of a mouse button anyone can get anything. It's an open resource and I fear that the next generation hasn't been adequately trained in how to use it responsibly. What that's creating is a massive overflow of people who are incapable of critical thinking, problem solving or generating an original thought in academic conversation. We're truly facing the reality of becoming an "Idiocracy" type society.

Of course, rather than teaching theory, or giving students the opportunity to look thing up, the real thing that is most meaningful is practical application in an internship setting. Yes, basics are important, but most of what's taught in these classes—and I can vouch for it, as I'm sure most teachers could—pales in comparison to doing the actual job at hand. I'm supremely confident that if I gave any one of my students a test and a computer and said go take this thing and finish it in the next hour, they could dig up everything they needed from information on how to answer the questions to the answer key itself, thus proving absolutely nothing.

We should be focusing on getting all students into internships immediately. Even starting to intern in college is too late. Get the kids hands-on experience starting around when they're juniors in high school. Testing proves that someone is a good test taker or a bad test taker, open book testing proves whether someone is capable of looking up the answer to something that may never come up again the rest of their lives, but there's no substitute for actually being in the field and learning how things really work. In essence, I would fix the system by transforming graduation requirements so that high schoolers would have to spend a semester in each of their third and fourth year interning, with the guidance of multiple teachers and a career counselor who can help steer them in a direction they show interest in. Whether that's with a doctor, a law office, a trade union or civil service, every kid deserves the opportunity to not have their intelligence insulted by tests that measure very little or by fostering the belief that they can just go ahead and look up what they don't know and all their struggles will disappear.

J.M. in Portland, OR, writes: Regarding open-book exams, many, many years ago I passed the U.S. Customs Broker exam. It was a multi-hour open book exam that has a higher failure rate than the bar exam. The point was (and is) that I was not expected to memorize the entire 19 CFR and the entire tariff book but to prove that I knew how to find the answers. In everyday life, I was not expected to classify all of the thousands of different products arriving on any given day from memory nor resolve any questions of regulatory compliance without using the regs. Expecting students to memorize large chunks of any discipline is worthless, as being able to research a problem successfully is the key, not what they can recall from memory.

S.S-L. in Norman, OK, writes: Your discussion about exams reminded me of law school and the bar. Quick: Read thousands of pages every week for 4 months, take a few 4-hour, open-book, open-note exams. Do that for 3 years. Then spend 3 months studying for 8 to 10 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, and memorize the structure of every single law you can think of. You can take practice multiple choice, but they're nothing like the real thing, and you can take practice essays, but they're not graded the same way or by the same people. Then spend 2 full days taking a closed-book, closed-notes test on the most ridiculous and nuanced aspects of law, some of which you'd never even heard of before bar prep. An attorney would lose their license.

There's no reason why I should've passed while over a third of students in my year/jurisdiction failed it. And imagine what that can do to your mental health. The thing you've spent years training for, the thing you love; you're not good enough. Maybe you're not cut out for this. Maybe you're just stupid. Or lazy. Or plain ol' incompetent.

The bar is a perfect example of an unrealistic exam that does very real harm. I know people who cheated all the way through law school that passed the bar by two points, and I know people who excelled at clinics and pro bono work who failed by less than one. The former can't possibly be more ready for the practice of law than the latter. Well, depending upon your opinion of lawyers...

Education: Ouchitty?

B.W. in Pasadena, CA, writes: When faculty of a prestigious coastal institution speaks critically of another university—particularly one in a poorer interior state—it'd be best if those critiques were specific and fact-based. If Ouachita Baptist University has problems with its curricula (as it well might), please say so directly. When considering the source, a punch-down like "third-rate college education" reads as the exact academic equivalent of "shithole countries," and is much less-interesting than your usual informed editorial.

Smaller colleges (like many that serve the southern and interior states) may lack the prestige of a school like UCLA, but they can educe much from those whose understanding of their own potential may be delayed by circumstance.

First-generation college students from poorer backgrounds (like I was) often receive naïve guidance, possess few resources, and feel a fair bit of family pressure to stay "close to home." I can offer firsthand attestation that UCLA seems about as accessible as the moon in that circumstance. But a scholarship to a "third-rate" institution that's within driving distance can (and does) serve as an important launch pad for potential that may otherwise have been lost, and this path to postgraduate and professional success is as valid as any.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders deserves any criticism she may get for her right-wing politics. But unless we're willing to directly assert that Ouachita Baptist University is responsible for (or otherwise relevant to) same, it's probably most-sensible (not to mention most-considerate) to focus the barbs where they're actually deserved.

