The Rich Get Richer . . . The Poor Get Children (continued)

Kate Simon’s memoir Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood, like Bad Girl, also describes working-class, 1920s New York, although Simon is narrating from the viewpoint of a young girl. She and her family were then living in a Bronx neighborhood largely inhabited by immigrant Jews and Italians, and she was struggling to understand the world she was encountering, including the visits of Dr. James. He was seldom seen by the kids because he came when school was in session. No explanation was given for the appearance of this tall, fair “American” in a neighborhood of short, dark “foreigners.” However, Simon noticed, the mothers he visited, who were fine in the morning, were in bed when school let out.

Years later Simon’s medical relatives told her that Dr. James had had a prestigious and lucrative medical practice and came from the prosperous New England family that produced the writers and intellectuals William and Henry James. After his children were raised, Dr. James dedicated himself to poor immigrant women who had “no sex information, no birth-control clinics, nothing but knitting needles, hat pins, lengths of wire, the drinking of noxious mixtures while they sat in scalding baths to prevent the birth of yet another child. Some of these women died of infections, and often when these procedures did not work, the women went to term and then let the infant die of exposure or suffocation.”

To prevent such deaths, Dr. James went from one immigrant neighborhood to another performing abortions. Often charging nothing but never more than a dollar or two, James performed thousands of the procedures. All the adults knew what he did, and according to Simon, so did the police and the Board of Health who generally let him be. Periodically, however, when there was some change in officialdom, he was arrested. He wouldn’t post bail but contacted colleagues. Doctors then thronged the courthouse where “they pleaded, they argued, they shouted, they accused the police and the court of ignorance and inhumanity,” and each time Dr. James was released.

James was a skillful and careful practitioner and would not perform an abortion if it would be too dangerous. Simon had a much younger sister, and when Kate was an adult, her mother told Simon that the sister was unwanted. James, however, would not perform an abortion because Simon’s mother had already had too many and another would be hazardous. Shortly before she died, Simon’s mother told Kate that she had had thirteen abortions (as well as three children) and that other women in the neighborhood had had even more. Why do you think, the mother continued, that the Italian women urged to have large families by the Catholic Church had only two or three kids? “Certainly it wasn’t the abstinence of Italian husbands, no more controlled than Jewish husbands. It was the work of the blessed hands of that wonderful old goy.”

          Viña Delmar’s Bad Girl and Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive, both set in lower-class communities of 1920s New York City, indicate that abortion was prevalent in this country a hundred years ago, and they were common earlier.  Thomas J. Schlereth, in his book, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, cites data showing that abortions were inexpensive and common in the late nineteenth century, with ten dollars being the standard rate in Boston and New York. He reportsthat in 1898 the Michigan Board of Health estimated that one-third of pregnancies were artificially terminated.

Willful infant deaths may also have been frequent. We tend not to think about infanticide, but the concern in our colonial days over it was so great that special evidentiary and other rules were applied when a mother reported a stillbirth or that a baby died shortly after birth.

One of the reasons for the number of abortions was ignorance about sex. In Bad Girls, Dot’s husband has no idea why she is making monthly marks on their calendar.  In our colonial history, and even into the twenty-first century some men believed that a woman could only get pregnant if she had an orgasm and that a woman could only have an orgasm if the intercourse were consensual. Thus, a raped woman could not get pregnant.

Surely sexual ignorance led to abortions. But abortions and infanticides also occurred because of lack or knowledge of other forms of birth control so that the only meaningful “birth control” was abortion.

Perhaps illegal abortions decreased after the 1920s, but that is unknowable. I knew a couple women of my mother’s and my generation who had abortions before they were legal in this country. These were what most would see as ordinary women. Only because I was close to them did I find out about the illegal terminations of their pregnancies. I can assume that of the many older women I have known less well, some, maybe many, also had illegal abortions.

(concluded May 24)

The Rich Get Richer . . . The Poor Get Children

          Bad Girl by Viña Delmar was a bestseller in 1928. My copy is from its fifteenth printing that year. (Sales were apparently not hurt when the novel was banned in Boston.) In the novel, Dot, a working-class New York City woman, does the unthinkable and has premarital sex. She gets pregnant and marries her lover. She fears childbirth, about which she knows little, and the book has a frank discussion of her attempts to terminate the pregnancy.

