March 26, 2007


Sam Smith

READER MAIREAD writes, "I can't begin to imagine what leads you to liken Alinsky and, for god's sake, Edwards. Edwards has never, to my knowledge, done community organizing or put his butt on the line for any cause no matter how noble or needed. He's a wealthy lawyer and failed politician who lies about his natal family background."

I didn't liken him to Alinsky, but rather said that Alinsky would get along with him better than with Obama or Clinton. Part of the Alinsky approach involved a greater loyalty to issues than to ideology or even to presumed character. Thus Alinsky worked with bishops, politicians, mobsters and even Marshall Field III, who helped him financially.

This kind of approach is alien to a lot of contemporary liberal thinking which presumes potential allies must be thoroughly vetted before joining with them. My own approach, inspired by Alinsky, is that if you have a gun-toting, abortion-hating nun who wants to help you save the forest, you put her on the committee.

Emphasizing specific issues rather than general ideology not only broadens one's constituency, it gives all parties a chance to discover the weaknesses of their own stereotypes. This is how one wins elections and changes things rather than merely confirming one's own righteousness.

As Alinsky explained it in a 1970s Playboy interview:

"The ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for the dignity of the individual you're dealing with. If you feel smug or arrogant or condescending, he'll sense it right away, and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing you've got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you're doomed before you even start if you don't win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there's no communication, no mutual confidence and no action."

In other words, if you want to build a coalition you have to accept the fact that a lot of people have different values than yours and you have to display a respect that is lacking in much liberal rhetoric.

In the 1970s, Alinsky concentrated on the middle class. He told Playboy, "I'm convinced that once the middle class recognizes its real enemy -- the mega-corporations that control the country and pull the strings on puppets like Nixon and Connally -- it will mobilize as one of the most effective instruments for social change this country has ever known. . . Today, three fourths of our population is middle class, either through actual earning power or through value identification. . .

"Christ, even if we could manage to organize all the exploited low-income groups -- all the blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, poor whites -- and then, through some kind of organizational miracle, weld them all together into a viable coalition, what would you have? At the most optimistic estimate, 55,000,000 people by the end of this decade -- but by then the total population will be over 225,000,000, of whom the overwhelming majority will be middle class. This is the so-called Silent Majority that our great Greek philosopher in Washington is trying to galvanize, and it's here that the die will be cast and this country's future decided for the next 50 years. Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change. If we just give up and let the middle classes go to the likes of Agnew and Nixon by default, then you might as well call the whole ball game."

What if the Democrats has aggressively gone after the Silent Majority instead of ceding it to the right? How different our history would have been. But instead of organizing these folks, liberals increasingly came to look down their noses at them.

Is Edwards sincere in his populist approach? Who knows? But it is true that not since Jesse Jackson's 1988 run has anyone made the well-being of ordinary Americans so central to his campaign. I suspect Alinsky would have been happy to work with him as long as he stayed true to his words. And if he betrayed his words, Edwards would have found himself with one formidable opponent.


[From an interview with Playboy Magazine]

ALINSKY: Not only are all of our most effective tactics completely nonviolent but very often the mere threat of them is enough to bring the enemy to his knees. Let me give you another example. In 1964, an election year, the Daley machine was starting to back out of some of its earlier commitments in the belief that the steam had gone out of the movement and we no longer constituted a potent political threat. We had to prove Daley was wrong, and fast, particularly since we couldn't support Goldwater, which boxed us in politically. So we decided to move away from the traditional political arena and strike at Daley personally. The most effective way to do this wasn't to publicly denounce or picket him, but to create a situation in which he would become a figure of nationwide ridicule.

Now, O'Hare Airport in Chicago, the busiest airport in the world, is Mayor Daley's pride and joy, both his personal toy and the visible symbol of his city's status and importance. If the least little thing went wrong at O'Hare and Daley heard about it, he was furious and would burn up the phone lines to his commissioners until the situation was corrected. . .

Some of our people went out to the airport and made a comprehensive intelligence study of how many sit-down pay toilets and stand-up urinals there were in the whole O'Hare complex and how many men and women we'd need for the country's first "shit-in." It turned out we'd require about 2500 people, which was no problem for [the Temporary Woodlawn Organization]. For the sit-down toilets, our people would just put in their dimes and prepare to wait it out; we arranged for them to bring box lunches and reading material along to help pass the time. What were desperate passengers going to do -- knock the cubicle door down and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? This meant that the ladies' lavatories could be completely occupied; in the men's, we'd take care of the pay toilets and then have floating groups moving from one urinal to another, positioning themselves four or five deep and standing there for five minutes before being relieved by a co-conspirator, at which time they would pass on to another rest room. . .

