- Gun Safety: The Importance of Technology, the Legacy of Slavery
- What the Stormy Daniels Interview Demands of Congress
- Remembering the Taste of Damascus
- A Generation Under Siege
- Letters: How to Interpret a Poem
Posted: 25 Mar 2018 07:40 PM PDT
For an index of the two-dozen previous items in the post-Parkland gun-safety series, please see the bottom of this post. In this installment, I offer reader messages on two main themes. One is whether it matters to talk about the specific "killing power" of the AR-15 and the ammunition it uses. The other is about the specific historical background of the "well regulated militia" phrase in the Second Amendment.
Ammo and velocity. Reader J.E., in Kentucky, writes to object to another reader I quoted here, concerning the lethality of the AR-15's high-velocity bullets. J.E. writes:
Posted: 25 Mar 2018 08:27 PM PDT
On Sunday, Stormy Daniels, a longtime adult-film actress, appeared on 60 Minutes to share her account of her bygone relationship with President Donald Trump.
The most salacious behavior that she described is of relatively little consequence, even if totally true—it would be completely in character for the man Americans have gotten to know during years of trashy tabloid coverage to (per her account) flirt with a porn actress, compare her to his daughter, brag about a magazine with his face on it, get spanked with it, and cheat on his spouse.
That is who Trump voters knowingly elected, for better or worse.
But members of Congress, who are charged with being a check on the presidency, would err if the most salacious details distracted them so much that they missed the allegations in the interview that most demand further investigation.
The most important portion of the interview begins with the claim that Trump repeatedly suggested that he would work to get Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, a spot on Celebrity Apprentice.
That allegation suggests behavior much like what Harvey Weinstein reportedly perpetrated for years in Hollywood: a powerful man in entertainment using his perch to pursue sex by dangling a gig in front of someone hungry for success in the industry––then using threats after the fact in order to keep her from exposing his behavior. The allegation of a threat is what ought to interest members Congress even more than the possibility that Trump violated campaign-finance laws when his personal attorney tried to pay off Daniels to keep quiet about the president.
Here is the allegation as it appears in the pre-broadcast transcript that 60 Minutes released:
If false, Stormy Daniels deserves to be sued over that claim.
If accurate, that constitutes unlawful thuggery of a sort typically associated with mobsters. Of course, one shouldn't simply believe such a claim. (Cohen's attorney quickly fired back with a letter stating that "he had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any such person or incident, and does not even believe that any such person exists, or that such incident ever occurred.") But the presidency is too important and powerful a position simply not to worry about it, especially given the context: Trump has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual misconduct, and has bragged about groping women without their permission.
One common-sense way forward is to presume that if Trump did cause Stormy Daniels to be threatened in that manner, she is unlikely to be the only one. This needn't necessarily be a "he said, she said" situation. As Weinstein showed, a rich, powerful person can use payoffs and nondisclosure agreements to prevent multiple victims of the same misbehavior from knowing about one another.
That's why members of Congress should ask Donald Trump to publicly vow that he is not using nondisclosure agreements to hide sexual misconduct or threats, and to release anyone with evidence to the contrary from any contractual obligation that they have to keep quiet.
And Congress should consider legislation that would void any nondisclosure agreement that would impose any cost on anyone with information in the public interest about any president from coming forward. I don't suppose such a bill would pass this Congress. But it would be an honorable plank for a Never Trump Republican or Democratic candidate, and the next Congress might well enable transparency. The tiny class of elites who abuse nondisclosure agreements could use a healthy dose of scrutiny.
If Trump merely slept with Stormy Daniels, that should not end his presidency. If a thug threatened her daughter to keep her quiet on his behalf, and especially if he had a habit of threatening others to keep quiet, he should be removed from office. Earlier this year, the right was indignant about Hollywood's inexcusable failure to out prominent abusers. What is your representative's plan to determine whether or not there is a Harvey Weinstein in the White House? If you discover any promising ones, email email@example.com
Posted: 25 Mar 2018 09:45 AM PDT
After my parents fled the war in Syria for Egypt in 2013, they did their best to recreate their old life. My mother, a stellar cook and hostess, arranged the living room in their new home in Cairo to resemble the one they'd left in Damascus, filling an elegant bowl on the coffee table with little chocolates wrapped in colorful paper, and throwing her decorative cushions from Syria across the sofas. My father replicated his favorite corner from our old house, lining up his knick-knacks on the small table next to his favorite chair. The kitchen always smelled of spices, olive oil, and garlic when my mother cooked, just as it had back home. Yet these efforts to bring the past into the present were always somehow incomplete. Something remained transient, temporary, and not quite set.
