Saturday, January 19, 2019

The real history of populism

Populism has lately been given a dirty name by the media and the establishment. In fact, it has an important and healthy history in America, as this article notes

Sam Smith, 2008 - American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.

One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.

The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.

In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle -- with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan "Not Now" and its goal of maintaining the timorousness of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.

As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn't long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It's not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a candidate on its own.

The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power.

The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another - including young non-college educated whites - until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power.

Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.

Populism's hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University's School of Journalism, found that "Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that's not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. . . "

A review of Doppelt and Shearer's work notes that "In the 1996 elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age 30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as minorities."

And the study also found that 52% agreed with the statement: "The federal government often does a better job than people give it credit for." 83% of nonvoters thought the government should have a major policy role in the realms of healthcare, housing, and education.

While a follow-up study found that nonvoters divided pretty much the same way as voters on the presidency, the fact that they didn't do anything about it was more telling. Besides, we're talking about a huge number of people. If those of voting age simply turned out in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would be about 24 million more voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That's a lot of people looking for some difference between the candidates and some new directions.

But there are also big problems. We have, for example, reached a stage where many minorities have produced enough winners that the greater number of losers not only have to battle their oppressors but the indifference of, and misleading impressions caused by, their own role models. All pressure groups - farmers, labor unions, women, ethnic groups - have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the citizens at the bottom of each of these causes - the poor farmer, the unemployed laborer, the tip-dependent waitress, the slum dweller - has hardly been allowed a bite. We have created the superstructure of a welfare state without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.

Not even the organizations supposedly dedicated to correcting this imbalance have been up to the task. The Black Congressional Caucus remains silent as the toll mounts of black young men sent to prison or to their death thanks a war far more deadly to them than Iraq, namely the war on drugs. The major women's groups are far more interested in Nancy Pelosi than in women working at Wal-Mart. In fact, the most effective women's and minority groups in the country are unions like SEIU and Unite Here, which actually help some of those most in need.

Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to drive its SUV to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right thing. Faith vs. works.

Interestingly, populism - despite its bad rap - has far more potential for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to people's personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles. But you won't break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You don't do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and social equity.

Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn't think they qualified as Democratic voters.

The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by a growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of "cultural creatives" saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.

The black writer, Jean Toomer once described America as "so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes." Writing in 1919, Toomer said, "It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition."

So what might a populist agenda look like? Let's look at two examples - neither a paragon of virtue - yet far better, and stunningly so, than any of today's politicians in starting programs that helped large numbers of people. Their legacy was not to be found in their own amply noted inadequacies but in the adequacies they made possible for others. In a time of shallow political celebrities incapable of even modest achievement, these men remind us what democracy was meant to be about.

The first was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Here's how Wikipedia describes him:
|||| In his four-year term as governor, Long increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana from 331 to 2,301, plus an additional 4,508 2,816 miles of gravel roads. By 1936, the infrastructure program begun by Long had [doubled] the state's road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .
Long's free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state's mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year. . .

As an alternative to what he called the conservatism of the New Deal, Long proposed legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. . . In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.

Long proposed a new tax code which would limit personal fortunes to $50 million, annual income to $1 million (or 300 times the income of the average family), and inheritances to $5 million. The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans' benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours. . .

Long, in February 1934, formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country, and Long's Senate office was receiving an average of 60,000 letters a week. Pressure from Long and his organization is considered by some historians as responsible for Roosevelt's "turn to the left" in 1935, when he enacted the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security; in private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to "steal Long's thunder." |||
The other example is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's gross mishandling of Vietnam has obscured memory of the fact that he fermented the greatest number of good domestic bills in the least time of any president in our history. Again, some examples from Wikipedia:
|||| Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the first two years of Johnson's presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations. . .

The War on Poverty . . . spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school; Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children.

The most important educational component of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. . . initially allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002

The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. . . In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. . .

In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. . .

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states . . . The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. . . Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe. Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children's sleepwear, but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards. Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales. Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided standards and recalls for defective electronic products. |||||
It is virtually impossible to conceive of any elected official today being as productive as Johnson and Long. Yet Johnson never went to business school; he was just a teacher. And Long took the bar exam after one year at Tulane Law school and then went out and sued Standard Oil. These were not people who are meant to succeed by today's distorted and ineffectual standards, yet they did. In fact, if you want to find anything comparable one of the few names that springs to mind is Harry Hopkins who put millions to work within months for FDR. Hopkins was a social worker by trade. With such leaders, hearts and smarts were the credentials they really needed.

What would a new populist program look like? It might include things like this:

- Universal healthcare with no trough-slopping by insurance companies

- A housing program in which the federal government would be an equity partner with lower income house purchasers. It would be a self-sustaining program as each partner would get their equity back when the house was sold.

- An end to usury in credit card lending.

- Pension protection

- A revival of high quality vocational training

- Election reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing

- Expansion of cooperatives and credit unions

Monday, January 14, 2019

Telling just the bad part of the story

Sam Smith - Watching Green Book, I was pleasantly relieved to see a film dedicated to telling a story of improved ethnic relations. If you base your assumptions on the media, it would appear that nothing much in this sphere is getting better. While the media is not at fault for telling the true bad tales, it fails in its disinterest in examples of improved cross-ethnic relations and so, unintentionally, projects a dismal future for them. We are not, for example, told of the rise in bi-ethnic marriages or the fact that Barack Obama actually spent more time at Harvard Law School than he did with a black parent. It was not just his blackness but his cross-ethnic understanding that gave him strength.

And is it really true that there are no police departments that have done a better and fairer job of treating the ethnic varieties in their purview? Are there no public schools where black and white students actually get along? And why so little mention of improvements in our justice system such as those developed by the Center for Court Innovation? How do we make progress in our dealings with others without examples, encouragement and exposure?

As a native of Washington DC, I have seen both the suffering and recovery. I went to a segregated elementary school, and when I returned to the city after college it was still in many ways a mean southern town. Yet in a few years, as blacks were becoming a majority in the city, and the civil rights movement was taking hold, things dramatically changed. With protest and resistance, yes, but with progress as well.