Now, imagine for a second the catastrophic consequences of this tactic. Constipated and bladder-bloated passengers would mill about the corridors in anguish and desperation, longing for a place to relieve themselves. O'Hare would become a shambles! You can imagine the national and international ridicule and laughter the story would create. It would probably make the front page of the London Times. And who would be more mortified than Mayor Daley?

PLAYBOY: Why did your shit-in never take place?

ALINSKY: What happened was that once again we leaked the news -- excuse me, a Freudian slip -- to an informer for the city administration, and the reaction was instantaneous. The next day, the leaders of TWO were called down to City Hall for a conference with Daley's aides, and informed that they certainly had every intention in the world of carrying out their commitments and they could never understand how anyone got the idea that Mayor Daley would ever break a promise. There were warm handshakes all around, the city lived up to its word, and that was the end of our shit-in. Most of Woodlawn's members don't know how close they came to making history.


March 25, 2007


Sam Smith

PETER SLEVIN of the Washington Post deserves some sort of award in media mythmaking for his piece recreating Clinton and Obama as disciples of the great activist Saul Alinsky. They have in fact followed the teachings of Alinsky about as well as George Bush has followed those of Jesus Christ.

To be sure, they both went to the church and prayed. But life moves on and as Alinsky pointed out, "When the poor get power they'll be shits like everyone else." The same goes for Wellesley and Harvard Law School idealists.

Clinton, in fact, put her thesis on Alinsky under lock and key once her husband began running for president, something that Slevin buried in his long encomium. And it is hard to think of anything in recent years more certain to have gotten Alinsky angry than HRC's deceitful, confusing and insurance company-pandering health plan.

The Obama story is different. He actually worked for several years on Alinsky oriented projects. But that was a long time ago and to present him as a present day disciple of Alinsky is just plain false. He is today your run of the mill liberal politician who doesn't want anybody mad at him and wouldn't even be a card in the race if he didn't hold the race card.

I mentioned to a black friend that Obama reminded me a lot of the sort of black lawyers you meet at top Washington law firms. "Yeah," he replied, "the Negro at the front door."

They are fine to handle your mergers or litigation, but if you are trying to save a country going down the tubes, you're probably better off with someone who hasn't spent his whole life trying to position himself safely in a hostile white America. This is not in the slightest to his discredit personally; it's just not the job description on the table.

There can be in these glass-ceiling breakers a self-protective caution that enables them to survive but also makes them less likely to break ceilings for others.

I know something about Alinsky because I wouldn't being doing what I'm doing if it weren't for an Alinsky organizer who hit our Capitol Hill neighborhood in the 1960s and strongly urged me to start an activist neighborhood newspaper.

For the next few years I was immersed in Alinsky style populism while many of my white friends were engaged in something far closer to the classical stereotype of the 1960s. If there is one theme that has set my subsequent journalism apart from the more typical left media it has been an Alinsky-encouraged approach rooted in community, populism and suspicion of power in all its forms.

Reading Slevin's article I was tempted to assume that this was another cynical Washington Post effort to spin America's story, in this case to steal the populist thunder from John Edwards, the candidate closest to the Alinsky spirit and the man with whom Alinsky would feel most comfortable. But perhaps this is unfair, because I know how little understood the Alinsky style and values are anymore. It is not surprising that either Clinton and Obama are so removed from these; they are, in fact, typical liberals in this regard.

Still you can't have it both ways and no one should think of either as practitioners in the model of a man who once said, "Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict."


March 18, 2007


Sam Smith

Living as we do in what seems at times a second Middle Ages - complete with Christian crusades against Islam - we inevitably find our struggles centered on myths rather than on facts and competing philosophies. For the past quarter century - ever since we elected the our first fully fictional president, Ronald Reagan, we have bounced from legend to legend increasingly indifferent to their effects or costs until we find ourselves today engaged in a war that we can't afford, nobody wants and nobody knows how to end.

At first, it just seemed like another problem with Republicans, but with the rise of the Vichy Democrats under Bill Clinton, it became clear that our absorption with fantasy had become not only bipartisan but omnicultural. Neither politician nor media, intellectual nor ordinary citizen, appeared all that interested in reality any more. We had permanently entered a land of make believe. And so now we find ourselves facing an election in which no one really knows what any of the leading candidates in either party stand for or what they would do - and with not all that many seeming even to care.

