Four stories and 12 years ago…

I have been deeply immersed in preparing final first drafts (how is that for an oxymoron?) of early chapters of the book I am writing, whose new tentative title is Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive into My Family’s History…and My Own. We have also been preoccupied with various illnesses, injuries and anniversaries. Not to mention following the twists and turns of the impeachment saga.

With all that, however, I have not forgotten about this site. I have been meticulously compiling polling for the next 2020 Democratic nomination and presidential election updates, as well as this year’s three governor’s races.

And life has thrown a handful of interesting curveballs our way.

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Sunday, October 6, 2019 was Nell’s and my 12th wedding anniversary.

Rather than go out to celebrate, we chose to stay home and order food from our favorite local pizza joint. Three of our orders—and both orders of French fries—were perfect; only Nell’s was thoroughly botched, somewhat dampening the otherwise celebratory mood.

But that is beside the point.

As a gift on my first birthday as a married man, my mother-in-law gave me—after strong hinting from Nell—this high-quality Swiss Army knife with my surname engraved on the primary blade. Ever since then, it always goes into my front left pocket when I leave the apartment. This has proven troublesome on a few occasions, as it was nearly confiscated by a TAA worker at Logan Airport as well as on my recent trip to Philadelphia.

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Along with my wedding band, in other words, it is one of my most-prized possessions.  In a recent post, I told the story of how I lost my wedding band in the spring of 2011, only to have it miraculously recovered a few weeks later. Well, with all due respect to the excellent and criminally-underrated Split Enz, history does sometimes repeat.

On the Thursday night before our recent wedding anniversary, I used the primary blade on my Swiss Army knife to puncture holes in a seemingly-endless set of air bags used for packing boxes from Amazon, so I could flatten them prior to recycling them. I also broke up a handful of cardboard boxes, threw them into the back of Nell’s car—along with our golden retriever Ruby, who was due for a “’venture”—and took them to a nearby giant metal recycling bin; given the tandem nature of our residential parking, it was easier to take her car. After recycling the cardboard, I filled up Nell’s gas tank then took Ruby to a nearby park for a quick play.

I mean, who could resist this?

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To be clear, speaking to pet dogs in a form of baby talk stems from my mother, who invented an entire language for our pet Keeshond Luvey (so named because “he loves everybody!”): chicken became “cluckies,” a favorite game was “sockie ballies,” and so forth. Given that history, my calling an adventure a “’venture” is perfectly understandable.

Meanwhile, eureka!

Luvey on Sue Ellen Drive 1974

Look carefully at the photograph of Luvey and me in my parents’ bedroom in the Havertown, PA house in which I lived until I was 10 years old. Well, forget that the big stuffed blue bear I am snuggling belies the story I have long told that my allergies were so bad as a young child I lost all my stuffed animals; I will interrogate that memory some other time.

On the floor just to the left of the white two-drawered bureau is a blue spherical object which looks like an old-fashioned portable hair dryer, like the one that features so prominently in the house fire I first interrogated here.

But that poses a bit of a puzzle (yes, I am in the middle a story about my Swiss Army knife…just bear with me). Luvey was born on December 17, 1972, and we brought her home about two weeks later, when he was nothing but a small black ball of fur with a pink tongue. My house fire almost certainly took place in March or April 1973. If that is indeed THE portable hair dryer, Luvey would be at most four months old in this photograph. Could he really have grown that much that quickly? While it is certainly possible, it is also possible—maybe even more likely—that this photograph was taken shortly after the fire, and what is pictured is a replacement for the portable hair dryer destroyed in the fire—now stored safely upstairs. The Polaroid photograph itself is undated, other than the cardstock on which it was printed having the date “4/72.”

As the fictionalized King of Siam would say, “Is a puzzlement.”

Returning to my beloved Swiss Army knife, I am reminded of an incident that took place on an earlier wedding anniversary. Nell and I were then extremely fond of an upscale Italian restaurant in Newton Centre called Appetito, which closed in March 2014. In fact, we had one of the most important early conversations of our relationship at its bar.

On this particular anniversary, most likely in 2013, given the state of decline then apparent in the restaurant (nearly every customer was using a Groupon), our waitress was particularly flirtatious—and to my regret and shame, I playied along, cracking jokes about knives. At one point, I went to the bathroom. Just outside the door, our waitress stopped me, wanting to hold my Swiss Army knife, in lieu of my earlier “jokes.” I gave it to her, thinking nothing of it…OK, I was flattered by the attention.

I know, I know, it was my wedding anniversary.

While I was in the bathroom, in full view of Nell, our waitress pulled out every gizmo on the Swiss Army knife in a way that could be described as “provocative.” Needless to say, Nell was NOT happy with either of us, though I (deservedly) bore the brunt of her displeasure.

Hmm, I had intended that to be a funny anecdote, not a “husbands behaving poorly” confession. At times, I think these posts write themselves.

Moving right along, we return to last Thursday night, when I distinctly last remembered using my Swiss Army knife. The following night, there were yet more cardboard boxes to recycle, so once again Ruby and I had a ‘venture. We did not stay at the park nearly as long as we had the night before, however, in part because in the darkness I slipped on some small apples that had fallen from a tree near where I parked, whacking my left knee a bit.

Returning home a few minutes later, I removed all of the accessories (wallet, keys, pen, etc.) from my pockets into the wooden tray I keep in my office to hold those items.

Umm, where is my Swiss Army knife?

I checked every pocket of my jacket and jeans to no avail.

The first thing I thought was that it seemed as though when I had put things INTO my pockets, something had been missing. So that became my starting point: somehow it had gotten misplaced between Thursday night and Friday night.

Acting on that thought, I quickly searched all of the surfaces near where I had used my Swiss Army knife, thinking I had closed it up, put it down then forgotten to put it back in my office. That is very unlike me, but I was also wicked tired that night, so anything was possible.

Perhaps Nell had borrowed it during the day and simply forgotten to return it? Or one of our daughters? The answer to both questions, I learned on Saturday, was an emphatic “No!”

Thus commenced an epic search of the apartment, including my going through every single item in the large blue wheeled recycling bin in our backyard, thinking I had somehow tossed it in there with other recycling Thursday night. I even went through the adjacent trash barrel, as well as Nell’s car, on the off chance I had put in on the seat next to me or it had gotten mixed up with the broken-down cardboard boxes.

It was not in any of those places.

That evening, our daughters, a friend of our eldest daughter and I walked down to our favorite local restaurant, Zaftigs, for supper. Our route took us past the large metal recycling bin I had visited the previous two evenings, so I scoured the ground around it; it was not there either.

Finally, just after Nell went to bed, I had all but decided it had somehow gotten thrown into the large metal recycling bin with the cardboard when I remembered slipping on the apples at the park the previous night.

Well, it is worth a shot, I thought. And for the third night in a row, Ruby and I drove to the park. Using the flashlight on my iPhone, I scanned the ground where I had had my pratfall. Within seconds, a red metallic object caught my eye.

