May 26, 2007


Sam Smith

BURIED IN a NY Times update on the ecologically conscious city of Curitiba Brazil is an oft-ignored lesson for environmentalists: don't listen too hard to planners, politicians and business groups about how to improve cities. Few of them are like Curitiba's former mayor Jaime Lerner, an architect and planner who knew well how, and for whom, to use his skills.

Among his projects was an apprenticeship program for kids who didn't want to stay in school, a floodplain used as parkland rather than for flood-endangered construction and municipal sheep to tend the parks and pas their wool on to needy kids.

But his most remarkable project was changing a bus system which had carried only 54,000 passengers a day. Writes Arthur Lubow in the Times:
"That number has ballooned to 2.3 million, in large part because of innovations that permit passengers to board and exit rapidly. In 1992, Lerner and his team established the tubular boarding platforms with fare clerks and turnstiles, so that the mechanisms for paying and boarding are separated, as in a subway. To carry more people at a time, the city introduced flexible-hinged articulated buses that open their doors wide for rapid entry and egress; then, when the buses couldn't cope with the demand, the Lerner team called for bi-articulated buses of 88 feet with two hinges (and a 270-passenger capacity), which Volvo manufactured at Curitiba's request. Comparing the capacities of bus and subway systems, Lerner reels off numbers with a promoter's panache. 'A normal bus in a normal street conducts x passengers a day,' he told me. 'With a dedicated lane, it can transport 2x a day. If you have an articulated bus in a dedicated lane, 2.7x passengers. If you add a boarding tube, you can achieve 3.4x passengers, and if you add double articulated buses, you can have four times as many passengers as a normal bus in a normal street.' He says that with an arrival frequency of 30 seconds, you can transport 36,000 passengers every hour which is about the same load he would have achieved with a subway."
To get a sense of how extraordinary this idea was, Washington's subway, built at huge expense and cost overruns, carries about a third as many passengers each day.

I made few friends when Metro was bring built by arguing that it was a false god. I pointed out that dedicated bus lanes or light rail could produce ten or more times the mileage for the same cost and further that surface transit directly competed with cars as opposed to a subway that mainly competed with preexisting successful bus lines. Besides, many of its new riders would be the result of urban sprawl spawned by the subway itself by creating ever more distant development opportunities at widely spaced stops.

Further, the subway contradicted the urban goal well defined by Toronto planner Terry Fowler: access rather than mobility. The most ecologically sound footprint is that made by our own feet and not by any form of transit.

Less apparent at the time was another major handicap: the subway made it possible for residents, businesses and tourist facilities to leave town which they did in large numbers. Thus, as both an economic and an environmental concept, it fell far short of its promise.

But environmentalists frowned (and still do) on any criticism of Metro. I came to understand that while they understood open space, skies and water well, in cities they tended to rely upon the expertise of those a cynical urban journalist like myself knew were up to no good. After all, from the start, Metro was a land development scheme, not a transit solution.

This naivete has been repeated in recent years by the unquestioning participation of environmentalists in a smart growth movement that, though begun with noble purpose, has been increasingly subverted by development and big business interests. Thus in one Washington neighborhood we find the Sierra Club and other liberals supporting a controversial high rise in a way that never would have occurred even a decade ago. Simply by using the smart growth illusion, the developers have produced enough liberal guilt to change the politics in their favor.

And it's getting worse. In the past few months it has suddenly become respectable to talk about trashing Washington's historic height limit, one of the factors that has made it such a livable city. It's too early to tell whether the Sierra Club and liberals will start to feel guilty about the height limit, too, but if they do, you can kiss the beauty of the capital good bye.

At the heart of the problem is the assumption that density is what matters. In fact, density can be achieved in a lot of different ways other than those sought by the typical high rise developer. But to understand this and deal with it, one most free the debate from the rhetorical grasp of those who see a city's future primarily in economic - rather than ecological or humanistic - terms.

Here again, the NY Times article on Curitba is useful:
"Jorge Wilheim, the Sao Paulo architect who drafted Curitiba¹s master plan in 1965, says: 'When we made the plan, the population was 350,000. We thought in a few years it would reach 500,000. But it has grown much bigger.' The municipality of Curitiba today has 1.8 million people, and the population of the metropolitan region is 3.2 million. 'I know the plan of Curitiba is very famous, and I am the first to enjoy it, but that was in '65,'"
Curitiba has run smack into an issue that in the U.S. is off the table: urban scale. A good idea had become too big.

If you look at the stats it seems beyond our control. In 100 AD the largest city was Rome with 450,000. In 1500 the largest city was Beijing with 672,000. In 1800 the largest city was Beijing with 1.1 million. It was not only 1825 that any city - London - hit 5 million. No city exceeded 10 million until 1925 (New York) and Tokyo became the first city over 20 million in 1965. The global urban population reached 2.9 billion in 2000 and is expected to rise to 5 billion by 2030, according to the United Nations Population Division.

And, as a publication for the International Society for Ecological Economics puts it: "However brilliant its economic star, every city is an entropic black hole drawing on the concentrated material resources and low-entropy production of a vast and scattered hinterland many times the size of the city itself."

The fatalistic assumption many seem to be making is that we are all headed for apartments on the 110th floor.

But the fact is that you could fit the entire population of the U.S. into an area the size of the state of Maine and still have a density two thirds that of my highly livable Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Why is thinking and reality so distant on this issue? In part because the discussion is dominated by those with an economic rather than a social or ecological interest in cities. In part because environmentalists don't understand cities all that well and defer to the former. And in part because environmentalists still don't fully accept human beings as part of the ecological community.

Thus it is enough to support density without looking at what it actually has done to a place like Curitiba or might do the culture of a neighborhood in DC. We don't discuss the fact that density can lead to brutality, atomization and the bureaucratization or corporatization of matters best handled by a community - not to mention increasing damage to the environment as we attempt to make the new monster work efficiently.

Fortunately, we still have time to look at this differently. Obviously, population growth itself has to become more of an issue. But we also need to be more sophisticated about how we look at our urban areas.

A few groups, like Redefining Progress, are already doing this. The World Wildlife Fund has added the resolution of humanitarian crises to its agenda and started measuring the ecological footprint of various French cities. Among the results: the people of Paris require 15 acres to support themselves while the residents of Besancon (population 115,000) require about 2 acres less. Other studies have found that those in Seattle need 55 acres. Other examples: In England, both York and London come in at about 16 acres per capita despite the difference in population. Those in Santa Monica require 21 acres, in Vancouver 13.

The European Environment Agency came up with these average footprint acreages per capita:

Global 5.4
Europe 11.6
Africa 2.7
Asia 3.2
Latin America 4.7
Canada 18.5
U.S. 23.9

Low income countries 2
Middle income countries 4.7
High income countries 15.8

One may argue with the formulas or the specific analyses but the differences are striking enough to show that a lot more than density is involved and that we need to study far more closely what improves a city's ecological status.

What is the ecological impact of different building types? At present the judgment of planners and developers is heavily driven by land values. How do we change that? Could we be using the wrong urban model? One that has been based on planning traditions and economic assumptions? Could Orvieto be a better model than Manhattan? If York is kinder to the planet than Seattle, why?

Is there a size at which cities become environmentally counterproductive? Does it make more sense to add to the density of existing large cities or redesign existing suburbs so they become self-supporting villages with easy accessibility to the services they need? What is the footprint not just of a whole city but of each of its neighborhoods?

We not only don't know the answers, too few are even trying to find out.

As I write this, our mayor and some members of the city council are in Las Vegas attempting to entice major new businesses to set up shop in one of the last predominantly black corners of Washington. The purpose, of course, is economic development. Leaving aside such issues as gentrification and the true economic effect of non-local commercialism outsourcing the income of a neighborhood instead of recycling it, we find once again major changes being made to a city without a single word about the major long term ecological impact of that community. Conventional environmental impact statements are necessary but ultimately the question is not just the quality of the water or whether the eagles survive, but whether the plans make it harder or easier for humans to keep living on this planet.

A good starting point might be to require an ecological footprint analysis of new urban plans. Certainly issues of ecology - both natural and human - need to be raised to the same level in urban planning as present considerations of economics.



May 24, 2007



SAM SMITH - It is not easy to recognize fascism if you haven't been there before. Our eyesight is blurred by everything from cultural optimism to psychic denial. But news of the NSA's mass spying on American's phone records - in number of victims, at least, perhaps the most broadly illegal and unconstitutional act in our history - makes it all simpler. There is not an ounce of hyperbole in calling the NSA's action those of a fascist regime and not of a democratic state. NSA has not only violated the law, it even refuses to allow the Justice Department to investigate its violation. This is the behavior of a dictatorship, not of a democracy.

