February 25, 2007


Sam Smith

Perusing still more puerile pandering in the cause of pacific politics by Barack Oblather, a vision suddenly appeared. While, according to Google, a few others have already experienced this transformational experience, it is still rare enough to deserve mention.

The apparition was, without doubt, Chauncy Gardiner aka Chance the gardener, the last manifestation of magnificent nothingness to appear on the American political scene - albeit the fiction of Chance was safely contained in the movie "Being There" while Obama is running for election to a real White House.

Like Obama, no one knew where Chance had come from. Even the CIA and FBI were unable to discover any information, with each concluding he is a clever cover-up by one of their own agents.

In the final scene, reports Wikipedia, "Chance is seen apparently walking across the surface of a lake while the most important movers and shakers in the USA discuss running him for President. This scene continues to generate discussion and controversy. Clearly we see Chance walking on water, an act with a clear biblical reference. . . Is there a prosaic explanation, such as hidden stepping-stones? Or is Chance the Savior (as so many of the characters are looking for)? Does he truly possess some special grace, given his simple innocence and simply being present to each moment without filters and ideas? In his 2001 book, The Great Movies, Roger Ebert argues for the latter interpretation. Another view is that the director (and the author) are simply asking the audience: "How much more would you have believed? We've been kidding you all along you know!"

The novel upon which the movie was based was written over thirty years ago by Jerzy Kosinski. The Obama candidacy may elevate Kosinksi to one of the most precient political authors of modern times. After all, what is more Obamesque than the sort of phrase that got Chance started? - "In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."

Of course, there are differences between Obama and Chance. Obama does have a modest political record and he is intelligent where Chance was dense. But the dynamics of his unprecedented rise has painfully similarities, especially in the willingness of the public and the media to turn the corny platitudes into evidence of a Second Coming.

At a time of economic disjunction, enormous military failure, a national reputation on the skids and massive political corruption, it is not hard to see why the unwary should be attracted to one whose name in Swahili means "one who is blessed."

This illusion is aided by a media that has, to a major degree, given up covering facts in political campaigns in favor a deconstruction of images, rhetoric and sensations. One of the results is what candidates pretend to be becomes infinitely more important than what they actually are.

Thus the media has all but ignored the long list of scandals in Hillary Clinton's past in favor of such things as positive coverage of how she cynically responds to mention of her husband's impeachment.

Obama is playing this same card for all its worth. He knows full well that the presidency is not about the "audacity of hope" and that, even if it were, he has no right to control its downloads as though he was the CEO of the RIAA of optimism.

Obama is engaged in a sophisticated con with a long history in this country. We normally associated it with evangelicals - the Elmer Gantrys and the Jerry Falwells - but the scam can be used by liberals as well. Born-again liberals can turn their backs on reality as well as any conservative, finding solace in the comforting chicken soup of faith and hope. The problem, of course, is that reality just keeps truckin' along and Americans need far more than cliches to get them through the next few years.

While Obama is clearly being intellectually dishonest, this is, to be sure, a lesser sin than the congenital variety practiced by his leading opponent. The little available evidence suggests that Obama would more likely be a disappointment than a disgrace. Still in the end it's a sad choice between the venal and the vacuum.


SAM SMITH - In 1910 the largest theater catering to a black audience, built with black capital, opened in Washington DC nearly two decades before the Apollo began offering black entertainment. For decades, the Howard would feature such acts as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Lionel Hampton.

So important was this institution to a community isolated in segregation that students from nearby high schools would periodically cut class to attend an afternoon performance. "After recess, there wasn't anybody at the school," recalls Lillian Gordon, once a dancer at the Howard. On at least two occasions, a principal or assistant principal showed up at the Howard, halted the show, turned up the lights and ordered their charges back to class - one without saying a word, just pointing to the exit.

But as Elissa Silverman reported in the Washington Post, "The 1968 riots spurred a decline in the U Street corridor known as Black Broadway, and the Howard Theatre closed its doors two years later. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Comedian Redd Foxx and others attempted revivals but, for years, the building has remained vacant and crumbling. Now that the area around the Howard has been revitalized with condominiums, restaurants, and retail shops, developer Chip Ellis wants the Howard to come back to life, too." Ellis, a black Washingtonian, has enlisted the programming aid of Blues Alley, one of America's clubs that musicians like the most.

Last weekend your editor enjoyed an event pulled together by his social historian wife - Kathryn Smith, who co-chairs the Historical Society of Washington - at which more than 200 people gathered to hear anecdotes from the Howard's past.

While many of the names and some of the stories were familiar to one who had been among the young white guys who also went there in the fifties, I was reminded again of the theater's role in holding the community together. The Howard was part of a self-sufficiency the U Street area developed that moved the neighborhood beyond survival towards pride and growth. The theater also provided a shared story that cut across class in the community. Once when the Mill Brothers performed, the crowds were so large, they had to make T Street one way. Decades later, it still is.

Bertell Knox - a longtime drummer in the house band and later backup for Charlie Byrd - recalled how important the Howard band's leader had considered dress. If you weren't in 'full tux' you would have to provide a bottle of whiskey for the other members of the band. The players would look around to see which of the group had left on their brown socks as they rushed to get dress. The musicians were also role models for the young; Saxophonist George Botts remembered that it was how well the performers were dressed that made him think as a young man that this was the path he should follow. He did and would evetnually accompany Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Etta Jones, Redd Foxx, Betty Carter, T-Bone Walker, Benny Goodman, Anita O'Day, and John Coltrane, just to mention a few.

In a revealing way, the program became somewhat anarchistic towards the end. As some members of the audience were telling their stories, other spectators got up and started socializing in the back. A nice confirmation not only of the importance of this story, but of the importance of people having a place to tell their stories. Everyone owned a piece of the history.

One of the reasons that history feels dull to many is because it is so often confined to the past. Among the prices of literacy has been to imprison history in a timeline. In cultures dependent upon oral tradition, however, the past often become a partner of the present just as it did last weekend. It occurred to me while headed to the event that we are all history; it's just that some people got a head start on us. And as I watched the young members of a jazz quartet that played for the event talking with the panelists, I wondered what stories they would tell a few decades down the road.



SAM SMITH, WHY BOTHER? - In the wake of the Civil War, this area north of Washington's downtown -- originally occupied by both whites and blacks -- experienced a building boom. With Jim Crow and the coming of the streetcar, whites moved beyond the center city and blacks increasingly found themselves isolated. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.

Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.

Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre and two first rate movie palaces.

There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club that produced a number of professional photographers, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.

Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.

This was a proud community. "We had everything we needed," recalls one older resident. "And we felt good about it. Our churches, our schools, banks, department stores, food stores. And we did very well."

The community shared responsibility for its children. A typical story went like this: "There was no family my family didn't know or that didn't know me. I couldn't go three blocks without people knowing exactly where I had been and everything I did on the way. It wasn't just the schools. We learned from everyone. We learned as much from Aunt So-and-So down the street, who was not even related to us."

All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.

Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.

