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Sunday Mailbag

Lots of mail about Ukraine, lots of mail about LGBTQ issues. Can't be too many websites with that combo, can there? Maybe Grindr International.

The War in Ukraine: Russia

J.E. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: Pundits have been pondering left and right as to Vladimir Putin's rationale for the timing of the invasion. And predictably the right is claiming Putin would have been less likely to invade had Trump been in office. Even Bill Maher, who's show I really don't like but I watch because he has interesting guests, asked this knuckle headed question: "If Putin thought Trump was really that supportive of him, why didn't he invade when Trump was in office?"

Well, here's my answer: (1) Putin would have looked even more foolish than he does now by launching a ground war in the middle of a pandemic—something I rarely see pointed out; and (2) he held back in 2020 because he didn't want to do anything to disrupt Trump's chances of winning. He probably thought it would be a cakewalk in a Trump second term, especially with Trump pulling out of NATO.

And here's my question to these fools on the right: Why would Putin be less likely to invade under Trump, a man who called Putin a savvy genius for doing so? As opposed to Biden, who's draining Putin's economy, providing military support to the Ukrainians, and uniting the West?

The Western media have always portrayed Putin as some cunning genius. But clearly the man has terrible judgment. Indeed, Putin has demonstrated nothing but poor judgement throughout this entire ordeal, from miscalculating how the West would respond, to how the Ukrainians would respond. While many of us on may have perceived Trump's reelection as far from certain, there's nothing to suggest that Putin saw it that way. He comes from a culture imbibed in chauvinism where the strongman doesn't lose. Furthermore, as dictator, he may have either bought into the idea that Trump could exit/disband NATO for lack of understanding, or was planning to simply rely on Trump's rhetoric in a second term as just as sufficient, particularly, with, you know, the west being so un-unified.

True, Trump's actual willingness to pull out of NATO was uncertain, but he'd been talking about it for 4 years. And who knows what was said between Putin and Trump in private.

J.C. in Binan, Laguna, Philippines, writes: G.M. in Ponte Vedra asked about Russian mercenaries and why Putin needs to hire them to do his dirty work. You then gave details about the Wagner Group. But the U.S. also used to hire mercenary groups to do its dirty work. We don't any more—now we hire "independent contractors." It has been a very effective rebranding because "mercenary" has a negative connotation, and an independent contractor sounds like someone building houses for people (what I thought it was for the longest time). But make no mistake—everything you describe about the Wagner Group also fits with Blackwater and other ilk. The U.S. hires mercenaries—we are just a bit more Orwellian when we talk about them.

L.H. in Smyrna, GA, writes: I saw a couple of questions in Saturday's Q&A about Russia's internal propaganda and whether Russian citizens believe it. That reminded me of a time in the early '70s when I worked for a few months with a Russian immigrant. He was about 18 years old and had recently moved here with his parents. His father was a doctor and had enough money that the three of them were able to pull the strings necessary to leave Russia and come here.

I was curious about everyday life in Cold War-era Russia and asked him about all the government propaganda on TV. He told me "Nobody believes that stuff. Everybody knows it's just bullsh**." He was a nice kid: friendly, but not that sharp. Still, growing up in Russia, he knew not to accept as fact what he saw on TV. If that level of savvy skepticism was so ingrained in regular Russian folks 50 years ago (before the interwebs even), I can only think that they have become more cynical in the time since. They have lived with lies on TV since there was TV.

One last thing: He told me that on Russian TV, whenever they showed an American, he was always wearing jeans and a sweater with a gun in his hand. Always.

E.F. in Baltimore, MD, writes: Responding to M.M. in Jamaica Plain, if Vladimir Putin did decide to declare victory and leave, it would not be without historical precedent.

In 1687, Peter the not yet Great's older half-sister and regent Sophia sent an army of over 100,000 troops commanded by her lover/favorite Vasily Golitsyn to conquer Ukraine from the Crimean Tatars. They fought no battles, conquered no territory, ate up all their supplies, and the survivors straggled back to Moscow, where Sophia threw a big victory parade for Golitsyn.

On a peripherally related note, while it is true that most of the czarist era pogroms took place in the Ukraine, that is not because the Ukrainians were inherently more antisemitic than the Russians, but rather because nearly all of Ukraine and none of Russia fell within the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were permitted to live. And the pogroms themselves were authorized/encouraged from Moscow/St. Petersburg as official government policy.

R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, writes: Since U.S.-Russia relations are near an all-time low and there have been dozens of comments rightfully condemning Russia over the past few weeks, I want to remind everyone that it wasn't always this way. I thought I would send in this clip showing the lighter side of U.S.-Russia relations. It's from the 1990s, when U.S.-Russia relations were arguably at their best since World War II:

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who always looked and sounded like he had a bottle of Водка with lunch, held a joint public event with Bill Clinton. He chided the reporters present who characterized his summit with Clinton a disaster, and turned it around said the reporters were a disaster. Clinton found Yeltsin's rant hilarious and broke down laughing.

V & Z respond: There is, of course, a very good reason that Yeltsin always looked and sounded like he had a bottle of Водка with lunch...

