October 30, 2008


Sam Smith

If you're serious about teaching, the No Child Left Behind Law is the educational equivalent of creationism: faith parading as facts and blocking changes that recognition of the facts would require.

It's not surprising given that the idea was shoved down the country's throat by George Bush because, like the perp's other policies, it represents a happy mixture of fantasy combined with lucrative payoffs to political buddies - in this case including book and curricula publishers.

If you don't believe me, listen to Business Week which reported a couple of years go:

||||| Across the country, some teachers complain that President George W. Bush's makeover of public education promotes "teaching to the test." The President's younger brother Neil takes a different tack: He's selling to the test. The No Child Left Behind Act compels schools to prove students' mastery of certain facts by means of standardized exams. Pressure to perform has energized the $1.9 billion-a-year instructional software industry.

Now, after five years of development and backing by investors like Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal and onetime junk-bond king Michael R. Milken, Neil Bush aims to roll his high-tech teacher's helpers into classrooms nationwide. He calls them "curriculum on wheels," or COWs. The $3,800 purple plug-and-play computer/projectors display lively videos and cartoons: the XYZ Affair of the late 1790s as operetta, the 1828 Tariff of Abominations as horror flick. The device plays songs that are supposed to aid the memorization of the 22 rivers of
Texas or other facts that might crop up in state tests of "essential knowledge."

Bush's Ignite! Inc. has sold 1,700 COWs since 2005, mainly in Texas, where Bush lives and his brother was once governor. In August, Houston's school board authorized expenditures of up to $200,000 for COWs. The company expects 2006 revenue of $5 million. Says Bush about the impact of his name: "I'm not saying it hasn't opened any doors. It may have helped with some sales." . . .

The stars haven't always aligned for Bush, but at times financial support has. A foundation linked to the controversial Reverend Sun Myung Moon has donated $1 million for a COWs research project in Washington (D.C.)-area schools. In 2004 a Shanghai chip company agreed to give Bush stock then valued at $2 million for showing up at board meetings. (Bush says he received one-fifth of the shares.) In 1988 a Colorado savings and loan failed while he served on its board, making him a prominent symbol of the S&L scandal. Neil calls himself "the most politically damaged of the [Bush] brothers." ||||

And how has it all worked out in the classroom? Here's a taste from the New York Times earlier this year:

|||| President Bush's $1 billion a year initiative to teach reading to low-income children has not helped improve their reading comprehension, according to a Department of Education report.

The program, known as Reading First, drew on some of Mr. Bush's educational experiences as Texas governor, and at his insistence Congress included it in the federal No Child Left Behind legislation that passed by bipartisan majorities in 2001. . .

"Reading First did not improve students' reading comprehension," concluded the report, which was mandated by Congress and carried out by the Department of Education's research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences. "The program did not increase the percentages of students in grades one, two or three whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level.". . .

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, and who has long criticized the program, said, "The Bush administration has put cronyism first and the reading skills of our children last, and this report shows the disturbing consequences."

In 2006, John Higgins, the department's inspector general, reported that federal officials and private contractors with ties to publishers had advised educators in several states to buy reading materials for the Reading First program from those publishers. The Reading First director, Chris Doherty, resigned in 2006, days before the release of Mr. Higgins's report, which disclosed a number of e-mail messages in which Mr. Doherty referred to contractors or educators who favored alternative curriculums seen as competitors to the Reading First approach as "dirtbags" who he said were "trying to crash our party." |||||

But what is truly amazing about the No Child Left scandal is that hardly anyone in power or the press considers it a scandal. Not even liberals.

Admittedly, the Democrats did cut funding - although didn't eliminate - Reading First after it became so embarrassing, and Barack Obama wants some vague changes in the No Child Law but basically liberals are going along with one of the worst domestic programs passed in recent years.

And it's not getting any better. The Century Foundation - on the board of which sits major Obama advisor John Podesta - has just published a book edited by senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg, that examines what the foundation calls "three central defects of the act: the under-funding of NCLB; the flawed implementation of the standards, testing, and accountability provisions; and major difficulties with the provisions that are designed to allow students to transfer out of failing public schools."

Central to the argument, though, is the funding issue. If you want to increase funding for a bad law you're making a bad law more powerful. But, says, the Century Foundation, "To date, most of the debate over the funding of No Child Left Behind has centered on the gap between authorized levels of funding and appropriations. But this discussion avoids the fundamental question: What is the true cost of NCLB's goal of making all students academically proficient by 2014? According to new research in the book. . . federal funding would have to multiply many times over to help districts succeed in meeting even the intermediate goals of the legislation."

What is most disturbing is the gold-plated list of liberal "partners and collaborators" provided by the Century Foundation, including the American Prospect, Campaign for America's Future, Carnegie Corporation, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, The Center for American Progress, The Columbia Journalism Review, The Council on Foreign Relations, Drum Major Institute ,The Economic Policy Institute, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Nation, The Open Society Institute, Common Cause, People for the American Way Leadership and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In other words, the very people who should be guiding us out of this mess are trying to save No Child for the indefinite future.

No Child is the first piece of legislation to make the teaching of Asperger's syndrome a national policy. The manifestations of this form of autism has been described as including "poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness," which is also some of the predictable payoff when students are locked behind desks, answering specific questions with little chance to learn judgment, imagination or wisdom; no time to experiment or relate learned facts to real life, and - of course - no time left for the playground. The typical higher functioning autistic is bright but unable to relate factual knowledge to a social environment. It is how No Child is training our kids.

At a session with about a hundred DC high schoolers a few years ago, I was struck by how hard it was for them to ask questions, even ones having to deal with issues that directly concerned them such as violence and drugs. I mentioned this to a teacher friend who responded quickly that according to the system, "they're not meant to ask questions: they're just meant to answer them."

And that pretty well sums up the problem. With the help of No Child we are teaching a generation of kids how to answer questions but not how to ask them, how to collect facts but not how to use them; to add and subtract numbers, but how to measure the impact of conflicting human choices,and how relate to data but not with other people.


Disappointing Results
Failing Schools
Lack of Quality Teachers
Lowering of Standards
Narrowing of Curriculum
Ignoring of Children
Fear, Shame and Threats
Bad Tests
Fake Results
Educational Triage
Factory Style Learning
Loss of Best Teachers
Loss of Future Teachers
Loss of Morale
Drop Outs and Push Outs
Reduction in Time for Learning

October 24, 2008


Sam Smith

I'm going to break a prime rule of journalism: never admit you don't know what the hell is going on. At best, explain it; at worst, quote an expert, but never, ever just shrug your shoulders.

The courage to reveal my shame comes from one simple fact: I can't find anyone else who knows what's going on, either.

Never in the history of the United States has so much public money been spent with so little accounting of where it is right now and where it's going next. Never has so much public money been spent by order of officials who helped to create the crisis the money is supposed to resolve. Never has so much public money been spent by officials for the benefit of so many former colleagues. Never has so much public money been spent with so little explanation by the media. And never has so much public money been spent with so little debate over possible alternatives.

Given that the crisis grew out of the world's greatest Ponzi scheme, it is perhaps not surprising that we are being handed solutions that reek of the same larcenous craft. Given that our most honored politicians, economists and media failed to warn us of the problem, it is perhaps not surprising that their present explanations are so vague and vacuous. And given that gravity still functions even when common sense doesn't, it is perhaps not surprising that we continue to fall.

Still, it would have been nice if we had heard more from the General Accounting Office or the SEC, if Barack Obama had suggested a solution other than that recommended by the Goldman Sachs alumni association and if the media had treated the numbers as real math rather than just so many adjectives.