Years later, while serving on a NAACP task force on police and justice, I would go to a large hall in the organization's headquarters on U Street -- at the same address that was on the 1940s flyers calling for civil rights protests. In that hall, except for the addition of a few plaques, nothing much has changed over the decades. We only needed two tables pushed together so there was plenty of room for the ghosts of those who once sat around such tables asking the same questions, seeking the same solutions, striving for some way for decency to get a foothold. Basic legal strategies for the civil rights movement were planned along this street. Did perhaps Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Mitchell once sit at one end of this hall and also wonder what to do next? Just the question lent courage.

With the end of segregation, as free choice replaced a community of necessity, the area around U Street began to change. The black residents dispersed. Eventually the street would become better known for its crime, drugs, and as the birthplace of the 1968 riots. The older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride -- not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst. Some of the people in this community were only a couple of generations away from slavery, some had come from Washington's early free black community. But whatever their provenance, they had learned to become self-sufficient in fact and spirit even as they battled to end the injustices that required them to be so.

February 23, 2007


Sam Smith

SOME readers may have noted that this journal is not particularly impressed by the fact that Barack Obama is black and Hillary Clinton is a woman. There are several reasons for this heresy.

It's happened already

The election of either Obama or Clinton would be fully predictable confirmation of a change in American attitudes that occurred a considerable while ago. That it happened later in the White House than in tennis, the Supreme Court or the House leadership more likely reflects the biases of campaign operatives, funders and media than it does that of the public as a whole. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found that 94% of Americans would vote for a black for president, 92% for a Jew, 88% for a woman, and 87% for a Hispanic. If you want a real cultural shift, you would have to elect a gay or an atheist who would get the support of only 55% and 45% respectively. But, with the help of the most manipulative media coverage of a presidential campaign that I can recall, Americans are being sold the myth that virtue lies in voting for a black or a woman and you can forget about all the other stuff. Obviously some extremely powerful interests - with little concern for either blacks or women - benefit from such an illusion.

Icons and issues

At the heart of the myth is the assumption that an icon is as good as an issue. To test this, name three issues of particularly concern to blacks or women on which Obama or Clinton would demonstrate a considerably more positive position than the other candidates.

The problem is that Obama and Clinton are not Jesse Jackson or Betty Freidan; they are conventional centrist Democrats being backed by extremely wealthy individuals and interests. One reason this is not generally understood is because we have so few examples of an ethnically oriented campaign really looks like. A rare case was Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential run with a coalition that has been described as including "urban blacks and Hispanics, poor rural whites, farmers and factory workers, feminists and homosexuals, and white progressives." As Time reported, "In Iowa and New Hampshire, where blacks are less than 2% of the population, Jackson got about 10% of the vote. In . . . Minnesota, with a black population of about 1.3%, Jackson swept to an impressive second-place finish with 20%, ahead of all save Dukakis. Indeed, some whites in these states have had a remarkable experience: one of the few black men they had ever seen up close turned out to be running for President."

Obviously that was not good enough to win the White House. On the other hand it was two decades ago and the electability of blacks has improved considerably. Further, if Jackson had not abandoned the coalition he developed during that remarkable campaign, American history might be quite different.

Now we find ourselves with a black candidate who will obviously do much better than Jackson but if you care about the sort of issues he is meant to represent in the liberal mythology, you'd better go with Dennis Kucinich. In other words, consciously or unconsciously, voters will be choosing between the icon and the issues.

The downside of equality

While there is far less prejudice against blacks and women than twenty years go, the white liberal sense of noblesse oblige on matters of ethnicity and gender obscures a serious problem. True equality means that incompetence, corruption and other mortal and venal sins are just as fairly distributed by ethnicity and gender as is virtue.

This is taken for granted in some places like Washington DC where we have been electing nothing but black mayors since 1974, where two of the leading mayoral candidates in the last election were black women, and where two gays sit on the city council. History - unlike modern liberal sensibilities - suggest that in such situations choosing empirically is preferable to selecting by noble abstractions. In fact, a white city council chair was considerably more progressive than the black woman and man who followed him. Although it is obscured by legend, blacks, women and gays made their greatest headway under the drug-addicted Marion Barry. And one of our gay council members is such a prig he wants to severely limit the ability of teenagers to go to music clubs.

Race and ethnicity

One of the reasons this all becomes more complicated than it has to be is because of the myth of race, which is itself a racist idea - a definition of no scientific basis conceived in order to discriminate. It's why you will find the word 'ethnicity' above; it's a cultural rather than a scientific description.

Still the hold of race on our culture - even liberal culture - remains strong. Thus we have Obama constantly portrayed - yes, even above - as a black when, in fact, he is multicultural as is an ever increasing portion of America. We cling to definitions with which we are comfortable even when they do us harm.

Similarly, the new mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, is multi-cultural but this is not widely known even in the city. The media doesn't mention it; he doesn't talk about it much. A rare exception was an interview with CPAN in which Fenty said,

"It's been very healthy to me to see people grow and mature, and that friction evaporated over time and people realized that human beings are just human beings. And I tell people that I think kind of my tolerance and the racial tolerance I have individually, my just optimism about bringing people together, seeing my own family do that around my mother and father's marriage that has lasted, you know, some 40 years now. . . My Dad, again, born in Buffalo, New York, but his father's from Barbados and from Panama. He's the epitome of a - of a - of a person who's soft-spoken and who leads by example. My Mom was born in Buffalo, but from Italian heritage. She's the epitome of a mother who wears everything on her sleeve."

Obama, to his credit, has been quite open about all this and it may be part of his appeal to the young whose ethnic context is quite different from that of their parents. But once you define someone as multicultural, it makes it harder some people - both black and white - to vote for you. And so the myths continue.

The politics of zip codes

In the end, if you really care about the future of women, blacks, latinos and others who have come out the short side of the American dream, then finding sanctuary in a comfortable icon isn't going to do the trick. You have to ask the hard question: when it's all over, who's going to be better off?

One way to think about it is to put ethnicity and gender aside and consider the politics of zip codes. Under each candidate, which zip codes will do better and which will do worse? And who will do better: the white soccer mom or the black waitress mom? The answer doesn't necessarily lead you to the most comfortable icon.

Symbolism and rhetoric deceive easily. Toni Morrison, for example, was taken in by Bill Clinton, whom she called the first black president, even though he made life harder for those on welfare, increased economic disparities and substantially intensified the conflict against young black males, aka the war on drugs. She had forgotten Mahalia Jackson's warning that "you can't say one thing and then do another; be a saint in the church and a devil under cover. You've got to live the life you sing about in your song."

Those seeking salvation in an Obama or a Clinton are looking at the wrong end of things. It's not the color of gender of those at the top that we should be mainly considering but the state of those at the bottom. It's not as much fun and it doesn't leave you feeling quite as smug but, in the end, it's not the nature of the glass ceiling at the White House that counts as much as what goes on behind the doors that tens of millions enter each day in their struggle to survive.

February 21, 2007


Sam Smith

Lately, I've been trying to figure out how to pass on state secrets to someone without getting into trouble. I don't actually have any such secrets, mind you, but the matter is getting so hopelessly complex that I thought I better straighten it out before I responded to the small flower pot my neighbor across the street regularly puts on the sill of his right second floor window.

There are a number of models, each with their own hazards.

