Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Coming Preference Cascade

Photo of Bill Ayers by Jeff Sciortino in Chicago Magazine

Glenn Reynolds has written of “preference falsification,” where people suppress their beliefs because their culture makes them feel those beliefs are aberrational. If the cultural spell is broken, and people get a sense that their society does endorse those beliefs, they exhibit a “preference cascade” where they exuberantly display their beliefs for all to see.

Professor Reynolds uses the patriotism shown after the events of 9/11/2001 as an example. He points out that the politics of the Vietnam War caused many Americans to hide their patriotism from public view. However, after 9/11, the American flag was honored and displayed unashamedly.

Today we are seeing individual Americans demonstrating the strength of their convictions, and relying on the Constitution for support. It seems to be catching on:

In Iowa, part-time employee Teresa Wagner gets a jury trial on her claim that Carolyn Jones (former dean of the College of Law at the University of Iowa) failed to hire her for a full-time position because of political beliefs.

Who would have believed that Ms. Wagner could successfully bring suit for political discrimination at an American University? Just a few years ago, such an action would have been unthinkable.

In New York City, a fourth-year medical student visiting from Tennessee finds herself charged with felony gun possession (minimum sentence of 3.5 years). Meredith Graves has a legal carry permit in Tennessee, but New York does not honor it. Mrs. Graves is due in court on March 19, 2012 to defend her case.

The idea of challenging local restrictions on gun rights would have been preposterous in the twentieth century (except in the most extreme circumstances). Now Mrs. Graves believes she can successfully do it.

Here in Colorado, Ari Armstrong corrects the reporting in a Denver Post story by Joey Bunch and Kieran Nicholson. Our culture expects us to access print media through Opinion pages or in the Corrections section, but Mr. Armstrong instinctively went directly to a reporter to set the record straight. His efforts show how to effectively hold print media accountable.

A “preference cascade” may be an obscure term, but it is about to become better understood. With the improvement in Internet content and availability, individuals are able to get a much better understanding of their role within a culture.

We no longer have to be told whether our views are “mainstream.” We can look at Internet metrics, watch “hit counters,” and review polling data. We can follow hotlinks to verify reporting and can use Internet searches to see correlations.

Our culture might think of Americans as Sheeples, but Ari Armstrong, Meredith Graves, and Teresa Wagner are defying the conventional wisdom.

They are demonstrating the power of conviction, and many Americans find that attractive.

UPDATE 1/12/2012:
Mark Meckler relates his story, one surprisingly like that of Meredith Graves. (h/t: Instapundit)

UPDATE 8/2/2012:
Glenn Reynolds points us to this post by Bob Owens.  It's that "power of convictions"thing...
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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One-Off Characterizations

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Governor of Hawaii Neil Abercrombie

What do the following have in common?

--Gun Owners
--Tea Party Activists
--The 1%
--Climate Change Deniers

Need a hint? They are all recipients of our culture’s one-off characterizations. They are identity groups that have been used as Republican proxies.

I had posted on this phenomenon a few years ago. When our culture criticizes gun owners, or stigmatizes the Tea Party, it is using a time-honored technique. Hatred of individuals is shielded from scrutiny when it is an identity group that is being criticized.

Gun owners are killers. Who likes killers? Tea Party activists are racists. Who likes racists? “The 1%” are greedy. Who likes greedy people? Climate skeptics are all of the above. Who likes them?

You get the idea. People may characterize these groups without appearing to be totally anti-Republican. It gives political cover. And isn’t that convenient?

Maybe that’s why we should note the press reaction associated with two recent events. One was Mitt Romney offering a $10,000 wager to Rick Perry at a debate. The other was Nancy Pelosi taking a Christmas vacation in Hawaii at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.

Mitt Romney’s bet was characterized as an indication of his out-of-touch style and arrogance. Nancy Pelosi’s vacation coverage noted that she attended midnight mass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church.

I would imagine both politicians (with well over $100 million in wealth) are in that “1%.” But one of them receives more accommodating press coverage. Why is that?

