Essays worth reading

My last reading list was so popular that I am tempted to make this a regular thing. Here’s a second installment of fun things I have read lately.

Missouri charmer led double life, masterminded one of the biggest frauds in farm history. This piece is based on the case of Randy Constant, who was just sentenced to prison for fraudulently selling $120 million of grain designated as organic when it was far from it. He was selling such volume of “organic” grain that his sales amounted to 7% of all comparable organic corn grown and 8% of all organic soybeans grown in the United States (according to the Department of Justice).

That grain was then fed to chickens and cattle, whose meat was then sold as organic meat, even though it technically wasn’t because they were living on a diet of chemical-treated grain.

I found this article somewhat hilarious. Although I make an effort to eat organic food, I have had so many arguments with people who think the US has strong regulations and oversight over the organic food industry. We don’t. The fact that a random dude in Missouri with a Vegas gambling and prostitute problem managed to build a $120 million organic grain empire with garbage grain that he wasn’t even growing himself at his certified organic farms shows how weak regulation is. (See also some of the mass recalls for tainted “organic” food recently.)

The funny thing is this guy will go to prison, but the retailers who hawk overpriced organic content with zero care for its origins will carry on with business as usual.

Fortune has an intriguing series on how bad actors (criminal enterprises, spies, etc.) are jamming GPS systems to wreck havoc with the shipping industry. As a family that loves sailing and dreams of doing ocean crossings some day, this was a bonkers series to read. (Seriously, maybe there’s something to learning to read the constellations as a sanity check on the devices.) It made me think of the controversy a while back about how US Navy ships frequently started having accidents. I don’t know what became of that whole ordeal, but I wonder if these two things are related. Absolutely bizarre.

The myth of the “moderate” public option: The Biden and Buttigieg plans would bust federal budgets, hurt patient care and gut private insurers. This is an opinion piece from  Lanhee J. Chen at Stanford University from the Wall Street Journal. Very interesting argument about how a public option would interfere with the operation of private health insurance:

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg claim they’re proposing a moderate, less disruptive approach to health-care reform when they advocate a public option—a government policy offered as an alternative to private health insurance—in lieu of Medicare for All. Don’t believe it. My research finds that such proposals would increase the federal deficit dramatically and destabilize the market for private health insurance, threatening health-care quality and choice.

While estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and other analysts have concluded that a public option-style proposal would reduce federal deficits, those effects are predicated on two flawed assumptions: first, that the government will negotiate hospital and provider reimbursement rates similar to Medicare’s fee schedules and far below what private insurers pay; second, that the government would charge “actuarially fair premiums,” which cover 100% of provided benefits and administrative costs.

History demonstrates we should be skeptical of cost estimates that rely on such assumptions. Political pressure upended similar financing assumptions in Medicare Part B only two years after the entitlement’s creation. The Johnson administration in 1968 and then Congress in 1972 had to intervene to shield seniors from premium increases. Objections from health-care providers to low reimbursement rates have regularly led to federal spending increases in Medicare and Medicaid. The result isn’t hard to fathom. If premiums can’t rise to cover program costs, or reimbursement rates are raised to ensure access to a reasonable number of providers, who’ll pay? Taxpayers, who were promised a self-sufficient government program.

With Hoover Institution research fellows Tom Church and Daniel L. Heil and support from the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, I estimated the fiscal and tax implications of creating a federally administered public option. If Congress’s past behavior is a guide, a public option available to all individuals and employers would add more than $700 billion to the 10-year federal deficit. The annual deficit increase would hit $100 billion within a few years. Some 123 million people—roughly 1 in 3 Americans—would be enrolled in the public option by 2025, broadly displacing existing insurance. These estimates don’t include the costs of additional Affordable Care Act subsidies and eligibility expansions proposed by Messrs. Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg.

The fiscal effects are even more pronounced over the long run. We estimate that federal spending on the public option would exceed total military spending by 2042 and match combined spending on Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and ACA subsidies by 2049. In the latter year the public option would become the third most expensive government program, behind only Medicare and Social Security. The public option alone would raise the federal debt by 30% of gross domestic product over the next 30 years.

While some, like Mr. Biden, claim their health reforms can be paid for by simply taxing the wealthy more, that seems unrealistic. We conclude that if tax increases to pay for a politically realistic public option were limited to high-income filers, the top marginal rate would have to rise from the current 37% to 73% in 2049—a level not seen since the 1960s. Such large rate increases would undoubtedly have economic effects, causing revenue to fall short of our static estimates.

If policy makers want to avoid a large increase in deficits, then, a public option would require tax hikes on most Americans, including middle-income families. An across-the-board income-tax hike to support this policy would mean that taxpayers in the 28% and 33% tax brackets would see their marginal tax rates increase by about six percentage points by 2049, while the top tax bracket would rise above 47%.

Alternatively, Congress could enact a new broad-based tax similar to Medicare’s 2.9% Hospital Insurance payroll tax. The new tax would be levied on all wage and salary income and would reach 4.8% in 2049.

These fiscal estimates may underestimate the cost of the public option, as they assume no changes in use of medical services. The generous cost-sharing rules in the public option would likely increase demand for health-care services, while the federal government would be unlikely to implement the stringent and sometimes painful cost-management procedures needed to limit use.

Beyond fiscal considerations, the public option would quickly displace employer-based and other private insurance. This would force some private insurers to exit the market and encourage greater consolidation among remaining insurers. Consumers seeking coverage would be left with fewer insurance options and higher premiums.

Meanwhile, many health-care providers would suffer a dramatic drop in income, while at the same time experiencing greater demand for their services. Longer wait times and narrower provider networks would likely follow for those enrolled in the public option, harming patients’ health and reducing consumer choice. Declines in provider payments would also affect investment decisions by hospitals and may lead to fewer new doctors and other medical providers.

