FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Toy wars

Sam Smith - Regardless of the considerable bias in the mainstream media over little wars like those right now in Palestine and Ukraine, it is important to remember that the big media first and foremost loves toy wars. For example, sending Wolf Blitzer to Israel journalistically makes about as much sense as sending Justin Bieber to report from a girl's summer camp, But CNN thinks it adds gravitas. Besides, Israel and Palestine have roughly the same population as Pennsylvania. They should not be encouraged to determine the course of American history.

As for the strife between Russia and Ukraine it is worth remembering that Ukraine and Crimea first became aligned with the Russian Empire in the 18th century and in World War  3.5 million Ukrainians fought on one side and 250,000 fought on the other. It's not the sort of issue one should expect John Kerry or CNN to resolve.

Still, it helps build audience to imply that we're on the verge of World War III so the major bias of big media - led by TV - is not on one side or another but comes from being enthralled by military crises anyway they can get them. Which is why you see endless mlitary experts being interviewed on cable TV but hardly any peace experts despite the fact that peace is much hard to achieve than war.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why I remember World War One

Sam Smith - This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One, the biggest war that most Americans never think about.

I'm one of the exceptions for two reasons. The first is that I came to comprehend an aspect of the conflict that is generally ignored. World War One helped introduce a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, "attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive." Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery -- willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.

For example, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Richard Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half the officers assigned to them. But the internal bureaucratic logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance during this period: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. It is no accident that Hitler and Lenin turned to the teachings of American technocratic apostle Frederick Winslow Taylor to carry out their evil or that the Nazis used IBM cards to help manage their death camps. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.

The second reason I can't forget the war is that, while it occurred long before my birth, it caused death to hang like a shroud over my family. My mother's brother was killed by a shell as he he served as liaison between airplanes and the artillery - part of a three year period in which my grandfather also lost his wife and sister.

My uncle's first cousin was an aviator with the famed Lafayette Escadrille who lost his life a few months earlier while on a scouting mission over German territory. According to one account, "It was almost a year later that the remains of his charred Spad were located about three kilometers south of Montdidier, with a lone grave close by, marked with broken pieces of the plane."The Escadrille consisted of American pilots who joined the French Army to fight against the Germans before the US entered the war. In all, 65 American pilots died while in the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps.

Another uncle whom I would never meet came back from the war and, according to one of his grandsons, never smiled again. He had been involved in moving dead bodies from the front. Suffering from what we would call post traumatic stress syndrome, he committed suicide ten years later.

Finally, one of my father's brothers  was lost near Lisbon while serving as an officer aboard Admiral William Halsey's first command. The then Commander Halsey wrote my grandfather:

"Your son was in charge of the forecastle and with the men was busy all the way down the river securing things for sea. As we got to the entrance it was seen there was a large sea running, so we slowed barely to steerage way. We finally ordered all hands off the forecastle. Your son requested permission to stay and secure a hatch. As the safety of the vessel depended on this hatch being secured, permission was granted. . . Scarcely three minutes later a high white wall of water was seen bearing down on us. There was no time to yell more than 'hold on' when the sea hit us. When it cleared, even high up on the bridge where I was, I was gasping for breath from the effects of the water. Life buoys were let go and searchlights were turned on, but your son and young Arthur were never seen again."

When history hits that close to home that often, it's hard to ignore or forget

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Why does Obama screw up so much?


Sam Smith

The farmer in South Carolina was bashing Jimmy Carter to a campaign reporter.

"But don't you think he means well?" asked the reporter.

"Oh yes," replied the farmer. "He sure means well. . . but he do so damn poor."

Wikipedia put it a bit more eloquently: “His administration suffered from his inexperience in politics. Carter paid too much attention to detail. He frequently backed down from confrontation and was quick to retreat when attacked by political rivals. He appeared to be indecisive and ineffective, and did not define his priorities clearly. He seemed to be distrustful and uninterested in working with other groups, or even with Congress when controlled by his own party, as well as fellow Democratic senators which he denounced for being controlled by special interest groups.[Though he made efforts to address many of these issues, the approval he won from his reforms did not last long.”

