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Sunday Mailbag

A lot more letters on Ukraine, of course, and some pretty substantial letters on trans issues. Oh, and some word games at the end. That's our menu for today.

The War in Ukraine: Russia

F.C. in Sequim, WA, writes: Now we know the main reason why Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump were trying to divide the USA: Trump would pull out of NATO in his second term, Putin would invade while NATO is in flux, and the Russian Empire would be back! Trump would have been paid riches beyond his dreams... but instead goes to Rikers.

J.H. in Boston, MA, writes: Oh man can I call them or what? Less than a week after I e-mailed in with this explanation for why Putin waited for the end of Trump's term to invade (because Trump wanted to weaken NATO and maybe would withdraw), John Bolton publicly offers the same explanation: "Former National Security Advisor John Bolton says 'Putin was waiting' for Trump to withdraw the United States from NATO in his second term."

Have I got a future on the NSC or what?

V & Z respond: Depends. How good are you at throwing staplers?

P.S. in Gloucester, MA, writes: Heaven help us if the CIA believes its hired expert that Putin is autistic (Asperger's syndrome or otherwise). Another fine example of our tax dollars at work.

E.K. in Brignoles, France, writes: Just an interesting follow-up to your answer posted today about the enigma that haunts the world: "U.S. intelligence weighs Putin's two years of extreme pandemic isolation as a factor in his wartime mind-set."

D.G. in Montreal, QC, Canada, writes: Last week, I wrote in to suggest that water was an overlooked dimension to the conflict. After watching this excellent video (which touches on that topic) it makes me think that it's also about natural gas. Basically, Ukraine has significant natural gas deposits in the Black Sea which, had they been developed, would make it into a rival petro-state. You can see from the current map of occupied territory that Russia has prioritized the Black Sea coastline. This corridor of control will allow them to (eventually) plunder Ukraine's' reserves, while also opening up a corridor from Donbas to Crimea to Transnistria.

This leads me to surmise that perhaps part of the reason why sanctions don't matter to Putin is that oil and natural gas are left off the list (because Europe is so deeply dependent). Maybe Vlad has concluded that with future Russian exploitation of these resources, the war will pay for itself. Where have I heard that one before?

E.C.R. in Helsinki, Finland writes: You wrote:

The Russians haven't fought this sort of war in quite a while. And they've never been great at some aspects of modern warfare; grand strategy has generally been lacking, and logistics and supply have never been a strong suit. Even in World War II, the U.S.S.R. relied heavily on its home-field advantage (for much of the war) and its ability to throw wave after wave of troops at the enemy.

Your judgment of Russia's history is unsupported and appears to be tainted by confirmation bias. Up through Munich, the Soviet Union had arguably the best grand strategy among the non-German powers but the Brits and French sold out first Austria and then Czechoslovakia. Whether the Ribbentrop pact was a failure of grand strategy is debatable but I freely admit that the Soviet execution of the absorbing the capture Polish and Romanian territories was definitely a tactical failure in that the existing fortified defense line should have been left intact while a new one on the new border was built over a period of 5 to 10 years. As for the Red Army logistics weaknesses, aside from the well-known drive on Berlin, the Soviet drive into northern Norway from Murmansk demonstrated the ability to advance over extremely difficult terrain that the Wehrmacht had been utterly unable to cross earlier in the war when the balance of forces was much more in the German favor. So at least in Arctic, it is indisputable that the mobility and logistics of the Red Army was greatly superior to that of the Wehrmacht.

I've seen recent U.S. Army studies that suggest that there is still a qualitative gap between the Russian Army's mobility in this sort of terrain and that of the U.S. Army. All of which is of course irrelevant to Ukraine where the terrain is more conventional but I am reminded of Sherman's march to the sea during the U.S. Civil Var. Then the South expected that Sherman's troops would suffer terribly during the Winter cold in Georgia but to Sherman's troops from Minnesota, Michigan and etc. the weather was like a fine Fall day and not at all unsuitable for a long campaign with no communications.

J.A. in Brisbane, QLD, Australia, writes: An oligarch comes from any region in the former Soviet Union. Otherwise it's just sparkling white corruption.

The War in Ukraine: The United States

B.H. in Westborough, MA, writes: Your take on Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) comments about assassinating Putin being ill-considered were illuminating. I actually thought I might have agreed with him on something, but your points about it becoming open season on our own non-military leaders was very well taken. My questions are: Is Treadstone still active, and where is Jason Bourne?

B.B. in Columbus, OH, writes: Your discussion of Lindsey Graham's comments on assassinating Putin made me think of the Poul Anderson story "A Man To My Wounding" (which can be found here, among other places). It depicts a world that barely survived one global atomic war, and to prevent another, made assassination of enemy leaders not only an accepted means, but the only permissible means, of waging war. Those interested in this issue may find it an interesting read; some of the problems you identified come up in the story.

N.F. in Brussels, Belgium, writes: I had asked myself the same question as P.M. in Lausanne and D.T. in San Jose about how Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine is different than George W. Bush's attack on Iraq. You answer was good, but you left out another important difference: The current government in Ukraine was freely and fairly elected. This is in contrast to the dictatorships in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and the non-government in Afghanistan prior to U.S. invasions.

D.R. in Slippery Rock, PA, writes: At a time when Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, it signed a non-proliferation treaty and gave up its nuclear deterrent, because Russia (as well as the United States and the United Kingdom) gave assurances that Ukraine's sovereignty would be secured. Later, George W. Bush said about Putin: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy." We now see the results of foreign policy driven by gut feelings instead of facts and logic.

