The Columbus Dispatch reports today that between 2016-17 the State of Ohio took drugs purchased by and intended for the state's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and gave them to the prison system to be used in executions. This despite warnings from drug manufacturers not to do so under threat of having drugs millions of people depend on, some to simply live, cut off.
Put more simply: the state thought it was so important to execute people that it was worth putting the lives and health of the sick and those in need at risk to make it happen. This -- along with empowering police to commit violence with impunity -- is one of the logical, violent end-points of the "tough-on-crime" political ideology. The place one reaches when one elevates vengeance above all other purposes of the criminal justice system.
And yes, there are purposes of the criminal justice system other than vengeance.
Rehabilitating criminals and making them productive or, at the every least, non-harmful members of society was once thought of as a laudable goal, but now it is considered too soft. Supporting such a thing makes one vulnerable to political attack ads, so no politician dares to publicly say they are for it. This is why parole is harder to come by, draconian mandatory minimum sentences exist, and capricious "three-strikes" laws are passed.
Simply incapacitating criminals and keeping them from committing more crimes is another purpose of the system. This one is seen as less wimpy by the tough-on-crime crowd, but it's difficult and expensive to house the convicted and doesn't satisfy that eye-for-an-eye bloodlust that seems so important.
So we're left with vengeance.
The problem, though, is that those who adhere to a code of vengeance do so out of the belief that it is mandated by God or some higher, moral power. As such, there is no end seen as more righteous and thus there is no price too high to pay to achieve it. Even if it means harming the sick and needy to see that vengeance is done.
But it's morally abhorrent. Vengeance is not ours. I'm ashamed to live in a state that believes it is. I'm ashamed to live in a state that values state-sanctioned killing above helping those in need.
Over the weekend a report emerged detailing how Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process was aided by a fast-tracked FBI investigation which failed to follow up with dozens of witnesses with potentially damaging information on the nominee. It also includes new allegations from a witness who says he saw Kavanaugh push his penis into the hand of a female student at Yale. It was an allegation the witness told the FBI about last year but which they failed to investigate.
The new report has led to calls for Kavanaugh's impeachment. Such calls will likely go nowhere given current political reality. I will reiterate, however, that no matter what comes of the current news cycle, Kavanaugh is unfit to be a mere lawyer, let alone a Supreme Court Justice. He should not only not have been confirmed last year but he should probably be disbarred.
Most people are viewing all of this, both last year and now, with reference to the standard of what one can get away with in politics. On that score, sure, Kavanaugh is probably fine in today's graceless and shameless political age. He had and still has sufficient support (i.e. the Republican-controlled Senate). In politics, especially these days, that's all that matters.
Kavanugh, however, is not merely beholden to political processes. As I wrote last year, as a lawyer and a judge, he's beholden to the standards of legal and judicial ethics, which presents a far higher bar.
It is manifestly clear -- and was clear a year ago -- that Kavanaugh lied under oath during his confirmation hearing. Partisans contend that they were lies about minor details on relatively unimportant matters. They contend that they fall short of the sorts of lies which would typically bring forth a perjury charge. All of that may be true. All of it is irrelevant, however, because the standard of candor before a tribunal for an attorney and a judge is far, far higher than "that which is legally actionable for perjury" and no exceptions are made for "lies regarding unimportant matters."
As I wrote last year, a person can be denied a law license for lying about something that happened in college or even high school. A lawyer who even hints at misleading behavior during the course of trying a case or who even shades the truth under oath is subject to disciplinary action. The penalties for lack of candor before a tribunal are severe, and include disbarment.
Which is to say: Brett Kavanaugh would be unfit for office even if this past weekend's report never emerged. He'd be unfit to merely practice law, in fact. That, despite all of this, he is now ensconced in the highest and most powerful position in the entire judiciary for the rest of his life is a stain on the legal profession and on the nation.
I'm often told by opponents of Medicare for All that we can't have a single payer health care system because people love their private insurance.
In other news: Whole Foods is eliminating health insurance benefits for 2,000 workers. Because it can.
Wouldn't life be way better if your health insurance was not controlled by your employer?
Joe Biden leads the polls primarily, I assume, because of name recognition and the fact that Democratic voters liked Obama and associate Biden with him. That's fine. There are a lot of reasons people like candidates, especially if they're not hyper-connected with the day-to-day of the campaign like obsessives can be. Biden, on the whole, has been likable for most of his career and everyone knows who he is. It'd be surprising if he wasn't leading.
In recent weeks he's been increasingly attacked by those pursuing him, however. It was especially noticeable in last night's debate, when the other candidates went after him with gusto. Which is also fine. It's part of the deal when you're the frontrunner.
Biden is not handling the attacks well. His responses to anything but the most basic questions have been rambling and at times nonsensical. He gets lost in his own answers. He's simply not performing well under even the slightest bit of pressure. It's not a good sign.
Biden, however, has a lot of friends in the media, and today we see the sorts of dividends that pays via a New York Times op-ed framed thusly:
This is complete bullshit.
Bernie Sanders is older than Biden. Elizabeth Warren is 70. They have their detractors, obviously, but hardly anyone is attacking them for their age in and of itself. The reason for that is because, unlike Biden, they are coherent, rhetorically nimble and are championing policies that are forward-looking while he stammers, talks in circles, references "record players" and literally dropped his dentures when trying to mount an argument.
Biden is being criticized because his brain doesn't seem to be working. Because he cannot articulate compelling arguments and cannot defend himself in anything approaching a competent manner when attacked. The problem with Joe Biden is not that he's old. It's that he's totally overwhelmed, out of his depth and, worst of all, almost wholly disinterested in advancing policies beyond "I want to be president because it's my turn." It'd be just as disqualifying if a 45-year-old did this.
Biden's inability to argue and defend himself with even a modicum of energy will allow Trump to carve him up when they go toe-to-toe. His unwillingness to advance a forward-looking agenda will sap the enthusiasm of the energetic base of the Democratic party. Both of those things risk making an election that should be an easy win against an unpopular incumbent anything but.
It's why I can't support Biden in the Democratic party, even if I'd support him in the general.
When Joe Biden or whoever talks about "reaching across the aisle" to work with Republicans, someone needs to smack them in the head with a printed-out copy of this editorial, reminding them that Republicans have zero interest in such things because they are ideologically at war with democracy.
My kids are studying 9/11 in school. Yesterday my son was talking about it and described a video they watched featuring victims, family members of victims, and witnesses as "old people talking about 9/11." He spoke of it in the same terms as we might've talked about History Channel shows featuring World War II veterans.
My son is a 14-year-old freshman. September 11 happened almost four years before he was born. On my timeline, the moon landing and Woodstock are equivalently remote historical events. Which is a reminder that while, for many of us, 9/11 seems like it happened quite recently, it's not viewed by younger people in the same way. This should be an obvious sort of observation. "Time marches on" and all of that, but I feel like we're not letting time march on naturally with 9/11.
Unlike so many historical events, 9/11 continues to dominate the zeitgeist in a host of ways, many of them unhealthy. Most obviously, we're still fighting wars, either in response to it or for which it served as a pretext. But it likewise continues to inform our country's policies, business practices, political rhetoric, and mood. Post 9/11 life is so thoroughly shaped by it that I think we often forget just how different things are now than they were 18 years ago today.
There's a balance to be struck between "never forgetting" and "respectfully moving on." I'm not sure anyone has a great grip on exactly how to do that, but it's probably tied up in the difference between simply, "remembering" and having historical events serve as the fulcrum around which most current events continue to turn.
It seems we should still be able to remember the history of 9/11 without it serving as a conversation-ender or political third rail. It seems that we, as adults, should begin to think of 9/11 more like my son and his classmates are thinking about it today. As an important historical event and tragedy. As something which should be remembered and something from which we should learn. But as something that is, in fact, in the past and something which should not so thoroughly dominate the culture that it keeps us from moving forward into the future.
I'd occasionally see reruns of "The Rockford Files" when I was young. I didn't think too much of it. To me it was like a dozen other 70s and early 80s cop and detective shows for all the good and the bad that entailed. Stuff my parents liked. Give me "The Dukes of Hazard" and "The A-Team" instead.