There is no need to answer the question. The point is that “The 1%” is meant to target Republicans. Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry and Jon Corzine might technically be in the 1% category, but their righteousness keeps them from being classified as greedy. That characterization is reserved for Republicans by way of an identity group.

As long as Republicans accept this as what is “right and natural,” nothing will change. But who knows? There is a deferring/dominant psychological pattern where individuals put up with abuse for a certain amount of time and then try to turn the tables.

In America, we have elections for that sort of thing. 2012 might just become the year that Republicans gain a measure of (reluctant) respectability from our American culture.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011


PolitiFact, a subsidiary of the Tampa Bay Times made news on 12/20/2011 when it published its 2011 Lie of the Year. The controversial expression was “Republicans voted to end Medicare.”

PolitiFact provides several instances of the expression being used from 3/31/2011 to 8/30/2011. In a post on the fund-raising efforts of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), I also noted its use:

Harry Reid on 9/19/2011:
“Paul Ryan dreams of ending Medicare forever.”

James Carville on 9/30/2011:
“Jim DeMint will end Medicare.”

The good news is that the “Lie of the Year” designation has caused a modification in language used by the DSCC. A 12/22/2011 fund-raising letter (two days after the PolitiFact publication) uses this phraseology:

Kick Grandma Off Medicare & Give Her a Coupon: Republicans all lined up in favor of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s extreme budget plan earlier this year that would kill Medicare as we know it and turn it into a voucher program.

I suppose that’s progress, but the style and intent remain: Republicans are bad people who want to steal from our Seniors. Those are classic Democratic Party themes.

The use of truth or fiction by a political movement becomes subordinate to the task of repeating the themes. In the Middle East, Arabic cultures teach that Jews are bad people. In Asia, the North Korean culture teaches that Americans are bad people. The techniques of repetition are widespread in both anti-Semitic and anti-American cultures.

Is something like that going on here?

One thing we do know is that if you want to be cool like the cast members of Saturday Night Live, you had better not be a Republican.

And when you are on the DSCC mailing list, you receive an even stronger message.

In teaching a belief system, truth or fiction is not an issue. What’s important is the repetition.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is President Obama a Socialist?

General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines on January 9, 1945, as photographed by Carl Mydans for Life magazine. To MacArthur’s right are General Richard Sutherland and Colonel Lloyd Lehrbas.

Last night, on The O’Reilly Factor, host Bill O’Reilly interviewed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Mr. O’Reilly (as he is inclined to do) tried to draw Mr. Romney into controversy.

Concerning the governing policy of President Obama, Mr. O’Reilly posed the question, “Is he a Socialist?”

Mr. Romney knows that our anti-Republican culture would characterize him as a “risky extremist” if he answered Mr. O’Reilly’s question in the affirmative. He chose instead this reply: “I consider him a big government liberal Democrat who thinks Europe got it right and we got it wrong.”

That was a deft response, but what if Mr. O’Reilly had posed a different question?

“Is President Obama an Authoritarian?”

That would have been a more interesting direction for the discussion. Claiming an affinity for the principles of Socialism / Communism / Capitalism is common amongst political leaders. The thing that is different about President Obama is that he appears to be seeking Authoritarianism in the governing of America.

What are the examples? Here are a few that come to mind:

--Employing American military power as a personal mercenary force.
--Operating the DOJ as though it were immune from oversight.
--Reinforcing the absolute authority of the TSA over airline travel.
--Expanding the power of the EPA.
--Politicizing the Department of Labor.
--Extending the authority of Executive Orders.
--Creating privileged opportunities for Democratic Party identity groups.
--Conducting lavish presidential excursions and family vacations.

During the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur, though an extremely popular military figure, was removed from his duties as Commander in Chief, United Nations Command. President Truman didn’t take kindly to General MacArthur’s authoritarian tendencies, and exercised his constitutional powers.

It was a significant event at the time, and might have been one of the reasons Truman was a one-term president. Questions still remain: Did President Truman do the right thing? Was he within his powers?