It isn't all that surprising given that America, once known for making things, has become a nation obsessed with selling them or gambling in fiscal markets on how well they will sell. From factory to TV commercial, from farm to hedge fund, from Rosie the Riveter to Willie Loman and Ken Lay, it is a new America.

It is hard for reality to hold its own in such an environment and as Americans increasingly became preoccupied with selling and speculating, our collective psyches became ever more removed from substance and our language, our minds and our souls ever more trapped in the syntax, style and morals of the pitch.

It is small wonder that our politics has followed suit. Or that the media has lost interest in lowly facts, preferring instead to deconstruct propaganda, images, semiotics and efforts to manipulate the same - becoming critics of spin rather than as narrators of reality. Or that the public has come to see politics increasingly as a religion based on faith rather than philosophy, and sustained by conviction rather than true self-interest.

The shift probably had its roots in the advent of television. Since TV had an enormous capacity to turn all of existence into a puppet show, it is not surprising that politicians - long accustomed to responding to the tension of attached strings - should be among those adapting most readily to it or that a movie star should be one of the first beneficiaries.

To be sure, there had been quasi-fictional presidents earlier such as Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy. But typically their myths at least revolved something as real as military heroism - Rough Riders, World War II, PT 109 - rather than being concocted of whole cloth. Of the current leaders in the 2008 campaign, only John McCain fits this earlier model. The rest are beneficiaries of heavily rewritten or suppressed history (Clinton and Giuliani) or, in Obama's case, the audacity of using hope as a trademarked campaign gimmick. Even McCain's reputation for common sense and moderation is completely out of sync with his voting record.

Perhaps most striking is the fact that the leading candidates in each party - Clinton and Giuiani - had close friends and major business partners who ran into serious problems with the law - the Mcdougals of Whitewater ending up in prison and Giuliani's pal Bernie Kerick pleading guilty to accepting $165,000 worth of home renovations from a contractor who was later convicted in the case as well. This is not the normal stuff of legend for a leader of the free world.

But an actor is a person who learns someone else's lines so convincingly that the audience thinks they are that other person. This has been, since Reagan, the primary goal of our major politicians. All of the current leading presidential candidates are pretending to be people they are not.

To be sure, after Reagan, the country did momentarily slide back into traditional ways with the inalterable George Bush the elder, but with Bill Clinton, politics as fiction became institutionalized.

Although not a professional actor, he certainly did audition for the part. It may have happened as early as his college years. Clinton, according to several agency sources interviewed by biographer Roger Morris, worked as a CIA informer while briefly and erratically a Rhodes Scholar in England.

By the time in the 1980s that he was the young governor of an insignificant state (except for its drug trade), Clinton had already attracted campaign funding from Goldman Sachs, Payne Webber, Salomon Brothers and Merrill Lynch. He was also scoring points with the Washington establishment by cooperating with the Reagan administration's covert Contra activities emanating from the tiny Arkansas town of Mena.

A few years later, conservative Democrats began holding strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings -- eventually nearly a hundred of them -- were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1,000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats. It was at these meetings that Clinton was anointed.

By the 1992 New Hampshire primary, the establishment press would be overwhelmingly in the Clinton camp. Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Republic reported he had surveyed several dozen journalists and found that all of them, had they been a New Hampshire voter, would have chosen Clinton.

In other words, Clinton didn't really campaign for the presidency; he auditioned for it. He proved to the producers and directors that he could play the part.

This shift was in some ways even more dramatic than that which accompanied Reagan. After all, for the better part of a century, the Republicans had traditionally been mired in self-serving myths and Reagan merely took them to a new level. The Democrats and those to their left had been responsible for nearly all the political progress that America had enjoyed. With Clinton that all changed. Neither party was interested in real change any longer. The two parties now got both their money and their politics from the same sources.

And so it has been ever since. No more Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis to foul things up. When a wild card like Howard Dean appears, you dump him like Simon Cowell would, complaining of his poor stage presence one lone night in Iowa. If a rejected former auditioner, John Edwards, decides to go his own way, you just turn off the mikes and the lights of the campaign - aka news coverage - and reduce the election to the acceptables. A Gene McCarthy-like candidate can't even get off the ground.