When I was in my 20s I got really into detective fiction and revisited a few episodes. The show was pleasant enough and, by then, I was able to understand that it stood head-and-shoulders above its contemporaries, primarily because of how charming James Garner was in the lead role. But it was a tad slow, a tad clunky and looked extraordinarily dated to my young man's eyes. It was certainly far less action-packed than the visceral cop and action dramas of the 90s and lacked all of the style of the then-increasingly common 1970s-inspired fare. Quentin Tarantino would happily show you the cool sideburns, feature the baddest muscle cars and put all the coolest music of the era on the soundtrack, but he excised the plaid and vinyl, the ugly haircuts and the low-end Chevys and Dodges. I liked the 1970s pastiches more than the real McCoy at the time and I thus appreciated "The Rockford Files" more than I enjoyed it.
I recently dove back in to the show -- Cozi TV shows episodes every morning and I record them -- and I am loving it more than anything. I'm early in season 2 now and I am almost certainly going to watch every episode as they pop up on my DVR.
It's hard to say exactly why it's clicking for me so well now when it didn't before.
A lot of it has to do with me having an even greater appreciation for Garner now than I did back then. Dramatic TV today is so full of tormented anti-heroes and comedic TV is so full of discomfort-driven quirky humor that seeing a genuinely warm, funny, and comfortable performance from a straightforwardly likable actor stands out more than it once might've.
It's also the case that I'm older now and the I appreciate the slower pace than I did when I was 25. I've lived enough and read enough by now that I'm less interested in pastiche than I am in that which is authentic (or was authentic). There is no nostalgia to "The Rockford Files." None for me, certainly, as I was really too young when the show was on to look at it and say "that was my time." None on its own terms either, as nothing that show was up to was either especially backward or forward looking. They were living in 1974 (and 1975-80), and that was that.
All of this was twirling around my head this morning when I stumbled upon this bit from a blog post someone wrote about the show a few years back. I think it hits the nail pretty squarely on the head:
Perhaps it was the leaded gasoline fumes that made us all more lethargic, but to the best of my recollection, the mood in America just after Watergate was decidedly hung over, and no one pulls off a ‘where the hell’s the damned aspirin’ look like Jim Rockford does.
That's all pretty comforting, really. And it's probably why I've been enjoying easing into "The Rockford Files' each day.
Today is the 25th anniversary of the start of the 1994-95 Major League Baseball players' strike. Over at the baseball site I wrote about it.
But note: this is not a "here's what happened in 1994" post. Rather, it's 4,231 words about why the 94-95 strike happened in the first place. A strike that is impossible to understand unless you understand the 30+ years which came before it. A strike which, even if it happened 25 years ago, will directly inform that which happens in baseball's immediate future, as the baseball owners and the Players Union begin to negotiate once again.
Wanna know if there will be a strike in 2021? First learn about what happened from 1966-2019. This post is where you can start.
School starts for my two high schoolers in a week. Today was pick-up-the-schedule day, and I was required to be there with them for various little administrative tasks. It all went well except for one thing: "E + R = O."
"E + R = O" is a motivational concept developed by Jack Canfield, the guy who came up with the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. The kids' school introduced it as some guiding concept of their own a year ago and, from the looks of things, it'll be back for the 2019-20 school year.
Why is a public high school in Ohio running with some motivational speaker's schtick? Probably because it was very prominently adopted by former Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer, who made it part of his motivational schtick several years ago.
Meyer put it in his leadership book and won a ton of football games and a national championship while giving voice to the concept. If you're from central Ohio and understand just how insane people here are about Buckeye football, it's not hard to imagine how such a thing might be picked up by school administrators who want to associate themselves with success. I mean, there may be a lot of smart educational ideas floating around out there, but how many of them were used to go 7-0 against Michigan? Yeah, I thought so.
So what is E + R = O?
The letters stand for "Events + Response = Outcomes." Here's a short version of the idea, as put by Canfield:
If unlimited success is your goal, looking outside of yourself is a strategic error. The most important lesson you must understand that you are 100 percent responsible for your life – the good and the bad . . . The basic idea is that every outcome you experience in life (whether it’s success or failure, wealth or poverty, wellness or illness, intimacy or estrangement, joy or frustration) is the result of how you have responded to an earlier event in your life. Likewise, if you want to change the results you get in the future, you must change how you respond to events in your life … starting today.
Meyer has his own spin on it, but it's basically the same thing:
You can’t control the Es of life—the Events you encounter. And you don’t have direct control over the Os—the Outcomes. The only thing you do have total control over is the Rs—your Responses to the Events you encounter.
Meyer's version goes on to set forth six mental techniques to make sure your Responses to Events help you achieve optimal Outcomes. Things like "press pause" to give yourself time to think about how you react and "get your mind right" to focus on positive things rather than negative things. Taken together, these techniques are called "The R Factor." The idea is to use "The R Factor" to "Own your R," or your Response, and thereby achieve good Outcomes when confronted by life's Events.
My kids' school's version of this is basically identical to Meyer's. There's lots of talk about the R-Factor and "Owning your R." They had a months-long program about it last year, complete with video seminars and rallies and stuff. They hand out the wristbands shown above to kids who want 'em. They even had a damn logo.
Given the misuse of the word "everyday" on it, it's pretty clear that this is 100% a function of school administrators and that the English teachers were not consulted. Maybe more than just the English teachers should've been consulted, actually, because if they were, maybe someone would've pointed out how fucked up all of this really is.
It's fucked up because E + R = O is not just a means of supplying kids with problem-solving tools. As is made plain by Canfield and Meyer, with it comes an inherent promise -- you will be successful if you do this -- that cannot possibly be kept, it completely discounts the nature of the "Events" people face in the real world, and it demands that we ignore the advantages and disadvantages some people have to begin with, which changes the nature of the Events they face. Some people will fail in life, at least temporarily, no matter how much they "Own Their R." Others will succeed, no matter what, even if they do very little.
That's because not all "Events" are created equally. Nor, despite what we are so often told to believe, are all people. At least in terms of means and privilege.
In the real world, some kids wake up in the morning with no food to eat or go to bed at night having suffered abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to care for them. In the real world the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy, white people, straight people and men while it is stacked against the poor, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and women. In the real world people get sick or suffer from chronic diseases. In the real world people suffer from mental illness. There's a lot of bad shit out there wrapped up in that "E."
People like Canfield and Meyer, however, would have us discount all of that. "You are 100% responsible for your life," says Canfield. "Unsuccessful people focus too much on the E part," says Meyer. I'm struggling to think of how anyone other than someone who has not had to deal with much in the way of adversity -- or someone who has far more non-self-motivational tools at their disposal to deal with it such as money, power or privilege -- could discount the potential power and magnitude of adversity so cavalierly.
Which, in some ways, makes it understandable why my kids' school so readily took up the E + R = O concept.
New Albany is a wealthy community. While not everyone here is rich, there is much more money here than in almost any town or any school district in the state. Yes, everyone is fighting a battle outsiders know nothing about, but it's also the case that most people in New Albany have much greater resources to fight those battles. Poverty or economic insecurity is not a concern for the vast majority of kids here. Neither is crime. It's an overwhelmingly white place too, so most of the kids at my kids' school have never and will never have to deal with discrimination or bigotry the way many kids do.
In light of all of that it's probably true that, in a great many cases here, some simple positive thinking and R-owning will result in a great many positive Outcomes. But that's because almost any techniques -- be it "getting one's mind right" or "calling Daddy for help" -- is going to result in a great many positive Outcomes for kids in New Albany. The deck is stacked in favor of most of them and most of them are going to be dealt a better hand regardless.
That state of affairs underscores just how pernicious E + R = O is as a philosophy. It demands that people forget external inputs such as basic inequality and biased institutions and credit themselves with all outcomes. When the idea is applied to a group of people who are inherently privileged, it serves primarily to reinforce that privilege by having its practitioners believe that they, and nothing else, are responsible for their success. It demands that they forget that they were born on third base while giving them permission to celebrate hitting a triple. Meanwhile, it demands that they look at those who are not so privileged -- those who may be crushed by a wave of Events far bigger than most New Albany kids will ever know -- and blame them for their failure to achieve good Outcomes. Studies have also shown that constantly telling disadvantaged kids that society is inherently fair can be harmful.
No, I don't think that's what New Albany school administrators had in mind when they adopted E + R = O. I don't think they rolled it out as an explicit means of reinforcing the plutocracy or whatever. To the contrary, I suspect that aspect of it wasn't dwelled on much if at all and, instead, the idea's proponents focused on the "R Factor" stuff which, boiled down to its essence, is some pretty straightforward power of positive thinking stuff.
And I'm sympathetic to that.
