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.

October 23, 2006

The movie 'Queen'

THE MOVIE 'QUEEN' IS REMARKABLE, one of the best depictions of the insides of power and politics I've ever seen. I expected as much from Helen Mirren, but was amazed at Michael Sheen's ability to blend the pragmatism, idealism and sliminess of Tony Blair.

When Blair was elected, I told a British friend that I was pretty sure I had once bought a used car from him out on Arlington Boulevard. But that was either a little unfair or, if you prefer, a little too complimentary. What halfway decent con man would let his life be ruined by the likes of George Bush? Only ideological excess or misguided idealism could have let a bright hustler like Blair get taken by a such a fifth-rate carnie peformer.

I will miss Blair, though, especially as I have learned how to use my Tivo zapper to speed through question time at Parliament. I set it at two-thirds fast forward, stopping only when I see someone laughing or when the Speaker arises to settle things down. Once, long ago, I caught a speaker pleading to his minions, "Order, order, I say order. Your deportment disfigures these proceedings."

AT THE RISK OF SOUNDING LIKE Simon Cowell, before we make Barak Obama the next American Idol, couldn't we at least check out some of the other thousands of recent or present state legislators with similar qualifications?

SOME IN THE MEDIA are getting a little overexcited about prospects for the Democrats in the Senate. The LA Times headlines "Three states could swing Senate control," which is a pretty good trick since the Democrats actually need six new seats. The Washington Post admitted this somewhat grudgingly in its second graf - "a trend that leaves the party looking for just two more seats to reclaim the majority" after throwing in Casey's sure bet in Pennsylvania. The Post, however, cited one of those imaginary trends that pops up near the end of campaigns: "Democrats in the past two weeks have significantly improved their chances of taking control of the Senate, according to polls and independent analysts." In fact, the states mentioned have had close races for some time. The one exception is a New Jersey poll released the same day as the Post article that finds Menendez with a comfortable lead for the first time. It is in the House that the trend has been noticeably towards the Democrats while the Senate races have so far failed to follow suit.

AS NOTED HERE BEFORE, the key unknowns are whether discouraged conservatives stay home, whether some usual non-participants get excited enough to vote, and how many votes the Republicans steal.

THE WASHINGTON POST is working overtime to try to keep Jane Fernandes' job as the new head of Gallaudet University including the gooey headline, "Fernandes Expresses Resolve to Lead" and a disparaging quote from a lawyer whose expertise is in higher education: 'It's very hard to have an orderly dialogue with a mob.' Sounds like he must do great for the administrators who hire him. . . THE PROBLEM is that the premier campus for the deaf doesn't need any more resolve on Fernandes' part, it needs her out of there. But to Fernandes this is a personal issue. Says the Post: "She went home Wednesday night for the first time in 10 days, she said. 'That's partly why I have this resolve,' she said. 'I talked to my parents, husband, family, and they are outraged at what's been done to me, and they will not let me take that.". . . And she added this touch with the sound of Bush speaking of Iraq: "I would really like to see this come to an end, for the good of Gallaudet. I'd do anything to make that happen."

WHAT ISN'T GENERALLY known is how close the relationship between Washington's universities and its daily paper is. When something like this happens, the Post pulls out all the stops to keep the students in line and the powers that be still being instead of having been. This has included, on the Post's part, spreading the story that the protest is about deep seated conflicts in deaf culture and particularly over the issue of signing. But the Post's ombudsman pointed out what the news stories hadn't: "Many protesters reject the idea that deaf culture has anything to do with their call for Fernandes to resign. David Rosenbaum, editor in chief of Signews, a national monthly publication for users of ASL, wrote in an e-mail: 'Deaf identity is not an issue. The President's Office and its Office of Public Relations at Gallaudet University have been playing the 'deaf card' but it has no bearing to the root of the matter. There are other deaf leaders who learned sign language later in life and who possess the leadership qualifications needed.'"

October 18, 2006

America's extremist center

By Sam Smith

Washington has become a city of barricades, a place where agents on rooftops scan the sky for missiles, and where metal detectors are turned so high they can find a nail in your shoe. It is a city of clearances, closed doors, need to know, a city that believes even Alice Rivlin should take a drug test.

Washington is a town that will host an August conference on "Special Tactics and Security" featuring "personal, tactical, and corrections body armor, hand-held shields, blankets, helmets, face shields, soft armor" and so forth.