Politicians like Messrs. Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg like to market the public option as a less dramatic and cheaper alternative to Medicare for All. That’s far from the whole story. A politically realistic public option would produce dramatic fiscal costs and harm the U.S. health-care system. Policy makers may yet find the middle ground in health reform, but a government-run public option isn’t it.

Joseph Epstein has written a wonderful piece on Ralph Ellison’s life and the libel of his critics, upon the release of a collection of his letters. I read The Invisible Man in high school back-to-back with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and that is definitely something I will assign for our daughter down the line.

Owing to a want of money, Ellison had to ride the rails to get to Tuskegee College in Alabama, where he went to study music. He played trumpet, and his ambition was to complete a classical symphony by the age of 26 (as did Wagner). At Tuskegee he worked in the school kitchen. A number of his early letters from there are addressed to his mother, asking for shoes, clothes, any spare cash she could provide. At one point he was harassed by a homosexual dean. One of his teachers told him he would do better to study something practical, like agriculture. Such was the economic and other pressures on him that he dropped out in his third year.

But at Tuskegee he also encountered a few gifted teachers who made a marked impression on him. One of them was Hazel Harrison, who had studied music in Paris under Ferruccio Busoni and knew Percy Grainger and Sergei Prokofiev. Walter B. Williams, the college librarian, befriended Ellison and introduced him to European culture. He made a few friendships that were to endure through his adult life. One of these was with Albert Murray, himself later to become a novelist and the correspondent in the Selected Letters with whom Ellison communicates most freely, both about Negro life, its pleasures and flaws, and his own aspirations.

Time and again in his letters Ellison makes plain that, though proudly Negro (“who wills to be a Negro?” he wrote. “I do!”) he is also something more—an American, not to mention a man of the West and thereby of Western culture. His reading, often noted in his letters, gives evidence of the extent of his cultural interests. In 1956, he wrote to Albert Murray: “have been reading Stendhal and rereading the Idiot in a new translation and The Sound and the Fury, [Wylie] Sypher’s book on Renaissance style, etc. etc.” In music he listened to Stravinsky, Webern, Hindemith, though Duke Ellington was his god. The same year, he suggested to the publisher Pat Knopf that for Vintage Books, Knopf’s new quality-paperback line, he include “the Unamuno, the Herzen, the Matthiessen, the Bodkin, the Gertrude Levy, the Ford Madox Ford, the Melville, the Dodds, and the Mirsky.” He later claimed to have been influenced by André Malraux, André Gide, James Joyce, and the essays of Paul Valéry. The black writers Richard Wright and Chester Himes may have been his literary “relatives,” but he felt that Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot were his “ancestors.”

In his letters, Ellison frequently quoted Henry James: “Being an American, Henry James has written, is a complex fate; and being a black American is more complex than even that finely honed mind could have suspected.” Later, in 1987, he told the editor Robert Silvers, who had asked him to review a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, that the critic Kenneth Burke “was a far more important influence [on him] than Du Bois has ever been.”

Shaking off the idea that Richard Wright was a major influence was an almost lifelong problem for Ellison. He wrote to the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman that he continued “to reject the notion that my Invisible Man was inspired by Wright and insist that my character was inspired by the narrator of [Dostoevsky’s] Notes from Underground.” Ellison met Wright soon after his arrival in New York in 1936, introduced by Langston Hughes. Wright was six years older and soon to be famous as the author of the powerful novel Native Son. Hughes and Wright encouraged Ellison to write, and he soon published his first reviews and a short story in a magazine Wright edited.

I chuckled my way through this essay on the infatuation with self-help books among literary titans. I can’t even:

How-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals; they are not born, they are spawned.’ So jeered the influential New Yorker journalist Dwight Macdonald in a 1954 screed against the self-help guides he worried were taking over the culture. Macdonald voiced the prevailing view that the distinct spheres – or species – of literary author and self-help writer had little, if anything, in common. Serious authors create; self-help writers multiply. But the influence of self-help on prestigious literature is much deeper and more sustained than figures such as Macdonald would have us believe.

With the rise of the 20th century, literary authors had a new book genre to reckon with. It might seem anachronistic to picture the French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire bingeing on ‘how to get rich quick’ books in 1864, or to imagine the late-Victorian aesthete Gustave Flaubert annotating a do-it-yourself manual, or to conceive of the ethereal modernist Virginia Woolf becoming so inflamed by Arnold Bennett’s practical guide How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (1908) that she writes her own time-books Mrs Dalloway (1925) and The Years (1937) in response. But this seems surprising to us only because most scholars – particularly literary scholars – have been so busy ignoring or dismissing self-help that they have failed to recognise its long history and tremendous impact on even the most prestigious literary authors. These authors often made fun of self-help, deriding its crass instrumentalism but also, and more surprising, they learned from its appeal, borrowed its techniques, and coveted its cultural influence.

As firmly canonised literary figures, Baudelaire, Flaubert and Woolf might have won the culture wars, but we are living in self-help’s world. A formidable force in the publishing ecosystem, the self-improvement market in the United States will be worth $13.2 billion dollars by 2022, according to Market Research. And though it is difficult to obtain exact figures due to the different labels under which it is sold, self-help – whether in American or native form – is a bestselling genre in Latin America, China, Africa, the global South, the Middle East – in short, all over the world.

The industry’s international appeal dates back to the first blockbuster improvement manual: Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), which turned the term into a catchphrase, and described successful labourers, artists and inventors who had used industry and perseverance to improve their conditions. Critics disparaged it, according to Smiles, as a ‘eulogy of selfishness’, but he saw his manual as a tool for working-class inspiration and uplift. The book marshalled scores of aspiring autodidacts in early 20th-century Nigeria, Syria, Guatemala, Trinidad and Japan (it’s said that late-19th-century Japanese samurai lined up overnight to buy a copy of the manual). In a 1917 review, the American poet Ezra Pound dismissed such ‘improving literature’ – ‘Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help and the rest of it’ – likening it to a ‘virus’, and the English author H G Wells wrote a cautionary tale, ‘The Jilting of Jane’, about a young man whose reading of Self-Help goes to his head, inspiring him to abandon his fiancée and his principles in favour of a higher match.

