January 28, 2009


Sam Smith

It's only a week after the inauguration and already post-partisan depression is settling in. It turns out, to the amazement of the Obama administration and much of the media, that a lot of people besides the president have ideas as to how to handle the fiscal crisis.

Part of it is partisan as should have been expected. After all, the only place post partisanship really exists is under a dictator. And the political dissent is not just coming from Republicans, but also from progressives who are quickly facing up to their differences with the new president.

This is the way a democracy is meant to work and it is far from a childish thing to put away.

But that only tells part of the story. Obama and his top aides are indubitably of high intelligence, but so is much of Washington. What is lacking at times like this is a sufficiency of common sense, the sort of social intelligence that used to characterize the good politician before the lawyers took over the trade.

I have argued in the past that Washington is run these days by high functioning autistics, suffering a sort of political Asperger's Syndrome, who can't seem to connect the data in their minds with the realities of life.

A example: after clipping all the latest best stories I could find on the fiscal crisis, I searched for two words: "small business." They didn't appear because no one seems to notice the importance of small business if you want to create jobs.

But a year ago the Small Business Administration reported that small businesses (less than 500 employees) employed 51% of nation's private non-farm workforce. From 2003 to 2004 companies with less than 20 employees created roughly 1.6 million net new jobs. Companies with 20 to 499 employees created around 275,000 net new jobs. Meanwhile, employment at companies with more than 500 employees shrank by 214,000. The SBA also reported that over the last 20 years small businesses have created roughly 3 out of 4 net new private non-farm US jobs.

Why this indifference? Three possible reasons are that small business people are poorly represented in Congress, they're weak in lobbying and they don't give enough money to candidates.

But it is also true that as a greater percentage of power players become lawyers, MBAs or financial whizzes, a lesser percentage even pause to think about small business. And this is not a partisan issue; both major parties ignore the smaller firms.

Trained in theories that assume life is directed from the top, they gravitate naturally towards policies and solutions that reflect their education. The first bailout was as gross a reflection of this as one could imagine, but even the Obama version stumbles under the weight of grand presumptions that will supposedly trickle down to main street.

Thus we found initially little interest in decentralizing to bankruptcy judges the decisions on foreclosures as being proposed by John Conyers. Today's Washington Post, for example, shoved the story onto the business page, noting that "Democrats have backed off efforts to include the provision in the economic stimulus package that's making its way through Congress."

Why the reticence? Something like it worked for FDR, it's common sense, and it would even make Obama look good. But it's not the sort of thing you learn about in law and business school. And it's too close to the ground for comfort. And the banks don't like it.

Which brings up a final problem with what's happening in Washington - beyond the political Asperger's syndrome and beyond the distortions that come with too many years hanging around academics. The problem is that well educated people make more money and thus inevitably class begin to affect judgment.

I've been struck, for example, by how little Democrats talk about foreclosures anymore, by how the words poor and poverty seem to have become politically incorrect, and how bored liberals become when you mention single payer healthcare.

There is absolutely no doubt that if Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell were drafting a bailout it would be dramatically different from what Obama has come up with. And politics has surprisingly little to do with it. It is far more about what and who you care about most. As Roosevelt demonstrated, you can overcome the liabilities of intelligence or social and financial success with common sense, good judgment and a well directed heart, but you have to work at it.

Keith E. Stanovich has written a book called What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, published by Yale University Press.
Writes Kacie Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"Stanovich suggests that IQ tests focus on valuable qualities and capacities that are highly relevant to our daily lives. But he believes the tests would be far more effective if they took into account not only mental 'brightness' but also rationality - including such abilities as 'judicious decision making, efficient behavioral regulation, sensible goal prioritization ... [and] the proper calibration of evidence.'

"Our understanding of intelligence, he writes, has been muddled by the discrepancy between the vague, comprehensive vernacular term, which encompasses all the functions and manifestations of 'smarts,' and the narrower theories that 'confine the concept of intelligence to the set of mental abilities actually tested on extant IQ tests.' The latter conceptualization allows intelligence to coexist with foolishness because IQ tests do not measure the rationality required to abstain from dumb decisions, according to the author. . . In an earlier work, Stanovich coined his own term - dysrationalia - for 'the inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence.' That 'disorder' he suggests, might afflict some of the smartest people you know."

So if things don't go quite right with the latest bailout and the recovery in general, don't chalk it all off just to politics. It's also about how people connect their knowledge to real life, the judgments they make, and what and who they really care about most.

January 22, 2009


Sam Smith

Once again I'm in trouble and once again it has little to do with politics or ideology. I just don't think right about Obama.

Most people of power are inherently deductive thinkers. They have learned a set of respected principles by which those of power can continue to have power by applying these principles to the facts they find around them.

These principles change from time to time, which is why we have things like the op ed pages of the Washington Post that helpfully inform us, for example, when the age of the "free market" is over and it's okay to quote Keynes again.

Sometimes key principles have to be dispensed with in a less elegant manner, such as the "domino theory" of the Vietnam war or the "weapons of mass destruction" that took us into Iraq.

