Listening to lectures on the history of the Supreme Court makes me question my image of the Court over time. I envision a wise, apolitical body to protect minority rights. I assume conservative justices prefer a narrow, literal view of the Constitution’s text and defer to duly enacted laws. I expect liberal justices to interpret the Constitution broadly and overturn precedent to promote social progress.
In other words, the image I’ve held since youth was based on a Court led by Chief Justices Earl Warren (1953-1969) and Warren Burger (1969-1986). I came of age in a time of judicial activism, a term historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., coined in 1947. It turns out that period was atypical. While the Supreme Court has always been influenced by politics, its relation to legislation and social change has varied over time.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Progressives reacted to workplace abuses with state laws to protect worker health and safety. Gilded Age employers challenged such laws as violating their right to contract. The Court mostly sided with employers. Legislatures led experiments in social change; the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution broadly to hold them back.
Which rights does the Constitution protect? Right of contract? Right of privacy? Only the specific rights named in the text, as literalists might argue? According to the Ninth Amendment:
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
As for what unenumerated rights the people retain, the Constitution doesn’t say.
Fifty pages into W. C. Ryan’s World War I mystery A House of Ghosts, I began to wonder if I’d read it before. Details of the island and former abbey were vividly familiar, though I’ve never seen the Devon-Cornwall peninsula. Did I once read another novel with essentially the same setting?
More than once, it turns out. My sense of déjà vu may come from P. D. James’s The Lighthouse or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, set on coastal islands off Cornwall and Devon respectively. I could almost believe the islands of southwestern England exist to inspire mystery novelists. Weather or tide traps a small group whose number includes an unidentified killer. If the only access is by a causeway at low tide, suspense rises with the water level.
Isolation creates tension on the mainland, too. To travel from London southwest to Penzance could take nearly as long as to Scotland. Rocky cliffs shelter smugglers and pirates; the “wink” in Martha Grimes’s The Lamorna Wink refers to a smuggler’s signal. Hikers on the coastal path risk a boulder from above (Christie, Peril at End House) or a fall to the sandy beach below (Elizabeth George, Careless in Red). Accident or murder? Bodies wash up or float away on the tide. A gothic sense of foreboding pervades crumbling coastal mansions, such as Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Farther inland is bleak Dartmoor with its ancient stone circles, deadly peat bogs, and notorious Dartmoor Prison (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles).
I finished A House of Ghosts and returned it along with another book chosen at random from the library’s mystery shelves. The narrator in Kate Sedley’s medieval The Saint John’s Fern crosses Dartmoor and walks at ebb tide to an island, where an abbey yields a vital clue. Coincidence? Perhaps not. The setting, after all, is custom-made for murder.
When an aging septic system backs up into the house, metaphors for writing abound. Waste solids accumulate underground like ideas in a writer’s head. Eventually they surface. The sludge or manuscript stinks. Ernest Hemingway told a young admirer, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
To clean up the mess takes more than a scrub brush or spell check. You have to figure out what isn’t working. Even with the aid of a plumber or critique group, the answers can be elusive. Promising suggestions yield dead ends. No, last winter’s freeze doesn’t explain a blockage that recurred in August.
Fixing one problem reveals another. The digger you deep, the more likely you’ll find troubles no one suspected. Who imagined a second tank lurked deep within our septic system? Who guessed one minor character created a major plot hole, or the historical mystery revolved around a technology not yet invented? With underlying issues resolved, we’ve put off till next spring deciding how to repair our landscaping. Polishing a draft, too, must wait till the major fixes are complete.
Twenty-one years and a day ago, I entered a crowded hospital lounge to await an abdominal CT scan. An earlier chest X-ray of a minor bump near my collarbone had revealed another, unrelated oddity at the bottom of the image. The first was innocent; the second needed follow-up. Tired, irritated, and nervous, I found a chair as far as possible from the growing throng in front of the TV. Couldn’t they lower the volume and let me read in peace?
Not till I turned on the car radio, driving home, did I learn planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.
One lifetime may include just a handful of world events so sudden and immense that practically everyone can tell you what they were doing when they heard the news. My elders spoke of Pearl Harbor that way. My first such experience was the Kennedy assassination. I was in college physics class when a knock drew the professor to the classroom door. Visibly shaken, he told us the President had been shot. Class was dismissed. Students wandered campus in a daze. We drifted gradually into the campus chapel to sit in shock together.
What national or international event has left you a vivid personal memory of learning the news? Where were you, or what were you doing?
I was doing just fine with pandemic solitude, or so I believed. I’m happy as an introvert. I’ve worked at home for decades. From time to time, though, after a leisurely visit with a friend, I notice a burst of energy. My head is clearer. I perk up like the garden after rain.
On the trail walks that sustain my spirit, I can skip water for hours unaware of thirst. I start to flag from dehydration before I realize what’s wrong. Hunger reminds me if I forget to eat, but I’ve had to learn the hard way to carry bottled water.