Sadly, even more telling that NSA's action - in determining how far down the road to fascism we have traveled, is the response to it by the public, the press and the law. In a real democracy, citizens, media and their attorneys stand up against such abuse; in this case there is a truly frightening ambivalence and apathy.

According to the Washington Post, nearly two thirds of Americans support the NSA in its actions - 44% strongly. This may not be so surprising when one considers how little time and space the media has permitted for arguments that paranoia is a poor way to protect oneself or that a regime that will trash its laws and constitution rather than adopt a more reasonable foreign policy is not to be trusted to be either fair or safe. On a regular basis the press reinforces the idea that "national security" is inherently at odds with democracy and decency, repeatedly nudging the citizen towards the former even if it is, as it so often is, a phantom refuge.

Further, many lawyers - and the commentators who quote them - foster such trends by the mythology that justice is best served by following precedents or case law. This bias is based on the cheerful presumption that progress in the law as elsewhere is inevitable. On a number of occasions, however, I have asked extremely intelligent lawyers what does one do in a society where the legal precedents are becoming worse - as they are in a country dismantling two centuries of ideals? Not one has given a coherent answer.

One can not tell how much longer America has before it gives up on democracy completely. What we can say, however, is that the road has just gotten much shorter. - May 2006


Sam Smith

Now that Frances Fukuyama has rediscovered history, the Nation Magazine's Katrina Vanden Heuvel would like to put it to bed again. In the best tradition of the establishment's view of "civil discourse" - i.e. avoiding the real issues - Vanden Heuvel suggested in the :Washington Post that we "stop equating our opponents with famous dictators, their chief executioners, police apparatus or ideologies. I'm all for learning from history, but times are hard enough in American politics - with war, threats to national security, the greatest divide between rich and poor in our history and deep cultural divisions. Present differences deserve to be described in contemporary terms. The purpose of public speech is not just to restate anger but to clarify the principles and evidence that fuel it -- in ways that invite discussion, not inhibit it."

Vanden Heuvel is dead wrong. The reason people get away with bad historical analogies is because we don't discuss history enough. We are left with an assortment of myths, stereotypes, and trite metaphors. Our present state is in no small part the result of not understanding and discussing our past. For example:

Have we always been so publicly callous about torture before?

Why have we passed more laws in the past 30 years than we did in our first two hundred?

Whatever happened to the Tenth Amendment?

Have corporations always been granted the status of individuals in our society?

The list is endless, but let's just consider the aspect of history that Vanden Heuvel doesn't want us to mention: similarities between present day American politicians and politics and some unpleasant precedents.

Her examples remind us that people can make these analogies crudely, wrongly, or for nefarious purposes. But if Vanden Heuvel felt more at home with history she would realize that this is part of a great American tradition: putting up with a certain amount of nonsense in order to preserve our freedoms including that of speech.

But what if we ignore Vanden Heuvel's advice and ask ourselves, for example: how close are we to Hitler's Germany? What can we learn from even a cursory consideration of history?

In the first place, one needs to separate Hitler, Nazism and fascism. Conflating these leads the unwary to assume easily that all three are inevitably characterized by anti-Semitism, when in fact only the first two are. By avoiding this distinction we don't have to face the fact that America is closer to fascism than it has ever been in its history.

To understand why, one needs to look not at Hitler but at the founder of fascism, Mussolini. What Mussolini founded was the estato corporativo - the corporative state or corporatism. Writing in Economic Affairs in the mid 1970s, R.E. Pahl and J. T. Winkler described corporatism as a system under which government guides privately owned businesses towards order, unity, nationalism and success. They were quite clear as to what this system amounted to: "Let us not mince words. Corporatism is fascism with a human face. . . An acceptable face of fascism, indeed, a masked version of it, because so far the more repugnant political and social aspects of the German and Italian regimes are absent or only present in diluted forms."

Thus, although the model generally cited in defense of organized capitalism is that of the contemporary Japanese, the most effective original practitioners of a corporative economy were the Italians. Unlike today's Japanese, but like contemporary America, their economy was a war economy.

Adrian Lyttelton, describing the rise of Italian fascism in The Seizure of Power, writes: "A good example of Mussolini's new views is provided by his inaugural speech to the National Exports Institute on 8 July 1926. . . Industry was ordered to form 'a common front' in dealing with foreigners, to avoid 'ruinous competition,' and to eliminate inefficient enterprises. . . The values of competition were to be replaced by those of organization: Italian industry would be reshaped and modernized by the cartel and trust. . .There was a new philosophy here of state intervention for the technical modernization of the economy serving the ultimate political objectives of military strength and self-sufficiency; it was a return to the authoritarian and interventionist war economy."

Lyttelton writes that "fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly." It was a point that Orwell had noted when he described fascism as being but an extension of capitalism. Lyttelton quoted Nationalist theorist Affredo Rocco: "The Fascist economy is. . . an organized economy. It is organized by the producers themselves, under the supreme direction and control of the State."

The Germans had their own word for it: wehrwirtschaft. It was not an entirely new idea there. As William Shirer points out in the Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich, 18th and 19th century Prussia had devoted some five-sevenths of its revenue on the Army and "that nation's whole economy was always regarded as primarily an instrument not of the people's welfare but of military policy."

Has "civil discourse" been harmed by knowing the foregoing and the uncomfortable similarities it bears with what is happening to our country today?

Another more complex example is Adolph Hitler. On many grounds, the analogy does not serve us well:

Germany's willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. Still, consideration of the Weimar Republic that preceded Hitler does us no harm. Bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:

- A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

- The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the "rationalization of production." There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a hyped version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

- The Nazis as the first modern political party. As University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers explains, the Nazis discovered the importance of campaigning not just during campaigns but between elections when the other parties folded their tents. With this "perpetual campaigning" they spread themselves like a virus, considering the public reaction to everything right down to the colors used for posters and rally backgrounds. Knowing this, one can not watch the manic manipulations of public moments by the Bush regime without a sense of déjà vu.

- The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies.

- The Nazis as the inventors of modern political propaganda. Every modern American political campaign and the types of arguments used to support them owes much to the ideas of the Nazis.

- The suddenness of the Nazi rise. The party went from less than 3% of the vote to being the largest party in the country in four years.

- The collapse of the country's self image. Childers points out that Germany had had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our battered self-image.

So while many of the behaviors that would come to be associated with Nazis and Hitler - from physical attacks on political opponents to the death camps - seem far removed from our present concerns, there is still much to learn from their history.

We are clearly in a post-constitutional era; the end of the First American Republic. Depending on what day it is we think of its replacement variously - ranging from an adhocracy to proto-fascism. But one does not need to know the end of the story to know that we headed at a rapid pace away from the extraordinary principles of American democracy towards the dark hole of power with impunity, to the sort of world in which, as Rudolph Giuliani has calmly asserted, "freedom is about authority."

If we describe present differences only in contemporary terms then we have nothing to guide us but what happened yesterday.

George Bush and his capos have capitalized on this disinterest in history to rewrite the Constitution and other things. He's not the first.

For example, Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic stated, "In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform the Reichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands."

It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according to Childers, the 'democratic" Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler's ascendancy.

There are eerie similarities between Article 48 and George Bush's approach. When you add to this the remarkable incompetence of the current regime, the collapse of both traditional liberal and conservative politics, and the economic crises, it feels like a new Weimar Republic setting the stage for awful things we can not at this point even imagine. It may be that history has something to tell us after all. - 2006



Sam Smith

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has accused artist Hans Haacke of "trivializing the Holocaust" by creating analogies between Mayor Giuliani and Adolph Hitler. Said Foxman, the work "denigrates the memory of six million Jews and others who were killed by the Nazis."

Foxman's contribution to the Giuliani campaign illustrates the growing confusion over the nature of fascism, spurred in no small part by a form of historical revisionism that essentially reduces the Second World War to a matter of anti-Semitism. In some ways this revisionism is more dangerous than the claim that the Holocaust never happened, since the denials are safely on the fringe while the myth that fascism is inexorably linked to anti-Semitism is widely held.

One of the reasons we have such difficulty perceiving our current conditions is our aversion to this single word: fascism. While there is no hesitation by politicians to draw parallels with the Holocaust to justify whatever foreign adventure appeals to them, or for the media to make similar analogies at the drop of swastika on a wall, we seem only able to understand -- or even mention -- the climax of fascism rather than its genesis. Why this reluctance? Perhaps it is because we are much closer to the latter than to the former.