Now, thanks to Barack Obama, Carter is looking better even though they share a surprising number of traits. Of course there were others presidents, like little George Bush, who didn’t mean well and did damn poor as well. . But Obama is probably the worst well meaning president of the past century or so.

I know you’re not meant to talk this way about someone who is black, a Harvard Law School graduate, the toy boy of American liberals, and faced with the most repugnant political opposition since the Confedracy.

But unfortunately, the aforementioned attributes have been given such excessive prominence that they have mainly served as a shield around reality, a shield that has successfully concealed the actual Obama since he first ran for public office.

My thoughts here are not ideological. They’re more like those of a sports writer trying to figure out why a player is not doing as well as the scouts predicted he would.

In fact, Obama troubled me from the start. I was meant to be thrilled and full of hope and change, but what I saw instead was a fairly mundane Harvard Law School graduate, intelligent without much visible soul, articulate without much passion, and rising without much reason.

After all, he had spent eight undistinguished years in his state senate, a level of governmental responsibility shared with 1,900 others across the nation. He then spent three undistinguished years in the US Senate before being declared by the Democrats to be the answer to all our dreams.

How did he get on this track in the first place? One reason was that the Democrats, long overdue, were looking for a black or woman candidate. But not just any candidate. Not a Jesse Jackson or Gloria Steinem, for God’s sake, but someone who would play by the rules while looking the part.

Obama reminded me of Chauncy Gardiner aka Chance the gardener, the last manifestation of magnificent nothingness to appear on the American political scene - albeit safely contained in the fictional movie "Being There" while Obama was running for election to a real White House. At the time I wrote:

Like Obama, no one knew where Chance had come from. Even the CIA and FBI were unable to discover any information, with each concluding he is a clever cover-up by one of their own agents.

In the final scene of the film, reports Wikipedia, "Chance is seen apparently walking across the surface of a lake while the most important movers and shakers in the USA discuss running him for President. This scene continues to generate discussion and controversy. Clearly we see Chance walking on water, an act with a clear biblical reference. . . Is there a prosaic explanation, such as hidden stepping-stones? Or is Chance the Savior (as so many of the characters are looking for)? Does he truly possess some special grace?”

The novel upon which the movie was based was written over thirty years ago by Jerzy Kosinski. The Obama candidacy may elevate Kosinksi to one of the most prescient political authors of modern times. After all, what is more Obamesque than the sort of phrase that got Chance started? - "In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."

Obama rose to the top in record speed in no small part because - as with Bill Clinton - it was clear that he would fit into the growing oligarchical ecology extremely well. Like Bill Clinton, he projected the image of an outsider, yet had fully adapted to the ways of the insiders.

Obama clearly understood this himself. At one point he even described himself as a mirror in which others saw themselves.

In 2008 Paul Street wrote: 


At a series of social meetings with assorted big 'players' from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama impressed key establishment figures like Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the top corporate law firm Venable and a leading Democratic Party "power broker"), and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and "a big player in Democratic circles."

Craig liked the fact that Obama was not a racial "polarizer" on the model of past African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Williams was soothed by Obama's reassurances that he was not "anti-business" and became "convinced. . . that the two could work together."
"There's a reasonableness about him," Harmala told Silverstein. "I don't see him as being on the liberal fringe."

The "good news" for Washington and Wall Street insiders was that Obama's "star quality" would not be directed against the elite segments of the business class. The interesting black legislator from the South Side of Chicago was "someone the rich and powerful could work with."

But if you come from nowhere and have nowhere you want to go other than up,  you can easily – as Obama has – become a prisoner of the moment and of those most powerful at that moment. There’s nothing wrong with compromise in politics but without a clear destination whose path one alters for survival or future progress, there is no clear way to know how to compromise wisely.

Because of the rudderless quality of their goals (other than ambition), Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were the first Democrats of modern times to be heavily controlled by the same oligarchic forces that had long run the GOP. And Hillary Clinton would be another variation.  

