Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Gatherings for the non-religious

 Sam Smith – As a long time Seventh Day Agnostic who majored in anthropology I both ignore religion’s theology and respect its moral and ethical role in society. As Americans increasingly grow less interested in religion, moral and ethical matters are also losing their longtime home.

Consider, for example, the role that religions have played in our civil rights and peace movements. Did one have to become a Baptist to follow Martin Luther King? Of  course not.

As I wrote back in 2015:

I’m a Seventh Day Agnostic and, as such, I don’t give a shit about what you believe, only what you do about it. 

The Quakers have a nice way of expressing it. One of their meetings, for example, explains, “Friends are people of strong religious views, but they are quite clear that these views must be tested by the way in which they are expressed in action… Friends are encouraged to seek for truth in all the opportunities that life presents to them. They are further encouraged to seek new light from whatever source it may arise. Their questing and open attitude to life has certainly contributed to the tolerance with which Friends try to approach people and problems of faith and conduct.”

I went to a Quaker high school and attended meetings every Thursday for six years. Only once can I recall a confrontation on theological matters, and that was quickly eased by a “weighty” Quaker elder who explained that a meeting was not the place for such debates.

Later, I was introduced to existentialism - the notion, it has been said, that “faith don’t pay the cable” and the view that “even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.” I came to realize that the Quakers had beat Jean Paul Sartre by several centuries in the realization that it is what one does and not what one believes that makes the real difference in life.

So I was somewhat prepared for what I found as a journalist and community activist in 1960s DC - namely religious leaders who translated their varied beliefs into common action and left faith on the back seat.

I was, for example, pushed into starting a community newspaper in an ethnically mixed neighborhood east of the Capitol by a minister trained by Saul Alinsky and who even got me a grant from a local Lutheran Church to get going. Neither the minister nor the church questioned my faith because it was clear we were all on the same track..

By the time the 1960s were over, I had worked with about a dozen preachers, most of whom would seem strikingly odd to many today. None of these ministers ever questioned my faith or lectured me on theirs.

They ranged from the head of the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happening Now to past and present Catholic priests. Meanwhile in the larger capital, we had two Catholic priests in Congress, one as Assistant Secretary of Housing, and one elected to the DC school board.

One of the assets these preachers had were basement meeting rooms in their churches. Among the scores of times I found myself in such rooms, we pressed anti-war protests, started the DC Statehood Party, began a mixed ethnicity pre-school, and upped the eventually successful battle against freeways in DC.  And you didn’t have to recite a creed before the meetings began.

When I try to figure out why this seems a bit strange today, one reason has been the huge influence of evangelical churches on the definition of religion, especially in the media. Until Pope Francis came along, think how rarely we’ve heard about non-evangelical religious activism in recent years. As I watched Francis is action, I felt strangely comfortable because I had known, and worked with priests, who would have done much the same if they had become Pope

With the most immoral and unethical president in history now running the place, it may well be time to bring back that existential link between religion and action that one found in the 1960s.

How you do this is uncertain. But one possibility would be to create regular non-religious gathering places for folks known, say, as Communal Friends or the Community of Decency. It doesn’t have to be complicated. After all the Quakers have lasted for centuries in some of the dullest large rooms you’ll find anywhere.

The Quakers are, in fact, not a bad model in other ways. Such as the idea of a meeting place without an agenda where people can arise and discuss what’s troubling them. Or you could have some in which one or two leaders give a brief talk to set off the larger discussions of the day. Or places and events created by a coalition of religions who agree to create havens  for moral discussion without theological interference.

It’s not just traditional religion that has been in a down fall. There has been a noticeable decline in visible  academic leadership and a media willing to take on issues more complicated than some politician’s lies.

The invitation for new gatherings might include this nice distinction between morals and ethics offered by the web page  Daily Writing Tips:

Although the words can be considered synonyms, morals are beliefs based on practices or teachings regarding how people conduct themselves in personal relationships and in society, while ethics refers to a set or system of principles, or a philosophy or theory behind them. … Morals are the tools by which one lives, and ethics constitute the manual that codifies them.

When did you hear something like that on MSNBC? Yet aren’t morals and ethnics more important than which politician exaggerated the most today?

In short, we must find new ways to share beyond religion consideration of  decent way of living. After all, you don’t have to take communion to realize what a mess we’re in and why we need to talk more about it with each other.


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Another problem with the Proud Boys

Sam Smith – As I watch Proud Boys and other “white supremacists,” a question keeps arising in my mind: how come these guys think they can define what white guys like me are about? And if I were inclined to form a group of white supremacists would they look like Proud Boys?

According to BBC, “A Proud Boy must declare that he is ‘a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.’ They want to end welfare, give everyone a gun and “glorify the entrepreneur.”

