New posts at Democracy in America. First, if the NRA's influence is waning, surely that is, to some extent, a result of the fact that Democrats have backed off the issue of gun control so much in recent years (partly because violent crime rates have actually been declining, partly because Democrats were keen to win seats in the mountain west and southwest).

Also, a post on the John Edwards trial. And one on the Vatican's public scolding of American nuns. Being against scolding and pro-nun, you can imagine how I felt about that one.

But on a related note, the (false, yes?) conflict between service and spirit reminds me of a from Bill Minutaglio's book City on Fire, about the 1947 explosion that devastated Texas City. In this passage he describes how Christopher Byrne, the bishop of Galveston, thought about Bill and Johnny Roach--two priests who had turned up in Texas looking for parishes some years earlier:

Byrne had decided to roll the dice, to take a chance, to see if the Roach boys were tapped in to some new way of doing things.

And then he had held his breath for several years as critics and enemies said the Roach boys were dangerously close to no longer being priests--they were becoming socialists, communists even, people who had forgotten that they were supposed to concentrate on spiritual matters instead of delivering medical services, food, water, and homes to poor black people.

Byrne never chastised them...He had let Bill Roach, especially, run free. And the twins seemed to be finally converging on something good. Bill Roach had convinced the mayor of Texas City to tackle the problems of the blacks and Mexican Americans--and in Galveston a hospital was being built where nothing like it had existed before.

Bill Roach died in that hospital, one of hundreds of victims of the explosion.


 
 
Belle Boggs has a thoughtful essay about infertility at  Orion magazine (h/t: the Daily Dish), which includes some commentary on how animals experience infertility, and how humans try to intervene with their affairs:

Humans have a long history of imposing various forms of birth control and reproductive technologies on animals, breeding some and sterilizing others. In recent years, we’ve even administered advanced fertility treatments to endangered captive animals like giant pandas and lowland gorillas. These measures, both high- and low-tech, have come to feel as routine as the management of our own reproduction. We feel responsible when we spay and neuter our cats and dogs, proud when our local zoos release photos of baby animals born of luck and science.

This reminds me of the worst animal story I've ever heard, which I would like to share with you all now.

In 2006 my friend Elisa and I went to the National Zoo and went straight to the part where they have the elephants, giraffes, and hippopotamus. The elephants are my favorite animals at the National Zoo, and I used to go look at them about once a week when I lived in DC.

There was a volunteer in the Elephant House that day so we stopped to talk to her about various aspects of elephant care and maintenance. There was a big contraption behind her--an elaborate system of beams and pulleys, like a super-sized Pilates reformer--and we asked her what it was. She explained that they use it to wash Kandula, who was born at the zoo in 2001. He's a male, she explained, and males can be hard to manage.

Normally I would be sort of "preach it, sister," but I expressed some surprise: he was still small at that point, and seemed like a baby elephant. On a previous visit I had watched as he stumbled out of his enclosure, fumbled around in a dry water trough looking for a drink, realized it was empty, walked over to the faucet, tried to turn it on, couldn't manage--although elephants have a finger-like appendage at the end of the trunk that allows them to be quite dextrous, he hadn't quite mastered this--and so walked over to the adjoining paddock to the next trough, using his trunk to swat a tire swing along the way. Kid stuff.

He was a juvenile, the volunteer explained, but one of the things about animals in captivity is that they can enter maturity earlier than zookeepers expect, and because of what happened with the hippo--

She stopped.

We pressed.

She acquiesced.

Happy the hippo, she explained, was born at the National Zoo in 1981. As a baby, he lived in an exhibit with his mother and an unrelated female hippo, lurking sinisterly beneath the waterline and whatnot. The plan was that he would eventually moved to his own space. But before that happened, Happy entered maturity ahead of schedule, and impregnated his own mother.

The calf, happily, was healthy. To get rid of the evidence, the zoo separated the hippos. The mother was put on birth-control pills and sent to a zoo in Florida. The calf went somewhere else. Happy stayed on at our nation's National Zoo, wallowing in his own filth and shame, where his self-indulgent lifestyle made an implicit mockery of the thousands of families who blithely visited him each year, fine people like Harrison Ford and Callista Flockhart.

