Another year, another anniversary. It seems, given recent events, especially timely to remember where hatred leads.

Terror, born in hatred and nurtured by evil, doesn’t always come from somewhere else. We grow our own bad guys, too. It’s why I cringe at the over-simplified “meme psychology” that currently dominates media. Education doesn’t cure evil. Nor does sending in the Marines. Evil will always be us. We need to recognize it for what it is. Even when it smiles and makes pretty promises.

It happened — or perhaps culminated — on November 18, 1978. Which makes today the 37th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, one of the most bizarre, horrible events of the 20th century

If you were old enough to read or understand television news in 1978, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. With religious fanaticism and radical fundamentalism enjoying a groundswell of popularity — even among people who ought to know better — it’s a good time to remember where exhortations of violence can ultimately lead.


The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance for “to blindly follow.” It carries a negative connotation.

The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else — darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.


Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” which became known simply as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to refer to “the people of the world.” Jones called it a church, but it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune based on a hodgepodge of Christian references and paranoid conspiracy theories.

The Peoples Temple was a cult requiring total obedience and commitment from its members. Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac.

He had positive attributes too. Jim and Marceline Jones were in favor of racial integration. They adopted kids from varying backgrounds. They were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, one Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own. Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana.

jim_jones jonestown

Before you get dewy-eyed about this, know this story climaxes with the murder of the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested that afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California. Before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give lend legitimacy to his bizarre opinions. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much small and overcrowded. The possibility of starvation was never far.


Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.


U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” — after the Congressional party. These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — cyanide and other drugs — for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.


After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid, a beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never interested in escape. His answer was death. Lots of it. He pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is as creepy as you’d expect.

Finally, it was time for detailed instructions which — still baffling to me — the followers did as instructed. I will never understand why.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually more than 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. A handful of survivors — mostly those who were away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place — survived.

Jonestown massacre

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred a gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and no doubt wanted something quicker.


In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor-Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind.

So, although Kool-Aid and Flavor-Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.


I’m walking around laughing at the gigantic fuss, furor, and scandal over the latest invasion of our privacy. I think this months villain is Microsoft. Last month it was someone else. Government? Corporations? Amazon? Google? They are all spying on us. You knew that, right?

So last night, when we were nicely tucked into the most comfortable bed in the world, I said to Garry:

newspaper1“Can you think of any government anywhere, or any time in the history of humankind, during which governments have not spied on their citizens or subjects?”

He honored me with a thoughtful few seconds before answering … or maybe he was just twiddling with the remote control.


“I think the way it works is this. First, we invent heads of state. Kings, presidents, emperors, whatever. Next, they invent a secret police so they can keep on being the head of state. The only thing that seems to change is the technology. And the quality of the dungeons.”


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“I think it’s a mistake to try and monitor all those emails and phone calls. I mean, they are just going to be buried under data. Lots of jabbering kids yakking with friends, people arguing with customer support, and boring conversations by people like us. We never say anything interesting on the phone. We hardly talk on the phone at all. Our email is pretty dull too.


black and white wires power lines

Americans have an ongoing need to be outraged about something. We require a constant level of civic hysteria, maybe to keep from being boring. Scandal keeps ratings up and gives talk show hosts something to joke about. It gives liberals and conservatives something to accuse each other of doing, even though every administration has done pretty much the same stuff and always will.

I’m wondering how long this is going to stay on top of the news. It has been years … at least five so far and I see no end to it. Apparently it never gets old.


Nothing will change. Governments spy on citizens. Citizens are outraged. The outrage is ignored. Eventually, everyone moves on — until it pops up again.

I’m having trouble getting myself worked up over this.

I remember Richard Nixon. I even remember J. Edgar Hoover. I’ve read history. I know traffic cameras track us. If anyone is looking for me — or you — I’m sure they’ll have no trouble finding us.


My government spies on me. Corporations spy on me. Everyone collects my personal information and uses without my permission. That’s the price I pay for being connected and computerized.