Washington is where the idea developed that the rap of Sister Souljah might undermine our most precious values and that messages on the Internet were going to eat our children alive.

And Washington is the town that won't speak to you unless it knows "what it is in reference to," assumes you have a hidden agenda and demands to know "who you are with."

It is a bit odd that a place of such premonitions, predilections and obsessive precautions should come to believe that much of the rest of the country suffers from paranoia. But such is the eccentricity of the disordered mind that it sometimes assigns to others its own defects.

A psychiatrist has suggested that one useful way to judge such claims in individual cases is to count the bodies. 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.

A similar principle can be applied to politics. And when it is, a simple, stunning fact stands out: With few exceptions, the major threats to American democracy have come from neither right nor left but from the center.

From that internecine struggle of two factions of the American middle known as the Civil War to FBI assaults on activist organizations in the 60s and 70s, from the Palmer raids to Bill Clinton's anti-terrorism legislation, Americans have traditionally had more to fear from people they have elected than from those on the fringes of politics. In fact, the latter have often served largely as an excuse for the American center to tighten its grip on the political and economic system. This is not to say that the left and the right would not enjoy being just as violent and repressive given the chance, but the American center has rarely allowed that.

Even the KKK, so often cited as an example of the sort of threat the contemporary right poses, was powerful primarily because it was at the center, holding political and judicial and law enforcement office as well as hiding beneath its robes. In some towns, lynching parties were even announced in the local paper. And in the 1920s, both the Colorado governor and mayor of Denver were members of the Klan, the latter well enough regarded to have had Stapleton airport named after him.

If we were going to worry, therefore, let's at least worry about the right thing. Let's, for example, count the bodies. The Vietnam War is a good place to start: nearly 60,000 Americans killed to test the conspiracy theory that if one country fell in Southeast Asia they all would. Or the paranoia about the civil rights and peace movement in this country during the 1960s that led the FBI to place tens of thousands of citizens under surveillance, including Caesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. Or the 1969 memo from the agency's San Francisco field office that suggested the FBI use the women's movement as a wedge against the left. Or the 1970 memo that proposed to "disrupt and confuse" Black Panther activities. Or 1977 -- when the CIA told some 80 academic institutions that they had been unwittingly involved in the mind control research.

Meanwhile, what was happening on the fringes of American politics? One study of civil violence in the tumultuous years between 1963 and 1968 found just 220 deaths -- an overall rate due to civil strife less than one half that in Europe during the same period. Most of the victims, by the way, were inner city residents.

Are the days of state-sponsored violence gone forever? Not at all. Let's, for example, count the bodies in the War on Drugs -- a decade of violence dedicated to the proposition that human nature can be effectively outlawed. It is a fantasy as wild as anything contrived by the Michigan Militia, but empirically far more deadly. The Drug Policy Foundation estimates that drug war has cost five to six thousand deaths a year, enough over the past decade to equal American fatalities in Vietnam.

Now let's count the bodies wasted in order to combat another conspiracy theory, namely, that smoking a weed considerably milder than tobacco is a major threat to our society. This summer America celebrated its 10 millionth arrest on marijuana charges. Bill Clinton is even afraid to let pot be used for medical purposes.

What about arms stockpiles and the like? According to a Defense Department report last December, America's share of worldwide arms shipments has risen from slightly over 20% during the last years of the Cold War to more than 50% today. During the last decade of the 20th century -- as the nation occupies itself with Oklahoma City, Randy Weaver and Waco -- the US will sell over $150 billion worth of arms to other lands. Some undoubtedly will become part of what the US government will refer to as the international terrorist threat.

Hate groups? Name those that pose anywhere near the threat to American minorities as does the 104th Congress. And what about the "wanted" poster published by congressional Republicans that showed 28 targeted Democratic incumbents -- 80% of them black, latino, women or Jewish? Or the Good O'Boys Roundup, a festival for law enforcement personnel sponsored by agents of the BATF, which has included such things as signs saying NIGGER CHECKPOINT, T-shirts with a target superimposed over Martin Luther King's face, others showing DC police officers with a black man stretched across a car hood above the caption BOYZ ON THE HOOD, and cards labeled NIGGER HUNTING LICENSE?

