July 26, 2010


Sam Smith

It's not easy being Green but it sure is easier than being a Democrat these days.

I was reminded of this as I scanned some proposed changes and additions to the Green platform. Over and over I found myself reading stuff that not only fit my views but those of many Democrats. The sort of things that would have been standard for the New Deal and Great Society.

Unfortunately, however, the Democratic Party has become the Bernie Madoff of politics. It gets unsuspecting individuals to trust it with their money, beliefs and future, and then immediately starts ripping them off.

There was, for example, Barack Obama's Madoff moment at the liberal Netroots conference in which he admitted their returns had been slow, but it would improve if they would just be patient. In politics, however, what in fiscal fraud would be considered criminal evidence, is simply treated as "reassurance."

If the only things that mattered in politics were the issues and you opposed the war in Afghanistan, wanted single payer health insurance, wished to preserve Social Security and thought the jobless should get more federal assistance than a handful of Wall Street bankers, there would be no doubt you'd be a Green.

But it gets complicated by the fact that Greens don't do all that well in elections, there are a lot of close races that test loyalty, and liberal voters have been trained to believe that any deviation is a de facto gift to the Republicans.

Greens demand a lot of fidelity as well, enough that when I was invited to my first Green conference in the 1990s, I already felt compelled to tell organizer John Rensenbrink that I didn't think I was good enough to be a Green. He repled, "That's okay. We're going to have a Libertarian there as well."

I went on to help get the Greens organized but designated myself chair of the Big Mac caucus of the party, dedicated to all wishing to be Green without being perfect.

I've had my problems with the Greens over the years. I didn't like how much emphasis was placed on presidential elections. I'm sorry the Greens haven't formed more alliances with other interests including labor and ethnic coaltions. And I know from the history of American third parties that their effectiveness lies in mass local organizing, which hasn't happened with the Greens.

But they still seemed great compared to the alternatives, especially when the Democrats repeatedly treated Greens not as part of a progressive coalition but as traitors and other forms of scum - changing laws, denying them rights, altering districts, and even blaming them for Al Gore's failed presidential campaign (a clear statistical lie).

But now that we've had two presidents double-cross their own constituents, it looks like the Democratic party is far more in need of therapy than loyalty. And the first rule when around the dysfunctional is: don't let them call the shots.

There are, to be sure, practical problems. But they're not as complicated as they seem. Here's a good plan of action:

1. Join the Green Party. Just because you join a party doesn't mean you always have to vote for it. Whether for ideological or pragmatic reasons you can make that choice on election day. You join a party for a political home. So you want to join one whose beliefs reflect your own. For a large number of Democrats and independents this would be the Green Party. Besides, if you leave the Democrats and join the Greens, you are no longer liable under the RICO fraud statutes.

2. Do as little or as much as you want. Political organizations function much like the Episcopal church's three factions: the high and crazy, the low and lazy and the broad and hazy. Find your own level.

3. Argue with the Green Party when it does the wrong thing. Or does nothing and that's the wrong thing to do. Every good party needs some good fights.

4. If you want to get into a Democratic primary battle, temporarily switch your registration. I've done this lots of time, becoming a Democrat for a day. Just don't forget to switch back.

5. Remember that fusion politics - in which parties come temporarily together to reach a common goal - was so effective in American history that nearly all states passed laws to eliminate it. You can create your own fusion politics by aligning with the Democrats on specific issues while not hiding the fact that you're a Green.

6. Just because you're a Green doesn't mean that you have to be perfect, noble or idealistic. There are plenty of contrary role models in the party, such as myself.

7. There is nothing radical about the Green party. It actually quite conservative. It wishes to conserve the Constitution, the environment, communities, free speech, and numerous other threatened virtues we used to take for granted.

8. Finally, one of the great joys of being a Green is that you never again have to defend stupid things said or done by Obama, Reid, Pelosi or the Clintons.

