Publisher's Note — September 30, 2008, 5:13 pm

The Presidency in Wartime: George W. Bush discovers Woodrow Wilson


Excerpted from Chapter 10 of You Can’t Be President: The outrageous barriers to democracy in America, published by Melville House. John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine.

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To understand what war—hot or cold—does to American democracy, examine the last three years of the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, from 1917 to 1920. Wilson’s reputation today remains essentially positive, even glorious. This professor-turned-politician is remembered for the most part as a visionary who was martyred in the cause of world democracy and peace. A self-styled idealist who called World War I “a war to end all wars,” Wilson claimed that America was fighting to make the world “safe for democracy,” not for any crass political motives. For these reasons, millions of high school students have been taught more about Wilson’s Fourteen Points and his failed crusade for American entry into the League of Nations than about George Washington’s or Dwight Eisenhower’s prescient, regrettably unheeded farewell addresses, which argued for restraint in foreign policy and against the dangers of a large, permanent military establishment.

But the Woodrow Wilson of dramatic oration and lofty principles was also an intolerant demagogue whose repressive policies and personal ambition sullied his stated aspiration to save the world from war and corruption. Long before there was McCarthyism, there was Wilsonianism, with its own “red scare” tactics and assaults on civil liberties that may have made Joe McCarthy envious. Although he had always insisted he was trying to avoid war, as early as his December 7,1915, State of the Union Address to Congress, Wilson was hinting at the war-fevered crackdown to come:

The gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue…. A little while ago such a thing would have seemed incredible. Because it was incredible we made no preparation for it. We would have been almost ashamed to prepare for it, as if we were suspicious of ourselves, our own comrades and neighbors! But the ugly and incredible thing has actually come about and we are without adequate federal laws to deal with it. I urge you to enact such laws at the earliest possible moment and feel that in doing so I am urging you to do nothing less than save the honor and self-respect of the nation. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.

What was incredible, and ugly, was the ferocity of Wilson’s antidemocratic impulse. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in his book Secrecy, Wilson’s “plea… astonishes still, as much for its passion as for what it proposes… No president had ever spoken like that before; none has since.”

Wilson disingenuously campaigned for reelection in 1916 as a peace candidate; his slogan, “He kept us out of war,” was a critical tactic in his very narrow victory over the Republican Charles Evans Hughes. But getting into World War I was uppermost in Wilson’s mind. As historian Walter Karp wrote in The Politics of War, “As he [Wilson] once confided to his wife, he himself ached for the opportunity ‘to impel [the people] to great political achievements,’ achievements that, in Wilson’s view, the ignoble masses were incapable even of desiring without strong leaders and strong governments to drive them.”

He resorted to moral blackmail and brute force when faced with domestic political opposition, whether to his war plans or to his vision for postwar peace

Wilson got his way, and from his speech before a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, calling for a declaration of war against Germany, until October 2, 1919, the day he suffered a massive stroke while campaigning frantically for Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, the great proponent of democracy engaged in the most anti-democratic domestic crusade in American history. Wilson’s self-righteousness encouraged coercion, rather than persuasion, and he resorted to moral blackmail and brute force when faced with domestic political opposition, whether to his war plans or to his vision for postwar peace. For example, if the treaty and the League of Nations were not approved, there would result “in the vengeful Providence of God, another struggle in which, not a few hundred thousand fine men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.” As the historian Anders Stephanson wrote, Wilson’s messianic obsession with making the League into what Wilson called a “wholesale moral clearinghouse” meant that opponents of his vision were heretics.

Wilson, the would-be messiah, also targeted political rivals, most prominently Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, who had done remarkably well in his run for president against Wilson and four other candidates in 1912.The 900,000 votes won by Debs that year amounted to 6 percent of the popular vote, the highest percentage ever for a socialist in an era when socialist and other left-wing mayors were being elected in cities such as Milwaukee and Schenectady. Debs’s subsequent opposition to Wilson’s push for war placed him in political jeopardy, and it was only a matter of time before the weight of the law came down on him. After making an antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio, in June 1918, Debs was arrested and convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act. He served more than two years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary until President Warren Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Day 1921.

Less well known today is the prosecution of Robert Goldstein, a film producer who at one time had been connected with D. W. Griffith. In 1917, Goldstein released a movie innocuously titled The Spirit of ’76, though the response of the war-fevered government was anything but innocuous. As described by Zechariah Chafee Jr. the great legal scholar of the period, Goldstein’s silent film was little more than a patriotic montage that celebrated the American Revolution. Goldstein made the movie before the war, and so he couldn’t have anticipated that Wilson’s violent attachment to his new British war ally would result in a jail sentence. Writing when the Espionage Act was still in force and the stroke-incapacitated Wilson still occupying the White House, Chafee himself was risking his career and possible prosecution when he published Freedom of Speech in 1920. This may account for the terseness of the following passage:

[The Spirit of’76] contained such scenes as Patrick Henry’s Speech, the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Valley Forge. After a year and a half of work the picture was finished, just before the outbreak of our war with Germany. The film was displayed in Los Angeles to the usual audience, which was not shown to contain either soldiers or sailors. The government thereupon indicted Goldstein for presenting a play designed and intended to arouse antagonism, hatred, and enmity between the American people, particularly the armed forces, and the people of Great Britain, particularly their armed forces, when Great Britain was “an ally” of the United States, because one scene, the Wyoming [Valley, Pennsylvania] Massacre, portrayed British soldiers bayoneting women and children and carrying away girls. The film was seized, the business was thrown from prosperity into bankruptcy with a loss of over $100,000, and Goldstein was convicted of attempting to cause insubordination, etc., in the armed forces and sentenced to ten years in the federal penitentiary at Steilacoom, Washington.

Political satire could very well land you in jail during the Wilson Administration

Chafee allowed himself a small joke when he remarked on the “unfortunate” case name of United States v. The Spirit of 76, but this was not a time for irony or joking, since political satire could very well land you in jail during the Wilson Administration. The point of Wilson’s spear in his crusade against sedition was his Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, who often acted to halt subversion before it even occurred. Using the Espionage Act and the Alien Act of 1918 (which targeted foreign-born anarchists and revolutionaries for deportation), Palmer’s notorious campaign targeted thousands of suspected communists and anarchists, who were supposedly slipping into the United States from Europe and Russia intending to foment revolution. The Palmer Raids, conducted by employees of the U.S. Department of Justice, began in earnest on November 7, 1919, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and culminated in January 1920 with the arrest of more than 3,000 members of the Communist and Communist Labor parties. From the start, the government also grabbed innocent bystanders who happened not to speak English. In his history of American crackdowns on civil liberties, First-Amendment advocate Christopher Finan described one raid, on November 7, which targeted the Russian People’s House in New York City’s Union Square. Government agents arrested about 200 people, mostly students: “Approximately 75 percent of those arrested were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many were quickly released.” Outside New York, “others were not so lucky. Nearly 100 men were locked up in Hartford, Connecticut for almost five months” on suspicion of being communists. In all, the raids netted over 4,000 alleged communists, of whom 800 were deported, including the prominent radical Emma Goldman.

In the atmosphere of Wilsonian hysteria, not only were left-wing militants with foreign names arrested and deported; so, too, were legally elected representatives to Congress and state legislatures denied their seats. Victor L. Berger, a socialist elected to the Fifth District of Wisconsin in 1918, was excluded from Congress at the beginning of its new session in April 1919. Running a second time in a December 1919 Wisconsin special election against a fusion Democrat-Republican candidate, Berger won again. By now convicted under the Espionage Act for vocally opposing the war, Berger presented his credentials to the House once more, in January 1920, and was once again excluded, by a vote of 330-6. Three days before Berger was refused his seat, five socialists elected to the New York State Assembly were denied theirs as well, by a resounding 140-6 vote.

Although Wilson has been celebrated as a tragic visionary, it’s not hard to find, even among his admirers, voices critical of his heavy-handed promotion of American entry into the League of Nations and his self-destructive refusal to accept Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s “reservations,” which doomed the League. Godfrey Hodgson, a sympathetic biographer of Wilson’s close friend and adviser, Col. Edward House, says, implausibly, that Wilson “hated war,” but he is clear on what he views as Wilson’s failings as a politician, in contrast with the wily tactician House: “Faced with opposition, Wilson’s instinct was that anyone wicked enough to disagree with him must endorse his noble vision or face his messianic wrath.” However, the portrait favored by admirers of the twenty-eighth president as an idealistic amateur among cynical professionals—particularly Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Lodge—understates Wilson’s ability to marshal popular support and his genuine tactical skills in day-to-day politics. Wilson may have been headstrong and “vainglorious,” in Walter Karp’s description, but he was no fool about building a political career and getting elected.

Perhaps no president has entered the White House with a less altruistic vision of foreign affairs or of war-making than George W. Bush

It is an enormous irony that Wilson came to prominence during the high-water mark of the Progressive Era, since this Virginia-born, Georgia-reared conservative was an out-and-out racist of the most conventional sort. The southerner Wilson presided over the segregation of the civil service and once said to a group of black protesters that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” Moreover, Wilson’s stated adherence to the cause of Progressivism was at best opportunistic and at worst specious. Yet his anti-progressive, anti-populist instincts did not prevent him from succeeding in politics. As Karp wrote,

As long as domestic affairs remained predominant, Wilson was on a collision course with the entire reform movement…. The solution to his problem Wilson had arrived at long before he ever faced it, when he praised the domestic political advantages of the Republican “plunge into international politics [by way of the Spanish-American war].” If he could make another such plunge and “impel” the nation to “great national triumphs” abroad, he could not only avert failure but reap glory as well. As soon as he took office, therefore, Wilson began trying to persuade the American people that the true spirit of reform was to be expressed not at home, but in a new altruistic foreign policy, a policy, in Wilson’s words, of “service to mankind.”

