December 20, 2010

Exposing culture as well as secrets

Sam Smith

While Wikileaks has begun to reveal some important state secrets, that's not the only thing that is making the establishment extremely nervous. Another huge problem is that the documents are providing a chain of evidence illustrating that the people running our government are not only frequently stupid, corrupt, and/or dishonest, but that in certain fields such as foreign policy, this is dominant rather than deviant behavior. Thus it is not just secrecy that is under attack but a whole culture of impunity.

While this is already a widely held view among many ordinary folk, from the perspective of the ruling class, documentation is much more dangerous than mere opinion. Paper work is truly scary.

If this all sounds slightly familiar, a description of an old movie may help:

"Upon their triumphant return to the Emerald City, Toto exposes the Wizard as a fraud, opening a curtain and revealing a non-magical man operating a giant console of wheels and levers."

Not a bad description of the way Washington works these days.

To be sure, Wikileaks also reveals some honest people trying to do honest things.

But the rules of the game are that power and honesty are generally mutually exclusive, a point gently made by the Independent describing Britain's former drug czar's conversion to legalization: "Mr Ainsworth said his departure from the frontbenches now gave him the freedom to express his view that the 'war on drugs has been nothing short of a disaster.'"

In other words, while holding public office he was not allowed to reveal that the war on drugs has been nothing short of a disaster. It is hard to fit such a rule into a definition of functioning democracy.

To make such a prohibition truly work, however, you need to have only a relatively few people in on the secret and not, say, two million military personnel with the proper Internet passwords.

This is the further damage that Wikileaks has done. It turns out that a private in Iraq can know more state secrets than most members of the club known as the Washington establishment.All those years in the Ivy League, all those lunches at the Metropolitan Club, all those boring lectures at think tanks undone by a few CDs and USB drives.

Washington's culture has long been premised on a small number of people sharing power, lunch and secrets, projecting - with the aid of the sycophantic scribes of the media - an aura of competence and wisdom.

This is a culture which causes the thoroughly embedded Daily Beast to lead a story with the line, "As the world mourns Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. . ."

To imagine that "the world" mourning Richard Holbrooke requires a global perspective that borders on the microscopic, but that is how America's ruling class thinks.

The idea that a mere private in the military and some Australian nut could so thoroughly blow their comfortable cover is, to it, truly shaking.

Wikileaks has thus not only exposed state secrets but also the Wizards of Washington, and it's probably the latter revelation that these wizards hate the most.

December 16, 2010

When Green matters

Sam Smith

An election race you may have missed last November found Fred Horch losing to the Democratic candidate, Alex Cornell du Houx, by less than 150 votes. Horch also beat the Republican candidate by over 250 votes. 

Horch was the Independent Green candidate and the reason you may not have heard about this race was that it was for state representative in the town of Brunswick, Maine, and involved less that 4,000 voters.

Which makes it all the more odd that I kept seeing TV commercials for Horch's Democratic opponent including one that featured former governor Angus King.

State representative seats don't usually merit that sort of attention and a Green opponent hardly ever.

But in Maine, Greens actually matter and the Democrats take them quite seriously. In fact, a few years back when Green John Eder was elected to the legislature with 65% of the vote, the Democrats sought to correct that scary development by redistricting him. And Greens have popped up elsewhere such as on the charter commission and the council of the state's large city, Portland.

Part of it stems from a different view of life and politics. After all, Maine has elected more independent governors than any other state. But part of it comes from the Greens representing the best - rather than the most radical - values of the state, which inclines many to regard them more as missionaries than as troublemakers.

For example, Maine - as much as any state in the union - has come to come to accept and integrate ecologically sound approaches to life with remarkably little ideological uproar. After all, even moose hunters want to preserve the wild. The argument is over process more than principle.

Which is why a small election in Brunswick may have some large implications.

Starting with the fact the Fred Horch was a small business owner - operating a sustainable products store on Brunswick's main street.

Small business owners are among the most neglected of America's political constituencies. Sure, pols talk about them but they rarely lift a finger to help them, and that goes for Democrats, Republicans and Greens.

There are others left behind and one could create a powerful party based simply on combining the forgotten - groups like fiscally threatened homeowners; those under 25 trying to find a decent job let alone a career; small farmers; and people living in small towns, Throw in endlessly harassed pot smokers and you've got yourself quite a power base.

But even Greens don't usually think that way. That's why folks like Horch are interesting. Here's a clip from his web site:

|||| I live, work and play in downtown Brunswick: ice skating on the downtown rink, bicycling on errands around town, attending ball games with my kids, and running my store, F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods & Supplies on Maine Street.

My family and I love Brunswick and all it offers. My wife is a professor at Bowdoin College. Our children attend public school in Brunswick. I walk or bike to work every day. . .

Each month I publish a Green Tidings, an email newsletter sent to thousands of people in Maine listing local community and environmental events, and offering a "Sustainable Living Tip" of practical steps to promote environmental well being. Each month my store hosts a free sustainable living work shop, inviting in local experts to talk about practical ways to achieve personal sustainability -- from backyard composting to roof-top solar power.

Through my store I've had the privilege and pleasure of meeting thousands of people from all walks of life in Brunswick. Just about every day I'm asked to support a local school, community group, or town committee with my time, expertise or financial contribution. I'm always happy to do so. Because I respect the dedication behind every request, I do my best to stretch my limited resources to have the most positive impact on our community. But there is only so much I can do as a private citizen. Many of our needs can only be met through changes in our laws, regulations, and public funding decisions made by our representatives in government. ||||

Note the emphasis on being an integral part of the community. John Eder, had a similar feel, as described by Wikipedia:

||||| As a first-time candidate in 2002, Eder took nearly 65% of the vote. His victory was in large part due to his strategy of bucking political convention and engaging Portland's youth voters between the ages of 18-35 who turned out to support him. His Democratic opponent, who had run for office in the past, received 35%. Eder convinced the Republican candidate to leave the race. Eder had widespread support from Democrats, Republicans, Greens, independents, small business owners, and active members of organizations such as the NAACP and the Maine People’s Alliance. Eder was endorsed by Maine Friends of Animals and the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance, and by Representative Michael Quint. Eder received the endorsement of all three Portland area newspapers: Portland Press Herald, The Portland Phoenix, and Casco Bay Weekly. Eder's campaign was managed by crime novel writer Patrick Quinlan, author of Smoked.

