Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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Perhaps as a consequence of our recent spate of deeply vivid, sometimes terrifying dreams, Nell and I are physically exhausted. Either that, or the enervating monotony of not knowing precisely when our sheltering in place will end—or whether some number of us will catch COVID-19—has taken its toll. “Chippy” is the word Nell sometimes uses to describe our moods…mostly my mood upon waking.

It does not help that the weather turned cold, wet and raw over the weekend, making going outside onto the porches or into the backyard far less appealing. Our nearly-six-year-old golden retriever, who likes cold air but not precipitation, was particularly flummoxed by the lack of outdoor exercise.

We do our best to be careful—rarely venturing to grocery stores or pharmacies, thoroughly washing hands and surfaces, and so forth—but this is an insidious virus, and even the best-laid plans can go awry.

For all that, however, we are extremely lucky:

  • We live in a large two-story apartment with three porches and sufficient nooks and crannies to provide a sense of separation. As much as we love each other, we need our own space at times.
  • I was already working at home—in the expectation of future, if not current, income—while Nell was only working two days a week, for less than 13 hours in total. It is our daughters who needed to adjust to being home all day every day, other than for long walks and runs in the neighborhood—and so far, they have done a reasonably good job.
  • Nell is a trained elementary school teacher who relishes the opportunity to teach her own children.
  • I have never taught children—but I have taught multiple subjects in multiple settings, and I have a plethora of data sets, PowerPoint presentations, prior posts and book chapters upon which to draw.
  • Our children, for all their quirks, genuinely like to learn.
  • We have financial assets independent of salaried employment, and Nell is an online-shopping maven—so we do not (yet) lack necessities.
  • Nell is also a superb cook who, happily for us, is using those skills to alleviate her anxiety. This gives me much more to clean at the end of the evening, about which I may grumble, but it also makes that nightly moment when the kitchen is thoroughly clean—counters and iron stove-top grillwork washed, dishes either in the dishwasher or washed and put away, coffee maker set up for the morning—even more satisfying.

One other thing I have observed. Major League Baseball Opening Day was supposed to be Thursday, March 26, 2020. Due to COVID-19, however, the start of the 2020 season has been pushed back indefinitely. I am a longtime diehard Philadelphia Phillies fan—and, yet, I do not miss baseball at all. Maybe this is simply perspective—it is hard to get excited about a group of millionaire athletes playing a game, however entertaining and imbued with civic pride, when much of the country is shuttered.

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Our weekend was again very quiet. Nell and I chose to skip our regular weeknight joint 8-10 pm MSNBC viewing to watch episodes three and four of the first season of Broadchurch. For those keeping score at home and know how much I love Doctor Who, three actors in the series—David Bradley, David Tennant and Jodie Whittaker—have all played The Doctor in the  last 15 years, while Olivia Colman and Arthur Darvill both appeared in the first episode Nell and I ever watched, “The Eleventh Hour.” This is precisely why my Anglophilic mystery-loving wife–who half-jokes there are really only like 10 actors and actresses in Great Britain—first watched the series five or so years ago.

While we watched, our older daughter had a “virtual sleepover” with two friends. This ended by 11:40 pm, however, as a sleepy daughter grew tired of watching Black Panther on a friend’s television through her iPhone. Her younger sister still became jealous, though, thinking she was going to watch as well—but was otherwise perfectly happy to FaceTime with a friend all evening.

Still, the following day she cajoled Nell into having her own virtual sleepover. She ultimately chose a friend with whom she has had issues in the past—our younger daughter insists on believing the best about everyone regardless (mostly) of contrary evidence. I expressed my displeasure in rather strong language, but I am sheepishly pleased to report the “sleepover” went very well.

After punting the evening before, meanwhile, Nell chose Saturday to make pizza from scratch for the first time. She used whole wheat flour, which was delicious, and let us each choose our own toppings. Our younger daughter despises any tomato product other than raw tomatoes, so Nell basically melted cheese on dough for her. Our older daughter, who is in what could loosely be called a “healthy eating” phase, had an array of sautéed vegetables and non-sautéed pineapple on her pie, while Nell went with caramelized onions and, I believe, mushrooms. I opted for pepperoni and pineapple. The pizza was flat and crispy, not unlike what you would get from a brick over pizzeria.

While younger daughter had her “sleepover,” and older daughter spirited herself away to her pre-teen bedroom, Nell and I binge-watched the final four episodes of season one of Broadchurch. Kudos to my wife for not uttering a single spoiler, even as I posited one incorrect theory after another.

Much later that night, or early the next morning, I excitedly stretched out on our white sofa to watch The Beast of the City, a proto-noir from 1932. I was disappointed in this choppy film, however, writing in my nightly note to Nell, “Beast of the City? More like nobody in this film except Wallace Ford can act city!”

Sunday was even lazier. With our older daughter having just completed the first book in the series, Nell and the girls watched The Hunger Games that evening. I took the opportunity to write this updated assessment of post-2005 Doctor Who instead. What three of us did share (our younger daughter does not currently have the widest food palette), however, was Nell’s delicious French onion soup, complete with a homemade French bread that turned out more like a homemade Italian bread. No matter, fresh bread is fresh bread.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of Monday, March 30, 2020 this is what greeted me in the “classroom;” I have redacted identifying information.

