November 24, 2008



As of this day, I am one year past the biblical marker of three score and ten. According to the good book, I exist now by "reason of strength" rather than because of any inherent virtue. In fact, the Bible somewhat snottily warns, "yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."

Charles Bukowski's in "
Thoughts on being 71" notes:

It's better now, death is closer,

I no longer have to look for it,

no longer have to challenge

it, taunt it, play with it.

it's right here with me

like a pet cat or a wall calendar

odd, though, I feel no different

then I did at 35 or 47 or 62:

I am only truly conscious of my

age when I look into a



baleful eyes, grinning

stupid mouth.

That's all true, but still I prefer the late Gene McCarthy's interpretation, namely that once past the marker you are free of all biblical restrain. After all, as someone put it, just because one is no longer youthful doesn't mean you can't still be immature.

Cicero, naturally, dealt with it all more elegantly:

||| It is after all true that everybody cannot be a Scipio or a Maximus, with stormings of cities, with battles by land and sea, with wars in which they themselves commanded, and with triumphs to recall. Besides this there is a quiet, pure, and cultivated life which produces a calm and gentle old age, such as we have been told Plato's was, who died at his writing-desk in his eighty-first year; or like that of Isocrates, who says that he wrote the book called The Panegyric in his ninety-fourth year, and who lived for five years afterwards; while his master Gorgias of Leontini completed a hundred and seven years without ever relaxing his diligence or giving up work. When some one asked him why he consented to remain so long alive - "I have no fault," said he, "to find with old age."

That was a noble answer, and worthy of a scholar. For fools impute their own frailties and guilt to old age. . . There is . . . nothing in the arguments of those who say that old age takes no part in public business. They are like men who would say that a steersman does nothing in sailing a ship, because, while some of the crew are climbing the masts, others hurrying up and down the gangways, others pumping out the bilge water, he sits quietly in the stern holding the tiller. He does not do what young men do; nevertheless he does what is much more important and better. The great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, expression of opinion. Of these old age is not only not deprived, but, as a rule, has them in a greater degree. |||

Of course you wouldn't know it by today's American culture which has done everything in its power to infantilize, institutionalize and ignore its elders. Yet we do the same thing to our young. Go back a couple of centuries and you'll find 16-year olds who were captains of ships and 14 year olds who were serving as apprentices or doing a full day's adult work on the farm. When I try to trace my own spirit of independence, the trail inevitably leads back to a 14 year old driving a tractor and a six-wheeled double-clutching Army surplus personnel carrier on a farm or sailing into a thunderstorm with no one but another teenager to two to help me. Our distorted economy has abandoned far more than the unemployment figures show. It has abandoned those it doesn't even count.

But there is something else; I was a member of modern America's most forgotten generation: the silent one. In part, it's our fault. We are, for example, one of two generations never to have elected a president, a fate blessedly secured by Barack Obama's win over John McCain. But it is also true that one of the reasons we didn't have time for such celebrity sports was that we were too busy adapting to a new world thanks to the fact that so much of what we had been raised to believe was being proved wrong.

In this sense, the twenty olds of today are in a situation much like the twenty somethings of my era. We had been taught - whatever our ethnicity or gender - to believe explicitly in white male hegemony and in the rules of the Cold War. Within ten years of leaving high school that was no longer part of our truth. Today, the mythology of Reagan-Clinton-Bush economics and the America's superpower status have been similarly shattered. Never again will a majority of Yale undergraduate tell pollsters they want to go into investment banking.

Our establishment was stupid, cruel, selfish and incapable of reform. Today's is no different - just the issues. Instead of segregation and nuclear bombs we have a collapsing economy, damaged ecology and destroyed democracy.

If today's young want some idea of how to cope, I suggest our example, not because it was any more than occasionally on target but because there are so few parallels. Our efforts ranged from a civil rights revolution to drinking coffee, talking about it all and doing nothing. But there are no right answers when you suddenly find yourself trapped in an interregnum between insanity and uncertainty. The first step, however, is to separate yourself from those who have been running the place and turn your loyalty not to the powerful but to the best truth you can find.

You won't find the answer in the stereotypes but in the rebels. After all we produced Sam Nunn, John Dean, Robert Rubin and Antonin Scalia. But, within three years of my own birth, we also came up with Jerry Rubin, Russell Means, Louis Farrakhan, Bill Moyers, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Abbie Hoffman (born the same year as John McCain), Bobby Seale, James Brown, Woody Allen, Richard Brautigan, Elvis Presley, Gene Wilder, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, the Smothers brothers, Stewart Brand, Lily Tomlin and Hunter S Thompson. And that doesn't even include elders of our own generation like Martin Luther King, Dick Gregory and Jules Feiffer.

During the most determinedly conformist period of modern America, such names became joyously or vigorously familiar among many of the young, because we had learned to combat, ridicule or just ignore the grossly mistaken message of the establishment.

And the interesting thing is that it stuck with us. Unlike the later boomers, many of whom seemed to use the 1960s as a crash pad for their souls and then lost interest once the draft was eliminated, I am struck by the number of refuges of the silent generation who are still on the case. We seemed to have learned a different lesson. Which is why Ralph Nader drives some boomers so crazy; he's refused to sell out.

A few years ago I tried to compile a list of one time Ivy Leaguers who had top positions at campus newspapers or radio stations and yet had pursued alternative rather than conventional media careers. The list was pitifully short, including such names as Bill Greider, Jim Ridgeway, Larry Bensky and myself. And the interesting thing most on the list were from the silent generation.

Despite all the attention given the 1960s, we had somehow managed to set and maintain a course without its aid. I tried to explain it once in discussing my time at Harvard:

||| Seldom have I been so unhappy doing what I was supposed to be doing and so happy doing what I was not supposed to be doing. Both the exuberance and the despair have only occasionally equaled themselves since and while I blame Harvard for the latter I know it also helped provide the former. Few of my friends have fit the pattern the Harvard stereotype suggests, yet it was Harvard that introduced us. There have been divorces, a stay in a mental hospital, unemployment, depression, dissatisfaction with jobs that others envied them for, even a spell in Allenwood. Where peace has been found it has been sometimes after an enormous struggle that in part seems somehow, but inexplicably, tied up with having gone to Harvard.

Perhaps our problem was that we rebelled before the age of rebellion. Dissident students would later attack frontally many of the things we only picked at.

We lived in a time that did not even want to talk about things that really seemed to matter. The most active political group on campus was the Young Republicans and their main activity was drinking, The biggest collective action were riots inspired by local councilman Al Vellucci and Pogo. The drug of choice was booze except for some football players who had discovered peyote and some Social Relations majors who had discovered an instructor named Timothy Leary. The full meaning of the Bomb would not occur to most until after we graduated and even those who considered themselves liberal accepted without question that democracy's only real threats came from without.

The most important book I read my senior year was Stride Towards Freedom by Martin Luther King. It was not on any of my reading lists. We had left high school ready to take on the world only to taught in college that the world wasn't to be challenged, but just examined, analyzed and manipulated side by side with the right people in the right places. That some of us refused to concede this has been perhaps the major triumph of our later lives -- a triumph of will if not of achievement, like standing on the runway in Casablanca watching the plane take off.

My generational peer, Larry Aubach, once said to me, "We will come and we will go and hardly anyone will know we were there."