I am not ashamed to say I actually kissed my Swiss Army knife after picking it up from the dewy grass.

Nell was asleep when I get home, though the next day, after she heard the full story, she said that for that I could have woken her up.

Good to know.

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In this post, I took an early look at four elections, one of which was the 2019 Louisiana gubernatorial election. The “jungle primary” featuring every announced candidate, regardless of political party, will be held on Saturday, October 12. If no candidate wins an outright majority of the vote, a runoff election between the top two contenders will be held on November 16.

With 18 polls released since January 1, 2019 to analyze—11 since September 1, including five from Republican-leaning JMC Analytics (rated C+ by FiveThirtyEight), four from Democratic-leaning Remington Research Group (C) and three from unbiased Market Research Insight (B+), there are two questions to ask.

  1. Will Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards, who has an average lead of 23.2 percentage points (“points”) over his two primary Republican rivals, secure more than 50% of the vote on Saturday, avoiding a runoff?
  2. If he does not, will he face United States House of Representatives (“Representative”) member Ralph Abraham or businessman Eddie Rispone?

As of early on the morning of October 10, Bel Edwards averages (weighted by pollster quality and time to election) 46.6% of the vote, well ahead of Abraham’s 21.5% and Rispone’s 17.9%; three additional candidates included in some polls total 2.9% of the vote,[1] leaving 11.0% undecided. Bel Edwards is tantalizingly close to 50%; assuming these averages are accurate and every undecided voter actually casts a vote, he would need to win just 31.9% of that vote to win an outright majority on Saturday. This is certainly possible, though I would not bet on it; never mind that I do not ever gamble.

That brings us to the question of whom Bel Edwards would face in a runoff. In early September, the weighted-adjusted averages were Bel Edwards 46.5%, Abraham 24.9% and Rispone 10.3%. While Bel Edwards’ position has not materially changed, Rispone has surged 7.6 points, both at the expense of Abraham, down 3.4 points, and by picking up support from some undecided voters. It is now effectively a toss-up between the two Republicans, although Rispone has finished ahead of Abraham in six of the last eight polls.

Either way, however, I estimate Bel Edwards has roughly a 92% chance of winning the runoff, and by around eight or nine points.

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For the last 69 days, ever since a string of mass shootings in late July and early August left 34 people dead, I have written a daily tweet which begins “Day XX mourning/decrying/bemoaning XXX mass shooting deaths in US in 2019.” The tweet always includes a call to repeal Amendment II to the Constitution of the United States, about which I first wrote in October 2017, and the hashtag #Repeal2A. To read those tweets, I invite you to follow me at @drnoir33.

While my tweets have clearly not effected any policy changes, I at least continue to call attention to the unaddressed scourge of gun violence in this country, to the point where a candidate for president of the United States could have this harrowing moment on a late night talk show. I have also had some fascinating, umm, conversations with gun enthusiasts, mostly some radical libertarians, while finding common cause with some extraordinary allies.

But what really made me realize how far this nation has come (not in a good way)—and because on this site EVERYTHING ultimately connects—was a seemingly unrelated event.

As I am naturally predisposed toward being a night owl, and because I do my best work after 11 pm, when the apartment becomes wonderfully dark and quiet, I tend to go to sleep well past 3 am, waking in the early afternoon. Indeed, the running joke now is “Daddy has finished breakfast so it must almost be time for Ruby’s supper!”

To wind down in those wee small hours after I turn off my computer, I like to watch selected YouTube videos on our living room television. I am especially drawn to videos produced by WhatCulture, Polyphonic, CineFix, WatchMojo and anything relating to the utterly brilliant third season of Twin Peaks.

A week or so ago, somewhat at random, a video of performances by stand-up comedian Emo Philips on Late Night with David Letterman appeared. I had quite liked the quirky cerebral Phillips 30 or so years ago but had lost track of him since. Intrigued, I began to watch; eventually I watched this 1987 special in its entirety. Another 1987 special, filmed in Washington DC, saw Phillips open his set by observing Joe Biden had just dropped out of the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.

What is old is new again?

But the bit that really stuck out was this oft-repeated line: “I go the playground often to watch the little kids jump up and down and scream, because they don’t know I’m using blanks,” delivered in what could be described as a deadpan nasal falsetto.

Dang, I thought, nobody could get way with a joke like that today. And the only reason it was even remotely funny in the mid-1980s is because of how unthinkable such an action was.

Yes, it is time to repeal Amendment II.

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My birthday was September 30 and, not unlike Nell’s and my wedding anniversary, the day did not go precisely according to plan. Still, I received a generous Amazon gift card from a close friend; we routinely exchange such cards on our respective birthdays.

With it, I purchased a DVD copy of one of my all-time favorite “guilty pleasure” films, The Shadow, the 1994 film starring Alec Baldwin as the titular character. And I promptly decided that I wanted to be his version of the character—dressed all in black with a red scarf covering most of his face—for Halloween this year.

When I shared this notion with my psychotherapist, I had a mild epiphany. One of the issues we routinely discuss is the sense that nobody really listens to me, no matter how “right” I am. (And, yes, I appreciate the irony of making that statement on a blog, where by definition you are listening to me, a fact for which I am very grateful.)

Huh, I said, so for Halloween I choose to be a person that literally nobody can see, only hear. That is very telling.

Here is the thing, however.

For weeks, I have been telling Nell how there was only one thing I want for my birthday. Really and truly, I only want this one thing. I wanted it because my previous version of it had finally ceased to function, which it made it hard to follow up on those wonderful Polyphonic videos.

To her eternal credit, Nell, my brilliant, beautiful, loving and supportive wife of 12 years, listened to me, because this is what I saw when I came downstairs for the first time on September 30:

New keyboard.JPG

OK, OK, it was actually still in its box, covered in birthday cards and ribbons, along with three bags of mini Three Musketeers bars, which I had been craving the past few days for some reason.

But who wants to see a photograph of a box?

This may finally have supplanted my Swiss Army knife as BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER!, though it is very close.

Until next time…

[1] I assign them “0” if excluded.

Organizing by themes IV: Bipartisanship and civil discourse

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

When I first launched this blog in December 2016, I decided that if I were going to write about American politics—however “objective” my analyses and transparent my methods—I should be careful not to be seen merely as a partisan or ideological hack.

Thus, in only my second post, I laid out what I considered to be my bipartisan bona fides, while also making clear that I am a proud liberal Democrat. The two are not inconsistent.

Over the next six months, as I wrote a great deal about American politics—particularly reflecting on the 2016 presidential campaign—I chose, with one exception, not to refer back to that post.

But as the resistance to President Donald Trump heated up in the spring and early summer of 2017, I began to be disturbed by the nascent tit-for-tat nastiness of some of my fellow liberals (or progressives, or whatever the label du jour is). I found myself writing long Facebook posts that were more or less erudite versions of “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

The end result was that in June 2017, I crafted what remains the post of which I am still the proudest: Two distinct restaurants. Two different conversations. One unanswered question.