The War in Ukraine: The United States

M.W. in Lisbon Falls, ME, writes: In a word, I was humbled by Joe Biden's decision on behalf of all Americans, and of the Ukrainian people as well, to ban the import of Russian oil in response to Vladimir Putin's inhumane invasion of its sovereign neighbor. True leadership means getting it right and getting there first, and under President Biden I am suddenly proud again to be an American. Domestic petroleum products will, opportunistically of course, spike as they did one day after Hurricane Katrina hit (a crisis is a terrible thing to waste). But in this instance I will gratefully pay my fair share, with pride. I can only hope other nations will follow our example and step away from Russian energy imports as well. Remember, it happened in Joe Biden's United States of America and never would have in Donald Trump's macabre version of "demockracy."

E.M. in Milwaukee, WI, writes: In the section of Milwaukee that I mostly circulate in (the Upper East Side and Shorewood) there is a substantial community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Two high-rise apartment buildings are chock full of elderly speakers of Slavic languages. I am not knowledgeable enough to distinguish which languages are being spoken, but I have had students (much younger) from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Most of my students were Jewish and I have the impression that the immigrant population is largely Jewish. That's the background.

In this area there has, for many years, been a shop whose signage declares it to sell "Russian Food and Gifts." Yesterday, when I drove past, the aluminum and plastic letters of the word "Russian" were covered by a plastic banner saying "European". I hope they are just being cautious and anti-war. This is not a neighborhood where one would expect threats, but who really knows.

B.W. in Easton, PA, writes: Much speculation is made about the transfer and subsequent stalemate of the Polish MiGs sent to the American base in West Germany. It is quite possible that the U.S. military is in the process of upgrading the MiGs with 2022 era aeronautical, tactical technology and hardware that will enable the planes to become more successful in direct combat with the more modern Russian Air Force.

My guess is that when these adjustments are made, the Ukrainian pilots will have time to learn how to use them properly. Ultimately, they will magically appear in Ukraine, perhaps during an upcoming cease fire, if there ever is one. Maybe 2 months from now?

G.T.M. in Vancouver, BC, Canada, writes: I am reminded of how American aircraft got into Canada during World War II (despite the fact that the U.S. "Neutrality Act" prohibited them being flown across the border).

The planes were flown to the Houlton Army Airfield (about 1 km from the U.S./Canada border) and then pulled across the border using horses, tractors, trucks and just plain manpower.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: If Tokyo Rose and Lord Hee-Haw had a frozen embryo stashed away, then implanted in a surrogate sometime in the 1960s, it might explain Tucker Carlson.

The War in Ukraine: Ukraine

V.P. in New York, NY, writes: Sorry to be slightly self promoting, but I think this is relevant. I'm involved in a fledgeling project that might relevant to your response to the question from M.O. in Arlington. We collect primary sources and data related to news stories. The most credible source on civilian deaths at the moment appears to be published by the U.N. mission in Ukraine (that is where the 549 number came from).

We are aggregating numbers from their reports, and intend to add other data sets as other reliable sources become available, which will be on this page.

D.L. in Uslar, Germany, writes: While your answer to K.M. in Tacoma is historically correct, I think it's overly complicated. In Russia, going back to the immediate post-World War II era, the accusation of fascism/Nazism is the rhetorical equivalent of an American Republican accusing an opponent or enemy of being a socialist or communist. It's simply a placeholder for "I don't like you and what you stand for" with the bonus of connotations of evil that may resonate with low-information listeners.

M.C. in Santa Clara, CA, writes: I think you guys are being intellectually dishonest by not giving enough context in your answer to K.M. in Tacoma.

Heck, a simple google of "Ukraine Nazi" yields this: Ukraine's Nazi problem is real, even if Putin's 'denazification' claim isn't.

To simply sweep under the rug this Nazi strain in Ukraine is, I believe, at the very least, intellectually dishonest; or possibly gross Ignorance, but I find that difficult to believe.

I believe you owe it to your readers to explain Ukraine's "Nazi Problem."

V & Z respond: You do appreciate that you are accusing us, in effect, of being Nazi apologists, right? We are well aware of the fringe neo-Nazi movement in Ukraine, which is not dissimilar from the one in the United States. However, it is not germane to the argument being made by Putin, which is historical in nature. You don't really believe that the reason Russia invaded Ukraine was to wipe out the Azov Battalion, do you?

E.B. in Seattle, WA, writes: I read your item on letters of marque and reprisal with some interest, since I work in the maritime industry. While I think that it's unlikely that the U.S. will issue letters of marque, it's certainly possible that Ukraine could. Imagine a scenario where Ukraine issues letters of marque to allow privateers to take Russian ships. The cargo could be delivered to any port with an approved Ukrainian agent, with money being used to repatriate the ship's crew, and any profits split between Ukraine and the privateers. Ukraine could then issue a new title and registration for the ship, to be flagged in Ukraine.

This approach has a lot of benefit to Ukraine with relatively little downside. First of all, it's a potential source of immediate cash for Ukraine, while at the same time being a headache for Russian-flag ships. Even if no ships are taken, they'll have to be ready to be boarded. The privateers are also operating under Ukrainian authority, so there's little risk of an escalating war.

As a parting shot, Ukraine could declare that any disputes about the privateering would be resolved in a prize court, to be held under Ukrainian authority in Sebastopol, Crimea... should Crimea ever be returned to Ukraine.

J.P.R. in Westminster, CO, writes: I want to thank B.C. in Walpole for the link to the clawhammer banjo style resource. But I also want to know when there was a meeting to decide the official spokesman for's Old-Time Five String Banjo community.