V & Z respond: Very well. Ouachita is ranked very low on every comparative list (outside the Top 500 schools in the U.S.), and has an acceptance rate of 75%. Such measures are not always on target, but such poor numbers certainly aren't a good sign. That brings us to issue number two, namely that the school endeavors to aggressively manage students' morality in addition to their education. It is rarely a good sign when the two are mixed. Third, and finally, there are two prominent public figures who took their degrees at the school: Sanders and her father Mike. Both have many public appearances on their résumés, and so we have had many opportunities to see them in action. And we've seen little to no evidence of an ability to think critically. There are plenty of smallish rural schools that are very good (Troy, Grinnell, Carleton, Kenyon, University of the South, many of the HBCUs, etc.). Ouachita, by all evidences, is not one of them.

History: Top 25 Lists

B.H. in Greenbelt, MD, writes: Reading (Z)'s lists. of top 25 events in U.S. history, I was reminded of my U.S. History course at Indiana University almost 50 years ago, taught by Prof James Madison—an easy name to remember. He noted that the completion of the Erie Canal (October 26, 1825) was a major event because it provided a transportation option that tied the Midwest to the Northeast, as opposed to the existing Ohio/Mississippi river route to the South. He also gave a lecture on the status of women in the early 1800s and mentioned, as an important development, the invention of vulcanized rubber. Amid many snickers, he said, "And it's for precisely the reason you are thinking."

Several years ago I saw Prof Madison on C-SPAN, after which I wrote him an e-mail about how I much I had appreciated his course, and got a very kind response. BTW, the guy didn't look like he had aged at all.

D.M. in Burnsville, MN, writes: It certainly seems to me that you guys are missing the mark a bit by not observing (in some way or other) the amazing technological achievements of the period 1877 to today. And I don't mean the bicycle (although that is truly world-shaking), but its direct descendant, the aircraft. Both inventions profoundly affected the lives of everyone on the planet and the two are linked like Siamese twins (is that term still politically correct?). Certainly Lillienthal, Langley and other pioneers deserve honorable mention, but the fact that bicycle technology made possible modern aviation is worth a notch in history's belt. Oh, and did I mention Shockley's transistor (December 23, 1947)?

R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, writes: I read your list of Top 25 modern U.S. history events. I think there were 4 huge omissions that I expected would be there. The first was the Pearl Harbor attack (December 7, 1941). It was the last straw that forced the U.S. to fight in World War II. The second was the Roe v. Wade decision (January 22, 1973). It set off a 50-year culture war and led to the religious right becoming more aggressive and organized. The third event was the election of Barack Obama (November 4, 2008). Only a few decades prior to that, Obama would not have been allowed in the same businesses as white people in parts of the country. The fourth event was the debut of Madonna's career (July 27, 1983). I feel she broke more social barriers in her career than the Beatles did and will be more historically important than them. She set a high bar for success and control for women in the entertainment industry. She co-writes her own music, gives visibility to people with different sexualities, and outearned most male performers in an industry in which women were paid less.

M.B.T. in Bay Village, OH, writes: I can't think of anything to replace the ones you proposed, but I'd like at least an Honorable Mention for the introduction of The Pill (May 10, 1960).

Safe, simple, effective oral contraceptives pretty much launched the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It largely (not entirely) freed women from the risk of unwanted pregnancies, reduced untold numbers of abortions, prevented an untold number of shotgun weddings (and, therefore, many divorces and domestic abuse incidents)... the list certainly goes on and on, but that's all I can think of off the top of my head.

T.L. in West Orange, NJ, writes: The Challenger explosion (January 28, 1986) changed America's view of NASA and space travel for years if not decades, and created a "where were you when?" moment for a generation.

History: Civil War Memory

A.K. in Alexandria, VA, writes: I was struck on a visit to Antietam by the rolling hills that prevented a group of soldiers from seeing who was coming until they were close. Even though the setting is quite bucolic now, those open fields allow one to imagine the horrors of the battlefield in a way that would not be possible if the trees were permitted to take over. Keep the fields open, or even plant the crops that would have been there the just before the battle. But definitely ditch the monuments.

