January 30, 2008



Sam Smith

JOHN EDWARDS has departed the race leaving a surprising number of liberals without a target for covert class prejudices that have so broadly replaced ethnic and gender discrimination among the better educated. Now the righteous are safe to make what is in their mind a decent and diverse choice: between a black and a woman, one a graduate of Harvard Law School, the other of its Yale equivalent.

It's sort of like the beginning of the Clinton administration which was going to look like America. In fact, 77% of Clinton's initial cabinet were millionaires, beating out both Reagan and Bush in this category. In DC, the Clinton choices barely raised an eyebrow. Clinton's cabinet may not have looked like America, but it certainly looked like establishment Washington. It required no corruption or conspiracy for the city's journalists to ignore it; everything was just too normal.

One of the delusions of elite liberals is that that they lack prejudice. To be sure, they treat black, women and gays far better than once was the case. But if you are poor, uneducated, own a gun, weigh a lot, come from the South or mainly read the Bible it is another matter. Class and culture have replaced the genetic as acceptable targets.

The 28% of the American adult population with college degrees defines the country's values, its policies, its laws, what is stylish and how you get to the top, including the White House. And what it has defined has exacted no small price from the remaining 72%. For example, just in the past eight years, the following have gotten significantly worse:

Median income
Number of manufacturing jobs
Number of new private jobs
Percent of workers with company based health insurance
Consumer credit debt
Number of housing foreclosures
Cost of heating oil & gas
Number without health insurance
Wages in manufacturing
Income gap between rich and poor
Wealth of the bottom 40% of Americans
Number of older families with pensions
Number of workers covered by defined benefit pensions
Use of soup kitchens
Personal bankruptcies
Median rent

Yet when John Edwards tried to build a campaign around these issues he was subjected not only to the opposition of the establishment and its media but a notable tone of ridicule whose subtext was: why would anyone want to bother with such things? Especially a guy as rich as Edwards?

And when he pulled out of the race, Edwards was treated to more of the same, especially from such faux hip websites as Gawker, Radar and Fark:

Radar: The pretty-boy presidential candidate scored just 14 percent of the vote in yesterday's Florida primaries. . .

Fark: John Edwards announces he will drop out of race today to spend more time with his hair.

Gawker: John Edwards will end his 49th run for president Wednesday after failing to capitalize on his angry hobo-under-the-bridge message.

These sites, like much of elite America, are led by spoiled offspring of generations who had to struggle with just the sort of issues Edwards was trying to raise, but from which they now consider themselves immune by their education, status and cleverness.

It didn't used to be like this. I have sometimes tried to explain to people, usually unsuccessfully, that we've always had born-again Christians; we just used to call them New Deal Democrats. And those construction workers, easy foil of the New Yorker cartoonists, were once part of a Democratic electorate before they were lured away by the likes of Ronald Reagan.

For many years, as the Democratic establishment has become wealthier, the traditional Democratic base has been steadily pushed away as too dumb, too prejudiced, or otherwise too unworthy of the party. It wasn't that abortion, gays and family values were intrinsically so important. But if your campaign contributors won't let you talk or do anything about pensions, healthcare, outsourcing or usurious interest rates, the door opened wide for the rightwing hypocrites.

Class has always been the forbidden fruit of American political debate. A civil rights activist, Julius Hobson, with whom I worked once put it this way:

"The struggle isn't whether you like a nigger or a nigger likes a cracker or whitey is a pig or any of that stuff. I've called people whitey and pig and the FBI never said a word. All I have to do is put on a dashiki, get a wig, go out there on Fourteenth Street, and yell, 'Whitey is a pig and I'm going to take care of him' -- the FBI will stand there and laugh at me. But the moment I start to discuss the way goods and services are distributed and I start talking about the nature of the political system and show that it's a corollary of the economic system, that's when the FBI comes in for harassment."

And the Washington DC of today proves Hobson's point: a black city run by black politicians that is one of the most class-divided places you'll find in America but about which hardly anyone ever talks.

So along comes a wealthy southern white male lawyer and tries to change things back to the way Democrats used to do it. And what happens? Yes, those with power move to keep him in the background. Yes, from the start the establishment media gave him as little coverage as possible.

But more significant was the reaction of average members of the liberal - really post-liberal - establishment. Ridicule and disgust combined with a stunning disinterest in Edwards' issues that told much about the Democratic Party today.

Not only was this elite bored with Edwards' program, it made clear that the candidate didn't look or talk right, was too wealthy to say such things, and, when you come right down to it, wasn't one of us.

And, oh yes, the most frequent comment of all: he once had a $400 haircut.

Nowhere was it mentioned that Hillary Clinton had had a $1200 makeover during her Senate campaign. But then she wasn't the issue. She belonged.

Among the characteristics of America's second robber baron era is the manically narcissistic idea that the market justifies everything. If you're rich, you've said it all. You owe no one anything but they sure owe you a lot.

But if you go back before this contemporary epidemic of economic egomania, you will find in many prosperous corners the notion expressed in Luke: to whom much is given; from whom much is expected.