If true, it won't be entirely fair. Caught between the far more assertive, self-assured and self-important World War II and Boomer eras, my generation did something for which credit is not usually given by power-absorbed historians: we adapted. And one would be hard pressed to find in the past many examples where a group as dominant as the white heterosexual American male of the mid to late 20th century gave up so much power so peacefully so quickly.

By the time we reached full adulthood, the white males of my generation would find the status that we had been promised already threatened. By the time we had reached full maturity almost everything of social significance that we had been taught had been proved or declared wrong. Instead of continuing the role allegedly held for us in usufruct by our elders, our task, it turned out, was to pass it on to, and share it with, blacks, women and gays.

While this was true of all white American men of the time, it was particularly true of our generation because we served as translators of the new to the old. We had, after all, quietly planted some of the change ourselves with the beat rebellion, the irreverence of modern jazz and the civil rights movement. Our generation was the sleeper cell of the Sixties.

Not that many were conscious of this role. Sometimes the change just showed up as divorce, depression, or lowered expectations. And if you joined the fray you might find yourself not unlike an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War: both committed and separate.

Historians don't care for inchoate change built on things like anarchistic acquiescence but perhaps some revisionist scholar will discover the unnoted truth that the Silent Generation, by choosing adaptation over resistance, did far more for its country than if it had simply followed suit and elected some presidents and started a few wars. A truth unnoted but perhaps to be expected of those who had, after all, given America the idea of "cool" and "hip." |||

If we are to free ourselves of the current madness, we must likewise retrieve the capacity to rebel even if, at first, it is only in the inefficient, awkward, stumbling way that characterized those of us in the 1950s guided by the unspoken premise that while you can seldom change history, you can always react to it.

And the fun part is, that once it become a habit, it's not like a hedge fund at all. It will still have value after three score and eleven years. There is no retirement age for rebellion.

Sam Smith, Why Bother? - The words revolution and rebellion attract unjust opprobrium. After all, much of what we identify as peculiarly American is ours by grace of our predecessors' willingness to revolt in the most militant fashion, and their imperfect vision has been improved by a long series of rebellions ranging from the cerebral to the bloody. There is not an American alive who has not been made better by revolution and rebellion.

In fact, the terms sit close to what it means to human, since it is our species that has developed the capacity to dramatically change, for better or worse, its own course without waiting on evolution. No other creature has ever imagined a possibility as optimistic as democracy or as devastating as a nuclear explosion, let alone bring them to fruition. To have done so represents an extraordinary rebellion against our own history, cultures and genes.

Without revolution and rebellion we would let mating and mutation do their thing. Instead, regularly dissatisfied with our condition, our body, our home, and our government we overthrow genetics through application of imagination, dreams, ambition, skill, perseverance, and strength. Every new idea is an act of rebellion, every work of art, every stretch for something we couldn't do before, every question that begins "what if. . ."

Most rebellions don't produce revolutions. A revolution claims, often falsely, to have an known end; a rebellion needs only a known means. When, in the late 90s, college students rioted on some campuses, a dean remarked with bemusement, "There was no purpose in it; it was a rebellion without a cause." The dean didn't catch his own allusion, but I did, because James Dean's movie, Rebel Without a Cause, came out the year I graduated from high school.

In it, James Dean, as Jim, tried to explain the cause to his father:

"Dad, I said it was a matter of honor, remember? They called me chicken. You know, chicken? I had to go because if I didn't I'd never be able to face those kids again. I got in one of those cars, and Buzz, that -- Buzz, one of those kids -- he got in the other car, and we had to drive fast and then jump, see, before the car came to the end of the bluff, and I got out OK, and Buzz didn't and, uh, killed him...I can't - I can't keep it to myself anymore.". . .

In truth, Jim actually had a cause, a desperate, distorted, adolescent search for identity and honor in a society and family that seemed indifferent to such matters. Rejecting his condition was a necessary manifestation of his rebellion, but not its purpose. Those in power, -- deans, parents, or politicians, too often mistake the conflict for the cause.

A decade earlier, Humphrey Bogart, as Rick in Casablanca, faced some of the same problems but in an infinitely more sophisticated manner. He was all that James Dean wasn't. With skill and cool, Rick knew how to adapt to the chaos and deceit around him without betraying his own code.

Rick maintained his integrity and individuality by stealth even as others were using the same sort of deception to steal and destroy. The film's purist protagonist, the anti-fascist Victor Lazlo -- is a noble prig next to the cynical Rick. "You know," he tells Rick, "it's very important I get out of Casablanca. It's my privilege to be one of the leaders of a great movement. Do you know what I've been doing? Do you know what it means to the work -- to the lives of thousands and thousands of people? I'll be free to reach America and continue my work."

Rick: I'm not interested in politics. The problems of the world are not in my department. I'm a saloon keeper.

Lazlo: My friends in the Underground tell me that you've got quite a record. You ran guns to Ethiopia. You fought against the Fascists in Spain.

Rick: What of it?

Lazlo: Isn't it strange that you always happen to be fighting on the side of the underdog?

Rick: Yes, I found that a very expensive hobby too, but then I never was much of a businessman...

Later Rick tells the beautiful Ilsa "I'm not fighting for anything anymore except myself. I'm the only cause I'm interested in." Ilsa importunes Rick to help Lazlo escape, saying that otherwise he will die in Casablanca. "What of it?" asks Rick. "I'm gonna die in Casablanca. It's a good spot for it."

In fact, however, Rick helps to get Laszlo out of jail in time for a Lisbon-bound plane, shoots the infamous German Major Strasser, and watches as Ilsa leaves Casablanca in the fog with the handsome Laszlo -- thus losing his woman but keeping his soul.

Rick is not a revolutionary, but is definitely a rebel. And he's not the only one in the movie, for as the gendarmes arrive following Strasser's death, the sly police official, Louis Renault, faces a choice of turning Rick in or protecting him. It is then, to audiences' repeated joy, that he instructs his men to "round up the usual suspects."

With La Marseillaise playing slowly in the background, Renault turns to Rick and says, "Well, Rick, you're not only a sentimentalist, but you've become a patriot." And Rick replies, "It seemed like a good time to start."

Of course, a well-schooled progressive of today might prefer, in place of such diffident heroics, the words of Mario Savio in 1964:

"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

Or some of the strategies recommended by Howard Zinn:

"A determined population can not only force a domestic ruler to flee the country, but can make a would-be occupier retreat, by the use of a formidable arsenal of tactics: boycotts and demonstrations, occupations and sit-ins, sit-down strikes and general strikes, obstruction and sabotage, refusal to pay taxes, rent strikes, refusal to cooperate, refusal to obey curfew orders or gag orders, refusal to pay fines, fasts and pray-ins, draft resistance, and civil disobedience of various kinds .... Thousand of such instances have changed the world but they are nearly absent from the history books."

In his own memoir, however, Zinn not only urges imagination, courage, and sacrifice, but patience as well, and tells a Bertolt Brecht fable with echoes of Casablanca:

"A man living alone answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, 'Will you submit?' The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning. He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, 'No.'"

And there's also a bit of Rick in Raymond Chandler's private detectives:

"You don't get rich, you don't often have much fun. Sometimes you get beaten up or shot at or tossed into the jail house. Once in a long while you get dead. Every other month you decide to give it up and find some sensible occupation while you can still walk without shaking your head. Then the door buzzer rings and you open the inner door to the waiting room and there stands a new face with a new problem, a new load of grief, and a small piece of money."

Chandler says the detective must be "a man of honor. . .without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."