For over 20 years, my parents had lived in the same single-story Damascus apartment surrounded by a garden, where we could smell lemon blossom and gardenia on hot summer nights. Summer was also when our friends who owned groves around the capital would send us crates of apricots and peaches, all ripe and juicy. This meant it was time to make jam—for Syrians, a precious summer ritual. Neighbors would exchange seasonal jars, and plunge into debates over whether jams made entirely on the stove were as tasty as those made the traditional way, with just a few minutes on the stove before being left to crystalize in the sun for several days. For my mother, the process began with simmering the apricots in a large pot, just long enough for their juices to start bubbling. After that, she would place the fruits on trays, lay a thin white mesh across the top of the trays, and set them outside beneath the sun. She would check on the apricots every few hours, churning them lightly with a wooden spoon before rearranging the mesh to keep the flies away from the sugary mix.
It has been said that the senses can restore memories, emotions, and even physical sensations thought to be lost. Marcel Proust wrote about how some cues, even the taste of a pastry he once ate as a child, could provoke a reconnection with his past. This experience rings painfully true for me. When I take a bite of eggplant puree infused with pomegranate sauce, I see my deceased grandmother standing before her cooking pots in the old house she lived in until the day she died. Every whiff of orange blossom reminds me of biting into a pistachio-filled Syrian pastry, dripping with blossom-flavored syrup. And last summer, on the day my mother made apricot jam for the first time since moving to Cairo, something clicked, restoring a crucial link to our life in Damascus—a life that now seems an impossibility.
When those of us who left Syria come together, we move from heated political conversations to sentimental remembrances. Then we hear the beats of the dabkeh, a traditional celebratory group dance. We stop talking, jump out of our seats, hold hands, and dance, yearning, angry, happy, mourning, hopeful, and, sometimes, tearful, all at once. Once, talking about old bazaars and the smell of jasmine would have bored us. But now, with Syria on fire and its future so bleak, we seek refuge in clichés, stereotypes, and a nostalgia that may have once seemed silly to us.
These days, I find myself moved to tears when I read Facebook posts by Syrian friends that recall jasmine bushes and picnics in Ghouta, the countryside near Damascus where people have been starving under siege. Other friends will write about quotidian experiences that few of my generation can recall. I myself have never picked walnuts in Idlib or pistachios off the trees in Aleppo. But I have heard so much about them from my father and his generation that I can imagine picking them, as if their memories are my own. I try to replace images of destruction with ones of picnics under walnut and pistachios trees. I become the protagonist of somebody else's stories.
Infusing my present with flavors from my past has become a daily act of resistance for me—of survival. In the last seven years, I've been unable to cook anything but Syrian or Levantine cuisine. I have stopped using any tablecloth but the delicately embroidered Aghabani, which most of my friends around the world call "Syrian tablecloth." I have sprinkled orange blossom water or maazahr ("water of flowers") over fruit salads and poured it into cake batter. I have added pomegranate molasses or debs rumman to all the tomato-based sauces I have cooked in the last few years. I have taught myself how to make kibbeh (cracked wheat meatballs), and how to roll the perfect vine leaves. I have learned to patiently stir goat yogurt for hours to make the perfect base for shishbarak, a succulent little dumpling cooked in yogurt soup.
I have resorted to smells and flavors as a way of sustaining some semblance of home. Feeling lonely? Sprinkle some cardamom into your coffee, and a sunny morning with your mother will appear before your eyes. Homesick? Add a dash of cinnamon to your broth, and you'll be transported to the spice bazaar in Damascus. Missing your grandmother? Prepare your chicken with Laura leaves and a generous handful of cloves, like all Syrian grandmothers do.
I pour rice into a serving dish and cover it with a mix of yogurt and tahineh (sesame paste), then sprinkle chopped parsley and pomegranate grains over the snowy surface. My late maternal grandmother suddenly whispers in my ear: Remember that we eat with our eyes too. Everything must look pretty and dainty. We must have a variation of colors in every dish. I look at the fatteh I made, and know that my grandmother would be proud. I made it exactly as she once did, layering the crispy pita bread, then the rice with pulled chicken, then the yogurt and, finally, chopped parsley and fresh pomegranate seeds to add color. I serve it to my guests and wait for their reactions. The one that sticks with me comes from a friend who visited me often in Syria, uttered after she closed her eyes and allowed all the flavors to invade her mouth: "It tastes like Damascus."