Edwards was clearly raised on such a principle. He made a great deal of money and in later years chose to pay a kind of ethical interest to those who have not done as well.

To be sure, he is still the son of the mill worker who made good and feels the need for what is, for many, excess footage in his home and excess hairage on his scalp. But that goes with the territory.

And there is nothing hypocritical about wanting to both to have it and to share it. After all Mitt Romney gives ten percent of his wealth back to the Mormon Church and nobody laughs at him.

Edwards' problem was that he made the smug set of American liberalism extremely uncomfortable. He showed them what they should really be thinking about and what they might do about it. And they didn't like it. Far better to relax in the self-righteousness of choosing between a Harvard Law School black and a Yale Law School woman.

And so, once again, the Democratic Party drifts further away from what once made it worth bragging about.

January 29, 2008


Bill Clinton was right for a change. He used the phrase "fairy tale" to describe something Barack Obama had said. He should know. The Clinton story was one of the great fairy tales of our time, created by a pair of the most cynical politicians in American history assisted by a gullible press.

Clinton even tried the JF Kennedy shtick. Remember the photos of Clinton shaking Kennedy's hand at the White House as a kid at Boy's Nation? It didn't work and perhaps part of Clinton's resentment against Obama is that the latter has made the shtick stick.

In fact, contrary to the fable, during the Clinton years life got worse for many blacks and women, a stunning number of Democratic offices were lost at the state and national level, the country's social welfare program began being dismantled and a social democratic tradition of the Democratic Party going back to FDR was tossed aside for a GOP Lite philosophy that still dominates the party's thinking.

Of course, Kennedy was a fairy tale, too. Aside from the Peace Corps and getting people excited about serving the public good he was a pretty run of the mill. And he made some crummy decisions including the Bay of Pigs and starting the Vietnam conflict. In fact, the only presidents to get really excited about in modern times were Johnson (and only on the domestic side) and Roosevelt. And both are hardly mentioned by the fairy tale tellers.

There are two big problems with political fairy tales:

First, they usually turn out to be false and dangerously so. If the media fails to warn you of the insecure machismo of the Harvard types who surrounded JFK, you can find yourself in Vietnam. If it doesn't tell you the easily available evidence of Clinton's corrupt and drug trade connected politics in Arkansas, you can end up with the Whitewater scandal. And if all it tells you about Barack Obama is that he's for hope and is a JFK clone, you may end up with. . . . Stay tuned.

Second, these fairy tales reduce the supporting constituency to the role of rock star groupies rather than active participants. These groupies are used for the candidate's ends rather than the constituency using the candidate for their ends. This is what happened in the Clinton years. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party, even before the primaries were over, had reduced itself to a servile sycophant of Clinton and never recovered. There was no greater betrayal of the liberal tradition than how its professed observers caved to the destructive Clinton machine.

In fact, Obama's greatest service to date is that he has already started to replace the rotten Clinton fairy tale with a new one. The criticism of the Clintons that has started to crop up recently from formerly obeisant liberal quarters is something that hasn't been seen in 16 years. We can't underestimate the importance of closing the dismal chapter of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years with something, even if it isn't everything we would like. At no time in American history has so much damage been done to our reputation, Constitution and economy as during the RBCB era. It is long past time to say good riddance.

That said, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by turning a fairly ordinary Chicago politician into a saint. For one thing, he isn't. And for another, groveling at the feet of any politician is the worse course for a constituency. It is far better to keep politicians humble, to know their faults, and to know how to work around them when you need to.

A good place to start is to stop talking about hope. Obama talking about the audacity of hope is like a musician telling an audience that we need the audacity of applause. . . before he plays anything worth applauding.

Besides, Obama has no copyright on hope and, even if he did, as has been pointed out, hope don't pay the rent.

For Obama to put so much emphasis on hope suggests that he is either a con artist or deeply policy deficient.

It is fine for a politician to offer us hope, but for it to be real it has to be the byproduct of proposed policies or past actions and not the beginning and end of one's platform.

There are two good reasons for voting for a candidate. One: the candidate has done something for you. Two: the candidate promises to do something for you.

No candidate meets the first criteria and only John Edwards meets the second.

But Edwards is up against two competing fairy tales, which the media much prefers to reality politics. Besides, if Edwards were to win, the rules of the game would change and neither Washington nor the media would like that very much. That's why they've been so hard on Edwards from the start.

Far better to feel like something's going to happen because the candidate is black or a woman. And so much easier.

In fact, if you want change in policies, including toward those that would better favor the average black or women, you support Edwards. If you want to change the gender or ethnicity of the person in the White House without much change in policy, you support Obama or Clinton. It's sort of like buying a car. Some people read Consumer Reports; others think all they need is the hip brand.

Is there a definable difference between Obama and the Clintons? Absolutely. Obama is more honest, decent and thoughtful as well as less hypocritical by far. If you disagree with Obama, you'll get a parsimonious argument and be mad. If you disagree with a Clinton, you better watch your back.