Fat cells can sense sunlight—not getting enough increases metabolic syndrome risk. I truly believe that people in future decades will laugh at the popular advice nowadays that you should avoid the sun and slather yourself in sunblock every time you leave the house. So much of how the body operates – how food is processed, how our eyes function, our mental health – depends on sunlight from a chemical perspective. (Not to mention the fact that your skin is your body’s largest organ and slathering it with chemicals every day is probably not a swell idea.)

China’s ‘mermaid descendants’ weave final garments from skin of fish.

Essays worth reading

I don’t have a lot of time to write this week, but here is a collection of excellent and thought-provoking essays that I wanted to pass on. What follows are excerpts, you can click on the links to read the full texts.

Saving Persuasion – America’s Rhetoric Problem Reflects a Wider Cultural Malaise (Claremont Review of Books)

You guys know I love Aristotle, and this essay sums up so much of how I feel these days. It is interesting to see historical parallels regarding the tendency to try to bully or shame people out of their genuinely held perspectives rather than persuade them into new beliefs. (I would add the tendency toward conspiracy theories to this list too.) Persuasion is something that requires a quality education, however, and the mob mentality that pervades our society now says a lot about what is happening in schools.

America has a rhetoric problem. Our political rhetoric has never been particularly decorous, but in recent years, fueled by the internet and social media—and especially by the accelerating decline of American education—public discourse has collapsed into a slough of name-calling, pervasive obscenity, hysterical claims, and unashamed irrationalism.

Oddly enough, rhetoric’s prestige in the academy is at its highest in centuries. This reflects postmodernism’s dominance of contemporary intellectual discourse. In a world lacking objective truths there can only be a variety of “narratives,” deployed as instruments of personal or political power—and the master science of the narrative is rhetoric.

This situation bears more than a passing resemblance to that of classical Greece before the Socratic revolution of the late 5th and 4th centuries B.C. The sophists and rhetoricians pilloried by Plato in dialogues such as the Protagoras and the Gorgias prided themselves on their ability to make persuasive speeches in defense of any cause, and sold their skills to prospective litigants and politicians. It was rhetoric’s claim to “make the weaker argument the stronger”—to make the weaker case prevail, whether in courts or public assembly. Such rhetoric employed deliberately fallacious arguments (“sophistry”) as well as ad hominem attacks and emotional manipulation.

Because of this, Plato’s Socrates concluded, rhetoric was no art but merely a “knack.” What aspiring young politicians really needed wasn’t (simply) skill at speaking, but a substantive knowledge of human affairs, available only through the disciplined study of philosophy. But this apparent dismissal of rhetoric could not be Plato’s last word—after all, Plato’s Socrates was himself a master of rhetoric, even as he spoke contemptuously of it.

Rediscovering the Lost Power of Reading Aloud (Literary Hub)

I found this essay very interesting, as reading out loud is a central part of our family life (and our homeschooling life). When we drive in the car to anywhere more than an hour away, we take books with us and someone in the car reads them out loud. This predates the birth of Elise, actually, as Rodney and I would do this on car trips together going from Baylor to visit my family in Colorado or his family in Georgia. Our latest fun is reading Dungeons and Dragons-based Choose Your Own Adventure books, which is the single easiest way not to hear “are we there yet” from your kids. But we have read a lot of novels and non-fiction too. We also like to read out loud as a family in the evenings occasionally, sitting in the big armchairs in our library.

At the British Museum in London, down a long string of galleries filled with Greek antiquities, there is a glass case that contains a glossy black-and-ocher amphora, resembling a jug or vase. The object was made by a craftsman in Athens sometime early in the Golden Age, around 490–480 BC, and it’s decorated with a figure on either side. The first is a musician in long skirts and a checkered tunic shown in full-length profile. We seem to have caught him just as he blows into a reed instrument.

On the other side, a man in pleated robes stands in a position of relaxed command, with one arm thrust out and resting on a tall wooden staff. The man’s mouth is open, and if you look closely, you can see a tiny arc of text springing from his lips. Translated, the words read: “Once upon a time in Tiryns . . .”

This figure is a rhapsode, or “stitcher of songs,” and a kind of living prefiguration of the act of reading aloud. In ancient Greece, a rhapsode did not read from a book, however. He was the book. His memory held, among other works, the two great epics of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. He would pull them from the shelf and read them aloud, so to speak, when he recited them.

The Homeric tales, loved to this day, are terrific creations. They brim with action, drama, stealth, deceit (and with manifestations of honor and dishonor so distinct from our own as to seem bizarre). The Iliad encompasses the ten years of the Trojan War, when the massed armies of the Greek kingdoms besieged the walled city of Troy. In its verses we meet sulky, ferocious Achilles, noble Prince Hector, handsome Paris, and lovely Helen. The second great Homeric tale, The Odyssey, follows Odysseus, wiliest of the Greeks, over the ten years it takes him after the conquest of Troy to reach his home island of Ithaca and his clever, long-suffering wife, Penelope. During his travels, Odysseus contends with mutinous crewmen, the erotic temptations of Circe and Calypso, and monsters such as the man-eating cyclops Polyphemus and the homicidal Sirens. At one point, Odysseus also has to wrest his men free of the addictive, obliterating pleasures of the lotus flower.

Today, if you pick up a printed and bound copy of The Iliad or The Odyssey, what you may notice first is not the richness of the storytelling but the sheer size of the thing. The epics are long and sprawling, and though they are strewn with mnemonic devices that would work as mental bookmarks for the would-be memorizer—vivid phrases and epithets such as “gray-eyed Athena,” or “Zeus who wields the aegis”—it is still incredible to think that once upon a time people committed them to memory. Not only would a good rhapsode have both stories stored in his head, but he would be able to pick up either tale at any point and recite onward without a hitch. This is mastery of a sort that has become foreign to most modern people.

