September 21, 2011

Martin Luther King Day, Bull Connor years

Sam Smith

I would like to celebrate Martin Luther King Day but I can't get Bull Connor out of my mind. I look for reminders of Martin Luther King but they are either old and weary or in lonely, small places. Reminders of Bull Connor are all around us.

The spirit of Bull Connor can be found in our foreign policy, in our police methods, in our treatment of the weak and the poor, in our abuse of the Constitution, in the implicit values of our media, in the violent forms of entertainment we prefer and our contempt for those who are different than ourselves, even in how we raise and teach our children. And, of course, as Charles Rangel said, "George Bush is our Bull Connor."

Bull Connor was more than a brutal police commissioner. In describing William Nunnelly's biography of Connor, Neal Tate writes, "Connor had the backing of the local corporate elite in spite of his declarations of being free of outside influence. Connor helped the industrial elite by 'controlling strikes...silencing radicals. . . Connor was exactly what companies that controlled Birmingham were looking for. . . ' He was counted on to keep the status quo. Connor 'stayed on the good side of the business leaders... [and was] always receptive to corporate suggestions.' His preaching about economy in government and no new taxes reflected the influence of Birmingham's industrial and financial interests, who 'always insisted in cheap government with only bare essential services.' "

In short, a Bush era conservative without the social graces.

It is hard to remember without reminders: an object, a story, a contemporary version of what we are trying to recall. The sense of Martin Luther King seems to have vanished. You won't find him in the Senate. You won't find him on CNN, nor C-SPAN nor NPR. He's even hard to find in the pulpit or in the streets. Bull Connor, on the other hand, is everywhere.

In that sense, we are living in a Birmingham before anything happened. Before Bull Connor was challenged.

But eventually he was, and here is what one man named King said about it:

I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."

Bull Connor next would say, "Turn the fire hoses on." And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn't know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn't relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn't stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we'd go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we'd just go on singing "Over my head I see freedom in the air."

And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, "Take 'em off," and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, "We Shall Overcome." And every now and then we'd get in jail, and we'd see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn't adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham.

The Review and blogging

Sam Smith

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL'S claim that this is the tenth anniversary of the blog - as well as some of the critical reaction to the story - led us to our archives to find what we could about our role in this tale.

We've tried to avoid the word blog - preferring to call ourselves an online journal - but the phrase has a ubiquity one can't duck.

The Wall Street Journal claimed, "We are approaching a decade since the first blogger -- regarded by many to be Jorn Barger -- began his business of hunting and gathering links to items that tickled his fancy, to which he appended some of his own commentary. On Dec. 23, 1997, on his site, Robot Wisdom, Mr. Barger wrote: 'I decided to start my own webpage logging the best stuff I find as I surf, on a daily basis,' and the Oxford English Dictionary regards this as the primordial root of the word 'weblog.'

"The dating of the 10th anniversary of blogs, and the ascription of primacy to the first blogger, are imperfect exercises. Others, such as David Winer, who blogged with Scripting News, and Cameron Barrett, who started CamWorld, were alongside the polemical Mr. Barger in the advance guard. And before them there were "proto-blogs," embryonic indications of the online profusion that was to follow. But by widespread consensus, 1997 is a reasonable point at which to mark the emergence of the blog as a distinct life-form."

While we refer to Barger as the sainted Jorn Barger - he has been repeatedly kind to this journal over the years - the WSJ has got things somewhat mixed up. It is certainly true that Barger blessed or cursed us with the word blog, but whatever you called it, something was already underway, including at the Progressive Review. As evidence, we would quote from the very issue cited by the WSJ: Barger's December 23, 1997 Robot Wisdom WebLog in which he writes:

"There's a new issue of the Progressive Review, one of the few leftwing sources that's vigorously anti-Clinton. . . The lead story this week is Judge Lamberth's condemnation of White House lies about the healthcare taskforce in 1993. Its editor Sam Smith also offers a nice fantasy of what a real newspaper should be, USA Tomorrow . . ."

Barger's contribution was not just one of nomenclature, but of gracing the Web with an eclectic spirit and curiosity, tapping its holistic wonders and happily mixing technology, politics, literature, philosophy and rants. In musical terms, Barger showed us how to swing.

A few examples from that last week of December 1997 illustrates the point (the copious links are not included)

- This Day in Joyce History. . . On this date in 1891, Dante Riordan left the Joyce household after the Xmas fight depicted in Portrait. In ?1893 the fictional Rudy Bloom was born. In 1916, Portrait was published by Huebsch. In 1931, John S. Joyce died. In ?1953 John Kidd was born.

- Two of the most readable computer journalists-- John Dvorak and Jerry Pournelle-- are about to launch a Siskel/Ebert-style weekly debate site, using 'wallet' technology to charge a dime a week. . .

- Gorillas make gorgeous representational art. . .

- Email from Frankie? TV.Com claims Frank Sinatra will sometimes answer friendly email. The Sinatra Family site is endearingly naif. . .

- A couple of x-rated essays at Salon: Susie Bright's very sweet appreciation of the Pam Anderson/ Tommy Lee bootleg sex video

- Sixties icon Kerry Thornley, intimate of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jim Garrison and Robert Anton Wilson, and author of the Principia Discordia is in poor health, and fans are encouraged to order a copy of PD straight from the source, autographed on request.

- The mass media's undeclared war against the Net is nowhere clearer than in their assaults against Ian Goddard's TWA800 website. CNN has baldly falsified a report that Goddard recanted his site as a hoax. . .

- How has the Newt Right so successfully blindsided the progressive Left? A dryish analysis in The Nation argues that we don't lack the funds, but we're spending them with self-defeating unfocus. . .

- I am having a fear of modern business practices: A fine culture critic named Tom Frank (not to be confused with Troll Mennie) explores Fast Company, the bastard spawn of Wired and Forbes. . .

- Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria (age 20) has been elected Swede of the Year by the evening paper Expressen. Last month it was announced that she's suffering from an eating disorder. . .

- Garrison Keillor, quoted on newsgroup "We're in the clutches of a bunch of folks trying to turn the U.S. into a third world country. Two hundred billionaires, and 260 million poor people. And they haven't done enough damage yet to be beaten."

Duncan Riley offers this critique of the WSJ article:

|||| According to my history of blogging (still No. 3 on Google BTW, and heavily researched at the time) blogging turned 11 on January 10, the date in which the first credited blogger (according to Wikipedia as well) Justin Hall commences writing an online journal with dated daily entries, although each daily post is linked through an index page. On the journal he writes "Some days, before I go to bed, I think about my day, and how it meshed with my life, and I write a little about what learned me." In February Dave Winer follows up with a weblog that chronicles the 24 Hours of Democracy Project. Winer has often claimed that he was the first blogger, I've long disagreed but whether it was Hall or Winer is a moot point: both were blogging in 1996. . . ||||

According to Wikipedia, "A blog (a portmanteau of web log) is a website where entries are written in chronological order and displayed in reverse chronological order. 'Blog' can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog. Blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject such as food, politics, or local news; some function as more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, web pages, and other media related to its topic.