To one raised in the math of small business, such casual use of digits is hard to comprehend. What do they think a billion dollars is? Monopoly money?

Excuse me, I should have said trillion dollars. One month into the crisis and already I'm three zeroes behind the times.

Actually, I went through some the stories we've run on the topic in an attempt to get a better hold on the matter by checking every place the word 'trillion' was used. One thing stood out: while no one could quite agree on how many trillions in derivatives were floating out there doing their mischief, the numbers were in the three figures while the trillions of dollars lost by people in the retirement funds, home foreclosures, market value etc. tended to be of single digits.

Looked at another way, the real dollars based on real things lost by real people amount to less than one percent of the fake gambling money involved in the disaster. Even the total housing market is, according to journalist Joshua Holland, only one sixth the size of the mortgage security house of cards that was built on it. Holland estimates that the total worth [sic] of all derivatives was about $500 trillion "or roughly 10 times the output of the global economy."

One of the ironies about this affair is that while the losses of the high rollers are given high priority by the government and the fate of the low and unmighty is nothing more than a talking point, much of the responsibility for the crisis is being placed on the little guys and the little loans. While there is no doubt that there were stupid and/or predatory housing mortgages issued and that numerous individuals got carelessly in over their heads, what seems to be sinking us is the far more important speculation in the derivatives market. But the big guys get the billions while the little ones get the blame.

Meanwhile, there has yet to be a single major program directed at seriously helping the vast majority of ordinary Americans injured by the casino capitalists, even though it would be far cheaper than turning a generation of incompetent and reckless MBAs into trust fund babies of the federal treasury.

Similarly there has been little interest - even on the part of Democrats - in a classic approach to such a problem: major public works such as expansion of ecologically sound energy systems or building new rail service.

The foreclosures seem to represent a small percentage of the total crisis and the financial personal problems that led to the foreclosures represent even less - something that could be handled far better by case by case review by local bankruptcy courts or by the government becoming a passive equity partner of troubled homeowners, rather than by taking over whole mortgage portfolios of banks and dealing with it all at the national level.

But we still need a lot more facts. We need a far better idea of what is happening, where the money is really going and who is really being helped.

We also need to be able to compare what is going on to other alternatives. As an example, Ethan Pollack of the Economic Policy Institute notes:

"As money is spent, it creates beneficial ripples through the entire economy. The evidence is that most of the money from the recent tax rebate was saved rather than spent, thus blunting its stimulative benefit. By comparison, other options - such as infrastructure spending, aid to states, food stamps, and unemployment insurance benefits - are much more cost-effective because they target the needs most likely to channel money back into the economy. Mark Zandi from Moody's Economy.com estimates that each dollar of refundable tax rebates only boosts GDP by about $1.26, while each dollar of infrastructure spending could provide a $1.59 boost. Not only are many of these stimulus options more effective, but they also have the added benefit of assisting those hardest hit by the downturn and tackling long-standing infrastructure needs that would lower transportation costs, decrease traffic, and increase business productivity."

Here are some of Zandi's examples of what a dollar spent by the government will deliver in economic benefits:

$1.73 Food stamps
$1.59 Public works
$1.36 Aid to states
$0.30 Corporate tax cut
$0.29 Make Bush tax cuts permanent.

One thing is clear, however: we have turned our fire engines over to the arsonists and you don't need a single number to know that isn't a good idea.

October 21, 2008


From the Progressive Review, April 2001
URBAN sociologist Claude S. Fisher writes that "our species has lived in permanent settlements of any kind for only the last two percent of its history." As late as the 1850s, just two percent of the world's population lived in cities of more than 100,000, by 1900 only about ten percent. By the end of the last century, however, about half the world's humans lived in cities. In America, fewer than a quarter of us occupy a physical environment that is not primarily manufactured - which is to say, a place in which time and space are not mainly defined by other humans rather than by nature.

THERE is a road in Maine over which I have walked, run, ridden a bike, and driven cars, trucks, and tractors for parts of more than fifty summers as well as during some of the years' lesser moments. It is not a long road, just a little more than three miles from the end of the point at the mouth of the Harraseeket River to where you turn hard left to go into town, or "up street" as it's called. Now mostly asphalt, the road occasionally surprises visitors by suddenly turning to dirt for a few hundred yards in the middle of a woods before going back to blacktop. For some, the tar provides reassurance of civilization; the dirt is literally terra incognita.

Although the town has only one percent of the population of Washington DC, it has one-tenth the road frontage. Maine, whose far corners are as distant as Washington and Boston with a slightly larger population than both combined, has more highway mileage than the rest of New England put together. So, as far as the town and the state are concerned, there's nothing particularly unusual about this road.

Nothing much happens along it, either. There are some homes, some farmland, a small state park, and a place where clammers park their pickups to walk down to the mud flats. In the more than 50 years that I have traveled this road, only a few new houses have been built. A few new signs have gone up, including a hand drawn one advertising 'cukes' and a town warning that the road is under radar surveillance, which isn't true. Maybe once a month you'll see a cop on the road, less often, say, than the truck from Down East Energy.
It is a beautiful road but then beautiful roads are easy to come by in Maine, so not even that is remarkable. Every once in a while something unusual happens along the road. A house gets moved, cattle get loose, and once I found a stolen car abandoned in the woods.
Mostly, though, the road is just there for whatever those walking, running, riding or driving want to do with it. It's been there, in some version, for over 300 years and isn't going anywhere else. It just sits there until somebody decides to use it. Then it becomes their road: a passage, a respite, a view, a space for meditation, an escape, a prod to memory, a reminder of how simple the good can be. A gift of time and space.

The road is shared by tractors, campers who have lost their way, tourists from Massachusetts driving too slowly and natives driving too fast. Joan Benoit trained on the road for the first Women's Olympic Marathon. When she won the race, all the boats in the harbor blew their horns because everyone knew how hard she had worked to get there.
When I was a boy, and much of the road was still dirt, there was a small hill down which, with freedom's fury, I would ride my red bike towards the quarter mile straight-away and the woods beyond, a place secure from adults, tasks, scolding, and trouble. In the woods there was a shell heap left by Indians and a stone wall built by those who came after. I thought there might be moose and bear in the woods as well, but I never saw them. Later I found the remains of Nathaniel and Mary Aldrich's homestead with the sinking stones of the foundations and the standing stones of the barnyard. Not far away, hidden in the undergrowth, was their well. Nathaniel and Mary Aldrich traveled the road before the Revolution and used their time and space to go to sea and to have 14 children.

In the woods there are trees with wide spread branches intermingled with cramped companions standing rigidly at attention - a clue that this had once been farmland, that once there had been enough room for a field pine to stretch its arms.

When I was about 16, Hurricane Carol came through and toppled many of the trees in the woods. In the quiet of the storm's eye my father and I foolishly tried to cut a way to town. The woods hid the wind's noise and anger and we didn't notice that the eye had passed until trees started falling around us. We got out just in time and it would be two days before anyone made it up street.

Down the road about a mile and a half was Mr. Banter's farm, with a kitchen that smelled of chickens and stale milk. It also had the nearest phone. Further still was the house of Jimmy Mann who, when I was 14, taught me how to drive a six-wheel drive Army surplus personnel carrier and how to use the winch in front. His father, Horace Mann, lived on a farm a little further down the point. In fact, Manns had lived in this part of Maine for over 300 years. Several of the newer houses on the point were built by Jimmy Mann but they never seemed all that new because they were built by someone who belonged to both past and place.