V & Z respond: Well, there really wasn't a "meeting." Looks like B.C. was just outed as one of the oligarchs.

G.R. in Carol Stream, IL, writes: Now that the banjos have joined the Ukrainian side, Putin might as well surrender.

The War in Ukraine: China

R.C. in North Hollywood, CA, writes: I appreciate your analysis of how Russia's struggles in Ukraine might make China reluctant to invade Taiwan. There are a few other reasons why Taiwan has far less value to Xi Jinping than Ukraine does to Vladimir Putin:

Taiwan has symbolic value for China, but given its relatively low strategic value, it seems unlikely that Xi would take the same gamble Putin did, especially in view of Putin's results thus far.

K.H. in Burbank, CA, writes: China is playing a long game. Its goal is similar to Russia's, to rebuild an empire and a large sphere of influence. The two may be natural allies against the West in many circumstances, but they are not without potential conflict between themselves. In particular, the Russian Empire, among several European powers, coerced Imperial China into several "unequal treaties" in the nineteenth century, which ceded the region containing Vladivostok and to the north. Although Russia and China have made more recent agreements about the region, that seems to be more a matter of practicality than a rejection of revanchist claims.

The current Russian aggression has severely weakened its military and economy, while increasing its dependency on selling exports to the Chinese market and buying imports from it. To be blunt, Russia has become another pariah state and client of China, differing from North Korea only in degree. Sometime in the future, when the Russian government is especially weak—for instance, when would-be successors of Putin are struggling for control—China will be able to make an offer the Russians can't refuse: return the historically Chinese portions of the Russian Far East. Russia will not have the economic capability nor military capacity to refuse.

P.B. in Gainesville, FL, writes: You wrote that Xi Jinping might be looking at the Russians' invasion of Ukraine, and that any similar move by China on Taiwan might also not go as well as planned. In particular, you mentioned that any retaliatory trade ban similar to the one being raised on Russia would be devastating to China's economy.

This is all true, of course, but I just wanted to point out that China has an equally(?) devastating economic weapon at its disposal: its holdings of U.S. debt. China has been the 2nd-largest foreign holder of US debt for some time: as of last year, China held $1.07 trillion in US debt, behind only Japan at $1.25T, and well ahead of the UK at $0.44T and a bunch of also-rans in the $0.2-0.3T range.

Can you imagine the financial devastation inflicted on the U.S. if China decided to repatriate this debt? Or even a fraction of it? Interest rates in the US (and following on, the rest of the world's economies) would go up, maybe a lot (hurting China too, but if things got this bad, they may not care). This would probably cause a significant recession, unless the Fed intervened in a major way, but that would cause the U.S. dollar to slump, driving prices up anyway, and possibly backfiring on interest rates too, due to a lack of confidence in the Fed with such a desperate move. This slightly dated (2018) article gives some idea of the prospective mess.

In short, if the need to inflict economic pain on China ever arose, China could seriously retaliate. Our economies are far more intertwined than the U.S. and Russia.

F.C. in DeLand, FL, writes: I'm far more cynical about China's relationship with Russia. It seems to me that China's cheering on Russia is more of an attack on Russia than an attack on the West. No matter what happens, China wins.

If Russia manages to do well in Ukraine and then goes after other low-hanging fruit, the West will be too busy with Europe to pay attention to the reunification of China.

And if Russia manages to blow it badly in Ukraine and their economy suffers horrendous damage, there's all those lovely mineral resources to the north of China in what used to be called Siberia. And no one will rush to Russia's defense at that point.

Looks like China wins either way.


R.W. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: I disagree that "Fund the Police" is automatically a winning message for the Democrats. If the Democrats go whole-hog on that message, with no nuance, they will alienate a much wider swath than just rabid progressives. It would be one thing to advocate additional police funding with the money going to popular programs like crisis mental health teams. It would be quite another to increase police budgets so that they can become even more militarized and behave even more like an occupying force in minority neighborhoods. If the Democrats go with the first message, you're probably right—it could be a winner. If they go with the latter, they will likely lose, not gain, enthusiastic voters.

P.W. in Valley Village, CA, writes: Using children as emotional cannon fodder is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

"Gypsies" (a.k.a. Roma) steal them.

Jews eat them.

Gays recruit them.

And now, Democrats indoctrinate them.

D.T. in San Jose, CA, writes: Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) was already receiving plenty of earmarks, even if nobody was using that term to describe them. For years, Shelby has been using NASA's budget as nothing more than a way to funnel money to Alabama (plus a few other Southern states). By micromanaging the hardware design, a handful of senators are able to guarantee that the well-paid engineering jobs go to specific contractors, in specific states.

The most egregious example of this is SLS, a new rocket being built by NASA. The U.S. Senate, rather than the rocket scientists at NASA, decided which features the rocket needed, and what hardware would be used. Many in the tech/space industries derisively refer to this rocket as the "Senate Launch System."

Rather than allowing NASA to design their own, modern, rocket (or purchase launches from SpaceX), NASA is being forced to build a rocket based on legacy technology, built by hand-picked contractors. The price of a single SLS launch is so prohibitively expensive that most believe it will be used only a few times before the program is abandoned entirely.

I love the work that NASA does, but it is heartbreaking to realize that Sen. Shelby has squandered nearly two decades of potential progress towards the human spaceflight program. Perhaps by restoring "official" earmarks, members of Congress will no longer need to invent their own "unofficial" earmarks, at the expense of important programs.

