December 21, 2006

A cooperative commonwealth

Some things we might share

The following appears is from the Great American Political Repair Manual by Sam Smith

1. We seek to be good stewards of our earth, good citizens of our country, good members of our communities, and good neighbors of those who share these places with us.

2. We reject the immoderate tone of current politics, its appeal to hate and fear, its scorn for democracy, its preference for conflict over resolution, its servility to money and to those who possess it, and its deep indifference to the problems of ordinary Americans

3. We seek a cooperative commonwealth based on decency before profit, liberty before sterile order, justice before efficiency, happiness before uniformity, families before systems, communities before corporations, and people before institutions.

We believe that:

4. We should treat our politics, our country and each other with common decency, common sense and with a search for common ground.

5. When issues divide us deeply, we should seek ways to discuss them both honestly and with reason, out of the glare of the media and away from others who profit from our divisions.

6. We should tread gently upon the earth and leave it in better condition than we found it.

7. The physical and cultural variety of human beings is a gift and not a threat. We are glad that the world includes many who are different from ourselves by nature, principle, inclination or faith

8. We must protect the right of others to disagree with us so we shall be free to speak our own minds.

9. Our national economic goal is the self-sufficiency, well-being and stability of our communities and those living in them.

10. Ecological principles should determine economic policies and not vice versa.

11. The first source of expertise is the wisdom of the people.

12. Individuals possess fundamental rights that are inalienable and not contingent on responsibilities assigned by the state. These rights are to be restrained only by a due concern for the health, safety, and liberty of others and are not to be made subservient to the arbitrary and capricious dictates of the government.

13. Citizens should participate as directly as possible in our democracy

14. The media should inform citizens and provide a means by which citizens may address government rather than serving as a vehicle by which members of the government and elites tell citizens what to think.

15. Power should be devolved to the lowest practical level.

16. The Bill of Rights and other constitutional provisions have deep permanence and are not to be manipulated or abridged for political gain.

17. Politics dependent on corporate financing and lobbyist influence is corrupt, anti-democratic and unacceptable.

18. Simplicity, conservation, and recycling should be central to our economy, our politics and our lives.

19. Individual privacy is paramount and not to be subservient to the needs of the state.

20. Individual rights are manifestly superior to any granted corporations.

21. Our elected officials are servants and representatives, not rulers.

22. We need more community more than we need more things.

23. We are citizens and not merely taxpayers.

24. We own our government and are not merely its consumers.

Iatrogenic security threats


writes in response to our listing of American corporations tied to Israel: "Do you have a comparable list of corporations that remain silent when a Palestinian bomb explodes aboard an Israeli bus? The policies of the Israeli government are abhorrent, but the tactics of the Palestinians are inexcusable as well."

When I raised a similar argument as a kid, my mother's response was, "If Johnny were to jump off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff, too?" I never could come up with good answer to that and so eventually had to concede that somebody else's stupidity was not a good excuse for my own.

The underlying problem is that we are funding Israel's violence but not that of Palestine. We are not directly responsible for the bombs on Israeli busses but we are very much responsible for the wrongs that Israel does. Further, if you occupy and oppress a people long and hard enough they will do all sorts of things to fight back that don't fit the definition of civil discourse.

The "well, what about their violence?" argument was used against the North Vietnamese and in just about every war since. Implicit in this is the idea that what we do wrong is excusable because it has been matched - or allegedly so - by the other side. Of course, the other side doesn't see it that way so you end up with a perfect stalemate of violence.

In fact, Israel - as does America - largely faces a security threat that it has created by its own supposed remedies. Both America and Israel are far more in danger now than they were before 9/11 because an ever growing portion of the world doesn't like the vicious cure they are offering.

During a 1999 anti-war speech in Washington's Dupont Circle, I addressed a similar problem in the Balkans:


There is a name for this sort of medicine. It is called iatrogenic - in which the disease is caused by the physician. Doctors who cause diseases or ruin the health of the patient through arrogance, incompetence, and mindless machismo have large insurance policies because people sue them for something we call malpractice. In medicine this is considered a bad thing.

We have just gone through yet another iatrogenic war, in which our elites have argued falsely that their stated intentions outweigh any actual consequences. The patient is in far worse shape than before this war began, the victim of arrogance, incompetence, and mindless machismo. . .

[Latest research puts the Balkan military and civilian deaths in the range of 100,000 with 1.8 million displaced]

We, of course, have had other iatrogenic wars. This is what happened in Vietnam when we declared that it was necessary to destroy villages in order to save them. This is what happened in Iraq when in the name defeating a modern Hitler we caused the post-war death by disease and malnutrition of far more people than Hussein himself had killed. And it is what happened when NATO declared that Slobadon Milosevic's crimes against humanity were such that they justified the brutal destruction of a country and the pain and death and the very ethnic cleansing we said we sought to avoid.

In fact, every moral act in the face of mental or physical injury carries twin responsibilities: to mend the injury and to avoid replacing it with another. This twin burden is faced every day by doctors. Every police officer faces it. Every firefighter. It was what I was taught as a Coast Guard officer. It's well past time for our politicians do so as well.

The point of speaking of the evils of a Milosovec or a Hussein is to raise the alarm. But once that has been successfully done, this alarm may not rightfully be used as a perpetual excuse for our own misdeeds. From the moment we commence a moral intervention we become a part of the story, and part of the good and evil. We are no longer the innocent bystander but a full participant whose acts will either help or make things worse. Our intentions become irrelevant; they are overwhelmed by the character of our response to them. The morality of the disease is supplanted by the morality of the cure. Any other course amounts to reckless and negligent political malpractice.


The security threat that both America and Israel now face is, in no small part, iatrogenic. The first step towards a cure rather than continued harm is to take responsibility for our own actions and not hide behind the violence of those who oppose us.

This means doing things that are an anathema to the politicians and media in this country such as actually talking - even seemingly forever - with those with whom we disagree. It means an end to showboating and the beginning of endless tiny steps towards accommodation. It means saying you're sorry when you have done wrong. It means finding things - like economic projects and programs - that benefit both sides and that  make their former quarrels less important. It means giving dollars instead of shooting bullets. It means helping both sides choose to be survivors of their past rather than its perpetual victims. And it means putting away the guns, the threats and the bombast and looking for, in Benjamin Franklin's phrase, "the little felicities of every day."

Above all, it means taking constant and self-critical responsibility for our own acts and for those of our allies and not finding false moral shelter in the violent reactions they provoke. As Gandhi put it, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

December 14, 2006

Dealing with myths

Sam Smith

Having been an anthropology major, I don't get as riled up about mythology in public life as many in the media and politics. Myths can be helpful, benign, sad, or deadly but mostly they're there to fill the empty places in reality.

Sometimes myths are carried on the backs of famous people because the reality isn't powerful enough to do the job. A classic case involves the death of Dr Charles Drew, the famous black surgeon.

It is widely told that Drew, then 46, died in North Carolina in 1950 following a car accident for which he was unable to get treatment at a white hospital and had to be transported to a much more distant black hospital, wasting critical treatment time.

But the Annals of American Survey notes:

"The authoritative work by historian Spencie Love entitled, One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles Drew, described how the myth has been cultivated because of the time and place of Dr. Drew's death and serves as an unfortunate filler between living memory and written history. True enough, a 23-year-old black World War II veteran by the name Maltheus Avery was critically injured in an auto crash on December 1, 1950, exactly 8 months after Dr. Drew's death. He was a student at North Carolina A&T, a husband, and a father of a small child. Like Dr. Drew, he was treated initially at Alamance General Hospital. He was transferred to Duke University Hospital and subsequently turned away because they had exhausted their supply of beds for black patients. Mr. Avery would die shortly after arrival at Lincoln Hospital, Durham, North Carolina's black facility. Spencie Love's book discusses how the story of the lesser-known Maltheus Avery confronted the circumstances of the death of the more prominent Dr. Drew, and thus a myth was born."

Something similar was at work in the black response to the OJ Simpson case. To many blacks, Simpson was carrying the mythic weight of decades of ethnic abuse under the justice system. In a column at the time for Pacific News Service, a black journalist, Dennis Schatzman, outlined some of the black context for the Simpson trial:

Just last year, Olympic long jumper and track coach Al Joyner was handcuffed and harassed in a LAPD traffic incident. He has settled out of court for $250,000.

A few years earlier, former baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was "handcuffed and arrested at the Los Angeles airport because police believed that Morgan 'fit the profile of a drug dealer.'" He also got a settlement of $250,000.

Before that, former LA Laker forward Jamal Wilkes was stopped by the police, handcuffed and thrown to the pavement.

A black man was recently given a 25-year to life sentence for stealing a slice of pizza from a young white boy.

In 1992, a mentally troubled black man was shot and killed by LA sheriff's deputies while causing a disturbance in front of his mother's house. Neighbors say they saw a deputy plant a weapon by the body.

Simpson case detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of planting a weapon at the side of a robbery suspect back in 1988. The LAPD recently settled for an undisclosed amount.

In North Carolina, Daryl Hunt still languishes in jail for the 1984 rape and murder of a white newspaper reporter, even though DNA tests say it was not possible.

These examples would be rejected as irrelevant by the average lawyer or journalist but in fact OJ Simpson's case served as the mythic translation of stories never allowed to be told. The stories that should have been on CNN but weren't. Everything was true except the names, times and places. In Washington, they do something similar when stories can't be told; they write a novel.