One conversation (about gun rights) was with a cultural conservative in exurban Philadelphia (near where I was raised), while the other conversation (about the 2016 presidential candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton) was with an ardent progressive in Brookline, MA (where I live now). The former conversation was polite and informative, the latter confrontational and head-scratching.

And the question I still have is:

When do you stick to deeply-held principles, and when do you set them aside to advance the common good?

The answer may something to do with lowering your voice, listening to other points of view and questioning your own certainty.

I have linked to this post on Twitter (less so on Facebook, which I have all but abandoned) more often than any other post. Granted, Twitter is not exactly renowned for being “where cooler heads prevail”—but that will not stop me from trying.

Four months passed, during which I spent a great deal of time (or so it felt) arguing for the repeal of Amendment II on Twitter (see caveat in previous paragraph). The…umm…pushback I received prompted me in October 2017 to write Unpacking Twitter arguments, both coherent and incoherent.

This was the “Featured Image” on that post. It still sits on my desk, where I can easily access it.

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I did not write specifically about bipartisanship again until April 2018, but the notion clearly suffused the following posts:

What if Dewey HAD defeated Truman?

Dynamics of the Party System

Manifest(o) Identity

The latter post, from May 2018, was a first response to what I saw as a rapidly growing and dangerous epistemological crisis (which still exists) in the United States: the division of American citizens into ideological media silos, wherein we only “accept as true” information we receive from our preferred sources.

As a recent birthday gift shows, I am not immune to such siloing; MSNBC rules our weekday evenings.

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In June 2018, I began to proffer a specific form of bipartisan action as the cure for our epistemological crisis—a willingness to vote across party lines, while still staying true to one’s fundamental political views. In Bipartisanship as patriotism, I announced I would vote to reelect Republican Charlie Baker governor of Massachusetts; my wife Nell and I both followed through on that pledge with no regrets.

Just one week later, I published a hopeful piece about the vacancy on the United States Supreme Court created by the retirement of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. I did not really expect a more centrist nominee from President Trump, but neither did I expect to have a personal connection to his eventual choice.

Finally, my most recent posts dealing with bipartisanship (other than an exhortation to be involved in the process, whatever your political perspective) came after the deaths of two Republican icons I came greatly to admire (despite our ideological differences and their all-too-human foibles):

John McCain

George Herbert Walker Bush

Rest in peace, gentlemen. You served your country with honor—and did your best to act in accordance with what I wrote on my home page: “It really is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.”

Until next time…

Manifest(o) Identity

Having written and thought a lot about the 2018 United States (US) midterm elections, the first things I read each day (after my e-mail) are Taegan Goddard’s invaluable Political Wire and, of course, FiveThirtyEight.

On May 19, 2018, Goddard linked to this commentary by Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman. Waldman argues Democrats should abandon the “naïve” notion they will be able to win the votes of certain white Republicans (presumably once-Democratic voters who preferred Republican Donald J. Trump in the 2016 US presidential election) by showing them more “respect.” The fallacy, Waldman believes, lies in ignoring “where the belief in Democratic disrespect comes from and to assume that Democrats have it in their power to banish it.”

Specifically,

“The right has a gigantic media apparatus that is devoted to convincing people that liberals disrespect them, plus a political party whose leaders all understand that that idea is key to their political project and so join in the chorus at every opportunity.

“If you doubt this, I’d encourage you to tune in to Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio for a week. When you do, you’ll find that again and again you’re told stories of some excess of campus political correctness, some obscure liberal professor who said something offensive, some liberal celebrity who said something crude about rednecks or some Democratic politician who displayed a lack of knowledge of a conservative cultural marker. The message is pounded home over and over: They hate you and everything you stand for.”

If I may editorialize a moment, the sheer cynicism of this political strategy, while hardly new (McCarthyism, the Southern Strategy[1]), is breathtaking. There is no substantive policy argument or coherent ideological framework being offered, only an ever-stoked resentment intended to pit one (non-elite) group against another, a devious bit of misdirection by an alternate elite trying to maintain political power. This, of course, in no way excuses those who all-too-willingly fall for this misdirection. Not to get overly (or overtly) Marxist, but this is a textbook example of “false consciousness.”

Waldman, a writer for the progressive The American Prospect and graduate of Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, calls the target of this resentment “snooty liberal elitism.” Note the magazine for which he writes and his elite education (is he a Philadelphian like me?); I have no evidence regarding his snootiness.

Of course, I myself hold strong liberal views and attended Ivy League and other top schools (Yale, Harvard, Boston University School of Public Health), ultimately earning two Master’s Degrees and a PhD. I defer to others to decide how “snooty” I am.

Hold that thought.

Returning to Waldman’s article, his argument resonated with me for multiple reasons.

First, I have also written about whether Democrats should focus electorally more on “whites without a college degree” (President Trump’s core supporters) or on a coalition of younger, college-educated, non-white, urban and women voters. If pressed, I would choose the latter, though it is not necessarily a zero-sum choice (e.g., the decision by Democratic leaders to zero in on Trump Administration corruption could have broad appeal).

Second, I had just been thinking about “elites” in the context of explaining the choices in my seven-day Facebook book challenge. While discussing the third book, I highlighted Christopher Hayes’ compellingly-readable treatise, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.

In Chapter 5 (“Winners”), Hayes attempts to determine who comprises the “elite.” The (self-serving, given the plethora of wealthy and powerful conservatives) right-wing view is that “elitism” is not “degree of power or influence, but rather their condescension, their worldview, their tastes, preferences, and cultural diet […] snobby cosmopolitans who look down on the ordinary Americans who unpretentiously and earnestly devote themselves to the bedrock values of faith, family, and flag.”[2]

Need I point out that nearly all Americans value all three? I may be an atheist now, but I attended Hebrew School three days a week for six years, was Bar Mitzvahed and attended many a large family Seder. I adore my family, even if individual members at time drive me crazy and my definition is a bit looser. And while I love my country, I see its flaws and seek to repair them; my love is not unconditional.

Third, as a student of epidemiology, in many ways a quantitative offshoot of epistemology (how do we know and how much can we know), I am alarmed by the partisan bifurcation of information sources and accepted truths. It is not quite as simple as Republicans watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio, while Democrats watch MSNBC and listen to NPR, though as oversimplifications go, that is not bad. For the record, while I regularly watch MSNBC, I rarely listen to NPR.

But such resentments can only be a winning political strategy if the “facts of the case” are in constant dispute, if we choose only to believe (as opposed to know) what we learn from “our” sources. That is one reason I noted Waldman’s (presumed) ideology and education: I always “consider the source” of anything I read, watch or hear.

All of these issues—Democratic electoral strategy, conservative populist resentment, an untenable fractured epistemology—are fascinating and of vital importance.

And they only obliquely relate to what I am trying to say here.

Just bear with me.