Random acts of terror? They are a growing part of the police repertoire as domestic law enforcement and military tactics blend. The raids shown on TV programs like Cops are not designed merely to intimidate the criminal, but to convince whole communities -- whole ethnic and age groups -- of police invulnerability. They also teach police officers bad habits by providing dubious role models. Meanwhile, the centrist media shows minimal interest in whether such practices as jump-out squads, random roadblocks, arbitrary traffic stops and curfews are constitutional.

Garden variety paranoia? How about US Postal inspector Don Davis who was quoted in the San Francisco Examiner as saying of the Unabomber's questioning of technological society: "There are groups that adhere to a lot of these thoughts, expecially out of Berkeley." As Hank Chapot, a Green who ran for Berkeley city office, asked, "Is Mr. Davis talking about me?"

Good data on home-grown terrorism, meanwhile, is hard to come by. We do know that only 171 people were indicted in the US for "terrorism and related activities" during the 1980s. We find (using the BATF's own figures) that there were just 328 bombing deaths between 1989 and 1993. These bombings include everything from Mafia retribution, insurance cover-ups, apolitical acts of madness, to right-wing sabotage such as that directed against abortion clinics. In sum, fewer deaths in five years than the city of Washington loses to murder annually. Even the Oklahoma City incident barely undermines the comparison.

Three hundred people is, of course, too many to die for any reason. But it is also far too weak an argument for the end of democracy.

Hysteria hustling

The media could give some sense of scale to this business. But because it doesn't -- because, for example, it insists that we treat the Oklahoma City bombing as a pivotal event of our time -- we find ourselves bouncing from crisis wave to crisis wave, unable to gain an understanding of the underlying currents of history.

The media is more than willing to pump up the hysteria. The results, as in the Oklahoma City case, can be atrocious. The media watchdog, FAIR, recently cited a long list of those who leaped to the conclusion that the bombing might be the work of Arabs. Among them were the New York Post, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Also ABC, CBS, and CNN. Also columnists Georgie Anne Geyer, A.M. Rosenthal, Mike Royko, Jim Hoagland, as well as such predictable sources of anti-Arab sentiment as Steve Emerson and Daniel Pipes. Royko, for example, wrote in the Chicago Tribune:

I would have no objection if we picked out a country that is a likely suspect and bombed some oil fields, refineries, bridges, highways, industrial complexes . . If it happens to be the wrong country, well, too bad, but it's likely it did something to deserve it anyway.

When the first suspects turned out to come from the Mid-West rather than from the Mid-East, the Chicago Sun-Times' Richard Roeper responded, "Does that mean we conduct overnight bombings of Arizona and Kansas and Michigan now?"

After the anti-Arab paranoia was deflated by none other than the FBI, the demon vacuum for the center was quickly filled by the citizen militias. Even such normally sane voices as FAIR and the Nation began to crack with alarm. So agitated did the Nation become that several readers had to write and urge some perspective. Here are excerpts from two letters:

Actually, but for the [militia's] confusion over the distinctions between socialism and fascism . . . many of their fears regarding the multinational corporations running the world are valid.

Though we disagree on many issues, we as working people must still view the members and supporters of militias as working people who are victims of government repression merely reacting to this repression in their own way. To focus your fire on this right-wing fringe element and advocate government repression against them is to invite this same repression against ourselves somewhere down the road.

The most remarkable piece of hysteria-hustling, though, came in a June New Yorker article, by Michael Kelly. The article was called THE ROAD TO PARANOIA. Its subtitle: There have always been radical fringes on both the left and the right which believe that the government conspires against the people. But lately the two have formed a strange alliance -- fusion paranoia -- that is reaching millions of disaffected Americans.

Telling the tale of the confluence of a liberal and a Montanan right-winger, Kelly outdid Newt Gingrich in reliance on argument by anecdote, spinning for the New Yorker's chaise lounge potatoes a delicious conspiracy theory of mischief and paranoia among the hoi poloi.

Along the way, Kelly managed to extrapolate some conclusions that some might regard as, well, extreme. He implied, for example, that there isn't all that much difference between the "wise use" movement and radical environmentalists who "see the same corrupt conspiracy as the Wise Users, but in mirror image." Implicit in such an argument, of course, is the assumption that the sort of ad hoc and erratic environmental policies pursued by the Clinton administration represent a rational center from which fringes diverge. Another way to look at the matter, however, is that the Clinton approach is so intellectually vapid, that anyone -- whether on the right or left -- who actually has a view about such issues (rather than merely being interested in their immediate political impact) will find it wanting.