In 2003 Eder was voted Portland's Best Politician in a readers poll conducted by that city's alternative weekly newspaper, the Portland Phoenix, just as redistricting in Maine was threatening to unseat Eder by separating him from his base of support in Portland's West End. The redistricting was seen by many as a deliberate effort by legislative Democrats to oust Eder. In response, Eder moved his residence to rejoin the district he had previously represented and face off against Democratic incumbent Rep. Edward J. Suslovic. In the end, his Democratic opponent found he couldn't compete against Eder's strong base of support. Eder won with 51% and became the only Green ever to be reelected to a State Legislature. |||||

Horch and Eder are examples of backyard Greens, whose influence spreads virally through human contact and experience and not through the mass media. It's the way every great drive for social change has worked in America - the abolitionists, the populists, the early socialists, and the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, too many Green leaders have read too much Marx and not enough American history.

The big parties gave up human relationships long ago. Which is why we have such a hard time relating to them. But you can't text your way to the presidency, you can't Facebook a revolution and you can't save the planet with Twitter. At some point real people have to join with, talk to, and help other real people.

Which is why a Green small business owner in Brunswick did so well and why so many others could learn something from the story.

December 15, 2010

The litte green men

Sam Smith

According to the Washington Post, "The Marine Corps' top general suggested Tuesday that allowing gays to serve openly in the military could result in more casualties because their presence on the battlefield would pose "a distraction."

||||| "When your life hangs on the line," said Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, "you don't want anything distracting. . . . Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines' lives." In an interview with newspaper and wire service reporters at the Pentagon, Amos was vague when pressed to clarify how the presence of gays would distract Marines during a firefight. But he cited a recent Defense Department survey in which a large percentage of Marine combat veterans predicted that repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" law would harm "unit cohesion" and their tight-knit training for war. "So the Marines came back and they said, "Look, anything that's going to break or potentially break that focus and cause any kind of distraction may have an effect on cohesion," he said. |||||

One of the things I have always suspected about Marines is that more than a few have substantial masculine insecurity that they hide under the cover of military bravado. Certainly the amount of time and effort they spend trying to impress other men, rather than women, seems curious.

I'm not the first to have noticed this, although it has yet made the mainstream coverage of the gays in the military issue. For example, writes the Midwest Book Review, in The Masculine Marine: Homoeroticism in the U.S. Marine Corps, "Steven Zeeland elicits astonishingly candid responses from a diverse sampling of Marines to questions about aspects of this rarely documented subculture. Their answers shed light on homoerotic bonding among Marines, hazing and institutional violence, sexual stereotypes of Marines in gay culture, how gay Marines reconcile their sexual identity with the ethos of 'hard' Marine supermasculinity, Marines in all-male pornography, how Marines feel about being viewed as sex objects, and male attitudes about women in the Marine Corps."

In the book, Zeeland even quotes gays  complaining about the homosexual skill of Marines and what disappointing partners they are. Which, when you include their divorce rate, makes them sound like bi-sexual losers.

In the Coast Guard, we were also involved in activities that involved some risk, but the cultural and verbal treatment of this risk was markedly different from the Marine mythology. In fact, braggadocio made you suspect.

As I once wrote: "The sea seems determined to force men to fight it with their bare hands. It is a teacher of humility, an enforcer of respect, a revealer of fraud. It is indifferent to paper distinctions between men, without regard for fine words, and contemptuous of the niceties of society. Those who live with the sea will probably always be a bit different and those who go to sea in ships and boats as small as the Coast Guard's especially so. As Joseph Conrad put it, 'Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses.'"

Which may help to explain why we used to call the Marines "the little green men."

General Amos' confession - which it was - more than an argument - that gays on the battlefield would be a distraction for Marines is, I suppose, something worth dealing with if true. But the best resolution would be therapy and not continued governmental denial. After all, if Marines can't keep their eyes on the enemy shooting at them instead of the gay nearby, they really do have a problem.

December 14, 2010

Is this what libertarianism leads to?

Sam Smith

I like libertarians. They're dead right on many things such as civil liberties and the drug war. Even when they're wrong, their arguments are of the sort that make you think.

And where they're mainly wrong is in their approach to the economy. I suspect too many libertarians may have grown up as single children, never played in a band or on a sports team, and certainly never had much experience living in a community where cooperation was important.

My time in Maine has taught me that cooperation is one of the concepts most lacking when economists or libertarians sit down to talk. They don't even seem to have heard of the concept. But if you spend any time around lobstermen, farmers or just business folk in a small town, you quickly become aware of competition repeatedly being mediated by cooperation.

And it's not a bad way to live.

But then I'm the third of six kids and never read Ayn Rand. I just assume my success is going to be determined in part by getting along with other people and helping them when they need it. And I hope to get the same in return.

But lately, it has occurred to me that economic libertarianism is no longer a theory to argue about. We're seeing it all around us and it ain't pretty.

In fact, you don't even hear that many conservatives blaming an autocratic government for the collapse of our economy. That's because the blame is pretty clear: at every level and in every aspect, the major causes of our financial disaster has been too many people getting away with too much with nobody willing or able to tell them no. They have been living the Ayn Rand fantasy to the hilt and now we are all paying for it.

I sort of hope a few libertarians will apologize to us for leading us so astray, but I guess that's not in their playbook, either. But if anyone tries to convince you of the wonders of economic libertarianism, just remember the current mess started because too many believed it really didn't matter what banks and hedge funds did with their money or how they conned us along the way or how government made it easier for them.

So if you want to know what's wrong with economic libertarianism, just check your bank account or retirement savings. At some point we just can't do it all alone.

December 06, 2010

At a loss for words

Sam Smith

"AbeLin32 - Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liber. . . ."


"JayHover - I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Do not have any ot. . . ."

November 15, 2010

Is deficit commission guilty of criminal misconduct?

Sam Smith

News that the salaries of two senior staffers on Obama's deficit commission are being paid for by conservative foundations seeking to cut entitlements raises a critical question: is the commission guilty of criminal misconduct?

To get a handle on this, consider the reaction if it turned out that a pro-marijuana foundation was funding the salary of the DEA director or if a rightwing nonprofit funded the Attorney General's salary during the Bush administration.

The legal problem is much the same one as with water boarding. Because the law doesn't specifically say that water boarding is illegal, corrupt attorneys and former presidents glibly argue that it is okay.

But even if foundations are not specifically excluded form using their funds to try to buy government decisions - which is what is really happening in this case - you don't have to have gone to law school to know that there is nothing in the Constitution that gives anyone the right to bribe officials just because they're a non-profit.

I first ran across this sort of abuse last summer and reported:

||||||||||| When we think of bribery we usually envision a check or cash being passed on the sly to public officials. But what if it is right out in the open, concealed only by the fact that the briber is a foundation created by Bill Gates rather than some back street shyster?

