May 14, 2011

Marion Barry: Some notes

Marion Barry and me

SAM SMITH - Marion Barry and I split over a quarter century ago. I can't remember the exact issue, but it was one time too many that Marion had promised one thing and then done another.

I first met Marion in 1966. We were both in our 20s and he was looking for a white guy who would handle the press. He had just organized the largest local protest movement in the city's history - a bus boycott - and I had participated and written about it. The typical twenty something doesn't get over 100,000 people to stop doing something for a day. I gladly took on the assignment.

We hit it off and remained allies even after the day Stokley Carmichael walked into SNCC headquarters and said that we whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. Barry would later describe me as one of the first whites who would have anything to do with him. I backed him when he ran for school board and in his first two mayoral bids. And in those days, I have to say, he got pretty good press.

But even by the time of the second run for mayor I was feeling queasy. A friend and I held a fundraiser for Marion and I introduced him. I started out by listing the reasons why people might be ambivalent about Barry and then add, "On the other hand. . ." Marion pointedly wiped his brow.

I was already becoming aware of Marion's addiction to that most dangerous, if legal, drug called power. Later, I would be listening to a talk show discussing a book about cocaine in the executive suite and suddenly realize how similar the two addictions were and how I could no longer tell which was affecting Barry more.

I saw less and less of him. We had lunch one day but I told him some things he didn't want to hear and he later told a reporter, "Sam's a cynical cat." In 1986 I told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "He's basically done to ethnicity what Ronald Reagan has done to patriotism. He's turned it into a personal preserve."

But I still saw that it was a complex story. At one point, Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, asked me to do a piece on him. I told him that I would be glad to but that I wasn't going to trash Barry. And I suggested a headline, "Failing the Faith." A few days later, Peters cancelled the lunch at which we were to discuss the article and never got back to me. The next thing I knew, the Washington Monthly ran an article by Juan Williams trashing Marion Barry and using a variety of the headline I had suggested. Williams was on his way.

When Barry ran for mayoral reelection the last time, I took the position that I was all in favor of redemption; I just didn't see why you had to do it the mayor's office. I broke up one talk show host by suggesting that Barry follow the example of a recently disgraced Irish bishop and go help the Indians of Guatemala.

On another talk show, Barry said that the press was always blaming him for all the city's problems. I said that wasn't fair; I only blamed him for 26.7% of the city's problems. "I'll buy that," Marion replied. . .

Yet I also knew that Barry - like other urban ethnic politicians - had far more to blame than himself. Whatever his faults - he knew he had been granted dispensation because - like a feudal lord - he provided significant favors in return. Barry had lived in Memphis and I often suspected he had learned his politics from Boss Trump. For he understood the quid pro quo of traditional urban corruption that had helped the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles break down the worst corruption of all - that of an elite unwilling to share it power with others. It was far from a perfect deal but in the interim before the "reformers" seized office again on behalf of their developer and other business buddies, more people would get closer to power than they ever had or would again. It happened in Chicago, in Boston and in Washington.

And now the reformers are back. The young gentrifiers who think the greatest two moments in the city's history is when Barry went to jail and when they arrived in town. And their politicians, who don't feel it necessary to even tithe to the people.

The last time I saw Marion was at a public dinner. He had first run into my wife and asked, "Where's that sonofabitch?" But when he saw me we hugged because despite all our differences we both know we are still kin in a too tough world. I'd just lucked out better. - 1/06


Barry and the collapse of black power

SAM SMITH - Now that Marion Barry's back in office, it may be useful to get a few facts straight. Over the years, Barry's personal problems and those of his friends have been conflated with his record as a mayor. They are strikingly different. Further, Barry served as a closet for prejudice as his name became national slang for "black," helping to speed a major decline in black political power.

DRUGS - Barry had a serious drug problem, probably developed in the 1980s. In this regard he had even more famous peers including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. At one point , Clinton' stepbrother was caught on a police tape saying that he has to get some cocaine for his brother who has "a nose like a vacuum cleaner." Bush was a serious alcoholic and appears to remain what is known as a "dry drunk." But neither of these politicians got the media attention for their habits and bad consequences as Barry did. This can be largely attributed to ethnic bias. It is also true, however, that Barry's drug problems continued to plague him longer than either Bush or Clinton and Barry has yet to apologize to the people of DC for the harm and scorn his behavior caused them.

CORRUPTION - Barry ranks about average compared to past and present mayoral peers around the country. A number of the most publicized convictions involved misappropriation of funds to feed drug habits - hardly in the class of grand urban corruption. In fact, the single most corrupt individual in modern Washington was probably the head of the Teacher's Union rather than anyone in the Barry machine. Barbara A. Bullock not only had over $5 million disappear from the union treasury, she had a $100,000 chauffeur and a wardrobe, artwork and jewelry that would have impressed Imelda Marcos. Bullock's executive assistant was co-chair of the reelection campaign not of Barry but of Anthony Williams.

According to an FBI affidavit, Bullock had "a $20,000 mink coat, along with other mink coats . . . nearly $500,000 in custom-made clothing . . . more than $9,000 at retailer Bloomingdales; more than $9,000 for clothing and accessories from a Florida vendor known as Body Scentre Limited; more than $11,000 in purchases from a retailer known as Friedman's Shoes in Atlanta, Georgia; more than $5,000 to Galt Brothers Jewelry in Washington, D.C.; more than $5,000 to Graffiti AudioVideo for electronic equipment; more than $12,000 at retailer Hecht Company; more than $3,000 at the Hermes Boutique in Vienna, Virginia; more than $5,000 for bedding and a desk pad from the Horchow Collection; more than $6,000 to vendor J. Crew; more than $15,000 to vendor Jacobson Stores, Inc., for St. John Knit apparel; more than $4,000 for merchandise from Little Switzerland JNU, in Juneau, Alaska; more than $60,000 to MS Rau Antiques in New Orleans, Louisiana (including $57,000 for a 288-piece Tiffany sterling silver set); more than $17,000 to Miller Furs; more than $150,000 at retailer Neiman-Marcus; more than $50,000 at retailer Nordstrom; more than $4,000 at beauty salon Oriental Oasis; more than $25,000 for services of the Parkway Custom Dry Cleaners in Chevy Chase, Maryland; more than $9,000 to Ramee Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.; more than $40,000 at retailer Saks Fifth Avenue; more than $50,000 at a vendor known as Snazzy Limited in Orange Park, Florida; more than $4,000 at the St. John Boutique in Beverly Hills, California and New York, New York; more than $2,500 for china or crystal from The Lenox Shop in Williamsburg, Virginia and Prince William, Virginia; more than $6,000 in gourmet kitchen equipment from retailer Williams-Sonoma; almost $4,000 to jeweler Tiffany & Co.; more than $20,000 to the Atlanta gallery of the artist William Tolliver; and more than $7,000 to Wagner Opticians."

Barry's capos never came close to such standards and Barry himself, in the little noted tradition of corrupt mayors, took relatively little for himself using power as his payoff.

It is fair to say that under Barry one could buy favors. Today one can buy large chunks of the city only it's not called corruption, it's called economic development. But the principle is the same: a tiny number of politically connected figures getting grossly more than they deserve out of city hall.

BUDGET - The city's financial problems, contrary to the current impression, have run a familiar course whether or not Barry was in office and whether or not the city had home rule. In fact, Barry took office with a large deficit which he reduced in the 1980s. His drug problems not withstanding he left office with a hefty balance. With the election of the far less competent Sharon Pratt Kelly (who squeaked in thanks to the heavy backing of the Post) and with a national economic deterioration, this improvement was dramatically reversed and the balance was wiped out. Further, about two thirds of the DC's financial problems were on the revenue side which continue regardless of who is in office.

SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS improved under Barry, most notably for women, blacks and gays. Washington became known as "Chocolate City," an affectionate term used by blacks to describe perhaps the friendly large town in the country.

CRIME - Halfway through Barry's first tenure, the murder rate started to soar in DC as in other larger cities. The evidence points to Reagan's war on drugs which created much of the same sort of economic and criminal chaos as Prohibition had earlier. DC was more vulnerable because of its lack of organized mobs with clearly defined territory. Many of the murders were part of a turf war in the city's largely anarchistic drug trade. An analysis of the murders in the late 1980s found that if you weren't buying or selling drugs, your chances of being killed in DC were about the same as in Copenhagen.

BARRY'S REAL SIN - Barry's real sins other than his personal recklessness was that he served as an agent of largely suburban white business interests in making policy in a black city. Thus vast sums were spent on "economic development" with no new jobs for local DC residents and only a marginal increase in sales tax revenue. Like many other black mayors he was the symbolic head of the city while white businessmen ran the place.