Besides, there's always the Mae West principle: when faced with a choice of two evils, she always picked the one she hadn't tried before.

But that doesn't mean there is anything to be gained by wagging your tail every time Obama says the word "hope." In the end, those little treats he gives you for your obsequiousness may be all you get for lunch.

January 26, 2008


JONATHAN CHAIT noted in the LA Times, "Something strange happened the other day. All these different people -- friends, co-workers, relatives, people on a liberal e-mail list I read -- kept saying the same thing: They've suddenly developed a disdain for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but I think we've reached an irrevocable turning point in liberal opinion of the Clintons."

I've noticed the same thing, with one twist. Even before the Clintons started playing the race game, I hadn't run into a single person who was enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton the way others were about Obama, Edwards or Kucinich.

But certainly the past couple of weeks have been unusual. As one of the first journalists outside of Arkansas to take on the Clinton myth – including listing in the spring of 1992 two dozen individuals and institutions almost all later part of the Whitewater scandal – I have been just this side of stunned by the current implosion of the Clinton campaign.

From the start, the story the media created about the Clintons was a badly misleading myth. By the time of the 1992 New Hampshire primary the press would be overwhelmingly in the Clinton camp. Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Republic reported he had surveyed several dozen journalists and found that all of them, had they been a New Hampshire voter, would have chosen Clinton. Hertzberg noted that this was a change from previous elections when the press had tended to split their primary choices, sometimes sharply.

The effusiveness was one of the great media disservices of modern time. This was a time when Dan Rather, talking with the Clintons via satellite at a CBS affiliates meeting, said, "If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House, we'd take it right now and walk away winners."

And Martha Sherrill in the Washington Post: "The new First Lady has already begun working on her next project, far more metaphysical and uplifting.... She is both impersonal and poignant -- with much more depth, intellect and spirituality than we are used to in a politician . . . She has goals, but they appear to be so huge and far off -- grand and noble things twinkling in the distance -- that it's hard to see what she sees."

White liberals bought into this nonsense and so did blacks. A reporter about to interview Clinton asked me if I had any questions. I replied, "Yes, ask him why he likes blacks so much more in church then when they are some place else." It was true. Black imprisonment soared under Clinton and the social welfare system started to be dismantled. Liberals kept applauding as Clinton undid the work of Democratic administrations from Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson and sent jobs abroad.

And the Democratic Party paid for it. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Democrats held a 1,542 seat lead in the state bodies in 1990. As of 1998 that lead had shrunk to 288. That's a loss of over 1,200 state legislative seats, nearly all of them under Clinton. Across the US, the Democrats controlled only 65 more state senate seats than the Republicans.

Further, in 1992, the Democrats controlled 17 more state legislatures than the Republicans. After 1998, the Republicans controlled one more than the Democrats. Not only was this a loss of 9 legislatures under Clinton, but it was the first time since 1954 that the GOP had controlled more state legislatures than the Democrats (they tied in 1968).

In addition, according our count near the end of the Clinton administration:

- GOP seats gained in House after Clinton became president: 48
- GOP seats gained in Senate after Clinton became president: 8
- GOP governorships gained after Clinton became president: 11
- Democrat officeholders who have become Republicans after Clinton became
president: 439 as of 1998
- Republican officeholders who have become Democrats after Clinton became president: 3

This journal was one of the few places to tell its readers such facts.

Clinton, the allegedly wondrous politician, was actually only good at holding his own office, not at helping others win theirs.

For sixteen years, I have taken a lot of guff for trying to report on the Clintons just as I try to report any story. I found myself up against, to borrow a term from Bill Clinton, a fairy tale - in which the facts just didn't matter.

Once I was scolded by two friends for what I had written about the Clintons. I asked them, "But what if it's true?" The reply: "You shouldn't be writing it."
And they were serious.

And now, from the exit polls in South Carolina, I learn that "74% of African-American voters think that Clinton unfairly attacked Obama. But when we look at the same question among white voters, a comparable number thought Clinton unfairly attacked Obama - 68%. Also worth mentioning, a majority of the voters -- 56% -- said that Bill Clinton's campaigning was important to their vote."

Thank you, South Carolina, and to the newly disillusioned all I can say is: welcome aboard.


January 24, 2008


Sam Smith

I have seldom seen a campaign so driven by symbolism and so weak on substance. For example, among the Democrats we have had little talk of the collapse of our constitutional government or global warming but endless and futile discussion of race and gender. After all, if you believe in equality in such matters, it is a given that both saints and sinners of humanity are fairly distributed by ethnicity and sex. Therefore knowing that Clinton is a woman or Obama is half black tells you little. In fact, if voters were only given the policies of the candidates, and didn't know their demographics, John Edwards would be the most logical major candidate for real Democrats of whatever size, shape or color.

But then, for many being a Democrat or a liberal is primarily a symbol as well. These people might be described as transpoliticals, which is to say that what they wear on their bodies and put on their faces doesn't quite match what is under their pants. They call themselves liberals but they don't lift a finger on behalf of such issues as single payer healthcare or pensions or outsourcing.

