Some links: 87

Trees and the three-lettered insects that munch on them:

  • To protect Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga candensis) from the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae) (HWA), researchers are exploring natural genetic resistance, biological controls, and forestry techniques: Gabriel Popkin.
  • Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) (EAB) is clobbering native ashes (Fraxinus spp.) in the eastern U.S. Could doomed trees be turned into commercially useful building materials? Yes, say Sasa Zivkovic and Leslie Lok.

Article VI

To say that [the revival of evangelical Christianity in the 1820s] marked a turn away from the spirit of the nation’s founding is to wildly understate the case. The United States was founded during the most secular era in American history, either before or since. In the late eighteenth century, church membership was low, and anticlerical feeling was high. It is no accident that the Constitution does not mention God….

The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. The Constitution prohibits religious tests for officeholders. The Bill of Rights forbids the federal government from establishing a religion, James Madison having argued that to establish a religion would be “to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.”

—Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), pp. 199-200

Number 51

On the centenary of gifted, careful researcher Rosalind Franklin, a reminder of the obstacles she overcame.

[James] Watson and his Cambridge collaborator and eventual fellow Nobel Laureate Francis Crick were not doing laboratory research on the structure of DNA, but they were actively attempting to build a model of it. Franklin’s image provided them with a breakthrough. Franklin was a cautious scientist, believing that modeling should await airtight scientific evidence. But Watson and Crick were less hesitant and became convinced that their double helix model must be correct.

Not a thread

My, there certainly have been some people with things to say about holding a meaningful conversation. I’ve read the open letter to Harper’s, and I’ve read at least some of the criticism, most saliently the response posted to The Objective. Frankly, I see little to object to in the words of the Harper’s letter. The nut sentence for me:

The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

I am not particularly persuaded by the The Objective‘s response. Much space is given to quibbles about some of the examples cited. The responders write,

Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism.

I don’t read a request for “unrestricted freedom to espouse” at all.

However, context is crucial. The Harper’s signatories, at least the names that I recognize, do make up a list of prestigious and powerful (insofar as any intellectual can be called powerful, these days) persons. And there are some people on the list with whom I rarely agree, others whose writing is rather superficial, and still others who have uttered some awful things.

A more nuanced, persuasive response comes from Gabrielle Bellot in Literary Hub: “Freedom Means Can Rather Than Should: What the Harper’s Open Letter Gets Wrong.” She writes:

The problem, then, is that the letter… fails to consider the experiences of others, the experience of what it is like to see your very identity coldly dissected and suspected in the name of free speech.

* * *

I want to believe in a world where, if someone doesn’t understand what it means to be an identity different from their own, they can at least open up a conversation with someone who has this different identity, and, if that person feels inclined to share their experience, they can help show that uncertain person a bit of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

But it’s difficult to hold these dispassionate discussions in a world where I feel scared when I see a police officer, and, when I say why, I am asked to “prove” that systemic racism exists, or where I am asked to “prove” that I have a right to use the women’s restroom.

Her nut graf:

…I became accustomed to such thinkpieces, which never seemed to truly grapple with what it must feel like to be transgender—pieces that failed, like simplistic novels, to put oneself in the shoes of someone wholly different. Ironically, I loved debates, but calmly discussing my very right to exist felt icy and isolating. The philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked in a 1974 essay entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” that very question, trying to put himself into an ontological, experiential position deeply dissimilar to his own. I found myself wishing that some of these anti-trans screeds, which were often defended as simply people “asking questions,” would take the time to truly imagine what it might be like to be someone so different from themselves, rather than treating people like me as clinical subjects to be unempathetically, dehumanizingly dissected in the name of free speech.

When I first read the Harper’s letter, I had recently seen Conor Friedersdorf’s “The Perils of ‘With Us or Against Us’,” which has attracted relatively little attention even though it hits the mark more cleanly.

… in the stifling, anti-intellectual cultural climate of 2020, where solidarity is preferred to dissent, I hear echoes of a familiar Manichaean logic: Choose a side. You are either an anti-racist or an ally of white supremacy. Are you with us or against us? (emphasis in the original)

In my younger days, this idea was often expressed as some version of “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” And when I was young, I subscribed to that idea, but I’ve let my subscription lapse. There are just too many problems to go around: climate change looming like a melting iceberg, the crushing loss of habitat and species diversity, the nuclear doomsday clock (it’s at 23:58:20), shameful human rights violations by our allies and our rivals, excruciating tropical diseases—all of this on top of galloping economic inequality and the string of issues connected to it, not least among them the disenfranchisement of 700,000 Americans. It’s too much. I can’t expect you to drop everything to work on everything that I know is important; how can you expect me to do so for you?

You have to pick your battles. Today, I worked in the park: I rebuilt a protective cage around an oak sapling, and I sowed seeds. Tomorrow will be another project.

I’ll close with Friedersdorf’s closing:

Absolutely, Black lives matter, which is part of why everyone should encourage constructive dissent, even when it seems frustratingly out of touch with the trauma and emotion of the moment. Identifying changes that will achieve equality is hard. Avoiding unintended consequences is harder. Without a healthy deliberative process, avoidable catastrophes are more likely.

-30-: 3

not a bad cropMy mother wasn’t an especially sophisticated woman. Esquire magazine and Champale she considered a little too racy. When I was in high school in the early 1970s, she squawked at me for carrying hot tea in a thermos to school because it “looked affected.” But she was a good person, a mensch.