As I was growing into white manhood, I can’t remember any of these issues being of interest to me. In fact, if you were to take more normal standards of superiority, I suspect that I have weighed less, been better educated, had a more successful career, been married longer and bench pressed more than the average Proud Boy I’ve seen.

In short, if I actually believed in white supremacy, the Proud Boys would be among my least likely role models. In fact, what they demonstrate strongly is that whites can be as screwed up and incompetent as any culture.

And if I were to actually claim – as I never would – that whites are better than other ethnicities, I would certainly not use Proud Boys as part of my argument.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Making black lives matter more. . .

Sam Smith – Impressive as the Black Lives Matter movement is, there is another approach to black status in modern America that might be even stronger, namely that blacks not just achieve equality for themselves but that they become leaders of other cultures, such as latinos and poor whites, in achieving mutual goals.  

As a white guy who entered adulthood in the 1960s, I know this is possible. My inspiration in those days came in no small part from national and local black leaders who saw their role not just to produce justice for blacks but to improve the whole system under which we lived.

It is a role that hardly gets mentioned these days as we become heavily absorbed in the status of identities over their mutual interests. And so we end up, for example, with a master con man like Trump teaching too many working class whites that their problems are ethnic rather than economic.

As we struggle for a better America, we need the wisdom and experience of ethnic minorities to guide all of us and well as to save themselves. This is far from an impossible task as other minorities, such as Jews and Irish, have shown us.

I addressed this a couple of decades ago in my book Shadows of Hope

Once we accept the unpleasant persistence of human prejudice, once we give up the notion that it is merely social deviance controllable by sanctions, we drift away from a priggish and puritanical corrective approach towards one that emphasizes techniques of mitigating harm, towards what Andrew Young has called a sense of “no fault justice" and towards emphasizing countervailing human qualities that can serve as antibiotics against hate and fear. We move from being victims to being survivors. We start to deal with some of the real problems of creating a multicultural community; we actually start to envision it, to  build it not on false politeness but upon realistic interdependence.

Such communities, the sine qua non of a functioning America, will not be constructed by laws, pronouncements from deans of freshmen or civil rights leaders. Nor can we continue to treat multiculturalism like some overbearing parent saying to her toddler, "Now go make friends with that nice Nancy.' It didn't work when we were six and it's not working much better now.

Multicultural communities will be constructed not by the hustlers of the diversity trade but by  a growing local and personal regard for common sense, fairness and, yes, reasonable self interest. The new multicultural community will work because it is jointly and severally proud of itself, leaving behind the self-hate that so often accompanies the hatred of others. It will work because there are adequate jobs for people of every group -- thus eliminating one of the primary causes of ethnic triage, and it will work because our educational system will teach not a prudish diversity but simply the way the world really is, which among other things, is very diverse. Our children will learn to enjoy and incorporate this diversity and as they do so will undoubtedly find it odd that their elders couldn’t get any closer to the matter than a rigid and legalistic sensitivity.

Perhaps this is why ethnic restaurants are among the most successful practitioners of multiculturalism in America. Why is it so hard for universities to deal with multicultural issues while the Arab carry-out across from my office offers a "kosher hoagie?" It is, in part, because most of us are like Bismarck who said when offered German champagne  that his patriotism stopped at his stomach. It is also that the ethnic restaurant offers a fair multicultural deal: a good living for the owner in return for good food for the patrons.

For multiculturalism to work, we need a willing suspension of our politics as well as the creation of places where this can happen, both neutral places and places where we can participate in another culture that will leave us feeling that something good has happened. Outside of restaurants and ethnic nightclubs, this  is now rarely available in America. We are not taught the pleasures of diversity, only its problems and burdens. We are seldom invited to enjoy other cultures, only to be sensitive towards them and -- unspoken -- to feel sorry for them. Thus, inevitably, we tend to think of multiculturalism in terms of conflict and crisis.

The restaurant analogy is not trivial. Political scientist Milton L. Rakove, credits Irish dominance in Chicago partially to the fact that the Irish ran saloons that "became centers of social and political activity not only for the Irish but also for the Polish, Lithuanian, Bohemian and Italian immigrants. . . As a consequence of their control of these recreational centers of the neighborhoods, the Irish saloon keepers and bartenders became the political counselors of their customers, and the political bosses of the wards and, eventually, of the city."  As one politician put it, "A Lithuanian won't vote for a Pole, and a Pole won't vote for a Lithuanian.  A German won't vote for either of them -- but all three will vote for an Irishman."[i]

[i]  Rakove,  p. 32-33

Friday, September 25, 2020

Post empire survival guide: creating a counterculture

Sam Smith – Seventeen years ago, John Leland wrote a piece for the NY Times - A Movement, Yes, but No Counterculture – that still rings true today. Said Leland:

“Three and a half decades ago, protesters massed with a political goal -- to end a war -- but also out of a conviction that many of the values undergirding American society were flawed: 1950's conformity, the materialistic rat race, racism, and even monogamy and the nuclear family. The alternative values they expressed through fashion, music, sexual mores and other lifestyle choices seemed to propose an entirely different world. And many historians feel that this counterculture shaped America more profoundly and for years longer than the stop-the-war rallies.

