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Sunday Mailbag

We got more e-mails yesterday than we've ever gotten in a single day. That includes the day that we accidentally referred to Carol Brady, of The Brady Bunch, as a widow. In any case, we'll spread the responses about influential musicians, and about names for readers of the site, over several weeks. We also have a second week of comments on Joe Biden's poor approval rating, among other things.

WWWJ (What's Wrong with Joe)?, Part II

J.A. in Redwood City, CA, writes: B.C. in Farmingville asked about Joe Biden's low approval ratings. I agree with the three explanations you gave, but I would add a related fourth: Political affiliation.

As you've mentioned before, there's a certain ceiling on Biden's approval rating, due to all of the Republican voters who are unwilling to approve of a Democratic president, no matter what the circumstances. As for independents, you've also noted that many of them really aren't neutral, and those who get their information primarily from right-wing media outlets won't be supportive of a Democratic president, either. Meanwhile, Democratic voters are probably more open to objective evaluation of their elected officials than members of any other party. I'm sure a number of Democrats feel that Biden has not properly addressed the problems they were hoping he would tackle.

J.B. in Bend, OR, writes: There are nuances and subtleties as to why a president's popularity goes up or down, but in most cases I think it comes down to whether they project an air of relaxed confidence. Sometimes it's in how often they smile or how often they can toss off a clever line or joke. Other times it's in how energetic their speeches are.

Obviously, those characteristics can be overcome by their actions and can be affected by national or world events. For example, George W. Bush had none of the characteristics I describe, but he was fighting a war on terror, so he got the benefit of that external event. Richard Nixon had no sense of humor, but he could project confidence and determination at a time when the U.S. appeared to be falling apart (yet Watergate was big enough to overcome that).

John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could all smile and joke and project relaxed confidence. They were all energetic public speakers. They were easy for a majority of Americans to like.

Biden is not a good public speaker, and he doesn't smile or joke much. In fact, he's sort of flat most of the time. Were he more like the four I mention in the previous paragraph, my guess is that the press/media would be touting all of the positives that are occurring during his administration. Instead, because he lacks charisma, they focus is on the negative things. His strength of personality is non-existent and, therefore, he doesn't get the benefit of "I know those bad things exist, but I kinda like him."

D.C. in Portland, OR, writes: To understand Biden's low polling, I fear we must torture a metaphor.

While here at we seek to elevate our understanding to provide a view of the entire forest, those voting Biden down in the polls are stuck in its depths unable to see past the next tree.

The forest on the whole has changed beyond recognition over the last 14 months. The dark spirit attacking its roots is in temporary retreat but its poison remains all over the forest floor. Democrats, detached from our lofty vantage, observe the GOP pouring their poison on the trees far below, corrupting the perspectives and beliefs of folks simply fighting to survive.

The GOP "get" these people and understand instinctively how to divert their everyday struggles into objectified fear and hate. Meanwhile, Democrats whine and tweet how bad the Republicans are but let it continue unchallenged. Instead, Democrats focus on the next highfalutin goal, the next leap for the forest toward progressive paradise, unable to fathom why those on the ground, fighting past one tree after another, don't share their positive outlook.

On some level, the Democrats do know and understand exactly what's going on, but are either clueless what to do about it, or simply lack the will. We don't meet ordinary folks where they are at or offer solutions that they understand. Rather, we have this undying faith, despite all the evidence, that somehow magically, these folks will grow to learn and recognize that it was us who enacted all the positive gains they will soon achieve and will be rewarded with towering polls and electoral victories.

Of course, the dwellers hear exactly the opposite from the GOP.

The solution is for Democrats to get out of our damn trees and communicate as effectively as Republicans. Unfortunately, that is precisely what we suck at the most.

P.M. in Palm Springs, CA, writes: Americans (well, probably people in general) or very short-sighted and can't see in front of their noses. Also, unfortunately, the body politic is not well informed and frequently misinformed by Fox, their local news outlets, etc. And, I hate to say this, but have always believed it: People are selfish, and do not consider the greater good with little regard for humanity as a whole.

That is why, despite a good economy, Ukraine, the dishonesty and travesty of Republicans, Donald Trump's trumping of democracy, issues by and large that Democrats have dealt with in a way that the majority of people would support, the majority of people will vote for Republicans in the midterms, turn their noses down at Biden, or sit out the next elections because of "what have you done for me lately?" While working a voting registration booth last week, a person of color told me: "I will vote for whoever brings down gas prices." That's all that mattered to him, despite the fact that he later informed us that as a Native American, in a "bad month," he gets a check for $9,000 from the local casino without doing anything. Meanwhile, a war in Europe rages, the climate is deteriorating to a point of no return, and the existence of democracy in the United States is in peril.


D.A.Y. in Troy, MI, writes: Another Earth Day has come and gone with the typical platitudes but us still slow walking towards a radically different world due to climate change driven by our activities. And people are more concerned with how much they must pay now to put gasoline in their tank than how much we'll all pay for the waste products of that gasoline that will be put into the atmosphere. The latest climate reports have warned that we are headed to an "unlivable" world while assuring us it can still be avoided if we act now.

Yet acting on preventing untold human suffering and environmental disaster takes a back seat, as usual. There's war in Ukraine, which will cut severely into grain imports across the world. Of course, we are going to ignore that many of the places that will be hardest hit need grain from Ukraine and Russia because they are suffering unprecedented drought driven by climate change. The tinpot dictator in Florida is more concerned about Disney's tepid opposition to one of his draconian laws and banning math books claiming they teach CRT than the fact his state is sinking into the sea and the myriad of environmental disasters currently striking the state from manatees starving to death to red tides.

This is nothing new in the United States, especially. Despite Richard Nixon signing many of the laws that now protect our environment, the Republicans from Ronald Reagan forward have done everything they can to sabotage our efforts to create a sustainable society. Donald Trump seemed set on maximizing the spoiling of the commons and has filled the courts with judges that will prevent future presidents from trying to reverse those policies for decades to come.