Posted: 25 Mar 2018 08:03 AM PDT
Forty days ago, Emma Gonzalez was a promising 18-year-old American high-school student. She was well-spoken, and curious, and funny, and rebellious, but in the restrained way that self-aware kids dabble in rebelliousness. Late last summer, when she decided to shave her head, she delivered a PowerPoint to her parents to persuade them to go along with it. "People asked me, 'Are you taking a feminist stand?' No, I wasn't," she told a local paper. "It's Florida. Hair is just an extra sweater I'm forced to wear."
She was a teenaged girl—anonymous, and blessed in that anonymity.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Americans assembled to hear Emma and her classmates speak. So many people came that they shut down the most famous road in the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth. Several pop stars performed for the crowd, but its members seemed to be on a first-name basis with only Emma.
Adult men wore shirts with the words: WHAT EMMA SAID. Young professional women were still parsing Emma's speech hours after she gave it. The ever-entrepreneurial souvenir peddlers of downtown D.C.—who sell MAGA caps one day, "Impeach" buttons the next—now hawked baseball tees with a cartoon of Emma's face on them. "I STAND WITH EMMA," said the shirts. "WE CALL BS."
This kind of terrible celebrity only afflicts the very talented or the very unlucky. Gonzalez is clearly both. On February 14, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which Gonzalez attends, and pulled the fire alarm. As the hallways filled with confused kids, he began firing. Six minutes later, 14 students and three teachers were dead.
It was one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, and among the 10 deadliest mass shootings of any type. Three of the shootings on that list had occurred since October 2017.
But something was different about the Parkland, Florida, shooting. David Hogg, a senior at the school, had the wherewithal to interview his classmates from inside a locked-down classroom. Gonzalez gave a fiery speech at a memorial for the victims, then went on Ellen. Kyra Parrow, Morgan Williams, and other students became social-media celebrities for contesting anti-gun-control talking points in real time. Something remarkable happened: A week passed, and then another week, and the public's attention stayed focused on a mass shooting.
Saturday's March for Our Lives was the culmination of that perseverance. In Washington, D.C., and hundreds of cities around the world, millions of people gathered to call for stricter gun-control policies. Their proposals were not particularly novel: universal background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons, "a comprehensive and effective bill… to address gun issues."
By far the most radical part of the March for Our Lives was this: Hundreds of thousands of adults stood outside on a bright, cold spring day and seriously listened to children and teenagers talk about their lived experience. It was a day when adults paid attention to the everyday lives and traumas of young people—not out of fear, anxiety, or frustration—but out of respect.
When was the last time so many adults gathered to hear teenagers talk—and not out of overweening fascination or prurient interest, but sincere admiration?
"I'm just so proud of these kids. They're not cynical. They're not defeated. They still believe that change can happen," Diane Heim, 63, told me during the rally. On April 16, 2007, Heim's daughter lived in Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory at Virginia Tech. Two students were shot and killed in that residence hall, among the 32 students ultimately murdered in that school's mass shooting. Heim's daughter survived unharmed.
They still believe that change can happen—that thought defined the day. For gun-control advocates, March for Our Lives brought hope dimmed with much else: loss, trauma, and years of defeat. The usual question that follows a large political mobilization—now what?—felt too scary for many protesters to ask. For the gun-control movement, what's been next, for years and years, has been near-total political failure. Horror stories from traumatized survivors, and from the parents of the dead, have done little to change that.
On October 1, Rebecca Hickerson, 33, was at concert in Las Vegas with two of her friends, mere feet from the stage, watching the country singer Jason Aldean perform. At 10:04 p.m., she sent one of her friends a happy Snapchat about the show.
One minute later, a shooter opened fire into the crowd. Hidden high in the Mandalay Bay resort across the street, the shooter fired more than 1,100 rounds in 12 minutes. He killed 58 people and injured more than 500. After hearing the first pops, and seeing blood, Hickerson and her two friends ran toward a bar in the venue and hid behind it. They remained there as the shooting intensified and the screams grew louder.
"We saw literally bodies, and people dragging people," Hickerson told me.
One of Hickerson's friends wanted to sprint to the door. "I kept telling them, the police will come get us out," Hickerson said. The police never arrived, but she believes that staying behind the bar saved her life. "The people who were running were huge targets," she said.