I experienced both the bad and the good. In 1968, I was editing a newspaper In a community where two of the city’s four major riots occurred, with buildings as close as one block away attacked. But I had also been in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and would help to launch the DC statehood movement. And when we finally got home rule and elected a mayor, he was black - as every mayor has been since.

In short, I lived through the bad and the good with the latter building the energy to deal with the former. And although through most of my adult life in Washington I was part of the white minority, I never once felt sorry for that. The bonus of the struggle had been a diverse community that got along with each other in ways that still seem impossible in many parts of the country.

But I’ve also learned that there isn’t much interest in that story. We live in a time where ethnic conflict is reported and analyzed but where improvements and successes get little attention.

And so, I was sorry but not surprised when Green Book moved from being a Golden Globe winner to a target of criticism because of something its author had once posted and because the black lead’s historic story was considered inaccurate by his actual family. Once again, we had found the bad more worth considering than the good.

It is not that you ignore the former, but if we fail to note and honor the latter, then we offer no hope for change. Life becomes a catalog of flaws rather than being balanced with recovery from them. We think we’re being accurate when, in truth, we are only telling one side of the story, blinding ourselves from the ways in which that story could be changed for the better.

These ways often do not include master strokes, but rather are little tales of people who found a decent way to do things, such as happened in the local Washington where I lived most of my life. And stories like that of a black musician and a white chauffeur who got along.

We need to confront the evil but not hide the decent in which hope can thrive.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Some essays on music

A half century of American music

Last evening I went to a party for fellow musicians given by singer and trombonist Dave Burns, who for more than three decades and 2,000 gigs has headed the Hot Mustard Jazz Band, a fixture in the Washington area. Burns has been singing since the age of two when, in Pineville Kentucky "they'd put me on the marble counter at the drugstore and I'd sing songs for a penny."

As the Princeton Alumni Weekly explained it, "Burns ran away from Pineville at 15, living a hobo-like existence until landing in D.C., where he dropped out of high school three times before joining the Air Force. A 'voracious reader,' he realized he'd need a degree after his tour of duty and audaciously applied to Oxford, the University of Kentucky, Occidental College in Pasadena, California - and Princeton. 'I told them if they took a gamble on me I wouldn't disappoint them,' he says of Princeton. True to his word, Burns won a Fulbright scholarship and joined the Foreign Service."

I realized when I looked around the room that I was looking at a half century of American music. There was the sainted Keeter Betts who has played bass for just about everyone in jazz locally and nationally, clarinetist Wally Garner who recalled playing with Louis Armstrong, the jazz writer Royal Stokes and musicians with whom I had shared gigs like Gary Wilkerson and Don Rouse. All of us were playing in the 1950s and some even earlier.

It struck me later was what an atypical Washington evening it was. I gave up my own band seven years ago and I had kind of forgotten what a pleasant, friendly bunch of people jazz musicians can be. All those breaks; all those conversations. I suspect it has something to do with the genre, which requires both individuality and cooperation, something I once described this way:

"The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one.

"The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both. Here's how Wynton Marsalis describes it: 'Jazz is a music of conversation, and that's what you need in a democracy. You have to be willing to hear another person's point of view.'"

In defense of bass players

Your editor has long held the view - although quietly for fear of being mugged - that one of the earliest signs of America's cultural collapse was the introduction of the disco drum machine. I was, to be sure, a drummer at the time, so the opinion may have been a bit premature and biased. Nonetheless, since then popular music has become increasingly stripped of melody, chord range, internal variety and surprise, and dynamics. With the arrival of rap, music itself became virtually irrelevant.

These are not matters of taste, but observable phenomenon. For example, the history of western music, until fairly recently, was in part the story of expanding the number of acceptable chords, something that can be readily seen in comparing, say, a traditional folk song to the works of Thelonious Monk. This does not mean that the folk song was bad, only that the later work was far more venturesome at the least, and more creative at best. Growing cultures keep breaking ground. Declining ones just wear it out and break it up. Retrenchment and regression replaces exploration and adventure.

Anyone who grew up with jazz grew up with this sense of adventure, sometimes found in a single tune. It has been described by one music teacher as being in part the interplay between repetition and surprise. Just when we think we know what is coming thanks to previous reiteration, the music surprises us. Further, as far back as Jelly Roll Morton, jazz musicians borrowed from different musical traditions, blending them in new and unusual ways.

There have been two anchors in all of this: the drums and the bass. And even though I was once a drummer, after I switched to piano I found myself increasingly of the opinion that the bass was the sina qua non of jazz. In fact, in my own mainstream group - blessed by a superb bassist - I did away with drums entirely, leaving room for two horns in just a quartet.

Bassists are remarkable people, all the more so because most pay them so little mind. I have, in fact, never met a mean or nasty bass player. They tend to be musicians of good humor, extraordinary patience, and a sense of modesty that can be lacking in the front of the band.

I fear America's growing passion for power without the balance of community and cooperation, and without the magnificent gift of individuals who are always quietly there doing exactly the right thing at the right time and, in the process, making everyone else sound good as well. Which is what bass players are about

Why you don't have to care about Michael Jackson

MEDIA BIAS is not limited to bad politics; it includes bad math, typically manifested in an inability to count above the number two. According to the mass media, our world is one giant 'Crossfire' show divided into pro and anti, liberal and conservative, war and appeasement, free market and socialism. When such bifurcation fails because of the number of participants - as in sports, Democratic primaries, or reality shows - the media solves the problem by ultimately reducing the number to one, with everyone else a loser. It is by such means that the media discovers the outstanding average American male.
This is a form of semiotic suppression as bad in its own way as political propaganda for it steals opportunities, options, and subtleties from us, turning us into either cheering sycophants or worthless outsiders. It also is the playing field on which we learn mindless acceptance of the minimal choices that the media offers us in the political and economic realms.

We are, for example, supposed at this moment to be obsessed with football, especially if one is a virile male. In fact, however, only about a half of American males are interested in football. A 2002 poll found that only 28% of Americans listed football as their favorite sport, with 16% preferring basketball and 12% baseball. Add them all together and you are still left with nearly half of America having something better to do. But you would never guess it from the media.