“But as protesters came together across the country last week, with a few radical contingents disrupting cities or destroying property, so far there has been little sense that they also shared a common desire to remake the country's values and institutions.”

As editor of the one of the early members of what became known as the underground press, I have been feeling a similar gap these days. We are constantly reminded of what is wrong but without a good sense of what a cured society might look like.

I am reminded of this vacuum each time I see the 1960s peace symbol on the bedroom door of my teenaged granddaughter.  Where is the symbol of 2020 and where the hell is our music?

I learned early on that a counterculture had to come from the young. Back then you weren’t meant to trust anyone over 30, an age I turned in 1967 and was three times suspected of being an undercover cop at rallies. Fifty years later it’s certainly not a problem I can solve but I scan the news every morning in hope of finding some voices showing us how to live without the pain and brutality of our time. And giving us a new song to sing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

POST EMPIRE SURVIVAL GUIDE: Getting liberalism back on the street

 Sam Smith – One of the least noted political developments in the past 50 years has been a major change in liberalism and who identifies with it. Go back earlier and you find that liberals were a cross-economic breed driven by programs that helped the least wealthy and least

And it worked. There have only been two Democratic presidents over the past three-quarters of a century who have gotten significantly more than 50% of the vote: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom received 61% in one election. Among others, Barack Obama came closest with 52%. While neither LBJ nor FDR fit the definition of a populist, many of their programs - from FDR's minimum wage and social security to LBJ's war on poverty and education legislation - were part of a populist agenda.

Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP.

One unnoted factor in this: the liberal elite has become wealthier and better educated. For example, back in the 1950s we were turning out 5,000 MBAs a year, by 2005 the figure was 142,000. In 1970 we produced 65,000 Phds, last year the figure was 181,000. And in 2009 the Washingtonian Magazine estimated there were 80,000 lawyers in DC.

I called it a gradocracy. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

[] Barack Obama thus represents a new era in American politics: the ultimate triumph of the gradocracy. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of his early career:

“In late 1988, Obama entered Harvard Law School. He was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year and president of the journal in his second year. During his summers, he returned to Chicago, where he worked as an associate at the law firms of Sidley Austin in 1989 and Hopkins & Sutter in 1990. After graduating with a J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard in 1991, he returned to Chicago.

“In 1991, Obama accepted a two-year position as Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School to work on his first book. He then taught at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years—as a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996, and as a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004—teaching constitutional law.

"In 1993, he joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a 13-attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development, where he was an associate for three years from 1993 to 1996, then of counsel from 1996 to 2004. His law license became inactive in 2007.”

Key to such a career is intense attention to process, regulations, the manipulation of language and data. Applied to politics, this means the human factor can start to bring up the rear. Politics is then no longer like music in which soul and skill are melded; instead it becomes another bureaucracy. Good evidence of this in the Obama years would be Obamacare, a two thousand page hard to decipher collection of virtue, uncertain results, payoffs to the health industry, and excessive paper work. A good politician of another time would have led with something that everyone understood, such as lowering the age of Medicare, and then adding on their favorite sweetheart deals.

It is not that it is wrong to study or practice the law, economics, business or education. But to usurp other skills, behavior, empirical knowledge and types of wisdom makes no more sense than for a dentist to attempt to instruct an attorney on how to address the court because he’s an expert on teeth. []

I covered my first Washington story back in the 1950s and one of the things that fascinated me about politicians back then was their ability to talk United States. Public works were public works, not infrastructure. And racism didn’t need “systemic” attached to it. One of the problems with the liberal elite these days that it no longer knows how to talk to those who haven’t been as successful as they. And so we have a con artist like Donald Trump pretending to be a friend of the working class and getting away with it because liberals don’t even know how to talk to those who used to form the liberal base.

Whether liberalism can recover this former base is uncertain at best. But it’s worth a try. Changing its language and priorities would be a good place to start.

Monday, September 21, 2020

POST EMPIRE SURVIVAL GUIDE: Create a labor organization like AARP

 Sam Smith - Since 1970 the size of labor unions has plummeted, not only leaving them weaker in dealing in negotiations but in their role of providing useful education for their members. This has aided Trump in his defrauding of working class Americans.

One way to deal with this would be to create an AARP-style labor organization that would be a non-profit not dealing with traditional negotiations but providing services working class Americans could use. Right now the largest non-union labor organization in America is less than one tenth the size of AARP.