At least as early as 1993, the Progressive Review was sending a faxed blog-like substance to our media list as a supplement to the print edition. The earliest mention of an online edition that we could find comes from the August 1994 edition: "If you have an Internet address, send it to us on a postcard or to and we will add you to our Peacenet hotline mailing list. You can also find us at alt.activism and alt.politics.clinton. Sorry, offer not good for networks that carry e-mail charges"

There then followed a series of blog-like entries.

But none of that really counts because it wasn't on the Worldwide Web. But by June 1995, the Progressive Review was on the web, where only about 20,000 other websites existed worldwide. We announced it like this:

"The Review now has a site on the World Wide Web. Pay us a visit at: F Here is some of what you'll find: The Crash of America: How this country's elite ruined the economy, fouled the environment and left Newt Gingrich in charge. From the March 1995 issue. The fully informed jury movement: The right of juries to judge both the law and the fact dates back to the trials of William Penn and Peter Zenger. . ."

Still not bloggish, as we initially only posted longer articles. But within a few months - we were promising that "The Progressive Review On-Line Report is found on the Web" and our quasi-blogging had begun.

While we weren't the earliest we were certainly in same 'hood and we may hold some sort of record for consistency. We are still brought to you by Turnpike and we are still using Adobe Page Mill to post our non-blog pages. A year or two ago we ran into an Adobe sales rep at Best Buy and mentioned our loyalty, saying that "we still love it." She looked quite cross and said, "That's what a lot of people say."

The Web would come to value style over substance in design and conventional loyalty over free thinking in politics. But, inspired by a few like Jorn Borger, we have tried to keep our layout simple and our thoughts complex. In the game of Internet high-low poker, we went low and it doesn't seem to have a hurt a bit.

Thanks for sticking around.

September 20, 2011

Last call

Sam Smith

One of the things you learn early as a writer is that the hardest parts of a story are the beginning and the end. The beginning of my story as a Washington journalist was over 50 years ago; the middle has encompassed all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies, and the end will come sometime this year.

I will continue to edit the national edition of the Progressive Review, which has more readers than ever but my wife Kathy and I are moving to Maine where we have deep ties, for me going back more than six decades.

I am leaving my birthplace, a town I have loved but also a place in which I have felt increasingly an exile as local values, culture and community faded - not because they lacked merit but because they did not produce enough power or profit for someone.

It has become a city where the police chief erects apartheid style roadblocks, where the deputy mayor hides a community library in a high rise like it was just another Starbucks, and where the government is spends over $600 million on a baseball stadium but can't keep its recreation centers open all weekend.

It is a city of magnificent views and dismal viewpoints, wonderful communities and dubious egos, natural spaces and artificial words. It is a city that too often can't tell the difference between intelligence and wisdom and, as Russell Baker once noted, the difference between being serious and being somber.

It is also a city in which all politics becomes office politics, and where imagination and free thought are restricted to thirty minutes on weekdays and violators will be towed.

Still, Washington has always been an unsortable amalgam of decadence and decency, undeserved profit and unrequited purpose, subterranean conspiracies and high ideals. Walt Whitman found himself "amid all this huge mess of traitors, loafers, hospitals, axe-grinders, & incompetencies & officials that goes by the name of Washington." Even earlier, Captain Frederick Marry noted, "Here are assembled from every state in the union, what ought to be the collected talent, intelligence, and high principles of a free and enlightened nation. Of talent and intelligence there is a very fair supply, but principle is not so much in demand; and in everything, and everywhere, by the demand the supply is regulated."

One of the things that affects the city's crosscurrents of felicity and felony is what is happening elsewhere in the nation. As a weak colony filled with professional migrants, DC is a beta edition of both the good and the bad. Just as Washington was once deep into the civil rights and peace movements, today it accurately reflects national values sown in the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era that have caused the disintegration of the republic's economy, its global status and its constitution.

You can feel it wandering around downtown, where every last centimeter of the zoning envelope is filled with the dull high rises of a second robber baron era. You see it in the endless piling on of new civil and criminal offenses in place of decent and effective policies. You find it in the official subservience and subsidy to those who already have more than their fair share. You observe it in a school system that values rigid tests and rules but not thoughtful questions and creative ideas.

You see it in the failure to lift a hand to help those unable to play DC's harsh games. And you see it in the increasing division between free and locked down Washington, the former being those parts where you can still cross a threshold without having to prove you are not a terrorist.

Which is not to say you can not find many good things hidden beneath the hubris, behind the ubiquitous fear in the world's most guarded place and under the false renaissance of a city that has spent billions on convention centers, stadiums, arenas, but which can't even provide as many jobs for local residents as it did 20 years ago.

You just have to look harder.

You'll find it still in the neighborhoods like the one I shall miss most: Capitol Hill.

You'll find it in the little oases of commercial sense and service like Frager's hardware store, Distad's auto repair shop and all the other small businesses that get mainly bills and regulations from the city government while the favors go to the big guys.

You'll find it over lunch at places like Jimmy T's, Ben's Chili Bowl and La Tomate.

You'll find it in the files of the Washingtoniana collection at the DC Library, on a trail sign or in an exhibit at the Historical Society of Washington.

You'll find it at the FDR Memorial late on a spring evening or in a quiet spot in some hidden corner high in Rock Creek Park.

You'll find it in a black community that has bravely maintained its values in the face of repression, indifference and socio-economic cleansing. I first did as a young man going to the Howard Theater and as a 20-something member of SNCC, and later in so many ways and places as I was welcomed by, and learned from, those who used the power of decency and friendliness as bridges across cultures and to overcome pain.

You'll find it among the activists of the DC Statehood Green Party who for nearly four decades have risen to the challenge presented by its first leader, Julius Hobson: "What do you want: a Disneyland for the rich or a state for free people?" You'll find it in their refusal to be silent in a city so colonial, corrupt and contented.

You'll find it among the teachers resisting the dismantling and corporatization of public education.

You'll find it in the artists and musicians who take us away from bitterness and contentions and into better places, those still holding on in a city determined not to even leave them with a pad cheap enough to rent.

You'll find it among those who seek to preserve not only open space and fine buildings, but great communities and wonderful institutions.

You'll find it among those trying to help fill monstrous gaps in government services by working at a food bank or shelter, counseling former prisoners, providing free legal service, or teaching children what the school system can't or won't.

You'll find it in a small band of journalists who haven't deserted the real city in favor of grander stories and sources.

You'll find it among the neighborhood commissions who still sometimes get those downtown to pay attention to things they would rather ignore.

And you'll find it in the shared memory of those who give the city life instead of draining it, add to the local saga rather than diminishing it, and are there for us when so many others aren't.

One place you won't find it much longer, though, is at my place. Sometime this year I'll be off to write the rest of my story someplace else. Thanks for all the good times, the encouragement, the inspiration, the example and the dreams.

Just remember, despite what others would have you believe, a vote in the House leaves you no better off than Algeria when it also was a colony; Washington never was a sleepy southern town and it never was a swamp; there is a J Street (albeit hidden in Northeast and spelled Jay), and most of the people who do serious wrong in this fair city come from somewhere else. We try to teach them different but they never seem to get it.

Thanks for the fun and, as Adam Clayton Powell Jr used to say, "Keep the faith, baby."