There are better and worse ways to respond to life's challenges. It's true that it's better to be positive rather than negative if possible. It's true that it's best to find constructive ways to address adversity if we can. I want my kids to be good problem-solvers and I want them to face adversity with as much rationality, determination and positivity as they can muster. I've spent their whole lives trying as best I can to instill those ideas in them and if the school wants to help me with that, I'm happy for them to do it.
But it's possible to do that without going all-in with a toxic, prepackaged and celebrity-endorsed philosophy like E + R = O. A philosophy that casts anyone who falls short of their goals as a failure and blames them for that failure when, often, they are not to blame, and credits anyone who has achieved success as responsible for and worthy of that success even when, often, they did nothing but be born to achieve it.
And I'd say that even if Urban Meyer wasn't suspended and then forced into an early retirement because he refused to Own his R in the face of a big E that happened with one of his employees about a year ago. God, screw that guy.
"Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed." -- Antonin Scalia, Doe v. Reed, 561 U.S. 186 (2010)
Yesterday Congressman Joaquin Castro -- who is also chairman of his brother Julian Castro's presidential campaign -- tweeted out the names of several notable people and business owners in his district who made maximum campaign donations to Donald Trump. Castro said he did so because "their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as 'invaders,'" and said that people should know who in their community are giving financial support for that agenda.
A backlash to Castro's tweet has emerged. Some of it is predictable, with Republicans calling it "targeting" or "shameful" and the Trump campaign itself calling it "reckless and irresponsible." Some members of the media, most notably the New York Times' chief White House correspondent, Maggie Haberman, have also taken issue with it, calling it "dangerous."
This is absolutely crazy.
The notion that listing names from legally-mandated public lists of political campaign donors is somehow out-of-bounds is unadulterated insanity. The ENTIRE POINT of campaign donation disclosure laws is for people to know who donates to whom. The ENTIRE POINT is to make it clear who is, or who may be, beholden to whom as a result of financial support for one's campaign. It's a an essential means of fighting corruption and promoting transparency in our political system and has been so for centuries.
The Republican response is particularly nonsensical. Republicans have sought -- successfully, I will add -- to massively increase the amount of money in politics under the guise of free speech. Their argument: a campaign donation is an act of free expression under the First Amendment and thus should not be limited, even in the case of corporations, who likewise possess free speech rights. For them to now claim that those exercising their all-important free speech rights should be able to do so in anonymity is deliciously hypocritical. Or it would be if, as I suspect, this little bit of outrage isn't the opening salvo in an effort to have campaign donation disclosure laws repealed. Short of that, the outrage likely centers on Republicans wanting to be able to hide just how much they support Donald Trump, thereby allowing themselves to say, later, when he is gone, that they never supported such a disgrace of a president and a human being.
The media's discomfort with this is likewise ridiculous. Reporters routinely do stories on campaign donations and donors, using the very same freely-available data Castro used to do so. Indeed, the same New York Times for which Maggie Haberman works published an article with the names of each and every donor to the Clinton Foundation -- thousands upon thousands of people -- complete with a searchable database a couple of years ago. And they were fully within their rights to do it. For them to now be uneasy with this shows just how easily they are swayed by -- or just how much they fear -- Republican outrage on any given topic.
Back in my days as a lawyer I spent a lot of time handling campaign finance cases before the Ohio Elections Commission. Let me tell you, there is NOTHING a corrupt politician wants more than to be able to hide who his donors are. The campaign disclosure laws seek to prevent that. And, given that the campaign finance system is itself overseen by political actors, the public nature of such disclosures is an absolutely essential component of the system. Citizens and the press must have access to this information. Indeed, the more they read and disseminate about campaign donations the better the system will be understood, the more people will know about who has power and who seeks influence, and thus the better and more transparently the system will function.
Of course, I have no idea if Castro's use of this information is good politics. It may not be. It could backfire. Or someone could use the same tactic against him or his brother to their detriment. Who knows? But the mere fact that someone -- even someone with a political agenda like Castro -- is using this information should be of no concern to the rest of us whatsoever.
We don't debate whether anyone who says the things Trump says is a racist. It's obvious. I mean, if your neighbor told a black person to "go back to Africa" or a any other non-white, native-born person "go back to where you came from," the message would be loud and clear: a non-white person is less-than-American and unwelcome to them. It would be racism in its most naked form.
Yet, suddenly, when the guy who does it has some sort of political constituency, it's a matter of fine nuance, with the media choosing its mildly-at-best condemning language carefully and Republicans breaking out Webster's dictionary to parse the meaning of "racism" in a way that makes it OK for them to give Trump a pass.
It's patently ridiculous, of course. Trump is a racist. It's not even a close call and it's far, far from being a matter for debate. If you support him, you support a racist. It's pretty simple.
Now, to be clear, you can like some things presidents do and not like others and hedge support most of the time. But not when racism is involved. You don't get to pick and choose when the evil is so dire.
Racism -- via slavery, Jim Crow and everything that has flowed from it -- is our nation's original and lasting sin. It is that, above everything else, our nation has to answer for, then, now and forever. As such, all else should fall away when it re-emerges, re-ascendant. You don't get to pick and choose to say "sure, he's ushered in an age of white ethnonationalism, but the economy is good, so . . ."
People can have one view or another on any manner of issues and take the good with the bad in what will, inevitably, be imperfect leadership. But not when it comes to racism. When it comes to that, anything other than total rejection and opposition is morally and ethically unacceptable. Your tax cuts and deregulation and whatever the hell else you want from this administration can wait while you either oppose it fully or admit you stand complicit with racists, legitimizing them. Our nation's history has mandated that you make that choice.
Pick your side.
Baseball and literary legend Jim Bouton died today. He was 80. My full story about his life and work can be read over at the baseball site. Now, though, something personal.
I have spent most of my life as something of a square peg in a round hole.
What should I have done with all of those past uneasy fits and what should I do about the present ones?
It's natural for some to simply assess the landscape and do what needs to be done to conform and fit in. I can't do it and never have been able to. There are times I desperately wished I could do that. I often think about how much easier my life would've been if I could've done it. But I simply can't. It's not in me.
By the same token, it's natural for some to rebel. To embrace iconoclasm and nonconformity and to wear those things like a badge of honor. That's not me either. My inability to readily fit in is not a point of pride and lashing out at authority or the establishment is not a part of my DNA, even if its opposite is not either.
I've always been caught in between. I am aware that I have always been different -- aware that I don't fit in well with my surroundings -- and I am proud of those differences. But I have never been able to shake the reluctant realization that I want and need at least some semblance of the approval of others. At least some validation from my peers, however defined. At least some place within the institutions I respect and which I superficially inhabit. This conflict has often caused me to exist in the world I live in uncomfortably, torn between my desire to find peace within it and my inability to simply relax and let peace wash over me, chafing against those constraints.
Despite all of this, I am a man at peace. I'm a happy person. Not because I know how to solve this dilemma -- I certainly don't -- but because I know I am not alone. I know that there are many people who feel this way. I have even had role models who have faced these same dilemmas and managed to triumph. Jim Bouton was one of them. Maybe the greatest among them.
Bouton was a square peg in baseball's round hole. He figured out pretty early that he wasn't much like his peers even if his skills entitled him to a place alongside them. He might've done well for himself if he had managed to put his head down and conform like so many players before him and so many since. He might've pitched in the big leagues until the late 70s or early 80s as a rubber-armed knuckleballer. Or, at the very least, might've latched on as a coach and maybe could've become a manager or a front office executive one day. He was a smart guy. He would've done a good job with it, I bet.
But he simply couldn't. For all that he wrote I don't think he ever really explained why, but my sense is that, like me, it would've simply been impossible and self-denying for him to do so. He had to do what the voice inside his head told him to do, even when it was likely to send him into a bad place. Which, by the way, it did. It caused him to be involuntarily exiled from baseball and to be ostracized by his former teammates and peers. He landed well -- he became a sportscaster and an actor and did all kinds of other interesting things -- but there was no guarantee that would happen. Bouton did what his conscience and is id told him to do, foregoing the easier path that conformity would've offered him.
Yet, at the same time, he was no true rebel. He was no iconoclast and never claimed to be. He didn't want to burn down the game of baseball and walk away as he blew out the match. Even before the fallout, as he was writing "Ball Four," he wrote of his fear and anxiety about not being a part of the game anymore. He worried that he couldn't pitch anymore and openly wondered what and who he was if he could not get major league hitters out and stick with a team. Later, years after the professional success and professional calamity that was occasioned by "Ball Four," he still longed to play baseball. He worked his tail off in the minors and the Mexican League simply to continue to do what he loved, with his most famous written words -- "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time" -- no doubt echoing in his mind.