The fields had their own time and space. When you were mowing them, your tractor left a fresh green record of the minutes and hours and of what had happened within them. Beyond the fields was the shore where the sea came and went twice a day, rising and falling nine feet, bringing or taking, agitated or bored. Later I would go to sea as a navigator in the Coast Guard. My job was to know where we were and how long it would take to get somewhere else. Time and space were the things most meticulously recorded on charts and in the log.

Beyond the shore was the bay and beyond that the ocean and beyond that the horizon, which made believe it was a stone wall or fence, pretending that time and space had finite boundaries.

Sometimes, along the road, time ran out. A short distance from where you turned left to go to town, my nephew Haze, still in his twenties, died in a car crash. And it was along this road that my mother and I followed the ambulance that had rushed seven miles to where we were futilely trying to shove life back into my father's body.

As the rescue squad crossed the Little River bridge, I noticed that the nine foot tide was out, leaving a half mile of mud flats all the way to Googins Island. That evening, as we returned from the hospital, widowed and fatherless, the tide was in, replacing the half mile of flats with a half mile of still water, nine feet deep. The moon shone on the water and I felt an unexpected peace at being inexorably a part of natural time and space.

IN my normal geography of Washington DC, time and space don't come as gift. More often than not they belong to someone else, another commodity that we get to use only upon payment, under instruction, after standing in line, waiting bumper to bumper - or upon throwing our papers into a pile, grabbing our jacket, and rushing out the door.

In fact, there are now more people in prison in than there are farmers, which is to say that you are more likely to find Americans kept in a cage than you are to find driving their tractor along a country road. America has moved from frontier to supermax.

My first diurnal sign of temporal and spatial control typically comes with the morning news - "police activity" the local public radio station strangely calls it, a euphemism which could mean a burning tractor-trailer, a multi-car crash, or the diaspora of construction, but certainly means a delay for those who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Capital Beltway hosts many of these incidents. It was completed in 1968. Since then the population of the metropolitan area has doubled. There is nothing remarkable about this; we have come to accept huge traffic jams like we accept storms and drought, except that nature didn't create the traffic jam. According to a study by planners at Berkeley, San Franciscans are losing about 90,000 hours a day sitting in traffic jams. That's enough hours to be considered normal.

All around us are rules, exigencies, interruptions, and delays caused by ever more of us wanting to do the same thing at the same time. The line at the movie or nightclub. The restaurant with no table until 9:30; the hotel that is booked; the sign on the Massachusetts Pike last summer - the first I had seen - warning that rest rooms at the next service area were limited.

The cause of these delays is a world in which nearly 11,000 people are added every hour, creating a new population the size of Newark NJ each day. If we continue to grow at the same rate as in the past decade, America will double in population by about 2058. As Gaylord Nelson pointed out that means we will have or need twice as much as everything we had at the turn of the century. Twice as many cars, trucks, planes, airports, parking lots, streets, bridges, tunnels, freeways, houses, apartment buildings, grade schools, high schools, colleges, trade schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons.

Twice as much water and food if you can find it. Twice as many chemicals and other pollutants in the air and water, twice as much heat radiation from all the new construction, twice as much crime, twice as many fires, twice as big traffic jams, and twice as many walls with graffiti on them. In Japan, there is already not enough room for pets in some cities, so people rent dogs just for the pleasure of walking them around the block.

Whenever I hear of another school shooting or other youthful violence, the first thing I think about is Dr. Calhoun and his mice. Dr. John Calhoun put four pairs of white mice in a steel cage eight and a half feet on a side. Within two years the mice had increased to 2,200. The adult mice began excluding young mice from their company and the young began biting, attacking, and slashing one another. Finally social and sexual intercourse became impossible without violence. The mice stopped reproducing and eventually all died out.

We're in a cage, too, except it has shopping malls and freeways and cops with guns and sirens. We have governments and hospitals and schools and we have talk shows and newspapers to help us forget that we're in a cage.

But spend an evening surfing the channels and count the humans trapped or being destroyed - by crime, for fun, in sport. You can say it's television's fault, but, in the end, the producers and the reality cops and the extreme fighters are also in a cage, just like the viewers. Each is trying to control an environment over which they have lost control, whether using a gun, a ball, a camera, their fists, or a zapper. And it always ends in another confrontation: another ratings war, another arrest, another illegal deal, another TV pilot, another channel.

If you step back, there is madness in this, but if you think only of those in the cage - what they can hear, see, and understand - then a primal logic emerges, the need to restrain, suppress, or eliminate the proximate usurpers of one's rightful time and space.

We don't talk about it much except when somebody suggests we might do it differently and then we say they are "thinking outside the box." Thinking and living inside the box has become normal.

AS with Dr. Calhoun's mice, the problem began to reveal itself with the young. After World War II, spurred by a series of reports from Harvard president James Conant, America deliberately dismantled the education system that had brought it that far. Among other things, Conant considered the elimination of the small high school essential for the US to compete with the Soviets. America listened and between 1950 and 1970 the number of school districts in the country declined from 83,700 to 18,000. Schools increased in size, administration became centralized, principals became corporate executives and wardens rather than educators, and teachers became bureaucrats rather than prophets with honor in their own classrooms.

By the late 1990s, a center had been established at Sandia, NM, where the Department of Energy and Lockheed Martin - the latter more commonly a leading purveyor of large scale violence - designed ways to keep students safely within the cage. Here is their description of a well-functioning school:
  • All students are required to carry ID cards on campus. This process helps ensure that only authorized people are on school grounds and at school functions.
  • Tamper-resistant cameras are positioned to monitor areas known for incidents of fights, drug and alcohol use, smoking, and vandalism.
  • A hand-held metal detector, loaned to the school by Sandia, is used to search for weapons in rare but threatening situations.
  • Better lighting is being installed at strategic outdoor locations thanks to the Public Service Company of New Mexico.
  • Microdots, air scribes, and indelible and invisible paint are used on equipment and other assets to deter theft by providing a unique identification.
  • Hair-analysis test kits were provided to the school for parents to use in instances of suspected drug use by their children.
  • A portable breathalyzer unit was supplied to the school and is used in instances of suspected alcohol use by students or employees.
It is a model not that different from that used by Santana High School, the scene of a recent shooting. As the Washington Post noted, "There were phones in every classroom. Security guards patrolled the hallways with two-way radios. And a sheriff's deputy was assigned to visit the campus each day." Here is the Santana dress code:
Clothing must be clean and in good repair and garments may not display profane or obscene language or pictures, vulgar gestures, promote or encourage use of any alcohol/tobacco product or any controlled substance. Appropriate footwear must be worn at all times while students are at school or at school sponsored activities. Steel toed footwear and slippers are not acceptable. Students are not permitted to wear or be in possession of any headgear while at school. This includes all hats, hoods, caps, nets, bandanas, scarves, beanies, etc. The school administration may disallow other types of clothing if it is determined that they represent a reference to gang behavior or an attitude/environment that law enforcement, probation, or other school district administrators, deem may jeopardize a safe and orderly environment for students and school staff. Dress Code Specifics: No logos or look alike images representing gangs or racist groups, such as the number 13, clenched fists, swastikas, iron crosses, etc. may be on your clothing or in your possession at any time on the school campus. This includes those sometimes represented on Independent and Metal Mulisha gear. The only "pride" to be displayed at Santana is "Sultan Pride." Pants will be worn at the waist. All straps or suspenders will be fastened. Belts will not hang more than four (4) inches beyond the buckle. No bare midriffs, halters, backless shirts, strapless or tube top shirts. No items of clothing where undergarments [or] swimwear are exposed. No men's sleeveless undershirts, stylish bras worn as shirts, and mesh, lace or sheer (without lining) clothing over bare skin. The tops of shirts/blouses for both males and females should adequately cover the chest area and not expose excessive chest/cleavage. The hem of shorts must be below clenched fists when arm is extended at side so that buttock is covered completely. The hem of skirts and slits in skirts must be below open hand when arm is extended at side. Consequences: Students who are not dressed appropriately will be brought to the office and may be sent home to change or be required to wear a borrowed shirt. Headgear will be confiscated and returned to the student at the end of the day on the first offense, to a parent on a second offense, and remain in the assistant principal's office until the remainder of the term on subsequent offenses.
Now here is an announcement that appeared in the Santana newsletter at the time of the shooting:
STUDENT CONFERENCES: Today we will begin conferencing with incoming 12th graders (present 11th graders) and continue throughout the next 3 days. Please come to the Counseling office immediately after receiving your call slip so that we can see you quickly and you may return to class.
Note the detail the school lavished on what was on the students' bodies and how little time it had to speak of what was on their minds. And it's not just high schools that have turned their students into controlled substances. Michele Tolela Myers, the president of Sarah Lawrence, wrote in the NY Times:
Attend a conference of higher education leaders these days, and you will hear a lot of talk about things like brand value, markets, image and pricing strategy. In the new lingua franca of higher education, students are "consumers of our product" in one conversation or presentation and "inputs" - a part of what we sell - in the next . . . We "bid for student talent," as the new language would put it, because we know that "star value" in the student body affects the "brand value" of the university's name: its prestige, its rankings, its desirability, and ultimately its wealth and its ability to provide more "value per dollar" to its "customers." . . . A business professor told a group of us at one recent conference that to run a successful organization you had better make decisions on the basis of being "best in the world," and if you couldn't be best in the world in something, then you outsourced the function or got rid of the unit that didn't measure up. Have we really come to believe that we can only measure ourselves in relation to others, and that value and goodness are only measured against something outside the self? Do we really want to teach our children that life is all about beating the competition?
Apparently, yes. Which is why we are giving up education in favor of cram courses. Which is why, as a matter of national policy, we are reducing knowledge, wisdom, and survival to a matter of checking the right box. Standardized tests for standardized humans - without time or space for anything else.