THINGS LOST SINCE BARRY - Loss of its public hospital, drastic deterioration of its public schools, the disappearance of reasonably priced housing, and a systemic degradation of every service for which the less fortunate have greater need than the wealthy. Meanwhile, far more than under Barry, those who circumvent the political system through money and influence operate with impunity. Also: the ability of poor folk to stay in the city, the treatment of demonstrators by the police, and the administration of the Fire Department.

In sum, Barry was never as bad a mayor - even during his worst personal crises - as many like to say. Perhaps the fairest way to describe Barry is to say that he was better at getting the things done he wanted to get done than were his successors. The problem was that what he wanted to do was not always right or enough, he took too much off the top, and too much time off for the wrong things.

Entering office with a biracial liberal coalition, he converted his base into one that relied heavily on black votes and white corporate money. The former he attracted by rhetoric, the latter with the real estate at his disposal. The most integrated meetings in town were when the Barry team sat down with its campaign contributors.

Barry was not the only black mayor to do so, and the end it turned out to be a fool's paradise of black power because within a decade and a half, upper income whites were taking back the cities and the constituents of the black mayors were being evicted in what amounted to socio-economic urban cleansing.

But for awhile, it looked like Washington really was Chocolate City. And, in fact, the Barry administration did much to improve the social, economic and political climate of local blacks, so much so that even Jesse Jackson moved here for a while to take advantage of it. But in the end, Marion was like those Mahalia Jackson warned us against, when she sang that "you can't go to church and shout all day Sunday, come home and get drunk and raise hell on a Monday."

That, metaphorically and literally, is what Marion did and in the process he helped mightily to destroy the city's dreams of self government and of a city with both soul and integrity. Further, he has yet to apologize to us for it.

Perhaps worst of all, he gave the enemies of a fair and decent city just what they needed to hide their own avarice behind a mantle of reform and for the creation of the narcissistic, greedy, gated town that is now Washington. 2/05

Barry's back


Written in Spring 2002, when Marion Barry was considering running for city council.

Now that Marion Barry's back it's worthwhile - although probably futile - to try separate the fact and fiction that he accumulated over the years.

There are plenty of reasons not to vote Barry. For one thing, he betrayed the hopes of DC when it was - and could have remained - one of the most progressive cities in America. There were three main reasons for this: he got lazy, he got addicted, and he got cynical. Entering office with a biracial liberal coalition, he converted his base into one that relied heavily on black votes and white corporate money. The former he attracted by rhetoric, the latter with the real estate at his disposal. The most integrated meetings in town were when the Barry team sat down with its campaign contributors.

Barry was not the only black mayor to do so, and the end it turned out to be a fool's paradise of black power because within a decade and a half, upper income whites were taking back the cities and the constituents of the black mayors were being evicted in what amounted to socio-economic urban cleansing.

But for awhile, it looked like Washington really was Chocolate City. And, in fact, the Barry administration did much to improve the social, economic and political climate of local blacks, so much so that even Jesse Jackson moved here for a while to take advantage of it. But in the end, Marion was like those Mahalia Jackson warned us against, when she sang that "you can't go to church and shout all day Sunday, come home and get drunk and raise hell on a Monday."

That, metaphorically and literally, is what Marion did and in the process he helped mightily to destroy our dreams of self government and of a city with both soul and integrity. Further, he has yet to apologize to us for it.

Perhaps worst of all, he gave the enemies of a fair and decent city just what they needed to hide their own greed behind a mantle of reform. "Marion Barry" became a code word - for blacks, for home rule, for urban social programs. And "Marion Barry" became the excuse for evictions, for budget cutting, for school forgetting, for hospital closing, for land grabbing, for zone changing, and for the creation of the narcissistic, greedy, gated city that is now Washington.

On the other hand, some years back, I was on a radio show with Marion and he was complaining about how reporters blamed him for all the city's problems. I said I didn't blame him for all the city's problems, but only for 23.7% of them. "I'll take that," Marion replied.

The percentages may have been a bit off but it's true. For example, Barry is blamed for the city's fiscal problems when, as a short term matter, at least half the deficit occurred during the Sharon Pratt Kelly administration and between 1981 and 1991 the city had only two mildly unbalanced budgets at time when the federal budget was out of whack by double digit percentages every year.

In fact, one of the best things Barry did when he was a council member was to get a law passed that gave DC residents preference for DC government jobs. By 1987, 60% of the city's employees lived in DC. But that year Congress stripped the city of its residency preferences and by 1995, 70% of DC workers lived in the suburbs. According to Edward Meyers in "Public Opinion and the Future of the Nation's Capital," this meant a $420 million annual reduction in the city's overall economy. Says Meyers, "Congress transformed the District with this one policy revision more than it did with all its other post-1975 actions combined."

Washington was also hit with some of the worst side effects of the misbegotten war on drugs. Between 1985 and 1991 the teenage violent death rate increased six times and teen unemployment doubled. While Barry was in declining shape to deal with such matters, it is nonetheless the case that DC would have been a major victim of the egregious drug war no matter who had been in power, in part because it had no well organized mob to keep the young dealers from fighting with each other.

Barry is also blamed for the overload of DC government workers but once again this is a myth. It was Walter Washington who increased the size of the government significantly, in part because in post riot DC he wanted to give blacks jobs but not anger whites by laying them off. In 1995 the city had 45,000 employees; in 1974 there had been 48,000.

Further, the economic problems of DC in the 1990s can mostly be traced to decisions that while fully supported by Barry were also fully supported by the Board of Trade, the Washington Post and the US Congress: these include a wealth of public works programs that cost billions yet in the end produced a city was fewer residents, fewer jobs, and sales tax revenues that barely kept up with inflation.

In short, give Barry hell for what he did wrong, but leave some epithets for those who so noisily declared how awful he was while they were working every zoning, monetary, and political angle they could. They hurt the city, too. - S. S. 

Post-reconstruction blues. . .

Progressive Review, March 1989

. . . . My own break with Marion came more than six years ago over issues unrelated to either sex or drugs, real issues such as development and neighborhood rights and lying during the campaign about your position about such matters.

The other stuff, the stuff that eventually made Washington a joke across the nation, was just beginning to crop up. But that seemed less important. I believed Lincoln had the right attitude. When told Grant was drinking too much, he replied: find out what he's drinking and send a case to all my other generals. What Barry did after hours didn't really concern me; what he did on the job mattered a lot.

It eventually became clear that they were of a piece. It's hard to separate the two when a mayor spends one-third of his supposedly working days out of the city, largely, it appeared, for recreational purposes.

. . . . If black America continues to slip as it did during eight years of the most callous national administration in half a century, it won't really be Marion Barry's fault. But he'll have played a part, because at a time when the black movement was suffering from a bad case of the post-reconstruction blues, he provided a precise and highly visible, if invalid, excuse for many whites to say, "We told you so."

The black movement, like the white radical movement of the sixties, was meant to change America forever. Neither white nor black activists heard clearly enough what may have been the most prescient advice of their share moment. It came from Bobby Seale who said, "Seize the time."

It was quoted but not understood. The time was seized, but there was little sense of the immense impermanence of change or of the need to seize new times over and over again, in different ways, with different ideas and different people.

. . . .My first impressions of Barry stayed for many years. I found him likable, extremely hard-working, imaginative, intelligent, and creative and motivated by moral concerns. Although I was to learn that he was a womanizer, I never recall seeing him high. I early saw him as not only someone who could lead the city towards the self-government we hadn't had in nearly a century, but who could run the place when we reached that goal.

. . . ..It was a time when blacks and whites could work together and, under Barry's leadership, they did. It was not extraordinary; it was one of the givens of the civil rights movement. Even SNCC had a button showing a black and white hand clasped over a Confederate flag.

And although Barry was an anathema to the white business leaders and considered a rogue by the local civil rights establishment, as early as 1966 a poll found him ranked fifth by black residents as the person who had done the most for blacks in DC. They probably underrated him.

. . . . As black nationalism became more popular, it was easy to find politicians who approached the concept much as the New Right approaches the pledge of allegiance and the Pentagon. Ethnicity in the political arena became both a new horizon and, too often, the last refuge of the scoundrel.

To his credit, Marion Barry long understood the difference. As his interests moved from protest to politics, and as the city gained a measure of self-government, Barry maintained his stature as an ethnic leader while at the same time reaching out to a white constituency. That constituency had a strong traditional progressive impulse; it expected both concern and efficiency or, as Barry was to dub it later, "competence and compassion."

. . . .Barry, as mayor, initially offered considerable hope. He introduced new large trashcans on wheels that greatly improved the efficiency of the sanitation department. He put the government's financial house in order. He improved relations with Congress, reduced the size of the bureaucracy, and appointed more women and minorities to important positions.

But Barry also moved sharply towards the white big business community and away from his white liberal supporters. His stand on development issues, in particular, alienated white support. Barry, in effect, was driving a wedge between whites while solidifying his black support. Development, he promised blacks, was going to bring jobs. Since most of the development would be in white neighborhoods, the question of density, traffic and destruction of community would not be a black political issue.

