June 26, 2008


Sam Smith

I don't own a gun. I was never any good at shooting a gun. I was educated by Quakers and avoid violence every chance I get. Still, I was delighted by the Supreme Court's Second Amendment ruling. Not simply because it upheld the Constitution, but because, in a land whose leaders are increasingly contemptuous of democracy and its people and where the specter of dictatorship has loomed as never before, an armed citizenry is one of the last defenses - both symbolic and practical - left to us.

My view of guns has also been affected by spending time in Maine, one of the best armed and least violent places in America, and having had a wonderful hunting father-in-law. While I never went hunting myself, whenever liberals would rail against gun ownership, I would think of him sitting in a blind in northern Wisconsin waiting for the ducks to appear.

It turned out that there was another advantage for a peace loving progressive to oppose taking away other people's guns. Once some of these folks found I wasn't after their guns, they were more willing to listen to my ideas on other subjects. It was something many liberals have never learned: don't mess around too much with the other person's culture. Stick to the big things that can bring us together.

Some people think I'm paranoid for imagining a time when the people might have to choose between their freedom and their government. I hope the day never comes but I know it's happened elsewhere and I know that one of the things that slows potential dictators down is knowing that the people they are trying to suppress are also armed.

Besides, I've stopped worrying about worrying. About a decade and a half ago I began writing about the creeping coup that was infiltrating American government and thought. When I go back and read that stuff, the main thing that strikes me is that I didn't worry enough. For all intents and purposes, the First American Rrepublic is over. We now live under an adhocracy in a post constitutional era of uncertain future.

That's why the Supreme Court decision was so important. Old conservatives would have easily stood up for the Second Amendment, but the new authoritarians driven by a political puritanism - and who thrive in both major parties - could easily have said more control was necessary. For the court, it was a close call.

There are piles of practical arguments to support the court's decision - beginning with the fact that murders soared after the contested DC law was passed - but most of all it means that guns will not be the sole property of a government disloyal to its citizens and their rights or of those individuals who see them as a weapon of personal abuse. Good guys can own them, too, and keep them in their homes. And that little fact may make us all a bit saner and safer.

June 25, 2008


Sam Smith

The fact that Barack Obama went to Harvard Law School and John McCain comes from Arizona doesn't mean we will find ourselves in yet another war, but it sure helps.

You have to go all the way back to William McKinley to find a president - who was neither from the west nor ever went to Harvard, Princeton or Yale - during whose term America found itself involved in a war. Conversely, with the sole exception of Jerry Ford, you have to go all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt to find a president who did come from the west or went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton and didn't have a war during their term of office.

To be sure, some of these wars were forced upon us and correlation doesn't prove causation, but when you look through our history with these factors in mind, you can't help but suspect some connection has developed in the last century between the rugged individualism of the west, the elite acculturation of Ivy training and America's propensity for foreign violence.

Here are some of the details:

- - Presidents who went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton or who came from west of the Mississippi who did have wars during their terms: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush.

- - Presidents who went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton but did not have wars during their terms: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B Hayes, William Taft. (William Harrison went to the University of Pennsylvania medical school but withdrew)

-- Presidents from east of the Mississippi who did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton but who had wars during their terms: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Polk, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley.

-- Presidents from east of the Mississippi who did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton and who did not have wars during their terms: Andrew Jackson (none), Martin Van Buren (Kinderhook Academy), William Harrison (withdrew from Hampden-Sydney College), John Tyler (William & Mary), Zachary Taylor (none), Millard Fillmore (none), James Buchanan (Dickinson College), Andrew Johnson (none), Chester Arthur (Union), Grover Cleveland (none), Benjamin Harrison (Miami of Ohio), Warren Harding (Ohio Central College), Calvin Coolidge (Amherst), Herbert Hoover (Stanford), Dwight Eisenhower (USMA - ended Korean War), Jimmy Carter (Georgia Southwestern, Georgia Tech, USNA, and Union College)

Clearly if you want your president to avoid a war, vote for someone without a college degree. Next best bets: someone who went to Union College, to school in Ohio or to one of the military academies but later learned it doesn't work. Note that the two most eloquent voices for peace in this list - Eisenhower and Carter - went to one of the academies.

Of course, the results are skewed by the fact that for a long time there was no west to come from, but if you look at just those from the three Ivies, you will find a marked change over time. All the presidents from these schools without wars were in office over a hundred years ago, As the west developed, a strange concordance seems to have developed between the cowboy politicians and the eastern elites.

Maybe not so strange. The west, after all, was the great mythical breeding ground of American manhood and the top Ivy schools are those most ridiculed for their unmanly inclinations. In order to reach the White House, products of the latter must somehow imbue themselves with the purported power and patriotism of the former.

John Kerry, for example, turned it into a preposterous parody, but even Barack Obama, winning the primaries in no small part because of his early opposition to the Iraq war, has swiftly turned toward the assumed values of the great American west and is ready to bomb Iran as soon as he hits office.

Having war hero John McCain in the race certainly doesn't help, but the tradition of Democratic Ivy graduates treating campaigns as though they were in Marine boot camp is nothing new. Further, between elections, it is one of the things that keeps the Washington establishment going, as western showoffs in Congress compete at CSPANned public forums with Ivy trained scholars and journalists to prove which has the toughest approach towards other lands. I look at latter and try to imagine them uniformed and in a helicopter or a trench, but it doesn't quite work out and so I switch channels.

Sadly, however, this involves far more than preening and strutting. It has been a not insignificant cause of America's long affair with self-destructive foreign violence. Perhaps the most dramatic case was when Texan Lyndon Johnson and Harvard types - up to and including a former dean of the college - merged their search for machismo at the cost of millions of lives.

LBJ should have known better. He once described the CIA as a place filled with boys from Princeton and Yale whose daddies wouldn't let them into the brokerage firm. But I suspect he saw the Harvard boys as just another breed of cattle that he knew how to handle.

This confederacy of cowboys and Ivies has cost us, and others, mightily. And it doesn't seem to be ending, with the latest presidential symbols already battling it out as to who is tougher and more patriotic. It's a foolish and potential deadly debate. Let's just hope someone who graduated from CCNY decides to run in 2012.

June 24, 2008


Sam Smith

DON IMUS is in trouble again, this time for sarcasm that liberal literalists misread as racism. Either way, though, the matter was so miniscule that the attention it has received reveals more about our ethnic hang-ups than anything Imus said.

For example, consider this. Not too many days ago a major celebrity denigrated black men, saying that too many of them "have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men."

This sweeping stereotype passed uncriticized, and was even praised, because the speaker was Barack Obama. Imagine if Imus had said it.

Or what about the late Tim Russert and other major media figures trying to make Obama the god child of Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan? If Imus had tried this on Obama, imagine the liberal outrage.

I understand Imus' problem. I was once kicked off a local NPR program guest list. When I asked a buddy at the station why, he replied, "Excessive irony." A couple of years ago I was talking with a guy who was doing a book on fifty years of Harvard students. "What's it like now?" I asked. He replied, "There's not an ounce of irony on campus."

The same can be said of establishment America where the ability to look at what one is doing with anything other than pre-approved and well marketed perspective is disappearing by the day. The only thing really safe to say anymore is something that has been safely said many times before. Which is why we hear it so often.

The death of George Carlin is a reminder of how rare is the voice that dares to be different. It's not surprising that Imus liked Carlin as a guest. And there were others. While MSNBC was filling the air with the platitudes of David Gregory, Imus was featuring another Gregory: Dick. How many of Imus' media critics have had Dick Gregory on their show?

Sure, Imus screwed up last year. But listening to the podcasts of his recent interviews it is clear that he has actually learned something from his mistakes. He, for example, made a conscious effort to have guests who dealt directly and informatively with ethnic issues.

Further, Imus is a rare crossover media figure with a diverse audience that includes people who understand that the new and interesting often has rough edges as well as those who identify with him through his culture and troubled past. It's not unlikely, for example, that he helped Harold Ford almost win a Senate seat in Tennessee. Ford has since offered to help Obama reach alienated white voters, but then he wasn't afraid to go on the Imus show while Obama clearly would be.

In a letter home from Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of the 1960s, a civil rights volunteer wrote about Bob Moses, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee:

"Next Bob Moses talked to us in his quiet, reasoned manner about the project and the situation in various parts of the state. Bob warned us that we are all victims of the plague of prejudice but must not make the mistake that the authorities in Camus' Plague made by resisting the recognition of the disease because recognition would have made action necessary. . . Then Bob talked directly to the freedom school teachers. He begged them to be patient with their students. There's a difference between being slow and being stupid, he said. The people you will be working with aren't stupid, he said. But they're slow, so slow."