And sometimes key principles prove a bit shaky at which time it is fitting and proper to have them undergo thoughtful reexamination by approved theorists as is happening now with the "war on terror." These theories are typically either reconfirmed or replaced with others, preferably of three or less words.

In each instance, the key element is a theory that is presumed to be true, even if lacks empirical confirmation.

For example, in the case of Barack Obama, one theory is that he will be a great president because he is our first black president. Everyone is either too polite or too enthralled by the theory to ask such simple questions as: would this be true if our first black president were Clarence Thomas?

Another theory is that he will be a great president because he is a great man, a subset of the theory that history is the purview of great men [sic], which overlooks the role of chance, culture, the environment, and lesser souls such as those who created the decline in the birth rate or the anti-slavery, women's, labor and environmental movements.

Another theory, particular popular among the Washington elite, is that he will be a great president because he preaches centrism, even though there is no historical evidence that centrism produces anything much more than the status quo and even though, in America's case, most profound and progressive improvements have been the result of a raucous and irrepressible left.

I don't buy such theories. My learning disability is not that I'm of the wrong political persuasion, but that I think inductively. In other words, I move from evidence towards the theory rather than the other way around. While there are some academic fields where inductive reasoning gets respect - social history and anthropology, in which I majored, being among them - it is widely thought of as unprofessional empiricism at best, conspiracy theory at worst.

In fact, the term 'conspiracy theory' was invented by elite media and politicians to denigrate questions or critical presumptions about events about which important facts remain unrevealed.

The intelligent response to such events is to remain agnostic, skeptical, and curious. Theories may be suggested - just as they are every day about less complex and more open matters on news broadcasts and op ed pages - but such theories should not stray too far from available evidence.

Conversely, as long as serious anomalies remain, dismissing questions and doubts as a "conspiracy theory" is a highly unintelligent response. It is also ironic as those ridiculing the questions and doubts typically consider themselves intellectually superior to the doubters. But they aren't because they stopped thinking the moment someone in power told them a superficially plausible answer.

There is the further irony that many who ridicule doubts about the official version of events were typically trained at elite colleges where, in political science and history, theories often take precedent over facts and in which substantive decisions affecting politics and history are presumed to be the work of a small number of wise men [sic]. They are trained, in effect, to trust in theories and benign confederacies. Most major media political coverage is based on the great man theory of history. This pattern can be found elsewhere in everything from Skull & Bones to the NY Times editorial board to the Council on Foreign Relations. You might even call them beneficent conspiracy theorists.

Homicide detectives and investigative reporters, among others, are inductive thinkers who start with evidence rather than with theories and aren't happy when the evidence is weak, conflicting or lacking. They keep working the case until a solid answer appears.

The inductive thinker considering Obama is naturally drawn to things like his record and his statements on various issues. I compiled these over the campaign and came up with around 30 issues with which progressives might disagree. However you might argue each case, one fact is indisputable: the media did not let the voters in on the secret. Thus, most of the one million plus enthusiasts on the Mall during the inaugural celebration were cheering a theory rather than facts, supported by the almost universal absence of the mention of actual issues when the fans were interviewed by roving TV crews.

In philosophical terms, Barack Obama might be called a beneficent conspiracy theory, a black helicopter come to save rather than endanger us.

The irony is that I suspect he knows this, because he has achieved his success in part by being an inductive reasoner in practice and a deductive one in rhetoric. Cleverly ignoring Mahalia Jackson's warning against being a "saint in church and a devil under cover," Obama is street smart in his walk and ethereal in his talk. And in the latter, he is blessed by being able to draw on the grand theories of both the white Ivy League and black theology. It is this combination of intellectual and Christian theory that appeals to those inclined to faithfulness.

I learned about the Ivy League approach when I attended Harvard. Later I would write:

"Whatever intelligence I possessed did not seem the sort required to excel at Harvard. Long afterwards I would figure out that much of what Harvard was about was a giant game of categories, in which real people, real events and real phenomena were assigned to fictitious groupings such as The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the Freudian Tradition. To those immersed in this game, the imaginary assumed a substance of its own; as classics professor John Finley is said to have remarked, 'Sometimes, I fear my son thinks that life is real.'

"I had come to Harvard full of passion for phenomena I could see, feel and touch; now it was implicitly suggested that these were childish things to be put away. The educated man concerned himself primarily with what they meant, with which other phenomena they belonged, and what theories could best explain their existence in the first place. I didn't want to spend my life putting things into little boxes; I wanted to take them out, turn them over, examine them closely, do something with them, and tell others what I had found.

"If you were brazen enough to think inductively, that is to say to examine evidence and consider what it might all mean -- in short to use one's innate capacity to imagine, to dream and to create -- you risked being regarded ignorant, or at least odd. You were, after all, being educated to digest grand principles, major paradigms and random certainties and then to sort and file all of life's phenomena by these convenient categories.

"In such a cataloging system, the accidental, the chaotic, the imagined, the malevolent, the culturally unfamiliar, and the unique often got misplaced. I had come to Harvard with some vague notion that it would teach me how to use my own intelligence better, that I would learn how to educate myself. I didn't understand then, and wouldn't until many decades later, that the American establishment wasn't really all that interested in that sort of thing.