Other aspects of young life have been standardized as well, even among Princeton students, as David Brooks described in the Atlantic Monthly:
Today's elite kids are likely to spend their afternoons and weekends shuttling from one skill-enhancing activity to the next. By the time they reach college, they take this sort of pace for granted, sometimes at a cost. In 1985 only 18 percent of college freshmen told the annual University of California at Los Angeles freshman norms survey that they felt "overwhelmed." Now 28 percent of college freshmen say they feel that way . . .

Not just Princetonians lead a frenetic, tightly packed existence. Kids of all stripes lead lives that are structured, supervised, and stuffed with enrichment. Time-analysis studies done at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research provide the best picture of the trend: From 1981 to 1997 the amount of time that children aged three to twelve spent playing indoors declined by 16 percent. The amount of time spent watching TV declined by 23 percent. Meanwhile, the amount of time spent studying increased by 20 percent and the amount of time spent doing organized sports increased by 27 percent. Drive around your neighborhood. Remember all those parks that used to have open fields? They have been carved up into neatly trimmed soccer and baseball fields crowded with parents in folding chairs who are watching their kids perform.

WHEN I first read that we were being exposed to more than 3,000 advertising messages a day, I didn't believe it. Then I counted them as I walked the five blocks from my dentist to my office. Several hundred. Then I sat a suburban intersection and counted 50 before the light had turned green. All consuming time and space.

I think I don't pay attention to them, but I do. At least some of the messages surrounding me in what Marshall Blonsky calls the semiosphere push their way into my brain, shoving aside what was already there, perhaps only for a few seconds, perhaps never to be retrieved.

I don't protest because I have been taught that this is the way a city is meant to look. The fact that it didn't always look like this doesn't enter my thoughts because I, like everyone else, am just a frog in water heated by corporate propaganda and it doesn't seem that much worse than before.

It is interesting, perhaps even useful, to speculate on whether the interstate freeway system could be built today without billboards, without "public-private partnerships," without a massive semiotic invasion of natural space. It was hard enough in the 1950s; now we seem only inches away from churches granting naming rights to their altars.

What has happened? Little but a slow acculturation similar to what happens to disintegrating societies that become dictatorships and then wonder why only after the time for asking such a question has long since passed. It is one of the major tasks of the advertising and public relations business: to convince us that the intrusive, the insupportable, the incompatible is totally natural.

THERE are less obvious thieves of time and space. Such as the government. In the past thirty years the number of laws in our society has exploded, bearing little relationship to population growth, cultural complexity or any other rational factor. Nearly half of all post-Civil War federal criminal laws have been passed since 1970 The number of lawyers have grown with the laws; in Washington there are nearly seven times as many attorneys as three decades ago. This is not the product of necessity. Neither is the explosion the product of ideology. Both liberals and conservatives have overstuffed the law shelves, albeit for different reasons.

Whatever the source, it now takes longer, requires more paper, and stirs up more intimations of liability to do almost anything worthwhile than it once did. While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like "entrepreneurship" and "risk-taking," the average enterprise of any magnitude is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance. We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time and space, they might implode into us. Every law office is a testament to our fear and lack of trust.

Then there is the media, purportedly our surrogate priest, parent, and teacher but in fact functioning like gangs of burglars breaking and entering our brains and stealing time and space from us in a way not even our parents experienced. What was once extraordinary became merely unusual and finally ubiquitous as we moved from manuscript to microphone to camera and cable. With each step, context, environment, and points of reference became ever more distant and external. With each step, we became ever more dependent on things and people we would most likely never see in their unprojected, unfilmed, unrecorded nature. Sitting in a bar, riding an exercycle at the gym, or waiting in the airport, we trade proximate reality for a distant, visible, decibled, but ultimately unreachable substitute.

The other day I even attended a wedding during which a large TV broadcast the NCAA championship in a room adjoining the reception hall. More than a few chose the distant, secular ritual of the NBA over that of a sacred, tangible ritual just one room away. It just seems more natural to think inside the box. It is reality that has become strange.

SOME FIFTEEN YEARS ago, an extraordinary anarchist writer using the pseudonym Hakim Bey described what he called "the closure of the map." The last bit of earth, he wrote, had been claimed by a nation state in 1899:

Ours is the first century without terra incognita, without a frontier. Nationality is the highest principle of world governance - not one speck of rock in the South Seas can be left open, not one remote valley, not even the Moon and planets. This is the apotheosis of "territorial gangsterism." Not one square inch of Earth goes unpoliced or untaxed . . . in theory.

Bey asked:

Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future? Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom? Logic and emotion unite to condemn such a supposition. Reason demands that one cannot struggle for what one does not know; and the heart revolts at a universe so cruel as to visit such injustices on our generation alone of humankind.

Bey saw an out in the creation of what he called temporary autonomous zones. The TAZ, which he refused to define explicitly, "is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it . . . The TAZ can 'occupy' these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace. Perhaps certain small TAZs have lasted whole lifetimes because they went unnoticed, like hillbilly enclaves - because they never intersected with the spectacle, never appeared outside that real life which is invisible to the agents of simulation."

This fluid, festive alternative to the spectacle of the state can take many forms. Bey cited the culture of the pirates, remarkably democratic and unprejudiced:

Fleeing from hideous "benefits" of imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the "state of nature." Having declared themselves "at war with all the world," they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called "articles" which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares.
He also listed sixties-style "tribal gathering," the forest conclave of eco-saboteurs, anarchist conferences, Harlem rent parties of the twenties, nightclubs, banquets, old-time libertarian picnics . . .