The shooting lasted 12 minutes. Hickerson stayed behind the bar for another 13 minutes. When they realized that minutes had passed without any new shots, they ran out of the venue and into the MGM casino next door. The casino floor was filled with so many victims, it was unclear if someone had been shooting there, too. They hid beneath a blackjack table.
But soon that felt unsafe, and they descended farther into MGM. Eventually they found a nook in a basement kitchen. They remained there until 3 a.m., when the police finally found them and took them to a ballroom where survivors were being triaged.
Surrounded by protesters in Washington on Saturday, Hickerson—who attended the march with her mother and extended family—was eager to share these details. Before she took to the streets, she posted text messages from that night on her Instagram. "Until people meet someone directly affected by a mass shooting, it's hard to imagine," she told me. "You see it on TV, you have sympathy or empathy for it, but then we move on so fast."
But surviving a mass shooting has changed what she imagines now, too. When Hickerson and her family emerged from the Metro on Saturday, she found herself scanning the tops of the buildings around her for snipers. The Hickersons tried to stand at the back of the crowd—so that they could avoid getting trampled if people suddenly fled the march—but attendance was so high that they found themselves in the middle. When she noticed a group of police officers were listening to their radios and entering the crowd, she flinched.
"I don't want to get to the point where it takes everybody knowing somebody—until you know somebody directly affected by a mass shooting, I don't think that you can understand," she told me. Hickerson is in therapy, and she attends a support group for survivors of the Las Vegas shooting. "We still have people literally in the hospital. We still have people who are learning to talk and walk again, people fighting in intensive rehab, and it's gone from the media."
Nearby stood another family affected by a mass shooting. Linda Sandberg, 59, held a sign commemorating Reema Samaha, a victim of the Virginia Tech shooting. Sandberg was a friend of Samaha's parents. Ranjana Majumdar, 53, accompanied her to the march. "I have a 12-year-old in middle school now. Everyday, he says to me at the door, 'Mom, if I don't come back, remember I love you,'" Majumdar told me.
The three women were invigorated by the march, even as they fell into a discussion of whether it would ultimately mean anything. "We are saying the same thing, over and over—I hope this is the tipping point," Sandberg said.
"I think there will be a big change, but I think it's going to take time," Hickerson told me. "It's going to take time to take all the assault rifles off the street. There are so many out there."
On Saturday, Parkland survivors seemed ready to dig in for a years-long partisan siege. They mentioned Republican politicians and led cheers of "Vote them out!" But they also showed videos of pro-gun media personalities and National Rifle Association leaders to the crowd. It seemed the audience was supposed to boo the clips, two-minute-hate-style. Though it perplexed some members of the audience, it also sent the message: This is who stands in your way.
In the meantime, shootings will continue, and there will be more survivors with stories of their own. The children of Parkland will grow into voters. Emma Gonzalez will face the difficult challenge of coping with trauma while leading a political movement. And a generation of teenagers will learn something about American democracy from this moment—about its virtues, and its frustrations.
Fifty teenagers took a bus to the march from Bloomington, Indiana. They organized the trip, booking hotel rooms and raising enough money so that every high schooler who wanted to come could attend for free. They seemed invigorated after the rally ended. Perhaps the epoch of mass shootings will end soon, they said.
"It's a steady flow—something that happens every school year," Sarah Hammond, a 17-year-old from Bloomington, Indiana, told me. "One more child to die is not acceptable. We can't wait to fix this in three years. Because that means three more years of kids dying."
Posted: 25 Mar 2018 06:00 AM PDT
America's Most Widely Misread Literary Work
The text accompanying a new Atlantic video, animated by Jackie Lay, challenged the prevailing interpretation of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as an ode to individualism.
Like "The Road Not Taken," "Mending Wall" is another Frost poem that can be interpreted many different ways.
My wife and I were both high school English teachers many years ago and used this poem to illustrate reader response methodology. We had opposite interpretations to this poem (she thought it was all about how Frost was endorsing walls and the aphorism "good fences make good neighbors," while I thought it was all about Frost trying to criticize the tendency of humans to build walls between each other for no good reason), and we would team-teach this poem with our American Lit. classes, arguing for our respective interpretations. We would invite students to join either of us. Later, we would explain why our respective lives had inclined us to read the poem the way we had. Our purpose was to show that there was not one correct interpretation, but that each reader's response to the poem was derived from their cumulative life experiences.