Something parallel took place around the same time when militia members imagined that the Bloods & Crips were being armed by the US government or when blacks believed the same thing about the militias. Or when the UN was thought to on the verge of invading the U.S.

Like urban blacks considering the justice system, the rural right saw things the elite would prefer to ignore. It observed correctly phenomena indicating loss of sovereignty for themselves, their states and their country. They saw treaties replaced by fast-track agreements and national powers surrendered to remote and unaccountable trade tribunals. And they saw a multi-decade assault by the federal government on the powers of states and localities.

Like urban blacks, they were not paranoid in these observations, merely perceptive. But because the story could not be told, could not become part of the national agenda, they turned, as people in trouble often do, to a myth -- and, yes, sometimes a violent myth -- that would carry the story.

We tend to get very self-righteous when dealing with other people's myths but very tolerant about our own. Thus a conference dedicated to spreading doubt about the Holocaust is an outrage but a generation of teaching Americans fabrications about the economy in the name of robber baron capitalism is perfectly fine even if it has done infinitely more damage than an anti-Holocaust conference.

The Holocaust conference was a mythological alternative to doing what many participants would like to do but can't: invade and destroy Israel. Defeat is a prime breeding ground of myth.

But even as the Washington Post was attacking the conference, it was slipping in its own myth, witness this report:

Even by the standards of Neturei Karta, these most ultra of ultra-orthodox Jewish Hasids took a step into the world of the very strange, if not the meshuga, or crazy, when they showed up as honored guests at a conference of Holocaust skeptics and deniers in Tehran. With a hug and a smile for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rabbi Aharon Cohen walked into a conference room with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, discredited academics, and more than a few white supremacists and served up a rousing welcome speech. . .

Neturei Karta is best understood within the confines and context of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which harbors the world's largest ultra-orthodox Jewish shtetl, or community. Here the garb -- black coats and hats for the men, wigs and demure dresses for the women -- is that of the 18th century, Yiddish is the lingua franca and there is no deviation from the teachings of Torah and Talmud. The Satmar sect dominates this ghetto, and anti-Zionism is central to their identity. . .

Neturei Karta acknowledged never before having gone to a Holocaust deniers meeting but offered no apologies; they are practiced practitioners of the outrageous. Chaim Freimann used to hang around hotels in Washington during the 1992 Mideast peace talks, wearing a Palestinian flag in his lapel and giving old-comrade greetings to Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman.

The Post thus declared as outrageous the idea of a Jew being on friendly terms with a Palestinian. And what is a Jew doing at Mideast peace talks anyway?

Once again, proof that it's a lot easier to explode the other guy's myth than to examine one's own.

America's view of the Holocaust, for example, is filled with its own myths. Such as the one that redefines Nazism and the European conflict primarily by its anti-Semitic manifestations, safely exempting us from considering the changes in German governance that led to these manifestations, changes that are becoming uncomfortably familiar in America.

And it is missing important stories, stories like the one Richard Rubenstein tells in the Cunning of History about a Hungarian Jewish emissary meeting with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggesting that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne's reply: "What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?" Writes Rubenstein: "The British government was by no means adverse to the 'final solution' as long as the Germans did most of the work. " For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand "as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century."

And this one from the Village Voice:

The infamous Auschwitz tattoo began as an IBM number. And now it's been revealed that IBM machines were actually based at the infamous concentration-camp complex. . . The new revelation of IBM technology in the Auschwitz area constitutes a final link in the chain of documentation surrounding Big Blue's vast enterprise in Nazi-occupied Poland, supervised at first directly from its New York headquarters, and later through its Geneva office. . . IBM spokesman Carol Makovich didn't respond to repeated telephone calls. In the past, when asked about IBM's Polish subsidiary's involvement with the Nazis, Makovich has said, "IBM does not have much information about this period." When a Reuters reporter asked about Poland, Makovich said, "We are a technology company, we are not historians."

Similarly, in a mythology obsessed with Israel, the American story of secular Judaism has all but disappeared. Last century's great immigration of European Jews brought with it many rebels who had rejected Zionism if not religion. As I wrote in Why Bother: "They became part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It helped to create the organizations, causes, and values that built this country's social democracy. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists. It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left. There is, in fact, no greater parable of the potential power of a conscious, conscientious minority than the influence of secular Jews on 20th century modern American politics."

These stories make the Holocaust more complex than we would like it to be.

Elsewhere in Why Bother, I discussed a less contentious example of myths at work:

Consider, for example, the Ojibwa, described by Brian Morris in Anthropology of the Self. These Indians, a group of nomadic hunters and fishers living east of Lake Winnipeg, "do not make any categorical or sharply defined differentiation between myth and reality, or between dreaming and the waking state; neither can any hard or fast line be drawn between humans and animals. . . . A bear is an animal which unlike humans hibernates during the winter, but in specific circumstances it may be interpreted as a human sorcerer. . . . The four winds are thought of not only as animate by the Ojibwa, but are categorized as persons."

Not only may a culture define the four winds as persons under certain circumstances, it may also define a slave or someone from another tribe as not a person at all. Nonetheless the slave or the outsider really exist so at some level are treated as a person anyway. Hence people in such societies may trade goods with the stranger or attempt to convert the slave to Christianity even though they are not considered human. Or the society may try to quantify such anomalies as Americans did when they declared a black legally equal to three-fifths of a white person. Or it may create a hierarchy as Aristotle did when he confidently declared that "the deliberative faculty in the soul is not present at all in a slave: in a female is present but ineffective, in a child present but undeveloped." Or it may declare that "all men are created equal" but really mean only white male property owners. Or it may fight a revolution for liberty but leave women as chattel. Or the culture can painfully change such values over two centuries and still have to go repeatedly to court to fight over what was really meant by the change. . .

Here is how anthropologist Morris describes his own western culture: "It is individualistic, and has a relatively inflated concern with the self which in extremes gives rise to anxiety, to a sense that there is a loss of meaning in contemporary life, to a state of narcissism, and to an emphasis in popular psychology on 'self actualization.' "

Bad as this sounds, though, you will probably get along better in New York or Chicago with a loss of meaning, state of narcissism, or overflowing self-actualization than if you try to escape your angst by acting like the Ojibwa. In the Big Apple, to lack a sharply defined differentiation between myth and reality, between dreaming and the waking state; or between humans and animals, risks not only ridicule but actual legal sanctions. Even in a culture that celebrates the power of the individual, the restraints on that individualism are substantial and we, like peoples everywhere, go about our daily business regarding them as largely normal."

Mythology soars when a culture is under threat or in great isolation. Might the fact that the U.S. hasn't talked with Iran for 27 years have anything to do with the latter's current treatment of the Holocaust?

And what changes this? I have argued that if you want to bring peace in the Israeli-Palestine conflict you just put a few Wal-Marts. Thus you would rid the area of both feuding cultures and replace them with Wal-Mart customers.

The theory behind this is more serious than it appears. People get on better when there is something more important going on than what it is that divides them. Thus, despite all the talk about cultural diversity in liberal circles and on campuses, the places where you are most likely to find people of different ethnic backgrounds mixing well include shopping malls, the military, sports teams and ethnic restaurants. Key to the relationship is the fact that everyone thinks they're getting something out of the deal.

The same principle would work in foreign policy. The best way to deal with a harmful myth is to eliminate the anger, isolation and other problems that caused it to thrive in the first place. You replace them with a deal that works well for everyone.

These myths are not the problem; they are just good warning signs of the problem. Solve the problem and you'll get much better myths.

December 08, 2006

An Unreasonable Man

Sam Smith

A FORTHCOMING documentary on the life of Ralph Nader - An Unreasonable Man - includes many critics as well as supporters and reminds me of how despicable the Democrats' attacks on Nader have been. It isn't that Nader can't drive you a bit crazy with his waverless path. I know. I wrote to urge him not to run in 2004 for a number of tactical reasons and it wasn't well received. My basic thought was that even if you have the best message in the world, standing in the middle of Route 95 at rush hour may not be the best way to present it.

But I have also offered some the most detailed factual reasons why Nader was not to blame for the 2000 Bush victory including the lack of correlation between the polls results of Gore and Nader, the importance of normally non-voters in the Nader tally, the drag of the Clinton scandals and the defection of normally Democratic voters to Bush as revealed by exit polling. And, as the film points out, during the campaign, Nader spent all of two and a half days in Florida. If he did all that alleged damage to Gore in that short a time, the Democrats are avoiding an inconvenient truth.

Democrats can't imagine why anyone left of center would not want to align themselves with a party that is corrupt, politically dishonest, and doesn't come close to living up to its stated purposes. It is a presumption that is almost Bushian in its narcissistic arrogance and delusion. The film includes a number of clips of an obnoxous, whining Eric Alterman of the Nation that typify this self-serving denial. Alterman is good reminder of why I'm glad to be a Green even if people like him are rude to you.

As I tell my Democratic friends, if you want me to vote for you, you have to treat me at least as nice as a soccer mom and not blame me for all your faults. Instead, I have found myself, albeit at far less cost than Nader has paid, being sent to Coventry for not following the party line of a party I don't even belong to.

Ironically, the Democrats not only blamed Nader for their failure in 2000 but then, as Phil Donohue notes in the film, spent the next four years proving that Nader was right about the lack of difference between Democrats and Republicans.