In such ways can rebellion be far quieter and surreptitious than we suppose. For example, we tend to think of the 1950s as a time of unmitigated conformity, but in many ways the decade of the 60s was merely the mass movement of ideas that took root in the 50s. In beat culture, jazz, and the civil rights movement there had already been a stunning critique of, and rebellion against, the adjacent and the imposed.

Steven Watson credits the term beat to circus and carnival argot, later absorbed by the drug culture. "Beat" meant robbed or cheated as in a "beat deal." Herbert Huncke, who picked up the word from show business friends and spread it to the likes of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, would say later that he never meant it to be elevating: "I meant beaten. The world against me."

Gregory Corso defined it this way, "By avoiding society you become separate from society and being separate from society is being beat." Keruoac, on the other hand, thought it involved "mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions."

Inherent in all this was not only rebellion but a journey. "We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move," wrote Kerouac in On the Road.

It is instructive during a time in which even alienated progressives outfit themselves with mission and vision statements and speak the bureaucratic argot of their oppressors to revisit that under-missioned, under-visioned culture of what Norman Mailer called the "psychic outlaw" and "the rebel cell in our social body." What Ned Plotsky termed, "the draft dodgers of commercial civilization."

Unlike today's activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters. Although the beats are frequently parodied for their dress, sartorial nonconformity was actually more a matter of indifference rather than, as in the case of some of the more recently alienated, conscious style. They even wore ties from time to time. Yet so fixed was the stereotype that the caption of a 1950s AP photograph of habitués in front of Washington's Coffee 'n' Confusion Café described it as a place for bearded beatniks when not one person in the picture had a beard. Rather they were a bunch of young white guys with white shirts and short haircuts. Cool resided in a nonchalant, negligent non-conformity rather than in a considered counter style and counter symbolism..

To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.

For the both the contemporaneous civil rights movement and the 1960s rebellion that followed, such a revolt by attitude seemed far from enough. Yet these full-fledged uprisings could not have occurred without years of anger and hope being expressed in more individualistic and less disciplined ways, ways that may seem ineffective in retrospect yet served as absolutely necessary scaffolding with which to build a powerful movement.

Besides, with the end of the Vietnam War, America soon found itself without a counterculture or - with a few exceptions - even a visible resistance by societal draft dodgers. The young -- in the best of times the most reliable harbinger of hope; in the worst of times, the most dismal sign of futility -- increasingly faced a culture that seemed impermeable and immutable. The establishment presented a stolid, unyielding, unthinking, unimaginative wall of bland certainty. It looked upon pain, aspiration and hope with indifference, and played out false and time-doomed fantasies to the mindless applause of its constituency.

The unalterable armies of the law became far more powerful and less forgiving. The price of careless or reckless rebellion became higher. Bohemia was bought and franchised. Even progressive organizations required a strategic plan, budget, and press kit before heading to the barricades. A school district in Maryland told its teachers not to include creativity or initiative in a student's grades because they were too hard to define. Hipness became a multinational industry and no one apparently thought twice about putting a headline on the cover of a magazine "for men of color" that declared "The Rebirth of Cool," exemplified by 50 pages of fashions by mostly white designers.

One west coast student told me bluntly that it was pointless to rebel because whatever one did would be commodified. Others chose not to confront the system but to undermine it in the small places where they lived. You would find them in classrooms or in little organizations, working in human scale on human problems in a human fashion. Their project was to simply recreate the human right where they were. . .

There was something else: music. In rock and rap -- as in blues and folk music earlier -- people found that what they couldn't achieve could still be sung or shouted about. And central to this sound was not just a message but who was allowed to deliver it. For example, the music webzine, Fast 'n' Bulbous, described punk this way:

"Punk gives the message that no one has to be a genius to do it him/herself. Punk invented a whole new spectrum of do-it-yourself projects for a generation. Instead of waiting for the next big thing in music to be excited about, anyone with this new sense of autonomy can make it happen themselves by forming a band. Instead of depending on commercial media, from the big papers and television to New Musical Express and Rolling Stone, to tell them what to think, anyone can create a fanzine, paper, journal or comic book. With enough effort and cooperation they can even publish and distribute it. Kids were eventually able to start their own record labels too. Such personal empowerment leads to other possibilities in self-employment and activism.". . .

By the end of the 1990s, an unremittingly political band, Rage Against the Machine, had sold more than 7 million copies of its first two albums and its third, The Battle of Los Angele, (released on Election Day 1999), sold 450,000 copies its first week. Nine months later, there would be a live battle of Los Angeles as the police shut down a RATM concert at the Democratic Convention.

Throughout the 1990s, during a nadir of activism and an apex of greed, RATM both raised hell and made money.

In 1993 the band, appearing at Lollapalooza III in Philadelphia, stood naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note in a protest against censorship.

In 1994, Rage organized a benefit concert "for the freedom of Leonard Peltier." In 1995 they gave one for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In 1997, well before most college students were paying any attention to the issue, Rage's Tom Morello was arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor.

Throughout this period no members of the band were invited to discuss politics with Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer. But a generation heard them anyway. RATM T-shirts became a common sight during the 1999 Seattle protest.

There is no good way to predict how such things will work out. Change often comes without a formal introduction. Like the time in early 1960 when four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in 15 cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to 54 cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed. Even they, however, couldn't know what the result would be.

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

"The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public, he offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin -- and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost."

Not every revolt is just. One of Tom Stoppard's characters says, "Revolution is a trivial shift in the emphasis of suffering; the capacity for self-indulgence changes hands. But the world does not alter its shape or its course." Too often this true. Infatuation with revolutions has been a particular handicap of the left causing such embarrassments as support for the Stalin regime when no possible excuse could be made for it. It is not that revolutions are wrong - how can an American say that? Rather it is that, on average, revolutions are defined not by the wonder of their promise but by the horrors of what preceded them. They replace evil, but without a warranty.

To be a free thinker, Bertrand Rusell said, a man must be free of two things: "the force of tradition, and the tyranny of his own passion." It is the obliteration of the former but subservience to the latter that creates the revolutionary dictator. . .

In fact, every act in the face of wrong carries twin responsibilities: to end the evil and to avoid replacing it with another. This twin burden is analogous to what a doctor confronts when attempting to cure a disease. There is even a name for medical failure in such cases; the resulting illness is called iatrogenic - caused by the physician. In politics, however, we have been taught to believe that simply having good intentions and an evil foe are sufficient.

This is not true. Arguably from the moment we become aware of an evil, and certainly once we commence an intervention, we become a part of the story, and part of the good and evil. We are no longer the innocent bystander but a participant whose acts will either help or make things worse. Our intentions immediately become irrelevant; they are overwhelmed by our response to them.

Our language confuses this business terribly. That which is known at the personal level as terrorism is called humanitarian or a peacekeeping mission when carried out by the state. Thus both the office building destroyed by a few individuals and the country destroyed by a multinational alliance lie in ruins to support the tragic myth that Allah or democracy will be better for it. But nothing grants us immunity from responsibility for our own acts. So if we are to revolt, rebel, avenge, or assuage, our duty is not only to the course we set but to what we leave in our wake. . .

November 21, 2008


Sam Smith

For many years, your editor has been involved with Wolfe's Neck Farm, a Maine alternative agriculture center that began as an organic beef farm started by my parents in the 1950s. Today, besides cattle, the farm engages in a variety of programs including a campground with over 100 sites, a day camp for hundreds of children, educational programs and welcoming thousands of visitors. It also started what would become the largest natural beef marketing alliance in the greater northeast.

