Snippets–More Mueller

The Trump supporter I met at a conference said that he had voted for the president four times in the 2016 election, listing the separate counties where he had supposedly gone to the polls. After pausing, he smilingly asserted, “That’s what the Russians taught me.”

 

Three months ago Sarah Huckabee Sanders preached, “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there.” I immediately thought of I Corinthians 2:11, which in the Bible I received on my tenth birthday states, “For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” I searched further in my Bible, but I could not find anything to support what Sarah Sanders apparently believes—that she is the channel for the Spirit of God. (Of course, we could discuss how to pronounce I Corinthians, but I am afraid too many true believers today would say pronounce it however Donald Trump does.)

The Mueller report shows that Sarah Sanders lied when she said a while back that she talked to countless agents about flagging FBI morale. She has tried to defend this–what shall we call it–sin by saying her statement was spoken in the heat of the moment, even though it was repeated several times, and was not scripted. I am not sure what to make of this inconsistent non sequitur, but I was surprised that she has not just said, “God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and at that time He called me to lie to all of you.”

 

 

“I’ve always been a religious bitch, but if that dirty motherfucker believes in God, I’m thinking it over.” Billie Holiday, quoted in Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

 

 

I have heard many “conservatives” discussing the Mueller Report say the “Democrat” party instead of “Democratic.” I don’t know why. Perhaps a four-syllable word is sometimes beyond their capabilities, but if they are going to treat one party this way, they ought to treat the other party similarly. Perhaps we all, instead of saying the Republican party, should say the “Repub” party, pronouncing it with a long “u.”

 

 

The Mueller report is not expected to have much effect on the public’s perceptions of the president. No matter what the news or revelations, his approval and disapproval ratings remain in a narrow band with a majority disapproving and the number approving of him ten, twelve, or fourteen points below that. Trump’s number have hardly shifted since the release of the report, and probably will be about the same at our next election. Commentators have maintained, however, that Trump support is broader than polls indicate because some poll respondents are reluctant to admit to strangers that they support Trump. The last election gave support to this view since Trump got a higher percentage of the vote than polls indicated that he would. While in 2016 there may have been people who were reluctant to admit their support for the unusual, divisive candidate Trump, it seems strange if such reluctance continues even after he become president. What does it say if people are too wary or embarrassed to acknowledge that they support the president? But perhaps the Mueller report indicates why people are at least a bit ashamed for still backing Trump.

Snippets–Mueller Edition

The Mueller rohrshachs along. One pod of pundits proclaims, “Total exoneration.” A coven of commentators ignores any exoneration and points out that the president repeatedly lied and tried to get others to lie. Pusillanimous politicians repeat that there was no collusion with the Russians. A jeremiad of journalists catalogs all the contacts between Trump people and Russians. And so on.

The interpretations, characterizations, and mischaracterizations of the Mueller report fly about, but all ought to home in on the most important part of the report: the Russians interfered in our election. “Interfered,” however, is a polite word, a euphemism. We should label the Russian actions more forthrightly. The Russians attacked us. A fighter plane does not have to be shot down, a literal bomb does not have to be dropped, to be attacked. When the Russians took steps to subvert our election, they attacked us.  Conservatives don’t won’t to dwell on this because the Russians were trying to get Trump elected. Liberals seem to gloss over the interference because they feel that they can’t get Trump if he did not overtly collude with the Russians.

We all ought to agree, however, that we need to stop the Russian intervention. You can ask your elected officials whether they think all investigations of the president should stop or whether impeachment procedures should begin, but you should first be asking those who represent you, and asking them again, what measures do they support to lessen the possibility of a Russian attack in our next election? And don’t just address your national politicians. States and localities should also be taking steps for securing our elections, which is to say, securing our Republic. Ask your state and local officials what they are doing to prevent future subversions of our electoral process. The most important takeaway from the Mueller investigation should be that the Russians attacked us, and the most depressing takeaway is that we don’t seem to be doing anything about it.

 

 

“A lack of mental agility was not necessarily a handicap in Washington.” Scott L. Malcomson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventures of Race.