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In my first post, I presented two brief—and radically different—biographies. One was that of a “well-placed member of the coastal cultural elite,” while the other was that of “one of life’s losers whose ladder of opportunity is buried deep underground.”

Of course, this is my own bit of epistemological misdirection: both biographies are mine. I was trying to demonstrate both my story-telling style and the manipulative power of story-telling itself: both stories were, strictly speaking, true, but each included (and amplified) only those facts that advanced the story’s message.

Upon reflection, though, I think that particular choice of stories (and my book project) unwittingly revealed my own ambiguity about my identity. Much of my ambivalence (a term my psychotherapist loves to use) stems from my adoption at that time by that particular family, a sense bordering on guilt of how extremely (unfairly?) lucky I was.

Even within this blog, I have evinced this ambivalence. I literally mentioned that I attended Yale in the very first sentence of my post arguing that “we are not our resumes.

You cannot make this stuff up.

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So what does this identity ambivalence have to do with conservative populist resentment at snooty liberal elites?

(Actually, the question pretty much answers itself.)

What most galls me is that it is nothing more than reverse snobbery. Whereas I do not “look down on them,” they clearly despise me…without ever meeting or otherwise getting to know me (I have been called a “libtard”—a term both ridiculous and highly offensive—more than once on Twitter).

It is also factually incorrect.

While I have, through both native ability and extremely hard work, earned my Ivy League and other degrees, I am hardly a member of the elite.

In his “Winners” chapter, Hayes expounds upon what he calls “fractal inequality.” One illustration: the economic distance between the bottom 99% and the top 1% is the same as that between the top 0.01% and the top 0.99% (both within the top 1%), which is also the same as that between the top 0.0001% and the top 0.0099% (both within the top 0.01%).

As Hayes describes it:

“Such a distributional structure reliably induces a dizzying vertigo among those ambitious souls who aim to scale it. The successful overachiever can only enjoy the perks of his [or her] relatively exalted status long enough to realize that there’s an entire world of heretofore unseen perks, power, and status that’s suddenly come within view and yet remains out of reach.”[3]

Something very much like this happened to me when I arrived at Yale in September 1984. I had always been one of the smartest kids in my class, even at a high school recognized for its academic excellence which regularly sent a few dozen graduates to the Ivy League and other top schools.

Yeah, I had no idea what being smart meant.

I had classmates who could play complex musical passages solely by ear…and were mildly surprised that I could not (though I did once work out the opening chords to The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New” on my portable electronic keyboard). My colleagues in the Yale Political Union had an astonishing mastery of debating techniques and policy details. One classmate (now one of my dearest friends) understood mathematics (and seemingly everything else) at a level that made the rest of look like kindergarteners.

Basically, while I ultimately found my niche and performed well at Yale (cum laude, distinction in the major), I was average there. And while it helped launch what became my health-data-analysis career, that career was far from lucrative, though I suppose some of my Boston-inflated salaries were respectable.

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Speaking of which, let me end where I started, with whether “respect” should be part of a winning electoral strategy.

To begin with, EVERYONE deserves respect by virtue of their basic humanity.

But to the conservative populists who think that America is somehow not great because of me or folks like me or what they think folks like me are like (or something), I observe that that respect goes both ways. You need to respect my triumphs and tragedies as well.

And do not for one minute think that my respect implies any kind of acceptance of retrograde and regressive beliefs.

Simply put, I will not overlook for the sake of electoral victory…

….the scapegoating of immigrants (undocumented or otherwise), Muslims or other non-white-Christian citizens: if you want my electoral respect, please show respect for everyone who does not look, sound or worship (o not worship) like you.

…the denial of basic science and the scientific method in the service of some half-baked conspiracy or religious doctrine: if you want my electoral respect, do not insult my intelligence or, for that matter, your own.

…the elevation of unborn fetuses over the lives of women: I am absolutely going there—if you want my electoral respect, stop objectifying, degrading and diminishing women, not only through anti-contraception and anti-abortion legislation but also through harassment and violence. Here I channel my late mother who firmly believed that if men could become pregnant, abortion clinics would be as plentiful as CVS or Walgreens.

…a preference for firearms over human beings: if you want my electoral respect, set aside your anti-government paranoia and mitigate my call for Amendment II repeal by taking serious steps to halt the US epidemic of gun violence (school shootings; police shooting unarmed civilians; homicides, suicides and accidents). I do not want your bleepity-frick guns, but neither do I want them anywhere but in your homes and on licensed shooting ranges.

…and any other latent or blatant racism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, ignorance and/or outright paranoia: if you want my electoral respect, take a long look in your own conscience first.

The bottom line is this: I may respect you as a person (and expect the same in return), but I will NOT respect all of your beliefs.

I may at times feel guilty about the breaks I have received (not least my gender and skin color), but I will never feel guilty or ashamed about anything I accomplished given those breaks and my natural abilities, nor about what I believe through my own research, careful thought and debate.

If that makes me a liberal elitist, and if calling me that somehow makes somebody feel better about your own life (and provides an excuse not to change it—the way you tell others to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, whatever the heck that means), that is not my problem.

So…who am I?

Hello, my name is Matt Berger, and I am proud of my degrees from Yale and Harvard and Boston University, just as I am proud of my secular liberal belief system. And I ask you to respect me as much as I respect you.

Scan0050

Scan0046

Until next time…

[1] “In more recent elections, the Democratic coalition has been fractured, particularly by issues associated with race,” which then underlay a series of values conflicts. “Exploiting these newer issues, Republicans had won all but one presidential election in the past quarter century, making particularly notable gains among whites, men, southerners, and Catholics.” (Italics added) Pomper, Gerald M., “The Presidential Election” in Pomper, Gerald M., Arterton, F. Christopher, Baker, Ross K., Burnham, Walter Dean, Frankovic, Kathleen A., Hershey, Marjorie Randon and Wilson Carey McWilliams. 1993. The Election of 1992. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., pg. 135.

[2] Hayes, Christopher L. 2012. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. First Paperback Edition. New York, NY: Broadway Paperbacks, pg. 138.

[3] Hayes, pg. 156

Unpacking Twitter arguments, both coherent and incoherent

Following ratification of the United States Constitution (Constitution) on September 17, 1787, debate ensued over whether it sufficiently safeguarded individual liberties. James Madison, then a United States House of Representatives (House) member, responded by drafting a set of Amendments, which he presented to the House as directed in Article V. Seventeen Amendments won the necessary two-thirds vote in the House, of which 12 then won the necessary two-thirds vote in the United States Senate (Senate). These 12 Amendments were sent to state legislatures for approval on September 25, 1789. Two Amendments, one relating to the number and apportionment of House Members and one limiting the ability of Members of Congress to increase their own salaries, did not get the required three-fourths vote (a majority vote in 11 of what were then 14 state legislatures); the latter was ratified as Amendment XXVII on May 5, 1992.