Even though it is against the law, she gets a supposed miscarriage-inducing concoction from a pharmacist. Although she takes it “religiously,” it fails to work. Dot then turns to a more upper-class friend, Maude, who urges Dot not to have the baby and tells her that only an operation, not any medicine, will work. Dot asks whether the operation hurts, and Maude says it does “the first time, because most girls are crazy enough to try it without ether.” With the anesthetic, however, “you don’t feel a damn thing.” The friend gives Dot an address and tells her not to pay more than fifty dollars, an enormous sum to Dot. Maude states that the hospitals are open to the woman giving birth, but not to the one who doesn’t want a baby. “High prices, fresh doctors. It’s a man’s world, Dot. To the woman who knows her place they will give their charity, but the woman who wants to keep her body from pain and her mind from worry is an object of contempt.” Dot, not having fifty dollars, goes for a preliminary visit to the doctor, who determines she is pregnant, molests her, charges her five dollars, settles for the only two dollars she has, and tells her to make an appointment soon because she is in the second month.

Dot and her husband Eddie are constrained from talking freely about what they are feeling. Eddie thinks that a pregnancy termination would be murder, but he also thinks a man “would have a hell of a nerve” to tell a woman to have a baby. “What right had a man to say what she should do?”

Dot talks with other friends. Edna says a woman has the baby whether she wants it or not. “Abortion” is never uttered. Instead, in a different way from the way we use the term now, that procedure is referred to as “birth control.” Thus, Dot “was not anxious to debate the pro and con of birth control” with Edna, and Edna to herself was trying to figure out, “Who was the birth-control advocate, Eddie or Dot?”

Edna urges Eddie to oppose the abortion, but he replies, “It’s her business.” Edna then indicates that “nine-tenths” of young married women are ignorant about childbirth and abortion. She states that there are only a half-dozen New York City doctors who do abortions without serious complications such as blood poisoning. For a birth, Edna maintains, a woman can find a good doctor, but “the other way you’ve got a guy who couldn’t make a living the way other doctors do. . . , and in case you have religion, you’ve sinned against it.”

Finally, Dot decides. “After all, it was her body that was to be the battle-field. She had been wrong. It was her place to do what she pleased, not to stand by and wait for Eddie to pass judgment.” The thought of the horrid abortionist was repulsive, and she feels happy and peaceful as she announces that she will have the baby.

(I have not seen many references to Viña Delmar, who not long after Bad Girl, became a screenwriter, but she makes a cameo appearance in the 1935 noir novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. The novel’s setting is a marathon dance held in a hall built out over the Pacific. As the marathon goes on, Hollywood personalities attend. One night the personality to fire the starter’s pistol for the brutal “derby,” where the couples race around an oval painted on the floor with the last couple being eliminated from the competition, is Miss Delmar. Rocky, the emcee, played by Gig Young in the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”—it is hard to say which is better, or more depressing, the movie or the book—explains, “Miss Delmar, is a famous Hollywood author and novelist.” I am not sure why Viña, of all the possibilities was plunked down in this book, but it could have been an homage to Bad Girl. Both books, written less than a decade apart, explore, with sensitive understanding, the difficulties of lower-class life in the 1920s and 1930s. Abortion is at the core of Bad Girl and is an undercurrent in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Early on in McCoy’s book, Gloria, played by Jane Fonda in the movie, urges a fellow competitor who is pregnant to get an abortion. At the book’s end, Gloria worries that she is pregnant by Rocky, and she does not want a child. “Suppose I do have a kid?” she said. “You know what it’ll grow up to be, don’t you, just like us.” The narrator, her dance partner says to himself, “She’s right; she’s exactly right. It’ll grow up to be just like us–”)

(continued May 22)

Running with Crime (concluded)

Apprehension was not a one-way street. I sometimes caused fear in others with my running. The most common was the corollary to my fears of running in deserted places. Sometimes pedestrians who thought that no one else was about could hear me approaching and flinched. They would dart around in fright which would quickly turn to relief as they spied a mid-30s, white jogger.