J.L. in Albany, NY, writes: You wrote "And while it might be soothing for Republicans to tell themselves that voters get more conservative as they get older, it just ain't so. Political preferences generally tend to be locked in between the ages of 18-35, and are stable thereafter."

Thanks for writing this, as it reinforces something I've found as well. For as long as I can remember, my conservative father has been telling me that I'll become a conservative when I age. When I was 18, it was "when I turn 30." When I turned 30 and was still a liberal, it was "when you turn 40." I'm now 46 and, if anything, more liberal than I was at 20. My father still insists that I'll magically become a conservative as I age, though he's switched to the more generic "when you get older" to avoid another missed deadline.

If there's a magical conservative fairy that flies around making people want to watch Fox News, support tax breaks for "job creators" (aka rich folks), and support Trump, then they haven't visited me yet. Maybe the magical conservative fairy is being kept at bay by trying to turn Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) conservative and failing every night.

V & Z respond: Or maybe the trip from South Carolina to your hometown of Albany is too far.

R.E. in Birmingham, AL, writes: I read your item on Truth Social, and then got an update from them on my account setup that I started a week ago today. They seem to be at least a week behind. I signed up out of curiosity, I guess... I expect it to be loathsome and offensive, yet I can't look away.

D.K. in Oceanside, CA, writes: Truth be told, Devin Nunes may be put out to pasture for his huuuuuuge failure.

V & Z respond: You know Donald Trump was going to have a cow.

Legal Matters

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: With the Supreme Court signaling that it may be willing to buy into the "independent legislature theory," which would let state legislatures appoint presidential electors however they want and draw district maps however they want, this could be the last nail in the coffin of the Voting Rights Act. It was already hanging on by a thread but it seemed at least that even if garden-variety gerrymandering was considered acceptable that racist gerrymandering was not. If SCOTUS subscribes to the Republican argument that the maps state legislatures draw is not reviewable by a court, then even if maps are drawn with the express racist intent of preventing minorities from getting elected to office, they cannot be challenged. That is not how our system of government works and it would be a dereliction of duty for the Court to not act as a check on a legislature determined to undermine the very fundamental tenets of our democracy.

Donald Trump may have tried to take a sledgehammer to U.S. democracy, but SCOTUS is slowly and systematically dismantling it. As someone who has great respect for our judicial system and who knows that most judges take their oath of office and the canons of judicial ethics very seriously, I nonetheless have reluctantly come to the conclusion that this Supreme Court is the most partisan, unethical and anti-democratic (small D) Court this country has ever seen—even more so than the Court of the 20's that continually struck down child labor laws and other worker protections under the Tenth Amendment. Beginning with Citizens United and continuing with other cases that invalidated campaign finance laws, it moved on to the Voting Rights Act to allow states to suppress voting and intimidate voters. The attacks on election workers are a natural outgrowth of Republicans' antipathy toward the franchise. And SCOTUS is an enthusiastic accomplice in this effort.

Much like the captain of a ship, the Supreme Court sets the tone for how our democracy is conducted. If the Court is perceived as open for business for the Republican party and its goals, we are already seeing the results. Trump was ultimately mistaken that the Court would assist him personally, but he was not wrong in his assumption that the Court is in the bag for any and all Republican power grabs. And Republicans have gotten the message. Frivolous lawsuits raising every cockamamie theory under the sun are filed for the sole purpose of getting before the Supreme Court, and legislatures are passing laws they know are unconstitutional because this Supreme Court doesn't even follow its own precedents. Roe v. Wade has not been overturned, but the Supreme Court is simply ignoring it, causing abortion bans to spring up all across the country. This has also affected appellate decisions—why should judges adhere to precedent and the rule of law when SCOTUS will simply overturn precedents that don't serve their partisan ends. This will have the pernicious effect of silencing ethical judges and emboldening partisan ones who know their rulings will not be overturned. In Louisiana, a 3-judge panel comprised of all Republican appointees, including one Trump appointee, wrote a 112-page opinion striking down the redistricting maps on the grounds that it would disenfranchise Black voters. Without a word, on the shadow docket, the Supreme Court overturned that opinion. I'm guessing those judges understand now how they're supposed to rule in these cases and won't make the mistake of carefully adjudicating such cases in the future.

Biden needs to seriously consider a constitutional court to hear and interpret constitutional issues and limit this Court's jurisdiction. They have abused their power long enough.

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: For the Supreme Court to decide that the Elections Clause (Art. I, sec. 4) prohibits state courts from applying the State's constitution to review federal congressional district maps would necessarily mean that the Framers intended to forbid those courts from exercising judicial review over the state legislature's power to regulate federal elections. In other words, every state's courts would have the power to invalidate laws that violate the state's constitution and to fashion remedies under state law for such violations, except when it comes to setting rules for federal elections. Specifically, both the North Carolina and Pennsylvania constitutions state that the People are enacting them and that the People are sovereign. I would be deeply surprised if the Framers in 1789 intended to deprive the People of those states of their sovereignty, which created the state courts and gave them power to check the legislature, in favor of the legislature's unreviewable power to prescribe federal election rules and districts. So much for "originalism" and "federalism" among on the right wing of the Supreme Court! Principle must give way when power is at stake.

T.M.M. in Odessa, MO, writes: Actually, the Supreme Court decision on Dzhokar Tsarnaev does not put that much pressure on the Biden Administration, at least not yet. Even if the Biden Administration wanted to set an execution date, it couldn't.