"From the intellectual epicenter of Cambridge to the political apex of Washington, education was something one received, rehearsed, and regurgitated. You didn't play with it, experiment with it, and you certainly didn't make it your own -- even if, like the shape of Harvard Square, it turned out not to be as officially described. Life at Harvard was thus several steps removed from life as I knew and hoped it to be."

The dean of freshman, F. Skiddy von Stade Jr, once said to me, "You people from Germantown Friends School look so good on paper. Why do you do so badly here?" It was a fair question; a number of GFS graduates were on probation and one had dropped out.

It took me decades to understand and appreciate the difference in two systems of learning, for at my Quaker high school I had been given few grand theories. Instead, in the 1950s I had been introduced to how the world really worked - for example, an 8th grade English course that included a segment on the secrets of advertising, a 9th grade course in anthropology and a 12 grade math course that explained the Boolean calculations of computers I wouldn't see for 20 years. The Quakers themselves were refreshingly devoid of grand theories - once a debate in Friends meeting over the divinity of Christ, for example, was gently diverted by one of the elders - but the respect and encouragement of critical thought and examination was far greater than I would find at Harvard or in the media I would late join.

Part of the problem with the grand theory approach to politics is that politics isn't a science. The deductive premises of science can be constantly tested, reviewed and dumped if necessary. In politics, these theories are not sanctified by the confirmation of experimentation and analysis, but primarily by the effectiveness of the propaganda those projecting them.

Besides, as Benjamin Franklin noted, you don't need to know the law of gravity to realize that a plate will likely break if you drop it on the floor.

The problem with inductive reasoning in politics is that you seldom come up with definitively accurate answers. But the same is true of deductive reasoning. The difference is that with the latter, it is easier to pretend that it is true. With inductive reasoning you are constantly reminded of the weakness of thought; with deductive reasoning it is too easy to become a prisoner of myth.

Evan Heit, in the Cambridge Handbook Of Computational Psychology describes the process well:

"How do you make a prediction about the unpredictable? Inductive reasoning is about drawing conclusions that are not certain or logically valid, but still likely. Let's say you are buying a new CD for your friend. It's impossible to know with certainty what she will like, and it doesn't seem that the rules of logic will tell you which CD to buy. There's no correct answer. Nonetheless, you can make an informed guess, and indeed she will probably like the CD that you buy. The more you know about her taste in music, and which categories of music she likes and does not like, the more likely it is that your prediction will be correct. Our everyday experiences are filled with predictions of this nature - we use inductive reasoning to make likely but not certain predictions about how people will act and about things we have not seen, e.g., that when we open a door to a room, the room will have a floor and ceiling. In spite of the uncertainty, we manage to be fairly successful in our predictions - we can buy gifts that our friends will enjoy and avoid walking into rooms without floors. When it comes to making predictions about the unpredictable, computational models are in a similar position to people. Because the judgments being modeled are themselves uncertain, it's unlikely that models of inductive reasoning will be perfectly correct. Any computational model of inductive reasoning could probably be improved by taking account of more knowledge or more principles of prediction. Nonetheless, current models of inductive reasoning already do a fairly good job."

So if I do not react to Barack Obama the way you would like, do not consider me cynical. It's just that where others see a god, I see a politician; where others feast on adjectives, I dine on facts and where some find faith sufficient, I prefer the Missouri motto that some say stems from an 1899 speech by Congressman Willard Vandiver, when he declared, "I come from a country that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I'm from Missouri, and you have got to show me."


Sam Smith - On Inauguration eve I returned home after midnight and, two blocks from my Capitol Hill home, noticed four soldiers on patrol in cold weather gear huddled together in the dark drinking coffee. Leaning against one of the men's boots was a large bag labeled Dunkin' Donuts. The men were standing on the corner of 8th & A NE in the same block as my office a long time ago. I recalled the last time I had seen soldiers on that street. It was right after the 1968 riots. The scene was familiar but how its meaning had changed.

January 15, 2009


Sam Smith

- Reduce credit card interest. As one politician once put it, "I'd frankly like to see credit cards rates down. I believe that would help stimulate the consumer and get consumer confidence moving again.'' Another politician responded by offering a bill in the Senate to cap credit card interest at 14%. The Senate voted for it 74-19. The first politician was that radical president, George Bush, in 1991. The other politician was that well known progressive, Alfonze D'Amato. Why are Obama and the Democrats more conservative than Daddy Bush and D'Amato?

- Start a movement to nationalize banks. Progressives led by Robert LaFollette did this in the 1930s, giving FDR cover for his more moderate solutions. Today, all the political pressure is coming from Wall Street, which tilts policies in that direction.

- All measures must put the interest of the ordinary citizen first. Neither the GOP nor the Democrats are doing that.

- Deemphasize tax cuts. They are far less effective than many think.

- Emphasize programs that will cheer people up and where they can see things changing for the better. Among the Wall Street bailout scam's many faults was that no one could tell what was happening as a result. Good economies need optimism.

- Use revenue sharing. It's a quick way to get money down to the states and cities and to the people who live there. Sure, some of it will get corrupted but far less than is already happening with the phony stimulus packages. The upside is that citizens have a better idea of what is being done on their behalf and have some say in how it is done.