I could relate to what these people felt and was sorry that I had frightened them, but I was amused when I made a woman fearful. I generally was not concerned how I looked when I ran. During the winter I wore old sweats with a cheap knitted cap. I was so attired one mid-day as I jogged in Scarsdale, an affluent, white suburb near White Plains. There was almost no traffic when a car appeared at a stop sign as I approached the intersection in front of her. The white, suburban-mom driver noticed me and looked panicky. Her hand quickly darted from the steering wheel, and I heard the car’s locks click. This funny-to-me moment nourished a prejudice, the one I had about many residents of wealthy suburbs, but I went on to wonder what the reaction would have been had I been black and how many times black men had seen similar reactions from whites.

And then there was the time my running got me involved in the aftermath of a crime and a potential injustice. It was just turning dark on an early winter night, and I was jogging from my house for a loop around Prospect Park. I had just arrived at Grand Army Plaza, which stands outside the major entrance to the park, when I heard screams at a subway entrance. A young white woman was yelling that her purse had been taken and pointing across the Plaza at a young fleeing black man with something dangling from his hand. He was a hundred or more yards from me, but I ran after him and was almost immediately joined by a black kid in the pursuit. I know that I was not trying to catch the purse snatcher (what would I have done had I caught him!), and I don’t think my companion was either. I was planning to keep him in sight and hoping that I would see a cop to flag down who could make the arrest. We followed for a half dozen blocks on an apartment-lined street when the mugger ducked into a building or an alleyway. My companion and I shared a wordless glance that said, “Nope, we aren’t going there.” We turned around and jogged back to the subway stop where a foot cop was with the woman. She seemingly recognized me as one who had given chase. She then saw my pursuing-companion, who was at my side. She immediately yelled at him, “That’s the guy who stole my purse.” I explained the situation, and that ended the matter, but I wondered what would have happened if the black Good Samaritan had been there without me. Mass incarceration has many sides.

The minutes and hours I ran was a small part of my existence, and the rest of my life produced many more apprehensive moments of crime. In those years, fear of crime may not have been omnipresent, but it had a regular recurrence and affected behavior. I have my stories of crime and have heard many similar stories from across the socioeconomic and racial strata from those who lived in New York in those crime-ridden years. There were at the time many tough-on-crime demands, and it was not surprising that many of those cries came from those most affected by crime—racial minorities. Nor should it be surprising that the resulting public policies had undesirable consequences–in this case, fueling the mass incarceration that has filled our jails, wrecked many lives, and put a drain on public coffers.

Often when I was growing up, behavior of an older generation was explained by saying, “She grew up in the depression.” We who had not lived through those times thought that we understood, but perhaps we only humored ourselves about our understanding and empathy. I thought about that more when I realized that my students in “Race, Poverty, and American Criminal Justice” knew on an intellectual level that urban crime rates were once much higher than now, but they did not truly understand the effects all that crime had on segments of society.

At first I thought that they needed a more empathetic and nuanced grasp of how the crime era affected so many of us, but then I wondered if it truly mattered. If they grasped the effects of our tough-on-crime policies–and they did–would it make much difference if they did not fully comprehend how we got to our mass incarceration crisis?

Running with Crime (continued)

In over fifty years of urban living, I have until recently, when my present Brooklyn neighborhood got some trend, lived in what are described as high crime areas, and it is not surprising that I had a heightened concern about crime near home. On the other hand, I ran in many other places in New York and its environs, and crime was often an issue in these neighborhoods, too.

The urban concern about crime a generation ago had a strong racial component. Why was mine considered to be a high crime neighborhood? Perhaps statistics did show more crimes there, but the label generally was applied to any place where whites were the minority of residents, and that was true of my neighborhoods. But a broader dynamic was at work. High crime areas were usually black. This easily led to the thought that black neighborhoods in general were dangerous. If blacks reside or congregate in a place, the feeling then went, watch out for crime. And this led to a most insidious feeling that blacks are dangerous.

I was not immune to these racial concerns. For example, I felt it at night on one side of Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s “Central Park.” The park is a little over a mile from my house, and the run to and from the park and around its perimeter sidewalk made a decent-length afterwork run of about six miles, and I did it regularly.