The film goes over this issue at length and in a particularly telling segment covers Nader's attempt to join the audience - not the platform - of a presidential debate in Massachusetts. He had a ticket but the bipartisan thuggery of debate organizers resulted in Massachusetts state troopers keeping Nader from even watching the debate from a Fox News truck inside the event perimeter. Nader's handling of the state trooper is Ralph at his best.

The film also looks at the many non-political reasons why people should be grateful to Nader including seat belts, air bags, and safer food as it depicts an American who has repeatedly stood up for what he believed was right, did an immense amount of good as a result, yet found himself under a vicious attack for failing to be as cynical and manipulative as those criticizing him. What they won't admit is that his real fault in their eyes was that he blew their cover.

Pocket paradigms

A CHRONIC PART of the problems in the Middle East has been the notion that you can't talk to people such as Hamas or Iran until they recognize Israel. This is like putting the icing on before you bake the cake. Recognition is a symbolic act that will follow the resolution of real problems between the groups involved. To refuse to talk until there is recognition is not a condition; it is total rejection. - Sam Smith

December 07, 2006

Potomac playground

Sam Smith

Phil Hart said the Senate was a place that did things 20 years after it should have. The same could be said of much of the rest of Washington. In fact the yet-to-be accomplished U.S.-Iranian negotiations are now at 27 years and still counting.

The common presumption is that such tardiness is a function of politics. In fact, it is more a product of culture, a culture founded on infantile presumptions about the proper image one should present. Thus you find grown men walking around the Pentagon with rows of ribbons on their uniformed chests to remind everyone of their purported accomplishments. You have ex-preppies plotting invasions against small countries to prove their machismo. You have graduates of Yale and Princeton, whose daddies - as LBJ said - wouldn't let them into the stock brokerage firm - figuring out the best way to torture people for the CIA. You have drones from business and law schools trained to think that certainty is an adequate substitute for competence. You have journalists getting big bucks for the privilege of sitting through endless, newsless White House briefings and flying off with the president to his ranch. And you have experts at think tanks trading arcane knowledge apparently unaware that their resulting decisions might affect real people.

Although there are far more women engaged in this charade than was formerly the case, the culture is primarily based on childish male notions of strength and prowess. The women who get to the top in such a culture often do so because they emulate its values rather than offering an alternative, witness the cruel capitalism of Margaret Thatcher, the indifference of Madeleine Albright to the deaths caused by Iraqi sanctions, or the heartless aggression of Condoleezza Rice.

We don't read about this or hear about it because the mass media is a fulltime participant in this never consummated ritual of manhood that our politics have become. In tribal times, the ritual would have been followed by manhood. In Washington, the ritual never ends.

The costs can be enormous. The Vietnam War, for example, was driven in part by Harvard faculty members trying to prove their virility. Over the last fifty years, a narcissistic establishment absorbed in its self-image and indifferent to its consequences, has destroyed constitutional government, made the United States hated around the world and done so much damage to the environment that two major scientists recently suggested that we better plan to find ourselves another planet.

The immediate problem is Iraq, now so much a mess that they had to call in a commission, which is to say some adults. As Representative Frank Wolfe put it, "there's almost a biblical thing about wise elderly people. . . I mean, Sandra Day O'Connor is not looking for another job. So they can speak truth."

In other words, to do in Washington what you're supposed to do, you have to be retired.

What's missing here is rational adulthood. What's lacking is a town that attracts those still full of energy but mature enough to put away childish things and moral enough to serve their land ahead of themselves. Instead we have a city overflowing with those whose egos and ambitions are trapped in almost teenage garb.

And so we have to wait 27 years for anyone to dare to suggest that it might be wise to talk with Iran. That's not a thoughtful issue for discussion on NPR or the News Hour. That's a matter for a therapist.

If George Bush has done one service he has brought the capital's destructive childishness out of the closet. What has still to be recognized, however, is that he is not an exception but merely a sadly extreme example how the place really works.

December 03, 2006

Ritual of the words

Sam Smith

My view has long been that news is something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership.

Once again, I find myself in the minority. It turns out that by current media standards about the only thing that matters any more is what someone said about something.

Thus we find ourselves being forced marched through the semiotic swamp left by the Dixie Chicks, Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, newly elected senator Jim Webb, Jimmy Carter and others who have said things some thought they shouldn't have. In some cases, such as Richards, it was instantly clear that the words were stupid and wrong, a fact that could have been covered in less than one column inch. In other cases, such as Webb, the comments were refreshing enough to merit passing praise but hardly in the category of hard news. In a few instances, such as the Dixie Chicks, the words had such clear economic effects and social implications that they were worthy of further examination.

But together with numerous other examples - such as Tim Russert playing a decades old video tape to Jimmy Carter to find out whether he still agreed with what he said when he was governor - the media is teaching public figures that it's not what you do that matters; it's what you say about it.

The obsession seems to stem from the boomer blarney that life is all about branding. Act wrong and you can easily cover it up with the right words, but use the wrong words and you've had it. The fact that the words may be the product of inebriation, the apology for them the product of hypocrisy, and the discussion of them the product of mass cultural insincerity is of no import. It is the Ritual of the Words that matters, the closest many in America's elite come these days to a religious practice.

The key factor is that the certain words are unacceptable. It doesn't make much difference if the words are truly offensive - as in the case of Richards - or only out of step with conventional thinking as in the case of Jimmy Carter speaking of Israel's apartheid or the Dixie Chicks being embarrassed about Bush coming from Texas. When deportment is the issue, and the media is the judge, you don't get time off for being right.

On the other hand, some figures do get immunity. For example, I'm still waiting for the mainstream media to point out the irony of Jesse Jackson - who once referred to New York as 'Hymietown' - serving as an arbitrator in the Richards matter. I have yet to see a conventional journalist tackle the several reports of Hillary Clinton's past anti-Jewish remarks. And, of course, the mainstream media has been a leading participant in the most vehement display of ethnic prejudice since the days of the old south: the current campaign against Muslims and Arabs.

Further, as it has been demonstrated in the Richards case, the media can take a bad incident and help make it far worse, in this case including the unprecedented damper on free speech of a prospective financial settlement by a comedian who annoyed members of his audience. Will comedy nightclubs now require signed releases from their customers?

Finally there is the hypocrisy of a society that treats blacks as badly as ours getting so much more easily upset about an ethnic slur than it does about continued discrimination in all its tangible forms. This is not accidental. One of the ways a society maintains invidious distinctions is by creating an aura of politesse about it all with the repeated inference that the problem is really just a few Michael Richards.

In the end, we're not going to be able to talk our way out of climate change, find the right spin to end the Iraq war, brand ourselves into a decent diversity, or find the phrases to bring more economic fairness. It would be nice if the media recognized this and went back to covering more of the reality of life and less of what someone said about it.

November 25, 2006

San Francisco

Sam Smith

I long avoided San Francisco because I considered earthquakes one hazard I could easily eliminate. That was before both my sons took up periodic residence there and gave me the courage and purpose that I lacked. Now, my 17-year affair with the Bay Area is being interrupted as my youngest son pursues his dreams, along with far lower housing costs, elsewhere. Some of my own dreams, though, I'll be leaving behind, albeit admittedly only daydreams and those of the variety that break up easily like a cell phone call in the basement.

Still, over time, the San Francisco became one of the markers by which I judged my life and a siren occasionally luring me away from a hometown I all too frequently found alien, arrogant and antagonistic to the human spirit. I had even picked out the decrepit Sausalito houseboat to which I would flee when the capital became too much, provided the current owners didn't mind.

I'm not much of a traveler; I share Dr. Johnson's view when he was asked whether Rome was worth seeing: "Worth seeing, yes; worth going to see, no." And when I do go, I am an ecological and ethnographic visitor, rather than an iconic one. I burn out early on cathedrals and museums but never tire of the human and natural landscape.

So while my wife went into a store in Chinatown, I leaned on a parking meter outside and watched three blind tourists with long white canes casually navigate the crowded sidewalk and stop in front of a display to ask the Chinese store owner what it was about. It could have happened anywhere; still it reminded me of a friend's comment that San Francisco was too diverse to be polarized.

It's also too hilly to be dull. Most cities are naturally flat and artificially vertical. In San Francisco it's the reverse; you can stand on the hills and look down at the puny human attempts to puncture the heavens. In keeping with this reverse geometry, part of the horizontal end of town, the waterfront, got that way with the help of building rubble from the 1906 earthquake. The vertical helped create the flat.

A major attraction of that waterfront, Fisherman's Wharf, is scorned by locals but since it was one of the first places we had visited I wanted to see it again. In 1989 a bunch of sea lions had just started making themselves at home on the docks near Pier 39 and I remembered one insolently stretched out on the deck of a sailboat.

Eventually, the sea lions would begin "hauling out" in large numbers. Now there are sometimes hundreds of them lolling about, harrumphing, and flopping on each other like members of some weird religious cult. What attracted them is subject to dispute. They may have been encouraged by the change in the herring run following an earthquake or by a sea wall that keeps the great white sharks away. As I watched them I felt a bit of envy, for there are no sea walls in Washington to protect us from the great white sharks that prey on our city.

We had unapologetically gotten to Fisherman's Wharf by cable car. I like toys and San Francisco has the world's largest toy train layout with cable cars and trackless trolleys and streetcars from all over that still wear the colors and symbols of their original routes. There is even a streamlined PCC car delivered to Philadelphia Transit just one year after my family moved to Philly from Washington. Every time I saw it, I wondered if it was one that I had ridden as a boy along Germantown Avenue's 23 route.