The same is true with popular music. Michael Jackson, the latest media fetish, is a not atypical example. If you only followed the "news" you would have to be wondering what was wrong with you if you did not find the fate of Jackson of concern or, worse, never liked him or his music in the first place.

Jackson sold 47 million copies of "Thriller," which sounds like a lot until one realizes that Dunkin' Donuts sells more cups of coffee than that in one month. In fact, more people have a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee than watch Bill O'Reilly on the same day. But note where Dunkin' Donuts stands in the media cultural hierarchy compared to Jackson and O'Reilly.

It's actually far worse than that. An ABC News poll last year found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

The ABC News poll is unusual in that it gave actual percentages. Normally, such surveys only list rank, leaving the reader who prefers number six on the list feeling out of it and leaving all readers badly misinformed.

One way to create more honesty in such surveys would be not only to use actual percentages but also instant runoff voting in which second and third place votes would be factored in. These celebrity surveys instead use the same misguided principle that distorts our politics, confusing whoever is first past the post with the consensus choice.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that we do not know how the over 200 million Americans who did not buy a copy of 'Thriller' felt about Jackson. Some were married to a purchaser, some have downloaded it, some picked it up second hand or from a sibling. But is it not possible that among this vast pool we might not actually find a many people who disliked Jackson's music as liked it?

Yes it is. And although I have not been able to find an American study that deals with this issue, a fascinating examination of Japanese adolescent tastes in western music suggests what we might discover.

Here are the percentages of Japanese adolescents who liked very much a genre of music followed by the percentages of those that didn't like it at all:
Rock: 45, 28
Rap: 26, 43
Top Forty: 25, 43
Classical: 23, 48
Jazz: 23, 45
Techno: 22, 47
Soul: 17, 53
Country: 15, 53
Heavy Metal: 12, 48
Punk: 11, 66
Easy Listening: 10, 60

Note that rock is the only category in which the percentage of those not liking it at all does not near 50%. Note also that one of the most disliked genres is something the media has labeled "easy listening."

One of the reasons the media doesn't tell you things like this is that it would be too embarrassing. Far better to using rankings that obscure the fact, for example, that you could fit the entire American audience of CNN into a place the size of Washington DC.

One of the few people honest about all this is Don Imus who says he wouldn't cover the Jackson story, which repels him, were it not for the ratings boost. But that boost, of course, is based on the media's past success in convincing us that Jackson was worth caring about. And even if MSNBC's ratings doubled we're still only talking about three big stadiums full of people.

So if you can't stand Jackson or his music, don't feel bad. You are just part of the silenced majority. Go down to Dunkin' Donuts have a cup of coffee like a real American.

Sam's Waltz

Our band was playing at a wedding reception when a woman came up to me and asked for a waltz. I said okay and hoped she would forget about it because my memory has suddenly gone blank and I can't remember any waltzes.

The woman returns so I say to the trumpet player, "Follow me." It takes me a couple of choruses to write a waltz. Bob Walter, the trumpet player, was good enough that he could pretend to be providing fills instead of wondering what the hell I was up to.

We finally got it down and people began twirling happily. When we were finished the crowd applauded and a bearded man asked me for my card.

We were happily back into 4/4 time when a woman came up and asked for another waltz and I replied, "Okay in a little bit."

"No we need it now. The mother of the bride wants to waltz.

So I told Bob to do the waltz again. This time we did it with more gusto and the dancers responded in kind.

The bearded man spun by, stopped and said, "That's great. What's the name of that waltz."

Without hesitation I replied, "Sam's Waltz."

Monday, January 07, 2019

The Democrats' inland America problem

Sam Smith - Missing from our political discussions is a major Democratic issue: The party's support mainly comes from states on the western, northern and eastern border of America. In fact, there's a serious question - based on the past half century - of whether Democratic candidates from these border states can win.

For example, during this period, the only Democrats to win have been Obama from Illinois, Bill Clinton from Arkansas, Jimmy Carter from Georgia and Lyndon Johnson from Texas.

Kerry and Dukakis from Massachusetts each won only one non-Democratic border state. Mondale from Minnesota won none and Humphrey from the same state won 2.  Hillary Clinton from New York won 4. Among the losers, only Gore and McGovern came from non liberal states.

Meanwhile, Obama from inland Illinois won seven.

What's going on here? It looks like the Democrats are misjudging the popularity of their candidates based on their status in their own turf.  But that accounts for less than a third of the electoral vote.

Their politics is groomed and tested in these liberal states but doesn't require an associated ability to reach the less liberal ones.Even a black guy from Illinois knew better how to reach inland Americans.

This is something Democrats have to learn to deal with.  Either they have to convert inland and southern America or at least learn to deal with it politically.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Why I'm not running for president

Sam Smith – I won’t be running for president next year. The reasons are mostly the same that have kept me from running in the past: Nobody has asked me to run, I couldn’t raise the money or the votes to win, and I would hate the job. 

This year, however, there’s an added reason: I’m old.  

I turned 81 back in November and the thought of even running for my town council seems absurd. This despite the fact that I have lived a exceptionally healthy life, interrupted only by a weight lifting accident some decades back and prostate cancer in the early 1990s

But a couple of years ago, as I was moving a portable generator around, I did something to my back that set off irreversible signs that my days of doing whatever I wanted, such as regularly pumping iron or bouncing around in a small boat, were over. I had already “swallowed the anchor,” a term for those of the sea no longer comfortable there. I had sold my boat because of my lack of predictable balance and adequately fast response. 

Since then I have become a slow moving, slow step climbing arthritic careful of what I do next. 

Why am I bothering you with this? Simply because this personal transition has occurred in precisely the same time period that would represent the administration of a Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders if they were elected next year. Sanders would turn 80 in 2021 and Biden in 2022. 

Admittedly neither I nor they suffer from amnesia or other gross mental deficiencies of the present younger White House incumbent, but the changes that have occurred in my energy, balance, enthusiasm and drive in the past few years makes me wary of trusting the whole nation to someone of my ilk. 