With schools having largely withdrawn from the practice of making students memorize poetry, few of us today have anything approaching the interior resources of a rhapsode. You might argue that we don’t need them: books are inexpensive and widely available, and we can use the Internet to look up pieces of writing that we may have forgotten or that we want to read. The rhapsodes themselves were obsolete long before the digital age was a glimmer in the eye of the future. Still, though they’ve long since disappeared, their role in the ancient world is a reminder that in reading aloud, we are taking part in one of the oldest and grandest traditions of humankind. Indeed, the long and rich lineage of reading aloud, as a type of oral storytelling, stretches back to the days before anything was written down.

The Pleasant Mandolin: TS Eliot’s Musical Enthusiasms

If you ever wondered where all the musical references in his poetry came from.

While composing The Waste Land, Eliot apparently had a mandolin to hand. Writing from Margate to Sidney Schiff on November 4, 1921, he said: “I have written only some fifty lines, and have read nothing, literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practise scales on the mandoline”. In a note to the line in The Poems of T. S. Eliot I, the editors Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue quote the letter to Schiff and add: “The instrument had been bought by Vivien [Eliot’s then wife]. The first two decades of the century saw a craze for the mandoline, and ‘The Mandolin Club’ is often photographed in the Smith Academy yearbook during TSE’s time there.”

How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools (Quillette) – I can’t do an excerpt for this essay, as the force of it is in looking at the maps and charts. This absolutely reflects my own personal experience working in education policy, however, and how public school district boundaries are weaponized to segregate kids by race, religion, and economic class. The corruption in public education is one of the best arguments for school choice there is.

The Last Gasp of James G. Blaine: The Supreme Court Weighs Tax Credits and a 19-Century Bigotry (Wall Street Journal)

The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments today in an important school choice case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which is focused on religious private schools receiving funding through scholarship tax credits. As the Trump administration has proposed similar policy, this is a pretty big deal in the education realm.

Most people do no know that the public education system we have today was built on prejudices about Roman Catholic immigrants, who preferred to educate their children in parochial schools (and still do today). There was substantial investment in public education at the turn of the 20th century in an attempt to squash parochial schools. The idea was that you could more easily assimilate immigrants by forcing their kids to attend government schools, which would teach that Catholicism right out of them.

When the Montana Legislature created a K-12 scholarship program funded via private donations and tax credits, it was a godsend to Kendra Espinoza. An office assistant by day and janitor by night, the single mom had pulled her two daughters out of public school. One was bullied for studying the Bible during recess.

Ms. Espinoza enrolled them in the nondenominational Stillwater Christian School. “I love that the school teaches the same Christian values that I teach at home,” she later said. But even with financial aid, odd jobs and yard sales, the tuition was “a real financial struggle.” Extra money from Montana’s scholarships, enacted in 2015, could go a long way.

Five years later, Ms. Espinoza is fighting to keep that support. On Wednesday the Supreme Court will hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case touching on education, religious liberty, and whether 19th-century bigotry still has a place in American law.

The Montana scholarships worked similar to tax-credit programs in many other states. People or companies donated to a private nonprofit fund. In return the state gave them a tax credit, dollar for dollar, up to $150. The money was awarded to families like Ms. Espinoza’s to defray tuition at the schools of their choice.

One complication: Montana’s constitution has a clause saying public funds can’t be spent for “any sectarian purpose.” Many states adopted such language in the late 19th century, amid that era’s anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic fervor. These are often called Blaine Amendments, since a federal version was unsuccessfully pushed in 1876 by Congressman James G. Blaine (“the continental liar from the state of Maine,” as his political opponents chanted).

Montana’s Revenue Department issued a rule to exclude the religious from the scholarship program. Secular schools could still get the money, but not Ms. Espinoza and Stillwater. Parents sued with help from the Institute for Justice. In 2018 the state Supreme Court killed the whole program, ruling that the tax credits were indirect state aid to religious schools, in violation of the Blaine Amendment.

Now at the U.S. Supreme Court, the parents argue that Montana’s ruling is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Free exercise of religion means that if a state passes a neutral program of student aid, it can’t exclude families who pick religious schools. The parents cite Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017), in which the Justices held 7-2 that a Missouri ban on sectarian aid couldn’t deny a public grant for playground resurfacing to a religious school.

The parents also say Montana violated the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws.” Here they give a history of Blaine Amendments. In the 1800s, the public schools reflected a predominant culture: “Teachers led students in daily prayer, sang religious hymns, extolled Protestant ideals, read from the King James Bible, and taught from anti-Catholic textbooks.” When states banned aid to “sectarian” schools, that meant Catholic.

Montana replies that there’s no discrimination, at least not anymore, since the scholarships don’t exist. They were thrown out by the state court, see? Neither the faithful nor the secular are getting the money. This argument seems too clever in its circular logic. If a court strikes down a law explicitly because it includes religious believers, that can’t be unconstitutional since the law was struck down?

The state says its “No-Aid Clause” isn’t anti-Catholic bigotry, but rather a “distinct intellectual tradition.” When Montana wrote a new constitution in 1972, its convention debated and largely readopted the old provision. The goal then, Montana argues, was “protecting religious liberty by creating a structural barrier between religious schools and government.”

Yet the longer history remains. So does the effect: to cast out religious believers from a program enacted in the general interest. Such bias in law requires strict judicial scrutiny.

Given the incrementalism of Chief Justice John Roberts, perhaps it’s too much to hope that the Supreme Court will relegate James G. Blaine to the 1800s where he belongs. In Trinity Lutheran, the Chief’s opinion came with a pregnant footnote, saying it only covered “express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing.” But as the Justices have shown in a long line of cases, religious freedom doesn’t end at the playground blacktop.