The inability of today's liberal elite to differentiate between those too slow to change and too rigid to change, those whose prejudice stems from cultural ignorance and those permanently perverted by cruelty, and the difference between knowledge undiscovered and knowledge willfully ignored, has helped complicate our ethnic problems. For too many today, what you say about it all is far more important than what you do, as though there were some standardized test for decency. And those who say the wrong thing are to be punished rather than guided down a better road.

But using random verbal symbols as indicators of propriety or shame doesn't help resolve anything.

In my hometown, for example, the last two black mayors - while always saying words of which liberals approve - have closed the public hospital, reduced public housing, planned black communities towards extinction, started to privatize the public school system and even established South African style police check points. And where have been the liberal voices of opposition? Virtually non-existent.

Or consider the class based contempt many showed toward the Edwards campaign and the issues it raised. Again, the liberal outrage was on mute.

Sure Don Imus is slow, so slow but there are so many things more important than whether he said the correct words. Until liberals start to recognize that and fight for the right things rather than just for the right words, and even be willing to form alliances with the occasionally misspoken, not much is going to happen.

June 21, 2008


Sam Smith

Today's report includes a number of disappointing and disturbing items about Barack Obama, namely his retreat from previous positions on NAFTA, campaign financing and illegal wiretaps. They are not, however, totally surprising to those of us who had early seen in Obama a mirage, a point he himself made in 'Audacity of Hope': "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

Although readers have already written to complain about these stories - one even accusing us of swiftboating Obama - the Review will continue to publish such stories as there is no advantage for citizens to engage in the sort of fantasies that created the Obama myth in the first place. While your editor has opinions, and expresses them perhaps more often than necessary, it is also true that the primary purpose of the Review is information and not confirmation.

From the start it was clear that Obama hads some good and bad qualities. He was intelligent, empathetic and apparently not particularly corrupt - at least in the financial rather than intellectual sense. On the other hand, he was the child of a Chicago Democratic machine where one job seeker once asked at a ward headquarters who had sent him. "Nobody," he admitted. He was told, "We don't want nobody nobody sent."

Nobody has yet explained to us who sent Obama, a man who only four years ago was just another state senator, albeit one the powerful had chosen to be among them. Nothing in his record, or even his trite evangelical rhetoric, explains it adequately.

The shifts in Obama's positions within days of cinching the Democratic nomination illustrates why such skepticism was not misplaced and why, as a principle, it is better to support politicians you know something about rather than Tony Robbins type missionaries who make you feel good but don't tell you the details until after the primaries.

That said, we are nonetheless left with Obama who, among the candidates who might possibly win, is the only one with a sufficient intelligence, reason and sanity to qualify him for the office, who would best appoint a not insignificant number of new Supreme Court justices, and who, on a good day, might actually do what needs to be done.

John McCain is, by a number of reasonable counts, an extreme conservative - a few disparities notwithstanding. More important for our survival, however, is that he is an ill-tempered, belligerent and unstable figure whose personal excesses in language and viewpoint might be most kindly explained as long term post traumatic stress syndrome, for which sympathy, but certainly not one's vote, is owed.

As for the other alternatives, such as Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney, both their supporters and critics would do well to accept both the inevitability and limits of their role and influence, and stop blaming each other for their own problems.

In other words, no Democrat has the slightest claim to be cross with Nader, given that their party has not lifted a finger to reach his constituency over the past eight years and that while Obama has already made it clear that while he might name a Republican to his cabinet, Nader can expect no such honor. It is a basic rule of politics that if you want someone to love you in November, you should be nice to them in May.

On the hand, neither does it help for Nader to grouse about those Greens and other progressives who decline to support his cause. He is, to be sure, far more qualified as a national hero than, say, John McCain. But he fails to grasp that one of the characteristics of sainthood and other forms of nobility is that they are not a majority position. Even Jesus did not scold the unconverted. Politics is a form of gambling popular with the masses, while higher callings must accept as a given that they tend to attract disciples in the low two digits or votes in the high singles.

The real way to fulfill Nader's righteous goals or to keep Obama from his increasingly less than righteous ones is to create a constituency that functions for more than the few months before a national election. The real opposite of hope is not failure but action, actual results rather than unfulfilled promises.

Yet such a progressive movement doesn't exist today. In the meanwhile, however, one thing we can do is assemble the best facts we can about our situation even if they intrude on our fondest fantasies. That is one of the purposes of the Review: not to depress, annoy or deactivate you, but to help the reader move beyond the illusion of hope into a real world where people actually do things to make things better rather than just dream about it. The first step is to know what the hell is really going on.

June 15, 2008


Sam Smith

From the beginning, I have been one of those rare Americans who thought that if Barack Obama had gone to a Muslim school, it was probably a good thing. Unlike much of the country and almost all of the conventional media, I don't think being a Muslim is an evil act and I find it odd that people who write so enthusiastically about the gender and ethnic breakthroughs of the current campaign can also off handedly describe Muslims as intrinsically on the wrong side of life. We're talking about a subset of Americans who are, according to one recent study, slightly more numerous than Jews, yet are treated with at least as much prejudice, magnified by the problem that nobody admits it and that the "objective" media casually trashes their culture.

My view is also affected by the fact that I was raised as an Episcopalian yet no one considers me to have been unduly influenced in the slightest by that extremist religion. I belong to a happy congregation of those raised in one faith or another who found the back door out. For many of us, whatever the negatives, there is still the affection of memory, the chap book of funny stories, a fondness for the poetry, a command of the dialect and cliches, but, most of all, an understanding of what it was all about that you can't learn from a National Security Council briefer. If I were in the White House facing an international Episcopal jihad, I would know exactly how to hit them where it hurts.

Thus, from the start, I thought Obama overplayed his distance from Muslim culture. You could feel it in the spin: too much, too hard. It's the sort of thing that campaign staff sell you, but which is almost guaranteed to fail. The past is complex; far better to admit it from the start then to create little fibs that only get you through the next few weeks.

John Kerry proved it when he overplayed his hero shtick. I could sense it from the moment he did that excruciatingly pompous salute at the convention. Decent heroes let others do the talking; Kerry, by elaborating the story for his play book, was just asking for trouble. . . which he got.

And so the debate will go on - intense and mean, no doubt - and happily indifferent to the point that Obama might have made in the first place: that his past experience adds to his value in the White House, that having lived in a Muslim culture means one understands it in a way that, say, a Bill O'Reilly growing up in Long Island never could. In the end, we either have to fight the Muslim world or learn how to live with it, and Obama - even if the perversions of a campaign led him to obscure the fact - may have had a head start in achieving the latter, and far better, result

June 13, 2008


Sam Smith

WHEN ANNE ZILL called me in the mid 1980s and told me that she and Stewart Mott would like to have lunch with me, I thought, well, I better be on my good behavior. This, after all, was in mind the guy who had, funded the 1960s, not to mention giving the buck power to the campaigns of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern and making it onto Nixon's enemy list.

That day I may have worn a tie and I'm sure I replaced my running shoes with loafers, but it wasn't necessary. Zill and Mott arrived at my Dupont Circle office, each carrying a motorcycle helmet. Right away I knew we would share a paradigm or two.

For more than two decades after that luncheon, I would sit on the board the Fund for Constitutional Government, a delight even if it hadn't been helping the cash flow of groups protecting government whistle blowers, uncovering government waste, and fighting would-be censors of the Internet. The fund's board meetings averaged between four and six hours in length, shared by some of the most competently eccentric folk I have met. Journalism grant committee meetings took almost as long over lunch at La Tomate, as one might expect of a confabulation that has included over the years Christopher Hitchens, myself, and Hamilton Fish Number Whatever He Is.

During board meetings we heard reports from some of the most useful people in America (our fundees) as they patiently dealt with some of the most contentious people in America (their funders). At one end of the large table would sit Mott, who might or might not be wearing a day-glo orange hunting vest, and the chair, Russell Hemenway, who was almost certainly wearing a suit in which each pin strip had been individually pressed. Hemenway, accustomed to the more sedate ways of the Big Apple, regarded us not unlike a grandfather painfully observing his obstreperous, penultimate genetic responsibilities. You soon learned that when Russ stopped glaring and stood up that the party was over and we actually had to do something.

The groups that FCG has helped start and/or fund - including the Project on Government Oversight, the Government Accountability Project and the Electronic Privacy Information Center - are at the top of the list of effective Washington non-profits. On just one day, these organizations were the basis for three articles and one editorial in the New York Times.