These are bad times with few happy solutions. In such moments, finding oases of sanity and decency is extremely important, and in politics you won't find a better one than the Greens.

July 23, 2010


Sam Smith

If the House tries to kick out Charlie Rangel, it will be the second time it has attempted this with a Harlem member of Congress. The last time, with Adam Clayton Powell, it didn't work. The Supreme Court said no.

But, at the same time, Rangel is no Adam Clayton Powell. In fact, he is the anthesis of the man who, with Lyndon Johnson, got more good legislation passed through Congress in less time than any two scoundrels (or honest politicians) in history.

In 1967, I wrote in Powell's defense a piece called "Keep the Seat, Baby" in which I argued

|||| [Powell] is one of the last of the political swashbucklers in an era when the average public man is a bland, carefully pumiced sort of fellow whose virtues are minimal and whose sins are kept carefully unobtrusive. Mr Powell belongs an almost extinct breed of politician whose lives contain complex and contradicting forces of strength, in whom good and bad struggle rather than compromise, in whom there is humor, pathos, arrogance, and hurt, in whose veins blood rumbles like a freight train rather than lying in stagnant, semi-congealed pools.

They are men who inspire other men to write novels. Men who distill both the good and the bad of what it means to be human. 

We do not understand Adam Clayton Powell because most of our politicians are sent down to us from councils above, carefully prepared so as not to offend and so that they stay soft and color-fast in even the harshest of water. But men like Powell explode up out of the mass. They are not prefabricated; they simply can't be prevented. Their constituency is despair and misery and their own character a confused sea of conflicting values and goals, desires and fears.|||

Powell liked the piece and invited me over to his Capitol Hill office, where he opened the largest personal bar I had ever seen. "This, Sam," he said, "is what comes from serving the Lord."

There would never be another Adam Clayton Powell in Congress. He would be replaced by Charlie Rangel, a role model for future years of compliant, non-confrontational black members of the House.

But Rangel went even further. As Lyn Norment wrote in a 1989 Ebony article, he became "a front-line general in the war against drugs."

Of all the stupid wars America has fought in recent decades none has harmed blacks more than the one against drugs. It helped to create an underground equal in economic size to the legal drug industry, caused tens of thousands of young blacks to be needlessly imprisoned and created more fatalities among them than Vietnam had with their fathers and uncles.

About the time of that Ebony article, I was involved in a futile effort to revive the old liberal organization, Americans for Democratic Action. Among the achievements of our small cabal were two successful ADA convention resolutions challenging the basic principles of the drug war. As chair of the DC chapter of ADA, I also organized a news conference on Capitol Hill to push our positions.

The ADA leadership was furious and eventually purged us. Among that leadership: ADA president Charles Rangel.

But before it happened we had one of the sweetest moments in politics I have ever seen. A debate on the drug issue had been scheduled and the two sides were represented by Charlie Rangel and Eric Sterling, the latter a long time major voice for drug sanity in this country.

Sterling had once worked on the Hill and when it came his time to speak, he began by saying how nice it was to see Congressman Rangel again. He remembered well when both had been in Latin America checking out the drug problem, including that day landing in Bogata and sharing with officials some coca tea. Rangel suffered an instant melanin deficiency.

But in the end, it was the Rangels who won and the country was permanently and deeply damaged as a result.

So no one needs to shed any tears for Rangel. His predecessor, Adam Clayton Powell, more than compensated for his weaknesses by his virtues, but Charlie Rangel never even came close.

July 22, 2010


Sam Smith

An online legal dictionary defines bribery this way:

"The offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties."

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 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.

July 21, 2010


Sam Smith

One of the reasons the left doesn’t do better is because it tends to view the right's transgressions as a moral issue rather than as a pragmatic problem as, for example, a baseball coach would do if the Tea Party were the other team.

In fact, calling someone a racist is not a particularly useful political move whereas figuring out why they’re getting to first base all the time, and you’re not, is.