The newest addition to the farm is Coastal Studies for Girls, a program which is leasing some of the buildings for the first residential science and leadership semester school just for girls. Even while construction is underway, CSG hasn't missed the chance for some education, as reported in the Falmouth Forecaster:

||| Coastal Studies for Girls is joining with Women Unlimited and Wright-Ryan Construction to offer seminars throughout the fall and early winter to help the public prepare for cold weather and to help residents learn how to reduce home energy and heating costs. . . Lib Jamison, executive director of the nonprofit Women Unlimited, taught a group of participants to build a toolbox after the tour. Jamison said the organization helps to train and support women, minorities and disadvantaged workers by providing the training necessary to obtain a job with livable wages in the construction, technical and transportation industries. . . The school will be open for its first 10th-grade class of students in the fall of 2009 and applications are available on its Web site |||

There are no present plans for rehabilitation programs for people like Larry Summers, but the program does cite a recent Science article which reports that a new study, led by psychologist Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin, shows that there is no difference between girls' and boys' test scores on common standardized math tests. Among students with the highest test scores, white boys outnumbered white girls by about two to one. But among Asians, that number was reversed. Obviously, cultural values have a lot to do with the scores, which is why things like the coastal studies program are important.

Wending our way through the state and local legal hurdles to help create the program, one of the issues was whether education was compatible with agriculture. This question astounded me because it was something I just took for granted.

For example, the 19th century Morrill Acts funded land grant institutions - with actual grants of land - to teach agriculture, military tactics, mechanic arts and home economics - as well as classical studies. Politicians of the era understood that, given America's huge size, you couldn't have good agriculture without widely dispersed good education. Michigan State - originally the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan - was the first land grant institution, although its funding came from the state. The first federal land grant university was Kansas State.

Schools have been central to the life and landscape of rural families in America. There were once several one room schoolhouses within a few miles of the new coastal studies program. One small town in Maine had 14 schools in the 19th century. Typically such schools were placed about three miles apart, so they were hardly an oddity in the rural landscape.

You could not have had American agriculture without rural schools. They were inseparable. One study reports, "During the 1930s about one-half of all children went to school in rural areas, where the proportion of children to adults was higher than in the cities."

Today, only about two percent of Americans have had any direct contact with farms. And I needed only to watch the hesitancy with which my Bronx granddaughter made her first acquaintance with a Maine beach to be reminded of how many in this country have little contact not just with the study of nature, but contact with its scope and variety.

In the 19th century, the problem was to bring education to the natural areas of America. Today, we need to find new ways to bring nature into our education - such as the Coastal Studies for Girls program - if we are to deal with the ecological crisis wisely and in time.

November 20, 2008


Sam Smith

The debate over the automobile company bailout is a reminder of how many of Washington's problems are not political, but cultural and psychological. What it comes down to is this: there is apparently no one in power who knows how to fix the situation nor even where to begin. Of course, no one wants to admit this and so we watch a cspanic charade on TV that increasingly looks less like a congressional hearing and more like the dinner table of some dysfunctional family.

This is a problem that requires a whole new perspective and not merely a new administration. We have, as a culture, created a class of leaders who are so far removed from the realities of what they are managing that they have little idea of what to do when something goes wrong.

It's a problem that has been creeping up on us for a long time as trades were replaced by professions, boot straps by MBAs, lowly experience by higher education, empiricism by theory, and social intelligence by a form of high functioning autism.

Sixteen years ago, I ascribed this to a form of entropy that I dubbed global dumbing:

||| In physics, entropy is a measure of unavailable energy. In the natural world, entropy is reflected in the pollution from your car and radioactive tailings. If the world were perfect, energy would do just what it was supposed to do and not go wandering off like some groupie of that cosmic band, The Second Law of Thermodynamics. As it is, much of it is wasted and thus when you bake something, your kitchen as well as your oven gets warm. Such phenomena led the German physicist Ruldolf Clausius to propose in 1865 that we were losing energy everywhere and that we call this sorry state of affairs entropy. It's been downhill ever since.

Cultures lose energy, too. Which is why the Egyptians don't build pyramids any more, and why Guatemalans have to import digital watches rather than just checking their Mayan calendars. The creation of a great civilization or a great world power wastes a enormous amount of energy. As Barry Commoner put it, in nature there is no free lunch. . .

The global human mind faces a similar problem, thanks to such factors as the ubiquity of American film and television, excessively frequent summits of world leaders, international conferences on every conceivable subject, multinational corporations and other well meaning efforts that bring the world closer together but in so doing leaves no corner of it immune from human energy loss. If there is, in fact, a entropic collapse of the earth, the last sound may well be that of Larry King telling a caller from Bali to hold on a minute for a word from his sponsor.

Nor is this entropy limited to the more public pursuits. Indeed, a cursory examination of American business suggests that its major product is wasted energy. Compute all the energy loss created by corporate lawyers, Washington lobbyists, marketing consultants, CEO benefits, advertising agencies, leadership seminars, human resource supervisors, strategic planners and industry conventions and it is amazing that this country has any manufacturing base at all. ||||

While there is much talk about the inefficiency of the auto industry, no one seems to notice the inefficiency of those trying to correct it, symbolized by word that at least one government agency is holding planning meetings in preparation for transition planning meetings. If these people were in Detroit there would be no cars at all.

One of the blessed teachings of journalism is that you don't have to know anything; you just have to know who does. But even the press seems to have forgotten this as they regurgitate the stalls, sideshows, and superfluities that pass for a serious discussion.

Is there any way out? In the spirit of the hope we have been so frequently promised of late, here are a few things that might help:

- Bring in people who are good at things to baby sit those in the auto industry who aren't. A few examples would be the best from Silicon Valley and, if it doesn't violate the current laws of patriotism, even those from other countries who know how to make and sell things. The purpose would not be to micromanage but to observe, suggest and report back to Congress and the American people what the hell is going on.

- Figure out how many and what sort of cars we are actually going to need if we really do go green. The answer to this will help us figure out what sort of auto industry we need.

- Take one third of the Defense Department's research and development budget and use it for research & development of new forms of transportation and transit. Why one third of the Pentagon's R&D budget? It turns out to be about $25 billion, a figure that's being thrown around a lot these days as too much to spend to save the industry that built modern America.

- Go through all the patents that the auto industry bought up in the past in order to prevent competition with a strategy that has resulted in so much trouble. We may even find one for a car that runs on a USB connection.

- Start converting the auto industry into a mass transit industry. There is a precedent for this in the Budd Company that started building steel car bodies for Dodge in 1916 and ended up making modern Amtrak cars. It died in the 1980s because we thought cars were better than trains. Using billions to make equipment for the huge new rail system that we badly need would not be a bailout but a startup. And we could do it with government printed money - and not more debt - because it will be public works that creates wealth and employment rather than inflation.

- Bearing in mind that Detroit labor costs - despite conservative propaganda - is less than ten percent of what goes into a car, any adjustment in compensation should be matched by new forms of involvement by workers including board seats and novel ownership plans.

If you don't like any or all of the above, come up with your own damn ideas. But note, in character and substance, how different these proposals are compared to the ones one more typically hears discussed in Washington, many of which involve little more than financial or legal manipulations of one sort or another. They are not unnecessary, but because of the inability of Washington's elite to deal with practical ideas, the fiscal and legal ones assume a disproportionate role.