In any case, it is one of the most dangerous forms of political myopia in which to indulge. Italians, who invented the term fascism, also called it the estato corporativo: the corporatist state. Orwell rightly described fascism as being an extension of capitalism. It is an economy in which the government serves the interests of oligopolies, a state in which large corporations have the powers that in a democracy devolve to the citizen.

The link between business and fascism was clear to German corporatists. Auschwitz was not just a way to get rid of Jews, it was also a major source of cheap labor. As Richard Rubenstein points out in The Cunning of History, "I.G. Farben's decision to locate at Auschwitz was based upon the very same criteria by which contemporary multinational corporations relocate their plants in utter indifference to the social consequences of such moves." I.G. Farben invested over a billion dollars in today's money at Auschwitz and, thanks to the endless supply of labor, adopted a policy of deliberately working the Jewish slaves to death. In such ways do economics and freedom become intertwined. Those who think it can't happen here should consider that four days before Mussolini became premier, he met with a group of industrialists and assured them that his aim "was to reestablish discipline within the factories and that no outlandish experiments .... would be carried out." In Friendly Fascism, Bertram Gross notes that Mussolini also won "the friendship, support or qualified approval" of the American ambassador, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Thomas Lamont, many newspapers and magazine publishers, the majority of business journals, and quite a sprinkling of liberals, including some associated with both the Nation and The New Republic. "

Orwell understood fascism. One of the characteristics of his inner party, the ten percent who controlled the rest, was that there was no sexual or racial discrimination. He understood that ethnic eradication, while characteristic of nazism, was not required for fascism. Even earlier, Aldous Huxley set up a similar non-discriminatory dystopia in Brave New World.

In fact, one of the characteristics of the modern propaganda state is the use of ethnic and sexual iconography to cover its tracks. Thus Richard Nixon was slurring Jews in Oval Office conversations even as he set a new record in their high-level appointments. And W.J. Clinton was called our first black president by Toni Morrison even as the government was sending young black males to prison in unprecedented numbers.

There is something else about fascism that we miss: it requires a modern, technocratic society. John Ralston Saul has written:

"The Holocaust was the result of a perfectly rational argument -- given what reason had become -- that was self-justifying and hermetically sealed. There is, therefore, nothing surprising about the fact that the meeting called to decide on "the final solution" was a gathering mainly of senior ministerial representatives. Technocrats. Nor is it surprising that [the] Wansee Conference lasted only an hour -- one meeting among many for those present -- and turned entirely on the modalities for administering the solutions .... The massacre was indeed 'managed,' even 'well managed.' It had the clean efficiency of a Harvard case study "

Marshall Rosenberg, who teaches non-violent communication, says that in reading psychological interviews with Nazi war criminals what struck him was not their abnormality, but that they used a language that denied choice: "should," "one must," "have to." For example, Adolph Eichmann was asked, "Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people their death?" Eichmann replied, "To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy."

Asked to explain, Eichmann said, "My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache -- 'office talk.'" In office talk "you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, 'Why did you do it?' you say, 'I had to.' 'Why did you have to?' 'Superiors' orders. Company policy. It's the law.'"

Yet for all the words we have devoted to the Holocaust, go into almost any bookstore and you'll find far more works on how to manage, manipulate and control others - and how to use "office talk" -- than you will on how to practice the skills of a free citizen.

The most important lessons of the Holocaust are simply missed. Among these, as Richard Rubenstein has pointed out, is that it could only have been carried out by "an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy." In The Cunning of History, Rubenstein also finds uncomfortable parallels between the Nazis and their opponents, of which we are being now reminded with recent questions about the role of the Vatican and the Swiss during WWII. For example, a Hungarian Jewish emissary meets with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggests that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne's reply: "What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?"

Writes Rubenstein: "The British government was by no means adverse to the 'final solution' as long as the Germans did most of the work." For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand "as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century."How many school children are taught that, worldwide, wars in the past century killed somewhere between 100 and 150 million people? In World War I alone the death toll was around ten million. All this, including the Holocaust, was driven by a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, "attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive." Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery -- willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.

Thus, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the bureaucratic internal logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore.

Milton Mayer, a Jewish journalist, who wrote a book about ordinary Nazis, They Thought They Were Free, concluded:

Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany ~ It was what most Germans wanted -- or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt -- and feel -- that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.

Giuliani's politics contain proto-fascist elements. We should not hide from this fact. The discussion of Giuliani and fascism is also pertinent for local historical reasons. During the rise of Mussolini, more than a few New York City Italians supported the fascist dictator. Of course, this same community produced such progressives as Fiorello La Guardia and Vito Marcantonio. This is a sensitive subject, witness the change from the New York City Historical Society's frank depiction of the intracultural struggle in its exhibit on Italians in NY to a post-exhibit mealy-mouthed summary on its web site which reads: "The 1933 election of reform candidate Fiorello La Guardia as mayor of New York reflected the strength of Italian voters. Like any community, however, Italian-Americans are not monolithic in their political views. The rise of European Fascism created significant political divisions among New York's Italian population. Yet, when called upon, civilians organized behind the war effort, staging countless rallies, war bond drives, Red Cross efforts and youth enlistment campaigns."

The Italian-American right is not the only story shoved down the memory hole. How many know, for example, that 21% of the initial votes for Republican mayor Fiorello LaGuardia came from the left-wing American Labor Party? Where would Giuliani have fallen in this political divide? Hardly on the side of LaGuardia.

These are matters worth discussing frankly. Let Giuliani explain how he differs with the fascist idea, and not hide behind Abraham Foxman's coat tails. Let's debate the fascistic side of both the Clintons and Giuliani. Or are we now a nation that permits "fuck" on cable TV but not "fascism" in an art museum? If so, we are finished, whatever we call it.


BERNARD WEINER - A good share of what we know about how this happened in Germany usually comes to us many years later from post-facto books, looking backward to the horror. There are very few examples of accounts written from the inside at the very time the events were unfolding. One such book is "Defying Hitler," by the noted German journalist/author Sebastian Haffner. The manuscript was found, stuffed away in a drawer, by Haffner's son in 1999 after his father's death at age 91. Published in 2000, the book became an immediate best-seller in Germany and was published last year in English, translated by the son, Oliver Pretzel...

"Defying Hitler" is a brilliantly written social document, begun (and ended abruptly) in 1939; even though it fills in the reader on German history from the First World War on, its major focus is on the year 1933, when, as Hitler assumed power, Haffner was a 25-year-old law student, in-training to join the German courts as a junior administrator...

Haffner tries to solve the riddle of the easy acceptance of fascism in Hitler's Third Reich. In March of 1933, a majority of German citizens did not vote for Hitler. "What happened to that majority? Did they die? Did they disappear from the face of the earth? Did they become Nazis at this late stage? How was it possible that there was not the slightest visible reaction from them" as Hitler, installed by the authorities as Chancellor, began slowly and then more quickly consolidating power and moving Germany from a democratic state to a totalitarian one?

All along the way, Hitler would propose or actually promulgate regulations that sliced away at German citizens' freedoms -- usually aimed at small, vulnerable sectors of society (labor unionists, communists, Jews, mental defectives, et al.) -- and few said or did anything to indicate serious displeasure. In the early days, on those rare occasions when there was concerted negative reaction, Hitler would back off a bit. And so the Nazis grew bolder and more voracious as they continued slicing away at civil society. Many Germans (including some of Hitler's original corporate backers) were convinced Nazism would collapse as it became more and more extreme; others chose denial. It was easier to look the other way.

Haffner saw what was starting to happen, but retreated into his law studies. Even while the Brownshirts were beating and killing people in the streets, the courts with which he worked remained a solid bulwark in defense of traditional democratic principles. And then one day, the Nazis simply marched into the Berlin court buildings and took over Germany's judicial system. Haffner was shaken to the core, but continued studying for his final exams.

Shortly thereafter, he and his fellow students were dispatched to a kind of boot camp for ideological and military training. Haffner, a Christian anti-Nazi, found himself, to his astonishment and horror, wearing jackboots, a swastika and learning how to kill.

In an inner monologue, Haffner says: "There are some things I must never do: never say anything that I would be ashamed of later. Shooting at targets is all right. But not at people. I must not commit myself, or sell my soul...Oh dear! It dawned on me that I had already relinquished and lost everything. I wore a uniform with a swastika armband. I stood to attention and cleaned my rifle....But that did not count: it was not me that did it; it was a game and I was acting a part.