They were spying on us during the 1960s, albeit less efficiently. They were spying on my parents and their friends in the 50s and 40s.

Obama didn’t start this. Bush didn’t start it. FDR didn’t start it. Abraham Lincoln didn’t start it. It’s been going on as long as there have been governments and it will never end.


Not long ago, I read a post detailing how America fares when stacked against other countries.


We aren’t the richest or the most productive country . We have relatively high unemployment. Purchasing power per capita is unimpressive. We get salaries that sound good, but the cost of living overran our paychecks long ago. We’ve lost more jobs to automation than outsourcing. One machine, one robot replaces a dozen or two workers.

US_Income_Distribution_1968 (1)There are few jobs for unskilled laborers that can support a family. We manufacture too little, depend too much on service-based work.

Americans are convinced their government is awful. Corrupt. Really, our government is merely inefficient and mired in oppositional politics. Funny how after morons are in office, nobody voted for them. How did that happen?

Statistics are fragments, not a story. We’re having hard times and I doubt we’ll see the end of them quickly. We have work to do. Rethinking where people will work and what they’ll be paid.

Figuring out what we want from our government. Without the hyperbole and entrenched party positions. For all that, we don’t exactly live in Hell.

Statistics need context. We are not even close to a seriously corrupt nation, regardless of perception. I’ve seen corruption. We’re amateurs.

I wonder if Americans would really like living in one of those top-rated countries, like say Finland. Where 90% of your salary goes to taxes. You get great services and a safety net. You won’t wind up living in a crate and you’ll never die because you can’t afford surgery or medication. But there’s payback.

Socialism isn’t a terrible way to live, not even close to the nightmare portrayed by the GOP. It’s not heaven, either.

US_Income_Distribution_2009Mostly, it means working harder or better doesn’t get you a promotion, more money or even recognition. You are whatever your G rating is and move up  by seniority. It’s secure, but sort of dull.

Mind you, plenty of people can’t imagine living any other way. Lots of others would rather be here and would happily take their chances on capitalism. They think we complain too much. They have a point.

A friend of mine lived in Belgium for 15 years. He described it this way: “In Europe, if they don’t say it’s allowed, you can safely assume it’s forbidden. In the U.S., if they don’t tell you it’s forbidden, you know it’s allowed.”

That’s a huge difference.

Like every country, we have strong points and problems. We’ve made some progress, but not enough. Unlike small homogeneous countries — like Finland — we’re a conglomeration of people from everywhere. We’re never going to be like those other countries. We like our freedom too much.

We are what we are. Good and bad. But I am sure we will all live happily ever after. Because what other choice is there?


“If only we could get a clean candidate, we could have a government without corruption.”

Please, show me an example of an un-corrupt government. Anywhere, anytime in the history of the world. From the first known government (Egypt? China?) to today. Any form of government, even a town council. Because as far as I know, there is no such thing.


I finished re-reading “Imperium,” a fictionalized biography of Cicero. It whacked me with a reality check on government corruption and I realized (again) that Americans don’t “get” real corruption.

In Rome, those guys understood corruption. They were serious about their corruption. We are just dilettantes compared to them! More on this later.


Never in this world, has there ever been a government free of corruption. It is the nature of government to be subject to … uh … um … what shall I call it? Oh, okay. Got it.


What do you mean by that?

Well, let’s see. Money. That’s a classic. Locally, we favor nepotism, a type of corruption whose popularity never wanes. Otherwise known as doing favors. Hey, they just need jobs, you know? It’s not a big deal, is it?


Find me a small town where the government isn’t composed of entrenched old families, their friends, friends of family, cousins of the friends of the families, their brothers and sisters in-and-out-of-laws.

What about constituents? You know, when we tell our pols what we want them to do or else we’ll throw them out. The stuff you and I want and demand, the stuff we think our government owes us because we are the people who elected them.

“What?” you say? “Isn’t that what government is all about?”

Right you are! A little question for you.