Here is how a news story describes it: "Now the foundation is taking unprecedented steps to influence education policy, spending millions to influence how the federal government distributes $5 billion in grants to overhaul public schools. The federal dollars are unprecedented, too. President Barack Obama persuaded Congress to give him the money as part of the economic stimulus so he could try new ideas to fix an education system that most agree is failing. The foundation is offering $250,000 apiece to help states apply, so long as they agree with the foundation's approach."

If you or I did something like this, even at an infinitesimally smaller scale, we could likely be headed for prison. It is a criminal act to use money to influence official positions in such a manner.

And it gets worse, as the story related: "Duncan's inner circle includes two former Gates employees. His chief of staff is Margot Rogers, who was special assistant to Gates' education director. James Shelton, assistant deputy secretary, was a program director for Gates' education division. . .The administration has waived ethics rules to allow Rogers and Shelton to deal more freely with the foundation, but Rogers said she talks infrequently with her former colleagues."

This is even before one considers broadly understood restrictions on political lobbying by non-profits. But then who needs to bother with lobbying if you can just deliver the cash and get your way?

A particularly gross example of this upscale, and so far legal, bribery was revealed by Bill Turgue, in the Washington Post in April:

"The private foundations pledging to help finance raises and bonuses for D.C. teachers have placed themselves in the middle of the city's mayoral race with one of the conditions for their largesse: If Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee leaves, so could the money.

"The private donors have told the District that they reserve the right to reconsider their $64.5 million pledge if leadership of the school system changes. . .

"Should the foundations pull their funding after the agreement is finalized, the District could be liable for at least $21 million -- the amount of private money earmarked to pay teacher salaries. . .

The leadership condition [is] set out in letters to District officials from the Walton Family Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Broad Foundation."

On a national scale, we have the unprecedented and increasing control of national education by a foundation created by a single billionaire. The thing driving these standards is not wisdom or public choice but the money:

"I think the reality of it is the Gates Foundation has been the major funder of the national standards and the three major reports on which the Massachusetts recommendation is based are funded by Gates. It's a little like being judge and jury," said Jamie Gass, director of the Center for Education Reform at the Pioneer Institute.

Wrote Matt Murphy wrote in the Lowell Sun:

"The Gates Foundation since January 2008 has awarded more than $35 million to the Council of Chief School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, the two main organizations charged with drafting and promoting common standards.

"In the run-up to his recommendation, Chester told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that he would base his decision on analysis being done by his staff, as well as independent reports prepared by three state and national education research firms -- Achieve, Inc., The Fordham Institute, and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

"Achieve, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based education-reform organization, received $12.6 million from the Gates Foundation in February 2008, according to data provided to the Washington Post by the foundation.

"The Fordham Institute has accepted more than $1.4 million from the Gates Foundation, including nearly $960,000 to conduct Common Core reviews."

If an individual were to influence governmental decisions with this sort of money, it would be clearly a criminal offense. Why should it be any different for a foundation?

Gates has opened the door to an manifestly corrupt approach to government where a handful of well funded groups and individuals override the democratic legislative process by the prospect of funding or the threat of losing it. If you can't go to jail now for doing this, there should be laws that make it clear that you do from here on out. |||||||||

Now the stakes are even higher: two private foundations with a rightwing political agenda are helping to pay for a supposedly objective report from the White House on the deficit. It is far worse than anything Charlie Rangel may have done, it is definitely unconstitutional, and if it isn't criminal, it sure as hell ought to be.

November 13, 2010

One never knows, do one?

Sam Smith

One of the things I enjoy about covering the news is being repeatedly surprised. Just when you think you've got it all figured out, something new happens.

The most recent example is the rebellion against the techno-authoritarianism being carried out by the TSA in its screening process.

For many years, I've sat on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government - started by Stewart Mott and - from a townhouse just a few blocks for the Capitol - a source of endless annoyance to the establishment thanks to groups we help fund like the Government Accountability Project, the Project on Government Oversight, and the Electronic Information Privacy Center.

In 2005, EPIC issued a report in which it said:

"Recently, the Transportation Security Administration announced a proposal to purchase and deploy 'backscatter' X-ray machines to search air travelers at select airports. TSA said it believes that use of the machines is less invasive than pat-down searches. However, these machines, which show detailed images of a person's naked body, are equivalent to a 'virtual strip search' for all air travelers. This proposal, along with the agency's controversial plan to profile air travelers, shows extraordinary disregard for the privacy rights of air travelers."

Since then, EPIC has conducted a vigorous and often lonely battle against the excesses of TSA. It has been like many of the often lonely battles in which progressive groups find themselves: righteous and mostly ignored.

Then something happened. The TSA upped the ante. As the virtual strip search machines proliferated, it offered what it saw as an alternative: a physical search normally used only by police on suspects in which there is reasonable cause. We have all become suspects now because under today's rules any cause the government considers desirable is also considered reasonable. What more do you need to know?

It has been pretty clear since 9/11 that the people out there who wanted to destroy America were doing to a pretty good job. And they didn't even need planes and bombs anymore. Once they had scared the American establishment out of its wits, our own leaders began disassembling the place in the name of security.

It has been disturbingly revealing that since 9/11, neither the Bush nor the Obama administration has changed a single policy that would make it less likely that someone from the Muslim world would want to attack us. Instead, one hundred percent of our efforts have been directed at building moats and walls around the policies and approaches that caused the problem in the first place. It didn't work in the Middle Ages and it won't work now.

But that's all the back story. What's happened now is not a change in U.S. policy so much as a reaching into the lives of ordinary Ameicans in a particularly offensive way. And just in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Suddenly, the issue has come home. In just the past few days, Reuters, CNN and the Washington Post have been forced to recognize it. People are mad and abused and the targeted industry - from pilots to tourist agencies - is worried and angry.

Who would have guessed that America might wake up to what was really happening thanks to people having their vaginas and testicles fondled by techno-autocrats?

I have long followed that the "holy shit" principle of journalism, which is to say that if I find something that is true and it makes me say, "holy shit" I figure that it is news worth sharing with others. The reaction to the misguided fingers of TSA more than fill the bill.

And there's a lesson here for activists: a good reason for doing what you're doing is because you can never be sure when it - or what part of it - is going to work. As Fats Waller used to say, "One never knows, do one?"

November 10, 2010


Sam Smith

If the Review has seemed a little erratic over the past few days, you can blame a gale with 60 mph winds that swept through our part of Maine, leaving 30,000 without electricity in my county alone. Even by Maine standards, this was a good one, with lights, TV and internet down and a few trees across the five miles to town. We got our lights back in about a day, our TV in a day and half and this morning - after two lengthy phone play by plays with Comcast staffers - the router and modem finally came aboard again.