"Only what if, dear God, there was some court that did not recognize this defense, but simply wrote down everything as it happened; that did not look into my heart, but simply noted the swastika armband? Before that court I was in a wretched position. Dear God, where had I gone wrong? What should I say to the judge who asked, 'You wear a swastika armband and say that you do not want to. Then why do you wear it?'"...

"It is one of the uncanny aspects of events in Germany that the deeds have no doers, the suffering has no martyrs. Everything takes place under a kind of anesthesia. Objectively dreadful deeds produce a thin, puny emotional response. Murders are committed like schoolboy pranks. Humiliation and moral decay are accepted like minor incidents. Even death under torture only produces the response 'Bad luck'."...

He hung on until 1938. Just prior to the Second World War, Haffner left Germany for England to join the war-effort against fascism. He did not return until the mid-'50s.


From "Multitudes: An Unauthorized Memoir"
by Sam Smith

Time zones


When I moved my office four blocks closer to downtown I knew I was going to be in a new neighborhood. What I soon found out, however, was that I was also in a new time zone. In my old digs, three blocks of old row buildings north of Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue, time functioned much like the tide. The street would come alive in the morning, ebb in the early afternoon, and flood again in the evening. I would often suffer a momentary temporal tic upon leaving my office at seven or eight in the evening and discovering that I had missed the beginning of the party.

Dupont Circle is a border checkpoint between DeeCee and Washington through which you pass to go from community to facility, from experience to ritual, and from the anarchy of engaged life to the order of bloodless systems. Like all stereotypes, there are exceptions and, with the help of Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, I found one, a fifth floor garret des refusés, which I now share with Jim, a doctor of alternative medicine, and an African lawyer. On the first floor, a seamstress keeps her door open so you greet her as you approach an elevator so venerable one almost expects to see Joan Crawford leave it. The heavy doors resist your lean as you try to maneuver past them with your box and bag and a little notice etched in the brass reminds you of a forgotten choice: "With Attendant," "Without Attendant." I already feel at home.

Still, as soon as I leave 18th Street and walk around to the rigid, rectangular offices along Connecticut Avenue something happens. The tide now ebbs and flows only once a day. When I go for a snack at 5, most of the delis are locked. Last Friday I was told three times to "have a nice weekend." North of Dupont Circle people rarely said that.

It has to do, I think, with the fact that north of Dupont Circle there are still many places to live. And many small businesses. And many people on the street who have traveled no distance at all; their commute is measured in blocks. They do not come to or leave the place, rather they belong to it. One is less likely to say, "have a nice weekend" on such a block because the person you are saying it to may be, like the retired men at Volare's restaurant, in exactly the same place eating exactly the same thing tomorrow.

There are other people to whom you wouldn't say have a nice weekend either: the conventioneers at the Washington Hilton up the street who weekly change the demographics of the strip. I would just get used to the Congressional Black Caucus when it would be replaced by a fleet of wheel-chaired delegates to a conference on the disabled, followed the next week by the shiny baseball jackets of a union convention. On this block, even diversity was a function of time as well as place.

How much longer it will remain so is hard to tell. I suspect the real estate company which owns hotel chains and casinos and property in the billions and which shoved us out, wants to make north of the Circle part of the same time zone as south of the Circle.

One of their architects came by and measured my room. He left his card, and I noticed he had used four different type fonts on it. The bulimic spirit of the 1990s envelops everything from hotel chains to type faces. I wonder how you decide when you have enough hotels and casinos and row buildings on Connecticut Avenue. There is too much of everything. But that's just a first impression. Then there is too little.

The other evening I came out of my office at 7:15. The street was quiet until I reached Dupont Circle. On my old block the sidewalk bubbled and cars were double-parked as their owners grabbed a magazine at the Newsroom, picked up a friend or waited for someone at a restaurant. And when I walked in, the crowd at La Tomate was noisy and happy because no one had told them that according to city planners, politicians, and office developers it was well past time for the city to have closed up for the night.


From the Progressive Review, 1999

In the last week or so:

- A reader wrote in to describe TPR as rightwing maggots, fuck heads, and pro-fascists.

- Your editor was described on-air by conventional liberal public radio commentator Mark Plotkin as "the bad Smith," in contrast with his historian wife, who was "the good Smith."

- I became the subject of low intensity philosophical debate on a Clinton scandal bulletin board that included these comments:

"If those who began life as Marxist have evolved into more thoughtful individuals, then as far as I'm concerned they are welcome aboard. Would any here consider the 'enemy' even if he chooses to espouse a number of untenable positions, which positions, I suspect in the long run will not prove significant?

Which produced this response from Billy:

"That completely depends on what we're calling 'significant.' Personally, I've lately said in private correspondence that, for a commie, Sam's not a bad sort. He most certainly is to be roundly commended for his stalwart intolerance of The Lying Bastard, that's for sure. However, if not for that particular disaster that happens to bring him and me together, it's clear to me that we could be serious antagonists over other matters."

Just for the record, I read Marx but never enjoyed him. I avoided the fate of Ring Lardner Jr. who became a Marxist because he attended the first weeks of his afternoon Harvard economic classes during which Karl's virtues were explained, but missed the professor's later criticisms because the Boston Red Sox season had begun.

I firmly believe that Groucho Marx revealed more of God's ways than Karl did. The difference was best explained by James Thurber:

You may remember that on one occasion when a suspicious plainclothes man, observing that, whereas only two Marxes were seated at a certain breakfast table, there were nevertheless covers laid for twice as many, said sharply: 'This table is set for four.' Groucho, in no wise confused, replied, 'That's nothing, the alarm clock is set for eight.' If nothing else set off the Marx Brothers from Karl Marx that would. Karl Marx had the sort of mind which, when faced with the suggestion that the stolen painting was hidden in the house next door, would, on learning that there was no house next door, never have thought to build one. Here is where, again, he parts company with the Marx Brothers. The significance of this divergence becomes clear when it is known that the Marx Brothers recovered the painting.

Of melody & melanin


DC Watch recently raised the question of the existence of an official city song. In fact there almost was one. I know, because I wrote it.

Marion Barry sponsored a contest for such a song, which I entered with "Washington, My Home Town." I was later told that the judges liked mine the best but, in the ethnic patois of the time, they wanted to reopen the contest in order to receive a "broader range of submissions." Nothing more was ever heard of the contest. I may be the only person in America who not only lost a gig because of affirmative action but made the gig disappear as well.

The song came from a musical revue of DC history written by my wife Kathy, Becky Denney, and myself. It was performed several times, once with the mayor in attendance, and featured Jim Vance as Frederick Douglass and a beat poet. The Washington Star listed it as one of its "Sure Things" for the weekend.

Besides "My Home Town," I wrote a soft shoe number performed by Boss Shepherd and a pair of his henchmen: "I'm the boss, I'm the boss of Washington/I can force anything that I want done./I can plant a tree or pave a road or put a gas lamp up/So what does it matter if I'm a little bit corrupt?. . .

My favorite, however, was the tune I wrote for feminist Alice Paul which, aside from being a foot-stomper, included the immortal bridge: "We don't find it to enrichin' to be switchin' in the kitchen, so if you want us to stop bitchin', you had better start in switchin.'"

DC Watch, which researched the history of the city's songs (or lack thereof), later told a part of the sequel:

Things remained relatively stable until 1985. Then City Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis introduced a bill to name 'This Is My Town,' by Mark A. Williams, as the city's official song. The song didn't pass muster, and the Council failed to act, largely because of discomfort over the open resentment expressed in lyrics like:

"'Oh the tourists and the politicians
Come and go and that's fine by me
As long as they know -
This is my town
My home town!'"

News of this attracted my attention because the song I had earlier submitted to Mayor Barry's contest (as written and performed in 1977) was a tune called "Washington, My Home Town." Among its lyrics:

"Politicians they come and go;
It doesn't get me down
Because I still have my Washington;
It's my home town."

Jarvis' bill crumbled, so I never pursued the matter.



October 1999

The October issue was late because your editor was tied up in a six-hour voir dire for a double-robbery case. In the end, I maintained my perfect record of having never sat as a through a full trial. As a Coast Guard officer I was bounced from two courts martial, and I have been dismissed from three jury panels. In the one case in which I was seated, the first two witnesses -- US Park Police officers -- identified the defense counsel as the defendant. The trial was over in 20 minutes.

In the most recent case, the judge's impressive if tedious effort to obtain a fair jury resulted in a long series of bench conferences as citizens told of their connections to crime and law enforcement. For my part I mentioned my USCG background, three house burglaries, one office break-in, one stolen car, being detained at Washington National Airport as a suspected terrorist due to a defective computer-screening machine, and the fact that one of my brother's in-laws had been killed in a drug store robbery.

Then I explained to Judge Michael Rankin that, while I doubted it was relevant in this case, I had been advised that I should reveal my long public advocacy of the right of juries to judge both the law and the facts. I noted that this view had upset some judges. Judge Rankin said it didn't bother him although he didn't mind debating the issue and had done so with Paul Butler, the black lawyer-scholar who has promoted nullification as a form of protest. I told the judge that I didn't think Butler's arguments were effective because they were based on ethnicity rather than history, which offered a much stronger case. I then began a brief spiel the subject citing Learned Hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Thomas Jefferson. While previous US Attorneys had expressed hostility towards my views, this one merely asked whether there were any legal principles that I would uphold. I asked for an example and Judge Rankin said, well, you would support the presumption of innocence wouldn't you? I said, of course, and then -- brazenly rapping my hand on the judge's bench to punctuate the point -- said my concern was that the jury remain our last defense against tyranny, the final legislature deciding the law as it pertained to the case under consideration. To my amazement, Judge Rankin said, well, you'll get no argument from me. The judge and both attorneys agreed that the case under consideration did not raise such issues and that was the end of the matter. I was later dismissed on a peremptory challenge.

The incident reminded me of another pleasant surprise I recently stumbled upon in a DC courthouse. Twenty citizens, including myself, are suing the President, Senate, House, and federal control board for the lack of DC self-government. The day before our hearing before a special three-judge panel in US District Court (in the very courtroom of Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Monica fame)someone called the US Marshals and warned that our group might be planning some disruption. Sure enough, when I entered the courthouse with co-plaintiff and black minister Graylan Hagler, there seemed an excess number of surly cops standing outside. A US Marshal approached and asked if he could help us. Rev. Hagler asked for directions to the cafeteria which the Marshal gave and then he looked at Hagler, and said, "I've been to your church, Reverend. In fact, one of my men is on your board of trustees. Let's go and bless him." So the marshal and the reverend left me to find the cafeteria by myself and to recall again something that is easy for activists to forget: not all your friends are out of power.




After 23 years at the same address TPR got word that it will have to move by October 1.

A huge developer is buying key portions of the Connecticut Avenue north of Dupont Circle as well as some retail buildings in Woodley Park. TPR, American Friends Service Committee, the Village Voice Washington office, various architects, and the News Room are among the establishments soon to be economically cleansed from their buildings. There are also reports of major purchases along M Street in Georgetown.

Said to be behind the Dupont Circle purchases is the Starwood Financial Group, the largest real estate holding company in the world with $2 billion in assets. It controls, among other things, Caesar's Palace and the Sheraton Hotel chain. All the Connecticut Avenue purchases were made swiftly and shortly thereafter lease terminations and a tripling of rents were announced.

The move means the destruction of one of the funkiest business blocks in the city. At one point, 17 architects found haven in this block as did assorted other livers on the edge. Our landlord, Mike Heller, was often found standing on Connecticut Avenue passing the time of day with tenants and others as he patiently awaited something to fix. When his daughter was younger, he sold Girl Scout cookies throughout his five building complex.

A couple of years before moving into this building, I wrote a book. One of the things I said was this:

"We now comprehend the hazards of blithely pouring DDT over crops, slashing through treelands, or fouling the air. But we still act as thought we can, without penalty, wipe out neighborhoods, force mass migrations, rip out favorite meeting places for people, or tear down centers of communications, culture and commerce that are as important to a community as a marsh is to a flyway."

Some years back, actor Edward Woodward speculated that eventually there would be no one living in our cities except corporations. Washington seems to be leading the way.


May 1999

Three unusual things happened yesterday. (1) I went to church, (2) I did so as a political act, and (3) the church service was held in a synagogue.

The proximate cause of this curious triptych of events was the Rev. Daniel Webster Aldridge, who was launching an all new All People's Congregation. Rev. Aldridge had been minister of Washington's All Soul's Unitarian Church, once a major source of much political and social activism in our city, but more recently divided between those (mostly black) who wished to continue this tradition and those (mostly white) who didn't. In the course of this dispute, deeply reflective of things happening that too few want to address, Aldridge lost his job.

Aldridge and his flock were given shelter in the basement of a church run by another black pastor who had also been threatened with dismissal because of his activism, and subsequently Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tifereth Israel Congregation offered them space.

And so it was on a spring Sunday afternoon that Rabbi Seidel found himself singing a welcome in Hebrew to a largely black congregation and declaring that the "mixing of traditions is crucial to heal the wounds of this city." A black, latina, and white minister joined in the welcome.

Aldridge told his new congregation that "dreams seem to be getting more difficult to hold on to," and quoted Langston Hughes: "If dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly." And he cited Nelson Mandela as saying that people's biggest fear is that they have power, for with power comes responsibility. We need, the Reverend Graylon Hagler said, "people of faith who will address the needs of the community. What we do not need is a faith that looks only at its navel." This, one speaker said, would be a prophetic ministry, not afraid to address the evil of bombing Belgrade or of social injustice in Washington or of the need for those who consider themselves religious to do something about it all. "Kindness," said Aldridge is the "ultimate act of faith."

The unabashedly socially conscious church has been missing in action for a long time. It is hard to imagine meaningful change without it. As this Seventh Day Agonistic stood singing "This Little Light of Mine," remembering a time when you didn't have to form a whole new church just to get something done, it felt like a long extinguished flame had been relit.


May 1998

I ran into Councilmember Charlene Jarvis at a party. "How are you doing?" she asked.

"Depressed," I replied.

Charlene looked as though she wanted to flee, but she gulped and asked, "Why's that?"

"Look, you've done SW urban renewal, the freeways, the Metro, downtown urban renewal, the convention center, Streets for the People, the Pennsylvania Avenue Plan, the arena and now another convention center. When are you folks going to find something that works?"

I then suggested that the city just skip the second convention center and go right to the third. We could save hundreds of millions of dollars that way. I could see Charlene trying to figure out what might be in it for her, but unable to think of anything to say, she moved on. . .

Later that evening, I found myself with Jarvis and some other. She called me "everybody's favorite devil's advocate." I replied: "I'm not the devil's advocate; I'm the lord's advocate. Your problem is that you can't tell the difference between heaven and hell."


November 1997

There were four of us standing together at the party and the subject was Sy Hersh's new book. The man who had once been one of Hersh's colleagues at the New York Times called the book unbelievable; his wife and the other woman agreed. I've known Sy for years, which may make me more of an acquaintance than a friend, but if I had to take someone along to investigate a desert island I'd choose Sy over the journalist in front of me any day. So I asked him what parts of the book he found unbelievable and he told me the part about Marilyn Monroe that had turned out to be a forgery. That part isn't in the book, I said. Besides, did you ever get near the end of a story and find that something you thought was true wasn't? He said he had.

The woman to my left picked up for him, citing the part about buying the 1960 election. That's old stuff, she said with disdain. Besides why would Kennedy have to go to the mob when he could just go to Mayor Daley? I tried briefly to determine why stealing an election with the help of Mayor Daley was more honorable than doing it with the Mafia, but gained little distance. So I asked the question that had been on my mind from the start: how many of us have actually read the book?

None of us had.

It was another typical evening in the Washington market place of ideas.

Everything I learned in the past 60 years

November 1997

From G. K. Chesterton: Journalism consists largely in saying "Lord Jones died" to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.

From Mae West: When faced with a choice of two evils, always pick the one you haven't tried before.

From Nelson Algren: Never play cards with a man named Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's.

From Mark Twain: Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window, but coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.

From Woody Allen: 80% of success is showing up.

From a southern farmer: Trust everyone but get cash for your cotton.

From Jerry 'Bama' Washington: It's easier to tell the truth than to lie, 'cause then you don't have to remember what you said.

From Satchell Paige: Never look back. Someone might be gaining on you.

From GB Shaw: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Gaylord Nelson

When I met my wife she was working as assistant press secretary to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Nelson was notable in two regards: good legislation and good stories. For example, he was once delivering a speech when he stopped a few paragraphs in, looked over his glasses at the audience and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time either you or I have heard this speech and frankly I don't agree with it." His wife Carrie Lee, whom he had met at an Army base in World War II and then were reunited on Okinawa in 1945, was more than his match. She is alleged to have once responded to Lyndon Johnson's request for a dance at a White House function by asking, "Do I have to?" On another occasion, as Nelson was giving a lengthy introduction to Adlai Stevenson at a dinner, Carrie Lee, at the far end of the head table, scribbled a note and passed to her husband via a line of barely contained honored guests. The note read: "Sit down, you shit. Adlai's the speaker."

I never met Nelson and his wife until they were in their 80s. One of my wife'ss college professors had asked to see them when he was in town so we invited them over for dinner. I was out getting something in my car when Nelson drove up to our house and deposited his wife before seeking a parking space. My first sight of Carrie Lee was a woman mounting our steps with a Schweppes tonic water bottle in her hand. And her first remarks were, "Everyone thinks a woman of my age only drinks wine, so I bring my own vodka."

By the end of the evening it was gone after a raucous dinner that included this story told by Senator Nelson:

A farmer had lost his rooster and bought another. He delivered the new rooster a lecture along the lines of, "Just remember you don't have to take care of all of the hens at one go. Learn to pace yourself. That's what did the other fellow in."

The next morning the farmer went out to find the rooster lying prone on the ground, his wings outstretched and not an ounce of movement. Overhead a vulture circled and low and menacingly.

"See," said the farmer. "What did I tell you.? But you wouldn't llsten, would you?"

The rooster lay there prone and still but in a small voice replied, "Shh. If you want to screw a vulture you have to play their game."

Now there was a man who understood Washington.

The Silenced City

Summer 1997

In June the soft stillness of southern summer returns to Washington. In the everything-controlled environment of the newer city it's easy to ignore but along the one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable blocks of older Washington you can't miss it: the leafy canopy, the human tableaux on porches and stoops, and the sounds -- a siren, a cry, a song -- all the more startling because of the broken quiet. It is during these slow, pregnant green days that Washington becomes most true to itself, and a sweet place still. This year, however, summer's sultry seduction seems almost illicit. Maybe that's why it arrived so hesitantly. Seasons are for places, and DC, we are told by those with the power to tell us, is no longer a place but a problem. The quiet trees, the moist heat, and their spawned reveries lure us away from the real business, which is to reform, reorganize and perhaps even replace ourselves.

The assumption is that by moving around enough bodies, buildings, and budgets, the city will somehow revive.

The faith is that the arbitrary choices of a few men of power and rank can successfully substitute for the consent, cooperation, enthusiasm and affection of a whole people. The argument is that a city can be refashioned using little more than good accounting principles.

The people of the shaded streets know this isn't true, but then they see the city through the lens of place rather than of power. And what they see doesn't matter that much any more. As power has consolidated, place has disintegrated.

It is not just that something terrible has happened; it's also that we're not meant to notice or, if we do, not to say anything about it. It's as if the normal business of revitalization always included abrogating democracy, tearing down schools, slashing health clinics, disassembling our one public university, hauling citizens off in handcuffs for forgetting to renew their licenses; and sending our wayward young to privatized gulags hundreds of miles from family and community. The one comfort of the silenced city is knowing you are not alone. When we meet we hug more, in the manner of those who have lost someone shared deeply.

And we talk more. An African-American accountant working out at my health club says quietly, "They want us out of the city, but I'm not going." A street vendor and I talk of the city's troubles for a while and then I ask, "Why do you bother to stay?" And he sits me down on a low wall of the bitterly named Freedom Plaza, pulls out his wallet and shows me photos of his kids: "This has been a wonderful city to me. I'm staying here for them."

On Tuesdays I go to a meeting of a task force on the police and justice. The task force has the usual suspects -- someone from the NAACP, the ACLU, the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance -- but, surprisingly, there are also several retired top police officials and they are no less troubled by what is happening than the others.

We meet in a large hall above the offices of the NAACP on U Street. Except for the addition of a few plaques nothing much has changed in that hall for decades. We only need two tables pushed together so there is 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? Eventually such leaders would destroy the illusory doctrine of separate but equal. What would they advise us decades later in a city where the separate is not only still unequal but being eliminated? If the past is faithful, what has happened will be with us for a long time. This city suffered the twin indignities of segregation and disenfranchisement for nearly a century. To those us who came in at the end of the struggle, in my case catching only the last decade or so, the prospect of recreating both the expectation of justice and the means of achieving it is daunting beyond belief. Yet there is no other choice -- except to leave.

I would much rather live among free people. I would much rather live in a town where the police treated its citizens with tolerance and respect rather than with zero tolerance and disrespect. I would prefer not to live in a place where plenary powers are given those who mistake arrogance for leadership and certitude for wisdom. I would be happier in a town that shared with Jane Jacobs the notion that "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." I would much rather not retrace long faltering steps that were more easily taken when I still believed progress moved in only one direction.

Every day about 20 more people move out of town than move in. They leave because of opportunity, a better dream, eviction, anger, or the end of endless patience. Yet many more stay and in their willingness to remain a while longer lies Washington's future. It will not be found among the city's princes in their downtown everything-controlled offices trying to figure out why things didn't work out like they did on paper.

It will be found instead along shaded streets where people understand that community does not have a bottom line; there is no balance sheet for friendship; shared history does not depreciate in value, and a decent, humane culture is not for sale. It will be found in the courage of those who, though still unheard, preserve in small places the true values, hopes and ecology of DC as they begin one more Washington summer without justice.

Two cities

JUNE 1997

Black and white Washington are deeply divided on such issues as the congressional junta. Most of the pain caused by the occupation of DC does not reach the quiet streets of Ward 3. Even those in four of the wealthiest zip codes in America who might be concerned get to hear little of what's going on thanks to the rampant disinformation of the Washington Post.

To even suggest that the Post mythology might be a bit short on facts is risky these days. For example, our recent report on the true crime facts and on police harassment of citizens for minor offenses was reprinted in DC Story, a Internet bulletin board produced by the estimable Jeff Itell. It brought the west of the park Prig Patrol screaming out of its pews. Our statistics -- culled from government sources incidentally -- were called by one reader an "apologia for rampant crime." The guy was incensed that we had mentioned facts.

Others took umbrage that anyone would think of forgetting their driver's license or when to renew it. They regarded it as a "crime" and apparently were not bothered that the penalty for the failure to complete life's paperwork might include being handcuffed, locked up and having your body inspected with the same gloves just used on a HIV-positive prostitute.

The irony is that the people so outraged at our concern are of the same ilk likely to hire Arnold & Porter to sue the city should they ever have a remotely similar experience. But of course, the beauty of being a prig is that prigs never make mistakes.

In every place we've lived -- including DC until recently -- there has been a noticeable difference in the way the police handled a moving violation and, say, a bank robbery. The disappearance of a rational hierarchy of police responses is bad enough; even worse is when people stand around and applaud. One reader cited a police commander justifying citizen harassment on the grounds that a routine traffic stop had netted Tim McVeigh. The reader and the commander are perhaps unaware that routine police stops also netted quite a few Jews in Nazi Germany.

Meanwhile, the gap between the way people in the city think about these things widens. Not in thirty years have I seen such a split between white and black and rich and poor in Washington. It is sad, it is unnecessary and it is terribly dangerous.

Jo Butler

April 1997

The last time I saw Jo Butler we discussed books. Though burdened with the cold, involuntary appendages of medical technology, Jo spoke with that same enthusiasm she typically applied to the latest political developments.

Or to the oldest. A few years back Jo uncovered some early congressional debates on the city's status which she disseminated as though they were yesterday's news, making you as excited about them as she was.

In fact, there was little -- from earthworms to earth-shaking -- that did not stir Jo's curiosity and, when required, her compassionate and effective concern. Though her heart might be filled with the overwhelming political and social problems of our time, her eye was always on the sparrow.

Although she will rightfully be honored for her great strokes on behalf of the weak and the unfree, I particularly will remember running into Jo on the street -- her bag overflowing with yet to be distributed documents of truth and her hat bedizened with buttons -- those campaign ribbons from the endless battlefields where she had stood on the side of the fair, the decent and the just.

She carried the spirit of the city and the spirit of hope not as a possession or a totem, but as seeds to share with anyone who would stop and talk for a moment or two.

She would, from time to time, show up on my block of Connecticut Avenue, like some angel on a temporal inspection tour. We would talk, and laugh, and worry together and when I left her I would always feel more directed, more responsible for what was going on around me, but happier as well.

I will miss her and yet -- because she always was an angel -- I expect to bump into her spirit often again, at times both unexpected and necessary. And when I do, I will no doubt feel the same gratitude I always did for having known and loved Jo Butler.

City on a Cross

From comments made at a memorial service for Jo Butler, April 19, 1997

Our city on a hill has been turned into a city on a cross.

We don't have a fiscal crisis; we endure a fiscal embargo. DC is being deliberately starved.