Leaving DC

Sometime this year the Review will be moving fulltime to its New England regional headquarters in Freeport, Maine, previously home only for the estivatory editions of summer.

I have deep ties to Maine, going back more than six decades. I have long lived as a geographical split personality, with the phrase bi-coastal meaning in my case Casco Bay and the Potomac River. Wherever my physical presence, part of me was in another place, symbolized by the day when I was quoted in both the Washington Post about Marion Barry and on a Portland TV station about alternative agriculture. My views of the city have always had a touch of tide and pasture in them.

Based on past experience, there is no evidence that this change will in anyway alter the journal's content or its editor's irascibility, so readers have nothing to fear. But as your editor has now covered Washington for all or part of ten of America's presidencies, it seems a good time to try something a little different.

Some random anecdotes from these past 50 years can be found here.

In compiling the these tales, I was struck by how few were of federal rather than local Washington. The stories of federal Washington involve power, intrigue and associated conflicts that, dramatic as they may be at one moment, are easily replaced by others a few moments later. The stories of local Washington are stories of real people and places living and struggling in a center of power, intrigue and associated conflicts. These stories survive because they come from heart, culture and community rather than depending on the transitory misadventures of ambition.

My writings about the nation's capital have been grounded in what the theologian Martin Marty described as the need to have a place from which to view the world. Too much of what is written about this city lacks such a place.

I am leaving my birthplace, a town I have loved but also a place in which I have felt increasingly an exile as local values, culture and community faded - not because they lacked merit but because they did not produce enough power or profit for someone.

It is a city of magnificent views and dismal viewpoints, wonderful communities and dubious egos, natural spaces and artificial words. It is a city that too often can't tell the difference between intelligence and wisdom or, as Russell Baker once noted, between being serious and being somber.

It is also a city in which all politics becomes office politics, and where imagination and free thought are restricted to thirty minutes on weekdays and violators will be towed.

Still, Washington has always been an unsortable amalgam of decadence and decency, undeserved profit and unrequited purpose, subterranean conspiracies and high ideals.

Walt Whitman found himself "amid all this huge mess of traitors, loafers, hospitals, axe-grinders, & incompetencies & officials that goes by the name of Washington." Even earlier, Captain Frederick Marry noted, "Here are assembled from every state in the union, what ought to be the collected talent, intelligence, and high principles of a free and enlightened nation. Of talent and intelligence there is a very fair supply, but principle is not so much in demand; and in everything, and everywhere, by the demand the supply is regulated."

One of the things that affects these crosscurrents of felicity and felony is what is happening elsewhere in the nation. As a weak colony filled with professional migrants, DC is a beta edition of both the good and the bad. Just as Washington was once deep into the civil rights and peace movements, today it accurately reflects national values sown in during the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era that caused the disintegration of the republic's economy, its global status and its constitution.

I was born in Washington during the New Deal, for which my father worked. I also went to a segregated public elementary school and lived a segregated life as a child. Thus, from the beginning, I was introduced to the painful contradictions of American democracy.

We left Washington when I was ten but there was an idealism among their friends from that era that I always admired. Years later, my wife and I joined my then widowed mother at a 50th anniversary of the New Deal at the Mayflower Hotel. The median age was probably 75 but I have seldom been in a room with so much energy and enthusiasm. Even the guest speaker, Hubert Humphrey, had a hard time keeping up with his audience.

In all my years in this town, there has only been one other period that has come close: the Great Society. Like the segregated city into which I was born, there were huge inconsistencies, headlined by the Vietnam War, but it was also true that Lyndon Johnson got more good legislation passed in less time than any president in our history. And Washington was once again filled with those who truly cared.

Such moments, however, are not only rare; they are typically born not in Washington but in what is happening elsewhere - such as a depression, civil rights movement, riots or the rise of the 60s counterculture.

It's one reason I don't worry about leaving Washington: most of the time Washington doesn't make news; it only reacts to it.

And slowly. As Phil Hart once put it, the Senate is a place that does things twenty years after it should have.

Which is why for some three decades, Washington has contributed so little to the nation other than to endorse, codify and promote policies leading to the collapse of the First American Republic. Since 1976 Congress has passed more laws than it did in the previous two centuries. And to what end? To place us in the dismal condition in which we now find ourselves.

I sometimes find myself reciting the lines of Tennessee Williams in Camino Real: "Turn back stranger, for the well of humanity has gone dry in this place. And the only birds that sing are kept in cages."

Those of us who have fought for alternative approaches have constantly been met with contempt and disinterest by those in power, whether in politics or the media. The Review, however, has been around long enough for there to be a scorecard and if you go back 20, 30, 40 years you'll find that those seeking other ways were far ahead of the curve on such issues as civil rights, education, self-government, foreign policy, civil liberties and the environment. It was the capital's elite, and not us, who were extreme and radical - extremely slow and radically wrong. Yet one of the privileges of power is to set standards, even if they are the standards of the slowest kids in the class. Another privilege is never having to say you're sorry. Which is why, beginning in the 1980s, we began to lose the struggle and have been doing so ever since.

Then why have I stayed so long? My fascination an affection for the local city aside, I was spurred by Chancellor Willy Brandt, who fled Germany as a young man in the 1930s, became a Norwegian citizen but returned to his homeland after the war. Asked why he had come back, Brandt said because it was more important to be a democrat in Germany than in Norway. I have long felt, lonely as it often has been, the same way about staying in Washington.

I sometimes describe what I do as drawing pictures on the walls of the Lascaux Caves of our times. Leaving sketches of what democracy and constitutional government once looked like as they galloped through the countryside.

As in Orwell's 1984, it was mainly in cities like Washington that we lost our way. Only ten percent of the people in his book lived in the capital he described. The rest, the proles, still lived largely free of the dismal, cruel dysevolution of which he wrote.

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

"The proles were the poorest of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and optimistic. The proles were also the freest of all the groups. Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry about the Thought Police. . .

"[Orwell] also concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group. At several points in the book, Winston, the hero, made a point of mentioning that the proles were the hope for the future and the only ones who could end Big Brother's tyranny, since they were the only group still allowed to have feelings and opinions. . . "
Similarly, you can still find a noticeably freer America simply by leaving the major centers of our post-constitutional society - away from those places where the most honored have done us the most damage.
The geographical parochialism of those who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still hospitable to dreams and perhaps even to the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.

Further, the difficulty that large cities will have adapting to a dramatically different economy and ecology adds to the appeal of places like Maine - places skilled in survival, kinder to the environment and still appreciative of freedom.

One also finds in such places not only a deep culture of the past but one increasingly invigorated by those - in the best tradition of immigrants - courageous and imaginative enough to have moved there. In such ways such places offer not only a recovery of what one may have thought had disappeared forever but the possibility of another beginning in a land that has badly gone astray. I shall report from time to time on how it's going.

The end of politics

Sam Smith

As I tried, for about the seventeenth time, to make sense of the healthcare negotiations, I suddenly realized that I wasn't watching a political debate at all; rather it was one of those conflicts you read about in other countries that are so hard to understand from afar - the sort in which militant and/or religious sects with hard to remember names and unpronounceable leaders engage in struggles usually reduced by the press to simple goals such as "power" or "strengthening their position."