Thus black power cut a deal with white power. The middle class and poor of either race weren't part of the deal although they were mightily affected by it.

In fact, the deal didn't bring jobs to blacks. By 1986 there were some 40,000 more private jobs in DC than in 1980, but a thousand fewer DC residents were employed. All the new jobs in that period went to mostly white suburban commuters.

. . . . I became convinced that the growing white passivity and non-participation in city would do neither whites nor blacks any good. In retrospect, the unwillingness of whites to stand up to Marion Barry may have helped to kill him with kindness. To this day, no matter how hazy his vision on other matters, he can still count pretty well. (In fact, one of Barry's initial reactions to his current trouble was a serious attempt to rebuild white support.) Yet too often the white precincts weren't heard from. The tragedy of Marion Barry is not just a black problem; it is at least partially the result of a white minority that was afraid to be a full member of the city community. The irony is that not only was there no empirical basis for this fear -- involved whites bore relatively few scars -- and the attitude was unconsciously demeaning. Being willing to argue with someone is a symbol of respect and many whites sent a silent signal that they didn't think enough of the black leadership to fight with it.

Barry's new political approach inevitably changed his rhetoric. He at times seemed more of a black nationalist than he had been when wearing a dashiki in the 60s. And as he proved in his second run for election, he didn't need white votes any more. He had simply co-opted ethnicity for his own political purposes much as Reagan had co-opted patriotism.

Those who accepted Barry as the most powerful of blacks had black power. Black lawyers found themselves involved in multi-million dollar bond deals, black developers got a nice piece of the action, major black businesses got city contracts.

But it didn't get down to the streets. One study showed that Barry's vaunted minority business program actually only benefited a relative handful of well-connected firms

. . . Meanwhile, other blacks were coming into power in American cities, many of them cutting similar deals with white corporate leaders. Black power no longer meant mainly culture, values and ideas. It meant urban politics with the black mayor as king and white business as parliament.

In the process, the other voices of blackness -- writers, preachers, educators -- the voices that had guided black culture through lonely years of tstruggle, became relatively less important. The leaders of the black community became its politicians, with all the dangers and pitfalls that particular type of leadership entails.

Much as Ronald Reagan's cynical manipulation of American values tended to silence vibrant discourse and debate, so Marion Barry's manipulation of black symbols turned Washington from into a one-question town: are you for him or against him?

. . . .Barry would later use as part of his defense the argument that he had done nothing that white urban bosses hadn't done before him. It was partially true, but he left out a couple of things. One was that many of these bosses were caught. Even the king of them all, Boss Tweed, spent his last five years in jail.

Besides, the urban corruption of a half century and more ago was substantively different from that of today. The old bosses were servants as well as masters. The deal they cut with their constituency included a level of access to city hall that has not been seen in urban America in many years. Barry doesn't even tithe to the people, let alone see himself under obligation to them in the manner of a Curley or a Daley.

. . . .At the moment, Washington is in a fragile state. We are all -- black and white, hostages of one man's acts, his will and his conscience. The results have not been pleasant for a city that has usually handled its racial tensions and differences better than most.

. . . .The departure of Barry could be one of the best things that ever happened to black Washington. Barry himself, in the seventies, said, "One of our problems is that we're not developing any local leadership). I came to Washington in 1965 and I see basically the same leadership that was here when I came. Same faces. I'd like to contribute to changing that in some way." He could. By leaving.

Freed of its psychological dependence on the fate of one flawed man, black Washington's ideas, energy and talent could flower again. It could come out from the shadows of enforced, ethnic unity into the shared pride in its own diversity.

Willie, Earl and Marion

City Paper, February, 1990

. . . With Earl [Long] and Willie Stark (aka Huey Long) the mechanics of their politics was even more corrupt than that of our mayor; yet in some mystical way they managed to immunize the philosophy that the politics served from the corruption. Jack Burden, the journalist-turned-Stark henchman who narrates 'All the King's Men,' says at one point, "Process as process is neither morally good nor morally bad. We may judge results but not process. The morally bad agent may perform the deed which is good. The morally good agent may perform the deed which is bad. Maybe a man has to sell his soul to get the power to do good."

Thus you look at Huey Long's platform of the 1930s and wish the current national Democratic Party could do as well. But those were days when you could see and feel political virtue. A new road, a new hospital, tax relief that made a difference. Today politics has become a giant Nintendo game, exciting and convincing while you're playing, but nothing there when you turn off the set. If we drive around Washington we would be hard pressed to find places where we could point and say, "Look, at least Marion Barry did this." There are no Barry monuments, no Barry unfulfilled dreams, no Barry proverbs to mitigate his memory. Yet before we become too moralistic about it, we should remember that Barry was doing no more than playing by the current rules, which state that social programs only need be promised, wars on social ills need only be waged, and virtue only need be declared. Nothing in politics anymore need be brought to fruition. Marion Barry said he never used drugs; George Bush said he would eliminate them. And perhaps Barry learned from the Bushes of America that it really didn't matter what you said. No one would bother with the final truth.

. . . I find myself thinking of the good years. The years in which Barry was one of a handful of people who made self-determination for DC possible, the years in which he was the voice of progress and sanity on the school board and city council. I think of a man who was willing to risk his life for the freedom of others, who was willing to go to jail on the chance it would help others gain a measure of liberty. And like Jack Burden writing of Willie Stark: "I have to believe he was a great man. What happened to his greatness is not the question. Perhaps he spilled it on the ground the way you spill a liquid when the bottle breaks. Perhaps he piled up his greatness and burnt it in one great blaze in the dark like a bonfire and then there wasn't anything but dark and the embers winking. Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together that what was adulterated was lost. But he had it. I must believe that."

On the wall of my office is an autographed bumpersticker from Marion's second campaign for mayor, the last time I supported him in anything. It reads: "Barry -- the way things ought to be." In his last words Willie Stark said, "It might have been all different, Jack. You got to believe that."

Everything I know about Bill Clinton
I learned from Marion Barry


Almost from the start I recognized something familiar about Bill Clinton. The soft southern voice so unwavering in its glib assurance, the excuse for everything, the absence of inquiry, the cynical charm, a cause well used a quarter century ago and then forgotten, the adulterated intelligence, the inconsistency, the willingness to use anything or anyone, the undisciplined egocentrism, the populist rhetoric playing bumper tag with corporatist policies, the drugs, the women, and the whiff of the underworld. It was not new; I had, after all, known Marion Barry for over 25 years.

There were, to be sure, differences. Clinton's youthful cause had been Vietnam, Barry's civil rights. Barry retreated into an ethnic cocoon; Clinton's ambitions became national. Clinton was white and Barry was black. There was another difference. When Barry was caught with women or drugs, the Washington Post played the story with glee; when Gennifer Flowers and stories of Clinton drug use came up, the Post spiked or subordinated them. Two and half weeks after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, including logs showing three dozen visits to the White House, the Post called the relationship "ambivalent." None of Barry's activities had been reported as "ambivalent." In the end a whole city would have to pay for Barry's faults. Not even Clinton has had to pay for his.

When Barry ran for reelection I took the position that I was all in favor of redemption; I just didn't see why you had to do it the mayor's office. During the campaign I appeared on a TV show with Barry. I pointed out to him that he had never apologized to the people of the city for the pain he had caused them. Barry went into his redemption speech; he ended by saying that he hoped some day "Sam would consider me redeemed, too."

That was the end of the show and we walked out together and sat down in the lounge next to the studio. "Marion," I said, "I wasn't talking about your redemption. There are a lot of people in this town who were embarrassed and hurt by what you did and I don't see any sign that you even recognize it." Barry didn't seem to understand what I was talking about and so I said, "Look, isn't one of the twelve steps that you're meant to make amends to those you have harmed along the way?"

For a moment, he connected: "You mean I should tell them that I'm sorry.?"

"It might help."

Barry nodded and excused himself, but he hadn't really heard. As I looked into his well-trained eyes I realized I had sought something beyond his vision. For him there were no others.

I thought of that evening the other day when Bill Clinton was asked what message he might send to Monica Lewinsky. He made a joke of the question and when another reporter asked if he might resign, he said, "Never." I looked into Clinton's well-trained eyes and knew the reporters had asked something beyond his vision. For him there were no others.

The 1966 bus boycott

The notorious DC Transit wanted to raise its fares and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized to stop it. They urged citizens with cars to drive bus passengers during a one-day boycott.

I joined the volunteers. On the morning of January 24, 1966, 1 hauled myself out of bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my '54 Chrysler, and made my way to Sixth and H Streets Northeast, one of the assembly points for volunteer jitneys. A boycott organizer filled my car with three high school girls and a middle- aged and rather fat woman.