Most of her family knew her as Eileen. Her nameplate where she worked usually said Doris Gorsline. Some of her newspaper work she signed Dodie. Early on, she sold some joke material under the carefully-chosen gender-free pseudonym of Pat Petirs.

My mother was born in a small city in the Miami Valley of Ohio to Bessie and Louis, both of them garment workers; Louis went on to become a union electrician. She came west to California after finishing high school, just after World War II. She met my father there, moved to New Mexico to start their family, split with my Dad and moved back to Ohio, and raised me in Dayton (and places you can see from there) as a single mother. After I left for university, she spent some time working in Cincinnati, then at the end of her working life returned to Sacramento. She would probably tell you it was for the climate, but I think the real reason was that her best friend Janice was there—they were genuine BFFs, all the way back to school in Ohio. And when she settled there she made more new good friends.

What a person saves, keeps by her, says quite a bit about her. When she moved to assisted living about fifteen years ago and my cousin Rita and I cleaned out her apartment—well, she’s a packrat like I am—her keepsakes spoke loud and clear: friends and family and relationships. Postcards and letters and so many, many photographs. Blank notecards for the sending. Bus schedules (I kept those) and rubber bands and pennies squirreled away everywhere. Her doll collection: what I admire about her collecting is that she didn’t keep her treasures sealed up lest they lose value; she had them out so that she could enjoy them. Of course, her own clippings from stories she’d published.

My mother accomplished a lot—in the middle of the Mad Men era—by writing full-time for a city evening newspaper, the Dayton Daily News. When I would visit her at work, I remember soft #1 pencils and cheap yellow typing paper and pneumatic tubes for moving copy around the building. Mom wrote her share of lighter features, but she wasn’t trapped in what they used to call the women’s section. Early on, her editor told her she’d need to drive to her assignments. One problem: Mom hadn’t learned to drive. So, in her thirties, she took lessons and her driver’s test—and turned it into a story for the paper. Then, later, it was too expensive to send both a reporter and a photographer out, so she learned to make her own photographs.

I wish I could have known her when she was a wisecracking twentysomething, selling gags to 1000 Jokes magazine; or when she flouted convention and summered at a writer’s colony in New England (and had her own lovesick suitor to follow her home to Ohio); or when she was a young girl in the Depression, wheedling a dime from her parents to see the new Shirley Temple movie. She drew comic strips for her own entertainment; and then, in a prescient bit of post modernism, came back to them years later and marked them up, annotating the poor draftsmanship and faulty story-telling. There was a bit of Lynda Barry’s Marlys in her: dance, draw, do whatever you are moved to do, and don’t worry about who’s watching.

We were never well-off, just somewhere-in-the-middle-class, in a succession of rented bungalows in the Dayton suburbs, but in the best public school district in the area. She had the wisdom to listen to what I needed, and did what she could to provide that. And otherwise, with an occasional nudge, she let me solve my own problems.

Truth to tell, she spent a lot of her life doing what other people expected of her, and perhaps that is her small tragedy. She started her writing career, in part, because a teacher in high school thought that she could and should be a writer. Her professional life and avocation evolved over time, as she moved from the humor columnist to the reporter to the P.R. manager. Fairly late in her career, she completed her undergrad degree in communications at what is now Mount St. Joseph University. And she continued submitting fiction and nonfiction to the magazines, with some success. She never stopped trying to figure out what being a writer meant to her.

We went to the movies together: we both loved golden age musicals and Robert Altman’s Nashville (and a certain epic centered on a plantation called Tara that we will pass over for the moment). We went to the library, first the Flesh Public Library in Piqua then the big downtown library in Dayton. We listened to music: we liked Van Cliburn’s piano and Bobby Darin’s pop and Henry Mancini’s movie scores. We had a few comedy albums that we wore the grooves out of: Bob Newhart as a monologist; Mike Nichols and Elaine May as a team. When the Beatles were beset by the “Paul is Dead” rumors, we scrunched next to the stereo, trying to hear the messages coded in “I Am the Walrus.”

We traveled the country by intercity bus and passenger train. We would go to Cincinnati just to visit the ice cream parlor set in the pedestrian bridge joining the two buildings of Pogue’s department store. New York for the World’s Fair in 1965: I was subway-smitten and wanted to ride the 7 train out to Flushing and the fair, but she more sensibly found the dedicated shuttle buses. California and Tennessee by train, to see family and friends. Washington, D.C. by bus in ’64. Parts of the original Greyhound terminal on New York Avenue, N.W. that we used is now under historic preservation, so it will always be there as a souvenir of that good time.

That’s something I learned from her: riding the bus may not be cool, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s cheap and efficient.

And I learned my liberalism and tolerance from her, as imperfect as it may be. She had Jewish colleagues and thought nothing of it. In most of the neighborhoods we lived, African Americans were scarce, but I was taught early on not to dwell on superficial differences. She would proudly tell the story of our Washington visit, when we toured the Senate chamber while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being debated. On the other hand, I’m not sure what she would make of some of my theater friends, but anyway…

Her heroes were two: fellow Miami Valley humorist Erma Bombeck; and Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc in the 1948 film: a woman alone, armed with her faith.

One day, I was telling Leta about my mom’s career, her successes and incompletions, and Leta said, “If success is measured as making a better life for your children, then she was very successful indeed.” Yes. She was a bang-up success.