The Week that Was: From Wendy Smith to Rachel Jeantel, and Then Some

When I started college in the fall of 1983, one of my new friends was a self-described WASP from New England.  We weren’t roommates, but her roommate went home many weekends, and I often crashed in her dorm room.  That fact, and my attempt to help her clean that room before her parents showed up on parents’ weekend led me to be wielding a vacuum cleaner when her mom walked in.  They were early, and I — sporting my weekend typical “lived in” t-shirt and sweats — had not planned to be there when they arrived.  I muttered something, and scurried from the room.  She told me later that her mother had observed, “oh, you hired a maid.”  Folks like me who work on diversity issues often point out that many of the benefits that diversity brings manifest themselves  in contexts outside the classroom.   When it comes to challenging beliefs about people and places, you don’t get much better opportunities than that one!  Whether my friend’s mom ever came to think of me differently wasn’t the point.  Her world view about how and where her daughter interacted with people who looked like me shifted subtly that day.  And those subtle shifts are the ones that inexorably bring change with them.  When John Roberts and Dick Cheney discovered that the people seeking marriage equality were not “those people,” and were instead their cousin, and their daughter, respectively,

U.S. Supreme Court building.

U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

things began to shift.  That is the difference that difference makes.  That is also why it’s vital that the Supreme Court preserved the use of affirmative action when it remanded the Fisher case earlier this week.

But, why is it so important that we all — people of color, white people, lgbt  people, immigrants, straight people, poor people — be educated together?  So that we live and work well together, and hopefully understand each other better in an increasingly diverse society to which we all must contribute.  Still skeptical?  Consider this:  it may be unclear what Harvard Law School saw in a single mom who was divorced at 19 and bounced around from school to school.

Press0130

Press0130 (Photo credit: EqualityTexas)

But, we all saw it Tuesday night when Wendy Davis held the floor  of the Texas Senate for more than 11 hours to protect women’s reproductive choices.  Not convinced, yet?  Listen to the fiery rhetoric of former welfare recipient turned Marquette University grad., and now Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin as she fights for expansion of the Violence Against Women Act to ensure that Native American women abused by non-Native men can see those abusers prosecuted in tribal courts.   Difference matters.  In the classroom, in the courtroom, in the boardroom, in the statehouse and everywhere else you can think of.

And there is no bigger beneficiary of the fruits of affirmative action than the man who condemns it most loudly:  Clarence Thomas.   The man from Pinpoint, GA who famously complains that affirmative action made his Yale Law School degree worth 15 cents nevertheless, with the connections that came with it, managed to parlay that worthless degree into a job in a senator’s office, and stints as Chair of the EEOC, and appointments to the D.C. Circuit Court, and now the U.S. Supreme Court.  And to be sure, the conservative views he voiced in his law school classes challenged his classmates’ stereotypes and preconceptions about “minority views,” or the “black perspective,” (assuming such things exist) on many subjects.   This exchange of ideas and broadening of understanding is what makes it crucial that institutions of higher education continue to consider race as “a” factor (not “THE” factor) in their admissions processes.

Diversity  is even more crucial for this reason:  so that we recognize the basic humanity of “the other.”  If a judge has no exposure to, or understanding of the background, experience and perspective of the people whose cases  s/he is called upon hear, how close to rendering justice can he or she come?  And how much stock should we put in the fairness of courts and competence of schools, legislatures and government offices if the people who work there don’t bear some resemblance to us and our communities?

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What the …???

This week, I’m starting a new section in my posts called “what the???”    In this section, I will share a few articles where the actors’ actions make me do a double take … to say the least.