But instead of Shiek Wahoodie Marzapan or the Terratus Mozaki faction, we have Max Baucus, Olympia Snow and the Blue Dogs. And it all makes about as much sense.

That is, until you stop framing it as a political division and recognize that we are really dealing with quasi-religious fundamentalists engaged in a simple turf battle in which the goal is not healthcare or the lack thereof, but relative standing at the end of the conflict. In domestic terms, it is much more like a mob dispute than a traditional political debate. To be sure, some of the language seems political - talk of a public option, mandates and so forth - but this is mostly just part of the Muzak accompanying the mayhem - symbols that help make the whole thing appear rational.

In fact, politics is pretty much dead in America and has been for some time.

Of course, politics has never been just about such high minded things as goals, ideas and reforms. Such causes have always had to struggle for air against the forces described by Walt Whitman as including "the meanest kind of bawling and blowing office-holders, office-seekers, pimps, malignants, conspirators, murderers, fancy-men, custom-house clerks, contractors, kept-editors, spaniels well-train'd to carry and fetch, jobbers, infidels, disunionists, terrorists, mail-riflers, slave-catchers, pushers of slavery, creatures of the President, creatures of would-be Presidents, spies, bribers, compromisers, lobbyers, sponges, ruin'd sports, expell'd gamblers, policy-backers, monte-dealers, duellists, carriers of conceal'd weapons, deaf men, pimpled men, scarr'd inside with vile disease, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people's money and harlots' money twisted together; crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom-sellers of the earth."

But - whether promoted out convenience or noble purpose - such causes did at least exist and everyone argued about them - albeit often futilely.

For example, here is one such statement of goals:

"This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights -- among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

"We have come to a clear realization of the fact, however, that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. . . People who are hungry, people who are (and) out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

"In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all -- regardless of station, or race or creed.

"Among these are: The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the nation; The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; . . . The right of every business man, large and small , to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, and sickness, and accident and unemployment; And finally, the right to a good education.

"America's own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens."

Now, if you were to clip the foregoing and wander around the White House and Capitol Hill looking for someone to advocate such a program, you would be lucky if you came up with anyone other than, say, Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders and perhaps a bare majority of the Black Caucus. . . .

The others - from the president on down - would regard such a program as naive claptrap not even worthy of discussion. And not a single mainstream reporter or TV show would give it the slightest attention.

Which will give you some sense of what has happened in the 65 years since these words were broadcast nationally during a fireside chat by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

We like to think of ourselves as so much more sophisticated than those crazy Muslims with their innumerable and indecipherable sects, yet that is precisely what our politics has become as well.

It is not about great issues but about minor factions. It is not about causes to be advocated but subcultures to be preserved. It is not about mass politics but about atomized preferences. And, of course, it is no longer about votes because they have become almost superfluous - symbolic reflections of the dollars that really matter.

If we toss out our traditional political paradigm and start to look at America as if it were one of those countries we like to occupy, destabilize or develop an exit strategy for, it all begins to make more sense.

We find ourselves in a country in which at least three major fundamentalist mujahideens are struggling for power: the conservative, liberal and establishment. Each share such characteristics as absolute confidence in their righteousness, absolute certainty in their beliefs, absolute contempt for doubt, reduction of their opponents to the status of devils, and the acceptance of warfare as a noble exercise as long as they get to pick the target.

In a healthy democracy, two or more parties propose specific programs to better, in their view, the state of the nation. But not one of the contemporary American mujahideens has shown any serious interest in such matters for the past several decades. It has been left to minor sects like the Greens and Libertarians to still worry about issues.

Conservatives, for example, have seemingly forgotten their erstwhile concern for small government and lower spending and have chosen to define themselves instead by what they oppose: primarily abortion and gay marriage. There are about 1.2 million abortions a year and about 150,000 gay marriages or similar unions. In other words, conservatives have established as a primary goal changing the annual behavior of less than one half of one percent of the American public.

About the only major policies that establishment fundamentalists have pursued during this same period has been to find new ways to transfer wealth from the many to the few and to periodically change the identity of their major enemy - i.e. the devil incarnate - and thus periodically redefine themselves. Over these three decades the devil has been serially located in El Salvador, Libya, Lebanon, Grenada, Honduras, Iraq, Panama, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. And the most deadly horned beast of all has been the one selling drugs, the war on which having cost more American lives than any conflict since Vietnam.

But the only clear victory in all of this was in Grenada and, as Ted Turner recently noted, the last country to actually surrender to us was Japan. Yet not one significant member of the establishment mujahideen has apologized for the futility and cost of their warrior fantasies and, as of this morning, not one leader of the establishment has apologized for their near disastrous financial policies and misdeeds from which we are now desperately attempting to recover.

But then, the enemy was never there to be defeated but as a constant threat enforcing the loyalty of one's constituency. As Ernest Becker put it, "war is a sociological safety valve that cleverly diverts popular hatred for the ruling classes into a happy occasion to mutilate or kill foreign enemies." With it you need no progress, no policies, and no change in the system at all.

All you need is an enemy, with the greatest threat not being the enemy itself but that it might disappear. Constatine Cavafy put it well a century ago:

Night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
And said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

Few in public office have said it so bluntly, a remarkable exception being the State Department's director of policy planning in 1948, George Kennan, who argued, "We should cease to talk about vague and. . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. . . We are going to have to deal in straight power concepts."

While an establishment or conservative movement obsessed with power certainly has plenty of precedents in history, this tendency was mitigated in the United States during its first two centuries because, for better or worse, Americans of all stripes believed in things and their politics reflected this.

But what is rare enough to be deeply disturbing has been the transformation of the American liberal constituency into a similar sect - one searching for power without the necessity of purpose. Certainly since its cynical acceptance of Bill Clinton, mainstream liberal Democratic politics has not displayed more than a passing interest in any major policy - sharing with the right a reliance on things like gay marriage and abortion while ignoring massive economic, environmental and civil liberties issues. To be sure, there are progressives and groups that have tried to take up the slack, but they have been uniformly ignored, or even dissed, such as the refusal to invite single payer advocates to White House discussions on health care, which mainstream liberals barely noticed.

Further, liberals have increasingly taken to acting like conservatives. They are defining themselves by their enemies rather than by their own beliefs and programs. For example, their obsession with the faults of Fox News argues that true virtue lies in not being Sean Hannity. There was a time when liberals had higher standards than that.

Worse, the liberal paradigm has assigned to much of America the sins of Rush Limbaugh, condemning the very people who should be converted, disparaging much of our land as mere "fly over country," and showing no respect for the problems of those who live in such places. These are the characteristics of a snotty private club, not a political movement.

There are a couple of reasons why all this is deeply disturbing. The first is that almost without exception, the best political ideas - from democracy itself to a minimum wage or ecological preservation - have come from the left. For liberalism to go into sleep mode or retreat into a cocoon of smug self identity endangers the whole nation.

The second is that one of the hidden dangers of politics without purpose is that it becomes increasingly corrupt and supportive of aggressively narcissistic and anti-democratic abuse. This is what happened in Nazi Germany as the disintegration of liberalism became an important part of the cultural rubble upon which Hitler climbed.