And he was successful. His five games with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, eight years after he was more or less drummed out of the game, served as validation for him. He had bristled against baseball's culture of conformity and, as a result was pushed out of the game, but he still needed it and wanted to be a part of it, badly. And he got it.
I was only a teenager when I first read "Ball Four," but something in it beyond its merely enjoyable prose resonated with me, even if I had no idea what it was. When I re-read it in my 30s it hit me harder. I felt a push and pull in my life that I couldn't really describe and I saw something akin to it in Bouton's pages even if I didn't know quite how it all fit together.
Now, on the day he died, it has finally crystalized for me. The battle between Bouton's inability to conform and his inability to truly rebel was not one either side of him was ever going to win and success or failure in his life was never going to be defined by the outcome of that battle. Rather, Bouton was defined by that push and pull. His success in life -- which I believe he achieved in spades, and I hope he died believing it too -- was a function of his finding grace and peace in the midst of it all, knowing that conflict would never be truly resolved.
In this, Bouton provided a sterling example for all of us who find ourselves in that same dilemma. In this, Jim Bouton became the patron saint for those who chafe.
Last week the president dispatched his daughter, who is a professional fashion designer, to the G-20 summit and the DMZ.
This morning tanks and fighter jets are rolling into Washington as the president turns our nation's annual Fourth of July celebration into a show of military strength cum campaign rally.
A leader sending his hilariously unqualified children out on official state business and hosting strongman military parades on the streets of the capital are not things that happen in healthy democracies. It's what happens in autocracies. It's the stuff of would-be cults of personality. It's the stuff of banana republics.
That that's where we are right now -- and that no one in a position of power or influence seems interested in calling it out or doing a single thing to stop it -- pretty much says all that needs to be said about the state of America.
The "Laffer Curve" is the intellectual basis of supply-side economics. It posits that tax cuts pay for themselves through faster economic growth.
It is also demonstrably bogus.
The Laffer Curve is the economic equivalent of phrenology or alchemy. It's a perpetual motion machine with a cold fusion backup battery. It's been debunked by anyone who has a smidgen of economic education and is championed only by those who have a vested interest in Republican political priorities which have long been advanced with the Laffer Curve as its intellectual cover. Even those who have embraced it -- firstly and most notably Ronald Reagan -- have watched it fail in practice and have had to backtrack on either their tax cut policy or their professed concern about budget deficits in the face of its failure. The practical consequence of all of that voodoo is that we, as a nation, have turned our backs on the poor, abandoned our commitment to a social safety net and have advanced the priorities of the rich and the powerful to the exclusion of almost all things because, hey, that's where the politics born of supply side economics have necessarily taken us.
So, of course, Donald Trump gave Art Laffer, the inventor of the Laffer Curve, the Presidential Medal of Freedom this morning.
A couple of decades after the Laffer Curve got popular in right wing circles Republicans decided that it was of the highest priority to invade Iraq. As was the case with their tax cuts, the Republicans' war plans were based on bogus thinking. In this case bogus intelligence, woven out of whole cloth, and bogus projections of how the invasion and occupation would go, which discounted any potential complication and promised a fantasy that ignored the basic lessons of every armed conflict in the history of mankind. It was, of course, a nearly unmitigated disaster that, sure, deposed a despot, but also led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the physical and psychological misery of millions and the destabilization of a large chunk of the planet for 16 years and counting.
The architects of that whole deal were given Presidential Medals of Freedom too.
I spend a lot of time wondering how we can make our country and our world a better place. Then I remember that the men behind the two most disastrous and destructive initiatives of the past 40 years were given medals for what they did and realize that there seems to be very little interest in doing so.
33 and Me: Fallen nobility, losing wars, arbitraging the Black Plague and my further adventures in genealogy
I recently took a dive into genealogy. I blame bourbon and Donald Trump.
If you’ve read my political posts you know I fight the good fight and all of that, but sometimes I just get tired and discouraged. Tired of the direction I see our country heading and discouraged at the realization that there are a great many people who seem OK with that direction. And, in all likelihood, always have been even if I didn’t want to believe it. It’s sobering stuff so, sometimes, the only way to deal with it is to get drunk.
A couple of weeks ago, once again tired and discouraged, I got drunk and asked myself if I had any claim whatsoever to citizenship or permanent residence anywhere but here. Then, before doing a thing about it, I went to sleep. The next morning I was back to wanting to fight the good fight, but it’s always good know if you have an exit, so I decided to run out the ground ball I’d hit the night before. I signed up for a trial account on ancestry.com and began climbing up the tree trunk.
While I waded into some of this before with my mother’s family in service of a good, bloody yarn of murder and insanity, I knew virtually nothing about my father's side of the family until these past couple of weeks. I won’t bore people with a full-on family tree, but here are some fun facts and random observations one finds when one dives into this stuff.
Thirty-three fun facts:
1. I didn’t go too crazy building my family tree out horizontally because that gets really labor intensive really fast. Exponents are no joke. Besides, cousins are mostly bullshit anyway. Sure, we can all trace ourselves back to the same few thousand homo sapiens who survived the last ice age, but you only have to go back a handful of generations until we’re all basically fucking cousins. I’ll leave the bullshit cousins to people who are super into genealogy. Instead I just focused on direct patrilineal and matrilineal lines, figuring they’re a bit more meaningful.
2. While my name is Craig Calcaterra I didn't look too deeply at Calcaterras, either, because I'm not really a Calcaterra for genealogy purposes. My dad was born Richard McIntyre, was adopted and had his name changed by his stepfather, Garfield Calcaterra, when he was in his early teens. I didn’t know any Calcaterras beyond my dad and his sister growing up and, frankly, the name doesn’t have much significance for me beyond its current record-keeping function and the love-hate relationship I have with being extremely Googleable;
3. I took a quick look back at the Calcaterras out of curiosity, of course. Garfield's father was from Milan and his mother was from Austria. They immigrated in the late 1890s, settled in Iron Mountain, Michigan and had a zillion kids (there are a LOT more Calcaterras than you may imagine). One of them, Garfield’s youngest brother, Ralph Calcaterra, ended up being a super successful real estate developer in Palo Alto and Las Vegas and died in his 90s, just a few years ago, a pretty wealthy man. There are Calcaterra Streets in both San Jose and Las Vegas, both of which are named after him. For years friends have sent me photos of themselves in front of the signs and we’ve joked about it. I had no idea until the past couple of weeks, though, that they were named after someone I’m actually related to. Well, sorta related to. Certainly not related to enough to have gotten a piece of that Bay Area real estate scratch, sadly. Which, by the way, is literally the only money that has been in my family for about, oh, the last 300 or 400 years or so. But more about that in a moment.
4. My dad has known he was born a McIntyre for most of his life, but apart from an aunt who sort of floated in and out of his childhood, he didn’t know any of them or anything about them. He assumed the name was Irish. Actually, it’s Scottish. I suspected this because of the spelling but I was able to establish it for certain when I traced the direct male line of McIntyres back to the early 18th century when my sixth-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1712-63), came over from Islay, Scotland with his wife Margaret and a couple of kids.
5. The McIntyres were part of the Argyll Settlement, which consisted of three boat-loads of families, totaling 400 some-odd people, which settled in what is now Washington County, New York between 1738-1740. The McIntyres arrived on the second boatload, in June of 1739 on a ship called The Happy Return. Lachlan Campbell was the captain. I only know this because there are a whole bunch of Lachlan Campbell descendants who seem to spend a lot of time on ancestry.com. Note: your ability to figure out your family tree without actually doing shoe-leather research in old libraries and government offices is directly proportional to the kind of PR your ancestors gave their ancestors.
6. The Argyll Settlement (sometimes called the Argyle Settlement, which gave the name to the town of Argyle, New York) was kind of a scam, actually. Captain Campbell put it together, getting the King and the Governor of New York to promise families 1,000 acres of Hudson Valley farmland for each adult and 350 acres for each kid. The motivation: respectable Englishmen and their families in Albany and points south kept getting raided by Indians and they wanted some Scottish tomahawk fodder to create a buffer.
Don’t judge, man. People have done worse things to get some land.