On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the remaining 10 Amendments, codifying what we now know as the Bill of Rights. These Amendments are striking in their directness and simplicity; Amendment I, for example, guarantees freedom of religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly and petitioning the government for “redress of grievances” to all American citizens with just 45 words.

Well…within reason. The jury is still out (pun intended) on to what extent religious belief permits discrimination. It is illegal to yell “fire” (falsely) in a crowded public place. Libel and slander laws prevent newspapers from printing demonstrable falsehoods. Peaceable assemblies can be prevented or halted on public safety grounds. And so forth.

The most inalienable rights can be restrained in practice because a free society needs to balance individual liberties with the greater societal good. Rights bump up against each other: one’s religion may teach that homosexuality is a sin, but does that sanction denying a wedding license to two men or two women, if that is your job? Here freedom of religion (Amendment I) appears to conflict with “equal protection of the laws” (Amendment XIV, Section 1).

I chose the words “appears to conflict” because while I may wear many hats (political scientist, biostatistician, epidemiologist, film noir researcher, Phillies-phile) I am NOT a Constitutional scholar, although I do love my “pocket Constitution.”

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Having laid that predicate, though, I turn now to Amendment II: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I have no desire to re-litigate 226 years of interpretation of those 27 words, other than to question the purpose of the first and third commas (the Amendment makes much more sense without them). “Well regulated” should be hyphenated, and I would not have capitalized “State” and “Arms”…but I digress.

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I joined Twitter (please follow me at @drnoir33) in July 2017, primarily to have another venue in which to promote this blog; my first tweet (July 10, 2017) linked to this post.

As of 12:37 am EST, October 12, 2017, I have tweeted an additional 836 times, averaging 8.9 tweets per day. I have also issued 1,940 “Likes,” averaging 20 per day. Most of those tweets were expressions of my personal political views, which I have tried to avoid in this blog (with a notable exception).

Just bear with me, however, while I break my “no personal political views” rule. My goal is not to espouse a particular position, although that is a semi-unintended consequence of this discussion. Rather, I want to analyze a series of counter-arguments presented, with wildly varying degrees of coherence, to a position I took on Twitter.

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I read this column on philly.com the day after the horrific Las Vegas shooting.

Will Bunch’s cri de coeur strongly resonated with me. It, along with the ongoing inability of elected officials to prevent mass shootings (as well as chronic gun violence, a separate issue) and our increasing inability as a nation to converse rationally about guns, drew me to a radical conclusion.

At 12:32 am on October 2, 2017, I linked to Will Bunch’s column and tweeted:

It is time to repeal the 2nd Amendment. Period. Enough is enough.

My argument is that Amendment II is an anachronism (“well regulated Militias?”[1]) that prevents a long-overdue conversation about the proper place of guns (and other “arms”) in 21st century American society and how best to balance private ownership rights with the public good. Even advocates for gun control seem stymied by the absolutism of (one interpretation of) Amendment II. “But the 2nd Amendment establishes a right to own guns!” they cry in frustration and despair.

In addition, I do not understand a how a “free State” can codify the ownership of guns (whose sole purpose is to injure and kill) but still consider such requirements of the “general Welfare” (specified in the Preamble) as food, shelter and healthcare to be a privilege[2].

I do not call for Amendment II repeal frivolously. Since Bill of Rights ratification, only 17 (out of an estimated 11,669 proposed, or 0.23%) Amendments have successfully met the requirements of Article V, and none in the last 25 years. That is one new Amendment every 7.5 years.

And I gladly entertain coherent counter-arguments; I am too steeped in the epistemology of epidemiology not to consider alternative viewpoints.

That original Tweet (my own cri de coeur) has still received no “Likes” or replies, nor has it been retweeted (not atypical for my tweets). And so I tweeted some version of it 42 more times (not counting tweets I wrote defending my position) over the next 10 days.

During those 10 days I was called “Demseftist,” “slimy,” “retarded,” “communist,” “snowflake,”[3] “stupid,” “dangerous,”[4] “liberal,”[5] “nitwit,” “ignorant,” and “irredeemable.” I was told to leave the country (twice—the second time North Korea was helpfully offered as my new home). I was directed to “go eat [my] lollipop in a corner.” I was accused of “idiocy” and “whining,” for the “nonsense” I wrote. There is this gem: “Have the government clap your hands for you if you’re a statist and you know it.” And: “It doesn’t matter what you think. I’ll continue to keep my guns and buy as many as I want.”

But the single best response, referring to how difficult the repeal process would be, was: “I’m planning on flying a unicorn to mars also.”

To which I responded, “Have a nice trip. Dress warmly.”

I have not yet had a response to that.

There were strong words of support as well, but the vast majority of written responses were in opposition.

Here then, in chronological order, are the counter-arguments to my Twitter call for Amendment II repeal, along with my counter-counter-arguments. I am deliberately not sourcing or dating these responses to avoid accusations that I am simply mocking responders, although every cited thread is may be read on Twitter[6].

Argument 1: I am trampling on the Constitution.

Article V details how to amend the Constitution. Amendment XXI (1933) actually repealed Amendment XVIII (1918; prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”). Ergo, repealing an Amendment is Constitutional.

Argument 2: “The Bill of Rights is not a cafeteria…each amendment depends on the others.”

I had to research this. I summarized what I learned in the opening paragraph. Bloc ratification of the Bill of Rights was an accident of history; repealing one of the first 10 Amendments does not repeal them all.

It does, however, lead to the single best argument against my position: the slippery-slope gravity of repealing any “rights” Amendment, including (by my count) Amendments XIII (abolishing slavery), XIV (Section 1: due process/equal protection), XV (universal male suffrage), XIX (female suffrage), XXIII (District of Columbia suffrage), XXIV (abolishing poll taxes), XXVI (18-year-old suffrage).

Argument 3: “You people slimy repeal then what what’s next? Constitution was written for reason this is it.”

I have no idea what this means, or what the tweet’s author thinks the reason for writing the Constitution was.

Argument 4: “So you feel only the government should have guns, like in China and Venezuela, two countries with skyrocketing murder rates by people ‘n gov.”

Let me deal here with every variation of the “you only think the government should have guns” theme.

No, I do not think only the government should have guns. I broadly support gun ownership, but within a very strict regulatory framework that balances ownership rights with public safety, analogous to the regulatory framework which dramatically lowered the vehicular death rate.

And while the 2009 homicide rate (homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) was appallingly high in Venezuela (49/100,000, nearly 10 times the United States’ 5/100,000), it was only 1.2/100,000 in China. Even if the rate in China has increased four-fold since then, it would still be lower than that in the United States in 2009.