First, there were sixteen claims raised in the appeal. Because it granted relief on the two claims addressed by the Supreme Court, the First Circuit apparently did not address all of the remaining claims (and some they merely addressed in setting the ground rules if they arose again at the new trial without deciding if they were reversible error). The First Circuit will now have to determine if any of these grounds require a new penalty phase.

Second, even if the First Circuit does affirm the sentence of death, there is one more proceeding that has to take place before an execution date can be set. In the federal system (and in many state systems), the appellate court rarely considers claims that trial counsel was ineffective because it is impossible to create an adequate record at trial and appeals are limited to the trial court record. After the appeal is finished, the defendant then gets to file a "Section 2255" petition in which he can raise the claim that trial counsel was ineffective. While these claims rarely succeed because the test for whether counsel is ineffective makes it very difficult for defendants to win, Tsarnaev still gets to file this petition. He will almost certainly get a hearing on this petition and will almost certainly get an appeal on some of these issues.

At best, we are looking at 3-4 years before Tsarnaev's challenges to his sentences are done. Thus, today, the Biden Administration merely needs to give a noncommittal response that proceedings are not yet done and a decision will be made about setting an execution date when proceedings are done.

P.S. in Plano, TX, writes: As someone who is currently handling the immigration paperwork for his wife, I believe R.F. in Waukegan is mistaken.

Form I-485 is the form required to apply for a green card. It has many questions the prospective green card holder needs to answer, and one of them is related to voting in the United States. That question is worded as follows: "Have you EVER voted in violation of any Federal, state, or local constitutional provision, statute, ordinance, or regulation in the United States?"

The wording makes it clear that the "Yes" box should only be checked if an alien voted illegally, since an alien's vote in an election in which the alien was eligible to vote would not be "in violation of any Federal, state, or local constitutional provision, statute, ordinance, or regulation." I therefore see no evidence that USCIS "considers it an offense to vote in any election," nor do I see evidence that aliens are putting themselves at risk of deportation by voting in elections in which they are authorized to participate. If USCIS were to ever take notice of an alien's legal voting, it would likely be seen as evidence of a tendency to fulfill civic duties, and thus as evidence of good moral character.

One final important note to prospective immigrants: If you ever want to immigrate to the United States, do not join the Communist Party. Any communist party. A lot of people in communist-run countries join their nation's Communist Party even if they're not communists, because being invited to join is considered an honor and can open doors for professional advancement. They don't know that joining makes them inadmissible to the U.S. My wife never joined, but others in her peer group have.

F.L. in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, writes: In response to R.F. in Waukegan: My then-girlfriend and I moved in together in Takoma Park, MD, in the early 1990s. Since she was a non-US citizen, she registered to vote and in fact did vote in municipal elections there.

By the mid-aughts, we had married, become parents, and moved away from Takoma Park. By then my better half already had her green card, and applied for U.S. citizenship. At my urging—it's never a good idea to lie to a friendly government—she truthfully answered the question about ever having voted in an election in the U.S.

At her citizenship interview, the USCIS agent predictably reacted negatively and out of proportion when he arrived at that question on her form—my wife called me in tears and remains somewhat traumatized to this day.

To confirm my wife's assertion that she had only voted in municipal elections, I contacted the voter registrar in Takoma Park, who commented something to the effect of "this happens all the time, USCIS is terribly close-minded about this," and sent along a explanatory letter that paved the way for my wife's successful U.S. naturalization.

Consequently, I wouldn't view a non-citizen registering and voting in a municipal election where it is permitted as necessarily prejudicial to a naturalization application. Your mileage may vary.

Putting the L and G and B in LGBTQ...

H.R. in Jamaica Plain, MA, writes: In your excellent item about the Florida "Don't Say Gay" Bill, you missed one important category of children who will be harmed by this bill, and that is those children from lesbian or gay-headed families.

Since this is a lived experience for me (as a parent), I have many stories to tell about my own children's experiences. One time, a child came up to me when I was visiting my child's classroom and asked, "Is it true that [name of H.R.'s child] has two Moms?" "Yes, it's true," I replied, to which the child responded, "That's so cool!" with a bit of jealousy in her voice. After I became a mother, I found myself coming out in all sorts of situations where I hadn't before. When the little old lady in a department store asked, "Which one of you is the mother?", I replied, "We both are." I couldn't stomach the idea of our children feeling there was anything to be ashamed of or hidden about who we are. We had a little spiel prepared when we met curious children: There are all kinds of families. Some have a mom and a dad, some have two moms, some have two dads, some have two moms and two dads (which covered some divorced and remarried folks). I firmly believe that the rapid acceptance of gay marriage came about partly because of the lesbian and gay baby boom of the mid-80s to mid-90s. It's hard to hate little kids, no matter who their parents are, and as our families became more visible, the supposed reasons to block marriage melted away for many. My own children have grown into successful adults in their 30s. There's a longitudinal study of lesbian-headed families that we've participated in for 35 years, which I mention in case some readers want more than anecdotal evidence about the well-being of children raised by our families.