President Truman’s actions demonstrate that our Constitution helps preserve the power of the people. When an elected leader or an appointed administrator takes on the mantle of authoritarianism, the Constitution provides mechanisms for the removal of said people.

Authoritarianism may work within a family unit, but it always brings about unsatisfactory outcomes for “the people” when enacted on the world stage. The recent demise of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il focuses our attention on the issue. Whether under the banner of Socialism, Communism, or national hegemony, Authoritarianism is a common theme for the world’s dictators.

Is it time to have a conversation about Authoritarianism in America?

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Dickensian (dih-ken-zee-uhn)

Lakewood Center for the Arts 2009 production of Oliver!
(Shea Mackinnon as Oliver and Jay Horenstein as Fagin)

One of the themes of the Democratic Party is that Republicans are harming our children. Newt Gingrich recently brought new energy to this theme. Speaking in Iowa on December 1, Mr. Gingrich said:

Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash,' unless it's illegal.

Cue the outrage!

Joan Jacobson expressed her feelings in The Denver Post on 12/10/2011:

One benefit of Newt Gingrich’s proposal to pay poor kids to clean their schools is that it would give the rich kids in those schools valuable experience in how to treat “the help.” These kids are too young to have acquired noblesse oblige, so it’s inevitable that they will say stuff like, “Hey, Janitor Boy, mop up my mess!” in the lavatories and, “Maid Girl, take my plate away!” in the cafeterias. But we can pay for expensive counselors to teach sensitivity training to the rich kids. Or, we could just put up with bullying by the rich of the poor on the basis that this is how the real world works and so it is good training for kids on both ends of the economic spectrum.

Ed Quillen followed up on 12/11/2011:

I never encountered any stories suitable for the children of America's right-thinkers. A story where, say, most of the kids get together to beat the tar out of the new kid who's "different." Or the one with everyone cheering at the death of a character who didn't have health insurance. Or shooting the brown-eyed kid who tried to get into their gated community. Or maybe a story where the cool kids had fun mocking the kid who couldn't afford the newest styles and Newt Gingrich could lead them in chanting, "Get a haircut."

Once again, Republicans are off their meds. They enjoy mocking, bullying and killing. Our culture reminds us that Republicans are really bad people.

Or maybe that’s just The Denver Post. Keith Koffler, writing at Politico, sees it as a new political strategy employed by the Democratic Party. In an effort to get president Obama re-elected, the Democratic Party is crafting a new reality:

Obama’s is a Dickensian world in which greedy rich people and unscrupulous bankers receive special favor and the rest of us are ground under their avarice into penury.

Whether we are seeing a new reality or just a rehash of Democratic Party themes, it does appear that we are going to get a strong dose of Dickensian medicine over the next 11 months.

Let’s watch and see whether it cures America’s ills.

UPDATE 1/17/2012:
Newt Gingrich gets a standing ovation while defending his remarks at a debate held in Myrtle Beach, SC on 1/16/2012.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011


President Obama gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas this week in which he beseeched the American people:

“We are greater together when everyone engages in fair play, everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share.”
The speech opens a new campaign theme. President Obama wants to help Americans do what is fair.

That is certainly a compelling theme, but there might be unintended consequences. While Americans are reflecting on fairness, they might stumble across its central tenet:

Fairness is relative.

There are always three aspects of fairness: what is fair for the individual, what is fair for the identity group, and what is fair for the rest of society.

The censure of Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) showcases these different aspects. Representative Rangel had a very personal impression of the fairness of censure, while the identity groups associated with the House of Representatives and the Congressional Black Caucus had their opinions as well. There were also the viewpoints of those in the overall population with an interest in the Rule of Law. Which of these was the fair approach?

While considering that dilemma, note how the president’s speech also ties into the notion of Authoritarianism. When there are conflicting points of view on fairness, people are drawn to “the strong horse.” We look to an influential group to be the tiebreaker.

In that context, we are now hearing a message about a broken system that needs authoritarian figures to help us achieve fairness.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Democratic Party and president Obama are ready to fill that void.

UPDATE 12/9/2011:
Linked by Left Coast Rebel!  Thanks, Tim.