This leads me to ask: When are we going to act? Because I'm sick of sitting here and having to play by the rules while the Republicans thumb their nose at them. We're watching our planet transform into a world that will be alien to us and hostile towards our society as we have constructed it. Do we have to wait until we are nothing but bones in museums curated by beavers, displayed between the T. Rex and trilobite, captioned "A species with all the tools and capabilities to save themselves but refused to"?

Even if extinction is not in the cards (Homo sapien is an incredibly resilient species), a radical decline in some of the most terrible ways possible is facing us in the future. Yet Republicans are so myopic they can't see past the next election cycle and Democrats are more concerned about procedures and decorum that have disappeared everywhere except in their own heads.

The United States fancies itself as the leader of the world. Well, it is time to put up or shut up. If Joe Biden wants to be seen doing something, take a page from Gov. Ron DeSantis' (r-FL) playbook and bludgeon congress with a constant stream of environmental bills with no recesses until they relent. Stop just shrugging at a single defeat and saying "we tried." Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and enough Republicans will eventually surrender if they have to vote on these bills 24/7 until they vote "yes." Because the world is not going to fix itself with tries nor will it wait until we are ready.

L.R.H. in Oakland, CA, writes: What did running on "Trump is awful" get Hillary Clinton? That, plus her manifestly superior qualifications, got her three million more votes than Trump. And it's always worth remembering that the ridiculous media coverage of her e-mail server and James Comey's late pronouncement, versus Trump's business history and corruption, are probably what cost her the presidency.

The long-term aggravating factors leading to Trumpism include the success of multiple civil rights movements seeking equal rights for people who aren't white heterosexual men: for Black and brown people, for women, for the spectrum of LGBTQ+ people. The terrifying logical outcome of the current anti-abortion laws and the drive to harm queer and trans kids, besides the loss of Roe, is that the right wing is coming for Griswold, Obergefell, and Windsor.

E.R. in Irving, TX, writes: "Grand Speechwriting Wizard" might be the most apt title for Stephen Miller coined by anyone to date.

Now, for someone who is apparently a wizard at writing a grand speech, I hope you note Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow's (D) speech on the present state of the GOP's culture wars and their attacks on fellow Americans.

McMorrow is clearly someone who could occupy the Oval Office someday. In watching her speech, I immediately thought back to Barack Obama's keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention; hence, I'll be watching for the GOP to do all they can to shut her down ASAP.

Other Democratic Party members would be wise to watch her speech over and over again; campaign leadership and speechwriters alike should advise their candidates to emulate her passion and message for the upcoming midterms and beyond. In short, Democrats need to stop being so nice and say it like it is without being afraid of offending those who offend our general sensibilities. Lead like that, and people will follow.

D.E. in San Diego, CA, writes: One reason Republicans are more successful at messaging than Democrats is their core of ground troops willing to spread propaganda where actual eyeballs fix their gaze, instead of just the traditional communication channels. Even though I live in an area of San Diego which is only 22% Republican, I've noticed a couple of places where ground troops were willing to deface public or private property to spread their message. For example, look at the attached photo; these are pre-printed stickers someone created and someone else went around defacing gas pumps with:

Stickers that have Joe Biden
pointing at the price per gallon of gas, with the caption 'I Did That!'

Of course it's wrong to break the law in this manner, but it is effective to low-information voters who will agree with this sentiment and shows the lengths to which the GOP will go to spread its disinformation. I don't encourage an eye for an eye, but also the Democrats cannot turn the other cheek to these examples and must come up with similar messages and ways to propagate them if they are to stem the tide of sewage currently gushing from the right-wing propaganda machine.

M.S. in Springfield, VA, writes: I like your site, read it regularly, and appreciate your commentary, including your pop cultural references and humorous takes. But I am sensitive to your sarcasm around Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his potential 2024 bid.

Until the Democrats better address the issues raised by Bernie and his supporters, those voters (including me) will need someone to represent us, even if it is just to negotiate platform positions with the mainstream Democrats as Bernie did in Spring 2020. Bernie has made a major impact, and he will continue to do so.

The drawback is that people carry baggage with them from his previous runs, and that prevents them from hearing his important message. Some think his hair is too wild, he yells too much, or he treated women such as Hillary Clinton or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) poorly. I disagree. I think his hair is fine (and irrelevant to substantive policy discussions), he is right to be vocally upset about the lack of universal health care in this country, and that Hillary and Liz are tough cookies and can take it, but Bernie's handlers would have to address those perceptions.

Perhaps a younger Progressive—Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)—will take the mantle.

But if not, Bernie would be a great candidate to raise the issues we care about.

P.S. I was a National Delegate for Bernie to the DNC in 2016 from Virginia.

V & Z respond: Note that, as we learned last week, Jayapal is not eligible to be president, as she is not a natural-born citizen.

D.L. in Springfield, IL, writes: You wrote, of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's (R-GA) fundraising: "Something like 75 cents of every dollar donated goes into finding more donors." That sentence really hit home for me!

I once sent ten dollars that I could ill afford to part with at the time to a political campaign. It was a big mistake! Within a month, the floodgates had opened; I soon faced an endless barrage of phone calls asking for more, and my mailbox was soon filled with begging letters from the campaigns of many candidates for many offices. The harassment didn't stop for years! By my estimation, they spent my ten bucks many times over, just for phone calls and mail, trying to shake me personally down for more donations. I'll never make that mistake again!

You Don't Mess with the Mouse

C.P. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Great item on the brewing battle of Ron DeSantis vs. The House Of Mouse. I would like to add that the Florida governor is in way over his head. The Trumpists seem to think that the legislation to end the Reedy Creek Improvement District is a "checkmate," but I see the battle as just beginning. Disney always plays the long game.

Perhaps DeSantis should speak with the city of Anaheim to find out what he is in for. When Disney sought to build "Westcot" as their second gate in the other Orange County, they demanded infrastructure commitments from Anaheim. When the city balked and neighbors started to oppose the new project, Disney canceled it. In its place, they proposed a new park in Long Beach, which is not only miles from Disney but in a different county. It also had the benefit of having hotel space, which threatened to steal valued overnight guests.