A bus drove by and it was empty. "They're all empty," the woman said, It was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered if she was right.

If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent fare increase Chalk was seeking would cost them two week's worth of groceries over the course of a year.

I let my passengers off and headed back to Sixth and H. At Florida and New York, I counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning and the boycott was working,

"It's beautiful," the man in the slightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for Seven-teenth Street. "It's working and it's beautiful. Hey, you see those two there. Let's try and get them."

I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two men stood.

"Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in," my rider called to the pair.

"You headed downtown?"

"Yeah, get in."

"Great. It's working, huh? Great!"

At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: "Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn't send it. Want a cup of coffee?"

"Thanks."

"I'm tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn't."

We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.

"We've got to live together, man. You're white and you can't help it. I'm Negro and I can't help it. But we still can get along. That's the way I feel about it." I agreed. "You ever worked with SNCC before?" "Nope," I said.

'Well, I'11 tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they're a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they're going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they'll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That's good, man."

Later, I picked up a man at a downtown bus stop. The woman in the back seat asked him, "You weren't waiting for a bus, were you?"

"No. I just figured someone would come along and pick me up."

"That's good, 'cause if you were waiting for a bus I was going to bop you upside your head."

We all laughed and the man reassured her again.

"You know," the woman in back continued, "there were some of the girls at work who said they were going to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I'd go get a big stick and stand at the bus stop and bop 'em one if they got on Mr. Chalk's buses. Some people just don't know how to cooperate. And you know, you don't have nothing in this world until you get people together. Hey, lookit over there, let's see if that guy's going out northeast."

People stuck together that Monday, I carried seventy-one people, only five of them white. SNCC estimated that DC Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Two days later, the transit commission, in a unanimous but only temporary decision, denied DC Transit the fare hike. The commission's executive director dryly told reporters that the boycott played no part in the decision. He was probably right. The commission worried about such things as cash dividends, investor's equity, rate of return, depreciated value, and company base. The boycotters worried about a nickel more a ride. And in the end, the commission was to approve the fare hike and then more; a few years later the fare was up to forty cents.

But the boycott was important, anyway. Never had so many Washingtonians done anything so irregular and contrary to official wishes. The assumption that DC residents would passively accept the injustices of their city was shattered. SNCC and the Free DC Movement had laid the groundwork for future action.

After the bus boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague, L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my living room talking about how I could help in SNCC's public relations. I readily agreed; for the first time in my life I had joined a movement.

Three years earlier Barry had quit his $5,500 a-year post teaching chemistry at Knoxville College in Tennessee and joined the SNCC. He soon showed up in Washington to head the local office. Barry early formed an improbable and ultimately nearly explosive partnership with an erstwhile farm im-plements manufacturer, salesman, self-styled nutrition expert, and economic theoretician named L. D. Pratt. Barry was lean, black, soft-spoken, self-contained, and given to wearing a straw plantation style hat; Pratt was husky, white, excitable, demonstrative, and covered his baldness with a felt fedora that made him appear a character out of a one-column cut in a forties edition of Time magazine.

Together they designed the boycott and a drive to win self-government for the colony of Washington. Although the life of the Free DC Movement would be measured in months, it seemed like years, so much was crammed into its short existence. Barry and Pratt both worked themselves to the marrow and it was during those months that Barry first gained a long-lingering reputation for always being late for ap-pointments, news conferences, and actions. "I work on CPT-- colored people's time," explained Barry. Part of my job was to stand on the street-corner and convince the press that Marion really would show up if they just waited a bit longer. The reporters would bitch, but since Barry was shaking up the city, they mostly waited anyhow.

Barry's subsequent moves in his drive for passage of right-to-vote legislation in Congress included an effort to get businessmen in downtown stores and along H Street (a black shopping area second only to downtown in commercial importance) to support the movement by displaying its sticker in their windows. Hun-dreds of orange and black stickers with the slogan "Free DC" below a shattered chain went up in store windows; but the threat of a business boycott led other merchants to cry blackmail, and some of the more traditional civil rights and home rule leaders began to back away from Barry's tough tactics.

In the coming months, Barry and his organization would disrupt the calm of the city with increasing fre-quency. A number of Free DC supporters were arrested at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. By the following fall, Barry would have been arrested three times, for failing to "move on," for disorderly conduct, and for holding a Free DC block party without official sanction.

Barry used his arrests to make points. After being arrested for failing to move on at a policeman's order, Barry said, "It is a bad law that gives policemen the sole discretion in such matters. Especially in Washington where the cops are so uneducated and awful. They use the law as a harassing device against Negroes." And he warned, less than two years before the 1968 riot, that the attitude of police might lead to an outbreak of racial violence.

While Barry was on the streets, on the tube, in court, and in jail, his associate, L. D. Pratt, was developing a reputation as the mystery man behind the operation dis-turbing the tranquility of the colonial capital.

Pratt refused to be interviewed by reporters and, al-though it was known that he was closely involved in designing the bus boycott, few knew who be was or what he was up to.

In fact, by the time Pratt was sixteen, he had lived in Mis-souri, Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, and Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of DC. He worked for a bank in Maryland, selling farm implements in the mid-west and trying to pull bankrupt businesses out of hock. At the time of the bus boycott, the 39-year-old Pratt was unemployed. His wife was supporting the family along with what money L. D. could bring by running a car pool. Meanwhile, when he wasn't involved in Free DC and SNCC business, he was at the Library of Congress studying food nutri-tion.

Pratt was fascinated by agriculture and agricultural problems. He wanted to revise the whole system and I never saw him more excited as when he developed plans, ultimately futile, for a takeover by civil rights and antipoverty groups of the multimillion dollar Greenbelt Consumer Services, one of the nation's earliest and most financially successful cooperatives.

Pratt mixed street jargon with academic terms in a ca-cophonic lingo all of his own: "Look, man, those cats gotta implode their power base before they do anything." He was an activist and a thinker; a short-term planner and a long-term dreamer.

The pair belied their public images. In person. Barry, the mortal threat to peace and order, was personally a gentle and quiet individual and Pratt, the mystery man, was, out of range of the press, open and loquacious.

Marion was leading a movement, but it had some of the intensity, closeness and spirit of a rebellion. Barry enlisted into the cause anyone he could find. You would be talking on the phone and a special operator would break in with an "emergency call" and it would be Barry or Pratt or someone else with the latest crisis or plan. There were black cops who had been spiritually seconded to the movement and ministers who served as a link between the radical Barry and the more moderate civil rights movement and friendly reporters who still believed there was an objective difference between justice and injustice,. And through it all was movement, excitement and hope, not even dampened by the thirtieth chorus of "We Shall Overcome" sung in a church hall while waiting for Marion finally to show up.

Pratt described his relationship with Barry this way: "I am the theoretician and Marion is the practitioner. I just give suggestions and he makes the decisions. I re-spect his opinions more than my own."

Barry and Pratt not only upset policemen and gov-ernment officials; they perturbed the established civil rights and home rule leadership in the city. While a few such leaders, Walter Fauntroy prime among them, were careful not to undercut Barry and provided as much help as they felt they could, others were plainly annoyed by the upstarts.

Tensions grew when the Free DC Movement decided to take on the White House Conference on Civil Rights that had been scheduled for May 1966. Barry planned to raise the issue of home rule at the conference and, in an-nouncing the plans, chastised the moderate Coalition for Conscience for "wavering" in its support of tile plan. Two days later the Washington Post reported, "Washing-ton civil rights leaders yesterday pondered the future of the campaign for home rule in light of the growing independence on the part of Free D.C. Movement leader Marion Barry Jr. One leader said it appears that the movement was at 'the end of its relationship with the Coalition of Conscience,' the city's loosely knit confedera-tion of ministers and civil rights groups."

But it was not just the Free DC's militancy and independence that upset the old leaders. They also were profoundly disturbed by the rise of the black power idea; Coalition co-chairman Channing Phillips stated, "The black nationalist stand of SNCC is inconsistent with the Coalition's philosophy."

Still, while Barry was an anathema to the white business leaders and considered a rogue by the local civil rights establishment, as early as 1966 a poll found him ranked fifth by black residents as the person who had done the most for blacks in DC.

In SNCC and elsewhere, the spirit of black nationalism was indeed awakening. Black power had its roots in the deep frustration of the civil rights movement with the progress towards some sustainable form of equality. In 1963, Howard Zinn, then a professor at Spellman College, told a SNCC conference that the ballot box would not give blacks much power. Zinn said SNCC should build up "centers of power outside the official political mechanism."

