One thing that popped out to me was the role of women in the Post Office’s workforce. Women made up two-thirds of all Post Office employees by the end of the 1870s, with the Post Office itself accounting for 75% of all federal civilian employees at the time. This made it a vital source of work for women early in the movement for women’s suffrage.
Their chief work was within the Topographer’s Office, which produced maps of postal routes. The layout and drawing of the maps was done by men (it was actually called “gentlemen’s work”). But the “ladies’ work” of coloring the routes according to frequency of delivery was arguably just as if not more important, because it added the dimension of time to the otherwise inert graphics and kept the maps up to date and therefore useful.
This wasn’t easy given the constantly changing routes and limitations of paper. As Blevins put it: “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”
All this was on my mind when I saw Richard Polt’s Instagram post for International Typewriter Day:
I’m not sure how much typewriters factored into the work of the female “colorists” given its graphical nature, but the people’s machine without a doubt contributed to the societal sea change happening concurrently as women marched first into offices and then, eventually, the voting booth.
Anyway, I recommend Paper Trails primarily for history nerds—specifically 19th century America. The academic writing is refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. I’m happy to file it under my “technically first” series of books about how innovative technologies came into being.
With HIV, as with Covid, a transformation of the facts did not necessarily mean a transformation of psychology. Human psyches take time to adjust to new realities; fear and trauma have a habit of outlasting our reason; and stigmas, once imposed, can endure. Camus noted how his citizens in The Plague were oddly resistant to the idea that their pestilence was over, even as the numbers of deaths collapsed. Reactions to the good news were “diverse to the point of incoherence.” But for many, “the terrible months they had lived through had taught them prudence,” or imbued them with “a skepticism so thorough that it was now a second nature.” They had become used to their new routines, and the sense of safety they gave. However bizarre it seems, they became attached to their plague experience.
Sullivan is specifically referring to some people’s resistance to going mask-less outdoors despite the latest science condoning it. But his larger point about the stubbornness of human psychology and becoming emotionally attached to the pandemic experience rang very true for me.
Marveling at masks
Not long before lockdown last year, wearing a mask was still liable to be seen as paranoia even as the specter of the pandemic lurched ever closer. Yet now, long after mask mandates went into effect, it’s not wearing a mask that attracts suspicion and consternation—at least in the Chicago area where I live (obviously it’s a different story in other parts of the country).
And that’s one aspect of pandemic life I’ve become not necessarily attached to, but certainly appreciative of. Anytime I go to a store or other indoor public place, I see every person wearing a mask, even young kids, and think, This is pretty cool.
It’s pretty cool that all of us—whether willingly or begrudgingly—are undertaking collective action to benefit the health of our neighbors and nation. Again, whether you see it that way or not is irrelevant; it’s the fact that it’s happening at all and on such a grand, widespread scale that’s a bit of a marvel to me.
It makes me feel a kind of kinship with my fellow countrymen and women, an esprit de corps that makes the frustrations of pandemic life a little more bearable. Or, as Matt Thomas tweeted:
(Notably this tweet was from before we knew COVID transmission was far more likely through air droplets than direct touch, but the sentiment remains valid.)
To be clear, I’d rather not have to wear a mask. Once mask mandates end and the prevailing, science-based wisdom allows for a more normal life, I’ll celebrate with everyone else. But until then, I consider masking up something to embrace as a small but significant action I can take to nudge this plague in the right direction.
(That and getting the vaccine, which I’ve now done.)
“We’re all in this together” started the pandemic as a motivational motto that even yours truly deployed, but over time kinda curdled into a cheap slogan of hackneyed false optimism due to the decided un-togetherness fostered by a very tumultuous 2020. We all haven’t had the same COVID experience.
I’m one of those people for whom there was very little that was negative about it. I didn’t lose my job. I got to and continue to work from home (saving a bunch of money on commute fuel, among other things). I avoided catching COVID, as did my immediate family and friends (knock on wood). And above all I got so much more time with my wife and 2 year old than I would have otherwise, which was a priceless gift.
For those reasons I’ve very much become “attached to the plague experience.” The new routines it generated will be hard to kick. Slowly, as more people get vaccinated and another summer outdoors approaches in relief, maybe a new mindset will take hold. (I for one eagerly await going to a movie theater once I’m past my post-vaccine waiting period.)