 

 

If the Russians attack us again in 2020, and we seem to be doing little to prevent that, who will the Russians try to get elected? They worked for Trump in 2016, but don’t assume that they will necessarily support the incumbent unless you know why the enigmatic Russians did it. If they affirmatively wanted him, it might only seem natural for the Russians to stay on the same train, but we don’t really know what the mysterious Putin and friends wanted from the reality TV performer. If they haven’t got whatever it was or they have already gotten what they wanted, will they hop off the train? If, however, they helped him not because they wanted to kiss his cheeks but because they adamantly opposed the election of Hillary Clinton, they might not promote Trump in a Clinton-less election. And if the Russians’ goal is simply to weaken the United States by spreading discord in America, who will they hack for? The Russians could conclude that they sowed discontent and a loss of faith in America among those who opposed Trump last time. Thus, they might reason, we won’t produce much new discord by using that strategy again, but those Trump supporters may go ballistic if he loses. So, let’s support the Democratic nominee. And what would be reactions if they did that? It’s a riddle.

Jesus Loves Apple Pie, But Look Likes. . . . (concluded)

Today we can still find in America many different artist’s versions of Jesus. I was struck by this when I absentmindedly walked into a bookstore in St. George, Utah, on a trip to visit western national parks. St. George, Utah, was not named for St. George of the Dragon fame who is the patron saint of England, Malta, Portugal, and elsewhere. Instead, the town is named for George A. Smith, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This city was founded by Mormons and is dominated by Mormons today.

I had forgotten this when I went into the bookstore. It was mid-afternoon, a time when I often take an old-man’s nap, and I was drowsy. Not far from my hotel room, I saw a big, modern bookstore. I like bookstores, and because it bore a resemblance to the Barnes and Nobles in malls, I thought that I might find a coffee bar. I, of course, was not thinking about where I was. This was a Mormon bookstore with a clothing distribution center attached. I am curious about those Mormon clothes, but I chickened out and did not enter. Of course, the store did not have coffee, but I found it interesting to wander around for a bit. (I eventually got my coffee at a Burger King. Not the best I ever had.) It listed the books that were its top sellers. I didn’t recognize any of them. As I wandered the store’s aisles, I recognized few of the authors and realized that there was a book culture completely different from the one I knew. One display was devoted to picture after picture of Jesus, fifty or more, mostly just of the face, but some full-length portrayals, or a few of Jesus preaching. The man depicted was different in all of them, but still almost all the same. And I realized that was true for almost all the pictures I have seen of Him in America. He may be Jesus, the Son of God, but in these portrayals, he is one of us.

He always seems to be of above average height, but not so tall as to be disconcerting. His skin, while not a sickly pale, is a version of white. He is not blond, but his hair is not too dark—a pleasant brown, often with highlights. And, of course, it looks as if it has been recently shampooed followed by a good conditioner. His hair flows to his shoulder. His face looks like one whose forebears have immigrated to the U.S. of A. from some Northern European locale. His eyes might even be blue.  Except for his clothing and that his hair is a bit long, he would not be out of place in many American living rooms or corporate offices. Not surprisingly, he always looks as if he would make a good motivational speaker. If He is not American, he certainly looks like He would be welcomed by any true-blue American. (Other parts of the world have depicted Jesus as someone who looks, not surprisingly, as someone who could fit into their local cultures. The Ethiopian or Russian Christian has a Jesus who looks different from the American one, but one that seems more than a little Ethiopian or Russian.  A Renaissance Jesus tends to look, how shall we say, “renaissancey,” and even a Korean or Chinese Jesus tends to reflect a Chinese or Korean culture. God created the internet so you, too, can look up such pictures.)

We don’t really know much about the historical Jesus. We do know that he was a Jew and that he lived in the Middle East. Recently forensic anthropologists have tried to figure out what Jesus really looked like. If you look at these depictions, you see something much different from the American Jesus. These scientists concluded that in all likelihood Jesus was not very tall, had dark eyes, almost black hair, and a swarthy skin. A Jew in his setting was much more likely to have short hair rather than flowing, shoulder-length locks of His American portraits. And, of course, he likely had what might be described as a Jewish nose. The looks of the real Jesus were unlikely to be of the kind that would fit easily into a modern Kiwanis meeting or in a shampoo commercial. More to the point, He probably would have made most Sunday church-goers stare uncomfortably at Him if He entered the 11 o’clock service. He didn’t look so much like our imagined portraits; He looked like a Mideast terrorist.