This was a time when the official symbol of the Alabama Democratic Party included a banner reading "White Supremacy -- For the Right." The SNCC-organized Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had attempted to be seated at the national Democratic convention and was rebuffed, offered only two non-voting at-large seats to represent not Mississippi but American blacks in general. SNCC communications director Julian Bond twice won election to the Georgia legislature, and twice that body refused to seat him. Jerry Demuth, writing in The Idler in October 1966 asked: "After Julian Bond, Atlantic City and the Alabama Democratic Party with its proclamation of white supremacy, what is there except a Black Panther Party?"

The voices of black power of the time were varied. Two months after being replaced as SNCC chair by the more militant Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis explained:


"I support the concept of black power and I have tried repeatedly to articulate it to people in terms they can understand, so that they will know it is for civil rights, not against whites."

The National Committee of Negro Churchmen of the National Council of Churches tried to combine black power and integration in an August 1965 newspaper ad:


A more equal sharing of power is precisely what is required as the precondition of authentic human interaction. We understand the growing demand of Negro and white youth for a more honest kind of integration: one which increases rather than decreases the capacity of the disinherited to participate with power in all the structures of our common life. Without this capacity to participate with power -- i.e. to have some organized political and economic strength to really influence people with whom one interacts -- integration is not meaningful. For the issue is not one of racial balance but of honest racial interaction.

But this was a hope far from current reality and many more blacks listened to the view of Carmichael: "Integration is an insidious subterfuge for white supremacy." He told a crowd in Greenwood, MS, "We been saying 'freedom' for six years and we ain't got nothing. What we're gonna start saying now is 'Black Power.'"

The most important white at SNCC, L. D. Pratt, con-tinued to play a major role for some time, but his ability to work with Barry declined sharply and, and after receiving physical threats dropped out of the local scene.

Before that, however, the Free DC Movement was to play a major part in bringing the issue of self-determination further in Congress than it had been in almost a hun-dred years, The militancy of the Free DC Movement, so disliked by both congressmen and civil rights moderates alike, provided the counter-pressure necessary to scare more than a few legislators into thinking that maybe it was about time for a little self-government in DC. In 1967 President Johnson reorganized the local government with an appointed chief executive and city council. He told them to act as though they had been elected. . In 1968 the city got an elected school board.

And before it was over, Barry and Pratt had one more "good shot," as L.D. liked to call them. Hauling an odd assortment of black and white activists off to a weekend retreat, the pair organized a lecture, seminar, and planning sessions to pave the way for a massive push against slum housing. In fact, that's what it was going to be called - PUSH, People United against Slum Housing. It would be no ordinary effort. Barry theorized that the reason slumlords were in-vulnerable was because protests were usually directed against only a small portion of their holdings. If you could uncover the full economic interests of a slumlord, Including his commercial holdings, you could organize an effective boycott against him.

From L. D.'s theoretical charts and Marion's discourse, the action moved to strange places like a hall at a Catholic woman's college where volunteers sorted out thousands of paper slips containing important informa-tion about DC eviction cases over the past two years, and the basement of the Court of General Sessions, where a friendly judge had permitted the group space to do its research closer to the source material. The little slips of paper slowly built up information concerning slumlords, lawyers, front corporations, and their interconnections. From the long tables in the basement of the Court of General Sessions, the slips went to the Recorder of Deeds office where more volunteers began arduously sifting through official records. The project never got much be-yond that. Perhaps it fell of its own weight; the task of organizing all those slips of paper without a computer was staggering, Perhaps the separate directions in which various participants were rapidly going was a factor, In any event, the days of the Free DC Movement were just about over.

May 13, 2011

Why hip is no longer hip

This is a repost of an essay that was one of the victims when Blogger crashed

Sam Smith
 
Lots of slang phrases change their meaning over time. It is far less likely, however, for such phrases to acquire an almost reverse meaning.

Among the rare exceptions are hip and hipster.

For example, an online dictionary defines hip as
Hip: Also hep adj. hipper also hepper, hippest also hippest. Slang
1. Keenly aware of or knowledgeable about the latest trends or developments.
2. Very fashionable or stylish.

This could hardly be further from the use of the term in the 1940s and 1950s when its early use was at a peak.

In this case, the shift is not merely a historical curiosity but revealing of changes in the culture of younger Americans in the two periods.

For example, one definition of the earlier meaning noted:
Hipster, as used in the 1940s, referred to aficionados of jazz, in particular bebop, which became popular in the early 1940s. The hipster adopted the lifestyle of the jazz musician, including some or all of the following: dress, slang, use of cannabis and other drugs, relaxed attitude, sarcastic humor, self-imposed poverty, and relaxed sexual codes.
In other words, a culture of alienation instead of one of fashion and style.

But a check of Google hits finds the use of the word hipster with the word alienation to have occurred 114,000 times over the past year – while the use of hipster with style occurred 35 million times.

One way of describing this is that despite a near-depression, being part of the first generation of Americans that can’t see the future getting better, and having just about every great institution collapsing around them, the young still think of hipness as a matter of fashion rather than of rebellion or alienation.

This is not their fault. The explosion of state and corporate propaganda (aka public relations) with its insidious manipulation of personal values has greatly weakened average Americans’ ability to make up their own minds.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon serves as a clue as to why in these terrible times there is so little rebellion in America compared, say, to the Middle East. Or even Europe.

Wikpedia has a couple of instructive quotes on the topic:

In his book Jazz, Frank Tirro defines the 1940s hipster: “To the hipster, Bird [Charlie Parker]was a living justification of their philosophy. The hipster is an underground man. He is to the Second World War what the dadaist was to the first. He is amoral, anarchistic, gentle, and overcivilized to the point of decadence. He is always ten steps ahead of the game because of his awareness. . . He knows the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, the hatred implicit in religions - so what values are left for him? - except to go through life avoiding pain, keep his emotions in check, and after that, ‘be cool, ‘ and look for kicks. He is looKing for something that transcends all this bullshit and finds it in jazz.”

Marty Jezer, in his book The Dark Ages: Life In The U.S. 1945–1960 defines the 1940s hipster: “The hipster world that Kerouac and Ginsberg drifted in and out of from the mid-forties to the early-fifties was an amorphous movement without ideology, more a pose than an attitude; a way of ‘being’ without attempting to explain why. Hipsters themselves were not about to supply explanations. Their language, limited as it was, was sufficiently obscure to defy translation into everyday speech. Their rejection of the commonplace was so complete that they could barely acknowledge reality. The measure of their withdrawal was their distrust of language. . . There was neither a future nor a past, only a present that existed on the existential wings of sound. A Charlie Parker bebop solo - that was the truth. The hipster's world view was not divided between "free world" and "Communist bloc", and this too set it apart from the then-current orthodoxy. Hipster dualism, instead, transcended geopolitical lines in favor of levels of consciousness. The division was hip and square. . . In the wigged-out, flipped-out, zonked-out hipster world, Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Truman, McCarthy and Eisenhower shared one thing in common: they were squares. . .”

I touched on a related term in my book, Why Bother?”:

||| In beat culture, jazz, and the civil rights movement there had been a stunning critique of, and rebellion against, the adjacent and the imposed.

Steven Watson credits the term beat to circus and carnival argot, later absorbed by the drug culture. "Beat" meant robbed or cheated as in a "beat deal." Herbert Huncke, who picked up the word from show business friends and spread it to the likes of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, would say later that he never meant it to be elevating: "I meant beaten. The world against me."

Gregory Corso defined it this way, "By avoiding society you become separate from society and being separate from society is being beat." Keruoac, on the other hand, thought it involved "mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions."

Inherent in all this was not only rebellion but a journey. "We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move," wrote Kerouac in On the Road.

It is instructive during a time in which even alienated progressives outfit themselves with mission and vision statements and speak the bureaucratic argot of their oppressors to revisit that under-missioned, under-visioned culture of what Norman Mailer called the "psychic outlaw" and "the rebel cell in our social body." What Ned Plotsky termed, "the draft dodgers of commercial civilization."

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. Although the beats are frequently parodied for their dress, sartorial nonconformity was actually more a matter of indifference rather than, as in the case of some of the more recently alienated, conscious style. They even wore ties from time to time. Yet so fixed was the stereotype that the caption of a 1950s AP photograph of habitués in front of Washington's Coffee 'n' Confusion Café described it as a place for bearded beatniks when not one person in the picture had a beard. Rather they were a bunch of young white guys with white shirts and short haircuts. Cool resided in a nonchalant, negligent non-conformity rather than in a considered counter style and counter symbolism..
To a far great 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.

For the both the contemporaneous civil rights movement and the 1960s rebellion that followed, such a revolt by attitude seemed far from enough. Yet these full-fledged uprisings 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.

With the end of the Vietnam War, America soon found itself without a counterculture or - with a few exceptions - even a visible resistance by societal draft dodgers. The young -- in the best of times the most reliable harbinger of hope; in the worst of times, the most dismal sign of futility -- increasingly faced a culture that seemed impermeable and immutable. The establishment presented a stolid, unyielding, unthinking, unimaginative wall of bland certainty. It looked upon pain, aspiration and hope with indifference, and played out false and time-doomed fantasies to the mindless applause of its constituency.