Liberals used to believe in doing the most for the most. What is so remarkable about the Edwards campaign is that he is the first real liberal of this ilk to make a major run for the White House since Lyndon Johnson - but too many people who call themselves liberals don't even notice. They put on their I love blacks and women faces and call it a day.

Related is one of Edwards' other problems: he is a white southern male. I have been a bit startled by the amount of northern liberal prejudice against him because of this. These supposed lovers of diversity ridicule him and in doing so make it easier for the right to capture the votes of people who talk like him. Having been born in segregated DC and having covered its transition to a majority black city, I know the difference between understanding the complexities of ethnic relations and merely pronouncing about them. Remember it was a white southerner, Lyndon Johnson who, with the help of Adam Clayton Powell, got more good civil rights legislation passed then we have seen since. It could happen again if fewer Democrats were less self righteous about their symbols.

January 22, 2008


Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should. - Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, writing in 1957 to the NY Times about a critical review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

THE ECONOMIES OF DEVELOPED countries no longer demand the amount of work by most of their citizens that helped to create the myth of modern capitalism. Changes in technology, outsourcing, and labor intensiveness have made and will continue to make a growing percentage of the American population superfluous to the needs of the country's capitalists, a phenomenon that is being dramatically reflected in our politics but not in our understanding of it.

You have to read between the lines to see it. For example, a remarkable article published by the Washington Post just in time for the State of the Union borrowed heavily from right wing analyses of the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic & International Studies to paint a picture of older Americans as a looming crisis just this side of terrorism:
Wrote Jonathan Weissman:

"From untamed health care programs to military pensions, housing and heating assistance to coal-miners' benefits, programs for the elderly have proliferated and grown more generous, even in the face of an aging trend that demographers have long seen coming. In that light, the fight over Social Security marks only the beginning of a national debate over the cost of a graying society -- and the inevitable reallocation of resources that is sure to produce winners and losers, in the United States and around the world. "The question is whether we can support the elderly with a decent standard of living without imposing a crushing burden on the young," said Richard Jackson, director of the global aging initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "Whether we can is a real concern."

In short can we afford to have old people or should they, in Greenspan's phrase, be considered "parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason [who must] perish as they should?"

The Weissman article, far more than most of the debate over Social Security, reveals the rotten core of such arguments: a growing social bigotry, reminiscent in many ways of ethnic prejudice, by the successful and comfortable against those considered parasitical and useless.

To be sure, Weissman, well down in his piece, gets around to interviewing a progressive economist writing that "technological progress will continue to make workers more productive, even as their numbers diminish relative to retirees, said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research. 'Previous generations had sacrificed to build our infrastructure, to invest in technologies' that help current and future workers, Baker said. 'If they're paying a larger amount of taxes to help their parents, I don't see where the harm has been done.' But such arguments are held by a minority."

Weissman provides no polling data for the claim that Baker is in the minority, or of what, but he immediately quotes what he falsely describes as the "liberal" Brookings Institution which is like calling Ohio a west coast state because it doesn't border the Atlantic.

Weissman's piece is badly misleading in other ways. A large chart shows expenses for elders soaring between now and 2015 but defense spending barely rising. It uses only federal figures to compare senior and child spending, ignoring the huge local costs of the latter.

But worst of all, as with much discussion of the cost of older Americans, is the implicit assumption that the country owes them little for their part in making the economy and that they serve no useful purpose at present, ignoring completely, for example, the huge non-quantified economies of child-care and volunteer work.

The standard used is that of the social bigot Greenspan: they are no longer "creative individuals" with "undeviating purpose and rationality" and thus deserve to fail. Send them to the ice flow and let them freeze to death.

The attitudes that propel such bigotry are not limited to the Republican right or to the Bush regime. They infect our media, including public radio which only this morning featured a piece about Arthur Laffer, the godfather of modern economic selfishness, who has discovered that socially responsible corporations don't do quite as well as greedy ones. The fact that corporations might, as they once did under law, have social responsibilities beyond profit was never even considered by the news broadcast. Even the liberal media has accepted the lie that all we need in life anymore is money and profits.

This is a pathologically dangerous assumption because it not only rewrites American history but human history: it denies the significance of community, cooperation, decency, fairness, and commonwealth. One ends up sharing the sick myth of Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

But beyond this, it also creates the justification for massive social bigotry because once one has defined the only good as that one provides the economy everyone who fails the test becomes an economic nigger.

This bigotry has been growing unnoticed for some time. We would never have had large scale urban ghettos if we had adequate employment for black men. We would not have had "welfare reform" whose major purpose has been to place blame on the poor for the effect on them of the economy. We would not be obsessed with the presumed dangers of immigration in a country that owes its very existence to immigration. We would not be sending young non-college educated males to prison in large numbers for smoking marijuana instead of using the drugs of choice of "creative individuals." We would not be starting on a similar isolation of persons considered too heavy and the drugging of children considered too noncompliant in class.