This is also an invalid comparison. China and Venezuela have authoritarian repressive governments lacking centuries of democratic experience. A better comparison would be democracies like Australia, which instituted gun buyback programs in 1996 and 2003, and whose 2009 homicide rate was 1.3/100,000 (down from 2.1/100,000 in 1989). The rates in comparable democracies were similarly low (and lower than that of the United States): Belgium (1.82), Canada (2.05), Denmark (1.01), Finland (2.5), France (1.31), Germany (1.86), Greece (0.85), Iceland (0), Israel (2.1), Italy (1.1), Japan (1.02), Liechtenstein (2.8), Luxembourg (1.45), Netherlands (0.93), New Zealand (1.3), Norway (0.6), Portugal (1.17), Scotland (1.79), South Korea (2.3), Spain (0.9), Sweden (0.89) and Switzerland (0.71); Northern Ireland (4.72) is an exception, though still slightly lower than the United States. 

Argument 5: We need arms to protect us from an oppressive government.

When the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified, the newly-formed United States of America had just defeated Great Britain (in part over lack of representation in policy making) and was trying to move from a collection of colonies through a loose confederation of autonomous states to a full-fledged democratic nation. Precedents were few. The French Revolution was taking place. Governments had mostly been despotic and authoritarian. So, in the context of late 18th century geopolitics, this makes some sense.

It is also true, however, that in the 226 years since the ratification of the Bill of Rights the United States has never come close to having an authoritarian government systematically and violently oppressing its inhabitants. Even the Civil War, whatever its long-term causes, was triggered when troops from the secessionist Confederate States of America fired on Fort Sumter (in the Charleston, SC harbor) on April 12, 1861.

Now, there have been times when the American government oppressed its citizens (or gave state and local government oppression a wink and a nod): the internment of the Nisei (American citizens of Japanese descent) during World War II, the movement of Native Americans onto reservations and the Jim Crow era (72.6% of the 4,742 lynchings between 1882 and 1968 had a Black victim; for more see here).

I have yet to hear an Amendment II advocate argue the Nisei would not have been interred had they been better armed, that we should have provided equal firepower to the Native American tribes[7], or that Black citizens should have defended themselves through armed insurrection.

Frankly—and deliberately setting aside my objective, data-driven voice—I find the notion that Amendment II saves us from a government that might, maybe, some day (you just never know!) turn authoritarian and oppress its citizens redolent of an almost pathological paranoia. And that is terrifying, because you cannot reason with paranoia.

Argument 6: “Guns kill like forks make people fat. If not guns, it will be a uhaul into a crowd of 20k people.”

From the terrifying to the absurd we go.

This tweet’s author essentially makes two arguments.

One, the object used in an action is distinct from the action itself.

This is nonsense. Guns were designed to kill, full stop. And there are two ways to gain weight (outside of serious illness or genetic predisposition): increased calorie consumption and decreased calorie burning. Increased calorie consumption occurs through eating. Eating often requires using a fork. Ergo, forks can make you heavier, albeit indirectly.

There is no “indirectly” with guns.

Aim. Pull trigger. Fire.

Two, there is no point trying to prevent gun violence because criminals and terrorists will just find other ways to hurt us.

This may be the most dispiriting thing I have read recently…and that is saying something in an era of Category 5+ hurricanes, out-of-control California wildfires, Mexican earthquakes, and Twitter wars between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

Imagine a prison warden, knowing a prisoner was a suicide risk, saying, “There is no point taking away the prisoner’s belt and shoe laces; (s)he will just find some other way to kill her/himself.”

Any preventive action is worth at least trying.

Argument 7: Equating gun ownership with freedom (or safety).

This is a variation of Argument 5, so I will simply repeat what I wrote on October 4: “I am an American. I do not own guns. I do not want to take guns from collectors. BUT: ‘gun ownership’ and ‘freedom’ are not the same thing.”

Call me…something…but I argue that if you were truly free, you would not feel the need for guns to protect you. And while it may be true that the Amendment II right to bear arms implies a kind of freedom, you can still be free (under all other “rights” Amendments) without it.

Argument 8. It is unrealistic/incredibly difficult/don’t bother trying.

 It is absurd not to attempt something because it might never come to pass. And as sobering (and oddly reassuring) as it is that any proposed Amendment has only a 1 in 435 chance of ratification, 27 Amendments have been ratified. An Amendment has been successfully repealed. It can happen.

I highly recommend Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, ironically pictured here with a tasty adult beverage. Reading it, I learned that forces aligned in favor of Amendment XVIII (and the authorizing Volstead Act) appeared to be unstoppable…until suddenly they were not.

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Argument 9. How are you are going to take away all those guns from people?!?

One version of this argument specifically singled out “from the South,” which sent chills up my Yankee spine (despite being raised about 33.5 miles northeast from the easternmost point of the Mason-Dixon Line).

Again, I am not calling for the abolition of guns (or “Arms”). My maternal grandfather served in the Philadelphia Police Department between 1935 and 1955, rising to the rank of Detective, and I would love to own his service revolver someday.[8] I also still want a Thompson sub-machine gun (AKA Tommy gun, AKA Chicago typewriter, AKA chopper); ammunition not necessary.

Moreover, in the same way repealing Roe v. Wade simply reverts the decision whether to criminalize abortion back to individual states, repealing Amendment II would leave it to Congress and/or the legislatures (more likely, perhaps, under Amendments IX and X) to pass any laws concerning gun ownership they choose. The idea that any American legislative body would outright ban civilian gun ownership (or any other commodity) is ludicrous.

It is a fascinating (illuminating?) quirk of the Constitution, though, that “arms” are the only “objects” specifically protected vis-à-vis private ownership.

Argument 10: “Guns have been protected since the dawn of this nation they have been valued very high.”

Poor syntax and lack of punctuation aside, this is the “because it has long been so, therefore it must be so” argument.

And there may be some truth to it…

…except, despite 265 million guns being in private hands in 2015 (half owned by just 3% of American adults, averaging 17 guns per owner), only 55 million American adults (22%) own even a single gun. And this was after a 70 million increase in guns owned between 1994 and 2015.

Apparently, guns are only valued enough to own by a relatively small minority of American adults.

Argument 11: Rights come from God, not the state, so repealing Amendment II would not actually change anything.

There are many responses (mostly from my days studying political theory), but I will limit myself to one.

I am a Jewish-raised Atheist, so appealing to God is not a valid argument for me.

But my favorite argument is this:

Argument 12: “BTW it’s your right too. Buy a gun, get training, go shooting, have fun, then come back.”

Thank you for the kind offer (seriously–no sarcasm intended), but no thank you (excepting my grandfather’s service revolver and a Thompson submachine gun with an empty ammunition drum).

Perhaps the best argument in favor of my call to repeal Amendment II is that, should it gain legislative momentum, it would spur responsible gun owners to disavow the absolutists in favor of broad compromises. I recognize that may be Pollyanna-ish thinking in this highly polarized age, but I also observe that the Right to Life movement has had great success chipping away at laws protecting abortion rights using a similar “start from the extreme position tactic.”

Until next time…

[1] Prompting this unnerving response: “I don’t know what world you exist in but militias do still exist. That’s the beauty of them they’re not regular army. Come and go at will.” He added, “Actually it was written so the people would have the tools 2 form a militia.”