So how did the Review continue at all? One thing is that we've replaced our mobile generator with an automatic one. This was its first test and it was wicked good. Second, I have a MiFi device that I use on trips to provide Internet service when needed. In urban America it works pretty well, but Verizon, for some reason, decided that the last two hundred seaward feet of our point of land didn't really need service, so the MiFi was painfully slow and intermittent. Cellphones here are the same and it's somewhat disorienting to feel you have to go into the woods to talk on your cell.

Folks around here don't take such things for granted. First, they like to talk about them and, second, they prepare for them. When we have an outage, the first thing I do is call Central Maine Power which has an automated system that tells me the general situation and then, after pushing enough buttons, whether they've gotten other calls from our road. After service resumed, I got three calls from CMP asking whether everything was all right. In a near lifetime in DC, I never got a call from Potomac Electric except when I forgot to pay my bill.

Recent blasts - especially the Patriot Day storm of 2007 - have been particularly damaging to aging softwoods in the state. That blow - causing the 7th highest high tide ever in Portland and 30 foot waves - even outdid the famed "Perfect Storm" of 1991.

One friend tells me that he probably lost 50-60 trees on his six acres in this week's gale. This is not an unfamiliar tale. My theory is that, after World War II, two thirds of Maine's farmland went back to woods, and heavily soft woods. These trees are now aging and particularly vulnerable to blow downs.

In any case, the storm is over, the power, TV and Internet is back and so, like everyone else around here, I'm left with only one thing to do: talk about it.

November 09, 2010


Sam Smith

I've been wondering why there is so much public opposition to Obamacare. Admittedly, it's one of the most mangled pieces of legislation I've ever run across, not because of its intentions, but because of the political and bureaucratic chaos involved in its composition.

When you have a bill that even the Congressional Research Service doesn't understand, you know there's a problem. Reported Politico last summer:

"Don’t bother trying to count up the number of agencies, boards and commissions created under the new health care law. Estimating the number is 'impossible,' a recent Congressional Research Service report says, and a true count 'unknowable.'”

Even so, that's not quite the sort of thing that creates a major campaign issue.

Far more significant is the provision that will required nearly all Americans to carry health insurance or pay a fine. Even Democrats polled by the Kaiser Foundation favor repeal of this section by a score of 49% to 44%. 68% of the general public wants it repealed.

This is clearly a cause of the resistance, though even opponents don't talk about it much and it would affect only about 3% of the workforce.

Other aspects of the bill actually get support from Republicans - like tax credits to small businesses that offer coverage, closing the Medicare prescription drug doughnut hole, and banning denial of coverage for previous conditions. The public in general supports five key ;provisions tested by Kaiser, four of them by more than 70%.

But It wasn't until I asked a Republican caller, during one of my appearances on Mark Thompson's Sirius/XM show, just what bugged him about the bill, that I stumbled upon a sleeper: the fact that many businesses may give up health insurance because the penalty is so much cheaper than paying for coverage. I suspect the word is out widely on this - even though we in the media have given it hardly any attention - and may help to explain the anger.

Here's how Human Resources News tells it:

|||||||||| How much cash would your company have to save by dumping its health plan – in exchange for paying penalties – to make up for the ill will it would create among workers?

Bad news for lawmakers that just assumed companies would keep providing health coverage even after the reform law’s mandates kicked in: New evidence shows that four major employers — Verizon, AT&T, John Deere and Caterpillar — have crunched the numbers so see whether they should “play or pay.”

Their conclusion? It’ll be cheaper — way cheaper — to pay the penalties to the government and drop their employee health insurance plan.

Of course nobody thought a company would pull the rug out from its employees by actually dropping coverage. But then again — nobody thought dropping coverage to pay a penalty would save a company 75%, and nearly $1.8 billion, off its healthcare bill. That’s what AT&T calculated it would save.

Caterpillar came to the same conclusion. It said it could shave 70% off its bill by doing the same thing. These findings come from internal documents recently reviewed by Congress. ||||||||||

Of course, the whole problem could have been solved by single payer health insurance - the most business-friendly approach one could imagine, but neither side was interested in anything that sensible.

So when you hear people calling for repeal of the health measure bear this in mind: in two important ways it could cost millions of Americans a lot of money - either through required policy purchase or through loss of employer-covered policies.

The Democrats still have a little less than two months to correct these two serious errors or they can just leave it to the GOP to make sure the thing becomes a complete mess.

November 08, 2010


Sam Smith

From a talk at the Shelter Rock Unitarian Universalist Congegration, Manhasset, NY, delivered one week before the election of 2004

We live in a nation hated abroad and frightened at home. A place in which we can reasonably refer to the American Republic in the past tense. A country that has moved into a post-constitutional era, no longer a nation of laws but an adhocracy run by law breakers, law evaders and law ignorers. A nation governed by a culture of impunity, a term from Latin America where they know it well - a culture in which corruption is no longer a form of deviance but the norm. We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.

It's crazy, it happened so fast, it's like in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern when Rosencrantz asks shortly before his death: "What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn't we just stay put? . . . We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we'll know better next time."

Yet we have seen it all before. And it came with stories. A German professor after the World War II described it this way to journalist Martin Mayer:

"What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. . .

"To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted.'

The German professor went on:

~ Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

"Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). . . . You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair. "


Every president after Reagan - including Bill Clinton - moved this country to right . . . Placated by Prozac, persuaded by prevarication and pacified by prohibition, we have ignored our drift towards the mean and the brutish and continued to accept the lie that we are the better for it.

Empires and cultures are not permanent and while thinking about the possibility that ours is collapsing may seem a dismal exercise it is far less so than enduring the frustrations, failures, damage and human casualties involved in constantly butting up against reality like a boozer who insists he is not drunk attempting to drive home.

Peter Ustinov in 'Romanoff and Juliet' says at one point: "I'm an optimist: I know how bad the world is. You're a pessimist: you're always finding out." Or as GK Chesterton put it, "We must learn to love life without ever trusting it."

Happiness, courage and passion in a bad time can only be based on myth as long as reality does not intrude. Once it does, our indifference to it will serve us no better than it does the joyriding teenager whose assumption of immortality comes into contact with a tree.

But this does not mean that one must live in despair. An ability to confront and transcend -- rather than deny, adjust to, replace, recover from, or succumb to -- the universe in which you find yourself is among the things that permits freedom and courage. . .

To view our times as decadent and dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those in power are not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid but perceptive; to be depressed, angry or confused about such things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness. Yet our culture suggests otherwise.

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

Oddly, those who instinctively understand this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to do so - survivors of abuse, oppression, and isolation who somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them. They have, without formal instruction, learned two of the most fundamental lessons of psychiatry and philosophy:

- You are not responsible for that into which you were born..

- You are responsible for doing something about it.