Here, for example, are three ways the right's political strategy varies from the left’s:

- The right keeps it simple. It speaks United States, not bland abstractions devised by some third rate branding coach. There is hardly anyone in the country who doesn’t know the right opposes gay marriage, abortion and illegal immigration. Now try describing three primary goals of liberals or the left and you see the problem. This not only works on the voters, it works with the media, which finds its difficult to deal with more than three concepts at a time.

- The right keeps its eye on issues rather than icons. Liberals just become indentured servants of an Obama or Clinton and let the wars and the Wall Street bailouts go on unimpeded. The GOP doesn’t even have a leading candidate for 2012, but it’s already controlling the issues.

- The right knows how to scare the shit out of liberals and politicians like Obama, whereas the right doesn't even get scared at the thought of destroying the planet.

The right has become so powerful for the same reason that Bernie Madoff was so wealthy: by conning people. But we didn't send people to prison for being fooled by Madoff and we shouldn't send voters to purgatory for being fooled by the GOP. Instead, we need to rethink the whole game, including figuring out how to turn the rightwing's victims into a progressive constituency.

So here are three good places to start changing the left's own politics: speak United States, deal with issues and let the politicians fend for themselves, and start scaring the shit out of the powers that be.

And here's one way it could happen.

The Tea Party, according to recent polling, is supported by about 18% of the American public. On the other hand, there is a potential constituency of 28% of the American public that could have a huge impact on our politics, but doesn't, in no small part because political mythology has it that its components parts can't get on well enough together.

This is a familiar story in American politics: after all southern racism was built in no small part on elite whites convincing less wealthy whites that their real enemies were poor blacks. Similarly today, the media and political establishment tell us that the 28% of the country comprised of blacks and latinos just can't come together enough to make an effective coalition.

Yes, there are conflicts such as immigration. But consider that the whole illegal immigration matter involves only about 5% of the workforce, that the illegal immigrant and black workforces tend to be geographically separated, that no illegal immigrant is known to have outsourced any meaningful number of jobs or slashed public employment, and the mythological aspect of the black-latino conflict over immigration becomes clear. It is mainly useful as a tool to keep the two ethnic groups apart.

Now it's true that a group of black, latino, labor and other progressive groups are planning a joint demonstration in October, as the Washington Post has described:

|||| In an effort to replicate the tea party's success, 170 liberal and civil rights groups are forming a coalition that they hope will match the movement's political energy and influence. They promise to "counter the tea party narrative" and help the progressive movement find its voice again after 18 months of floundering.

The large-scale attempt at liberal unity, dubbed "One Nation," will try to revive themes that energized the progressive grassroots two years ago. In a repurposing of Barack Obama's old campaign slogan, organizers are demanding "all the change" they voted for -- a poke at the White House.

But the liberal groups have long had a kind of sibling rivalry, jostling over competing agendas and seeking to influence some of the same lawmakers. In forming the coalition, the groups struggled to settle on a name. Even now, two of the major players disagree about who came up with the idea of holding a march this fall. . .

The groups involved represent the core of the first-time voters who backed President Obama -- including the National Council of La Raza, NAACP, AFL-CIO, SEIU and the United States Student Association. . .

Their aha moment happened after the health-care overhaul passed this spring. Liberal groups, who focused their collective strength to push the bill against heavy resistance, felt relevant and effective for the first time in a long while. That health-care coalition -- composed of civil rights groups, student activists and labor leaders -- liked the winning feeling. ||||

Unfortunately the initial noise from the effort has very much the traditional sound of much liberal organizing: mushy, middle of the road and tied to winning some seats in Congress rather than really changing the politics of those who win. And the thought of the lousy healthcare bill being considered an aha moment is not reassuring. We've already been through this fantasy once with the supposed black Jesus, Obama. Putting our faith in one more congressional election may just be the Democrat's Last Supper.

But here is what could really change American politics:

- Top black and latino groups come together to find out what they agree on. Anything they disagree about is put in the later file.