B.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: As the official spokesman for's OTFSB community, I wanted to alert readers to a YouTube video. (OTFSB = Old-Time Five String Banjo. And don't send me any banjo jokes; I've already accumulated the canonical collection.) Although he is not exactly a brain surgeon, Dr. Josh Turknett is exactly a neurologist. He has also created courses of banjo instruction, both clawhammer and finger-style, based on his understanding of the human brain. He regularly posts videos for instructional purposes. For his latest, he performs the Ukrainian national anthem in the old time clawhammer:

The War in Ukraine: Ukraine and Other Nations

S.T. in Philadelphia, PA, writes: You wrote: "Ukrainians are, for lack of a better term, less 'foreign' than the immigrants that have been targeted by xenophobic political movements. Ukrainians are caucasian, Christian, and have had access to Europe's visa-free Schengen Zone since 2017."

This distinction sticks out in news stories about harassment, attacks, and outright exclusion at the border of displaced people fleeing Ukraine who were not white. The coverage of how "different" the war in Ukraine is from wars in countries further south and east further drives in the stake of racial stigma.

This raises the question though, of what is "caucasian" or "white"? If anyone has the right to call themselves "caucasian," it would be people whose ancestors hail from the Caucasus mountain range that stretches between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Otherwise, it's just a holdover from the debunked old "Three Races of Man": "Caucasoid", "Mongoloid" and "Negroid."

Yet race has never been so simple. In various historical and social contexts, Italians, Jews, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles, Irish, Iranians, Traveler and Roma, Slavic peoples, Latino Americans, Arabs, North Africans, and even many Indians and Chinese, have been simultaneously classified as both "white" and "nonwhite." No matter how light their skin, eyes, or hair, they still occupy a "nonwhite minority" social status categorized as perpetually "foreign." And there are Christian refugees all over the world who still meet closed doors.

To qualify Ukrainian refugees as somehow "less foreign" because they are "caucasian" and Christian, belies the social history that divides people into "assimilable" and "excludable": based on social power, class hierarchy, and the political and military alliances of the day.

No refugees deserve to be excluded. Not of any race or ethnicity or religion. No refugees deserve exclusion.

H.S. in Lake Forest, CA, writes: For readers that are interested in supporting Ukrainian refugees, PolishOrigins, a charitable gynecology support site has collected a few notable links here.

M.D. in The Poconos, PA, writes: Besides the charities that are working in Ukraine you can now support either the military or humanitarian efforts in Ukraine with US dollars or Euros on the National Bank of Ukraine website. They accept credit cards or GooglePay.

T.B. in Tallahassee, FL, writes: Further to the "This Week in Schadenfreude" Russian restaurant "reviews," Ukrainians have also been posting pictures of captured Russian soldiers, etc., on Russian landmark Google Maps.

T.K. in Mannheim, Germany, writes: It is unlikely that the replacement of Angela Merkel by Olaf Scholz has had a big influence on Vladimir Putin's calculations.

Angela Merkel reportedly told then-president Barack Obama that, according to her impression, Putin was living in his own world, being far removed from reality, which is in line with the CIA's judgment of Putin being autistic that you presented. Quite likely, Putin must have expected some sort of continuity in government policymaking, as most observers did.

Also, up to the invasion there was a high degree of understanding of Russian positions, in particular among the Social Democrats and in East Germany. Remember, NordStream 2 would have benefited the Northeast, and the state of Meckenburg-Vorpommern is governed by Social Democrats. They even had set up a foundation to secure this project. Hence a friendly attitude towards Russia was consensual. Not any more.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, writes: I don't think that Angela Merkel's replacement by Olaf Scholz had much influence on Vladimir Putin. Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 when Merkel was chancellor, so he clearly wasn't influenced by her (Merkel was opposed to the annexation of Crimea), and Putin wasn't influenced by Scholz when he started the war against Ukraine. I guess nobody (besides Putin, of course) could have done anything that would have prevented this war.

The War in Ukraine: No-Fly Zone

A.H. in Newberg, OR, writes: You wrote: "Obviously, if a NATO plane left Ukrainian airspace for Russian airspace, the Russians would scramble fighter jets to intercept. However, it's about 300 miles from Moscow to the Ukrainian border. The fastest American fighter jet (the NASA/USAF X-15) can cover that in 4 minutes. The most common American fighter jet (the F-16 Fighting Falcon) can cover it in 10 minutes. Would you want to take your chances that 4-10 minutes is enough time, if you were Putin? We wouldn't."

As a point of reference, several years ago a mechanic in Seattle took a Horizon aircraft for a joy ride. U.S. airspace defense between the Canadian border and the California line is the responsibility of the 142nd wing OrANG based out of Portland ANG base at Portland International Airport. Although the aircraft was known, the intent of the pilot was not. NORAD scrambled aircraft out of PANG. Two F-15-C's were airborne from their ready shelters, within 5 minutes, Afterburners were on full flight. Contact was made with the stolen aircraft under +/- 6 minutes. He was escorted away from populated areas and they tried to talk him down, but watched while he ignored all and plowed into the ground. My daughter (active duty guard) was called back into work +/- 8 p.m. that evening and didn't get off until after 8 a.m. the next morning. She was responsible for debriefing the pilots and writing up all of the after-action reports.

T.C. in Arlington, VA, writes: Enforcement of a "no-fly zone" would take considerably more aggressive NATO action than just attacking "one or more Russian planes." Establishing the conditions for NATO aircraft to operate there would inevitably require—like in Iraq and Bosnia—the destruction of Russian air defense units and command and control and communications sites on the ground in Ukraine, as well as in Russia and Belarus (surface-to-air missiles, not to mention photons, cross borders just fine!). There's no sense in which this can be described as anything less than "war between NATO and Russia."