Now, instead, we are offered the choice in the GOP of competing heroes - 9/11 vs. Vietnam - and in the Democratic Party of competing sociological icons - woman vs. black. In fact, Giuliani was no hero in 9/11, John McCain has learned little from being one in Vietnam, Hillary Clinton offers nothing to the waitress or the stay-at-home grandmother raising her daughter's kids, and Barack Obama has no plan for the millions of young blacks and latinos deserted for decades by both parties. None among them has a way out of Iraq or misbegotten empire nor a way towards economic decency and social justice. But it doesn't matter for we are not choosing a president but selecting a myth.

This poses a problem for a journalist. Journalists are supposed to either ignore or expose myth and help the reader find the way back to reality. But once political positions have more in common with evangelical fundamentalism into which one is born again than with philosophical differences that demand logical arguments and defenses, skepticism and exposure become the political equivalent of heresy and invite excommunication.

Although I had written critically of every president since Lyndon Johnson, it wasn't until the Clinton years that I was told - directly and by inference - that this was no longer permissible. The Clintons had helped create this climate by inventing the notion that to criticize them made you into a "hater" - sort of like a Nazi or member of the KKK. Once two friends - one of them a journalist - told me I should stop writing articles critical of the Clinton. "Even if they are true?" I asked. Yes, they replied. I knew I had entered a different time.

This tone has become increasingly familiar in some of the letters I receive. Leave Obama's 15 unpaid parking tickets alone. Are Clinton's anti-Jewish remarks the best you can come up with? In short: how dare you criticize people in whom we have put our faith?

The web has contributed to this aura by creating places that are more congregations than sites, internet cathedrals where people go for confirmation rather than information, and where the holy book is the game plan of one candidate or another.

To follow instead where the story leads one, to face the imperfectabilities of the world, to engage in the audacity of reality is just too uncomfortable for many these days.

For journalists, at least, it wasn't always like that. Here, for example, is an except of HL Mencken's coverage of the 1920 convention:

"No one but an idiot could argue seriously that either candidate is a first-rate man, or even a creditable specimen of second-rate man. Any State in the Union, at least above the Potomac, could produce a thousand men quite as good, and many States could produce a thousand a great deal better. Harding, intellectually, seems to be merely a benign blank -- a decent, harmless, laborious hollow-headed mediocrity. . . Cox is quicker of wit, but a good deal less honest. He belongs to the cunning type; there is a touch of the shyster in him. His chicaneries in the matter of prohibition, both during the convention and since, show the kink in his mind. He is willing to do anything to cadge votes, and he includes in that anything the ready sacrifices of his good faith, of the national welfare, and of the hopes and confidence of those who honestly support him. Neither candidate reveals the slightest dignity of conviction. Neither cares a hoot for any discernible principle. Neither, in any intelligible sense, is a man of honor."

One might be tempted to plagiarize some of the above to describe the leaders in the Democratic race, but it is largely myth and not morality that would prevent this. It is against the rules to even hint that there may be no good solution awaiting us, at least as far as the media is wiling to let us know. Try to think of a single contemporary establishment newspaper that would publish HL Mencken today and you can sense the problem.

It's much like the Iraq war. No matter how bad or stupid it is, we must still support the troops by letting them get killed there another year or whatever. We are not allowed to say that the administration, the Washington establishment and the media have failed us as has happened seldom before.

The Columbia Journalism Review even ran an online piece criticizing those few publications (including the Review) that reported Obama's unpaid parking tickets arguing, "This is a story that never should have made it beyond local Boston TV news, if that. It's the kind of lazy, picayune nonsense that passes as a 'character issue,' but really adds nothing to our understanding of a candidate."

If we can not even report that the "next JFK" had over a dozen parking tickets that he didn't bother to pay until he was about to announce his presidential candidacy, then where do we get our clues of a candidate's character, especially one about whom the media has told us so little?

I come from a school of journalism that said, to the contrary, that if you didn't report the parking tickets you should turn in your press pass. What people did with the information was their business; reporting it was yours.

I also can remember a liberalism that assumed every good Democrat was fighting a two-front war: against the GOP on one hand and against the SOBs in the Democratic Party on the other. I suspect many of today's liberal mythmakers would have wanted us to adapt to Carmine DeSapio, Richard Daley, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace in the interest of beating the Republicans and maintaining party unity. But the funny thing is that the party was stronger back when it lacked such phony unity.