There is nothing, however, that prevents the rediscovery of real politics in America. Admittedly, it would be difficult given the almost total bias of the media towards the personality rather than the substance of power. But there could still be a progressive populist movement that would promote a real economic reform movement, defend the weak against the powerful, the local against the centralized and rediscover the sort of rights of which Roosevelt spoke 65 years ago.

Since the media is a key part of the establishment mujahideen, it will not voluntarily admit this to its viewers and readers, but we are living in a nation of increasingly angry, restless, confused folk and if they are not offered decent and realistic answers they will become increasingly susceptible to the worst kind of lies.

Yet for it to happen, we must first accept the degree to which the system we were taught we lived under simply no longer exists. That our politics have lost honor and soul, with conscious programs and polices replaced by the transactions of mobs, exemplified by healthcare negotiations in which the major winners will inevitably be the healthcare industry and the biggest losers those in whose name a final measure will be passed.

And we must also view that part of unempowered America with which we find disagreement not as irreparable rightwing junkies but as fellow citizens who have been deceived, misled and screwed. And then, issue by issue, turn them into allies as together we rediscover what politics was meant to be - and still can be - about.

When the top caves in

Sam Smith

What corporate America wanted was nothing less than the Third Worlding of the US, a collapse of both present reality and future expectations. The closer the life and wages of our citizens could come to those of less developed nations, the happier the huge stateless multinationals would be. Then, as they said in the boardrooms and at the White House, the global playing field would be leveled. Once having capitulated on economic matters, Americans would be taught to accept a similar diminution of social programs, civil liberties, democracy, and even some of the most basic governmental services. Free of being the agent of our collective will, government could then concentrate on the real business of a corporatist state, such as reinforcing the military, subsidizing selected industry, and strengthening police control over what would inevitably be an increasingly alienated and fractured electorate.

We would be taught to deny ourselves progress and to blame others for our loss. Worse, underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, the American establishment -- from corporate executive to media to politician -- reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer had to play by any rules but its own.

There is a phrase for this in some Latin American countries: the culture of impunity. In such places it has led to death squads, to the live bodies of dissidents being thrown out of military helicopters, to routine false imprisonment and baroque financial fraud. We are not there yet but are certainly moving in the same direction. In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition.

The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, at best practices only titular democracy, and puts itself at the service of what Hong Kong, borrowing from fascist Germany and Italy, refers to as "functional constituencies," which is mainly to say major corporations. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism.

The intellectual achievement, technocratic pyrotechnics, and calm rationality that serves as a patina for the culture of impunity can be dangerously misleading. In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed and power. As Michael Douglas put it in Wall Street: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works."

Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in America's political and economic system. But a number of things have changed. As activist attorney George LaRoche points out, "Once, I think, we knew our greedy were greedy but they were obligated to justify their greed by reference to some of the other values in which all of us could participate. Thus, maybe 'old Joe' was a crook but he was also a 'pillar of the business community' or 'a member of the Lodge' or a 'good husband' and these things mattered. Now the pretense of justification is gone and greed is its own justification." The result is a stunning lack of restraint. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught. - Sam Smith, Why Bother?, 2001

Sam Smith - When I wrote that, I assumed that, having ditched the First American Republic, we might well move towards some form of ordered and unpleasant tyranny. I assumed that the establishment would stick to its agenda that we would be expected to understand and obey.

After all, as I wrote at the time, "we all live in a Mafia neighborhood now." And a big part of living in a Mafia neighborhood is that you know what the rules are. But what I missed was the possibility that the forces driving the elite would not only destroy our America, but their America as well. And it wasn't until the chaos, confusion, crises, conflicts and controversies of the last year and a half that it became apparent that both victim and tyrant had lost this battle.

What has happened is that atomized ambition has created aggregated anarchy. No one controls the country any more. Yes, they are in charge of the buttons, but the buttons no longer work. The housing and stock markets have collapsed. Academics act as though they haven't gotten their GED yet. Intellectuals grasp at adjectives and metaphors that bear no contact with reality. Corporate executives speak of markets long gone. We are in wars no one can defend reasonably yet against which there is no major protest. Reporters prefer adjectives over facts and have come to think of skepticism as a form of extremism. Sanctified, sanctimonious figures in the church and the GOP are caught in gay trysts. And a hustler named Madoff easily rips off the very high society of which he was a part.

Among the most striking developments has been the impermeable inconsistency of the Obama administration. Although it has spoken repeatedly of transparency, seldom has there been an administration whose true purpose was more difficult to perceive.

Of course, it has been aided mightily by a Democratic Senate that created months of trouble for itself simply by choosing not to revert to traditional rules that could have made it the most, rather than the least, effective upper body in years. Instead, all you needed for a filibuster was to hand in a slip of paper.

The results have been unlike anything that has ever been seen on Capitol Hill. Put together the stimulus package, the health care bill and banking reform and you have a triptych of laws of uncertain purpose, volcanic confusion and concealed contradiction - one to two thousand pages making the future impenetrable until it will be too late to do much about it.

Congress used to pass legislation in order to accomplish something, whether for good or evil. Now we have major bills no one can accurately explain, no one can predict their consequences and no one can convincingly argue on their behalf save for a series of abstractions easily balanced by similar vagaries of the opposition.

We do know that the stimulus bill has so far done little worthwhile, unless you work on Wall Street. Unemployment remains high, foreclosures have not been significantly limited and public works are pathetic.

What the score will be for the health care measure is far harder to guess, for the legislators and Obama have simply hid some of its most important elements for years in the future.

As for the so-called bank reform measure, it was clearly a gift to Wall Street. Yet the LA Times, among others, called it "the most sweeping rewrite of financial rules since the Great Depression."

In fact, the bill didn't even bring back the Glass-Steagall Act which would have been the most sweeping rewrite of financial rules since, well since 1999, when Bill Clinton and Congress buried it.

Eric Alterman came closer to the truth: "When was the last time Congress passed a bill so large that even its significant provisions resisted summarization, both for reasons of complexity and enormity? If you said 'health care,' well, perhaps you're noticing a pattern. Once again, Democrats spent the better part of a year playing three-dimensional chess with themselves, lobbyists, and Republicans to pass. . . The actual provisions of this bill are beyond the capacity of most of us to understand"

Add to all this the BP disaster, in which our leaders desperately try to spin the oil away by endless news conferences in front of a gulf they never cared about before. And the attempt to dismantle a system of public education that for a couple of centuries helped make America a place to admire.

How does one define politics in times like this? In truth, the only parties that still have a whit of purpose are the Greens, Libertarians and Socialists and they can't hardly make it on the ballot. The rest has been reduced to office politics.

We have now gone through a year and a half when either nothing has happened or nobody can tell what has happened. Yet the elite still acts like they know what they are up to and their indentured media loyally spreads the myth.

For example, Obama appoints a Supreme Court justice whom none of her social ilk can describe much except to say how smart she is. These same figures, however, then proceed to admit that her views are a "blank page."

Is the only purpose of intelligence to go through life filling out crossword puzzles correctly? Might it not help to do or say something worthwhile that someone might remember? Apparently, by today's elite standards, that is not smart.