- Fund public works project that have large spin-off benefits and which will be heavy in blue collar employment. These would include new mass transit service and a massive growth of America's rail system. It would deemphasize fixing up existing systems because the spin off benefits are far less. Would it include the much discussed new energy projects? We haven't seen any serious discussion of this. What is the blue collar employment potential of such projects?

- Institute a shared equity program for homeowners in distress under which the federal government buys a portion of the mortgage, renegotiates interest rates with the lenders and then gets its part of the equity back when the house is sold. A similar program could be used for building new homes.

- Decentralize decisions and negotiations on foreclosures and real estate interest rates, using local courts and similar bodies as was done in the 1930s.

- Give the government preferred stock in companies it aids. At one point in the New Deal, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation owned bank shares that would be worth at least $20 billion today.

January 14, 2009


Sam Smith

I better say this before the new administration declares such statements an act of terrorism: Barack Obama is not the new Lincoln.

The only explanations for such an absurd claim is either dangerous delusion or deceptive propaganda.

Let's hope it's not the first. We have barely survived eight years living with a president who thought he was General Macarthur and deserve a break from high level pathology.

There is no doubt that Obama has a hyper inflated ego totally unperturbed by its underlying lack of achievement, experience or programs, but he is also the product of an era in which the ambitious see themselves as products of an era, which is to say some thing to market rather than a human to be.

Obama believes that, as a public figure, he doesn't really exist; he is an image and upon this recognition his successful campaign was based. 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."

One way to think of Obama is as the only American vehicle to have ended the year with increased sales and larger market share - an ethnic hybrid that makes millions feel cool even if they don't know its miles per gallon, longevity, safety or reliability.

Of course, the fact that marketing creates an exaggerated or false image doesn't guarantee that the product itself is flawed. But it is a clue. A number of Obamaphiles have insisted to me that the president-elect is only palling with the right because he wants to soften them up. But if he is that manipulative why can't the left prove just as likely a victim?

Certainly his appointments - the most aggressively conventional of any Democratic president-elect of modern times - suggest that the change we need is no longer foremost on his mind; some are already referring to him as Status Quobama.

In any case, the fun is over. We have to live with our new hybrid until trade-in time. Reality has entered the story.

Obama, however, seems to think that any faults the vehicle may have can be overcome by even more marketing. The Lin Con is one of his favorite gimmicks that is reaching new fervor even as we struggle to find out real things like where the second $350 billion bailout is going.

From the London Telegraph:

"After he is sworn in and delivers his inaugural speech. . . he will then repair for a formal lunch modeled on foods enjoyed by Lincoln and eaten off replicate china picked out by his wife for his first inauguration in 1861.
The menu opens a seafood stew in puff pastry in honor of Lincoln's love of seafood, while the main course of duck breast with sour-cherry chutney and herb-roasted pheasant is a nod to the game that Lincoln enjoyed growing up in Indiana.

"The 200 guests seated in the statuary hall in the Capitol building, including supreme court justices, members of the cabinet and congressional leaders, will end with a dessert of apple cinnamon sponge, recalling Lincoln's fondness for apples.

"On Saturday, Obama will reprise part of the train journey taken by Lincoln before his swearing-in, traveling from Philadelphia, the first capital after independence, to Washington and stopping to meet ordinary people on the way."

From ABC News:

"President-elect Obama be sworn in using the Bible that was used to swear in President Abraham Lincoln, he will dine like Lincoln as well.

"The first course will even be served on replicas of the china picked out by then-first lady Mary Todd Lincoln at the beginning of her husband's term in office. . .

"Mr. Obama has often invoked Mr. Lincoln on the campaign trail, from his candidacy announcement in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln once toiled as a state legislator, to the 16th president's 'team of rivals' in his Cabinet, which Mr. Obama has replicated by putting three former Democratic presidential primary opponents in his, to his pick of Bible for the swearing-in."

Perhaps the most misleading aspect of the endless Lincoln analogies is the claim that Lincoln was a uniter, just what we need now. This ignores a few things like the Civil War and, further, that there is absolutely no reason to seek a middle ground between common sense and the decent on the one hand and the most corrupt, incompetent and nasty administration in American history. That Obama should consciously pursue this such a goal is not only misguided, it is deliberately deceptive.

If Obama really wants to associate himself with Lincoln, there is a far better place to start than apple cinnamon sponges, moldy old Bibles and sucking up to conservative columnists: don't tell lies.

January 13, 2009


The Progressive Review, June 2005

The financial problems of several of Washington's museums has got me thinking more about museums than I usually do. I don't rank as a museum expert, still I suspect I'm somewhere in the middle of the pack of those the experts are trying to attract. I love some museums, couldn't care less about others, and prefer to have fun on a Saturday afternoon rather than engage in premeditated acts of somber self-education.

There are plenty of troubled museums around the country that need more people like me. But they don't seem to have the touch. Are museums - like daily newspapers with their declining circulation - simply victims of changing technology and public tastes? Will television and the Internet damage the Louvre as well as the Washington Post? Or are museum designers and curators simply not reacting well enough to the changes around them?