Why I Resigned from Tavistock: Trans-Identified Children Need Therapy, Not Just ‘Affirmation’ and Drugs (Quillette)

This whole essay is fascinating. I went down an Internet rabbit hole after reading it looking at websites on gender dysphoria that are directed at teenagers, of the same nature of the pro-suicide and pro-anorexia websites that have developed cult followings among teenagers in the past. The idea that, due to political activism, medical professionals can no longer provide dissenting opinions that could save a child from such a toxic web of influence is incredible.

I was reminded of the controversy over the pro-suicide sites specifically, and how Hollywood tried to capitalize off of the teenage suicide trend in America with the 13 Reasons Why series, much to the horror of sane and responsible parents. There seems to be a real trend of destructive “culture” aimed at children: shows glorifying depression, mental illness and suicide; shows glorifying teenage pregnancy or working teenagers getting abortions into their plot lines; and now content about switching genders. It’s a phase of human development where seeking attention is a central concern and easy to exploit, and many less-than-well-intentioned adults now are exploiting it. I have read a lot of debates on parenting and education sites about the practical value of regulating what your kids consume, but honestly I think a brilliant starting point is not sending your kids to public schools in the first place.

In part, this trend is rooted in the faddish idea that everyone—including children—has an innate gender identity, akin to a religious soul, that one discovers and nurtures. But as authors William J. Malone, Colin M. Wright and Julia D. Robertson recently wrote in Quillette, the concept of gender identity is dubious:

This term commonly is defined to mean the “internal, deeply held” sense of whether one is a man or a woman (or, in the case of children, a boy or a girl), both, or neither. It also has become common to claim that this sense of identity may be reliably articulated by children as young as three years old. While these claims about gender identity did not attract systematic scrutiny at first, they now have become the subject of criticism from a growing number of scientists, philosophers and health workers. Developmental studies show that young children have only a superficial understanding of sex and gender (at best). For instance, up until age seven, many children often believe that if a boy puts on a dress, he becomes a girl. This gives us reason to doubt whether a coherent concept of gender identity exists at all in young children. To such extent as any such identity may exist, the concept relies on stereotypes that encourage the conflation of gender with sex.

It is certainly true that therapists shouldn’t seek to impose their idea of what is “normal” on a patient who believes he or she is trans. Nor should they engage in an attempt to convert the individual to their way of thinking. However, as in all contexts, the therapist must resist the temptation to suspend curiosity, uncritically accept the patient’s presentation at face value, and then act as an “affirming” cheerleader for life-changing acts of transition. Rather, the goal of exploratory therapy should be to understand the meaning behind a patient’s presentation in order to help them develop an understanding of themselves, including the desires and conflicts that drive their identity and choices.

To some extent, the extreme deference now being shown to trans-presenting children may be linked to the more general change in the way doctors and other authority figures are perceived in the internet era. While such authority figures once had broad licence to evaluate their patients according to their expertise, such “gatekeeping” is now seen as controlling and even repressive. Many patients now see a doctor’s visit through the lens of consumer culture—whereby the customer is always right.

When doctors always give patients what they want (or think they want), the fallout can be disastrous, as we have seen with the opioid crisis. And there is every possibility that the inappropriate medical treatment of children with gender dysphoria may follow a similar path. Practitioners understandably want to protect their patients from psychic pain. But quick fixes based only on self-reporting can have tragic long-term consequences. And already, a growing number of trans “desistors” (also known as detransitioners) are seeking accountability from the medical professionals who’d rubber-stamped their trans claims. And in 2019, when a formerly trans-identified British woman named Charlie Evans went public with her desistance, she was contacted by “hundreds” of other desistors, and formed a group called The Detransition Advocacy Network to give them a voice and support in a contentious environment that has been dominated by dogmatic trans ideology.

In the NHS, clinicians typically are legally required to discuss the serious negative effects of any offered treatment. As in so many other ways, however, the issue of gender dysphoria seems to lie outside the usual rules that govern medical practice. Many involved in this field have commented on the peculiar fact that, despite the extraordinary preoccupation with the abstraction of gender that suffuses this area, there is little discussion about the flesh-and-blood reality of sex and reproduction.

A clinician interviewed by the Times of London reported being discouraged from even asking patients about these issues: “I would ask who they wanted to have relationships with, but I was told by senior management that gender is completely separate to sex.” Yet part of the developmental struggle in adolescence requires us to come to terms with the reality of who we are, including our natal sexuality and the different roles demanded of us in reproduction. There are all sorts of anxieties attached to these activities and the functioning of the body—anxieties that may be so severe as to distort our sense of self. As Dr. Cantor has noted, the available studies show that most pre-adolescent children who present as trans eventually revert to an identity that accords with their biological sex. Yet many of these children (and their parents) seem to receive little information about how their lives will be affected if they proceed with transition. In the words of one young woman who went through this: “Lots of talk about gender politics and none about the physical realities involved in transitioning.”

In Russia, they are building an amusement park that is based off of the writings of Pushkin.

Public libraries as literary gatekeepers

I don’t have time to write anything lengthy today, but I wanted to share two enormously interesting articles about public libraries and the gatekeepers who determine what the library should and should not stock. Both of these are about Anne Carroll Moore, the first children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, who absolutely loathed quite a few children’s books that we now regard as classics.

This piece is on Moore’s hatred of Goodnight Moon, and how her decision to withhold her blessing prevented that book from being a commercial success. I can’t say that I knew much about Margaret Wise Brown before, but apparently she had quite a progressive attitude about children’s intellectual development.

This piece gets into Moore’s upbringing and her problems with Stuart Little.

There are a lot of different philosophies regarding what libraries should stock and whether activist librarians should attempt to shape the values of their time. This is especially true for children’s librarians, who are perhaps the only ones working with clients that remain impressionable.