I recognize the statistical inaccuracy of using my experience as a formula and I realize, for example, that Raymond Kelly, New York’s police commissioner, was born four days before Bernie Sanders. Nevertheless, it’s a fair issue to raise and see what the candidates do about it. Clearly picking the right vice president is at the top of the list. 

I admire Sanders and Biden for their efforts – in Sanders’ case back to the 1980s when he was mayor of Burlington Vermont for four terms - and hope I am no prediction of their future condition. But it’s something worth mentioning  and thinking about.

Friday, December 28, 2018



Sam Smith, 2000 – The words revolution and rebellion attract unjust opprobrium. After all, much of what we identify as peculiarly American is ours by grace of our predecessors’ willingness to revolt in the most militant fashion, and their imperfect vision has been improved by a long series of rebellions ranging from the cerebral to the bloody. There is not an American alive who has not been made better by revolution and rebellion.

In fact, the terms sit close to what it means to be human, since it is our species that has developed the capacity to dramatically change, for better or worse, its own course without waiting on evolution. No other creature has ever imagined a possibility as optimistic as democracy or as devastating as a nuclear explosion, let alone brought it to fruition. To have done so represents an extraordinary rebellion against our own history, cultures, and genes.

Without revolution and rebellion we would let mating and mutation do their thing. Instead, regularly dissatisfied with our condition, our bodies, our homes, and our government we overthrow genetics through application of imagination, dreams, skill, perseverance, perversity, and strength. Every new idea is an act of rebellion, every work of art, every stretch for something we couldn’t do before, every question that begins “What if . . . ?”

Most rebellions don’t produce revolutions. A revolution claims, often falsely, to have a known end; a rebellion needs only a known means. Hakim Bey prefers the words uprising or insurrection, “used by historians to label failed revolutions — movements which do not match the expected curve, the consensus-approved trajectory: revolution, reaction, betrayal, the founding of a stronger and even more oppressive state – the turning of the wheel, the return of history again and again to its highest form: jackboot on the face of humanity forever. By failing to follow this curve, the uprising suggests the possibility of a movement outside and beyond the Hegelian spiral of that ‘progress’ which is secretly nothing more than a vicious circle.”

When, in the late 90s, college students rioted on some campuses, a dean at one of them remarked with bemusement, “There was no purpose in it; it was a rebellion without a cause.” The dean didn’t catch his own allusion, but I did, because James Dean’s movie came out the year I graduated from high school.

It is often assumed by those with little taste for rebellion that such uprisings are motivated only by antipathies. While this can be true, it certainly doesn’t have to be. For one thing, as Chesterton noted, “we must be fond of the world, even in order to change it.” Further, one’s adversaries may be little more than passive obstacles — so many boulders or fallen trees — in the path that is sought. In the wake of the movie’s tragic game, James Dean as Jim tries to explain this to his father:
“Dad, I said it was a matter of honor, remember? They called me chicken. You know, chicken? I had to go because if I didn’t I’d never be able to face those kids again. I got in one of those cars, and Buzz, that – Buzz, one of those kids – he got in the other car, and we had to drive fast and then jump, see, before the car came to the end of the bluff, and I got out OK, and Buzz didn’t and, uh, killed him…I can’t – I can’t keep it to myself anymore.”
In truth, Jim actually had a cause, a desperate, distorted, adolescent search for identity and honor in a society and family that seemed indifferent to such matters.

Rejecting his condition was only a necessary manifestation of his rebellion, but not its purpose. Those in power, parents or politicians, too often mistake the conflict for the cause.

A decade earlier, Humphrey Bogart, as Rick in Casblanca, faced some of the same problems but in an infinitely more sophisticated manner. He was all that James Dean wasn’t. With skill and cool, Rick knew how to adapt to the chaos and deceit around him without betraying his own code.

Rick maintained his integrity and individuality by stealth even as others were using the same sort of deception to steal and destroy. The film’s purist protagonist, the anti-fascist Victor Lazlo – is a noble prig next to the cynical Rick. “You know,” he tells Rick, “it’s very important I get out of Casablanca. It’s my privilege to be one of the leaders of a great movement. Do you know what I’ve been doing? Do you know what it means to the work ~ to the lives of thousands and thousands of people? I’ll be free to reach America and continue my work.”
Rick’. I’m not interested in politics. The problems of the world are not in my department. I’m a saloon keeper.

Laszlo: My friends in the Underground tell me that you’ve got quite a record. You ran guns to Ethiopia. You fought against the Fascists in Spain.

Rick: What of it?

Laszlo: Isn’t it strange that you always happen to be fighting on the side of the underdog?

Rick: Yes, I found that a very expensive hobby too, but then I never was much of a businessman…
Later Rick tells the beautiful Ilsa “I’m not fighting for anything anymore except myself. I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” Ilsa importunes Rick to help Lazlo escape, saying that otherwise he will die in Casablanca. “What of it?” asks Rick. “I’m gonna die in Casablanca. It’s a good spot for it.”

In fact, however, Rick helps to get Laszlo out of jail in time for a Lisbon-bound plane, shoots the infamous German Major Strasser, and watches as lisa leaves Casablanca in the fog with the handsome Laszlo – thus losing his woman but keeping his soul.

Rick is not a revolutionary, but is definitely a rebel.

And he’s not the only one in the movie, for as the gendarmes arrive following Strasser’s death, the sly police official Louis Renault faces a choice of turning in Rick or protecting him. It is then, to audiences’ repeated joy, that he instructs the men to “round up the usual suspects.”
With La Marseillaise playing slowly in the background, Renault turns to Rick and says, “Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.”

And Rick replies, “It seemed like a good time to start.”

Of course, a well-schooled progressive of today might prefer, in place of such diffident heroics, the words of Mario Savio in 1964:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
Or some of the strategies recommended by Howard Zinn:
A determined population can not only force a domestic ruler to flee the country, but can make a would-be occupier retreat, by the use of a formidable arsenal of tactics: boycotts and demonstrations, occupations and sit-ins, sit-down strikes and general strikes, obstruction and sabotage, refusal to pay taxes, rent strikes, refusal to cooperate, refusal to obey curfew orders or gag orders, refusal to pay fines, fasts and pray-ins, draft resistance, and civil disobedience of various kinds …. Thousands of such instances have changed the world but they are nearly absent from the history books.
In his own memoir, however, Zinn not only urges imagination, courage, and sacrifice, but patience as well, and tells a Bertolt Brecht fable with echoes of Casablanca:
A man living alone answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, “Will you submit?” The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning.