Amazingly, Long Beach read the cards wrong and also refused to play ball. Instead of making concessions, Disney canceled that project too and also ended their lease of the Queen Mary, which would have been a centerpiece to the new park. They shipped the park to Tokyo and Japan became the home to one of the greatest theme parks ever created. Long Beach eventually got stuck with the rotting hull of the Queen Mary and now has to sink millions into keeping it afloat.

Disney's next move was to approach Anaheim, which had learned its lesson, and gave the Mouse the concessions that they requested. Unfortunately, for everyone involved the park they got was California Adventure (which was a shell of the Disney's America park that Virginia had lost) instead of Westcot. They definitely paid a price for the delay.

I don't see Disney uprooting Disney World, but they can definitely pull back investments in the property. The money will be reallocated to other areas. I am hoping for a third gate in Anaheim, but incentives could create a push towards a new property. The eventual addition of a fourth park at Disney World would definitely move further into the horizon.

The first step I see Disney taking to retaliate against DeSantis is to cancel the plans to move Imagineering to Florida. The company has already lost some valuable talent who refused to make the move. The current events in Florida would allow them to save face by keeping the division headquartered in California and, hopefully, ending the talent drain.

R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: If Disney were to leave Orlando, that hopefully would end the political career of Ron DeSantis. Now, I know it's not as easy as bringing up a moving van and moving your stuff in the middle of the night (which is basically what the Baltimore Colts did in 1984 when then owner Bob Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis). It would be rather difficult to put EPCOT on a truck...

However, why should Disney suffer because the governor of Florida wants to punish political dissent. Any state (well, most states) would welcome with open arms the chance to host a major company like Disney. Disney World and its various appendices employ over 75,000 people. That's a lot of people fueling a state economy and paying taxes. And millions of people make the visit to Orlando annually just to visit the various Disney theme parks. What a hit to the Florida economy that would be were all that to disappear.

Disney should move little further north to Charlotte and say an "F*** you" to DeSantis and Florida.

S.F. in New York City, NY, writes: The governor is pretty much non-entity outside Florida. When you wrote: "You can probably guess who dominated the questions e-mails this week... He has much in common with Benito Mussolini—and we don't just mean Italian heritage, short stature and a squeaky voice," my first thought was, "Mickey Mouse isn't Italian."

Civil War

D.H. in Pueblo, CO, writes: From an academic prospective, (Z) may be correct about the implausibility of a true hot civil war. However, I think that answer dismisses a very real threat of increased violence. While the Republicans may be more to blame, both parties demonstrate a growing intolerance of the other. A hard core on the right is finding every reason (both real and imaginary) to hate the Democrats. This hard core generally believes Donald Trump's lies, and so many other lies on the web of a million lies. They are angry, and they are armed. Some are threatening violence, and may one day realize those threats. Meanwhile the Democrats are shunning and isolating any American that disagrees with their socio-political views. They make sure that anybody with right-wing views will be face a very negative reception if they attempt discussion, just as the right makes sure any Democrat that attempts discussion receives a similar cold welcome. Thus vastly reducing the chance of peaceful resolution of differences through free speech.

One person I know is, thanks to his stance on the COVID-19 vaccine, very socially isolated and seeking out people that share his views. Dismissing his intelligence and capability based on his view of the vaccine is flat out wrong; he is very smart, very capable, and now very angry. He feels very righteous in his anger because all this happened when he refused to do what the Democrats ordered him to do. He has the strategic and tactical understanding to be very dangerous. While I have no reason to believe that he, specifically, is a threat, there are plenty of people like him. People that lot their job due to refusing vaccination will make a fertile recruiting ground for violent extremists, even if they eventually caved on the specific issue of vaccination. The same goes for people that lost their job and faced substantial social repercussions due to disagreeing with the Democrats on social issues.

As inept as they may have been, the events of 1/6 were an attempt to overturn our presidential election by force. They did result in the Confederate Battle Flag being marched victoriously through our capital. If another such attempt is made the next round will be better planned, better thought out, and very likely far more violent.

Personally, I believe in resolving differences non-violently whenever possible. Using discussion, polite or not, where possible. Accepting that so-and-so has bad points but is still is my fellow American and is deserving of human respect. Recognizing that free speech is an essential tool for non-violent politics and so not making as much room for free speech as possible. Gritting my teeth to live near and even worth with people that I despise.

But, today, neither side is much interested in conflict resolution through discussion, and both are into shutting down free speech. Neither is into listening to views they deem offensive, trying to find the humanity in somebody on the other side, tolerating offensive remarks from the other side, and doing the hard work of finding common ground. The Democrats would rather shun and isolate the other side. And the Republicans would rather arm themselves and train in "militias." Yes, their "militias" may be no match for the U.S. military. But they are capable of mass bloodshed. And you are assuming that the military and the police uniformly take the side of the government; I do not see this as a guarantee.

I am not all cynical, I think we can get through this without mass violence. I even think we have a good chance of getting through it. People can learn not to let the Internet inflame their hatred. They could learn that the inflammatory guy on TV is not representative of the other side. They could re-learn to accept the other party as their fellow Americans. They could even learn the value in focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us. Trumpism and culture wars and race hate and Infowars could all burn out. But I consider an assumption that mass violence won't happen as a mistake. The stakes are high, and we need to step up with a willingness to shake the hand of somebody we despise because it is so much better than the alternative.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: I would ask (Z) to consider... if trans swimmers and same-sex marriage, for example, do not affect the day-to-day life of most people, then why does it seem to me that most people spend every day either making our LGBTQ lives miserable, or thinking up more ways to do exactly that?


And by the way, just let me have a kid in Florida schools, and let them read Beauty and the Beast or something and they'd get hit with a lawsuit faster than they could fart and say Mississippi, because, as you correctly point out, hetero is also a sexual orientation. I also like your observation about a teacher wearing a wedding ring. You wanna bet I have just enough anger built up in me over years of mistreatment... that I would not do just this just to stick it to them?

BET ON IT. I would. And I am not as sure as you that a Civil War isn't possible. The dynamics of today are different in many ways... and so would the nature of a Civil War be.