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Monday, December 5, 2011


A scene from the current production of West Side Story.

I posed this question a month ago: “Is Communism a ruse for placing large groups of people under authoritarian regimes?” It seems that the quest to achieve the ideals of Communism is never complete, and authoritarianism is always ready to step in.

History is replete with instances of authoritarian regimes, and our academics still don’t “connect the dots.” Let me shed some light on this quandary.

There are two elements present in every instance of authoritarianism: ideals and hate. In many instances, the “ideals” are provided by a movement such as Socialism or Communism. The followers are attracted to the movement because of the ideals, and authoritarianism is simply a vehicle to achieve those ideals.

But what if it is the other way around? What if the “achievement” is the authoritarian state, and the “vehicle” is simply the current political/religious movement? Doesn’t that make more sense?

We see authoritarianism at all levels of human interaction. A street gang is an example at one end of the spectrum, and both elements are present. The “ideal” is a sense of sanctuary, a protection from adverse forces that is provided by membership in the gang. The “hate” is directed at a rival gang, an ethnic group, authority figures, or whatever. Taken together, the elements help the gang become an authoritarian unit.

On the other end of the spectrum are the large political/religious groups that exist in many non-democratic countries. If you focus on Iran as an example, you see “the ideal” as the perfection of the teachings of the Koran, and “the hate” as the desire to see Israel “wiped off the map.”

From the travails of the Hatfield-McCoy feud to the Halocaust of Nazi Germany, we see a recurring pattern of authoritarian groups using elements of hatred and idealism to maintain power and authority.

With that background, shouldn’t we be marveling at the durability of the United States over the last couple of centuries? Our Founders created a Constitution that preserves the power of the people and makes authoritarianism difficult. With Checks and Balances, the Rule of Law, and Separation of Powers, the Constitution protects America and makes it a country able to withstand the constant pressures of authoritarianism.

But while many people marvel at the genius of our Founders, others don’t see it that way.

Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler published a book in 2009 titled, “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.” It presents the thesis that authoritarianism is a bad thing, and that it finds a welcome home in (of all places!) the minds of Republicans.

The Daily Kos published an interview with Jonathan Weiler that promotes this point of view. Mr. Weiler provides an “easy definition” of authoritarianism that is illuminating:

Most succinctly, we mean by authoritarianism a tendency to see the world in simple, clear, black and white terms in support of a social order that prefers sameness and uniformity over diversity and difference. It also tends to prefer the concreteness of military conflict over the subtleties of diplomacy. A tendency to disdain complexity and nuance and to evince intolerance of outgroups are typical (though, of course not universal) features of authoritarian-minded individuals.

The polarization we've argued is now under way is a product of the degree to which this particular worldview, once broadly distributed between the parties, has now increasingly found a home in one party, the Republican Party. And to emphasize, we also identify a non-authoritarian worldview, one characterized by a preference for thinking in shades of gray and privileging diversity and difference over sameness and uniformity. That worldview, likewise, was once more broadly distributed between the two parties and has increasingly gravitated toward one party, the Democrats.

Contrast this with what Wikipedia says:

Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority. It is usually opposed to individualism and democracy. In politics, an authoritarian government is one in which political authority is concentrated in a small group of politicians.

I am struck with the perception in the minds of Weiler and Hetherington that Republicans are like a separate species of human being. Republicans cling to bad ideas in the same fashion they “cling to guns or religion.” We are afflicted with authoritarianism in the way a person is afflicted with a psychosis.

In our culture, the thinking of Weiler and Hetherington is embraced. It is research. This is science.

The curious thing is that if I as a Republican head down to the office of the County Clerk and change my voter registration to something other than Republican, I might not immediately divest myself of the scourge of authoritarianism or “the backfire effect” or whatever current theory is being used to reinforce Democratic Party themes. Rather, I must depend on the Democratic Party to reveal what lies beneath the surface: What is my intent? What are my motivations? How should I be interpreted?

Our culture does not depend on the Rule of Law or a system within our representative democracy to adjudicate this issue. Rather, it relies on the authoritarianism of the Democratic Party which, alone in our culture, can “get it right.”