The war now declared against seniors fits a pattern in which we find a socially acceptable reason for prejudice against segments of the American public for the sole reason that they not considered employable or reliable once employed.

There is no more justification for this than there was to exclude people on the basis of their skin color or religion. It is plain bigotry that we refuse to see plainly.

January 18, 2008


Sam Smith

A series of incidents in my hometown got me thinking about a little noted anomaly: if you want to save something in urban America, make sure it's old. And an old building at that. Old people don't count. Neither do present day culture and community.

There's nothing wrong with saving old buildings. This journal has supported many battles for historic preservation, including turning back an effort to wreck Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House and the preservation of Washington's first park and shop. The late John Wiebenson, who did a long-running and unique urban planning comic strip for us, was a major voice for sensible preservation.

But a trio of recent conflicts have raised some new issues. For example, what's more important: the preservation of an old building or an old guy. As Marc Fisher wrote in the Washington Post:

"For more than a year, Richard Lucas has been trying to win permission to cut through his elderly, infirm parents' front porch so they can get from their living quarters onto the street without climbing stairs. And for more than a year, the D.C. historic preservation authorities have found reasons to say no to a ramp.

"After all, as the city's architectural historian put it, 'repeating porches of similar height and depth create a notable pattern and rhythm' along the Lucas family's Mount Pleasant street, and the District wouldn't want to let that rhythm be broken just to accommodate a couple of old folks who have lived in their house for 47 years.

"Again and again, Lucas tried to satisfy the city's preservation police, paying his architect to rework plans for a ramp to minimize its impact on the supposedly pristine look of the 1930s row houses on Walbridge Place NW. But each time Lucas tried, the city came up with more objections. And so, at ages 90 and 87, Cornelius and Merry Lucas remain stuck in their basement rooms, able to come and go only through a back door that opens onto an alleyway."

Then there are the two cases of buildings which, though only 30-40 years old, have attracted the preservationists and an impressive legal weaponry that developed during this same period. Here's how the DC Preservation League describes a building it designated as one of the endangered places of the year:

"The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library was awarded Landmark status by the Historic Preservation Review Board in June of 2007. . . The only example in Washington, DC of the mature style of pre-eminent Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library has stood as the only monument to Dr. King in the nation's capital for the past 30 years. It holds special significance to the millions of Washingtonians who have come to the library over the past decades to participate in a wide variety of programs and activities, and is a center of community life in the District."

Well, sort of. You can find a whole lot of people who have used or worked in the library who considered it extremely dumpy, ill designed for its purpose, with non-working elevators and unattractive spaces. The auditorium space seem almost an afterthought stuck in the basement.

Admittedly, it has some of the charm of a semi-abandoned fortress. You never quite know what's around the next corner or through the next door or whether the elevator will make it to your floor. The outside is kind of neat, though, and it has been argued that the interior was never properly constructed the way the architects intended. Further, you could say that it is a monument to that soon to be seen as curious era of modern architecture (soon to be ended by the pragmatic requirements of ecological considerations) in which style ran roughshod over such minor issues as whether the roof leaked or whether the elevator worked.

But whatever one's views, undeniably the forces for preserving the mature style of pre-eminent Modernists is substantial in law, politics and in public action even if it is only a few decades old.

Then we have the case of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Washington, nicely described by the American Spectator:

"How many dollars does it take to change a light bulb? Well, if the defunct bulb you're replacing has been illuminating the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Washington, you could be looking at a bill of up to $8,000. That's because unscrewing a blown bulb in that concrete monument to impracticality is tantamount to a construction project. According to one church official, you've got to build scaffolding just to reach some of the bulbs. . .

"It's a largely windowless octagonal tower made of raw, weathered concrete, and it's surrounded by a sterile 'plaza' that seems to have been emptied to keep the line of fire clear. The site inspires few people with a sense of spirituality.

"That includes its own congregation, which has always disliked the building and dearly wants to be rid of its ugliness and its crushing costs, but which has been prevented from replacing the structure by Washington's local preservation authorities.

"Not that the church is either old or historic. It was designed in 1971 in an effort by the Christian Science church to establish a signature architectural presence in the heart of the capital. . . The church tapped I.M. Pei's firm for the design. . .

"The sanctuary seats 400, though the active congregation has shrunk to some 50 worshippers. The building's concrete exterior is already deteriorating, and the maintenance costs are overwhelming. Money that would be better spent on the church's mission, members say, is eaten up by the building itself.

"So why has the city's Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously declared the Third Church of Christ, Scientist to be an official D.C. landmark, preventing not only its demolition, but even its unauthorized alteration? Because, it turns out, it is a sterling example of the mid-century school of design known as Brutalism."

Again, the point here is not to argue the specific case or to disparage preservation, but to illustrate just how powerful the historic preservation movement has become in the few decades since such buildings were constructed.

Now let's move to another part of town: Ward 5, about as classic a Washington community as you're going to find. It has a disproportionate share of DC natives, is heavily black but with many long time white residents, is in the middle by education level among the eight wards and below average in income. It has, however, the third highest homeownership rate and its crime rate has been falling since 2001. Its black community has included the likes of Sterling Brown, Edward Brooke, Robert Weaver and Ralph Bunche, but it is also home to what is purported to be the largest collection of Catholic institutions outside of the Vatican.

