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. . . ."