The most dangerous, clearly, is that used by former FBI agent Robert Hanssen. Hanssen's main error was to give the secrets to the Russians before Bush became pals with Pootie, to gave them really valuable stuff, to take a lot of money for it, and to do it around a photogenic and photomnemonic young assistant able to work well with photodocumentarian movie producers.

Considerably less costly was the route followed by Sandy Berger. For one thing he lifted his documents from the National Archives where even the secrets are more boring than those in real life. There is no evidence that he took any money for them and his beneficiary, while unknown, is more likely to have been a presidential candidate rather than some nasty Russian. For his penalty, as one observer put it, "He had to pay a $50,000 fine and pick up some garbage on the side of the road in Virginia." A friendly media made as little of it as it could, albeit quoting Berger's lawyer as saying, "It never ceases to amaze me how the most trivial things can be politicized. It is the height of unfairness . . . for this poor guy, who clearly made a mistake." From the coverage, it is fair to assume that much of the media agreed.

As this is written, I don't know the price Scooter Libby will pay - if any - for his alleged offenses - if proved. But not one mainstream journalist has yet explained why it is so much worse to lie about passing on the identity of an apparently not all that covert CIA official than it is to remove state secrets from the archives. If convicted, Libby - accused in the prosecutor's own words of a 'dumb lie' - will, at least until the pardon, face a dramatically greater punishment than Berger. And the befuddling thing is that no one in establishment Washington - regardless of their clearance - seems to give a damn.

I do, however, have the uncomfortable sense that if I were to steal some documents from the National Archives and stick them in my sock I might be treated more like Patrick Fitzgerald plans to treat Libby so I guess I better not try.

There is, however, one further possible route. Pass on the stuff, reveal the covert identity, but not to benefit the Russians or a fellow politician. Instead, give it to some officials at AIPAC to pass on to Israel. This encouraging possibility is raised by a report in Secrecy News about the espionage trial of two former AIPAC officials which is not going so well for the government. Judge T.S. Ellis III has raised all sorts of obstacles but the one most cheering to a prospective spy is this one:

"The nature of the relationship between the governments of the U.S. and Israel may also have a bearing on the defendants' state of mind, the Judge wrote, in language that may foreshadow close
scrutiny of U.S.-Israel relations at trial: 'The more specific the details of the alleged cooperation between the two governments, the more probative [i.e., legally significant] such cooperation becomes," Judge Ellis wrote. In another important observation, the judge wrote that 'testimony that disclosures of alleged NDI were viewed by defendants, or their contacts in the diplomatic establishment, as beneficial to the United States' interests is exculpatory.'"

In other words, if you want to spy for Britain or Israel, you have a pretty good chance of getting away with it, at least in Judge Ellis' courtroom.

There are, to be sure, a few residual moral questions such as precisely how closely the goals of Israel and the U.S. are really aligned and who gets to cut the deal: the President, Congress or the people? And which policies are covered: attacking Iran, starving Palestinians, invading Lebanon?

So it remains a bit tricky, but, for the moment, if you want to steal state secrets in the safest possible fashion, just make sure AIPAC gets a copy.

February 15, 2007


Sam Smith

IF nothing happens to change things, it looks as if Hillary Clinton will be running against Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Let's hope something happens to change things because it is hard to imagine a more depressing choice, the final triumph of money and media over democracy and sanity.

Yet, even on the left, one doesn't get much sense that we seem to be moving from frying pan to fire. Six years bitter experience has left many liberals and progressives convinced that exorcising the demon in the White House and finding a Democratic replacement is all we need for happiness.

It doesn't work like that. It is a reasonable bet that after eight years of the next administration - of whatever party - the overwhelming majority of the sins of the Bush years will remain, quietly institutionalized either because of lack of will, lack of votes or an excess of inertia.

The primary reason for this is that in politics we get the presidents we deserve and a Clinton-Giuliani race would reflect the fact that in neither party is there sufficient will to do things differently - to rebel against the corrupt, cynical anti-democratic spirit that these two power-obsessed leaders represent.

As the right has demonstrated over the past quarter century, the creation of a new popular paradigm is a complex, expensive and lengthy business. One can argue that the right had a grossly unfair advantage by controlling the hearts of corporations, mass media and evangelicals who happily and mindlessly spread its message to an unwitting electorate.

This is true, but there is another factor that hardly ever gets discussed. The left has blown it.

In fact, since the beginning of the Reagan administration there has not been a single mass movement on the part of the left that has made any significant impact on the country.

Part of this has been a matter of priorities. Under Reagan and the Bushes, the left was happy to do what it seems to like best: protest. Under Clinton it switched gears and quietly and obediently complied. In either case - dissenter or drone - the left did little to offer Americans an alternative vision, platform or movement.

Twenty years ago, as a member of the board of a national liberal organization, I found words for my concern as we discussed the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Defeating Bork, I noted, was a necessity but it was not a policy. And we needed more policies.

I could tell from the room that I had said something alien. Who are we, I sensed around me, if we are not in opposition?

As recently as the last presidential campaign, I suggested a national progressive confab at which a list of major priorities would be compiled so everyone would know what we wanted, instead of leaving it to Fox News and David Broder to define for us. Again, it fell flat.

I suspect a part of the problem is that liberals behave much like many abused children; they view themselves more as victims than as survivors. This is not surprising given that two of their major constituencies - blacks and Jews - place particular emphasis on victimhood in their political rhetoric. But in the end, it is a choice that even the worst treated make in different ways, which is why some of the most impressive survivors are found in some of America's worst neighborhoods.

Rather than exhibiting the will to rewrite the story of themselves and America, too often liberals wallow in the mud pits into which their opponents have driven them and, when they can't take any more, willingly grab the hand of whatever hustler comes their way.

In this way, 2008 already reminds one of 1992 when liberals lined up for Clinton because he looked like he would win and might throw them a few bones along the way. In fact, in different ways, both Hillary Clinton and Brack Obama are modeling their efforts on Bill Clinton.

With HRC it's a quality that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found in her husband: "It is not the compromises [Clinton] has made that trouble so much as the unavoidable suspicion that he has no great principles to compromise." With Obama it's the cynical use of hope - or, as Clinton put it, Hope - treated as though it was the candidate's personal gift to provide. In fact, in the last days of his campaign, Clinton ran a television commercial filmed from the window of a moving bus. The voice-over said: "Something's happening out there. A feeling. Call it hope. That a country can move in a new direction. That the future is something to look forward to. Not fear. If that's what you're feeling, you may have noticed something else. You are not alone." Obama before his time.

In either case there is a quality that Christopher Hitchens found in early Clinton Washington as being like that in Peter Pan, in which the children are told that if they stop clapping, Tinker Belle will die.

That pretty well sums up today's liberalism: you either oppose or you clap.

There are at least three other reasons beyond the psychological why this is so.

First: Major liberal organizations function much like all lobbying groups. Not only are they too far removed from the grassroots and too close to power, they are extremely protective of their own position in among the elite. Thus the mere notion of an effective coalition is troubling.

Second: Since they don't have as much money as the right, it would seem logical that liberal groups became expert as grass root organizing. They're not. One explanation for this is that since the advent of television, everyone has played by the rules of virtual communication and part of this reduces the voter to a viewer, petition signer, or contributor. One rarely finds anymore the sort of organizing spirit of, say, Saul Alinsky or the anti-poverty era and - on the left - scarcely ever does one see the multi-faceted organizing of the Christian right. If the left only uses the tools of mass media, they will have their Move Ons to be sure, but the right will just keep moving on.