Kelly's grasp of such matters leaves much to be desired. For example, he seems to imply that the Wise Users are well represented by something called The Sahara Club USA, which believes in a conspiracy consisting of:

New Age nuts, militant vegetarians, anti-gun pukes, animal rights goofballs, tree worshipers, new world order pushers, human haters, pro-socialists, doom-sayers, homosexual rights activists, radical eco-Nazis, slobbering political correctness advocates, militant feminists and land closure fascists.

In fact, far from being representative of the corporatist "wise use" movement, the Sahara Club USA, as journalist Husayn Al-Kurdi recently reported, consists of "a bunch of bikers who are mad because they can't have unrestricted access to the desert to practice their crudities."

Kelly, even as he speaks of paranoia, manages to lump together not only corporate suits and bikers, but Noam Chomsky and the John Birch Society, Ramsey Clark and Bo Gritz, and Timothy Leary and Lyndon LaRouche.

Here are some others that Kelly believes suffer from conspiratorial fantasies: moderate conservatives, liberals, feminists and African-Americans. Who then, besides Kelly himself, is finally left on the side of reason?

In the next paragraph, Kelly gives another list, this one a compilation of charges that have been made against the president, which he cites as an example of "the degree to which political paranoia has worked its way into the culture at large." These charges include the drug and gun smuggling activities at Mena, the murder of Vincent Foster; the murder or beatings of those threatening to expose his illegal activities as governor; the BCCI scandal; and the retention of an incompetent medical examiner to cover up a death caused by Clinton's mother.

By deftly blending the highly probable (a cover-up of CIA-assisted drug running at Mena) with the bizarre and unlikely (the incompetent medical examiner story) Kelly attempts, in best centrist fashion, to discredit all suspicions of the president. Such a technique eliminates the need to argue substantive questions such as: if it is all a paranoiac fantasy, what are more than fifty FBI agents doing in Little Rock? In the 1950s, there was a name for such skillfully sloppy associations. It was called McCarthyism.

In the end, Kelly's story is about the center and not about the left or right. It is one of the center's most notable defenses to date against the growing clamor of non-elite America for a share of power. It is about the paranoiac obsession of the American establishment to make sure (in its own phraseology) that the "center holds."

Kelly understands the stakes in all this; he describes fusion paranoids as believing that the government "is controlled by people acting in concert against the common good and at the bidding of powerful interests working behind the scenes." This elite is comprised of "the money-political-legal class, and the producers of news and entertainment in the mass media." In short the sort of people that Kelly and other Washington journalists hang out with and have come to accept as the model of normalcy.

As Kelly himself notes, the center's concern is not new. He quotes Richard Hofstadter's chestnut about the "paranoid style" of American politics, which Alexander Cockburn, in the Nation, describes as one

in which the American lower orders -- including unions -- were dangerous, potential brownshirts restrained only by educated elites of mature judgment.

In the fifties it was the elites of mature judgment who were prompting the CIA to destroy labor movements in the Third World and dislodge populist tribunes of the poor, by murder if necessary. In the nineties the elite increasingly detour democratic process by means of 'bipartisan commissions,' international 'agreements' fast-tracked through Congress, and the crude disenfranchisement of the poor, with 'law enforcement officials' turning growing numbers of them into felons denied the vote.

Ironically, if Kelly had only waited a week he might have had a better perspective on the sources of American violence and the cultural distribution of sanity. In the same issue as his article was a review of the life of General Curtis LeMay, written by Richard Rhodes. LeMay ran the air war against both Japan and North Korea, became head of the sacrosanct Strategic Air Command and was one of the military heroes of his time.

Here are just a few of his accomplishments:

- The destruction of nearly 17 square miles of Tokyo with the loss of at least 100,000 civilian lives. The US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that "probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any time in the history of man."

- The destruction of 62 other Japanese cities. Only Hiroshima and Nagasaki were spared -- reserved for a different sort of horror. In sum, more than a million Japanese civilians were killed. LeMay himself would admit years later, "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side."

- The bombing of North Korean cities, dams, villages and rice paddies. Civilian deaths: more than two million.

In short, with the enthusiastic blessing of the American center, LeMay was directly responsible for the slaughter of about half as many civilians as died in the Holocaust. To this day, establishment Washington won't even face what happened at Nagasaki or Hiroshima, let alone the far larger massacres occurring under the command of LeMay.