Even assuming that a no-fly zone were successfully established and (impossibly) didn't escalate, I suspect it would make little difference for Ukrainian civilians, alas. However much ordnance is being delivered on cities by Russian aircraft, they likely can more than make up for it with more mass, indiscriminate artillery fire of the sort the Russian army has long been fond of.

M.C. in Reno, NV, writes: A primer on the terrible idea of a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine.

A recent Reuters poll shows that 74% of Americans support enforcing a no-fly-zone over Ukraine. This is an incredibly bad idea, and thankfully our politicians and generals are refusing to bow to the pressure. But it indicates that most Americans simply don't understand what's involved, and what the risks are. I'll try to keep this short.

Let's start with a few basic facts:

  1. Russian nuclear doctrine is not the same as American nuclear doctrine. Russia is far more willing to employ tactical nuclear weapons. They don't see them as separate from conventional warfare like we do. They see them on the same spectrum as conventional weapons. If Putin is backed into a corner, he might see his only solution as escalation. Nuclear escalation in Ukraine is not off the table for the Russians.

  2. Russian air power is not dominant over Ukraine. Russian planes are being shot down at a reasonably quick rate from the ground. Russia is not conducting a major aerial bombing campaign. It is conducting a major artillery bombing campaign. A no fly zone does not help that.

  3. The U.S. and Russia getting into a hot war is bad, because of the incredible risks of strategic nuclear escalation. World War III.

Now, let's consider what a No Fly Zone actually is. In a NFZ, you must fly combat air patrols in Ukraine's airspace. Now suppose a Russian plane flies through that airspace. You must shoot it down, right? Hot war with Russia. If you don't shoot it down, then what are you even doing there?

Now, does anyone seriously think that Russia will allow the U.S. to shoot down its planes with impunity? No, the Russians will start shooting down American planes. Do you think that Americans will allow Russians to shoot down our planes with impunity? Of course not!

So what's the next stage? You would have to cripple Russian anti-air power. That necessitates bombing anti-air installations on the ground, including inside Russia itself. So now we're committing to bombing targets inside Russia to keep our planes safe.

If it feels like we aren't doing enough, consider this:

Supplying weapons to Ukraine is incredibly effective. A man crouched in rubble with a $150k Javelin or Stinger missile can destroy a $5M tank or helicopter and kill 5 Russian soldiers. Guerilla war is incredibly effective, as the U.S. found out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guerilla war with modern weapons instead of IEDs is even more effective. Between that and sanctions, the greatest enemy the Russians face is time. The best case scenario is regime change in Moscow. The second best scenario is that Ukraine will turn into a bleeding wound for a decade. This will have an enormous cost on the Ukrainian people, yes, but engaging in a hot war with Russia will not prevent that, and in fact might make it worse (if the Russians use tactical nuclear weapons).

Putin has already lost. The primary goal of the West should be to keep up steady pressure, without increasing the risk of a nuclear exchange. This is going to be a very long war. The Russians won't be going home after a month. It might take a decade. But a long slow Vietnam-style war is actually an incredibly good outcome (for the planet) because it minimizes the risk of nuclear weapons. We need to keep our eye on the ball here. The world has not been this close to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Ukrainian people will suffer, yes. But the risk of a major nuclear exchange is very real, and we should take it very seriously. Avoiding that should be the number one goal, and if Ukraine must turn into Vietnam for that to happen, it may be the least bad outcome.

The War in Ukraine: Going Nuclear

K.E. in Newport, RI, writes: I know you have been very skeptical of the need for the U.S. and NATO to get involved militarily in the Russia-Ukraine War. I would argue that the Russian military is taking steps that are making our involvement more unavoidable. Early Friday morning, the Russian military shelled the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine.

It does not take a degree in nuclear physics to understand that this is extremely dangerous. The fires were extinguished quickly, and no radiation escaped, but that might not be the case next time. Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors. If they blow up a nuclear power plant to damage Ukraine's ability to sustain itself independently, the effects will spread far beyond Ukraine. It will be a health and environmental disaster. The entire European population would be showered in dangerous radiation, not to mention all of the innocent wildlife that would be killed.

It's quite clear the Russian military attacked the nuclear plant on purpose. They are trying to send a message to Europe that they are willing to harm Europeans in order to conquer Ukraine. If they continue to attack nuclear power plants, I think it will force the US and NATO to get involved. It is extremely risky for attacks like that to continue.

L.R.H. in Oakland, CA, writes: Dr. Alex Wellerstein, historian of science with a focus on nuclear secrecy in the U.S., created and maintains a site called Nukemap. Readers interested in modeling the effects of nuclear explosions can do so using Nukemap. Dr. Wellerstein reports greatly increased use since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Readers might also want to listen to last week's episode of This American Life, which ran an updated version of a 2017 episode about Vladimir Putin. I found the segment on Putin's popularity among some Russians especially interesting.

J.E. in New York City, NY, writes: I saw the question about the use of material from Chernobyl to make dirty bombs. Let me assure your readers that it is impossible (or nearly so) to do, or at the very least not worth doing.

My qualifications: a journalist with a physics degree, who has written a few pieces here and there on nuclear power and now teaches physics in high school.

In any case, the issue of Chernobyl is that almost all of the radioactive material is under tons of concrete. After the disaster the U.S.S.R. essentially encased the site of the damaged reactor in a giant concrete box, and the Ukranian government later put up a steel structure around that. If you wanted to get samples of radioactive stuff to use in a dirty bomb, it would be an awful lot of work, and would take weeks or months.

The most radioactive stuff that you would want to do that with is called corium, and it's the melted mess that came out of the reactor floor as it melted down. It's basically a mix of uranium, probably the carbon that was used to moderate the core, and whatever other metals like zirconium and steel (iron) were used in the construction of the reactor originally. It isn't something that would disperse well unless you ground it to powder, not something I or any sane person would want to do unless I really liked the idea of working in a hazmat suit and risking cancer at the very least.