[2] One example: “Healthcare is not a right. Ppl need to take responsibility for their own actions. Obama did wrong forcing healthcare on all”

[3] This person also advocated for repeal of Amendment XIX (women’s suffrage).

[4] I have never been called “dangerous” before, so I took that as a compliment.

[5] Yes, actually, but I prefer “practical progressive.”

[6] I also exclude a particularly offensive respondent who proudly (and with unapologetic misogyny)  proclaimed his phallic attachment to his firearms.

[7] Here is a truly baffling response: “The Native Americans couldn’t fight back because they started to disarm them. Research wounded knee creek massacre.” That is, arm the Native Americans so we cannot slaughter them?

[8] I would also love his badge, but that seems to have been lost.

Two distinct restaurants. Two different conversations. One unanswered question.

I spent many nights in the liberated summer between high school graduation and enrolling at Yale taking long solo drives, exploring outer suburban Philadelphia. One night, meandering along Route 23, I saw this at the intersection with Route 113N in Phoenixville:

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My idea of heaven was, and remains, a 24-hour diner, though less so when the sun is shining.

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Nineteen years later, I moved to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, a 30-45 minute drive northwest of Center City Philadelphia and home to one of the world’s largest shopping malls. Given the proximity of King of Prussia to Phoenixville, the Vale Rio Diner soon became a favorite late-night haunt[1].

The 20-or-so minute drive to the Vale Rio took me through beautiful Valley Forge National Historic Park. Before entering Valley Forge, I would drive by the King of Prussia Mall and the Valley Forge Casino Tower. Upon leaving Valley Forge, I would drive by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, what was then called the National Christian Conference Center and the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I understood that I was living in between the Democratic, majority-minority city of Philadelphia and some of the most white rural/small town conservative parts of the state. Delaware and Montgomery Counties were Republican-dominated, to be sure, but it was a very moderate, northeastern brand of Republican.

Driving to the Vale Rio was thus literally crossing from one political and cultural milieu to its near-polar opposite.

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Just bear with me while I present polling data regarding American attitudes toward guns.

In April 2017, a CBS News Poll asked 1,214 adults, “In general, do you think laws covering the sale of guns should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?” Overall, a majority—54%—answered “more strict,” 33% answered “kept as they are” and 11% answered “less strict.”

Look more closely, however, and you see an unsettling partisan divide. While 73% of Democrats—and 51% of Independents—wanted more strict gun sale laws, only 38% of Republicans did. In fact, a plurality of Republicans (44%) wanted gun sale laws kept as they are now. And while few respondents wanted less strict gun sale laws, Republicans (16%) were three times more likely than Democrats (5%) to hold that position.

CBS News has asked a version of this question, and provided partisan breakdowns, since February 2013, a few months after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  While specific percentages have ebbed and flowed, the pattern is constant: a large majority of Democrats, and a bare majority of Independents, favor more strict gun sale laws, while Republicans generally prefer to keep the laws as they are. Squint a bit, and you might see Republicans shifting toward more strict gun sale laws, a trend worth watching.

This partisan divide appears, often by wider margins, on similar questions:

  • Safer with more guns or fewer guns?
    • Most Republicans say “More guns”
    • Most Democrats say “Fewer guns”
    • Independents evenly split
  • Banning assault weapons?
    • Most Republicans say “No”
    • Most Democrats say “Yes”
    • Independents evenly split
  • Stricter gun laws (without specifying “sales”)
    • More Republicans say “Oppose”
    • Even more Democrats say “Support”
    • Independents lean towards “Support”
  • Opinion of the National Rifle Association (NRA), of those with opinion
    • Most Republicans say “Favorable”
    • Most Democrats say “Unfavorable” (with higher % not sure)
    • Independents evenly split
  • Own a gun (self or in household)?
    • Most Republicans say “Yes”
    • Most Democrats say “No”
    • Independents lean slightly “Yes”
  • More worried you/someone you know will be victim of gun violence or terrorist attack?
    • Republicans lean slightly “Terrorist attack”
    • Most Democrats say “Gun violence”
    • More Independents say “Gun violence”
  • Allowing more teachers/school officials to carry guns in schools
    • More Republicans say “Yes”
    • Even more Democrats say “No”
    • More Independents say “Yes”
  • Which do you agree with more as way to prevent mass shootings, better gun regulation or more people carrying guns
    • More Republicans say “More people carrying guns”
    • Most Democrats say “Better gun regulation”
    • More Independents say “Better gun regulation”
  • What more important: to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?
    • More Republicans say “Protect gun ownership rights”
    • Most Democrats say “Control gun ownership”
    • Independents evenly split

Still, just when you are about to throw up your hands and say gun policy divisions are unbridgeable, you find two gun-related policies supported by AT LEAST 73% of each partisan group:

  1. Requiring background checks for all gun buyers
  2. Opposing gun sales to persons on terrorist watch (“no-fly”) lists

Plus, at least 79% of surveyed Americans want to prevent convicted felons and persons with mental health problems from purchasing guns. And while partisan breakdowns were not provided for these polls, mathematically, majorities of each partisan group would have to support this policy[2].

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I would generally drive to the Vale Rio late on a weekend night, park myself at the counter with my book or magazine and enjoy a meal or a snack (I am a sucker for a heated slice of cherry pie with chocolate ice cream). The decaffeinated coffee occasionally left something to be desired, but there was always plenty of it.

One quiet night, probably in late 2003 or early 2004, the young man working the counter and I got to talking. That is the great thing about diner (or any restaurant, really) counters: they are highly conducive to starting conversations with total strangers. At least, that has generally been my experience.

This waiter was in his mid-to-late-20s. His slender frame, dirty blonde hair and scraggly beard made him resemble a Da Vinci painting of Jesus. He was soft-spoken and instinctually polite. He had recently lived in Florida, although he was local, having grown up a little further west, near French Creek State Park, where he still loved to hunt. I do not recall discussing his post-high-school education.

In other words, he was a product of the white conservative rural/small town culture I described earlier. I don’t recall discussing our respective partisan affiliations, but I would not be surprised if he had voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016. I was, and remain, a liberal Democrat, as much a product of my urban-raised Jewish parents (and Ivy League schools) as of my moderate-Republican suburban neighborhoods.

During one idle chat, the conversation somehow turned to guns.

And a funny thing happened in that diner, on the border between the urban and rural areas of the state.

We simply talked to each other.

We must have been discussing the notion of banning handguns from crossing large city lines, because he said something to the (paraphrased) effect of:

I collect guns, legally. But what if one night I drive through Philadelphia[3] on my way home from a gun show with my newly-purchased guns in my trunk? Simply by crossing that city line, even with no intention of doing anything with those guns in the city, I would be in violation of the law.

That stopped me in my tracks.

I had never really thought about the legitimate transport of guns by individual, responsible collectors and owners before, probably because I never saw any guns in my suburban milieu.