The five-sided park had different kinds of neighborhoods abutting it. My run generally started on the western edge, the Park Slope side, a largely “gentrified” neighborhood—a code for “white.” I seldom felt fear on this mile of the run or when I made a left turn bringing Windsor Park, a white neighborhood, across the street. My senses, however, got heightened with the next left turn. At first ball fields were across the street, and then apartment buildings about which I knew little. Then another turn. I knew this was black West Indian territory, and I had a white reaction to it. Black equaled increased danger, and here my senses became heightened. I tried to look in front, left, right, and behind simultaneously. My pace may picked up a bit. My behavior was being driven by a fear of crime even though nothing ever happened to me or anyone else I saw there.

I did not have the same concerns about the Prospect Park run during the day. Then there were many others about, and this brought a feeling of safety that did not depend on the racial composition of those I saw and passed. Of course, there are generally fewer people out at night, but fear of crime reduced that number even further a generation ago. I saw the irony in this. If there was no one else there, surely there was no danger, but the senses never trusted what they registered. Was there really no one else there? And if I saw at night only one person on the walkway or sidewalk, the apprehension increased. And if I saw two or three young black males in front of me, my concern increased even further.

I had similar reactions on many runs after dark, but I had heightened concerns even during the day in some places. At one point, I worked in White Plains, a suburb north of New York City, and I took long runs between my office and the Bronx or Manhattan. I often traversed neighborhoods, like the South Bronx, where few whites ventured. While I saw a few minorities in the road races I ran, the ghettoized neighborhoods had few runners, so I was doubly noticeable–white and a runner. This brought stares and comments, generally from young males who I pegged at twelve to fourteen testing out their wiseassness and testosterone. Mostly it was good-natured, but some of the sarcasm had the undertone of a threat. I learned to diffuse the tension in two ways. Through hand gestures or perhaps an oral challenge, I would encourage a young boy from the group making comments to run with me or more often to race me to the corner. His jeers would usually stop as would those from others on the street as they watched the contest. I invariably lost.

If I could not get the impromptu race, I looked for a young woman with a stroller, who could almost always be spotted. Then I would stare at the baby and smile as broadly as I could at the mother. This was nearly guaranteed to bring a look of pleasure from her that seemed to diffuse any hostile intent from others on the street.

These human contacts worked in almost all neighborhoods where I was uncomfortable, but Harlem was different. The comments there often came from older males, who were not about to be cajoled into a smile by racing me. Elsewhere the remarks often made fun of me because I was jogging, but in Harlem many were racially tinged with a more explicit underlying threat. Soon Harlem was one of the places I avoided.

(concluded May 17)

Running with Crime

I recently finished teaching my first undergraduate course. The students in the fifteen-person seminar, titled “Race, Poverty, and American Criminal Justice,” in Columbia College’s American Studies program were smart, engaging, and engaged. They were generations younger than I, and I expected that the experiences and outlooks that they would bring to the course’s topics would be different from mine. This was evident in the seminar’s first couple of weeks.

We started by examining what is often called America’s mass incarceration. America imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country, and the prisoners are disproportionately non-whites. (We do lock up many, many white people, but not at the same rate as brown and black people.) The seminar’s initial reading was a seminal work that sought to explain the increase in incarceration by contending that it was due to a racist-inspired war on drugs. The students had no trouble accepting the author’s premises. I was not surprised. There is a lot of merit in the author’s position. Incarceration surged when the war on drugs began, and even though studies consistently show similar rates of drug use between whites and non-whites, the percentage of blacks jailed for drugs has been much higher than for whites. The students in the elective seminar easily marched with the author, and no one challenged any part of her thesis.

