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The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles

Boehner's blasts

In Politico Magazine, Tim Alberta writes that "the former House speaker feels liberated — but he's also seething about what happened to his party." Read "John Boehner Unchained" in full at http://politi.co/2iX2SRz. Here's an excerpt.

From his text messages with George W. Bush, to his scathing critiques of conservative media and his former antagonists on Capitol Hill, to his disgust at America's being stuck with a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the former speaker held little back.

What I discovered from 18 hours on the record with him, and dozens more with his friends, is that for all the talk of Boehner living the dream in retirement — mowing and manicuring his lawn, fiddling around at his workbench, spending time with his grandson — he is lacking a certain peace. …

Boehner is a fascinating and paradoxical figure in his own right. He was the brilliant salesman who couldn't get his own members to buy. The back-slapping creature of K Street who never took a single earmark. The gruff chain-smoker who weeps at the mere mention of schoolchildren. The Midwestern everyman who won't be seen in public without a clean shave and an ironed shirt. The bartender's son who became speaker of the House.

But the story of Boehner's 25 years in Washington is also the story of the Republican Party, the Congress and American politics in the post-Ronald Reagan era: an account of corruption and crusading, enormous promises and underwhelming results, growing ideological polarization and declining faith in government. … Now, as the revolutionary fervor that swept Boehner into the speakership degenerates into a fratricidal conflict centered around Trump, the former speaker's frontline view of the Republican civil war is essential to understanding what went wrong.

Counting machines

In Aeon, Philip Ball wonders "where does our number sense come from? Is it a neural capacity we are born with — or is it a product of our culture?" Read "How Natural Is Numeracy?" in full at http://bit.ly/2yperYu. Here's how it begins.

Why can we count to 152? Okay, most of us don't need to stop there, but that's my point. Counting to 152, and far beyond, comes to us so naturally that it's hard not to regard our ability to navigate indefinitely up the number line as something innate, hard-wired into us.

Scientists have long claimed that our ability with numbers is indeed biologically evolved — that we can count because counting was a useful thing for our brains to be able to do. The hunter-gatherer who could tell which herd or flock of prey was the biggest, or which tree held the most fruit, had a survival advantage over the one who couldn't. What's more, other animals show a rudimentary capacity to distinguish differing small quantities of things: two bananas from three, say. Surely it stands to reason, then, that numeracy is adaptive.

But is it really? Being able to tell two things from three is useful, but being able to distinguish 152 from 153 must have been rather less urgent for our ancestors. More than about 100 sheep was too many for one shepherd to manage anyway in the ancient world, never mind millions or billions.

'Believability' arrives

In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer writes about "Anita Hill on Weinstein, Trump, and a Watershed Moment for Sexual-Harassment Accusations." Read her essay in full at http://bit.ly/2zeMK3Z. Here's an excerpt.

Sexual harassment is about power, not sex, and it has taken women of extraordinary power to overcome the disadvantage that most accusers face. As Susan Faludi, the author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, put it in an e-mail to me, "Power belongs only to the celebrities these days. If only Trump had harassed Angelina Jolie. ..."

Anita Hill, a woman with unusual insight into this topic, agrees that the nature of Weinstein's accusers is the reason that his exposure has proved to be a watershed moment. In a phone interview, Hill emphasized that sexual-harassment cases live and die on the basis of "believability," and that, in order for the accusers to prevail, "they have to fit a narrative" that the public will buy. At least until now, very few women have had that standing.

Twenty-six years ago, Hill learned this the hard way, when, as a young Yale Law School graduate, she famously testified that Clarence Thomas was unsuitable for confirmation to the Supreme Court, on the grounds that he had repeatedly harassed her while he served as her boss, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her testimony blasted the subject of workplace sexual harassment into the public consciousness, but it was swept aside by the Senate.

Broken checks

In the Atlantic, James B. Fallows argues that "it's up to Congress to police the executive — but so far, its Republican leaders are placing tribal loyalty ahead of their constitutional responsibility." Read "The Broken Check and Balance" in full at http://theatln.tc/2z8jZnp. Here's an excerpt.

The intricate trade-offs and compromises behind the constitutional structures of the 1780s may have suited the fledgling United States of that era — which had a smaller total population than today's Los Angeles, which ran only from the Atlantic coastline to the Appalachians, which had few international ambitions beyond survival, and which uneasily spanned both free and slave states. Almost every circumstance of today's United States is different, except, of course, for the ambition of creating an ever-more-perfect Union.

What has kept the country going through these centuries of change is not the superbness of its original rules — which, significantly, have been adopted by few of the hundreds of new governments that have come into being since the American founding.

Rather the United States has coped, and overall thrived, through a variety of non-constitutional advantages. These include its favorable placement on Earth, its early creation of mass-education and higher-education networks, its providentially most gifted leaders at times of its greatest crises — Washington, Lincoln, FDR — and a long list of other factors. Among the latter has been a willingness by most political participants, most of the time, to observe the unwritten rules necessary for a democracy's survival.

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