Obama himself warned us in his memoirs that he was merely a mirror, that people would see what they wanted in him. Only now are many who voted for him beginning to realize that Barack Obama never really existed; he was only a transient reaction to things that really existed - a reaction based on what seemed to be most beneficial or safest for himself at the moment.

One leader of this kind would be a problem in any period, but when a whole elite has given up shared values, community and conscience in order to play the game solo, you have a problem that can destroy your entire culture.

And that's where we find ourselves. Vicky Ward gets close to the nub in her book on the desperate housewives of Lehman Brothers. The illusion of common purpose - taken to the extreme of precisely defined clothing, rigorously shared charities and climbing mountains together - is finally shattered by the reality that the men who were supposed to be partners in a common endeavor actually viewed each other as one more market to manipulate and beat.

Lately a strange image has been bouncing about in my head. It is a scene of urban riots, flames in the street, of aimed guns and aimless bodies. But the people in the image aren't the poor and the helpless, and they are not in Athens or Bangkok. Rather they are in Washington and they are judges and CEOs and lawyers and MBAs and cabinet officials and TV news hosts. They are looting stores, smashing statues, and lighting gasoline in a desperate last act of the greed that got them so far yet now has so little to offer. Their memories can no longer recall conscience, causes, or community. They have no friends, allies or movements. They are on their own just like the Lehman Brothers housewife to whom former friends would longer speak after the firm had died.

We have, from a young age, been trained to respect, admire and follow our leaders. Even now, you can hardly find a major op ed writer or a TV commentator who will admit that those who are supposed to show us the way have disintegrated like, say, a malfunctioning deep water well or a high rolling hedge fund.

But we're on our own now. Which was never a bad idea; it was just that we weren't meant to think about it.

If Obama has done us one favor, perhaps it is this: we now know there is no one waiting behind the curtain to save us.

But there still is an America and a good one. You just won't find it on the front pages or on the evening news. It is in our communities, our towns and our states and we have to rediscover and build this America from the bottom up.

It can happen, but the first step is to stop listening to an elite that has destroyed our land and disgraced itself, an elite that has rolled into one great cultural tar ball.

So move on, folks, nothing to see here.

From here on out, it's up to us.

September 19, 2011

What if Democrats acted like Democrats?

Sam Smith

Over the past 60 years only two Democratic presidential candidates have gotten over 50% of the vote: LBJ in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. For nearly a quarter of a century, beginning with the election of Reagan, the Democratic Party has tried to reinvent itself as a party of the modified right. The effort has been a disaster; all its candidates have gotten less than half of the popular vote.

What if the Democrats had instead decided to have remained Democrats? Writing in the DC Gazette in 1982 Sam Smith argued that they should and two decades later the suggestion still seems applicable.

The only way to deal with the new right - and it's alive in both parties, is to have some new Democrats as well. These new Democrats can't be rehashed liberals - the word ought to be banished from the Democratic vocabulary for at least two presidential terms. They can't be socialists; the Democrats have thoroughly discredited socialism by introducing over the past few decades every one of its worst aspects while providing few of its benefits. They can be radical, in the sense of returning to the roots, but those roots are not in European socialism nor are they as convenient chronologically as the New Deal. They are to be found further back and on this side of the Atlantic - in a judicious blend of Jeffersonianism, populism, progressvism, libertarianism and what Norman Mailer calls "radical conservatism." Liberalism and socialism suffer from many of the same defects. They both tend to favor order at the expense of freedom. They both tend towards centralism, while the historical roots of American thought are decentralist and anti-authoritarian. And in their effort to produce economic salvation, they both tend to create psychological deprivation. The American dream is not to make the right choice between economic and personal justice, it's not to choose between independence and equality but to have it all. Both the right and the left in this country tend to promote only a part of the dream; a new Democratic politics, I would submit, should try to put the parts together again. Here, for starters, are, some random notes on how it might be done:

o A new Democratic politics requires the reestablishment of a base among the people rather than, as has been increasingly the case, among those who "represent them." If the party has to make a choice it should go for the union members rather than for the unions. It worked for Reagan and it would work for the Democrats. The Democratic Party has failed to understand the depth of institutional alienation in this country. Although the Republicans are as institutionally bound as the Democrats, they have been far more effective in feigning interest in the American as an individual. The Democratic rhetoric is constantly shoving institutions on top of people - HUD, the UAW, the city machines - and people are mad at all of them.

o A new Democratic politics requires affirmative action in government decentralization. The Republicans have gotten away with simply calling for less government because the Democrats have promoted the absurd premise that only the central government can solve our problems. In fact, much of the Republican effort is not aimed at doing away with government but with doing away with programs, but because the Democrats have resisted decentralizing these programs this distinction has been obscured. The Democrats should forget that Richard Nixon started revenue sharing and make bigger and better revenue sharing a major part of its program. The Republicans have played a symbolic game with revenue sharing; let the Democrats make it real. That there are risks in decentralization is obvious. That there are important federal functions that must remain centralized - such as the guarantee of constitutional rights - is also obvious. But because Washington must protect the rights of minorities does not mean that Washington must also decide when, how and with what surface material a village in Nebraska shall build its federally-funded playground.

Part of the peculiar mythology of the Democratic Party is that decentralization is un-Democratic. This, no doubt, stems from the abuse of states' rights as a tool for discrimination. But at some point one has to distinguish between inherent evil and wrongful application; the Democrats have failed to do so. If you go back to the earliest days of the republic, you find a different story about states rights. Within a relatively few years of the revolution, the United States had ended most property standards for suffrage, eliminated the legal status of women as chattel, ended slavery outside the south, and rejected primogeniture, all as the result of state rather than federal action. Even in today's conflicts, the effect of decentralized power is not as dangerous as we sometimes think. True, the Burger court decentralized the definition of pornography - but would you really prefer that every community have to accept the Burger court's own definition? Where would homosexuals be if their only legal recourse was a federal human rights law? Would they prefer that San Francisco and Washington be governed by Congress's current inclinations on the subject? Would women prefer to rely solely on passage of the ERA? Even in human rights, the federal government is not inherently superior to the sum of its parts.

o A new Democratic politics requires that the party get out of bed with banks, multinational corporations, monopolies, oligarchies, conglomerates, Washington legal hit men and economic hustlers of all stripes. The Republican Party may be married to big business but the Democratic Party is its mistress. It has never confessed this to its constituents but they figured it out anyway. It has to stop fooling around if there is to be any hope of revival. It can not go on talking economic justice on the one hand while, on the other, trying to beat the Republicans to the deal.

o A new Democratic politics requires that the party make clear the difference between free enterprise and an economic orgy. Until politicians make the distinction the American voters won't. Voters need to know what has happened to their classic economic model. They need to know that the corporations that now claim rights equal to that of an individual once had to convince the state government that their purposes were in the public interest and necessity before even receiving a charter. They need to understand the hypocrisy involved in mega-corporations assuming the mantle of a primitive and virtually extinct form of capitalism. They should be told about the significantly greater job-producing capacity of small rather than large business. They should be taught the diseconomies of scale. They should learn about the inflationary potential of monopolized business, the job-destroying potential of high tech multi-national industry and the environmental indifference - all factors with which Adam Smith didn't contend.