Does the Democratic Party have the two elements essential to an authoritarian regime? It has The Hate, and it has The Serenity. It also has “The Deception,” which is our anti-Republican culture providing energy and legitimacy.

Does all this sound sinister? It should, but it is also a reflection of our tendency as human beings to seek out authoritarianism for our solutions. Thomas Friedman, a prominent cheerleader, looks to the authoritarianism of China for direction. The Obama administration embraces authoritarianism in enhancing the power of its agencies and czars to get things “properly changed.”

Authoritarianism is testing our Constitution. It is a Siren song, and millions of Americans draw comfort from it.

We should all hope that the Constitution is strong enough to keep the American experiment going. In the meantime, just remember that when you are on the “authority” side of authoritarianism, it is a very seductive encounter.

When you are on the receiving side, it just sucks.

UPDATE 1/9/2012:
The use of the term "authoritarianism" seems to be catching on (h/t Power Line).  I don't think people appreciate the unique anti-authoritarian nature of our Constitution.  Sometimes you have to lose something to fully appreciate it.

UPDATE 1/17/2012:
The Wall Street Journal has a column by William McGurn that finds Americans are experiencing a "Constitutional awakening."  If true, that's a good thing!

UPDATE 1/27/2012:
George Will writes a column in the Washington Post, noting that the progressive ideals of the Democratic Party are furthered by a militaristic conformity:

People marching in serried ranks, fused into a solid mass by the heat of martial ardor, proceeding in lock step, shoulder to shoulder, obedient to orders from a commanding officer — this is a recurring dream of progressives eager to dispense with tiresome persuasion and untidy dissension in a free, tumultuous society.

He completes his column on authoritarianism without once using the word "authoritarianism."  What's up with that?

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Althouse and Kimball

Ann Althouse (on the left) and Christopher Kimball

Here’s an interesting cultural juxtaposition:

Ann Althouse yesterday noted that the American Bar Association has a list of 100 influential law blogs, and hers is included. What catches the attention of Ms. Althouse is that her blog (along with one other) is described as “conservative.” Ann finds it odd that not one of the other 98 law blogs is characterized as being “liberal.”

Christopher Kimball yesterday sent an e-mail to subscribers that described his sojourn into the Vermont woods the day before deer season. In his note, he describes activities associated with guns, dogs, and wildlife. My sense is that many people would find the story anachronistic.

What Ann sees as “odd” is what our culture sees as normal. The traditions pursued by Mr. Kimball are what our culture thinks are “odd” even though Mr. Kimball sees them as normal.

We might have to accept that our culture sees Ann’s blog as an outlier, but I feel a twinge of sorrow over the drift away from America’s legacy. For those of you feeling that same sense of loss, here is the text of Mr. Kimball’s “Antler Eve” e-mail:

Dear Home Cook,

The day before the beginning of deer season is referred to as “Antler Eve,” a day even more celebrated than the day before Christmas. I installed myself in camp (a small cabin), got the fire going, and Tom showed up with the beer about an hour later. He mentioned that he saw two bald eagles across from the farm a few days before. Someone had jacked a deer at night and field dressed it, leaving a nice meal for the birds. According to Tom, one of the eagles stood guard high up in a tree while the other one fed.

The alarm sounded at 3:45 a.m. I got into my long johns, started the fire, made the coffee, mixed the pancake batter, fried the bacon, and started sorting out my gear: flashlights, compass, hats, gloves, knife, sandwiches, and mobile phone. Tom and Nate showed up and we tucked into breakfast and strong coffee. Nate dropped me at the farm around 5:30 a.m., and I headed up to the stand where I shot the 7-pointer the year before. On the way up into the woods, I startled a deer by an apple tree and then heard at least two more once I disappeared from the upper meadow into the birch and maple. The moon was bright so I didn’t need a flashlight and found the stand in just minutes. I climbed up in—it’s a double-wide—and I put the clip into my Browning 308. Just then, bark started falling on my head. Well , I thought, here’s another annoyed, territorial squirrel. I looked up and, low and behold, it was no squirrel but an angry 25-pound raccoon who was hanging onto the tree, just above my head, using its hind legs to spit bark on me. It turned its face downward, hissed, and made no attempt to move. Now, for those of you who think that raccoons are cuddly, let me just say that about the last thing you would want is a pissed-off member of this species landing on your head in total darkness, clawing your face into ground chuck. So, I took out the flashlight, shined it in its face, and made threatening noises. He moved up the tree and out onto a limb where he sat and continued his campaign of heckling.

