August 26, 2010


Sam Smith

More and more the Bush-Obama public education deform is looking like a covert effort to make major cities more appealing predominantly to white parents and to ease poorer blacks and latinos out to the suburbs, which for reasons of lack of public transportation, ecological concerns, and weak construction, could easily become the slums of the future as they are elsewhere around the world.

When whites fled cities like Washington, DC, they left behind convenience, excellent public facilities ranging from parks to museums, easy transportation and a better built housing stock. Over past decades, I have periodically wondered when they would figure this out. Now, it looks like they have.

August 24, 2010


David Cobb
Sam Smith

Over a century ago, real populists - not the deluded drones of the Tea Party - showed how politics can really work. And did. We have populists to thank for their major contributions to a lot of things we take for granted: the secret ballot, popular election of US senators, women's suffrage, a graduated income tax, direct primaries and agricultural cooperatives to name a few.

They did it with 10,000 secular missionaries spreading the word around the county, with music and even with ventriloquists. They understood that for politics to work it had to be an interesting and enjoyable part of our lives, not another burden to share.

Which is why when I walked in late to the darkened hall off the main space of the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick, Maine, I thought I was in a time warp, suddenly catapulted back more than a hundred years to a populist rally.

But soon I realized it was just what I had come for: a talk by David Cobb of Move to Amend about the Supreme Court's despicable ruling granting personhood to corporations and what we should do about it.

Cobb hails from a shrimping village in Texas and now lives in California. He was once the Green Party's candidate for president. But he still carries the accent of his youth and speaks in a manner half lawyer, half logician and half (as he himself admits) Elmer Gantry. You end up with a loaf and a half and more.

It was a reminder - both pleasant and sorrowful - of why progressives don't do better these days. They have let the heart and soul go out of politics. While I occasionally wondered if Cobb's approach wasn't a little too hearty for a bunch of laconic Mainers, it lifted my spirits not only for his cause but for all the other matters of virtue currently wallowing in everything from apathy to despair.

It isn't that Cobb is a role model. There's only one of him. But what we need is thousands of something elses, each reintroducing the notion of passion, honest argument and appealing energy in their own way to the causes of our time.

As Duke Ellington put it; it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

Move to Amend
A talk by David Cobb

August 23, 2010


Sam Smith

Like most media, the Progressive Review has repeatedly defined what has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan as wars. But two pieces of news in the past twenty-four hours have raised questions is to whether this is still wise.

- The US has revealed it is spending hundreds of millions on airbases in Afghanistan that won't even open until, according to the Obama schedule, the war will be supposedly winding down.

- Vice President Biden said in a speech that the Obama administration is "following President Bush's proposal for a long-term relationship with Iraq,"

These items remind us that war is only one part of what we are up to in Iraq and Afghanistan. The primary nature of our presence is the occupation of what now amount to two colonies of the United States. The use of the military will ebb and flow, and the administration's name for it will be adjusted with new deceits, but the reality is that we will remain the illegal occupiers of two colonies: Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is perhaps time that we change our language as well, so we are no longer hostages to the government's public manipulation of its troops and their role. Yes, we must end the war but we must end the occupation as well.


 Sam Smith

The planned release by the Los Angles Times of the test score standings of individual teachers in your system is one of the worst acts of journalism I've run across in a half century in the trade. It's unfair, cheap and disgusting.

It is a sort of yuppie version of the anti-gay, anti-Muslim or anti-latino movements, but instead of going after someone because of their gender, religion or ethnicity, you pick on some of the weakest people in the economic system and blame them for your troubles.

It's mean, ignorant and selfish.

Here are a few suggestions for dealing with the problem:

Journalists like to think of themselves as highly ethical. To prove this, how about asking LA Times reporters Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith to publish all personnel reviews they have received over the past seven years, any notes from mental therapy, and the results of all their physical exams. That way we will know how much to believe them.

Even more productive would be a law suit demanding the release of similar information from all other city workers, including the mayor and the police, fire and sanitation departments. The successful arrest records of all police officers and all public complaints against city officials would be included.

I realize that since local judges might object to being assessed in the manner the LA Times has chosen for teachers, you could have a hard time with such a case, but pursuing it, even if it fails, might remind people, even editors of the LA Times, where decency resides.

August 18, 2010


Sam Smith - When I was a boy, my father taught me the presidents of United States in order by use of the first letters of words in a series of nonsensical sentences that were hard to forget:

Washington and Jefferson made money and jack.
Van Buren had ten pennies to finish practically bankrupt.
Little John got hayfever going around Cleveland hoping Cleveland might raise true wealth. 
Harding caught horses running true east. . .

That got you as far as Eisenhower and I never forgot it. I even got extra credit on a high school test as a result, even though I put "Money" where "Monroe" should have been.

Similarly, I can still remember my college dorm room telephone number - Elibero.

So this morning, I decided to apply these principles to something that has been troubling me, namely that I was not doing a good job of keeping Middle Eastern countries geographically straight in my mind.  Here's my solution:

TIAPI - Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, from left to right wit a slight downward tilt

SIJSOY - Sryia, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yeman, more or less top to bottom under Turkey.

SLIJ - Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, top to bottom.

I'm still working on Palestine and any improvements are welcomed.

Silly as it may seem, just memorize those three words and their mnemonic connections and you've just installed a whole map in your brain.