I also assigned another book about mass incarceration. This author, too, discussed a racist war on drugs, but he noted that the majority of people in jails was not there for drug offenses. He maintained that mass incarceration did not have a single cause but was the result of many actions including the war on drugs, harsher sentencing for repeat offenders, increased sentences for all manner of crimes, stricter bail practices, and harsher policing. This author, however, stressed that these changes could not simply be labeled racist. He highlighted the fact that just as blacks are imprisoned disproportionately, blacks disproportionately commit certain crimes, and, importantly, blacks are disproportionately the victims of crime. He discussed the often devastating effect of crime and the fear of crime on neighborhoods, especially black neighborhoods. Then he marshaled evidence showing that many of the tough-on-crime provisions fueling mass incarceration were advocated for by blacks who legitimately feared crime and its damage to their communities.

The students pushed back against this thesis. They had walked into class knowing about mass incarceration that affected the black community, and they wanted to accept that the cause was purely and simply racism. They wanted to keep their simplistic reasoning. That blacks had helped cause the problem because of legitimate fears for their own safety upset their world with nuances and new thoughts. That, of course, is what a college course should do, and our initial discussions about this thesis did not surprise me. What did surprise me, however, was the students’ lack of empathy with the victims of crime. They seemed to have no intrinsic understanding of fear of crime or that many in society might have had identifiable reasons to believe that they would be better off if more people were arrested and incarcerated. (Most of the students were of the firm belief that if we understood the roots of crime and changed those sources, we would not need any prisons.)

I tried to evoke a personal reaction and asked, “Shouldn’t you be able to get off the subway at eleven at night and walk home without being afraid?” They gave me the “Duh” look. Of course, their faces seemed to say, but what a stupid question. They looked as if they could not imagine being afraid coming home. Perhaps there were some that had been victims of fear-inducing crime, but I did not ask because I thought that might tread on the too personal. Instead it seemed clear that most could not fathom the prevalence and strength of urban fear of crime that once existed and how that affected and shaped lives.

I perhaps could have told my own stories of being a crime victim multiple times, but the course was not about me. The classroom discussion, however, did lead me to reflect not so much about being robbed at knifepoint or the house being broken into or cars and bikes being stolen, but more about how crime concerns affected my everyday life. I thought about what I had asked, the apprehension of walking from the subway to the house late at night, but for some reason that took my thinking back to a time when running was my nearly daily activity.

(continued May 15)

First Sentences

“Most years at the Washington County Fair, Stacey Haney set up an animal salon outside her blue and white Coachman trailer.” Eliza Griswold, Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America.

“Each time he raised his eyes from the paperwork, and even more each time he leaned his head against the top of the high, unyielding chair back, he saw every detail, every outline in all its clarity, as though his gaze had newly acquired a subtlety and a sharpness, as though the print were being reborn before his eyes with the same meticulous precision with which, in the year 1513, Albrecht Dürer had first engraved it.” Leonardo Sciascia, Death and the Knight (translated from the Italian by Joseph Farrell.)

“Just after eight-thirty in the morning on August 2, 1978, a small fire broke out on the mezzanine level of a busy Waldbaum’s supermarket in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of southern Brooklyn.” Joe Flood, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City—and Determined the Future of Cities.

“By 1870, not even four full years after the clerk of Chesterfield County, Virginia, officially recorded Emily Reid Levallois’s death, rumors of her survival and true whereabouts abounded.” Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins.

“In 1929, three decades into what were the great years for the blue-collar town of Portsmouth, on the Ohio River, a private swimming pool opened and they called it Dreamland.” Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means.

“Two years into a twenty-three-year prison sentence, on a day pushing 100 degrees, Ronnie Jones had his first visitor.” Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America.

“My friend, Nicholas Brady, who in his own mind helped save the world, was born in Chicago in 1928 but then moved right to California.” Philip K. Dick, Radio Free Albemuth.

“In 2008 everyone was talking about a momentous historic possibility: the Democratic Party nominating a woman, Hillary Clinton, for president, and an African-American man, Barack Obama, for vice president.” Myra MacPherson, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age.

Apology Accepted (concluded)

 

I have never found a magic way to know when a changed position shows growth or when it merely reveals hypocrisy. I begin, however, by looking at the totality of the statements and their arc. Let’s assume that earlier in a career the person made apparently racist statements. If similar statements continued to appear up until the person sought a public office and the earlier statements now seem disqualifying for the desired position, I would doubt that any revised statement is sincere. Even if there were no intervening pronouncements between the earlier problematic one and today’s position, I would be dubious of the present statement. If I had realized I had been wrong on an important topic, I would have tried to correct or disown it at some point before I had to confront it when seeking office. If a view has truly evolved, we should expect statements along the way that move away from the original position and move towards today’s position. That was true for Lincoln and slavery. We can track his evolving thoughts. His final pronouncements were not a break from the past but a continuation of the arc of his thinking.