And it’s not just corporations.  Obama seems strikingly unwilling to challenge the intelligence services purportedly under his authority. The explanation we may never learn, but it is safe to say that our president is subservient to the intelligence leadership as well as to corporations.

Another problem for Obama is that he the first president to be a full fledged member of the new gradocracy –lawyers, economists, MBAs, data drones and policy processors – who first took over American business and now run  our government as well.

It didn’t work well for American business and it hasn’t worked well for politics. There is an inverse relationship between the increase in MBAs and the American economic power and creativity. The same can be said for government. This is primarily a cultural, not a political change and so is seldom discussed.

Obamacare was a good example. Not in the past half century has such a remarkably contradictory collection of the good, bad and uncertain been combined in one piece of major legislation, a bill that  USA Today claims produced around 11,000 pages of regulations.

This is the problem with putting a gradocrat rather than a good politician in the White House. The health care bill contained some fine provisions but these have been hopelessly obscured by insurance industry petting schemes like the policy mandates and still indeterminable factors such as how much businesses will get around the measure and how much premiums will go up.

Behind this all is not so much misguided politics as a kind of elite narcissism that  marks much of the Obama years – the idea that  those at the top in Washington are the bright ones who can put it all down on paper and you have to pay the fines if you don’t follow what they say.

This ignores, among other things, the anarchism of complexity. As institutions become more complex, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the effect of specific policies. Further, the good parts get lost in the displeasure with the badly designed portions. And some of the worst simply gets ignored until they become impossible.

Many politicians used to understand such hazards but today far fewer do.

Whatever Obama’s faults, they’re not all his fault. After all, he is where he is thanks to the support of an elite that also thought it knew all the answers and life, as it always does, has proved otherwise.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Things we hadn't started worrying about yet: Self plagiarism

Sam Smith - I've stayed away from the topic of black reparations as promoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic for a number of reasons:
  • It's another of those solutions that makes modern liberalism more like a religion than a political movement, which is to say certification of liberals' personal virtue has become more important than the actual results of their policies.
  • It is another issue that would hopelessly and pointlessly divide the country and distract it from more effective economic and social programs.
  • As a theological solution it has been around a long time aka original sin and Calivinism and it hasn't worked well at all. I prefer the existential and Quaker approach that we define ourselves by what we do and say now, not by the faults of those in the past.
But that wasn't how Coates caught my attention most recently. Rather it was that he dumped on one of his critics of reparations for the alleged sin of self-plagiarism.

You can read about it here if life is too exciting for you right now. About the only fun part was that the editor of the Examiner - where George Mason professor Walter Williams committed the purported offense - finally responded to Coates' tweets, according to Talking Points Memo, by putting this line under Wiliams' column:  "Syndicated columnist Walter Williams expressed these views on the issue of reparations in columns he wrote a decade ago. It appears Williams' views have not changed."

Until the last year or so, I didn't even know there was a phrase called "self-plagiarism." If you Google for a definition, you get not dictionaries but academic sites where the term appears to have had its origins.

This is not insignificant because of the continuing efforts to define journalism as a profession rather than as a trade, which is what it actually is. Professions distinguish themselves by having all sorts of rules and prohibitions. They also tend to be more pretentious and like to argue about all sorts of inside stuff like whether what someone wrote was "self plagiarism."

I started out in journalism as a 19 year old whose duties on some days included writing nine radio newscasts, three between 530 and 630 pm. I don't have any records but I must have self-plagiarized innumerable times each day because the news just didn't change that fast.

The fact is that most news is not literature, it's not academic research, it's just news. It comes and it goes and most people don't remember what you wrote ten years ago.

The real problem with quoting yourself is two fold:
  •  A few may remember you wrote it before and find it boring.
  •  If you write something like, "As I opined on May 3, 2009," readers may not only find it boring but sort of yucky.
So you try to avoid both faults - not by professional standards but by common sense. We might argue over whether Williams did so in this case, but I won't because it would not be a good way to keep you reading this article.