R.M. in Williamstown, WV, writes: A comment on your reply to S.S-L. in Norman regarding the chances of Vladimir Putin dropping nuclear bombs on the U.S. No disagreement with the two situations that you discussed. However, I see a third possible circumstance the might get the missiles flying. There has been considerable discussion lately about the condition of Putin's mental health. He clearly has an ego exceeded only perhaps by a recent President who shall remain nameless. If, in fact, the cheese is slipping off the cracker, he might see going out in a blaze of glory preferable to suffering the embarrassment of what he could see as defeat. I think that is unlikely, mostly because it is unlikely that the U.S./NATO will put him in a position to be humiliated, unless he decides to reach too far, and go after the Baltic States, or other members of NATO previously in the Soviet sphere of influence.

J.B. in Hutto, TX, writes: Vladimir Putin's implied threat to use nuclear weapons if the Western allies intervene directly in Ukraine has caused me to reflect deeply on a question that has often troubled me: Would the world be better off without nuclear weapons?

The argument against nuclear disarmament is that nuclear weapons serve a deterrent function. The possibility of their use prevents wars between great powers and prevents small-scale conflicts from escalating. Had it not been for mutually assured destruction, almost certainly there would have been a third world war between the United States and the Soviet Union at some point in the late 20th Century, which might have made World War II look tame by comparison. And if nuclear weapons were magically made to disappear around the year 2000, the Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008 and its invasion of Ukraine today would have been much more likely to lead to direct conflict between Russia and America.

And yet, the existence of nuclear weapons raises the terrifying and very real possibility of the obliteration of human civilization itself, and perhaps even the extinction of the human species. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 very nearly led to nuclear war. Twice in 1983 and again in 1995, the world came frightfully close to accidental nuclear war because of simple misunderstandings, escaping only through sheer luck (one wonders how often this has happened without the wider world being aware of it).

It seems to me that the deterrent benefits of nuclear weapons, real though they might be, cannot justify even an infinitesimal risk of the complete destruction of human civilization. And the risk is clearly not infinitesimal, since the world has already only narrowly avoided nuclear war on multiple occasions. If we are honest with ourselves, a full-scale nuclear exchange is probably inevitable unless the world embraces complete nuclear disarmament. And since this seems quite unlikely to happen anytime soon, I sometimes have a hard time falling asleep at night.

National Politics

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, writes: Today, the great and powerful Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) came out to say that he supports banning all Russian oil imports even though it will probably lead to inflation. He pontificated that banning Russian oil would only cause fuel prices to rise by 10 cents per gallon, a mere nuisance and a temporary one at that. Interesting.

So let me see if I have this straight. When it comes to investing in the country's future and making life easier for Manchin's constituents, inflation is a terrible, terrible thing that trumps all other considerations. But when it comes to spitting in the eye of our foe, then inflation is just a trifle, an inconsequential thing. Well isn't that—help me here find the right word: benevolent, arrogant, condescending, hypocritical, some combination of the above—for a man who's net worth is between $5 to $8 million! I guess the next time we see old Joe he will be wearing an elaborate powder wig and a fake beauty mole while handing out cake to us lesser beings (Yes, I know it's not a historical accurate allusion but you work with what you have). One can only assume that if oil prices go up that his beloved coal will be in higher demand, adding more cha-ching to his pockets. In the words of Dana Carvey's Church Lady, "Well, isn't that convenient!"

For what it's worth, I agree that we should ban Russian oil imports. We need to deliver as much hurt to Putin and his kleptomaniac cronies as possible. My problem is the imperial air that Manchin exudes as he descends from his hillbilly mountaintop mansion and his megalomaniac air when he expounds on one of his many inconsistencies. The only consistency that Manchin has is his inconsistency and his silliness to line his own purse. Again I say to West Virginians, he's the best you guys can do?

J.B.C. in St. Louis, MO, writes: You quote Joe Manchin (?-COAL) as saying "I've never found out that you can lower costs by spending more." He's obviously never heard of the Boots Theory of socioeconomic unfairness. To quote creator Terry Pratchett:

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

A clear-cut example of saving money by spending more.

S.A. in Seattle, WA, writes: Joe Manchin: "I've never found out that you can lower costs by spending more."

Isn't this literally the definition of buying a tool to do work? Perhaps Sen. Manchin hasn't been paying attention to all the big machines used in mining these days?

L.H. in Chicago, IL, writes: You wrote: "However, we're not using these two members' names, because they don't deserve the cheap publicity that they are so shamelessly willing to pursue, no matter how inappropriate their behavior is."

You might take a page from Stephanie Miller's radio show. She refers to those two as "Q-Anon Betty" and "Q-Anon Veronica." Blonde and brunette, respectively.

L.H. in Smyrna, GA, writes: A better speaker than me described Boebert as "one wine cooler shy of flashing her rack at a NASCAR rally."

V & Z respond: We debated at great length whether to run this, and whether to run it unedited. We decided that it's a good complement to the previous letter that succinctly captures the vulgarity of the Representative, and that it's a direct quote, so it would be unethical to edit.

All Politics Is Local

R.M. in St. Petersburg, FL, writes: I have to comment on your item about Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and the video of him bullying high school kids. While I appreciate you featuring this, I am curious as to why you would say the left was "pearl clutching" as it relates to DeSantis' behavior. I live in Florida and I am a parent. We are quite used to how DeSantis behaves, but his behavior here deserved every bit of criticism that he got. He is the governor of one of the largest states in our country and he walks into a room and berates minors about wearing masks. He was not joking and the laughs all seem to be uncomfortable. When he finally starts speaking, he exhales as if he has just had to deal with the most irritating situation. I hope that you will watch other videos (see here, here, and here) of his interaction and let us know if you think the media's reaction was "pearl clutching." Also, please watch the governor exit the interview. He never turns around and thanks the students or even acknowledges their existence.