Having the world's largest toy train layout would be considered "inappropriate" in Washington and devoid of essential "gravitas." To travel from the nation's capital to a city that apparently has never heard of these words is invigorating. It brings to mind the week I spent in the National Air and Space Museum working on a magazine article. At the end, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in the museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, "There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them." You don't meet many people like that in Washington. There are a lot of them in San Francisco.

And it wasn't just the moving machinery of San Francisco that fascinated me. I keep note of jobs I would like if I ever get bored with my present occupation. On the list have been things like piloting the General Jubal A. Early, a ferry barge, across the Potomac River at Poolesville back when the pilot house consisted of one overstuffed armchair in a corner of the deck. But I also wouldn't mind joining the exclusive guild that runs the cable cars. Seldom is rugged mechanical movement accompanied by such humor, hauteur, harassment and hospitality.

One conductor, at the end of the line, pulled out his thermos of coffee and a sandwich and, using the cable car bench as a chaise lounge, pretended not to notice the 50 or so passengers waiting to board who, in turn, were trying to ignore the not very good guitar player making not very funny allusions to their lack of fiscal support as they waited. The guitar player was one of the few grumpy people I ran into this time and he thought he was just being ironic. There was, in casual contact, far more friendliness than I find in Washington anymore.

While Washington's downtown is dismally conventional and desiccated, San Francisco's is more like an untended garden. San Francisco gives the impression that it is against the law to tear anything down. The new seems to be stuffed into leftover space. DC used to have that feel. You could go into an old office building and expect to see Johnny Dollar come into the narrow hall from behind one of the dark wooden doors with a glazed window. You don't find those kind of places in downtown Washington anymore; people who think they're serious prove it by being exactly like everyone else who thinks they're serious. Which means the quirky, the individual, the comfortably archaic no longer have a place.

The people are the same way. Downtown in San Francisco, I noticed a man in a unflawed suit mainly because he seemed out and about in the wrong city. On the crowded sidewalks, there is indifference, there is suffering, there is style and there is pretense and hyperbole, but the pompous and the rigidly conventional seem rare.

Then there's the politics. For example, the Green Party candidate for San Francisco mayor got 47% the last time. I've never lived in a place where 47% of the people agreed with me on something that important and different. When I left San Francisco after a visit, I would sometimes think that I should move there. Until there came a time when I left and thought that I should have moved there. Inertia had taken its toll.

And then the words of Willy Brandt would come back, explaining why he returned to Germany from exile in Norway after World War II: it was more important to be a democrat in Germany, he said. The same is true of Washington.

Before someone writes to tell me, let me tell you what I didn't see, a portion of which was recently described by Chris Carlsen in the Attitude Adjuster blog:

"San Francisco is a city founded before the abolition of slavery, a city that came to be a center of wealth and power through the rapacious exploitation of cheap labor and natural wealth, especially the living critters of the Pacific Rim. . . Southern gentry arrived early and brought with them their pro-slavery ideas, but the outlaw city that grew even faster made room for a western terminus of the Underground Railroad, and gave political strength to the admission of California as a 'free state'.

"The racist urges of the new American Californians were directed first to the liquidation of the native peoples indigenous to the quickly disappearing paradise, and then against the growing population of Chinese who were crossing the ocean to escape famine and war and stake out new lives in western North America. Vicious violence and legal repression went hand in hand until well into the latter half of the 20th century. Few remember now that the great baseball player Willie Mays could not buy a house in San Francisco when the Giants first arrived in 1958 due to racist restrictions on property deeds. . .

"San Francisco is the home to the union bug, a symbol of working class solidarity whose first expression was the white cigar makers of SF assuring customers that their cigars were made by 'WHITE MEN.' Local unions have a long, sordid history of racist exclusion, and the businessmen who dominate the city's history have often turned to scabs and strikebreakers that exacerbated racial tension. So goes the history of social alienation, class conflict, exclusion, and racist hierarchy which has done as much to shape San Francisco as anywhere else in this upside-down North American society. It remains very much a live context for today's city, though not often widely acknowledged in our self-congratulatory liberal smugness."

On the other hand, part of the advantage of going to another place is to get away from context and deconstruction and recover the pleasure of the first impression, the casual observation, the image happily free of the pain that made it all possible.

My first impression of Marin County, for example, came on a foggy night winding our way up a road that seemed to lead nowhere, but with extraordinary effort. The road clung to the side of cliffs and mountains without concern as to whether we would be able to do the same. I was reminded of something a Mainer once told me, "I believe in terra firma. The more firmah, the less terrah." I hunkered down and we made it to Slide Ranch, an agro-eco education center where our oldest son was interning and waiting for us in the dark at the beginning of the drive. The next morning I looked around and decided that Slide Ranch had been so named because of the likelihood that it would soon slip off its cliff and into the Pacific.

For the next few months, through conversations and letters, we absorbed some of the feel of Marin County, well enough that when my son called to say that a staffer had given birth that morning, I casually responded, "Oh yeah, did you go?" and he replied equally casually, "No there were a lot of people already and they thought the interns would be too many."

The Bay Area treats its stereotypes the way some places care for their old buildings. Even the tourist guides are different. This by Robert Plotkin in the Coastal Traveler:

"Heretics and iconoclasts retreated and dug small pockets of eccentricity. This magazine is a guide to towns that are the Stalingrads of anti-corporate resistance. They fortunately share no resemblance to the grim post-modern cities of the Soviet Union. Many of the hippies who moved to Northern California were the scions of educated East Coast families and picked unusually scenic spots to build their utopias.

"Here, you can skinny-dip with counter-culture revolutionaries living in oceanfront redwood forest, taste the wine produced from Internet bubble profits, cage dive with Great White sharks, browse independent bookstores, chase your girlfriend down a trail, lie on your back in the grass and let the hawks teach your boy about predatory behavior."

And here is Plotkin's description of Bolinas, which is where Volkswagon buses used to go when they died:

"There is no sign to the town. A shadowy organization called the Bolinas Border Patrol pulled signs down until Caltrans gave up. There is a border patrol because people who move to Bolinas do so to escape corporatized America and regard the border as at least metaphysically real. . .

"Bolinas has rejected an economy based on tourism. But like a rejected suitor who only becomes more ardent. . . tourists brave the warnings because the eccentricity of the town and its resistance to tourists are what make it unique and worth visiting. It is a conundrum that hasn’t been solved by townspeople. . . "I saw a man drive a stretch limo Hummer into Bolinas, where many residents have "Hummers Suck" bumper stickers on their cars. . . The stretch Hummer was chased down the street by taunting residents."

There is one problem with all of this. I noticed it on a trip to Berkeley a few years back: those selling revolutionary literature and countercultural icons were all my age. I got the same sense this time; the revolutionary was no longer prospect but history. I recalled seeing French war veterans rolling down the sidewalks of 1950s Paris in wheelchairs and then going back some years later and not finding any. And twice on the streets of Capitol Hill in the 1960s I was stopped by black men who wanted to buy my beagle; they still thought the migration to the north could be reversed and that they could go back to hunting in Carolina. Walking around Marin County I also felt on the cusp of the past.

Then we drove towards the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore,. The 70,000 acre park was established by John F Kennedy. In present day dollars, it cost around $310 million, less than half of what the city of Washington is paying for a new baseball stadium.

Most of Point Reyes was owned in the 1850s by a San Francisco law firm which leased it to dairy ranchers. Some of these ranches still exist and they date to just a few years after the arrival in California of my wife's great-grandfather, Charles Schneider, a 20-something immigrant from Germany who crossed the continent from Wisconsin in search of gold. He stayed enough and found enough to make it back home and open the local store in Friestadt.

Driving over the cold, wet, tough plains of Point Reyes I thought about the three twenty-somethings - Charles Schneider and his two great great grandsons - who had each come to California looking for something important. Unlike them, I had come without expectations and found far more than I had imagined. To be sure, I didn't look hard enough to be disappointed. After all, I had more reality at home than I needed; I didn't have to take it on vacation. Besides any place with the politics of San Francisco that also collects old streetcars and is nice to sea lions deserves some uncritical affection. I am more than glad to help.

November 22, 2006

Pilgrim's folly

Sam Smith

I have considered Pilgrims among the most overrated American historical figures ever since he wrote a college paper in Robert G. Albion's class on forty recorded voyages to New England before the Mayflower. And that didn't include all the ones made by those who didn't - or didn't know how - to write it down. About a decade before the Pilgrims, for example, Samuel Champlain not only visited Plymouth harbor, he charted it, including Plymouth Rock.

But history favors occupiers over explorers, hunters, fishermen, and traders. And the literate over the literate. If you want to be remembered here, you have to stay here. And write it down.

A wonderful history of Maine, "Lobster Coast," also suggests that the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving dinner didn't hold up all that well. That winter the Pilgrims were forced to go to get food from some of their pre-arriving countrymen manning a trading post on a Maine island.