S.B. in New Castle, DE, writes: I read your item "Florida Passes 'Don't Say Gay' Bill" with interest. I've been warning our LGBTQ+ community for years that attacks on transgender people like me are just the start of a greater social assault on our entire Rainbow Radiant community. When SCOTUS ruled that gay marriages were legal on June 26, 2015, a lot of advocacy energy was drained, since it was the last large issue for the entire community to rally around our rainbow flag. Sadly, there are many in the LGBTQ+ community who feel that our iconic flag should represent only gay men, or just gay men and women, without any political investment in the other "letters." Bisexual people are viewed by gay purists as "sleep with anyone" or indecisive, and gender non-conforming people don't belong at all. The "Don't Say Gay" law in Florida is glaring example of what will continue to happen to our entire community if we don't stand up as one voice and stop it now.

On a lighter note, Kate McKinnon did a wonderful commentary on this on Saturday Night Live this past week. I hope you might hear the scary reality as she mixes it with her incomparable brand of humor:

D.A.Y. in Troy, MI, writes: I've told several people you couldn't pay me to go to Florida right now. It's a state where you can be run over for protesting, shot and killed for literally looking at someone funny and they might not even be arrested, doesn't care about its delicate environment or the fact it will be the first state devastated by sea level rise, has allowed COVID to run rampant and covered up the extent to its damage, and now is censoring any serious discussion of race and identity to allow prejudices and hatred to fester unchecked.

I don't understand why Floridians tolerate this. Are low taxes worth being in what looks more and more like a totalitarian regime complete with oligarchs and robber barons at its head? Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) sounds like a classical banana republic dictator when he goes up and declares Florida a "free state" while at the same time trampling the rights of minorities and dissenters (just replace the jackbooted thugs quashing protests with street justice).

I've watched what can only be described as a coordinated effort in especially the South (which could be the case with organizations like ALEC lurking the halls of state capitals) to do what hasn't been done nationally: turn America into a backward nation because the old guard is seeing their power slip. They want to remove a woman's right to control when she has a child so women are less able to participate in the workforce, shove the LGBT+ community back into the closet so it will be easier to reverse the progress they've made as society has become more aware and accepting, and blind us to our history so efforts to lift up marginalized minorities so they have the same opportunities.

Ploys like the "Don't Say Gay" bill are part of an agenda to return America to a state in which being a white, straight man makes you superior to everyone else by default. If you do not want to live in such a country, then you need to vote this November. I don't care if the Democrats haven't been able to get everything they promised passed. If the Republicans take one or both chambers of Congress, they will paralyze the federal government while the Republican-controlled state government hamper your rights.

Putting the T in LGBTQ...

K.Y. in Tumwater, WA, writes: In their response to my comment about the Newsweek article sent in by L.E. in Putnam County, V & Z noted that they "generally do not respond to the points readers raise in their letters, leaving that to the other readers to do." Very well. As a reader, I will engage with the Newsweek piece.

Some groundwork: "Gender-affirming care," which I will abbreviate GAC, is a medical standard where underage patients who present with gender-related distress are treated with puberty blockers, followed by exogenous cross-sex hormones, possibly followed by either mastectomy or augmentation mammoplasty. (Genital surgeries are not usually performed on underage patients.) On the political edges, some on the right regard GAC as "child abuse" because children and adolescents may not fully comprehend the risks or the permanent nature of some of the treatments, and some on the left embrace GAC to the point of rejecting any other approach—such as psychotherapy to explore the roots of the distress—as tantamount to "conversion therapy."

The thesis of the Newsweek piece is that the truth lies in between: GAC is probably the right approach for some underage patients and the wrong approach for others, but the current state of the research and evidence is thin enough that we cannot reliably identify which patients are which.

Let me stop for a moment and observe that, if this thesis were true, it would be reasonable for the rest of us to be concerned at the fact that GAC is the standard treatment recommended by almost all American institutions of health. I hope that observation is not controversial.

That said, I am not qualified to follow every link in the Newsweek piece and evaluate whether the author has fairly characterized the sources she cites. So I will focus on one item she mentions: recent changes to the standards of care in several European countries.

In the past couple of years, medical authorities in Finland, Sweden, and France have issued guidelines to practitioners urging greater caution in treating underage patients experiencing gender-related distress. (I was unable to find a neutral source for these stories, but I see no evidence of misrepresentation in the linked items.) What the revised guidelines have in common is: (1) skepticism of existing research, and a call for further studies; (2) concern about recent spikes in the number of post-pubertal patients; (3) psychotherapy as a first resort; (4) hormonal intervention as the exception rather than the norm; and (5) improved communication with patients about risks and complications.

And now, just this week, an independent investigation into the U.K.'s treatment practices, commissioned by the NHS, announced its interim findings. Because these findings are preliminary, the report lacks concrete guidelines, but it seems clear that the current GAC-based model will be discontinued. Remarkably, the announcement concludes with the observation that the investigators are "not able to provide advice on the use of hormone treatments due to gaps in the evidence base." In this case I was indeed able to find a neutral source for the story—The Times, no less.

What seems more likely? That the medical establishments of Europe are hateful and transphobic? Or that GAC is risky and not well researched?

None of this is to defend Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX), whose proposed "solution" for gender-distressed young people is too monolithic. He was unable to get a GAC ban through his legislature, so now he's turning to the courts. It would be much better for everyone involved if American medical institutions would simply wake up and issue better guidance that has robust research behind it; then these shenanigans would be unnecessary. I can't say I'm optimistic, though.

A.C. in London, England, UK, writes: I have read your site since at least 2004. I've never been moved to write in before, but I feel I have to now. I would like to ask you and your readers to read the following: "By Any Other Name: The story of my transition and detransition."