These individuals move through life like a skilled mariner in a storm rather than as a victim at a sacrifice. Relatively unburdened by pointless and debilitating guilt about the past, uninterested in the endless regurgitation of the unalterable, they free themselves to concentrate upon the present and the future. They face the gale as a sturdy combatant rather than as cowering supplicant.

In Washington we have a neighborhood known as Shaw where for decades just such a form of survival thrived. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.

Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.

Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre (opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem's Apollo became a black stage) and two first rate movie palaces.

There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.

Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers with advanced degrees from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.

All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.

Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.

Older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride -- not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst.

Another example. Last summer, I went to Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome remarkably indifferent to 500 years of its history, where even the homes and whole villages seem to grow like native plants out of the rural earth rather than being placed there by human effort. It was as if I had been transported back several centuries while still being allowed to take along a car and my Diet Coke. I hadn't felt such stability for a long time, certainly not since September 11.

Yet the Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade organization. Umbria is a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history's tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.

We don't have to go that far back, though. Consider the increasingly cited novel, 1984. Orwell saw it coming, only his timing was off. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana didn't live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown. Only about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in the Outer Party. The rest numbering some 100 million were the proles.

It is amongst the latter that Winston Smith and Julia find refuge for their trysts, away from the cameras (although not the microphones). The proles are, for the most part, not worth the Party's trouble. Says Orwell:

"From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is . . ."

Orwell's division of labor and power was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where about one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, and another 13% being far less powerful party members.

As we move towards - and even surpass - the fictional bad dreams of Orwell and the in many ways more prescient Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World,', it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were actually the curse of the elites and not of those who lived in the quaint primitive manner of humans rather than joining the living dead at the zenith of illusionary power.

This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today - an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of young men with minimal weapons.

Strange as it may seem, it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political and economic capitals that the hope for saving America's soul resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of those who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.

Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University has described Orwell's underclass this way:

"The Proles were the poorest of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and optimistic. The Proles were also the freest of all the groups. Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry about the Thought Police. . .[Orwell] also concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group.". . .

There is nothing new in this. Almost all great changes in American politics and culture have had their roots either in the countryside or among minorities within the major cities. From religious 'great awakenings' to the abolitionist movement, to the labor movement, to populism, to the 1960s and civil rights, America has been repeatedly moved by viral politics rather than by the pyramidal processes outlined in great man theories of change promulgated by the elite and its media and academies.

Successfully confronting the present disaster will require far more than attempting to serially blockade its serial evils, necessary as this is. There must also be a guerilla democracy that defends, fosters, and celebrates our better selves - not only to provide an alternative but to create physical space for decent Americans to enjoy their lives while waiting for things to get better. It may, after all, take the rest of their lifetimes. We must not only condemn the worst, but offer witness for the better. And create places in which to live it.

We have, as in all authoritarian regimes, become increasingly dependent upon those who hold us down and back. But the potential is always there, even under the worst circumstances. I was reminded of this not long after September 11, as I found myself reflecting on the Solidarity movement of Poland. We will get out of this mess, I thought, when we can do in our own way what the Poles did in theirs.

At the heart of the Solidarity achievement was something with which the Internet has made us familiar - a form of politics that spread not by the precise decisions of a small number of leaders but by the aggregated tiny and vaguer decisions of a mass of citizens. In a sense, Solidarity was an early and unwired flash mob or internet meetup.

The variety of techniques used by Poles in the their search for freedom were impressive. For example, John Rensenbrink in his contemporaneous book, described how kissing women's hands became popular primarily because it annoyed the Soviets.

And his description of Poland's dilemma in the 1980s seems strikingly applicable to our own situation:

"It is the struggle of a state in ludicrous pursuit of a nation that it cannot seem to find. And, it is the struggle of a nation trying to find a way to meet the state, not in the posture of supplicant or avenger, but in the posture of free citizen."

Rensenbrink tells me that some of Solidarity's early organizing took place on the trains that many of the workers rode to the shipyards, where they had time to drink coffee and talk. In our own history, there are innumerable examples of change owing a debt to the simple serendipity of people of like values and sensibilities coming together. For example, the rise of Irish political power in this country was aided considerably by the Irish bar's role as an ethnic DMZ and a center for the exchange of information.

CS Lewis says somewhere that we read to discover that we are not alone. That discovery is a necessary for change as well. Part of the dreadful force of southern segregation, for example, was that it prevented poor whites and poor blacks from discovering how much they had in common.

We tend to discount the importance of unplanned moments because of our fealty to the business school paradigm in which change properly occurs because of a careful strategic plan, an organized vision, procedures, and process. During the past quarter century when such ideas have been in ascendancy, however, America has demonstratively deteriorated as a political, economic, and moral force. In reality, many of the best things happen by accident and indirection. While it may be true, as the Roman said, that "fortune smiles on the well prepared" part of that preparation is to be in the right place at the right time. In other words, it is necessary to create an ecology of change rather than a precise and often illusory process.

The beat generation understood this. 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. To a far greater 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.

The full-fledged uprisings that followed 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.

One of these ways, for example, is music. Billie Holiday was singing about lynchings long before the modern civil rights movement. And Rage Against the Machine was engaging in anti-sweatshop protests some years before most college student had ever heard of them.

Another way is found in the magic of churches. During the 1960s I edited a newspaper in a neighborhood 75% black and mostly poor in which I came to assume that churches were the sina qua non of positive change. We had over a 100 of them in a two square mile area and you just came to rely upon them as part of the political action, including the Revolutionary Church of What's Happenin' Now and the Rev. Frank Milner, part-minister and part-taxicab driver who would come to community meetings in an outfit complete with clerical collar and a metal change-maker on his belt.

How important one church can be is illustrated with a little known story from Birmingham Alabama. Responding to Rosa Parks' mistreatment, sleeping car porter E.D. Nixon called up a young preacher and asked if he could use his church for a meeting. The minister said he would think about it. A few days later, Nixon called back and the minister agreed. E.D. Nixon's reply was something like this, "Thank you Reverend King, because we've scheduled a meeting at your church next Monday at 6:30 pm."

It is for such reasons we must learn to stand outside of history. Quakerism, for example, prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience - regardless of the era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And the witness need not be verbal. The Quakers say "let your life speak," echoing St. Francis of Assisi's' advice that one should preach the gospel at all times and "if necessary, use words."

There are about as many Quakers today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000. Yet near the center of every great moment of American social and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends. Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after year between those great moments. Because they have been willing in good times and bad -- in the instructions of their early leader George Fox -- "to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one "

The existentialists knew how to stand outside of history as well. Existentialism, which has been described as the idea that no one can take your shower for you, is based on the hat trick of passion, integrity and rebellion. An understanding that we create ourselves by what we do and say and, in the words of one of their philosophers, even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.

Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.

Would we have been abolitionists in 1830?

In 1848, 300 people gathered at Seneca Falls, NY, for a seminal moment in the American women's movement. On November 2, 1920, 91 year-old Charlotte Woodward Pierce became the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions who had lived long enough to cast a ballot for president.

Would we have attended that conference in 1848? Would we have bothered?

Or consider the Jewish cigar makers in early 20th century New York City each contributing a small sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked - reading aloud the classic works of Yiddish literature. The leader of the cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers, would later become the first president of the American Federation of Labor. And those like him would become part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists. It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left.

These are the sort of the stories we must find and tell each other during the bad days ahead. But there is a problem. The system that envelopes us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis -- "like being dead and not knowing it." Or as Matthew Arnold put it, trapped between two worlds, one dead, the other unable to be born.

We are overpowered and afraid. We find ourselves condoning things simply because not to do so means we would then have to -- at unknown risk -- truly challenge them.

Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.

It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.

How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.

We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. Unitarian church basements. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.

Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We must rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.

Portions of this talk come from Sam Smith's book "Why Bother?," which deals with getting through the bad times including chapters on despair, rebellion, personal witness, and guerrilla democracy.


Sam Smith - Charlie McDowell, long time panelist on PBS' Washington Week in Review - where he described himself as the "resident provincial" - and reporter and columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch for nearly 50 yeas has died at the age of 84.

McDowell was also an early part of the Progressive Review - back when it was called The Idler. I had run across his work while attending Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Virginia, in the early sixties. There wasn't much spare time there and not much to do in it, but a small cult developed around Charlie's columns, which brought smiles to a place where they were pretty much outlawed. At lunch break we would head for a news box and see what Charlie had to say.

Charlie was first assigned to cover the capital for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1965 after publisher D. Tennant Bryan reluctantly agreed to the idea, which was being pushed by managing editor John Leard. Bryan allegedly noted that the paper had withdrawn its Washington correspondent at the time of the Civil War and that probably enough time had passed to send one back.

When I started the Idler after leaving the Coast Guard, I asked Charlie if I could use his columns and he not only agreed, over the years he was a repeated source of encouragement and joy.

His perspective was gentle and perceptive. For example, he liked to gaze out of his National Press Building office window, and once recalled; "I perceived John Connally of Texas, Jacob Javits of New York, Sonny Jurgenson of Washington, David Brinkley of NBC, and a red-bearded man from somewhere wearing a sandwich board that said, 'The man with the plan: Jesus in '72,' all within the space of a couple of hours, each alone, each on some mission of his own among ordinary mortals in the street."

Here's one his columns we ran forty five years ago:


Charles McDowell Jr - Washington Howard Worth Smith, who measures progress by the inch met the metric system the other day. Both were stunned by the collision. When the confusion cleared, Rep. Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, had recovered sufficiently to light a fresh cigar and smile briefly at the outcome of the encounter. The metric system had not recovered, and would be confined in a cool, dark corner of the committee room for an indefinite period.

The man who introduced the venerable Judge Smith to the metric system was Rep. Miller of California, the genial, grandfatherly chairman of the Science and Astronautics Committee. His committee had approved a bill authorizing a $2.5 million, three-year study by the Department of Commerce to determine the practicability of adopting metric weights and measures in the United States. Miller, a frank advocate of the metric way of life, wanted Judge Smith's committee to send the bill on to the House for action. As Miller talked about the grand simplicity of meters, liters and kilograms, Smith watched his old friend with affection and great skepticism.

The Judge interrupted to say: "I got my early education in a one-room red schoolhouse in the country. We took our degrees in the three R's. Just to make an honest confession, I don't know what the metric system is . . . Would we have to go back to school? Couldn't we go in a store anymore and buy 10 yards of cheesecloth?"

Miller said you could go in the store and ask for about 9.2 meters of cheesecloth. "Why, we'd have to change our education in this country!" said the Judge. Yes, said Miller, and it was about time. Eighty nations, 90 per cent of the world's population, are on the metric system, or going to it, and the United States will soon stand alone with a system that is difficult to learn and use because it has "no rhyme or reason," Miller said.

For some reason - perhaps because he saw that Smith was being foxy and having a good time - Miller invoked the measurements of Gina Lollobrigida to show that the world would still be the same under the metric system. "Her vital statistics are 36-28-34," he said, "and they would become 93-71-89, which is the same."

"You talking about her meters or her inches?" the Judge asked. "Her centimeters," Miller said. "Well, I'm still concerned about when she goes in to buy 10 yards of cheesecloth," the Judge said. The other members of the Rules Committee joined in with similar concerns - road signs in kilometers, football fields in meters, all sorts of things. Rep. Fulton of Tennessee, who had come along to support Miller, protested that nothing could be more bewildering than the present American system of weights and measures. To make his point dramatically, Fulton said, "Has anyone in this committee ever heard of a pole? Can any of you tell me how long a pole is?" "Sixteen and two-thirds feet!" the Judge replied promptly, and the committee cheered him.

"Never underestimate the Judge," said Rep. Delaney of New York. The World Almanac says it's 16 and one half feet - same as a rod or a perch - but the committee was not going to quibble. anyway. The metric system's advocates were now in some disarray, and the committee was delightedly united behind Judge Smith.

Fulton and Miller said with resignation that the country was going to come to the metric system sooner or later.

The Judge listened, leaned over toward the member seated nearest him at the long table, removed the cigar from his mouth, grinned, and said in a rumbling aside, "I ain't gonna do it."


Sam Smith

Nate Silver seems like a nice guy but, like many guiding our way, the NY Times’ election poll analyst is so absorbed in his numbers that he seems to forget that life is at best an approximation. On the other hand, when I told my urologist that I had figured out the medicine was one half science and one half gambling, he said, “I think you’re being kind to us.” Now there's a man who understands life.

Silver would have you believe that if you just work hard enough at getting the numbers right, you’ll get the right answer. Not having the time or money for that, the Progressive Review has tried a different approach over the past decade: we have simply averaged the last three polls and this year, as with most of the times we’ve tried it, the results have been surprisingly good. In the key races for both the Senate and governorship we came within three points of calling them on average – within the polls’ margin of error. You note that I didn’t say 3.1% or 3.2% because, unlike Silver, I had Alice Darnell as my high school math teacher and one of the things she taught us was that an mathematical answer can be no more accurate than the least accurate number used to create it. So if you have a polling error of 3 or 4 points, you can’t honestly end up with 3.1%. Yet pollsters, Washington analysts, and the media do this all the time.