Fundamentalism in religion or politics comes to no good end because life always contradicts itself. How else do you explain so many Democrats voting for No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act and the Iraq War? What fundamental beliefs led them to such absurdly contradictory positions? Just when you think you're among the faithful, someone betrays you.

Similarly, when you walk into the voting booth, artificially implanted illusions, false faith and naive hope won't do you any good. It is far better to take some reality along, even if you have to take a barf bag as well. To be sure, you won't have the exhilaration of delusional faith but you will be one more voter who knows how the magic really works and when you know that, the magic will no longer fool you and yours will be one more ballot cast for the real.

In the end, no matter who are our leaders are, we, at best, come in second place next to their own interests. Knowing this and why - and not pretending otherwise - may not be the meat of myth, but it is certainly at the core of our survival.

March 15, 2007

Almost running

Sam Smith - In 1974, the capital colony of DC got to elect a mayor and city council for the first time in over a century. Although the city's registration was overwhelmingly Democratic, the young DC Statehood Party, which your editor had helped to start four years earlier, decided to run a hefty slate. I missed the convention, having gone to Philadelphia to visit relatives. There I received a phone call from Jay Matthews of the Washington Post informing me that I had been selected as the party's candidate for city council chair. I replied with one of my least felicitous responses to a press query, "Oh shit, I knew I shouldn't have left town." (The Post ran the response without the expletive). After a week of reflection, I decided to stick to journalism, but couldn't resist holding a news conference at which I attacked my foregone opponent as a "Republicrat" and described the mayor and city council chair as "the political equivalent of Fruit Loops, sweet-tasting cereal circles comprised largely of additives and artificial flavoring wrapped around exactly nothing." Nationally syndicated black journalist Chuck Stone took an avuncular interest in my brief campaign, writing after its demise: "The outside chance for a white city council chairman evaporated when Sam Smith, the irreverent and witty publisher and editor of the bi-weekly DC Gazette, withdrew after a draft (which included a large number of blacks) had been mounted on his behalf. 'Oh dear,' fretted a matronly white woman who had organized a candidates night, 'we did want so much to have a least one white candidate for that office.'"

(Twenty-three years later I would be approached by some Statehood Green leaders about running for mayor. I asked my youngest son what he thought. "Terrible idea," he said. Well, if I do run, I asked, what job do you want in my administration? He replied, "I want to be the incorrible son who gets all the bad publicity." I didn't run)

March 10, 2007


Sam Smith

[Del Marbrook kindly featured your editor on the Student Operated Press site and an associated podcast. As part of the project, I sent along a few suggestions for young journalists]

The basic rules of good journalism are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, 'if you can't be funny, be interesting.'

Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.

Serve not as an expert but rather in the more modest and constructive role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider yourself a guide who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.

Help citizens tell their government what to think instead of helping government tell the people what to think. Serve your readers, not your sources.

The greatest power of the mass media is the power to ignore. The worst thing about this power is that you may not even know you're using it.

Contrary to the view of many editors, most people still like finding out who, what, when, where, why and how more than hearing in the first sentence how it all affected Roberta Mellencamp, 46, of East Quincy. Try to sneak the news as near the beginning of the story as your editor will allow.

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

One of the traits of a good reporter is boundless curiosity. If you can pass a bulletin board without looking at it, you may be in the wrong trade.

Reporters don't have to be smart; they just have to know how to find smart people.

Strive to match A.J. Liebling's boast: 'I can write faster than anyone who can write better and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.'

Objectivity, it has been said, is just the ideology of journalism. I've never met an objective journalist because every one of them has been a human. Try going after the truth instead. It's an easier and more fulfilling goal.

The best way to get past writer's block is to write crap. Then, the next morning, save what isn't crap and finish the story.

Don't be afraid of seeming a bit dumb. It's a good way of getting both the kind and the pompous to open up to you.

Think of journalism not as a profession but as a trade, a craft or an art. Your copy will be a lot better as a result.

Avoid the rituals of journalism whenever your boss will let you. For example, news conferences are just a way to keep large numbers of journalists away from the news for awhile. Eugene McCarthy once said that reporters were like blackbirds on a telephone wire. One flies off and they all fly off. If you have a choice, do something else.

Study anthropology. The greatest unintended bias in journalism comes from being a part of a culture different from that about which you are writing.

If something happens that makes you say, 'Holy shit!,' it may well be news. Check it out.