If you have spent any time in Florida recently, you would know that the vast majority of people do not wear masks. I question if they specifically put children in masks behind him so that he could berate them. I also wonder why the students were not offered the option to remove their masks before he walked in or why they did not find unmasked students to stand there in the first place.

V & Z respond: We didn't watch the video until after seeing a dozen stories tearing DeSantis to shreds. Having been primed in that manner, it did not seem as bad as we expected. "Pearl clutching" was clumsy verbiage, though.

D.G. in Manhattan, NY, writes: I was somewhat disappointed that in your recent item on Ron DeSantis, you neglected to include Ron's unfortunate remarks about France.

I'm still not clear on why he said this, but the Governor opined that, in a similar situation to Ukraine: "A lot of other places around the world, they just fold the minute there's any type of adversity. I mean, can you imagine, if he went into France, do you think they'd do anything to put up a fight? Probably not."

Any sentient individual, certainly anyone who'd read about the French Resistance during World War II, or the French participation along with Americans in Syria or Afghanistan would be puzzled and—frankly—insulted by DeSantis' cavalier, ignorant remarks. I know I am.

V & Z respond: Well, we can't cover EVERY problematic thing DeSantis says. After all, there are only 24 hours in the day. Anyhow, keep reading for one possible answer to your question.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, writes: You wrote: "Many times, a nation has gotten off to a lousy start in a war and has turned things around. Think France in the Crimean War, or France in World War I, or even France in World War II. Hm, maybe it's only the French that works for."

I'm not sure that France in World War II even counts. They didn't turn things around by themselves; they got bailed out. I have a pet theory that the necessity of the allied liberation of France has a lot to do with the American stereotype of Frenchmen being effeminate wimps. (And also with the American stereotype of French women being—what's a good word for this? "Libertine"? Let's go with "libertine"—on account of the welcomes I imagine they gave to the liberating American GIs. Ooh la la.)

C.G.B. in Milwaukee, WI, writes: The U.S. Senate races may be basically set, but here in the Badger State, there is still one big-time shoe to fall. Former governor and former Bush II Secretary of HHS Tommy Thompson is hinting at another run for governor.

Tommy is 80 years old now, but is recovered from a torn biceps suffered while water skiing (!) last summer. His GOP competition (a former-TV anchor and Lt Governor, a former Marine who was once President of the College Democrats of America, and a current-state senator Trump-fetishist), to my mind, seem to be weaker candidates than Thompson.

And Tommy doesn't just water ski. He just stepped down from a temporary two-year gig as President of the University of Wisconsin system.

I'll be voting for Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI), but can see TT causing all sorts of trouble for the GOP in Wisconsin.

D.T. in Hillsboro, OR, writes: Just because Nicholas Kristof can't run for Oregon governor doesn't mean that race is going to be boring. Betsy Johnson, a now former Democratic legislator, quit her position to run for governor as an independent. Normally, she could be ignored as a non-significant part of the race, but news reports are that she's gotten some big donations from GOP donors, including Phil Knight, the Bill Gates of athletic shoes.

My guess is that at least some of these donors may be trying to split the Democrat vote and thus let the Republican candidate (whoever that turns out to be) sneak into the governor's mansion. As I understand it, this happened in Maine, where Republican donors supported a candidate from the far left and let Paul LePage (R) win the race.

However, the difference here is that Johnson is not a far-left candidate. Consider: If Joe Manchin were to quit the Senate and start a campaign for president, would he get more votes from Democrats or Republicans? My guess would be Republicans. That's basically the situation here. Johnson is from a rural county and often takes a fairly conservative position on various issues. I think most Democrats are happy she's left the Party.

V & Z respond: Are you sure Bill Gates isn't the Phil Knight of software?

E.K.H. in San Antonio, TX, writes: The new Texas voting law has wreaked havoc on the voting process. As a senior citizen, I'm eligible to vote by mail. Previously this meant I submitted one form and got to vote by mail every year, every election, going forward. Now I have to submit the form annually. I like to vote by mail because it gives me time to research the candidates.

Before the primary election, I was barraged by political ads on TV and flyers in the mail. One of those flyers was a postcard with a vote-by-mail card to return to the county clerk. I filled it in and sent it back, delighted that it was so easy. When the ballot came, it was for the wrong party's primary. (Clever,eh?) Not to be deterred, I found my sample ballot online, printed it off, and did my research. is a very useful site.

By the time I finished, it was the last day of early voting. The line at the polling place (a library) was out the door. In high-30s weather, we spent the first half hour standing outside. After another 45 minutes, I got to the "check in" lady. (There were only two, which caused the bottleneck. There were plenty of voting machines.) I explained that I had the wrong mail-in ballot and handed it and my driver's license to her. She had me wait while another poll worker called the county for instructions. The county said they had mailed the ballot I requested. Then I explained how I got the wrong application. After about 10 minutes, I was allowed to vote in person in the correct primary, but my mail-in request was canceled. So I'll have to resubmit it, after the primaries are over.

What should have taken 15 minutes took 1 hour and 45 minutes. So much for "improving" the voting process.

Non-Citizen Voting

D.W. in Winston-Salem, NC, writes: Reading this:

The logistics of allowing noncitizens to vote will be messy, that is certain. There would need to be two kinds of ballots, one with only municipal elections and one with all elections. Will voters have to prove their citizenship and immigration status when they register to vote? The chances that mistakes are made are enormous, especially since many people will not understand that there are now two classes of voters. In the past it was much simpler: citizens could vote in every election and noncitizens could not vote in any election. Getting this right won't be easy and there are bound to be claims and lawsuits in state and federal elections that noncitizens voted.