The first Europeans to visit New England waters were probably Scandinavian fishermen, who could make the northern transit of the Atlantic and never be more than a few hundred miles from shore. John and Sebastian Cabot, five years after Columbus, passed through and charted Maine's Casco Bay on their way from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. By 1602, when Bartholomew Gosnold arrived at Cape Neddick, his presence was considered by the Indians to be less than remarkable. John Bereton, the chronicler of the voyage, wrote:

"One who seemed to be their commander wore a coat of black work, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band. . . They spoke divers Christian words and seemed to understand more than we, for lack of language, could comprehend. . . They pronounced our language with great facility; for one of them sitting by me, upon occasion I spake smilingly to him with these words: 'How now sirha are you so saucy with my tobacco,' which words (without any further repetition) he suddenly spake so plaine and distinctly as if he had been a long scholar in the language."

As far back as 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, arriving to the west of Casco Bay near Ogunquit, got a reception from the Indians that suggested more than a little previous contact with Europeans or "the boat people" as the natives called them. The Indians insisted on standing on a cliff and trading with Verrazano's crew by use of a rope. "We found no courtesy in them," Verrazano complained. Worse they rounded out the transaction by "showing their buttocks and laughing immoderately."

As for Robert G. Albion, who got your editor started on all of this, his course was considered a "gut" at Harvard, heavily attended by football players and other lightweights. While I fit the latter category, I also was an avid sailor and an admirer of Albion's mentor, maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morrison. Much later, I realized another reason Albion didn't get much credit at Harvard; he was, well ahead of his time, a social historian on a campus that believed deeply that history was the work of great men. Nonetheless, another student of Albion named his motor yacht the "Robert G. Albion," making the professor probably the only Harvard professor ever to reach this pinnacle of honor.

November 20, 2006

Victory with no place to go

Sam Smith

REP. CHARLES RANGEL IS PLANNING to introduce legislation that would revive the national draft. Reports Reuters, "Asked on CBS' 'Face the Nation' if he was still serious about the proposal for a universal draft he raised a couple of years ago, he said, "You bet your life. Underscore serious. . . If we're going to challenge Iran and challenge North Korea and then, as some people have asked, to send more troops to Iraq, we can't do that without a draft," he said.

The news points out the problem of winning an election without knowing that the hell you're up to. People like Rangel get to cop the coverage. Rangel is a blowhard who replaced Adam Clayton Powell in 1970. Powell, though corrupt, worked with Lyndon Johnson to pass more good legislation in less time than any two politicians in American history. Rangel has done little memorable other than to often vote the right way.

Among these votes was opposition to the Iraq war. At the same time, however, Rangel has been a leading proponent of the war on drugs which has killed more young blacks than died in either Iraq or Vietnam. In fact, as a public policies go, it's been one of the most deadly for young black males since the end of slavery. And it also was the proving ground for the Patriot Act and similar abominations.

But the evils of the war on drugs never made it to the liberal table. Bill Clinton, for example, set a record in sending young black males to prison and Toni Morrison still thought he was our first black president.

Also on some liberal's new agenda: impeaching the president. One could hardly think of a better way to submerge the issues the Democrats will need for 2008, but if it makes you feel good, what the hell?

Fortunately, Rep. John Conyers, who'll likely head the House Judiciary Committee, isn't impressed: "We need to put aside any thought of anger or payback. Instead we need to focus on identifying and correcting abuses and pass legislation which serves the interests of the American people. . . I have agreed with Speaker-to-be Pelosi that impeachment is off the table."

Here's an easy tip to figure out which are the best issues to push: those that do the most good for the most number of Americans go to the top of the list; those that mainly only make liberal activists feel warm and fuzzy get second seating.

November 19, 2006

Recovered history: Bobby Kennedy, June 7, 1968

Sam Smith

[Robert Kennedy's assassination completed a hat track of evil begun four years earlier with the killing of his brother, followed by the slaying of Martin Luther King and, two months later, of RFK. While the other deaths may have been more tragic to more people, in one respect RFK's was the most profound, for it appeared to shut the door on hope. What had been with his brother a grim anomaly had turned into a grisly habit. I was 30 when this piece was written for the DC Gazette on June 7, 1968, two days after Kennedy was shot. He had died the day after he was shot.]

JUNE 7, 1968 - Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of his associates is said to have told another: "The time will come when we shall laugh again; but we shall never be young again." The comment, I suppose, was about those closest to the dead president, but it also contained a truth for the country. As I sat before a television set the last few days, attempting to sort the emotions marching through my mind, the thought that kept coming back was how weary, how old, we had all become. The inertia of age had settled upon the nation in the years following John Kennedy's death it seemed, and now we were stoically acting out one more scene in an unrelieved tragedy.

There were attempts to respond to the slaying of Robert Kennedy with affirmations of a will to change the old ways, but they appeared hollow. The nation had watched John Kennedy die and had not changed; it had watched Martin Luther King die and had not changed. Now it watched Robert Kennedy die and even the most effervescent and optimistic among us could not summon a viable vision of a new order to lessen our brooding.

The President tried to help. He called for stricter gun laws and ordered increased protection for presidential candidates. These were worthy proposals, but they also seemed tediously mechanical. They did not meet the basic question, any more than did the search for a broad conspiracy following the death of John Kennedy. What if the Kennedys and Dr. King had each died in a plane crash? We would have demanded improved airline safety, no doubt, and would have found solace in the fact that the incidence of air deaths dropped the following year.

Yet in doing so, we would have deluded ourselves, because the central point of the tragedies was not their proximate cause but rather that we, as a nation, had assigned so much of the burden of hope, progress, decency and faith to so few men.

Their deaths leave us shaken, fearful and alone because we had been so willing to share their vitality only vicariously. We permitted them to affirm for us rather than with us. Their stature was increased by our common weakness as much as by their individual strength. They were exceptions, when they should have been the best among many.

This is what we have to live with. It is not comforting to think that a democracy of 200 million persons does not freely spawn leaders who make substantial contributions to the national vigor. We have developed a political system that drains our politicians rather than invigorating them.

The order is one of unmitigated mediocrity to which the crowd responds with a ritualistic emotion drummed up by professionals who care only about the response and not about creating something worth responding to.

In the excruciating hours following the shooting of Robert Kennedy a soft-drink commercial interrupted the coverage of the event and on the screen came images of young men and women romping across the sand of a beach with hair waving, teeth glistening, and cans of soda held high. There was an ersatz gaiety to the scene. So strained was the laughter that one could not help sense an absence of joy.

And then, as suddenly as the 60-second artifice had come, it was gone and we were back with Kennedy again. And in the film clips of the campaigning there was hair waving and people moving with enthusiasm and glistening teeth. But it was real. And there were the pictures of the campaign ballrooms of Kennedy and McCarthy after the shooting and the hair hung limp on young foreheads, the lips pursed tight over the teeth and there were tears. And that was real too. And I thought of the commercial and said to myself, sell your damn soda but leave us at least real laughter and real tears. .

Robert Kennedy was no artifice. No one had packaged him. His political career might have been smoother if they had. He stood before us as a man, with his faults and virtues on view. I was among those who were quick to criticize him. I make no apologies for that other than to say that I, like many, overestimated his capacity for cynicism and underestimated his capacity for compassion. But that is no matter. . . For unlike many politicians, Kennedy did not seek mindless adulation. He asked to be listened to, challenged, questioned and tested. And he, in turn, expected to listen, challenge and test.

This is what imbued him with life. He was the Irishman in the proverb: "never at peace except when he's fighting." To many Americans, political beliefs are as undebatable as religious ones. But the core of democratic politics is argument and debate. Without them politics becomes a dark battle between unthinking forces in which reason always loses. Kennedy appreciated this, and threw himself into the argument with intensive verve. That made, him a man worth fighting and a man worth loving.

For Kennedy, and for this generation, the biggest debate, the greatest challenge came this year. In very different ways, only two public men directly confronted it: Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Among the beliefs they shared was that it was possible for America to become young again. But, as Senator Kennedy suggested, this would not come about by pursuing a phony politics of joy, romping over sand on cue, but through a politics of reality in which we would find both joy and sadness, but more importantly, the strength that comes from facing true tests of our existence. Now Senator McCarthy is alone among the presidential candidates willing to make the try.

The political realities suggest that we will be left this fall with a choice that borders on the banal. The challenges, the problems, the questions, will be mitigated, rationalized, justified and not met. And we shall be tempted to sit, like old men on a park bench, until some new surrogate voice comes forth to speak for us. Then we shall rise slowly, cheer loudly, and sit down again.

Tomorrow I shall go down to see the funeral cortege arrive at Union Station. I shall go not just out of sorrow and respect, but also to try to find some small sign that we collectively - without waiting for someone else to do it for us - are willing and able to have a dream, or seek a newer world.

Then, perhaps, we can become young again.


November 18, 2006

Milton Friedman: Killing America softly with his song

Sam Smith

You'd never guess it from the sycophantic obituaries, but Milton Friedman did more damage to American democracy and culture than just about any figure in the 20th century.

The sycophancy isn't surprising. Friedman was blessed with it from the start. For example, the supposedly liberal PBS starred him in a ten part series, "Free to Choose" in 1980 just in time to help Reagan win the presidency. To this day, even NPR babbles about the "free market" when you all you have to do is count the number of lobbyists in Washington to understand that such an economy doesn't exist.

Further, one of the best kept secrets of economics is that there are lots of systems that work provided, that is, you don't care who they work for. Feudalism, for example, was great if you were a lord, not so efficient a marketplace is you were merely a serf. And each system works differently depending on the culture in which it operates, which is why communism in the Soviet Union, China and Italy meant such different things. In the end, the real test of an economy is not its math but its social, financial and moral effect on its culture and those who live there.