Several readers responded on Facebook:
Monique Lola wrote, "I do a debate with my seniors on whether this is a positive and uplifting poem, or a negative, regretful poem. They are assigned a side and get super into it. Sometimes it involves yelling. One year a girl was crying. It's amazing how much evidence they can pull from a relatively short and simple poem. Yay for critical thinking and textual evidence to prove your points!"
Laura Franey replied, "Yet, it's really neither. It's about storytelling—the way we narrativize moments in our lives, after they've happened, as though they had particular significance, even when they [did] not."
Siji Sadanandan Kottappady wrote, "The poet's job is done when the poem's written. The reader can give his own meaning when he reads."
Janessa Culliford replied, "I always find it so interesting how there are so many theories for literary analysis, and people get so into them arguing about the 'right way' to read or interpret a text! To each their own! I don't think any perspective should be dismissed outright, least of all the author's."
Siji Sadanandan Kottappady replied, "Agreed, Janessa, a poem is more like an abstract painting, and knowing what the creator thought makes it more enjoyable. All I wished to say was that once a poem is born, the poet is the past and the poem lives on to the future."
Michael Shane Parson replied, "There can be different interpretations, but there are definitely some interpretations which are definitely wrong because they have no basis from the lines of the poem. You have to read the poem as a whole and not just those lines which support your interpretation."
David Stevenson asked, "Doesn't the key to the poem reside within the third stanza? That had always been my impression at least:
Laura Franey replied, "Actually the interpretive key appears before (and after) that part. Before it he says he knows he'll be telling this story about the two roads later, and he knows he'll claim then that one was less traveled by and that that has made all the difference, but really, he says, the two roads were really equally traveled by. So as someone said above—there.was.no.road.less.traveled.by. They were both the same. He will just look back later and pretend he took one that was more desolate."
Irina Missiuro wrote, "I remember teaching this poem to college freshmen back in 2002 and being surprised at their insistence on arguing for the traditional interpretation, despite my explanation. People are attached to the meaning that's easiest to see. Yet, it's worthwhile to spend some time with the poet's words to get at his intended point."
Carole Donovan replied, "What is the traditional interpretation versus your explanation? I see it as all roads leading to the same destination, some rockier than others."
Kevin O'Donnell replied, "That's the false interpretation that isn't justified by the poem itself. One road isn't rockier than the other—they're both 'just as fair' and time 'had worn them really about the same.' The roads don't lead to the same destination, but you can only travel one, so you pretend that the one you chose was really for a definitive, meaningful reason, and that because you made that conscious choice it 'has made all the difference.' It's about the lies we tell ourselves and others, and how we deceive ourselves when we look back on our lives.
This isn't to say the poem isn't open to interpretation—all works of art are. But the interpretation has to be grounded in something, and claiming that the poem is really about two meaningfully different roads is just an impossible claim to make given the text of the poem itself."
Mark Richardson replied, "I think the key stanza in the entire poem that elucidates the true meaning is: 'I shall be telling this with a sigh.' If this poem is truly intended by the poet to be a powerful positive ode to individualism, then why the 'sigh'? Instead he uses the sigh to show the weariness of acceptance that Janis Joplin talked about in her song when she said, 'it's all the same fucking day, man.'"
Michael Kelly Miecielica wrote, "Yes. It is fucking amazing how many people can't read or understand 'had worn them really about the same.' The poem tells you three times both roads are equally traveled. The last line is sarcasm."
Sally Esther Abigail Brown responded, "And that's so important. It really bothers me that people are teaching this as though it's a poignant example of poetry being open to interpretation. Intention matters."
Patricia Journeay wrote, "Poetry is meant to mean something to the reader that might be different than meant by the author. That is one reason it is poetry and not prose."
Michael Shane Parson replied, "No. Poetry has rhythm stanzas sometimes a rhyme scheme. That's what makes it a poem. Prose lack these things."
Patricia Journeay replied, "What's poetry to one is not poetry to another. We disagree on the definition. One of my problems is that I disagree with Frost. No two roads are the same, even if they end in the same place. I love to travel and find new ways and new roads!"
Jackie Lay replies:
This is a great discussion about interpretation. While everyone is free to interpret a poem however they'd like, some interpretations will be more correct than others. But more importantly, the joy we get in searching for the best theory and debating the finer details is what makes this such a complex and masterful poem. I was astounded when my English professor walked us through his interpretation and I discovered a deeper meaning to this poem that I'd read so many times before.
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