So my thought experiment: Imagine that every existing picture of Jesus in America were replaced with a more historically correct one. We hang up pictures that look like, shall we say, Yasser Arafat’s nephew. How would this change American Christianity?  Might this even change Americans’ views of the world or America’s foreign policy? Would our faith in Christianity be changed? How?

Good Friday: What If It Had Been A Stoning?

The death and resurrection of Jesus is at the core of Christianity. I have never fully grasped this. Somehow, Jesus died for our (my) sins. I have heard that aphorism many times, but as with many pithy pronouncements, when I tried to analyze it, I had questions. If Jesus had not died, God would have just dismissed me? Condemned me to eternal torment? What about all those people who died before Jesus did? If He died for my sins, am I somehow responsible for His death?

I understood that the resurrection meant that Jesus was not to be considered a mere mortal. For me that meant that I should try to follow his teachings because they had come from a divine being. I was also told that His resurrection assured me of eternal life. This raised even more questions. Before the death and resurrection, Jesus said that all who believed in the Son of God would have eternal life. At another time He is to have said, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes in Me will live even if he dies.” Even before the resurrection, we were all promised a conditional eternal life. What did the resurrection add to the promises already made?

The devout are clear that His death and resurrection are essential for their faith, but also implicit in their message is that the manner of His death is crucial. It seems important that Jesus’s death did not come from “natural” causes, from cancer or a heart attack or a liver disease or from what sometimes is labeled an Act of God, an earthquake or a flood or a tornado, or an accident. It seems essential that the resurrection comes after a death caused by man, but not just by one person. A murder—even an assassination–would have been insufficient. Instead, it was a death exacted by society. It was a death by differing authorities who perceived Jesus, with his unorthodox views of the relationships of society, God, and individuals, as a threat to their status quos. Of course, this belief has led to anti-Semitism, but even when Jews aren’t being blamed, humanity in general is somehow the instigator of his death.

Jesus’s death was, in fact, an execution, and executions are always done at a society’s or a community’s instigation. If the resurrection is at the core of Christianity, at the core of the Easter drama is a state-enforced death penalty.  Is there meaning in the fact that Christianity flows from capital punishment?  As far as I am aware, the role of the death penalty in the Easter story is under-played.  On the other hand, the method of carrying out the execution, the crucifixion, which by definition requires a cross, has a central role in the symbols of the religion.

Although not all denominations fetishize the stations of the cross, nearly all Christians have an image of a beaten, yet still heroic Jesus struggling to carry the cross to Calvary. And every follower of Christ has looked in wonder at representations of Him on the cross, which, whoever the artist, are strikingly similar. He no longer can keep his head erect; it slumps to the side. He bears a crown of thrones and a wound in His rib cage. Stripped of all but a loin cloth (was someone really concerned about his modesty?), He is dead or nearly so, but still powerful with a muscular torso and manly shoulders. Even with death imminent, majesty is present.

Sermons and hymns almost rhapsodize over the agonies of the cross. Nails pounded through flesh, muscle, and bone into the wood. Hanging by the outstretched arms until death (mercifully) came. But the death was a lingering one and allowed Jesus to make pronouncements that the religious still try to interpret. And this suffering, we are told, was for us, for our redemption, because of our sinfulness, so that we can have everlasting life.

As a boy when I struggled with religion, I felt that if this suffering were for me and my salvation, Jesus’s agonies surely must have been unique. How else could His crucifixion work this wondrous change in the future of mankind if that pain and torture were commonplace? Of course, I knew that two others had been crucified with Him and must have suffered similarly, but these deaths were merely an accompaniment to Jesus’s crucifixion. It was confusing, then, when I learned that this mode of execution was not unusual and saw depictions of fields of men nailed to crosses. Many others, I realized, encountered an agony that had to be identical to what Jesus encountered. If the agony of Jesus was supposed to mean something to me, did the agony of these countless others have special meaning, too?