This is a town which primarily likes to deal with law and numbers, policies and procedures. Making a car is not in its job description. Yet - as the housing foreclosure mess indicates - we can not retrieve America by ignoring the practical and the real.

November 19, 2008


Sam Smith

It's hard to remember, but not so long ago white liberals and blacks thought judging someone by their skin color was racist. Barack Obama has changed all that. Skin color is not only being used to judge him but the prospective future of the whole country as well.

Yet, if race doesn't matter, if we're purportedly moving into a post-racial society, then it cuts both ways. People can't, on the one hand, criticize those who blame blacks for crime while they place their own faith in one black for salvation. The latter is just a more benign use of the same faulty assumptions.

To keep this all straight, it helps to remember a few things:

- Race is a unscientific concept that was developed to promote prejudice. To even use the term caters to this dismal history.

- The far better terms are ethnicity or culture. Each of those groups popularly described as races reflect a large variety of cultures. The 9th Ward of New Orleans is not Dakar. And the west side of Manhattan is not the west side of Iowa.

- There is more physical (including DNA) difference between different cultures of the "black race" than there is between the average white or black. Our infatuation with skin color blinds us to this

- Barack Obama's black father left him when he was two. His mother was a white Kansan. He was raised from the age of ten by white grandparents in Hawaii.

A few days ago, a black friend said to me that now that Obama had been elected I was going to have to show him more respect. I replied that since Obama was half white we were even on that score and, since Obama and I both went to Harvard, it was I who came out ahead on the mutual identity scale.

Silly, but no more so than the highly successful effort to turn Obama into a racial icon despite his multicultural background, done by the very people who claim that race shouldn't be important.

It is wonderful that a presidential glass ceiling has been broken, but it is also worth remembering that Jack Kennedy also did it - and we haven't have a Catholic president since. Nor are we making the slightest progress in integrating the Senate. When I make the lonely argument for increasing the number of urban states, I sometimes note that if the Senate were a school system it would be under court ordered bussing, if it were a private firm it couldn't get business from the federal government and if it were a private club you'd want to resign from it before seeking public office.

But because of our American Idol approach to politics and change, the texture of the Senate doesn't even get mentioned while that of our new president becomes an obsessive symbol.

Living in DC, I have mostly voted for black candidates most of my life and know they range from virtuous to despicable as much as any bunch of white pols. I also know that the color of their skin is the worst possible predictor of how they will treat others less fortunate but of the same melanin density.

There is another problem with making such a big deal of ethnicity: it encourages others to do the same, others who may have been taught that those who do not look like themselves are lesser beings. White liberals tend to regard these people with contempt, but multicultural sophistication is nowhere near as widespread as some would like to believe and priggish disapproval is no more effective in such cases as it would be in teaching a child math. In fact, it helps to keep racial myths on the table by adding to the resentment.

It would be wiser if Obama's supporters could see themselves more as guides towards a successful multiculturalism than as triumphant members of one of America's many cultures. A good start would be to stop calling Obama black and celebrate the fact that he represents an ethnic complexity that increasingly will define our country. It's not as much fun and self-satisfying but it would better help America get on the right track.

November 17, 2008


Sam Smith

When the political media isn't finding new ways to express its infatuation with our first half-black president-elect (while ignoring the total absence of blacks in the Senate), its most obsessive activity these days is quoting from Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals."

This is a familiar phenomenon: a press corps showing off its intellectual abilities by citing some newly discovered sacred text. The book itself may be - as with Goodwin's - worthy or it may be - as with the Rise of the Creative Class or the World is Flat - just airport bookstore blather, but in each case such works are given a journalistic priority beyond all reasonable justification.

To put it as simply as possible, Obama is not Lincoln. What we are living through is not the Civil War and, as Steven Teles points out in Same Facts, there is no parallel between today's Democratic Party and the nascent Republican Party of Lincoln's day: "The Republican party was still not a completely institutionalized entity, and to keep it together in its first shot at power Lincoln needed all the major figures in the party to be represented."

Further, what is required at present is not unity but recovery from the most evil and corrupt administration in our history. What is being proposed instead is that we find peace and common ground with the international criminals and domestic crooks who have been running the place. There is nothing but disaster in such unity.

To be fair, the media has gotten considerable help in propelling the faux Lincoln-Obama parallel from its living beneficiary. (The dead victim of the parallel, I suspect, would be polite but bored by his assigned partner).

After all, Obama began his presidential campaign in Springfield, Illinois, and in his book, The Audacity of Hope, he writes, "In Lincoln's rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat-in all this, he reminded me not just of my own struggles. . . "

But it didn't take long for the media to get the message, which is now so out of hand that Newsweek recently pontificated, "Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing."

In fact, the press, in Obama's case, has been unable to come up with a single example of that rhetoric other than some trite cliches. It is reflective of the sad state of writing in this country that the press can't distinguish the difference or even be as perceptive as Advertising Age which named Obama the marketer of the year. The Association of National Advertisers, according to PR Watch, "voted for Obama's campaign over ad campaigns by major companies like Apple, Zappos, Nike and Coors. Ad Age called Obama's historic November 4 win the 'biggest day in the history of marketing,' saying marketers have a lot to learn from his campaign."

When a British friend was enthusing over the first election of Tony Blair, I told him that I thought I had once bought a used car from Blair on Arlington Boulevard. I feel much the same way about Obama. Where others see a black Jesus I see a highly sophisticated salesman whose main product is himself. And the carefully constructed Lincoln parallel is part of the con.

Obama is in some ways a cleaned up version of Bill Clinton, the last great self salesman we had to confront. Both were deprived of their fathers; Obama at age 2 and Clinton a few months before his birth. Clinton's stepfather was an alcoholic who would lose his Buick franchise through mismanagement and his own pilfering. Young Bill turned to his Uncle Raymond who was a colorful car dealer, slot machine owner and gambling operator, who thrived (except when his house is firebombed) on the fault line of criminality. Add in George W's difficulties living in the shadow of his father and our last three presidencies have been assigned to men working out deep paternal problems.

The difference, however, is that in Obama there is none of that Buick dealer crudeness. We still have a salesman but we've moved up to Fifth Avenue. Which is why a lot of people don't see it.

And why they can't understand the con behind the Team of Rivals talk. Throughout his campaign, Obama promised change. Now, with his election secured, he is openly plotting how to continue the status quo, complete with Hillary Clinton and Republicans as cabinet members.

Yet, thanks to the media obsession with the Lincoln parallel, instead of debating this dubious and deceptive approach, a cynical con has been elevated to historical honor and the change we can count on slowly fades and, in its place, arises potentially the most conservative Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson.

One comfort is that these sacred texts tend to fade as rapidly as they rise. Weles even suggests that if Obama loses in 2012, we may find this headline: "Unfortunate Reading of Goodwin Seen By Observers as Cause of Obama's Downfall. Obama Agrees, Claims, 'I Should Have Read Cod: The Fish That Changed The World Instead'"

November 13, 2008


Sam Smith

Looking over the seven page questionnaire that the Obama organization has for prospective appointees, several thoughts occurred:

- I couldn't get a job there. Just assembling everything I had ever written or said would take me more than four years.

- Barack Obama couldn't get a job there, thanks to some of his less than elegant past connections.

- I wouldn't want to belong to an administration staffed with people who had passed this test. What a boring, unimaginative and probably ineffective crowd.

This may surprise some readers accustomed to my criticism of public officials. But as a student of political corruption going back to my 12th year when I helped Philadelphia, by stuffing envelopes, to end 69 years of GOP rule, I have come to understand important differences in corruption. Basically it comes down to this: what does the public get in return?

