Long ago I lived in a Chicago area apartment and parked on the street. After heavy snowfall, teens rescued strangers’ cars spinning tires on ice. They helped neighbors shovel out parking spaces and stake claims with a couple of chairs. Anyone fool enough to park on someone else’s claim might wake the next day to find their car totaled.
That’s when I first noticed the way challenging times bring out the best and the worst in people. Volunteers travel miles to rebuild hurricane damage or save birds after oil spills. On the downside, I see parallels between the military draft for Vietnam in the late 1960s and the current pandemic. Both crises disrupted and threatened lives. Stress went up. Trust went down. Compassion gave way to scapegoating. Rivals became enemies. To connect across the chasm was to collaborate with the devil.
A poll last year found half the respondents who’d voted for Biden in 2020, and three-quarters of voters for Trump, saw no real difference between the opposing party and Fascists or Socialists respectively. Voters in both parties agreed overwhelmingly that elected officials in the other party were “a clear and present danger to American democracy.” With the perceived stakes so high, it’s a short step to condoning death threats and violence in order to save the nation.
I’m spooked by the attack on Paul Pelosi. I'm spooked about next week’s election. Will the ongoing challenges keep bringing out the worst in our body politic? In nooks and crannies of the nation, I pray we'll also see glimmers of the best.
What a glorious season to be out and alive! The first Sunday of October my household walked Wisconsin’s largest corn maze. We visited an orchard a week later for apples and cider, and returned the next weekend for pumpkins. For those of us with allergies, best of all is the burst of renewed warmth after cold nights kill off the ragweed.
“Indian summer” first appeared in 1778 in Letters From an American Farmer by Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur. He wrote, “Then a severe frost succeeds which prepares it to receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow; though it is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.” No one knows why it’s called that. Some theories seem innocuous. Others equate “Indian” with late or fake, or claim it was a season for massacres. In any case, some Native Americans find it pejorative, like “Indian giver” or “off the reservation.”
The glossary of the American Meteorological Society in 2020 replaced it with “second summer” and noted older terms in England such as “St. Martin’s summer” or “All-hallown summer.” Political correctness run amok? I don’t think so. I’ve always spoken of “Indian summer” with a fondness “second summer” can’t match. But when I name a person or group in a figurative expression that unintentionally offends them, respect suggests letting their response outweigh my intention.
Reading about the past is interesting. Living history as it happens is exciting and sometimes scary. I’d rather enjoy the drama from a distance. Of the many ways to interact with history, my favorite is the process of synthesis: to gather and evaluate evidence and arrange it to tell a story. The joy of research shares elements with the joy of exploring a trail or assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
Watching the House Jan. 6 committee, I’m engrossed by how pieces of evidence come together into a riveting narrative. Of course, the pieces are already collected, selected, and arranged before we see them. I catch myself starting to envy the committee members that task, however grueling.
Then I remember that these individuals lived the history they’re investigating. On Jan.6, while I watched in shock from the safety of home, they were in the midst of the chaos. Their lives were in danger. No, I don’t envy them at all.
I spent part of last week in polio meetings in Evanston, my former home just north of Chicago. The days were cold and rainy; the polio experts, warm and informative. Yes, poliovirus in New York and London was mentioned, but not a major topic. Here’s why:
Poliovirus transmission in New York is a shock. Polio hasn’t been endemic here since 1979. Unfortunately, low vaccination rates allow a risk of such outbreaks—even in under-vaccinated pockets within the generally well protected U.S. and U.K.
From a global perspective, similar outbreaks in parts of Africa have been stopped despite greater challenges of poverty and sanitation. Polio will be stopped in New York, too. We may see other outbreaks until poliovirus is gone from Pakistan and Afghanistan, the final endemic countries. I suspect the main significance of polio in New York, beyond the individual sadly paralyzed, is the wake-up call to Americans. Vaccination matters. The virus is only a plane ride away.
Image: India, polio-free since 2011, immunizes children to protect against virus from abroad.
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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.