He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, “No.”
Rick’s story also recalls something that Raymond Chandler says about the detectives in his mysteries:
You don’t get rich, you don’t often have much fun. Sometimes you get beaten up or shot at or tossed into the jail house. Once in a long while you get dead. Every other month you decide to give it up and find some sensible occupation while you can still walk without shaking your head. Then the door buzzer rings and you open the inner door to the waiting room and there stands a new face with a new problem, a new load of grief, and a small piece of money.
Chandler says that the detective must be “a man of honor. . . without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” In such ways can rebellion be far quieter than we suppose. For example, we tend to think of the 1950s as a time of unmitigated conformity, but in many ways the decade of the 60s was merely the mass movement of ideas that took root in the 50s and earlier. In beat culture, jazz, and, most importantly, the civil rights movement, there had already 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, Alien 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

The poet Arthur Rimbaud was a precursor :
When will we go, beyond the beaches and the mountains, to greet the birth of the new task, the new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstitions?
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.” Or, in the words of Ned Plotsky, “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, in fact, sartorial nonconformity was more a matter of indifference rather than, as often is the case among today’s 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 habitues in front of Washington’s Coffee ‘n’ Confusion Cafe described it as a place for bearded beatniks when not one person in the picture had a beard. Rather the photo showed a bunch of young white guys with white shirts and short haircuts. In truth, cool resided in a nonchalant, negligent non-conformity rather than in a considered creation of counter style and counter symbolism..

To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beats created their 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.

They lived in what Hakim Bey would later describe as a “temporary autonomous zone” which “does not engage directly with the state, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it.”

While, by the mid-1960s, many had concluded that this was not enough, at the end of the century we would find ourselves without either an organized counterculture or much open resistance by societal draft dodgers. As during the 1950s, the young – in the best of times the most reliable harbinger of hope; in the worst of times, the most dismal sign of futility – faced a culture that was seemingly impermeable and immutable. The establishment presented a stolid, unyielding, unthinking, unimaginative wall of bland certainty. It looked upon pain, aspiration and hope with the same indifference, and it similarly played out false and time-doomed fantasies to the mindless applause of its constituency.

But there are some important differences. Now the unalterable armies of the law were far more powerful and less forgiving. The price of careless or reckless rebellion was far higher. And, perhaps most disheartening, it was far harder to find the guerrillas in the mountains. Bohemia had been 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 had become 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.

One west coast student told me it was pointless to rebel because whatever one did would be commodified.

Others chose not to confront the system but to undermine it in the small places where they lived. You would find them in classrooms or in little organizations, working in human scale on human problems in a human fashion.

Their project was to simply recreate the human right where they are. They had implicitly rejected both the nihilistic implications of the deconstructionism they had met in college and the grandiose visions of previous generations. Such defined and manageable choices, particularly for the children of failed rebels of the 60s, seemed the wiser course.

At the other extreme from rebellion’s unjust failure is its unjust triumph. As one of Tom Stoppard’s characters says, revolutions simply change who has the capacity for self-indulgence. Infatuation with revolutions has been a particular handicap of the left, causing such embarrassments as support for the Stalin regime when no possible excuse could be made for it. It is not that all revolutions are wrong – how can an American say that?.

Rather it that that, on average, revolutions are defined not by the wonder of their promise but by the horrors of what preceded them. They replace evil, but without a warranty.

To be a free thinker, Bertrand Russell said, a man must be free of two things: “the force of tradition, and the tyranny of his own passion.” It is the obliteration of the former but subservience to the latter that creates the revolutionary dictator.

This is what James Thurber was telling us in his wonderful fable about the bear who became addicted to fermented honey mead. He would “reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.”

But then, one day, he saw the error of his ways and became a fervent teetotaler. He would tell everyone who came to his house how awful drinking mead was and he would boast about how strong and well he had become by giving it up. To prove this he would stand on his head and do cartwheels and kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down and go to sleep. “His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.”

The moral: “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean too far backward.”

This is what happened to the officer in Vietnam who declared that it had been necessary to destroy a village in order to save it and to NATO when it declared that Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes against humanity were such that they justified the brutal destruction of a country and the very pain and death and ethnic cleansing we said we sought to avoid.

In fact, every moral act in the face of wrong carries twin responsibilities: to end the evil and to avoid replacing it with another. This twin burden is analogous to what a doctor confronts when attempting to cure a disease. There is even a name for the medical failure; the resulting illness is called iatrogenic – caused by the physician. In politics, however, we have been taught to believe that simply having good intentions and an evil foe are sufficient.

This is not true. Arguably from the moment we become aware of an evil, and certainly once we commence a moral intervention, we become a part of the story, and part of the good and evil. We are no longer the innocent bystander but a participant whose acts will either help or make things worse. Our intentions immediately become irrelevant; they are overwhelmed by our response to them. The morality of the disease is supplanted by the morality of the cure.

Our language confuses this business terribly. That which is known at personal level as terrorism is called humanitarian or a peacekeeping mission when carried out by the state. Thus both the office building destroyed by a few individuals or the country destroyed by multinational alliance lie in ruins to support the tragic myth that Allah’s children or democracy will be the better for it. But nothing grants us immunity from responsibility for our own acts.

So if we are to revolt, rebel, avenge, or assuage, our duty is not only to the course we set but to what we leave in our wake.

Even in the hard, barren clay of turn-of-the-century America, rebellion persisted like a suppressed virus, awaiting a favorable carrier to spread it broadly just as the unfocussed rebellions of the 1950s exploded into the 60s counterculture. Or just as in early 1960 four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in fifteen cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to fifty four cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed.

History plays tricks on us like that. It doesn’t ask for permission or put up a marquee. It just does it.

Far from such concerns can be found the government or corporate whistleblower. Typically a card-carrying member of the mainstream culture, this defector is often but a reluctant dragon engorged with a sense of responsibility. Yet it is this most unpremeditated form of rebellion that can pay the highest price.