Does the fact that we want it mean it is moral? Just? Righteous? Legal? Fair? If you believe that, I have a bridge you can buy cheap.


We want what we want. We don’t really care if it is for “the greater good.” We want what we want. We want it now. We deserve it. We voted for you and you are supposed to make it happen.

Pols who deliver the goods get re-elected. That’s the way it works. That’s the way it has always worked and always will. If you don’t think the electoral process itself is a form of corruption, you are missing the point.

It doesn’t matter who is applying the pressure — or why. The process of gaining and retaining power guarantees corruption.


Personally, I would like my officials to do something good while they hold office. Preferably without getting caught, killed, impeached, indicted, imprisoned or exposed. Cynical? Moi?

I propose a movement for better corruption to require corrupt politicians to use their power — however ill-gained — to pass laws that make the world better. In my opinion. Because my opinion is the only opinion which counts.


Why was Jamaica High School closed down?


Jamaica High SchoolThe Jamaica High School building last year and, at right, in 1981.CREDITILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY; PHOTOGRAPHS BY VIC DELUCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX; JACKSON KRULE (TOP-LEFT)

Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States. For most of its history, it occupied a majestic Georgian Revival building on Gothic Drive, designed in the nineteen-twenties by William H. Gompert, who had begun his career at McKim, Mead & White. With east and west wings, granite columns, and an elaborate bell tower, the building looked like a state capitol that had been dropped into the middle of a residential neighborhood; it sat on the crest of a hill so imposing that planners would have been guilty of pretense had it housed anything other than a public institution.

One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony. Accompanying the festivities was the traditional graduation boilerplate—about life transitions and rising to new challenges—but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students. After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.

The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty per cent. Accordingly, the department had begun to “co-locate” four newly created “small schools” in the old building. Advocates argue that small schools can best resolve many of the ills associated with urban education, but the reorganization produced a logistical problem. The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself, both figuratively and literally, pushed out.

Underscoring the indignities that attended the school’s last days was a difficult irony: for much of its time, Jamaica was a gemstone of the city’s public-education system. In 1981, the schools chancellor, Frank Macchiarola, decided to take on the additional role of an interim high-school principal, in order to better appreciate the daily demands of school administration. He chose Jamaica, and was roundly criticized for picking such an easy school to lead. Four years later, the U.S. Department of Education named it one of the most outstanding public secondary schools in the nation. Alumni include Stephen Jay Gould, Attorney General John Mitchell, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Walter O’Malley, Paul Bowles, and three winners of the Pulitzer Prize: Gunther Schuller, Art Buchwald, and Alan Dugan. Bob Beamon, who set a world record for the long jump in the 1968 Olympics, graduated with the class of ’65. The school’s closure felt less like the shuttering of a perennial emblem of stagnation than like the erasure of a once great institution that had somehow ceased to be so.

Jamaica had become an institution of the type that has vexed city policymakers and educators: one charged with serving a majority-minority student body, most of whose members qualified as poor, and whose record was defined by chronic underachievement and academic failure. Even so, word of the school’s closure angered students and their families, the community, and alumni. I was among them—I graduated with the class of ’87—and for me, as for many former students, the school was a figment of recollection, frozen in its academic glory. George Vecsey, the former Times sports columnist and a member of the class of ’56, accused Joel Klein, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s schools chancellor, of “cooking the books,” to make schools slated for closure appear worse than they were, and compared the Department of Education’s closure policies to the nihilism of Pol Pot. Vecsey later apologized for having slighted the suffering of Cambodia, but he held to his contention that Klein ruled by dictatorial fiat. He wrote, in a blog, “The city destroyed a piece of history because of its own failure.”

There are two broadly competing narratives about school closure. The one commonly told by teachers, students, and many parents at underperforming schools centers on a lack of financial and material resources, which insures that the schools will be unable to meet even minimum standards. Strongly connected to this version is a belief that closure functions as a kind of veiled union-busting: shutting a school allows reformers to sidestep contracts and remove long-term teachers.