The other problem is that life is real. As such, it doesn’t move in a neat analytic sequence. For example, one place where the polls went astray was here in Maine. The polls generally had a good percentage for the winner – Paul LePage – and the Democrat, Libby Mitchell, but blew it on independent Elliot Cutler who clearly had a last minute surge among the undecideds and almost beat LePage. How does a pollster check the Portland bars the night before an election to find out how many people have finally decided how to vote after a conversation over a few beers?

So we’re going to stick with our three poll moving average which did about as well as the best of the individual results, bearing in mind that life is real and that, hell, I didn’t even make up my own mind until the last minute.

November 06, 2010


Sam Smith

In trying to describe the difference between Obama's presidency and that of Lyndon Johnson I sometimes tell the story - recorded on tape - of LBJ lying in bed and calling a Texas county Democratic leader at 2 AM eastern time after his major 1964 win to thank him for all his great help in the campaign. LBJ, who was feeling sick at the time, then asks to speak to the Texas Democrat's wife and proceeds to tell her how wonderful her husband is and how important he was to the campaign.

I recently heard another tale of that time. Rep. Jake Pickle, a Texas Democrat, had gotten up the courage to be one of five south members of Congress to vote for the 1964 civil rights act. It was a difficult choice. After the vote he wandered around aimlessly and somewhat miserably, finally ending up in the boarding house where he lived. Earlier, Johnson had called the boarding house and asked to speak to Pickle. Pickle told the clerk who had picked up the phone to tell LBJ that he had gone to bed. Replied the clerk, "President Johnson said you would say that but tell you that he has to speak to you anyway." The purpose: just to say thanks.

LBJ was in many ways no role model. He could beat Obama for narcissism in a minute. But he had enough social intelligence to put his ego aside to help boost that of others whom he badly needed.

That skill has largely disappeared, not only from Washington, but from most places of power in the U.S. Power is no longer seen as a privilege earned from a greater community but primarily the product of individual brilliance and tactical manipulation. The Texas county Democratic leaders and Jake Pickles no longer matter.

Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama - primary examples of egos in a vacuum - seemed in the slightest in sharing their political status with others. Thus it wasn't all that surprising, for example, that the GOP gained about 1200 state legislative seats after Clinton took office.

Worse, they didn't want anyone around them reaching out, either. Dr. Aaron Schultz wrote an interesting piece in Black Agenda Report about Obama's 2008 presidential campaign:

||||||||| It is true that both community organizers and Obama's campaign volunteers learn to act, and to act strategically to achieve their goals. However, all of the campaign action is oriented around voting. There is no training about how to influence people once they are elected. Thus the campaign volunteers acquire no direct skills for actively influencing their candidate after the election except through whatever mechanisms Obama may create for them once he is president. . .

In fact, the only non-Obama activity I have heard Obama volunteers getting involved in was a service activity, not an effort to organize against power. Mike Newall, for example, reported on "a neighborhood sweep-up event organized by Obama Works, a grassroots public service organization inspired by Obama's community activism background." This service approach is actually diametrically opposed to the organizing approach, siphoning off energy that might actually generate social change. So there is an extent to which Obama (or his leaders) may, in some cases at least, be mis-educating volunteers about the nature of effective social action in America (maybe because they don't understand what organizing is). To summarize, Obama's organization is not training community organizers. It is training what seem to be quite effective campaign workers."|||||||||

November 03, 2010


Sam Smith

After his election, Obama quickly got rid of the one person who had demonstrated real skill in bringing the party - as opposed to just Obama - to life: Howard Dean. As head of the Democratic National Committee, he had revived the broader party and helped significantly to put Obama into office.

Furthermore, as a symbol of the party, Dean was a rare real human being. As he explained to Diane Sawyer after the campaign yelling incident that unfairly got him into so much trouble (he was just trying to be heard in large hall), "I was having a great time. I am not a perfect person, believe me, I have all kinds of warts. I wear cheap suits sometimes, I say things that I probably ought not to say, but I lead with my heart, and that's what I was doing right there, leading with my heart."

As I wrote at the time:

"Most national politicians don't act like Dean because they have been taught to act in essentially artificial and non-human ways towards the real things that happen around them. They have been taught to lock up their hearts as if they were dangerous firearms. . . He has reminded us all that we are still alive and not merely virtual parodies of ourselves like our media mannequins and political puppets."

And the pay off? Dean was dumped as head of the DNC and denied any post in the Obama administration. This clip from Political Wire tells it what happened:

"Greg Sargent points to a section in Ari Berman's new book, Herding Donkeys, which says Rahm was the force behind the administration's refusal to give Dean a job: 'Those with firsthand knowledge of the transition process said that Emanuel, an infamous score settler, made his intentions regarding Dean perfectly clear. 'There was never any intention to hire Dean, and in fact there was a great deal of satisfaction at dissing him,' said a senior member of the transition team. 'The orders were coming down from Rahm that Dean was not to be considered for anything [high-ranking] and he didn't want anything to do with him.'"

This week's election was part of the payoff and one reason why those looking for an alternative to Obama in 2012 might want to take another look at Howard Dean.

And I'm not the only one thinking this way. Earlier this year, Kenneth Vogel wrote in Politico:

|||| After four relatively low-profile years pushing the official party line as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Dean is once again the tribune of frustrated liberals. And after he called out President Barack Obama and his congressional allies over their concessions on health care, those close to him predict he's just getting warmed up.

Dean's health care stand has infuriated party leaders, who have alternately tried to marginalize him and to bring him on board. Yet at the same time, his provocative approach has re-energized the political group he founded and thrilled legions of progressive activists, many of whom were drawn to politics by Dean's insurgent 2004 presidential campaign, then deflated when he didn't land an Obama Cabinet post.

They have grown increasingly disenchanted with Obama's presidency and are urging Dean to keep up the drumbeat as the health care debate heads to conference this month; to push Obama to stand more firmly with liberals on other issues; and, if the administration continues to disappoint, to consider challenging Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries (a far-fetched scenario for which one liberal blogger recently posited Dean was "perfectly positioned") or - if nothing else - to seek the party's presidential nomination in 2016, when Obama could be finishing his second term.||||

This isn't an endorsement, just encouragement to start thinking along these lines. Certainly Dean would be a better alternative than Hillary Clinton who carries more seamy baggage than a 19th century mule train. Add to Dean a popular Democrat like Brian Schweitzer of Montana as vice presidential nominee and you'd have a team that could make the Republicans look like the fake heartland Americans that they are.

In any case, we only have two years, so start thinking

November 02, 2010


Sam Smith

In the six decades between 1933 and 1994 there were only two sessions of Congress that started with a Democratic minority in the House of Representatives. In the roughly two decades between Bill Clinton's and Obama's first mid term elections, there have been seven. Both the peaks and valleys of the Democratic status in the House have been declining since 1964.