Although I do not (fully) understand why, Jesus had to be executed for His resurrection to lead to the belief in Jesus’s redemptive power. Crucifixion, however, was not unique to Jesus and many suffered it. That seems to indicate that even if His death was required, it did not have to occur on a cross. Would it matter to Christian belief if a different form of capital punishment had been used? Perhaps it is important that the form was slow and agonizing, but Jesus apparently died a relatively quick death for a crucifixion, as indicated by the centurions’ surprise that He was no longer still alive. But if prolonged agony were important, even a quick form of execution like beheading or a less gruesome form like poisoning could have been preceded by lengthy flagellation and mutilations. And, of course, other horrific execution methods were also used then, such as stoning, impalement, starving, crushing under rocks, burying alive. My question then: What if crucifixion had not been used, but a different form of execution had been? Powerful symbols of Christianity would have to be different. Would that make any difference to Christianity itself? Is belief actually influenced by iconography, and if so, how?

Jesus Loves Apple Pie, But Looks Like. . . . (concluded)

Today we can still find in America many different artist’s versions of Jesus. I was struck by this when I absentmindedly walked into a bookstore in St. George, Utah, on a trip to visit western national parks. St. George, Utah, was not named for St. George of the Dragon fame who is the patron saint of England, Malta, Portugal, and elsewhere. Instead, the town is named for George A. Smith, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This city was founded by Mormons and is dominated by Mormons today.

I had forgotten this when I went into the bookstore. It was mid-afternoon, a time when I often take an old-man’s nap, and I was drowsy. Not far from my hotel room, I saw a big, modern bookstore. I like bookstores, and because it bore a resemblance to the Barnes and Nobles in malls, I thought that I might find a coffee bar. I, of course, was not thinking about where I was. This was a Mormon bookstore with a clothing distribution center attached. I am curious about those Mormon clothes, but I chickened out and did not enter. Of course, the store did not have coffee, but I found it interesting to wander around for a bit. (I eventually got my coffee at a Burger King. Not the best I ever had.) It listed the books that were its top sellers. I didn’t recognize any of them. As I wandered the store’s aisles, I recognized few of the authors and realized that there was a book culture completely different from the one I knew. One display was devoted to picture after picture of Jesus, fifty or more, mostly just of the face, but some full-length portrayals, or a few of Jesus preaching. The man depicted was different in all of them, but still almost all the same. And I realized that was true for almost all the pictures I have seen of Him in America. He may be Jesus, the Son of God, but in these portrayals, he is one of us.

He always seems to be of above average height, but not so tall as to be disconcerting. His skin, while not a sickly pale, is a version of white. He is not blond, but his hair is not too dark—a pleasant brown, often with highlights. And, of course, it looks as if it has been recently shampooed followed by a good conditioner. His hair flows to his shoulder. His face looks like one whose forebears have immigrated to the U.S. of A. from some Northern European locale. His eyes might even be blue.  Except for his clothing and that his hair is a bit long, he would not be out of place in many American living rooms or corporate offices. Not surprisingly, he always looks as if he would make a good motivational speaker. If He is not American, he certainly looks like He would be welcomed by any true-blue American. (Other parts of the world have depicted Jesus as someone who looks, not surprisingly, as someone who could fit into their local cultures. The Ethiopian or Russian Christian has a Jesus who looks different from the American one, but one that seems more than a little Ethiopian or Russian.  A Renaissance Jesus tends to look, how shall we say, “renaissancey,” and even a Korean or Chinese Jesus tends to reflect a Chinese or Korean culture. God created the internet so you, too, can look up such pictures.)

We don’t really know much about the historical Jesus. We do know that he was a Jew and that he lived in the Middle East. Recently forensic anthropologists have tried to figure out what Jesus really looked like. If you look at these depictions, you see something much different from the American Jesus. These scientists concluded that in all likelihood Jesus was not very tall, had dark eyes, almost black hair, and a swarthy skin. A Jew in his setting was much more likely to have short hair rather than flowing, shoulder-length locks of His American portraits. And, of course, he likely had what might be described as a Jewish nose. The looks of the real Jesus were unlikely to be of the kind that would fit easily into a modern Kiwanis meeting or in a shampoo commercial. More to the point, He probably would have made most Sunday church-goers stare uncomfortably at Him if He entered the 11 o’clock service. He didn’t look so much like our imagined portraits; He looked like a Mideast terrorist.

So my thought experiment: Imagine that every existing picture of Jesus in America were replaced with a more historically correct one. We hang up pictures that look like, shall we say, Yasser Arafat’s nephew. How would this change American Christianity?  Might this even change Americans’ views of the world or America’s foreign policy? Would our faith in Christianity be changed? How?

Jesus Loves Apple Pie, But Looks Like. . . .