For example, last fall I went to see the new American Indian Museum and was sadly disappointed. The post-modernists, it appeared, had even infiltrated the ranks of "community curators" and created exhibits that seemed the work of magazine cover designers. One felt endlessly trapped in introductions to something without ever getting to the real thing.

The verbal abstractions were numbing, the repetition tedious, and the lack of good stories odd, given their role in Indian culture.

Here was yet another building filled with annoying verbiage and distracting design intended to instruct you on how you should feel about something without giving you a chance to actually feel it. On the other hand, a couple of months later I went to an exhibit of Dutch art at the National Gallery and every label told me something interesting and useful about the painting next to it without ever being patronizing or dully didactic and I left not only feeling good but knowing more. The lack of pretentious abstractions and snooty adjectives didn't hurt.

My own museum experience started with the stuffed animals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and was later encouraged by lightning flashes and crashes and other scientific paraphernalia at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where I learned to call such places 'muzims.' Decades before computer games there was also a black coupe you could get into and "drive" into the movie being shown in front of you. You turned the wheel and braked and at the end received a punch card that told you whether you had an accident or not. Best of all you didn't need a license, which was, for me, still years away.

I learned to like things that were life sized whether they were stegasauri or steam engines. I looked for surprises often concealed among the stodgier adult matter. I liked being taken someplace else. . . to another land or a another time or to outer space. Sometimes after looking at the tigers or the baboons, I would stare at the backdrop of the diorama and imagine myself on that same veldt with those same creatures. Best of all, I liked the way the props all around me helped me imagine new things.

I still do. While at an impressionist exhibit at the Phillips Collection a friend, finished with her tour, handed me her taped guide machine. I don't care for these things, in part because they intrude on my reveries, but I took the machine and went into a room of abstract paintings by Rothko. I sat down on a bench and - staring at the huge mass of color before me - turned on the tape machine as it talked about the paintings downstairs. The resulting hallucinations were quite remarkable as I blended visual expressionism with aural impressionism. But how in the world do you justify such nonsense to a highly skilled curator?

While serving as Washington correspondent for the Illustrated London News, I once spent a week in the National Air and Space Museum. It would soon become the most visited museum in the world. Air & Space had been planned and built by engineers instead of by museum people and it was the only such institution in Washington that had opened three days early and a half million dollars under budget.

As I wandered about, I began noticing that the people who created this museum enjoyed it as much as I did. There was a mini-exhibit about the starship Enterprise. And there was a pie tin from the Frisbee Pie Company of Bridgeport, CT. The legend read: "Flown upside down, the tins were not as stable as modern plastic discs and their flights were highly unpredictable, but they did fly." I mentioned this to the deputy director, Melvin Zisfein. He immediately got up from his desk, went to the closet, pulled out a Frisbee, and then commenced to give me a pleasant lecture on the aerodynamics of the device. Later, I asked an official something about the DC-3, one of my favorites. He opened a big lateral file and as I looked down at the folders I noticed some model plane kits shoved amongst the data, waiting for someone to open them up and start building something over lunch. Then, at the end of the week, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, boldly remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in the museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, "There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them."

I remembered thinking: what other director of anything in Washington DC would say something like that?

I raised another risky point. We are taught that all art is done by artists. But in the air and space museum I found myself feeling that I was looking at beauty as well as technology. I asked Hinners if he had ever thought of Air & Space as an art museum. He replied, "To many of us, internally, airplanes and rockets - they're beautiful. You don't look at them as pieces of metal, but as a culmination of a challenge to do something."

And when that something is flying through space you come eventually to the rules of nature's own aesthetic in which all beauty has a purpose. The curator Walter Hopps agreed, telling me that the museum had "more aesthetic appeal to most people than most art museums do for most people. I think there is something very atavistic about it. One of the root themes in art is quest - exploration."

Today, the Air & Space Museum has two thirds more visitors than the Louvre or the British Museum. Both of the latter, incidentally, are roughly at a par with the Smithsonian's stuffed animal museum (AKA the Museum of Natural History) and its museum of trains, cars, and other large and interesting things from our past (AKA the Museum of American History).

Part of the problem today with many museums is that their directors are trained to do things like raise money, please major donors, express major themes, and show how socially conscious and profound they are. They lack the dramatic instincts of an entertainer, the good words of a writer, or the wisdom of a photographer who knows that if a picture is right, it doesn't even need any words.

Fortunately, I have a partial cure, which is to create museum advisory boards of 12 year olds - i.e. those most likely to enthuse about or get bored with exhibitions. After all, you can only pander to faux intellectuals and sober adults as long as you have sufficient things that are big enough, different enough, curious enough, or enjoyable enough to entice the 12-year-olds they have brought along or who happen to be in the room bothering them.

It can be educational but it must also be interesting. For example, I happily recall an 18th century house at Strawberry Bank that had each room fitted out for a different period of the structure's existence, ending with a 1950s parlor complete with an early television set. History in the house wasn't trapped in a time ghetto but took us on its own trip as we went from room to room.