This community is now the main target of a plan by the city's mayor and school chancellor to close 23 schools, almost a third of them in Ward 5. The two officials - for whom certainty appears to be regarded as an adequate substitute for competence - have given no evidence that they consider either culture or community a matter worth examining, let alone respecting.

Two of their main grounds for closing a school: declining attendance in recent years and square footage. The decline in attendance, of course, doesn't reveal whether the drop has ended or will continue or whether it reflects the raid on the city's school system by a charter school program heavily pushed by congressional conservatives. Further, it cleverly protects the schools in nearly all white Ward 3 as these, though small in size, are no longer declining.

Neither of the criteria impress me much for a quite personal reason. I went through fourth grade in a DC public school the city had been trying to close that would have met neither of the current criteria. We had 160 kids with four teachers, two of them maiden sisters known by everyone as the thin Miss Waddy and the fat Miss Waddy. It lacked special programs and we undoubtedly took up too many square feet to be truly educationally efficient. Nonetheless, out of this failure came a dean of Catholic University, a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper, an urban planning professor and an irrepressible independent journalist, just to name a few from my period - proving once again that in education, objective standards often don't cut it. What's happening in that square footage of whatever size, and who's doing it, is what really matters.

To make matters worse in Ward 5, the chancellor announced that public hearings on the 23 school closings would all be held on the same evening, making it impossible for anyone of real authority to hear what was being said. The citizens rightly responded by boycotting the hearings in favor of one at the city hall arranged by some friendly council members.

One of the schools, John Burroughs, even put up a web site to help in its fight against closure. On it you can learn that this school the city wants to shut down is:

- One of five Middle States accredited elementary schools in DC

- Meets federal requirements in reading and math

- Placed first in the city's black history contest

- Has a scout program, cheerleaders and a ski club

- Ranks 15th citywide in reading and 12th in math

This is the sort of thing communities run into repeatedly as they confront a Brutalist bureaucracy or the mature style of pre-eminent Modernist politicians - but without the sort of weapons that historic preservationists have developed.

Even existing law - which would seem to require that the city give "great weight" to the opinion of the local neighborhood commissions - is being ignored. And there certainly is no Community Preservation Board with staff to send out and enforce the protection of the city's neighborhoods against budget-mad officials.

This is just one example. DC is also proposing to destroy some neighborhood icons like libraries and firehouses by submerging them in new commercial high rises, politely called "mixed use" but actually the secular version of putting a church on the 8th floor of a skyscraper.

There is simply no consciousness that when you hide such community symbols it has a deleterious effect on the community itself and replaces the values of citizens living and working together with those of big box capitalism in which the citizen is reduced to either a consumer or a subservient employee.

A similar thing happens when you close a school. Where will the John Burroughs scouts and ski club go? Where will the community meet? What will be the talking ties between adults and children in the community? Where will the lessons of community service and volunteerism be taught? What will be left that the John Burroughs community has in common, especially its youngest members?

Not one ounce of official consideration is being given to such things. When you are worried about achievement tests, square footage and budgets who has time?

(One final irony: John Burroughs school was built in 1921, decades before either the recently preserved MLK Library and Christian Science Church.)

In the late 1960s, I argued that DC should have governing neighborhood commissions. When we were granted "advisory neighborhood commissions" in the 1970s, I argued that our first goal should be to kick the A out of ANC, replacing their token status with real governmental powers. I still believe such bodies are a greatly needed national urban reform. Among the jobs of such bodies would be to preserve the community and culture which they serve.

Another tool is already in the law, but widely ignored. Section 102 of the National Envrionmental Policy Act passed nearly four decades ago called for all federal agencies to "include in every recommendation or report on legislative proposals and other major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment"

Thomas Sanders of the Kennedy School has written of environmental impact statements and their lessons for "social capital impact statements" or what might be better called culture and community impact statements. Writes Sanders, among the things such statements might flag would be "an urban renewal 'slum' clearance case that focuses solely on the physical condition of a community and ignores its social condition. . . The massive defunding of school extra-curricular activities would be another category of policies with clear negative social capital impact. A clear case on the positive side would likely be a city policy to convert an abandoned lot used for trash dumping into a community park or public space". . .

Nonethless, as Tom Angotti wrote in the Gotham Gazette:

"Contrary to common belief, the environmental impact statement doesn't stop anyone from doing something that damages the environment. It only forces them to publicly declare it. From the start the environmental review process was skillfully designed to get around potential legal challenges by environmentalists who charged that the impact on the environment wasn't considered, and from developers who would undermine environmental laws saying they interfere with their property rights.". . .

"The environmental impact statement can't answer the most important questions because its methodology is flawed. . . It doesn't consider the impact of pollution on public health . . . It doesn't consider the extent to which the environmental impacts fall disproportionately on one or another group - for example, people with low incomes. . . It doesn't look at the effect on the level and quality of public services, which are very much a part of the quality of the urban environment. . .

