James Garfield, America’s first hipster president, died this day in 1881. Garfield, shown below at an artisanal vodka bar, had been on his way to a Williams College reunion when he was shot by George Steinbrenner, who had heard Garfield was about to give the Red Sox a special tax exemption for players with beards most resembling his own. “YOLO!” the stricken president was heard to cry as he fell, mortally wounded.

James Garfield

Being verklempt at any price

The New York Times asks, “Why Is It So Hard to Get a Great Bagel in California?”

Answer: It isn’t. But New Yorkers who happen to live in California aren’t looking for a great bagel. They’re looking for a great bagel in New York, and being in California, can’t find it, regardless of how good the bagel they’re eating at the moment may be. So said New Yorkers kvetch, and annoy everyone around them, even as they refuse to acknowledge the riches in their own mouths.

This is even acknowledged in the piece:

‘‘The actual food we serve is better,’’ (San Fransisco deli owner Leo Beckerman) said. ‘‘I’m very proud of our food. But it’s never going to match the memory of what your grandmother made you between the ages of 5 and 15.’’

Sumo and Argumentation

A while back, I learned something new: The main way sumo bouts end is not by one opponent pinning the other, as in Greco-Roman wrestling, but by pushing them out of the ring.

It was with a moment’s thought that I realized here was a metaphor for much in the way arguments are presented these days — particularly political arguments.

What I mean by that is, in many instances political arguments aren’t really trying to persuade the listeners to the rightness of what’s being said. Rather, they’re trying to portray opponents as being so bad, or evil, or ignorant, they shouldn’t be listened to in the first place.

They’re trying to throw each other out of the ring.

One example of this — though it pains me to say it — is the current use of Godwin’s Law. Originally intended as a restorative of netiquette to the problem of glib comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, it has come to be used by many not aware of its origins to shut down discussions even when the comparisons are appropriate.

A different example would be the McCain campaign of 2008. In the waning days of the campaign, with defeat looming, Mr. McCain started calling Mr. Obama a socialist. While the analysis at that link shows how if Mr. McCain was being consistent, he himself is a socialist as well, that wasn’t the point. The point was, since the days of the Red Scare in the 1920’s, crying “socialism!” had been a fairly good sumo move, tossing one’s opponent out of the ring. The Congressional election between Richard Nixon and Jerry Voorhis also comes to mind. Still, in Mr. McCain’s case it didn’t work, and Republican stalwarts, bewildered by the incantation’s loss of magical power, have been reciting it ever since.

But that’s the real tip-off a sumo argument is being attempted: A complete disregard for substantiation, and the fervent hope that a single word or short phrase will so discredit one’s opponent, no “serious person” will listen.

And, yes, the irony of my putting this down so I can link to it when I refer to something as “a sumo move” does not escape me. But as Molly Crabapple was recently quoted, “Essays are just l’esprit d’escalier.”

Not as right as I’d like to be.

I’ve been saying the following, or variations of it, for a while:

“If you think you favor limited gov’t, but you prefer funding soldiers to diplomats… You have another think coming.”

Sounds good, and everyone knows the US Defense Department budget is big, while the State Department’s gets hardly any attention at all.

Trouble is… Well, while it’s mildly true, it’s not as true as I’d like.

The Defense Department’s budget for Fiscal Year 2014, according to this document: $526.6 billion
Total DoD personnel, both active duty military and civilian, according to the Department: 2.12 million
Budget per employee: $248.4K

The State Department’s budget for FY 2014, per this document: $14.4 billion
Total employees at State worldwide, per this page at State’s web site: 58,000
Budget per employee: $248.3K


If I didn’t know any better, I’d say someone at State looks at DoD’s budget, and works back from there.

“Talks up a storm with those wooden teeth…”

Or so Stan Freberg says of George Washington when he Presents the United States, Vol. 1.

One problem, though. Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood.

I don’t know if it was this review of WASHINGTON: A Life by Ron Chernow in the New York Times. Still, I recently heard, in connection with Chernow’s book, something similar to Times reviewer Janet Maslin’s comment: “[Washington had a] harshly pragmatic attitude toward slavery (he purchased slaves’ teeth, perhaps for use in dentures).”

Yeah… that caused a big gulp on my part. Perhaps I have too much empathy but… George Washington? Of all people? Using the teeth of his slaves for his dentures? Can you be more literal yet symbolic when it comes to an image of white privilege and rapaciousness?

I hunted down what I think may be the source for this. It’s reprinted online by the PBS series Frontline, but I believe it’s this article by Mary V. Thompson, who is described as, “A research specialist at Mt. Vernon, [who] studies the domestic life, foodways, and religious practices of the residents of George Washington’s plantation, with a special interest in the slave community.” The article originally appeared in Virginia Cavalcade, Volume 48, Autumn 1999, No. 4, pp.178-190.

Here’s the core of it:

“Slaves of the eighteenth century sometimes turned to the perfectly acceptable means of making money by selling their teeth to dentists. Since at least the end of the Middle Ages, poor people had often sold their teeth for use in both dentures and in tooth-transplant operations for those wealthy enough to afford the procedures. Sometimes the teeth were perfectly healthy; others were diseased and needed to be pulled anyway. In 1780 a French dentist named Jean Pierre Le Moyer (also called Le Mayeaur, Le Mayeur, and Joseph Lemaire) came to America, possibly as a naval surgeon with the French forces commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau, and over the next decade treated patients in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Alexandria, and Richmond. He seems to have had an extensive practice in tooth transplants, but the results of the procedure were short-lived, usually less than one or two years. Transplantable teeth were hard to come by, and in 1783 Le Moyer even went so far as to advertise in the New York papers for “persons disposed to sell their front teeth, or any of them,” netting the donor two guineas (forty-two shillings) per tooth. In Richmond, he offered anyone but slaves a similar amount for their front teeth. Technical problems made it impossible to transplant molars, so the operation was probably useful primarily for cosmetic reasons. Le Moyer first treated George Washington’s teeth at his military headquarters in 1783.

The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed “Negroes,” presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, “on acct. of the French Dentis [sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic],” almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure–”I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784–and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves.”

Wow. Just… wow.


EDITED TO ADD: Mount Vernon has an exhibit that includes the only known surviving denture of Washington’s. “Carved from hippopotamus ivory, the denture contains real human teeth fixed in the ivory by means of brass screws.” Since I first posted this link (which keeps changing), Mount Vernon has decided to mention the provenance of the “real human teeth” in question. Originally, they didn’t.

ETA2: It wasn’t the Times. It was this piece in the New Yorker, by Jill Lepore. Lepore herself is a history professor at Harvard, which, combined with the New Yorker‘s fact checkers, makes this all too credible.

Lepore’s off-hand comment was striking:

“The mar to [Washington’s] beauty was his terrible teeth, which were replaced by unsuccessful transplant surgery and by dentures made from ivory and from teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves.”

It was “pulled” that made my heart drop. Thompson’s account makes it seem much more voluntary — or as voluntary as a commercial transaction with a person who owns you as chattel can be.