My immediate reaction was that the best solution would be to print two different ballots: (1) ballots for non-municipal elections, and (2) ballots for municipal elections. Non-citizens would only receive the municipal elections. Citizens would get both ballots.

Printing two separate ballots is a small hassle, but the reduction of complexity for poll workers should be significant.

D.R. in Roscommon, Ireland, writes: I'm not sure how Dutch elections operate but in Ireland, the register of elections has specific letters next to a voter's name depending on their citizenship. The letter "D" is beside British citizens who can vote in local and Irish parliamentary (Dáil) elections. The letter "E" is beside EU citizens who can vote in local and EU elections and "L" means non-EU and British citizen who can vote in local elections. Only Irish citizens can vote in Presidential elections and referenda.

It should be easy to put an "M" beside someone only eligible to vote in municipal elections and ensure they are not allowed a postal ballot for federal and state elections if they apply for one.

R.F. in Waukegan, IL, writes: My spouse is an immigrant and a Green Card holder, and we don't live anywhere near New York City, but immigration considers it an offense to vote in any election, and the form doesn't ask if the local government allows it.

It's my take that registering to vote in city elections and, especially, actually voting, would force you to either admit to voting in an election or trying to, and thus providing USCIS with grounds for deportation.

While Joe Biden may instruct them to disregard voting in a city election if voting is allowed, Donald Trump or someone like him could come back and then pull up the voter registry and the list of immigrants who either admitted they vote or who voted, lied about it, and committed perjury on an immigration form.

It seems this is a dangerous conflict with federal immigration law, and New York City is putting immigrants in peril.

In my experience, if something has a chance to blow up in your face, most any attorney that you ask about it will advise you to play it safe and don't even try it.

Trans Taters

R.L. in Alameda, CA, writes: A.B. from Wendell really moved me with her letter about how trans people "are the last and only minority group that it is still okay to crap on." And last week we had responses from P.S. in Plano and L.E. in Putnam County which appear to be crap to me.

I'll set the table by reminding your readers that I am a white, hetero, cis-gendered male. I don't know the experience of being in a body that doesn't feel like the right body. I do know that I am supportive of a person deciding how they wish to identify, respecting them enough to use that identity in reference to them, and that no one should be discriminated against due to their status as outside the "norm." (I'm not in love with using the word 'norm' here, but I can't think of a better descriptor, thus the quotes).

I think that part of the problem for people like P.S. and L.E. is that they are operating from an old paradigm. They are coming from a mindset that gender is immutable; therefore, anyone who says that they are the wrong gender must not be in their right mind and must be stopped before doing something irreversible.

Gay people suffered under a similar paradigm—that is, the notion that no one can be gay because it is unnatural. Discussing it with children might lead them to become gay. (Frankly, the "Don't Say Gay" bill in Florida feels like a throwback to the '90s.) It took a generation for a majority of people to shift this paradigm and understand that being gay is OK and people need support to be what they are rather than perceived "support" to make them like everyone else.

I submit that acceptance of gayness was facilitated by the fact that, ultimately, it is about love and attraction. I think that anyone can understand those two concepts. Once people got over the their own "ick factor" of who and how gay people had sex, and as more and more gay people, both celebrities and non-celebrities, became visible, people were won over by the simple notion of love. It's hard to be rejecting of people who clearly love one another and simply want the same thing that we heteros have. Obergfell came and went. The sky didn't fall. Hetero marriages weren't invalidated. It's frankly remarkable how, in my lifetime, this has become a non-issue. Well, mostly. See my above mention of Florida's anti-gay bill.

What is different about trans is that it is an individual experience of not being in the right body. Those of us who are cis just can't relate in the way that those of us who are straight can understand loving another human. Changing one's body through hormone therapy and/or surgery seems radical and scary. And then there is the reality that a trans person might not look like what most people would expect a person of a given gender should look like under their clothes. (I'll qualify this by noting what John Oliver stated in a piece he did on transgender rights 6 years ago: "It's none of your damn business.") I found myself accepting trans rights intellectually and altruistically long before I accepted it in my heart. And this was exactly what my hang-up was. Frankly, Oliver's piece did a lot to help me to get over that part (it was his main story, running over 16 minutes).

P.S. and L.E. are both writing specifically about trans youth and make the assumption that people of all ages (but especially children, I guess) undertake the decision to change their gender lightly. It seems to me that they have been drinking the right-wing Kool Aid of "a man will claim to be a woman in order to follow a girl in the ladies room" (which, by the way, is already illegal) or "a high school boy will claim to be a girl so that he can compete against girls in sports." It's pretty demeaning to what must be a difficult and long-thought about decision to live as a different gender to assume that anyone would fake it for some perceived diabolical purpose or unfair advantage.

An argument that has long been made in the abortion debate is that the decision to have an abortion belongs to the woman in question, along with her partner and doctor. This is the same. For a trans kid who has supportive parents, can't we trust that the youth, their parents, and their therapists, counselors and doctors are better suited to make decisions about transitioning than politicians legislating out of spite and hatred who know nothing about each individual's situation and decision making process? For a trans kid without supportive parents, isn't it incumbent on supportive caregivers to help this human being and not be forced to out them, possibly putting them in danger, either physically, mental health-wise, or both?