March 30

This was the first week of the revamped “Popschool” schedule:

Monday: Using a single story to illustrate some aspect of American political history/economy

Tuesday: Using the book I am writing to learn about our daughters’ and my Jewish-American heritage

Wednesday: Discussing the history of jazz and rock using my personal collection of DVDs and online tools like Polyphonic. 

Thursday: Learning more applied math by examining a wide range of interesting datasets

 Friday: Film history and, most likely, additional quizzes.

The night before, I had been undecided between beginning to discuss capitalism, socialism and the basic elements of the American economy—despite the less-than-stellar grades I had received in introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics my senior year at Yale—or return to the Constitution of the United States to highlight its 27 Amendments, especially the Bill of Rights.

Nell pointed out that much of what I taught them would not make sense without studying the Bill of Rights, and I agreed. Plus, I had researched their origin for the closest thing to a polemic I have ever published on this site—a call to repeal Amendment II. The upshot was that after I briefly relayed the history of those first 10 Amendments, we read them aloud. Fascinating sidebars on the American judicial system dominated our discussion.

After a 30 minute break, I walked them through both the…impolite…responses I had received when I first started tweeting about Amendment II repeal in July 2017—our younger daughter was particularly amused at the contrived “demseftist” and the absurd right-wing pejorative “snowflake”—and my counters to the 12 categories of opposing arguments I had received on Twitter. I also summarized my repeal arguments on the always-popular white board.

Repeal Amendment II

While she was listening to this point/counterpoint, our younger daughter had been giving herself “tattoos.” She insisted I photograph them, knowing full well they would appear here; she, like her sister, is a wicked awesome kid.

Tattoo you

And then, at about 6:30 pm, I acted like a crazy mad fool.

I climbed into Nell’s SUV and drove to the Star Market on Commonwealth Avenue. Parking in the nearly-empty lot, I grabbed my reusable bags and walked to the lower rear entrance. There, a sign informed me they had temporarily disallowed the use of such bags, so I trundled back to the car with them.

The grocery store had maybe a dozen customers wandering its aisles. Studiously avoiding them, I managed to find everything I sought—even two bags of unbleached King Arthur’s flour—which I then wheeled over to one of the two or three open checkout lanes. Blue strips of tape on the floor informed me where to stand to be at least six feet from the nearest customer. Essentially, one person at a time used the conveyor belt. Nonetheless, once I had unloaded my shopping cart, I instinctively reached for one of the yellow plastic dividers. Realizing there was no point in putting it on the belt, I immediately put it back, observing to the smiling brunette six feet behind me, “Force of habit.” She chuckled her assent.

Meanwhile, I had overheard the young man working the cash register tell the customer in front of me that Star Market does allow reusable shopping bags, so long as the customer bags her/his own groceries. We thus have five new white reusable shopping bags for later trips.

Emboldened by this much-needed outing, I filled up Nell’s SUV’s gas tank—requiring me to go into the attached convenience store for my receipt—then drove to a nearby CVS.

Living my life with reckless abandon I am.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 31, 2020 this is what greeted me in the “classroom;” I again redacted identifying information.

March 31

For the first time in 12 days of home schooling, when we convened at 2:45 pm I discussed something other than American political history, statistics or film noir…well, I managed briefly to sneak in the latter. Instead, we began to discuss the history of their father’s family—his legal family, that is: Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement who settled in Philadelphia between 1891 and 1913, with a Philadelphia-born son from one family marrying a Philadelphia-born daughter from another family; they would then in-utero adopt—as their second child—a boy in the summer of 1966.

To set the stage for those stories, I condensed 4 millennia of Jewish history into 24 slides and wrote the names of the birth cities of four of their great-great-grandparents on the always-useful white board. The first one is pronounced “Pruhzh-nitz,” and it is where David Louis Berger was born just over 150 years ago.

Pale of Settlement

The Pale of Settlement

When I came to the final slides, examples of places to which Jews fleeing the pogroms immigrated between 1881 and 1914, I attempted to sketch on the increasingly-valuable white board the River Thames in London, as well as the intersection of Commercial Road, Commercial Street East and the Whitechapel High Street. This was by way of illustrating how the 100,000 Jews arriving in the East End of London in the early 1880s became a majority of the population around that intersection. In 1888, they became enmeshed in the hunt for a serial killer known variously at the time as The Whitechapel Fiend, Leather Apron, and, of course, Jack the Ripper.

I then wrote the word “Juwes” on the handy-dandy white board to illustrate how the word was spelled when it was written in chalk on the bricks inside the entryway to the Wentworth Model Dwellings on Goulston Street early on the morning of September 30, 1888. The full sentence, according to one account, was “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing,”

Every time I think our younger daughter is not paying attention, I turn around and see she has drawn something like this…and I remember she misses nothing.

Whitechapel sketch

We took a 30-minute break at that point. When we returned, our daughters took turns reading aloud a short summary of the first five chapters of my book, after which I had to reassure our older daughter those were not the actual chapters.

“Oh no,” I said. “Here is Chapter 1,” as I dropped onto the table a sheaf of 17 pages—printed on both sides, Palatino Linotype 12, single-spaced—held together by a small binder clip. Our younger daughter was getting tired, and she is sporting a 102-degree fever, though that is not necessarily unusual for her, so her older sister happily read aloud the first eight pages, starting from the middle of page two. In so doing, she successfully got the Berger clan from Pryasnysz to Philadelphia by way of Quebec.