We should realize that all these are already "liberated zones" of a sort, or at least potential TAZs. Whether open only to a few friends, like a dinner party, or to thousands of celebrants, like a Be-In, the party is always "open" because it is not "ordered;" it may be planned, but unless it "happens" it's a failure.

Less exotic is that frontier available to all with a computer at hand - the web, where uprisings and usurpations of assigned cultural space occur almost like a meteor shower. And Bey's work ends with a startling redefinition of the dinner party as psychic geography as laid out by the 19th century utopian, S. Pearl Andrews:
The highest type of human society in the existing social order is found in the parlor. In the elegant and refined reunions of the aristocratic classes there is none of the impertinent interference of legislation. The individuality of each is fully admitted. Intercourse, therefore, is perfectly free. Conversation is continuous, brilliant, and varied. Groups are formed according to attraction. They are continuously broken up, and re-formed through the operation of the same subtle and all-pervading influence. Mutual deference pervades all classes, and the most perfect harmony, ever yet attained, in complex human relations, prevails under precisely those circumstances which legislators and statesmen dread as the conditions of inevitable anarchy and confusion. If there are laws of etiquette at all, they are mere suggestions of principles admitted into and judged of for himself or herself, by each individual mind.

Is it conceivable that in all the future progress of humanity, with all the innumerable elements of development which the present age is unfolding, society generally, and in all its relations, will not attain as high a grade of perfection as certain portions of society, in certain special relations, have already attained? Suppose the intercourse of the parlor to be regulated by specific legislation. Let the time which each gentleman shall be allowed to speak to each lady be fixed by law; the position in which they should sit or stand be precisely regulated; the subjects which they shall be allowed to speak of, and the tone of voice and accompanying gestures with which each may be treated, carefully defined, all under pretext of preventing disorder and encroachment upon each other's privileges and rights, then can any thing be conceived better calculated or more certain to convert social intercourse into intolerable slavery and hopeless confusion?

ONE NEED NOT accept all of Hakim Bey's vision to realize that the closing of the map is beyond contention. Further he was brave enough to speak of this claustrophobic specter while the bulk of the nation's intelligentsia refuses to this day to incorporate the diminishing geography of time and space into their considerations. This is not some nuclear reaction that we can not understand nor some chemical poison that we patiently assume our leaders will warn us against before it is too late. This is the essence of human experience: what we can see, what we can hear, what we can have, where we can go and where we are prohibited.

There is at present no politics of time and space, no reporters assigned to cover them, no time on their broadcasts nor space in their papers. And so we are confined in silence. We accept corporate trespassing on our hours and our acres with stunning passivity. We permit television monitors in public areas to interrupt our thoughts, break our sleep, distract our reading, and strain our conversation. We turn much of what is left over to our government, as though admitting we were no longer competent to handle time and space for ourselves.
There are, of course, exceptions. For example, the quarter of us who live in places of undefined range and unincorporated rhythms. More than 90% of physical America itself is still not urban. Part of the political tension in this country stems not so much from our differing ideologies as from our contrasting ecologies. It has been like that ever since the first adolescent left the farm for the city, but now the natural and the mechanical repeately overlap, symbolized by the cell towers planted in open space like great flagpoles by our corporate conquerors.

Time and space were once an essential part of our nature. Gertrude Stein wrote that "in America there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is." By the 1950s, however, Alan Ginsberg was already speaking of "an America which no longer exists except in Greyhound bus terminals, except in small dusty towns seen from the window of a speeding car."

The deeply religious, the utopian, the cybernetic, and the fraternal can still escape into frontiers set at odd angles to the geographic. In fact, the freest people left in America may include the computer nerd and the contemplative nun, for each exist in a liberated zone of tolerance for the human soul and imagination.

Others of us pass in and out, shaping our homes, our offices, our associations, and our families into temporary zones of unregulated humanity, finding little oases in the desert of technocratic progress. Or we move furtively into the countryside, like Winston Smith escaping Big Brother, seeking what we have lost.

But most of it we do either alone or in small, polite equivalents of the gangs to which urban adolescents gravitate in their search for something they haven't lost because they never had it.
According to The Wall Street Journal, two corporations - Itec Entertainment Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp. - have launched a joint venture to put TVs on buses and trains across the country. The purpose of the TVs will be to broadcast "a package of news and weather -- and a lot of ads." The companies are starting with a pilot project on buses in Orlando, Florida. But they are moving quickly to penetrate "municipal bus services nationwide," the Journal reports. Eventually, the companies say, they want to deploy their compulsory television system in "buses, rail and other modes of mass transit" across the country ­ in other words, just about every kind of transportation in which people might want to take a few moments to read. . . They have designed the TVs so that riders cannot turn them off or even turn them down. They boast that the sets are "hammer proof" ­ a telling admission regarding the emotions these sets may provoke. - Commercial Alert
When we speak of time and space, we treat it as a personal problem. As if we were the only one too busy, too crowded, too behind the program projected on the schedule beaming up from our palm. It is part of the trick that society plays on us; it teaches us to regard its failings as our own.

In the past, there have been times when the politics of time and space came to the fore such as in era of exploration and imperialist expansion, or during moments of land reform and the liberation of slaves and serfs.

We are reminded of such times by the bumper stickers that read: "The Labor Movement . . . The folks who brought you the weekend." Dennis Kaplan and Sharon Chelton note in the journal Conscious Choice, that in America between 1840 and 1940, "work hours declined in every decade. From 1900 to 1940 the average work week for all manufacturing industries fell by 35 percent. In 1933 there was even a bill, known as the 'Thirty-Hour Work Week Bill,' which would have established 30 hours as the standard work week. This measure, which was a response to depression-era unemployment, passed the Senate and likely would have passed the House if business leaders had not persuaded the new Roosevelt administration to withdraw its support."

Write Kaplan and Chelton, "Why should work hours be increasing in an era characterized by electronic co-workers with the ability to sort entire phone directories in less time than most of us need to sort the mail? The effects of this technology are hardly illusory when measured in terms of productivity (up over 100 percent since 1948). Yet, most workers have not gained more free time. If they had, [Juliet] Schor tells us, 'we could now produce our 1948 standard of living . . . in less than half the time it took in that year.' We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or every worker in the United States could now be taking every other year off from work-with pay."

INSTEAD we passively accept the strip-mining of time and our space. We tolerate the grossest corporate graffiti while jailing the young who scrawl it only for love and attention, and not market share. We let our children be huckstered in the classroom by Channel One when we could be destroying the magic of advertising by teaching them how it really works. We adapt to an explosion of prohibitions in our legal code, the invasion of our privacy to enforce them, and a government that is determined to scare us into doing precisely what it wants.

Some of the alternatives lie in pursuing such causes as a 30 hour week, an end to commercial intrusion of public space, the protection of places where life can bloom, and a reassertion of the right of every American to go about their decent business without being blocked, followed, constrained, squeezed, pushed, or having to fill out superfluous forms. But it also requires a sense of rebellion, ridicule and revulsion against much that is presently taken for granted. We need what Ned Plotsky called "draft dodgers of commercial civilization," and what Norman Mailer described as "psychic outlaws."

There is much work for such people: a planet to save before it is too late, a democracy being jettisoned for the illusion of order, minds being ossified by ads and agitprop, and a media that can't find anything wrong with it all. Not the least, and far closer to the heart of things than it might appear, is the need to recover the moments and the geography that humans require in order to be human - time that brings us love, dreams, imaginings, and memory, and space for us to use them as best we can, the most happy proof that we are still alive.