Anyway, when the Argyll families got there, guess what? That’s right, no land. They were allowed to settle and farm but they didn’t get title for another 25 years when the Governor of New York finally gave in. The McIntyres got their land — only about 500 acres in all, so they were still kinda ripped off — in 1764 in what is now Fort Edward, New York. They’d spend the next several generations farming that land. For all I know they still are. My third-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1821-96) went west in the 1840s, however, leaving them to it. I should maybe look and see if I have any cousins still living in Fort Edward. Wait, no, forget that. Like I said: cousins are bullshit. Let’s carry on.
7. I can’t find anything about the first Nicholas McIntyre or his ancestors beyond the fact that he was born in Islay, Scotland around 1712 or so. I can trace his wife Margaret’s family back pretty damn far, though. She was a Patterson, and a direct line of Pattersons go back to my 14th-great grandfather, Thomas, who lived around Edinburgh in the late 1400s. If you trace other various matrilineal lines up through that family you can find your way into Scottish nobility, including the Park Clan (going back to the mid-1400s, also around Edinburgh), the Cockburn Clan (early-1400s) and the Home Clan (late 1300s). The most distant direct ancestor of that line I have found so far is a dude named David Home, 1st Baron of Wedderburn (1382-1453), who is my 18th-great grandfather. His family resided in Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire, Scotland for quite a few generations. The old one, not the current one. The current one only goes back to the 1770s and is so nouveau riche. Must be embarrassing for the people who have it now, really. They probably have fish knives and stuff, bless their hearts.
8. At least I think that was my 18th-great grandfather’s title and at least I think he lived in Wedderburn Castle. I’m a tad uncertain because one thing I discovered in all of this research is that people who do amateur genealogy seem to enjoy fudging it a bit if it makes their family look better. I couldn’t find any reason to question these particular lines, but some other person on ancestry.com who was looking at another random line to which I am related — some bullshit cousin, I’m sure — tried to tie in some pretty famous Anglican Bishop who was involved in a bit of history with Queen Elizabeth I as a something-something-great-grandfather of ours.
That would’ve been pretty cool! Except it made no logical sense for about 11 reasons that took only about ten seconds to Google.
Among those reasons: as far as I can tell via non-ancestry.com research, that guy had no kids and was never married because, in his heart, he was really still a Catholic priest even if he converted in order to keep from being imprisoned (note: he was imprisoned anyway and died there; do NOT fuck with Queen Elizabeth, man). So, yeah, that seems pretty dubious and is probably the case of a similar name and a bit of aspirational exuberance resulting in a sketchy family tree connection. There’s a phrase in media about stories being “too good to check.” There’s a notion in the law and in law enforcement about cases being a bit too neat. I think that applies to a lot of genealogy stuff too.
That being said, I think what I found out about my family between the 14th and 18th centuries is more or less correct. The specifics are less interesting to me than the patterns, however.
9. One clear pattern: my male ancestors, going back to those old Lords and castle-dwellers, were really good at falling down the social ladder as generations went on. I’m the direct descendant of a lot of third sons of fourth sons who were squeezed out of titles or land holdings in favor of older brothers or their sister’s husbands or by simple bad luck or bad choices. After their downfall they’d drift out on their own, somewhat aimlessly it seems. Thankfully they were, occasionally, lifted back up by good women and their more stable families. My family is still a pretty itinerant bunch, but when they have managed to stop and breathe for 50-70 years it was because a woman slapped some temporary sense and respectability into them. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.
10. My family also had a really bad habit of picking the wrong side in wars. What follows is a brief survey.
11. One of those Lords of Wedderburn — my 15th-great grandfather — fought and died on the losing side in the Battle of Flooden Field. Thankfully for my sake he did so after having kids. This was offset by another ancestor — some random English nobleman who was one of those third sons of fourth sons — who fought on the winning English side at Flooden Field. We’ll call that one a draw.
12. Those two branches of the family would not meet up again for about 350 years, this time in Indiana of all places, when my great-grandfather — descendant of the dead Scottish guy — married my great-grandmother — descendant of the victorious English guy. Imagine fighting a war for the survival of your name, your clan, your land, and your life, only to have it all end up in some podunk farmer’s wedding in friggin’ Indiana.
13. I can trace my mother’s family, the Kniffens, back to the English village of Kniveton (the name was a bastardization of he village) in Derbyshire. The family became fairly wealthy landowners by — I shit you not — buying up a bunch of dead people’s land after the Black Plague. That was pretty savvy! It also got them granted a title of minor nobility, which just goes to show you how messed up capitalism is, now and then. Or maybe that was feudalism. Whatever.
14. Things went well for the Knivetons/Kniffens for a couple of hundred years and they eventually owned several thousand acres. The rents were pouring in. Again, savvy! What wasn’t so savvy, however, was when my tenth-great grandfather, Sir Andrew Kniveton (d. 1669), began to believe he was an actual knight instead of some landlord with a courtesy title earned over the dead bodies of plague victims and spent WAY too much time and WAY too much money fighting on the Royalist side of the English Civil War. The Royalists lost, of course, and while grandpa Andy didn’t lose his head like Charles I did, he had his title stripped, lost a ton of money and ended up having to sell off almost all of his lands. His son, my ninth-great-grandfather, wisely bolted Oliver Cromwell and England for the New World.
15. The Kniffens were born to lose, it seems, because after about 130 years of some rather prosperous farming in New York and New Jersey they went Royalist again during the Revolutionary War. The king lost again, natch, so they had to flee to Canada in 1781. As I’ve noted in the past, subsequent Kniffens became farmers, roofers, murder victims, truck drivers and such. We get by as best we can.
16. Finally, the whole reason the McIntyres and all the others of the Argyll Settlement left Scotland was because they either took part in or were the children of those who took part in the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 which — anyone? anyone? — yeah, was a losing cause. As a result, political and economic conditions for people in western Scotland went south, crops failed and a famine hit. By the 1730s there was every reason to leave, so they left.
17. Thankfully, my family got their heads on straight, militarily speaking, after that:
Since then my grandfather, father and brother have all served the U.S. Navy during wartime. We’re due for a traitor, frankly. If I had to wager right now it’s Anna, but time will tell. Carlo has some moxie too, and they both have a strong distrust of authority.
18. After some time as a farmhand, my great-grandfather, William Woodford McIntyre (1881-1960), left Indiana where his people had been for a couple of generations and married the daughter of that Civil War hero. They moved up to Detroit, presumably for a job in an auto plant. He has a passport application from 1917 in which he said he intended to go to England and France to study aircraft manufacturing and design, but I don’t know if he ever went. As it was, the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses have him listed as working at a tool and die place. His son, my grandfather, Jim McIntyre (1914-1983), was listed as working at the same tool and die place on the 1940 census. At 25, he was still living at home. That year he met and married Irene Lazar (1916-1978), my grandmother.
19. Speaking of the census, the pre-1950 censuses were amazing. Instead of sampling, they simply went door to door and wrote down the name of every man, woman and child in the place, by hand, including their age, their job if they had one, their income if they cared to share along what languages were spoken in the house. Given current attitudes about privacy — and controversies about whether it’s even legitimate to ask about certain things — it’s insane to even think about the modern census going into that level of detail. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine doing genealogy research without those old censuses because they are a goldmine. Indeed, it’s much easier to find out stuff about a dead great-grandfather than a living uncle because of them.
20. That said, it’s worth asking whether genealogy is really all that important to begin with. At best it’s an exercise in privileged distortion. There are loads of records, going back centuries, for those descended from people from the British Isles or the parts of Continental Europe lucky enough to not have been bombed to bits. If, however, your family came from places that were bombed to bits — or if your ancestors were black, Indigenous, Jewish, Roma or were people who were otherwise systematically enslaved or exterminated by the folks whose records are intact — genealogy is a bit of a different matter. It’s a pretty superfluous bit of business, really. Do people other than whites descended from well-off Europeans do it? I have no idea. All I know is that if your roots go back to bombed-out and/or exterminated and/or enslaved peoples it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can easily track, even if you want to. The people whose histories are well-documented have spent centuries wiping out the histories of those whose are not.
This was evident when I made a brief foray into my paternal grandmother’s side of the family.
21. My great-grandfather, Abraham Lazar (1882-1954), was born in Romania. The town is unknown, as are the names of his parents or siblings. All that is known is that he was Jewish and was coming of age in the 1890s at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Romania, with laws being passed to prevent Jews from attending college, voting and participating in certain trades. It seems likely that, against this backdrop, Abraham’s parents thought it best to get their son out of the country to find a better opportunity elsewhere.