Whistleblowers, in the course of doing their jobs, typically stumble upon facts that point to danger, neglect, or corruption. Far too often this discovery is met not with approbation and as a sign of exemplary public service, but rather as a threat to the agency or company. Among the consequences: firing, reassignment, isolation, forced resignation, threats, referral to psychiatric treatment, public exposure of private life and other humiliations, being set up for failure, prosecution, elimination of one’s job, blacklisting, or even death.

From the doctor in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People to Karen Silkwood, the nuclear industry worker killed after her car was forced off the road on her way to talk to a reporter, telling the truth about power has proved costly.

The Mongolians say that when you try it, you should have one foot in the stirrup.

Further, whistleblowers fall easily into traps that can hurt if not destroy them. They may become monomaniacal, paranoiac, depressed, confused, and terribly lonely.

On the other hand, whistleblowers have forced the cancellation of a nuclear power plant that was 97% completed, potentially prevented widespread illness due to poor meat inspection, ended the beating of patients in a VA hospital, and exposed multi-billion waste in the Star Wars program.

And not all whistleblowers are defeated. When Ernest Fitzgerald discovered a $2 billion cost overrun on a military cargo plane, Richard Nixon personally ordered his staff to “get rid of that son of a bitch.” Twenty-five years later Fitzgerald was still on the job.

Tom Devine, who works for the Government Accountability Project, has been helping whistleblowers for years. Part lawyer, part therapist, Devine presses his cases forward even as he tends to the personal stress of his clients. He has written a 175-page handbook, The Whistleblower’s Survival Guide, to help government and corporate employees do what should be routine: tell the truth. At times he sounds more like a social worker than an attorney:
To transcend the stress, it helps to be fully aware of and accept what you are getting into… The constant, negative pressure whistleblowers face can color your judgment and make you paranoid about every event. Paranoia works in the bureaucracy’s favor if it wants to paint you as an unreasonable, even unstable person whose charges should not be taken seriously…

It is better to stay calm – and even to laugh – than it is to seethe with anger… It can be liberating to know that you have assumed responsibility for making your own decisions based on your values… Along with the pain and fear, there is real satisfaction inherent in taking control of your life…

Do not surrender to the temptation to become an obsessive ‘true believer’ in the importance of your whistleblowing cause.

Devine also warns his readers to expect retaliation and surveillance. One study found that 232 out of 233 whistleblowers reported suffering retaliation; other studies found reprisals in about 95% of cases. As Admiral Hyman Rickover once told a group of Pentagon cost analysts: “If you must sin, sin against God, not against the bureaucracy. God may forgive you, but the bureaucracy never will.”

For the rebel artist, art is the serendipity that occurs when imagination meets discipline and skill. Every work of art is a challenge to the status quo because it proposes to replace a part of it. An artist, therefore, is a rebel without even trying. Says printmaker Lou Stovall: Art is by nature somewhat destructive. Every artist while seeking to add to the sum of art, attempts to take away your memory and appreciation of what went before, saying, “Look at me, I am new.” The artist is also free, perhaps the more obscure the artist, the more free. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful; he alone is at peace.” But, as I.F. Stone warned journalists about their sources, “Once you want something from them, they’ve got you.” With acceptance comes all the little and big compromises that public reception demands.

For most artists this problem remains only a blurry possibility. The present reality is just the opposite for, whether panderer or anarchist, the artist is much alone.

David Bayles and Ted Orland write that, unlike early times when the artist was shored up by church, clan, ritual or tradition, today almost no one feels shored up. Today artwork does not emerge from a secure common ground: the bison on the wall is someone else’s magic. Making art now means working the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.

Then there are the personal fears: “I’m a phony, I have nothing worth saying, I’m not sure what I’m doing, Other people are better than I am, . . . no one understands my work, no one likes my work, I’m no good.” In Art and Fear, Bayles and Orland address such concerns but still leave the reader with the unavoidable:

Your materials are, in fact, one of the few elements of artmaking you can reasonably hope to control. As for everything else – well, conditions are never perfect, sufficient knowledge rarely at hand, key evidence always missing, and support notoriously fickle. All that you do will inevitably be flavored with uncertainty – uncertainty about what you have to say, about whether the materials are right, about whether the piece should be long or short, indeed about whether you’ll ever be satisfied with anything you make.

And all this without wishing to change the world more than one picture’s worth. Should your goal include not only creative work but political or social results out of that work, the uncertainties and problems compound. Does one favor the creation or the cause? Does one speak in the voice of the artist or of the leader? For Stephen Duncombe it’s a serial process:
“Individuals can and will be radicalized through underground culture, but they will have to make the step to political action themselves… Culture may be one of the spaces where the struggle over ways of seeing, thinking, and being takes place, but it is not where this struggle ends.”

Working in a period when it is hard enough to get the struggle even started, movement musician David Rovics felt compelled to write an open letter gently chiding his fellow activists for not using the arts more in their efforts:
I have often been told by conference organizers that they have too many speakers for the week-end and no time for music … People organizing protests have often told me that the protest was meant to be a ‘serious event,’ thus music was be inappropriate…Often I’ve been told something like, ‘We’re flying in Angela Davis and Howard Zinn and (fill-inthe- blank) to speak at our conference and we’re also having a benefit concert, um, some local band, I can’t remember their name…

Perhaps some activists are driven solely by a sense of moral purpose and principle, and will persevere and never experience burn-out, but I’ve never met one like that. The most dedicated activists are people with human needs and desires, who require some kind of inspiration to continue their work…

Let us remember the word of the Wobbly minstrel, Joe Hill, who said, ‘A pamphlet, no matter how well-written, is read once and then thrown away – but a song lasts forever.’

On the other hand, Bertolt Brecht, though an artist, feared that culture would turn out to be just an escape valve through which political tensions would be diffused without being confronted. Certainly we live in such a time of left-wing art and right-wing politics, of democratic dress and disappearing democracy, and of obsessive attachment to symbols over substance. Art in such a time can easily become a part of the problem.