While our older daughter read beautifully, albeit stumbling over the pronunciation of more than a few tricky names, her mother was listening from the living room, where she was sitting at a table building a Stranger Things LEGO set. I apparently was correcting our older daughter too often because after about two pages, Nell piped up with, “If you keep correcting her like that, you lose the flow of the story.”

She was right—and I loved that she was engrossed in the story—so I limited my corrections only to truly tricky names like the Schuylkill River.

And with that, day 12 of home schooling was over—punctuated by our older daughter jumping up from the table with a “See ya suckers!”

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VI

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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When I came downstairs to eat what I continue to call breakfast—despite it being closer to 2:30 pm than, say, 8:30 am—this is what was in the “classroom.”

March 26

Nell appears to have discontinued the “Word of the day” for now. She also left the title of my afternoon classes to our younger daughter’s discretion. However, the press of the latter’s still-active social life kept her from formulating a suitable name, so I stepped in to fill the void.

And, in fact, when the girls and I convened, closer to 3 pm than 2:30 pm, we began by reading aloud from the Constitution of the United States:

  • Article I, Section 7, Paragraph 1
  • Article I, Section 8

US Constitution–Congress Roles

The rest of the lesson may be found here: March 26

The traditional processes by which the United States House of Representatives (“House”) passes legislation was met with a metaphorical yawn, but the workings of the United States Senate (“Senate”) generated a bit more enthusiasm. Our younger daughter, in particular, was quite interested in the twists and turns of getting the Affordable Care and Patient Accountability Act—better known as Obamacare—passed, and she was riveted by the pivotal role Arizona Senator John McCain played in saving it. I did my best to act out McCain’s dramatic “thumbs down” vote.

Nell and I are continuing to learn how best to structure what, when and how we teach our daughters—when they are not working and learning on their own. Seeing how fragile our younger daughter—who has attention deficit disorder and a not-yet-formally-diagnosed learning disability—is by 5 pm, I mixed things up a bit.

I also wanted to avoid snapping at them for the third time this week.

Rather than discuss American politics for an hour, have an hour-long break, then reconvene for another hour-long session on applied math, I divided my discussion of the House and Senate into two parts: roles and elections. The break was only 20 minutes long, and we were finished for the day by 5 pm.

As you see, I spent some time discussing gerrymandering. Our older daughter was appalled at my drawing of a salamander—calling it a “giant worm”—and my rendition of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She took it upon herself to fix the latter, adding her own personal touches.

Gerrymandered

I am pleased to report this was one of our best classes thus far—and that includes both halves.

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Even with the altered routine, however, our daughters began sniping at each other as they ate their dinners and watched some television. The proximate cause was a tussle over who would hold the remote control; our older daughter usually does, but tonight her sister really wanted it. As a result, our older daughter called her sister a “brat,” something she has been admonished many times in the past for doing. In return, our younger daughter used the parental trick of calling an obstreperous child her first, middle and last name—but she used a shrill and piercing tone of voice.

They were sitting just outside of my home office—a converted sun room which Nell wistfully calls “the nicest room in the apartment”—when I heard the outraged cry of “Blanky Blank Berger!” Not in the best frame of mind, I came out of my office to express my displeasure at the younger daughter’s tone and to make clear she is not the parent, Nell and I are.

And, wow, did I lay it on thick. I reminded them in my firmest and harshest Daddy voice how we were in this for the long haul, and we needed to do this all together, and I do not even remember what all else. Younger daughter was now crying—but mostly because of the injustice that I had not tumbled to the fact her sister had called her a brat. Once that penetrated my skull, though, I reprimanded our older daughter. Walking in from the kitchen, Nell reinforced my disapproval. When I suggested the older daughter had earned a consequence, her mother suggested loss of the ChromeBook for the rest of the evening. However, once the defendant correctly pointed out the usual consequence for calling her sister a brat is to cough up five dollars to that sister, Nell realized she could not arbitrarily change the rules like that; a few minutes later, our younger daughter had a five-dollar bill sitting on the table in front of her. And the entire episode, which had lasted barely ten minutes, was quickly forgotten.

This small slice of family drama reveals that, after two weeks, sheltering in place is beginning to take its toll. Thus, when the Amazon Fresh order she had placed very early Tuesday morning arrived Thursday evening, Nell thoroughly scrubbed the black-marble-topped “island” in our kitchen before placing any grocery bags on it. She washed all the berries in a colander then put them into a large Tupperware container. She also wiped down every package of food prior to our putting them into their respective storage places. Later that night, meanwhile, as I set up the kitchen for its nightly cleaning so I could watch with Nell the second episode of season one of Broadchurch—which Nell has been asking me to watch for years, if only because of how many actors and actresses who have appeared in Doctor Who are in it—my frustration level boiled over into a series of angry “Oh, for f—k sake!” expulsions. For the record, I am loving the series—its leisurely-unfolding murder investigation and emphasis upon revealing the darker secrets of a supposedly idyllic small town compare favorably to the first season of Twin Peaks.

It does helps tremendously that the weather has been relatively warm and sunny the last few days, and we have three porches opening off our two stories; climbing multiple flights of internal stairs on a regular basis is a good aerobic workout—really, it is. Throwing a stick in our smallish back yard for our soon-to-be-six-year-old golden retriever over and over and over again works as well.