Logical thought guides only a small proportion of our decisions, I suspect. Gut feelings give us knowledge without conscious processing. They often arise quickly, drawing on unrecognized sources in our past or present. Pattern recognition? Forgotten incidents? Subliminal sensory input? Intuition is mysterious but not magical. Like reasoning, it’s a helpful brain process without guarantees. When my gut says I’m fine without water or human interaction, I’d best check with reason and experience too.
“Too much noise,” said Mr. Flibberty-Jib.
“Not enough roast beef,” said Mrs. Flibberty-Jib. “And you don’t wear your mittens.”
They moved from the loud city to the countryside in hope of quiet. The noise of roosters and tractors drove them back to the city, where Mr. Flibberty-Jib finally ate more roast beef and began wearing his mittens.*
Urban-rural contrasts are a staple of folklore and children’s picture books. Aesop’s ancient fable of the city mouse and the country mouse has been retold in many forms over the centuries. The distinct rewards and challenges of each way of life become evident as one mouse visits the other.
These days I hear travelers back from road trips aghast at the lawn signs they saw along the way. Urban and rural areas differ sharply in the political views that predominate. Did no one grow up hearing fables in which city and country mice meet, converse, and begin to understand each other’s perspectives, instead of just driving by?
*As best I remember it, from Gertrude Crompton, Noises and Mr. Flibberty-Jib, 1947.
Image: Arthur Rackham’s illustration in Aesop’s Fables: A New Translation, 1912.
Another school year is upon us, inviting more debate about what to teach and who gets to decide. I’m nostalgic for the way my high school teachers had us memorize portions of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Such texts would provide a shared basis to argue the role of government. Unfortunately, I don’t think abandoning memorization is what traditionalists mean when they decry historical revisionism. Their nostalgia is for school days when America was always best and only white men mattered.
The past doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does. Historians find new evidence and ask new questions. Not every new finding can be added to every class. Life is too short; judgment calls are unavoidable. Geography, grade level, and current events may properly influence what to emphasize. But to suppress new findings because they challenge the accuracy of what we were taught long ago is to lie by omission.
“All history is revisionist,” historian James M. Banner Jr. wrote in Humanities magazine. No history can be purely objective. Even a simple medieval chronicler had to decide which events to list and how to describe them. The job of historians is to study and interpret evidence, which is almost always incomplete. Facts can never speak for themselves. To treat the history in our childhood textbooks as the one true story—and any reinterpretation as heresy—is to equate history with the unchanging past. It’s a fantasy to think such history is even possible.
Is it my imagination, or are we starting to hear of Covid-19 in the past tense? Friends mention “normal” as just around the corner. Sports, restaurants, and concerts are back. I see few masks and little distancing outside cities.
Some people’s “normal” looks back to an idealized past from before 2020. Some people’s “new normal” looks to a romanticized future in which buildings are well ventilated, frontline workers are respected, and hugs require consent.
Other people’s normal can work in my favor. In the initial pandemic lockdown, an online grocery order had to be placed a week in advance. Now that most of my neighbors shop in person, I can pick up groceries two hours after I order them.
My personal normal is less about past or future than how things are right now. I may avoid crowds, mask in public indoor spaces, and get regular Covid boosters for the rest of my life. Variants are increasingly infectious. Health or age makes infections dangerous to me and many folks I interact with. My normal is to live and let live: do my best to stay happily alive and help others do the same.
Image: Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Sailors Carousing, 1802. Celebration in an unspecified Portsmouth tavern after one or more ships have been paid off. Royal Museums Greenwich.
We’re in the throes of another election season. Candidates and voters deny election results from 2020 or from recent primary defeats. Meanwhile, Covid-19 responses add to a long history of science denial, in the tradition of the Flat Earth Society or nineteenth-century doctors’ refusal to wash their hands.
Perhaps some people can’t stand the tension of beliefs that conflict with their wishes. Perhaps some haven’t heard the factual evidence. Perhaps some spread lies deliberately for profit, ratings, or votes. But top factors in the appeal of denialism surely include belonging and distrust.
To be shut out from community because of differences of belief brings pain. We’re influenced by those around us not only because we think they know best but because we want and need their acceptance. If we deny evidence to stay in the group, what’s most likely to change our minds is exposure to supportive new friends with a different perspective.
To feel scorned or ignored by perceived elites breeds distrust of authority. Unlike skepticism, which demands evidence, denialism rejects legal and scientific authority regardless of evidence. If we deny expertise in order to claim our equal right to an opinion, the most effective antidote might be mutually respectful conversations free from superior sneers.
Richard S. Gilbert writes, “I rise in the morning torn between the desire to save the world or to savor it.” When my must-do list is completed for the day, does should-do have a claim on any time and energy left over? Or are the remaining hours mine to enjoy as uselessly as I please?
Poets offer both answers. “The people I love the best jump into work head first,” Marge Piercy writes. “The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.” Yet from Mary Oliver we read, “You do not have to be good. . . . You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Who got it right? I suspect individuals differ in what will help them heal. Saint Augustine, after years of restless promiscuity, found peace through Christian asceticism. A thousand years later, Martin Luther—a religious over-achiever whose efforts to please God never felt like enough—found peace in the idea of salvation by faith. Telling young Augustine he did not have to be good would only have worsened his struggles, but it was exactly the message young Luther needed to hear.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.