October 20, 2008


Sam Smith

I have been trying hard to recall a presidential campaign in which there has been so much slime, sleaze and slippery deception confronting the voter. I can't. Even Nixon, by the time he was a presidential candidate, had cleaned up his act. McCain and Palin seem to be establishing new subterranean standards for such campaigns.

But while thinking about it, two non-campaign analogies came to mind, one dismal, the other hopeful.

The first is Germany just before the rise of Hitler. Germany's willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. Still, bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:

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

- The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the "rationalization of production." There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment.

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

- Finally, consider Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic, which stated, "In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform theReichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands." It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according toChilders, the 'democratic" Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler's ascendancy. Echoes of the Patriot Act and "homeland security."

Into this situation came the Nazi Party which rose from 3% of the vote to being the majority party in four years. Central to its politics were campaigns that lashed out at opponents without revealing its own agenda. Infct , the use of negative campaigning is actually a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. It turned voters paranoiac, arguments vicious and reality irrelevant.

The danger today lies not in what McCain and Palin might do themselves. Despite their anti-democratic instincts, they are too incompetent to do much other than fail. But it is in that failure that the danger would lie. Imagine the economy truly sinking into a depression that the McCain administration badly bungles, leaving a situation that, to an increasing number, can only be resolved by decisive action, accompanied by the appearance of a general or otherfaux savior to carry out that action. It only took four years in Germany.

The second, and far happier, allusion is to the 1950s when extremism was headed not for triumph but to the showers. Racism, nativism and phony patriotism were all in full force, but they came from those who knew their backs were against the wall. The segregated south was collapsing, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate and that which would become known the 1960s was beginning to sprout.

There is no way America could revert to the model typified by McCain and Palin except by force. After all, it's an America that no longer exists.

And the arguments are absurd, given life by a media that that can't or won't separate hyperbole from facts. The only thing Obama is extreme about is his own ambition propelled by a consensus politics about as radical as a bowl of Cream of Wheat without the milk and sugar.

An ABC poll suggests people aren't falling for the nastiness:

- 52% say McCain's pick of Palin weakens their confidence him.

- 60% say Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers is not a legitimate issue.

- The split on ACORN as in issue is 49-40 against it being a decent issue.

If the 1950s analogy is fair, then what we are hearing is the anger of the soon to be defeated - not just in an electoral sense but in a historical one as well. What remains a mystery, however, is what will replace it.Obama's campaign is based on trust in elite consensus rather than in popular progress. This seldom works for long, especially in a country with as many problems as America.

President Obama may soon find himself in the position of the 18th century French revolutionary who was having some wine at an outdoor cafe when a large crowd rushed by. He put down his glass, saying, "Excuse me. I must leave. I'm supposed to be leading them."


Sam Smith

When 9/11 happened, one of the first people I thought of was Ann Jones. I was working out in my basement six blocks from the US Capitol, my wife was at her office five blocks from the White House and one of the captured planes was still on its way to Washington.

Ann was thousands of miles away, safely in London, but I still thought of her and asked myself: what would Ann do now?

Ann had been one of two English children who had come to live with our family in Washington during World War II. Ann returned to live with the family for five years after the war. She passed away in London today.

It hadn't been easy for a nine year old Ann to get to Georgetown in July of 1940. She wrote me 60 years later:
I set sail in the Duchess of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight skirmish with a submarine. I remember feeling the ship shudder as depth charges were dropped but we were unscathed and pressed on, though I remember seeing icebergs and wondering.

My mother told me we might well be sunk. If I was dragged underwater, not to struggle. I would come to the surface naturally, then not to strike out to England or America but float on my back, as I had learned at school, until I was picked up.

On August 30, 1940, the Volendam set off with a load of British children for America. It was sunk in the Irish sea. All were saved.

On September 17, the City of Benares sailed with many of the Volendam survivors. It sank in mid-Atlantic and most of the children perished.
No more British children were sent to America after that.

Ann was dry in wit, resolute in determination, stolid and unflappable in crisis. Decades later we were discussing a recently departed relative who had been on the periphery of the Bloomsbury Group. What had happened, I asked, to Lucy Norton's ashes? "Well, I suppose they were thrown out with the rubbish." Ann paused and then added, "I think Lucy would rather have liked that."

Ann managed to blend pleasure with realism, treating them not as opponents but as natural colleagues of life, and helped this young boy learn how to face the bad times.

The man she would marry was quite a bit older and had been a new doctor during the London blitz, during which over 20,000 people died in seven months and a million of the city's homes were destroyed or damaged. Each day the doctors were given colored tags to attach to the feet of air raid victims. Each tag represented one bed and each color one hospital in London. When the tags were gone so were the beds.

I told this story in a talk I gave some years ago and added the following, which unconsciously incorporated some of what I had learned from Ann:
To view our times as decadent and dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those in power are not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid but perceptive; to be depressed, angry or confused about such things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness. Yet our culture suggests otherwise.

But if all this is true, then why not despair? The simple answer is this: despair is the suicide of imagination. Whatever reality presses upon us, there still remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities. To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut. The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list. "You don't have to change the world," the writer Colman McCarthy has argued. "Just keep the world from changing you."

Oddly, those who instinctively understand this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to do so, who somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them.

October 17, 2008


Sam Smith

It is true that the moving averages have Obama ahead, but it is also true that within those averages are some scary anomalies, narrow margins that in no way should be there given the current state of the economy and the dismal McCain campaign.

One of Obama's major political problems has not been his race but his place - not the color of his hide but the culture of his Hyde Park. He has reached well his core constituency - blacks and white liberals - but as soon as the general election got underway he began struggling and stumbling. His style has been too urban, upscale, too post-graduate and too reserved.

Obama's failure to soar during a historic collapse of the economy supports this thesis and suggests that his handlers need to give him several kicks in the butt to ensure he gets across the goal line.

While there are plenty of substantive issues to discuss about Obama once he's in the White House, the main problem right now is to make sure that his lying, mean and decrepit opponent, along with his as his incompetent, reckless and sleazy potential successor, don't get there first.

Here are a few last minute suggestions for his campaign:

- Get out of the pulpit and on to the playground into the bars. No more photos of Obama looking down at us.

- Obama is obsessed with seeming presidential but too often just appears pompous and dull. All he needs to do is observe at the absurd success of Sarah Palin to appreciate how limited is the appeal of unrelieved portentousness.

- Be specific. Give some examples of what Obama will do that everyone can understand. Even after all my years in Washington, I still can't visualize $150 billion being spent on energy over 10 years. But I do know what new railroad trains and tracks or solar panels look like.

- Work on Obama's metaphorical deficiency disorder. Teach him the southern technique of winning arguments by anecdotes rather than just cold facts. His last debate offered a telling example. McCain attacked him for having known Bill Ayers and Obama came back blandly with the fact that the group on which board they had both sat had been endorsed by the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the Chicago Tribune. He said it and it passed.

I have complained about Obama approaching politics too much from the perspective of a lawyer, but Jon Rowe, who observed and worked in Washington for may years, got much closer to the truth when he said that Obama talks as though he is in moot court, the mock sessions used to train law students. Notes Rowe, "He seems to think an argument is finished once he has stated it. Somehow he doesn't seem to understand the need to drive home a point emotionally as well -- which is to say, to repeat it two or three different ways so that people start to feel it. Things tend to fly by on the mental plane with him. You find yourself thinking that he was impressive but that he still didn't quite connect with you."