August 17, 2010


Sam Smith - I was a bit taken aback by news that Bill Clinton had visited the headquarters of the rightwing site Newsmax and had a friendly chat with its founder Chris Ruddy. Reported Newsmax, "The president and Ruddy have become friends over the past several few years, with both sharing Clinton’s passion for the causes that his Clinton Foundation supports. The foundation focuses on poverty alleviation and health services in the United States and globally. 'I am a great admirer of President Clinton,' Ruddy said."

But then, after thinking about it, I was a bit pleased. After all, Hillary Clinton had given all the credit for exposing the Clinton scandals to a "rightwing conspiracy" of which Ruddy was a key and able part. But in fact, the Progressive Review was one of the first journals to get on the Clinton case, running a report on numerous questionable Clinton connections even before his nomination, most of which would later be featured in the Whitewater scandal.

The inspiration for some of this information was research by a progressive student group at the University of Arkansas. But, unlike Barack Obama and his public distaste for the professional left, the Clintons gave all their disdain to the conspiratorial right (although I still suspect the Clintonistas of being responsible for me being banned during the period by CSPAN and one of the the Washington NPR station's leading talk host).

In any case, it's now clear that the vast rightwing conspiracy just couldn't weather the storm so it's now up to the minuscule leftwing conspiracy, including the Review, to finish the job. And they call liberals wimps?

August 16, 2010


Sam Smith

We recently ran a story about the Australian Anglican Church saying that overpopulation may violate the Ten Commandments. A reader wrote to propose "post-partum sterilization of both parents after one live birth. It doesn't impoverish anyone, and if carried out with no exceptions or special pleadings, is guaranteed to take care of Earth's overpopulation problem."

Neat, clean and effective.

Only one things wrong: it's inhumane and violates basic individual choice.

When the law is used as a weapon to make major changes in cultural behavior it can easily become a legal taser gun, effective perhaps in a particular instance but damaging to the society as a whole. Taser torturing someone or mandatory sterilization does not contribute to a sane and decent society.

This is why dealing with an issue like civil rights can be so complicated. You can integrate a school by law but you can't stop someone from hating someone else by law.

Lately, confusion on this issue has been cropping up in the discussion over population.

For example, the otherwise excellent Popuation Media Center has featured arguments about why stronger immigration laws are a good thing, based on the increasing influence of immigration on total American population.

Recently it forwarded an article by right wing pro life political activist Gary Bauer in Politico, in which he argued:

"People migrate to the United States to improve their standard of living. But the liberal wish of immigration amnesty may have deleterious effects on the environment, as millions of people from developing countries settle down in, or are encouraged to move to, the world's largest energy-consuming country and quickly embrace all the CO2-causing ways of the world's richest economy. . . U.S. immigrants produce an estimated 637 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually. That's 482 million tons more than they would have produced had they remained in their home countries."

The argument is that keeping immigrants in their home country with a far lower standard of living is better for the environment.

There are a number of problems with this:

- It assumes that climate change is not really a global problem.

- It gives no value to the lives of the immigrants.

- It distortedly focuses the population argument on immigrants - specifically latinos - which plays into the hands of those who don't like immigrants for a plethora of other reasons.

- It takes attention away from other solutions that are not only more important but lead to more culturally harmonious results, such as expanding the use of birth control and encouraging later marriages.

In fact, the Population Media Center has been on the forefront of good thinking on these issues, including how one uses TV soap operas to change child-bearing practices. But, having lived through the civil rights struggle, I'm conscious of how easy it is for liberals to be distracted in a good cause by the fallacious arguments and agenda-setting of the right.

For example, the estimable George Kenney makes the argument in Huffington Post that:

"Liberals should take care not to feign too much outrage against those who question birthright citizenship. The meaning of the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment — if one stops for a moment to think about it — did not, when it was ratified in 1868, absolutely, unambiguously, and unconditionally allow birthright citizenship and, therefore, the Amendment's commonly accepted meaning having changed over time, those who defend birthright citizenship must be prepared to say why their reading of the 14th Amendment is more correct than the alternative."

His argument is an interesting one if you're with a bunch of lawyers having dinner in a restaurant, but the fact is that the 14th Amendment wouldn't even be mentioned today if it were not for some clever troublemakers on the right. My answer on the 14th Amendment is to end its huge court-created birthright powers to corporations - that is categorizing them as persons - and we can worry about the poor little sons and daughters of illegal immigrants later. Besides, we have too big a deficit to have ICE agents in every maternity ward.

Besides, I have an friend born in America who has an Irish as well as an American passport because his father was born in Ireland. Different places have different rules, just as America has had different rules at different times. And the more humane they are, the better.

What both the population and the immigration issue require is a careful balance between the power of the law and human wisdom and decency.

One of the reasons it is difficult to even bring up the population issue in liberal circles these days is because of its sorry history based heavly on law and power, ranging from enforced birth control programs to Nazi pogroms. As a result there is no more important issue being given so little attention.

The key to changing this is to recognize the inherent danger of using the law as a tool in dealing with the matter. It is a change that we need to make in the same way that Americans decided not to have so many children or the Japanese decided to get married later.

The minute the law gets involved in a punitive fashion, we find ourselves with the same sort of ugly crisis we had with segregation and are having now with immigration. Besides, we've had forty years of failure trying to deal with drug use through the law and it's failed miserably. Let's not add a war on population or a war on immigration to our list of failures.

Besides the environment doesn't recognize national borders. We’re all in this together.