Reformers view closure as a necessary corrective to what they see as bloated bureaucracies, inept teachers, and unaccountable unions. They argue that urban schools are often too large to give students the attention they need. In 2000, the Gates Foundation began funding education reform, with an emphasis on reducing school size. Nine years later, in an annual newsletter, the foundation reported that its efforts had not met with significant success, particularly with schools “that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum.” The foundation also said that it “had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.” The reform movement nationwide increasingly saw closure and the creation of new institutions—as opposed to funding and reorganizing existing schools—as the way forward.

During the nineteen-forties, in a series of landmark tests conducted around the country, the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark demonstrated that black children associated virtue and intelligence with whiteness, and had correspondingly internalized racist stereotypes of inferiority. Robert Carter, an attorney with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, heard of the Clarks’ work and brought it to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, who was then the legal fund’s director-counsel. Marshall made the Clarks’ findings central to the argument for school desegregation in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. The decision made Kenneth Clark famous (while largely overlooking his wife’s role in structuring the experiment). Clark, who had grown up in Harlem and was a professor at the City College of New York, then turned his attention to the city government, which, he charged, had fostered segregation in the schools.

Arthur Levitt, then the president of the New York City Board of Education, responded that the schools merely reflected residential patterns: children who attended overwhelmingly black schools lived in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. A Commission on Integration was set up to examine the issue, with Clark as one of the commissioners, and Levitt as co-chair, and it issued recommendations, which were never quite translated into policy. (Clark resigned, but continued to push for integration throughout his career.) In 1959, the Board of Education experimented by sending four hundred students from overcrowded black schools in Brooklyn to under-attended white schools in the Ridgewood and Glendale sections of Queens. The move was met with rancorous opposition and a brief boycott that anticipated the riotous response to busing in the seventies.

In 1949, John Ward, an African-American student whose family had migrated to New York from Virginia after the Second World War, enrolled at the school. Ward’s father was a bus mechanic, and his mother worked as a domestic; between them, they earned enough to buy a home in Jamaica. Ward recalls the area as a place where Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, African-Americans, and Jews lived in peaceful proximity. His house was not far from the grocery store that Mario Cuomo’s parents owned, and Ward, who played baseball as a boy, remembers the future governor from games in the neighborhood sandlots. The area had not yet entirely shaken its rural roots. “There were still people farming there,” Ward told me. “I remember seeing people butcher hogs on Linden Boulevard in the forties and fifties.”

Ward wanted to be a teacher, but Woodrow Wilson, the high school that most blacks in the area attended, was a vocational trade school. So he applied to Jamaica, which had acquired a reputation as one of the city’s strongest academic high schools. Ward initially found the rigor daunting. “My first semester, I failed about three major classes,” he told me. “My father said, ‘If you’re not going to work at school, you’ll have to get a job.’ ” Ward studied hard and spent an extra semester earning enough academic credits to apply to college. He played baseball well enough to be selected for the All-City team in 1954, his senior year. “I don’t really recall there being much racial tension,” he said of the school. “The blacks mostly hung out with other black students, but, being an athlete, I interacted with a lot more of the white students.” For a few years in the fifties, Jamaica’s integrated athletics teams, with their winning records, were a point of pride for the school. In 1954, Ward was elected the school’s first black class president.

He was accepted at Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore, but his family couldn’t afford the tuition, so he played D-League baseball for a few years, then applied to the New York City police academy, and, in 1960, became one of the first black members of the motorcycle corps. Of the more than three hundred graduates in Ward’s police-academy class, fewer than two dozen were African-American. In 1974, he was promoted to a plainclothes unit working out of the 114th Precinct. “Out of sixteen guys, I was the black on the street-crimes unit,” he told me. His career on the force was, at least demographically, a replay of his experiences at Jamaica, and Ward later credited the school with giving him not only an excellent education but also the skills that allowed him to navigate primarily white environments. “Jamaica being integrated in the fifties was something unusual,” he told me. “But it was also a place where I felt I belonged.”