A good politician, or a good trial lawyer for that matter, would have come back at McCain when he refused to let the Ayers issue drop, saying something like, "Senator, I wonder whether given your feeling about this board backed by three of the most respectable institutions in Chicago, you would refuse an endorsement from the Chicago Tribune or decline to let your child go the University of Chicago or Northwest U?" And if he didn't give up, Obama might have added, "Why haven't you been as critical of your pal Gordon Liddy's criminal conduct as I have been of Bill Ayers?"

You've got to knock these things down hard and fast and Obama just doesn't have the touch.

The continued deterioration of the economy and McCain's rottenness may make such concerns totally irrelevant, but it sure would be nice if the Democrats could run a campaign that left us cheering more and praying less.

October 16, 2008


Dear Joe:

I am Charles R. Chortlelywell, chief accountant of Flush Plumbers United - or Change Man Charlie as I'm known around the office.

We are a national organization dedicated to the interests of plumbers earning more than a quarter million dollars a year. As you know, the salary of your average Joe in the industry is approximately $37,500, so you are clearly someone special.

We would like to learn more about you in order to help you, even if Barack Obama won't. So would you mind answering a few questions:

Does this company you are planning actually make $250-280 thousand a year in profits or is that just its total revenue? If the latter then you don't have to worry about Obama's tax bill at all. If it's the former, then your additional taxes each year will range between zero and $900. Since you'll be making five to seven times as much as your average Joe in the trade you can probably handle it.

On the other hand, perhaps not. A Toledo Blade story about you notes that "In December, 2007, the Ohio Department of Taxation placed a lien against him because $1,183 in personal property taxes had not been paid, but there has been no action in the case since it was filed." Is part of your concern that since you already owe so much to the socialist state of Ohio and don't want to compound the problem? If so, perhaps you shouldn't be going around buying businesses at all.

Since court records from your divorce also show you only made $40,000 in 2006, where are you going to get the money for this deal? Let's say you buy it for a million bucks or so. I just checked and found where you could get such a loan, but it would cost you over $60,000 a year in interest alone and you'd have to pay it off in seven years. I suggest you worry about that more than Obama's tax increase.

How many new employees do you plan to hire? If you just hire one you'll get a $3000 tax credit and that dangerous fellow Obama will actually end up adding $2100-3000 to your profits.

Where are the headquarters of the company you currently work for and would like to buy? The Toledo Blade couldn't come up with a good answer to this question: "Mr. Wurzelbacher told reporters that he worked for Newell Plumbing & Heating Co., a small local firm whose business addresses flow back to several residential homes, including one on Talmadge Road in Ottawa Hills"

When do you actually plan to get a plumbers' license? It would help to add validity to your nickname. I was a bit bothered by the part of the Blade story that read: "According to Lucas County Building Inspection records, A. W. Newell Corp. does maintain a state plumbing license, and one with the City of Toledo, but would not be allowed to work in Lucas County outside of Toledo without a county license. Mr. Wurzelbacher said he works under Al Newell's license, but according to Ohio building regulations, he must maintain his own license to do plumbing work. He is also not registered to operate as a plumber in Ohio, which means he's not a plumber. Mr. Wurzelbacher said he was hired by Mr. Newell six years ago and that the possibility of him eventually buying the company was discussed during his job interview. He said it's his understanding he can work under Mr. Newell's license as long as the licensed contractor works on the same site. Mr. Wurzelbacher said he is working on taking the Ohio plumbing contractors' license test."

If we are to invite you to join our board we might also need some help in answering issues such as raised by Tom Joseph, business manager for Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Service Mechanics, who says you didn't undergo any apprenticeship training.
Reported the Blade: "'When you have guys going out there with no training whatsoever, it's a little disreputable to start with,' Mr. Joseph said. 'We're the real Joe the Plumber.' Mr. Joseph said Mr. Wulzerbacher could only legally work in the townships, but not in any municipality in Lucas County or elsewhere in the country. 'This individual has got no schooling, no licenses, he's never been to a training program, union or non-union, in the United States of America,' Mr. Joseph said."

While I realize Plumber Joseph may merely be feeling bitter being upstaged by Plumber Joe, as we say in the trade about faucets, this one needs a better spin on it.

Thanks for help. Your attention to this matter - as well as to the fact that the candidate whom you support has eight homes, 13 cars and wears $500 loafers - will be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely yours,

Charles R. Chortlelywell

October 15, 2008


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - Of all the lies that John McCain tells, one that disturbs me personally is that he calls himself a maverick. I've been an undisputed maverick most of my life, I've worked on a cattle farm, I know what mavericks are and I know McCain ain't one.

The correct technical term for McCain is a mugwump, a 19th century phrase for a politician who sits on a fence with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.

Mavericks have been best described as cattle that drink upstream from the herd. No one's pissin' in their water.

According to Amy Dorsett in the San Antonio News Express, I'm not the only one who doesn't like McCain's use of the word, which owes its roots to Samuel Augustus Maverick, "a 19th-century San Antonio mayor, signer of the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence and aggressive land baron."

Writes Dorsett: "Maverick also owned a herd of cattle that he allowed to roam and chose not to brand. And so, the term maverick - in its purest form, it means an unbranded calf - was born.

"Maverick's descendants continued his legacy of public service and bucking conventional wisdom. His grandson, Maury Maverick, was a U.S. congressman who returned to San Antonio to serve one term as a mayor . . . His political career ended when he allowed members of the Communist Party, including Emma Tenayuca, a labor leader who advocated for pecan shellers, to meet at Municipal Auditorium. A lynch mob gathered outside the meeting and hanged Maverick in effigy.

"Claude Stanush was a young reporter for the San Antonio Light covering City Hall and . . . remembers Maury Maverick fondly. 'He was the best mayor we ever had,' Stanush said. 'He was a devoted lover of San Antonio, and when he lost the election it broke his heart.'. . .

Stanush thinks McCain is "posing as a maverick.". . . Julia Maverick, the widow of Maury Maverick Jr., an outspoken legislator and longtime San Antonio Express-News columnist, also questions McCain's use of the word. "'Has anyone asked McCain why he thinks he's a maverick. . . Reaching across the aisle to the Democrats once in a while doesn't make you a maverick.'

Terrellita Maverick, sister of Maury Maverick Jr. and mother of Fontaine Maverick, said that in her mind, being a maverick means being unfettered and not having to answer to any group or party.

"'We all cringed the first time he used it, and we have cringed every time since,' she said. "He's not a maverick in uppercase or lowercase. He's got a brand on him, and it's a red 'R' for Republican. We are just furious that he took our family name and that he used it to connote he's independent or a freethinker. My blood pressure has gotten so high, I've got to calm down - I've got to be around to vote, because I'm mad as hell.'"

I never met Maury Maverick Jr. but as a young reporter I certainly heard about him and worked for a couple of guys who knew him. I also read about him in Ronnie Dugger's Texas Observer, one of the few maverick journals around and an inspiration for my later efforts. In the 1950s, mavericks were hard to come by and Texas was one of the best places to find them. Even some of the names sounded maverick - like congressional aide Creekmore Fath.

My own objection to McCain's abuse of the term is based in part on all the effort that I have put into being called a maverick rather than a gadfly, a word that seems to be preferred by mainstream journalists when putting down free thinkers.

A gadfly is a small insect that buzzes ineffectually around cattle. Gadflies are only barely further along the evolutionary chain of things than maggots and slugs. They are frequently found resting placidly on a pile of excrement. As readers well know, I never am at rest sitting on a pile of shit.