Moore was insistent that children should only have access to the very highest quality of literature available. And she had clear standards regarding what she considered quality literature. She did not want to stock books written by authors who tried to situate themselves within the emergent psychology of children.

Nowadays, we have gatekeepers with the opposite standards as Moore – they promote overtly political books, usually written at the lowest reading levels, lacking in vocabulary words, and often offering contrarian narratives about historical events.

Outside of all of this, there are people who believe that libraries should be full of whatever could be potentially appealing to anyone at all. If kids want to read treacly books recounting their favorite television cartoons, they should have those. If women want to read soft-core porn romances about Amish people, they should have those.

I find this an endlessly fascinating topic.

What I am reading these days (a lot of history!)

I asked for a bunch of history books for Christmas (in addition to the world’s coolest garden hose) and received quite a haul.

My favorite periods of history are the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. I already had the Landmark Thucydides, but wanted the entire collection. So my husband gave me the Landmark Herodotus, Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, Landmark Arrian Campaigns of Alexander, and my in-laws gave me the Landmark Julius Caesar. These are going to keep me busy for a while! I love having resources like this around the house for when Elise gets older too.

Before the holidays, I started two books that I would highly recommend. The first is Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. The second is Philip Matyszak’s Sparta: Rise of a Warrior Nation.

(I love Sparta and stories about Sparta. When I was younger and in far better shape, I used to participate in endurance sports, especially running. I’d have my husband drop me off in a nearby town with a CamelBak of Powerade and a credit card in case I needed food, and I would then spend all day running back home. No joke, it was nuts. Anyway, we had many inside jokes about Sparta during those days. When we were buying a new house, we had a meet-and-greet with our real estate agent, who asked in a very chipper voice, “And what kind of neighborhood do see as your ideal place to live? I just want a vision of what you are going for.” To which my husband replied, “Her ideal neighborhood is ancient Sparta. Do you have any properties there?” I can only imagine what personality category our realtor put us into.)

My husband also gave me Cicero’s On Living and Dying Well.

I recently read an outstanding biography on Cicero by Anthony Everitt, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. I would highly recommend it in general, but particularly to any cultural conservatives out there who are worried about how our social institutions are going to hell. Cicero experienced many similar events during the Roman civil wars that played out during his boyhood. He retreated to his family’s country home and spent all of his time preparing himself for a political career once life in the city sorted itself out. He studied history, the law, and rhetoric intensely and avoided getting into trouble with the increasingly mad crowds. This strategy served him very well, obviously.

One of my all-time favorite writers is Plutarch. I have been working my way through Plutarch’s Essays lately (see my earlier post, Do you hear what I hear?) My husband gave me copies of Plutarch’s Makers of Rome, Rome in Crisis, The Age of Alexander, and On Sparta. I really love the Penguin Classics editions of these books, as the translation is very clear and enjoyable, as Plutarch was meant to be read.

Also in the stack is the Complete Sophocles, Volume I and Volume II.

Somewhat related to all of this, I find it incredible the books that public libraries are getting rid of these days. Our library here has a bookshelf in the foyer of books that anyone can take and keep for free, as many as you like. I have found the most unbelievable books there. And it’s not like the library is throwing most of them out because they already have the books on their shelves and do not want duplicates (though that is certainly the case for some of them). They simply don’t want to keep them on their shelves.

I picked up five books from Harvard University Press’ series on antiquity, Early Greece, The Hellenistic World, Democracy in Classical Greece, The Roman Republic, and the Later Roman Empire. I also found hardback copies of Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (part of Oxford University Press’ incredible History of the United States series) and Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex. And a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. And The Penguin Opera Guide, M. Owen Lee’s The Operagoer’s Guide: One Hundred Stories and Commentaries, and The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia. I plan to use those books for a homeschooling unit on opera at some point.

The library was throwing out all of those extraordinary books. I don’t know what to think about what is happening at public libraries these days, to be honest. They exist to serve the interests of taxpayers and to provide a place for the community to gather. If ordinary people are legitimately uninterested in reading content like this, maybe libraries should stuff their shelves with mindless crap that they do want to read. At least they are keeping people basically literate, right?

I do sort of fear, however, that we are watching a new battleground in the culture wars play out. Many professional associations of librarians have been taken over by left-wing political activists (just take a look at what they are posting on their Twitter pages, and the fact that some libraries now host events like Drag Queen Story Hour). The children’s library where we lived before moving to Florida was unusable, as the shelves were fully stocked with identity politics-oriented fare instead of quality children’s non-fiction. (I’ve always found it amusing that books written by political actors tend to be written at an early elementary reading level. There is quite seriously nothing to be gained from consuming such nonsense, except perhaps some bizarre emotional catharsis.) So perhaps that is what I am seeing here, too, such that Harvard’s series on Ancient Greece and Rome is destined for the dumpster. If so, what a shame.

At any rate, if you are looking for a way to build your personal library on the cheap, I highly recommend checking out what your local library is tossing. There are some treasures in there.

As our DD7 is going to be studying American history in the upcoming academic year, I thought I would get back into American history for a while.

I like for my own pleasure reading to overlap with what she is studying. It helps me to make our lessons more interesting if I have engaging stories and digressions from the period to share with her that are not in her own books. A sort of educational synergy if you will. It also sends the message to her that I am not being compelled to study this topic, but I am still delighted to learn about it and find it fascinating. It reinforces the notion that education is not something with a state-mandated beginning and end, but the project of a lifetime.

(For more observations along those lines, see my earlier post, Modeling being a lifelong learner for your children.)

To that end, I am going to be reading soon Down the Santa Fe trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin 1846-1847 and Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West.

American History for homeschoolers (elementary)

I am in the process of preparing for our daughter’s upcoming academic year. For us, that begins in April – a totally arbitrary date that corresponds to when we relocated to Florida. We are planning on switching to American history from world history this year.