During this period, the character and politics of the Democratic Party - including its liberal wing - dramatically changed for the worse. Essentially the Democrats began singing little but covers of the GOP platform and, not surprisingly, voters - given this crummy choice - often went with the real thing.

It is well past time to recognize that this strategy of the Vichy Democrats and their indentured liberals has been an irrefutable failure. But this recognition won't come from the party itself, which has hopelessly sold itself out to corporate and other nefarious interests. It will have to come from new movements, new rebellions, new parties, and new soul. It won't come from unreformed liberals who see themselves primarily as a cultural demographic superior to much of America, but from progressive populists who both see themselves as a part of greater America and are willing to fight on its behalf.

Here are a few ways to get things going again:

- Nothing could more quickly and more dramatically change the nature of American politics than a visible and effective black-latino coalition. Representing approximately a quarter of the country, such a coalition - one that emphasizes its consensus on issues rather than fighting over areas of disagreement - could make a huge difference.

- Economic issues must be placed at the top of the list and solutions should be direct and easy to understand.

- Pick no more than a half dozen easily understood issues and fly them at the top of the pole. The right has been doing this for years - .e.g gay marriage and abortion - but the Democrats haven't seemed to notice. Key standard: pick programs that do the most for the most.

- Revive the labor movement. As demonstrated by the war on public schools and their teachers, Democrats - including liberals - have turned their backs on unions (except when they need them at election time). How often do you hear Democratic politicians pointing out facts about union workers such as

- Union workers earn 30% more than non union workers

- 80% of union workers have employer-provided health insurance while only 49% of non union workers do.

- 68% of union workers have defined benefit pensions while only 14% of non-union do

- Grow non-union affiliates of the labor movement such as Working America. WA currently has only about three million members but it could be much more if the labor movement took it seriously. The idea would be to have the equivalent of the AARP for non-unionized workers, both as a labor lobby and as a source of mutual benefits - insurance, discounts etc. And then when you get ready to unionize something, you already have the names and addresses of the troops.

- Stop trying to change people by scolding them. For example, Erik Assadourian recently wrote, "According to a study by Princeton ecologist Stephen Pacala, the world's richest 500 million people (roughly 7 percent of the world's population) are currently responsible for 50 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3 billion are responsible for just 6 percent." In other words, if the bottom 90 percent of the world's population were to cut their emissions by fifty percent, it would only reduce the overall effect by 3%. Yet the ecology movement acts as though our problems are heavily the fault of ordinary people and this has helped to build resistance to solutions. The effort needs to be retargeted better at the wealthiest and most powerful.

- Build an anti-war movement that emphasizes how the military funds could be better used and ending the abuse of troops through repetitive assignments to failing battlefields.

- Design programs to run at the lowest practical level. There is no evidence that Washington runs everything best, and plenty of evidence that Democrats have been harmed politically for believing this. Every federal program should make governors and mayors look and feel good. A recent poll found that 43% of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level. Nineteen percent said state government is better than the other two, leaving just 14% who think the federal government does a better job.

- Stop complaining about guns. It doesn't save any lives but it sure does cost a lot of votes.

- Stand up for individual rights in all respects. The liberal silence in the face of government and corporate abuse of these rights has left people without an effective political voice.

- Pursue issues over candidates. The iconification of politics doesn't work because the whole party becomes hostage to the behavior of its leaders. Further, worthy goals don't misbehave like individual politicians.

- Help small business. Nobody else does.

- Restore our rail system to where it was, say, in 1880. Put more emphasis on the miles of service rather than on the speed of trains.

- Using a consensus approach, work with an array of other groups - within a community or general political viewpoint - to come up with programs that have broad support. Two basic rules: Only discuss issues on which there might be some common agreement and reach that agreement by consensus. Here's an example of how this can work. Other models include the New England town meeting, the Quaker business meeting.

- Use this same approach within the non-political community as well, including groups such as churches, business organizations and non-profits, in order to establish standards for politicians. Even if the Supreme Court permits corporate contributions, such community assemblies could decide, for example, that local politicians could not accept more than a certain amount from corporations in order to display the assembly seal of approval. If the assemblies were sufficiently cross-cultural and cross-political, it could have at some of the effect of a law.

- Give full support and attention to efforts to amend the Constitution to prohibit corporation interference in our politics.

- Work for public campaign financing

- Push for instant runoff voting and laws that permit fusion politics, i.e. candidates able to run on two or more party lines. Fusion politics played a key role in building the strength of the Populist movement. It was so successful that the Republicans and Democrats managed to put an end to it in all but eight states.

- Launch campaigns for a variety of progressive constitutional amendments such as one to elect the attorney general or change the way votes are allocated in the Senate so that 20 states with a collective population less than California don't have 40 votes while the largest state only has two.

- Organize people in real time, not just on the web. Think of the Internet as a tool but go out and organize with real people in real places. For models, read about the Student Non violent Coordinating Committee, Poland's Solidarity movement, and Students for A Democratic Society.

- Create places where good things can happen. In our own history, there are innumerable examples of change owing a debt to the simple serendipity of people of like values and sensibilities coming together. For example, the rise of Irish political power in this country was aided considerably by the Irish bar's role as an ethnic DMZ and a center for the exchange of information.

- Find a new Democratic presidential candidate for 2012. This one has blown it.

- Remember that you can't determine history but you can always determine how you react to history.

October 27, 2010


Sam Smith

As long as everyone's beating up on NPR, here's a more significant problem than its handling of Juan Williams that it shares with most of the conventional media: as long as a conservative or establishment group labels what they're doing as a "reform" media like NPR go along with it.

In its political sense, a "reform" is something that corrects past errors and to call such a policy a "reform" implies that the media fully agrees with it.

Here are a few dictionary defininitons:

"To put into a new and improved form or condition; to restore to a former good state, or bring from bad to good; to change from worse to better; to amend; to correct; as, to reform a profligate man; to reform corrupt manners or morals."

"Synonyms - To amend; correct; emend; rectify; mend; repair; better; improve; restore; reclaim."

"To return to a good state; to amend or correct one's own character or habits; as, a man of settled habits of vice will seldom reform."

"Amendment of what is defective, vicious, corrupt, or depraved; reformation; as, reform of elections; reform of government."

Yet we, find on NPR, reporters talking about immigration reform, education reform, banking reform . . . without the slightest sense in doing so they are doing as strong a political position as one could should of specifically advocating something.

So to hell with Juan Williams. Let's reform NPR by getting it to stop calling conservative programs "reform."