The Democratic Party, which has been grievously silent about such matters, should take the position that it wants to free enterprise rather than subsidize monopolies. The Democratic Party's new politics also requires alternatives to the growing monopolization of the economy. One such alternative would be an emphasis on the cooperatives as options to traditional economic units. Cooperatives are an attractive alternative to_ capitalistic failure since they can accomplish many of socialism's goals without its liabilities. Further, they have a healthy red-blooded American provenance that makes them more politically tasteful. Along with cooperativism, we need to put an end to the acceptance of what Paul Soglin calls "lemon socialism" - the idea that it is all right for the government to get into private business as long as there's no money to be made out of it. Once you accept the idea of public enterprise - the opportunities for economic change mount geometrically. We already have some successful examples of public enterprise in this country, such as the few communities that own their own utilities, but the idea is in its infancy.

Acceptance of a decentralized public enterprise ethos would permit, for example, a city government to buy and then lease redevelopment land rather than merely collect the taxes on it. It would encourage the formation of state and local banks to fund housing programs out of profits made from middle and upper income mortgages. It would allow government to get something in return for its subsidies. It would give local governments a piece of the equity in housing programs they fund. It would give the government stock shares in businesses it subsidized or bailed out. We would never have to reach an ultimate confrontation between monopoly capitalism and monopoly socialism; rather we would develop a case by case economy. The only thing stopping us from moving in this direction and enjoying its obvious benefits is our fear of violating an economic theory that no longer has any practical meaning.

o A new Democratic politics would stress, ways to reduce confrontation in the society. It would reject the adversary society created by such institutions such as legal profession and would develop means for people to resolve disputes rather than win or lose them.

o A new Democratic politics would decentralize justice. Like everything else in our society, prosecution and adjudication has been removed from our communities. It must be returned. America, among western countries, is one of the most punitive and least effective in dealing with crime. The Republican theory of more of the same should be rejected. The Democratic Party should stress the fact that crimes are committed against a community and that the community must be the focus of law enforcement. Failure to recognize the key role of communities in crime prevention and the subsidiary nature of professional law enforcement is a major reason for our failure to deal effectively with the problem. We need to greatly strengthen fledgling neighborhood justice systems - with the emphasis on prevention rather than punishment and on restitution rather than retribution - and we need to stop playing catch-up in the Republican game of the more cops the better.

o A new Democratic politics must continue to stress proper care and feeding of the environment, with the greatest emphasis on the avoidance of irreparable damage. Whether immediately popular or not, the party must take a stand against playing Russian roulette with eternity.

o A new Democratic politics requires a foreign policy that finally recognizes the independence of the rest of the nations of the world. Our intrusive, arrogant meddling in extra-territorial politics has brought us little but grief. It is morally indefensible, politically unproductive and economically risky.

o A new Democratic politics requires a military policy that is based on the needs of the military rather than of the military-industrial complex. One of the best kept secrets of American politics is that the huge sums taxpayers are providing for the "defense budget" has surprisingly little to do with defense. It is a make-work program for defense contractors. You don't even have to raise the moral issue: from a military point of view it doesn't make sense. The essence of any military force is the professionalism and skill of its personnel. There are strong indications that this has seriously declined despite the ever-growing number of toys the military has to play with. The Democrats could get a lot more mileage for a lot less cost out of the defense issue, by emphasizing real preparedness and skill rather than the traditional predilection for bigger and better weaponry.

o A new Democratic politics should make the Democratic Party the party of neighborhoods, the party of communities. Local Democrats should be at the front of every battle for neighborhood government, for more participation by citizens in local decisions, against the rape of communities by developers and speculators and city governments. Because Democrats control so many city halls, there has been a tendency for local Democratic parties to lay low .on such issues. Over the long run, however, the people will turn on the Democratic city machines just as they have turned on the Democratic federal machine. One way to prevent this is for local Democrats to start representing the interest of the people rather than those of their mayors.

The physical infrastructure of our old cities needs to be rebuilt, our railroad system is In a sorry state, the effects of decades of environmental unconcern need to be ameliorated, neighborhoods need help overcoming years of neglect. There is no justification for wasting public jobs. Further, many of the policies I've outlined are actually job production programs as well. A shift from wasteful military spending towards economically regenerative domestic programs would create jobs. A shift away from mega-corporations towards smaller businesses would produce jobs.

It is important that the. government recognize the effect of its policies on employment. Federal urban redevelopment, for example, has tended to hurt less skilled employment. One person's progress may be another's layoff. Within its own structure, the government has tacitly accepted an anti-jobs policy. Both federal and local governments have allowed grade creep and reorganizations to destroy much of government's traditional capacity as job provider. One $60,000-a-year federal bureaucrat is taking the job of three $20,000-a-year lower-level civil servants. Government, in part, has become a jobs program for the college educated. This tendency must be reversed.

o Finally, a new Democratic politics should rethink issues of human rights. The party can not retreat from a commitment to these rights, but it should stop raising strategies to the status of rights. Bussing, for example, was a strategy, not a right. It was effective neither educationally nor politically. In fact, because blacks and liberal Democrats refused to look pragmatically at the results of bussing, only the new right really benefited from it. - On other issues, we need, as the general told his troops,, to "elevate the guns a little lower." Abortion is one of these issues. It involves ultimately irresolvable conflicts in values; both sides have morally sound positions. You can not handle this sort of issue as you would the ERA or segregation. High visibility advocacy politics risks the sort of backlash that we are currently observing. What's needed here is more subtle politics.

In the field of civil rights, the trend of recent years has been to link these issues with the same sort of regulatory, punitive approach of government that people are rebelling against in every area. Blacks tend to see resistance to bussing and affirmative action as being racist, but if they would just ask their ideal OSHA inspector what/sort of reception he's getting, they would see the problem is not theirs alone. To cling to government regulations as the prime strategy for racial justice seems politically naive at best. Even if the laws stay on the books, .enforcement will almost certainly wither over the next few years.

In fact, no matter what minorities do, the outlook is pretty gloomy. But a few changes in approach might help. One would be to find ways the government could be used as a carrot rather than always as a stick. Another would be for minorities and women to reexamine their reluctance to form meaningful coalitions with other groups. The activist individualism of the seventies didn't work so well in its prime; in the next few years it will be futile. There should also be more attention paid to some sources of the problem that have been largely ignored. One of these is the demographic gerrymandering of institutions such as the US Congress. Ineffective as it may be over the short run, we should at least begin raising the issue of how we can have legislative bodies that somewhat represent the composition of the country. We need not only the right to vote but the right to have someone to vote for.

One of the components of the so-called "backlash" is a feeling on the part of many Americans not of a minority that they, like Rodney Dangerfield, "don't get no respect." Because of the real problems and insecurities of minorities and women, these groups have tended to .underrate the problems and insecurities of those with whom they find political conflict. But while losing many of the real battles, minorities and women have tended to have the upper hand in the rhetorical war. The ground rules, decided in no small part by the media, have been that it is all right for blacks to make hyperbolic statements about whites but not vice versa; Women can stereotype men but men can't stereotype women. It is acceptable to lampoon a born again Christian but not a Zionist.