Given the seriousness of these groups' work - such as protecting whistleblowers, running classes for congressional staff on how to deal with the executive branch, or serving as an ACLU of the Internet - one might imagine gatherings marked by turgidity and solemnity. Far from it, because the best fighters are driven not by intellectual abstraction or bureaucratic syntax but by a passion that that can enjoy as well as it struggles. Besides, Mott and the masterful FCG executive director, Conrad Martin, understood that good meetings depend on good food. Saving the Constitution becomes considerably more palatable while munching on the more than palatable.

In their tribute, the gang at POGO recalled what had been said in the past: "In the grey-flannel world of philanthropy, Stewart Mott is a red sombrero." And they added, "While he had a quick business mind that could catch even the smallest errors in a spreadsheet, he was also likely to giggle gleefully at a successful effort to expose government malfeasance."

Ralph Nader noted, "A philanthropist for all seasons, Stewart R. Mott was about the most versatile, imaginative philanthropist of his time."

And Douglas Martin wrote in the NY Times:

"Irreverent, good-looking and effusive, Mr. Mott seemed tailor-made for the 1960s and '70s, when he attracted his widest attention, not least for his all-to-candid comments about everything from his sex partners (full names spelled out in newsletters) to his father's parental deficiencies ("a zookeeper") to his blood type (AB+).

"He once lived on a Chinese junk as a self-described beatnik and kept notes to himself on Turkish cigarette boxes, accumulating thousands. He held folk music festivals to promote peace and love. His garden atop his Manhattan penthouse (which he sold some years ago) was famous; at one point Mr. Mott taught a course in city gardening at the New School for Social Research in New York. He once told an interviewer that he lay awake wondering how to grow a better radish.

"Mr. Mott seemed to relish poking his finger in the eye of General Motors, a company that his father, Charles Stewart Mott, helped shape as an early high executive. In the '60s, the younger Mr. Mott drove a battered red Volkswagen with yellow flower decals when he drove at all. He lambasted G.M. at its annual meeting for not speaking out against the Vietnam War. He gave money to a neighborhood group opposing a new G.M. plant because it would involve razing 1,500 homes. . .

"His mansion in Washington has long been used to raise funds for candidates, as well as causes from handgun control to gay rights. . . Mr. Mott officially told the election agency that his job was "maverick." He listed himself as "philanthropist" in the Manhattan phone book. (Space limitations precluded his preferred "avant-garde philanthropist."). . . For years, Mr. Mott was a highly publicized eligible bachelor. When The Washington Post reported that he had slept with 40 women over an eight-month period, he issued a correction, saying the number was actually 20."

You never knew what to expect. Once he visited us in Maine and stayed out past our bedtime shopping at LL Bean's. The next morning we were greeted by an enormous frying pan - far bigger than any of ours - in which lay what looked like a purple human organ of some sort, with a note on top, held in place by a large knife. It turned out to be a eggplant Stewart had proudly grown, the frying pan was a house gift, and the note merely offered thanks.

On another occasion, I received a Fedex box from Stewart and inside were various loaves, muffins and other baked goods, each dyed some stunningly unappetizing color. He had been hard at work again in the kitchen. The recipient list included was quite long and among the names was that of Governor Mario Cuomo.

The bread came with a four page guide that included questions - "Is the syrup sweet enough? Which breads did you enjoy the most?" - and a warning: "I've made almost 1,000 loaves, trying out something like 3-400 different recipes. And so help me, if you dare to ask me the same question posed by my mother - 'Stewart, did you rally make all those yourself?' - then I'll cross yu off my list of gift recipients forever."

But there was a sad part of the story, too. A difficult divorce and far too much drinking, smoking and cocaine for anyone's good. His friends knew what was happening; some tried to help, but even those closest to him could had little effect on his habits. He was reportedly still drinking a bottle of vodka a day in his last months.

Stewart was his own man and had his own life. The last time I was with him was a meeting the Fund for Constitutional Government. He knew he was going to die and we sat around discussing what sort of memorial program we should have for him. Stewart participated in it as though it was just one more public project that needed to be done and for which he had some good ideas on how to do it. As you did when you sat around with Stewart, we drifted into his reality and heartily joined the discussion for, after all, he had been the master of one of best public projects any of us had seen: his own remarkable life.

June 12, 2008


This was the chart used to riff some comments at a performance by the punk rock group Blowback on March 10,2006 at the Club Asylum in DC's Adams Morgan

WHEN he was 25, Colin Wilson wrote The Outsider, a book about those who see too deep and too much. I suspect some of you are here tonight.

Wilson tells of a Jean Paul Sartre character who lives alone in a hotel: "There is his ordinary life, with its assumptions of meaning, purpose, usefulness. And there are these revelations, or, rather, these attacks of nausea, that knock the bottom out of his ordinary life. The reason is not far to seek. He is too acute and honest an observer. . ."

"Of the café patron, he comments: 'When his place empties, his head empties too.' The lives of these people are contingent on events. If things stopped happening to them, they would stop being. Worse still are the . . . pictures he can look at in the town's art gallery, these eminent public men, so sure of themselves, so sure that life is theirs and their existence is necessary to it. . .

A few days later he reflects that "the nausea is not inside me; I feel it out there, in the wall . . . everywhere around me."

Here is a metaphor for our own time, living as we do so near to all "these eminent public men, so sure of themselves, so sure that life is theirs and their existence is necessary to it." And finding the nausea out there in a war, an ecological crisis, and the collapse of constitutional government.

I feel it. . . like an exile in my native town, a town partly occupied by guards who demand I prove I am not a terrorist and partly filled with people who seem just to be passing through the place as if it were the world's largest Marriot Hotel lobby.

But then in Sartre's café somebody puts on a record, a woman singing 'Some of These Days'. The nausea disappears and Roquinten says: 'When the voice was heard in the silence I felt my body harden and the nausea vanish. . . I am in the music. Globes of fire turn in the mirrors, encircled by rings of smoke.'"

Wilson calls it art once again giving order and logic to chaos.

I have been a journalist and I have been a musician and one of the things I have learned is that there are times for words and then there are times when words fail (except the kind that are put to music), a time when music becomes the best politics.

For example, a few decades ago, a young boy named Andras was introduced to rock music while living in Denmark: " I didn't know what the underlying message was and I didn't care. I just thought this was something that I had to embrace."

Then he returned to his native Hungary to live with his aunt and uncle, who were conservative communists. And one night his uncle came in and took away the radio. Andras apologized for playing it so loud but the uncle said, ""The problem was not that it was loud. The problem was that you were listening to a Western radio station. . .

"Still, you had to keep going . . . It kept us sane. . . . As we listened to Radio Luxemburg, we were suddenly out of our bodies and our soul was part of the free world. . .

Someone would find a record in a shop and they would buy it and then make 500 copies. And Andras started a band. As he put it, "there was no way to stop . . . the message of freedom through rock and roll. . .

Andras told that story a few years ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, but no longer as a young man, no longer a rocker but the Hungarian ambassador to the United States.

Similarly, when the Czech leader Vaclav Havel met Lou Reed in 1990 he told him, "Did you know that I am president because of you?" The Velvet Underground's first record had become so popular in Prague it had given the rebellion its name: "the Velvet Revolution."

In short, punk politics.

And then there was Rage Against the Machine: 1993. . . stands naked for 15 minutes without playing a note or singing in a protest against censorship. . . 1997. . . Well before most college students knew about the issue, Tom Morello is arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor. . . 2000: the LA police close down a Rage concert seen as a threat to the Democratic convention.

Or take traditional jazz, my music. During much of the 20th century jazz clubs were among the few places that whites and blacks shared socially. . . My own civil rights involvement had its roots in part in a music I loved. Among my records as a student in an all white high school was a Louis Armstrong song:

Even the mouse
Ran from your house
Laughed at you
And scorned you, too
What did I do
To be so black and blue?

Even earlier I had found a song in a book on my parents' piano:

I dreamt I saw Joe Hill last night
As live as you and me
But Joe, I said, you're ten years dead
I never died said he. I never died said he

The copper bosses shot you Joe,
The killed you Joe said I
What they forgot to kill, said Joe,
Went on to organize.

And years later, holding hands with those I knew only from their souls singing:

Deep in my heart
I do believe
'We shall overcome
Some day

Or standing with tens of thousands on the Mall singing:

All we are saying is give peace a chance

Try it yourself. . .

You'll be amazed how much is in the MP3 playlist of your brain that has been guiding and driving you forward.

But there's another side as well. . .

About two weeks ago Itunes downloaded its one billionth song. Its one billionth reason for someone not to notice anything for awhile but to walk indifferently down the streets of our collapsing republic. One billion tunes and things are just getting worse.

It's a reminder that music can be a trap as well as a remedy, another way the system can take our minds off what is happening. Like the café patron, we can become contingent on events and if things stop happening, we stop being. The police state can come through sedation as well as suppression.