Third: Much of the power and the money in liberal organizations comes from a new liberal elite - including large numbers of successful urbanites, women, gays, blacks etc. This elite has its own agenda which - regardless of its virtues - tends to ignore or deemphasize agendas of the less powerful and less well off who, incidentally, vote in much larger numbers. This is not an incurable problem but it at least has to be faced.

One big exception to all this is the Democratic populist wing, an ill-formed amalgam that believes Democrats are here to do the most good for the most people. But it, too, has yet to find good footings for a new movement. Even the efforts of John Edwards in this regard will ultimately fail unless people rally to his cause and not just to his candidacy.

Another major exception is the Green Party which, good as its heart is, has yet to tie its platform into a small and neat enough package that the media, let alone America, can grasp.

In short, the American left has a choice. Either it remains the victim of alternative predators - the right on one hand, the Clintons and Obamas on the other. Or it takes charge of its own future and that of the country by agreeing within itself on a clear program and then - in the manner of the abolitionists, populists, socialists, suffragettes and civil rights activists - takes this message to every little corner of the land it is trying to change for the better.

February 14, 2007


IN ANOTHER OF ITS wonderfully fusty headlines, the Washington Post woke up readers today with the banner: Bracing for an Unwelcome Glaze. What with 28 reporters on the sleet story, that seemed a little timid even for the Post so it at least livened things up a bit on its web page.

Meanwhile, Matt Drudge was thrilled to report that a House hearing on global warming - like just about everything else in town - had been cancelled because of the storm. Just to avoid such joy, we have long argued that 'climate change' was a better term than 'global warming.' In any case, it certainly is fortunate that we're not suffering from global cooling or Washington would have shut down long ago.

What the Post had actually sent out 28 reporters to cover was, according to Accuweather, exactly .92 inches of precipitation. But the Post takes such things quite seriously as your editor discovered two decades ago when he was still in the publication's good graces. He had been asked to write a piece on the latest storm and sat in an office for half an hour as the editor of the Outlook section and the op ed page editor argued over who would get to run it. The amazing thing was that neither had read the actual article. What they were really arguing about was who was in charge of snow.

Washington has never handled snow well. The most tragic example occurred in 1922 and a January storm brought 28 inches. On January 28 the roof collapsed on the Knickerbocker Theater, occupied by 900 persons. 98 were crushed to death and another 158 were injured.

Not long after Marion Barry took office in the 1970s, the Post's Milton Coleman rode the streets with the mayor and gleaned some disturbing information. As I described it, "Wrote Coleman: 'The mayor is not dealing with this snow problem personally. He said he is confident that the chore is being capably handled by his two right-hand men -- city administrator Elijah B. Rogers and general assistant Ivanhoe Donaldson. It is not a job for the city's elected leader."

"Barry, who had just returned from a four-day vacation in Miami, told Coleman: 'There are more important things for me to worry about than snow. . .' He was asked how people should get to work. Barry said they should take the bus. It was pointed out that the buses weren't running. Said Barry: 'They can walk.' He added: 'There must be 5000 streets in the District of Columbia. You can't clean them all.'"

Barry had equaled in indifference - if not in eloquence - the earlier thoughts of Mayor James Michael Curley of Boston: "The Lord brought it; let the Lord take it away."

SAM SMITH, WASHINGTON POST, FEB 1, 1987 - Al Thompson is superintendent of roads in Freeport, Maine, with a population about 1 percent of that of the District. But what Maine lacks in people, it makes up in roads, so Al Thompson has about 12 percent of Washington's asphalt mileage to look after.

Now Al doesn't have anything like the equivalent of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in his charge, and the local politicians tend to realize that nature often is impervious to memos, directives and policy guidelines. On the other hand, he works without the benefit of Snow Command Centers, Computerized Cancellation Centers and Codes Yellow. What he does have is five trucks with 12-foot dustpans and 11-foot wings.

How long does it take his trucks to cover 130 miles? Says Al: "An hour and a half, an hour and three-quarters." Then it takes another three hours for a second "cleanup" trip.

To put it in D.C. terms, that would mean, with the number of vehicles we've got (if properly equipped), you theoretically could sweep through the city in a couple of hours. . .

Now, before someone at the District Building picks up the phone to tell The Post about "complex urban problems," let me tell you about George Flaherty. He's director of parks and public works for Portland, Maine. Portland is about one-tenth the size of D.C. but has nearly 30 percent of its street mileage. He uses about a quarter of D.C.'s equipment and expects to have the job done in 8 to 10 hours.

I asked if he could explain the logic of a not-uncommon Washington scene: two snow plows working directly behind each other, sometimes with a Department of Public Works pickup truck in the lead. He just laughed and said, "No." . . .

And you don't wait until four inches have piled up before you start plowing. You start when you've got an inch and a half, and you stay ahead of the storm. And you don't leave it to the Almighty once ice-covered streets become mushy. You run the plows through and get the stuff off. Here, even downtown, we let the streets freeze again so the morning traffic reporters will have something to talk about. . .

It will be argued that northern cities are willing to pay a high premium for clearing their streets because they get so much snow. But this year Portland budgeted, like most cities, for the best of all possible worlds: 25 inches, a winter roughly comparable to ours so far. With one-third the street mileage of D.C., Portland still planned to spend one-third more.

Why? Maybe because they know what bringing a city to a halt really costs. Here are some figures that will give you a rough idea of the costs of closing down D.C. for a day: the D.C. government spends $3 million a day on its payroll; the federal government spends close to $20 million a day for its D.C. payroll; private businesses spend another $30 million. What did D.C. budget for snow removal? Just under $1 million. Calculate the odds yourself.

The crash of America

From the March 1995 Progressive Review

The premise here is simple: when the plane crashes, find out why.

Simple it may be, but few in federal Washington even seem to notice that the country they came to rule has crumbled around them and fewer still would accept the notion that it might be useful to inquire as to the cause of this disaster. The disaster, of course, is that of the country -- not that of its elite, which still floats like a hovercraft above the roiled waters of America.

To be sure, the more traditional faction of this elite has suffered a significant political blow in recent months, but now there is a new elite, headed by a man who hails from the richest county in Georgia, represents some of the wealthiest interests in the country, and still manages to call other people "elitist." This particular form of demagoguery is far from novel. Nixon and Wallace used it freely but then socio-economically they had better credentials for doing so. By 1978, says William Safire, elitism had already "become a standard blast at anyone with an undue regard for excellence as a criterion for the receipt of money or power."

The old elite, in its purest form, went to Ivy schools, practiced law or investments, and belonged to the Council on Foreign Relations. The new elite has been raised in the groves of advertising, marketing and focus groups, and is representative not of its legislative districts but of the largest trade associations. Its members speak not American but postmodern Orwellian. Listening to their rhetoric is like being trapped at table 129 -- with a bursting bladder and all the doors locked -- during a never-endng congressional dinner of the Asbestos Manufacturers Association. The members of this new elite may be different, yet by income, attitude and isolation, they are every bit as elitist as those they have expelled.