Act like a homicide detective. Follow and report the evidence but only as far as it takes you. Be prepared for lots of unsolved stories.

I.F. Stone noted that most of what the government does wrong it does out in the open. Don't assume that the story is buried. It may just be on page 27 of the report.

Repeat what people say to you as a question and often they'll think you haven't understood and will try to explain it better to you.

Find an easy shorthand on the web or elsewhere and learn it.

G. K. Chesterton said that 'journalism consists largely in saying 'Lord Jones died' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive. If you're writing well about Lord Jones that will no longer be true by the end of the story.

Learn to hear the real story and best quotes as you interview someone. If you approach an interview just as a stenographer, you'll be so busy writing you may miss your own story.

Some of the best stories out there are numbers. Most journalists are educated in the social sciences or English and so tend to ignore numbers. Some even treat them as just another adjective. Go after numbers as if you were an IRS agent and you'll be surprised how many scoops result.

Following some of the above may get you fired. Find out which before it happens.



March 09, 2007


Sam Smith

CHULEENAN SVETVILAS in Alternet provides an unintended insight into one of the problems of our age. Svetvilas concludes a review of the new Ralph Nader documentary with this comment: "An Unreasonable Man presents many opinions through the 40-some interviews and leaves it to us to decide whether he was a man of principle or a man who fell behind the times."

There's your choice, folks. Do you try to be relevant or try to be right? It is not that the conundrum hasn't appeared before. Consider the successful German businessman during the rise of Hitler or a member of the Alabama white elite in, say, 1850.

What is interesting, however, is how frank and blase Sevetvillas is about the choice, with her implicit assumption that being of the times means being without principles and that there is at least a reasonable conflict between the two.

This dichotomy is easily observable to any one who tries to do the right thing these days. Even trying, unless it be in the name of some distant and politically safe cause in Africa, is often considered unhip and irrelevant. Behind the times. The media, in particular, reinforces this notion, dissing anyone who tries to sneak an actual principle into the news. We have, it would seem, entered a postmodern paradise where the pursuit of the moral and the decent is not only unnecessary, it has all the status of a bad 1970s disco band.

History is not so sure about this because it's seen it all before: with the Romans, 1920s America, 1930s Germany. A culture that considers itself too clever to have principles is on the verge of a breakdown. It is, in the end, an unreasonable choice.

March 08, 2007


CBS - Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards won't participate in a debate co-hosted by Fox News and the Nevada Democratic Party, his campaign said, as party officials tried to settle a dustup over their partnership with the cable network. Edwards' campaign said the involvement of Fox News, which is often accused by liberals of having a conservative bias, was part of the decision to pass on the Aug. 14 debate in Reno. . . The two Democratic presidential frontrunners, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, have not indicated whether they will attend the Nevada debate. . . Move On Civic Action says it has collected more than 260,000 signatures on a petition that calls the cable network a "mouthpiece for the Republican Party, not a legitimate news channel.". . . Democratic Party officials and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid initially touted the partnership with Fox News as an opportunity to reach out to a different bloc of voters.

But in a letter posted Wednesday on the party's Web site, Democratic Party Chairman Tom Collins said Reid now shares activists' concerns and "has asked us to take another look." Collins said the party would invite a "local progressive voice" to participate on the debate panel, which also would include a reporter from a local Fox affiliate, a national Fox News reporter and the moderator.

SAM SMITH - The Edwards reaction, apparently motivated in part by the self-righteous lot at Move On, demonstrates one of the reasons the Democrats don't do better. You can't win a fight if you refuse to get in the ring. As one of the few who has appeared on Pacifica, NPR and the Bill O'Reilly Show, your editor learned that long ago. Admittedly, you've got to know your moves, among which I would include these:

- Keep smiling. The right-wing hosts want to get you mad. Just don't. It throws them off their pace.

- Find something they can agree on or something you have in common. Before my appearance on the O'Reilly Factor, I mentioned to the host that my granddaughter was growing up about 20 miles from his hometown on Long Island. He immediately become friendlier. In the 1990s, I was worried about a book related appearance on a Idaho radio station in the heart of Mark Fuhrman country. Then in his introduction, the host mentioned that I was a supporter of jury nullification, an issue that has fans on both the left and the right. When I heard that, I knew I was home free. Just one sentence in the book had saved me from being stereotyped. The interview, originally scheduled for 20 minutes, went on for an hour.