Today, very little. The typical corrupt politician doesn't even tithe to the voters. Instead, like so much of successful American life, politicians - instead of being favored members of a community - have become primarily manipulators of communities - narcissistic, insatiable strivers after personal wealth and power.

Compare them with Richard Daley pere or James Michael Curley, who continued to live in their communities and in the same dwellings for much of their careers. While plenty of people got rich off of them; they would seem pathetically inefficient at the personal abuse of power compared to the pols of today.

As I wrote at the beginning of the Clinton years:

||||| Reform breeds its own hubris and so few noticed that as we destroyed the evils of machine politics we also were breaking the links between politics and the individual, politics and community, politics and social life. We were beginning to segregate politics from ourselves.

As the Chicago alderman Vito Marzullo put it, "My home is open 24 hours a day. I want people to come in. As long as I have a breathing spell, I’ll go to a wake, a wedding, whatever. I never ask for anything in return. On election day, I tell my people, “Let your conscience be your guide."

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

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

Key to the movements that replaced the old machines was not the elimination of corruption but its rebranding as acceptable "reform" or, in today's terms, "economic development" and "globalization." I can guarantee you that any developer will do better under DC's supposedly clean local government than under the old, corrupt Barry machine. The same would be true of corporations dealing with the Bush administration compared to the Eisenhower years. We have learned, at both the local and national level, how to legalize and sanitize corruption.

The other problem with squeaky cleanness is that it doesn't produce particularly good government. With a few exceptions - a long line of capable and honest New England politicians come to mind - the best government has often been the product of a maddening confluence of the good and the bad, the noble and the seedy. Thus, two of the biggest scoundrels of modern politics - LBJ and Adam Clayton Powell - got more good legislation passed in less time than anyone in American history and when asked to name the best mayor of Washington in my lifetime I shock people by saying Marion Barry in his first two terms - before he became a personal wreck.

When Barry began to fall apart, I wrote this:

||||| With Earl [Long] and Willie Stark (aka Huey Long) the mechanics of their politics was even more corrupt than that of our mayor; yet in some mystical way they managed to immunize the philosophy that the politics served from its corruption. Jack Burden, the journalist-turned-Stark henchman who narrates 'All the King's Men,' says at one point, "Process as process is neither morally good nor morally bad. We may judge results but not process. The morally bad agent may perform the deed which is good. The morally good agent may perform the deed which is bad. Maybe a man has to sell his soul to get the power to do good."

Thus you look at Huey Long's platform of the 1930s and wish the current national Democratic Party could do as well. But those were days when you could see and feel political virtue. A new road, a new hospital, tax relief that made a difference. Today politics has become a giant Nintendo game, exciting and convincing while you're playing, but nothing there when you turn off the set. If we drive around Washington we would be hard pressed to find places where we could point and say, "Look, at least Marion Barry did this." There are no Barry monuments, no Barry unfulfilled dreams, no Barry proverbs to mitigate his memory. Yet before we become too moralistic about it, we should remember that Barry was doing no more than playing by the current rules, which state that social programs only need be promised, wars on social ills need only be waged, and virtue only need be declared. Nothing in politics anymore need be brought to fruition. Marion Barry said he never used drugs; George Bush said he would eliminate them. And perhaps Barry learned from the Bushes of America that it really didn't matter what you said. No one would bother with the final truth. . . |||

In the eighteen years since that was written, it's only gotten worse. And that's one of the reasons I look as skeptically and carefully at the "reformers" - most recently Obama - as I do the corrupt. The potential for evil exist with both, the major difference being that with the reformer you don't get enough warning except from a few cynics like myself.

So I won't be filling out that questionnaire and I'm not too optimistic about those who do so successfully. It's like the poet William Stafford said, "When the pond is purified, the lilies die."

November 11, 2008


Sam Smith

If there is one consistency in media coverage of new administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, it is that the new crowd is brilliant, dramatic, unprecedented, world shaking and historic.

In other words, the coverage is almost always wrong.

The reason nobody cares or notices is that the point is not to demonstrate the sharpness of reporters' brains and eyes but the availability of their butts.

Even with the worst president in history on their docket, it wasn't until both the GOP and Democratic pretenders to the throne led the way that the media was finally willing to describe George Bush as a failure.

And so, less than a week after the polls have closed, we find Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic opening a Facebook group for journalists working on the presidential transition, which promises, "We'll use the space to exchange ideas and stories, and organize social events with members of the transition team." Just what objective journalism needs: more buddy drinking with your sources.

As I described it once: "Official Washington -- including government, media and the lobbies -- functions in many ways like America's largest and most prestigious club, a sort of indoor, east coast Bohemian Grove in which members engage in endless rites of mutual affirmation combined with an intense but genteel competition that determines the city's tennis ladder of political and social power. What appears to the stranger as a major struggle is often only an intramural game between members of the same club, lending an aura of dynamism to what is in truth deeply stable."

Among the victims of this culture - aside from the American people, of course - are those Washington figures who fail to play the game. Howard Dean, in the first post election week, has not only announced his departure from the Democratic National Committee but two hundred staffers of his 50 state strategy - which incidentally helped to put Obama and a Democratic Congress in power - have already been fired.

In another example, John Kerrry - whose only original (albeit inaccurate) thought was that he might be a good president - is among those being mentioned for Secretary of State. That would probably result in a promotion for one of the capital's outsiders and most honorable officials, Russ Feingold. But note how the Washington Post's Al Kamin handles it:

Speaking of secretary of state, it's looking increasingly like Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) may get the nod for that post, a possibility that is driving some Senate Democrats to distraction. No, not that they oppose Kerry. Not at all.

The problem is that the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), has picked up a new job. The second-ranking Democrat, Sen. Christopher Dodd (Conn.), has announced that he's staying on as head of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, what with all the troubles in the industry these days. . .

That means, yes indeed, next in line to chair the committee is Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.), who tends to approach foreign policy and related matters from, let's say, a leftward direction. Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act and is the leading advocate of cutting and running out of Iraq. That means the Obama administration, in addition to getting smacked around from the right on foreign policy matters, could find itself hammered from the left as well.

A town that sucks up to John Kerry and Rahm Emannuel and snubs Russ Feingold and Howard Dean needs some professional help. As things now, Jesus couldn't have his second coming in the capital unless it was on the new president's agenda.

November 05, 2008


Sam Smith

Over the past few weeks I've been a good boy. I've placed everything having to do with the real Barack Obama into a futures file and spent my time on the far grimmer matter of the real John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Now the party is over and it's time for people to put away their Barack and Michelle dolls and start dealing with what has truly happened.

This, I admit, is difficult because the real Obama doesn't exist yet. He follows in the footsteps of our first postmodern president, Bill Clinton, who observed the principles outlined by scholar Pauline Marie Rosenau:

Post-modernists recognize an infinite number of interpretations . . . of any text are possible because, for the skeptical post-modernists, one can never say what one intends with language, [thus] ultimately all textual meaning, all interpretation is undecipherable.. . . Many diverse meanings are possible for any symbol, gesture, word . . . Language has no direct relationship to the real world; it is, rather, only symbolic.

As James Krichick wrote in the New Republic, "Obama is, in his own words, something of a Rorschach test. In his latest book, The Audacity of Hope, he writes, 'I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.' "

This is remarkably similar to Ted Koppel's description of Vanna White of TV's Wheel of Fortune: "Vanna leaves an intellectual vacuum, which can be filled by whatever the predisposition of the viewer happens to be."