But whether today’s art is pro-apathetic or merely pre-political, functions and genres shift with time. Currently, the lack of a strong counterculture – whatever its character – helps stifle political action, denying an outward and visible sign of inward changes. Ethnic and sexual literature has become personal instead of a Million Word March. Art, like everything else at the turning of the century, has become atomized, no one perceives a collective renaissance of any sort, and fewer can recall the sort of common soul, say, of the Works Progress Administration or of a time when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union produced a play that toured nationally and was presented at the White House.

But art is too unreliable to draw many conclusions from all this. The silence may only be the sound of something getting ready to happen. It’s like that with rebellions.

Play it again, Sam


Bob Walter, trumpet; Jimmy Hamilton & Coleman Hankins, clarinet; Paul Hettich, bass; Sam Smith, piano. Bob Resnik, drums

PHOENIX JAZZ BAND led by Bob Walter
APEX BLUES   George James sax
OH MAMA  Sam piano & vocal

HILL CITY JAZZ BAND led by Bob Walter
ACE IN THE HOLE: With the lyrics altered to fit Washington
BYE & BYE Sam piano & vocal
WHEN YOU'RE SMILING Sam piano, Bob Walter vocal

Your editor has been a musician for many decades. He started the first jazz band his Quaker school ever had. At Harvard he played with various bands, once for 12 hours straight at two locales. He played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and also played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, the Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.

Thanks to Bob Walter on trumpet (above), and clarinetists including Jimmy Hamilton, Coleman Hankins (below) and Don Rouse (above), plus the driving bass of Paul Hettich - we got along much of the time without a drummer (although not on the tracks here). Having two horns gave us a bigger sound and the lack of percussion got us gigs in places where drums would have been too much.

What does this all have to do with news and politics? Only this, as I wrote in one of my books:
"The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one. The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both."

The recording of the Phoenix Jazz Band was made at the Central Ohio Jazz Festival in 1990 and features George James on saxophone on 'Apex Blues', band leader Bob Walter on trumpet, Coleman Hankins on clarinet and your editor on piano, among others. The sound effects come from the audience.

George James was 84 years old at the time and had to be helped to the stage. Once he got there it was a different story as is apparent on the cut. He had sixty recordings behind him and had been a regular with both Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. The tune we played with him was the Apex Blues written by Jimmy Noone in honor of the second floor Apex Club on the south side of Chicago where Noone had an orchestra in the 1920s. The club was raided and closed in 1930 by federal agents enforcing prohibition. One of those who played with Noone was Earl 'Fatha' Hines. Another was George James, who played in Noone's group before going on the road with Louis Armstrong.
We played just two tunes with James - the other was Misty - but for a stride piano player like myself to go even eight bars with one of Fats Waller's sidemen is about as close to heaven as one can reasonably expect to get. And who would have guessed it would happen in Columbus Ohio? But, then, as Fats used to say, "One never knows, do one?"
Sam Smith's last drum gig was a party for Walter Mondale after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. Sam offered to let Mondale sit in but he said," Thanks but I'm in enough trouble already." After this gig, Sam switched to stride piano.
Sam as a high school drummer and leader of the Six Saints

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Politics at the top: Reaction rather than action

Sam Smith – One of the great myths about American politics is that change comes from the top. The truth of the matter is that change typically starts at the bottom and slowly works its way up to the top. As I wrote some years back:
    As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drives towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws, permitting gay marriage and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.
Having been covering, and participating in, this frustrating racket for about six decades, I take this for granted but I repeatedly come across the assumption by noble advocates of good causes that we must reject national politicians because they are not up to speed.

Of course not. By the time politics reaches the national level what we get from its participation is largely reaction to unavoidable trends rather than action instigated by themselves.

This is an important fact to keep in mind as the Democrats move awkwardly towards choosing a presidential candidate. We must remember that the truly virtuous in this land represent a small minority and the chances of their favored candidate winning the nomination and election is minute. What we get is a national reaction to everything that has been worked on, tried, succeeded or failed in the recent past. If you as a voter are not willing to compromise at this point, you do everything you’ve been advocating no favor because you have increased the chance that a really bad guy will win.

As I have noted several times in the past, at the national level we are choosing a battlefield not a candidate. For example, despite regarding her as dishonest and too conservative, I voted for Hillary Clinton because I would rather have fought her troops than the ones we currently combatting. The virtue of my own beliefs had nothing to contribute on that particular day except to cast a ballot for the candidate who would be least dangerous to my cause.

If this seems cowardly, I apologize. I am merely a citizen not a saint. Besides I’ve been around long enough to learn how many years progress can take. For example, in 1970 I wrote the first article explaining how DC could become a state without a constitutional amendment. Today, the DC Statehood Green Party still represents less than 1% of voters but in 2016 86% of those in the city voting cast a ballot in support of DC statehood.

Similarly, one of the first meetings of the current ranked choice voting movement was held in our living room back in 1992. Only this year did RCV pass at the state level, thanks to an vote in Maine.

My own efforts have been directed at the level at which there is most chance of change. Politics is not a religion, but a challenge in which you do the best with what you’ve got. So as we watch the Democratic presidential effort unfold, look for signs of candidates who can reach people not like you yet still favor at least some major good policies. The good folks already have your support It’s the others that are going to count. And as a guy who learned his politics in places like Phillly and Boston, you’ll find me backing not just the best candidate, but the best one who can also win folks not like me.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

The relationship between George HW Bush, Bill Clinton and America’s biggest drug importer

Daily Kos – Barry Seal was a legendary CIA drug smuggler and ace pilot who had literally worked for the Agency since he was a teenage pilot prodigy in the late 1950’s. By 1986 Barry Seal was having legal problems (criminal and a huge IRS tax liability) that not even his CIA connections could protect him from and according to Seal’s lawyer Lewis Unglesby,

Barry Seal was a threat to testify against Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush. In fact, in early 1986 Barry Seal was threatening GHW Bush to get the IRS off his back or he (Seal) was going to blow the whistle on the Contra scheme and CIA drug smuggling. Two weeks after his argument with Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, Barry Seal was pumped full of bullets and murdered outside his Baton Rouge halfway house on Feb. 19, 1986.