And LeMay had even grander schemes. His plan for defeating the Soviet Union included the obliteration of 70 Soviet cities in thirty days with thirty-three atomic bombs and the deaths of 2.7 million citizens.

To be sure, those vocally uneasy back then with the presumptions and power of SAC were not called paranoids. They were just called Commies and dupes.


Let's pause for another body count. From the time I first began looking into citizen militias, I have watched assiduously for certifiable acts of violence. Not talk, not war-games, not uniforms. But action. What I've found is a few threats, beatings and hair-brained schemes like stealing tanks from an army base. There's some bad stuff, to be sure, but in aggregate the sort of thing that wouldn't even make a daily's front page if instigated by one of the urban militias, that is to say a gang.

Not even the Oklahoma bombing, from what has been revealed to date, can be pinned on the militias. So far, the worst the militias can be accused of in this case is guilt by attendance.

Tim McVeigh seems to have met those of his ilk mainly at gun shows. And if there is any violent link among the suspects it is with a military organization called the US Army, which teaches men such unmarketable skills as how to kill large numbers of people quickly and then returns them to a civilian world in which they can't find a job. Despite the ads on television, the unemployment rate of veterans 20-24 years old is twice that of those who have not had the benefit of Army training.

Besides, the militias seem largely manned by wannabes. Former Green Beret Gregory Walker, who is writing a book about terrorism and anti-terrorism, told Pacific News Service:

Today, the militia movement rates about 1.5 on a scale of 1 to ten in which one is completely benign . . . It's made up primarily of law-abiding citizens who make no attempt to conceal their identities or [ideology] and who are so desperate for real military training they put want-ads in the newspaper . . . Eighty percent of militia members have no military experience, and just an infinitesimally small percentage have any kind of combat experience. The rest are the butchers, the bakers and the candlestick makers, the guys who ran the computers and fixed truck tires. . . . That's why the militia's are so desperate to hire trainers -- and why they end up hiring bunko artists in a lot of cases because very few real-deal military would get involved.

The narrow window of normalcy

Let's pause now for some argument by anecdote. To understand the establishment's fear of the rest of the country, it helps to understand how narrow is its definition of normalcy. A minor, but telling example, came earlier this year when I was bounced from the lineup for a TV show about the DC fiscal crisis after the host, Derik McGinty, found that I still supported DC statehood. In some pique, McGinty said, "Don't you know, Sam, that puts you out of the loop?"

I replied that I had been out of the loop for about 30 years, but that I did try to do right. I didn't mention that probably a majority of DC voters agreed with me, but that wouldn't have mattered much anyway. The loop is not for voters, but for those who decide things.

It's not hard to bump up against the Washington consensus. During 1992 primary season. I was walking down 15th Street when I ran into Don Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. Graham asked whom I was supporting for president. I said I was backing Jerry Brown. Graham immediately grabbed my arm and started waving it in the air as he shouted something to the effect of "Look, everyone, I've found a real, live Jerry Brown supporter! Look!"

Brown, at the time, was the second choice of the country's Democratic voters. That, in Washington, wasn't good enough. No one in Washington who mattered supported Jerry Brown.

Such anecdotes may help to explain how the New York Times can write a front-page story -- headlined CONSPIRACY THEORIES' IMPACT REVERBERATES IN LEGISLATURES -- that treated an historic debate over the Tenth Amendment (guaranteeing the rights of the states and the people) as some sort of right wing plot.

The historic and constitutional ignorance displayed by the "paper of record" produced a piece as bizarre as if it were to be suggested that the separation of church and state was a scheme dreamed up by President Assad.

As with Kelly and his taxonomy of paranoids, the Times even went so far as to link those concerned about the Tenth Amendment with those who think the numbers painted on the back of Indiana highway signs are signals to invading UN troops.

Similarly, CBS News ran a piece attacking the fully informed jury movement (of which your editor is a supporter) as evidence of a right wing assault on the judiciary. In fact, the idea that a jury has the right to judge both the law and the facts goes back to the trials of William Penn and Peter Zenger, was supported by a number of the country's founders and early judges, and has been most recently applied to the benefit of the likes of Marion Barry and Abbie Hoffman.

Black helicopters

We now pause for the really good stuff: black helicopters. You see, we are told, not only does the paranoid right believe in the Tenth Amendment and jury rights: it believes in black helicopters.