Again, I haven't had this experience in my life, nor have I shepherded a trans person through their transition. But I am confident that any decision to move forward with surgery, hormone therapy or both has gone through rigorous review and will go through even more rigorous review for a minor. To suggest that anyone takes this lightly is ludicrous. To suggest that a person would subject themselves to the discrimination and hatred that trans people must deal with every day in order to sneak into the girl's room or compete in women's sports simply doesn't add up. And all of these arguments leave out the female-to-male trans people. They exist too.

All of this is to say that I believe that becoming accepting of the humanity of trans people involves a pretty long offramp for many. I'm glad that P.S. and L.E. are reading this forum, which I'm guessing leans farther to the left than they do. You clearly care about this, both having written letters. I urge you to get better educated. If there are no trans people in your lives, seek them out in media. Observing a thing makes it less exotic and easier to accept. When you are ready to be welcoming and accepting of trans people, I will be here waiting for you and welcoming you to the other side.

K.Y. in Turnwater, WA, writes: So, a reader (L.E. in Putnam County NY) points to a recent piece that defends, in some detail, the position that youth gender transition "is a very complex issue indeed with very little reliable data," and your response is... a snarky ad hominem? I would have expected better. There were actual arguments in the piece.

V & Z respond: We generally do not respond to the points readers raise in their letters, leaving that to the other readers to do. The exception is things that only we can plausibly know or respond to. And so, that comment was specifically a response to L.E.'s remark that "(Z) has swallowed the transgenderist narrative hook, line, sinker, reel, rod, and tackle box."

S.B. in New Castle, DE, writes: I want to start by thanking (V) & (Z) for posting letters both supportive and hostile to transgender people. As a transgender lesbian, it encourages me to hear the support of others for who I am as a person and it reminds me where the barbs of misunderstanding and/or hatred are pointed. I want to focus my reply on one word that both P.S. in Plano and L.E. in Putnam County used in their anti-transgender opinions: "mutilation." There is a distorted perception that the surgical changes to our bodies are somehow a "mutilation" because the tissue and organs are healthy. If that is truly the definition, then we have a large part of society who "mutilate" their bodies. Think about it:

The removal of breasts for a female to male (F2M) transgender person or the surgical conversion of male genitals to female genitals for a male to female (M2F) transgender person is the exact same thing: the surgical modification of our bodies to fit our internal needs/wants. In our case, such surgery is medically necessary to align our bodies with the gender of our minds and spirits. It is "corrective" surgery, versus "elective," as several clinical therapists have pointed out me.

I could link many data sources or tell many stories describing how Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and surgery have helped trans people from teens to elderly begin living healthy and happy lives, but I'd rather offer my own journey as an illustration point.

My first efforts at resolving gender dysphoria, that inner conflict of my gender identity not matching my body, started with clothing. I felt more comfortable, more my "authentic self," when I wore women's clothing—the everyday wear, like jeans and a tunic top and unremarkable women's underwear. That helped, but I still saw a man in the mirror, so I began working on changing my gender presentation like my voice, my walk, my hair, a smidge of makeup, and permanent removal of my facial hair. That helped a lot, because it blessed me with "passing privilege"—the ability to operate in society as a woman well enough that no one presumed otherwise.

However, the dysphoria remained. The only real change was that the triggers had shifted. Now it was focused on my physical shape. My broader shoulders, angular face, bulkier muscles, and narrow hips needed to be softened and rounded. I started HRT. While it did change my body, the most astonishing thing was how it literally changed my brain operation. After only 3 days on estrogen, I felt like my brain lit up. I could feel emotions more fully, I could think more easily, and my joy was so much brighter. Old friends and new often comment on three things that now define me: my joy, my smile, and my laughter. This change convinces me that the hormonal mixture in my mother's womb was off-balance, a growing theory for why some people are trans.

Despite being so close to complete, my dysphoria triggers moved again, now concentrating on my genitals. I changed from being indifferent to my body parts to loathing what I saw in the mirror. As a lesbian, I also knew that I couldn't have the intimate life relationship I wanted with male parts still attached. I know, because I tried with a willing partner.

The approval process to have gender reassignment surgery is long and complex. A parent can't simply say, "Do this surgery to my child." Even as a middle-aged adult, I had several hoops to jump through to verify my gender dysphoria could not be resolved in any other way than surgery and that I was of a sound mind to make that decision.

Post surgery, the relief I have is monumental. It's like I slogged for decades through this dark swamp of life until I could finally step out of that mire and into a sunny field covered with dandelions and strawberries. As an amazing bonus, within 6 months after my surgery, a fabulous, beautiful cis-gender (female at birth) lesbian woman entered my life and we are now just silly in love with each other. (I LOVE you, M!!)

I want to close this long reply with a huge "THANK YOU" for all who support us in word and prayer and action on this site and in the world. And a very special thank you to (V) & (Z) for your continued support of the transgender community, which includes posting letters of those who don't understand who we are. You help our lights of love shine more brightly in this too often dark world.

K.H. in San Jose, CA, writes: I hadn't realized that Texas child abuse includes "removing from children otherwise healthy or non-diseased body part or tissue". I would grudgingly give Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) a bit of respect if he's willing to admit that this describes a procedure that's routinely performed on male infants.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: No doubt you'll get a flood of responses to the two letters unsympathetic to transgender rights.

If no one else does, I want to point out that "gender dysphoria" has a biological basis and occurs naturally in any number of species. One example that Greg Abbott should be familiar with in cattle is the freemartin. A freemartin is typically produced when a female (genotype and phenotype) is twin to a bull calf. She will have no interest in breeding and is usually sterile. In vitro androgen levels probably cause the phenomenon.

Genetically, human females with an extra X chromosome were first reported in 1959. There are also XYY males and XXY males. I would not be surprised if there are XXY females as well. While their bodies may present as typical, their genotypes are not and could readily explain why some people feel as though they have been born into the wrong body. Sex chromosome aneuploidy occurs with relative frequency (it's estimated that 1 in 160 females possess an extra X chromosome).