Among the services AARP provides, as described by Wikipedia, are “Medicare supplemental insurance; member discounts on rental cars, cruises, vacation packages and lodging; special offers on technology and gifts; pharmacy services; legal services; and long-term care insurance.”

Such an organization serving workers could dramatically change the nature and power of the working class.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

POST EMPIRE SURVIVAL GUIDE: Boycott bad corporations

 [Since 1989, the Review has occasionally published a guide to getting through the crummy era that we are in. To aid our readers during these tough times, we will be offering some previously published and new proposals.]

Sam Smith, Progressive Review - Thanks to its 2010 Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court made it possible for corporations to intrude deeply into politics. Oddly, however, there has been little logical response to this by citizen groups - such as boycotting corporations helping the worst politicians. For example, one of the worst politicians these days is Mitch McConnell. Here are some of his major corporate backers from 1989 to now: Blackstone Group (owns Hilton), Humana, Goldman Sachs JP Morgan Chase, Blue Cross, UPS, GE, and Fedex. 

A national boycott of some or all of these firms could have a definite impact on the way politics is played in this country. 

Another approach would be to boycott the biggest firms in states with the worst policies. The Review regularly ranks these states and in checking for major businesses in them we found Walmart, Home Depot, and Delta Airlines.

In any case, it's time to end the public passive reaction to corporate intrusion into politics and start talking about what we should be boycotting.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Post Empire Survival Guide: Find some useful precedents.

  [The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg is more evidence of the passing of the First American Republic. Since 1989, we have occasionally published a guide to getting through the crummy era that we are in. To aid our readers during these tough times, we will be offering some previously published and new proposals.]

Sam Smith, 2012 - Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome has been remarkably indifferent to 500 years of its history. The Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade Organization. Umbria has managed not only to survive but keep its culture, a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history’s tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.

We don’t have to go that far back, though. Consider the novel, 1984. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana didn’t live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown. Only about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in the Outer Party. The rest, numbering some 100 million, were the proles.

It is amongst the latter that Winston Smith and Julia find refuge for their trysts, away from the cameras (although not the microphones). The proles are, for the most part, not worth the Party’s trouble. .

Orwell’s division of people and power was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where just one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, and only another 13% being far less powerful party members.

As we move towards – and even surpass – the fictional bad dreams of Orwell or Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World,’, it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were mainly the curse of the elites and rather than those who lived in the quaint primitive manner of humans. They were the living dead at the zenith of illusionary power.

This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today – an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of young men with minimal weapons.

Many years ago some people built castles and walled cities and moats to keep the bad guys out. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured out how to get across the moats and opponents learned how to climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces over the town wall during their siege of Siena.

The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption.

Yet like the castle-dwellers behind the moat, the elite is now spending huge sums to put themselves inside a prison of our own making. The densest concentration in America of police per acre, for example, is around the US Capitol.

Strange as it may seem, it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political and economic capitals that the hope for saving America’s soul resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of the castle dwellers who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.

Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University has described Orwell’s underclass 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] concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group.”

Friday, September 18, 2020

Learn from the past; act for the future

 Sam Smith – Now that Donald Trump has extended his noisy ignorance to history, it’s worthwhile for the sane in this land to reflect on the useful role of the past in what we do today.

Being married to a historian, I’ve learned not to underrate the past, but also to differentiate it from where we are today and where we might be tomorrow. Unfortunately, we seem to be in a moment when the past is being melded into the present in a confusing fashion. While one can certainly argue for understanding of slavery in our history, and the repugnant nature of Confederate statues, dealing with these issues does not compare, say, with providing adequate income for the poor or ending police brutality.  We can not create a decent future by merely condemning the past.

What is happening now reminds me of a dysfunctional family in which some of whose members obsess through adulthood over the wrongs they experienced when young. The good trick is not to deny these memories but  to figure out ways to replace them. In other words to learn from the past, but act for the future.

And the past, if you look at it seriously, can often be much more complicated than one thought. For example, I have just finished Colin Woodward’s superb American Nations, a stunning  examination of the complexities of creating a state that tries to call itself one nation, but which really isn’t.  

For example, before the slave trade developed there were white indentured servants. Says Woodward: “Scholars estimate indentured servants comprised between 80 and 90 percent of the 150,000 Europeans who emigrated to Tidewater in the seventeenth century…. The mortality rate was as high as 30 percent a year…. Indentured servants – some of whom had been kidnapped in England – were bought, sold and treated like livestock.”

And is was not just in the south. Woodward notes that under the Puritans, “Dissenters were banished. Quakers were disfigured for easy identification, their nostrils slit, their ears cut off, or their faces branded with the letter H for ‘heretic.’” … One sea captain was put in the stocks because on returning home he kissed his wife at his doorstep, “lewd and unseemly behavior” in the eyes of the court.