The greatest power of the mass media is the power to ignore. As angst mounts in the heartland, however, and as alternative mass media like the Internet gain significance, the elites are losing their ability to decide what exists and what is merely a fiction of our imagination. Implicit in the mass media ridicule is a rising anger over its loss of control of the agenda. In the old days, issues like proportional representation, the fully informed jury movement, or the shorter work-week would never see the light of day. Now, however, whole movements can arise without the assistance of the Post or the Times, something that is regarded in establishment circles as truly aggravating. I suspect, in fact, that much of the media's angst about sex on the Internet is really little more than a foil for a far deeper concern: massive competition.

The black helicopters are a trivial but interesting case in point. It is standard fare for journalists to make fun of the idea of unmarked black helicopters. Yet there is evidence -- newspaper accounts, intelligence sources and so forth -- that such craft do exist. In all probability their ubiquity -- although not necessarily details of color and markings -- can be explained by this country's growing assumption that it can conduct surveillance on anyone it pleases, especially those who might be engaged in growing marijuana. Certainly a federal judge in California thought so; he found helicopter surveillance so intrusive and harassing that he enjoined its continued routine use.

And just one day after I had been jousting on such matters at lunch with a British journalist, and while engaged in giving him a tour of the city, he suddenly cried, "Look, a black helicopter!" To be sure, flying low above us was a dark whirlybird. Given the direction of the sun, I couldn't swear the craft was not dark green but it certainly was unmarked. I might, perhaps incorrectly (but without an iota of paranoia), have described it as black.

The whole business reminds me of James Thurber's fable about the unicorn in the garden. Upon informing his wife that he had seen a unicorn in the garden, his spouse calls the police to have her husband dispatched to the booby hatch. When the cops arrive, however, the husband denies ever having seen a unicorn in the garden and has his wife locked up instead. And lives happily thereafter. Thurber's moral could well apply to today's discussions of black helicopters and political paranoia. "Don't," he warned, "count your boobies until they are hatched."

To be sure there are those who see more than black helicopters, who believe that these craft are the advance troops of a UN invasion. But what service is provided to reason by the media pretending that they don't exist at all? Why not determine their function, color and so forth and point out that the UN is unlikely to invade with a staff and budget only slightly larger than that of the DC government? What's really going on here? Paranoiac co-dependence? Or are we seeing a more generic version of what often happens when government or defense contractor whistle-blowers speak out -- namely that they are sent to see a psychiatrist?

The myth-killers

One of the greatest myths of America's elite is that it functions by logic and reason and that it is devoid of myth. In truth, elites function like other people; they choose their gods and worship them. The gods, to be sure, are different. For example, many in Washington believe fervently in the sanctity of data, the Ivy League, the New York Times op pages and the Calvinist notion that their power is a outer, visible sign of an inner, invisible grace.

And some, even while professing to be without myth, spend their lives creating myths for others. We call them political consultants and ghostwriters.

There is no consistency to all this. The Pope's disastrous myths concerning birth control are treated with deference while domestic fundamentalism is ridiculed. Similarly, politicians and media created an instant mythology around the deaths of 15 children in Oklahoma City, but tend -- as did the Washington Post recently -- to lump the 22 children who died in Waco as among "80 group members," apparently as deserving of their end as was David Koresch.

What makes those in power different from other Americans is not the absence of myth but their denial of it. In refusing to allow room for the unknown, for faith, for those temporary fillers called theories that slip into the empty spaces of our knowledge, those in charge of America ultimately separate themselves from such natural human phenomena as myth.

As less of what should be known in our society is allowed to be known, the distance widens between those who have the knowledge and those who do not. To have any sort of decent relations with those Americans not professionally trained to suppress belief and imagination, we would need an elite with more poets and fewer economists. The poet understands that a myth is not a lie but the soul's version of the truth. One of the reasons so many stories are mangled by the media these days is because journalists have become unable to deal with the non-literal.

Consider the mythic underpinnings of the OJ Simpson saga. The average white lawyer or reporter sees it only as a murder case. But to many blacks, Simpson is carrying the mythic weight of decades of ethnic abuse under the justice system. In a column 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 in New York or Washington. What do they have to do with Simpson?

Only this. OJ Simpson's case serves as the mythic translation of stories never allowed to be told. The stories that should have been on CNN but weren't. Everything is 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 takes place when a militia member imagines that the Bloods & Crips are being armed by the US government or when blacks believe the same thing about the militias. Or when the UN is thought to on the verge of invasion.