The three Columbians who were convicted of the crime thought they were working for Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council. North’s alias in the 1980’s was “John Cathey.” The personal phone number of George Herbert Walker Bush was found in Seal’s possessions, even after the “men in black” had swept in to pick car of the slaughtered CIA drug smuggler clean of evidence.

Years later, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was literally being flown around in what had been the favorite plane of Barry Seal. Many folks don’t know that on the exact same day (2/19/86) Barry Seal was murdered in Baton Rouge, his mistress “Barbara” was also murdered in Miami; two other men also affiliated with the Medellin drug cartel, Pablo Carrera (Medellin’s #2 man) and Pablo Ochill, were also assassinated in Colombia.

Some people think the CIA American drug cartel were switching horses from the Medellin drug cartel to a partnership with the Cali, Colombian drug cartel. The three men convicted of murdering Barry Seal were from Cali, Colombia. The CIA American drug cartel was using the Cali cartel in a killing spree to wipe out the competition and murder anyone who might pose a threat to spill the beans on CIA drug smuggling and the participation of very high U.S. officials.

More Daily Kos info

Progressive Review, 1984 - Hot Springs police record Roger Clinton during a cocaine transaction. Roger says, "Got to get some for my brother. He's got a nose like a vacuum cleaner." Roger is arrested while working at menial jobs for Arkansas "bond daddy" Dan Lasater.

Barry Seal estimates that he has earned between $60 and $100 million smuggling cocaine into the US, but with the feds closing in on him, Barry Seal flies from Mena to Washington in his private Lear Jet to meet with two members of Vice President George Bush's drug task force. Following the meeting, Seal rolls over for the DEA, becoming an informant. He collects information on leaders of the Medellin cartel while still dealing in drugs himself. The deal will be kept secret from investigators working in Louisiana and Arkansas. According to reporter Mara Leveritt, "By Seal's own account, his gross income in the year and a half after he became an informant - while he was based at Mena and while Asa Hutchinson was the federal prosecutor in Fort Smith, 82 miles away - was three-quarters of a million dollars. Seal reported that $575,000 of that income had been derived from a single cocaine shipment, which the DEA had allowed him to keep. Pressed further, he testified that, since going to work for the DEA, he had imported 1,500 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. Supposed informant Seal will fly repeatedly to Colombia, Guatemala, and Panama, where he meets with Jorge Ochoa, Fabio Ochoa, Pablo Escobar, and Carlos Lehder - leaders of the cartel that at the time controlled an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States."

Clinton bodyguard, state trooper LD Brown, applies for a CIA opening. Clinton gives him help on his application essay including making it more Reaganesque on the topic of the Nicaragua. According to Brown, he meets a CIA recruiter in Dallas whom he later identities as former member of Vice President Bush's staff. On the recruiter's instruction, he meets with notorious drug dealer Barry Seal in a Little Rock restaurant. Joins Seal in flight to Honduras with a purported shipment of M16s and a return load of duffel bags. Brown gets $2,500 in small bills for the flight. Brown, concerned about the mission, consults with Clinton who says, "Oh, you can handle it, don't sweat it." On second flight, Brown finds cocaine in a duffel bag and again he seeks Clinton's counsel. Clinton says to the conservative Brown, "Your buddy, Bush, knows about it" and, of the cocaine, "that's Lasater's deal."

Progressive Review - Wikipedia puts some numbers on it all: "Tax havens have 1.2% of the world's population and hold 26% of the world's wealth, including 31% of the net profits of United States multinationals. . . The IMF has said that between $600 billion and $1.5 trillion of illicit money is laundered annually, equal to 2% to 5% of global economic output."

While the illegal drug trade might not compete in numbers with corporate tax laundering, it is hardly insignificant. Its size has been estimated at $400-$500 billion, roughly that of the legal pharmaceutical industry or twice as large as Saudi Arabia's annual oil exports.

What is astounding about this is that an industry so big would have - at least if you only listen to law enforcement and the media - no lobbyists in Washington, no political agenda and make no contributions to politicians. Based on the way the story is being told to America, the illegal drug trade must be the most politically ethical business in the land.

In fact, of course, the money and its travels are just well hidden and nobody in the establishment really wants you to spend the slightest time worrying about it. Just like nobody in the establishment seems to care that the drug war hasn't worked at all for four decades (money launderer Richard Nixon first used the term in 1971). And just like only a handful seem concerned about offshore tax havens.

If it were otherwise, then there would have been far more interest when an investigator discovered in the 1990s that the Development Financial Authority of the drug-infested state of Arkansas [where Bill Clinton was governor] had made an electronic transfer of $50 million to a bank in the Cayman Islands. At the time Grand Cayman had a population of 18,000, 570 commercial banks, one bank regulator and a bank secrecy law. It was a favorite destination spot for laundered drug money.

One of those bringing drugs into Arkansas was Barry Seal, then the biggest drug importer in the country. He was murdered and after his death it was found that among his bank accounts was one in the Cayman Islands branch of the Fuji Bank containing $1.6 million.


Mara Leveritt, Arkansas Times
- On the subject of Seal, the usually astute governor had come across as unusually uninformed. A citizens' group called the Arkansas Committee suspected that state and federal authorities had agreed to protect Seal in Arkansas. Disturbed by Clinton's apparent disinterest, members of the group at one point unfurled a 10-foot-long banner at the state Capitol that asked: WHY IS CLINTON PROTECTING BUSH? In 1992, when Clinton and George H.W. Bush opposed each other for president, neither candidate mentioned Seal.


Roger Morris & Sally Denton, Penthouse Magzine - Seal's legacy includes more than 2,000 newly discovered documents that now verify and quantify much of what previously had been only suspicion, conjecture, and legend. The documents confirm that from 1981 to his brutal death in 1986, Barry Seal carried on one of the most lucrative, extensive, and brazen operations in the history of the international drug trade, and that he did it with the evident complicity, if not collusion, of elements of the United States government, apparently with the acquiescence of Ronald Reagan's administration, impunity from any subsequent exposure by George Bush's administration, and under the usually acute political nose of then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. . .