- Help people move from their pet issues to others they haven't thought much about. I once did a talk show in Michigan militia territory. I used some lines about gays not being the ones who take your pensions and feminists not shortchanging your health care. Some guy calls in and says, "You know this fellow from Washington has a point. We have to stop worrying so much about those gays and women and worry more about the corporations." It taught me not to give up on people.

Part of the problem is that many on the left and the right approach the other side as solders against an enemy or lawyers in a trial rather than as teachers or organizers. Its not a good approach because if you can't change the hearts and minds of some of those watching on Fox, you're probably going to lose the race. Put a smile on your face, some facts in your mouth and give it a try.


Sam Smith

If I just found out that one of my friends had left 17 parking tickets in Somerville, Massachusetts unpaid nearly two decades it would not lessen my affection towards that friend. As has been said, a friend is one who knows your faults and doesn't give a damn.

Besides, I didn't return the copy of "The Care and Feeding of Hamsters," which I borrowed from the Cleveland Park Library in 1973 until I found it in my basement in 1991. The maximum fine was $7; I paid $25 out of guilt which may have been more than necessary since I seem to have been made a life member of the Friend of the Cleveland Park Library as a result.

If I found that someone had accumulated the parking tickets shortly before becoming president of the Harvard Law Review I would have been smugly amused by the confirmatory evidence for my assumptions about that institution.

If the offender had run for State Senate of Illinois from a Chicago district, I would have probably supported him since the violations were in the lower range of offenses generally associated with that post.

But what if the offender had an repetitive tendency to write things in books and speeches like the following?

"Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting 'preachy' may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in addressing some of our most urgent social problems."

Or, as the violator put it down in Selma just the other day:

"One of the signature aspects of the civil rights movement was the degree of discipline and fortitude that was instilled in all the people who participated. Imagine young people, 16, 17, 20, 21, backs straight, eyes clear, suit and tie, sitting down at a lunch counter knowing somebody is going to spill milk on you but you have the discipline to understand that you are not going to retaliate because in showing the world how disciplined we were as a people, we were able to win over the conscience of the nation. I can't say for certain that we have instilled that same sense of moral clarity and purpose in this generation."

I tend not to follow the moral reiterations of people with 17 unpaid parking tickets, especially one who seems to have abruptly stopped accumulating them once the Harvard Law Review presidency was in sight and didn't bother paying them until a still higher presidency was in sight.

There is a bit of arrogance, contempt and self indulgence lurking behind such behavior. One unpaid ticket is a messy desk, two is a messy schedule, three a messy life, but 17 suggests a certain philosophical indifference to the law or other psychological flaw.

Not that all fines should be paid. For example, just 14 miles down the road from Somerville is Concord, Massachusetts, where in July of 1846 Henry David Thoreau was arrested by Constable Samuel Staples for failure to pay the poll tax, a dramatic, albeit admittedly unpreachy, statement in opposition to slavery. A veiled woman, perhaps his aunt, arrived to pay his fine but Thoreau refused to leave. Then, according to Wendy McEloy:

"According to some accounts, Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, 'Henry, what are you doing in there?' Thoreau replied, 'Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?' Emerson was 'out there' because he believed it was shortsighted to protest an isolated evil; society required an entire rebirth of spirituality."

In the present instance, the 17 unpaid Somerville parking tickets have resulted in neither jail nor are they likely - despite the offender's best desires - to result in an entire rebirth of spirituality. Instead, they stand as a reminder of the sometimes subtle, sometimes simple, accord we strike with each other in order to live in the same town. And how some observe this accord and others think they are too clever or too important to bother.

It is a small matter that becomes somewhat more significant when one thinks about the past six years under a president who has routinely ignored the laws of the United States in order to satisfy his egoistic and psychotic needs. Many of these violations have their roots in behavior and attitudes learned as a young man, including at college.

It's not an insurmountable problem but it doesn't help much when your media representative declares the issue not relevant. After all, as they say: deceive me once, shame on thee. . . Deceive me, the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department, the Democratic Party, the media and the voters 17 times until your consultants tell you better pay up, shame on all of us.

March 07, 2007


Sam Smith

I recently quoted from correspondence I had as a 20-something with a born-again Christian. In one of my letters I wrote:

"You have a clear understanding of what you believe to be the nature of God and Christ. I have not. Does that set us so far apart? I believe not, for if God is the kind of God that I would wish him to be, he will accept my lack of understanding of the infinite and settle for a human attempt at carrying out his dictates as I am able to comprehend them. Whether a man is a missionary of God, as you are, or a human involved in worldly affairs, like myself, the task remains much the same. We each in our way, bungling as we go, must make a brave effort to elevate the human race an inch to two."