It’s been a tradition on this blog since its inception to do a kind of presidential postmortem for the outgoing commander-in-chief (see Bush and Obama), assessing both the political takeaways and my personal life during their administration. (I planned to publish this on Inauguration Day, but as the actual end date of the Trump administration is now up in the air I figured I’d just let it fly now.)
On the personal front, the Trump years coincided with a very consequential period of my life. I had a baby. I bought a house. Like everyone else I saw my life transformed by a pandemic. For those reasons alone this epoch will remain very memorable.
As for the politics and public happenings, well, I have hitherto not been secretive about my thoughts on the soon-to-be-former president. But as this exercise is meant to take a bird’s-eye view of things, here are four lessons from the Trump presidency.
1. Hypocrisyis cheap
Accusing someone of hypocrisy is very satisfying. The problem is it doesn’t achieve the intended goal of shaming someone into changing their beliefs or behavior. Instead it does the opposite, making the accused feel defensive and therefore much more likely to double down on their beliefs regardless of the facts—and probably just deploy whataboutism, one of many cheap logical fallacies for people who lack any affirmative argument for their own stance.
Pointing out that Mitch McConnell was a hypocrite for allowing the nomination and vote for a Supreme Court justice in an election year (an election week!) might be true, but so what? Like he cared? Similarly, pointing out Joe Biden’s history of inappropriate sexual behavior and Kamala Harris’s criticism of this before becoming his Vice President are hypocritical to their anti-Trump message was unlikely to sway most like-minded supporters against voting for them.
Perhaps this comes off as pessimistic, but it’s just a realistic understanding of human nature. Politics is people. Accusations of hypocrisy, however tempting, are just not effective for persuading your ideological opponents to help you achieve a political objective.
2. Presidents should tweet more (but better)
Hot take: it’s a good thing Trump used Twitter so actively.
To be clear, I’m not talking about his actual tweets, which were occasionally anodyne but most often downright deranged and completely unbecoming a head of state—so much so they got him rightfully banned from Twitter.
Rather it was the act of tweeting itself that represented a sea change in how to adapt the presidency’s traditional “bully pulpit” to our globalized, tech-infused zeitgeist. Trump wasn’t the first president to use Twitter, but he was the first to weaponize it.
We didn’t have to wait to hear the president’s thoughts filtered through press secretaries and sanitized speeches; we often got it straight from the source, immediately and with vigor. This is a trend outside of politics as well, with celebrities and athletes using the direct nature of social media to cut out meddling middlemen and control their own message as far as they’re able.
The downsides to this change are obvious. It’s not good for anyone—let alone the president—to be Too Online and so easily distracted by, as Spiro Agnew would put it, the “nattering nanobs of negativity” on social media. And when the president uses said bully pulpit to spew insane conspiracy theories, spearhead crusades against opponents (and just as often allies), sling obvious lies, and foment insurrection against his own government (!), it’s easy to see why it’s not worth any of the potential upside.
But with a more salutary person and message behind it, this strategy can benefit more than just a politician’s addled ego. It can show the country and the world that the president is paying attention to what’s happening and intends to use their influence to affect change—hopefully for the better.
Certainly this won’t happen in the Biden administration, as his campaign’s key (and clearly successful) strategy was to remain on the defensive and avoid social media squabbles. But odds are the next president who isn’t a senior citizen will take their tweeting to the next level.
3. Federalism is good
This isn’t something I learned under Trump, but I did appreciate it anew. Federalism is generally defined as the balance of power divided between the federal government and the states. Critics will point to how “states’ rights” has historically been used as a coded justification for perpetuating unjust laws (e.g. slavery, segregation). This is indeed unfortunate for many reasons. But the concept of states’ rights is, on the whole, good, and the proof of this is the 2020 election.
Though I’m sympathetic to arguments against the Electoral College, I think every patriotic American should be grateful our elections are administered and certified by counties and states rather than a centralized national authority. Can you imagine the executive branch being in charge of elections? Especially this executive branch?
When you extend that reasoning to other issues, you can see why it’s valuable for states to act as built-in safeguards against very real autocratic threats against our very fragile democratic system. The reason Trump tried so ardently and pathetically to cudgel Georgia’s Secretary of State into committing voter fraud (to cite one of many documented examples of his malfeasance) is because as president he legally can’t do anything else.
Cheers to federalism!