And then ask yourself the question, in the rush to support trans people—which, of course, I am for—are others being caught up in this and hurt?

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: I'd like to add to the comments by M.M. in San Diego about the biology and psychology of sex and gender. I have a Ph.D. in biopsychology and teach a biopsychology class regularly, including one this semester. In my class, we debunk the whole MAMAWAWA ("men-are-men-and-women-are-women-assumption). Here are several ways in which the biology of this assumption does not conform to people's expectations, involving hormones, chromosomes, gonads, ducts, and genitalia.

In sum, the MAMAWAMA is totally bunk, even when simply referring to the body. The neuroscience of sexual orientation and gender identity is even more complicated, but the short version is that the brains of male and female humans look very similar and most psychological functions show little to no differences between the sexes. Sexual orientation and gender identity appear to be hard-wired into the brain prenatally and cannot be simply changed at will.

The case of David Reimer is a tragic example of this. A botched circumcision at six months old left David's penis damaged beyond repair, so the psychologist John Money recommended that his parents reassign him surgically, treat him with female hormones, and raise him as a girl. At first, the "treatments" seemed to work, which Money touted as evidence that gender identity is a socially learned behavior. However, in adolescence, David became dissatisfied with his gender identity, eventually learned the truth, and underwent treatments to reverse the surgeries and hormones forced upon him. Despite this, he was unable to father children due to his testes being removed, and David took his own life at 38 years old.

I like to show The Flying Gender Unicorn graphic to my students, which depicts the complexities surrounding sexual differentiation, gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation. The graphic is complex, just like people are. In my view, the only thing missing from it is sexual behavior, which can differ from sexual attraction. Gender exists in the brain/mind and can be fluid, but it is a highly personal construction, just as the self is. "Gender affirming" treatments simply make the hormone levels and the outside appearance of a person match what they feel on their inside.

R.T. in Arlington, TX, writes: I don't know if anyone else noted the hypocrisy of the Texas Governor's fascist efforts to run our lives. On one hand, he thinks that parents should have the final say in what is taught to their children in school and on the other hand he thinks parents should not be allowed to consent to gender confirming treatment or surgery for their child. Maybe the common thread isn't parental rights but a need to cut any knowledgeable professional (teacher or doctor in these instances) of from having input.

I'd like to pass on a cautionary note from Michael Gurian, who specializes in education methods that take gender differences into account. In a posting a few months ago he cautioned practitioners to take time to work with a youth to suss out whether the youth is actually expressing as transgender or expressing as homosexual because gender confirming treatment is appropriate for the transgender youth but not for homosexual youth. With the bubbling pot of hormones that every adolescent experiences and the absence of life experiences to filter the feelings through, it makes sense to me that a significant number of youth might misunderstand themselves for a while. When a treatment has consequences that are hard to reverse, caution and time make sense, but there is no way a legislature could or should set rules for best practices in this.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: First, a thanks to R.L. in Alameda for his support, and for sharing his journey, that he was not always in his heart supportive of us even when he was in his head. For those who do not know what is involved in the process of gender transition...should know there is an international set of guidelines, established by WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health).

I, being an older-gen trans woman...adhered to the old HBIGDA guidelines (Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association) which were, in many ways, stricter than the current WPATH guidelines... most notably in the area of sexual orientation. Under the old HBIGDA rules, you had to identify as hetero in your identified gender or no help for you. I know many of my contemporaries who lied through their teeth to get through this process... this was not necessary in my case.

But anyone who wants to know what the accepted process by which all ethical surgeons and other providers of gender confirming services adhere to, you can find it on WPATH's website.

Noam, and Not the One in Alaska

S.H. in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, writes: In response to the questions from M.B. of Pittsburgh about how much stock to put in Noam Chomsky's analysis of the Ukraine war, you referred to him as "brilliant," "eloquent," and "probably America's most important living public intellectual." It's the last description I want to take issue with, because if he's our most important living public intellectual, it only serves to illustrate that we have a shrill, sclerotic, and highly doctrinaire state of political discourse. Since so often deals with questions of data interpretation, as well as the humility required when analyzing live-time or historical data, I think it's worth noting that much of Chomsky's rhetoric embodies an arrogance and extremism that serves healthy political discourse poorly, whatever his brilliance and eloquence.

The example that made this crystal clear to me was (is) Chomsky's comments about the Khmer Rouge, the communist group that toppled the U.S.-friendly nationalist government in Cambodia in 1975 and ruled the country until 1979. As you note, Chomsky viewed the Vietnam War (and its spillover to neighboring Cambodia) through the lens of American imperialism. As part of that worldview, he regarded American news coverage of the communist governments that took power as being, effectively, anti-communist propaganda, trumping up stories of atrocities and staying silent on any improvements in the lives of the populace. Thus, in the late 1970s, Chomsky was dismissive of the reports that began to circulate about the brutalities attributed to the Khmer Rouge, including the use of mass starvation as a political tool, and the development of a centralized torture bureaucracy to exterminate political dissidents. Basically, Chomsky said these stories were just ginned up anti-commie screeds that had no validity whatsoever.