We also have a breathtakingly spectacular view of downtown Boston. Three weeks ago, if we looked through our kitchen window, we would routinely see three or more moving dots of white light as planes took off from Boston Logan International Airport. Now, it is unusual to see even a single plane in the air. That said, I cannot decide if there are fewer lights visible at night in downtown Boston’s office buildings or not.

I think there are fewer lights at night these days.

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When I came downstairs on Friday afternoon, there was no schedule on the flip chart—it was a quiet morning in Nell’s classroom—but our younger daughter had livened up that room in our unique way.

White board March 27

Earlier that day, Nell had ventured to our preferred CVS to pick up some prescriptions. This was the first time she had driven her car in 15 days, though I had moved it onto the street a few times so I could use my car—we have tandem parking—and the outing significantly improved her mood. As often as she and the girls go for runs in our neighborhood, sometimes you need actually to go somewhere.

Meanwhile, I was wicked excited to start class at 3 pm because I had prepared what I hoped would be a genuinely fun exercise—one that did not involve coin flipping, die rolling or card shuffling: a 30-question, multiple-choice quiz game.

Quiz Game 1

My heart sang when our younger daughter came out of the disordered cavern she calls a bedroom, took one look at my computer screen—I had again lugged my desktop computer into the classroom—pumped her right arm and exclaimed, “Yes!” Her sister reacted positively as well.

The rules were simple. I alternated which daughter would answer the question— older daughter went first based upon the scientifically-rigorous method Eenie Meenie Minie Moe. The questions covered everything we had discussed in the previous two weeks—political theory, American politics, statistics and the history film noir. Each question was worth one point and had four possible answers, though one answer was deliberately patently absurd; they had the desired effect of making the quiz feel less like work and more like a game. Finally, if one daughter did not answer a question correctly, her sister had the opportunity to answer it.

In the end, after a boisterous 45 minutes of laughter, our older daughter won 16-12, with two points going to Daddy because neither daughter answered two questions correctly. Her “prize,” besides bragging rights, was a giant box of Cheerios I had recently discovered in the revolving cupboard in the kitchen. Huffily reminding me, “I no longer eat cereal, I eat OATMEAL,” she declined her prize, which now sits discreetly on the kitchen counter next to my coffee maker.

There is just no pleasing some people.

And with that our second week of home schooling came to an end.

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As I said, we are still figuring out how best to home school our smart and curious daughters. After two weeks of political science and math—not coincidentally, my initial choices for my Yale major—I have settled upon the following tentative weekly schedule:

Monday: Using a single story to illustrate some aspect of American political history/economy

Tuesday: Using the book I am writing to learn about our daughters’ and my Jewish-American heritage

Wednesday: Discussing the history of jazz and rock using my personal collection of DVDs and online tools like Polyphonic  videos.

Thursday: Learning more applied math by examining a wide range of interesting datasets

Friday: Film history and, most likely, additional quizzes.

Onward and, you know, forward we go.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Happy July 4th! Here is my American story.

Happy 4th of July!

Let me first note, transparent in my pedantry, the Declaration of Independence was actually approved on July 2, 1776. Nonetheless, it was dated July 4, 1776 and signed August 2, 1776.

Allow me next to relate I was physically born (at long-since-closed Metropolitan Hospital, then at 3rd and Spruce) roughly 1/5 of a mile (about 4½ city blocks) southeast of Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were written.

And permit me to conclude with the fascinating coincidence that both the 2nd president of the United States, John Adams, and the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1826—50 years to the day from the day we designate as our official day of independence from England.

That is, I conclude these introductory paragraphs that way.

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A few hours, I began to write a thread on Twitter. It opened thus:

1/ For July 4, I present my American story.

I was born in Philadelphia–where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States were written.

I was adopted in utero in the late summer of 1966. Both of my (legal) grandfathers were born outside the US.

The thread ties together the various elements of my background into a single, “American” story. Regular readers of this site will not be surprised, given a series of posts I have written (collected here) telling parts of this same story.

Moving right along:

2/ Morris Berger was born in what is now Poland in 1894 and came to the US when he was 4 years old. A Yiddish speaker, he became a successful business owner and Jewish community leader in West Philadelphia.

His son David Louis was my (legal) father.

He went the other direction.

Two things here (besides proudly observing I was given the Hebrew name Moshe ben David Leib in his honor).

One, the year of my (legal) paternal grandfather’s birth is incorrect. Twitter, however, lacks an edit function, so I could not correct this tweet once it was posted.

Two, there is some uncertainty as to when, exactly, Morris Berger (and three of his siblings) was born.

Next:

3/ Charming, gregarious and generous, “Lou” spiralled down after his iron-willed mother died in 1972. A gambling addiction cost him the business his father and uncle had built. He also lost his marriage–though he never lost me. He died, broke, from a heart attack at 46 in 1982.

David Louis “Lou” Berger died on June 30, 1982, meaning the 37th anniversary of his death was four days ago. By an egregious act of bad timing, June 30 is also the birthday of a close cousin. In fact, my mother and I spent the evening he died at a birthday party for this cousin. As we walked in the front door of our apartment after the celebration, the phone was ringing shrilly. My mother walked behind her white-and-chrome desk to answer it. It was her ex-husband’s—what is the adult form of “girlfriend?”—calling from her hospital bed to inform us of Lou’s sudden passing.

At the time, he was driving a cab for a living (quite happily, I hasten to add, because it gave me a freedom he had rarely known). He was headed to Little Pete’s diner (which closed in 2017) to meet some fellow cabbies for a meal, when he collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel (where my wife Nell and I stayed a few times early in our relationship). He was dead before he hit the ground from his third heart attack in 10 years.