South Jamaica’s black population continued to grow in the fifties and sixties, though not all of it was as economically stable as Ward’s family. In 1947, when the Olympian Bob Beamon was still a baby, his mother died, and he was eventually sent to live with a guardian in a rough part of the neighborhood. After a troubled childhood and a brush with juvenile court, which resulted in his being sent to a remedial, “600” school, Beamon became convinced that if he could get into Jamaica he could turn his life around. Four decades later, in a memoir, “The Man Who Could Fly,” he wrote of the school in nearly ecclesiastical terms:

Mr. Louis Schuker, the principal at Jamaica High, had a long talk with me and Coach Ellis. He said the odds of a 600 school student making it in a regular school environment were next to zero. His admonition to me was reminiscent of the one given by the judge who had sentenced me to the 600 school.

“Beamon, any trouble out of you and you are out of here,” Mr. Schuker said. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered firmly and clearly. I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere but Jamaica High. This was where I wanted to be. This was where I belonged.

It’s easy to wax idealist about the happy spaces of one’s childhood, but in Beamon’s case the assessment can’t be so easily dismissed. He traced his desire to compete in the Olympics to a visit that the track-and-field star Wilma Rudolph, a triple gold medalist in the 1960 Games, paid to Jamaica during his sophomore year. The school was a place where someone like him, who grew up poor in a crime-plagued neighborhood, stood a chance of encountering someone like Rudolph.

Jamaica High School

Read the entire article via from:

Notes from a graduate of Jamaica High:

I attended Jamaica High School, graduating from it in 1963. Those were probably the last peak years of the school. It had issues of racial non-integration. Despite the author’s statement, in the years I attended it was anything but racially homogeneous. Kids ran with kids like themselves, more or less divided down the lines of ethnicity and race.

There was little active hostility between the groups and a surprising amount of cross-pollination and dating. The school was far from perfect, but there existed a cadre of talented and dedicated teachers who made themselves available to those who wanted to learn, or who needed help.

Was it a model for the future? There were standardized tests — Regents exams — but these were based on what we learned in school, not on some bureaucrats notion of what we should “know.” Most of us came out better than we went in. And that’s saying a lot, especially these days.

On a lighter note, it was the only high school of which I’ve ever heard to cancel the senior prom (1963) due to lack of interest.



About the Author

See on Scoop.itIn and About the News

Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.


I’ve been called to jury duty often. Jury duty is the price you pay for voting because potential jurors are chosen from voter registrations lists. I’m sure they call us in alphabetical order.

Our last name begins with “A.” Garry and I were called up two or three times a year for more than a decade until one day I called and said “Hey, enough!” After that, they slowed down to every other year. I’m pretty sure there’s an outstanding jury summons for me somewhere that I never answered. I was in the hospital trying not to die. Oops. It’s just possible I’m a wanted criminal. I assume they’ll get back to me on that.


They called Garry, but never let him serve. Reporters are like cops. They’ve seen too much. Garry knew the judges, the D.A., the lawyers. And the criminals.

They knew Garry, too and they knew he knew stuff they preferred he not know. So, no matter how many times they called him, he was in and out in an hour. Maximum two.

I was a better pick. No connection to law enforcement. No lawyers, law suits, or weird political opinions.  That I was a free lancer who was going to lose my shirt if I couldn’t work did not matter to anyone except me. I went in, sat around. No trial needed me, so I went home. Done, until next time.


Until one day, I got assigned to a trial. I had instant images of a long criminal trial. Being sequestered for weeks in some fleabag motel. Losing my clients. Losing my house. I was a less than enthusiastic juror, but when duty calls, you might as well go quietly. Unless you want to wind up on the other side of the courtroom. Besides, they have officers with guns stationed at the exits.

It was a minor civil case. One woman hit another at an intersection. Woman A claimed Woman B was jumping the light. Woman B said she had mistakenly thought it was a cross street.