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: K.E. in Newport wrote yesterday asking about CSA memorials at Gettysburg. I say we should let statues of Confederate leaders (and Christopher Columbus and others) remain on public property, but only if their hands are painted deep blood red. Call that present-ism if you like, but I'd say it's a fair compromise, and historically accurate.

V & Z respond: Maybe we have mentioned this before, but in the 1940s, the Klan-adjacent Sons of the Golden West put up a monument to the U.S. soldiers who fought in the "Battle of Bloody Island." In the 1960s, Native Americans, who remember it as the "Massacre of Bloody Island," splashed red paint all over it. Every time someone tries to clean the paint off, it quickly reappears. So now, it's allowed to remain in place:

A plaque describing
the engagement at Bloody Island has substantial amounts of bright-red paint on it

W.F. in Fayetteville, PA, writes: Thank you for reinforcing my view that Casteel's Longstreet statue in Pitzer's Woods is an embarrassment. There is no historical evidence that the General ever rode a pony into battle.

Oh, and I will decline your party this year, unless D.E. in Lancaster will be attending. As you already know, it isn't much of an event unless D.E. shows up...

V & Z respond: Actually, staff dachshunds Otto and Flash tell us that it's not really a party until the wieners come out.

E.B. in Oakland, CA, writes: What exactly is so godawful about the statue of James Longstreet at Gettysburg? It is discrete, located deep in a forest, and at ground level, unlike almost all the other statues at Gettysburg, which are on tall plinths overlooking the battlefield. It is also one of only two statues of arguably the second or third most important and best Confederate general of the whole war (the other is in Gainesville, GA, where Longstreet died). By contrast there are 108 statues of Stonewall Jackson and 145 monuments to the highly ineffective president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

The reason there are so few monuments to Longstreet is that after the war he became a Republican back when that meant being a progressive, not a reactionary, and even led Black militiamen in a pitched battle with white supremacist rioters in New Orleans. As a result of Longstreet's support for Reconstruction he was vilified by the Lost Cause "historians" and wrongly blamed for the Confederacy's defeat at Gettysburg for not more promptly following Lee's orders to make frontal assaults on prepared positions over open ground on the second and third days of the pivotal battle. In fact, if Lee had followed Longstreet's advice and slipped around to the left of the Union Army and taken up good defensive ground between the Army of the Potomac and Washington, DC, the Army of Northern Virginia could have inflicted another Fredericksburg-like defeat on northern troops and possibly demoralized the U.S. electorate and won independence.

O.E. in Greenville, SC, writes: Were Gettysburg to stand on its own, I might agree with you about it being reconciliationist. However, that argument could be challenged if you view the sequel Gods and Generals. Said film clearly portrays events with a pro-Confederate focus and bias. Add in the director promoting the film with Doug Phillips (son of Nixon aide and right-wing presidential candidate Howard Phillips, and publisher of works praising notorious Confederate apologist Robert Louis Dabney), and working with Steve Bannon to help replace Eric Cantor with Dave Brat (I think "This American Life" did a nice piece on that), and you could argue that this film is more of a Lost Cause work than Gone With the Wind.

V & Z respond: That is true. (Z) has exchanged not-so-friendly words with Ron Maxwell, director of both films, on this very point. When Maxwell did the first one, he was working for the left-wing Ted Turner. Not so when he did the second one, which is very possibly the worst Civil War film ever made.

J.S. in Germantown, OH, writes: In response to C.J. in Lowell, all I can say is, "Yikes." There's a lot to unpack in that diatribe, so I will focus on the one sentence with which I take the most issue: "They are completely unforgiving of anything having to do with slavery and cannot see anything redeemable about those who owned slaves despite the practice being common and acceptable at the time."

Let's start with the first half and I will put out a challenge to your readership to find something "forgivable" about slavery. This statement alone betrays a Lost Cause sentiment wherein the forgiver is likely to put forward the argument (common in modern right-wing circles) that the descendants of slaves are at least better off now than if they had remained in Africa. [Let me pause while I shower.] But it's the second half that really betrays a lack of historical perspective. If the practice of slavery was so common and acceptable, then why did the Civil War happen at all? Again, a Lost Cause approach, in that slavery must not have been the primary cause.