McCain's bovine pretensions, however, seem like they will be only a temporary annoyance as in a few weeks it looks like America will be sending this fake maverick to the feed lot.

October 14, 2008


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - One of the things about being ahead of the curve is that every once in awhile the curve catches up and what was dismissed as radical rant suddenly becomes conventional thinking or a cliche. Perhaps - as in the present instance - it takes no more than a few days or weeks to implode concepts as massive as thirty years of Reaganesque values, values observed by most who claimed power, ranging from the National Review to National Public Radio, and from John McCain to Barack Obama.

While the introduction of reality is generally a step forward, it does have a couple of problems. One is that the same misguided, misleading and misbegotten crowd is still in charge. For example, I have yet to see one conventional columnist praise Ralph Nader, Dean Baker or Dennis Kucinich for their perception or suggest that we nationalize health care coverage so it will be on the same field as banks, that former icon of the free enterprise system.

Instead, the elite treat ideas much like employees. If the quarterly return on a particular idea flops, you simply fire the idea. You certainly don't change those in charge. Thus the new reality is controlled by old incompetents and is soon easily twisted into another fantasy for another three decades or so.

There's not a lot we can do about this, but we have to remember that progressives also have presumptions and that it is also easy for us to cling to old concepts when times dramatically change.

This is a rare moment. If progressives just play by rote, then this moment will pass them by, too. They have to start thinking right now about what's changed and how they're going to deal with it in a changed way.

This doesn't necessarily mean new ideas; it may be as simple as rummaging through memory and archives to find ideas that didn't launch the first time. But one thing is clear: merely being grumpy about Sarah Palin or fawning over Obama is not enough.

Trying to take my own words to heart, a couple of things come to mind - both involving the way that we do things.

The first is the Internet and why progressives have not been more effective with it. As early as 1994 I was enthralled by the Internet's potential, writing in my book, Shadows of Hope:

"The computer, once considered primarily a tool of orthodoxy, has now become a major weapon against authoritarianism. The highly effective campus anti-apartheid protests were organized with the help of a computer bulletin board that advised newcomers how to plan demonstrations and deal with the media. In the last days of the Soviet Union, the relative security of computer information provided dissidents a means of communications with each other and with the outside world. More recently, computers have established the first strong link among environmentalists working to save Lake Baikal in Siberia. . . And thousands of miles away, in the Silicon Valley community of Sunnydale CA, a city councilman was elected with 60% of the vote after campaigning almost exclusively on the Internet computer network."

I remember being particularly struck by the release of a labor leader after the Russian police station received hundreds of calls from angry Internet users around the world. But I also sensed a problem:

"Yet the very anarchistic nature of our new sources of data, -- including computer services, cable channels, special interest magazines, and the archives of our video store -- also means that we may have less information in common. At a time when communications and transportation make it ever simpler to cross geographic and cultural borders, we increasingly seem to make the trip alone. We see far more than we understand or are understood. Louis Farrakhan and the Anti-Defamation League have the same technology available to them but they are checking in at different bulletin boards."

It is a conundrum that still bedevils us: why is this huge window on the world not helping us more?

In part, I suspect, the answer is that the highly pragmatic approach used, say, for the release of that Russian labor leader or in the organizing of college anti-apartheid groups has been increasingly submerged in a spin-drenched, funding hungry and graphic centered approach which is attractive to look at, pleasant to read (if you already agree with what's on the page) but surprisingly short on practical advice such as how to make friends with a state legislator, what forms of demonstrations work best, samples of well written legislation, things that have succeeded elsewhere, key points to make in testimony, where to find new allies and so forth.

The problem is partially in the character of the beast itself. Every medium invites its own style and the Internet is in many ways the opposite of community organizing. It does, after all, give us one more reason not to go to that meeting.

I have, on the Review site, attempted to deal with this by having pages on activism and hidden issues, useful stats on a variety of matters and topic pages that include links to data and organizations. Not much, I admit, but what do you expect from a busker on the corner?

Besides, where are my role models? I spend no small part of each day trying to find facts on all sorts of issues and I'm constantly struck by how difficult it is even when visiting well endowed sites. They are quite ready to tell me how to think but short on information on how to do something with these thoughts other than to have them, add my name to a list and send them some money.

Progressive sites need to think more like community organizers and less like fundraisers and spin meisters. But that brings us to the second problem. A community organizer gathers the social and political assets in a neighborhood and helps to place them on a common course. The typical non-profit today seeks to make itself stand out from those who are meant to be on the same course, but are actually competing for attention and money. Like dysfunctional children, they often don't play well with others.

One of the ways to change this is so mundane it may seem superfluous to mention. Only sadly it isn't.

Over all the years in which I have been involved in one movement or another, I can think of only of a handful of examples since the 1970s when leaders of groups with much in common got together on a regular basis simply to share ideas, enthusiasm and frustrations.

One example was Eric Sterling's wonderful lunches at the Criminal Justice Foundation for those fighting the drug war. Present were those ranging from full legalizers to those just seeking reforms and from lawyers to activists to preachers. Each week someone would speak and then we would sit around and talk. There was no agenda and no pressure. But each week you left a little wiser about something.

At one meeting I casually dropped a one liner about how we needed a group to compete with MADD, maybe something like Mothers Opposed to Mandatory Sentencing - or MOMS. At the lunch was Julie Stewart whose brother had been sentenced to five years for growing some marijuana. Before long, she started a group called FAMM - Families Against Mandatory Minimums - which would become the major voice for decency in sentencing. Thanks to its efforts, since 1994 one in four first time drug offenders entering federal prison has received sentence reductions.

I mention my one liner not to brag but because it illustrates a key point alien to many in a time obsessed with mechanistic approaches to organization: for good things to happen you have to have good places where they can happen. That hardly ever occurs during a tedious discussion of mission statements; it can happen easily over a casual lunch attended by a range of people of common interests but different perspectives.

Some years later, the lunches moved to a non profit on Capitol Hill and the tone of the discussions changed with the locale. Everyone was more directed, more serious and more conventional in conversation. And instead of helping to start a new organization with thousands of members, the best we could come up with were some minor legislative amendments.

Scott McLarty took a new approach with the DC Statehood Green Party; he introduced the notion that it would have business meeting only every other month; the alternate months would be reserved for social events. And Teamsters official Roger Newell - whose activism dates back to the 1960s as a student at DC's Eastern High School - ran a regular meeting for a cross section of local leaders at a homeless shelter, again without a hard agenda, instead relying on the serendipity of the community he gathered. Even without specific results, one left these gatherings invigorated in your own effort and happy to find that you were not as alone as you had thought before you walked into the room.

I was reminded of all this the other day after another absorbing meeting of the local NAACP police justice committee on which I sit. It is a small gathering as, sadly, such things are these days. But on the committee are the executive director of the National Black Police Association, the head of the local gay and lesbian alliance, a couple of officials of the ACLU, the former head of the DC Police community relations task force (and now a university professor) with committee chair and Sirius radio talk show host Marc Thompson. Again, a meeting weak on agenda but strong on support for whatever each participant is up to and powerful enough to raise issue of a unconstitutional police blockade of a community to major attention. (For a nifty example of the local ACLU at work, click here).

There are lots of new ideas and strategies that need to be pursued in the wake of the present collapse. Discovering others who point your way, and sharing with them, is a good place to start. Each town in America could have a monthly lunch for progressive leaders- informal to encourage the novel and discourage the competition, short on agendas and long on ideas.

And if that doesn't work, try something else. Just take it from the top again. All of our worlds have changed. Let's go discover them.