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

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

The tragedy is that the American center has not responded to these myths by confronting their causes but rather with ridicule and repression. And by creating its own myths. In fact, to the American center, the militias serve much the same purposes as the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations do for the right. Just as once the establishment tried to define the civil rights movement by the Symbionese Liberation Army and the cause of North Ireland by the IRA, so Americans' concern over the usurpation of sovereignty at every level is being defined primarily by its most exaggerated manifestations. There is no wisdom and much danger in this.

As author Gregory Walker puts it, "We've haven't seen a great peacemaker step forward to quell the fears and uncertainties. Instead we've seen a strong effort demonize people and polarize thought. Where is the person who can rise up and say, 'My fellow Americans' and truly be including all Americans. He's not out there, and she's not out there, and that's who we need to hear from."

In the meantime, when someone tells you about some Americans who are paranoid or crazy, be sure to count the bodies. -- July 1995

October 09, 2006

The case for public campaign financing

OCTOBER 26, 1999

I have three objections to our current system of campaign financing.

The first is literary. Being a writer I try to show respect for words, to leave their meanings untwisted and unobscured.

This is alien to much of official Washington which daily engages in an activity well described by Edgar Alan Poe. Poe said, "By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip, .... I could 'demonstrate' that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton."

For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to "to influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value, with intent to influence" to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time not so many months ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official "for or because of an official act" didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like "inappropriate gift," "the appearance of a conflict of interest," or the phrase which brings us here today: "campaign contribution."

Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, "Officer, I wasn't giving her money, I was just giving her a speech." If that doesn't work you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that "I have the right to remain silent." And so forth. I wouldn't advise it.

As George Orwell rightly warned, "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

My second objection to our system of campaign financing is economic. It's just too damn expensive for the taxpayer. The real cost is not the campaign contributions themselves. The real cost is what is paid in return out of public funds.

A case in point: Public Campaign reported that in 1996, when Congress voted to lift the minimum wage 90 cents an hour, business interests extracted $21 billion in custom-designed tax benefits. These business interests gave only about $36 million in campaign contributions so they got out of the public treasury nearly 600 times what they put in. And you helped pay for it.

Looked at another way, that was enough money to give 11 million workers a 90 cent an hour wage increase for a whole year -- or, to be more 1990s about it, to give 21,000 CEOs a million dollar bonus.

This is repeated over and over. For example, the oil industry in one recent year gave $23 million in campaign contributions and got nearly $9 billion in tax breaks.

The bottom line is this: if you want to save public money, support public campaign financing.

My final objection is biologic. Elections are for and between human beings. How do you tell when you're dealing with a person? Well, they bleed, burp, wiggle their toes and have sex. They register for the draft. They register to vote. They watch MTV. They go to prison and they have babies and cancer. Eventually they die and are buried or cremated.

Now this may seem obvious to you, but there are tens of thousands of lawyers and judges and politicians who simply don't believe it. They will tell you that a corporation is a person, based on a corrupt Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment from back in the robber baron era of the late 19th century -- a time in many ways not unlike our own.

Before this ruling, everyone knew what a person was just as everyone knew what a bribe was. States regulated corporations because they were legal fictions lacking not only blood and bones, but conscience, morality, and free will. But then the leg of mutton became a turnip in the eyes of the law.

Corporations say they just want to be treated like people, but that's not true. Test it out. Try to exercise your free speech on the property of a corporation just like they exercise theirs in your election. You'll find out quickly who is more of a person. We can take care of this biologic problem by applying a simple literary solution: tell the truth. A corporation is not a person and should not be allowed to be called one under the law.

I close with this thought. The people who work in the building behind us have learned to count money ahead of votes. It is time to chase the money changers out of the temple. But how? After all, getting Congress to adopt publicly funded campaigns is like trying to get the Mafia to adopt the Ten Commandments as its mission statement. I would suggest that while fighting this difficult battle there is something we can do starting tomorrow. We can pull together every decent organization and individual in communities all over America -- the churches, activist organizations, social service groups, moral business people, concerned citizens -- and begin drafting a code of conduct for politicians. We do not have to wait for any legislature.

If we do this right, if we form true broad-based coalitions of decency, then the politicians will ignore us only at their peril.

At root, dear friends, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign.