June 29, 2007


Sam Smith

1. It would have been much easier if, at the time the country was fighting over school integration, it hadn't segregated its cities with hardly any debate.

2. It would have been much easier if zip code had been included as well as ethnicity.

Even today, the issues of segregation by neighborhood and by class hardly ever make it to the fore. Thus it never occurs to people that the reason kids had to take a bus to find integration in school was because there wasn't any at home.

If you go back to older cities - even segregated ones - people of different ethnicities and classes once lived much closer to one another. After all, the very point of segregation was a malevolent system to deal with the perceived danger of otherwise presumed regular contact between ethnicities. In the modern American city, segregation by geography has taken the place of segregation by law. You don't have to enforce it; it just is.

And the segregation is heavily based on class as well as ethnicity, but that's something we don't like to talk about, either. As a result, affirmative action has lost a major weapon. Class diversity would have achieved much the same ends without as much political and social conflict. After all, the idea of aiding the poor is widely accepted in American culture while aiding someone because of their gender or ethnicity is not.

I have long supported affirmative action by zip code, arguing that it would result in either better integrated schools or better integrated neighborhoods. A bit simplistic perhaps, but the serious point remains: we have refused to deal with the geographic or class factors in affirmative action. And you can add to that public transportation. In fact, one of the most segregated public institutions is the bus, the very vehicle that advocates of school integration once thought would solve all our problems.

Using schools to even out problems we don't want to face hasn't worked all that well. The Supreme Court may have actually have done us a strange sort of favor: forced our attention elsewhere. It worth noting that just a few blocks from the Court's building, lower income blacks are being steadily moved out through gentrification, removal of public housing and other means. Nobody calls it segregation, of course. The correct term of the day is economic development. We have city plans and zoning laws to back it up and nobody sues to stop them.

One of the effects of this urban removal will, of course, be a greater distance for the children involved to travel to get to an integrated school. We will argue, sue, and write about it, and few will remember how it all started.


Sam Smith

SINCE THE 2008 election looks as though it is going to be largely based on fiction, it may be time to deconstruct the semiotics of the plot.

For example, if Clinton, Giuliani and Bloomberg run against each other, the red state - blue state dichotomy will be replaced by a division between the Big Apple vs. the rest of us. And the race, it can be expected, will be rotten to the core.

If Giuliani runs against Clinton it will be the ex-prosecutor against the almost prosecuted.

If Fred Thompson beats Giuliani it will mean the fake NYC DA has triumphed over the real NYC US Attorney

If Obama wins he will be, at least in the mind of Toni Morrison, the second black president.

If the candidates are Fred Thompson vs. Barack Obama it will be our first presidential election in which both candidates got there largely because of a TV show.


If we had been born in a time in which the therapy for doubt was punishment, even death, we would not be in such a fix. We would thank or fear whatever gods may be and go about our business if not happily at least with certitude. But the gift of decriminalized doubt changed all that. We are now free to be wrong by our own hand, to not know -- worse, to have nothing and no one to blame.

That's why there are so many attempts to put the question marks safely back into the box, to recapture the illusion of security found in circumscribed knowledge, to shut down that fleeting moment of human existence in which at least some thought they could do the work of kings and gods, that glimpse of possibility we thought would be an endless future.

It is seductively attractive to return to certainty at whatever cost, to a time when one's every act carried its own explanation in the rules of the universe or of the system or of the village. From the Old Testament to neo-Nazism, humans have repeatedly found shelter in absolutes and there is nothing in our evolution to suggest we have lost the inclination, save during those extraordinary moments when a wanderer, a stranger, a rebel picks up some flotsam and says, "Hey, something's wrong here. . ." And those of us just standing around say, "You know, you've got something there." And we become truly human once more as we figure out for ourselves, and among ourselves, what to do about it.

No one seeks doubt, yet without it we become just one more coded creature moving through nature under perpetual instruction. Doubt is the price we pay for being able to think, play, pray and feel the way we wish, if, of course, we can decide what that is. Which is why freedom always has so many more questions than slavery. Which is why democracy is so noisy and messy and why love so often confounds us.

If we are not willing to surrender our freedom, then we must accept the hard work that holding on to it entails including the nagging sense that we may not be doing it right after all; that we may not be rewarded even if we do it right; and that we will never know whether we have or not. - Sam Smith

June 28, 2007


Sam Smith

The national media is rigging the 2008 election. That it doesn't realize this makes as little difference as the unconsciousness of a drunk driver or the upbringing of a prejudiced individual. Intent may explain or mitigate an offense; it does not, however, alter the effect. And the practice should be regarded as disreputable as any form of negligence that contributes to great harm.

The main forces driving this manipulation are the cultural isolation of the national media, its incestuous relationship with those in power, its immersion in political mythology and the general collapse of skeptical and investigative journalism.

It is not a unique phenomenon. For example, the campaign media overwhelmingly supported the candidacy of Bill Clinton in 1992 and happily created a myth about him even as they ignored readily available evidence of the major corruption in which he was involved.

It is still early in the campaign, so we shall probably return to this topic from time to time, but here are some the clearly visible ways in which the media has rigged the election so far:

- It created the Barack Obama myth out of whole cloth. A political lightweight from the Chicago Democratic machine with a virtually non-existent record has been turned into JFK II.

- It has steadfastly refused to report on the numerous scandals associated with Hillary Clinton's past, sending years of corruption, dissembling and abuse of power down the Orwellian memory hole.

- It has not done much better with the true history of Rudolph Giuliani, creating a heroic myth based largely on behavior on one particular day, 9/11, that might have been expected of any mayor of a major city.

- With both Clinton and Giuliani it has particularly avoided their extraordinary connections with criminal figures. Whatever the ultimate import of these relationships are, the voters are entitled to know with whom their candidates have consorted.

- As we have demonstrated with our headline survey, John Edwards has been consistently blacked out of the news coverage despite being ahead of Obama in more than a half dozen states.

- When covered, Edwards has been trivialized or criticized in a manner used on no other major candidate. For example, his wealth has been targeted in a way that John Kerry's never was and Hillary Clinton's isn't. While it is fair ground to tell about his $400 haircut, it is not fair meanwhile to censor Obama's parking tickets in Massachusetts that were left unpaid from college days until he decided to run for president. Even when Elizabeth Edwards criticized Ann Coulter for her hateful attacks on her husband, she was later said by major media to have "defended" her remarks as though standing up for her husband was beyond the pale.

- The media has bought into the Fred Thompson myth, despite the fact that Thompson - like Obama - has virtually nothing on his resume to recommend him for the job.

- The media has made little efforts to help voters understand the real differences between the candidates as opposed to the variations in their iconic and fantastical spin

- The major media has almost totally ignored the GOP vote caging scandal uncovered by Greg Palast.

- The major media has consistently treated majority American positions on the war and healthcare as out of the mainstream.

- And it has largely ignored the ever growing evidence of failure and corruption involving the use of electronic voting machines.

In short, the major media has used its freedom to manipulate, mythologize and mislead its audience and can be expected to continue to do so.

June 25, 2007


SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - I lay claim to be the only person to get the word "fuck" into the Illustrated London News, which was - until it collapsed on the muck of media modernity - the 2nd oldest continuously published magazine and which for more than 150 hundred years served the cause of empire and the better English classes. I was, during its declining era, its Washington correspondent as part of a futile effort to give rebirth to a publication so fusty that, according to my editor, the gardening correspondent had actually died in 1929, but the news had been successfully concealed from readers unaware that they were reading recycled columns well into the 1980s.

It wouldn't have been the first time the ILN had lagged behind reality. For example, on Saturday, December 21, 1861, it declared:

"Last week it seemed difficult to obtain attention for any subject save that of the American crisis . . . President Lincoln's Message, as a composition, is conceived in the same low moral tone and executed with the same maladroitness which have characterized the preceding State Papers of his Government . . . The North, in its excess of zeal for civilization, is also elaborately destroying harbors' in the South, thus by savage acts giving the lie to the profession of belief that the territory to which the harbours belong will ever again be a portion of the Federal dominions."

The ILN's view of its readers was well stated in the July 22, 1848, edition and did not change markedly over the years:

"As a people, it may be truly said of us that we are pre-eminent among the nations of the earth. our spirit rules the world. Our wisdom enters into the composition of everyday life and half the globe. Our physical as well as intellectual presence is manifest in every climate under the sun. Our sailing ships and steam-vessels cover the seas and rivers. Wherever we conquer, we civilize and refine. Our arms, our arts, our literature are illustrious among the nations. We are a rich, a powerful, an intelligent, and a religious people."

The top editor's view of me fit this paradigm well. The closest he ever came to a compliment was when he told my boss, "I didn't know Americans knew how to write."

My view of "fuck" was that it was a word like all words, to be used in the proper place and the proper way, particularly not to be reduced to a hackneyed phrase. One of those proper occasions occurred in an article I had written for ILN, and to my pleasure the associate editor left it in.

The top editor did not discover the affront until after publication when he demanded of my boss, "how the fuck" the word had defaced his jewel in the crown.

It wasn't the first time he had missed the boat. When a competing publication celebrated its 2,000th issue complete with a well publicized party and a program on the BBC, the editor told his associate that the ILN ought to consider something like that. "When's our next big issue?" he asked. My boss said he wasn't sure. The editor pulled out the current edition only to find it was number 5,000.

When my editor departed this strange corner of the empire, he left me with a year's worth of assignments. On completion, I sent the editor-in-chief a dozen ideas for stories. He wrote that he would be back to me but never was. Sometime later, I mentioned this to my former editor. "You should never have sent him a dozen ideas," he scolded. "It was clearly too much for him to handle. You should have sent him one good idea and one terrible idea and hoped he made the right choice."

My advisor was an improbable New Zealander by the name of Des Wilson. After dropping out of school at 15, Des arrived in England as a young man with only a few pounds and a lot of ideas. Since then he has started a housing program called Shelter; written for a number of publications; run for Parliament; and headed campaigns to get the lead out of gas, the secrecy out of information and the Liberal Democrats into office; chaired Friends of the Earth; and written numerous books including a couple of novels in one of which I appear as a harried homeowner in council housing and, in another, my wife is an environmental activist in Portland, Maine. Once, at Buckingham Palace, Des stepped on one of Queen Elizabeth's corgies. I suspect he said, "Bugger off," but he has never admitted it.

In 1970, I heard Des speak about Shelter at a meeting of a housing and planning group on whose board I sat. I invited him over for a drink afterwards and -- with a few interruptions for campaigns of one sort or another or for gainful employment - he never left. He has advised, entertained, employed, and insulted me in no predictable order and I have tried to return the favor.

Among his gifts was to guide me in the way of British journalism, which still regards power with proper skepticism, the media as a lusty trade rather than a pompous profession, and words as something to be enjoyed and not merely processed. Thus it was that when a British hack filed from Africa word of a colleague's demise, "Headley dead in uprising," his editor, with an eye on circulation, fired back a telegram: "Why you undead?"

Des knew a reporter for the Observer by the name of Fergie who frequently vanished for lengthy periods, wiring repeatedly for more expenses. Once he wired to London to say he had information about a tribe of 100-year-olds in Ecuador but needed funds to travel there. He received the money and disappeared. Weeks later he wired for more funds. Reply: "What about tribe of 100 year olds?" Fergie wired back: "Alas, died of old age."

On a trip back to London, Fergie promised to drink from every bottle on the long shelf above the bar in the Observer's local pub. After two hours he demanded food and was given the one remaining pork pie. He kept drinking until the pub closed. He then returned at 5:30 PM to finish the task looking terrible. "Fergie," cried the bar-tender, "you look dreadful." "I know," said Fergie. "I feel dreadful. It must have been that pork pie."

Des was once in Ayachucho in the Andes waiting for his plane to Lima. The plane finally appeared but kept flying on without landing. "What the hell...?" snorted Des. "Its OK," said an Ayachuchoan, "It does that sometimes. It'll stop tomorrow." So Des re-booked into the hotel, returning the following day. The same. "Most unusual," said the local. He re-re-booked into the hotel and returned the following day. The plane finally landed. As the pilot stepped off the plane wearing 1930s style headgear, a crowd gathered around him and began arguing. Explained the Ayachuchoan, "Problem not over yet. Now it has to decide where it's going next." The ever resourceful Wilson plowed into the crowd waving his passport, pointing to the imprimatur of the Queen and her demand that her subjects be well treated by all and sundry. The pilot, impressed, announced that the plane would be going to Lima.

His later work led to a lot of speeches. Once he was speaking to a club in Lincolnshire. Before introducing him, the chairwoman bemoaned the small crowd and chastised the program committee saying, "We'll never get better speakers until we improve attendance."

On another occasion he was invited to speak to a dinner of county estate agents. The dinner dragged on and Des noticed that no only was a front table of agents getting drunk but they were betting among themselves on something.

Des finally got up to speak to a crowd that was half asleep and half inebriated. He was only a few minutes into his talk when one of the men at the front table held up a sign that read, "Please stop talking or I will lose my bet."

Finally, he reached what was, in his mind, a true pinnacle of achievement. He was named to the English and Wales Cricket Board.

Cricket, it has been noted, is the game in which "you have two sides: one out in the field and one in. Each man that's on the side that's in goes out and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out the side that's out comes in and the side that's been in goes out and tries to get those coming in out. When both sides have been in and out, including the not outs, that's the end of the game."

But it is serious business. Here is an actual quote from Sourav Ganguly during the 1991 test match between India and Australia: "This was the greatest Test I have played in. To come back and win after being asked to follow on is what dreams are made of." Harold Pinter even rated cricket ahead of sex among God's great gifts, although he admitted that sex wasn't all that bad.

Given my indifference, I was hardly prepared to deal with an early morning's call from Des announcing that he had resigned from the England and Wales Cricket Board over its planned Zimbabwe tour and that the decision was splashed all over the British media.

My initial response was, so this is how Tony Blair gets away with it, but after further inquiry and a little multitasking at my computer as Des spoke, I came up with the Guardian's lead:

"English cricket's attempt to adopt an ethical stance over the proposed tour of Zimbabwe was in tatters last night after the resignation of Des Wilson, the former Liberal Democrat party president hired by the England and Wales Cricket Board to develop a 'moral' policy over the scheduled tour. Mr Wilson resigned citing 'profound differences' with the other members of the ECB's management over the tour, which is scheduled for October. The ECB has come under considerable political and public pressure to cancel the tour because of human rights abuses by Robert Mugabe's regime."

My respect for the man soared. Who else would think of using cricket as a weapon of mass destruction against the egregious Mugabe? Come to think of it, who in America would leave any board anymore because of a moral issue?

I had to hand it to Des. After all these years, he had finally come up with a good reason for the existence of cricket.

American journalism died when it began to take itself too seriously. Des has helped me keep in mind that it doesn't have to be that way. It also helps to have someone in your life who, when you write or say something about which you should have thought more, puts down his glass of Scotch and says, "Good God, Smith, have you gone completely mad?"

[Most recently, Des has reinvented himself once more, as a leading expert on online poker and the author of a bio on the British poker king, Devil Fish. He is currently in Las Vegas playing in the world series of poker, a member of Team Ladsbrokes.]

June 14, 2007


IN A CULTURE OF IMPUNITY, rules serve the internal logic of the powerful rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, and at best practices only titular democracy. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself.

In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught. - Sam Smith

June 12, 2007


Sam Smith

Regardless of what one thinks of the Republican Party's policies, it must be admitted that as a political organization it has operated with frightening efficiency over the past quarter century.

And regardless of what one thinks of the Democratic Party's policies - or lack thereof - it must be admitted that as political organization it has operated with depressing incompetence and inefficiency over the part quarter century.

This is not something that is publicly admitted or discussed, but it nonetheless is true.

One need only look at the record of the current Congress - elected because of GOP entropy rather than its own virtues - to see the problem. Here, we have one of the most disliked presidents in history, one of the most disliked wars as well as a bunch of Democratic issues like the environment piling up in the living room and the Democrats in Congress are unable to take effective advantage of any of it. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has an approval rating below that of either Bush or Cheney.

The Democratic Party doesn't really exist as a coherent movement anymore. It has no clear agenda, its grassroots look as though sprayed by a herbicide, and its leaders - to use an antiquated and inapplicable term - have little interest in anything beyond their own election.

This is not really an ideological matter; it is more the result of incompetence, corruption and organizational chaos all happily denied by unfettered egos fed by lobbyists rather than their own accomplishments. Even the people who used to keep the party honest - the liberals - now only serve as elite enablers of the party's desertion of its popular base.

The results include not only an absurdly ineffective Congress but a presidential campaign offering a choice between the corrupt and the vacuous in first and second place.

If you strip away the politics from it all and you look at the two parties as competing Mafia mobs, you've got to hand it to the GOP. They really know how to control the 'hood.

The metaphor is not an unfair one. After all, a member of the Bush or Clinton Family will have been in the White House as president or Vice president for 28 years if Hillary Clinton wins, and it was almost that long ago that Bill Clinton started helping Vice President Bush's Contra operations out of Arkansas.

As for Harvard suit and establishment toy boy Obama, just remember that this is a guy who is such a coward that he was afraid to vote for a limit of 30% on credit card usury.

The solution for the Democrats' decay is not easy to come by. Worse, our laws make it virtually impossible for a new party to take its place. The Greens might have changed the politics of the country had they had spent more time on backyard politics and less on the presidential race. The liberals seem forever condemned to life as names on the databases of groups like Move On or Emily's List that promise salvation for a $25 contribution.

The only thing that might really change matters would be a movement that the establishment - including the liberal establishment - can't control. It must be decentralized, viral and have dreams rather than strategic visions. It happened with the civil rights, women's and peace movement, so presumably it can happen again.

In the meantime, it would help to recognize honestly and publicly the pathetic, corrupt and ineffective mess that Democratic Party has become.

June 06, 2007




From a graduation speech delivered at Washington's John Eaton public elementary school in 1977. At the time, the school went through the 8th grade.'

The title of my speech is "The Future Lies Ahead." This pretty much sums up what people are meant to say at graduations, so I thought I would take care of it in the title and move on to some other business. It has always seemed to me that graduation was a little late to be giving advice but perhaps a few random notes may be of some assistance.

First of all, parents: they're middle-aged, right? And Peter Ustinov says that the trouble with middle-aged people is that they're too far away from either of the most important mysteries of life: birth and death. My father used to say that the reason that grandparents and grandchildren got on so well was because they had a common enemy. For myself, I think one of the problems with parents is that they can never decide whether you should be in the White House or in jail. They exaggerate both their expectations and their disappointments. But remember that most of this exaggeration comes from two sources; hope and love. They have higher hopes for you than anyone other than yourself and this is nice. But you know your hopes often disappoint you and that's hard enough. It's even harder sometimes to deal with someone else who has high hopes for you, and I'm sorry to say it doesn't end when you leave your parents. At 39, I still find dealing with other people's expectations difficult. John Cage, the experimental composer, once said that when people finally approved of what he did, all they wanted him to do was repeat it. He wanted to try something new, but the pressure was to just do it over again. This kind of dilemma will follow you to your grave, so relax and learn to live with it.

Love is also a two-edged blade. It provides warmth, humanity, and comfort, but it also demands and takes. Remember that Mr. Spock didn't understand love because it wasn't' logical. In fact, especially with your parents, its manifestations sometimes seem to border on mental illness. Which is why, perhaps, so many people go to psychiatrists looking for love.

I can't tell you how to deal with this conflict except to recognize the unavailability of the free lunch. If you want to go through life with complete freedom, unimpeded self-expression, then you also have to be ready to go through life lonely. If you want to share in love and community and mutual support then you have to be willing to give up something of yourself in return. Parents offer love and hope but in the process become like that definition of the English House of Lords - indefensible and indispensable.

Second, a note on being a teenager: Adults conform just as much as teenagers do. The problem is that teenagers are asked to conform to both adult and teenager values at the same time. This can be a little confusing. But there's something else wrong with the setup. Adults tend to regard your age as the ragged, unruly end of childhood, rather than the beginning of adulthood. Go back a couple of centuries and you'll find 16-year olds who were captains of ships and 14 year olds who were serving as apprentices or doing a full day's adult work on the farm.

You are capable of it, but if you were to drop out of school and try to find a job in what we adults strangely called the 'real' world, you wouldn't have much luck. Why? The truth is that we need people to stay in school as long as they can in order to keep the unemployment rate down. It is not our social system but our economy that has determined that there be no useful role for teenagers. Now adults don't want you to discover this so when you start demanding something meaningful, they may give you freedom rather than responsibility, and when the sort of aimless freedom that adults sometimes grant young people backfires in a car accident or a drug bust, we blame the teenager. It is, of course, stupid to ask young people to find purpose in life when the system is specifically designed to deny them a useful function.

Well, pretty much. If we ever get in a war again, you'll find the country suddenly finding a place for you - on the front lines. I would think a country that can trust its teenagers to defend it in time of war could find more useful roles for them in time of peace.

But we adults won't fight this battle for you, although we have taken a few steps, like lowering the voting age. You've got to figure it out for yourselves and make us listen. And, you only have a few years in which to do it. Then, you, too, will be too old and may begin to stop caring.

Third, a note on failure: Everyone tells you how to succeed, but I bet you get damn little advice on how to fail - which is strange, because if you're normal, you're going to spend more time failing than succeeding. Try to learn the difference between the failure that comes from laziness, indifference, or stupidity and that which comes from other sources.

For example, there's the failure that comes with trying to do something that you won't be able to do right until tomorrow or the next day or next year. Those of you who took part in the musical yesterday know what I'm talking about.

It took many hours of voluntary failure to produce one hour of success. And now that you've succeeded, you perhaps have the courage to fail again so, you can succeed at something even harder next time.

Then there's the failure of the just cause. Most good causes started out as lost causes. If no one had been willing to fail at a just cause, we would still be fighting in Vietnam and eating at segregated lunch counters and the women in the Eaton class of '77 would not be expected to go to college.

Finally there is the failure that is not yours; .but the judgment of other people Don't let other people tell you when you've failed. Listen to them but not at the exclusion of your heart or own judgment. Other people are poor judges of your success or failure.

One last note: I'm sure people have asked you, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" There are two things wrong with that question.

First, I know and you know that you are right now. If you put off being until you're fully grown you may discover that it's passed you by.

Second, adults usually want you to respond with a noun: I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, an investigative reporter. You can fool them by answering with adjectives like I want to be warm, useful, and happy. It is, after all, those sorts of wants that will matter most in the long run. If what you want to be is only a noun, you'll probably end up like that and the sadder for it. But if you pick the right adjectives, you can end up like Frank Skeffington, the political boss hero of The Last Hurrah. In the last scene he lies on his deathbed and an unctious Roger Sugrue intones, "Well, the one thing we all know is that if Frank had to do it all over again, he would have done it differently." Frank Skeffington raises himself from his bed, looks the guy in the eye and says, "Like hell I would," and dies. Happy.

Thank you.

Copyright 1977 Progressive Review




Some journalists would have us believe that there was a time -- before Drudge and the Internet -- when journalism was a honorable activity in which no one went looking for a restroom without first asking directions from at least two sources (unless, of course, one of the sources was a government official), in which every word was checked for fairness, and in which nothing made the prints without being thoroughly verified. There may have been such a time but it wasn't, for example, on January 20, 1925, when the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial declaring that:

A newspaper is a private enterprise, owing nothing whatever to the public, which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no public interest. It is emphatically the property of the owner who is selling a manufactured product at his own risk.

Nor was it a decade or so later when a Washington correspondent admitted:

Policy orders? I never get them; but I don't need them. The make-up of the paper is a policy order. . I can tell what they want by watching the play they give to my stories.

Nor when George Seldes testified before the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the Newspaper Guild which was then trying to organize the New York Times. The managing editor of the Times came up to Seldes afterwards and said, "Well, George, I guess your name will never again be mentioned in the Times."

Nor when William Randolph Hearst, according to his biographer David Nasaw, "sent undercover reporters onto the nation's campuses to identify the 'pinko academics' who were aiding and abetting the 'communistic' New Deal. During the election campaign of 1936, he accused Roosevelt of being Stalin's chosen candidate."

There was, too be sure, a better side, including those who hewed to the standard described recently by William Safire in a talk at Harvard:

I hold that what used to be the crime of sedition -- the deliberate bringing of the government into disrepute, the divisive undermining of public confidence in our leaders, the outrageous assaulting of our most revered institutions -- is a glorious part of the American democratic heritage.

In either case, though, Adam Goodheart, of Civilization magazine, wrote recently:

Journalism didn't truly become a respectable profession until after World War II, when political journalism came to be dominated by a few big newspapers, networks and news services. These outlets cultivated an impartiality that, in a market with few rivals, makes sense. They also cultivated the myth that the American press had always (with a few deplorable exceptions, of course) been a model of decorum. But it wasn't this sort of press that the framers of the Bill of Rights set out to protect. It was, rather, a press that called Washington an incompetent, Adams a tyrant and Jefferson a fornicator. And it was that rambunctious sort of press that, in contrast to the more genteel European periodicals of the day, came to be seen as proof of America's republican vitality.

In the late 1930s a survey asked Washington journalists for their reaction to the following statement:

It is almost impossible to be objective. You read your paper, notice its editorials, get praised for some stories and criticized for others. You 'sense policy' and are psychologically driven to slant the stories accordingly.

Sixty percent of the respondents agreed. Today's journalists are taught instead to perpetuate a lie: that through alleged professional mysteries you can achieve an objectivity that not even a Graham, Murdoch, or Turner can sway. Well, most of the time it doesn't work, if for no other reason than in the end someone else picks what gets covered and how the paper is laid out.

There were other differences 60 years ago. Nearly 40% of the Washington correspondents surveyed were born in towns of less than 2500 population, and only 16% came from towns of 100,000 or more. In 1936, the Socialist candidate for president was supported by 5% of the Washington journalists polled and one even cast a ballot for the Communists. One third of Washington correspondents, the cream of the trade, lacked a college degree in 1937. Even when I entered journalism in the 1950s, over half of all reporters in the country still had less than a college degree.

In truth the days for which some yearn never existed. What did exist was much more competition in the news industry. If you didn't like the Washington Post, for example, you could read the Times Herald, the Daily News or the Star. While the number of radio stations in my town has remained fairly steady, it has been only recently that 21 local outlets have been owned by just five corporations.

By the 1980s, most of what Americans saw, read, or heard was controlled by fewer than two dozen corporations. By the 1990s just five corporations controlled all or part of 26 cable channels. Some 75% of all dailies are now in the hands of chains and just four of these chains own 21% of all the country's daily papers.

Today's diuretic discourse over journalistic values largely reflects an attempt to justify the unjustifiable, namely the rapid decline of independent sources of information and the monopolization of the vaunted "market place of ideas." In the end, the hated Internet is a far better heir of Peter Zenger, Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain than is the typical American daily or TV channel; and H.L. Mencken would infinitely prefer a drink with Matt Drudge than with Ted Koppel.

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

The idea that the journalist is engaged in a professional procedure like surgery or a lawsuit leads to little but tedium, distortion, and delusion. Far better to risk imperfection than to have quality so carefully controlled that only banality and official truths are permitted.

In the end journalism tends to be either an art or just one more technocratic mechanism for restraining, ritualizing, and ultimately destroying thought and reality.

If it is the latter, the media will take its polls and all it will hear is its own echo. If it is the former, the journalist listens for truth rather than to rules -- and reality, democracy, and decency are all better for it.

June 04, 2007



I've received a promo from Jim Wallis of Sojourners that reads in part:

"There are very few moments when we have the opportunity to turn the eyes of the nation away from the three-ring circus that our electoral process resembles and onto the concerns of those whom Jesus called the 'least of these.' Tonight is one of those moments, as Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama join us for a conversation about faith, values and poverty broadcast live on CNN.

"And in hundreds of churches and homes across the country, people of faith like you will be gathering to watch the candidates and help us issue a prophetic challenge to put poverty at the top of the political agenda. . . We're calling the event 'Faith Guiding Our Votes,' because it will be a unique forum to ask questions not just about issues, but about values. Not just what policies the candidates propose, but why. Not just whether they believe privately, but about how they live out their faith in public life."

I understand what Wallis is up to; he is attempting to seize the faith and values brand from the right. This would be a worthy goal were it not for the fact that it just makes liberal faith-mongers like Wallis look as hypocritical and unctuous as the people they oppose. Anyone who goes to a politician for faith and values is a damn fool - not unlike taking part in a mud wrestling match to wash your face.

While politicians have always abused religion, it has reached epic proportions even as they have become demonstratively deficient in both faith and values. The decline of American civilization and official sanctimony have had a direct inverse relationship.

But beyond the absurdity of talking to a Clinton or Obama about such matters is another problem: the assumption by politicians, the media and religion that the latter owns faith and values.

While it is not likely that we can cure either pols or theocrats of this illusion, the media should be more than a little embarrassed by its participation in the faith fraud. Over and over again, the press projects religious faith and values as a higher existence even as these values threaten the future of the globe as never before. This is not only non-objective, it is outright evangelism parading as news.

In fact, one can find useful faith and values outside of religion as easily as you can find it inside. To say otherwise is hypocrisy. Whether religion is a good place to look for faith and values seems to vary over time. For example, in the 1960s, ministers were among the most valuable voices of change because they found the best parts of the Bible and acted on it. Now, even in the milder sects, clergy is so busy keeping their budget up and vestry happy that you hardly see a white collar at a demonstration any more. When America finally decides to ditch the disastrous faith and values of the neo-colonial, neo-corporate, neo-corrupt Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years, I suspect that the preachers will return to help lead America's revival, but at present religion collectively is a predominantly evil force in the world and until a lot more religionists become embarrassed about this, it will stay that way.

As for politicians, I can't think of many who directly used their religion's values for the better of the rest of us. Gene McCarthy and Father Drinan come to mind, the latter ironically having to leave Congress because of a papal ban on religious faith and values being directly involved in politics. For most of the rest, faith and values were mainly good for a nice Monday morning news shot of them leaving church on Sunday.

Where we have far more commonly found useful faith and values in politics is among those who come out of cultures such as secular Judaism, the Irish community, the progressive upper Mid West and New England. To be sure, religion was an element but the values mainly came from the community and not the pulpit.

As a recovering Episcopalian, quasi-Quaker seventh day agnostic who signs his mail, "Keep the faith" I take more than a little umbrage at the pretences of contemporary religion and its advocates in the media. To be sure, my sign-off comes from a minister, but a rather different one - the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, a sinner who got more good legislation passed in less time than any member of Congress in history and whose farewell was, "Keep the faith, baby." Jim Wallis would never had dared to have had him on his show.

One of the things I learned from people like Powell was that faith and values come in many different forms, from many different places and can appear and disappear on the same day. The key is what one values and in what one places the faith. This is an empirical and not a theological matter, based on witness and not clever branding.

I also learned to watch out for the sanctimonious prigs, those who constantly talk about faith, values and hope - as though it was one more yellow ribbon pasted on their butts - but are no shows when the going gets rough.

I've been keeping a faith based on a number of values for a good many years, only darkening the church doors in the latino tradition of navi pasqua - Christmas and Easter - and drawing on patron saints of a diverse and unsanctified nature such as the Three Initials - EB White, HL Mencken and AJ Leibling - whose works form as fine a triptych as you will find in any cathedral.

I get along fine with many people of religious faith, but I do so in part because I admire their witness, rather than their public declarations. They seem to regard me in much the same manner. Once you do away with pronouncements, pretense and proselytizing, it all gets a lot easier.

So, I'm sorry, Jim Wallis, but I'm not going to play your little game. In fact, I'm annoyed you're adding your voice to the overflow crowd of those using the once useful terms - faith and values - for such crude and hypocritical purposes - keeping them under lock and key in a church rather than out on the streets where they belong.


Our world is unlike any in human history - a world in which the destruction of cultural and individual variety is high on the agenda of the earth's political and business leaders - our human nature being to them not a reason for existing but just another obstacle in their path to power. The strategies by which this onslaught can be countered depend on the imagination, passion, obstinacy and creativity of ordinary people who refuse their consumptive assignments in the global marketplace, who develop autonomous alternatives and who laugh when they are supposed to be saluting. The business of constructing culture is no longer an inherited and precisely defined task but a radical act demonstrating to others that they are not alone and to ourselves that we are still human. - Sam Smith


[50 years ago this summer, your editor covered his first story in Washington. Throughout the year, the Review will offer excerpts from "Multitudes: The Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith," the full version of which is available on our site]

In 1974, the capital colony of DC got to elect a mayor and city council for the first time in over a century. Although the city's registration was overwhelmingly Democratic, the young DC Statehood Party, which I had helped to start four years earlier, decided to run a hefty slate. I missed the convention, having gone to Philadelphia to visit relatives. There I received a phone call from Jay Matthews of the Washington Post informing me that I had been selected as the party's candidate for city council chair. I replied with one of my least felicitous responses to a press query: "Oh shit, I knew I shouldn't have left town." (The Post ran the response without the expletive).

After a week of reflection, I decided to stick to journalism, but couldn't resist holding a news conference at which I described the mayor and city council chair as "the political equivalent of Fruit Loops, sweet-tasting cereal circles comprised largely of additives and artificial flavoring wrapped around exactly nothing."

Nationally syndicated black journalist Chuck Stone took an avuncular interest in my brief campaign, writing after its demise: "The outside chance for a white city council chairman evaporated when Sam Smith, the irreverent and witty publisher and editor of the bi-weekly DC Gazette, withdrew after a draft (which included a large number of blacks) had been mounted on his behalf. 'Oh dear,' fretted a matronly white woman who had organized a candidates night, 'we did want so much to have a least one white candidate for that office.'"

June 03, 2007


The original version appeared in the December 1994 Progressive Review

I was recently described in an otherwise kind article in Washington’s City Paper as a "political gadfly." This was neither the first time nor will it be the last. It has happened to me so often that I was able to tell the writer where the word came from (a fly that bites and annoys cattle). In fact, it has happened to me so often that I once had a dinghy called the Gadfly.

Gadflies are only barely further along in the evolutionary chain of things than maggots and slugs. They are frequently found resting placidly on a pile of excrement. As readers well know, I never am at rest sitting on a pile of shit.

Being called a gadfly is a little like being bitten by one. It’s also, notes Jon Rowe, like Ralph Nader being called a "self-styled consumer advocate." Where, Rowe wonders, does one go to get a license to become an properly appointed consumer advocate? To the Washington Post Style Section?

People in Washington who call other people gadflies tend to be either players or people who wish they were. A player is someone trying to be Assistant Secretary of HUD, someone who represents a major polluter and claims to practice environmental law, someone who is paid large sums of money to shout down Eleanor Clift on national TV or who pays large sums of money to get politicians to wrestle with -- and ultimately defeat -- their own conscience. Players are annoyed by gadflies because they won’t play according to the players’ rules. On the other hand, gadflies don’t clutter up the bureaucracy making dull speeches, and they don’t create toxic waste sites or corrupt the political system. They tend to eat Mr. Tyson’s chicken rather than fly on his planes. And at the end of the day, they have less explaining to do to their children.

Players tend to be quite insecure which is why they need such an elaborate support system, including the Washingtonian magazine, the Gridiron Dinner, the Washington Post Style section and the Diane Rehm Show. Players consider themselves serious; gadflies not. Russell Baker, a serious man, addressed this matter best in a column in which he pointed out the difference between being serious and being solemn. Baker observed that children are almost always serious, but that they start to lose the trait in adolescence. Washington is the capital of solemnity and few of its elite are truly serious.

Gadflies, on the other hand, are usually serious. A gadfly tends to be someone with ideas, energy and a modicum of talent but who lacks a PR firm, ghostwriter and a proper flair for networking. A gadfly is someone who actually wants to get something done, but often can’t -- largely because of all the players in the way.

EF Schumacher once said, "We must do what we conceive to be the right thing, and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we are going to be successful. Because if we don't do the right thing, we'll be doing the wrong thing, and we will just be part of the disease, and not a part of the cure."

Gadflies would agree. They think for themselves. But in Washington thought is something players purchase, just like they purchase gas, condoms or political access. People who think are considered part of the service industry with commensurate compensation and social regard.

When gadflies feel like using a bovine analogy, they think of themselves as mavericks -- animals whose only sin has been to wander off from their colleagues. They also, as they say in Texas, drink upstream from the herd, which if you know anything about cattle is not a bad idea.

Take a run-of-the-mill gadfly such as myself and then some average players -- say the editorial board the Washington Post -- and compare their records over a couple of decades. The gadfly approach to freeways, urban policy, Vietnam, the environment and Bill Clinton will, I think, hold up pretty well. The problem gadflies face is not that they are irrelevant or wrong but that their timing is a bit off. The FBI used to categorize members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as "premature anti-fascists." Similarly, many gadflies are just moderates of an age that has not yet arrived.


This article appeared in the DC Gazette in the 1970s. Nothing much has changed.

IT'S almost over. Our autumnal orgy of orchestrated injury, our paean to triumph at any cost, the pageant of American Darwinism. Football season.

I treat football season like February. I avoid it whenever possible. But, like February, one must leave town or face it at some point. It looms nightly as a desert to cross in order to learn both the evening news and the weather. It turns up on television sets incongruously propped in strange locations so we can follow the game as well as do whatever else we had planned for that afternoon. It speaks to us with Orwellian omnipotence from screens in bars, behind store counters and perched on stools in parking lot shacks. My bank, in a singular departure from its normal practice of applying service charges to every transaction, offers me a free guide to it each year. It is the male thing of which to speak during the darkening months and if one wishes more than a cursory conversation with other males then more than a cursory glance at the sports pages is required. For while it is all right to be indifferent to baseball, soccer, or hockey - if one is discreet about it - indifference to football verges on androgyny or worse. Skip the totems if you like - the bumper stickers and the logo festooned wool cap - but avoid the issue completely? Never.

Well, the truth is that not only am I indifferent to football, I don't like it I can find only two things good about professional football. The first is that it is so popular in Washington that no otherwise pleasant friend has invited me to attend a Redskins game. The second is that it may serve the nation to some extent by sublimating violence that could be expressed in more dangerous forms. Football is part of the pornography of violence and, if we accept the liberal sociologists' view of such matters, it is perhaps wisest to let the Battle of America be won on the playing fields of RFK Stadium.

I say perhaps. The evidence is cloudy. We managed to engage in the most stupid war of our history while at the peak of arousal over professional football. And we are regressing into the state-contrived violence of capital punishment, SWAT squads, and massive subsidization of foreign and domestic police state activities apparently unappeased by the bruises of the NFL. But then, who knows what even more grizzly avocations we might find for ourselves and our nation were it not for the ritualistic release of our lust for battle on Sunday afternoons (and Monday evenings and Saturday afternoons and. . . )

Let's grant football the benefit of the doubt. It is enough to justify its existence, I suppose, but not its veneration, its incursion into residential neighborhoods, the number of inches it occupies in a press that can't find room to tell us the basic facts of what is happening in our community, or the energy consumed by calculators figuring the average number of punts blocked or the median gain per pass play.

Football was long kept in its place in part by the American love of baseball, that remarkably friendly game that more than any other sport seemed to reflect national political and social ideals. Slow as a bill working its way through Congress, enamored of individual eccentricity, full of conflict between citizen (ball player) and authority (umpire), organized in American technological fashion with a specialist for every position all working towards the same goal but keeping a genteel distance from each other, dependent upon skills other than physical size, and featuring the pitcher as democratic hero, recallable upon loss of a vote of confidence, baseball was closely attuned to the way we were.

But we 'didn't stay the way we were. As America's imperial longings became more apparent, as merchandising considerations increasingly insinuated themselves into every corner of our values, as our businesses merged and our minds conglomerated at the drop of anything bigger, more exaggerated or more "super," and as television demanded larger and larges audiences as the price of admission to its cameras, the countless, casual, dreamy and so unextraordinary afternoons of baseball no longer were what we were about. Baseball had been a way of life for America, but America's life had lost its way. As we lost confidence in the future, we needed something that would fulfill the moment - the moment that was increasingly to serve the functions of past, present and future. We no longer wished to wait a half a year to find out who had won or lost or to choose our heroes only after observing their performance in scores of games. Professional football brought us the Big Event - history in an afternoon, destiny a baker's dozen of hours on a 100-yard patch of artificial turf.

Baseball is different. As Eugene McCarthy said the other day, theoretically, a game could go on forever. A ball hit out of the park could " travel to infinity. And baseball has a past that echoes with every crack of the bat.


I was in the cavernous-waiting room of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station recently when Mohammed Ali walked in. The entire Philadelphia patronage of Amtrak for that hour stared as much as it dared. I remembered the first time I saw him. It was 1961 or so. I was in the lobby of the Louisville Courier Journal and this black tornado roared out of the elevator bragging, yakking, dancing. Who's that, I asked. Cassius Clay. Who's Cassius Clay? Now I knew. And the reason I knew was that beyond the braggadocio, the hype that no Madison A venue copywriter would be brazen enough to emulate, was quantifiable achievement, achievement attained over enough years, with enough pain, to prove its worth. Boxing is a brutal game too, too brutal for my inclinations, but at least it knows how to find a hero.

Football has its heroes. But as in contemporary politics and contemporary music, the real ones are obscured by the institutional necessity to make every action heroic, dramatic or controversial. The truth simply does not out itself at velocity adequate to pro football's economic demands. Football has premised itself on the existence of supermen. When it can not produce them or activities worthy of them, it and the press that fawns over it simply lies to us.

The media's tediousness alternating with unctious imperiousness during the football season is insufferable. Other than providing scores, pointless trivia and readily observable facts, football journalists essentially have three things to tell you:

- After a win: the team was playing at its best or, alternatively, despite injuries to E.J. Frugnagle, it put on one of the finest performances in recent football history.

- After a loss: the team has disgraced itself with the most inexcusable display of fumbling ever observed by this scholar of the sport.

- Prior to a win or loss: on any given day any given team can beat any other given team.


Football further not only involves an unreasonable number of individual injuries but a progressive deterioration of the physical health of nearly all players. The spectator is not viewing an occasional accident, but the pandemic maiming of most of those on the field This problem is most severe in pro ball, but is a characteristic of the game all the way down to the little leagues. Football is actually an anti-athletic endeavor since its main physiological effect is to hurt bodies rather than to make them stronger.


The sport is organized along extraordinarily authoritarian lines, with plays committed to paper in advance and individual innovation encouraged only when the play goes astray. The coach assumes an importance unparalleled in sports. The concept of a team representing a blend of individual initiative is replaced in football by, a system dependent upon each player doing precisely what he is told, providing yet another parallel to recent American political and economic history.


At one point they almost wrote a contract with a gargantuan professional wrestler. Then someone in the front office got wise. There are people out there who still think it's a sport, he probably explained. But the fact is that football, like basketball, places' abnormal value on physical excess. There's nothing wrong with this in itself, but we should realize that what we are observing is often not so much a demonstration of athletic ability as of bulk or height. If you are the biggest fullback you don't have to be the best.


The watching of football and other sports has become a substitute for physical activity on the part of the spectator. I believe that part of the attraction of television sports is a subconscious belief that the karma of athlete is transmitted to the viewer through the tube. Unfortunately, there is no metaphysical or medical evidence to support this. On the contrary, for a nation so obsessed with sports, we are remarkably unfit. When more than a thousand American males 18 to 20 were given a twelve minute running test, only six percent rated in the excellent category. A similar sample of young Austrian males found 30% rated excellent.

Simple observation suggests that this situation does not improve with age especially in that category of American males most glued to the Sunday tube. We send our top six percent to the Olympics and the stadium. A much higher percentage we send to the intensive care unit.

The obsession with football interrupts many other facets of life, not the least being sports itself. One example; A few weeks ago 1,500 persons started in the Marine Marathon here. More than a thousand finished. Based on participation it was probably the largest sporting event ever held in the area. As far as the local media was concerned, though, it was a sidelight. It rated a couple of photos and cutlines. Not stats, no detail, no real coverage. The press was following the money, not the athletes and so once again devoted its space to football.

For me, that's enough reasons to long for a new year, for a temporary end of Super Bowls, wild cards, and draft choices. For me there's enough greed and brutality in the real world. A good sport takes us away from the avarices and perversions of the mind and lets us discover skill, speed, strength, grace and surprise that lie beneath the shoulders. A good sport is fun. It's play. Football is neither. It is hard, mean, power-grubbing, hurtful work because instead of releasing us from the less admirable aspects of our world, it emulates and encourages them.



NOTE: Some of these symptoms are found in non-fascist countries where they should be treated as serious warning signs. On the other hand, fascist states - unlike democratic nations - have many, if not all, of these symptoms.

Your president asserts the right to ignore part or all of laws passed by the national legislature.

Massive warrantless searches

Your president and other officials regularly lie to you

Fraudulent election counts

Government monitoring of letters, emails, phone calls and checking accounts

Secret courts

A government subservient to the interests of the country's largest corporations.

Use of torture on prisoners

Courts that support presidential use of unconstitutional powers

Massive spying on citizens, especially those involved in political dissent

A government that uses words like democracy, freedom and peace while engaging in acts dramatically at odds with such words

Government agencies or officials declaring themselves exempt from portions of the law or constitution

Creation of watchlists, no-fly lists and similar exclusionary documents

National ID cards

Growing number of citizens incarcerated for a growing number of offenses

Massive use of cameras to spy on citizens

A media supportive of, or obsequious towards, the government in covering its police state activities

Security bubble around government leaders' public appearances including preselected audiences and limit on proximity of protests

Disarming of citizenry

Dissent characterized as disloyal by government and its supporting media

Increasing government control over private behavior

Lack of legal recourse to stop illegal government actions

Prison without trial and arrests without charges

It is difficult to borrow books from libraries pertaining to controversial subjects such as, communism,socialism,and, fascism.

Transfer of powers from legislatures to executive

Assassinations of popular public figures

Expansion of prisons and laws that lead people to prisons

President claims right to make war whenever he wants

Words misused to mean their opposite: i.e. peace for war, democracy for fascism

The president sets himself up as the sole moral authority for the entire country, using his personal beliefs as the basis on which to declare what is 'good' and what is 'evil.'

Federal takeover of functions formerly considered essential state or local responsibilities such as state militias and public education

Creation of a mercenary military force used for foreign and domestic purposes

June 01, 2007


"Multitudes: An Unauthorized Memoir"
By Sam Smith

So I ended up much as I started: the kid they sent to right field because he couldn't or wouldn't play the game right.

I didn't plan it this way. I didn't want it this way. In truth, a large part of me still would like to have been one of the popular boys in the class, but things kept getting in the way - some addictive confluence of moral aggravation, periodic accident, undisciplined imagination, sporadic and unpremeditated courage randomly suppressing chronic shyness and cowardice, sloppy romanticism, episodic existentialism, recurrent hope, stultifying stubbornness, and an abiding intolerance for the dull. A child's dreams and an adult's faith pounding tide after tide on the rock of reality, thinking that maybe this time I'll float off.

Some people take it personally, as though I rebelled simply to annoy them. They make little jokes about the fact that I'm different, as if I had a moral obligation to be like them. When they see someone like me coming, they close the doors of their institutions, their imaginations, and their hearts. We are, after all, thieves who might abscond with their most precious possession: the tranquility of unexamined certainty.

But it's really more like Vaclav Havel said long ago when he was still a rebel:

You do not become a 'dissident' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society . . . "

Those dissidents who somehow remain connected to the normal find themselves alone in the crowd. Even in my home town, I often feel an exile - as though all had emigrated except for me, as though somehow I had missed the ship.

It's often not easy. Albert Camus spoke of the tremendous energy some must expend "merely to be normal" and added:

The rebel can never find peace. He knows what is good and, despite himself, does evil. The value which supports him is never given to him once and for all - he must fight to uphold it, unceasingly.

Emerson also understood the problem:

You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Still, you can't talk about such things because it would further confirm the belief that you are best ignored, dismissed, or considered absurd. So you become the charming stranger from a strange place, you tell the jokes first, and you change the subject when it starts to get too close to the real. Better yet, you fool them into thinking that you are one of them even though you really blend better with those the urban itinerant Joe Gould described as the "cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats."

Still, among the illusions of my life has been that if I stuck it out long enough, time would provide the acceptance that my words and thoughts had prevented. I. F. Stone used to say that when you're young you're blamed for things you didn't do and when you're older you get credit for them. It hasn't worked out like that, in part because just when I should have started coasting, the world around me took a nasty, greedy, and dangerous turn. America began destroying itself. It was the wrong time to start fitting in .

True, the best period for a revolution of the good is when one is young. To be twenty or thirty and part of an uprising of the collective soul is a rare gift of life. It does spoil you, though, for you go through the rest of your time wondering why that moment went away and why nothing seems able to bring it back.

What was unexpected, both in timing and intensity, was that I would not only live through one of America's great revivals but during a subsequent era when my country -- without debate, consideration, or struggle -- decided it really didn't want to be America any more.

Few even talked about it, but, as a writer and as a child of segregation, I knew that in the silence could be something as telling and evil as words. After all, the language of the old south was most descriptive in what it didn't say - and what wasn't allowed to be said.

Much later I would come across the words of a German university professor who described to journalist Milton Mayer what it had been like under the Nazis in the 1930s:

To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted.'. . .

Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.. . .

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

William Shirer noted something similar in Nightmare Years:

What surprised me at first was that most Germans, so far as I could see, did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their splendid culture was being destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work were becoming regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation . . . Yet the Nazi terror in those early years, I was beginning to see, affected the lives of relatively few Germans. The vast majority did not seem unduly concerned with what happened to a few Communists, Socialists, pacifists, defiant priests and pastors, and to the Jews. A newly arrived observer was forced, however reluctantly, as in my own case, to conclude that on the whole the people did not seem to feel that they were being cowed and held down by an unscrupulous tyranny. On the contrary, and much to my surprise, they appeared to support it with genuine enthusiasm.

Shortly before his death in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz says:

What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn't we just stay put? . . . We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we'll know better next time.

I didn't want to miss the moment. This wasn't an act of nobility; it came more from fear of shame. Consequences can't be wholly unintentional once you've imagined them. Successfully deny or ignore them and you'll die happy. Open your eyes and you become irrevocably responsible, with all the pain, doubt, and fear that goes with it.

And now the stakes may be even higher than just for better or for worse. This time the stupid things we have done to this planet may not be forgiven. This time democracy may be not only staggering, but gone.

Still, this is not something you talk about over dinner and get invited back. And so, "you wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow."

But it doesn't happen and you know it's not happening and you don't have the slightest idea of what to do about it except to use the archaic tools of your trade and the stores of your mind as best you can, not permit the hostility towards the effort depress you too much, and try to enjoy the countervailing virtues and strengths of the struggle, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter:

She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness, as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed forest. . . Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places. . . For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.


I have tried to help keep alive the beleaguered tradition of plain speaking and truth-seeking that I understood to be at the heart of good journalism. But in a time when many reporters prefer perceptions to facts, bullet quotes to understanding, and spin over reality, such efforts are seen as eccentric at best, apostasy at worst. The proper journalist has become, wittingly or not, the accomplice of privatized censorship and corporatized propaganda in which news and agitprop are hopelessly mingled and the former fatally adulterated. Truth has little to do with it anymore. It is as if we are living in a new Middle Ages, only with the myth being driven by cable TV rather than by the church.

Further, where once saying unconventional things was regarded as hip, it is now considered 'inappropriate.' Hipness has become a fashion statement - a consumer selection carefully synchronized with corporate intent rather than outward evidence of a free state of mind. And so it is easy to feel ostracized, alone, and ineffectual. Such feelings are bad enough at 26, but far harder at 66 if for no other reason than that you have less time to recover from them.

I know because I've had the feelings at both ages. And at both ages the despair has been exaggerated, self-defeating, and self-fulfilling. Which isn't to say unnecessary, for wrestling with the pain of living is one of the surest signs that you are still alive. The problem is that you never know when you're exaggerating and when you've got it right.

Still, part of my love of the craft of journalism has been the simple joy of possessing the license to go wherever curiosity leads, to consider no place in the planet alien to my inquiry, to use words as a child uses little plastic blocks. Part of it has been the pleasure of deliberately learning more about something than any reasonable person would want to know.

Tina Hobson once said of her husband, the civil rights activist, "The trouble with Julius is that he takes the Constitution personally." I suffer from a similar debility. But sometimes people credit me with a sense of justice when in fact I am just titillated, fascinated or surprised. In such ways I have also disappointed some of my more didactic allies who expected me to stick to business and not be distracted by the noise of news and the search for better words with which to describe it.

George Orwell faced something similar and wrote:

Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

Yet I also want to walk away from it at will. Back in the 60s, I was sitting in an office on 8th Street SE in Washington talking with one of the sergeants of the War on Poverty. It was shortly after the riots of April 1968 and our conversation drifted in the shadows of those smoky and jarring days. Then the community organizer stopped in mid-sentence and said, "Look, Sam, all I really want to do is to sit on my front stoop in the sun, drink beer, and shoot craps."

His words keep coming back, a reminder that even the best politics are a pretty poor substitute for life and that the worst politics compound their felony by forcing us to leave the front stoop to do something about them. Our quarrel with the abuse of power should be not only be that it is cruel and stupid but that it takes so much time way from other things -- like loving and being loved, and music, and a good meal and the sunset of a gentle day. In a nation ablaze with struggles for power, we are too often forced to choose between being a co-conspirator in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. And, too often, as we immerse ourselves in the terrible relevance of our times, beauty and happiness seem to drift away.

That community organizer in the dingy office on 8th Street understood that the proper end of politics was not a policy, not a budget, not an ideology, not even worthy abstractions like peace and justice, but rather good places, and good days and healthy and happy people -- the collective little republics of our individual hopes and dreams.

In the melancholy that descends from time to time, in the loneliness that lies like a desert between myself and my hopes, I think about opportunities that have come my way that I brazenly - wantonly, some might say - rejected. I turned down several invitations from Harvard final clubs, removed myself from the Social Register and failed to fill out the forms to be in Washington's Green Book. I twice declined offers of employment from James Reston of the New York Times, and once from an editor of the Washington Post. I think I knew in my heart that if I had accepted such things, I would have ended up broken or fired. And probably a drunk as well.

And as best as I can tell, my real impetus was not masochism but a truly manic, grandiose, and cockeyed optimism - the faith that even in late 20th century America I could do something on my own that would be even better than what I could if I just did what was expected of me.

As far back as high school, when I first read of Thoreau's preference for sitting on a pumpkin and having it all to himself to being crowded on a velvet stool, I had rated freedom ahead of power. Besides, I knew people in the Social Register and working for the NY Times, and considered their blessings suspect at best. And how many of them had helped start several publications, two political parties, six organizations, one college riot, and two bands?

Raised in dysfunctional luxury, I have placed an abnormal emphasis on things I could do without benefit of social standing, money, or power, such as writing, playing the piano, . . and imagining. I would come to suspect that I had spent a lifetime trying to finish the script of a radio show first concocted under the covers as a child - a lifelong broadcast in which I was the stumbling protagonist. I have tried to live a daydream - one that began because I didn't like what was going on downstairs. And still don't.

I can't recommend such a way; I can't even justify having tried it. A lot of it doesn't make sense. I spurned the normal icons of ambition, yet was so ambitious that I sought the unattainable. I gave the outward impression of a radical but in my heart was just a moderate of a time that had yet to arrive. I constantly sought change but was most happy enjoying the changeless virtues of music and conversation and returning to the mooring after a long day on the bay.

Sometimes I would think of myself as a reluctant draftee, called up to serve in the struggle that Albert Camus described: "It is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests." I didn't really want to do it. I just had to. What I wanted most was that the struggle be won so I could live in a land where people laughed and made new friends and were gentle with one another. So I could return to that place where the sun hit the front stoop just right on a quiet morning, reminding me that this was how good everything else could be as well.