That is, at least, what the volunteer told us. I see that the wild animal in question has since moved to Milwaukee, and I think we can all be grateful that even if our capital city has become less Happy, it has regained some minor measure of dignity. 
 
 
One of the themes of the book I'm working on is that Texas's skepticism of government is deeply (and legitimately) rooted. All of its non-native settlers--Spanish, French, Mexican, and Anglo--had less support from HQ as they would have liked, and most of them had struggles with the nominal governing authorities to boot.

Still, the small-government stance has never been universal in Texas; among other data points, today's progressives note that Texas actually had a relatively voluble populist movement at the turn of the 20th century, as did most of the prairie states. So I've been going through the relevant primary documents and I wanted to call your attention to something that had me totally geeking out yesterday. Here's the Omaha Platform of the national Populist Party, adopted in 1892; I can't find the platform of the Texas Populist Party online, but I'm looking at it in the Documents of Texas History, which is a great book if you like that sort of thing. In many respects, these are similar documents. They argue that the working people of the United States, particularly farmers, are being systemically disadvantaged by governmental policies that favour established moneyed interests--bankers, corporations, etc. They call for many of the same things--a graduated income tax, free silver, labor protections, electoral reforms--and the Texas platform specifically endorses the populist platforms presented elsewhere, including Omaha.

However, I want to call your attention to a couple of subtle but significant differences. Here's the Omaha Platform on the proper role of government:

We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.

The Texas platform doesn't quite specify the role of government, but its comments suggest that they see it as somewhat more limited:

We demand that all revenues--national, state, or county--shall be limited to the necessary expenses of the government, economically and honestly administered.

With regard to the railroads, for example--a major issue at the time--the national populists wanted a government takeover:

Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people. The telegraph, telephone, like the post-office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people.

The Texas populists, by contrast, call for more oversight; they only want government ownership as a last resort:

We demand the most rigid, honest, and just national control and supervision of the means of public communication and transportation, and if this control and supervision does not remove the abuses now existing, we demand the government ownership of such means of communication and transportation.

This is, perhaps, because the national populists saw abuses arising from private greed, whereas Texas populists thought the problem was essentially political. Here's the national platform, on the source of the injustices they were reacting to:

The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty.

And here's Texas:

[Politicians] have snatched our government from the hands of the economy and now a billion dollars is spent by a single Congress; both parties vieing with each other in making big appropriations for rivers, harbors, public buildings, extravagances of officials, congressmen, the pensioning of rich widows, burying dead congressmen, etc.

On balance, then--I don't want to read too much into this, and as part of the process, I'll ask some historians to tell me if I'm wrong--but it seems to me that these differences are pretty significant. Both platforms are complaining about injustice perpetuated by the government. But the national platform suggests that government therefore needs to have a bigger role, so it can help more people. The Texan platform suggests that government should take on some additional tasks (one of its complaints, for example, is that the state has failed to provide effective schools and free textbooks), but it also suggests that government in general should be limited, or reined in, or at least subject to more oversight by the people. On its face, incidentally, the Texas framing seems logical enough: if you're having a problem with government, why would the solution be a bigger government, or a more powerful one?
 
 
Don McLeroy, the former chair of the Texas Board of Ed, was on The Colbert Report yesterday.
 
 
Tyler Cowen, at The Atlantic, with six rules of thumb for eating out when you're in an unfamiliar city. As a corollary to his rule about strip malls, I would add that if you're trying to arbitrate between different strip-mall restaurants (for example, Vietnamese food in Houston), go by the parking lot. As he says, restaurants in the same vicinity are often commensurate in quality, because they're competing head-to-head, but a lot of the strip-mall crowd is going to be locals who have been to both.

I would add one from my travels--I think I actually got this one from Cowen's blog, but he doesn't mention it in this piece--and in any case, my experience bears it out. That would be, if you can find a restaurant that doesn't seem like a good fit, that's a good sign. For example, almost every small- or mid-sized southern city these days will have an Indian restaurant these days, and they're usually pretty good, because there's certainly not much demand in Baton Rouge for a horrible Indian restaurant. Veg-friendly, too. 
 