Speaking of raccoons, Tom used to go coon hunting when he lived in Connecticut and, one night, he was out with a couple of friends and a hound. The coon headed into a beaver pond and the dog went after him. The coon lured the animal into deep water and then got on top of its head, pushing it underwater, trying to drown it. The dog owner went running into the water and rescued the dog, but it was a near thing. Sounds incredible? Well, there is a video of a similar situation on YouTube. (I will let you find it yourself, if you are so inclined, since it is not the sort of thing an animal lover, dog or raccoon, will want to watch.)

I soon finished up my stay in the stand and decided to march back up and over the ridge to the cabin to switch out ammunition. For some reason, the 150-grain 7mm shells I had bought the day before were not loading properly so I wanted to change them out for the 140-grain shells I usually use. I restarted the day and headed downwards, near the New York State line, into a valley owned by a neighbor. I came across a porcupine waddling slowly along through a stand of pines and then headed to the top of a ridge where there is a good view down the mountain, with plenty of good cover for deer. I walked a few more miles, up into a steep side-hill known as the “ledges” and sat for a bit. I headed back to the cabin for a quick lunch on the deck in bright sunlight and temperatures in the 50s.

That afternoon, I headed down to a knoll that looks down into a gut, a narrow, shallow ravine that is often used by deer to move along unnoticed. I startled a large doe just as I came over the top and sat for an hour but saw nothing more. I walked down to a stand by the edge of our summer pastures and spent the rest of the day in that spot, listening to a neighbor reprimanding his black Labrador, hearing bears calling across to one another from ridge to ridge, and watching our two Randall Linebacks graze down by the ponds. Just after 4:30 p.m., the sun slipped behind the far ridge in the west, and then twilight arrived, my favorite part of the day. The light seeped out of the meadows, the woods turned dark and impenetrable, and the forest came alive. Two small does slipstreamed into the upper pasture from deep cover. I headed back to camp. Click here for photos of Vermont Fall 2011.

Freshly showered, I drove down to Tom and Nancy’s and had an excellent game dinner with my daughter Caroline who had driven down from school—rabbit and partridge slow-cooked in Tom and Nancy’s own home-canned tomato sauce and served over pasta. Homemade bread and pumpkin bars filled out the menu. Nancy is the best gardener in town and has been feeding her family almost entirely from what she freezes and cans and what Tom shoots during the season. Locavores are nothing new!

The next day, I stopped at Sherman’s store and told the assembled locals about the raccoon. Everyone had a good laugh (at my expense, of course). Nobody was checking in a deer (the store is also a weigh-in spot for tagged deer) but it was early yet; the season still has a couple of weeks.

By the way, you should know about our post-Thanksgiving Cyber Monday Clearance Sale on cookbook titles. This is the biggest clearance sale of the year, when we offer titles at up to a 71% discount. This year, the volumes include books from our Best Recipe Series so if you want to stock up on holiday gifts at a very good price, just click here to see what’s on sale. Thanks!

I leave you with a true story about Robert Frost, a noted Vermonter. One evening, Frost and Professor Thomas Reed Powell, a native Vermonter and distinguished professor at the Harvard Law School, were sitting around trying to outdo each other in a battle of wits. Powell, recalling that Frost had been born in San Francisco, and not Vermont, commented, “You know, Robert, you’re only a bastard Vermonter.” Frost countered, “Well, Reed, isn’t that better than being a Vermont bastard?”

Enjoy the cooler weather and the second best holiday after Antler Eve!

Christopher Kimball
Founder and Editor
America's Test Kitchen

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