This is why the commentaries on Friedman were so consistently wrong. They treated economics as though it was a cold science when, in a mind as distorted as Friedman's, it was really just a sort of creationism myth applied to money.

If you read far enough down the stories, you would find, grudgingly, a single quote from a critic. The Washington Post cited Galbraith biographer Richard Parker who said that Friendman's "passionate calls for financial and securities market deregulation played no small role in ushering in the half-trillion dollar S&L fiasco of the 1980s and the deeply corrupt Wall Street stock market boom of the 1990s. His tax-reduction-at-all-costs policies helped lead to the nation's yawning budget deficits." And the Wall Street Journal admitted deep in its account, "Critics said he inspired policies that put millions of people out of work in pursuit of low inflation and demonized almost everything the government did, no matter how beneficial or democratically chosen. 'Milton Friedman didn't make a distinction between the big government of the People's Republic of China and the big government of the United States, said James Galbraith, professor of government at the University of Texas."

But for the most part both public figures and the media bought Friedman's mythology, never stopping to look critically at the effect it had on America. Here are a just few things that have happened since America's elite swallowed the Friedman myth:

- Real income down
- Real manufacturing wages down
- Top one percent's share of wealth up
- Income gap between rich and poor up
- Family indebtedness up
- Bottom forty percent's share of wealth down
- CEO pay as a percent of average workers' pay up
- Workers covered by pensions down
- Workers covered by health plans down
- Age at which one can receive Social Security down
- Personal bankruptcies up
- Housing foreclosures up
- Median rent up

But the worst damage of Friedman economics is not fiscal but what it has done to the social and moral principles that made America what it was before the greedsters of neo-capitalism began taking it apart. The underlying principle of laissez faire economics is that power is intrinsically good and decency intrinsically irrelevant.

No society can long function on such a lie. It is essentially that of the Mafia with the exception being that you don't have to always ignore the law to get what you want; often, with the help of your lobbyists and purchased politicians, you can just change it to fit your needs.

The moral vacuum was clear from the start. Ronald Reagan said things like "We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry every night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet." And: "Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders."

As for Margaret Thatcher, whose platform of public selfishness was used as a model for the Reagan campaign, she thought there wasn't even anything one could call a community: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." Thatcher wrapped herself in economic slogans that justified greed not only to accomplish economic ends but also to deal with gays and abortions and everything else she didn't like. In her paradigm, the free market and Victorian tyranny formed a civil union. By the time Reagan, Bush, and Clinton were through with the concept, they had created a gaping corporate exemption from common morality and decency. The market not only offered adequate justification for any act, it had replaced God as the highest source of law.

We have paid a terrible price for this corruption of our culture by the new robber barons egged on by Friedman and his ilk. We so accept their foul standards that we don't even discuss or debate them. We have become prisoners of their lie.

November 10, 2006

Bush lost but we haven't won

I woke up the morning after the election feeling surprisingly glum. It took me awhile to figure out what was wrong. It certainly wasn't that Bush had lost. That was wonderful. Then it hit me. The trouble was that we hadn't won.

An improvement, yes, but nowhere near the sort of improvement that brings real joy. Then thoughts of the Clinton years came back, when the capital city turned myopically smug and anything not on the agenda was off the table. If you weren't with the program you were only slightly better than a Republican.

The fact that all sorts of issues were ignored, that the social democracy of the New Deal and Great Society was being deliberately undermined and that the country was moving steadily to the right were not meant to be mentioned. The capital had turned into another football stadium.

I wrote about it in my memoirs:

I realized later that I had stumbled upon the outlines of a new American political fault line. It was so new that it lacked a name, stereotypes, cliches, experts and prophets. In many ways it seemed more a refugee camp than a voluntary assembly, yet, as I thought about it, the more its logic seemed only concealed rather than lacking.

On one side were libertarians, blacks, greens, populists, free thinkers, the alienated apathetic, the rural abandoned, the apolitical young, as well as others convinced America was losing its democracy, its sovereignty and its decency. On the other side was a technocratic, media, legal, business and cultural elite centered in New York and Washington. At times it felt as if all of America outside of these two centers had turned into a gigantic, chaotic salon des refuses.

Another thing I noticed was that this was about far more than politics. A cultural and class coup was underway, of which the Clinton administration was a part, one that was creating a gated economy and transforming those outside the barriers into pliant, homogenized, multi-nationalized consumers for whom freedom, choice and democracy would atrophy into symbols of only virtual meaning. People like me were traitors to the cause. . .

Increasingly, the words of encouragement that I received came from somewhere other than my home town, a place whose conventional thinking I had happily challenged for nearly thirty years. In the 1960s and 1970s it had been no problem; there had always been plenty of similar voices and I never felt alone. Washington -- like Madison or Berkeley -- possessed a vigorous counterculture ready to strike out, provoke, and outrage and to enjoy every minute of it. Although by the 1980s the voices of protest had greatly dulled, dissent was still fair game as long as one's targets were Reagan or Bush.

In the 1990s, however, the Washington establishment simply closed down the marketplace of ideas. This involved not merely Democratic lawyer-lobbyists now pursuing openly the cynical abuse of government they had discreetly enjoyed during the Republican years. It included not merely journalists whose sycophancy towards the powerful was now promiscuously out of the closet. It also included the professional liberal establishment of Washington -- labor, feminist, and environmental leaders whose heady new access to government blinded them to how distant what they had once advocated was from what they were now willing to accept over -- or even in return for -- lunch.

For mainstream Washington, there was no longer any politics, only deals. No victories, only leveraged buyouts. No ideology; only brand loyalty. No conservative and liberal, only Coke and Pepsi. . .

To be sure, it is different this time. The White House is still clearly the enemy and the Congress has some, like John Conyers, Bernie Sanders and Russ Feingold, who may be granted some long overdue respect. But the bulk of the Democratic Party remains aground on the reefs of myopic centrism where they were lured by their campaign contributors.

Dean Baker of the Prospect gives some of the flavor: "One of the items on the Democrats' '100 hours' agenda is reforming the Medicare prescription drug bill. The bill passed by the Republican Congress prohibited Medicare from offering its own plan. This denied seniors the benefits of Medicare's lower administrative costs and it means that drugs cost almost twice as much as if Medicare bargained directly with the industry and secured the same prices as the Veterans Administration or the Canadian government. The Republicans also added a seemingly gratuitous clause that explicitly prohibited Medicare from negotiating prices with the industry.

"During the campaign, the Democrats had promised that they would reform the drug bill to allow Medicare to offer its own drug plan. On NPR this morning, it was reported that the Democrats now are just planning to remove the gratuitous clause prohibiting Medicare from negotiating prices with the drug industry, while not allowing Medicare to offer its own plan.

"Removing this prohibition by itself will mean nothing. What would Medicare negotiate over, if it doesn't offer its own plan? This could lead cynics to believe that the Democrats are trying to pull in some of the campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical and insurance industries which have disproportionately gone to Republicans in recent election cycles. Fixing the prescription drug benefit to save seniors and taxpayers money was one of the main promises made by the Democratic Party during the campaign. If they instead pursue a purely symbolic measure, with no practical significance, millions of people who voted for them on Tuesday will rightfully feel betrayed."

What is important at a time like this is that those who truly want a democratic, decent and progressive America have to clearly differentiate themselves from both parties. There needs to be a loud third voice - not so much a political one as a moral and pragmatic one - constantly reminding the political leeches on both sides of the real issues, the real reforms, the real problems. One of the reasons Bush won office originally was because too many members of this third voice - including women's, civil liberties, and environmental groups - had indentured themselves to the Clinton machine and the sound of progress had gone voluntarily silent.

Now is the time not for silence but for the third voice of American politics to become far louder and to be constantly holding a light on a better path than is likely to followed by the new Congress. There must be a clearly visible alternative for everything the cowardly and corrupt center does or refuses to do. Phrases like 'universal healthcare' can not be politely avoided nor can the fact that those who fund both parties are destroying our planet.

We must always remember that while Bush and his capos lost this time we have yet to win.

November 08, 2006

Morning after

THE DEMOCRATS did as well as they did because of the obvious failings of George Bush. Stunningly absent from the campaign was any sense of what the Democrats stood for, what they were going to do, and why the voter should follow them. This is not a good way to start a new movement.

Watching Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emmanuel and Barack Obama it seemed like I was listening to John Kerry without the preppy mannerisms. Yes, they had memorized their lines (although Emmanuel seemed to have trouble remembering all his cute "5 Rs"), but they lacked soul and passion and were so mechanistic in their approach that the only emotion that seemed to surface was the fear they tried to hide behind their timid words.

The secret of Democratic success lies in programs that help large number of Americans live better and helps them deal with the problems that both parties have laid upon them over the past quarter century including the enormous costs of globalization, reckless use of the environment, military adventurism and greedster capitalism.

If there is a Democratic Party that can remake itself it's not the one of the Washington robo-Dems, hostage as they are to alien campaign contributors, nefarious lobbyists and the like. It lies far away from Democratic Abandonship Council and the other false gods of the party. The party doesn't need leaders who act like they care; they need leaders who really do. - Sam Smith

November 05, 2006

Preserving a Jewish state or the Jewish soul?


AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN, that nasty member of the Israel cabinet, wants to get rid of the Arabs so his country can remain a Jewish state. It's not a new idea; shoving Arabs around helped Israel get started. And it didn't work all that well. Fifty years of misery as the Israelis and the Arabs competed to prove whose victimhood was the worse, a battle no one ever wins. And Israel still has more Arabs than America has Latinos.

Gene McCarthy once said that 80% of the world's problems could be attributed to British mapmakers. A slight exaggeration to be sure, but it is still true that souls and governments don't live in the same places. And when governments "settle" a dispute they don't pay much attention to how people really live. They just draw a line and say, Well, now, that's taken care of." And, of course, it isn't.

One of the rare exceptions happened in Switzerland. Dietrich Fischer described it in the Progressive Review in 1991:

"[The] conflict developed in the 1950s in the canton Bern in Switzerland, where a French speaking Catholic minority in the Jura region felt constantly overruled by the German speaking Protestant majority. The cantonal government in Bern sought to persuade the French speaking minority that it was in their own best interest to remain with the canton, since they received economic subsidies.

"But only the people of the Jura themselves could decide what they valued more, economic subsidies or self-government. As the process dragged on, demonstrations became more frequent, and some cases of politically motivated arson occurred. No one was killed, but there is little doubt that if the conflict had remained unsolved, it could ultimately have developed into a civil war like that in Northern Ireland.

"After a long delay, the Bernese government finally agreed to hold a referendum to let the people in the Jura decide whether they preferred to form their own canton or to remain within the canton Bern. The first vote was about evenly split. So a second vote was held separately in each of six districts. Three districts, bordering on the German speaking part of the canton, had majorities preferring the old arrangement, while the three districts that were farther removed from the center preferred separation.

"After that vote, each community along the borderline was allowed to choose whether it preferred to stay where it was or switch sides. Some switched. In 1978 the new canton Jura was founded and welcomed by the voters of Switzerland as a member of the confederation. Since then, the violence has subsided, since most people got what they wanted, or respected the verdict of the voters.

"Self-determination is an effective means of conflict resolution. It does not guarantee that the optimal decision will be taken in all cases. But if people make a mistake and suffer the consequences, they have nobody but themselves to blame, and they simply have to try to do better at the next opportunity. If, however, some far removed central government makes a decision for the people and they suffer, they have good reason to project their anger at those responsible. . .

"The secret of Switzerland's long-lasting unity and stability may lie in its diversity. It does not impose uniformity from a center, but allows a great deal of local self-determination. Cooperation is the result of negotiations between all of the parties involved and is entirely voluntary, not forced upon them."

A number of factors involved in the Swiss case have been absent in the Middle East:

- Opportunity for self-determination

- Flexibility in drawing borders based on small scale preferences that reflect community desires rather than those of nation states.

- The substantial devolution of power so that subcultures call their own shots wherever possible.

- Change by negotiation and cooperation.

Of course, it was easier since the parties all had loyalty to a common state. But it would be a far more sensible route than the one that Israel has been following.

Israel faces the prospect of one day becoming like much of the world - a culturally diverse and contentious population living under a single flag. It can, in fact, point to few parallels - the Vatican is among the lonely - for its dream of ethnic purity. The last big country to try it included Jews among its victims and, in the end, lost the battle.

The mythology of a Jewish state as a noble goal can be easily punctured by imagining someone campaigning in the U.S. for a white Christian state and, in the spirit of Lieberman, proposing to moving our latinos down to Mexico. But then you don't have to imagine. We have such people. Only we call them Nazis but they also hate Jews which makes it all a bit confusing.

The fact is that the airplane and television pretty much sabotaged any dreams of ethnic purity around the world. No lawyer or dictator in the world has yet figured how to get around them. And it's probably time for Israel to accept the fact.

Admittedly the job of retaining a culture is incredibly difficult these days but using apartheid and cluster bombs isn't going to help. Having something that others admire and encourage will.

Most of all, a culture is transmitted by the magic of its nature and the witness of its members. This Anglo-Irish kid was raised in an era when Jews were saving our politics, writing some of our best literature, and keeping us laughing. You couldn't help but become a citizen of the Jewish state of mind. That's one reason I'm both angry and sad about Israel's present course. It purports to be preserving itself but is really tearing itself apart and alienating the very people it should instead be offering passports to its soul.

A good place to start getting things back on track would be to pull out the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel which describes a place that "will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and

And the nice thing is, you don't need cluster bombs to get people to go along with that.

November 01, 2006

Why is the military sacred?

ONE OF THE MOST costly and immoral lies of our culture is that the military is a sacred institution. John Kerry recently bumped into this lie while telling a truth, that as a practical matter, one shouldn't mention a week before the election, namely that the military has always been a haven for those who couldn't hack it in the civilian economy. "Education. . . if you make the most of it and you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well," said Kerry "If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

You need only watch the military's own recruiting ads to know the importance of the economic harbor. Which is why these ads promise to train you so you'll be able make it in the 'free market' when you go back.

The military is America's largest religion. If in public office, you may no more take its name in vain than those of the lesser gods revered by more modest religions like Christianity.

In fact, the military has a permanent exemption from the strictures of Christianity. Otherwise, instead of going after cohabiting gays, the church's rightwing would be attacking the Pentagon for violating such strictures as:

"The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

"Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. 'But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

"Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword."

But none of that matters to the Christian apostates who control the discussion of both religion and the military in our political debates. These frauds have blasphemed their own purported religion and betrayed its fundamental principles. And nowhere is this more apparent than their allegiance to the military, the most un-Christian institution of our world.

Of course, if you're a Seventh Day Agnostic like your editor, you can get away with saying such things. It is those who seek power but can't quite get the hypocritical rhetoric down who end up in trouble.

Like John Kerry who was taken to the reamers for violating the first law of heroism - let someone else do the talking about what you did - and who now is in trouble for not seeing the military as heroic enough. It's often like that; it's the errant priests who get into real trouble, not the outlanders, the unsalvageable.

And the reason he is in trouble is because not just the GOP spin machine but everyone in public office and the bulk of the media believe one should speak no evil of the military. On no single issue, is the media's pretension of objectivity more regularly violated. Its true purpose in this matter is to perpetuate the myth of the sacred role of the warrior.

In fact, as Joseph Conrad noted, the hero and the coward are those who, for one brief moment, do something out of the ordinary. At least the ones we honor, that is. The career firefighter, the inner city grandmother raising six grandchildren whose father is in jail and mother has a lousy job, or the teacher year after year helping to save those who society has preemptively discarded are not treated as sacred, as heroes, or as worthy of special honor during political campaigns and or on the evening news. But killing some Iraqis, or being killed by them: that's the real thing.

That's why you won't hear any politician or commentator quoting Eugene Debs: "I would no more teach children military training than I would teach them arson, robbery, or assassination."

There is also the little problem of winning. If you're going to justify war without concern for its morality, you still are left with the practical problem of victory. Since World War II, America has had no victories save against minor military enemies such as Granada. Even if we were to declare victory against Iraq it would be the equivalent of Notre Dame defeating St Joseph's Junior High School.

I sometimes fantasize that war will be the slavery of the 21st century, which is to say a concept once widely accepted is turned into the pariah practice it should always have been. For this to happen abolitionism will have to replace pacifism; it is not the good of the resister that is important but rather the evil of the practitioner. We need to demystify the military, pointing out not just its moral weaknesses but its logical fallacies. We should sensibly regard people who walk around with pins on their chests celebrating their life as, at best, somewhat unstable. And we need to remind the media that it can not call itself objective and repeatedly rebuff the voices of peace.

October 30, 2006

Pathology & politics

THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH writing a steamy novel or two. There is, however, something really weird about writing a steamy novel or two and then thinking you're the best guy to defeat an incumbent GOP senator in a state that hosts Jerry Falwell's operations down in Lynchburg. After all, you don't want to end up like the 'Wreck of the Old 97':

It's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
It was lying on a three-mile grade,
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
And you see what a jump that she made.
He was going down the grade making 90 miles an hour,
When his whistle began to scream,
He was found in that wreck with his hand on the throttle,
He was scalded to death by the steam.

Imagine if Jim Webb had done something mildly intelligent like calling up Howard Dean and saying, "Hey, I'm thinking about running for senator and thought maybe a thing I wrote in a steamy novel about a boy sticking his penis in a man's mouth might be a problem. Whadya think?"

But Jim Webb probably didn't check with anyone because, in his view, he was clearly the man for the job and if any hassles came up he figured he could just spin his way out of them just as most major figures do these days.

There's just one little problem. This story isn't just about Jim Webb, it's also about the Democratic Party which is within inches of taking the Senate, and it is ultimately about America which is suffering under its most repressively rightwing government in history. Maybe it won't matter at all, but it would be too bad to lose the whole Senate thanks because of a poorly placed blow job.

A normal reaction would have been to make a choice: both respectable. Either you write steamy novels or you run as the Democratic candidate for Senate in Jerry Falwell's turf. You don't do both not because you don't think in the best of all worlds you should be able to, but because in the year 2006 in the Commonwealth of Virginia you know you're just asking for trouble.

Yet an increasing number of leaders in America don't have such normal reactions because their narcissism has long passed the point of individual character, spilling over into the lives of their friends, their allies, and their constituencies. They make everyone around them hostages on their ego trips.