Even the great internationalist Wilson displayed scant interest in world-shaping foreign policy or war-making until he gained high national office. “Before his presidency,” wrote Anders Stephanson, “Wilson had showed no signs of reforming zeal in foreign affairs… A single memorandum, some scattered remarks, revealing nothing so much as a strong desire to be safely in the middle, an inkling that the experience of war had opened up possibilities for better national government at home: rather a meager sum total for a well-known scholar of political systems.”

Besides James Polk, architect of the expansionist war against Mexico in 1846, perhaps no president has entered the White House with a less altruistic vision of foreign affairs or of war-making than George W. Bush. Having already avoided military service in Vietnam by using his father’s influence to enter the Texas Air National Guard, Bush had no political interest in 2000 in promoting an ambitious foreign policy. To make matters worse, this candidly provincial son of a worldly father found himself frequently embarrassed by his lack of basic knowledge about foreign countries, famously failing in a 1999 television interview to name the leaders of India and Pakistan, countries that were just then facing off in a potential nuclear confrontation over Kashmir. Bush initially made a point of presenting himself as cautious and unlearned in foreign affairs, apart from his relations with Mexico as governor of Texas. In an April 2000 interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer, the then presidential candidate said, “I’m a fast learner, and listen, [but] I am not going to play like I’ve been a person who’s spent hours involved with foreign policy. I am who I am.” In his October 3,2000, campaign debate with Vice President Al Gore, Bush portrayed himself as an anti-Wilsonian:

I don’t think we can be all things to all people in the world. I think we’ve got to be very careful when we commit our troops. The vice president and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation building. I would be very careful about using our troops as national builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place.

But, like Wilson, Bush quickly learned the uses of war for political gain. According to his fired campaign ghostwriter, Mickey Herskowitz, Bush was already thinking about the potential political benefits of war before he was elected. In an interview with the journalist Russ Baker published in October 2004, Herskowitz said:

It [Iraq] was on his mind. He said to me: “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.” And he said, “My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.” He said, “If I have a chance to invade … if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

Whatever his learning curve, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush largely reinvented himself as the direct heir to Woodrow Wilson, minus some of the rhetoric about international cooperation. Like Wilson, Bush leaned heavily on the concept of “self-determination” to justify his “liberation” of the oppressed Iraqi people. Like Wilson, he seemed to be ignorant of the contradiction in his “vision.” As Joseph Schumpeter observed: “To try to force the people to embrace something that is believed to be good and glorious but which they do not actually want—even though they may be expected to like it when they experience its results—is the very hall mark of anti-democratic belief.” So complete has been the transformation of Bush from the parochial parody of a Texas “good ol’ boy” to “nation builder” and crusader for democracy that by 2007, historians like Godfrey Hodgson could assert that the current Bush Administration “is unmistakably Wilsonian,” that is, “the idea that it is the destiny of the United States to use its great power to spread American ideas of democracy and the American version of capitalism to the world.” Bush himself invoked Wilson in a November 2003 speech in London eight months after the invasion of Iraq. With Queen Elizabeth II and all of British officialdom in attendance, the new slayer of dragons and dictators made pointed reference to his newfound Wilsonian heritage when he declared,

The last President to stay at Buckingham Palace was an idealist, without question. At a dinner hosted by King George V, in 1918, Woodrow Wilson made a pledge; with typical American understatement, he vowed that right and justice would become the predominant and controlling force in the world…. At Wilson’s high point of idealism, however, Europe was one short generation from Munich and Auschwitz and the Blitz. Looking back, we see the reasons why. The League of Nations, lacking both credibility and will, collapsed at the first challenge of the dictators. Free nations failed to recognize, much less confront, the aggressive evil in plain sight. And so dictators went about their business.

Following Wilson, Bush has used his rhetoric of freedom to launch an aggressive assault on freedom in the United States—including the most important amendments in the Bill of Rights—in order to dampen dissent against the Iraq War as much as to fight terrorism.

Bush may not be systematically arresting opposition leftists and deporting them, or silencing filmmakers, but police in New York during the Republican Convention of 2004 did make mass arrests of antiwar demonstrators on largely fraudulent, and utterly unconstitutional, grounds. Instead of the Espionage Act and mass deportation under the Alien Act, we have the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001), Homeland Security Act, secret prisons, and “rendition” of terrorist suspects to “third party” countries where they are interrogated without lawyers present and tortured. The “Bush Doctrine” justifies preemptive war–and it also evidently justifies preemption of the Constitution.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Percentage of people who go to the bathroom in New York’s Penn Station who do not wash their hands:


Cell phones cause bees to behave erratically.

Trump struggles to pronounce “anonymous”; a Sackler stands to profit from a new drug to treat opioid addiction; housing development workers in the Bronx are accused of having orgies on the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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