Our city is being destroyed, damaged and looted just as surely as it was during the 1968 riots. Only this time the rioters are not the angry and oppressed but the arrogant and the powerful.

If I pick your pocket, you can have me arrested. But what recourse have we against a Congress that picks away at the moneys rightfully owed for our services and land?

If I use a knife against you, I commit a felony. But what about those who slash the hopes of a whole city by destroying its one public university?

If I burn my business down to collect insurance I commit arson; but what do you call closing some of our best schools so a developer can make money from the land on which they sit?

If I fail to provide proper medical treatment for my child, I am guilty of neglect and abuse; what do you call it when the number of public health workers for the whole city is summarily reduced by nearly a half?

If I steal money from the company pension fund, I have embezzled; what then do you call a president who proposes to drain the city pension fund to zero to make his own budget look better -- leaving only a promise that, well after he has left office, someone else will take care of the matter?

If I beat my son for having committed the foolish acts of the young, I am not fit to be a father; but what if I am an ambitious US Attorney and propose to send our wayward sons to long, unrelieved sentences in the privatized gulags of Texas or Arizona for using marijuana instead of some approved drug such as gin or cigarettes?

If we are robbed on the street we can call 911; but what number do you call to save a whole city?

Mission creep

UNDERNEWS, NOVEMBER 1996 - Just one week after your editor's views on the increasing militarization of America were featured in a column by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, that paper responded with a major paen to "Generals in Command on the Home Front." The subhead ran: "In need of discipline, order, honor, polish? Civil institutions find old soliders pass muster."

The Post momentarily put aside such arduous tasks as defending the CIA and offered a multi-column Style section rebuttal to the notion that there was something wrong with the proliferation of generals in domestic affairs complete with a handsome foot-high photo of Genral Patton pointing his baton in an appropriately imperious fashion.

Although quoting one critic of militarization near the end of the article, the overall tone of the piece was, at best, that these flag officers will shape the country up and, at worse, that they are part of yet another cute social trend for a wise-ass journalist to have some fun with. The idea that democracy might be in peril as a product of the trend was just a jump page after-thought.

Here are some quotes:

From writer Marc Fisher: "A retired general is spit-and-polish. Order and discipline. Expectations and results. Retired general. Two words with such Taoist balance. At once at ease and in charge. Calm yet powerful. Benign yet can-do."

From General Don Scott, deputy librarian of the Library of Congress: "We're proven. We know how to take orders, we know how to do more with less. Society wants more order and more structure."

Charles Moskos, a sociologist who studies the military: "Making the trains run on time is not to be pooh-poohed. In a world of crumbling instituations, the military stands out for its cohesion."

Fisher ends his piece with a quote from a retired general: "Let those in uniform fight the cold and hot wars. Let those who have retired fight the domestic war." Fisher is so enthralled by this that he forgets to ask the general just when and why the American people became the enemy.

Columnist Milloy, one of the last progressive writers at the Post, became interested in my article on militarization after a de facto junta selected by GOP congressional leaders to run DC had named General Julius Becton as school czar and wiped out most of the powers of the elected school board.

Becton got the same sort of fawning treatment from the media (including national publications) that General Barry McCaffrey received when he took over as head of federal anti-drug programs. And as with McCaffrey, there was plenty of the Becton story that didn't come out. Such as the fact that when he was Reagan's head of the Federal Emergency Managment Agency, FEMA concoted an outragous $1.5 billion plan for 600 bomb shelters to be built for state and local officials. The rest of the population was meant to rely on "voluntary self-help programs and emergency public information" such as low cost radiation detectors and instructional materials. States and localities that failed to cooperate in the plan could lose federal funds for non-nuclear disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Not surprisingly, the plan was laughed out of existence.

Even though the scheme was front-page news in the Washington Post when it occurred, the Post failed to tell readers about it in its glowing coverage of Becton. Nor did it mention that Becton had testified on behalf of Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court, expressing support for Thomas' views on affirmative action and the like.

Finally, in neither its praise of Becton nor its defense of the generic general did the Post point out that what generals are trained for is to kill, defeat and control people in whatever order seems most practical at the moment.

Going for the Gold

WASHINGTON CITY PAPER, 1994: To most spectators of the Lillehammer Olympic opening ceremony, the things that stood out were the skiing fiddlers, unruly reindeer, and kings swathed in GoreTex. But as the parade of nations passed the reviewing stand, Sam Smith, die-hard statehood advocate, full-time rabble rouser, and sometime editor of the Progressive Review, noted that something was amiss. Athletes from American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico strode proudly behind their territorial flags. While these semi-independent US colonies have their own Olympic teams, Washington does not. Once again, Smith realized, the nonvoting citizens of DC had been denied adequate representation.

"Not only are we not part of the Union, we're not even allowed to play with the colonies. We're even discriminated among the non-self-governing territories of the US," Smith growls. "It's all part of the colonial mentality, of accepting things the way they are." . . . The oversight so enraged Smith that, by Monday morning, he had already founded and designed letterhead for the DC Olympic Organizing Committee (quickly renamed the Committee for a DC Team in the Olympics to avoid sounding too official), and appointed himself the "very interim chair." Armed with the slogan "Give Us Liberty or Give Us the Gold," Smith warmed up his fax and fired off a manifesto to local pols and industry bigwigs.

. . . Smith hopes parochial power brokers like [hardware magnate] John Hechinger, Jesse Jackson, and perhaps even [Redskins owner] Jack Kent Cooke will petition the International Olympic Committee to permit DC to compete in the next games. "Tonya Harding's lawyers got the Olympic Committee to roll over -- can you imagine Jesse Jackson and Jack Kent Cooke working in concert? You talk about the morality of Tonya Harding being allowed to compete in the Olympics, how about the immorality of DC not being allowed to compete?" he asks.

EPILOGUE: Jack Kent Cooke never came aboard, but Jesse Jackson did -- long enough to write a supporting letter to Dr. Leroy Walker, President of the US Olympic Committee, right in the middle of the games. Dave Clarke, chair of the city council, also endorsed the idea. Unfortunately, Jackson's attention deficit disorder soon took over and nothing more was heard from him. Even more distressing was the failure of DC activists who, rather than rushing to the cause, bombarded your editor with requests to be on the team -- based on unsubstantiated and archaic claims of athletic prowess. Activist Keith Rutter even assured me that he had friends in Atlanta and so wouldn't burden the team with room and board: "I started working out the minute I heard you on 'Morning Edition.'

The chairman of the streets

Washington Post, May 1993

John Wilson was chair of the DC City Council who commited suicide in 1993.

The reason so many of us still feel like crying is not just because John Wilson showed how politics could be an honorable trade. It's not just because you could learn more in an elevator ride with John than you could from an average politician over a whole day. It isn't just because John's wisdom, diligence and knowledge were so powerful, yet applied with such moral gentleness. And it isn't because John was given to telling the truth -- in Washington pure evidence of eccentricity.

Such things are important and help explain why our town is going to be hurting for a long time. They explain why Eleanor Holmes Norton said that John was "as close to indispensable" as you could find in DC. But they don't really explain the tears.

What may explain them, though, is that there was only one sort of relationship you could have with John Wilson, and that was a personal one. Some politicians can't even have a personal relationship with their own families. For John, there are hundreds who can share the thought of a 14-year-old neighbor: "We were kind of like pals and stuff." They range from Jack Kent Cooke to the radio listeners with whom John talked all one New Year's Eve because the callers didn't have any place to go.

Many politicians only speak in the tongues of jargon and abstraction. If anyone ever had an abstract discussion of any length with John Wilson, I never heard about it. Rather than calling us to causes greater than ourselves, John placed even the most complex issues in our own backyard. Teenage pregnancy, for example, was not a statistic but a woman who had just had a newborn baby who would "come out, put it in a chair, take a quarter and go call a taxi to come and pick her up."

The silent message was that while the issue of teenage pregnancy might seem daunting, the support that one woman needed was well within our capability.

Politics had little to do with how I felt about John. Sometimes I was with him, sometimes against, and in the end it didn't matter because he never let politics get in the way of life.

Which may be why he was such a good politician. I remember seeing him one day in Dupont Circle as he was walking his ward. He was talking to two older men as they sat on a park bench clutching their brown paper bags. After the conversation I joined John for a few blocks of his tour. Our talk was as languid as the day. At one point he stopped and said, "You know which of my constituents I really like?" His ward then ran from the West End to Southwest to Shaw, the most polyglot in the city. I wasn't about to guess. So he told me, "I like those folks in Foggy Bottom."

"Why, John?"