In judging whether the present position is sincere, the old bromide carries weight: actions speak louder than words. What, besides uttering some words, has the office seeker done that indicates a changed position? Lincoln again is instructive. The Emancipation Proclamation and the enrollment of black soldiers in the Union army can be seen as politically or militarily expedient, but they were actions taken in the face of strident opposition. More than expediency seemed to be motivating Lincoln. Hypocrisy is even harder to see in Lincoln’s action of making the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment a legislative priority. There was little to nothing to be gained politically or militarily from this action. And it becomes even harder to see expediency in his statements, shortly before his death, supporting some black suffrage. If we look at all the actions, we see an evolution away from Lincoln’s early-in-life stances on slavery and race.

However, in determining whether views have truly evolved, we can’t expect that our politicians will operate outside the bounds of public opinion. If we can plot society’s views on an issue with a bell curve resulting, the leader’s views will almost always be within a standard deviation of society’s median. A person is unlikely to lead or get the opportunity to lead if his opinions veer wildly from public opinion. He can only be slightly out in front or slightly behind the general populace. Just as an individual’s views can and should change, society’s views are not irrevocably fixed as individuals and society accumulate new knowledge. Foner writes, “Public opinion, however, is never static: the interactions of enlightened political leaders, engaged social movements, and day-to-day experiences (such as the flight of slaves to Union lines or the encounters Union soldiers had with slaves) can change the nature of public debate and, in so doing, the boundaries of what it is.” Society changes, and so, too should society’s leaders.

In our lifetime, we have seen a major shift of opinion in at least one area–LGBTQI matters. The acceptance of gays, lesbians, transgender people, and others who are not “straight” has changed dramatically in the last thirty or forty years. We could probably dredge up some statements, say, about gay marriage made in 1980 from a present officeholder. I would not expect those remarks to have supported those unions. Only a small fraction of the country did back then. But I do want that person to have different views now. In the last forty years, that person should have had a multitude of experiences, firsthand and from the media, friends, and family, of members of the LGBTQI community that affected that person’s views. I want a present office-seeker’s thinking to have evolved on this issue, as I confess mine has. Surely during that time, society’s views about LBGTQI issues have evolved. I would not want my leaders to cling to what are now seen as bigoted LBGTQI views simply because leaders are expected to hold on to their beliefs in spite of time and experience.

Barack Obama provides an example. Before becoming President, he made conflicting statements about gay marriage. In the 1990s he seemed to support gay marriage, and then, while supporting civil unions and civil rights for gays, he opposed gay marriage. Eventually, as President he supported gay marriage, and this was still when many in society vociferously opposed it. Many of us have twisted along a similar path, but the lack of a straight line should only be expected when a person, or society in general, grapples with change about important issues.

A politician, an office seeker, with a changed view can be a good thing. But it must be sincere and not merely expedient.

Apology Accepted (continued)

 

We should not want leaders who obstinately stick to old positions without their considering new knowledge that might affect that opinion. On the other hand, we should not want someone whose opinions switch more often than the Kardashians change clothes. We should want someone like Eisenhower as described by Michael Doran in Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East: “Thanks to his military experience, [President Eisenhower] was accustomed to reviewing his actions and assessing their effectiveness. When he made mistakes, he paused and thought deeply about them.” We should want leaders who continue to learn and reflect on the consequences and outcomes of their beliefs and actions.

In other words, we should want growth in our leaders. Eric Foner’s impressive book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, published in 2010, addresses the evolution in Lincoln’s opinions about race.

During his life, Lincoln said different things, often inconsistent, about slavery and race, but Foner shows that no one remark can be pulled out that encapsulates Lincoln’s views over a lifetime. Instead, as superior minds tend to do, Lincoln’s views were regularly evolving. The historian writes, “We should first bear in mind that the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth. It is fruitless to identify a single quotation, speech, or letter as the real or quintessential Lincoln. At the time of his death, he occupied a very different position with regard to slavery and the place of blacks in American society than earlier in his life.”