 
Francine du Plessix Gray, at the New York Review of Books, has a review of half a dozen books on stuttering:

The anxiety caused by stuttering has prevailed for millennia. A prayer to find release from it, dated several centuries before the Christian era, has been found on a cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia. One of the first remedies for stuttering recorded in Greek mythology concerns a Prince Battus, who in the seventh century BC implored the oracle of Delphi to alleviate his flaw. The cure imposed by the oracle was expensive and distressing: Battus had to assemble an army, prevail over the inhabitants of an inimical foreign island, and never return to his homeland. At first dismayed by the prospect of a lifelong exile, Battus obeyed, and after winning his battles became as golden-tongued a monarch as any in the Mediterranean, founding, and then ruling over, the Greek colony of Cyrene in present-day Libya.

I always read such articles with great interest because I stuttered when I was younger, and in my experience it was pretty miserable. The cause was unspecified; I'm left-handed, and can be high-strung, although the latter, one suspects, might be a consequence of having had a speech impediment more than a correlate or cause. Like most people who stutter, I had a whole litany of tactical responses: I wouldn't say much, or I wouldn't speak in certain settings, and I had a running mental list of words to avoid, if forced to talk. (My all-time nemesis: "San Francisco".) As in most cases of stuttering, it would come and go from hour to hour, not entirely predictably, so the anxiety about the possibility of stuttering was perhaps more distressing than the stutter itself. Certainly other kids, and strangers, and teachers (!) sometimes teased me about it, but I never saw it as a character issue, although I was aware that others did. People would often scold me to speak more clearly, which I certainly would have done if it had been possible.

And as is usually the case, the stutter eventually abated. I wish I would have seen a speech therapist when I was younger rather than being left to my own devices, although as Gray explains, many stutterers have found the interventions to be harsh and distressing in themselves. My improvised response was straightforward. I started talking more quickly, trying to get the words out before the stutter descended, even if they came out in a jumble.

The results were mixed: I don't stutter any more, but I still speak quickly, and I have a fair number of dysfluencies, as internet commenters have noted with varying degrees of derision (thanks, guys). Unrelatedly, I have a low-pitched voice for a woman, and I'm not very loud. The overall effect is, I think, that of a lazy but kind-hearted lady carnie. It appears to be worse in my mind than it is in real life. I did see a speech therapist a couple of years ago, who gave me a lot of exercises, and after a few weeks politely suggested that I didn't need her services, because the way I talk was slightly idiosyncratic but not incomprehensible or unpleasant. More recently I've been stoically pushing myself into public speaking, with generally good outcomes, but still--walking up to a podium feels like an out-of-body experience, like I'm about to watch myself get shot. I'm not sure I'll ever find it pleasant, but it has gotten a little easier. 

Is there a bright side to stuttering? Not in my view. As you would imagine, a number of stutterers have become well-known writers. Surprisingly, perhaps, some have gone on to become well-known as speakers (Gray cites a number; I would add Joe Biden, James Earl Jones, Tavis Smiley, and Carly Simon; see here for a clip of the latter two talking about it.) The armchair psychology explanation would be that people with a stutter are alienated from their own ability to communicate, and reminded of that at every opportunity; they may therefore be more sensitive to both the value of speech and its limits. (Another armchair explanation is that suggested by the film The King's Speech, that stutterers lack confidence; this one, in my experience, seems to get the causality backwards.) I would trade being able to write for being able to speak without being miserably self-conscious most of the time, but perhaps people who have the opposite problem have the opposite feeling. Maybe the silver lining of this experience is that it gave me an early lesson in empathy, some sense that people should be more gentle with others, even when it's not clear why. That is, I've been lucky enough to escape almost everything that people (particularly women) get belittled for--except for this one thing, which isn't even apparent to other people at this point, but which is a pretty big issue for me. Everyone has something. Now, in case that was all too sincere for the internet: here's a thought-provoking essay by Pamela Haag, "Death by Treacle."
 
 
A post at Free Exchange examining Mitt Romney's claim that Barack Obama's policies have caused tons of job losses among women.
 
 
Attention, LinkedIn users. I want to know who this person is (and why they didn't write to me!):
 
 
 
 
Jon Meacham's story on rethinking heaven is paywalled, but worth reading, for any of you who saw heaven on the cover of Time and flashed back to the days when they used to do stories like, "Was Joseph really a carpenter?" In a similar vein, The Economist had a great Christmas special about historical conceptions of angels a couple of years ago. 

Emily Dickinson, in the spirit of epistemological inquiry:

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.