The political effects of this dynamic have not been adequately examined, but I think there is ample evidence that they are there. A new Democratic policy on human rights needs a considerable emphasis on human respect - even for those one finds politically objectionable. We need to question the assumption that one's political, religious or social views define one's worth as an individual. And the burden for this falls most heavily on those who feel strongly the need to end invidious discrimination.

Okay, that's enough to get started on. If you don't like it make your own damn list. I don't care. But remember: you were led into this ambush by the crummiest bunch of Democratic leaders of modern times. They lost the election and now you can lose them. Just go out and start acting like Democrats again.

September 07, 2011

Bookshelf: American Nations

Sam Smith

I was no more than a third the way into Colin Woodard’s American Nations when the book disappeared. It turned out that my visiting son had removed it to his bedroom. In a couple of days he returned it complete with an excellent synopsis that I wish I had copied down. Then it disappeared again, this time thanks to a friend who was visiting us. Just when I was about to hide it myself, I found the book on the kitchen table opened to page nine with the corner turned down. My wife was the new culprit.

I have never had such difficulty holding on to a book in my own house, but it didn’t really surprise me because Woodard’s look at eleven cultures that shaped our nation - at the start, and still do – is not only extremely well written, it challenges a wealth of assumptions many of us were taught – and may still believe – about who made our land and how.

The book is devoid of great men and theories about them. Instead Woodard describes how we came to be defined by cultures including The First Nation (indigenous Americans), The Midlands (from New Jersey to Missouri), New Netherlands (New York City area), Greater Appalachia (from West Virginia to part of Texas) , the Far West, the Left Coast, and the place Europeans first inhabited (although few Americans are taught this), El Norte, the Spanish settled lower Southwest.

Woodard is not the first to attempt such a cultural revision of American history. For example, David Hackett Fischer’s division of Yankeedom into four cultures is an invaluable classic. But what Woodard has done is not merely tell about our past but relate it to what is happening to us today.

For example, I recently wrote about the similarities between the South’s attempt to undo the Civil War during Post-Reconstruction and its current attempt to undo seventy years of political progress.

Woodard describes puts it all in a broader context:

“The goal of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one party state with a colonial style economy based on large scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low wage workforce . . . On being compelled by force of arms to give up their workforce, Deep Southerners developed caste and sharecropper systems to meet their labor needs, as well as a system of poll taxes and literacy tests to keep former slaves and white rabble out of the political process. When these systems were challenged by African Americans and the federal government, they rallied poor whites in their nation, in Tidewater, and Appalachia to their cause through fear mongering: The races would mix. Daughters would be defiled. Yankees would take away their guns and Bibles and convert their children to secular humanism, environmentalism, communism, and homosexuality.”

In many sense, we are still fighting a milder version of the Civil War. Consider that almost two thirds of the Tea Party caucus in Congress comes from the South.

Woodard repeatedly introduces us to aspects of our history we may not have known or noticed. Such as how the Tidewater elite – including some of the most revered figures of the Revolution - modeled themselves on slave owning Athens while Yankeedom and the Midlands used a Germanic model of freedom. Such as how the Puritans slit the nostrils, cut off the ears of Quakers, branding their faces with an “H” for heretic. Or how only 38 of the first 104 settlers were still alive at Jamestown a mere nine months after their arrival. Or how, to this day, New York City still reflects its Dutch forebears though their descendants have all but disappeared. Or, more recently, how a 2002 Gallup poll found 62% of southerners supporting our war in Iraq compared to only 47% of Midwesterners.

One problem with presenting such an impressive overarching construct is that it inevitably suggests exceptions. Woodard notes some of them himself. Are the Mormons a separate nation? Is Milwaukee really a Midland city trapped in Yankeedom? And Woodard’s own magnificent book, The Lobster Coast, outlines the difference in the Maine and Massachusetts versions of Yankeedom.

I found myself also wondering: where are the Jews and the Irish Catholics, small in number but essential to an American definition? And I would have liked a discussion of what has been called part cultures, i.e. those whose identity is created in part by their relationship to another culture.

For example, although my native Washington DC was in the segregated south, it responded to the civil rights movement far more peacefully than, say, Chicago or Boston. One reason, I suspect, is because blacks were truly alien in the northern cities, whereas in a southern (but not Deep South) town like DC they were mistreated neighbors rather than frightening strangers. Similarly, I remember once, while in the Virginia countryside, hearing in the distance what I thought was a black religious service of some sort. I found, instead, a bunch of whites conducting a running water baptism in a river. I wondered what they would have thought if I had told them about my misapprehension. Cultures can blend and be dependent on each other in ways not recognized even by their participants.

Yet Woodward’s book also reminded me of the cultural conflict between native black Washingtonians and more recently arrived blacks from the Deep South. The uber-culture had stuck its head up once more.

As Woodard points out, digging into regional cultures can be like peeling an onion, In the end – either in Massachusetts or Georgia – the overall culture is the one that triumphs.

Still there are interesting aspects of culture that get too little attention. For example, how much less relevant has television and the internet made traditional regional cultures? How has culture shopping changed the game creating the punk Buddhist, Hindu converts to Unitarianism or a follower of Confucianism as well as the Dallas Cowboys? The mere number of cultural traits and values available for adoption in a world that watches MTV has engorged us with possibilities.

And how has conscious cultural blending in employment, schools, employment and elsewhere made a difference? I was reminded of this the other day listening to my seven year old white granddaughter several times calling her three year old sister, “Bro.” We are all part cultures now.

Finally, there is the danger in reading a book like this that we may feel we are trapped. Yet, that doesn’t have to be. As one who has lived in Tidewater, the Midlands and Yankeedom I am fascinated by the cultural traits I have consciously adopted and those that just embedded themselves without any help. I am also fascinated by those far too little appreciated Americans – whether in politics, the media or entertainment – who manage to turn our eleven nations into one, at least as long as they are around. Over and over, they are the ones that save us.

At a personal level, I think the secret is in viewing one’s own culture as a gift and not a cell. It defines our past and present but is not a life sentence. Still, you have to know what you’re working with and American Nations helps in a big way.

This is also a point that Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Lt. Commander Data, the android officer aboard the starship Enterprise, discussed:

DATA: I have analyzed over four thousand different religious and philosophical systems as well as over two hundred psychological schools of thought in an effort to understand what happened…

PICARD: I'm curious, Mr. Data. Why are you looking at all these other cultures?

DATA: The interpretation of visions and other metaphysical experiences are almost always culturally derived and I have no culture of my own.

PICARD: Yes, you do. You're a culture of one. Which is no less valid than a culture of one billion. Perhaps the key to understanding your experience is to stop looking into other sources for meaning. When we look at Michelangelo's David or Seme's Tomb we don't ask what does this mean to other people. The real question is what does it mean to us.

Read American Nations with this in mind and you’ll appreciate and understand your country and your own culture in a new and exciting way.

Finally, if you happen to be an American history student, a history professor or a political commentator, read this book before you write too many more words. You not only will be glad you did, you won’t seem blank when somebody asks you about it. Which, given the book’s value, they surely will.