Ignoring decades-old tears and moving on:

4/ Yisrael HaCohen was born in what is now Ukraine in 1904. He came to the United States when he was 7, speaking Yiddish. To join the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1930s, he changed his name to Samuel Kohn (sounded less Jewish) and changed his birthplace to Cleveland.

This story I have told before, so let us proceed:

5/ He served for nearly 20 years, rising to Detective. He ultimately retired to Atlantic City.

His daughter Elaine was my (legal) mother.

Serious reproductive health issues (and hysterectomy) led her only natural child (b. 1962) is “severely intellectually disabled.”

Again, one cannot edit a tweet—that should read, “led…to be.”

Because it is better to laugh than to cry, I sometimes tell the following “joke”: My mother had two miscarriages and a hysterectomy, and then I was born!

It was not until I became my sister’s sole legal guardian and began receiving her annual Life Enrichment Plans that I knew the extent of my mother’s reproductive miseries. Besides the two miscarriages—and a prolonged, painful labor resulting in her daughter being deprived of oxygen at critical moments during her birth process—Elaine Berger also had uterine cancer. Thus, the hysterectomy.

Oy.

Next:

6/ I am my sister’s legal guardian. She lives in a facility run through private-public partnership; she is funded through supplemental Social Security income. Thank you, FDR.

Elaine took the opposite path from Lou. After her marriage ended in 1977, she worked a minimum wage job.

She actually took that job—cold-calling folks on behalf of the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company—some time around October 1976, as her marriage was inexorably coming to an end.

And I must say this: the end of my (legal) parents’ marriage was about as amiable as such an event can be. As painful as it must have been (the night before they officially separated was the only time I saw my father cry), I will always be grateful to them for this civility.

Meanwhile, this is what I mean by “supplemental Social Security income.”

Moving on:

7/ Eventually, Elaine bought that business and, with some help from her own business-owning mother, made a good living for nearly 25 years.

But her reproductive issues returned, and she died from ovarian cancer, aged 66, in 2004.

Oh…her mother. Irene Gurmankin, later Goldman.

Yes, my (legal) maternal great-grandfather—or, at least, his four daughters—also Anglicized his name.

Three years after Elaine Berger began as a minimum-wage-earning telephone solicitor, the owner—a lovely man named (if memory serves) Schwartz—retired. My mother worked out a deal with the man who owned the actual carpet-cleaning machinery to run the business together. A few years after that, this other man retired (or something, my memory defies interrogation on these points), and Elaine Berger took over the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company (a two-person operation—three when I pitched in, mostly by filing or placing leaflets on car windshields—to be sure) for good.

Here she is in 1988 running that business (same desk, different apartment) with her two children framed in the background:

1988-2.jpg

Next:

8/ After divorcing Samuel Kohn in (I believe) 1964–a rarity in those days–she started a cosmetics and costume jewelry business. That business–and her own iron will and fierce work ethic–became fairly successful, allowing her to live comfortably until her death at 92 in 2007.

For some reason, Irene Kohn (she kept the surname) soon moved 60 or so miles west to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she set up shop at the newly-opened Host Farm. Because of her beauty and extroverted (if sometimes cruel—my relationship to her was complicated) charm, she quickly established herself as the unofficial hostess of the sprawling resort. This was a great boon to my cousins and me, who effectively had the run of the place (two pools, a game room, a gift shop, three great restaurants with employee discounts, endless hallways to explore, a superb daylong program called the Peppermint Parlor). Heck, I got to see my man Rupert Holmes perform in the Host Farm Cabaret (for free) in the summer of 1981!

She finally moved back to Philadelphia in 1984, though she never actually retired, running a mail-order business for loyal customers well into her 80s.

Next:

9/ Meanwhile, Morris Berger died, aged 61, in 1954 (correction, he was born in 1893–if only Twitter allowed editing), and Samuel Kohn died, aged 73, in 1978.

OK, that is my legal family, the only family (prior to marriage and parenthood) I have ever known.

I really wish I could have known my namesake—whose death was one of a series of blows to young Lou Berger, who was asked to shoulder more responsibility than he was prepared to. As for “Pop Pop Sam,” for all his “combative personality” and temper, he was a kind and loving grandfather, and I miss him still.

The next few tweets in the thread speak for themselves:

10/ Here is what I know about my genetic family.

My maternal grandmother could trace her ancestry–and family presence in the United States–to the 1700s. English, Dutch. Her ancestors primarily lived in the southeasterern [sic] United States.

Where they fought for the Confederacy.

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11/ Alice Mulkey married an Irish Catholic Philadelphian named William Dixon, and moved to Philly. Their first child is my genetic mother.

They lived in what was then a working class area

At 19, while working at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, she met my genetic father.

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12/ This part is…fuzzy…so I elide it.

However, the man she met was almost certainly the only son of legendary naval historian Reuben Elmore Stivers. Assuming I am correct, my genetic father died in 2006.

The Stivers family also goes back in the United States to the 1700s.

I exaggerate only slightly when I use the word “legendary” to describe the man who is almost certainly my (genetic) paternal grandfather. When I explained to a different cousin, who serves his country ably and proudly as a Lieutenant Commander, Naval Intelligence, “Smokey” Stivers was likely my ancestor, he said admiringly, “Oh, THAT Reuben Stivers!”