But then I observed that gun control activists don’t want to take everyone’s guns away from them. They…we…are simply trying to reduce urban gun violence (mass shootings and domestic terrorism were not as prevalent then). You may not be contributing to this violence, but other bad actors do bring guns into the city, perpetuating gun violence. And they need to be stopped.

That stopped him in his tracks.

My sense was that he had never really looked past his stereotype of Philadelphia-as-Gotham long enough to consider the people who live (and die) there.

There was probably more, but here is the point: the suburban liberal public health advocate for gun control got to see gun rights through the eyes of a responsible gun collector and hunter, while the rural conservative gun collector and hunter got to see gun control through the eyes of a suburban liberal public health advocate.

Fancy that.

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My wife and I will celebrate our ten-year wedding anniversary this October. Marriage, I have discovered, involves a series of lessons in communication and understanding.

One such lesson is that my wife cannot hear anything I say in a voice raised in anger or frustration or sheer excitement. The volume drowns out the substance.

This lesson applies also to my daughters, especially my younger daughter. When Daddy yells, the message is lost.

I should have known better, but I grew up with a loud and boisterous extended family (although, I cannot now remember my father raising his voice very often, if at all). Shouting was simply the easiest way to be heard in the passionate, talking-over-each-other mode of communication we utilized.

Whether any of us actually HEARD each other remains an open question.

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About a year after I met and befriended this waiter, he left the Vale Rio; I have no idea where he is now. In the fall of 2005, I returned to Boston, though I still visited Philadelphia a few times a year.

It became my habit to drive out to the Vale Rio during my stay, if I could.

One night in August 2008, I did just that. I drove through Valley Forge National Historic Park, past Route 252, past the Freedoms Foundation and the National Christian Conference Center and the Boy Scouts headquarters, past the waterfall, past Route 29, past the Phoenixville Hospital and the Phoenixville Morris Cemetery, around and down the bend in the road as it approaches the intersection with Route 113 north, and I saw…

…a brand new Walgreens where the Vale Rio had been.

“Heartbroken” does not begin to cover my reaction.

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The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, just east of Boston, gave 84.9% of its vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Suffice to say that Brookline sees itself as a progressive enclave.

Situated on Harvard Street, in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, the “Hub of Brookline,” is a terrific, family-friendly (albeit with a delectable house pinot noir) restaurant called Zaftigs. Zaftigs is a short walk from Beals Street, where you will find the house where President John F. Kennedy was born.  More recently, I have seen President Kennedy’s grandnephew, current Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy III (MA-4), holding meetings in a quiet back booth at Zaftigs. I introduced myself once and found him to be approachable, earnest and utterly likeable.

I have spent countless hours sitting at the counter at Zaftigs, eating and chatting amiably with the remarkably friendly wait staff.

One morning in the fall of 2016 I listened (there are only seven or eight chairs at the counter) as another regular discussed the impending presidential election with a waiter. While both loathed Trump, they reserved a particularly bitter opprobrium for Ms. Clinton.

This being Brookline, however, their contempt was coming from the LEFT. As I understood it, they felt that her husband, former president Bill Clinton, had betrayed progressive principles by governing too much from the center, and Ms. Clinton was no better. They were particularly incensed at the paid speeches she had given to Goldman Sachs, believing this made her a pawn of Wall Street.

Despite my own complicated feelings about Ms. Clinton (I voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary, then voted for Ms. Clinton in the general election), I gently came to her defense, arguing that she was clearly the better choice if you wanted to advance any sort of progressive agenda: the classic “half a loaf is better than no loaf” argument.

I also pointed out that Trump posed such a clear and present threat to the nation’s existence that he needed to be stopped, full stop.

No, came the forceful response (again, I paraphrase), what good are principles if you don’t stick to them, if you simply abandon them for political expedience. I don’t like Trump, and I don’t like Clinton, and I refuse to vote for either of them.

Sure, I argued back, annoyed by his arrogant self-righteousness, you have to start with principles, but there also has to be some give and take. It only occurred to me later to argue that if we all followed his “position-absolutist” argument, nothing would ever get accomplished.

Eventually, the conversation fizzled out, and we each returned to my food and whatever we had brought to read.

The exasperating irony is that we probably agreed with each other—and with Ms. Clinton—on the vast majority of “principles.”

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The polling data cited above reveals that with, few exceptions (background checks; keeping guns from suspected terrorists, convicted felons and those with mental illness), Democrats, Republicans and Independents see the same world through different lenses, preventing collective action that protects responsible gun owners AND dramatically reduces gun violence.

At the same time, my own views on gun ownership are subtly shifting. One result of my strong interest in the gangsterism resulting from Prohibition is a deep fascination with the Thompson submachine gun, also known as the tommy gun, the Chicago typewriter and the chopper. Periodically, I half-jokingly ask my wife if she will get me one for my birthday or some other worthy occasion. Her response is always a firm “no.”

Also, my maternal grandfather served as a Philadelphia police officer[4], eventually rising to Detective, for 20+ years. My aunt still has his service revolver (his badge sadly went missing after his death in 1978). It is sweet irony that I, a staunch gun control advocate, would love to inherit that service revolver someday.

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The Vale Rio Diner no longer sits at the intersection of Route 23 and Route 113N, while Zaftigs just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Two very different encounters in those two very different eateries leave me with this question: When do you stick to deeply-held principles, and when do you set them aside to advance the common good?

The answer may something to do with lowering your voice, listening to other points of view and questioning your own certainty.

Until I find the answer, I have this treasure to sustain me.

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Until next time…

Photographs of Valerio Diner taken from

https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=SPCXSWsn&id=74A575D1FD4989A6EB2FA9E141DDE40D0418237D&thid=OIP.SPCXSWsnhQp9Ehwp_rwNFAEsB4&q=vale+rio+diner&simid=607985951386700322&selectedIndex=13&ajaxhist=0
Source: https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=NP76TyhP&id=2DCBC7BB3CA5955AAEF7E257CC35C0E8FE03C54F&thid=OIP.NP76TyhPX8nTviWbuP2V5gEsDh&q=vale+rio+diner&simid=608014091991057299&selectedIndex=7&ajaxhist=0

[1] I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to the superb Minella’s Diner (Wayne, Pennsylvania) and the charmingly-anachronistic (Friday night karaoke!) Limerick Diner (Limerick, Pennsylvania).

[2] Nonetheless, one of the few major pieces of legislation passed by this Congress (February 28, 2017) overturned an Obama Administration regulation preventing certain mentally ill people from purchasing guns. Public opinion is not always the force we presume it to be.

[3] The disdain in his voice when he drawled “Philadelphia” spoke volumes.

[4] Late in his career, my grandfather was partnered with a rookie police officer named Frank Rizzo, whom he despised. Rizzo would go on to serve as a highly controversial and racially-divisive Philadelphia Police Commissioner (1967-1972) and Mayor (1972-1980).