There was no evidence. She said, she said. I thought both of them were lying. It was a matter of who you believed less. Eleven of my fellow jurors were ready to acquit. I thought we should at least talk about it. But, they wanted to go home and pointed out everyone knows the intersection isn’t a through street (I didn’t).

I caved. Because there was nothing except a small amount of money at stake. Peer pressure — eleven people who want to go home which you are preventing — gets intense and ugly quickly.

72-Beacon Hill Boston-GA_001

That was more than 20 years. Tonight, we watched “Twelve Angry Men.” That’s the movie (1957) in which Henry Fonda forces eleven of his peers to reconsider the evidence and fully grasp the concept of reasonable doubt. It’s a great movie which has aged well. Pretty much the way I remember the experience, except we had air-conditioning, sort of.

It did leave me wondering and not for the first time. How many verdicts are based on jurors who just want to go home? How many people are convicted — or acquitted — because the jury was bored to tears and couldn’t stand one more minute of evidence? How many jurors are bullied into a verdict with which they disagree because they are threatened — emotionally or physically?

72-Beacon Hill Boston-GA_033

There are no statistics on this and by definition, there won’t ever be any. No one, given the criminal liability and potential physical danger, is going to admit to it. But it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Next time a jury comes in with some absurd (to you) verdict, consider the possibility that at least some of them didn’t freely agree.

I’m sure it happens. It happened to me.


Too many people believe we will get better government by making sure no one in congress gets to stay there for a long time. I don’t know why inexperience would mean better government. In what other field do we prefer raw recruits to veterans? Would you want an inexperienced surgeon? A lawyer fresh out of law school?

Why do you want amateurs making your laws?

Our founding fathers specifically excluded term limits. Their experience under the Articles of Confederation (the document that preceded The Constitution) showed them that good people are not interested in temp jobs for lousy pay in a distant city. Those elected to office walked away from their positions — or never took them up in the first place. There was no future in it.

congress in session

When the Constitution was written, its authors wanted to tempt the best and the brightest into government service. They wanted candidates who would make it a career. They weren’t interested in amateurs or part-timers. Learning the business of governing takes years.

The Articles of Confederation contained exactly the ideas people are promulgating today. It failed. Miserably. Do we need to learn the same lesson again?

The absence of term limits in the Constitution is not an oversight. The writers of the Constitution thought long and hard about this problem.

A little more history

Under the Articles of Confederation, our country fell apart. Elected representatives came to the capital (New York), hung around awhile, then went home. Why stay? The job had no future and their salaries didn’t pay enough to cover their costs, much less support families. That’s why term limits were rejected by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Their aim was to encourage professionals to enter government service.

Term limits remove any hope of building a career in government. It morphs into a hard temp job without a future.

Myth Busting 101: Congress isn’t overpaid

They are paid more than you and me, but compared to what they could be earning elsewhere, they are paid poorly. “What?” you cry, “How can that be?”

Most members of congress are lawyers. The 2011-2012 salary for rank-and-file members of the House and Senate was $174,000 per year. A third year associate at a good law firm will do that well and after six to twelve years (1 – 2 senate terms), a competent attorney in a good market makes much more.

Senators and representatives have to maintain two residences, one in their native state, the other in DC. If you think $174,000 will support two houses and send the kids to college, you are living in a fantasy world. Which is why many members of congress have other income streams.

Our Founding Fathers expected congressmen, especially senators, to be men of means. They felt only wealthy people would be able to afford government service. And they would be less susceptible to bribery. On the whole, they were right.

Skill and experience matter

Writing a law that can stand up to scrutiny by courts and other members of congress takes a long time. You don’t waltz in from Anywhere, USA and start writing laws. Moreover, great legislators are rare in any generation. A sane electorate doesn’t throw them away.