"'Cause they don't go nowhere. People up on 14th Street, no sooner you get to know them then they're out of there. But Foggy Bottom just stays put."

The dumbest things they ever did was to put this shit on TV so they could see how stupid we are - John Wilson talking about city council meetings

That was a real politician speaking. Not judging people by skin color or money or ideology, but by the thing that really counts: electoral reliability. So I nudged him again about running for council chair and he said something sort of dumb and self-deprecating like the time he told me, well before Barry started crashing, that "You know any government that's got me and Marion in it has gotta be screwed up."

I did know that there was this bleak side to John that kept doing battle with the crusader, the clever pol and the stand-up comic. I figured it had to do with having watched civil rights contemporaries with more chutzpah and more mouth march right out of the 1960s and onto larger stages -- leaving Wilson back in Ward Two. Despite his put-downs, Wilson knew he was smarter, more substantive, and more sincere than many who had made it a lot further. It must have hurt. Just like it must have hurt trying year after year to move the beached whales of DC government back into the water.

Yet like most everyone else, I figured that John could handle it. After all, that's what John did best: handle things. With skill, style and humor. That's why we loved him. And voted for him.

Now some of us are sitting wondering what we might have done or said over the past decades or few days that could have changed things. The health people say it doesn't work like that; his wife says it was inherited. Still I wish I had tried to convince him that personal witness is an existential act independent of its chance of success, that while the witness may be an obligation, the triumph is often little more than good luck and timing. John, to his torment, felt personally responsible for both.

John Wilson made politics fun and good, he made us smile, and he gave us the truth. He was not only the chairman of the council but the chairman of the streets. He was a rare human link between Washington the city and Washington the government. The former was troubled and the latter feeble and it turned out to be too big a job for one person and it finally broke his heart.

Now there'll be a lot of talk about how to honor John. In truth, there's probably only one way:

Tell the truth, be kind, speak plainly, have a laugh, and, above all, get it done.

Nothing but usefulness

February 1993

Eugene Talmadge used to campaign through Georgia saying, "Y'all got only three friends in the world. You got the Lord God Almighty, you got the Sears Roebuck catalog, and you got Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them."

Eugene Talmadge died long ago and this week Sears Roebuck announced its was ceasing publication of what was, for many decades, America's most important publication. I hope God can handle it alone.

I know it's going to be tough on me. Not only has Sears dumped its catalog, it's going to close its store on Wisconsin Avenue with rooftop parking so practical and inviting that the company has to warn away those who would use it for ancillary purposes such as automobile repairs. During World War II, the Sears on Wisconsin was where my father would start coasting as much of the way to Georgetown as possible, an exercise encouraged by gas rationing. The Indians used Wisconsin Avenue in much the same way, a "rolling road" down which they tumbled barrels of tobacco.

Like millions of other Americans, I came to believe in Sears. It was not so much quality that drew us, but consistency and utility. As recently as this fall, when my wife and I decided it was time to replace our 30-year-old gas stove, I discovered that only Sears had a model in the right color and a drip pan under the burners that prevented wok splatterings and overboiled soup from congealing in inaccessible recesses. It wasn't the prettiest stove, just the one that worked best.

When I read David Oglivie's Confessions of an Advertising Man and learned that this sophisticated Britisher bought his suits from Sears, I followed his example until my friends and relatives ridiculed me towards "at least Raleigh's for chrissake." I still went to Sears for slacks because Sears sold clothes designed for the classic American male -- a man who actually performed physical labor -- rather than for thighless pencil-necked geeks whose greatest exertion was hefting a law brief. If the store did not have my size, I could peruse the catalog and choose in the privacy of my own home between the regular and the full-fit. the tall and the big, without enduring the disdain the proportionally impaired sense upon entering a traditional menswear store.

Above all there were the tools. Even the name, Craftsman, made a weekend project seem more appealing. Further, you knew as you adjusted the nut on your Craftsman Skill saw that throughout this great land, millions of others were asking the same probing question, "Is that tight enough?" Sears was what America was meant to be all about: a place that gave you the right tools to do what you wanted .

Beginning in the 1980s, Sears found itself in trouble. The country was no longer interested in utilitarianism. It wanted style, prestige and designer labels. People found me odd when I suggested that if you couldn't find it at Sears or Hechingers you probably didn't need it. Over the course of the next decade Sears laid off close to 100,000 workers, the last 50,000 just announced.

Sears, it was said, had gotten out of step with the times, although times that require the layoff of 100,000 employees because their firm has the sole attribute of being useful may be a bit out of step themselves.

This Christmas I gave one of my sons a Sears rechargeable flashlight and my other son a Craftsman portable screwdriver complete with mounting rack and the requisite mounting screws. I don't know if they'll use them, but now at least they have a souvenir of those times when a firm like Sears hired a lot of people to sell a lot of items that helped other people do a lot of things.

The experts quoted in the papers the past few days say that our economy isn't about that anymore. I saw some of these experts on television. They were fashionably dressed and quite self-assured about the failings of Sears, perhaps because they understand that our new economy is much kinder to experts on Sears than it is to people who work there.

People like the red-vested man who worked the tool section as if it were his own hardware store, the woman who didn't mind telling which answering machine was really best, and the grandmother who never could quite get the optical scanner to work right. The Tenley Sears was -- like the gravity that allowed cars and barrels to roll down Wisconsin Ave -- part of the unobtrusive necessity of life, indispensable but unmarketable.

As I drive the extra half hour to the Sears at Montgomery Mall, I shall undoubtedly come to accept the omnipotence of the marketplace. But I'll be damned if I'll be grateful for it. --Washington Post, February 1993


This spring, when homeless activist Mitch Snyder announced he was going to retreat to a monastery for awhile for reflection and renewal, I felt pulled to drop him a note thanking him for his witness, for the good it had done, for the wisdom and encouragmeent it had given others. In the note I quoted Emerson.

"The voyage of the best ship" said Emerson, "is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency."

I can not comprehend Mitch's last tack that ended in suicide. But the average tendency of his life has been as inspiring as any I have known. At times humbling, at times guilt-provoking, at times incredibly catalytic and at times -- yes -- aggravating, this one scruffy amalgem of love and anger, intensity and gentleness led us to care far more about what it was easier to ignore -- the homeless refugees of the puerile, avaricious American dream of the 80s.

Lately we've been falling back to easier ways. The DC city council has just ordered a cruel retreat from the decency towards the homeless we overwhelmingly supported in Inititiative 17. In San Francisco, on the very day Mitch died, Mayor Agnos ordered the arrest of homeless people sleeping in public places.

What effect this had on Mitch I don't know. I do know that in his last days he was organizing a massive drive for a referendum on the council action. As he met in the shelter to discuss the referendum last week, he patiently explained to a man reciting some of the new cyncism towards the homeless that no one in that 1400-bed shelter wanted to be there. Not even Mitch Snyder.

And I do know that we talked on the phone on Monday. He told me enthusiastically of the law suit being filed against the council and of the lawyers who were working on the case and would I be one of the plaintiffs. I said, sure, and he said -- as he did so often to so many people he had pulled to the cause in that soft gentle voice -- he said: "Thank you, my friend."

But I also know that Mitch lived a life in painful proximity to modern society's cruelest results and carried a terrible trusteeship for its victims. In recent months, there were voices -- most sadly among those in power and in the media -- indicating that we no longer needed to care.

For me, Mitch -- controversial, blunt and irrascible as he was on occasion -- fit the best definition of a saint, which is to say that Mitch Snyder was a sinner who kept trying. I suspect the only eulogy he would want is a commitment to nothing more than the simple decency he espoused. Oh yes, and perhaps his own soft, gentle benediction: "Thank you, my friend."

--WAMU, Washington, July 6, 1990

Sam's Waltz

Our band was playing at a wedding reception when a woman came up to me and asked for a waltz. I said okay and hoped she would forget about it because my memory has suddenly gone blank and I can't remember any waltzes.

The woman returns so I say to the trumpet player, "Follow me." It takes me a couple of choruses to write a waltz. Bob Walter, the trumpet player, was good enough that he could pretend to be providing fills instead of wondering what the hell I was up to.

We finally got it down and people began twirling happily. When we were finished the crowd applauded and a bearded man asked me for my card.

We were happily back into 4/4 time when a woman came up and asked for another waltz and I replied, "Okay in a little bit."

"No we need it now. The mother of the bride wants to waltz.

So I told Bob to do the waltz again. This time we did it with more gusto and the dancers responded in kind.

The bearded man spun by, stopped and said, "That's great. What's the name of that waltz."

Without hesitation I replied, "Sam's Waltz."