We have covered world history in previous years using Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World series and activity books. I think these are excellent resources for world history for very young children when supplemented with top-notch children’s literature. While she does address American history in the series, it absolutely is not a quality substitute for studying American history (and your state history!) in depth.

I have had reservations about recommending SWB for other reasons every time I mention what we use to homeschooling friends. Frankly, she went so deep into social media mob identity politics on her pages that I couldn’t stand following her anymore. You don’t find much of that in SOTW – perhaps because identity politics is such a new fad, and she hadn’t discovered it yet – but I would hesitate to buy a revised copy of Well-Trained Mind (her homeschooling companion book) or any new version of SOTW, if they ever get around to issuing new editions. Just my two cents.

After reading about what a disinformation campaign the New York Times 1619 Project – which is being directed at K-12 education programs – has become, I am making an extra effort to research the backgrounds and potential agendas of any author I include in our homeschooling curriculum. Fortunately, most revisionist history children’s authors love to write about their political agendas on Twitter. (What a time to be alive.) It’s not that I only want to supply our daughter with resources I “agree” with – to me, contrarian perspectives are an opportunity to discuss why we believe what we believe. But I do want content that is accurate and based on primary sources.

A History of US (Oxford University Press)

Oxford University Press has published a children’s series for American history by Joy Hakim called A History of US that is excellent. It’s a relatively pricey set, as far as children’s books go, but it is quite exhaustive and written in language that children can easily process. I was surprised to learn that Oxford is getting into children’s books, but I’ll take it.

I think to use this as a bona fide history spine, you’d need to read small chunks and devote two academic years to it. Maybe do American history through Reconstruction one year and then work until present-day in the next year. Kind like a college course, but drawn out for children.

Folk Songs

One of my goals for the new year is to work more songs into our homeschooling routine (folks songs, hymns, and so on). I have been searching and searching for collections of American folks songs from the colonial period to the early 20th century with lyrics. You’d be amazed at how difficult that is. If you do searches for books and audio of folk songs, most of the time you are going to get hippies singing about smoking weed instead of When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

My mother sent us Wee Sing America, which has a lot of great songs and the lyrics so children can follow along. This is great for very young children. I’m luckily at the point where our daughter is young enough to enjoy a silly chorus of children but intellectually advanced enough to appreciate a serious consideration of historical events. The authors have some other collections of folk music and Bible songs, which we will probably buy too.

If anyone knows of some good, traditional folk music collections, please send them my way. Wee Sing doesn’t have some songs I wanted to include, like Oh Shenandoah, but I can probably find nice versions on YouTube.

One series of children’s books I have found that I love are the “If You Lived…” series. These books focus on the details of everyday life during certain periods and among certain groups of people:

If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620

If You Lived in Colonial Times

If You Lived in Williamsburg in Colonial Days

If You Grew Up With George Washington

If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution

If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution

If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon

If You Were a Pioneer on the Prairie

If You Lived at the Time of the Civil War

If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America

If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad

If You Lived With the Iroquois

If You Lived With the Sioux

If You Lived With the Hopi

If You Lived With the Cherokee

If You Lived With the Indians of the Northeast Coast

If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln

If You Lived 100 Years Ago

If You Lived When Women Won Their Rights

If Your Name Was Changed on Ellis Island

If You Lived at the Time of MLK

If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake

Some books with projects for kids in them:

Great Colonial America Projects You Can Build Yourself

Colonial Kids and Activity Guide to Life in the New World

History Pockets – Explorers of North America

History Pockets – Colonial America

History Pockets – The American Revolution

History Pockets – Moving West

History Pockets – The Civil War

Great history picture books:

A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution

Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography

Duel! Burr and Hamilton’s Deadly War of Words

Conestoga Wagons

Dandelions

A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840

Locomotive

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

Samuel Morse and the Telegraph

Wanted Dead or Alive: The True Story of Harriet Tubman

Walking the Road to Freedom: A Story about Sojourner Truth

A Man for All Seasons: The Life of George Washington Carver

More than Anything Else (About Booker T. Washington)

Duel of the Ironclads: The Monitor vs Virginia

Drummer Boy: Marching to the Civil War

Coming to America: The Story of Immigration

Grandfather’s Story

The Keeping Quilt

The Story of the Erie Canal

The Story of the Titanic for Children: Astonishing Little-Known Facts and Details about the Most Famous Ship in the World

Children of the Great Depression

Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp

Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929: A Wall Street Journal Book for Children

World War I for Kids: A History with 21 Activities

World War II for Kids: A History with 21 Activities

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11

Ken Burns Documentaries and Other Movies

I have also been thinking about using Ken Burns’ documentaries in our lessons, though I am going to have to re-watch some of them with a kid’s eye first (for mature content):

Lewis and Clark

The West

The Civil War

Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio

Brooklyn Bridge

Statue of Liberty

Congress

Jazz

The Dust Bowl

Johnny Tremain (Disney)

The King’s Highway

A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation

American Experience: The Pilgrims

American Experience: Murder of a President

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln and Lee at Antietam (the single bloodiest day in American history)

The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt

The Gilded Age

Westinghouse: The Life and Times of an American Icon

Florida History

For any Florida homeschoolers out there, the State of Florida has a ton of resources for kids:

Florida history

A list of books on Florida history to check out

Seminole history

The official page of the Seminole tribe

Florida governors

Quick facts about Florida

Florida state symbols

The Capitol

Reading lists and podcasts

As my family and friends know, I am a bibliophile in the extreme. Our house is so cluttered with books that it would give Martha Stewart or Marie Kondo a nervous breakdown. And I have more or less been that way since I was a young child.