- The list, no more than ten issues, should primarily deal with matters that affect not only blacks and latinos but broad segments of white America. The one way that minorities truly do well politically in this country is when they lead the majority. If they do, then their more ethnic concerns benefit as well. That should be the goal in this case.

- The list should be specific with no abstractions.

- The coalition should announce it will not endorse any candidates (that would be up to the member organizations of the group) but will be publishing a score card on all candidates based on these issues.

The consensus issues should be heavily centered on economics such as Social Security, foreclosures, and credit care usury. Ending the war in Afghanistan and single payer would be other examples. In each case, a position stated in no longer than one line or a tweet.

If you have any doubts of the power of these issues, consider the following from a recent Time poll:

86% oppose reducing spending on Social Security

82% oppose reducing spending on Medicare.

55% would reduce spending on the war in Afghanistan

63% would not reduce spending on unemployment compensation

68% would not reduce spending on healthare.

After the black and latino groups have drafted their policy, they could invite others - such as labor and student groups - to join them, but the key point would remain: American politics will never be the same because blacks and latinos have come together and another political myth has been shattered.

July 11, 2010


Sam Smith

Progressives, as liberals did before Reagan, emphasize doing the most for the most – which is how we got socio-economic programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and a minimum wage. Today’s liberals favor expanding health insurance company profits over expanding Medicare and strongly support Democratic presidents who undermine the very programs that earlier liberals created such as social welfare and Social Security.

Progressives don't act like prudes and prigs.

Progressives don’t think the commerce clause of the Constitution should be used just because you feel like doing something, such as avoiding single payer health insurance. There is a huge difference between using the commerce clause to guarantee human rights and using it to subsidize health insurance companies.

Progressives recognize the Green Party and its members as part of a broad coalition. Most liberals act as though Greens were a new kind of HIV.

Progressives try to convince people with whom they disagree, not just scold them.

Progressive oppose the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq; liberals like them as long as a Democratic president is running them.

Progressives oppose the war on drugs, America’s most masochistic and deadly battle since Vietnam. Liberals treat it with utter indifference.

Progressives believe what people do is more important than how politely they talk about it.

Progressives don't think you should have to go to grad school to have an important role in government.

Progressives respect state and local government; liberals often act like they're a Republican plot. Progressives understand the importance of the devolution of power to the lowest practical level.

Progressives worry about locked doors, liberals about glass ceilings, which is why liberals thought Obama's election would create a post-racial society.Too many liberals are infatuated with symbolism such as electing a black president, while ignoring the real problems most minorities face in everything from the job market to dealing with the law.

Even progressives who don't own guns respect the right of others to do. Besides, why piss them off the way liberals have done, when they could be allies on a host of other issues, beginning with civil liberties.

But then, progressives still defend civil liberties. Liberals seem to have forgotten about them and ignore Obama's abuse of them.

Progressives pursue issues; liberals support candidates.

Progressives don't give up an issue just because the candidate they voted for is now in office and opposes it.

Liberals love Clinton and Obama while despising the Bushes who preceded them. They don’t seem to notice that our government continued to move to the right under both Democrats and that neither repealed any significant policies of their GOP predecessors

Progressives don't think bailing out banks is an economic stimulus, but that helping to create jobs and stop foreclosures is.

Progressives support local public schools and their teachers; liberals go along with the Bush-Obama attack on public education.

Progressives are not afraid of criticizing Israel for its abusive treatment of Palestine. Liberals either support Israel's criminal actions or are afraid of being called anti-Semites so don't say anything.

Progressives have new ideas; liberals come up with new compromises with the right.

Progressives believe that change is produced by broad coalitions brought together on specific issues, but not necessarily agreeing on all policy. Liberals believe change will come when everyone acts like they do.