As the holiest day in the Christian calendar approaches, I have been thinking about some of the books about religion that have stuck with me. One has been God: A Biography by Jack Miles who reads the Hebrew Bible as a literary text and examines the God as if were a literary character. In spite of the religious tenet that casts God as immutable, Miles shows how God develops over the course of the biblical narrative, primarily as a result of His interactions with humanity.  God the Creator at the beginning of Genesis changes as He interacts with Adam and Eve. The God who talks to Job is different still. He is lonely; He is jealous; He is vengeful, and so on.

Miles made me reflect on the Jesus of the New Testament. For me, He does not really develop or evolve over the course of any of the Gospels, but neither is He always the same. Instead of character development, the different Gospels give related, but different, conceptions of Jesus.  Thus, Matthew’s Jesus is not precisely the same as John’s, and Mark’s is not the same as Matthew’s.  Paul’s versions of Jesus further complicate the matter. His depictions often differ from those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but his versions are not always consistent with each other. (I know: scholars say that the same person did not write all of the Pauline stuff).  For example, in the Gospels, Jesus says nothing about homosexuality, or about abortion or birth control, but portions of the writings of Paul, who claimed to be furthering the word of Jesus, are homophobic. With these differing versions of Jesus, I felt—and scholars confirm–that those biblical writers either tended to find different characteristics in Jesus or they created a Jesus to fit their own wishes, desires, and agendas.

The possible variations of Jesus’s character were not immutably fixed in biblical times. I know little about the various depictions of Jesus throughout the world, but I know that Jesus has been seen in many different ways in America, as Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon discusses.  The American Jesus has supported slavery and desegregation; capitalism and socialism; bombing Iraq and pacifism.  He has been a go-getter who would be comfortable at a Rotarian meeting.  The muscular Christianity of Theodore Roosevelt had a Jesus with six-pack abs.   But Jesus has also sweetly taken His place at love-ins.  He espouses Reverend Ike’s or the Osteenian gospel of prosperity but also a Rauschenbuschian social gospel.

In these incarnations, however, He somehow always seems American. That is hardly surprising. At least in our own eyes and hearts, we Americans and our beloved land are blessed; we live in an America that is exceptional, and surely that must mean that Jesus has a special affinity for America. As H. Richard Niebuhr said in The Kingdom of God in America, “The old idea of American Christians as a chosen people who had been called to a special task was turned into the notion of a chosen nation especially favored.”

As a result, we Americans see a Jesus who could be right there with us on the Fourth of July enjoying a hot dog (not necessarily kosher) and apple pie.  If He had wanted to, he could have been a great shortstop. Many American Christians have absorbed without reflection the notion that Jesus looks out especially for America. Americans, it seems, are lucky in another way: We don’t really have to seek to be like Jesus because our Jesus is like us, but, of course, since Americans don’t all believe the same things and can be capitalists, warriors, pacifists, joiners, and loners, the American Jesus is not the same for every American.

I learned, however, from Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession that through much of our history, the dominant Christian denominations did not give much thought as to how Jesus looked. Visual depictions of Jesus seldom appeared in Protestant churches or homes. They did though in Catholic churches, making Protestants think such attention to pictures and statues of Jesus was akin to idolatry. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the strictures on the visual depictions of Jesus had faded away, and eventually the picture most favored by Protestants became “Head of Christ” painted by Warner Sallman in 1941, a portrait many of us have seen during our Protestant upbringing.

(concluded April 17.)

What if We Abolish the Electoral College (concluded)

Principled and historical reasons can be lodged for and against the Electoral College, but the present partisan divide indicates that both Democrats and Republicans believe that if the national popular vote had been determinative, Al Gore would have won the presidency in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. However, that should not be assumed because if the popular vote had controlled, the vote totals for the candidates would have been different.

With a direct election, all voters throughout the country would have had an equal incentive to vote because all votes would have mattered equally, which, of course, does not exist now. An additional 50,000 votes for Trump or Clinton in New York or California or Texas would have changed nothing under our present system. With the direct election of the president, voters in safe states would have more incentive to go to the polls than now, and we would probably have more voters. My guess is that the minority candidate in a “safe” district would especially benefit. Where I vote, Democratic candidates are almost assured of winning not only the presidential vote, but also for all the other ballot spots. For many people, it is more satisfying to vote for winners than losers. If I had supported Trump, it would have taken some unusual strength to do the dispiriting thing of walking the block to the local junior high to fill in the bubble in front of Trump’s name because he was going to lose New York overwhelmingly. But, of course, the comparable dispirited Clinton supporter also existed in Alabama and Mississippi. I don’t know how the totals would have changed, but if the Electoral College had not existed in 2016, I am confident the totals would have been different from what got tallied as the total popular vote.