What we can learn from this is that slavery was the most dramatic and disgusting result of what is sometimes called a culture of impunity in which the powerful are allowed to ignore laws and decency. But it was not alone. Even today, we have a president who, while not owning any slaves, regards himself as functioning with impunity, a status achieved in the same manner that created a southern political dominance for decades after slavery during which lower class whites were repeatedly convinced their problems stemmed from blacks rather than from  the Trumpish type leadership that controlled the era.

To deal with this today one would really have to include post-reconstruction American politics as well as the slavery era. As it happened, this was the era that introduced me to national politics as a young Washington reporter, one in which it seemed at times that the whole Capitol had a southern accent. It certainly passed southern laws.

Unfortunately, we tend to treat history like food. We have our favorite dishes – e.g. slavery – but ignore other facts such as women not getting their constitutionally backed vote until five decades after black men.

I was blessed to have covered Washington when it was moving from one favorite dish to another. The southern dominance was under attack by a new civil rights movement and one of the things I learned was that history was past. The issue now was what you did about it.

We recognized that while we couldn’t rewrite the past we could create a new future. And, frankly, we didn’t have time to tear down Confederate statues back then. There was just too much more important stuff to do.

For example, what if Black Lives Matter began to matter even more by leading  efforts to make lower income Americans matter on various issues, regardless of their ethnicity?  What if blacks became  real leaders instead of just perceived victims?

Martin Luther King’s Stride Towards Freedom was the most important book I read in college even though it wasn’t on any assignment list. Among other things it  taught this graduate of a Quaker high school (who used to say that Quakers didn’t fight hard enough for what they believed),  how to be both manly and peaceful. And starting the first jazz band my high school had, I was strongly guided by my admiration for and education from, various black musicians.

In other words, black lives came to matter to me, in part, not because of history but because what was happening in my own life.

And I came to realize that while history was instructive, what really mattered was what I did today and was going to do tomorrow. And it’s a truth that still works.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The stress of activism

Sam Smith, 2018 – In an article on the stress of activism in Black Lives Matter, John Eligon of the New York Times noted that over the past two years, five activists have died – two of them in suicides, one of a heart attack and two in homicides.

It brought to mind something I had just discovered a few days ago while preparing to be interviewed about Marion Barry. Between 1990 and 1997 four of Washington DC’s great activist voices had either committed suicide or gotten into drugs.

The suicides included John Wilson, a 1960s black civil rights activist who had eventually become chair of the DC city council. The other was Mitch Snyder the remarkable white leader of activism for the homeless in the city. After his death, I did a piece on his life for the local public radio station, in which I noted:

This spring, when homeless activist Mitch Snyder announced he was going to retreat to a monastery for awhile for reflection and renewal, I felt pulled to drop him a note thanking him for his witness, for the good it had done, for the wisdom and encouragement it had given others. In the note I quoted Emerson.

“The voyage of the best ship” said Emerson, “is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

I can not comprehend Mitch’s last tack that ended in suicide. But the average tendency of his life has been as inspiring as any I have known. At times humbling, at times guilt-provoking, at times incredibly catalytic and at times — yes — aggravating, this one scruffy amalgam of love and anger, intensity and gentleness led us to care far more about what it was easier to ignore — the homeless refugees of the puerile, avaricious American dream of the 80s.

Lately we’ve been falling back to easier ways. The DC city council has just ordered a cruel retreat from the decency towards the homeless we overwhelmingly supported in Initiative 17. In San Francisco, on the very day Mitch died, Mayor Agnos ordered the arrest of homeless people sleeping in public places.

What effect this had on Mitch I don’t know. I do know that in his last days he was organizing a massive drive for a referendum on the council action. As he met in the shelter to discuss the referendum last week, he patiently explained to a man reciting some of the new cynicism towards the homeless that no one in that 1400-bed shelter wanted to be there. Not even Mitch Snyder.

Then there was Ernest White, the host of a highly regarded TV talk show on which I was usually the only white on the panel. The station was sold and Ernest no longer had a job. I remember finding him virtually incommunicable sitting in a car downtown. He would eventually die homeless.

And finally there was Marion Barry for whom I had handled media during civil rights days, before power and drugs got him off on new and sadder routes.

It was not the best of decades. The sincerity and energy of the previous ones were gone. There were fewer leaders who inspired or amazed. I realized belatedly what this must have been like for someone like Ernest White, Mitch Snyder, John Wilson or Marion Barry.

Then I started wondering, what kept you going? There was no doubt but that I was thinking of leaving DC, but in retrospect I realized that even for someone in a much less visible position like myself, activism depended in part on a philosophy that dealt with failure.

In retrospect, I realized how blessed I was to have gone to a Quaker high school. Quakerism was an early form of existentialism, the philosophy that says that even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows. The Friends meeting that ran our school had come out against slavery in the 17th century and while the Quakers repeatedly failed in their efforts, they just kept going until it worked.