Continuing the thread:

13/ Except they were primarily in Kentucky.

And those men fought for the Union during the Civil War.

“My” branch settled in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. This could explain my (legal) mother’s belief that my genetic father was Colombian.

I miss her (and my father).

Two points.

One, it was not just Kentucky. It was specifically around Lexington, Kentucky, based on what I have learned on Ancestry.com and through discussion with newly-discovered genetic cousins (who have been unfailingly gracious).

But more to the point, I was shocked to learn my genetic ancestors fought each other (perhaps literally, I do not know) in the American Civil War; ponder that counterfactual for a while. This discovery also fits well within the context of my “split identity” first post.

Two, Elaine Berger was so convinced (after a bad game of Telephone: my genetic mother conveyed what she knew to Modell, who passed it on to his client, who probably misunderstood “District of Columbia”–which had only just received its three electoral votes—as “Colombia”) of my genetic paternal heritage she went to the library to see what Colombian children looked like. I do not know what photographs she saw, but she told me numerous times she thought I would be black, or at least much darker-skinned.

She was one of a kind, my mother was.

14/ Upon learning she was pregnant, my genetic mother–unmarried and lacking means–chose to put me up for adoption.

That adoption was arranged through another child of Jewish immigrants, Herman Modell.

How, you ask, did my (legal) father and uncle know the powerful Mr. Modell?

I scrupulously avoid injecting my own political beliefs onto this site, but I make an exception here.

Had I been conceived seven years later, my genetic mother could have had her fetus legally aborted, thanks to Roe v. Wade.

Now, because of her Catholic upbringing—and this is pure speculation on my part—my genetic mother may have carried me to term anyway. She also may have been living in different economic and/or personal circumstances after January 1973. The counterfactuals make my head spin.

And let me back up a second here.

Nell and I have discussed on more than one occasion how much of a role privilege (read: white privilege) plays here. Her own mother was raised with a modicum of wealth, and there is no doubt that if she had found herself with an unwanted pregnancy early prior to 1973, her family would have quietly arranged an abortion for her. It is a near-certainty my genetic mother had no such option (which is why, as long as I am shouting from my soapbox, I have always been opposed to the Hyde Amendment—it denies less well-off women access to a Constitutionally-protected medical procedure and is thus, frankly, unconstitutional. Talk about an “undue burden!”).

But if, under ANY circumstances, my genetic mother had chosen to abort the fetus gestating in her womb—the fetus that would not really become yours truly until the end of September 1966—I would absolutely and unequivocally support that decision.

It was her body, so it was her choice. As it is for all women, everywhere. If you do not like abortions, do not have one, but do not sit in any sort of judgment on any woman who makes that most painful of decision in private consultation with her medical providers and selected loved ones.

Just as I do not get to sit here, more than 50 years later, and judge my genetic mother for any decision she made (or did not make, or could/would have made). I did not yet exist as an autonomous being…and I if I had never existed as an autonomous being, so be it. It was never my decision to make.

My (legal) mother would often remark something to the effect of “If men could get pregnant, you would be able to get an abortion on any street corner.”

For a woman with only a few years of post-high-school medical technician training, she saw things with exceptional clearly.

Returning to my Twitter thread:

15/ Through their simultaneous membership in La Fayette Lodge No. 71.

Yes, my (legal) father, his uncle and the powerful lawyer who arranged my adoption were brother Freemasons.

To be fair, my (legal) father was asked to leave La Fayette Lodge No. 71 for non-payment of dues.

I have told some of this story before, so let us move on; see also here. I would just add that to the extent you knew my father—and realize he was a Freemason for about 10 years—any support for the myth of the controlling influence of the Freemasons evaporates.

16/ But consider this.

When the unplanned child of two people who could trace (mostly) ancestry in the United States to the 1700s was placed for adoption, with whom was he placed?

The children of Yiddish-speaking immigrant fathers who had built successful lives in Philadelphia.

And there it is…thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.” Often lost in our collective squabbles over immigration: the descendants of recent immigrants often do better economically and socially than the longer-term “original settlers.”

Speaking of bearing with me:

End/ I was fortunate to be raised by loving parents of some means in the leafy suburbs north and west of Philadelphia. Nature and nurture cooperated successfully, and I enrolled in Yale College in 1984, sparking a fairly successful life of my own.

And that is #MyAmericanStory

Here is a photograph of those leafy suburbs, as my (legal) father holds his two children (backstory here):

Sue Ellen Drive Feb 1967 or October November 1967

And here I am with my legal mother and maternal grandmother at my graduation from Yale in 1988.

Yale graduation with Nana and Mom 1988.jpg

Here is the first postscript:

PS/ I am writing a book (inspired by, of all things, trying to explain why I love #FilmNoir so much) detailing this history. Working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir, Identity and a Search for Truth.

For more, please see justbearwithme.blog.

Thank you, and Happy 4th!

Hmm, this is getting very circular.

And, finally:

PPS/ My profile picture is from my (legal) parents’ wedding in January 1960. Their wedding, literally and metaphorically, took place about half a mile south of City Line Avenue. They were on the Philadelphia side, but maybe they could see their future home in the suburbs.