Once Cambodia was relieved of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, it gradually became clear from survivors that the few stories that had managed to get out only hinted at the full scale of the devastation. The facts weren't known all at once, but by the late 1980s, the truth about life under the Khmer Rouge was both quite clear, and beyond the shadow of a doubt. Even today nobody knows the precise scale of the devastation, but all legitimate historians agree that the lower end of the death toll was in the hundreds of thousands, and the higher end was well over two million people—all in a country of approximately 8 million people at the time. Moreover, it was well established that an industrialized machine of death that has since come to be known as "the Killing Fields" was in place throughout the country, as well as a dedicated torture prison in Phnom Penh that murdered more than 20,000 Cambodians, who were killed only after experiencing unspeakable suffering in their final hours. I currently live a mile from that facility, which still stands as a monument to their barbarity.

What has been Chomsky's response to the revelations about the Khmer Rouge? He has consistently maintained that the stories are all overblown, the estimates of deaths inflated, the reportage sloppy. In a sterling example of whataboutism, he has also maintained that the Americans are still to blame because of the U.S. bombing campaign of eastern Cambodia, where Viet Cong fighters were believed to be massing. (The bombing campaign indiscriminately killed tens of thousands of Cambodian civilians, and likely contributed to sympathy for the Khmer Rouge as the bombing intensified.) Other apologists for the Khmer Rouge have since owned up to their errors, most notably Ben Kiernan, who worked to document in detail the various crimes of the regime. But as recently as 2016 Chomsky was publicly defending his ongoing stance.

To my ears, even if the content is set aside, Chomsky's entire tone sets a pretty low bar for principled dialogue: he interrupts, he digresses needlessly, he browbeats. In fact, his entire tenor is reminiscent of another famous American "intellectual," namely, Antonin Scalia. And he has never really acknowledged the basic truth at the core of the entire discussion, namely, that the Khmer Rouge were little beyond a group of inexperienced idealists who quickly became a torture-and-murder racket at a scale rarely seen before (with the obvious exception being China under Mao, and the U.S.S.R. under Stalin). The fact that he has been, over decades, unable to admit to having made mistakes in his analysis of the Khmer Rouge, and to viciously attack anyone who has ever tried to point out to him those mistakes, should disqualify him from any informal title as a great American intellectual.

Word Games

R.S. in San Mateo, CA, writes: Another one-syllable word that becomes three is "pale" and "paleo." I suppose the latter is more common as a prefix, but Cambridge says it's a word now!

And if proper names are allowed, a very timely pair is "crime" and "Crimea."

D.L. in Springfield, IL, writes: F.B. in Los Angeles wants two foods in a supermarket that anagram each other.

Answer: "Lemons" and "Melons."

Hat tip to those who came up with alternate answers to my "Are"/"Area" puzzle. I didn't know any other answers besides that one.

S.S. in Santa Monica, CA, writes: "Lettuce" agree that an "e-cutlet" isn't a thing, so unless your local supermarket sells both "pasta" and "tapas," it's "melon" and "lemon."

A.J. in Palmer, MA, writes: "Lemon" and "melon."

I also checked "melonade" on a hunch, and yep, it's an actual drink. Definitely never seen it at any store though, so I guess "melonade" and "lemonade" lose on a technicality.

"Sprite" and "tripes" work if you're (un)lucky.

B.T. in Bogalusa, LA, writes: I've thought and thought about it and all I can come up with is "tuna" and "a nut."

I can't wait to read the correct answer and see if any guesses are as terrible as mine.

V & Z respond: We actually think your answer is quite good.

R.B. in Santa Monica, CA, writes: If your market carries exotic meats, then there's "otter" and "torte" or "carob" and "cobra" or "skate" and "steak." Or if their produce section has an international flavor, then you can get some "taros" there to go with a "roast" from the butcher.

On the other hand, if you're stuck with a boring, bland, business-as-usual American market, then you'll just have to settle for a "scone" and some "cones."

S.K. in Holyoke, MA, writes: The question posed by F.B. in Los Angeles is an easy one for me, as I noticed years ago that "lemon" and "melon" are anagrams. It helps that I do the shopping for my household and so make a list of items every week.

How about this for a topical one: Give an adjective that would describe current activities of Vladimir Putin, and then anagram it to get another adjective that is not very applicable to Putin's current life.

V & Z respond: The mailbag is open for guesses. And since we are likely going to keep this going, also for suggestions for future questions.


A.S.W. in Melrose, MA, writes: So wait... are you saying that the Village People might just as easily be called The Canada People? Hmmm... perhaps another sinister, tuque-clad plot has been unearthed...

V & Z respond: It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A., eh.

J.H. in Boston, MA, writes: A better example to compare with, for a country whose name uses a definite article in English, one which may be closer to home for some of the authors, is The Netherlands. I can certainly see that using the name this way implies that the Netherlands is (are?) some kind of lower land, relative to some upper land (Germany?). I wonder whether one day their government will lobby the Anglosphere to drop the article.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, writes: As an example of a frivolous poll question, you wrote, "After you finish your studies at USC, will be you be working at McDonald's or Burger King?"

Trick question. They'll obviously be putting the expertise they've acquired on Munchie Meals to use working at Jack in the Box.

V & Z respond: Nah. Jack in the Box's top-selling menu item is a box with a dozen "tiny tacos." So, you have to be able to count to 12 to work there, and health codes require employees to wear shoes at all times. In other words, it just won't work with the USC grads. In fairness, it doesn't work with MIT grads, either. They can't figure out how they're supposed to jam 1,100 tacos in that little box.

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