I have said for decades that I believe I will see a Civil War in my lifetime, and that I would see the end of the United States in my lifetime. I still believe this. But it will not be a nice, neat, North versus South this time. It will be a hundred different factions all fighting each other over the rancid bits of a once great nation, guerrilla warfare will run in the streets, and a trip to the grocery store could cost you your life... if the store even has supplies (since one of the tactics of guerilla warfare is to cut off supply lines).

I really and truly fear for this country. I do not think we can continue to be a cohesive nation with the deepening divide between us. But there is no neat way to have a velvet divorce, either, such as Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic did. So what gives?

I really think that this nation and democracy are in great danger. I have long believed I will not be allowed a natural death... that people like me will be the first dragged off just as soon as those who hate us think they can get away with it.

I hate to sound paranoid and macabre, but I really live in this kind of fear every day. I do not let it silence me or stop me from fighting and being visible and folks around me say I am one of the bravest people they know. But do not be fooled, I am scared out of my mind almost every day... I just do not often let it show.


S.G. in Newark, NJ, writes: Having done appeals at the Department of Justice, I can answer the question about who makes the call when the government has to decide whether to appeal an adverse court ruling: The Solicitor General of the United States. It would be extremely rare, but not unheard of, for the SG to initiate an appeal if the affected agency (ahem, CDC) did not request it. It would be unusual, but not rare, for the SG to decide (for reasons of policy, politics, or litigation strategy) not to pursue an appeal that an agency sought. Because trial court decisions, even extremely stupid or unpleasant ones, are not binding precedents, sometimes it's better to live with one than risk an adverse precedent-setting decision by a Court of Appeals or The Big Court on First Street, N.E. Because of the potential consequences, the power to make the appeal-or-not decision is centralized in the SG's office; it does not belong to the DOJ component that litigated the case in the trial court and certainly does not belong to any client agency. Of course, the SG is accountable to the Attorney General and the President.

As to where the buck stops: I, too, was disappointed in Joe Biden's answer when asked if the government would appeal the nationwide injunction against the travel mask requirement. Here's what I would have said:

We disagree with the decision but, unlike the previous Administration, we respect the rule of law. The judge's order means that masks are no longer legally required on public transportation, but I think that all Americans should keep wearing a mask to protect their fellow citizens and themselves. We will decide whether to appeal after consultation with the Department of Justice and the CDC.

Of course, that answer is longer than four words, and therefore beyond the attention span of many Americans.

H.R. in Cudahy, WI, writes: With all due respect for mask use, the transportation mandate that was just struck down wasn't protecting much of anyone. How so?

All Politics Is Local

A.C. in Kingston, MA, writes: I wanted to share a bit of exciting personal news. The reason I'm writing in so late is that I only just got to sit down and read today's Q&A. I spent all day holding signs at my local election and ended up winning a position on my school committee! In a vote-for-two-of-three, I got the highest number of votes. I want to thank you both for all you've done to add to my knowledge base about civics and U.S. history over the years as well as keep up my sense of hope that things can get better.

V & Z respond: Congratulations!

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, writes: My two cents about the lieutenant governor saga here in the Empire State, as an upstate New Yorker.

When Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) picked Brian Benjamin (D) to be her lieutenant, there were no hearings or votes by the state legislature. No confirmation process. There was an inauguration ceremony for him. But that was it.

For the second highest position in our state, you'd think that we, the citizens of New York, would have some say through our elected representatives. I contacted my state senator and assemblywoman insisting that a change be made to the state constitution to have something in place in the future, like what the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires when the vice presidency is vacant. Ironically, former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller went through this process to become Gerald Ford's VP in 1974.

From what I've observed here, Hochul has been dinged politically from this. but is still the favorite to win election in her own right come November. I still plan to vote for her based on her ability to lead the state during the pandemic and guiding us out of the Andrew Cuomo saga.

Now she plans to take some time in picking her next lieutenant governor. However, I would point out this new person will only serve until the end of this year. Come January of next year, this position will be filled by whomever is elected in the fall. The Democratic primary is already set for June, and includes Benjamin on the ballot. There are two primary elections, one for governor and one for lieutenant governor. The winners of those primaries form the party's ticket for the general. So it's possible the "running mates" may be folks who don't like each other.

Wouldn't be New York politics without a little more drama.

R.L.D. in Sundance, WY, writes: I looked at the websites for the two L.A. mayoral campaigns you linked and read through their ideas around homelessness since that's one of my areas of expertise. It was kind of refreshing to see the one-time Republican espousing ideas that would actually move the needle. He's still mixing in a lot of efforts to criminalize homelessness and altogether too much emphasis on shelter, in my opinion, but he has a lot in common with the long-time Democrat. My impression is that they are both trying to present plans that would have something to appeal to all the different factions. I am glad to see both of them pushing for more prevention and more affordable housing, because both of those things are critical to ending homelessness for good.

A.G. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I would say that in Los Angeles, public safety and homelessness are almost one and the same for many people. In contrast to crime, people out and about in the city see this on a daily basis. I have seen male genitals and public defecation in fairly nice parts of the city. For me it was somewhat upsetting, but if god forbid I had a child with me, that would be traumatic for them. Nobody really knows what to do, either. In speaking with homeless advocates who are out on the streets, they don't know either. They happily talk about how they take 5,000-6,000 people off the streets every year, which is an amazing thing. The flip side is they also feel that the rest don't want their help. It's not like they walk up to every tent and the individual happily accepts their aid. In fact, they say it's rather difficult to find people who want help. The unfortunate reality is that many are not able to be helped, they choose to be homeless, are heavily addicted to drugs and/or have deep mental health issues.

This rather leads into the second part of the issue, which is public transit in Los Angeles. It's a sad thing to see all these billions invested. While a small percentage of folks rely on it, I can't see it becoming anything like the transit system in, for example, New York City. NYC transports 5.5 million people per weekday versus 0.3 million in Los Angeles. The L.A. transit system remains a last resort for anyone and it's appalling that nobody considers it safe or effective. Perhaps city leadership have plans to do something to improve ridership, but as far as I can tell, it keeps dropping year after year.