This unconsciousness of, or indifference to, the effect of one's acts on others is an increasingly familiar phenomenon. George Bush is, of course, a prime example with a history of making others suffer for his ambtions as far back as his teen years when he and his buddies would blow up frogs with firecrackers and as recently as the last soldiers and civilians to die in Iraq.

Then we have Representative Marc Foley who, even as he was chasing male pages, was parading as a leading opponent of child pornography and serving as chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. His victims now include some of his own colleagues in tight election races.

Then we have Jane Fernandes, just dumped as the new head of Gallaudet University, who despite massive opposition from students, alumni and 80% of the faculty, put Gallaudet through weeks of turmoil because she saw the struggle as primarily a personal one she had to win to prove herself.

And let's not forget Hillary Clinton whose ego is so uncontrolled she is planning to run for president knowing full well that she carries past baggage explosive enough that the TSA should ban her from ever flying.

We are not talking mere ambition here or even the ordinary narcissism of a pol. We are speaking of people who are supremely incapable of understanding or respecting the impact of their own behavior and faults on others.

I first noticed a jump in this sort of behavior in the 1990s with a number of non-profit executive directors who seemed bizarrely unconcerned with the consequences to the organization of their egos and arrogance. They projected an image of great leadership but were in fact sinking their own ship.

The problem seemed to stem in part from the diaspora of the new robber baron ethic promulgated by major business schools. The skills of management were often seen as independent of, and in isolation from, whatever was being managed. If you had these skills you could even be the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra without ever really understanding music since running an orchestra was, after all, just another management problem.

Aside from the illogic of such an approach, it gave vastly more importance to the dominating personality and manic drive of those in charge than to their competence in the matters at hand or to their social intelligence. It easily became more like theater than actual work. The 'great' manager performed a role rather than actually carrying it out.

In many cases, things worked fine because competence was also there even if deemed of lesser importance. But increasingly, those who were good at manipulating people, situations, and language without either the competence or the ability to work in an effective way with others were the ones who made it to the top. Their pathological narcissism and absence of shame about it was too often mistaken for strong leadership.

It also doesn't help that there are now 300 million of us. Ambition has a harder climb and those who succeed often do so - like the viper and the shark - for reasons that are not all that pleasant to contemplate.

And it is true that rooted power - power that comes out of place, tradition, or community - has largely lost its influence and with it the idea of success being dependent upon something other than oneself. Certainly in politics, we seem to place little value on either experience or service.

But, whatever the reasons, we are besotted by those whose idea of leadership is defined by their own ambitions with little reference to, or concern about, the well-being or desires of those around them.

A psychiatrist once suggested to me that a good way to diagnose pathology in someone is to count the bodies that they leave behind. Which is to say that healthy people don't leave a trail of victims as they go through life. On the other hand, the disordered, no matter how convincing their claim to normalcy, produce a wake that tells a different story. In no small part, this is because their definition of progress and success too often stops with themselves. Others are just so many hostages of their fantasies. Which would be all right if it were just a steamy novel, but unfortunately it's real life.

October 26, 2006

Music and politics: the sound of change; the power of changes

Sam Smith

This was the chart used to riff some comments at a performance by the punk rock group Blowback on March 10,2006 at the Club Asylum in DC's Adams Morgan

WHEN he was 25, Colin Wilson wrote The Outsider, a book about those who see too deep and too much. I suspect some of you are here tonight.

Wilson tells of a Jean Paul Sartre character who lives alone in a hotel: "There is his ordinary life, with its assumptions of meaning, purpose, usefulness. And there are these revelations, or, rather, these attacks of nausea, that knock the bottom out of his ordinary life. The reason is not far to seek. He is too acute and honest an observer. . ."

"Of the café patron, he comments: 'When his place empties, his head empties too.' The lives of these people are contingent on events. If things stopped happening to them, they would stop being. Worse still are the . . . pictures he can look at in the town's art gallery, these eminent public men, so sure of themselves, so sure that life is theirs and their existence is necessary to it. . .

A few days later he reflects that "the nausea is not inside me; I feel it out there, in the wall . . . everywhere around me."

Here is a metaphor for our own time, living as we do so near to all "these eminent public men, so sure of themselves, so sure that life is theirs and their existence is necessary to it." And finding the nausea out there in a war, an ecological crisis, and the collapse of constitutional government.

I feel it. . . like an exile in my native town, a town partly occupied by guards who demand I prove I am not a terrorist and partly filled with people who seem just to be passing through the place as if it were the world's largest Marriot Hotel lobby.

But then in Sartre's café somebody puts on a record, a woman singing 'Some of These Days'. The nausea disappears and Roquinten says: 'When the voice was heard in the silence I felt my body harden and the nausea vanish. . . I am in the music. Globes of fire turn in the mirrors, encircled by rings of smoke.'"

Wilson calls it art once again giving order and logic to chaos.

I have been a journalist and I have been a musician and one of the things I have learned is that there are times for words and then there are times when words fail (except the kind that are put to music), a time when music becomes the best politics.

For example, a few decades ago, a young boy named Andras was introduced to rock music while living in Denmark: " I didn't know what the underlying message was and I didn't care. I just thought this was something that I had to embrace."

Then he returned to his native Hungary to live with his aunt and uncle, who were conservative communists. And one night his uncle came in and took away the radio. Andras apologized for playing it so loud but the uncle said, ""The problem was not that it was loud. The problem was that you were listening to a Western radio station. . .

"Still, you had to keep going . . . It kept us sane. . . . As we listened to Radio Luxemburg, we were suddenly out of our bodies and our soul was part of the free world. . .

Someone would find a record in a shop and they would buy it and then make 500 copies. And Andras started a band. As he put it, "there was no way to stop . . . the message of freedom through rock and roll. . .

Andras told that story a few years ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, but no longer as a young man, no longer a rocker but the Hungarian ambassador to the United States.

Similarly, when the Czech leader Vaclav Havel met Lou Reed in 1990 he told him, "Did you know that I am president because of you?" The Velvet Underground's first record had become so popular in Prague it had given the rebellion its name: "the Velvet Revolution."

In short, punk politics.

And then there was Rage Against the Machine: 1993. . . stands naked for 15 minutes without playing a note or singing in a protest against censorship. . . 1997. . . Well before most college students knew about the issue, Tom Morello is arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor. . . 2000: the LA police close down a Rage concert seen as a threat to the Democratic convention.

Or take traditional jazz, my music. During much of the 20th century jazz clubs were among the few places that whites and blacks shared socially. . . My own civil rights involvement had its roots in part in a music I loved. Among my records as a student in an all white high school was a Louis Armstrong song:

Even the mouse
Ran from your house
Laughed at you
And scorned you, too
What did I do
To be so black and blue?

Even earlier I had found a song in a book on my parents' piano:

I dreamt I saw Joe Hill last night
As live as you and me
But Joe, I said, you're ten years dead
I never died said he. I never died said he

The copper bosses shot you Joe,
The killed you Joe said I
What they forgot to kill, said Joe,
Went on to organize.

And years later, holding hands with those I knew only from their souls singing:

Deep in my heart
I do believe
'We shall overcome
Some day

Or standing with tens of thousands on the Mall singing:

All we are saying is give peace a chance

Try it yourself. . .

You'll be amazed how much is in the MP3 playlist of your brain that has been guiding and driving you forward.

But there's another side as well. . .

About two weeks ago Itunes downloaded its one billionth song. Its one billionth reason for someone not to notice anything for awhile but to walk indifferently down the streets of our collapsing republic. One billion tunes and things are just getting worse.

It's a reminder that music can be a trap as well as a remedy, another way the system can take our minds off what is happening. Like the café patron, we can become contingent on events and if things stop happening, we stop being. The police state can come through sedation as well as suppression.

But you can't stop playing. Billie Holiday could not have foreseen the civil rights revolution when she sang 'Strange Fruit' nor Joe Hill the modern labor movement. The human story gets better when people surrender their telepathic presumptions and simply do the right thing anyway.

In February 1960, four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in fifteen cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to fifty four cities in nine states.

If that response had not occurred, would their sit-in have been without purpose? Or just not blessed?

We can not control the future but we can control how we react to every moment that passes by.

This is the lesson existentialism teaches us. We exist by our actions, our words, our art, and our music, whom and how we love. Existentialism has been called the philosophy that no one can take your shower for you. Or, for that matter, determine how you are going to respond to Iraq, to Bush, to the melting of the Antarctic. It is the philosophy that said that even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows. It is not a bad philosophy for our times.

Like a hit and run driver, America's elite has left the scene of the accident. They have become like those of whom Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby:

They were careless people -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together. . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

And through this all -- the unreal, the undemocratic, the cruel, the crowded, the rushed, and the uncritical -- the American outsider walks alone.

But it's always been like that. Behind every great social or political change has been the outsider -- those willing to seek to understand and alter what others just ward off with everything from religious sophistry to pop sophorifics, from IBelieve to ITunes. Those who find inspiration, globes of fire and rings of smoke in music rather than just a way to kill an hour. Those whose existence becomes the event rather than merely contingent upon the event. .

And if enough of us try hard enough and give our support to others who are doing likewise maybe one day we'll have our own Velvet Revolution, maybe we will find an asylum for our souls and our freedoms throughout the land rather than only in a few place like a club on 18th street.

Meanwhile thank those around you for what they have dared to think, thank the band for what it has dared to play, and thank yourself for what you have dared to be.