The unalterable armies of the law became far more powerful and less forgiving. The price of careless or reckless rebellion became higher. Bohemia was bought and franchised. Even progressive organizations required a strategic plan, budget, and press kit before heading to the barricades. A school district in Maryland told its teachers not to include creativity or initiative in a student's grades because they were too hard to define. Hipness became a multinational industry and no one apparently thought twice about putting a headline on the cover of a magazine "for men of color" that declared "The Rebirth of Cool," exemplified by 50 pages of fashions by mostly white designers. ||||

Today the closest thing to the former definition of hip is punk culture. Perhaps a little too manic in its music and aggressive in its fashion statement to please a Miles Davis or Jack Kerouac, but miles closer to that earlier definition of hip.

What difference does it make? Only this: America will most likely gain a new life when the young break dramatically away from the system that has left them in this miserable state. A fashionable rebellion is an oxymoron. And when the young in large numbers recognize this, they will also probably find themselves moving towards an earlier definition of hip, such as that offered by proto-rapper Harry Gibson in 1947:
It ain't hip to be loud and wrong
Just because you're feeling strong
You try too hard to make a hit
And every time you do you tip your mitt
It ain't hip to blow your top
The only thing you say is mop, mop, mop
Keep cool fool, like a fish in the pool
That's the golden rule at the Hipster school
You find yourself talking too much
Then you know you're off the track
That's the stuff you got to watch
Everybody wants to get into the act
It ain't hip to think you're "in there"
Just because of the zooty suit you wear

May 09, 2011

The death of liberalism and what to do about it

Sam Smith

As I was listening recently to a Bob Edwards interview with Kirsten Downey, biographer of the New Deal labor secretary, Frances Perkins, it struck me that the first woman ever to hold cabinet office in American history had played a key role in getting more accomplished than the last three decades of American liberalism combined - things like the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Social Security, federal insurance for bank accounts, welfare, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, bargaining rights for labor, restrictions on overtime, a 40 hour work week and a minimum wage.

Perkins’ colleagues in the New Deal also brought us legal alcohol, regulation of the stock exchanges, the Soil Conservation Service, national parks and monuments, the Tennessee Valley Authority, rural electrification, the FHA, a big increase in hospital beds, and the Small Business Administration.

Add to that the numerous achievements of the Great Society including bilingual education, civil rights legislation, community action agencies, Head Start, job Corps, the national endowments for arts and humanities, Teacher Corps, anti-poverty programs, nutrition assistance, Medicare and Medicaid.

Next to this, post-1980 liberalism seems at best pathetic and at worst a major betrayal of its own past. Even the otherwise crummy Nixon administration did better – bringing us EPA, affirmative action, the Clean Air Act, the first Earth Day, indexing Social Security for inflation, Supplemental Security income, OSHA, and healthcare reform.

Future historians seeking to learn why America so easily surrendered its democratic traditions and constitutional government to a rabid right will find plenty to study in the rise of a liberal aristocracy that became increasingly disinterested in its own historic values. Like all aristocracies, it came to exist primarily to protect itself, had an impermeable faith in its own virtue, and held in contempt those who did not share its values or accept its hegemony.

For many years, 20th century liberalism was saved from becoming an aristocracy because of the dominance of constituencies such as labor, European socialists and ethnic minorities. By the 1980s, however, these constituencies - thanks in no small part to successful liberal policies - had advanced socially and economically to the point that they no longer functioned as a massive reminder of what liberalism was meant to be about.

With the end of the Great Society, Democrats began a steady retreat from liberalism climaxing in Clinton and Obama with their systematic dismantling of liberal programs and paradigms. As Glen Ford, editor of the Black Agenda Report, put it recently, “President Obama seems positively eager to dismantle the safety nets put in place in the thirties and strengthened by a black-led movement in the sixties.”

Among the greatest victims of this retreat have been economic decency, social democracy and civil liberties. It was not that the new liberal aristocrats actually opposed them; it just didn't matter much to them. Liberalism was no longer a matter of masses yearning to breathe free, but of boomers yearning for an SUV and millennials for a new I-Something.

While there were still repeated expressions of faith in a declining number of icons such as diversity, abortion, and the environment, the fact was that the liberal elite had become far more characterized by its capacity for self-defense than by its concern or action for others.

Most striking was the disappearing interest in those at the bottom. Liberal city councils went after the homeless, pandered to developers, and engaged in other forms of socio-economic cleansing. The Clinton administration attacked welfare in a manner once limited to the Republican right; prison populations soared without a murmur from the liberals; Democrats supported without question a cruel and unconstitutional war on drugs; they joined the war on two centuries of public education; and liberal media aristocrats prided themselves in faux realpolitik and patronizing prescriptions for the masses. Obama gave freely to the banks but hardly noticed the foreclosed.

The trend produced remarkable twists of liberal values. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus backed the war on drugs; the leaders of NOW repeatedly defended a sexually predatory male in the White House. And liberal academia provided all purpose justification through the magic rationalization of postmodernism.

Through it all, the liberal aristocracy was the dog that didn't bark. Just as Sherlock Holmes' creature failed to warn of an intruder, so America's liberal leadership failed repeatedly to warn of infringements of civil liberties, of unconstitutional acts and legislation, or to rise to the defense of people beyond its own class.

When the liberal aristocracy backed the war on drugs, happily sacrificed national and local sovereignty to multinational corporations, yawned as the Clintons disassembled their own former cause, and looked the other way as Obama expanded the police state, it was clear that this atrophied elite would not handle a real crisis.

Thought without action is the coitus interruptus of the mind, which may be why liberals produced so few progeny. A politics so heavily grounded in intellectual considerations as opposed to human experience, runs the constant risk of losing its bearings. A wiser approach was espoused by Julius Nyerere who argued that the true revolutionary acted as one of thought and thought as one of action. Another great African activist, Nelson Mandela, credited cattle farming rather than universities as his inspiration. Moving herds around, he explained, had taught him how to lead from behind.

Too great an intellectual bias turns citizens into data -- economic or sociological aggregates rather than human organisms. And it produces bizarre, incomprehensible, ineffective legislation like the current health care law.

Politics involves real people and it helps to speak real people talk. Many liberals have a tin ear for their presumed constituency. This involves more than a choice of words; the over-refined language is clouded with abstractions while disdaining the anecdotes and metaphors that every good preacher knows is the easiest way to propel a message.

I sometimes think that liberalism died when, in the last few decades, its advocates started talking about “infrastructure” instead of public works. The language of obfuscation added to the divide between liberals and others.

Thomas Jefferson said that people "by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties:

“1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.

“2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests."

There is little doubt as to which of these parties many liberals belong. Rhetoric notwithstanding, too often those leading liberal America believe they were born to rule. In fact, their profound self-assurance on this score helps to explain another anomaly of liberals and leftists: the frequency with which you will find them -- Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are names that spring to mind -- cavorting with those whose politics should be an anathema. The reason is simply that the blood of their entitlement is thicker than that of their ideology. What really ties Washington together and unites it against the rest of the country is not policy but a common understanding of the sort of person who should be in charge.

Now the economy has fallen, our world status collapsed, our Constitution tattered, and our civil liberties deteriorating by the day. And in the place of a quietly incompetent alliance between conservative and liberal elites, we now find a rabid Republicanism rising unlike anything seen before – the most extremist mainstream party in our history.

The collapse of liberalism, of course, is only one cause – less important, to be sure, than the cult of Reaganism, reckless capitalism or Citizens Unite, perhaps the worst Supreme Court decision ever. But this much we know: you cannot win in the eighth or ninth round if you give up in the first or second. At the very least, liberal disintegration opened doors sooner and wider through which the rabid right could easily enter.

And there are scary precedents. For example, Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic stated, "In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform the Reichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands."
It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according to historian Thomas Childers, the 'democratic" Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler's ascendancy.
There are eerie similarities between Article 48 and the Patriot Act and warrantless powers being granted law enforcement in America. Yet traditional liberals have been astonishingly passive in the face of this huge assault on the Constitution. And get incensed if you mention the word facism.
Progressives, populists, Greens, socialists and others fed up with the bipartisan crisis of our politics need to make  a clearly visible break with dysfunctional liberalism and define a new way of approaching our problems. Here are a few things that could help it happen:

- Put economic issues at the top of the list. If you review the historical examples above you will find an overwhelmingly concern for improving the economic life of ordinary Americans. Today’s liberals, if they care, don’t have much in the way of suggestions; witness the stimulus program that overwhelmingly favored Wall Street over ordinary Americans.