Thus the recent transfer of power was not from elitism to populism, but rather from one elite to another. And it did not happen, contrary to what one might glean from the elite media, as a result of some stunning sagacity on the part of the new crowd, but mostly due to the compounding ignorance, insularity and ineffectiveness of the old.

This old elite particularly prided itself in its wisdom and intelligence, but its greatest true skill was the successful circumnavigation of collective guilt. No embarrassment was too great, no crisis too unnecessary, no expense too inexplicable, and no war too unjustified, that it became ashamed. Instead, its members would rise as one to pronounce it not the time for blame, but rather for moving forward together into the future. Everyone would nod their heads and the foxes would renovate the chicken house once more.

Psychologically impervious to either misfortune or fact, this elite never felt any need for rigorous self-examination. When things got truly out of hand, as when a president was assassinated, a blue ribbon investigation would be called, producing a ritual of introspection that, almost without exception, came to conclusions that were faulty, incomplete or deliberately deceptive.

When members of the elite faltered -- a Kissinger, Helms, McNamara, Abrams and so forth -- their peers moved quickly to protect, rehabilitate and restore them to the pantheon of the wise. Given that more than ten percent of the Council on Foreign Relations -- a sort of Elks Club for the tenured elite -- is composed of journalists, it is not surprising to find the latter often serving as EMTs, reviving some beloved source suffering a momentary attack of imperfection. This service was not, of course, provided to all. For example, surgeons general from the lesser ethnic groups could not expect rehabilitation, nor could individuals whose misdeeds were personal rather than merely an abrogation of the Constitution.

All this was carried out with a numbing smugness. Like the Cromwell described in A Man for All Seasons, the prototypical member of the old elite possesses "a self conceit that can cradle gross crimes in the name of effective action."

But now, without doubt, the party is over. To be sure, the elite does not admit this any more than it admits it exists at all, but to those like myself born on the cusp of the Second World War there is no point to the pretense. We remember the victories and the celebrations of them; we remember men standing motionless for the national anthem in baseball stadiums with fedoras held over their hearts; the jobs waiting for you when you graduated from college; politicians who were revered; newscasters who were trusted; and music that dripped syrup over our spirits and made them sweet and sticky. We remember when there was a right and wrong and who belonged with each. We remember a time when those in power lied and were actually able to fool us. We remember what a real myth is like.

Now, among the young or the ethnic, you can't raise a majority that is proud of this country. Most Americans believe we are on the wrong track. We hate our politicians, ignore our moral voices, and distrust our media. We have destroyed the natural habitats of the southern white pine and of the northern black human. We have created the nation's first downwardly mobile generation, reduced their parent's income, and removed the jobs of each to distant lands. We have sold our downtowns to foreign companies and sold our environment to domestic ones. We have created rapacious oligopolies of defense and medicine, frittered away public revenues and watched indifferently as the slain, the homeless and the miserable pile up. Perhaps most telling, we are no longer able to admire, but only to gawk.

Many of the symbols of America remain, but they have become crude -- desperately or commercially imitative of something that is no longer there. We still stand for the Star Spangled Banner, but we no longer know what to do while on our feet. We still subscribe to the morning paper but it reads like stale beer. And we still vote, but expect ever less in return.

Turning on others

An awfulness has come over us. We have become obsessed with what we should ignore and ignore what we should honor. We seem to have lost capacity for either grace or decency.

Something profound has happened and yet we are not even talking about it. The media won't tell us because it is largely servile towards, or owned by, those who have profited from the debacle. Instead, it daily aggravates our tendency to salve our discouragement by turning on others even more helpless than ourselves. The assault on the poor, minorities and immigrants is not an accident. It is what people do when they're not told what's really wrong, when the media won't let them in on the secret. It's one of power's oldest tricks: to deflect blame downward so the victims fight among themselves.

Nor is the destruction of social programs at every level mere happenstance. With the collapse of America's post-war empire, the country's elite has become increasingly concerned with getting more for itself while getting us to accept less. Hence the New York City budget that cut 24% from social services and added 7% to the police. It is, after all, cheaper to shoot or bury them then it is to sustain them. As Latin American countries have found, the children can live on the streets and the wealthy can hire guards to stand in front of their walled homes and life can be very pleasant as long as you are behind the wall and don't really think about it too much.

There is not among the elite, old or new, even any particular loyalty to this country. More and more, its business is elsewhere; and it is shamelessly willing to use political power to further that business. It seeks a playing field of greatly weakened countries in which stateless corporations and their managers are accountable to no one. The pledge of allegiance has been replaced by trade agreements. The House Speaker talks of America; his wife works abroad.

Thus not only does the American elite lack any sense of guilt for what has happened, it is, like a hit and run driver, leaving the scene of the accident. More and more, those who run this country have the character of wealthy, isolated strangers -- armed but afraid, intrusive yet indifferent, personally profligate but politically penurious, priggish in rhetoric yet corrupt in action. No longer does even national myth connect them with the greater mass of America. Nor, any longer, does politics separate them from each other; Republicans and Democrats have become, rather than choices, degrees of the same thing.

Hi, I'm America and I'm a recovering country

It is long overdue time to admit such things -- and to force our leaders and the media to admit them as well. One of the less observed utilities of the 1960s was serving as a group intervention, interrupting the self-justified intoxication of the elite consensus. This intervention provided the intellectual, moral and psychological framework for much that happened.

We need such intervention now. We need to speak the truth. To admit freely that America has crashed. To tell the story of how America's own elite helped to bring it down. And to argue that, by consequence, they have lost their license to lead.

We further need to commence the sort of inquiry that disasters demand, an investigation into the death of American substance and of the American spirit. Before such an inquiry we might bring such evidence as:

The Vietnam War, the first great public disaster of the post-WWII best and brightest.

The destruction of the America city, beginning with the subsidized suburbanization of the fifties, continuing through the economic abandonment of downtowns in the 70s and 80s, and ending with the Reagan-Bush-Clinton withdrawal of urban aid.

Three decades of mob politics during which the country's elite snuggled up to its intelligence agencies, which in turn made numerous deleterious pacts with criminals, freebooters and drug lords.

The drug war, now more dangerous to black US males than was serving in Vietnam. A barbaric, unconstitutional, and counterproductive battle that has placed large sections of our cities under para-military occupation and has corrupted our political life -- from police precincts to governors' mansions.

The S&L and BCCI scandals, the bipartisan revival of robber baron politics that greatly destabilized our financial system.

The failure to exercise ecological wisdom before large numbers of human lives were endangered, species damaged or destroyed, and lands ruined.

The development of the corporate state in which the government is increasingly reduced to serving ever more powerful oligopolies.

The conversion of medicine from a public service to a corporate exploitive enterprise.

.The encouragement of economic desertion. Through such means as NAFTA and GATT, America has hastened the emigration of its own commercial base.

The failure to halt the growing monopolization of information and ideas in the American media.

The retreat from common responsibility for the problems of the nation's less fortunate.

The nomination of Bill Clinton, a president picked, managed and bankrolled by America's elite. This final error devastated the Democratic Party and made possible last November's right-wing coup.