July 09, 2010


Porthleven: Photo by Theitalianpen

Sam Smith - The somewhat erratic nature of the Review over the past fortnight, including the absence of our e-mail edition, has been due to the fact that I overcame my antipathy towards lengthy travels and joined my wife, along with Des and Jane Wilson, on a trip that included marvelous centers of pre-imperial England, including Cornwall, Bath, Bristol, Salisbury, Avebury and Old Sarum. I wasn't the only one who noted the context. When I queried a man working on a boat in Porthleven, where the tide rises and falls 18 feet, he called to a friend, "Hey Hal, there's a colonial here with a question." This was, after all, a region from which fishermen worked the Grand Banks long before America had been 'discovered.'

Although I share Samuel Johnson’s view that Rome is worth seeing but not worth going to see, as well as the concern of the Mainer who didn’t like to travel for fear he might miss something, my wife and friends periodically overcome these eccentricities and usually to my advantage. This was no exception.

American readers may recall Des Wilson as a one time columnist for the Review while British readers will know him for more substantial reasons. Fifty years ago, he left New Zealand as a teenager, arriving in England with five pounds in his pocket. Within a few years he had started a program for the homeless and badly housed called Shelter that would change the nature of non-profits throughout the country, turning stodgy charities into strongly active campaigns. Des would go on to lead the effort to get lead out of the gas in Britain, as well as one to institutionalize freedom of information. When he wasn’t doing that sort of thing, he was writing for journals such as the Observer and the New Statesman, heading public relations for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, most recently, writing a couple of excellent books on poker. I have known him for nearly forty of these years, during which his most frequent reactions to my deep reflections has been, “Good God, Smith, have you gone completely mad?”

Although Des has been described as a British Ralph Nader, I also like to think of him as an anti-Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens proved that you can take the boy out of the empire, but you can’t necessarily take the empire out of the boy. Des was the boy who took some of the empire out of the empire. They represent two extremes of British activism and journalism: the clever confirmation of the conventional on the one hand and the constant assault upon it on the other.

So it may seem a bit odd that Des and this long time coconspirator ended up a few days ago meandering through the halls of Blenheim Palace. Or having drinks in a small gate house of the palace, which had been rented by a friend of Des. Even odder was that this friend drove us in the warm early evening through the almost empty 2,000 acre palace grounds, a wonderful privilege of his tenancy.

After drinks and the tour we went to dinner at a pub in a nearby town at the heart of the constituency of D.C. – a.k.a. David Cameron. According to the owner, D.C. had been in there the other night and quizzed him as to whether he knew the difference between the G8 and the G20. “Of course,” replied the pub owner, “12.” I found myself trying to imagine Barack Obama dropping by the Tune Inn or Mr. Henry's on Capitol Hill, but the image flickered and faded.

The real reason we were in places like Blenheim and Old Sarum was because Des is married to an artist and I to a historian. Both work hard at adding a bit of class and culture to our inclinations.

Thus is was, though Des and I tried to restrict the number of visited cathedrals, that we found ourselves at Evensong in the old Salisbury Cathedral, whose foundation was laid almost 800 yeas ago and whose tower is so tall the Nazis chose to let it stand as a navigational marker rather than destroyed as a target in World War II. Evensong usually has the advantage of being a succinct sacrament, but we just happened to stumble upon it on the very day that the Bishop of Salisbury was retiring after 17 years of what proved to be a lengthily celebrated service.

Still, to see someone voluntarily give up that much power in any country, is an impressive sight. The Bishop formally exchanged his crook for a merely priestly pole along with the gift of a scallop shell. An old labor song came back: “And off you pack with an ache in your back, and a pin for your lapel.”

Among the other surprises of the trip was to discover one of the scores of pianos that have been artistically enhanced and scattered around London (and now New York City) right outside the door of the London city museum. Thus it was that I found myself playing a little boogie woogie just a few blocks down the street from St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Towards the end, I realized the true value of the voyage: to see for myself that a fallen empire can survive, still be interesting and quite a lot of fun. And so I returned to America with new hope.