July 31, 2008


Sam Smith

Barack Obama has gotten where he is using remarkable cynical and manipulative marketing worthy of something dreamed up by Donald Draper or Sterling Cooper of Mad Men. It has been based almost entirely on replacing actual policies with words and phrases designed to produce a warm and fuzzy feeling among voters desperate for something new and different.

Whatever one thinks of the integrity of such an approach, it suffers from one dangerous flaw: because it lacks any substance it may at some inconvenient moment evaporate as a useful tool. For example, as the campaign progresses, some of the people who have been fooled some of the time might discover, as has been wisely said, that "hope don't pay the cable."

Obama's touchy-feely European trip is fair warning of this danger. Since returning home there has been no significant change in his standing in the polls. This supposed historic event has turned into just one more episode in a not particularly interesting campaign.

Worse, into the vacuum has come not just an invigoration of McCain but, only a few weeks after Jon Stewart felt compelled to explain to his audience that it actually was okay to laugh at Obama, the comedians are taking their gloves off. Carrie Budoff Brown writes in Politico:

"It wasn’t until the last week. . . that the narrative of Obama as a president-in-waiting - and perhaps getting impatient in that waiting - began reverberating beyond the e-mail inboxes of Washington operatives and journalists. Perhaps one of the clearest indications emerged Tuesday from the world of late-night comedy, when David Letterman offered his 'Top Ten Signs Barack Obama is Overconfident.' The examples included Obama proposing to change the name of Oklahoma to 'Oklobama,' and measuring his head for Mount Rushmore. . .

"Following a nine-day, eight-country tour that carried the ambition and stagecraft of a presidential state visit, Obama has found himself in an unusual position: the butt of jokes.

"Jon Stewart teased that the presumptive Democratic nominee traveled to Israel to visit his birthplace at Bethlehem’s Manger Square. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd amplified the McCain campaign’s private nickname for Obama ('The One'). . .

"The harsher treatment from comedians and columnists - coupled with the shift by McCain from attacking on policy to character issues - underscores the fine line that Obama is walking between confident and cocky."

The underlying problem is that, with full premeditation, Obama has given us little but his character to vote on. Not a bad political approach when you're up against someone so bereft of character as Hillary Clinton.

But in the meantime, however, reality has not stood still. The economy has been collapsing; the housing market is in a state that has been described as the worst since the Depression.

And what does Obama have to say about all this? Primarily that his tax policies are better than McCain's, which is true enough, but hardly enough to turn things around as the recent tax rebate flop has indicated.

Obama is running against a laughably weak opponent yet barely busts the 50% mark. The primary reason is that those who are supporting Obama they think he is cute, eloquent, impressive or black have already made their mark. There are no more of those.

What remains is a growing number of voters who are being hurt, or expect to be so, by unusually poor economic conditions. In fact, a growing number of voters who supported Obama because they thought he was cute, eloquent, impressive or black are also joining the realos - those who need more dough and less cliches.

For such voters who Obama claims he is comes in a far second to what he or McCain might do. Obama has chosen so far not enlighten them. These voters may not turn to McCain, but they could easily stay home.

In a better Democratic Party time, the guy picked as front man would be taken aside by the pros and told to ditch his narcissistic pitch and come up with something solid that would actually assist voters. But Democrats aren't like that any more.

Still, this is the time to do something before an increasing number of people for an increasing some of the time figure out that Obama isn't what they had thought.

The clock's running. It's time to stop listening to the Mad Men and start helping the little folks.

July 26, 2008


In a remarkable essay in Counterpunch, an anonymous political consultant gets to the heart of what's happening in this election campaign: we're not choosing a politician but a product, one that makes us feel good about ourselves - and Obama is the iPod while Hillary Clinton was the cell phone. Writes the consultant: "In the world of toys it is the one that stands out the most [that] is the most marketable," which helps to explain why a black, inexperienced, atypical pol like Obama did so well against Clinton. And why McCain, who still, metaphorically at least, is using a dial phone, is having such a hard time.

The author also notes:

"The two primary features of the post political age are a politics completely drained of all its contents and ability or willingness to be used as an agent of change in social or economic policy, and its full integration into the world of American popular, consumer and entertainment culture. To such an extent that there exists today a seamless web between our political, economic, media and consumer cultures wherein the modes and values of one are completely integrated and compatible with the others."

One of the effects of this phenomenon is that apparently contradictory policies thrive. For example, with a political market being driven by upscale and comfortable middle class whites, "the same forces that make it possible for the rapid acceptance of ideas such as gay marriage are the same which can create a society that will accept massive social inequalities."

Thus the failure of those who tried to bring economic issues into the primary debate and the ability of the selected candidate to do a massive pop concert tour in places that can't even vote in an American election, while totally ignoring the worst financial crisis this country has seen in decades.

The point is further brought home by news that the Obama veep vetting team is considering a Republican conservative, pro-ethanol, agro-business lawyer and NAFTA negotiator, Ann Veneman. You might excuse Obama for thinking about selecting his rightwing buddy Chuck Hagel as merely friendship gone astray, but to even consider Veneman is to declare that politics, the Democratic party and issues don't matter. Only Obama does.

He's not the first to try this. After all, Bill and Hillary Clinton - albeit lacking the appeal of a new iPod - got things going as the first postmodern couple to occupy the White House. They also revealed the fatal flaw in the scam, as I noted at the time:

"Of course, in the postmodern society that Clinton proposes -- one that rises above the false teachings of ideology -- we find ourselves with little to steer us save the opinions of whatever non-ideologue happens to be in power. In this case, we may really only have progressed from the ideology of the many to the ideology of the one or, some might say, from democracy to authoritarianism.

"Among equals, indifference to shared meaning might produce nothing worse than lengthy argument. But when the postmodernist is President of the United States, the impulse becomes a 500-pound gorilla to be fed, as they say, anything it wants."

Jody Kantor, in the NY Times, nicely captured Obama's similar post-modernism:

"Friends say he did not want anyone to assume they knew his mind; and because of that, even those close to him did not always know exactly where he stood. . . Charles J. Ogletree Jr., another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Mr. Obama, said, 'He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts'. . .

"People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama's words. . . Mr. Obama stayed away from the extremes of campus debate, often choosing safe topics for his speeches. . . In dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice."

If you turn away from the pop concert we still call a campaign, you can find some interesting examples. In 2001, while still a state senator, Obama said:

"As I said before, if [Bush] brought before us a nominee who didn't agree with me on affirmative action and yet said that, you know, I do think that and showed a history for showing regard and concern for racial justice, if he came before us and said I oppose a woman's right to choose, or I oppose abortion, I find it religiously offensive, and yet I do respect, for example, the notion that we shouldn't be solving these things with violence, historically, if that had been what was said, then I don't think I would object. And I think that's a fair position to take.' "

He also defended Bush's new appointee for Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld:

“The proof in the pudding is looking at the treatment of the other Bush nominees. I mean for the most part, I for example do not agree with a missile defense system, but I don't think that soon-to-be-Secretary Rumsfeld is in any way out of the mainstream of American political life. And I would argue that the same would be true for the vast majority of the Bush nominees, and I give him credit for that."

This is the man that liberal America is treating as a savior because they see themselves buying a hybrid instead of a political program and because, when you come down to it, hybrids make you feel better about yourself than thinking about politics and policies.

Of course, the fiscal crises may put a damper on politics as just another a product. Reality may rear its ugly head but for the time being but right now it's enough to say you've got your Obama, whoever the hell he is.

July 24, 2008


Let's imagine that you're a progressive and you are asked to support a candidate who:

- Favors expanding the war in Afghanistan

- Leaving a sizable force in and near Iraq following what he calls a "withdrawal." A large mercenary force would probably also be left.

- Aggressively opposed the impeachment of Bush. This same advisor says he would "be stunned" if his candidate appointed a strong critic of corporations to the Supreme Court.

- Has offered no major new ideas for dealing with the nation's economic crisis.

- Supports Bill Clinton's assault on social welfare.

- Supported making it harder to file class action suits in state courts

- Voted for a business-friendly tort bill

- Voted against a 30% interest rate cap on credit cards

- Had the most number of foreign lobbyist contributors in the primaries

- Is even more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain

- Was most popular of the primary candidates with K Street lobbyists

- Has a top economic aide who has written enthusiastically about Milton Friedman and denounced the idea of a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures.

- Has no meaningful urban policy

- Supports the war on drugs

- Supports the crack-cocaine sentence disparity

- Supports Real ID

- Supports the PATRIOT Act

- Supports the death penalty

- Has lent his support to the neo-liberal Hamilton Project, which was formed, as one journalist put it, "to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party."

- Has considered naming as vice president or cabinet members rightwing Republicans rated 0% by SANE, AFL-CIO, NARAL, Alliance for Retired Americans, Human Rights Coalition and the League of Conservation Voters, and who oppose abortion and favor privatizing Social Security

- Voted for a nuclear energy bill that included money for bunker buster bombs and full funding for Yucca Mountain.

- Supports federally funded ethanol and is unusually close to the ethanol industry.

- Supports the No Child Left Behind Act.

- Opposes reintroduction of the fairness doctrine for radio and television.

- Is using hawkish foreign policy advisors involved in past US misdeeds and failures.

- Strongly supports Israeli aggression and apartheid.

- Favors turning over Jerusalem to Israel

- Favored cluster bomb ban in civilian areas

- Opposes single payer healthcare

- Wouldn't have photo taken with San Francisco mayor because he was afraid it would seem that he supported gay marriage

- Favors a national service plan that appears to be in sync with one being promoted by a new coalition that would make national service mandatory by 2020, and which is in line with a bill for such mandatory national service introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel.

- Has dissed both Ralph Nader and Paul Wellstone

- Supports immunity from prosecution for both telecoms engaged in illegal wiretapping and the government officials that had them do it. You don't have to imagine. It's Barack Obama, whose nomination was assured thanks to a con game that even outdid the one that worked so well for Bill Clinton and which left America essentially without a liberal voice for eight years.

Admittedly, Obama is a far more honest and decent person that Clinton but that doesn't take away from the fact that progressive America has been hit hard once again and much of it doesn't even realize it.

One standard liberal response is denial. You just join the cult and forget about the facts. And to shore up this shoddy state, you excoriate any who remain skeptical, fearful, angry or uncertain.

If, on the other hand, you wish not to participate in the charade, there are no comfortable alternatives.

For example, one may choose to support Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney. Based simply on the issues, this is the most logical and moral route. The problem is that history suggests that it doesn't do much good. Not only is the electoral system hopelessly rigged against it, but even under the best of circumstances a presidential campaign depends not only on who is leading it but who is behind it. Neither candidate is backed by the sort of movement where even if you lose you still make an difference. This is not a criticism of either Nader or McKinney. After all, Jesus went to the cross with only 12 disciples. But it is a problem.

With the except of Eugene Debs, all the most successful third party presidential candidates over the past century have drawn primarily from disgruntled mainstream factions, not radical or progressive movements. Further each of the third parties had only one opportunity to make their point in a big way in a presidential race.

Here are the best numbers for various third party candidates since 1900:

Theodore Roosevelt 28%
Perot (1992): 19%
LaFolette: 17%
George Wallace: 14%
Debs (1912): 11%
Perot (1996): 9%
Anderson: 7%

All other third party candidates got 3% or less, including Debs in three additional runs and Thurmond and Henry Wallace in the hot 1948 race.

Obviously the numbers don't tell the whole story. For example, the New Deal drew, Progressive and Socialist ideas despite low turnouts for their candidates. The Populists, despite topping out a 9% in a presidential race, influenced the politics of two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.

Still, if you want to affect national politics with a national third party presidential run, history suggests that getting over 5% - preferably closer to 10% - is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a less direct impact for your efforts, perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.

That does not mean, however, that third parties - like certain insects - are merely born, have sex, and then die. In fact, some of the third parties have had long, remarkably healthy lives, but in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic example, with a history dating back over 100 years. By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending as late as 1960. And let us not forget Bernie Sanders.

In fact, some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). An example was the Liberal Party of New York, the longest lived third party next the to the Socialists.

As one of the founders of the national Green Party I have tried unsuccessfully to encourage a backyard Green approach, working from the bottom up and emphasizing local rather than national campaigns. But living in a time when it is assumed that all change ultimately emanates from the television screen, the White House or God, such a grassroots view is regarded as somewhat antiquated.

Nonetheless, I do not begrudge anyone's choice to go the Nader or McKinney route. Further, Democrats who treat such people as worthless scoundrels and scum need to remember that these are folks who in large part believe in the sort of things once promoted by the Democratic Party. And if Democrats accept the existence of Republicans as an inevitable part of political intelligent design, why not Greens and independents as well?

Another approach to the problem is apathy. I tend to be more tolerant of apathy than many of my ilk because I know precisely how hard it is to remain involved when on every day and at every turn one loses the battle. Besides, most who publicly decry apathy are not looking for independent action or rebellion but blind loyalty to whatever they are pushing at the moment. Further, while I might wish that more were politically engaged, I understand their reticence given the choices with which they are presented.

My only suggestion to the apathetic is to view it as a transitional state, a sort of nap before you discover what it is you might find worth pursuing. And it certainly doesn't have to be a candidate. The list that began this essay is also a directory of things that desperately need more attention.

There is then an approach I think of as grumpy uncertainty. In most any campaign, undecideds are a larger voting bloc than any third party and, since the candidates go to great lengths to reach them, one could argue the case for a well organized group of the blatantly befuddled. On a personal level, uncertainty is disturbing to the blindly committed and sometimes even causes them to think. On a group level, it can be quite powerful.

Another approach is what might be called the one minute endorsement, in which voters extend their support for Obama only as long as they are in the voting booth, following which they return home and immediately upon the closing of the polls aligned themselves with activist critics of the new administration.

(For those of blessed to live in states and colonies with sizable Democratic margins - like my hometown of DC - you can have it both ways: vote for Nader or McKinney and not have to worry about helping to elect McCain.)

Finally, there is what might be called the dental appointment approach. No rational person ever wants to go to the dentist and you rarely feel any better after it's over. But medicine assures us that by keeping these appointments we cut down on cavities and reduce the prospect of pain. And there is some evidence that this is true.

A similar argument could be made on Obama's behalf. For example, by supporting Obama we increase the likelihood that the number of high officials who support a fascistic approach to life will be substantially reduced. There is a high probability that the Supreme Court will not be as painful an experience as it is at present. Obama might even propose some good laws and a Democratic Congress might force others upon him. With sufficient pressure, his desire for post-partisanship might even include the presence of one or two progressives.

And while it is entirely possible that America will continue its move to the right under Obama, it is also possible that he will stabilize the patient. Rather than making us better or worse, he might be a transitional figure, both the last gasp of Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush corporatism and the door opener to something better after he's gone.

Not least important is the fact that with a Democratic president, the environment in which progressives work will be substantially altered. We spend so much time discussing the faults and virtues of our candidates that we easily forget that one of their most important functions of a president is to establish an ecology for politics. This doesn't mean that it will be uniformly friendly, only that the options and the opportunities may increase.

Of course, progressives have to use them. They didn't during the Clinton years and we paid a huge price thanks to the Monica Lewinsky wing of the Democratic Party that was willing to do whatever the president wanted even as they still claimed to be liberals.

Being a cynical, amoral, weak-livered sort, I tend to favor the dental appointment approach. After all, politics was designed for people like me; saints and prophets were meant to stick to religion.

Admittedly, when the weather turns nasty, I drift towards grumpy uncertainty. It's especially appealing when some self-righteous Obamite appears on the scene; even a little agnosticism drives them batty.

But the point here is not to argue the proper course, but to point out that those on the left have been presented with one more miserable conundrum and, as should be expected, are finding a variety of ways to approach it.

There is a long tradition for the left to eat its own. Greens, for example, have been repeatedly cruelly attacked or ostracized for their efforts. Much progressive media has blacked out even mention of them. Those liberals or progressives supporting Obama, on the other hand, also come in for a lot of gratuitous criticism from the true believers in Nader or the Green Party.

There are, however, other models. For example, the Socialist Party describes its beginnings this way:

"From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of 'reform vs. revolution,' the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making 'immediate demands' of a reformist nature. . . . The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of 'building the new society within the shell of the old.'"

You can't find a single movement on the left these days that could claim such eclecticism.

And we don't have all that much to play with. A Battleground Poll last May found only 34% of Americans listing themselves as liberal, with only 8% describing themselves as very liberal. Sixty two percent call themselves conservative, with 22% saying they are very conservative.

If we spent more time building coalitions around issues rather than candidates, we might have an easier time getting along with each other. It's been my experience that the most disruptive matters on the left have not been issues, but rather tactics and candidates.

For example, a poll taken at the recent Netroots conference found five key issues that at least 15% of the attendees agreed were first or second on their agenda: Iraq, energy and ecology, healthcare, the growing gap between rich and poor and the loss of constitution rights.

In each of these areas save the economic one, progressives have clear and easily understood positions. When such issues are on top, intramural problems decline. For example, the growing movement for single payer includes labor unions that are supporting Obama as well as Greens and Naderities.

Marc Weisbrodt, in Alternet, offers another example: a congressional bill calling for a boycott of Iran (which, is, in fact, an act of war):

"Groups opposed to military confrontation with Iran sprang into action, including Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice, the National Iranian-American Council, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Code Pink, and Just Foreign Policy. They generated tens of thousands of emails, letters, phone calls, and other contacts with members of Congress and their staff. The first co-sponsor to change his position on the bill was Representative Barney Frank (D-MA. . . He apologized for 'not having read [the bill] more carefully,' and pledged that he would not support the bill with the blockade language.

"Then Robert Wexler, (D-FL), peeled off, also stating that he would not continue to support the bill if the blockade language were not changed. Most of the major media ignored the controversy, but two newspapers noticed it. The first was Seattle's Post-Intelligencer, whose editorial board denounced the resolution on June 24 and asked, 'are supporters of Res. 362 asleep at the wheel, or are they just anxious to drag us into another illegal war?'

"Then on June 27 the editorial board of Newsday published an editorial calling for a full debate on the bill. Newsday has a large circulation, and perhaps more importantly, it publishes in the New York district of Congressman Gary Ackerman - the lead author of the H. Con. Res. 362.

"Then, earlier this month, Congressman Mike Thompson (D- CA) wrote: '[Howard] Berman [Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs] has indicated that he has no intention of moving the bill through his committee unless the language is first altered to ensure that there is no possible way it could be construed as authorizing any type of military action against Iran. I will withdraw my support for the bill if this change is not made.'"

Should Obama be elected, there will be plenty of opportunities for similar actions as well as pressing for change we can believe in even if the new president thinks of it as a change he would just as soon forget about.

We need to think of ourselves as a progressive, sectarian equivalent of the religious right in the Republican Party: well organized, ubiquitous cells of carefully directed intent that the Democratic Party establishment wishes would disappear but knows won't and so has to placate it. In the end, Obama will not have given us leadership, but only a better battlefield.

In the meanwhile, however, be kind to your fellow progressives however they choose to deal with this illusionary distortion of democracy we still call an election. Electing a good president these days is the art of the impossible. But we can still choose issues wisely; we can still fight for, and define ourselves by, such issues rather than just obediently walking in the shadow of someone who is almost certain to disappoint us.

July 19, 2008


This is where journalism can help. What Suzan Mazur did is what journalists find themselves doing from time to time: snooping around the lab before they're invited. It is an effort often unappreciated by scientists, who typically feel they should control the amount, character, timing and wording of the knowledge they possess. But the reporter's point is not to provide a final or complete explanation, or to overturn existing ones, but simply to shine some light in the dark, in this case without fear of either funders or fundamentalists.

July 16, 2008


Sam Smith

Michael Niebauer of the DC Examiner called the other day with a question that had been wandering aimlessly around in my head for some time: what did Barack Obama and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty have in common?

I suggested that he expand the question to include Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ.

They all share two big things. First, they are of the first generation of modern black leaders who have gotten where they were by passing exams rather than crossing police lines and, second, they are of the first generation of black leaders to have been both educated and vetted by the white establishment.

Or, to put it another way, they are the first generation of modern black leaders who are not agents of change, but primarily beneficiaries of change.

There are, to be sure, some major differences between them, such as the amount of dues paid by Cory Booker, son of civil rights activists, who makes Barack Obama's community organizing gig seem like that of a dilettante. True, Booker won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and graduated from Yale Law School but for eight years, Booker lived in a public housing project and organized its tenants. In 2006, he moved on - to a rental on Newark's south side, which has been described as a "drug and gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded-up houses and empty lots." He went on to take over the city from the notorious Sharpe James, one of the last of the fulltime old style corrupt big town mayors.

That's a bit different from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who has been under the wing of the white elite throughout much of his life, including going to Milton Academy, majoring in English and American literature and joining the exclusive Fly Club at Harvard, followed by Harvard Law School (like his pal Obama, who even lifted some of his rhetoric). After a tour with the NAACP and a private law firm, Patrick ended up as an Assistant Attorney General in the Clinton administration.

DC mayor Fenty is the only one who didn't go to the Ivy League. Rather he attended a mini-mart version, Oberlin, and then went to Howard Law school. Fenty is the son of a small business couple who run a popular and respected sportswear and shoe store.

All four are young and have had a remarkably short drive to heaven. Three benefited directly from the decay of older black leadership but they also happened along at a time when even cynical white political operatives and godfathers of the white business community were out looking for black brands to put on their operations.

In one of the telling moments of his mayoral campaign, then councilmember Fenty - who had previously sided regularly with tenants - supported a rent-control bill favored by the Apartment and Office Building Association. As local journalist James Jones put it, "At some point, the word went out to the big landlord community that Fenty was OK, despite his tenant-advocate past." One apartment management outfit managed to round up $24,000 for his campaign.

Obama had the right sort of friends as well, evidenced by the fact that you don't make it from state senator to major presidential candidate in less than four years without some significant non-black participation in the discovery.

The politics of the Black Ivies reflects their mentors, contributors and passers of the good word. We are now familiar with Obama's sharp post-primary shift to the right, but it didn't really surprise me because I had already lived through it with Fenty, whom I supported - with perhaps the most rapid subsequent regret I have ever experienced with a politician.

I had fallen, I admit, for Fenty's Obama-like talk of hope and change and I figured the son of small business folk would be a welcome change in town where politicians traditionally serve the corporate Board of Trade first and the people as an after thought.

It was soon apparent that the change was designed to make someone else happy, namely those on the editorial board of the conservative Washington Post and the Federal City Council, an unelected shadow government that then publisher Phil Graham had established years ago. High on the council's agenda was a mayoral takeover in the public school system, including the hiring of a stunningly dictatorial superintendent, the evisceration of what remained of an elected board of education, and the closing (and possible sale for development) of numerous schools.

In Fenty's first year we also were greeted by a police chief who had been involved in the torture of demonstrators and was trained by the Israelis on how to handle such rabble; the fining of anti-war demonstrators for just putting up protest notices; the ending of a taxicab zone system which had given the city the largest per capita cab service in the country, not to mention thousands of jobs; a plan (later dropped) to destroy all official e-mails after six months; the denial of the right of car owners to make personal appearances on parking tickets; the tripling of the number of staffers earning over $175k a year; the firing of highly experienced librarians; and the illegal removal of city officials based on age discrimination.

More recently, the NAACP police review committee, on which I sit, found itself battling this hip, thirty something black mayor because he had established police checkpoints for entering one neighborhood cruelly reminiscent of the practices of South African apartheid. Fenty even personally fired a social worker, one of whose clients had died, on the grounds the child had not been visited. Which sounds reasonable until you learn that the social worker's client list had grown from four to 50 in recent weeks because of Fenty's previous grandstanding - the firing of workers for not adequately handling a case. The national standard for social workers is 12 clients, but after the first controversial case the numbers soared.

In sum, it sounds not unlike what you might expect if some older, white Republican had taken over the place. Worse, it has been carried out with remarkable and disturbing arrogance. One of Fenty's former deputy chiefs of staff told reporter Mark Segraves, "I think a lot of people are apprehensive and anxious -- you know, have a lot of anxiety about how their voice is being heard and incorporated in the changes that are happening. We do live in a democracy and it's not a dictatorship between the election and the next election.". . .

"I think as I listen to the folks in the neighborhoods and I talk to people in the Wilson Building and other government buildings, I think there is a growing frustration that there's one single voice making all the decisions in the city. I don't think that's what people had in mind when they elected Mayor Fenty.

"I think there were a lot of folks who were expecting this populist young mayor to work very closely with public to make decisions, very close with his former colleagues on the Council and closely with his senior staff, some of whom like myself who had served with him on the campaign. Unfortunately over time I saw less and less interest in hearing new ideas and different ideas."

When a local black radio host made similar criticisms of Fenty and asked for my response, I said that I didn't think Fenty saw himself as king so much as he perceived himself as CEO of Washington and that we were just his employees, not citizens. This narcissistic aura of entitlement and superiority has been noted of other Black Ivies, including Obama. Even Democrats on the Hill are starting to complain. Its roots are unclear but one senses that everyone - from parents to grade school teachers to employers to media - have blessed these politicians with a pride in their excellence and in their magnificence as ground breakers. They have been happy to accept the notion without further inquiry.

But beyond this has been a disappearance of successful non-business styles of leadership. It's not just George Bush who says "I'm the decider" these days; it has become a dominant philosophy of running things. Thus, when Nelson Mandela points out that you can't lead cattle from the front, it sounds quaint and archaic and even if, as with Obama, you have been trained in Alinsky style community organizing, it takes not much of a twist to turn those skills towards one personal purpose: getting yourself where you want to be.

Thus, if some find me unduly skeptical about Obama, it is in part because I have already seen his shadow in Adrian Fenty. And with Obama, as with Fenty, there is a sense of hubris not to mention the difficulties, as they say in elementary school, in learning to play well with others.

Thus it didn't surprise me to learn that Patrick early in his administration, spent almost $11,000 on drapery for his suite, moved up from a Crown Victoria to a Cadillac and hired a $75,000 personal aide for his wife. Nor that conservative aspects of Cory Booker's approach to some issues or the tale of him ordering his escort to pull over a car that had just jettisoned some trash out of a window. Said Booker later, "I told them that what they did was an act of violence."

Recently, there has been much talk about the generational clash between the new black leadership and the Jesse Jacksons of an earlier time. The underlying assumption on the part of many commentators is that the things that concerned the Jacksons and Sharpton have become irrelevant and that we in a new era. And since the young have been offered not Martin Luther King or Fannie Lou Hammer, but Jackson and Sharpton, it's not surprising they're seeking something different.

Unanswered in this argument, however, is what we are getting out of the shift. Yes, Booker, Fenty, Patrick and Obama are younger than Jackson, but aside from that what are we gaining? The record is mixed. Patrick has been more progressive on a number of issues than either Obama or Fenty. On the other hand his popularity has plummeted Booker is perhaps the most interesting and conflicted of the lot; Fenty the most boring. Obama the most successful.

But if there is one thing we can learn from the Black Ivies, it is that it's not the color of the politicians leading us that matters, but where they're going. It's not your roots but what you do with them.

For example, put the Black Ivies up against earlier urban ethnic politicians, such as the Irish, and what immediately jumps out is not their ethnicity but their lack of political empathy for those who share it. Try, for example, to imagine James Michael Curley lecturing the poor Irish on how to raise their kids or a Tammany Hall politics based on dismantling public schools, increasing police powers and taking away a taxi system that favors lower class strivers. As late as Marion Barry, blacks made such notable progress in DC that it became fondly known as Chocolate City. Under Fenty no one would even think of it.

Part of the pride some express for the new leaders is that it is a sign that we are moving beyond race. Perhaps, but race was always a convenient stereotype for something that we're not moving beyond nor even wishing to discuss: class. Even in the old South, segregation was a way for the white elite to keep poor whites and blacks from discovering what they had in common.

The rise of leaders like Fenty and Obama allow us to continue not to exclude class issues in our politics. The poor, as John Edwards discovered, can't make it far even on the white liberal agenda. Having a black or woman president provides comfort without the need to change things much.

This doesn't make the Black Ivies any worse than any other politicians; it just makes them decidedly typical in important ways. Which is why we have a black Democratic candidate for president to the right of the US Conference of Mayors on healthcare and whose major economic planks include telling young blacks to work harder. And a black mayor who doesn't want people entering their own neighborhood without police approval.

In the end, it may not be a national conversation about race we need so much as one about all the things we use talk of race to cover up.

July 15, 2008


It is against the journalist's code of ethics to say so, but the presidential campaign has become incredibly dull. Over the past few weeks, the candidates have become becalmed, drifting in the electoral ocean, sails flapping lazily, awaiting for nature and history to cause something to happen.

Actually it has. We're on the verge of war with Iran and the banking system is collapsing, but neither candidate has much to say on these topics. Instead the hope huckster lectures the NAACP on how to raise their children and his opponent struggles to find some justification for his existence since he was a prisoner of war.

Part of this is just the shift from primaries to general election, the former being a sort of personnel interview while the latter usually demanding some attention to actual issues. Neither candidate, however, is inclined to take on the challenge. They see their role, after all, as being life's great commercial break.

The increasingly timid Barack Obama is still ahead in the polls and electoral vote count, and may benefit even further by the heightened turnout of several constituencies. But given the incompetence of his opponent and the disaster of his presumptive predecessor, he should be doing far better. Among his problems, he clearly prefers the pulpit and op ed page to the street corner and the union hall. Further, his rapid decline from patron saint of change to faint patron of the status quo does not bode well if he does get elected.

Obama not only offers little hope of restoring the Constitution, he is not even the anti-war candidate he pretends to be; he just wants to switch its primary locale from Iraq to Afghanistan. His hubristic, pompous approach to matters political are already becoming tiresome. Democrats, after all, are meant to put their views into legislation, it is traditionally the conservatives who prefer endless cliches. And, though he speaks of change, Obama has yet to come up with any really good examples and, though he is considered eloquent, his enthusiasts rarely offer a quotation in support of this contention.

Obama has already alienated some of his own constituency for his indefensible position on telecom immunity and electronic spying. But trouble is arising elsewhere as well, witness this from John Bresnahan of Politico:

"After a brief bout of Obamamania, some Capitol Hill Democrats have begun to complain privately that Barack Obama's presidential campaign is insular, uncooperative and inattentive to their hopes for a broad Democratic victory in November.

"'They think they know what's right and everyone else is wrong on everything,' groused one senior Senate Democratic aide. 'They are kind of insufferable at this point.'. . .

"One Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, compared the Obama campaign unfavorably to President Bush's administration.

"'At least Bush waited until he was in the White House before they started ignoring everybody,' the aide said."

So, once again we are forced to fall back on the wisdom of the father of famed Democratic operative Jim Farley who told his son, "Just remember, behind every Republican president, no matter how good, are other Republicans, while behind every Democratic president, no matter how bad, are other Democrats." Of course, Jim Farley's dad didn't have to put up with the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Still, with the Senate Democrats possibly picking up as many as nine seats, it is at least possible that Obama's absurd notion of post-partisanship may be in for a justifiably bumpy ride.

And boring as the campaign has become, it may be better that way. The great danger in waiting is an attack on Iran before the election instituted by either Mad King George or the equally pathological Israeli government. We can not expect either Obama or the Democratic leadership to take steps to oppose or block such a move.

In the end, it is the strength of issues and not the candidates that will matter. Jacques LaRoche in the DMI Blog notes that, "After the Great Depression, Americans were fervently pushing for change. Socialist activist farmers in Kansas were fighting for workers rights, Alabama was rife with progressive communists, the general mood was progressive. Faced with such overwhelming popular support for social change, Roosevelt was forced to enact the New Deal to appease the masses and quash the rising power of rival political parties."

The uprising over Obama's betrayal of the Constitution in the FISA matter is a small example of how this can happen. The right - which has managed to infect a fear of gay marriage, abortion and peace into virtually every mainstream candidate of either party - has shown that you don't have to be elected to produce change. You do have to make it painfully obvious what it is you want.

It's not so much about satisfaction with your electoral choice, of which you really don't have much. If you're rational you will be unhappy but can always take a barf bag to the polls. It is about making the important issues unavoidable to those the system foists upon us and giving some positive direction to their endless capacity for political cowardice.

July 14, 2008


Sam Smith

Even before the current mortgage crisis, evidence that rightwing economic policy since Reagan has been a failure was overwhelming. The problem was that nobody seemed to notice. In no small part, this was thanks to a media - heavily comprised of ex-political science, history and English majors - accepting without question propaganda from the right that, in many ways, was the same thing to economics as creationism is to evolution.

Even now, with news of collapse unavoidable, journalists try to sound intelligent by suggesting government involvement in the rescue from two and a half decades of corporatism might be a violation of the allegedly sacred principles of the free market. This is not an ideological matter on the media's part - after all, NPR has been a regular enabler - but rather reflects the journalists' willingness to rely on whatever "expert" happens to be in power at the moment.

Thus, the average reader or viewer may not realize that during the glory years of the second robber baron era, things like these have fallen significantly:

Minimum wage as percent of average wage

Real income

Real manufacturing wages

Percent of single women and mothers in the workforce

The bottom 40%'s share of national wealth

Older families with pensions.

Workers covered by defined benefit pensions.

The savings rate

US manufacturing jobs

And here are some of the things that have grown:

Top 1% share of total income

Income gap between rich and poor

Foreign debt as a percent of GDP

Age at which one can receive Social Security


Consumer credit debt

Housing foreclosures

Severe poverty rate

With the media almost completely blacking out all but conservative economic viewpoints, the public has little idea of how well socialism often works or how a blend of capitalism and public involvement can solve many problems, or that we actually function on a principle Paul Soglin, the former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, labeled lemon socialism, of which the current bailout of the big housing insurers is a classic case and in which the capitalists both get to make money and then get bailed out by the government when they fail.

This has been one of the media's greatest sins, one that stems from ignorance, groveling to power and infatuation with the cliches of the moment.

Just as examples, why are we not allowed to debate regulations on credit care usury? Or an equity sharing program in which the government helps people buy homes rather than helping the banks when the loans go bad? Or letting the government as well as the banks print money - to be used for non-inflationary public works instead of putting generations in debt for stupid wars?

The Republicans lack the intelligence, the Democrats lack the courage. The media can continue to contribute to our downward economic slide or it can help introduce us the ideas, principles and approaches that will show the way out of a quarter century of greed and stupidity parading as economic theory.


July 10, 2008


Sam Smith

It's a sure sign of how American politics has disintegrated that one Chicago politician can't cuss out another without holding a news conference to apologize. This is the town where one candidate once ran on the slogan, "Vote for Fred and Nobody Gets Hurt." Now you can't even make nobody feel bad.

Worse, the thing that got Jesse Jackson riled up was Obama talking down to black people, particular his sanctimonious salvos on the failures of black males. Within hours, Jackson's own son had thrown him under the bus - admittedly a favorite repository for Obama campaigners who get off message, but hardly in keeping with Obama's expectations for black males, which presumably includes some respect for your own father.

The excruciating pomposity of such moments - by the offender, the offendee and the media egging them on - illustrates not only the collapse of our politics but of our language as well.

Jackson was the second Democratic pol to use salty language about Obama in recent weeks. Bill Clinton was reported to have said that Obama would have to "kiss my ass" to get his support. But it didn't get as much play as Jackson nut cutting remark because the media cares for Clinton far more than for Jackson and Clinton was smart enough not to talk his way out of it by holding a news conference.

One of the problems with such incidents is that everyone is striving too hard to be respectable. In a less pretentious time, Jackson would have responded with something like, "I agree with him on more issues than I do my wife, and I'm not even married to him." Or Obama might have said, "Well, the next time we meet to discuss the many issues on which we do agree, I will try to maintain a safe distance." Case closed.

But too few speak United States in American politics anymore. I miss it and appreciate Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson's efforts to revive it.

In fact, my only concern was that Jackson might try to sever Obama's gonads even as the latter was savoring Clinton's lower posterior orifice. Now that would have been going too far.

July 09, 2008


Sam Smith

From the start one thing I couldn't figure out about Barack Obama was how come a guy with only about 140 days' experience in the US Senate decides to set himself up a presidential exploratory commission.

Nothing since then has been particularly reassuring, as I was reminded when Obama said that people who thought he was moving to the center "apparently haven't been listening to me."

Even if that were true, which it certainly isn't, there are a number of good and higher priority reasons they may not have been as attentive as the candidate would have liked, such as trying to hold on to a job in an economy for which Obama has no particularly good ideas, or fixing dinner, getting the kids to school or watching Jon Stewart.

Parents, teachers and spouses are entitled to complain about people not listening to them. Political candidates are not, because the relationship between the citizen and the politician is not that of a child, student or spouse but, in theory at least, that of a boss, or at least an equal. A candidate is supposed to listen to the people. If the people listen to him, it's because he has something useful to say, and sonorous, semantic slipping and sliding doesn't count.

Nobody talks about it, but Obama has a stunning ego and sense of personal entitlement, as Chancellor Merckel discovered as the candidate blithely planned to expand his campaign to German soil and the Brandenberg Gate. The whole campaign has a grandiosity and self-centered quality that makes it seem as though concocted by a Hollywood film producer rather than real politicians. Unfortunately, however, life isn't a film; it is still real.

There isn't much to do about it at this point given the politics of the situation and the dismal alternative. But it is a problem and we ought to at least not hide it under the Kool Aid.

July 07, 2008


Sam Smith

Few candidates have fallen so fast from sainthood to run of the mill unreliable and untrustworthy political hack as Barack Obama. The decanonization has only taken a few weeks and has been almost entirely due to what the media politely calls Obama's shift to the middle. In fact, as Jim Hightower has noted, the middle of the road is filled largely with yellow stripes and dead armadillos. But that's okay, because Obama isn't really moving to the middle but to the right, like some tail-wagging puppy dog trying to crawl under the conservative fence.

The results have been awkward and even embarrassing, as when Obama had to hold a second news conference on the same day in order to renuance his Iraq position he had initially nuanced only a few hours earlier.

What we are seeing is another example of the overwhelming desire of leading Democrats to be someone else, like a tone dead dude doing an air guitar imitation of Ronald Reagan, cheered by major campaign donors and others who run the game, but leaving the voters annoyed, apathetic, uncertain or cynical.

It's not a disaster, and Obama remains far better than McCain, but neither is it anything to applaud. In the trade it's considered clever, sophisticated and practical. Occasionally it even helps a candidate win. But any clever, sophisticated and practical technique that diminishes a candidate's image as rapidly as has occurred in Obama's case at least deserves reconsideration.

A good place to start would be for candidates to be themselves, exuding what the pros call authenticity. Obama is beginning to sound like a walking Gallup poll analysis. You can imagine him walking down a crowded street changing his verbal emphasis as the hand shaking demographic alters. It wasn't exactly the image he had at the start. From the audacity of hope to the timidity of focus groups in just a few days.

Besides, it creates an odd image of an Obama presidency - lines of pregnant women at the White House gates waiting for him to determine whether their pain is sufficiently physical for a late term abortion or asking NSA to black out pornographic remarks in the results of warrantless wiretaps it submits to him.

But what about the voters who aren't black, young and wowed, or old reliable liberals? Don't you have to prove you're tough on abortions, gays and terrorists (in no particular order) in order to win back America?

Not really. For one thing, if you play that game you're admitting defeat because there's no way you're going to outdo the pathological right on such matters. For another, as Obama has discovered, trying can get you into trouble.

The best approach is to show some enthusiasm for one's own major causes - broadly missing among national Democrats, perhaps because they haven't found them - and then looking for other issues that are not even necessarily on the media list of approved ways for liberals to cave in.

There's nothing wrong with thinking about the other guy's concerns. You just do it from a progressive perspective. I call it crossover politics, those issues where there is a constituency on both sides. One can push these issues with integrity and authenticity without seeming a liberal wannaplay wimp.

But here's the secret people like Obama won't tell you. Their campaign contributors won't like them if they take such positions. Besides some of these subjects are new and those in politics and the media don't like stuff that is new because it is not supported by sufficient cliches they can repeat about it. And some ideas are just too upsetting to core fans.

Notwithstanding all that, here is one list of crossover policies a progressive candidate could support without embarrassment and with good effect:

The Second Amendment: This is at the top only because it's at the top of the news at the moment. Support of the Supreme Court decision on gun control would be an easy way for a progressive to stir the political pot. Excessive gun control, as in DC, has been broadly ineffective and has become an easy symbol of liberal puritanism, not to mention the fact that it violates the Constitution. Liberals commonly become derisive at any suggestion that widespread gun ownership might be useful in restraining a growingly dictatorial government, but that's because they haven't learned much from Vietnam or Iraq, where America's massive military might proved stunningly ineffective against personal weaponry.

July 05, 2008


As I watched the July 4th parade in Freeport, Maine, it occurred to me that both left and right have got this holiday all wrong. They have nationalized it, politicized it, propagandized it and removed its soul. So we end up in a debate over patriotism symbolized by flag pins made by non-union workers in China. Or we read things like this from Matthew Rothschild of the Progressive Magazine: "It’s July 4th again, a day of near-compulsory flag-waving and nation-worshipping. Count me out. Spare me the puerile parades. Don’t play that martial music, white boy. And don’t befoul nature’s sky with your F-16s. You see, I don’t believe in patriotism. It’s not that I’m anti-American, but I am anti-patriotic. Love of country isn’t natural. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s an inculcated kind of love, something that is foisted upon you in the home, in the school, on TV, at church, during the football game."

In fact, July 4 is the birthday of our country, and birthdays should be fun. Besides, as Mark Davis has noted, there's a big difference between "the state," and "our country" - the former a government and system that has done us great harm and the latter a place where our common story has unfolded. A place and a story we can love without having it inculcated or foisted upon us.

One reason we have such a hard time seeing this is because those at the top use the Fourth of July for their own purposes, leaving us with the choice of being either pompously nationalistic or perpetually grumpy.

You have to go to a place like Freeport to be reminded of this. Or to another town where I once lived - Bristol RI - which has the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in the United States, starting in 1785 and including outdoor concerts, soap box races and a parade that has attracted over 200.000 people.

Bristol's nickname is "America's most patriotic town." That would undoubtedly sound awful to Matthew Rothschild, but here's something he needs to know. In the last election, the Democratic candidate for senator got 53% of the town's vote and Rep. Patrick Kennedy got 68%. Not exactly rightwing heaven. Nor is Freeport where 39% voted for the last Democrat for governor and only 23% for the Republican, with the remaining 38% split between the Green candidate and an independent.

How does it happen that such places can have July 4 celebrations that anyone, regardless of their politics, can enjoy?

In part because they are a celebration of a community within a land. On the fourth of July, in such places, all patriotism becomes local.

Here’s how the Providence Journal described the Bristol event:

"The Shriners were back in their funny cars and funnier costumes. There were not one, but two of the Red Sox’ World Series trophies. Polished marching bands strutted their stuff. And then there was Buddy.

In a parade with hundreds of participants that stretched over four hours, it was hard for anyone to steal the show. But former Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. came close. Cianci had been a virtual fixture in the parade since 1974, when he was first elected mayor of the capital city, until he was convicted of federal racketeering conspiracy in 2002 and sentenced to a five-year prison term. This was his first time back, and his return whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

Kim Madden, of Bristol, gave Cianci a big hug. "I love his marinara sauce," Madden said. "I’d vote for him if he ran." John Hugo, of Bristol, pushed his cell phone to Cianci’s ear so he could say hello to Hugo’s wife, Margaret. . .

The Mt. Hope High School marching band warmed up with "Soul Man." Sgt. Daniel Clark, a former Massachusetts state policeman who now goes by the name "The Singing Trooper," went through his voice exercises. The "Patriotic Stilt Walker" stood by in his red sequined pants. . .

Twenty-four performing groups and 20 floats took part in the parade. They included a Johnny Depp look-alike dressed as the Pirates of the Caribbean star, marching bands from Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and a team of Clydesdales.

Corny perhaps, excessive loyalty perhaps to corrupt ex-mayors with their own marinara brand, but hardly what fascism is made of.

If you had gone to the Freeport parade not knowing what it was about, you could have reasonably concluded that it was in honor of the volunteer fire department, which clearly got better play than either the local police or the military. And when they ran out of Freeport fire trucks, there were ones from other towns and from other times. Yes, there was a police honor guard and a vehicle with flags celebrating veterans, but when Freeport looked for something to symbolize America within its borders, it gravitated naturally to a collection of volunteer citizens who had kept the place from burning down.

The other major symbol of America in the parade was simply the truck. Added to the numerous fire vehicles was a collection of impressive six wheelers provided by local contractors and other businesses, far more appealing reminders of the hard work and machinery that built this country than any number of political speeches on the National Mall or fly-overs by F-16s.

There was also a giant LL Bean boot on a trailer, a minibus filled with Freeport elders led by an aged gentleman on an electric cart and, reported the Portland Press Herald, "The award for best neighborhood float went to the East Freeport Oar House, an elaborately costumed, if somewhat unrefined drill team, armed with oars and salty spirit. The trophy seemed appropriate - a 1922 Bates Manufacturing bowling trophy, picked up for $8 at a yard sale."

This is what happened in two small towns this July 4. Just a few of the places that still remember what America is really about - beginning with their own communities, their own people and their own stories. From volunteer fire departments to a corrupt mayor that many still loved and still have the right to say so.

This is a story our national media and national politicians don't tell. The right is busy ripping off the story for its own cynical ends, while a mostly urban left at best treats it as quaint and silly, at worst dastardly mind manipulation. And the media, unable to handle something that happens in so many places on the same day, blends it into a nationalistic myth.

The answer may lie in turning off your television next July 4th, avoiding any speeches, and finding the nearest small town parade. You could find yourself feeling good about America again.