While I agree that we do need to be careful of presentism, I don't think slavery in the run-up to the Civil War is a place where that is plausible. Many founding fathers wrote on the evils and problems of slavery (even those owning slaves) and several states abolished slavery shortly after the founding of the nation. And by the time of the start of the War, almost every nation in western Europe had already abolished slavery. In other words, slavery was only "common and acceptable" among slave owners in the South.

History: Pearl Harbor

S.P in Tijeras, NM, writes: Your readers, like A.C. in Aachen, who are interested in the Imperial Japanese Navy's attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway six months later, might be interested in Edwin Layton's book And I Was There : Breaking the Secrets--Pearl Harbor and Midway. Layton was Admiral Husband Kimmel's head of Pacific Fleet Intelligence and remained in that role under Admiral Chester Nimitz. He and his chief cryptanalyst, Joseph Rochefort, had lived in Japan to study Japanese and the IJN for several years starting in 1929. In 1937, Layton returned to Japan as U.S. Naval Attaché to the American Embassy in Tokyo, where he became acquainted with Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Layton said that Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, who was Chief of War Plans in the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, was responsible for withholding from CINCPAC all they had intercepted from Japanese messages. Layton, Rochefort and his team at Station HYPO were fully capable of processing the raw intercepts. Layton has quite a bit to say about that in his book. Later, it was Rochefort and HYPO that proved Midway was the IJN's objective. After Midway, Rochefort was relieved and sent back to the U.S. from fleet intelligence in a move that seems the result of internal rivalries and egos within the Navy. Layton says Admiral Kimmel and General Walter Short were made scapegoats for the same kind of events suffered by General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor.

If I recall correctly, the Pacific Fleet's carriers (Langley, Lexington, Yorktown, Enterprise) were busy away from Pearl on various tasks including ferrying aircraft to bases in the Western Pacific. Long range aircraft, like the B-17, were being sent to the Philippines, and the Pacific Fleet lacked the air assets to conduct constant, long-range 360-degree scouting patrols around Hawaii. U.S. Pacific Fleet Intelligence was concerned about Japanese military activity in the South Seas Mandate Islands located South and Southwest of Hawaii, particularly Kwajalein and Truk. As I recall, American agents had been sent to investigate, but disappeared. The IJN attack on Pearl Harbor came from due North after exercising strict radio silence since departing the Japanese Home Islands.

Pertaining to your lists of 25 most important events in American history before and after 1877, the Battle of Midway is one of a handful of naval battles whose outcome changed the course of history. If the battles of Salamis, Mongol invasion attempts of Japan, Lepanto, Trafalgar and Midway had gone the other way, history would probably have a much different trajectory.

T.O. in Portland OR, writes: In response to the various writings/questions about the Pearl Harbor advance-knowledge conspiracy theory, I would offer up the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt certainly did want the United States in the war... against Nazi Germany. For all practical purposes, the United States was already at war with Germany months before Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Navy was escorting war material to Great Britain, USS Greer was attacked in September 1941 by a U-Boat, FDR responded with his "shoot-on-sight" order, and USS Reuban James was torpedoed and sunk by another U-Boat in October 1941.

The Plan Dog Memo is worth a read. Penned by Admiral Harold Rainsford Stark after the Fall of France, it laid out the eventual American grand strategy for the conflict. Regarding Japan, the U.S. Government did not seek war with her; it was viewed as a distraction from the existential threat of Nazi Germany, and if forced into onem, envisioned fighting a purely defensive conflict until such time as Germany was defeated. One line that strikes me every time I re-read the memo, "It is doubtful, however, that it would be in our interest to reduce Japan to the status of an inferior military and economic power. A balance of power in the Far East is to our interest as much as is a balance of power in Europe."

Pearl Harbor changed that sentiment of course, in concert with other outrages (e.g., the Bataan Death March), while good fortune (Midway) allowed the U.S. to go on the offensive in the Pacific far earlier than originally anticipated. Nonetheless, even after the aforementioned outrages and a very large dose of racially charged wartime propaganda (one wartime opinion poll found 13% public support for the extermination of the Japanese people), the Japanese still got a conditional surrender, something that would have been unthinkable for Nazi Germany.