In each of these instances, the plans were drawn, sold and executed by those who considered themselves among the nation's smartest men and women. And in each case, the nation paid a fearful price. In the end we have been left with a country devoid of confidence, a nation beset by fears, short on jobs, bereft of joy, disputatious, sniveling, without compassion, internationally impotent, domestically catatonic -- in a word, shattered.

While other generations of leaders have failed the country, none has managed to do quite so much damage. The first step in recovery is to reveal how this came about, and by whose hand, and then to tell them to be off.

February 13, 2007

Corporations and America: the back story

Encomiums to the wonders of market forces fill speeches and media reports. One National Public Radio reporter even went so far as to describe a form of government called market democracy, apparently a blend of the Bill of Rights and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

In fact, most free workers in this country were self-employed well into the 19th century. They were thus economic as well as political citizens.

Further, until the last decades of the 19th century, Americans believed in a degree of fair distribution of wealth that would shock many today. James L. Huston writes in the American Historical Review:

"Americans believed that if property were concentrated in the hands of a few in a republic, those few would use their wealth to control other citizens, seize political power, and warp the republic into an oligarchy. Thus to avoid descent into despotism or oligarchy, republics had to possess an equitable distribution of wealth."

Such a distribution, in theory at least, came from enjoying the "fruits of one's labor" but no more. Businesses that sprung up didn't flourish on competition because there generally wasn't any and, besides, cooperation worked better. You didn't need two banks or two drug stores in the average town. Prices and business ethics were not regulated by the marketplace but by a complicated cultural code and the fact that the banker went to church with his depositors. Although the practice was centuries old, the term capitalism -- and thus the religion -- didn't even exist until the middle of the 19th century.

Americans were intensely commercial, but this spirit was propelled not by Reaganesque fantasies about competition but by the freedom that engaging in business provided from the hierarchical social and economic system of the monarchy. Business, including the exchange as well as the making of goods, was seen as a natural state allowing a community and individuals to get ahead and to prosper without the blessing of nobility.

In the beginning, if you wanted to form a corporation you needed a state charter and had to prove it was in the public interest, convenience and necessity. During the entire colonial period only about a half-dozen business corporations were chartered; between the end of the Revolution and 1795 this rose to about a 150. Jefferson to the end opposed liberal grants of corporate charters and argued that states should be allowed to intervene in corporate matters or take back a charter if necessary.

With the pressure for more commerce and indications that corporate grants were becoming a form of patronage, states began passing free incorporation laws and before long Massachusetts had thirty times as many corporations as there were in all of Europe.

The purposes for which every such corporation shall be established shall be distinctly and definitely specified in the articles of association, and it shall not be lawful for said corporation to appropriate its funds to any other purpose. -- State of Wisconsin, 1864

The charter or acts of association of every corporation hereafter created may be amendable or repealed at the will of the general assembly. -- State of Rhode Island, 1857

[Legislators shall] alter, revoke or annul any charter of a corporate hereafter conferred . . . whenever in their opinion it may be injurious to citizens of the community. -- State of Pennsylvania, constitutional amendment, 1857.
Still it wasn't until after the Civil War that economic conditions turned sharply in favor of the large corporation. These corporations, says Huston:

"killed the republican theory of the distribution of wealth and probably ended whatever was left of the political theory of republicanism as well. . . .[The] corporation brought about a new form of dependency. Instead of industry, frugality, and initiatives producing fruits, underlings in the corporate hierarchy had to be aware of style, manners, office politics, and choice of patrons -- very reminiscent of the Old Whig corruption in England at the time of the revolution -- what is today called "corporate culture."

Concludes Huston:

"The rise of Big Business generated the most important transformation of American life that North America has ever experienced."

By the end of the last century the Supreme Court had declared corporations to be persons under the 14th Amendment, entitled to the same protections as human beings. As Morton Mintz pointed out in the National Law Journal, this 1888 case ignored the fact that "the only 'person' Congress had in mind when it adopted the 14th Amendment in 1866 was the newly freed slave." Justice Black observed in the 1930s that in the first fifty years following the adoption of the 14th Amendment, "less than one-half of 1 percent [of Supreme Court cases] invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations." During this period the courts moved to limit democratic power in other ways as well. For example, the Supreme Court restricted the common law right of juries to nullify a wrongful law; other courts erected barriers against third parties such as banning fusion slates.

It was during this same time that the myth of competitive virtue sprouted, helping to justify one of the great rapacious periods of American business. It was a time when J.P. Morgan would come to own half the railroad mileage in the country -- the same J. P. Morgan who got his start during the Civil War by buying defective rifles for $3.50 each from an army arsenal and then selling them to a general in the field for $22 apiece. The founding principles of what we now proudly call the "American free market system" flowered in an era of enormous bribes, massive legislative corruption, and the creation of great anti-competitive cartels. It was a time when the government, in a precursor to industrial policy, gave two railroad companies 21 million acres of free land.

And it was also the time that American workers, who had once used commerce to free themselves from the economic and social straitjacket of the monarchy, found themselves servants of a new rigid hierarchy, that of the modern corporation.


WHY IS LIBBY always photographed smiling? Two possible explanations:

- GWB has already told him, "Great job, Libosco; you'll have that pardon before I leave."

- Or Libby, unlike much of the Washington media, understands how hopelessly confusing this story is to most Americans and particularly to those forced to follow for hours at a time on the DC jury.

We have never cottoned to this overblown tale not because lying is nice, but rather because if you're going to prove it with political effectiveness you not only have to prove the lie but its importance.

Lies in Washington are too easy to spin as Bill Clinton proved. Most Democrats think his lie was just about sex. It wasn't; it was about denying a woman a fair trial in her case against Clinton. But even this key fact easily fell by the wayside.

So why do Democrats and the media think they've got something hot with Libby? Too many years of playing inside ball.

You know you're in trouble when you have the AP writing, "Defense attorneys got Woodward, Novak, Pincus, New York Times reporter David Sanger, Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler, and Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas to say they had talked to Libby about Wilson's allegations during the summer of 2003, but Libby had not disclosed Plame Wilson's identity or employment."

According to Vanity Fair, Valerie Plame told Joe Wilson on their third date that she was with the CIA. It is clear that more than a few Washington journalists were also let in on the secret, which is not too surprising because what's the thrill of being an important CIA official in Washington if people don't whisper about it? And if you don't do it yourself, then someone else, as happened with Plame, will do it for you to make nice to some capital scribe.

I don't even think about it anymore until the conversation goes ever so slightly awkwardly astray and you wonder: CIA? NSA? And you look around for someone more interesting with whom to talk.

And that's even before you get to the really deep cover spies like the ones on the rendition squad in Italy described by Tom Englehardt:

"The CIA agents took rooms in Milan's 5-star hotels, including the Principe di Savoia ("one of the world's most luxuriously appointed hotels") where they rang up $42,000 in expenses; the Westin Palace, the Milan Hilton, and the Star Hotel Rosa as well as similar places in the seaside resort of La Spezia and in Florence, running up cumulative hotel bills of $144,984."

But the key perspective is that of the jury box. How would you like to listen to the confusing yet deadening detail of this incident and then decide whether you had it all down beyond a reasonable doubt? A lot of people say the prosecutor is a real bright guy but I wonder whether he knows DC juries - accustomed to the annoyance, boredom and inconvenience of living near a misbehaving elite. Maybe they'll give it to Libby, but chances are just as good they'll look at the Yucky Flat mountain of evidence and say, "Beats me."