4. The presidency is broken, but it stillmatters
I wrote early in this term about the position’s inherent brokenness. A lot of what was controversial about Trump’s actions as president happened not only because of his decisions but because the existing infrastructure around him—or rather lack thereof—allowed it. “Norms”, after all, are only useful as guardrails against wrongdoing until someone abnormal or shameless comes along and completely ignores them.
And even then, since Congress only applies its accountability powers selectively and on partisan terms, anti-corruption laws that do exist are rendered moot if those in charge of enforcing them lose their nerve. As such, Americans are very often at the mercy of executive action.
(As fake Abraham Lincoln says in Lincoln: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power!”)
Thus the presidency becomes what its occupant makes of it—for good and ill. There were many examples of this during the last four years, but the response to Covid-19 was the perfect synecdoche for all of them. This was an instance where lack of executive action proved severely costly in lives and livelihoods.
Covid-19 really was the perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to shine. He’s very anti-China, very germaphobic, and very enthusiastic about closing borders and keeping out foreigners. Even unpopular leaders in other countries saw their approval ratings rise due to their strong responses to combating the coronavirus, and yet Trump’s cratered and most likely cost him reelection.
It’s important to point out that the economic and medical devastation related to Covid-19 in the United States is not solely Trump’s fault. We know lots of factors contribute, as even other countries that were much more responsive have struggled to contain it. But his indifference, even contempt, toward basic preventative public health measures and the idea of helping anyone who didn’t profess sufficient fealty to him indicated severe myopia at best and destructive nihilism at worst.
This abdication of leadership has contributed to (as of today) over 375,000 American deaths and a record-high 81 million votes against him in 2020. Combine that with all the ways Trump chose to actively wield his executive power for ill—or for his own financial gain—and he becomes the perfect archetype for the kind of person who should never be in any position of power, let alone the presidency.
Grand Old Covfefe
The Trump presidency was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. I largely agree with everything David Frum wrote about the good that came out of this administration. To ignore that is to deny reality, which is something I’ll leave to the “Trump won the election” mob.
Over and over again I have, sadly, been validated. Words from “Your Obedient Servant” from Hamilton come to mind (directed, notably, at another American insurrectionist):
I stand by what I said Every bit of it You stand only for yourself It’s what you do I can’t apologize because it’s true
Trump will soon be gone from his presidential perch. But even then he will remain the summum bonum of the GOP, what was once a functional conservative party but is now, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “a paranoid, delusional personality cult.”
I greatly respect the conservatives and Republicans who have dissented from this delusion, who have seen Trump for what he is and proclaimed such at great cost. These people retain the conscience of the once Grand Old Party, but unfortunately not the control.
I took this picture of my library’s flagpole not long before a sudden and severe thunderstorm tore through the area, which is evident in the ominous clouds and shadows obscuring the otherwise vibrant colors on the flag.
This view brought to mind the final lines of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, which I pondered a few years ago during the Kaepernick kneeling kerfuffle and remain resonant today:
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there
That flag survived the bombardment, and its survival was made evident by the bombardment itself.
You can pick the metaphor to represent what we’re living through now—just some turbulent weather or a straight-up bombardment. Either way, as a nation we’ve endured lots of them throughout history. (Today being Veteran’s Day is another reminder of this.) And yet our flag is still there.
I take comfort in Sam’s speech to Frodo near the end of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when they’re stuck in Osgiliath in a particularly dark moment:
It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
Here’s hoping for sunnier days. (I do anticipate a brighter forecast starting on or around January 20.)
This Fourth of July, the words that are echoing in my mind more than any others are the lyrics of “We Americans” by The Avett Brothers, from their recent album Closer Than Together. They beautifully capture the cognitive dissonance I feel about being an American, and even made me tear up the first time I heard them.
Here they are in full. Happy Fourth of July.