Last night, browsing through Sartre before bedtime, I came across this:

"Existentialism isn't so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God does not exist. Rather it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. . . Not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the problem of His existence is not the issue."

It struck me as I read this that here was the key to the currently inflated battle between church and state: in the end it doesn't matter. The moral Christian, Jew or Muslim and the moral rationalist will follow much the same path. Keep them away from the pulpit and you may not be able to tell them apart.

The difference lies not in their actual life but in what they believe about it. The existentialist, for example, believes that existence - and behavior in it - precedes and defines essence. The religious true believer thinks it's faith, or what is known in science as speculation and, in gambling, a bet.

Now one can have an interesting debate about this, but the point here is that as far as politics and social policy are concerned the difference should make no difference once it moves to the level of actually doing something rather than just talking about, celebrating or praising why you're doing it.

Of course, politically, it does make a difference. One reason is that there are a hell of a lot more registered practicing Christians than there are registered practicing existentialists. Another is that politicians, aware of this demographic, find it much easier to pander to the faith that drives these voters rather than to the works the faith demands.

Thus, whether in the White House or in Selma, you never hear politicians described themselves as "works-based Christians," because it is much easier to associate oneself with unchallengeable holiness than with intended products too simple to observe and assess.

There was a time when there are a lot more works-based Christians around to serve as models. At one point, for example, we had Father Drinan in Congress, Father Baroni in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Father Kemp on the DC school board. During the war on poverty I found myself constantly in the company of preachers, some of whom became close friends. When I asked myself why, my answer was in part that while the engines driving us were different, our intended routes were the same. We accepted uncertainty, honored inquiry and persisted in the hope that what we did that day might make a difference.

Today's obsession with faith is driven by a number of causes, among them the deterioration of American culture and democracy, a desperate searching for certainty, evangelical abuse and heresy, political cynicism and deceit, as well as a media that perpetuates the illusion that it is better to raise one's hands in prayer than to use them for good in this life and on this day.

Of these forces, it is the media that often wields the greatest clout - a media that pretends to be fact-based and objective yet all but writhes in the aisle, screams Hallelujah and shouts Jesus' name when a fraudulent pol mounts the pulpit or a president declares some carefully concocted connection with the Almighty for his war or budget policy. This adulation of false faith and the indifference to true works is not only cynical but is helping to destroy America.

It has also helped turn the press from being reporters to being mere acolytes at the holy communion of America's powerful. If, on the other hand, the media followed the lead of Sartre, it would do us all a great service. Instead of telling us what politicians pretended to believe it would report on what they actually did. . . moving, one might say, from faith-based to fact-based reporting

March 02, 2007


Sam Smith

n referring to the lives of American troops in Iraq is absolutely correct, regardless what the politicians and media claim. One dictionary definition of the word starts with "to use, consume, spend, or expend thoughtlessly or carelessly," which pretty well describes what the Bush regime has done with these lives.

So why the outrage when Senators Obama and McCain said it? One reason is the closely held myth that no American lives are ever wasted in combat: they die to protect their country and it doesn't get any nobler than that. True, for many of the soldiers, this may have been what they believed, but that doesn't make it fact. The fact is that from the time they were recruited to their last breath they were victims of a con, a con that made them sacrifices of a incompetent, criminal and cynical regime pursuing goals destructive of America. Instead of their lives and America's future being saved - the antonym of wasted - they were treated as expendable and replaceable fodder for a corrupt and ignorant administration.

That's hard for families and other Americans to face. It is more comforting to perpetuate the illusion that any soldier who dies in Iraq is following in the footsteps of those at Iwo Jima and the Battle of Bulge. In fact, there were no good reasons for any soldier to die in Iraq and to argue otherwise merely adds to the numbers who will be future victims of the myth.

More important, however, than the public's acceptance of the myth is the establishment's promulgation of it. What Obama and McCain ran into was not a public outcry but an elite scolding. Those who run this country know how subversive to their interests is the heresy that others' dying to preserve their power is not only less than noble, it is futile and a waste. If such an recognition spreads, they are in trouble for their corrupt grasp on our society depends on a steady stream of wasted lives.

The fault of Obama and McCain was not that they told the truth, but that they were not courageous enough to defend it.