February 07, 2007


Sam Smith

[Part of a continuing series on devolution - the opposite of governmental centralization, commercial monopoly and cultural domination. Devolution is the art of conducting public affairs at a practical level closest to the human spirit and human communities]

In an age of conglomeration and domination, the cross-political nature of devolution - or the ideology of scale - attracts little attention. One can go through a whole political campaign and never consider it. But that doesn't mean the issue is not there.

Consider two current examples: the assault on local control of public schools and the smart growth movement. Both are driven by a curious alliance of liberal, conservative and corporate interests. And both attempt to replace the decentralization of decision-making with centralized, bureaucratic choices.

For example, only Vilsack among the Democratic candidate for president has challenged the No Child law despite it being based on absurdly inadequate justifications, proposed by the least qualified president ever to hold office and pushed by a bunch of child profiteers who will probably be the only clear winners under the legislation.

Similarly, the smart growth movement is being increasingly driven by a dubious alliance between "we know what's good for you" liberal planners and developers who initially resisted the idea until they realized how many new high-rises might result.

Liberals and conservatives who favor America's two centuries of local school control, or wish to resist the transformation of successful communities into high-rise factory farms for globalized serfs, find themselves ignored, ridiculed as NIMBYs or considered behind the times.

One developer's Power Point even declared that "fear and loathing of density is. . .ironic, dangerous, counter-productive." In other words, preferring the lifestyle predominant in 99.9% of human history is now dangerous and counter-productive. Further, in the tradition of the new managerial mullahs, anyone who doesn't like what they're up to is suffering from fear and loathing of positive change.

No Child Left Unregimented

The assault on community controlled public education is not only a result of Bush's No Child law. Bill Kauffman once noted in Chronicles that it was liberal Harvard president President James Conant who produced a series of postwar reports calling for the "elimination of the small high school" in order to compete with the Soviets and deal with the nuclear era. Says Kauffman, "Conant the barbarian triumphed: the number of school districts plummeted from 83,718 in 1950 to 17,995 in 1970."

Writing in Principal Magazine, Kathleen Cushman pointed out that the small school movement was driven by "the steady rise in school size that has seen the average school population increase five-fold since the end of World War II. A push to consolidate schools has reduced the number of districts by 70 percent in the same period. Ironically, this trend toward big schools coincides with research that repeatedly has found small schools - commonly defined as no more than 400 students for elementary schools - to be demonstrably better for students of all ability levels, in all kinds of settings. Academic achievement rises, as indicated by grades, test scores, honor roll membership, subject-area achievement, and assessment of higher-order thinking skills. For both elementary and secondary students, researchers also find small schools equal or superior to large ones on most student behavior measures. Rates of truancy, classroom disruption, vandalism, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation all are reduced in small schools, according to a synthesis of 103 studies."

Education is one of those human activities clearly centered on two people (teacher and student). As the system surrounding this experience becomes larger, more complex and more bureaucratic, the key players become pawns in a new and unrelated bureaucratic game. The role of the principal also dramatically shifts - from being an educational administrator to being a cross between a corporate executive and a warden. It is such a transformation that helps to bring us things like what happened at Columbine.

Consider, for a moment, that not a single private school has merged with five or ten other academies in the name of efficiency and improved learning. No one has suggested a Andover-Exeter-Groton-Milton-Choate-Kent School Administrative District.

If conglomeration of schools really helped, why would such places not give it a try? I once asked the head of one of the top private girl's schools in the country what he considered the maximum size of a school he'd like to run. His reply: 500 students. . ."Remember, that means 1,000 parents."

Yet not only do we find George Bush, with lots of Democratic support, actively destroying local control over public schools, mayors and governors rushing to join the attack.

For example, inspired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has yet to produce convincing results for his corporatization of public education, DC's 36-year old new mayor Adrian Fenty is following suit. He wants to abolish the elected school and put the system under his control despite his impressive inexperience in education. But Fenty, like many in politics and business, is absolutely convinced that certainty is an adequate substitute for competence.

How little he really understands was well described by Colbert King in the Washington Post:

"If governance and lack of accountability are the main problems, why do students attending Lafayette and Murch elementary schools, which are west of Rock Creek Park, exceed proficiency targets in reading and math by wide margins while students at Ketchum and Stanton elementary schools, east of the Anacostia River, fall far short of the mark? The four schools are in the same governance structure. Their principals report to the same superintendent and are guided by the same school board policies. True, Lafayette and Murch, located in middle-income neighborhoods, have more white students. But before going off on a racial tangent, consider this: Black students attending Lafayette and Murch, in contrast to their counterparts in Southeast, also excel in reading and math." King asked Fenty why his takeover would help matters: "His bottom line: he has the energy, determination, and sense of urgency that he feels are missing among school leaders to make those things happen." In other words, he thinks what the schools really need most is himself.

Perhaps even more bizarre is what is happening in Maine. The plan itself is familiar: the pursuit of the false god of educational efficiency through the concentration of school districts as ordered by the governor. 290 school districts would be merged into 26 regional administrative units.

What makes it stranger is that Maine is one of a handful of New England states where one can still find the remnants of American democracy functioning at human scale thanks to such institutions as town meetings and lots of small villages that do what they want without excessive interference from above. This tradition has produced in recent years more independent governors (although not the present one) than just about any state and a culture of honest independence in politics and governance that would best be emulated rather than reorganized.

And who suggested the course that the governor is following? None other than representatives of that citadel of Washington anti-democratic elitism, that hospice of prematurely aging MBAs and political science majors: the Brookings Institution. This is like Arianna Huffington coaching the Chicago Bears.

To add to the oddity, it is all being done in the name of "smart growth."

To give a sense of how alien this is to traditional Maine culture, consider a town meeting I attended a few years back in Freeport. I got there a little late and the respectables had taken all the chairs, so I stood in the hall outside with the baseball cap and pencil in the ear set, all intensely interested and exchanging play by play among themselves. It was a heated discussion that eventually produced the resignation of a couple of council members but I tired of standing and so returned to my quarters to watch it on TV. At 11 pm, when I thought the citizen input was almost over, two people showed up to testify explaining they had become so perturbed, they had gotten out of bed, dressed and braved the ice and cold to join the fray at town hall.

Now that's the way democracy is meant to work, but it's damn seldom that you see it any more. And when you do, the sensible reaction should be: don't mess with it.

Although the Maine media has seemed to give implied blessing to the school reorganization scheme, there is life in the state yet as public comment illustrates.

One Brunswick school board member called Governor Balducci's plan "totalitarian." Said another, "To lose our local control, I think it would be devastating." Asked one citizen: "Tell me folks, right here in Brewer, do you want somebody from Alton, Bradley or Bangor telling you how we should run our school system?"

A school superintendent, according to the Brunswick Times Record, "warned the plan could mean a higher per-student cost for Brunswick, possible budget cuts that would affect teaching staff, and a potential clash of educational philosophies between Brunswick, Freeport and the towns of School Administrative District 75 that would share one administrative office and one school board under the proposed plan. [The superintendent] also criticized the governor and Education Commissioner Susan Gendron for producing a plan that glossed over the loss of more than 600 teachers, hundreds of jobs for administrative office staff and the educational impact of superintendents.