So here are some of the suggestions for struggling museums that I would make if I were still twelve years old and served on one of these advisory committees:

- It's not the wrapping that counts. It's the present inside. Too much money has been blown creating the architectural gift wrapping of museums. I don't care what a museum looks like on the outside. After all, I'm paying to go in, not to stand on the sidewalk. Besides, once an architect does something, you're stuck with it. You can't take it down from the wall and put it into storage. Spend your money on the stuff inside.

- The interior of the building should also work for the visitor and not the architect. Tens of millions of dollars have been wasted making huge spaces that just delay or confound the visitor's approach to objects and their stories.

- The best museums are like the best attics. Everywhere you look there's something worth looking at.

- If you want to know how good an exhibit is, listen to it. The best exhibits get people talking and so the room will be noticeably louder.

- Take me somewhere. One of my favorite museums is the Tenement Museum in New York City. From the moment you step into the dark first floor hallway until you leave you are carried into that building's past. The Churchill bunker in London is the same way. Not just a visit but a voyage.

- In some house museums you wouldn't be surprised if the former owner suddenly walked through the pantry door; in others you might as well be in just another antique shop. Three of my favorite house museums are right here in Washington. In each case it is the ghosts' own contributions that make them work: the Frederic Douglass' little shed he called his "growlery," the beer parlor in brewmaster Christian Heurich's mansion, the mike for a seminal talk to the nation in Woodrow Wilson's home along with an icebox in the kitchen standing near one of the first refrigerators. Materials that connect the exhibits to real experience.

- Have some big things and put them in spaces that make them seem natural rather than captured objects. Zoos know this and even have a name for their larger creatures. They call them "charisimatic mammals." All museums need charismatic objects.

- Have lots of places where you can sit and think about what you are seeing while feeling what it would be like to have it in your own living room. A few uncomfortable benches in the middle of the room aren't enough.

- Have places where you can sit and read something about what you're seeing.

- Don't have too many small things. The eye tires of endless pots and pieces of jewelry behind glass.

- If you need to prove how culturally sensitive you are, show it with the exhibit and not with a badly written label.

- Don't tell me how to feel about something. Let me discover it for myself.

- There need to be lots of stories. Much of what we learn is by anecdote, not by carefully constructed outline and timeline.

- Design should never interfere with, nor replace, a good story.

- Have some buttons to push that cause things to happen. And make sure that they work.

- Make your exhibition less like a cathedral or a classroom and more like a fair.

If more museums were like this, more of them might not be in a mess.

January 12, 2009


Sam Smith

Evil is not just the result of actions, but also of equivocations that permit it to flourish. One of the roles of the major Washington media is to provide cover for the powerful through the repeated use of such equivocations. It worked for the Clinton scandals, for Bush's war on Iraq, and now it's out in force to protect Obama as he waffles on the issue of torture.

A case in point is a recent article by Michael Abramowitz, Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus in the Washington Post. For starters, the word 'torture' is only used once and that is by Obama himself. Instead we have detention and interrogation policies and counter terrorism practices.

We are told that "Obama begins a perilous balancing act to fulfill his pledge to make a clean break with the detention and interrogation policies of the Bush administration while still effectively ensuring the nation's security."

The word 'balancing' is a classic clue. It is part of the basic code of the Washington establishment that those in power get to balance all rights and laws with something else whenever it's convenient. It wouldn't work if you were to face criminal charges in an ordinary criminal court as in, "Yes, your honor, I did kill those three people, but we have to balance that against all the good I have done previously and how lousy I was feeling that day."

In Washington, however, it works just fine. Despite the fact that neither the founders of the American republic nor the authors of the Geneva Convention intended for their enumerated rights or rules to be chipped away in such a fashion, in the capital it is considered proper to erode the right of free speech or the law against torture by simply claiming you have some higher purpose.

In this case, the balancing act is declared fit and proper even though the chief balancer himself has stated otherwise: "Under my administration, the United States does not torture. We will abide by the Geneva Conventions. . . . We will uphold our highest values and ideals. . . It is important for us to do that not only because that's who we are, but also, ultimately it will make us safer and will help in changing hearts and minds in our struggle against extremists."

But then he's just the new president. There are more important things in town. . . like CIA operatives. Thus, the Post article goes on to state:

"At the same time Obama intends to curb counterterrorism practices he considers excessive or even illegal, he will also come under great pressure to leave the CIA the kind of flexibility its operatives have long considered necessary to heading off another Sept. 11-style attack, current and former national security officials said."

There is, of course, no evidence that these 'counter terrorism practices' have done the country any more good than all the other sick policies of the past eight years. We do know that more Americans have died in Iraq than in the 9/11 attack, that our economy and reputation has collapsed, and that we have not engaged in a single significant positive action that might improve our situation with the Muslim world.

Obama is, however, not just the victim. For example, he has named key aides such as John Brennan and Eric Holder whose past statements indicate some support for torture and he has failed to say whether he will end the practice of renditions, another synonym of evil meaning the outsourcing of torture to other countries.

Further, Obama relies on still more cynical jargon to excuse his disinterest in pursuing the crimes of the Bush administration. He simply says we must look forward and not back.