I have started a project to check off the major books in the Western Canon in my possession and then purchase what I don’t have. (Thankfully, I have a lot of them, so this is not as expensive as it sounds.) I would like for our daughter to enter her teenage years with a solid home education in the humanities, as I share Harold Bloom’s concern that such a thing does not exist at universities anymore. Hopefully, that will change.

At any rate, I have been working from several lists that I thought I might share:

Harold Bloom’s list of books in the Western Canon

Mortimer Adler’s reading list (from How to Read a Book)

List of Penguin Classics

Oxford University Press World’s Classics

While I am at it, here are some podcasts on history, philosophy, and whatnot that you all might enjoy:

Hardcore History

The History of Rome

50 Things that Made the Modern Economy

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

Do you hear what I hear?

Folks who know me know that I have a deep love of Greek and Roman literature. Lately, I have been on something of a Plutarch kick, and I am working my way through his Essays (Penguin Classics). I forgot how wonderful they are.

Plutarch, much like Montaigne, was gifted at communicating impressive ideas in a simple, succinct form. I think that is one of the things I love most about classical literature – seeing how phenomenally intelligent our human race was even thousands of years ago. Of course, to have that sense, you either have to have an excellent translator or be able to read Latin and Greek. Hence, I am teaching our young daughter to read Latin, and hopefully Greek will follow.

Today, I have been re-reading Plutarch’s essay On Listening. If you have never read it, you should. And Robin Waterfield is such a brilliant translator, for those who care.

For Plutarch (as I read him, anyway), being an excellent listener has two components.

One involves the art of listening to someone who intends to persuade you on some point. This means being able to follow reason (and not necessarily the person who intends to persuade you). To Plutarch, the ability to reason is a divine gift. To follow God and to follow reason are one and the same, he explains.

The other involves allowing someone to articulate a complete thought. This means showing proper respect to someone who is trying to make a point and can make it well, even if you do not agree with them. When I was younger, this would have been called collegiality (a word of medieval origin, taken from the Latin collegium, a community, society, or guild).

Both, really, are totally lost in modern American society. Though, to be fair, trying to be polite to a parrot is an exercise in madness.

I love this passage:

It goes without saying that a young man who is denied all instruction and never tastes any rational discourse not only remains barren and unproductive of virtue, but also might become marred and perverted toward vice, producing plentiful mental weeds from his unturned and unworked soil, as it were…

There are, in short, no exceptions to the rule that for a young man silence is undoubtedly an adornment; and never more so than if he listens to someone else without getting worked up and barking out a riposte but – even if the comments are distinctly unwelcome – puts up with them and waits for the speaker to finish and, once the speaker has finished, instead of immediately answering back, leaves an interval, as Aeschines says, to see if the speaker wants to add anything else to what he has already said, or to make any changes or to take something back. Immediately to lash out in retaliation, however, and neither to listen nor be listened to, but to speak while being spoken to, is scandalous; on the other hand, anyone who has acquired the ability to listen in a self-controlled and respectful fashion is receptive and retentive of any remarks that are useful, while any that are useless or false are quite transparent to him and easily detectable, because he is – as is obvious – aiming at the truth rather than winning an argument, and does not pitch in head first for a fight.

Can you believe that this was written in the first century? Yet this is the exact behavior social media (and the news media) conditions people against developing.

Unlike Plutarch’s generation, people are not especially interested in being persuasive anymore. There are basically three styles of argumentation being taught/learned nowadays: (1) if someone disagrees with you, insult their character, background, or livelihood; (2) shout louder than someone; (3) parrot corporate media talking points until your interlocutor is reduced to a coma. Even the people who pass as eloquent in American society are not gifted listeners, but more subtle bullies. They certainly aren’t aiming at truth or dispensing wisdom.

Of course, there are times when calling into question someone’s intentions is necessary. But it should not be a default.

Sometimes I wonder if the art of being persuasive even works nowadays. Plutarch’s time was dominated by virtue ethics. That does not seem to exist much anymore, except within certain religious communities and institutions.

Instead most forums are dominated by people with what one might call “therapeutic” ideals. They respond well to confessional storytelling and hierarchies of grievances. That is definitely not something the Greeks and Romans would understand or support. Being persuasive assumes you have worked to achieve some position of strength. People who fail are not persuasive. There’s a reason the ancients taught science and logic before rhetoric. Logic is not taught in K-12 public schools, but identity politics is. And our discourse reflects that.

A person who is trained in logic can attempt to reason someone through their thinking nowadays, but that generally makes their interlocutor cling to the position they have staked out publicly even harder. You are, in short, wasting your time.

This is absolutely true in talking about politics, government, and economics these days. I have given up try to persuade anyone who gets into how they “feel” about public policy. They don’t seem to want to work out a practical solution to problems, which involves caring about details like how resources are limited or laws on the books already. They just want to emote. They don’t want a good argument from you, either. They just want to pass judgment on whether you have “proper” emotions too.

I don’t want open borders but I also don’t want there to be punishments for people who come into the country illegally, because that seems mean.

I don’t want to spend yet another decade and another trillion dollars in Afghanistan, but I also want there to be a government in Afghanistan that is fair by western ideals and respects the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.

Blah blah blah. You can listen politely all you want, but the fact is you are talking to an irrational person who hasn’t and won’t invest any serious thought into a real-world solution to these problems. You aren’t going to give them the civic education they never received,even though they likely have an undergraduate degree. That ship has sailed. The Greeks and the Romans, however, were absolutely obsessed with civic education.

Virtue (of the sort that has a metaphysical foundation) has been replaced with attention as a form of social capital, and squawking and bullying is an easier way to get attention than trying to persuade someone. Of course, you will never bully someone into believing something that they did not believe already. No one in the history of mankind has been publicly shamed into a new perspective. But that’s increasingly not the point of discourse. For a not insignificant portion of society, silencing someone is as much of a victory as persuading them. Because that’s the best you can achieve when all you have is an arsenal of emotions.