22. And they did. How? I have no real idea. All I know for sure is that he somehow got to England, alone, and then immediately traveled from Liverpool to Montreal on the ship SS Lake Champlain of the Elder Dempster Beaver Line, arriving alone, on August 4, 1900. He eventually got to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I have no idea how. He then met his wife, Dora Sofferin (1886-1970), whose family, also Jewish, came over from Russia and settled in Grand Rapids in the 1890s. They were married in 1903 and eventually moved to Detroit. I recently wrote a bit about Dora’s youngest brother Sammy, but that’s all I really know about that family besides a few basic birth/marriage/death records.
23. Earlier I joked about bullshit cousins. It’s a 100% certainly that, between the Nazis and the Soviets, I have no cousins left in Russia or Romania, bullshit or otherwise.
24. My grandmother Irene married Jim McIntyre in 1940. My dad was born in 1943. Jim and Irene were not a good match — he was a drunk and they both had volatile personalities — and they divorced by late 1948. She married Garfield Calcaterra in early 1949. When you put it all together it was pretty clear that she and Jim had been separated for a long time by then. It’s also clear that she and Garfield had been shacking up for a long time by then too and they were just making it legal once their divorces finally came through.
25. Irene and Garfield raised my dad and his younger sister in Dearborn, Michigan, which at the time was easily one of the most segregated places north of the Mason-Dixon line thanks to both Henry Ford’s virulent racism and antisemitism and thanks to longtime mayor Orville Hubbard, who was George Wallace, North. I’m not sure how an Italian guy with a Jewish wife managed to settle in Dearborn peacefully in those days, but it probably had at least something to do with Garfield Calcaterra being, well, as crooked as hell.
26. Garfield owned a taxicab company, Lorraine Cab. My dad remembers a lot of shady business around all of that. He told me once that, at Christmastime, police would show up at the house, one after another, and Garfield would give them a free ham. He kept the hams in the trunk of one of his cabs. There are about ten things wrong with that, the least of which is that no one seems to know where the hell the hams came from, but I choose to let it remain a vague, unexamined, grifty mystery. It’s also worth noting that my grandmother did the bookkeeping for the cab company, it was an all cash business and my dad remembers there being piles of bills stacked on the kitchen table every day. That may not have been as sketchy as my great-whatever grandfather arbitraging the Black Plague, but it’s certainly a hell of a thing.
27. Garfield Calcaterra died unexpectedly in 1965 so, obviously, I never met him. Then things got weird.
28. Garfield was only 58 when he died. My dad was already in the Navy, His little sister was close to graduating high school. My grandmother, not even 50 yet, did not deal with it well. I don't know her exact diagnosis, but she, in layman's terms, went crazy. Catatonic. Stopped responding to the world. Needed to be taken care of by her sisters and her daughter. It was really, really bad. In my family people referred to it as "her trip to Europe." If ever something came up from the mid-60s through the early 70s and she didn't remember she’d say "oh that must've been when I was in Europe” or someone else would say “you missed that, Irene, that’s when you were on your trip to Europe.” I'm told that she snapped out of it when my brother was born in 1971. Having a grandchild helped I guess.
29. In the meantime, Jim McIntyre moved to Kansas City, where an older brother lived. He sobered up. He went back to work as a draftsman, which had been his trade before he hit the bottle. He was living a clean but spartan life in a small apartment. A few years ago I found photos of my grandmother and Jim McIntyre in his apartment in the mid-70s. They had reconnected. Both damaged as hell but both having found a bit of light on the other side. The pictures are sad. Haunting, even. But sweet. They were in their 60s, but they seem like children.
30. My grandmother died of cancer in 1978. She was only 62. I have only vague memories of her. I wish I could have talked to her when I was old enough to do so. I wish I could’ve learned how she dealt with what she dealt with and not only came out on the other side of it but found both grace and room for forgiveness. There’s so little of that in the world. They’re the hardest things to grasp and to give.
31. Jim McIntyre died in 1983. My dad never reconnected with him and never seemed to have an interest in doing so. I never met him. My mother, somehow, and for some reason, made a few trips to Kansas City to help take care of him before he died. She has some observations and we got some of his few belongings when he died, but he remains more of a set of genealogy records than anything else to me. Oh, and one photo that my grandmother took when she was visiting him in 1976:
Add a few decades, a few pounds and a little more hair and I suppose that’s me, right down to the eyeglasses. I’m not sure what to think about that.
I’m not sure what to think about any of this, frankly.
32. My dad was brought up without his biological father around. My mom grew up without her mother in the picture. My brother is adopted and had no connection to his biological parents until he was in his 30s. I’m the only person in my family who grew up with both of his actual parents. None of that seemed to matter to any of us one way or the other.
33. I know that, unlike a lot of people who dig into their family's past, I got no feeling of connection or identity discovering any of the dozen and a half generations of relatives I uncovered. I found things to joke about and riff on and a few things that were interesting, intellectually speaking, but they still all seem like abstractions to me. Characters in stories more than family of any kind. I only began to feel some things when I got to the people I either knew or at least who knew people I know. Connections that mattered to people I care about and had some sort of influence, even if only tangentially, in my life.
Blood never mattered much to my own, immediate family. It doesn’t seem to matter all that much when applied across the generations either. Relationships matter. That’s probably all that matters, really. That's all we have. The rest is just . . . documents.
Sammy Sofferin started selling cigars on Detroit street corners when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of five children and was still living at home with his widowed mother. By 1920 the then-21-year-old had parlayed his cigar money into owning, and living in, a flophouse on Henry Street with a couple dozen tenants.
By the mid-20s Sammy was the proprietor of the Powhatan Club, one of the most famous -- and notorious -- speakeasies and gambling joints in town. Around this time he bought a house in Dexter-Linwood, the upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood on Detroit's northwest side. Sammy was moving up in the world.
By the mid-30s Sammy and his growing family lived in a large mock Tudor on Wildmere Street, two blocks from the exclusive Detroit Golf Club which, then as now, was a center of power in the city. It was an interesting choice, as Sammy would almost certainly have been denied membership because he was Jewish -- Sammy was a member of Knollwood, a Jewish country club in West Bloomfield -- but it spoke to his ambition.
His true arrival came in 1940. That was the year he opened "Sammy Sofferin's Wonder Bar and Indian Room" on the ground floor of the Book Tower on tony Washington Blvd. It was an immediate hit. It, and Sammy, quickly became Detroit institutions.
A typical evening out at the Wonder Bar would start with strong cocktails followed by brandy-spiked turtle soup or "shrimp a la Powhatan," which was bread shaped like a pyramid onto which fried shrimp, chicken livers, anchovies and scallops were attached with frog legs arranged around the base. Beef was always the centerpiece of dinner, with reviews of the 1940s focusing on "roast beef so tender and juicy it melts on the tongue," prepared "so pinkly rare, sliced nearly half an inch thick, swimming in its own rich brown juice." Later steaks moved to the fore, with the Wonder Bar credited as the first restaurant to introduce New York strips to Detroit.
Entertainment was also on the menu. One night you might be treated to the jazz stylings of Lee Walters. On another it might be Pedro DeLeon's samba quartet or "Spanish blues singer" Linda Garcia. Or maybe you'd be lucky enough to visit the Wonder Bar on a night "Latin troupe extraordinaire," the La Playa Dancers, led by "the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad" were on hand. On more tame nights you might get something a bit more standard from Charles Costello and his orchestra. Still, you could dance to it.
Sammy's track record with the Powhatan Club and his connections with lawyers, judges and business leaders around town ensured success for the Wonder Bar, but its location across the street from the Book-Cadillac Hotel gave it an added boost. Visiting entertainers and athletes were regular fixtures. So too were criminals. Prominent members of the Jewish underworld patronized the Wonder Bar for both business and pleasure. The mobster Moe Dalitz took meetings in the exclusive Indian Room. He met his second wife in the cocktail lounge where he was a regular.
Between Sammy's history with gambling and speakeasies, the nature of his business, the nature of his clientele, and the fact that he was, quite clearly, a lifelong hustler, it's hard to imagine that Sammy wasn't, at the very least, on extremely friendly terms with organized crime. Indeed, it'd be hard to imagine how he'd be allowed to run the Powhatan Club in an era when the Purple Gang controlled the liquor and gambling trade in Detroit without being on very good terms with them.
When Sammy died in 1969, two years after retiring and selling the Wonder Bar, the Detroit Free Press' obituary nodded at all of that but didn't quite make it explicit. Probably because they didn't have to.
So that's my uncle Sammy. Who, for as much fun as that all was to write, may as well be a total stranger to me.