The direct election of the president would probably increase the number of voters. It would definitely change the nature of the campaigns. With hindsight, Hillary Clinton was criticized for not campaigning in Wisconsin. That criticism is understandable. She polled 27,000 fewer votes than Trump there giving Trump won the Badger State’s ten electoral votes. The critics’ assumption is that if Clinton had campaigned harder in the Dairy State (should a state be allowed two nicknames?), she might have switched some Trump voters to her or, more likely, convinced some who voted Libertarian or Green to vote for her. And perhaps more campaigning would have meant that some of those who sat on their hands would have come out to vote for her. If her campaign had brought one percent more to the polls to vote for her, she would have won Wisconsin.

That one percent, however, would have been about thirty thousand more votes. With a direct election, this extra targeting might not make sense, and Clinton probably would have spent more time in several other states where she, and Trump, did little campaigning—California and New York. Candidates do visit these states, but usually for fundraising, not traditional campaigning. The assumption under our present system is that both these states are safe for the Democrats and campaigning there by both sides is a waste of time. If the national popular vote controlled, however, both Hillary and Donald would have made campaign efforts in these states since an increase of a one percent turnout for the candidates in those places could mean 100,000 or more votes to the national total.

The abolition of the Electoral College would not just mean a change in the location of campaign efforts, it would also make a difference in campaign promises. Think about Iowa and the primaries. Don’t all candidates swear to defend ethanol because they think defending the corn crop is high on the list of Iowa voters? If Michigan is viewed as a swing state, candidates appearing in Lansing or Battle Creek can be expected to make promises that especially appeal to Michigan voters. In safe states, such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, candidates do not have to make the kind of pandering promises they make in swing states. If, however, each vote truly mattered as much in Mississippi as in Michigan, candidates might have the same incentive to pander in both places.

But under the system we have, and I expect that we will continue to have, each vote for president is not equal. The swing states count more and get more from the candidates.

As a result, however we view the structure of our government, we should not refer to it as a democracy.

What if We Abolish the Electoral College?

Prominent Democrats have called for the end of the Electoral College, that unusual device through which we select our president. A Representative from Hawaii has introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish it and use the national popular vote to choose our chief executive. Conservatives now defend the Electoral College. You might think this indicates some sort of principled split over basic constitutional principles; you might think that if you were ill-informed. The defenders of the present system, of course, want the status quo because they believe it favors Republicans while the reformers believe Democrats would benefit from a national popular vote. These inclinations are fueled by recent history. Twice in the last generation we have inaugurated presidents who did not get the most votes, and both of them were Republicans.

We did not always have this partisan divide over the Electoral College. The 1968 election produced a close national popular vote but a much wider margin in the Electoral College. Six months before that election, 66 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats stated that the Electoral College should be replaced with a national popular vote. After the election, 80 percent of Americans supported changing the electoral system. In 1969, the House, by 339 to 70, passed a constitutional amendment to select the president by popular vote. The proposal, however, was filibustered to death in the other chamber by Senators from small states.

If such an amendment could not make it through the Senate when the populace overwhelmingly favored it, a similar amendment has no chance in the Senate today. However, reforms of the Electoral College are possible without a constitutional amendment. Most states now have a winner-takes-all approach to the allocation of their electoral votes. Whoever garners the most votes receives all the electoral votes. This method of allocating a state’s electoral votes is a prime reason it is possible for a candidate to get the most votes nationally but lose in the Electoral College. The winner-takes-all rule is not constitutionally required, and some states have modified it by giving an electoral vote to the candidate who wins the most votes in each congressional district with the state’s two other electoral votes going to the candidate who wins the state. Other states have signed onto a national popular vote bill that would give each state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most nationwide votes. The bill would take effect in those states when jurisdictions with a combined 270 electoral votes have enacted it. (Fifteen states with a total of 189 electoral votes have already passed it.)