"Yet another problem is that many large-scale projects evade the environmental impact statement entirely because they are 'as-of-right' - that is, they require no zoning change or other official land use action. An as-of-right 500-unit apartment building in Manhattan can result in more traffic and noise in a neighborhood that's already overburdened, and there will be no environmental review."

Of course, before cultural and community impact statements could develop, there would be a need for the same sort of passionate desire to preserve culture and community that we have seen with the environment and historic buildings.

There are some such movements scattered throughout the country. For example, Defense of Place takes on issues like Jean Klock Park:

"In Benton Harbor, Michigan, Defense of Place has been working with local residents to assure that Michigan's poorest city doesn't lose its most precious asset--the public's Jean Klock Park, to a private luxury golf course. Jean Klock Park encompasses rare lakefront beaches and dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. Because of its natural beauty and rare lakefront, it became desirable for developers who want to use it as the centerpiece of a luxury housing development that will be completely out of reach for Benton Harbor's residents. The park was given to the city with the promise that it be kept for the public in perpetuity. Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars have funded significant park improvements with the restriction that the entire park be protected."

But on the whole, we don't give our communities and our cultures the same respect we have learned to give history and the natural environment.

For example, global environmental groups long shortchanged threatened human cultures, tacitly assuming them to be in a class less worthy, say, than tigers and giraffes.

History also distorts our perspective on what's important. Sorting out discussions by time rather than by culture - along with components such as myth, folklore and tradition - limits us greatly. We have become far more interested in time sequences as we have gained the ability to determine them, though in some cultures the way we approach history might seem odd, as with the American Indian story-teller who began his tale, "I'm not sure all the facts are right but this story is true."

One of the things I noticed as an anthropology major was how different the approach was to what was going on elsewhere in the university, particularly in the history department. Past and present were not so neatly divided. And place was extremely important.

Here is how the anthropologist AL Kroeber described it long ago:

"[The] placing of phenomena in space is an indispensable need in all the historical sciences - astronomy, geology, paleontology, evolutionary biology, geography, as well as in history and anthropology. . . History absolutely brings in the space or place factor unceasingly. Napoleon was born in Corsica, became emperor of France, marched as far as Moscow, was defeated at Waterloo, died in St. Helena, his bones rest in Paris, Can we imagine his career without reference to place and area? It would be a meaningless thing in a vacuum. As a matter of fact, that Waterloo lies in Belgium and not in France or Germany is as significant as that the battle was fought in 1815 and not in 1810 or 1820.

"It is often said that the specific quality of history is its dealing with time sequence. Why the time factor should be singled out for this distinction is hard to understand, except that the equally important space factor is so much taken for granted as to be overlooked. . . Nevertheless, place obviously counts in history as much as time."

As our local historical society was struggling recently to revive itself, it struck me that part of the answer might be to change the name and its purpose: from the Historical Society of Washington to something like the Center for Washington History, Culture & Community. It might then offer programs and exhibits on the contemporary cab industry (the largest per capita in the country) or DC's important Ethiopian community. The purpose would not be to diminish history but to blend time and place. Further, in an era when traditional history is often considered archaic after six months, this might help people move into the past by entering through the door of the present.

On a much larger scale it is what we also need: a movement to preserve and celebrate our communities and cultures as well as we have come to honor our history and natural environment. We need preservational equality between the natural and the human, history and contemporary, time and space - among other things, to make a school that adults and children love as important as an old building no one is quite sure what to do with.

January 09, 2008


Sam Smith

The choice between the two leading Democratic candidates is really between favoring the vast amount one doesn't know about Obama over the vast amount one should know about Clinton but which too many ignore. It is a choice between a guess and the gross, the unknown hustler and the known perp, the blank page over an overflowing, disingenuous and dishonorable record.

Mae West said that when faced with the choice between two evils, she always picked the one she hadn't tried before. This is clearly a strong argument for Obama, but fortunately we still have another choice left: John Edwards, whose proposals are the most progressive of the lot and whose supporters include those among the most active in pushing for real change and not just gossamer clouds of undefined hope.

Even if Edwards can't win the election, he will definitely win the argument because an America that succeeds will adopt his approach and one that fails will be sorry it hadn't. A fantasized future or a falsified past won't save America: real progress for real people just might.

January 07, 2008


What is the bipartisan solution for. . .

The Iraq war, which was started and continued with full support of both the Republican and Democratic parties?

The destruction of the Constitution through such means as runaway wiretapping and the Patriot Act, both of which have received strong bipartisan support including from major Democratic presidential candidates?

The harm done by the cynical No Child Left Behind Act, which received broad bipartisan support?

The growing use of torture by the US government, support for which is so bipartisan it hasn't hardly been mentioned during the current campaign?

Global warming, around which Republicans and Democrats have reached a consensus to keep as much below the surface as possible?

