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 “I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers. . . . I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.”

Marine Corps Gen. Smedley D. Butler, from War is a Racket


A group of nine or ten men are sitting in a church-like setting, but it is not church. They are mostly African-American, mostly over forty. Each man is expected to read a passage aloud from a common book; they all have a copy. The year is 2012. The place is a smaller city on the East Coast. It’s Philadelphia.

A few of the gentlemen in the room cannot really read. This becomes apparent as they take turns with the book. When I say the men cannot read, I mean they cannot read unfamiliar words longer than two syllables. They cannot make it through a complex sentence without stumbling.

Sometimes, when one of these men reaches a roadblock in the text, he pauses and waits. Then someone else with better reading skills calls out the pronunciation. One helpful person, in particular, does not always wait long enough. He breaks with an unspoken consensus about the number of decoding attempts a reader is allowed to make before he is rescued.

Occasionally, almost as if to fend off a correction, the struggling reader will take a wild stab at a difficult word, throwing out an unrelated word with some of the same letters, or substituting a related word with a similar root.

Another choice is to just push on syllable-by-syllable, defying rescue. Maybe he will find his way phonetically and figure it out as he goes. It often ends up being a butcher job, but everyone else is following along in the book. No harm done. It’s a supportive group. There’s a lot of love. But it’s not English class, is it.

Why am I telling you this? Why is there a picture of the First Bank of the United States attached to this post? It happens to be in Philadelphia, as well. Why do we vote? Why do we read? Why do we bother?