#1 :  Earlier this week, when George Zimmerman’s lawyer made his opening arguments to the jury, he did so with a knock knock joke.  If pressed, I could not imagine a less sensitive way to begin a murder trial.  However, if you, as defense counsel, begin by making jokes, it does two things:  1) conveys a certain level of confidence in your client’s innocence,  and 2) makes clear that you do not value  the life of the person who was killed, and encourages the jury to do the same.  Imagine what it must have been like to be Martin’s mother sitting in the courtroom and having to listen to someone proceed in a way that was so, at best, cavalier. As the week has worn on, the point I make about diversity and humanity has reared its head:  Zimmerman’s defense counsel hasn’t yet figured out how to cross examine Trayvon’s 19 year-old friend, Rachel Jeantel, without condescending to her or putting her on trial.  And this failure has drawn attention from the matter at hand:  that neither Jeantel, nor Trayvon are on trial while Zimmerman is.  Perhaps that’s his strategy, however loathesome.  Jeantel, a Hatian immigrant, has also been the subject of a whole raft of criticism:  about her speech, her self presentation, her demeanor.  Anyone notice that this young woman has suffered an incredible loss, and is holding her head up with one heck of a lot more dignity and sense of self than would be the case for many of her haters??!!  That her critics are largely people who have been similarly objectified is a big problem, but largely for what it says about their low regard for themselves and the communities from whence they come. What that criticism suggests about how the jury, which has a lot less in common with Rachel than her critics, may receive her or discredit her testimony is  a much bigger concern.

#2  The harm done to both the Voting Rights and the Indian Child Welfare Act with bad decisions this week.  Read this piece for some context.

#3 From the Atlantic comes this article that describes Justice Alito’s reaction as Justice Ginsberg read aloud her dissent in two employment cases decided by the Supreme Court on Monday.  The Atlantic describes Justice Alito’s reaction this way (he authored one of the two opinions from which J. Ginsberg dissented):  “Alito pursed his lips, rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and shook his head “no.”   They offered this about the reaction of those in the Court:  “it was clear to all with eyes, and brought gasps from more than one person in the audience.”

#4  From Texas, where the women senators and male senator allies stood tall in the saddle in defense of women’s reproductive rights comes  this analysis: “We had [a] terrorist [sic] in the Texas State Senate opposing SB 5.”  Meanwhile, Governor Perry couldn’t wait to call a second special session because, “Texans value life and want to protect women and the unborn.”  Yet, the valuing of life and women is selective as this week, Texas  also executed its 500th inmate since resuming the death penalty in 1982, Kimberly McCarthy.  Irony, anyone?  Finally, the governor stooped to a new low with this statement on Thursday, “Even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances. … It is just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.”   Unfortunately, it’s the governor who appears not to have learned anything.

#5 I can’t wrap this up without sharing two more articles that highlight how people of African descent continue to be pathologized, or viewed as  less valuable.  From NPR comes this story that is partially about transracial adoption, but centrally about African American babies costing less to adopt.  And finally, from Ohio, we have this story of an Ohio charter school that has had to rescind its new policy that would have taken effect this fall and banned the wearing of  “afro puffs and small twisted braids.”  I take this latter story very personally being an Ohio born black woman who spent a lot of her childhood sporting afro-puffs, twists and braids. I suspect that until it was challenged, the administration of the charter school had not given a thought to the negative message it would send to young black girls about how unacceptable and non-conforming they were for the simple act of pulling their hair back  the way people with straighter hair do with pony tails.

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Pro-Life Revisited: Abortion, Farm Bill & Political Paralysis

My friends and colleagues will tell you:  there are very few things that I won’t say, or talk about.  If we’re in a meeting on the Hill and someone has to ask the hard question, it’s more often than not me who does it.  If we are having a moment of “coalition crankiness,” I wade into the discussion.  It’s generally my view that you can iron out many differences and often make progress by talking things out.  I’ve never had that perspective about abortion.  It’s one of those issues where almost everyone has a strong view, and no amount of talking is likely to change it.  Additionally, the more that’s said, the more likely there is to be a strong divergence of views, whether those views are shared, or not.  So, it comes as something of a surprise, to me at least, that my third post is focused on abortion.  And with that, I wade in.

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Earlier this week, the U.S. House Judiciary Comm., which is comprised entirely of men, passed a bill that bans abortion twenty weeks after conception, except where the mother’s life is in danger.  A bill that limits women’s reproductive choice being issued by a committee with no one on it with firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be pregnant.  Hmmm.  And the bill had no exceptions for rape or incest.  Double hmmm.  Those modest additions were put forward as amendments on Wednesday and rejected.  Only because the bill’s sponsor made the astounding suggestion that not many pregnancies occur as a result of rape, was the House leadership forced to backpedal and include the rape/incest amendment two days later.