I think that in a land that likes to tout a government of “We, the People,” the direct election of the president would probably be a good thing. Surely, “We, the People” can be an aspirational concept under our present system where a candidate who does not get the most votes can become president. But in the unlikely event that we get to some system where the president is elected by the national popular vote, we will deepen current controversies about who gets to vote.

We don’t have national voter standards, and this is a problem if the national popular vote is to determine who will be president. For example, states have different laws concerning the disenfranchisement of convicted felons. A few states allow all to vote. Some states permanently bar convicts from voting. Some states prohibit those in prison from voting. And so on. As a result, a higher percentage of the population can be eligible to vote in State A than in State B. And of course, identification laws for voting and provisions for early voting mean some states make it easier or harder to vote. A true national popular vote should have uniform standards on voting eligibility and procedures, but we now leave that to the states. Getting to the needed uniformity seems unlikely even if we managed to implement the direct election of the president.

While states disenfranchise differing portions of its citizenry make a true national popular vote impossible, the direct election of the president would at least lessen the fact that some votes count a lot more than others in our present system. I vote in New York, but my vote for president is, in a practical sense, meaningless. Last election, I could be confident that no matter whether I voted or not, all of New York’s electoral votes would go to Hillary Clinton because she was certain to get a majority of the state’s vote. In any “safe” state, be it California, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, or elsewhere, it is clear who will get the electoral votes, and it does not matter whether the winning or losing candidate gets more or fewer votes.

The truly important voters throughout the country are in the “swing” states. In 2016, the votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania mattered much more than in other places.  Each swing-state voter, and non-voter counts much more than those in the safe states. That may not seem American, but it is the American way.

(concluded April 12)

Back to the Future? Really?

My parents rained on parades. This was partly because although we had enough money to get by, we did not have more than that. The family would not have the latest model car, a second home, or exotic vacations.  There would be a used Oldsmobile (my father’s invariable choice) and a week on a nearby lake if some friend or boss made a cottage available. There would be adequate clothing, but no one would be a fashion plate. And who needs to go to restaurants? This was not a terrible hardship perhaps because things like smartphones and Air shoes and overly expensive dolls and other toys did not exist. On the other hand, I remain frugal today–perhaps excessively so–as a result of my upbringing.

The dampening, however, was not just about material expectations; it was about life in general. Some typical interchanges: “It’s a beautiful day today.” “Yes, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.” Or: “We won the ballgame!” “Yes, but you play the (powerhouse) next time.” And: “The Halloween party is going to be great.” “Well, it is probably going to be much like the one last year, and I am sure you remember that.”

The point, I guess, was to avoid disappointment. If you did not expect much, you would not be dashed, crushed, or frustrated by what happened. And if good things did happen, then you could feel good. But, of course, only for a brief time because disappointments were always just around the corner. By spritzing on expectations, my mom and dad no doubt thought they were being good parents by shielding us from disappointment.

My non-binary progeny, like many young children, often had great enthusiasm for some coming event. Often I knew that the occasion would not live up to the NBP’s excitement. My instinct was to act like my parents. I needed to protect that precious little one by referring to my experiences to show the NBP how it was unlikely to meet such high expectations. Then the prog (pronounced as if it were “proj”) would not be disappointed. In the beginning I may have done that, but then I realized that such a speech only deprived the NBP of pre-event excitement. If the event truly were a bust, then there was no enjoyment whatsoever. My NBP taught me what had been drilled out of me in childhood: enjoy the buildup to something. Get that enjoyment no matter what happens later.

This practice was put to a severe test at Orlando’s Universal Studios when the progeny spotted the Back to the Future ride. The prog had loved the movie and was eager to go on the attraction. But I knew some things about the NBP and one of them was that thrill rides were not just undesired, they were to be avoided at all costs. (Another reason to love that kid. If the NBP had liked roller coasters, I might have had to endure them also. But the last time I had been on such a thing, admittedly quite some time ago, I felt sick for hours afterwards.)  I have no idea what the prog thought this ride was going to be, but I knew it was going to be awful for both of us. As we endured the long line, the NBP’s excitement grew and grew, and I kept debating with myself whether to abandon ship, or in this case, abandon the DeLorean. The more time I internally waffled, the more excited the prog became.