If we have much more bipartisanship, it may prove fatal. Candidates proposing bipartisanship or "post-partisanship" are really arguing for merging two dangerous mobs even more than at present.

Bipartisanship does not end conflict, it simply strengthens the conflict by those in power against the rest of us.

As Harry Truman noted, "Whenever a fellow tells me he is bipartisan, I know he is going to vote against me." - Sam Smith

January 06, 2008


Sam Smith

I've been trying to figure out why I find Barack Obama less impressive than many of my white friends and have come up with two tentative answers:

First, I went to the same school as Obama, albeit graduating magna cum probation from Harvard College rather than with honors from its law school. Now Harvard graduates come in all flavors, but too many of the most successful ones learn quickly to gravitate to gratuitous gravitas. If you watch Obama closely he seems in public to have only two moods, happy or look-how-serious-I-am-about-this, the latter being the quality that allows Washington officials – and Harvard Law grads - to convince everyone else they should invade Iraq and Vietnam or forget about global warming for the time being. The problem is that, as one journalist noted, there is a big difference between being somber and being serious. And gravitas – with which Obama overflows – seems often just a karaoke version of seriousness.

(If you are inclined to think that college background is irrelevant, just remember this: The Vietnam war was in no small part the invention and obsession of machismo-seeking Harvard grads and during the last twenty years of America's extraordinary decline, our country has been in the hands of products of Yale: two Bushes and a Clinton.)

The other difference I have with many of my white friends is that I have lived and worked most of my life in Washington, DC, which has as much pulpit borne politics per square inch as any place in the country. When Obama does his Martin Luther King cover, therefore, what comes to mind is not "I have a Dream" but, "Oh no, not again," for it brings to mind crummy council members and dubious mayors being propelled into office with the help of similar irrelevant rhetoric.

The fact is that King is long dead and black preachers, just like white ones, don't act like that much any more regardless of their comfortable cadences. The ministry - white and black - has walked away from the 1960s and its values just as surely as have the politicians and the media. So when someone tries to pull the noble preacher shtick, I feel more like I'm being conned than being converted.

The alternative to this is to spend less time looking for Jesus or JFK and MLK and more time seeking policies and a politics with which one is comfortable. They can come in all colors, geographies and genders - not because of them but because, for the good things in life, it just doesn't matter.

January 03, 2008


SAM SMITH - Those who bring up Barack Obama's Muslim connections are accused of Swifting Boating him. In fact, it is Obama and his own supporters who would better be accused of John Kerrying him, because, in the end, it was John Kerry, and not his critics, who really did himself in. Kerry's braggadocio about his Vietnam time - beginning with that pretentious salute at the Democratic convention - would come back to haunt him because real heroes keep their mouths shut and let others do the talking. Kerry opened the door to disputes over all sorts of details, many of which were either never resolved or were irresolvable, simply by the way he handled the subject. If the tale had remained a vague saga his past, cited in every introduction, it would have been no problem, but Kerry couldn't let well enough alone.

It seems that Obama may be doing the same thing with his Muslim background. By any normal standard it should not be an issue - where one went to school or played with as a kid shouldn't be important. Besides, it's difficult to be a practicing anything as an elementary school boy. But from the start Obama has handled this like a Harvard Law School graduate trying to parse his past as though preparing a Supreme Court brief. The result inevitably results in his critics doing the same. Further, it puts some his liberal defenders in the strange position of sounding like pre-integration white southerners denying that their candidate once had some black friends.

To get a sense of the ridiculousness of it all consider two quotes, the first from the LA Times:

"The childhood friends say Obama sometimes went to Friday prayers at the local mosque. 'We prayed but not really seriously, just following actions done by older people in the mosque,' Zulfin Adi said. 'But as kids, we loved to meet our friends and went to the mosque together and played.' . . . Obama's younger sister, Maya Soetoro, said in a statement released by the campaign that the family attended the mosque only 'for big communal events,' not every Friday."

And now the Chicago Tribune:

"Zulfan Adi, a former neighborhood playmate of Obama's who has been cited in news reports as saying Obama regularly attended Friday prayers with Soetoro, told the Tribune he was not certain about that when pressed about his recollections. He only knew Obama for a few months, during 1970, when his family moved to the neighborhood."

In fact, if you're 6 to 10 years old and living in a Muslim country, the chances that you'll end up in a mosque or participating in Muslim events is pretty high. It's the sort of thing you don't want to deny because someone might have a better memory to the contrary.

In the end, however, why should it matter? Because both the Obama campaign and his critics think it does. Which is why you never heard Obama say, "Yeah, I guess I went to the mosque from time to time, but I never inhaled."

So we can look forward to endless arguments about Obama's ties to Islam when he could have ended the discussion by saying something like this:

"You know, I was pretty young back then. I don't remember a lot of things from back then. My first serious religious experience was at the age of XX as a Christian. But I'll tell you this: I have never regretted having had some natural relationship with members of the second largest religion on earth. And voters shouldn't regret it either, because one of the ways that Christians and Muslims will resolve their differences is to understand each other better. And I'm glad I got a head start."