But you can't stop playing. Billie Holiday could not have foreseen the civil rights revolution when she sang 'Strange Fruit' nor Joe Hill the modern labor movement. The human story gets better when people surrender their telepathic presumptions and simply do the right thing anyway.

In February 1960, four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in fifteen cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to fifty four cities in nine states.

If that response had not occurred, would their sit-in have been without purpose? Or just not blessed?

We can not control the future but we can control how we react to every moment that passes by.

This is the lesson existentialism teaches us. We exist by our actions, our words, our art, and our music, whom and how we love. Existentialism has been called the philosophy that no one can take your shower for you. Or, for that matter, determine how you are going to respond to Iraq, to Bush, to the melting of the Antarctic. It is the philosophy that said that even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows. It is not a bad philosophy for our times.

Like a hit and run driver, America's elite has left the scene of the accident. They have become like those of whom Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby:

They were careless people -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together. . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

And through this all -- the unreal, the undemocratic, the cruel, the crowded, the rushed, and the uncritical -- the American outsider walks alone.

But it's always been like that. Behind every great social or political change has been the outsider -- those willing to seek to understand and alter what others just ward off with everything from religious sophistry to pop sophorifics, from IBelieve to ITunes. Those who find inspiration, globes of fire and rings of smoke in music rather than just a way to kill an hour. Those whose existence becomes the event rather than merely contingent upon the event. .

And if enough of us try hard enough and give our support to others who are doing likewise maybe one day we'll have our own Velvet Revolution, maybe we will find an asylum for our souls and our freedoms throughout the land rather than only in a few place like a club on 18th street.

Meanwhile thank those around you for what they have dared to think, thank the band for what it has dared to play, and thank yourself for what you have dared to be.


Thomas Jefferson saw it coming. He warned, "From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion."

Among the conceits of our elite and media is the assumption that America, in the form that they wish to imagine it, is immortal. Part of this is the arrogance of the big, part comes from an admirable if naive faith in progress, part of it is pathological delusion. For a host of reasons, beginning with our own survival, it is long past time to permit the question to be raised: is America collapsing as a culture?

It is easy to forget that history is strewn with the rubble of collapsed civilizations, entropic remains of once sturdy cultures, societies we now remember only thanks to a handful of artifacts guarded in museums.

Our own country was built on the wreckage of Indian culture. Guatemalans use Timex watches rather than checking the Mayan Calendar. The European Union is a covert chapter of Empires Anonymous. And in the Peruvian desert there are huge spirals in the earth and straight lines that stretch for miles whose origins are totally forgotten.

Some sixty years ago, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber noted that elements of a culture do die out, "dissolve away, disappear, and are replaced by new ones. The elements of the content of such cultures may have previously spread to other cultures and survive there. Or their place may be taken at home by elements introduced from abroad. Or they may survive, with or without modification, at home, in the different configuration that gradually takes the place of the old one as a successor culture." Thus even if American democracy dies here; pieces of it may survive somewhere else, or we may become the largest latino culture in the world and, in any event, the Thais may keep the faith of the Ipod alive regardless of what happens to us.

As an example, Kroeber says that there came a time when the ancient Egyptians had clearly attained "the greatest military might, expansion, wealth, excellence of art and development of thought. The inherent patterns of their culture may be said to have been fully realized or to have been saturated then. After that, with pattern potentialities exhausted, there could be only diminished or devitalized repletion; unless the patterns can be reformulated in the direction of a new set of values - which would be equivalent to recasting the civilization into a new one or into a thoroughly new phase of one. This latter did not happen in Egypt; so more and more sluggish mechanical repetition within the realized but fully exhausted patterns became the universal vogue."

Does this begin to sound a bit familiar?


Let's take the example of popular music, useful because music is a creative discipline with a mathematical base, thus lending itself to more objective analysis than some of its artistic colleagues. In fact, you can write a succinct history of western music by simply outlining the progression of chords used and their relationship with one another. This is what Ward Cannel, a journalist, and Fred Marx, a classical pianist, did in a remarkable guide, "How to Play Piano Despite Years of Lessons."

Charting the basic chords - separated by a common distance of notes and placed around a circle like guests at a large dinner table - you can describe the rise of western music by simply checking off which of these chords were being used by musicians at a particular time. Thus with folk music, children's songs, early hymns and Bach's Minuet In G, it was typical to use one chord and its neighbor on either side.

In later classical harmony, composers moved from the base chord to another, say, three or four seats away counter clockwise and then begin a slow procession home stopping at the other chairs. Examples would include Bach's Well Tempered Clavichord. It doesn't seem like much, but in the history of music, it was a revolutionary change.

Along the way, there were other variations such as starting at the second or third chair and moving back towards home as in Honeysuckle Rose.

If you really wanted to be wild, you threw in a chord not on the way home at all, but in the other direction.

Then came a new stage and the game was played on the clockwise side of the circle. Later a tune might work its way entirely around the circle. Or if you want to be really hip, you could leap across the circle to the other side.

Similarly, the baker's dozen of notes in the western scale have been rearranged over time in increasingly complex ways, starting with the simple chords we associate with folk music and moving on to add the 7th, flatted 9th, 13th and so forth.

If you were to take every piece of music in America ever written and categorize it by these standards - the number and placement of chords and their complexity - you would find that musical opportunity has grown with the rest of the republic.

This didn't mean that you had to use all these opportunities to make good music - bluegrass and the blues prove that - only that the potential for musicians and composers were ever expanding, a sign of a thriving culture. As Thelonius Monk put it, "I'm after new chords, new ways of syncopating, new figures, new runs. How to use notes differently. That's it. Just using notes differently."

Unfortunately, however, there are only so many chairs at the table and there are only so many combinations of movement. Eventually you run out of chairs for chords, variations on the order you play them, and their complexity. You reach the point that Kroeber described: "With pattern potentialities exhausted, there could be only diminished or devitalized repletion. . . so more and more sluggish mechanical repetition within the realized but fully exhausted patterns became the universal vogue."

Which is to say, much of the music of today.

There is, to be sure, another major source of change: other cultures. American folk music, for example, is a history of immigration translated into notes. The blues, it has been suggested, originated in a blend of the western and African scale. As early as Jelly Roll Morton, jazz musicians were borrowing from latin sounds with perhaps the most notable recent folk example being the blending of Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 'Graceland.'

This continues today but in a critically modified form: Jelly Roll Morton and Paul Simon were inventive musicians seeking the best in another culture; Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan are products of a huge anglo recording company looking for something new to exploit.

I suspect the decay of American music may have begun with the disco drum machine of 1970s, the beginning of percussion mechanicus to go along with Erich Fromm's homo mechanicus. Both share a problem: they aren't human. A live drummer is constantly listening to the other musicians, finding new ways to back them up, discovering a groove by intent or accident, making a two bar point, or just showing off. If you were to analyze the sound with lab equipment you might be amazed at how irregular it actually is - the inevitable result of being human rather than mechanical.

But that is part of the secret of real music. Much of the appeal of jazz, for example, comes from listening to the alteration, manipulation or distortion of the familiar. Thus a singer may hold a note longer than expected or lend it excruciating pain when you were expecting nothing more than a simple B flat. One writer described it as repetition just to the point of boredom - at which something new and unexpected happens.

As amplifiers replaced acoustic sound, there were other changes in music. The recording companies began dumbing down music, reducing the number of chords, replacing melody with repetitive phrases, emphasizing only the extreme end of the dynamic range, and in the end - with rap - doing away with the need for music almost entirely.

This is not to say that there was not merit within these forms - the pain and rebellion of punk, the soul of rap - but rather that for the most part the corporate monopolies had seized control of our ear drums and locked them down in a few tiny cells.

The result is telling. In 2002, ABC asked respondents for the top rock n roll star of all time. Elvis Presley got 38%, no one else got more than 5% and listed in the top ten were such golden oldies as Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springseen, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. Michael Jackson got 2%.

A Zogby poll in 1999 asked for the best male singer of the century. Again, only one name got more than ten percent: Frank Sinatra, with Elvis Presley in second. Third place went to Garth Brooks, current but in an highly traditional genre. The rest were: Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, Bing Crosby, George Strait, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, and Luther Vandross. Three were dead, one an opera singer, one a country singer, and Vandross an R&B singer who had been around for years but found a crossover audience in 1989.

A similar poll of women singers was far more current but with the leader, Barbra Streisand, getting only 14% of the vote. Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, and Lorretta Lynn all came in under 10%.

A more contemporary list, to be sure, but heavily tilted towards the traditional sounds of black and country music and voices that, while unique, could hardly be called inventive.

Thus when you ask, what's been happening in American popular music over the past 25 years, a reasonable answer is: not much.

You find similarities in other arts. For example, a Modern Library critics' listing of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century includes only one written after 1980: Ironweed by William Kennedy, written in 1983.

One list of the 100 most acclaimed films finds only nine post-1980. The American Film Institute's list includes only 13.

One may quarrel with such lists, but a culture that is truly thriving will tend, if anything, to overvalue its own contributions and downplay those of the past. You may argue, for example, with those who claimed to come from 'the greatest generation,' but you can't argue that they felt that way. Now, instead of bragging, we just order Butch Cassidy from Neflix one more time.


A vibrant culture will be spurred by what it considers greatness. This doesn't mean that it necessarily is, but the mere presumption affects how the society behaves.

For example, Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote that "Whether or not you agreed with them, university presidents used to be dignified figures on the American scene. They often were distinguished scholars, capable of bringing their own brand of independent thinking to bear on the operation and reform of their institutions. Above all, they took seriously the university's mission to seek and transmit the truth, and thereby to strengthen the free society that made such inquiry possible.

"But it has been a long time since Woodrow Wilson (at Princeton), Robert Hutchins (at Chicago) or James Bryant Conant (at Harvard) set the tone for American campuses. Over the past year, four university presidents have been in the news - from Harvard; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Colorado; and the University of California, Berkeley. In each case, the curtains have briefly parted, allowing the public to glimpse the campus wizards working the levers behind the scenes, and confirming that something has gone terribly wrong at our best public and private universities."

Of course, Woodrow Wilson spread segregation in the government and James Conant may have done public education incalculable damage by setting it on a course of gargantuan factory-like school districts, but that is not the point. The point is that they were icons of a society that thought it knew where it was going and what it admired.

Today, with Larry Summers at Harvard or Benjamin Ladner at American University - such figures have largely been reduced to talk of their fundraising skill or excessive expense accounts. Few suggest that they are people we should actually admire.

Similarly, in the churches there is a stunning lack of models. This is not merely the fault of the neo-Gantries who have taken over much of American Christianity but of other Protestant sects that say not a mumblin' word about the theological hijacking by the right and who offer little alternative in such areas as social justice and world peace. Judaism, which once helped carry the banner for social change, has largely abandoned that field in favor of supporting Israel. As for the Catholics, the best they can do is try to find ways to prove that they're not a bunch of perverts. The best we can do is applaud a bishop from South Africa and a lama from Tibet.

The dearth of greatness is most painfully obvious perhaps in the nation's capital, in its politics, think tanks and media. To be sure, a pantomime is performed, but everyone knows it is just for television. Bush compares himself to Roosevelt, Koppel pretends he's Murrow, but nobody's really fooled. The disappearance of greatness - whether rightly or wrongly recognized as such - is common throughout American society - from football coaches to moral leaders. In the end we are left with Ben Affleck and Oprah Winfrey.

Part of the problem was identified as far back as the 1920s by Julien Benda in his book, The Treason of the Intellectuals: "At the very top of the scale of moral values [the intellectuals] place the possession of concrete advantages, of material power and the means by which they are procured; and they hold up to scorn the pursuit of truly spiritual advantages, of non-practical or disinterested values."

Instead of being outsiders, critics and moral observers, the American intelligentsia have become players accepting many of the values of the system they should be scorning.

Benda listed some of these values:

- "The extolling of courage at the expense of other virtues. . .

- "The extolling of harshness and the scorn for human love -- pity, charity, benevolence. . .

- "The teaching which says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt."

In my last book, Why Bother?, I wrote:

[Older Americans] remember the victories and their celebrations; they remember Norman Rockwell men standing motionless for the national anthem in baseball stadiums with fedoras held over their hearts; a government that did more than regulate or arrest you; politicians who were revered; newscasters who were trusted; and music that dripped syrup over our spirits and made them sweet and sticky. They remember when there was a right and wrong and who and what belonged with each, whether it was true or not. They remember a time when those in power lied and were actually able to fool us. They remember what a real myth was like even when it was false, cruel, deceptive, and the property of only a few.

Now, despite the improved economic and social status of women and minorities, despite decades of economic progress, despite Velcro, SUVs, MTV, NASA, DVD, cell phones, and the Internet you can't raise a majority that is proud of this country. We neither enjoy our myths nor our reality. We hate our politicians, ignore our moral voices, and distrust our media. We have destroyed natural habitats, created the nation's first downwardly mobile generation, stagnated their parent's income, and removed the jobs of each to distant lands. We have created rapacious oligopolies of defense and medicine, frittered away public revenues and watched indifferently as, around the world, the homeless and the miserable pile up. Our leaders and the media speak less and less of freedom, democracy, justice, or of their own land. Perhaps most telling, we are no longer able to react, but only to gawk.

Too be sure, many of the symbols of America remain, but they have become crude -- desperately or only commercially imitative of something that has faded. We still stand for the Star Spangled Banner, but we no longer know what to do while on our feet. We still subscribe to the morning paper but it reads like stale beer. And some of us even still vote, but expect ever less in return. Where once we failed to practice our principles, now we no longer even profess to honor them.


If this seems like a somewhat backwards approach to naming the real villains, it is intended to be. Our politicians, bad as many of them are, in the end are mainly symptoms of our disintegration. A strong country would not have fallen for as flagrant a fraud as Ronald Reagan or George Bush, nor ones as cleverly corrupt as the Clintons.

It is fair to say, however, that much of our decline began with the Reagan administration and, without exception, has continued since. The evidence for this is strewn across the landscape, but here are just 25 things that have gotten worse in the past 25 years:

1. Real income of Americans
2. Decline in wealth of the bottom 40%
3. Number of older families with pensions
4. Foreign debt as a percent of GDP
5. Personal bankruptcies
6. Housing foreclosures
7. Annual personal savings rate of families
8. Corruption in politics
9. Number of people in prison
10. Drug induced deaths despite drug war
11. Civil liberties lost as result of drug war and war on terror
12. Pensions that include health care benefits
13. Number of families without health insurance
14. Numbers of corporations controlling most of the media
15. Public trust in major media
16. Time children spend playing
17. Divorce rate
18. Increase in wealth of wealthiest senators
19. Decline in voting participation
20. Number of registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill
21. Wages of recent male high school grads
22. Wages of bottom ten percent of workers
23. Ratio of executive to worker pay
24. Decline in real value of minimum wage
25. Harassment of young people for minor offenses

It is particularly telling that in the past thirty years, America has passed more laws than it did in its first two centuries, a sign of a country that has lost its way and trying desperately to compensate by making the results of its failures illegal.


There are innumerable contributing factors for what has happened to America, but here are a few that might escape notice:

ABUSE OF MYTHOLOGY - America has always been a high myth country. Only 13% believe that God was not involved in the evolution of human life. One poll found that 61% believed that Genesis is literally true, sixty percent believe in Noah's ark, and a third believe in ghosts. Americans believe that over half the people in the world speak English (actually it's closer to 20%). Ironically, Americans' mythological inclinations often have more in common with the currently hated Muslims than with many Europeans.

Such myths are not novel developments, so why is it that we find them mattering so much these days? One answer is that while the general populace chooses what to believe, they are heavily influenced by their leaders as to what these beliefs mean. Thus, while ethnic prejudice is a widespread human trait, it takes a Hitler or southern white politicians to give it an actively vicious role. In both cases, the argument blamed society's problems on a minority, pandering to myths and twisting them into a new and virulent form.

Similarly today, we find the Republican Party pandering to religious myths, but also manipulating them to its own perverted advantage to blame groups like gays or women who have freed themselves from traditional roles. We have always had fundamentalist Christians in this country; what is different is that they once voted the Democratic ticket. Today their myths have been rhetorically twisted against their own interests - including their substantial economic, educational, and environmental problems - and turned towards irrelevant targets that deflect the blame from those truly responsible. In a similar way, Hitler initially used Jews as a cause of Germany's economic problems, but in the end had them actually taking jobs from Germans by forced labor in concentration camps. In a similar way, poor southern whites were kept in their place by being convinced it was all the blacks' fault, which helped to keep down the wages of both groups.

Such cynical behavior can come to no good end. And in the process, the culture that accepts such a redefinition of its own myths becomes a prisoner of the myth twisters, causing it to turn - as in the present case - not to Christ but to a Karl Rove or George Bush for an understanding of what faith means. While plenty of cultures have thrived on mythological faith, it is impossible to do so when faith becomes a massive fraud.

TELEVISION - Television is attacked by both left and right for its values, but its deepest threat to American culture actually comes from its omnipresence. As Marshall McLuhan put it to Wired magazine: "The real message of media today is ubiquity. It is no longer something we do, but something we are part of. It confronts us as if from the outside with all the sensory experience of the history of humanity. "

The semiotician Marshall Blonsky called it a semiosphere, "a dense atmosphere of signs triumphantly permeating all social, political and imaginative life and, arguably, constituting our desiring selves as such."

Television makes all values its prisoner, whether the guard is Bill O'Reilly or Charlie Rose; and so ultimately, and inevitably, whatever culture is watching loses itself to the tube.

Television has had another bad effect. Before it came along, a good politician was typically someone with high social intelligence, someone who knew how to react to human beings and human situations. TV has largely eliminated that need, favoring (and encouraging) a form of high functioning autism in which political rhetoric becomes a continuous feedback loop often unrelated to the situation in which the politician is placed or the issues being raised. Thus, television has become the means by which leaders have escaped their own culture, and their culture has lost contact with them.

THE CORPORATIZATION OF CULTURE - Increasingly, the language and values of our culture are that of corporations, something that became fashionable in the Reagan administration and has been cursing us ever since. It is so rampant that even the band Metallica pondered whether it should have a mission statement.

Among the values of this corporate culture is the elevation of managers and salespersons to iconic status. Fifty years ago this would have been considered a joke, but today it is widely accepted. Inherent in this bizarre value system is the inference that those who make or create things are less important than those who manage or sell them. In other words, as a matter of government, economic, and intellectual policy, the content of our culture is no longer as important as how well it can be marketed. Any culture with such priorities does not have a long life expectancy.

FAILED COMMUNITIES AND FORGOTTEN STORIES - A functioning culture is full of communities and stories. But the dominant corporate values of our culture are opposed to both. As Wendell Barry told the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "Where we are is a world dominated by a global economy that places no value whatsoever on community or community coherence. In this economy, whose business is to set in contention things that belong together, you can do nothing more divisive than to assert the claims of community. This puts you immediately at odds with powerful people to whom the claims of community mean nothing, who ignore the issues of locality, who recognize no neighbors and are loyal to no place."

When developers announced plans for a neo-traditional "village" named Frijoles near Santa Fe some years ago, Olivia Tsosie wrote in Designer/Builder magazine about the difference between a true village and the proposed project: "A village is an autonomous social unit, with a reason for existing where it is. . . What is a suburb? A dependent social unit with no internal reason for its existence. . . Frijoles lacks work, resources, kinship, political or religious independence, and cohesion. . . A village is a not-for-profit, organic, open-ended, human-scale social event, which becomes visible in its buildings and pathways."

Try telling that to either your city's planning office or the World Trade Organization or even MSNBC.

A functioning culture also needs coherent stories. The struggle for civil rights, for example, gained new heart and substance when the black power movement began telling more stories and demanding that they be heard. But American culture, as Studs Terkel says, has become one of "forgotten stories." We have developed what he calls "national Alzheimer's disease."


Dismal as all this may sound, we need look no further than the European Union to realize that while cultures may collapse, the life of those in them goes on, absent some more brutal cause such as war, disease or genocide. Besides, as Kroeber noted, "Even before they have come mainly loose pieces or skeleton, another and younger civilization is usually ready to step into their place; or, if there is none such in the vicinity, a new civilization may slowly integrate out of the debris of its indigenous predecessor."

The truly scary possibility - and remember Kroeber was writing long before the rise of television or economic globalization - is that a "single, essentially uniform, world-wide civilization" supplants all the ones of the past: "What then, when the exhausted, repetitive stage is reached, and there is no new rival culture to take over responsibility and opportunity and start fresh with new values. . . ?"

What is tragic about the disintegration of American culture is the promise it held, the freedoms it created, the hope it sustained. The single common thread behind the forces that led to its collapse was greed: national greed, economic greed, lust for a greater audience and so forth. As Jefferson predicted, "They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights."

On the other hand, the scattered remnants are still there - certainly larger in scale, say, than the early American colonies that adopted the Constitution yet still lost in the miasma of the paranoid, prevaricating, gluttonous parody of America the larger culture has become. Those who would preserve the better America and recreate from its damaged remains are not naive fools; they are the new founding fathers and mothers of a time and place still to come. Nor are they fantasizing. Any place, any community, any gathering can become what Hakim Bey called a temporary autonomous zone, an oasis of freedom, decency and hope, in which a new culture can take sprout. Name it, enjoy it, use it. It's the best we have at the moment.

As for the rest of America, it is long past time to drop the pretense. As I was walking through one of our frightened airports I heard the real motto of our land repeated over and over: "Caution, the moving walkway is about to end." It's true. We're on our own now.



What does punk have to do with this weekend's protests? Among other things, this weekend's protests - like those in Seattle and the ones that followed - began in part in the garages and basements of America.

Once again music ran ahead of politics - just as it did when Billie Holiday sang 'Strange Fruit' a decade before the civil rights movement. Just as it did when we gathered at the Mount Auburn 47 Club to hear a young singer named Joan Baez well before something called the Sixties. Just as we listened to Thelonius and Miles when there were hardly any verbal protests at all.

In 1993, in a protest against censorship. Rage Against the Machine stood naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note. In 1997, well before most college students were paying any attention to the issue, Tom Morello was arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor.

Rage Against the Machine sold more than seven million records before much of the rest of the country even got around to one little protest against the machine.

As a musician with more than 40 years of gigs behind me I know that among the many services of music is to say things we can't find the words for - perhaps not yet or perhaps ever. As a writer with over 40 years of gigs behind me I am still often humbled by what a better job music sometimes does of it.

I was a part of something they called the beat generation. Many of you are part of a beat, busted, bullied, and bamboozled generation.

With the sole important exception of black Americans in the post-reconstruction era, no other generation has been so deprived of its constitutional rights and civil liberties. No other generation of young males has been sent to prison in such numbers for such minor offenses. And few generations of the young have been so consistently treated as a social problem rather than as a cause of joy and hope. And again - except for blacks in the post-reconstruction era - no other generation has been so deliberately cheated of so much.

If you think I exaggerate, consider these figures from the Department of Labor, figures you won't see on the evening news, or read in the Washington Post. The earnings of everyone under 25 - black, white, latino, male and female - have actually declined over the past twenty years, about 5% for the most part. But get this: the earnings of black and white males under 25 are down 17 to 21%. A typical white male is earning $97 less a week in real dollars than 20 years ago.

And if you think I exaggerate consider some of the losses of freedom that have occurred since many of you were born and well before September 11:

Roadblocks as part of random searches for drivers who have been drinking or using drugs.

The extensive use of the military in civilian law enforcement, particularly in the war on drugs.

The use of handcuffs on persons accused of minor offenses and moving violations.

Jump-out squads that leap from police vehicles and search nearby citizens.

Much greater use of wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance.

Punishment before trial such as pre-trial detention and civil forfeiture of property.

Punishment of those not directly involved in offenses, such as parents being held responsible for the actions of their children and bartenders being made to enforce drinking laws.

Warrantless searches of persons and property before entering buildings, boarding planes, or using various public facilities.

Closing of public buildings or parts of buildings to the public on security grounds.

Increased restrictions on student speech, behavior, and clothing.

Increased mandatory use of IDs

Increasing restrictions on attorney-client privacy

Greatly increased government access to personal financial records

Loss of a once widely presumed guarantee of confidentiality in dealings with businesses, doctors, accountants, and banks

The greatest incarceration rate of any industrialized country in the world

Mandatory sentencing for minor offenses, particularly marijuana possession

Increased surveillance of employees in the workplace

Increased use of charges involving offenses allegedly committed after a person has been halted by a police officer, such as failure to obey a lawful order.

Widespread youth curfews.

Loss of control over how personal information is used by business companies.

Use of stereotypical profiles (including racial characteristics)

to justify police searches

Warrantless searches and questioning of bus, train, and airline passengers.

Random searches of school lockers.

Random searches of cars in school parking lots.

Lack of privacy in transactions such as video rental or computer use

Video surveillance of sidewalks, parks and other public spaces.

Involuntary drug testing increasingly used as a prerequisite for routine activities such as earning a livelihood or playing on a sports team.

Steady erosion by the courts of protection against search and seizure.

And, finally, persons 18 to 21 are routinely denied their constitutional rights by being banned from buying alcohol. As late as 1975, virtually every state had a drinking age of 18; now none does.

But then we all have moved in many ways into a post-constitutional era. We all live in a culture that offers us not liberty but demands subservience, that does not foster the pursuit of happiness but rather relentlessly pursues citizens seeking only a decent job and a little happiness.

Remember this weekend the words of another musician - Woody Guthrie - who sang that this land is your land and this land is my land. Don't let a bunch of cynical, corrupt and cruel bullies do any more damage to it than they already have.

June 10, 2008


Sam Smith

Having been an anthropology major, I am easily distracted from the business at hand by cultural idiosyncrasies. Take, for example, Barack and Michelle Obama doing the fist bump.
The incident brought back what was, for me, a long unresolved matter: when and why did athletes stop expressing joy and enthusiasm when they won something, replacing it with rigid, aggressive fist motions, arms raised as in the military salute of some exotic fascist land and an overall sense that what had happened was not cause for happiness but a triumph of vengeance. The losers, the victors seem to say with their hands and expressions, deserved to die. 

Much the same shift has taken place in the more modest expressions used in greeting someone. In the 1960s, a typical greeting might involve hands meeting and then gently meeting again at the place where the thumb meets the palm, a motion both cool and warm. It is the shake I still prefer, despite it being considered grossly out of date. But then I come from a time when hip meant doing something a bit differently than the crowd, and when you have Baltimore Bullets guard Fred Carter, Barack Obama and Diane Feinstein all using the bump, it's time, like Miles Davis, to turn one's back on the audience.
The act of greeting evolved. For a while, many used a two stage shake followed by the hands reaching to the elbow and then slowly sliding back towards the wrist. A bit more complex, but still gentle and friendly.

And there were lots of other daps, as Wikipedia explains:

"Dap is a form of handshake that became popularized in the white mainstream society in the 1960s originating among African Americans. The term dap may have originated as an acronym for Dignity and Pride, (or may have been backronymed) and was popularly used by African American soldiers during the Vietnam War even though as a tradition it has existed in the African-American community for centuries. Though it can refer to many kinds of greeting involving hand contact, dap is best known as a complicated routine of shakes, slaps, snaps, and other contact that must be known completely by both parties involved, otherwise, an awkward but friendly improvisation occurs as the participants essentially mirror the jazz culture with creative forms of ordering the various moves of the hands with snaps, slaps, mutual knuckle bumps and finger waves (jazz hands).. . . It is a ritualized but common form of agreement between two or more people who offer this casual physical contact as an affirmation, congratulations or other type of agreement with an action, clever phrase, sports event or when admiring an attractive female or male"

Though including aggressive moves such as slaps and bumps, note that traditional dap was a complex greeting requiring time, attention and an affirmation of a relationship or understanding.

Then things began to change, most notably with the rise of the high five. Now, instead of a warm greeting requiring some lingering contact, we had instantaneous and somewhat aggressive slaps with the person being greeted. We had moved from affection to assertion.
Mind you, I write this as observation, not condemnation. I can't tell you how many babies I have attempted to teach high fives too. And to 'gimme five' well can also take a bit of doing, as Wikipedia explains: 

"Several variations on the standard high five exist in order to add uniqueness to the experience and to maximize satisfaction. One such variation is the 'flipside,' also called the 'windmill;' this method begins like a regular high five, however upon meeting up top, both high-fivers continue to swing their arms downwards until they meet again in a "low five". This method is depicted in the feature film Top Gun repeatedly. . . David Putty of Seinfeld is prone to giving strangers the high five, usually as a greeting, when it is not suitable nor appropriate. If one initiates a high five by raising a hand into the air and no one consummates the celebration by slapping the raised hand, the initiator is said to be 'left hanging.' This is considered to be a somewhat embarrassing."

Which brings us to the first bump, which some think was invented by Frank Carter in the 1970s. According to another account, "Deal or No Deal host Howie Mandel reportedly adopted the gesture as a friendly way to avoid his contestants' germs." But, in any case, like the high five, the act is brief, devoid of contact and somewhat aggressive. One interpretation might be that the bumpers are gently defining each other's territory and strength. It was no accident that George Bush's first chest bump was at a military academy.
But the personal always enters the equation. Lyndon Johnson used to have a greeting in which the non-shaking hand would reach up the forearm of the greeter, applying gentle pressure, a trick that prevented the latter from squeezing LBJ's own hand too tightly, a matter of no little concern to politicians. One of my favorite hand greetings is the apocryphal one of the Maine driver passing a friend on the road, the rule being, one finger raised above the steering wheel means, "How you doin'?; two fingers: "How you and the Missus?" and three fingers, "How's the family?"

Body language expert Janine Driver reports that "My husband and I, if we're walking down the street and he's proud of me, we have our own little method. He squeezes my hand three times, which means, 'I love you,' and I squeeze his four times, saying, 'I love you, too.'"
Driver continued, "You know, the mistake that a lot of body language experts make, is they say, 'OK, arms are crossed, so it means you're bored and disinterested.' They pigeonhole one gesture into a certain meaning. . . It's unscientific. The best thing to say is, 'Obama, is there any reason why you guys did that? What did it mean?' And he'll tell you . . . "And he did, to NBC's Brian Williams: "It captures what I love about my wife. That for all the hoopla I'm her husband and sometimes we'll do silly things."

Fair enough. Gimme five, dude. We are all children of our culture. But if someone whom others like to imitate wanted to do our land a big favor, we could also use a greeting in which our fists, hands or chests don't collide as though in conflict, and in which victory could express the joy in one's own heart rather than the vengeance achieved over others. Something between a hug and a handshake that would not be one more superfluous symbol of our isolation but a warm reminder of how much we need each other.

June 09, 2008


Sam Smith

Our long national nightmare is over. . . . at least until tonight.

The RBCB (Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush) era is apparently finished, although with this crowd you can never be sure. It was a time when America lost power, respect, direction, jobs, integrity, its Constitution and an understanding of what democracy was all about.

There are no signs that any of these will soon be restored, but at least, for the moment, the disintegration may have been halted.

The Clintons went out like they came in, to a chorus of media enablers, assuring America that they were something they weren't, that Hillary Clinton, for example, was the voice of the working class or that ordinary women's lives would dramatically improve if she had been elected.

Echoes returned:

"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 . . . Thank you very much and tell Mrs. Clinton we respect her and we're pulling for her." -- Dan Rather, talking with the Clintons via satellite at a CBS affiliates meeting

"Roger Clinton's life is in some ways the story of any younger sibling clobbered by the spectacular success of the one who came before . . . If your brother is Christ, you have a choice: become a disciple, or become an anti-Christ, or find yourself caught somewhere between the two" -- Laura Blumenfeld, Washington Post

"In the midst of redesigning America's health care system and replacing Madonna as our leading cult figure, 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." -- Martha Sherrill, Washington Post

"The most interesting part of the story will come when the media have to acknowledge that there is nothing there . . . Shall we write on our various blackboard 1000 times, 'The Clintons did nothing wrong?'" -- Columnist Molly Ivins

"Ridiculous" -- NPR's Diana Rehm on suggested similarities between Whitewater and Watergate

For balance, let's recall a few objective press comments at the same time about Clinton's primary opponent, Jerry Brown:

"Annoying" -Ted Koppel

"Weird" - Cokie Roberts, NPR

"A pain in the you-know-what"- Bemard Shaw

"Flailing about, spewing out charges like sparks from a Fourth of July pinwheel" - JW Apple, New York Times

"He's a chameleon, a character assassin and a first-class cynic" - Jonathan Alter, Newsweek

"Brilliant, self-absorbed, friendless, idealistic, erratic, opportunistic, cold, hypocritical" - New York Times

"Jerry Brown's more corrupt than the system" - Eleanor Clift, Newsweek

Said FAIR, the media watchdog, "There is so much of this kind of writing about Brown that it is difficult to remember that journalists don't usually refer to candidates this way. Can anyone imagine Newsweek's senior political editor talking about George Bush's 'typical hype' or his 'unfitness' -- and getting away with it?

Those of us who had looked even slightly closer at the Clintons had seen something quite different. Christopher Hitchens wrote the other day:

"I have detested the Clintons ever since I covered the New Hampshire primary in 1992. The man I saw was not the silver-tongued charmer who seems to have bewitched so many people. Up close, he seemed like a red-cheeked, piggy-eyed bully with a mean streak a mile wide. And when he lied - which he more or less did for a living - he had a hard-faced little spouse to step into the TV studios to cover up for him. This woman put up with a lot from Bill over the years but could always tell herself it was worth it because in the long run the experience would give her the presidency she so obviously deserved."

I stumbled upon the story, the way you do a lot of stories, partly by accident. I was prepared by having just read Sally Denton's remarkable book, The Bluegrass Conspiracy, about how the drug trade corrupted Kentucky from the bottom up, including the state police and governor's office.

I had followed political corruption my whole life. My first campaign - stuffing envelopes as a pre-teen - helped to end 69 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I covered the local city council as James Michael Curley was nearing death in next door Boston. I remember councilor Joseph DeGuglielmo explaining that he didn't know how to vote on an upcoming police and fire pay raise because each of those cops and firefighters were making, by his guess, an extra five grand on the side. He described, for example, firemen removing expensive rugs from people's homes as a spin off of their rescue efforts.