I grew up with reverence for the red white and blue Spoke of God and liberty, reciting the pledge of allegiance Learned love of country from my own family Some shivered and prayed approaching the beaches of Normandy The flag waves high and that’s how it should be So many lives given and taken in the name of freedom But the story’s complicated and hard to read Pages of the book obscured or torn out completely
I am a son of Uncle Sam And I struggle to understand the good and evil But I’m doing the best I can In a place built on stolen land with stolen people
Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco
A misnamed people and a kidnapped race Laws may change but we can’t erase the scars of a nation Of children devalued and disavowed Displaced by greed and the arrogance of manifest destiny Short-sighted to say it was a long time ago Not even two lifetimes have past since the days of Lincoln The sins of Andrew Jackson, the shame of Jim Crow And time moves slow when the tragedies are beyond description
I am a son of Uncle Sam And I struggle to understand the good and evil But I’m doing the best I can In a place built on stolen land with stolen people
We are more than the sum of our parts All these broken homes and broken hearts God will you keep us wherever we go Will you forgive us for where we’ve been We Americans
Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar
I’ve been to every state, seen shore to shore The still open wounds of the civil war Watched blind hatred bounce back and forth Seen vile prejudice both in the south and the north And accountability is hard to impose On ghosts of ancestors haunting the halls of our conscience But the path of grace and goodwill is still here, For those of us who may be considered among the living
I am a son of God and man And I may never understand the good and evil But I dearly love this land Because of, and in spite of we the people
We are more than the sum of our parts All these broken bones and broken hearts God will you keep us wherever we go Can you forgive us for where we’ve been We Americans We Americans
Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory
Statues are mythology. Statues are hagiography. If you care about history as a discipline, as a way of analyzing the past, tear down every single statue.
Somehow, the history of Nazi Germany is available without statues of Hitler in every German square.
We can somehow still access the history of Mussolini’s rule without having statues of him in Rome.
We know about Ceaușescu without his stone visage glaring out over Bucharest.
Statues tell us about how we understand the present, not the reality of the past. Statues teach us nothing but who we find worth elevating into godhood. Statues are about the lies with think are worth believing in. Statues aren’t history.
The recent spate of statue removals run the gamut from coordinated (Theodore Roosevelt’s) to chaotic (Madison’s). But all of them share the same underlying sentiment, as articulated by Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi (the only good Star Wars movie):
Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.
The irony of this sentiment is Kylo spends the entire movie trying to actually kill connections to his past but still can’t fully shake them. (After all, the past isn’t past.) As James Whitbrook writes:
So maybe “Let the past die” needs to be paired with another great quote about legacies from The Last Jedi—something Yoda says to Luke, as they watch the glowing embers of the burning tree on Ahch-To: “We are what they grow beyond.”
Just as Rey learns and grows beyond what Luke and his failures can teach her—just as she steals away those ancient Jedi texts before they can be destroyed forever, to potentially build upon their ideas herself—so must Star Wars as a franchise if it’s going to keep adding more and more stories to its ever-growing saga. Respect its past, learn from it, and let it go and move on.
As a long-running franchise and “ever-growing saga” itself, America needs to take the best of its past and let go of the rest.
Which isn’t the same as forgetting or destroying it. To me it means severing ties from two contrasting yet equally toxic and “bitter clinging” impulses: nostalgia, which insists the past was better than the present, and resentment, which only finds fault with it.
Yesterday my son, who works in the Chicago Loop, saw a woman on a bicycle get hit by a car. She wasn’t seriously injured, but she was knocked to the ground, dazed. He ran up to her to see if she was okay and pulled out his phone to call 911 — but she quickly, urgently said, “No! No! I can’t afford to go to the hospital!” And after taking a moment to gather herself, she got to her feet, picked up her damaged bike, and wobbled off.
And so my son stood there on the corner, surrounded by the glories of Chicago’s architecture, the superb expensive shops on the Magnificent Mile, the wealth that fairly pulsates from every building, and reflected, as one well might, on American Greatness.
1. “What needs to be remembered here,” he wrote the next day, after he’d done [the trade], “is that this is $100 million. That’s an insane amount of money. And it just gets thrown around like it’s three digits instead of nine.”
2. “In retrospect, their ignorance seems incredible—but, then, an entire financial system was premised on their not knowing, and paying them for this talent.”
3. “The ability of Wall Street traders to see themselves in their success and their management in their failure would later be echoed, when their firms, which disdained the need for government regulation in good times, insisted on being rescued by government in bad times. Success was individual achievement; failure was a social problem.”
In his book Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fisher writes about how the colonists responded to the dark days of the American Revolution in 1776:
This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible. “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity,” Rush wrote. “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.”
Rush, a sort of honorary Founding Father and very distant relative of mine, was speaking to his present times but I think he also speaks to ours. I’ve said before that if we make it out of our current darkness alive, we’ll be better for it.