For those of you who do not follow me on Twitter (tsk, tsk–@drnoir33), here is that photograph:

Elaine and Lou Berger with parents January 17 1960.jpg

I do not know who the gentleman on the far left is (a great-uncle?), but from left to right are Rae Caesar Berger (mother of the groom, Lou Berger, Elaine Kohn Berger (photograph taken after exchange of vows), Irene Kohn (mother of the bride) and Samuel Kohn (father of the bride).

I LOVE this photograph, even if the men on either end look dyspeptic.

Please have (or continue to have, or I hope you had) a safe and festive holiday!

Until next time…

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.

IMG_3270 (2)

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.

IMG_3981

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…

A Supreme opportunity to overcome partisan rancor

During my senior year at Yale, I took a seminar called “Political Uses of History.” The topic of my final paper (accounting for most of the course grade[1]) was the history lessons used to defend/critique the nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (DC Appeals Court) Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Upon being nominated by President Ronald Reagan to fill the seat vacated by Associate Justice Lewis Powell on July 1, 1987, Senate Democrats immediately expressed dismay at Bork’s “originalist” legal perspective (the Constitution of the United States only means what the original framers of the document intended it to be at the time).

They were also disturbed by Bork’s role as Solicitor General of the United States on October 20, 1973.

On the night now known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” President Richard Nixon, alarmed by Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s request for secret White House recordings, demanded that Cox be fired–which only the Attorney General could do. When both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than comply, the next person in line was Bork, who promptly fired Cox.

Bork ultimately lost his nomination vote 58-42. Reagan then nominated DC Appeals Court Judge Douglas Ginsburg, but he quickly withdrew his name after reports about prior marijuana use surfaced.

Oh, how times have changed.

Finally, Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and he was confirmed by the United States Senate (Senate) on February 3, 1988 by a 97-0 vote.

And after serving as the “swing” vote on SCOTUS for years, Justice Kennedy announced his retirement on June 27, 2018.

The tumultuous reaction to this news—laser-focused on the possibility that President Donald Trump will choose an ultra-conservative jurist who would be the decisive vote on issues like LGTBQ rights, abortion, guns and Obamacare—reminded me of my political uses of history paper.

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Just bear with me, then, while I review some recent history.

First, whether or not you approve of the filibuster (a final up-or-down vote can only occur if, say, 60% of legislators agree) as way to protect the rights of the minority party in a legislative body, it served to constrain judicial nominations by requiring a broad base of support.

Of course, it also meant that a determined minority could prevent any given nominee from a final up-or-down vote. After then-minority Senate Republicans kept doing just that to President Barack Obama’s nominees, the Senate voted 52-48 on November 21, 2013 to abolish the 60-vote threshold to end debate for all judicial nominations except for SCOTUS. In retaliation (and after Trump SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, fell five votes shy of the required 60), the now-majority-Republican Senate voted 52-48 on April 7, 2017 to end the 60-vote requirement to end debate on SCOTUS nominees.

Goose, meet gander.

Gorsuch was then quickly confirmed by a 54-45 vote, with three Democratic Senators—Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV)—voting yes. All three face reelection in 2018 in very Republican states: R+16.3, R+29.4 and R+35.5, respectively.

Why Gorsuch was nominated in the first place is the second bit of recent history to review.

On February 13, 2016, SCOTUS Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died. Soon after, President Obama nominated DC Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland to replace him. Within hours, though, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that because Obama was in the last year of his presidency (and thus some sort of irrelevant lame duck), the Senate would not even hold hearings on ANY Obama appointment until after the November 2016 elections. Charles Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee—where any hearings would be held—concurred, and the seat remained vacant until Gorsuch was confirmed.

merrick garland

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Democrats, hamstrung by their current 49-51 minority in the Senate, appear to be taking two fundamental—and somewhat contradictory—stances on the vacancy created by Justice Kennedy’s retirement.

Some invoke the “McConnell Rule,” insisting no vote be held on a new SCOTUS nominee until after the 2018 midterm elections, even though there is no guarantee Democrats will net the two seats they need for a majority.

Others focus on defeating any nominee outright, honing in on the damage to their (and, full disclosure, my) priorities a solid 5-4 conservative majority could do, particularly the distinct possibility it would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 SCOTUS decision that declared all state laws against abortion unconstitutional, effectively making abortion legal throughout the United States.

It should be noted that overturning Roe would not make abortion illegal everywhere in the United States. Rather, it would leave it to each individual state (and the District of Columbia) to decide whether abortion is legal within its borders. Still, many states have “trigger laws” that would immediately outlaw abortion to the extent legally possible the instant Roe is overturned.

Basically, then, the Democrats have two unpalatable options: try to delay the nomination until after the November 2018 elections, or assume a vote is inevitable and work to defeat it. The rub is that either option would require at least one Republican to buck her/his own party. For example, assuming Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is too ill to vote (and does not retire to give Republican Governor Doug Ducey the chance to pick a replacement), if the Democrats are unified, a single Republican “No” vote means the nomination is defeated 50-49. This, while not impossible, will not be easy either.

I feel compelled to note that this entire conversation is taking place BEFORE any nominee has even been announced. That in itself is worrisome.

**********

Let me address these two stances in turn before concluding with my own thoughts.

No political act enraged me more in the last few years than the theft of a SCOTUS seat by Senate Republicans. Barack Obama was president of the United States until noon on January 20, 2017, and the Senators elected over the elections of 2010-2014 were the representatives duly chosen to provide “advice and consent” on the nomination under Article II, Section 2. The people, whose will McConnell invoked, had already spoken by voting in the relevant elections. President Obama was thus denied a fair hearing and vote on his judicial nominee—that is theft.