Obama has left the same kind of vacuum. His magic, or con, was that voters could imagine whatever they wanted and he would do nothing to spoil their reverie. He was a handsome actor playing the part of the first black president-to-be and, as in films, he was careful not to muck up the role with real facts or issues that might harm the fantasy. Hence the enormous emphasis on meaningless phrases like hope and change.

Of course, in Obama's postmodern society -- one that rises above the purported false teachings of partisanship -- 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.

The Obama campaign was driven in no small part by a younger generation trained to accept brands as a substitute for policies. If the 1960s had happened like this, the activists would have spent all their time trying to get Martin Luther King or Joan Baez elected president rather than pursing ancillary issues like ending segregation and the war in Vietnam.

Obama himself took his vaunted experience in community organizing and turned its principles on its head. Instead of empowering the many at the bottom, he used the techniques to empower one at the top: himself.

It is historic that a black has been elected president, but we should remember that Obama was not running against Bull Connor, George Wallace or Strom Thurmond. Putting Obama in the same class as earlier black activists discredits the honor of those who died, suffered physical harm or were repeatedly jailed to achieve equality. Obama is not a catalyst of change, but rather its belated beneficiary. The delay, to be sure, is striking; after all, the two white elite sports of tennis and golf were integrated long before presidential politics, but Washington - as Phil Hart said of the Senate - has always been a place that always does things twenty years after it should have.

There is an informative precedent to Obama's rise. Forty-two years ago Edward Brooke became the first black senator to be elected with a majority of white votes. Brooke was chosen from Massachusetts as a Republican in a state that was 97% white.

Jason Sokol, who teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in History News Network:

|||| On Election Day, Brooke triumphed with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Newspapers and magazines hummed with approval. The Boston Globe invoked a legacy that included the Pilgrims, Daniel Webster, and Charles Sumner, offering the Bay State as the nation's racial and political pioneer.

Journalist Carl Rowan was among the unconvinced. For whites, voting for Brooke became "a much easier way to wipe out guilt feelings about race than letting a Negro family into the neighborhood or shaking up a Jim Crow school setup." Polling numbers lent credence to Rowan's unease. They showed that only 23 percent of Massachusetts residents approved of a statewide school integration law; just 17 percent supported open housing. ||||

That's the problem with change coming from the top, as Obama might have heard when he was involved in real community organizing. It also helps to explain why there have been no more Catholic presidents since John Kennedy. Symbolism is not the change we need.

Getting at the reality of Obama is difficult. He performs as the great black liberal, but since he is one half white and one half conservative, that doesn't leave him a lot of wiggle room.

To be sure, in the Senate he got good ratings from various liberal groups, but two things need to be remembered:

First, liberals aren't that liberal any more. Thus getting a 90% score merely means that you went along with the best that an extremely conservative Democratic Party was willing to risk. This is not a party that would, in these times, have passed Social Security, Medicare or minimum wage. In fact, many liberals aren't much interested in economic issues at all - especially that portion of the constituency that controls the money, the media and the message.

Second, politicians reflect their constituency. Obama's constituency is no longer Illinois. He has a whole new set of folks to pander to.

There is one story from Chicago, however, that remains relevant. A citizen walks into his alderman's office looking for a job. "Who sent you?" he asks. "Nobody," he replies. Says the staffer: "We don't want nobody nobody sent."

Who sent Barack Obama remains a mystery. He has risen from an unknown state senator to president in exactly four years and that only happens when somebody sends for you.

The black liberal image falters on a number of other scores including Obama's affection for extreme right wingers like Chuck Hagel and an obvious indifference to anybody who votes like, say, a state senator from Hyde Park. Think back over the campaign and try to recall a single instance when Obama reached out to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party or to the better angels of the Congressional Black Caucus. Instead his ads attacked as 'extreme' the single payer health insurance backed by many of his own supporters, he dissed ACORN and Colin Powell was as radical a black as he wanted to be seen palling around with.

The key issue that has driven Obama throughout his career has been Obama. He has achieved virtually nothing for any other cause. His politics reflects whatever elite consensus he gathers around himself. This is why his "post partisanship" needs to be watched so carefully. If Bernie Sanders and John Conyers don't get to White House meetings as often as Chuck Hagel, Obama will glide easily to the right, as every president has done over the past thirty years. If liberals, as they did with Clinton, watch without a murmur as their president redesigns their party to fit his personal ambitions, then the whole country will continue to move to the right as well.

Since the real Obama doesn't exist yet, it is impossible to predict with any precision what he will do. But here is some of the evidence gathered over the past months that should serve both as a warning and as a prod to progressives not to take today's dreams as a reasonable facsimile of reality:

Business interests

Advisor Cass Sunstein told Jeffrey Rosen of the NY Times: "I would be stunned to find an anti-business [Supreme Court] appointee from either [Clinton or Obama]. There's not a strong interest on the part of Obama or Clinton in demonizing business, and you wouldn't expect to see that in their Supreme Court nominees."

Obama supported making it harder to file class action suits in state courts. David Sirota in the Nation wrote, "Opposed by most major civil rights and consumer watchdog groups, this big business-backed legislation was sold to the public as a way to stop 'frivolous' lawsuits. But everyone in Washington knew the bill's real objective was to protect corporate abusers."

He voted for a business-friendly "tort reform" bill

He voted against a 30% interest rate cap on credit cards

He had the most number of foreign lobbyist contributors in the primaries

He was even more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain

He was most popular of the candidates with K Street lobbyists

In 2003, rightwing Democratic Leadership Council named Obama as one of its "100 to Watch." After he was criticized in the black media, Obama disassociated himself with the DLC. But his major economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, is also chief economist of the conservative organization. Writes Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer, "Goolsbee has written gushingly about Milton Friedman and denounced the idea of a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures."

Added Henwood, "Top hedge fund honcho Paul Tudor Jones threw a fundraiser for him at his Greenwich house last spring, 'The whole of Greenwich is backing Obama,' one source said of the posh headquarters of the hedge fund industry. They like him because they're socially liberal, up to a point, and probably eager for a little less war, and think he's the man to do their work. They're also confident he wouldn't undertake any renovations to the distribution of wealth."

Civil liberties

He supports the war on drugs

He supports the crack-cocaine sentence disparity

He supports Real ID

He supports the PATRIOT Act

He supports the death penalty

He opposes lowering the drinking age to 18

He supported amnesty for telecoms engaged in illegal spying on Americans


He went to Connecticut to support Joe Lieberman in the primary against Ned Lamont

Wrote Paul Street in Z Magazine, "Obama has lent his support to the aptly named Hamilton Project, formed by corporate-neo-liberal Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and other Wall Street Democrats to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party. . . Obama was recently hailed as a Hamiltonian believer in limited government and free trade by Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks, who praises Obama for having "a mentality formed by globalization, not the SDS."

Writes the London Times, "Obama is hoping to appoint cross-party figures to his cabinet such as Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator for Nebraska and an opponent of the Iraq war, and Richard Lugar, leader of the Republicans on the Senate foreign relations committee. Senior advisers confirmed that Hagel, a highly decorated Vietnam war veteran and one of McCain's closest friends in the Senate, was considered an ideal candidate for defense secretary.