Again, that sort of excuse only works for the Washington elite. Ordinary citizens are advised not to try it in court.

January 08, 2009


Sam Smith

As a navigator on a Coast Guard cutter, there were a couple of things I took for granted:

- You couldn't chart a course without knowing your destination.

- If you took a navigational fix and it put you on one side of a rock and then you took another fix and it put you on the other side of the rock, don't split the difference.

In Washington, however, it would be hard to find two rules more frequently broken as politicians and the media pursue the false god of moderation, centrism and post-partisanship.

Barack Obama's team of revivals is almost a parody of this search, based on the childish illusion that truth's safe passage lies halfway between the alternatives. The result, absolutely predictable, is a stunning lack of imagination, courage or simple willingness to try something different. And sometimes you run aground.

As Jerome Grossman put it in Populist America recently: "If the Democratic and Republican parties were to place top value on agreement, that would be a recipe for maintaining the status quo, for the easiest course would be to accept current conditions."

Although centrism is supposed to produce the best possible results this is seldom the case. Decades of post partisanship on health care, for example, has produced a system that nobody wants, yet now still another president proposes to tinker with the program and, if successful, will have postponed the logical solution, single payer healthcare, for another decade or two.

The fiscal bailout was a disastrous example of charting a course without a destination, An unknown amount of money was granted to unknown entities for unknown purposes with unknown oversight largely because so few on Capitol Hill had the slightest idea what else to do.

To be sure, compromise is frequently necessary, but if you don't have a final destination in mind then one has no way of judging the best compromise to make. For example, in healthcare, lowering the age of Medicare to 60 would not endanger the future of single payer the way that Obama's approach probably will.

But politicians in Washington seldom have a destination beyond the next election and hence their compromises have little to do with the actual issue at hand and far more with such matters as sources of campaign contributions. Which is why in the current financial crisis so much aid has been given to those who give politicians money - i.e. financial institutions - and so little to those who merely give them their vote.

Obama didn't invent the centrist scam even if he has engaged in it to the fullest. For example, the Clintonistas claimed the ability to arise above the petty disputes of normal life -- to become "post-ideological." For example, Clinton, upon nominating Judge Ginsberg to the Supreme Court called her neither liberal nor conservative, adding that she "has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels." In one parenthetical aside, Clinton dismissed three hundred years of political philosophical debate.

Similarly, when Clinton made the very political decision to name conservative David Gergen to his staff, he announced that the appointment signaled that "we are rising above politics."

"We are," he insisted, "going beyond partisanship that damaged this country so badly in the last several years to search for new ideas, a new common ground, a new national unity." And when Clinton's new chief of staff was announced, he was said to be "apolitical," a description used in praise.

Politics without politics. The appointee was someone who, in the words of the Washington Post, "is seen by most as a man without a personal or political agenda that would interfere with a successful management of the White House."

By the time Clinton had been in office a few months he appeared ready to dispense with opinion and thought entirely. "It is time we put aside the divisions of party and philosophy and put our best efforts to work on a crime plan that will help all the American people," he declared in front of a phalanx of uniformed police officers.

And Clinton, of course, was not alone. The Third Millennium, a slick Perotist organization of considerable ideological intent, called itself "post-partisan." Perot himself played a similar game: the man without a personal agenda.

The media also likes to pretend that it is above political ideology or cultural prejudice. Journalists like Leonard Downie Jr. and Elizabeth Drew don't even vote and Downie, former executive managing editor of the Washington Post, once instructed his staff to "cleanse their professional minds of human emotions and opinions."

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

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

But there's an even great danger involved in the cult of centrism. With few exceptions, the major threats to American democracy have repeatedly come from neither right nor left but from the center.

From that internecine struggle of two factions of the American middle known as the Civil War to FBI assaults on activist organizations in the 60s and 70s, from the Palmer raids to anti-terrorism legislation of the Clinton and Bush administration, Americans have traditionally had more to fear from people they have elected than from those on the fringes of politics. In fact, the latter have often served largely as an excuse for the American center to tighten its grip on the political and economic system. This is not to say that the left and the right would not enjoy being just as violent and repressive given the chance, but the American center has rarely allowed that.

Even the KKK, so often cited as an example of the sort of threat the contemporary right poses, was powerful primarily because it was at the center, holding political and judicial and law enforcement office as well as hiding beneath its robes. In some towns, lynching parties were even announced in the local paper. And in the 1920s, both the Colorado governor and mayor of Denver were members of the Klan, the latter well enough regarded to have had Stapleton airport named after him.

Take one of our war stars as an example. A New Yorker review of the life of General Curtis LeMay, written by Richard Rhodes, noted that LeMay ran the air war against both Japan and North Korea, became head of the sacrosanct Strategic Air Command and was one of the military heroes of his time. Here are just a few of his accomplishments:

- The destruction of nearly 17 square miles of Tokyo with the loss of at least 100,000 civilian lives. The US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that "probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any time in the history of man."

- The destruction of 62 other Japanese cities. Only Hiroshima and Nagasaki were spared -- reserved for a different sort of horror. In sum, more than a million Japanese civilians were killed. LeMay himself would admit years later, "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side."