Perhaps some of your readers with biology degrees would care to give a better overview than my superficial, piecemeal, amateur one, but what I am trying to illustrate is that transgenderism is real, naturally occurring, biological fact.

L.E. in Boise, ID, writes: I ran across a video a while back by a biology science teacher that describes what we consider gender has way more variability than just XX or XY. The video is a bit long, but I found it very informative and as a teacher he is able to describe a complex issue in a straightforward manner. It really helped me understand that gender identity issues are probably not mental health issues in most cases. I hope some readers find it helpful.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: The first time the word "transgender" was ever uttered in a State of the Union address was in Barack Obama. My heart soared! For the first time ever, in America..I FREAKING MATTERED! I was seen.

The second time the word "transgender" was uttered in a SOTU was this week. Thank you, Mr. Biden. I am forever saving the Christmas card I got from you this past Christmas! (And I actually did get such a card—signed by both Joe and Jill = presumably with an autopen, but, still... I never before in my life got a Christmas card from the sitting President, so it was damn cool... but I digress...)

Of course, a certain someone tried to ruin the moment, but Biden choosing to ignore her hateful comments were better than the Jewish Space Laser I would actually have liked to see respond to that hateful woman.

I had to search the news myself to know exactly what was said near the end, that was—I knew—a heckle and I knew where it had come from...though it took researching the news to learn what was actually said.

Now, as a transgender woman, I have had many unkind things said to me, and I have been mocked... and usually, when anyone sticks up for me, I tell them there is no need, because the unkind thing says more about the deliverer than the recipient. But that last... just before Biden was obviously ready to mention his own dead Veteran son, that was a whole new level of cruel and inappropriate I never expected, not even from the piece of human filth that delivered it.

Again, it says far more about the person who said it than the one it was aimed at. This was a middling-to-good SOTU with a really good closing line... which will probably be the part that is most remembered in history.

P.S. I also noticed Manchild was sitting on the Republican side.

B.G. in Houston, TX, writes: I've become skeptical about all the medical groups universally pushing the world towards a normative trans reality. There's a lot money being thrown at the trans movement.

I'm a surgeon, and I noticed this when my hospital made a bunch of changes to what's called "operating room block time." Block time refers to time when you have an OR scheduled for you in advance, so that you can schedule an operation in advance. A few hours of scheduled block time might be worth $100k in terms of income, and it's a zero-sum game since the resource is limited. Surgeons fight over block time.

The most recent block time fight in my hospital happened after a plastic surgeon was given a whole block day. I know this guy; we were residents together. So I contrived to bump into him in the parking lot.

I was like, "What the hell are going to do with this new block day?" And his response: "Gender confirmation surgery." It turns out that the hospital's cut from whatever the fees are is ridiculously high, higher than just about anything else. My back of the envelope calculation puts it at $20M per year, just for the hospital.

To be clear, I think the trans community is subject to a lot of unnecessary s**t. But that doesn't keep them from being exploited.

Word Games

S.Z. in New Haven, CT, writes: D.L. in Springfield writes: "There's a very common word of one syllable that, if you add just one letter to it, becomes a three-syllable word. What are the two words?"

"Gape" and "agape" (when pronounced ah-gah-pay)

A.J. in Baltimore, MD, writes: The one-syllable word that becomes a three-syllable word if you add one letter must be "are" and "area."

D.S. in Cleveland Heights, OH, writes: "Coat" and "coati"

M.J.S. in Cheshire, CT, writes: The words "rode" and "rodeo" fit the description.

I appreciate the brain stimulation on an otherwise lazy Sunday!

G.W. in Avon, CT, writes: "What eight-letter English word has the three letters kst in the middle, in the beginning, and at the end?"

The phrasing led me to suspect a trick rather than merely a test of vocabulary. Ultimately I decided "slipknot" has a "k" in the middle, an "s" at the beginning and a "t" at the end.

N.P. in Santa Rosa, CA, writes: Eight letter word: Inkstand

A.J. in Baltimore, MD, writes: As for the eight-letter word that has kst in the middle, the beginning, and the end, that should be "lobbying," since that begins and ends on K St.

T.M. in New York City, NY, writes: I think that I.K. in Portland might really like cryptic crosswords, because they're full of clues similar the riddle they presented. Some starter cryptics can be found at Lovatt's, they have a variety of good introductions to cryptic clues, and will confirm that your answers are correct in their daily puzzle. The Wall Street Journal publishes some more difficult cryptics, and if you want to torture yourself with the English language (and who wouldn't!) The Listener has many that are diabolical. Oh, and the answer is "inkstand".

P.R. in Saco, ME, writes: I would really like to meet J.K. in Silverdale, I really would. I almost snorted coffee out my nose at the palindrome (that included question marks no less) "Eh, did Harpo Marx ram Oprah? Did he?" Bravo.

F.B. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Ok, I've got one. The name of what two foods, found in any supermarket, are anagrams of each other?

V & Z respond: As always, the mailbag is open for guesses. And for suggestions for future questions.

Gallimaufry: Canadian Infiltration Edition

R.C. in Andover, MA, writes: You wrote: "Anyhow, by the time Labour Day arrives on May 1, [Emmanuel] Macron's fate will be known."

"Labour" Day? Has the Canadian intelligence service hacked your site?

T.S. in Mansfield, OH, writes: The spelling of Labor Day in the last sentence suggests that those insidiously polite people from The Country up North have turned Zenger, eh?

V & Z respond: There's been no Canadian Caper, eh. We used that spelling to distinguish between the French commemoration of that holiday (May 1) and the American commemoration (Sept. 5).

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