The basic fact is many people don't feel very safe walking or transiting around Los Angeles. My argument is that homelessness has the biggest piece of that unsafe-feeling pie. No wonder both mayoral candidates have that top of mind, though I really can't see how it can be fixed.

C.W. in Carlsbad, CA, writes: As one of the local get-out-the-vote neighborhood walkers, I wanted to report to you from the political trenches of Carlsbad, my adopted home of 10 years now. Things are looking pretty depressing right now. And one of the contributing factors is, for better or worse, your daily briefing. In my mental consolidation, I am seeing four messages that keep showing up this year:

  1. It is absolutely essential that Democrats retain or even enlarge their hold on the national legislature, however...

  2. People are still looking at the 2022 election in a conventional political sense, blaming the party in power for all their various woes and grievances, and...

  3. The GOP, along with their various industrial and international network components, are busy filling the airwaves with misinformation, and...

  4. On top of everything else, various states are busy constructing an apparatus to fix elections, from making it hard to vote (or have your ballot survive various filters), reducing the value of one's vote through hard-core gerrymandering, to actual throwing out the election results in their own state legislatures.

In short, a win is essential on all levels, and is looking increasingly unobtainable.

I will say that I have heard on your site, from time to time, very clear messages on what matters. I can use this as I knock on doors next month in preparation for the primaries. But the bottom line, and I don't know whether this resonates at all, but I now find myself scanning the titles of your articles and, often as not, skipping the read entirely. (This from a guy who has been reading the entire page since you started it in the early 2000's.) I'm not complaining so much as just letting you know that these last 6 years have been so emotionally exhausting that many of your topics have become difficult to look at. And it's not letting up. So while I appreciate your unique analyses, I already know we front-line workers have a lot of work to do getting the message out. If you're open to suggestion, I'd say see if you can find some more hopeful (without getting partisan) things to write about. Barring that, maybe think a little harder about how you title your articles.

International Politics

M.A.K. in London, England, UK, writes: In response to your item on the French elections: There are two things to consider when thinking about what the result might be. For one, the system of having legislative elections immediately after the presidential election is specifically designed to avoid a president's party not also having a legislative majority; in all elections since the current system has come in, the electorate has given the president a working majority in the National Assembly on the president's coattails.

The second is that even if we do somehow end up in a situation where the president's party does not have a majority, this is far from unprecedented in France. Their term for it is cohabitation, and it is much less disruptive than the equivalent situation in the U.S. The French system may be semi-presidential, but in several important regards it is still far more parliamentary than the U.S.; the main seat of power in France is the National Assembly. The French president lacks the American president's discretion to issue executive orders or veto legislation; and also lacks the Westminster system's reserve power to sack the prime minister and appoint another one.

Cohabitation has happened three times in the Fifth Republic. Each time it caused significant friction, but the legislature was still able to get at least some things done during the cohabitation. Most notably, Jacques Chirac was forced to appoint the Socialist Party's Lionel Jospin as prime minister in the late 90s, and was then powerless to prevent Jospin's government from significantly expanding the French welfare state, introducing universal health insurance, and bringing in the iconic reduction of the working week to 35 hours. This is not entirely unlike if Donald Trump had to watch majority leaders Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders passing Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage, and not been able to do anything to stop it.

There is still a faint chance of gridlock if somehow the legislative election (two rounds, but still fundamentally first-past-the-post) produces no clear majority and requires protracted coalition negotiations; but even so, once those negotiations were complete it is highly likely that the new government would very soon be able to get on with whatever their joint agenda would be, regardless of who the president was and what they thought about it.

D.L. in Paris, France, writes: As a French voter, I must say I find your description of Macron as a "center-left candidate" to be strongly inaccurate. Granted, he could be seen like that five years ago, but by now most of the political analysts, but also the opinion polls, show that Macron is perceived as a center-right/right-wing President in the French context.

Most of his policies have involved cutting taxes for the rich, restricting immigration and weakening labor rights. The previous president he resembles the most is conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who implicitly endorsed him in this election. And he took most of the votes from the classical right-wing candidate Valérie Pécresse (who failed to secure Sarkozy's endorsement).

I wanted to give you (and possibly your readers) that insight.

E.O. in Jalisco, México, writes: First, I've been a loyal reader of this site since 2006; it was really hard when you went on hiatus until the next election cycle, so I take this chance to thank (V) and (Z) for your hard work, and I want to emphasize unlike commenters that have given you a hard time, I think you guys are the closest to unbiased opinion and information site we can get these days, thank you guys.

Regarding F.J.V.S in Acapulco, after I turned 18, each time I voted for the winner of Mexico's presidential election: 2006 (Calderon), 2012 (Peña Nieto), 2018 (AMLO). As you can see, my voting record is quite unstable, as I voted for a supposedly right, center-left and leftist candidate, respectively. While I'd identify myself as center-left voter, none of them fit into my political leanings and beliefs. I voted for them because I didn't want my vote to be wasted. None of the candidates I've seen through 18 years of elections in my country have been less than mediocre and disappointing, so at least I can say I voted for the winner, I guess.

However, I want to make clear that I voted for AMLO only because I thought after all the chances PAN and PRI had to turn things around, it was his turn, so I decided to give him a chance, I don't regret it, but I'd certainly never support him or his movement again after watching firsthand what was his plan for our country.

I wouldn't call AMLO the worst president we've ever had, but he certainly is as mediocre as all his predecessors, and I certainly can tolerate his policies, even if I don't agree with them, because if all his predecessors were able to implement their policies even if they were damaging us, I don't get why all of a sudden opposition acts as if Mexico was Switzerland and thanks to AMLO were becoming Venezuela.

Nevertheless what I hate of AMLO and his supporters is their love for alternate facts and their "you're either with me or against Mexico" attitude, his attacks on middle class and calling them "aspirationalists" (well, shouldn't all people aspire to be better?) whenever he doesn't get his way, the other party is wrong and a traitor to our nation, he doesn't want to compromise, and acts as if his supporters were a huge majority when midterms elections showed that we're a divided country with AMLO's parties getting 42.78% votes and opposition parties 46.63%, if the opposition had gone together AMLO's regime would have lost its majority in Congress.