As I mentioned when I wrote about my murderous great-great grandmother a couple of years ago, my extended family is a total black hole to me. I didn't know any of that stuff about her when I did that research and I didn't know anything about Sammy Sofferin this time last week. All of the information included in this piece came from looking at census records, telephone listings, real estate records, some newspaper clippings, restaurant reviews and other assorted documents I dug into after impulsively signing up for a trial account on Ancestry.com last Sunday afternoon. It certainly wasn't well-known family folklore of any kind. At least among anyone who is still alive.
I'm not sure why I signed up for the Ancestry account as I'm actually not all that interested in genealogy for its own sake. Oh, sure, I've found out a lot of stuff about what ship my sixth-great grandpa McIntyre came over on from Scotland in 1739 and what castle my 10th great-grandpa Kniveton lost in Derbyshire after he chose the wrong side in the English Civil War, but that's not super important to anything that matters in my life or the world. We are what we do and what we experience, not what someone who shared genetic material with us 300 or 400 years ago did. Even if it was, my mom, dad and my brother were all raised by at least one adoptive parent, so I'm a very strong proponent of family being about relationships over blood and nurture trumping nature.
Still, it's amazing how much information is out there if you simply look for it. Or, rather, if you take Daryl Zero's advice at the top of this article and don't look for any specific thing and just see what appears before you. Indeed, in some ways I like finding out about my family's history this way. If I had grown up around these people -- or around the people who knew them -- it probably wouldn't be so fascinating to me.
Family stories have a way of insisting upon themselves and their own narratives in ways that make it difficult to question what you hear. If you've been told your grandma was 1/8 Cherokee for your entire life you're probably not very likely to easily accept the fact that, nah, actually she's not. It's too much a part of your family's folklore. The same might happen if I had heard stories about my great-great uncle Sammy from some grandparent or second cousin. I'd have some opinions about it all based on their opinions about it and all of it would be filtered through some storytelling and unreliable narration.
As it is now, though, I can kind of take this all in with fresh eyes and no expectations. I can think of Sammy as just some person who seems to have led a pretty damn fun and interesting life and not some family member from whom I feel obliged to glean some meaning or significance. Or, as I suspect happens more often with people who are super into genealogy, I won't feel obliged to project favorable or admirable things onto him and hope it reflects well on me.
Families are just people. Some of them are murderers. Some of them are gangsters or, at the very least, friends of gangsters. It's a lot more fun to find that kind of thing out yourself than it is to hear some sanitized or exaggerated stories about them that colors your impressions.
Not that it's all facts and data to me. I mean, now that I know all this stuff, I'm probably gonna fantasize a good deal about going back in time -- let's say 1949? -- to order some strong cocktails and eat some Shrimp-a-la-Powhatan at the Wonder Bar. And yes, in my fantasy, I get a table up close to the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad and I get it all on the family discount.
According to NPR -- and a lot of other places, I should add -- "having policy proposals" is just one of many "brands" for a presidential candidate as opposed to an essential and basic requirement:
It's kind of nuts to think that having ideas aimed at addressing the pressing issues of the day is a just another type of branding like, say, being a "straight talker" or being "someone voters would like to have a beer with." Nuts and, I might add, corrosive. For a politician to have a "brand" is consistent with a view of the voter as a consumer, not a citizen. I think we've already done quite enough to commercialize existence without doing do to democracy as well, but I'm probably a few decades too late in objecting.
In other news, I am extremely impressed by Warren's campaign thus far. Maybe that puts me in the minority but, again, I'm someone who actually wants to fix the problems in this country rather than simply feel better about the country in some vague, intangible sense the likes of which Don Draper types might appreciate when applied to laundry detergent or frozen entrees, which is what most of the other candidates seem to be offering.
A profile of Nancy Pelosi in the New York Times appeared over the weekend which outlines her "coldblooded plan" for leading the Democratic Party, defeating Trump and forging a new path forward. The plan is cynical and cowardly. I likewise suspect it will ultimately lead to failure, either at the polls in 2020 or, barring that, in a toothless, uninspiring Democratic presidency should whoever is nominated adopt her thinking and win the election.
The most striking part of it is just how strongly Pelosi is leaning into fear as a justification for an unambitious Democratic candidate and platform:
Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not believe President Trump can be removed through impeachment — the only way to do it, she said this week, is to defeat him in 2020 by a margin so “big” he cannot challenge the legitimacy of a Democratic victory.
Can we acknowledge how remarkable this is? Not the part in which the leader of the opposition party is saying, in public, that she legitimately thinks the President of the United States of America is planning a literal coup, because hell, I wouldn't put that past Trump at this point. No, the remarkable part is that her response is to to try to "inoculate" against that in political terms by hoping for a rare-in-this-age landslide election.
I would like to think that, in addition to just hoping such a thing doesn't happen, she has used the considerable powers and resources at her disposal to begin to forge some sort of legal, institutional plan rooted in her status as he most powerful member of a co-equal branch of government to prepare for such an unprecedented act and to warn Trump against even considering it. If so, I feel like it'd be best for her to give it voice. Trump's casting aside of the rule of law these past few years has been a very public exercise in which he has always tested the waters via tweets and ideas floated via media surrogates, forging ahead with his lawlessness once he realizes that no one will effectively push back. As such, If Pelosi legitimately fears Trump will usurp power after losing an election, maybe it'd be a good idea to warn him against it now in terms that he will fully understand.
Let us also acknowledge that all of this talk of a coup, couched in an article in which she talks about her well-known issues with the left wing of her party, not so subtly lays the groundwork for her to place the theoretical blame for such a coup on that left wing rather than, you know, the guy she thinks is going to stage the coup. "If young Democrats get their way we'll tack too far to the left and create Generalissimo Trump!" Pelosi is clearly arguing. I'll grant that we live in a scary age, but so blatantly basing her political strategy on fears like that, and so cynically saying that those most vocally opposed to Trump would be responsible for it all, is pathetic, especially for a figure of Pelosi's stature.
Short of worrying about a coup, Pelosi is worrying about how Republicans will react if Democrats offer anything in the way of ambition when it comes to policy or make efforts to hold Trump or Republicans to account in any real way:
[Pelosi] offered Democrats her “coldblooded” plan for decisively ridding themselves of Mr. Trump: Do not get dragged into a protracted impeachment bid that will ultimately get crushed in the Republican-controlled Senate, and do not risk alienating the moderate voters who flocked to the party in 2018 by drifting too far to the left.
While reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of impeachment, Pelosi's comments later in the article about how it's convenient to be able to attack Attorney General Bill Barr rather than go directly after Trump, reveal just how afraid she is to get into any sort of confrontation with him. She has thus far shown no willingness to take even moderately aggressive efforts to investigate him or hold him to account in the wake of the Mueller Report or any of the numerous ethics scandals which have infested Trump's presidency. She seems to embody the concern, voiced fairly often these days, that it's best to avoid doing anything to draw Trump's ire or motivate the Republican media machine which would take shrill, hysterical aim at Democrats.
Nowhere in here, however, does Pelosi appear to acknowledge that Democrats could do nothing more provocative than cut ribbons at veterans hospitals and host the annual Easter egg hunt and Republicans and their surrogates in the media would still accuse them of being radical Stalinists hellbent on destroying America. Nowhere does she acknowledge that there is no act or policy position that Democrats could adopt that Trump will not rant and lie about and distort into something horrifying with the Fox News brigade throwing gasoline on the fire. He and they have done it countless times before and they will, with 100% assurance, do it again.
It is utterly pointless, then, to take a hands-off approach to Trump and Republicans, let alone to make that the lodestar of your political philosophy. Even if impeachment is a non-starter given the Republican Senate, using the full power of the Democratic majority in the House to investigate, subpoena and oversee the Executive is imperative. Not just because it's the right thing to do as a matter of basic governance, but because whether Democrats do that or not, Trump and the Republicans will claim they are doing it anyway, casting themselves as victims and casting Democrats as radical tyrants. If that's going to happen, you may as well do your damn job in the process and hold this administration's feet to the fire.
The policy strategy she advocates, such as you can even call it that, may be the saddest part of it all. Pelosi makes it clear here, as she has made it clear previously, that she would prefer that Democrats offer no substantive policy positions that might inspire voters and harness the energy of the party's motivated and highly organized base, all in the name of persuading the most swingy, uncommitted voters on a platform of platitudes and "alienation"-avoidance. The mythical "moderate swing" voter who, to the extent such beasts even exists -- and there's a lot of data suggesting they don't -- almost always swing right when they do, in fact, swing.