- If you wish to win people’s support, argue with them, encourage them, heal them, teach them but don’t insult them. Raise hell against the big guys but don’t abuse the ordinary citizen. Show them the way, not the door. Today’s liberals repeatedly castigate those they should be recruiting.

- Build communities not clubs. Liberalism used to be street theater. Now it’s a private club. You can’t build a movement with a club.

- Stop federalizing everything. There’s no evidence that it works and people don’t like it. Adopt the principle that government should be carried out at the lowest practical level and you’ll be surprised how many new friends you make.

- Elaborate processes, data collection and rule-making are crummy substitutes for effective policies. Yet they define liberal politics today.

- Encourage reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my liberty if you don’t have yours. So some get their guns; others get abortion. It’s part of the essential nature of being an American: sharing space with those with whom you don’t agree.

- Build new constituencies issue by issue. Many of your allies will disagree with you on other things but so what? One of the reasons that liberals are in such trouble is that they support diversity of skin color but not of thought. Besides when people come together on one issue they discover that the things that divided them aren’t as important as they thought.

- A major cause of violence in America is the completely failed drug war. Liberals have largely ignored this issue.

- Bring back labor unions, the most positive non-governmental institution in America’s past century. Yes, they need to improve their act, but that won’t happen until more people get involved. Encourage them to take new approaches such as pre-organizing the non-unionized on, say, a AARP model or creating co-ops as the USW is currently looking into. But fight against the assault on the folks who brought you the weekend.

- Stop supporting wars just because a Democratic president is leading them. Imagine if the money we’re spending in Afghanistan was being used to help the American economy, its schools, its transportation and the less fortunate. Both our economy and our lives would be much better.

- Help small business. Neither of the two major parties do, so you can make a lot of new friends this way. And, along the way, end corporate personhood.

- Unrig our elections. End campaign bribery by public financing and make it constitutionally clear that corporations are not persons. Press for instant runoff voting.

- Keep it simple. Remember that the media is not comfortable with complexity.

- Give it a name. You know, something simple like the Dunkin Donuts Party that even the media can understand.

That’s just a short list of the sort of things that would separate a new left from liberalism.

Groups of disaffected progressives, Greens and issue activists could use the Internet to compile a short list policies that would define a new movement for a post-liberal era and start to rewrite the political chart. As it stands, we know that liberals hate Palin, Bachman, and the Koch Brothers. But what they really stand for remains a mystery.

If you think there are not enough of us to create a new movement with clear goals, consider this: over the past few years polls have found that a majority of Americans support:

Gay marriage, opposition to the drug war, legalizing marijuana, ending corporate personhood, increasing taxes on the wealthy, leaving Social Security alone, ending capital punishment, universal health coverage, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
doing something about climate change, and public campaign financing, Further, resolutions critical of the Patriot Act have been passed in 378 communities in 43 states including six state-wide resolutions.


On many of these issues, traditional liberals have often been lazy, passive, indifferent, opposed or afraid to do anything. And the media has kept this real majority view well hidden.

We need to change this, but we can’t do it by looking the other way or hiding under the table. You can’t do it sucking up to Democratic presidents who expand wars and send welfare to Wall Street instead of helping those in real trouble. You can’t do it pretending that we’re not losing our civil liberties.

Traditional liberalism must be put to sleep and replaced with something that recovers the spirit and ideals that it lost or discarded along the way.

The liberal approach has become elitist; the alternative is populist. One draws from European history and thought; the other is rooted in American experience. One favors a centralized state and believes in the beneficence of large bureaucracies; the other is skeptical of grand institutions and keeps pulling decisions back towards the community based democracy. One seeks confrontation; the other consensus. One is polar; the other holistic. One is rational; the other spiritual.

And one is dead, and the other is still waiting to be born.

[Some of the above appeared first in an article ten years ago. Sadly, not much as changed]

May 08, 2011

The unnoticed, unreported part of the Bin Laden story

Sam Smith - In its absurdly overdone coverage of Bin Laden’s death, the media is drowning out one key matter: why were Bin Laden and Al Qaeda so mad at us?

By reducing the matter to a simplistic “war on terror” we never had to deal with the actual issues that were behind 9/11 and other acts. Agence France Presse reminds us of this in a story on Bin Laden’s last tape:

“In the final audio tape bin Laden recorded before being killed, he warned there would be no security for the United States until Palestinians are allowed to live in security, an Islamist website reported Sunday. "America will not be able to dream of security until we live in security in Palestine," he said. "It is unfair that you live in peace while our brothers in Gaza live in insecurity. "Accordingly, and with the will of God, our attacks will continue against you as long as your support for Israel continues," he warned.”

There’s nothing new in this. Al Qaeda early made it clear that its agenda included the Israeli-Palestine situation, the American presence in Saudi Arabia, and our brutal sanctions against Iraq. While Al Qaeda’s approach was unconscionably violent, its goals were hardly out of the realm of rational consideration and negotiation.

Consider that Palestine has a population of four million. This is less than that of about half of America’s fifty states.

Now consider how different the past decade would have been if we had supported full statehood for a beleaguered territory about the size of South Caroline, Louisiana or Kentucky. Instead we adopted a policy that helped to ruin our economy, kill thousands of our troops, dismantle our Constitution and lose the respect of much of the world.

Yes, there were other issues, but there is no doubt that Palestine was an important enough factor to have changed the course of history had we merely exercised some common decency and common sense. Instead, we submitted to the irrational demands of Israel, one of the most masochistic countries of all time, and in the process lost our World Trade Center, our global status, our well-being and our dreams.


The following was written seven years ago

Sam Smith, Progressive Review, 2004 - It is now almost three years since the attacks of September 11, 2001., During this period we have invaded two Muslim countries and moved far closer to the apartheid regime of Ariel Sharon. We have not taken a single important step to reduce hatred of America, respond to justified complaints of the Muslim world, or create forums where current conflicts can be explored instead of continue to explode.

In short, with psychotic consistency, our leaders have made matter worse, more dangerous, and more complicated to resolve.

To reduce the constituency of the most extreme one must respond to the concerns of the most rational. Our refusal to do so has left us in grave and unnecessary danger.

This is not poor policy, it is madness. It is criminally reckless and negligent and threatens not only those we blame but those we profess to protect.

Our leaders in both parties - including their presidential candidates - have condemned Americans to live in perpetual fear in no small part because they are unwilling to make amends for a foreign policy that for more half a century has regarded Arabs and other Muslims much as our south once regarded black Americans.
In the end there are two primary ways to deal with conflict: fight about it or talk about it. It is long past time for the latter. If you fight about it you are going to win, lose, just keep fighting, or grow tired of the whole business. There is no chance, given our current policies, that we can win the war we have chosen to fight and while we may not lose it, we have, in our reaction to 9/11, already lost much of what we are, or strove to be, as Americans.

The most likely outcome is that we will continue the war at ever increasing cost until we just can't take it anymore. At which point, as in Vietnam, we will do what we should have done years earlier, namely to talk and work our way of the situation.

If you listen to American media and politicians, you would assume that there was nothing to talk about. But, pushing aside the macho, militaristic rhetoric that surrounds us, one can discover some interesting anomalies.

For example, the Washington Post reports that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, when he presented the original 9/11 attack plan to Osama bin Laden in 1998 or 1999, "called for hijacking 10 jetliners on both coasts of the United States and crashing nine of them. The kicker would have been the final plane, which he would commandeer personally. After killing all the men on board, Mohammed would alert the media and deliver a speech excoriating the U.S. government for its support of Israel and repressive Arab regimes."

Now there are plenty of people around the world and in the U.S. who would have agreed to some extent with Mohammed's stated goals. Just recently, for example, over 100 countries voted in the U.N. against the U.S. and Israel over the Sharon Wall. The difference lies in the question of taking the matter airborne.
Similarly, Howard Zinn has pointed out that despite all the talk about Muslims hating America for its belief in democracy, Osama bin Laden managed to tolerate it well enough as long as he was getting American funds for his battle against the Soviet Union. It was the change in our foreign policy he couldn't stand.

Usually in a hostage situation - and we are the hostage in this situation - there is considerable curiosity as to the hostage-takers' demands. In this case, however, the media and politicians have blithely ignored the issue almost entirely. Thus many have forgotten what Al-Queda's early anger was about including, most prominently, the Israeli-Palestine situation, the American presence in Saudi Arabia, and the brutal sanctions against Iraq.

Looked at outside the context of 9/11 but within the context of the history of international disputes, these are not insurmountable crises. What was insurmountable was the unwillingness of either side to sit down honestly and deal with them.

The cost of our reaction since 9/11, including planetary endangerment as well as damage to our constitution, safety, and economy, bears little relationship to the underlying disputes. What gives them their awesome power is not their intrinsic nature but what they have perversely nurtured in the souls of the antagonists. This includes, in the case of bin Laden, seeing oneself no longer as a mere guerilla but as a holy emperor in waiting. But it also includes George Bush seeing himself as a holy crusader.