It wasn’t until late in life that I realized this influence on my life, but even as boy – thanks to the literature and comics I read – I had somehow come to learn that good folk don’t always get to enjoy the fruits of their work. In fact, as a young boy I sometimes imagined myself dying before 30, aboard one of the storm-struck ships that I never grew tired of reading about.

The funny thing about this is that I am seldom credited with optimism. As Marion Barry told a friend of mine, “Sam’s a cynical cat.” But my optimistic premise is that the world changes best when people act as best they can without reference to whether they will be the living victors. Too often, we can only make it easier for a coming generation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Trump's incremental fascism

Sam Smith - Radio commentator Thom Hartmann had an interesting program on which he discussed the rise of Nazism -something he knew about in part having lived in Germany in the 1980s and talked to some ex-Nazis. What struck me was his mention of the fact that Nazism didn't arrive in one swoop; it was an incremental expansion of power. And the key aspect of this was that each change didn't seem all that dramatic because it was just an alteration compared to what had already been going on. 

Donald Trump's disrespect for the law, for Congress, and for democratic decency falls into this same trend. Each step simply builds on the previous and hence does not seem as dramatic as it truly is. In fact, we have already moved far from traditional American values with the Trump regime and must bear in mind that fascism is not a one shot deal. It can happened, as it is right now, incrementally.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Removing trash in the 1960s


From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, The Idler, May 1965 -I have been observing the trash collection operation in my Washington DC neighborhood. It is an immensely complicated procedure [including commercial recycling] that I am only beginning to understand, but here's a preliminary report. My first contact with the removers of waste came shortly after I moved back to Washington last summer. Early one July Monday morning, there was a knock on the back door. Answering it, I found a perspiring trashman who inquired, "You got any beer, buddy?" The question was so matter-of-fact that I immediately went to the refrigerator and broke out a six-pack. As if on signal, a half dozen trashmen appeared in the alley and the cans of Budweiser quickly disappeared. I was thanked in the same casual tone of the original question and that was the end of the incident.

I thereupon determined to become better acquainted with trash collection in order to find out if there were any other civic responsibilities I had overlooked. In this regard, I was eventually aided by receipt of a four page memorandum on keeping my neighborhood clean. I was relieved to discover that nothing was mentioned concerning maintenance of an adequate supply of beer on summer Monday mornings. 

What was unusual about this document, however, was the slogan at the bottom of each page: THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY CARES ABOUT YOU. It developed that Marguerite Kelly, Captain of Democratic Precinct 63, was just trying to bring the Great Society to my back door. It was the nicest thing a politician had done since City Councillor Alfred Velucci drove a sweeping machine through the streets of his Cambridge, Mass. ward to dramatize the lack of proper cleaning by the city. Old time ward bosses combined their extralegal operations with a genuine concern for the personal needs of constituents. One's ward leader was a friend out of court who, because of his willingness to fix tickets or arrange individual relief from bothersome local ordinances, saved the voter the need to have a friend in court. Today we demand that our local politicians not fix tickets or in other ways pervert the steady application of the law. But the cost of such political purity has been a loss of personal concern on the part of lower level political figures. 

It was nice to find a precinct leader who wanted to help get rid of any rats in my basement. Even the police around here are interested in sanitation. One day I was visited by a constable who explained that he was afraid the D.C. Health Department would consider the 1954 Chrysler parked in my alley lot - aka Gloria since she was sick transit, a public nuisance. He made it quite clear that he would not report me, but it did appear, since I had Rhode Island license plates and since I obviously wasn't driving an illegally registered car on the streets of the District, that my car was abandoned, a potential haven for rodents, and thus, a public nuisance. The problem was, he went on, that the health inspectors might come around and issue me a notice directing abatement of the nuisance within five days and he certainly didn't want that to happen to me. I analyzed his advice carefully, got my car registered in the District and have heard nothing from the D.C. Health Department. The officer had, after all, clearly indicated that rats would not reside in a car that was properly registered.

Local politicians and police do not, however, regularly concern themselves with the trash problem in my alley. This task is left to the Sanitation Division plus a surprisingly large number of private firms and individuals. Besides the regular Monday government pickup, various private trash and garbage trucks frequent the alley to remove the contents of specific cans and boxes. I haven't quite figured this out but I believe there is a local regulation that prohibits government from encroaching too far on private enterprise and leaves a set percentage of waste for private removal. I also suspect this ordinance specifies that private collections by firms with trucks shall take place only during the hours of midnight to six a.m. Or at least that's the way it sounds. The individual trash collectors, on the other and, work only during daylight hours. These types push long wagons with two small iron wheels. There is one man who removes only newspapers and empty bottles (no magazines), another cardboard and a third who concentrates on rags.