As disgusted as I remain by that, however, I have deep concerns about the tit-for-tat invocation of the McConnell rule. Two wrongs do not make a right: as we remind our daughters, meanness by one to the other is not a license to be mean back.

I sympathize with the arguments that Democrats should not be a doormat, that McConnell brought this on himself, that turnabout is fair play, that the system is already broken…

And it is that last point that most gives me pause. With good reason, Democrats and like-minded Independents and Republicans decry the corruption and norm violations they see from the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies. But that powerful critique is severely undercut if the Democrats themselves use the violation of a norm (regardless of “who started it”) for their own partisan gain. This would simply be the rescinding of the judicial nominee filibuster all over again.

There is also the unpleasant whiff of “ends justifying the means” about invoking the McConnell rule. I recently called out the modern Republican Party for doing just that. It also recalls one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s worst moments: his 1937 scheme to expand SCOTUS by as many as six Associate Justices (which he would then appoint) to make it less hostile to the laudable New Deal.

It is fashionable to dismiss taking the high ground as weakness and some sort of “asymmetrical warfare.” And perhaps in this single instance—a uniquely pivotal SCOTUS seat following the theft of a prior seat—that is the correct conclusion. But that is a very slippery slope: if Democrats and their allies resort to using the same ruthless tactics to “win” this battle, how are they any better than the Republicans? Does that mean tribalist victory is all that matters now?

The argument may be moot—and mostly public posturing (pointing out the rank hypocrisy of blocking one nomination in an election year but not another)—since it is not clear the Democrats could actually prevent hearings and a vote, short of grinding the Senate to a halt.

And a far better argument for delaying hearings and votes is that a president who is the subject of a criminal investigation should not be allowed to nominate a SCOTUS justice who would almost certainly vote on questions pertinent to that investigation (e.g., Can a president pardon her/himself or be indicted while in office?).

The second stance is at least well within traditional Senate rules and has a successful recent precedent.

It still gives me pause, however, because I worry liberals and like-minded centrists have become too reliant—almost complacent—on the SCOTUS (and the courts more generally) to do too much of the heavy lifting of policy-making for them. Republicans, smelling blood on this point, successfully put SCOTUS front and center in the 2016 election.

It does not help that SCOTUS Justices have become as entrenched in their ideologies (though not always) as both major political parties—Justice Kennedy was the swing vote because the other eight Justices were so reliably liberal or conservative in their rulings. Gone are the days when President Dwight Eisenhower (supposedly) called his appointment of California Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice “the biggest damned fool mistake I ever made.” Seriously, what would even be the point of arguing cases before SCOTUS if the outcome was always predetermined?

The more fundamental problem, however, is that the Democrats let too many state legislative seats get away from them in too many states over the last 10 years. It is in those very states that the most important policy outcomes—on abortion, LGBTQ rights, Medicare expansion, gun control—actually get decided. And that is how it is supposed to be. I am far from an “originalist,” but Article I and Amendment X strongly imply policy is meant to be decided, umm, politically, in the legislative arena.

I know: both parties (despite bemoaning “activist judges”) try to seek policy victories in SCOTUS by arguing that this or that law or Executive order is unconstitutional—and that the “right to privacy” articulated so elegantly in Griswold v. Connecticut had a profound (mostly progressive) legislative impact.

My point is simply that if Democrats put as much work into winning back legislative seats (so far so good) as they will into blocking President Trump’s next SCOTUS nominee that will greatly reduce their reliance on favorable SCOTUS decisions. They could even overturn many of those anti-abortion laws at the state level (not all of them, of course).

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I have previously called for cross-partisan dialogue—patriotic bipartisanship. After President Trump was elected, I also began proposing a “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate that would wield an effective veto over legislation, forcing broad compromises by both parties. Such a group could consist of “red-state” Democrats like Donnelly, Heitkamp, Doug Jones (AL—R+28.4), Manchin, Claire McCaskill (MO—R+15.9) and Jon Tester (MT—R+18.6); Independent Angus King (ME—D+5.9); and Republicans like Susan Collins (ME—D+5.9), Lisa Murkowski (AK—R+19.2) and, perhaps, Cory Gardner (CO—D+2.2).

Were this bloc (or even the smaller bloc of Donnelly, Heitkamp, Jones, Manchin, Collins and Murkowski) to insist, unequivocally, that President Trump select

…a consensus nominee to replace Kennedy. “[Senator Heitkamp] told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true non-ideological jurist who could gain strong support from senators on both sides of the aisle, rather than create more divisions…”

…they would elevate the traditional “advice and consent” role of the Senate above partisan rancor and force both parties to compromise, in effect restoring the judicial nomination filibuster.

Now, this would infuriate the conservatives who voted for Donald Trump (and President Trump himself) solely for the opportunity to remake SCOTUS in their image (though they still “won” with Gorsuch). And it would disappoint the liberal activists who want every Senate Democrat to resist President Trump at every turn (though this is easily the least-worst nominee they will get in 2018). But those may the necessary costs of restoring civil order to our public discourse.

Plus, how poetically just would it be if that “non-ideological” jurist was…Merrick Garland!

Until next time…

[1] I received an A on both the paper and the seminar, with a special commendation by Professor Joseph Hamburger.

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.”

IMG_3270 (2)

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.

IMG_0516 (2)

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.