- The bombing of North Korean cities, dams, villages and rice paddies. Civilian deaths: more than two million.

- In short, with the enthusiastic blessing of the American center, LeMay was directly responsible for the slaughter of about half as many civilians as died in the Holocaust. To this day, establishment Washington won't even face what happened at Nagasaki or Hiroshima, let alone even larger massacres occurring under the command of LeMay.

And LeMay had grander schemes. His plan for defeating the Soviet Union included the obliteration of 70 Soviet cities in thirty days with thirty-three atomic bombs and the deaths of 2.7 million citizens.

More recently, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the most disastrous conflicts in American history, were the products of an American center including politicians, academics and the media. According to one study, while tens of thousands of American troops were dying in Vietnam, between 1963 and 1968 only 220 deaths occurred in the U.S. as the result of fringe violence on the left and right.

The collapse of the American economy, the unprecedented assault on constitutional rights, the disastrous war on drugs, and the appalling abuse of the environment all came from the center.

Worried about hate groups? Name those that have posed anywhere near the threat to American minorities as the Bush administration.

One of the greatest myths of America's elite is that it functions by logic and reason and that it is devoid of myth. In truth, elites function like other people; they choose their gods and worship them. The gods, to be sure, are different. For example, many in Washington believe fervently in the sanctity of data, the Ivy League, the New York Times op pages and the Calvinist notion that their power is a outer, visible sign of an inner, invisible grace.

They pose as wise and intelligent, yet their course is frequently a disaster and profoundly anti-intellectual for it denies inquiry, skepticism, new information and imagination.

If you ask important people in politics, think tanks or the media where they stand politically, many will say "in the center." A lot of these folks like the center because it makes them sound reasonable and moderate. It also allows them to call other people extremists or gadflies or wishful thinkers for disagreeing with the conventional wisdom of the moment. Some members of the American elite have made whole careers of being measured and cautious. They like to write somber columns asking pompous questions like "Can the Center Hold?" What they really mean is: can they hold on to their power?

They are the most dishonest of the lot in American politics. A true conservative is far more fun and useful to argue with, because they still believe in the need for argument as well as self-serving spin.

The centrists control our politics, our media and our campuses. They have directed the collapse of both the American empire and America democracy and yet are so self absorbed in their manic and destructive moderation that they don't even notice.

Not only is the center the major cause of our problems, our solutions have overwhelmingly come from the left, whether it be emancipation, women's rights, environmental consciousness, the labor movement or encouraging peace and sanity rather than war, the moderates' favorite immoderate tool.

As Susan B. Anthony put it so well:

"Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences."

January 06, 2009


Sam Smith

Every time Israel does something mean, cruel or stupid you can almost hear the sound of liberals and progressives rushing for a place to hide. Strip away the rhetoric and the excuses and the problem basically comes down to the fact that people don't like being called anti-Semitic.

It's a great shtick the Israelis have used so effectively that behaving appropriately towards their country has cost the U.S. over $100 billion since Israel was founded. For gratitude we have been granted a plethora of unnecessary conflicts, anger in the Muslim world that contributed to 9/11 and the madness of the war on terror, as well as periodic spying on the U.S. by Israeli agents. What other country to whom we have given so much has been so loath to return the favor?

Israel's attack on Gaza, for example, is not only vicious, inexcusable and a violation of international law, it is a direct attempt to interfere with American politics by making sure Obama's hands are completely tied.

Yet, once again, the Israelis are getting away with it because even such supposedly enlightened corners of America as the media and liberal groups are afraid to take them on.

If, the other hand, one feels that it is far worst to support a cruel and unnecessary war than it is to be labeled an anti-Semite then it may be time to be as brave in the face of right wing Jewish accusations as we are confronting criticism by Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. It is, after all, a partner in illogic - of the sort where unsupportable accusations are used to drown actual facts - such as the constant evocation of the Holocaust in which past victims are shamefully dishonored by using them to justify the creation of still more victims.

Once you take the simple liberating step of saying that you don't give a damn what Abe Foxman says about you, then the whole Mid East issue takes on a new look.

For example, you are suddenly free to wonder whether some sort of boycott against Israel might not be worthwhile. As UN General Assembly President, Miguel D'Escoto Brockman put it recently, "More than twenty years ago we in the United Nations took the lead from civil society when we agreed that sanctions were required to provide a nonviolent means of pressuring South Africa to end its violations. Today, perhaps we. . . should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its violations."

Such a boycott might include all of the following: AOL Time Warner, Coca-Cola, Disney, Estee Lauder, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, L'Oreal, Nokia, Revlon, Sara Lee, Home Depot, Starbucks, Timberland, or McDonald's. Or it might include just one for ease of organizing.

Another approach would be a campaign to cut aid to Israel. A modest ten percent - $300 million - would start to make the point.

If you're not quite up to being at least as tough on Israel as Congress was on the auto workers, there are other ways to make your discomfort known - including sending some money to groups like the New Israel Fund that are trying to set an example of what a progressive Israel would be like.

But whatever the approach one prefers, we should all take a New Year's vow not to be afraid of pro-Israeli extremists anymore. They are bullies and it's long past time that we started treating them as such.