I helped Marion Barry with public relations when he was head of SNCC, boosted him for school board and mayor and then distanced myself as he distanced himself from the cause that had gotten him where he was. Later I would compared him with Clinton, two men who had used decency as a crash pad on their way to power.

I also read avariciously about every corrupt politician I could find from George Washington Plunkett of Tammany Hall to the Daley machine, the Longs of Louisiana and Philadelphia's Frank Rizzo who started his climb as a district police captain by going to the mob and telling them they could have numbers, whores or drugs, but they couldn't have murders. The mob obliged and took their bodies elsewhere. Rizzo's murder rate dropped and a new mayor was born.

As I studied these stories, one thing stood out, which I discussed in what was the first critical book about Clinton, a whole two year after he had been elected:

"It was, to be sure, a mixture of the good and the bad, but you at least knew whom to thank and whom to blame. As late as the 1970s the tradition was still alive in Chicago as 25th Ward leader Vito Marzullo told a Chicago Sun-Times columnist:

"'I ain't got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th Ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we'd beat you fifteen to one. The mayor don't run the 25th Ward, Neither does the news media or the do-gooders. Me, Vito Marzullo. that's who runs the 25th Ward, and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them. . .My home is open 24 hours a day. I want people to come in. As long as I have a breathing spell, I'll got to a wake, a wedding, whatever. I never ask for anything in return. On election day, I tell my people, 'Let your conscience be your guide.'"

"In the world of Plunkitt and Marzullo, politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King. It was not the product of spin doctors, campaign hired guns or phony town meetings. It welled up from the bottom, starting with one loyal follower, one ambitious ballplayer, twelve unhappy pushcart peddlers. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

"Sure, it was corrupt. But we don't have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-Contra or the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for the needy or, in the words of one Tammany leader, "grafted to the Republic" no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammany's brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return.

"In fact, we didn't really do away with machines, we just replaced them. As Tammany Hall and the Crump and the Hague and the Daley organizations faded, new political machines appeared. Prime among them was television but there were others such as the number-crunchers, policy pushers and lawyers running Washington, as well as a new breed of political professional, including campaign consultants, fundraisers and pollsters.

"The curious, and ultimately destructive, quality of some of these new machines -- particularly the media and the political pros -- was that they had such little interest in policies or democracy; rather they were concerned with professional achievement or television ratings or making a buck. When one of the most skilled of the new pros, James Carville, was asked whether he would take a post in the Clinton administration, he admitted candidly that he only knew about winning elections; he didn't know about governing. And his Clinton campaign side-kick Paul Begala once remarked, 'Someone says issue; I say gesundheit.'"

I had been a student of corruption and yet was really impressed by the Clintons and by the political ecology of Arkansas. I didn't have time for moral outrage, I was too fascinated by it all. And I was encouraged, early on, by material sent me by a progressive student group - yes, progressive - at the University of Arkansas.

And so I became part of a miniscule leftwing conspiracy that preceded the vast rightwing alternative. I wasn't out to get the Clintons, but I wasn't - like so many reporters - going to just look the other way.

In February 1992, I wrote: "The media's protection of Clinton, of course, dates far before the current matter. He has long been the Washington elite's designated alternative to Bush. During the current campaign, Clinton has gotten kid glove treatment from the press"

By May 1992 I had come up with a list of about two dozen individuals and organizations that raised serious questions about Bill Clinton. It wasn't hard to do and most of these names would become familiar when they became intertwined with what would be known as Whitewater. The information was there for any reporter who wanted it, but most just didn't want to spoil the fairy tale they were in. And the closeness to power it brought.

A few did and some of them lost their jobs or were transferred as a result. I was banned from a local NPR talk show and, according to sources, from CSPAN and the Washington Post. The media treated those of us who wouldn't play the game with the opprobrium designed for them by presidential spinsters: conspiracy theories and Clinton haters. One reporter, well known in DC, told me in my own living room that I shouldn't be writing the way I was. "Even if it's true?:" I asked. "Even if it's true," he replied.

But there were good moments, too. Like when I was introduced to a black White House staffer and she said, "I know who you are" and with a big smile added, "You're b-a-a-d!"

By this time I had been in journalism for nearly forty years and had never run into anything like it. But the story wouldn't stop and so I kept on the case.

It was the story of an unprincipled couple rising to power in a mini narco-republic, which had once been the western boundary of the northern mobs, where Al Capone had a permanently reserved room in a hotel in Hot Springs, where Lucky Luciano was nabbed by Thomas E Dewey, and where Clinton's mother was a heavy gambler with mob ties. According to FBI and local police officials, his Uncle Raymond -- to whom young Bill turned for wisdom and support -- had been a colorful car dealer, slot machine owner and gambling operator, who thrived (except when his house is firebombed) on the fault line of criminality.

It was a story of a governor overseeing drug-driven political corruption, being the local facilitator for the Regan-Bush Iran Contra operations, and where the local state development agency sent tens of millions to a Cayman Islands depository.

It was a story about a state where a drug pilot brought a Cessna 210 full of cocaine into eastern Arkansas where he was met by his pick-up: a state trooper in a marked police car. "Arkansas," the pilot would recall years later, "was a very good place to load and unload."

It was a story where I got an email from Billy Bear Bottoms, the former pilot for Barry Seal, one of the nation's most notorious drug runners, complaining about something I had written.

It was a story in which Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker comes to Washington to see his old boss sworn in, leaving his state under the control of the president pro tem of the senate, Little Rock dentist Jerry Jewell. Jewell uses his power as acting governor to issue a number of pardons, one of them for a convicted drug dealer, Tommy McIntosh. It seems that the elder McIntosh had worked for Clinton in his last state campaign and, according to McIntosh in a 1991 lawsuit, had agreed not only to pay him $25,000 but to help him market his recipe for sweet potato pie and to pardon his son.

It was state in which a tractor trailer is stopped and police find millions in drug cash stowed in the cab.

And on and on. . . .

By the standards by which I was raised, any reporter who turned their back on such a tale should lose their press pass. But it didn't work like that.

Instead, those who tried to tell the truth became the pariahs.

It was my introduction to a new journalism. And to a new politics because, with Clinton, establishment liberals dumped their policies, their ideals and their standards. It wasn't like corruption back the in day, when liberals fought the bad guy. Now they helped manage his campaign, crying "Move on" and things like that. They came aboard not just as pragmatists, but as evangelical enthusiasts.

The Democratic Party would lose more seats at the state and local level under Clinton than with any Democratic incumbent since Grover Cleveland. Programs of the New Deal and Great society would be eviscerated. America's "first black president" would oversee an explosion of prison time for young black males.

But none of it mattered because liberals, especially the politically active upscale ones, had essentially abandoned what was once their essential business: helping those being screwed by the system. Their interest, driven by their own place in the economy, had turned to glass ceilings instead of hard floors and locked factory doors. And eventually they would replace it all with the simple expediency of a black Jesus, never mind that Barack Obama reached his magic delegate count the same week that the number of other black males, those in prison, hit a record level.

It's really not that surprising. The same mythological approach that created the Clintons was also used to justify the Iraq war and is now being used to create the new Obama era.

Check it out. Try to discuss with liberals the effect of Obama's Iran and Israel positions on our future in that region and in the world. Try complaining about his healthcare program or his support of the Patriot and No Child laws. Note that nobody seems to know who got him where he is so fast and that you don't get there without owing someone a hell of a lot. Try asking for just one new good idea that he has had. Try saying that Obama may be the best we're going to get, but it isn't that much.

Come to think of it, don't try it. I have and have largely given up. Because to many of his supporters, as with the supporters of Clinton and the Iraq War, facts just don't matter anymore. Faith is what counts. Anything else is heresy.

And the same media that didn't fairly report the rise of the Clintons, or the beginnings of the Iraq war, are now engaged in the same error with Obama. It's bad enough to have liberals turn into a bunch of secular evangelicals, but at least the press should have a little more self respect than to join in the shouting and the clapping.

Still, arguing with evangelicals - whether Christian, media or liberal - is a waste of time. Consider anything immutable and argument becomes irrelevant.

You just have to save it for the agnostics, free thinkers and those who understand the difference between a press pass and a bathroom pass, which is that the former allows you to disseminate information while the latter is for those who just need to dump shit. It's a distinction much of the media has forgotten.

So, once again, we'll just have to wait for reality to intrude on faith and hope and spin.

Meanwhile, one long national nightmare is over, so party on.

Just don't be surprised if you wake up with a hangover.