Planned Parenthood’s Origins

Amidst today’s hearing on Planned Parenthood in Congress, I thought it might be useful to look into its origins. I immediately thought to take a look at Margaret Sanger’s Wikipedia page and found her legal fights telling of what the world looked like without Planned Parenthood: 

 Margaret Sanger, a nurse who was the first president of the organization, had a series of legal fights before Planned Parenthood was formed. In 1916, she was charged for distributing contraceptions in her clinic in Brownesville, Brooklyn. Sanger was sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse, protested by going on a hunger strike and became the first woman to be force fed in the United States. 

 In 1918, Sanger’s appeal of her conviction set the precedent that exempted physicians from laws that prohibited the distribution of information about contraception. Her American Birth Control League proclaimed these principles in 1921:

We hold that children should be (1) Conceived in love; (2) Born of the mother’s conscious desire; (3) And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.

Over the next two decades, Sanger would write letters and give lectures in favor of birth control. She ordered a diaphragm from overseas in 1932, violating a law that forbid physicians from ordering contraceptions. She would win that appeal in 1936. Sanger’s efforts with a variety of lobbying organizations and contraception providers would culminate in Planned Parenthood’s formation in 1946.

Sanger’s beliefs are often described as radical by opponents of abortion but you could also use that term to describe a world where writing about or purchasing contraception is considered a crime.

George Orwell on Political Writing

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I’ve been meaning to assess Bernie Sanders and his brand of “democratic socialism” compared to George Orwell’s definition. But I haven’t found quite the right angle to hit now that we know that Sanders would continue the U.S. drone program in a limited fashion.

Nevertheless, these two paragraphs from Orwell’s “Why I Write” will have to suffice until I can strip democratic socialism down to its essential points:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

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What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

Though still a politician, Sanders would likely agree with Orwell’s self-description:

I am definitely “left,” but I believe that a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels.

Exhibit Review: Spirited Republic at the National Archives

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There’s not much I can tell you about this exhibit that the iBook and the National Archives website can’t but here’s a few good finds when/if you decide go:

Courtesy of National Archives

Courtesy of National Archives

  • George Washington’s document to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1792
  • Andrew Jackson’s petition for tax relief from whiskey tax in 1803, wherein he complains that “he could not believe that the United States would draw Money, from the misfortunes, of her Citizens.”
  • FDR’s 1932 Campaign Broadside urging voters to do their part for “repeal” and his White House Cocktail shaker set
  • Benjamin Rush’s “Drunkometer,” a circa 1920s predecessor to the breathalyzer
  • Some temperance postcards, propaganda and some prohibition repeal propaganda
  • IDs of some prohibition agents (like Daisy Simpson, pictured on the left), patents of alcohol paraphernalia approved during prohibition, medical and home-brew work arounds on the Volstead Act
  • A great cartoon by Walter Enright wherein the GOP elephant is walking on a fence between “Wet” and “Dry” country
  • Repeal-era labels from about 40 different beers
  • The Congressional Record books with the 18th and 21st amendment
  • A memorandum from WWII temperance advocates,”Alcohol– Hitler’s Best Friend”
  • Johnny Cash’s letter to Betty Ford in 1984 after she revealed her addiction to pain killers/alcohol

While I really enjoyed the exhibit given my background reading and watching Ken Burns’ series Prohibition, I felt the exhibit could have used more tactile objects. The Archives obviously has mostly paper documents (which are notoriously difficult to display well), it would have been cool to see a keg or a police tools or even just an old-time bottle to add a splash of excitement to the exhibit.

At the beginning of the exhibit, there’s a display of gallon jugs revealing how much alcohol an average American consumed in the 1700s/1800s. It is an impressive start but there’s nothing in the exhibit until the prohibition era that conveys how much alcohol played a role in the early days of the republic beyond an order to suppress a rebellion and a few petitions to the government.

Event Recap – District of Change: Traffic! Metro! Bikers! How to Survive the D.C. Commute

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On Monday, May 11, 2015, District of Change held an event, “Traffic! Metro! Bikers! How to Survive the D.C. Commute” at the DC Public Library. Here’s a summary:

David Plotz, of Atlas Obscura and Slate, organized a panel of transportation and urban planning experts consisting of the Robert Thomson, who writes on Dr. Gridlock for the Washington Post; Harriet Tregoning, the former head of D.C.’s Office of Planning; and Dan Tangherlini, who has worked at the District’s City Adminstrator and interim General Manager of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. I’ll be referring to them by their initials in the transcript.

Alongside the event was a parallel race to the library from Dupont Circle where four participants raced by car, bicycle, train and bus (including Plotz’s wife, Hanna Rosin, and their daughter) to the library, announcing their arrival amidst the panel discussion.
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With Malice Toward None

soldiers540-d35cda7cac719e51a86334950d884669205cd2e0-s1400Today is the sesquicentennial anniversary of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered a month before the end of the American Civil War. The speech briefly explains Lincoln’s redemptive vision of the war as a bloodletting for the country’s sins. Lincoln historian Gary Wills described in 1999 why the speech deserves its place in the Lincoln monument. He considers it even better than the Gettysburg Address. More recently, the above photo of the inaugural audience surfaced in 2008.

The Bludgeon of History

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This past week, Rudy Giuliani sparked a war of words by questioning President Obama’s “love of country” and his faith at private Republican fundraiser. One thing that struck me that has not been discussed as much is this quote from Giuliani:

What I don’t find with Obama — this will get me in more trouble again — is a really deep knowledge of history. I think it’s a dilettante’s knowledge of history.

In American debate, “history” remains a frequent trump card. It’s been battered to death that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. As law-makers tote pocket Constitutions as evidence of their unsullied ethical prom-pledge, they forget the dirty art of compromise it once embodied.

History does have a powerful hold on the American imagination. We cite stories of victory and loss as if these anecdotes prove something akin to the laws of physics. This is why we still have philosophical fights about the curriculum of classes like AP US History, arguing over how (or whether) to teach students about colonialism, the causes of the Civil War, and dissent in America.

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What Giuliani misses in his criticism is that our reading of history is always selective. His experience having been mayor of New York during September 11, however, does not make him a scholar on Islam.

Some people have studied the long history of the tension between the West and the Middle East and concluded that the two philosophies will always be at odds with each other. Others have studied a time before that when ideas exchanged freely between the two cultures. We cannot choose to make our remembered experiences to be self-evident truths.

It is a folly to summarize the history of these cultures by the Crusades or the attacks on the World Trade Center as if we could make an empirical judgement about the nature of either religion. History can excavate knowledge from the past to give context but it can never draw conclusions.

9/11 commemorationPresident Obama’s favorite Martin Luther King-attributed expression could easily be paraphrased as “The moral arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” For him, American history recalls a hard fought war that eliminated slavery, protests to expand the right to vote to women and blacks, global fights against totalitarianism, and a Civil Rights movement that beckoned for a country to live up to the content of its creed.

While critics should point out lessons from the past that President Obama misses, they would do well to listen to his story too. Perhaps we should hold a summit to address both Giuliani and Obama’s historical blind spots. The syllabus for the first lesson: the ignorance of calling the Bin Laden raid “Geronimo.”