Richard Lugar was rated 0% by SANE. . . rated 0% by AFL-CIO. . . rated 0% BY NARAL. . . rated 12% by American Public Health Association. . . rated 0% by Alliance for Retired Americans. . . rated 27% by the National Education Association. . . rated 5% by League of Conservation Voters. . . He voted no on implementing the 9/11 Commission report. . . Vote against providing habeas corpus for Gitmo prisoners. . .voted no on comprehensive test ban treaty. . .voted against same sex marriage. . . strongly anti-abortion. . . opposed to more federal funding for healthcare. . .voted for unconstitutional wiretapping. . .voted to increase penalties for drug violations

Chuck Hagel was rated 0% by NARAL. . . rated 11% by NAACP. . . rated 0% by Human Rights Coalition. . . rated 100% by Christian Coalition. . . rated 12% by American Public Health Association. . . rated 22% by Alliance for Retired Americans. . . rated 36% by the National Education Association. . . rated 0% by League of Conservation Voters. . . rated 8% by AFL-CIO. . . He is strongly anti-abortion. . .voted for anti-flag desecration amendment. . .voted to increase penalties for drug violations. . . favors privatizing Social Security


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

He supports federally funded ethanol and is unusually close to the ethanol industry.

He led his party's reversal of a 25-year ban on off-shore oil drilling


Obama has promised to double funding for private charter schools, part of a national effort undermining public education.

He supports the No Child Left Behind Act albeit expressing reservations about its emphasis on testing. Writes Cory Mattson, "Despite NCLB''s loss of credibility among educators and the deadlock surrounding its attempted reauthorization in 2007, Barack Obama still offers his support. Even the two unions representing teachers, both which for years supported reform of the policy to avoid embarrassing their Democratic Party 'friends,' declared in 2008 that the policy is too fundamentally flawed to be reformed and should be eliminated."

Fiscal policy

Obama rejected moratoriums on foreclosures and a freeze on rates, measures supported by his primary opponents John Edwards and Hillary Clinton

He was a strong supporter of the $700 billion cash-for-trash banker bailout plan.

Two of his top advisors are former Goldman Sachs chair Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. Noted Glen Ford of black Agenda Report, "In February 1999, Rubin and Summers flanked Fed Chief Alan Greenspan on the cover of Time magazine, heralded as, 'The Committee to Save the World.' Summers was then Secretary of the Treasury for Bill Clinton, having succeeded his mentor, Rubin, in that office. Together with Greenspan, the trio had in the previous year labored successfully to safeguard derivatives, the exotic 'ticking time bomb' financial instruments, from federal regulation."

Robert Scheer notes that "Rubin, who pocketed tens of millions running Goldman Sachs before becoming treasury secretary, is the man who got President Clinton to back legislation by then-Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, to unleash banking greed on an unprecedented scale."

Obama's fund-raising machine has been headed by Penny Prtizker former chair of the Superior Bank, one of the first to get into subprime mortgages. While she resigned as chair of the family business in 1994, as late as 2001 she was still on the board and wrote a letter saying that her family was recapitalizing the bank and pledging to "once again restore Superior's leadership position in subprime lending." The bank shut down two months later and the Pritzker family would pay $460 million in a settlement with the government.

Foreign policy

Obama endorsed US involvement in the failed drug war in Colombia: "When I am president, we will continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program."

He has expressed a willingness to bomb Iran and won't rule out a first strike nuclear attack.

He has endorsed bombing or invading Pakistan to go after Al Qaeda in violation of international law. He has called Pakistan "the right battlefield ... in the war on terrorism."

He supports Israeli aggression and apartheid. Obama has deserted previous support for two-state solution to Mid East situation and refuses to negotiate with Hamas.

He has supported Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, saying "it must remain undivided."

He favors expanding the war in Afghanistan.

Although he claims to want to get out of Iraq, his top Iraq advisor wrote that America should keep between 60,000 and 80,000 troops in Iraq. Obama, in his appearances, blurred the difference between combat soldiers and other troops.

He indicated to Amy Goodman that he would leave 140,000 private contractors and mercenaries in Iraq because "we don't have the troops to replace them."

He has called Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez an enemy of the United States and urged sanctions against him.

He claimed "one of the things that I think George H.W. Bush doesn't get enough credit for was his foreign policy team and the way that he helped negotiate the end of the Cold War and prosecuted the Gulf War. That cost us $20 billion dollars. That's all it cost. It was extremely successful. I think there were a lot of very wise people."

He has hawkish foreign policy advisors who have been involved in past US misdeeds and failures. These include Zbigniew Brzezinski, Anthony Lake, General Merrill McPeak, and Dennis Ross.

It has been reported that he might well retain as secretary of defense Robert Gates who supports actions in violation of international law against countries merely suspected of being unwilling or unable to halt threats by militant groups.


Obama opposes gay marriage. He wouldn't have photo taken with San Francisco mayor because he was afraid it would seem that he supported gay marriage


Obama opposes single payer healthcare or Medicare for all.


Obama would expand the size of the military.

National Service

Obama 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 with a bill requiring such mandatory national service introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel.

He announced in Colorado Springs last July, "We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded."

On another occasion he said, "It's also important that a president speaks to military service as an obligation not just of some, but of many. You know, I traveled, obviously, a lot over the last 19 months. And if you go to small towns, throughout the Midwest or the Southwest or the South, every town has tons of young people who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's not always the case in other parts of the country, in more urban centers. And I think it's important for the president to say, this is an important obligation. If we are going into war, then all of us go, not just some." Some have seen this as a call for reviving the draft.

He has attacked the exclusion of ROTC on some college campuses

Presidential crimes

Obama aggressively opposed impeachment actions against Bush. One of his key advisors, Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School, said prosecuting government officials risks a "cycle" of criminalizing public service.


Unlike his deferential treatment of right wing conservatives, Obama's treatment of the left has been dismissive to insulting. He dissed Nader for daring to run for president again. And he called the late Paul Wellstone "something of a gadfly"

Public Campaign Financing

Obama's retreat from public campaign financing has endangered the whole concept.

Social welfare

Obama wrote that conservatives and Bill Clinton were right to destroy social welfare,

Social Security

Early in the campaign, Obama said, "everything is on the table" with Social Security.


As things now stand, the election primarily represents the extremist center seizing power back from the extremist right. We have moved from the prospect of disasters to the relative comfort of mere crises.

Using the word 'extreme' alongside the term 'center' is no exaggeration. Nearly all major damage to the United States in recent years - a rare exception being 9/11 - has been the result of decisions made not by right or left but by the post partisan middle: Vietnam, Iraq, the assault on constitutional liberties, the huge damage to the environment, and the collapse of the economy - to name a few. Go back further in history and you'll find, for example, the KKK riddled with members of the establishment including - in Colorado - a future governor, senator and mayor after whom Denver's airport is named. The center, to which Obama pays such homage, has always been where most of the trouble lies.

The only thing that will make Obama the president pictured in the campaign fantasy is unapologetic, unswerving and unendingly pressure on him in a progressive and moral direction, for he will not go there on his own. But what, say, gave the New Deal its progressive nature was pressure from the left of a sort that simply doesn't exist today.

Above are listed nearly three dozen things that Obama supports or opposes with which no good liberal or progressive would agree. Unfortunately, what's out there now, however, looks more like a rock concert crowd or evangelical tent meeting than a determined and directed political constituency. Which isn't so surprising given how successful our system have been at getting people to accept sights, sounds, symbols and semiotics as substitutes for reality. Once again, it looks like we'll have to learn the hard way.