My greatest admiration is for the newspaper man. I have seen him on several occasions carefully time his arrival in the alley with that of the District truck. Then, for several minutes, massive Federal power and Goldwaterite individualism work happily side by side. After the District trashmen toss the cans up to the truck to be emptied, the waste is sifted for old Washington Post and New York Times, which are then thrown back down to the fellow with the wagon. It's a smooth operation. The District worker on the truck calls out, "Here you go, paper man," and then - plop! - a stack of newsprint hits the pavement. For the District's men, the collection of trash is not just a job; it is an art, a sport and subject for boisterous debate, accompanied by a cacophonous chorus of clashing cans.

The first problem is to back the large sanitation vehicle into the alley. This task is made more difficult by the apparent incapacity of the driver, the one mute member of the team, to move his truck an inch without the best advice of all his compatriots. The result remarkably similar to the sound of a squad of athletes peppering a ball around the infield. Somehow the driver is able to choose among the often conflicting suggestions and steer his grey beast between fence and wall. Then the game begins. The cans are tossed back and forth with precision and grace. Occasionally a container comes back low and outside. The man on the ground grabs for it but misses. A brief, noisy critique is held and they try again.

The aesthetic part occurs as the trash cans are returned. They are not placed back in their previous tightly bunched arrangement. Rather a free-form sculpture is created throughout the yard, with a can placed on its side at one corner to neatly balance another dropped upside down at the foot of the back steps. The tops are then scattered to coordinate the design and the truck, after considerably more consultation among those involved, moves on.

The enthusiastic chatter never ceases. These are men with a mission and in a city of bland, quiet bureaucrats it is a delight to find individuals who attack their jobs with such verve and volume. The affair reaches a climax when the truck pulls out into the street again. Several of the trashmen have gone ahead to scout for other grounds of combat. The only trouble is that some have gone north and some have gone south and all have decided their location is the most preferable one for the truck to drive to next. The discussion, which previously had been limited to an alley, now expands until it covers several blocks. And the call, "Over here, Joe" is immediately countered by an unseen voice far off in the other direction: "Come on, Joe, I've got it here." Joe, that somber, silent, embattled man in the cab of truck, sticks his head out of the window, looks around briefly, assays the situation in the light of his experience, and turns right. The decision has to be made. And Joe, his ears calloused to the criticisms of his co-workers, is man enough to make it.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The ethnicity that the media ignores

Sam Smith - According to most of the media, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris are black and Naomi Osaka is Asian. Which is, in fact, only half true. Harris' mother came from India, Barack's white mother was born in Kansas, and Naomi Osaka's father is Haitian. 

These are just three examples of how a growing biethnic minority in this country remains largely unobserved. Obviously, as in the three cases above, the choice is typically made in part as a personal right, but the fact remains that America's multiethnicity is growing substantially without much attention. 

For example, the Pew Research Center found that intermarriage rose from 3% in 1967 to 17% in 2015. Among blacks it rose to 18%. For Hispanics it was 27%. Among new born babies, the figures varied from 28% in Oklahoma to 4% in New Hampshire. Clearly we will have a substantial number of social and political voices in future generations of a multiethnic nature. By comparison, in the census only 13% list themselves as black, and 18% Hispanic. 

If we purport to be trying to improve ethnic relations, it seems odd at best that we ignore those who have dealt with the issue on such a personal basis. I have a number of such friends and they are strong, wise and active. Admittedly, it's not always so easy for their children. For example, one of them is my godson and when he was a young child of a black father and white mother, he even became a Republican for a while, posting a Dole-Kemp sign in our yard. But moving on to another school, he met some socialists and that all changed. 

I understood why Obama ran as a black, but it occurred to me that once elected he might have used his bi-ethnic experiences as a teaching tool for the country. He might have said, "I have lived multiculturalism personally and I can help you do the same." But there was no support for this sort of thing in the media or politics, because we suffer the illusion that we can end racism without turning the multicultural into a broadly perceived asset. The failure to recognize and honor who have taken the lead illustrates this, They have shown us that multiculturalism is not only livable, it can be lovable as well.

Monday, September 07, 2020

From our overstocked archives: An island I briefly owned

 Sam Smith, 1964 - There are several places in this world that I own. Not because I paid cash for them, nor because I can produce any deed to support my claim. I own these places because when I go to them no one is there. No one seems to want them. So, until another makes a claim, they are mine.

Someone has made a claim on one of my places. I only went there once, but I immediately decided that it would be mine. Now I must give it up, and I'm a little sorry. Hurricane Island lies close to the Vinalhaven, the large island that guards the entrance to Maine's Penobscot Bay. It once had a small village and a quarry. But when I visited the island, it was empty. I climbed to the highest point of the island and, from that massive, moss-coated rock, stood a long time looking between the islands that line Hurricane Sound to the sea beyond that changed its color as it reflected the slowly descending rays of the sun.