Bottom line, the U.S. Government did not want war with Japan and did everything possible to avoid it. Negotiations continued until the moment bombs were confirmed to be falling on American forces throughout the Pacific. It's ludicrous to imagine that FDR or other high level officials knew about the impending attack or desired the outcome thereof. The U.S. Government was laser-focused on Germany and remained so after Pearl Harbor.

In closing, it's hard not to be depressed by the fact that this particular conspiracy theory lives on, 80+ years after the fact. I imagine our great-grandchildren will still be arguing about the Big Lie, 9/11 advance-knowledge, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

J.G. in Anchorage, AK, writes: Responding the question from K.E. in Newport, there actually is a Japanese monument to their forces (more specifically, to all forces) on U.S. soil at the site of the only North American land battle between the Japanese and U.S. I don't think its presence has sparked much outrage. GeoGuessr style, attached is a photo of the monument's inscription, to help folks figure out where it is:

It is made of metal,
and inscribed in rainbow letters in both English and Japanese, and says 'In memory of those who sacrificed their lives 
in the islands and seas of the north Pacific during World War II and in dedication to world peace.'

History: Jimmy Carter

J.K. in Freehold, NJ, writes: I take issue with your comment that Jimmy Carter was unable to do anything to tame the economic turmoil he inherited. The inflation rate reached a peak of 13% the second full year of his presidency and fell to 4% shortly after he left office, this being due primarily to his economic policies under his appointed Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. Yes, this caused economic pain during his presidency, but ultimately did the job. This was a major accomplishment of the Carter presidency I rarely hear of. Hopefully this approach will work again.

M.B. in San Antonio, TX, writes: Jimmy Carter did indeed have a mixed record as president, but one of his greatest and long-lasting accomplishments was almost single-handedly (with help from Congressman Udall Morris) saving the state of Alaska. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 designated more than 100 million acres of Alaska as federally protected lands, including wilderness areas, national parks and preserves, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, the Iditarod National Historic Trails, the Steese National Conservation Area, and the White Mountains Recreation Area. Subsequent administrations (including almost immediately Ronald Reagan and his horrific Interior Secretary James Watt), tried and failed to dismantle the Act. I'll always be thankful to Carter for having done this.

M.F. in Oakville, ON, Canada, writes: Lost among everything else is that Jimmy Carter literally helped avert a nuclear disaster in Canada, years before running for President.

In 1952, a nuclear reactor at Calk River, ON (180 kilometers or 110 miles northwest of Ottawa) "experienced mechanical problems and operator error that led to overheating fuel rods and significant damage to the NRX reactor core." This was literally the world's first nuclear accident.

Lieutenant James Earl Carter, USN, led an American response team dispatched to Canada to assist. "Assisting" included being lowered into the reactor chamber in 90-second shifts. A more complete story from the CBC archives is here.

Too few people know of this story, and I only learned of it recently. So, a belated Happy Birthday, Mr. President, and an enormous "Thank You!" from grateful Canadians.

The Great American Novel, Part X: A Confederacy of Dunces

M.B. in San Antonio, TX, writes: I already wrote in once, recommending Huckleberry Finn over Tom Sawyer, and I stand by that recommendation. But if we're making a top ten (or any other kind of) list, my #2 choice would be A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It is without a doubt the funniest American novel ever written, while at the same time providing an engrossing and often bittersweet view into Southern life, academia, race and class relations, and the evolution of American culture in 1960s New Orleans. Do yourself a favor and make this the next book you read.

J.L. in Glastonbury, CT, writes: For most of the reasons people cite for The Grapes of Wrath and Tom Sawyer, I would go with John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. It offers a similar insight into the American psyche, in a more modern context. And it's hilarious.


R.C. in Des Moines, IA, writes: You wrote: "Will anyone get that the allusion to the Platt Amendment (above) is a reference to the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High?" I did! I immediately flashed to Ray Walston, Sean Penn, et al., and then tried to remember the time I was taught about the Platt Amendment in school and realized that at no point in high school or college did a teacher discuss the subject. Everything I know about it is from Fast Times.

