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.