Today’s political misconception is the one about enslaved African-Americans being counted as three-fifths of a person in the United States constitution. It’s true; it was spelled out in Article 1 until repealed by the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. But the assertion that an African-American amounts to only 60% of a white person is only part of this law.

The complete meaning is worse than that. Much worse.

The question the delegates were wrestling with was: Since states are represented in the House of Representatives based on their population, how do enslaved people count toward that representation? The abolitionists’ answer was “They don’t,” which was logical, since slaves were not treated as human beings under the law and certainly weren’t permitted to vote, themselves. Why should their owners get more representation based on that enslavement? The southern answer, illogically but expediently, was “The same as free people.” A family of ten that owned 90 slaves would therefore have the representation in Congress due 100 people. (Of course, it was not the individual or family, but the state as a whole that got the representation.)

Slave states wouldn’t ratify the Constitution without getting to count slaves toward their Congressional representation, and two slave states were needed to reach the nine out of 13 needed for ratification. After much wrangling, the delegates reached the Three-Fifths Compromise.

It would be bad enough if the article meant what it is often misunderstood to mean: that each free person is 100% of a citizen and each enslaved person is 60% of a citizen. But in fact, enslaved people didn’t count at all, except in order to benefit those who enslaved them. (Important aside: Indians were explicitly placed outside the count entirely; I don’t know to what extent that was a recognition that they were citizens of their own nations living among the citizens of the U.S., and to what extent it was an assertion that they were personae non gratae, though I can hazard a guess. Free blacks were counted the same as whites, but their numbers in the slave states were negligible at the time.) Slaveowners among the delegates had the chutzpah to argue that “blacks ought to stand on an equality with whites” (Charles Pinckney, SC), although they certainly weren’t arguing for racial equality in any other context. Not to put too fine a point on it, they wanted to count pieces of their property towards their representation, exploiting the fact that that property resembled a human being, though in their view “it” was not.

The Three-Fifths Compromised enshrined one of the most despicable facts of the U.S. slavery system: enslaved people were regarded as people when it benefited the enslavers, livestock when it didn’t. Thus, on the one hand, an enslaved woman had no rights her owner was bound to respect, as if she were a cow or sheep. On the other hand, the owner could have sex with her, something that would have been both taboo and illegal for him to do with non-human property, and their offspring would be considered human children (and, of course, the owner’s property). Likewise, bounty hunters and hunters of runaway slaves delighted in the opportunity to have prey that were so intelligent. Human escapees offered them a challenge that deer, bears, and wild pigs did not. But like the animals, they could be caught, tortured and killed with impunity.

The three-fifths rule was another means by which white supremacist governments had things both ways. People who were enslaved could not vote, nor had any rights that distinguished them from livestock, but whereas having more sheep did not entitle a state to more representation, having human livestock did. Every person brought from abroad to the auction block in New Orleans or Richmond gave Louisiana or Virginia that much more power to maintain that enslavement. Each enslaved woman who, raped by an owner, gave birth to a child, was by compulsion strengthening the chains holding them all.

That’s what’s meant by “three-fifths of a person.”

Next post: Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting about “adoption”


I’ve been mentally collecting common political misconceptions, some of which I’ve held myself. Some have been debunked repeatedly, such as the myth that Al Gore claimed credit for inventing the internet (he clearly didn’t), though even as one crumbles, another takes shape before our eyes, such as the claim that Sarah Palin said “I can see Russia from my house!” (It was Tina Fey, playing Palin on Saturday Night Live. Millions of us heard her say it on live television, and her tone was clearly satirical, not one of literally quoting her target, and yet people still say Palin said it.) But other, more substantive misconceptions keep cropping up, so herewith a few posts taking a close look at them.

Up today: the idea that federalism, and the Federalist Party of the early United States, advocate a loose confederation of states with a weak federal government. Federalism’s modern version, in this thinking, is “states’ rights.” In fact, the opposite is true: federalism argues for a strong central government and, while not discarding states’ jurisdiction over many functions of government, tilts towards empowering the federal government to supersede the states’.

I thought federalism equalled states’ rights for years, for the simple reason that the Federalist Society, the conservative legal organization, strongly advocates states’ rights and weak federal powers. And if one looks to the authors of the Federalist Papers, there are mixed messages; one was James Madison, a founding member of the Democratic-Republican (also known as the Republican) Party, which decisively took leave of the Federalist Party. However, during the writing of the Federalist Papers, Madison was a Federalist, or perhaps federalist is a better way to put it: he thought the Articles of Confederation were too weak (the Federalist Papers were written with the express object of getting the Constitution ratified to replace the Articles of Confederation) and that a stronger central government was needed to bind the states together.

The Federalist Society, according to Wikipedia, is primarily concerned with the concept of judicial restraint, which is outlined in Federalist Paper No. 78. That was indeed written by someone who remained a Federalist all his life, Alexander Hamilton. But in many (most?) of its stances, the Federalist Society sides not with Hamilton but with the later Madison, who parted from the principle of a strong central government, and in doing so, shed the name Federalist and began a new party–the first political party and the beginning of party factionalism in the United States.

I’m sure my understanding of these parties’ positions is far from complete, and probably anachronistic; who knows where Hamilton, Madison, and other early Federalists and Anti-Federalists would stand on the issues of 2018? But it’s undoubtedly true that the term “federalism” is repeatedly used to mean its opposite.

The Federalist website, for example, though not connected to The Federalist Society, shares its general worldview, and like it, is an inheritor not of the Federalists’ political philosophy, but their opponents’.

And just last week, the Washington Post used the term “federalism” to describe pushback by the nations’ governors against Trump’s teacher-arming plan (“Trump gets a seminar on federalism as governors push back on arming teachers,” February 27). “The session quickly became a seminar on federalism — and a reminder that states really remain the laboratories of democracy,” the author, James Hohman wrote, but that is far more a Democratic-Republican article of faith than a Federalist one.

Political philosophers, government majors, members of the Federalist Society, Ron Chernow, David McCullough (biographers of Federalists Hamilton and Adams, respectively): if you have light to shed on this issue, please do.

Next post: 3/5.

As long as lawmakers and courts insist that what James Madison had in mind with the Second Amendment was unlimited weaponry for the likes of Nikolas Cruz and Adam Lanza, we’re going to have to hit the gun lobby and its pals in the pocketbook. Some of the scummiest of those pals are the people who use the airwaves and internet to claim that these killings are hoaxes.

I’m happy to note that some of the worst sites generating and promoting fake stories–Gateway Pundit and InfoWars, for example–have no actual advertisers. Gateway Pundit advertises one religious pamphlet by the site owner’s twin brother, and InfoWars sells a brain supplement (hold the jokes, please) and a toothpaste, fluoride free, of course, that seem to be manufactured by InfoWars. Breitbart appears to have no remaining advertisers. But some other sites do get advertising money from actual companies. So I took a few minutes today to breathe deeply, overcome my nausea, and tell these companies what I think about that.


(NOTE: Earlier, I had the wrong e-mail address here; it was the support address for a company that distributes Berkey Water systems, and is not in charge of advertising decisions. The below address is the manufacturer’s.)


To the chief executive of Berkey Water Filter Systems:

I was appalled to read articles on promoting the idea that the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, FL, are actors and that the entire event is a fake staged by gun reform advocates. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

I notice that you advertise there, and I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads and stop supporting this revolting site with your money. I am posting this letter on my blog and will post your reply there when I receive it.

To the directors of Food Rising:

I was appalled to read articles on promoting the idea that the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, FL, last week, are actors and that the entire event is a fake staged by gun reform advocates. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

I notice that you advertise there, and I guess your partnership with the author, Mike Adams (the “Health Ranger”), is very close since he engineered your grow boxes. Maybe you are a one-person operation and he is it, for all I know. If that is not the case, and you are in fact dedicated to food innovation, I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads from and stop supporting this revolting site with your money.

I am posting this letter on my blog,, and will post your reply there when I receive it.

To the owners of Zeta Clear,
The website specializes in “articles” such as the claim that the slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, CT, was a fake. Apparently it is not horrible enough to make such a claim, and add to the unimaginable suffering of the parents and other loved ones of these children, so the author prints one child’s name over and over with the ridiculous assertion that his death was a hoax, simply because a Pakistani mourner of the children killed in Peshawar, Pakistan, expressed solidarity by posting his photo alongside those of some of the Peshawar victims. Simple explanations have no effect on the cruelty and willful obtuseness of “The Right Wing Extremist.”

I notice that you are his sole advertiser. I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads and stop supporting this revolting site with your money. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

You claim you will respond to phone calls and e-mails, but you don’t actually post an e-mail address. So I am calling you and also posting this letter on my blog,, and will post your reply there when I receive it.


I don’t want to become another bullet journal user who blogs about bullet journaling, but the same sorts of questions about “bujo” (as it is mercifully abbreviated) keep popping up among my friends, and in case anyone is interested, I thought I’d put my take on them somewhere less ephemeral than a Facebook post. The moral of this post is: do your own thing.

For the basics on bullet journaling, I refer you to Google, though with a pinch of salt, because there are some “explanations” out there that I found confusing, including the originator’s. Here’s what I’ve culled, taking what works for me and leaving what doesn’t.

The actual bullet idea, with its potential complex key of “done,” “delegated,” “events,” tasks,” etc., leaves me cold. Yes, I need a list of the things I need to do, and some direction to myself indicating when to do them and whether they are done; that’s easily done with an empty square for to-dos, an arrow for “moved to a future date,” and a checkmark for “done,” for the most part. The hardest thing about any organizational system, for me, is keeping up the daily discipline of looking at my previous to-do lists and dealing with every single item: forwarding it to another day, delegating it, deleting it, whatever. No system will do that for you, if you, dear organizationally-challenged friend, share this difficulty. It just has to be done. I find a handwritten list less intimidating than an electronic one, for whatever reason, so “bujo” has that in its favor.

The big “ahas” for me are the index and the all-in-one-book approach. The index I see in most bullet journal sites, oddly, is not an index: it is a table of contents, arranged by page number, not alphabetically. This is more than a quibble over correct terminology. The book is already organized by page order (and if the journal doesn’t come with page numbers, I add them, several at a time in a down moment). What I really want is an index: a couple of pages at the end of my book (or the beginning, whatever), in which I can go to “B” and immediately find out which pages will have “Board agendas,” or to “S” for “sermon notes,” or “J” for “journal.” I don’t get the point of a table of contents, but if it works for you, hey, go for it.

The beauty of the index is that it makes a notebook encompassing a jumble of different things workable. After years of carrying a journal and a planner and a sketchbook and having lots of miscellaneous stuff like “song list for CD for friend’s baby” stuck in the back section of one or the other of them, the bullet journal approach of all-in-one was a revelation. I already tended to put my sermon notes in my journal. Such is the seamless nature of my minister mind, in which an interesting idea I’ve been pondering morphs into the sermon for that service five weeks from now. I felt obscurely wrong about this, but it was (to use an overused term) an organic development out of the way I think, so I kept doing it. Bujo just patted me on the back and said, “Right, there’s no reason to have separate books for those two things, and lots of reasons to have just one.” Thanks to the index, I can actually sort out the journal pages from the sermon jottings, if I ever need to. The same with all those lists. Shopping. Gift ideas. Tracking habits. Lists of 100. Everything.

. . . Well, not everything. I plan weekly and daily in my bullet journal, but I keep an electronic calendar; I have a lot of repeating events, and our administrative assistant schedules some of my appointments, so a cloud-based calendar works best for me. When I make my weekly, handwritten plan, I consult the online calendar, and in addition to writing out my schedule for the week, I note “MITs” (Most Important Tasks) and other items I’d like to do/buy/remember on the page for that week. Some things that I track, I track elsewhere, because there’s a good system for them elsewhere: water and exercise on Fitbit, books on Goodreads (though I certainly keep a list of things to read in my bullet journal, because it’s quick and easy to write them the moment I think of them, whereas it’s cumbersome to open my phone, open Goodreads, and add them there; I transfer them now and then using a desktop computer). And I carry a separate sketchbook. I seldom feel a need to combine my drawing-life and writing-life, and I’m picky about paper for both of them, which have very different paper needs. But I know some people’s bullet journals are also their sketchbooks.

Speaking of paper needs, here’s what to consider for your journal. We all have different preferences. Just think about:

  • size (small enough to carry easily, big enough for comfortable writing)
  • binding (something that doesn’t fall apart and that you find comfortable; for example, despite the advantages of spirals, I don’t like the way they dig into my writing hand for half of the pages, so I never buy them)
  • marking (lined, plain, grid, dot)
  • opacity, which matters if you like gel pens, fountain pens, and markers.

. . . Which I do. And that’s something else I like about the bujo craze: the permission to get arty with my to-do list. Silly, right? Why do I need permission? But like the mixing of journal and work writing, I had a “shouldn’t” in my head that bujo kindly kicked out: I “shouldn’t” “waste” time drawing or doing fancy lettering. Why the heck not? For some people, layouts like these are intimidating, but for me, they’re inviting. A little time spent color-coding my daily list, or delineating sections of the week’s plan with washi tape, or writing the header of my “dreaded list of lots of little things” in a horror-movie-poster font, is my lure to do the planning. It’s fun. And it helps make me want to look at my journal, which is half the battle each day.

Answer: The number of days after InfoWars host Alex Jones published his “final statement” asserting that the killings at Sandy Hook were a hoax (11/18/16) that Donald Trump appeared on Jones’s show to praise his “amazing reputation” and promise him, “I will not let you down” (12/2/16).

Each year for the season of Lent, since 2011, I have undertaken three spiritual practices: one subtractive, one additive, and one giving.

This year, as I have done a few times before, I will subtract social media: no Facebook or Twitter. (I’m not cool enough for Instagram, so nothing to give up there.) It’s good for my soul.

For the additive practice, I’m participating in #UULent’s photo-a-day practice. This is in direct contradiction of my subtractive practice, since I’ve proposed to my congregation that we post our photos on the congregation’s Facebook site–sharing a spiritual practice really helps it stick. However, I think it’s in the spirit of my social-media fast if I do nothing on Facebook other than post my photos and look at others’. I’m also encouraging folks to post selected photos (only their own) on the bulletin board between rooms 9 & 10 at UUCPA. When I did this (spottily) a couple of years ago, Barb Greve was someone I knew mostly by reputation and occasionally running into him at installations or ordinations, but currently, we are working together at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, so using a resource he created is extra special.

Last year I did art every day, and I would love to do it again, but along with the daily photo it seems too much. I’ll see.

And I always choose a cause to which to give money, and this year it was easy to choose: Black Lives of UU. The UUA has committed to raising $5.3 million for BLUU, and individual contributions are part of that work, so this is my mite. You can contribute yours at the BLUU website. I am excited, occasionally even hopeful, about the UUA’s renewed commitment to shift us away from the dominance of white culture and help us shake off the effects of white supremacy, and it will take thousands of us to realize this commitment.

My friend Dan Schatz teased me about my tiny little strike against procrastination, but darn it, it works. I have stuck with it and gradually added two other habits. One is taking something downstairs whenever I go, since most of our living space is upstairs and there’s always something: compost for the bin, a jacket to hang in the closet by the front door, books we’ve finished reading. I adopted this from the nurses’ rule, related by Ian McEwan in Atonement, of never walking down the ward empty-handed; there’s always something to dispose of or deliver.

The other is putting away my clothes and shoes, even my pajamas, whenever I change. I don’t always keep up 100%, but I haven’t had a great big accumulated pile of shed clothes to put away for a year or two now.

Next post: my version of bullet journaling. If I don’t watch out, this is going to turn into a Personal Organization blog, which would be a joke of cosmic proportions.

The Guerrilla Grammarian asked if she could guest blog today. I generally don’t have guest bloggers, but it’s hard to say no to your own alter ego, so, take it away, G.G.
– – –

Thanks, Amy. I thought I should speak up on this topic because, as a self-proclaimed guerrilla of grammar, I’m often assumed to be the kind who will swing into action, maybe even swing a battle-axe, in defense of the Oxford comma. You know: the comma just before the “and” in a sentence with a series of three or more items, such as this one:

“I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes.”

But in this I am profoundly misunderstood. I value grammar because it gives language clarity and expressiveness; rules added without good reason are just an irritation. Doubly so if they are accompanied by a load of self-righteousness, as, let’s face it, grammar rules tend to be.

I don’t actually have a strong preference between the Oxford comma and the whatever-the-opposite is (Cambridge absence-of-comma?). They convey different rhythms, and so sometimes I find myself using one, sometimes the other, depending on how long I want the reader to linger. However, I was taught the “Cambridge” and so it’s my default. Furthermore, I wish to defend it against the Oxfordites’ low-blow use of the straw-person argument against it.

The argument is made on the basis of clarity, and is inevitably accompanied by amusing examples, such as the probably-apocryphal dedication page

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

and the classic

“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

Oxfordites will argue that we need the comma after “Ayn Rand” so that the reader does not think she is the writer’s mother (shudder). Likewise, we need a comma after “JFK” so that it’s clear that he and Stalin are not the aforementioned strippers. (I still want to know what occasion could possibly have had that guest list.)

These examples do illustrate the need for an additional comma. The problem is that they do not illustrate the superiority of the Oxford comma in general. The rule I learned already clearly states that one omits a comma before the last item unless it is necessary for clarity. The people who wrote the “Ayn Rand” and “strippers” sentences, if they were real people, would have been using incorrect punctuation by either the Oxford or the “Cambridge” rule.

I repeat: these sentences are not examples of the “Cambridge” comma. They are examples of incorrect punctuation, full stop.

So this is a plea for fair debate. Straw people just fill the air with a lot of dusty chaff. None of us wishes to claim Ayn Rand and God as our parents, no matter which comma usage we prefer, and unless we are not proofreading carefully, none of us does.

Grammatically yours,
The Guerrilla Grammarian

We are each entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. The fact is that arming more citizens than are currently armed will not reduce the number of deaths by gun. You cannot point to any statistics, any other country, any studies that indicate otherwise–I know because I read the ones people link to, and they never say what the poster claims they say. In fact, the facts are that we have way too many guns for safety.

Two kids died and another 15 were wounded in the shooting at a Benton, Kentucky, school yesterday. It was the 11th shooting on a school campus in the first 23 days of this year, a tripling of the past several years’ rate of one such shooting per week. After the Benton murders, as always, there are people pleading with the president or the NRA to say something. This is counterproductive, because if the NRA or Trump offer any policy solution, it is always in the vein of “More guns in the hands of more people.” And along with them, hundreds of internet commenters emerge like worms after rain to claim that the problem is not enough guns.

I am sick of our treating these claims as if they have a shred of evidence to back them up. “More guns” is no more a strategy for reducing gun deaths than “Pray to the Tooth Fairy.” If it were, I would support it.

You who make this argument, and you who are silent as it rages, I am sure that we have something in common: you, too, would like to see fewer people die by guns in this country. Will you embrace the solutions that are proven to be effective?

Colored pencil on paper, 18×22 cm (c) Amy Zucker Morgenstern 2018

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