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State of Mind: Congressional Literacy Tests

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When I was much younger, I lived far south of the Mason-Dixon line. I still remember water fountains designated as “whites only” and “colored,” the lunch counter at the local Woolworth’s divided into two sections, and signs on city buses directing Black passengers to the seats at the back. 

This is not to cast aspersions only on the South. Hate does not recognize borders. I was born in Chicago, which was then and probably still is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. And even though Black persons had been granted citizenship and the right to vote by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution (1868, 1870), many states during the “Jim Crow” era, north and south, erected barriers to prevent or discourage Black people from voting or even owning property.

We should remember the United States has since its founding restricted who can vote. Immediately after the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 the only persons eligible to vote were white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male property owners. It took decades for the right to vote to be expanded to non-landowning white males (1820), then to non-white persons (1870) and women (1920). And today, in 2022, we are still fighting over who can vote. 

A technique that was used to restrict voting in the past was literacy tests. Like poll taxes, literacy tests cut both ways. In addition to Black citizens, there were many whites who could not afford to pay a poll tax or answer such questions as, “Name all the signers of the Declaration of Independence.” (That, of course, is a cinch for any patriotic American today, right? “Let’s see, there was John Hancock and . . . uh, . . . there was John Hancock.”) 

Lately, however, I am not sure that literacy tests are a bad thing . . . for members of Congress.

Just recently a representative in Congress declared that Gatling guns were around in 1787 when the Bill of Rights was being drafted, this to counter the argument that the Second Amendment only protects the right to keep single-shot muzzle-loading muskets.  

If you are not familiar with the Gatling gun, it is a gun consisting of six to ten individual barrels mounted to a central shaft and with a central magazine. The barrels rotated around the shaft and fired when the user cranked a hand crank. In essence, the Gatling gun was a precursor to the machine gun.

The Gatling gun immensely increased a user’s firepower, and I am sure the “embattled farmers” who stood by Emerson’s “rude bridge that arched the flood” in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1775 would have been delighted to have one or two Gatling guns in addition to their single-shot muzzle-loading muskets. Alas, Richard Jordan Gatling didn’t invent it until 1861.

So that people’s representative scores an “F” in the American history category. Sorry, no voting in Congress for you.

Perhaps you have heard of a “malapropism.” “Mrs. Malaprop,” from which the term is derived, was a character in a play titled “The Rivals” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which was popular around 1775. The character often used the wrong word in a sentence because it sounded similar to the correct word, and therein was the humor.

Several weeks ago another representative in Congress made a reference to Nancy Pelosi’s “‘gazpacho  police” — a malapropism wrong on two levels. First, the thought that police are watching will diminish the demand for Spain’s famous cold tomato-and-cucumber soup at cafes throughout the land during the hottest part of the year and thus risk a recession. 

Second, this representative obviously meant “Gestapo,” but there is no such thing as the “Gestapo police.” As millions of Europeans tragically learned in the mid-twentieth century, the “Gestapo” WAS the police. “Gestapo” is an acronym for the German term “Geheime Staatspolizei” or “secret state police,” so referring to the “Gestapo police” is the same as saying the “secret state police police.” 

So this people’s representative gets an “F” in Spanish cuisine, economics, European history, and German grammar. Sorry, no voting in Congress for you.

Undeterred, another day the same representative talked about fake meat being grown in a “peach tree dish.” Anybody who knows anything about biology knows that they grow fake meat in a Petri dish. The state of Georgia (the Peach State and the home of this representative), however, could make hay out of this malapropism by developing a real “peach tree dish” and marketing it to companies in which to grow fake meat (Here’s the pitch: Get your Peach Tree Dish® now while they last! Perfect for growing fake meat! As mentioned by our representative in the halls of Congress!).

Nevertheless, the representative gets an “F” in biology lab. Sorry, no voting in Congress!

Last, in a rant about gun control legislation, this representative claimed her rights would be “fragrantly” violated by the legislation. 

Perhaps it smelled that way to her, but I think she gets an “F” for a flagrant misuse of English.

As for me, I’m going to continue to work on my knowledge of history just in case, in the struggle to control who can vote, literacy tests are brought back for all of us. Let’s see, there was John Hancock and . . . 

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