By the way, AMLO is not a leftist politician, he's an authoritarian populist in the mold of the PRI of the 70's and 80's. He doesn't care about environmental issues, social issues, all his policies are focused on economic issues, and if you don't agree with them, you're a conservative (quite ironic since AMLO himself is conservative) and a traitor to Mexico, or if you're a different branch of government who antagonizes him, he'd just send constitutional amendments to Congress, so he can take over those branches like INE (National Electoral Institute) and TEPJF (Federal Elections Court), which I know for sure have a lot of issues that need to be fixed, however in this case their biggest sin was not bowing down to AMLO. Like Donald Trump, he forgets he's also the president of people who oppose him, and instead prefers to divide the country to conquer it.

Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, Aleksandr Lukashenko and AMLO belong to the same box, it's not only their policies that is wrong with them, is the polarization they generate to maintain control of their countries.

I totally agree with (V) and (Z) that the 2022 Mexican presidential recall referendum was a waste of time and money; it was used only to see how well AMLO's party could mobilize people to the polls, even if opposition voters had participated and voted AMLO out, he wouldn't be forced out as our constitution establishes Freedom from Ex Post Facto Laws, and the recall laws were approved on 2019, a year after AMLO was sworn in office, so it was a win-win situation for him, only he never thought opposition voters wouldn't bother to legitimize his scheme. This was a tantrum of AMLO's to show his political muscle; can you imagine Gov. Gavin Newson (D-CA) asking and organizing for a recall referendum to vote himself out of office?

An advice from someone who has seen how sausages are made, I know that just like sports, family and nationality, for regular voters politics is more an identity issue than policy issue. But people, no matter how much you like a politician, DO NOT BECOME A DIE HARD FAN OF THEM. They don't even know you exist, people lose family and friends defending or attacking someone who doesn't care, simply remember you're just a faceless vote for them.

D.R. in Puebla, México, writes: I wanted to give you my thoughts on the Mexican "recall" election that took place last weekend. I largely agree with your assessment of the result, which was probably inevitable given the current circumstances. However, there are quite a few more things that can be said of this event and about the current state of affairs in America's largest trade partner.

As a permanent resident of Mexico—but not yet full citizen—I was unable to cast a ballot in this election. But if I was able to, I would have voted to keep Andrés Manuel López Obrador as President. That probably sounds odd, considering where I come from. However, I actually believe he's doing a good job, is right on most issues, his COVID response was reasonably good and, very importantly, his opposition sucks. That said, what happened last Sunday was a demonstration of the large gap between the priorities of the media and the Mexico City-based leaders, and those of the majority of the population.

Let me explain myself.

The Mexican President and some of his closest allies, including Manuel Barlett—a former Governor of Puebla and one of the most important politicians in Mexico in the last 40 years—have an agenda that most progressives in the U.S. would approve of. The so-called "Fourth Transformation" is a mix of abstract and concrete goals that would fit very nicely on a lefty wish-list of things they would like to acomplish if they get to govern. But while the Mexican people is behind the President on those issues—as showed by his +60% approval rating—they want him and the political system to act on those that actually matter to them: Drug-related violence, femicides, kidnappings, youth unemployment and the poor quality of the jobs and salaries currently available. And by this point, everyone knows the opposition doesn't have the answers to any of those problems. For example, consider how bloody and disastrous the "War on Drugs" was here. Nobody wants to go back to that, and no one has a clue of what to do with the problem.

How all of this is directly related to the result? Easy: Last Sunday, none of that was on the ballot. Everyone wants the President to finish his term, most support his signature policies, and in any case, those who personally oppose him can try again in 2024. But the answers to the most important issues facing the Mexican people were not on the ballot, and both the President and his opposition ignore that fact to their own peril. That was a recall election nobody but the President asked for—only as a measuring exercise... of his popularity, that is—and its result is as meaningless as it gets.

As a matter of fact, the most important developments in Mexican politics during the last few months—the Supreme Court's ruling on the new energy law and today's vote in Congress on the constitutional reform that would shield it—passed under the rug as no one is paying attention. Well, that's not exactly true since someone is paying attention: Ken Salazar, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, and most important lobbyist for the companies that are seriously opposed to this reform.


B.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: You wrote: "In 2018, the student newspaper at Harvard, The Harvard Crimson, did a study of SAT scores of Harvard students admitted from 1995 to 2013. Asian Americans averaged 767 on each segment of the test, whites averaged 745, Latinos averaged 718, Native Americans averaged 712, and Black students averaged 704. Clearly if a purely merit-based system were used, more Asian Americans would be admitted, offset by fewer Black, Latino, and Native American students."

Clearly, if the SAT measured something definable, if it had predictive value relative to performance in college, and if there were actually a real-world difference between scores of 704, 712, and 718 as opposed to 745 or even 767, then the assertion above would be valid. It would be very difficult to prove that any of these things are true. (Not that double 700s guaranteed a candidate admission to Harvard in my time.)

Having taught in college preparatory schools for 40 years, including a stint in the college counseling office, always having students who scored double 700s (triple 700s during the time of the writing exam), and having had a goodly number of students who made double 800s (and a few triple 800s), I would guess that the main thing that a score over 700 measures is precociousness.

You also wrote: "Second, growing up in China, recent immigrants were conditioned to believe that a single test score was a valid measure of merit on which admission should be based."

That was always difficult to grasp—for Chinese-American students, for Asian students, for immigrant students, and for others as well at times. People wanted and expected a simple, direct, merit-based system of admission. But universities were not accepting on the basis of student academic merit, but on the basis of "What does this applicant have to offer the university?," not just now, but long after graduation. The universities needed to build for the future, especially a more diverse alumni base. College admission had become more like hiring people for jobs in a corporation than admitting people to a program based on their earned merit.

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: You wrote: "Clearly if a purely merit-based system were used, more Asian Americans would be admitted, offset by fewer Black, Latino, and Native American students."

That is only true if you believe that SAT scores are the best measure of "merit."

Besides that, what exactly is "merit"? A predictor of high college GPA? A reward for previous hard work? An assessment of how much an individual will benefit from admission? An assessment of how much society will benefit from an admission? Is "merit" strictly an individual property or does the overall composition of an entering class have "merit"?