We are not suffering from an entrenched group of old pols stopping the legislative process. We are suffering a dearth of experienced lawmakers who understand how the system works, know how to compromise. Can work with an opposition party. It’s every pol for him/herself these days … and that means no one is there for us. You know. The people.

Experienced old-timers got old. They retired. Or died. And were replaced by imbeciles.

Above and beyond the skill it takes to write legislation, it takes even longer to gain seniority and respect. Frank Capra notwithstanding, Mr. Smith doesn’t go to Washington and work miracles. Newly elected members of congress hope to build a career in politics. With luck, some will become great legislators, another Tip O’Neill, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Bob DoleTed Kennedy or another of the giants. Anyone you name connected to important legislation was a multi (many) term representative or senator.

Term limits eliminate any chance of finding great legislators

Term limits guarantee a bunch of amateurs — or worse — fumbling their way around congress. As soon as they figure out where the toilets are and get reasonably good at their jobs, they’ll be gone. Does that make sense? Really?

Garry and Tip O’Neill

If you think your congressman or senator is doing a crappy job, replace him or her with someone you believe will do better.

If you don’t elect them, they won’t be there

We have term limits. These are called elections. Throw the bums out. Vote for the other guy. Term limits were an awful idea in 1788 and they haven’t improved with time. Among the biggest concerns Democrats had about Barack Obama in 2008 was he didn’t have enough experience, hadn’t been in the senate long enough. With term limits, no one would ever have enough experience. Where would we get candidates to run for President? Look at some of the bozos who are trying to run right now. Not exactly the best and the brightest.

We don’t need term limits. We need better candidates.

The President doesn’t run the country

Congress writes legislation and votes it into law. Ultimately, it’s you, me, our friends and neighbors who choose the people to make laws, pass budgets, approve cabinet members and Supreme Court justices.

Whatever is wrong with Congress, it’s OUR fault

The 535 members of congress are chosen by us and if you don’t like one, don’t vote for him or her. If someone gets re-elected over and over, you have to figure that a lot of people vote for that candidate. You may not like him, but other people do. That’s what elections are about. It doesn’t necessarily work out the way you want, but changing the rules won’t solve the problems. Make the job more — not less — attractive so better people will want to go into government. Otherwise, you’re creating a job no one wants.

Ultimately, it’s all about America. Partisanship, special interests, regional issues, party politics and personal agendas need to take a back seat to the good of the nation … and we need to agree what that means . Term limits won’t fix the problem. Because that’s not what’s broken.


I read all the comments before jumping into the fray.

First, this is a cogent and thoughtful post. That’s the old reporter not your husband speaking. Second, as the old reporter, I’ve had first hand, up close and often personal time with members of Congress and folks who’ve occupied the White House.

Former “Speakers” John McCormack and Tip O’Neil shared stories about the business of working both sides of the house to get things done. Party affiliation was put aside as veteran “pols”, guys who knew each other, brokered deals to get bills passed that helped their constituents. Younger pols, clearly just looking to make their bona fides and move on, were muzzled. These were the “term limit” people so many seem to want today.

Senators Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, and others often talked about the lengthy but focused verbal card games played to avoid grid lock and, again, get the job done.

Garry and Marilyn at President Clinton’s party on Martha’s VineyardI’ve had the good fortune to spend time with Presidents from JFK through Bill Clinton. The brokering stories were repeated, regardless of party affiliation. Even Richard Nixon, in rare and calm moments, shared his beliefs about how to get the job done, using experience, collected favors and insight on what was important with the clock ticking.

I think my favorite pol was LBJ. I spent some very interesting personal time with Johnson, including a stint in Vietnam where he shared “off the record” insight into the job of running the country and assuming responsibility even if it would eventually cost him his job. (And it did cost him his job.)

So, you’ll have to forgive me if I have little patience with folks who spout opinion with little knowledge of how government and politics work.

Yes, we truly could use some people who really understand public service, have the desire to devote themselves to the demands and collateral damage of the job and want to help their constituents.

Enough of the sound and fury signifying nothing. Back to sports.