D.F. in Norcoss, GA, writes: Nice call on the Platt Amendment reference from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You could also have gotten the same effect with a Smoot-Hawley Tariff/Laffer Curve reference from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but I'm thinking that too many people would fall asleep just reading about that and hearing Ben Stein's voice droning on in their minds. I personally think you made the right call. Ray Walston (Mr. Hand) had a much more forceful presentation, IMHO.

S.G. in Seattle, WA, writes: As a gay man, I can assure you that I catch every one of your Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) references, and every one of them brings me perverse delight. I just wish this kind of humor would have more of a seminal effect on the voters. That is to say, I wish that the large chasm between his voting record and his personal life that this kind of humor exposes would help him to get shafted in the next election; alas, his supporters just keep seeming to line up behind him.

V & Z respond: Fair points, all—there's something very queer about his ongoing political success.

M.B. in Albany, NY, writes: If there's one thing I hate, it's references to M*A*S*H. I consider that horse-and-buggy thinking.

V & Z respond: That's highly significant.

D.K. in Chicago, IL, writes: You're probably trying to hash out a lot of letters with more puns, but to be perfectly blunt, a lot of people on the other side of the issue are probably flipping their lid and wondering if Joe Biden got the idea to issue pardons after hitting his head in a mountain bike accident at Bong Recreational Area in Wisconsin. (5!)

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: When Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona, for California, I hope he wasn't going to UCLA. Clearly there's no grass there. School must be going to pot, I guess.


E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: If the cocaine and hookers party is too much for folks, then how about a Pixy-stix and puppies party instead? It will still feature powder and heavy petting, but now very PG!

V & Z respond: Pretty sure Otto and Flash would be up for that.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Oct08 Do I Hear Three?
Oct08 Saturday Q&A
Oct08 Today's Senate Polls
Oct07 Biden Decides It's High Time to Take Action
Oct07 OPEC+ Goes There
Oct07 DoJ Wants Classified Documents from Trump
Oct07 Select Committee Schedules Next Hearing
Oct07 From the Education Desk, Part I: President Sasse
Oct07 From the Education Desk, Part II: Veteran Teachers?
Oct07 From the Education Desk, Part III: A Fiasco at NYU
Oct07 This Week in Schadenfreude: Apparently, M-A-G-A Isn't S-E-X-Y
Oct07 This Week in Freudenfreude: Tu Stultus Es
Oct07 Today's Senate Polls
Oct06 Appeals Court Gives the DoJ What It Wants
Oct06 Musk Plans to Buy Twitter after All
Oct06 Can Poll Workers Be Trusted?
Oct06 Fox Is Covering the Senate Races More than CNN and MSNBC Combined
Oct06 Is Herschel Walker a Preview of 2024?
Oct06 2024 Looks Grim for Senate Democrats
Oct06 DeSantis Gets a New Top Individual Donor
Oct06 Ohio Creates an Election Integrity Unit, Like Florida's
Oct06 Today's Senate Polls
Oct05 OPEC Prepares to Throw a Wrench in the Gears
Oct05 Fire Walker?
Oct05 Today's Silly Lawsuits
Oct05 Tim Scott Is Ramping Up
Oct05 Speaking of Spending on Propositions
Oct05 Today's Surprise Polls
Oct05 Today's Senate Polls
Oct04 Biden Visits Puerto Rico
Oct04 As the TrumpWorld Turns
Oct04 Some More Baggage for Walker...
Oct04 ...And for Oz, Too
Oct04 Hoosier Governor?
Oct04 Petraeus Foresees a NATO Attack on Russia if Putin Goes Nuclear
Oct04 Today's Senate Polls
Oct03 Gerrymandering May Not Be Fatal for the Democrats
Oct03 Democrats Are Worried about Holding the Senate
Oct03 Was Ranked Choice Voting Fatal for Sarah Palin?
Oct03 Democrats Are Already Struggling with the 2024 Primary Schedule
Oct03 Dixon Goes Full Culture War--and Republicans Abandon Her
Oct03 Florida Republicans Are Pleading for Relief--After Voting against Funding FEMA
Oct03 The Supreme Court Is Back in the Saddle
Oct03 O'Rourke and Abbott Debate in Texas
Oct03 The Documents Case Is in the News Again
Oct03 Ted Deutsch Has Left the House
Oct03 Today's Senate Polls
Oct02 Sunday Mailbag
Oct02 Today's Senate Polls
Oct01 Saturday Q&A