Below, and it seemed very far below, lay the little 40' cutter on which I had sailed to this place. I stared down the sheer face of the rock. The drop, as close as I could figure it, was a hundred feet almost straight down, until it met with the soft mattress laid by years of falling softwood needles, twigs, and loose bark. I would, perhaps, someday build a house here. In fact, the house was partially constructed. The rock face was as sturdy a wall as one could desire. The ground was as comfortable as the most expensive rug. Three more walls, one of them with a huge window from which to look down the sound, a roof, and the house would be complete.

I returned to the boat and told the others I wished to spend the night here. They shrugged; I gathered up my sleeping bag and returned ashore. There was much to see on my new property and little time, for we were sailing on the next morning. I walked over the land making a mental list of my assets.

I slept on top of the rock that night, making a soft bed out of pine remnants on which to place my sleeping bag. The next morning, I awoke damp and a little cold, but very much awake. The sun had passed to the other side of the island during the night and now it was rising to my left as I looked toward the sound. I walked down to the rocks from which the water was slowly receding as it did twice each day, dropping 9 feet then returning to the same place. The boat was near. I returned to it. We set sail, floated down the sound, then, with the sun, moved slowly to the west.

That was nearly ten years ago. I never had a chance to return to Hurricane Island. I sometimes felt guilty, being an absentee landlord, but I felt sure the island was safe. Then, recently, I read a brief announcement somewhere: "Outward Bound, a system of survival schools which originated in Great Britain, will be doing preliminary work on a new school to be established on Hurricane Island.

Another claim had been made. I had no receipt, no deed, to show that it was still my island. Hurricane Island could no longer be one of my places. Now it belonged to others. I’m a little sorry, but also happy, for it would be selfish to prevent others from gazing down the sound or tracing to its source the thin rivulet I had found. The new owners sounded like good people, people who would understand the reason for the island, people who would tend it, perhaps, far better than I. I have other places, but Hurricane Island was one of my favorites.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Another way in the neighbhorhood

Sam Smith – Trying to figure out why the last few months have not been worse for me, I’ve come to realize that living in a Maine rural town has been much closer to what used to be normal for humans than the urban life I lived so long. The most annoying change has been the low contact with others and having to remember not to try to shake hands when you do meet again.

Now more folks are dropping by and our pandemic patio with its six well separated chairs, grill and table are being used more frequently. Furthermore, unlike my historic forebears in these parts, we have fine internet and TV service. I even love Zoom, especially when someone is being boring and I can just sneak off to another site. Couldn’t do that back in real life.

But the other thing this crisis has reminded me of is that I have lived much of my life moving between the local and the national. This has been because, unlike many liberals, I often found the latter choices – especially in Washington – to have become tedious, presumptuous, pompous and ineffective. One of the reasons I moved to Maine eleven years ago from my native city of DC was that I had wearied of verbal abstractions constantly replacing real matter. Over time DC had lost its colorful politicians and now it seemed everyone in power (relentlessly reported by a similarly dull media) just said things that sounded good for a few minutes and then left you back wondering what the hell to do about it. Now I live next to a farm where the only approved BS is that found on the fields.

There had been a lot of local things that kept me busy in DC – like the 1968 riots four blocks from our house, another story for the neighborhood newspaper I had started there with the help of a donation from a local church. And the efforts to do something about it all – such as a neighborhood legal service, local credit union, and places like Friendship House where the middle class would help low income neighbors. We even had a cop in the ‘hood who would go on to be one of the first black police chiefs ink the country.

Later, I became one of the first bunch of elected advisory neighborhood commissioners – a new idea that provided communities with a louder voice - raising the standing of the ‘hood albeit weak in actual power.

But there was in those days as now a strong assumption by liberals that meaningful change was a federal matter.. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

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 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.

To take just one current example, improving police behavior and service requires in no small part a change in the relationship between our communities and those patrolling them.

Moving to Maine increased my appreciation of the power of the local. Despite nearly half that time having been under the rule of Donald Trump, my town and state remain sane and decent places and remind me of the Maine official who had grown up in Hungary and once told me that even during the Cold War her town was run democratically.

This isn’t a bad thing to keep in mind as we contemplate the hazard of four more years of Trump terror and tantrums.

I, for example, feel better about the future by reflecting periodically on what the New York state attorney general might have in her files. Or when I see a strong response from governors to some madness at the top. The media, to be sure, does a poor job of reporting non-Washington stories but perhaps if governors and mayors would meet together periodically, the press might notice them more.

In any case if you’re feeling frustrated, angry and frightened because of what is happening nationally it may help to remember, as Fred Rogers might have put it, there’s another way in the neighborhood.  The national story is only one part of our lives.