We did it.  It was not a ride that plunges and twists. It was worse. It was one of those virtual reality things where you do not get sick from real motion, but through the trickery of projections. You know it is a trick, but still it makes you scream. You feel scared and stupid.

We came out, and it was clear the progeny had been terrified and was not a happy person. I am sure that it lasted but a few minutes, and the wait for the ride with the building excitement had been much longer—in other words, the period of enjoyment had been much longer than the period of disappointment (and terror)–but this time in not taking away the NBP’s expectations I was not sure that I had done right. I feared that the terror, even if brief, outweighed everything that had come before.

What should a good parent have done?

Recently the now grown-up child and I had dinner, and the Back to the Future ride came up.  Although it happened decades ago, the NGC remembers it vividly.  I asked if I had been a bad parent not to have announced a warning. The NBP shook the head no. But then again, the progeny was expecting me to pick up the restaurant bill. (If you meet the NBP, ask about the Disney ride, It’s a Small World, and you will be convinced that, at least some of the time, I was one terrific father.)

[And the world needs to invent new pronouns.]

 

My Sky and Telescope Limit

The newspaper article (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/science/astronomy-magazine-telescope.html) said that Sky and Telescope, a magazine for the armchair and more serious astronomer and the amateur telescope builder, was for sale. The magazine’s corporate parent was in bankruptcy and, thus, the sale. Sky and Telescope’s editor maintained, however, that the magazine itself was financially strong and expressed confidence that the publication would survive without missing an issue. The article taught me something I did not know. I had never thought much about the magazine’s name, which just seemed natural considering its content, but the newspaper story said that the magazine was founded in 1941 by Charles Federer, Jr. and his wife, Helen Spence Federer, by combining two publications: The Sky, published by the American Museum of Natural History, and Telescope, produced by the Harvard College Observatory. Mostly, however, the article made me think back to when I subscribed to Sky and Telescope in the aftermath of Sputnik.

October 4, 1957, felt like a date that would live in infamy. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, later to become Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, and the United States had an existential crisis. Mr. Cutting, my sixth-grade social studies teacher, whom I admired, said to the class the next day, “America is no longer the leader of the civilized world.” The 180-pound sphere with a two-foot diameter a couple hundred miles above us provoked many similar panicked responses. Russia was ahead of us into space. That must mean they are ahead of us in many areas. Other countries will see that we are second-rate and will not want to follow our democratic ways. The world will soon be dominated by commies. But it may not matter because the Soviet Union could launch orbiting weapons that we can’t defend against.

Within a few days after Sputnik’s radio signals were heard by many earthlings, President Eisenhower addressed the nation to calm the public. He conceded that the United States had to be better at science and technology, and the coming years would see the federal government sharply increase its spending on education. But for me the effect was more immediate. My teachers regarded me as bright (on this I agreed with them), and if I was going to be a patriotic American, I needed to be even better in science.

Science, however, did not mean botany or biology or geology. As far as we knew, our communist enemies weren’t ahead of us in these areas, and in any event, they didn’t matter much. Fission and fusion and thrust and telemetry mattered. Perhaps study chemistry, but better yet, be a physicist, and even better yet, be an astrophysicist. “Reach for the stars, young man” was more than a generalized aspirational slogan. No, really, reach for the actual stars or at least the moon and planets.

I joined school science clubs and participated in school science fairs. I went a step further. An astronomy club met at the public library. I was the only kid. I don’t know how much the other people actually knew about the stars and planets, galaxies and novas because I understood little of what they said. The library, however, had copies of Sky and Telescope on its magazine rack. I thumbed through the issues and decided if I were going to help save America from the red menace, I should subscribe, which I did from saved lawn-mowing and dog-walking money.

I would go through the magazine shortly after its monthly arrival, and I would have said the opposite of what so many Playboy purchasers said: “I got Sky and Telescope for the pictures, not the articles.” Those articles were written by professional astronomers and were way beyond my comprehension, and perhaps for the first time I may have realized I was not always as smart as I wanted to think I was. The pictures of spiral galaxies, Saturn’s rings, double stars, eclipses, however, were simply beautiful. They mesmerized me.

I wanted to understand what was written in Sky and Telescope but never enough to try to work at obtaining that understanding. I was content to have the magazine as a different kind of picture book from the ones I had grown up with. (However, I insist–absolutely insist–that I did read, and understand, articles in Playboy.)