The obsession with SATs reminds me of General Dreedle approach to skeet in Catch-22: "Shooting skeet eight hours a month was excellent training for them. It trained them to shoot skeet."

J.L. in Glastonbury, CT, writes: The problem with debating 'affirmative action' in college admissions is that it's not affirmative action.

Affirmative action is when the government mandates picking a winner, based on race, from a group of otherwise equal candidates, for public benefit.

College admissions is the process of putting together a group of students who will best use the college and, over a lifetime, enhance its image through their accomplishments. That means that each class needs a tuba player, a ballet dancer, a chemist, and a quarterback. Each class also needs to be racially diverse, as ease in a diverse institution is an important factor in success in the highest levels of globalized professions. So candidates are not equal, and government is mandating any choices. Good college choose to do it, for the benefit of the college.

Competitive college admissions is not a spelling bee, where someone gets admitted because they won a competition. It's not a prize or reward. It's not about the applicant at all; it's about the college.

So the fact that SAT scores statistically vary by race is not a function of lowering a bar for Black and Latino applicants, and raising a bar for Asian applicants. It's just a reflection of the reality that the pool of Black and Latino applicants, over the prior 17 years of their life, are the product of a society that results in a lower range of SAT scores. And the converse is true with the pool of Asian applicants. But no one is getting admitted simply on the basis of their SAT score, or their race. These things are just facts, neither here nor there.

Oy, Vey!

M.R. in Acton, MA, writes: I'm writing to challenge your characterization of Bernie Sanders as an "atheistic-former-Jew." To start, Sanders released a campaign video in 2020, in which he declared before a cheering audience that he's "proud to be Jewish."

Beyond that, since you connected "atheistic" to "former-Jew" with a hyphen, I wonder if you are concluding that Sanders can't be a Jew if he is an atheist? I honestly don't know whether he is an atheist or not, but it scarcely matters. A good number of my congregants are agnostic or atheist, and that doesn't disqualify them from being Jewish. Part of our collective challenge is the Western conflation of all religious teachings with Christianity. Most (though not all) Christian doctrines require their adherents to be "believers"—if you believe Jesus was God in human form, and that he died for the sins of humanity, you are a Christian; if you don't, you're not. Judaism (better: "Jewishness") describes a people and culture as much as it is a belief system. Jews are Jews either because they have family roots, or undergo conversion. Nobody "checks at the door" whether or not they believe the Shema's declaration that "God is One." Jewishness is defined by familial and cultural connections more than by what one believes.

You may note that this Christian conflation of belief with identity seeps into much of our public discourse—hence references to "interfaith dialogue" and "the faith community." Whether or not Jews have "faith" in God has no bearing on their status as Jews. Only in very rare instances have attempts been made to remove Jews from the community—a process known as putting one in cherem—the most famous of course being that of Baruch Spinoza in Amsterdam in the 17th century. The difficulty with the concept of cherem is that it is impossible to enforce; I could be convinced to put Stephen Miller in cherem, but so what? If the shul down the block welcomes him in, it scarcely matters. When I was a rabbinical student, I shopped at a Jewish book store that occasionally was the target of a cherem from right-wing rabbis who were upset that the Orthodox owner stocked Reform and other progressive Jewish books. It had no effect on sales; in fact, during the time of the campaign, the store actually expanded.

Even Jews who convert to other traditions do not lose their status as Jews, at least according to Jewish tradition. In short, there really is no such thing as a "former Jew," atheist or otherwise.

L.M. in Tampa, FL, writes: In your answer to D.T. in San Jose, you wrote: "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."

Maybe you already know this, but whether someone is involved in the religion or not is irrelevant to whoever hates Jews. Hatred of Jews is a special hatred that is deeply ingrained in many cultures; it will not change even if every single Jew converted to whatever religion is deemed meritorious.

Even in liberal Europe, it is literally displayed in stone by the religion. I'm referring to the Judensau sculptures attached to numerous churches. These sculptures depict Jews in obscene contact with pigs. How can hatred of Jews be extinguished when it is so obviously incorporated in the religion?

I am myself a non-practicing Jew, indeed an atheist; and married to a Catholic born in Germany. It makes no difference. I've been deeply insulted for my heritage many times in my life. I can't prove it, but I believe that I've been passed over for promotion, and twice given raises much lower than the corporate average because I'm Jewish. I can't know for certain, but I can guess, because my group leader at the time was openly insulting to Jews. After he was demoted, my new group leaders have given appropriate raises, higher than average, and I received the promotion that had long been deserved. (I've never spoken about this to anyone at work except the person who made the slurs. After twice speaking to him about it, he stopped openly doing that—to my face.)

One other thing. I'm an immigrant from Canada. I came 25 years ago, in 1997, and I've been a citizen since 2006. I traversed the various visas: NAFTA visa, H-1B, permanent residence (aka green card), then citizenship. I can tell you that when you joke about Canadians invading the U.S., it may be funny to most, but to me it stings a tiny bit.

G.A. in Berkeley, CA, writes: In "This Week in Schadenfreude," the reference to a "pound of flesh" is at least arguably antisemitic. As you know, it comes from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish money lender, arranged a deal in which he was entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh if Antonio could not repay a loan. (Yes, I know, "Hath not a Jew eyes?"—a great contribution to "humanism.") Interestingly, from the standpoint of antisemitism, there were no Jews in England for hundreds of years before Shakespeare wrote—they had all been expelled.

So, some irony in your use of a common-but-ugly phrase to wish a bad guy ill.

My Gift Is My Song, Part I

K.B. in Hartford, CT, writes: I agree with your inclusion of Rodgers and Hammerstein on the list of important musicians/composers and the observation that they paved the way for modern shows like Rent and Miss Saigon. I would quibble with you characterization of their work as "light entertainments," however. Perhaps the music to modern ears seems light, but the themes certainly weren't—racism, domestic violence, Nazis, etc. The 2019 revival of Oklahoma! didn't change the book or lyrics but the production was very dark. To the extent that the music was on the lighter side, it was to make the story lines palatable.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, writes: I was a little surprised George M. Cohen didn't make your list. A dominant force on Broadway before World War I, his efforts during the war significantly buoyed U.S. morale on the home front, earning him a Congressional gold medal.