Consider the case of Egypt. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Israel - the largest recipient of US foreign aid in 2003, gets $2.1 billion in military aid annually; $600 million in economic aid. Egypt is the second largest recipient with $1.3 billion in military aid; $615 million for social programs.

Turn now to the recent Zogby poll of Arab counties which found that in Egypt, 76% of citizens had an unfavorable view of the U.S. in 2002 and now 98% share such an opinion. You can't have a more failed foreign policy than that.

So here we are wrecking ourselves constitutionally, economically, culturally and psychologically, and neither major party can offer us a different course.

Shibley Telhami, who teaches peace and development at the University of Maryland, wrote in the Baltimore Sun:

"It's true that many in the Middle East have often criticized US foreign policy in the past 30 years. But in general, their notion of US aims has been largely focused not on profound animosity but on a sense of conflict in strategic interests and domestic politics over oil and Israel. Today, an increasing number of Muslims and Arabs believe that the United States is simply aiming to attack Muslims."

Last month in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, more than three-fourths of respondents said they believed that US aims in Iraq were intended in part 'to weaken the Muslim world.

America is not only destroying itself but is destroying its ability to work its way out of the situation.

May 01, 2011

Controlling Obama's birth

Sam Smith

Barack Obama’s curiously tardy release of his long form birth certificate may have confirmed one of our alternative theories on why he was acting so strangely in the matter. . ..arrogance – exemplified by ignoring citizen queries for several years and then releasing the document as soon as someone raised questions who might actually endanger his second term. The incident certainly illustrates that if you want to get Obama to move on something the best approach is to call in a Republican politician. He responds to them more favorably than he does, say, to liberal Democrats.

On the other hand, his odd secrecy may have been just a campaign-inspired attempt to keep the Obama myth together.

Consider this from the British Guardian concerning recently obtained US government documents about his father’s immigration status:

“As early as 1961, a memo in the file notes a statement from a Mrs McCabe, a foreign student adviser at the University of Hawaii: ‘Mrs McCabe further states that Subject [Obama senior] has been running around with several girls since he first arrived here and last summer she cautioned him about his playboy ways. Subject replied that he would 'try' to stay away from the girls.’”

Obama was born in August of the year that his father promised to stay away from girls - albeit, according to none other than US immigration officials, in Hawaii.

One can imagine Obama’s campaign advisors mulling over this situation and deciding it was best to suppress information about the candidate’s birth, just as they would about Obama working for a CIA connected company, not to mention his mother’s and grandfather’s ties to the agency. That sort of stuff just complicates campaigns..

The problem with such an approach is that it can lead eventually to the kind of mess in which Obama would find himself. Suppressing a politician’s past can greatly expand the public imagination.

Theoretically, it is the media’s job to straighten out the facts, but much of the press has lost interest in such things. Contempt for honest inquiry has soared in the past couple of decades. Before the Washington press became so thoroughly embedded in the White House and so beholden to its interpretation of events, real reporters considered unresolved issues as their business. As with a detective’s investigation, anomalies remained on the work list until they were settled. This didn’t mean you reached any conclusion, but neither did you avoid investigating all possible explanations.

But in this instance, as is so often the case these days, unapproved skepticism was ridiculed even as the same media failed even to help its readers and viewers understand why the conclusions many had jumped to lacked merit. They were just treated as certified idiots unworthy of a logical explanation.

Forgotten in all this was that similar questions had turned up early in the 2008 campaign about John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone. In his case, there was no ranting about birthers, however. Instead legislation was introduced to make sure McCain – as a military child – was entitled to be considered a “natural born citizen.” One of the sponsors was Senator Barack Obama, who said, “Senator McCain has earned the right to be his party's nominee, and no loophole should prevent him from competing in this campaign." Eventually, a Senate resolution was unanimously passed declaring McCain to be a natural born citizen.”

The Progressive Review was one of the few journals to review the real history of the issue of “natural citizen” including the fact that one president – Chester Arthur – and six actual or possible presidential candidates also had birth problems. And that all of them were Republicans.

In a good piece on the topic, Tom Rogan pointed out:
|||| The Naturalization Act of 1790 provided that "the children of citizens of the United States that may be born beyond Sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born Citizens." . . .

In United States v Wong Kim Ark, the US Supreme Court ruled that a child born in the United States to two US domiciled foreign parents not serving with a foreign government was a natural born citizen. This set the precedent that natural born citizenship could be granted by the principle of "jus soli", or citizenship from birth in the United States. However, as illustrated by the Naturalization Act, jus soli cannot account for all Americans. To fill the space of absent court clarification on American citizens born abroad, Congress has provided statutory definition for natural born citizenship.

Title 8, section 1401 of the US Title Code provides these definitions to include (among other qualifying citizens) those born abroad to one American parent and one foreign parent, provided the American parent spent five years in the US prior to the child's birth. The strength of section 1401 is in its clarification of the clause in a logical manner, compatible with the constitution and in a way that can account for American citizens not physically born in the United States. ||||
Unfortunately, Rogan’s article didn’t appear until a few days before Obama produced his certificate – and in the British Guardian, not an American publication.

The point is not that those thinking Obama was born elsewhere would have been convinced by all this, but that it is the media’s duty to provide information and not just add to the ridicule of those with doubts. To not address the unanswered questions merely speeds the rush to ill formed conclusions. By this failure, liberals and the media actually helped expand the birther movement.

Secondly, it is the job of the media to distinguish between that which is known and that which isn’t. In this case, there was no evidence that Obama was born anywhere but in Hawaii, but it was also clear that he was hiding an important document in the case.

Instead of pressing him, the media treated the long form certificate as either immaterial or legally unavailable. Linda R. Monk, wrote recently: “Various news accounts only muddied the issue. Factcheck.com verified the validity of the 2008 Hawaii certificate, but questions remained about the pre-existing certificate that would have been on file in 1961, ostensibly with more extensive birth information. Yet thus far no news reporter had actually seen such a document. Hawaii officials said only that they've seen the 1961 document ‘according to state laws and procedures,’ whatever that meant. On July 23, 2009, CNN producer Jon Klein announced his researchers found that Hawaii had converted its records to an electronic database in 2001 and all paper records were destroyed. Hawaii officials disputed that account.”

Somehow, however, as soon as it became convenient, Obama’s lawyers managed to produce the document in less than ten days.

We have so politicized our discussions that both sides refuse to recognize uncertainties and anomalies. And much of the media has happily joined the political shouting match instead of serving as a reasoned arbitrator.

I’ve been in this racket for over a half century but it was only in the last couple of decades that raising questions about uncertainties became socially unacceptable.

I first ran into this problem covering the Clinton scandals. To this day, the drug, crime and corruption that surrounded Arkansas’ politics during Clinton’s rise is considered by liberals and the embedded media to be only of interest to “haters” and “conspiracy theorists.” In fact, it is a fascinating and important true saga involving not only drugs and misbehavior by the CIA, but key elements of the BCCI and savings & loan scandals (forerunners of our current fiscal disaster).

None of my stories were ever challenged on a factual basis save by the pilot for major drug dealer Barry Seal, not necessarily the most reliable voice on the topic. For many of the rest it was enough to say things like, “You don’t really believe that Republican crap, do you?” I would point out that the first leads I got had come from a progressive student group at the University of Arkansas but it just didn’t matter. I even got banned from CSPAN and a Washington NPR program because of my stories.

Liberalism had become the abused spouse of the Democratic right, the media the abused spouse of whoever was in the White House, and facts their neglected offspring.

In fact, Clinton and Obama only got to be president after being thoroughly vetted by the establishment. Neither had a single achievement that qualified them for the post other than that powerful insiders felt they were safe and would do their bidding. And they did. The destruction of the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society would turn out to be an inside job.

Meanwhile, facts were at best a filler between arguments on TV about what really mattered now -- perception and image. Facts were background noise at news conferences, multi-colored jimmies on scoops of policy, and just plain annoying in private conversation.

At times I felt trapped in the compound of some bizarre cult of overwrought rhetoric, infantile premises, and manic mythology. There were no ideas, only spin; no ideology, only icons; no inquiry or discussion, only conflicting arrogant certitude.

Stories with incomplete portions about which one is not meant to ask questions flourished in the last couple of decades, significantly during the very time of economic and cultural collapse when we could have used some more realism. Reporters used to treat such unfinished stories as unfinished business. But the social and job consequences of asking too many questions put a lid on all that and the comfy correspondents in the White House now preferred that no one else asked too many questions either.

The birth certificate story is a small but illustrative example. Yes, the facts said that Obama was born in Hawaii but they also said he was acting like someone who was hiding something. No reporter should have been ashamed of asking why.

It is what reporting was once about but too rarely is anymore.