The core of this exceptional president’s greatness was the ability to grow. Our leaders may not be Lincolns, but we should want them, like Lincoln, to have views that develop and evolve. What they have said at all previous stages should be weighed in judging them now, but they should not simply be bound by every previous utterance. If they remain rigidly fixed to all earlier positions, then they have learned nothing from their experiences.

Indeed, we ought to reject a leader who has never changed an opinion. That person has never made a mistake—and few gods seek public office—or they have just ignored information that would indicate when an opinion or action turned out to be wrong. We don’t like to admit that we were in error, but evidence, if we pay attention, can show that we have erred, and growth can only come by paying attention to those humbling experiences. The person who simply ignores such evidence should not be one of our leaders. What T. H. Huxley said about science, indicating how it advances, should be a benchmark for all of society: “The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

The announcement of a new position, however, does not necessarily mean careful reconsideration and growth. Hypocrisy may be at work. Consider Robert Bork. He took legal positions in his academic writings that attracted the attention of conservatives and no doubt helped fuel his nomination to the Supreme Court, but when those same positions, which appealed to the ultra-right, threatened his confirmation chances from a more moderate and sensible Senate, he–surprise, surprise—changed them. Bork at his confirmation hearing modified or renounced many of those earlier positions that placed him far out of the legal and societal mainstream. Perhaps the changed positions showed intellectual growth, but it is possible that his original positions were not sincere. Perhaps they were merely aimed to attract conservative worship that he felt would, and did, advance his career. Or perhaps his later positions were insincere. He did not believe them but thought that he had to announce them to advance to the Supreme Court, which he desperately wanted.

Or consider some of the Democratic Senators who voted in favor of the Iraq war as proposed by George W. Bush. The majority of the Democrats in the House voted against the 2002 joint resolution that authorized the war, but the majority of Senate Democrats voted for it. (Ninety-six percent of the Republican Representatives voted for it, and only one Republican Senator—Chafee of Rhode Island—voted against it.) Why the difference between the Democrats in the House and Senate? Of course, all of them could have been sincere votes, but I was skeptical. I was especially skeptical of the sincerity of some notable Democrats. I was aware of the almost-truism, that seems more true this season than at any other time, that all Senators are hoping to be President, and I thought that some Senators may have thought that a vote against the war might be detrimental to ambitions for higher office. If the war had been successful, future voters might have seen opposition to the war as disqualifying. I wondered how sincere the support for the war was from Senators Bayh, Biden, Clinton, Daschle, Dodd, Edwards, Feinstein, Harkin, Kerry, Schumer, and others.

Later many of these Senators announced opposition to the war and explained their initial support saying that they had been misled by the Bush administration or that the conduct of the war had shown them that their vote in favor of it had been a mistake. On the other hand, to those of us who could see from before the beginning of that the war was a giant mistake that would harm this country (not to mention Iraq) for a generation or more, it was natural to wonder if that initial support was not largely a product of calculated opportunism.

But that still leaves the important question: How do we know when apologies and altered opinions and beliefs show intellectual, empathetic, or emotional growth or when they are merely hypocritically expedient?

(concluded May 8)

Apology Accepted?

Recent calls have issued for Joe Biden to apologize for his treatment of Anita Hill. Whatever is right about that matter, I point out that Biden has apologized for actions taken decades ago. He did announce his regret, for example, for championing legislation that required harsh sentences for drug offenses, laws that helped lead to our country’s incredibly high incarceration rates.

But he is not the only public figure to backtrack. Kirsten Gillebrand, New York Senator now running for President, has walked back some of her views on immigration. Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign expressed regret for using the term “superpredators” two decades before. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those seeking public office to confess the error of past ways. (Of course, I don’t expect our current president to be in this throng. An apology from him is as likely as me snuggling up to a snot otter—see the last post.)