 Equally bad bills like this one, and this one and ones that are worse still are being introduced across the country.  (Note:  I include the linked articles because they are where I found info. re:  the bills, and not because they are decidedly partisan).  Now one approach from here would be to go partisan and rave about who keeps introducing all these bills.  But that’s not what I’m after.  It also wouldn’t get me far since there are plenty of democrats who favor abortion restrictions.

What I want to do is two things:  1) applaud and share the comments that Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, makes about the issue of abortion:  “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is;” and 2) start the conversation that Sister Joan is talking about by sharing this piece from the NYT mag. It offers some anecdotal insights into the lives of some women who’ve sought, but not been able to have an abortion.  It also offers some data about the different quality of life that women experience when they are able to get an abortion v. those who try and fail to get one because their pregnancies are too far along.   Most of the women in this ongoing study already have at least one child.  Most are unlikely to have finished college.  Eighty percent report not having enough money to meet basic needs.  These three facts are true of all the women in the study, whether they were able to secure an abortion or not.   Where the disjunction comes in is on economic issues.  As compared to their study counterparts who were able to secure an abortion, those who were not were three times as likely to be living below the poverty line 2 years later.  So one key, though not surprising takeaway is that  the women in the study were worse off financially.  Many of them turned to “public assistance for women with newborns.”  Thus far, that federal program –the Women, Infant and Children program, or WIC — has been able to meet the demand for services.  But, it and several other key assistance programs, including SNAP, formerly Food Stamps, and TANF  (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) have either seen cuts or underperformed relative to need and reaching target audience in this tough economy.  Sister Joan expresses the hope that legislators who are avowedly pro-life will also translate those beliefs into some support for, at minimum, these kinds of safety net programs that sustain families.   Let’s follow the dollars. 

     According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a number of budget strictures, including those imposed by the sequester, will mean nearly $500 million worth of cuts to the WIC program.  The Center’s report details a number of troubling things that happen as a result of these cuts:  staff reductions, WIC clinic closures or reduction in hours, all of which make it more difficult and discouraging for those seeking services.  With respect to SNAP, a key supplemental nutrition program, the Senate just passed its version of the farm bill last week, and made cuts to SNAP comparable to those faced by WIC –$496 million for WIC  v. $400 million for SNAP.  The full House has not voted on the farm bill yet, however, the House Agricultural Comm. has approved a bill which would cut SNAP by $2 billion a year.

     This brings us back to the point(s) that Sister Joan is making.  If one, as a legislator, is acting to do everything in his (in this case) power to reduce, if not eliminate access to abortion, then what responsibility should he assume for ensuring that the lives that came into being, due in some measure to his actions, are viable, not just for 9 months in utero, but for the years that follow?  It’s worth noting that the same House farm bill that proposes $2 billion worth of cuts to SNAP– which, beyond the context of the issues I raise,  is this country’s key anti-hunger program — is full of many subsidies for farmers:  for rice and peanut, and dairy farmers and for crop insurance.  The Senate tried to reduce these subsidies, but seemed to only be able to pare back  the amount of assistance farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000 receive with their crop insurance.  Numbers can sometimes cause the eyes to glaze, so let me say this differently: the Senate’s cuts to farmers making six figures will only affect about 20,000, while the House is proposing to cut $2 billion from a program that serves 1 in 7 Americans.  Two million of them could lose their benefits if the House proposal is not scaled back. These proposals could be described many ways.  Pro-life does not make the list. 

 In the end, Sister Joan is right, if not about her conclusions — though I agree, some may not — then certainly about the question(s) we need to be asking.   Ultimately, this piece also ends up being more about those morality questions than the Scarlet A.  As we celebrate Father’s Day today, we need to start asking those tough questions about leadership, and whether the people we’re electing are doing the job.  And, if they are not because they are spending more time protecting interests other than “the least of these,” all our “to do” lists just got longer by one.

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It’s a week after the first part of this post and there are a few updates worth passing along.

First, is this op ed  in which one woman shares her story of how/why she needed an abortion at 23 weeks.  It’s as eloquent and  painful a demonstration of why abortion needs to be left to those who need them, their loved ones, and physicians, and not the Congress as I ever hope to read.

The second is that quite unexpectedly yesterday, the farm bill was defeated in the House of Representatives.  There’s a lot of finger pointing happening just now.  Nothing new there.  We’ve heard it before.  Democrats are partisan.  Republicans are amateurs.  One side didn’t deliver their votes, the other blindsided them.  Read the rehashes here and here.  What simultaneously is and is not news is that the bill ultimately failed because there weren’t enough votes on the Democrat side of the aisle.  This is not a surprise, because the final amendment to the bill proposed to add work requirements to the SNAP program, and coming behind a raft of other amendments, including one that would have drug tested SNAP recipients (without any particular reason to believe that the recipients had drug problems), the D’s threw up their hands and walked away.  The surprise was that the R’s were counting on them to help pass a bill that people at both ends of the philosophical spectrum hated.  Conservative R’s wanted more cuts to the SNAP Program.  That’s a pretty harrowing notion when you understand that the bill already contained $20 billion worth of SNAP cuts ($2 billion annually for 10 years) , and progressives wanted less.  This level of dysfunction is what passes for the “new normal” in Washington, D.C.  Coming down the pike directly behind this most recent debacle is the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill.   While the House has another chance to get it right, and to choose to work in a serious bi-partisan manner, I’ve been told that at the House Judiciary Comm. meeting earlier this week, many mandatory minimums and other problematic proposals were added to the House bill, such that it is probably doomed, already.  Einstein put it best:  “Crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results.”  We should also be guided by that, and send some different people to Congress in the future:  people who are interesting in public service, and in legislating, not pontificating and obstructing.

Downton Revisited …

It being my custom to do things somewhat backwards — I blame it on having been a posterior presentation at birth — I’m seizing the opportunity afforded me by this second — less vexed — post to launch my blog.  The blog owes its name to my day job, about which I frequently complain because I am either repeatedly pushing the same boulder up the literal and proverbial Hill, or looking on while things that seem straightforward and reasonable get derailed in favor of things that are neither of those, and you can often find yourself having the strangest adventures while all of this occurs.  Facts are forgotten, twisted, and sometimes made up.  But it’s never dull.  And because the news cycle is neverending, it feels like there’s not always time to peel back the layers of some things that are being said and done by people who have significant influence  in our lives, or the way we’re able to live them, including politicians, popular and religious influencers. Thus, I hope this blog will be a place where I can talk about some of those issues/people and dig below the surface a bit.  Thanks for making my first blog a smashing, if unexpected success.  At this point, nearly 200 people have read it.  I hope you found it worthwhile, and that you’ll return and engage if you’re of a mind.

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Since I weighed in last week on Ellen Sturtz’s pas de deux with the First Lady, the Washington Post has given her the pen, so I thought I would also offer a few additional thoughts.   I begin with a question:  why are people still talking about this?  I answer by pointing the finger at the media as I did previously.  In my view, the Post has done nothing but sustain a non-story, with over 3,800 people commenting on Ms. Sturtz’s column.  And in so doing, it has rewarded Ms. Sturtz’s bad behavior.  The explicit message is that if you act up in public, you might get rewarded with a larger forum for your message.  Her message is a good one:  that the question of what’s happening to our LGBT youth is important, that there should be explicit employment protections for LGBT people, and that the President promised to fight for that  However, it appears to me — judging by the responses to her piece — that her methods have drowned out her message.  That is, everyone is busy either wagging a finger at her, or giving her an attagirl for what she said to the First Lady, and few people are focused on why she said what she did.  More’s the pity, since any kind of mandate on business has been a difficult thing to come by in this Administration and even where that’s happened — e.g. the Dodd Frank law, which was aimed at ending the excesses of Wall Street that gave rise to the crisis/bailout of 5+ years ago — we appear to be light years behind in term of implementation.

So what’s the takeaway?  The strategic use of protest to advance your message and move a seemingly intransigent government can work wonders.  Martin Luther King knew that, and so did ACT UP.  But what Ms. Sturtz did, sadly, does not qualify.  It may well have hurt the cause she clearly cares passionately about if the Administration feels like it would be a sign of weakness to capitulate, and continues to do nothing.  While “nothing ventured,”  can sometimes be true, it’s true just as often in this town that you’re most likely to prevail if your resort to “guerilla lobbying,” is part of a well planned strategy, rather than just a frustration driven blurt fest.   Sadly, it doesn’t appear that Ms. Sturtz has learned much from this incident:  she paid her money, she made her point, and she  was rewarded with a forum.  Nowhere in her ten paragraph piece (where the word “I” appears in all but one of the paragraphs), does she find the moment to do the one thing that could do more than anything to gain allies for her issue, and get her cause back on the rails:  apologize. Nor does she seize the platform to tell people what they could do to help exert some pressure on the Administration:  makes some calls, sign a petition, secure a high level meeting … something!!  Ms. Sturtz, you’ve both seized the moment and squandered it.  A tragedy if ever there was one.

Downton (Cr)Abbey: The First Lady, hecklers and the demise of decorum

The trouble with me — this week, well, ok always — is that everything is connected.  Will try sticking to the hyperrelevant and see how long that lasts.

So today’s sorta political sorta gossipy fodder is about a fundraiser that Mrs. Obama headlined last night.  What we can all agree on is that things went off the rails.  The how’s and the why’s are where it gets complicated, and interesting.  Many of the headlines talk about how the First Lady “confronted,” or “snapped at”, took on,”  or in one instance “took down” the heckler.  Anyone noticing the not so subtle language of aggression that the media is using here?  Are they being salacious so that you’ll read their version, or are they affirmatively painting the First Lady, who responded when engaged, NOT went out picked a fight, as being aggressive?   I will leave you to mull that for a bit as I sift through a few other strands.

First and foremost, we have a decorum problem that no one seems to have focused on.  I am probably overly inclined to this perspective because I have been eagerly devouring the first two seasons of Downtown Abbey this week, so I will confess to being more preoccupied than usual with what is appropriate in various contexts.  And the episode I just watched is one where a maid bursts into a formal dinner to announce to a military officer and his wife, that their son — recently killed in WW I — was her baby daddy.  It did not go well, and neither did last night.  Unpacking why that is, I’m going to defer for the moment as well.

It is entirely true that over the course of the last three presidencies beginning with President Clinton, the extent to which the President, his actions, and even his family are considered to be “fair game,” by the press and public has slid downhill faster than the Dowager Countess can slice you with her rapier wit, however that shouldn’t mean that all bets are off.  It’s simply not ok to yell “you lie” at the President at the State of the Union, and it’s not ok to heckle the First Lady at a fundraiser.  One thing we seem to have lost sight of is that there is a certain amount of respect due the office, if not the office holder.  We are talking about the head of state of the free world and his wife, not your first cousin, best friend, or anyone else with whom you have the closeness of relationship that permits you to transgress the bounds of decency whenever you feel like it.  That brings us to why this seems to keep happening — and I am not including here the President getting heckled at his terrorism speech.  I’m not giving Code Pink a pass, entirely, but the person secured an invite to what was a hybrid press/policy event and was offering a policy critique, even if she had not been invited to do so.

Last night, the First Lady whose role, historically, and in this Administration, has largely been divorced from the President’s policy agenda — Mrs. Obama has focused on physical fitness and military families — was likely making a political speech.  I phrase it that way, because so far, I’ve only seen what she said in response to being engaged by Ms. Sturtz.   According to some accounts, Ms. Sturtz says that she didn’t attend the event with the intent of speaking out.  Something moved her, however, not only to speak out, but also to either think it was ok to do so, or not give a damn about whether it was.   Several of you have written or “Amen-ed” the notion that the First Lady should get used to it as long as the LGBT community is being thrown under the bus. To this I reply:  I hear you, but that doesn’t make last night’s shenanigans ok.  And by the way, you might have noticed that you have a freakin’ armada of company under that bus:  progressives, immigrants, poor folks, and I’m sure many others would hasten to add themselves/their communities.

The question is when you take umbrage at the President’s (in)actions, what do you do, and where … even if you are, to quote Fanny Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of waiting for action.  Believe me, I am not about to assume the role of apologist for the President.  At the same time, I can see that the insane resistance to even doing reasonable things on Capitol Hill is nearly paralyzing the Congress.  Signing that Executive Order — and believe me, it was damn near impossible to get the House to pass a bill with explicit protections for LBGT victims of violence earlier this year– will incense most R’s and make things worse, if that’s actually possible.  Do not understand me to say that as a consequence, the President should do nothing.  I am saying that he and he staff weigh the pros and cons of everything.  One indication that they are doing a decent, though far from perfect job, is that we are all cranky about all they’ve not done.  As I said, you have much company under the bus!

So let’s go back to Downton for a minute:  the maid, seeing her only chance of getting support for her son slipping away, and feeling she had no options, spoke out.  Last night, Ms. Sturtz, either reacting to something Mrs. Obama said, or feeling frustrated by what hadn’t been said, spoke up.  Interestingly, she also expressed concern about family issues. The differences between the two scenarios are several, however:  1) Ms. Sturtz had paid $500 to attend the dinner, and was an invited guest; 2) she clearly felt empowered, if not entitled to interrupt the First Lady.  One might wonder why that is … My answer is there’s a race dynamic at play.  My words are deliberate.  I am not saying the woman is a racist; I don’t know her.  But it’s the same dynamic at play when the AZ governor sticks her finger in the President’s face, and members of Congress (who should know better if anyone should) shout during the state of the union.  It’s about the heckler’s sense of entitlement and privilege.  It’s a strong message that even though the hecklers are being addressed by the President and the First Lady, that no deference is owed them whatsoever.

But wait:  there’s more: Ms. Sturtz, having picked a fight and been ejected, has now been seeking to paint Mrs. Obama as aggressive.  This ties back to Ms. Sturtz’s sense of entitlement.  Two quotes illustrate my point, “Even though she was pretty — I would like to say assertive — but obviously it was pretty aggressive,” and “She cut me off immediately and leaned over podium, sort of her put her big hand towards me and said something to the effect of ‘You don’t do that to me’ or ‘I don’t do that.”  Soooooo, let me get this straight … you show up at event, interrupt at best, and/or heckle, but the person who responds — who people came there to hear, by the way — is aggressive and put her big hands toward you.  Ummm, really nice try at attempting to paint yourself as the victim, but no sale.  Moreover, let’s think about what’s implied by what Mrs. Obama is alleged to have done with her hands, or the alleged aggression … that it’s not ok for her to do that.  Ms. Sturtz, apparently, not only gets to show up and behave badly, but also to decide what is the appropriate tenor of response from Mrs. Obama.  Nice work if you can get it … And finally this:  Ms. Sturtz has been heard to observe that she wasn’t scared … funny that she mentioned it, then … sounds sort of like the cowardly lion carrying on in the woods.  “I’ll fight you with one hand … ”

Any lessons to be learned here?  I should hope so.  The very first is one they’re very fond of where I grew up:  “Don’t start none; won’t be none.”  Meaning, if you’re gonna decide to behave inappropriately toward the First Lady, don’t be surprised if she doesn’t receive you kindly, and most certainly, don’t try to retreat into victimhood, or act as if you were poorly treated when she refuses to suffer a fool gladly. Second:  just because we walk around talking about “Barack and Michelle, and “Bill and Hils,” all the time does not make us their friends or give us license to transgress the bounds of decency.  Y’all know your mamas raised you better.  I know it, too.  I have met most of them!!  The third point is this:  if we treat the President and First Lady with thinly veiled contempt, we give license to the opposition to do the same, and we show disdain for those offices as well as the people who hold them.  No wonder our federal political system is on life support.

So in the interests of politeness,  I will (with an edit or two) let the Downton crowd have the last words:

Robert: “They do say there’s a wild (wo)man inside all of us.”
Violet:
 “If only (s)/he would stay inside.

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