M.E.T. in Garden City, NY, writes: I agree with everything you attributed to Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong with regard to popularizing jazz, but Jelly Roll Morton was the first to notate it. Whether or not he "invented" jazz, as he claimed, is subject to dispute, but if he didn't, he was certainly an early influencer. Regardless, he deserves placement on the list with them.

D.S. in Cleveland Heights, OH, writes: I think you should also include Leonard Bernstein. His Young People's Concerts educated a whole generation about classical music in the most extraordinary way. He was also the composer of West Side Story, one of the greatest and most groundbreaking and influential of musicals. One could go on with his compositional achievements (Candide, On the Waterfront, On the Town, etc.). He was also one of the great conductors and a great champion of Aaron Copland, Gustav Mahler, Carl Nielsen and others, helping to cement their reputations in the mainstream of music. And he was a devoted teacher (to many great conductors) and essayist. He went a long way to demystifying and popularizing classical music in America and throughout the world. One could go on, but you get the idea.

J.B. in Billings, MT, writes: Richard Wagner: Clearly not an American (although you included The Beatles), but he was the most influential and controversial composer of the 19th century and changed classical art music as well as broader culture in ways that Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven did not. His music is definitely in the popular consciousness ("Ride of the Valkyries" in Apocalypse Now being the most famous example) and his unfortunate connection with Nazi Germany and antisemitism alone make him a contender. However, he was in the zeitgeist in both Europe and US in the late 19th century well before Hitlar's rise to power, and many prominent American thinkers were influenced by him (W.E.B. du Bois and Willa Cather, for example). Also, he probably single-handedly put Norse mythology in the popular consciousness (for better or worse, we got both the Marvel super heroes created by Jewish comic book writers and the persistent use of Norse symbols by Neo-Nazis). Finally, I think movies would be very different without his influence. John Williams, for example, frequently uses the Wagnerian principle of leitmotifs to augment the what's happening on screen and the story telling of many modern films feels Wagnerian. Like him or not, Wagner was an influential musician not just in American culture but around the world.

J.C. in Westminster, VT, writes: As a musician (cellist, flutist, guitarist), I would say you missed two really big ones. First, Johann Sebastian Bach. Think not only of all of the orchestras and chamber groups who have at one time or another depended on his work for their bread and butter. Think also Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Led Zeppelin. I'm not sure Prog Rock would even exist without J.S. Bach.

Second, The Birds (no, not The Byrds). I mean song birds: thrushes, sparrows, nightingales, etc. The earliest instruments were made of bird bones. The earliest human music may well have been imitative of bird song. They remain the most ubiquitous singers on the planet. We would not be who we are without them.

Who Are You? Who, Who, Who, Who?, Part I

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: What do we call ourselves? Since (Z) uses the transitional word 'Anyhow' so often, why not call the readers of 'anyhowlers'?

B.A. in Rosemount, MN, writes: I propose "EVocators."

J.J. in Falls Church, VA, writes: Obviously we should be known as "E-V-ants."

J.P.L. in Oklahoma City, OK, writes: As a relatively new reader of this site, I would like to humbly suggest "The Electorals."

J.B. in Fort Kent, ME, writes: My wife and I have been regular readers for years, and she came up with the suggestion of "Veezers" after our two intrepid political commentators, (V) and (Z).

J.H.M. in Stanley, ID, writes: "Electorists," as derived from the excellent English series Detectorists!

B.R. in Boston, MA, writes: "E-Vangelicals."

N.K. in Ithaca, NY, writes: "Patriots." I say this as someone who is disgusted by the right's appropriation of terms like patriotism and phrases like family values.

V & Z respond: Why don't we put this on a scientific basis? Go here to vote for your favorite(s) from these eight. After four weeks, we'll advance the top two finishers from each week to a final round, and identify a winner.


A.W. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: In the interest of pedantry, please note that humans and human-like organisms such as Alex Jones do not really convert oxygen to carbon dioxide. Rather, oxygen is converted to water (which can be excreted, warm, into buckets of dubious worth) and food is converted to carbon dioxide (a significant component of the hot air that Jones blows in excess).

S.W. in San Jose, CA, writes: Instead of "an awful, awful human being converter of oxygen to carbon dioxide" I would suggest "awful useless lump of protoplasm wasting air."

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, writes: Daniil Medvedev's best result in Wimbledon was the 4th round, so it's far-fetched to say that he has a decent chance of winning Wimbledon. Apparently (V) and (Z) aren't experts in tennis.

V & Z respond: Rafael Nadal eventually figured out how to win on grass; Medvedev's got the talent to do the same. Put another way, one of us does indeed have pretty extensive expertise in tennis.

F.L. in Denton, TX, writes: In your story about the missing keyboard, something you wrote (parenthetically) piqued my curiosity—namely that you were on Floor 13.

Many hotels don't have a thirteenth floor. Make no mistake, I don't doubt your story, but the tradition holds true—it's bad luck.

V & Z respond: That thought also occurred to (Z), though it's worth noting that while the hotel does not entirely bow to superstition, they do not use the phrase "Thirteenth Floor." What the front desk staff says is "You're in room 1371." It's up to the guest to figure out which floor that must be on.

One other, previously unmentioned fact (we think): There was some sort of pool tournament taking place in the hotel that weekend, such that everyone who was robbed, excepting (Z), was a pool player. Was that a coincidence? Or are pool players renowned for having lots of personal wealth? Dunno.

M.C. in Reno, NV, writes: In response to the letter from M.C. in Newton about the CIA and nosy dachshunds, you wrote: "Wait. You haven't heard of the Bay of Wieners?"

You know what, I think I have. Isn't that a secluded male nudist colony?

V & Z respond: You sure you're not thinking about Johnson Peninsula?

D.C. in Palo Alto, CA, writes: As someone who does not much appreciate scatological humor, it annoys me that the penis resembles so many other useful objects in the world. Eez all how you look at eet.

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