Other comment, as reported by local press:

Roger Shaw, superintendent of the Mars Hills schools: "All small schools are struggling for survival and all small schools are in danger. Whether by chance or design, we are in the crosshairs of state policy."

Harvey Shue, a junior at Hampden Academy called it an "extreme act" to merge his 2,200-student school district into a 16,000-student district based miles away.

Richard Farrell of Monhegan "said it would be unworkable to relocate the management of its seven-pupil elementary school to the mainland. He said parents would be hard-pressed to attend meetings and that the island's overall cost would be bound to increase."

Andrew Geranis of York "asked lawmakers to reject any proposal that would change the way schools are now governed. 'Local control is the heart of our life in Maine,' he said.

Angela Iancelli of Monhegan Island "said she feared that district consolidation would lead to the closing of the island's small school, which she said manages to operate efficiently while turning out students who perform well on state achievement tests."

This is not a left-right struggle but one that may far more important for our future: a struggle between communities and bureaucracies and between humans and systems. At present, the communities and humans are not winning.

Smart Growth

The tie-in with smart growth is quite revealing. The smart growth movement started as a largely well-intentioned movement led by planners and environmentalists. Many of their proposals made sense but it had some serious problems, beginning with the insulting manner it treated suburban communities in which many Americans lived, had improved their lives and educated their children. As is traditionally the case with planners, these citizens were expected to adapt to a purportedly ideal physical model - even at the cost of having to move or being evicted - instead of having the emphasis placed on improving - for them as well as the environment - the communities in which they currently lived.

This is not a new problem with planners. In 1910, G. K. Chesterton described two characters, Hudge and Gudge, whose thinking evolved in such a disparate manner that the one came to favor the building of large public tenements for the poor while the other believed that these public projects were so awful that the slums from whence they came were in fact preferable. Wrote Chesterton:

"Such is the lamentable history of Hudge and Gudge; which I merely introduced as a type of an endless and exasperating misunderstanding which is always occurring in modern England. To get men out of a rookery, men are put into a tenement; and at the beginning the healthy human soul loathes them both. A man's first desire is to get away as far as possible from the rookery, even should his mad course lead him to a model dwelling. His second desire is, naturally, to get away from the model dwelling, even if it should lead a man back to the rookery.

"Neither Hudge nor Gudge had ever thought for an instant what sort of house a man might probably like for himself. In short, they did not begin with the ideal; and, therefore, were not practical politicians."

Much of American politics and planning follows the Hudge-¬Gudge model, producing failure for both conservatives and liberals -- the former offering us an army of the homeless and the latter presenting us finally with drug-infested housing projects.

In the case of smart growth, the Hudge-Gudge conflict could have been avoided by considering not just a community's ecological liabilities but its assets, and then figuring out how to lessen the former without harming the latter. This might lead not to large scale redevelopment but towards ways of making it less necessary for people to move around so much in order to fulfill a day's tasks, permitting accessory apartments in single-family neighborhoods and easing zoning restrictions on community-serving small businesses. In many suburbs wastefully designed shopping strips can provide more than enough room for high-rise density without imposing them on communities that don't want them.

It is helpful also to bear in mind that next to economists, no profession has been so consistently wrong and harmful to the human spirit as urban planning.

There was, for example, zoning that destroyed the mixed use city in the name of cleanliness and health and that laid the groundwork for the sprawl of which planners now complain.

There were decades of racist federal housing lending policies that created ghettoes in cities as the money fed the expansion of the suburbs.

There was the destruction of magnificent streetcar systems on behalf of the automobile.

There was urban renewal that destroyed communities instead of rebuilding them.

There was anti-human public housing.

There were - and continues to be - grandiose "economic development" programs that overwhelmingly favored the upper class and a small coterie of developers but which left less wealthy urban residents increasingly victims of neglect and of gentrification.

Each of these schemes were based on physical solutions to human, social and economic problems - conceived by planners and politicians stunningly indifferent to their affect on actual people.

The human, the community, the small were repeatedly considered archaic, insignificant and regressive.

From the progressive movement of the early 20th century on, well-meaning but excessively self-assured members of the elite have controlled the debate, the money and the plans, with barely restrained contempt for the reservations, concerns and resistance of the less powerful. And so it is with smart growth.

Listen to Grow Smart Maine:

"Many of Maine's smaller cities and towns are experiencing unplanned growth but lack the resources and experience to manage that change in ways that protect the character of their community. . . The Model Town Community Project will work with a selected town during 2006 and 2007 to provide tools and advice that will help the town shape its future. The project will mobilize local, state and regional resources, enable the town to explore new growth strategies and fully engage local residents by combining the best elements of New England town meetings with ground breaking new technologies."

In other words, we'll come in and show you how to run a town meeting our way, just like we learned at business school.

But if smart growth is meant to be about environmentally sound planning, how come we have to consolidate our school districts and our town offices?

Because once you put your faith in the sort of expertise that a planning-managerial elite offers, once you turn to MBAs like others turn to Jesus, then you don't really need democracy, town meetings or small schools. What you need is efficiency and managerial skill and you have been promised that, so why worry?

Further, even over smart growth's short life, a disturbing alliance has developed between some liberals and developers thanks to the latter discovering that the environmentalists didn't really want to stop them from building, they just want them to build somewhere else and most likely in a place where they could get more per square foot.

Washington, DC offers a good example and, once again, the Brookings mafia is hard at work. In fact, it even wants to eliminate something that make Washington one of the most appealing cities in the world: its building height limit.

Reports the Washington Post: "Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use expert at the Brookings Institution, last week brought up the prospect of raising the height limit on buildings in the District. He didn't specify a height but encouraged community leaders, planners and developers to at least entertain the idea. 'Things have changed,' he told a standing-room-only crowd . . . 'We have an office market that needs to go someplace,' he said. 'Density is critical. We're running out of land. We need to build up.'"

In some neighborhoods, citizens are even being called NIMBYs because they don't want high-rises shoved into their pleasant communities and the name-callers include not just the developers but enabling liberals who think they're saving the planet. Never mind that in their own city, in Greenwich Village or in Europe there are plenty of examples of density without high-rise factory farms.

Fortunately, not everyone is taken in.

One in attendance at the density meeting wrote online afterwards: "The biggest hole in the program, in my humble opinion, was the fact that none of the presenters acknowledged that DC is not Bethesda or Atlanta or Portland. It is our nation's capital, not a strip mall out in Fairfax waiting to be retooled."

It is this remarkable notion of our nation's capital and other cities - that they are just strip malls waiting to be retooled - that is driving much of urban planning and politics these days.

In both the school consolidation and the smart growth debates the issue of human scale - and not some liberal-conservative conflict - is at the core. But we have been taught - by intellectuals, by the media, by politicians, - to revere a promise of efficiency and technological advance over the empirical advantages of living the way humans have traditionally lived, including valuing the small places that host, nurture and define their lives. We have been trained not to even notice when our very humanity is being destroyed in the name of mere physical change.

We should notice, though, because in the end, if we lose the fight for staying human, whether we were liberal or conservative won't have mattered a bit.