It is not just politicians seeking votes from the electorate who indicate that a view they once held has been replaced by a new position. The now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh falls into that category. Kavanaugh worked for Ken Starr as Starr Javert-like pursued President Clinton. Kavanaugh doing his Starr turn sought the impeachment of President Clinton and stated at the time that sitting presidents did not have immunity from criminal liability. That criminal liability view changed, however. Kavanaugh indicated he saw the error of his earlier position when he served in the administration of President Bush (the elder) and witnessed firsthand the burdens of the presidency.

Of course, not every office holder or seeker announces a mea culpa when confronted with an inconvenient earlier statement. Often the public figure maintains that the previous statement has been taken out of context, or a twist is given to the long-ago position to make it seem not so bad, and assurances are given that the nominee has always believed something that is now politically palatable.

William Rehnquist in his hearings for both his confirmations as Associate Justice and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court fell into that category. Rehnquist, as a recent law school graduate, had been a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. In that position while the landmark desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education was pending, he had written a memorandum that defended the “separate-but-equal doctrine” justifying segregated schools. Saying that Brown was wrongly decided was not a way to get confirmation to Supreme Court positions in 1971 and 1986. Rehnquist testified in hearings in those years that the memo did not express his views, but those Justice Jackson, who conveniently or not, had passed on to the big schoolroom in the sky by then.

While Rehnquist maintained that he had held the “right” views all along, Biden, Gillebrand, Clinton, Kavanaugh, and many other public figures acknowledge a previous position while also stating that experience has led them to change their views. A knee jerk response is to see the newly stated belief as politically expedient and to think less of the person who enunciates it; to see that person as one whose beliefs are formed merely by testing which way the political wind blows.

We should not be too hasty in reaching the conclusion that a changed position is always cynical expediency. We would be telling our leaders that they should only believe what they did twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. The person who remains steadfast to all opinions and beliefs is a person who has gained no new knowledge, who has not learned from experience. In other words, a fool. I am reminded of a character in the play Wolf Hall who concluded that Thomas Moore could not be trusted because Moore continued to believe everything he had learned growing up. On the other hand, we don’t want someone who merely tergiversates. The person who repeatedly swings rapidly from one opinion to another can’t be a good leader.

(Continued May 6)

Snippets

One More Reason to Celebrate

Hooray! Hooray!

The first of May;

Outdoor screwing

Begins today!

Anonymous

 

A portion of a museum had erotic ceramics from cultures that predated the Incas in Peru. I wondered: “Surely they did not refer to it as the missionary position.  What did they call it?”

 

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward in the same direction.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

 

The president and his panderers say we need a border wall to stop both the flow of illegal immigrants and illegal drugs from Mexico. However, once the people and drugs cross the Rio Grande, they are not stopped. If we are telling Mexico that they must do more, we should be saying the same to Texas. The drugs and people seem to traverse the Lone Star State rather easily. The undocumented and the heroin go right past Houston and San Antonio and Dallas and find their way to St. Louis and Fargo and Chicago and Des Moines. It is as if Texas is a sanctuary state without drug laws. If we are going to come down hard on Mexico, perhaps we should say that Texas has to stop this illegal traffic or we will build a wall on its northern border.

 

“Seek simplicity and distrust it.” Alfred North Whitehead.

 

As a part-time resident of the Keystone state, I was interested in the news report that by a 191-6 vote (the story did not say of what body), Pennsylvania had adopted as its official amphibian the Eastern hellbender, a salamander that can grow to two feet in length, and also goes by the increasingly intriguing names of mud devil, lasagna lizard, and snot otter. The vote was lopsided, but the report said that the hellbender had competition for this trophy from the Wehrle’s salamander, which is named after the late naturalist R.W. Wehrle, of Indiana, Pa. This doubled my knowledge of Indiana, Pa., residents. Jimmy Stewart was born and raised there. I am convinced that this brief news report contains the seed of many jokes, but I haven’t come up with any, so I am posting this, I must admit, so that I can write “lasagna lizard” and “snot otter.”  Let’s do that again: lasagna lizard; snot otter.

 

As I passed a group of toddlers on the sidewalk after some rain, I heard the teacher calmly state, “It is your choice whether you walk in any puddles.  But first think about whether that is a good choice.”