The absolute best that can be said about Pelosi's "coldblooded strategy" is that it's cynical. That she is counseling caution and moderation in the runup to 2020 in order to attract all of those swing voters and get a big, coup-negating victory but, once in power, Democrats will do good things, fix our nation's many problems and govern in such a way that makes our lives and the lives of subsequent generations better. That's the best case.
The more likely case: any Democrat taking her cautious, make-no-waves, offer-no-vision strategy now, if they even manage to win, will govern in a cautious, make-no-waves, offer-no-vision way. Partially because, if they promise nothing over the next 18 months, they will have no mandate to do anything ambitious whatsoever, even if they secretly wanted to all along. Mostly, though, because such an approach will be best adopted by someone who, in reality, has no ambition or concern about the future. Such as, I dunno, a nearly 80-year-old candidate who says he "doesn't have time" to lay out a healthcare plan and who "has no empathy" for the problems faced by the nation's largest living adult generation. For example.
It doesn't have to be this way.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who stand for things other than winning the next election for its own sake.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who support not simply getting rid of Trump, which is a given and the bare minimum that must be done to get us out of the nightmare of the past few years, but in taking the fight to him directly.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left invested in creating an affirmative vision of a better nation and society and doing what it takes to achieve that vision once in power.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who believe that achieving all of these things require that we not simply quietly tiptoe past the bully in the hallway and hope to God he doesn't see us, but who know that to stop a bully you have to punch him in the goddamn mouth.
Support them. Don't accept Nancy Pelosi's sad, cynical and fearful "plan" or anyone who thinks that's the best path forward. We can do better. And we should.
I haven't lived in West Virginia for a long time, but if you ask me today I still say that's where I'm from. It's the place that, more than anywhere else, made me who I am and helped me figure out what I cared about.
West Virginia has long been the poster child for states which are hurting or backward or down on their luck. There are some heavy stereotypes which come with all of that -- and there's a lot of misleading broad-brush painting when even the most sympathetic folks talk about its nature and its plight -- but there's a lot of truth too. I love my home state, but I also hurt when I see how much it and its people hurt. I want better for West Virginia.
Last night I met someone who wants better for it too. He's the first person who's come along in a long, long time who seems to understand how to make things better too. His name is Stephen Smith and he's running for governor in the 2020 election.
Smith is running hard now, early, because he has to. He has to because he's decidedly not the hand-picked choice of the Democratic Party establishment to take on incumbent Republican Jim Justice. When you listen to him speak, as I did last night, you quickly understand why.
Smith's aim is not merely to put an end to Republican rule in West Virginia. It's to end more than a century's worth of exploitation of West Virginia's people, its wealth and its resources at the hands of wealthy, largely outside-the-state interests. Businessmen, landowners and extractive businesses who have treated West Virginia as their personal piggybank but who have no stakes in its people, its future or its prosperity. It's a system of exploitation that was just as prevalent during the 80 years when the Democratic Party dominated state politics as it has been under the relatively recent phenomenon of Republican dominance. Its a system that the current Democratic establishment, led by former governor and current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, has shown no interest in fighting.
Smith's argument is that West Virginia's problems are not a function of Democrats vs. Republicans. Not a matter of the left vs. the right. Rather, "it's the good old boys versus the rest of us." Smith says to, "find the West Virginians who are working the hardest and hurting most -- that's whose side we're on." That side is not one anyone in power or most of the people seeking to take power in West Virginia have cared too much about, historically. As such, when you're aligned against both the Republican and the Democratic establishment as Smith is, you have a tough fight on your hands. They're backed by powerful, wealthy forces.
Smith, however, has some things working for him.
Chief among them is organization. Smith has spent 20 years as a community organizer, running the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. Such work is not done from an office in Charleston. Most of it is done on a hyper-local level. It's the sort of work that lends itself to local organization and such organization has been the core element of his campaign.
Already, more than a year-and-a-half before the 2020 election, Smith has recruited campaign captains in each of West Virginia's 55 counties and has recruited 41 down-ballot candidates at the local and county levels to help spread his message. By the end of May he expects to have visited every single county in the state. That early work has already led to a network of volunteers and donors that, in numbers, are several times larger than his closest competitors. In a state where candidates tend to rely on a few TV commercials, a few mailers and the belief that West Virginians will simply do what they're told by the people in power, Smith's campaign has a remarkably uncommon energy that is sure to work to its advantage. West Virginians are hungry for candidates who will listen to them and talk to them rather than talk at them, patronize them and take them for granted.
The message, obviously, is just as important as the organization.
Smith is not afraid to speak frankly about class. About race. About people taking that to which they are entitled as citizens as opposed to politely asking those who have taken so much from them already to kindly give a little back if they can be bothered to do so.
His campaign appearance last night began with a video referencing the Battle of Blair Mountain in which striking miners took up arms against coal companies, bought-and-paid for sheriffs, strikebreakers and their hired guns. He talks about how he worked personally to help aid striking teachers during the 2018 work stoppage who, like the miners at Blair Mountain, wore red bandanas when they marched (he handed out red bandanas to people in attendance last night). He notes that some of those miners and some of those teachers were Democrats, some Republicans, some independents and some apolitical. He notes that the miners who took up arms and the teachers who hit the picket line were white and black. He notes that the majority of striking teachers were women. The common thread was that the wealthy and powerful will do anything they can to divide and exploit those who are less powerful, but that when the less powerful band together they can take back what is rightfully theirs.
Smith minces no words when he says how to do that:
All of these are things which make perfect logical sense but which, for whatever reason, political candidates are afraid to say out loud. Probably because they get most of their support from the wealthy interests who have taken for so long and stand to lose when the people stand up and fight for themselves. Or because they are simply afraid to fight those interests.
I'm a politically outspoken person. Anyone who reads this site knows that. I'm not, however, a person who has worked for campaigns, donated in any great amount to campaigns or who has spent much time advocating for a specific candidate. That's probably because I care deeply about a certain set of ideas and values and, in my lifetime, it has been extraordinarily rare to find candidates who share those ideas and values in more than the most temporary or tangential of ways.
That has changed with respect to the 2020 West Virginia gubernatorial race. I am supporting Stephen Smith, both with my time, my effort and my money. I'd ask that, if you share these ideas and values, that you consider supporting him too. I'd ask that you do that whether or not you're from or whether or not you live in West Virginia. I ask that because if Smith's organizational model, his energy and his message can win the day in West Virginia, it'll be proof that they can win anywhere.
And God knows we need more of that everywhere.
Learn more about Stephen Smith here. Help join the fight here. Help fund the fight with a donation here.
I just read that they're going to shoot most of the "Hillbilly Elegy" movie in Georgia, not Ohio because Georgia has tax credits for production. I know that's not J.D. Vance's decision or anything, but I find it amusing that the movie about a guy who got famous for a book in which he argued that people need to take responsibility for their lot in life and how they should not expect handouts is chasing government subsidies. The only way this could be more delicious would be if Vance cited the lack of Ohio tax credits as poor people's fault.
Still, this is pretty on-brand. I mean, Vance's book was all about enriching himself by leveraging a people and a place of which he is a not a part, so using Georgia taxpayers for this Ohio-set movie in about a guy who wants people to think he's from Kentucky is only right. I'm not sure how the dissonance between the whole taxpayer subsidy thing and his by-your-own-bootstraps ethos will be resolved, but I'm sure he'll make an effort to do so in some glib New York Times editorial soon.
If you're wondering why I'm so cranky about this, you can go back and read the stuff I wrote about Vance and his book in the past. It'll explain it all:
The short version: while Vance had a genuinely rough upbringing and talks about it in frank and often affecting terms in his book, he is far more interested in using his experience as a vehicle with which to advance a conservative political agenda which blames the poor for their own struggles. His doing so found an eager audience on both the right and the left, with conservatives citing his personal success as evidence of the efficacy of their blame-the-poor ethos while liberals nodded along with him, not questioning his portrayal of the rural poor because his version helped assuage their guilt and gave them license to continue to look away. It's pretty odious all around.
If you want two better books about what it means to live in Appalachia and which explains the actual, not imagined, struggles Appalachian people face, I'd ask you to go read Elizabeth Catte's "What you are getting wrong about Appalachia" and Brian Alexander's "Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town."
They won't make fancy movies starring Amy Adams out of those books, but they have the benefit of containing actual information.