I have another problem. I play music and like to tell jokes. If I didn't self plagiarize in both instances, life would become far more tedious - in the case of music impossible. But over time, you learn not to tell the same jokes to the same person because they will no longer think you funny. That is not a moral issue, but one of personal survival

If the journalism professionals who have wrecked the trade by trying to make it just another grad school degree want to insist on no self-plagiarism, they should at least let us run footnotes in our articles so we don't have to break the flow of what we're writing about.

Better yet, go teach some place else and leave journalism a happy, modest trade.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Hillary Clinton by the numbers

CLINTON FOUNDATION

Amount the country run by the Sultan of Brunei, who wants to stone gays to death, has given to the Clinton Foundation: $1-5 million

Amount the Clinton Foundation spent on travel over the period 2003-2013: $50 million
  • Amount spent in 2011 alone: $12.1 million
  • Number if $1000 air tickets that would buy: 12,000 or 33 per day
FRIENDS AND SUPPORTERS

Number of close business partners of Hillary Clinton who ended up in prison: 3. 
The Clintons' two partners in Whitewater were convicted of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy. Hillary Clinton's partner and mentor at the Rose law firm, Webster Hubbell, pleaded guilty to federal mail fraud and tax evasion charges, including defrauding former clients and former partners out of more than $480,000. Hillary Clinton was mentioned 35 times in the indictment. 
Number of other close Hillary Clinton supporters and associates who have plead guilty to crimes, been found guilty, and/or ended up in prison: 10
  • Sant Chatwal, major bundler for Clinton's 2008 campaign confessed to $180k in illegal contributions and witness tampering
  • Jeffrey Thompson, a fundraiser who diverted more than $608,000 in illicit funds to a New York marketing executive who organized “street teams” to raise Mrs. Clinton’s visibility in urban areas during her Democratic primary battle against Barack Obama. 
  • Norman Hsu. Amount in 2007 the Clinton campaign returned in contributions raised by Hsu, a top campaign bundler who was wanted on criminal charges in a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. In 2009 he would be sentenced to 24 years in prison: $850,000
  • Peter Paul, now serving ten years in prison, was a major backer of Clinton in her 2000 Senate race.  
  • John Huang, a friend of the Clintons formerly with the Indonesian Lippo Group headed by Mochtar Riady, a central character in the Clinton scandals. Huang was given a job at the Commerce Department and a top secret clearance. He visited the Clinton White House about 70 times, was briefed 37 times by the CIA, viewed about 500 intelligence reports, and made 281 calls to Lippo banks. In 1999 Huang was sentenced for campaign finance violations.
  • Abdul Rehman Jinnah,  according to the LA Times in 2009, "a Pakistani immigrant who hosted fundraisers for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is being sought by the FBI on allegations that he funneled illegal contributions to Clinton's political action committee and to Sen. Barbara Boxer's 2004 re-election campaign. Authorities say Northridge, Calif., businessman Abdul Rehman Jinnah, 56, fled the country shortly after being indicted on charges of engineering more than $50,000 in illegal donations to the Democratic committees"
  • Alcee Hastings, co-chair of her 2008 presidential campaign, had been previously impeached and convicted for conspiracy and removed from his post as a judge.
  • Johnny Chung, a fundraiser who said once, "I see the White House is like a subway -- you have to put in coins to open the gates."
  • Anthony Pellicano, HRC's private detective
  • Marc Rich, whom the NY Times described as a "shrewd, swashbuckling oil trader who fled to Switzerland after being indicted on charges of widespread tax evasion, illegal dealings with Iran and other crimes, and who was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton in his last hours in office, setting off a whirlwind of criticism"

Amount Boeing donated to the State Department  one month after "Clinton played the role of international saleswoman, pressing Russian government officials to sign a multibillion-dollar deal to buy dozens of aircraft from Boeing." $1 billion


SPEECH CASH

Amount Hillary Clinton received for two speeches for Goldman Sachs: $400,000

Number of paid corporate speeches Hillary Clinton, as of July 2013, had given this election cycle: 14
The Washington Post noted, "Clinton is the only leading 2016 contender giving paid speeches, with at least 14 delivered or scheduled so far, in part because ethics rules prohibit sitting lawmakers from doing so. Past presidential contenders, such as Republicans Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, gave relatively few such addresses, and for much lower five-figure fees."
Amount Hillary Clinton got for a speech the Carlyle Group, primary owner of Booze Allen Hamilton, the former employer of Edward Snowden and a major NSA contractor: Approx. $200,000. 

FURTHERMORE. . .

The American Spectator reported in 1996 that on her Asian tour, Hillary Clinton told New Zealand television that she had been named after Sir Edmund Hillary. Date of Clinton's birth: 1947.
Date Edmund Hillary climbed Mr. Everest: 1953
Number of other First Ladies to come under criminal investigation: 0

Number of times that Hillary Clinton, providing testimony to Congress during the Whitewater scandal investigations, said that she didn't remember, didn't know, or something similar: 250

Profit made by HRC in the 1980s on an investment in a cellular phone franchise deal that took advantage of the FCC's preference for locals, minorities and women. (The franchise was almost immediately flipped to the cellular giant, McCaw): $42,000

Fines proposed in HRC's health plan: Up to $5,000 for refusing to join the government-mandated health plan, $5,000 for failing to pay premiums on time, 15 years to doctors who received "anything of value" in exchange for helping patients short-circuit the bureaucracy, $10,000 a day for faulty physician paperwork, $50,000 for unauthorized patient treatment, and $100,000 a day for drug companies that messed up federal filings.

Amount Hillary Clinton made on a $1000 investment in cattle futures: Nearly $100,000
Many years later, several economists will calculate that the chances of earning such returns legally were one in 250 million.
Amount HRC's 2000 campaign under-reported money contributed at a big Hollywood fundraiser by the US government's calculation: $800,000
Fine paid by campaign: $35,000
 Number of years that HRC sat on the board of the anti-labor, Walmart: 6


Amount the State Department misplaced and lost due to the improper filing of contracts over six years, mainly during the tenure of former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, according to an Inspector General report: $6 billion

Monday, May 12, 2014

The war that never ended

Sam Smith

About a decade ago, I wrote of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary:

We tend to view wars in the isolation of their military events. By such a standard, there is no doubt the North won. But what about the social, cultural and economic aftermath?

For example, while the Civil War ended slavery, it would take more than a hundred years to begin enforcing effectively the equality that was presumed to result in its wake.

Right into the present the South enjoys a disproportionate influence on our politics and values. When was the last time you saw a politician afraid of what New England might think?

Further, the increasingly hegemonic structure of our business, political and cultural life has far more in common with the southern past than with that of the anarchistic old west or more democratic Northeast.

But none of this gets discussed because we judge military triumphs on such a narrow basis, despite there being much more to it all.

If there is any moral that should be drawn from the commemoration of the Civil War - but almost certainly won't be - it is this: just because your troops win doesn't mean that you did.

A decade later, little seems to have changed. Our political and cultural debates are distorted by still vigorous remains of Confederate values whether we’re discussing race and gender or which country to invade next.

What’s driving this in no small part are aspects of traditional southern culture, particularly a hegemonic view of liberty, that gets too little attention.

The hegemonic view of liberty, as outlined by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed, is that liberty is a function of power. A slave had none, the elite had as much it wanted,  This contrasted with liberty being defined by community values as in New England, the Quaker notion of reciprocal liberty (I can’t have mine without you having yours) and the western idea of what we might today call libertarian liberty.

We have quietly and without debate moved strongly back to the regressive idea of hegemonic liberty aided by a mass media that treats it as normal except on those rare occasions, as with Donald Sterling, when its abuse moves irrefutably into the absurd.

But consider the comfort with we assume that other sports owners are free to do what they want, our entertainment stars are similarly entitled as long as it makes a good story, our CEOs are tacitly permitted to act like barons of the Middle Ages (only our media calls it "free enterprise"), and our politicians can engage in all sorts of misbehavior for which we ask only for an “apology” and that they “move on.”

More than any place else, it is the South – representing about one third of our total population – that has been the region most strongly adhering to such values throughout its history. As a 19th century European visitor put it, the leaders of the South “think and act precisely as do the nobility in other countries.”

But what is notable is the degree to which these values have now spread throughout America to a point where seven of the top eleven GOP candidates for president come from southern states and the leading Democratic candidate – while born in the north – vigorously adopted similar values during the course of living in Arkansas.

And what is extraordinary is the degree to which the mass media has accepted these values as a given, as have post-modern liberals in the case of Hillary Clinton. We now view our leaders whether in sports, business, politics or entertainment as living in a bubble of impunity in which faults, failures or frauds are largely to be taken as business as usual.

Thus, there is the possibility that we will in 2016 be asked to choose between two representatives of what might be called southern planter politics in which power and its access are the only virtues necessary. The Clintons and the Bushes, in best southern style, represent the inherited nobility of ill gained and poorly practiced power. 

Bill Clinton, for example, had not a liberal bone in his body, raised innumerable ethical issues, was governor of a state in which the Dixie drug mafia flourished, and could be fairly categorized as corrupt and contented.

But hardly any of this was made known to the general public. A mythology replaced the actual story. What had actually happened in Arkansas was mostly ignored by the media.

The contrast in perspective was striking. For example on the very day that Bill Clinton was nominated for president, Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette wrote in a column:

"His word is dirt. Not a statesman is he, but a common, run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen politician. A mere opportunist. A man whose word is fallow ground not because it is unwanted but because it is barren, bereft of the clean-smelling goodness that nurtures wholesome things. Those of us who cling to the precepts of another age, a time in which a man's word was his bond, and, morally, bailing out was not an option, cannot join the madding crowd in celebrating what is for some Bill Clinton's finest hour. We cannot rejoice in treachery.. He subscribes to the credo that the anointed must rule the empire, and he has anointed himself. In his ambition-blinded eyes, one released from a promise has not broken any promise. He ignores the fact that he granted his own pardon."

Bill Clinton was aided by two major sources of support. One was a post-modern liberal constituency increasingly turning its back on its own values as expressed by the New Deal and Great Society. And the other was a Dixiecentric Democratic Leadership Council whose open agenda was to reverse these values, thus producing a bizarre coalition of political masochists and political sadists. To help things along, Bill Clinton became the fourth of the of the first five DLC chairs who was from the south - just in time to boost his own candidacy.

For 73% of the time from 1992 to now, the White House has been filled by southern backed presidents. Even Barack Obama was aided towards the presidency by being on the DLC approved list, a fact he would try to hide while pretending to be a liberal.

Add to this the rise of a modern planter economy in which banks and other corporations increasingly considered themselves exempt from moral, fiduciary, or legal responsibility. An economy in which the federal government and its Democratic president could find tens of billions to bail out an insurance company but hardly anything to save Detroit.

A planter  economy where a Democratic administration considered public schools just more acreage in which to raise profitable crops for its campaign contributors. Where an increasingly large segment of the population found itself in prison because of minor offenses, or going without food so someone in Washington could brag about austerity. And where

Further, like the culture of the South, lower income whites have been convinced by a rampantly deceptive white elite that their problems are due to poor blacks, latinos and immigrants rather than the work of the elite itself.

There are plenty of good souls in the South but they are up against not just a distorted regional tradition but one that has gone national, one that has, in many ways, come to define the collapse of American decency and constitutional government.

It is small wonder that we find blacks and latinos denied the vote, Wall Street getting away with fiscal rape and women denied the right to make the most personal of decisions.

Yes, we ended slavery and preserved the union. But in many ways the old South continues to win.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Finding a sound and a symbol

Sam Smith - For some years now, I have been grumpily and futilely complaining about the lack of a common  counter-cultural symbol and a wildly shared musical anthem. Having been raised in the beat, civil rights and peace eras, I have naturally assumed that you can’t produce change without sounds and symbols.

My frustration went up another notch when I saw 1960s peace signs appear on the bedroom doors of my elementary school granddaughters, and then on their T shirts. Even a pancake made by one of them mimicked the design.  If they recognize the importance of such symbolism, why can’t adult activists?

I had various explanations. A society atomized even when it was fighting a common cause. The fading of melody in popular music, the social distraction of the cellphone and the shared singing at demonstrations replaced by hands waving in time to music someone else was making. Naomi Klein argued that "The Bono-isation of protest has reduced discussion to a much safer terrain There's celebrities and then there's spectators waving their bracelets. It's less dangerous and less powerful."

Then yesterday, while thinking about my granddaughters’ peace symbols, I suddenly realized my error. They hadn’t raised a question, they had given the answer.

I had assumed we had to come up with something new when just reviving what had worked in the past might do just as well.

The peace symbol is almost 60 years old. But it was already old when it became the symbol of the anti-Vietnam war movement. It had been designed by a nuclear disarmament activist in the UK in 1958. The symbol was a blend of the semaphore positions for the letters N and D.

But who cared about that during the Vietnam War? It became our symbol for another time. Just as it could again.

And what about a song?


The first one that came to mind, and refused to leave was “We Shall Overcome.” And despite its major history as a civil rights anthem, its story is far more complex, as NPR explained last year:

It has been a civil rights song for 50 years now, heard not just in the U.S. but in North Korea, in Beirut, in Tiananmen Square, in South Africa's Soweto Township. But "We Shall Overcome" began as a folk song, a work song. Slaves in the fields would sing, 'I'll be all right someday.' It became known in the churches. A Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley, published a version in 1901: "I'll Overcome Someday."

The first political use came in 1945 in Charleston, S.C. There was a strike against the American Tobacco Co. The workers wanted a raise; they were making 45 cents an hour. They marched and sang together on the picket line, "We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday."

The tobacco workers brought their song to Tennessee, and Zilphia Horton, [The Highlander Center’s] music director, started using it in workshops in Tennessee and beyond.

On a tape from the late 1940s, Horton can be heard speaking with a group of farm workers in Montana. "This is the song of 'We Will Overcome' — it's a spiritual," she says. "I sang it with many different nationality groups. And it's so simple, and the idea's so sincere, that it doesn't matter that it comes from the tobacco workers. When I sing it to people, it becomes their song."….

John Lewis is now a congressman from Georgia. In his book Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, he tells of joining the civil rights cause as a teenager off the farm in Alabama. He became a leader. He was jailed; he was beaten. His skull was fractured in Selma on the day that was called Bloody Sunday. He says "We Shall Overcome" sustained him throughout the years of struggle — especially those moments when demonstrators who had been beaten, arrested or detained would stand and sing it together.

"It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength, to continue to struggle, to continue to push on. And you would lose your sense of fear," Lewis says. "You were prepared to march into hell's fire."

And its power and promise turned up in the speeches and sermons of [Martin Luther] King — including one on March 31, 1968, just days before his death.

"There's a little song that we sing in our movement down in the South. I don't know if you've heard it," King told the Memphis crowd. "You know, I've joined hands so often with students and others behind jail bars singing it: 'We shall overcome.' Sometimes we've had tears in our eyes when we joined together to sing it, but we still decided to sing it: 'We shall overcome.' Oh, before this victory's won, some will have to get thrown in jail some more, but we shall overcome."

If a song can be that powerful for that long, why can’t we sing it now?

Of course, maybe I picked the wrong symbol and song. Then find another, but take it on. What’s a good symbol and song for our times? If you’re a singer, pick your choice and sing it with each performance, asking the audience to join in vocally and not just wave their hands. If you’re a preacher use it in your church. If you’re a teacher, give your kids some choices and the stories behind them and then ask them which they want. If you’re a student, start a new trend. And if you’re activist, find a song and a symbol and start using them now.

And use that symbol whenever it works. Even when making pancakes.

Money, publicity and the Internet isn’t enough.

There is great untapped power in simple things that go straight to the soul.



Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Sterling case and the Green Bay Packers

Sam Smith - My weekly appearance on the Mark Thompson Sirius XM Show (Mondays 8pm Channel 127) was entirely occupied last night talking about the Donald Sterling case, mostly in conversation with listeners.

My argument in part was that we gave too much attention to individual incidents like this and not enough to the culture and practices behind them. I noted that, for example, only nine blacks had been elected the Senate since Reconstruction and two of them had been there less than a year, yet the media and the public hardly ever talks about this.

There was also talk about the role of owners in professional sports and the problems involved with them. It occurred to me (although I didn't mention it) that professional sports owners were actually a role model for the much more powerful contemporary oligarchy we have come to face in America today.

Which led me to turn to Wikipedia to look something up (reporters multitask even on talk shows) and as I was doing so, Mark Thompson said, "What about the Green Bay Packers?"

i was stunned, because that was exactly what I was looking up, and I accused Mark of spying on me through my computer camera.

But here is what I was looking at when Mark asked about the Packers:
In 1960, on at least one team, a color barrier still existed in the NFL.But Jack Vainisi, the Scouting Director for the Packers, and [Vince] Lombardi were determined "to ignore the prejudices then prevalent in most NFL front office in their search for the most talented players." Lombardi explained his views by saying that he "viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green"....

An interracial relationship between one of the Packer rookies and a young woman was brought to the attention of Lombardi by Packer veterans in his first training camp in Green Bay. The next day at training camp, Lombardi, who had a zero tolerance policy towards racism, responded by warning his team that if any player exhibited prejudice, in any manner, then that player would be thrown off the team. Lombardi, who was vehemently opposed to Jim Crow discrimination, let it be known to all Green Bay establishments that if they did not accommodate his black players equally as well as his white players, then that business would be off-limits to the entire team. Before the start of the 1960 regular season, he instituted a policy that the Packers would only lodge in places that accepted all his players. In the all-white Oneida Golf and Riding Country club in Green Bay, of which Lombardi was a member, Lombardi demanded that he should be allowed to choose a Native American caddy, even if white caddies were available. Lombardi's view on racial matters was a result of his religious faith and the prejudice he had experienced as an Italian-American.
Lombardi's unprejudiced attitude was not confined to his players' race or ethnicity. Lombardi was aware of tight end Jerry Smith's homosexuality, and upon arriving in Washington, told Smith in confidence that it would never be an issue as long as he was coaching the Redskins. Smith flourished, becoming an integral part of Lombardi's offense, and was voted a First Team All-Pro for the first time in his career, which was also Lombardi's only season as Redskin head coach. Lombardi invited other gay players to training camp, and Lombardi would privately hope they would prove they could earn a spot on the team. At the Washington Redskins training camp in 1969, Ray McDonald was a gay player, with sub-par skills, who was trying to make the Redskin roster again, but this time with Lombardi as the Redskins' new head coach. Lombardi told running back coach, George Dickson, 'I want you to get on McDonald and work on him and work on him - and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.'
As noted here before, we unintentionally tend to build the celebrity status of the Sterlings, Bundys and Zimmermans of our time while forgetting about the stories that could lead us in a better direction.  A good trick for news editors and journalists would be to put the Sterlings of the world up against a real alternative.

And it's not just about ethnicity or sexual character. The Sterling story is also about a man whose use of money as a justification for deeply misguided narcissism - like so many in the top of our culture these days - is based on an economic model being foisted upon us by our media and politicians. Here again the Green Bay Packers have something to tell us:
The Packers are the only community-owned franchise in American professional sports major leagues. Typically, a team is owned by one person, partnership, or corporate entity, i.e., a "team owner." The lack of a dominant owner has been stated as one of the reasons the Packers have never been moved from the city of Green Bay. It has long been operated as a non-profit organization....

In 1950, the Packers held a stock sale to raise money to prevent the team from moving out of Green Bay. No shareholder was allowed to purchase over 200 shares, a safeguard to ensure that no individual could assume control of the club. In 1956, area voters approved the construction of a new city owned stadium...

Shares of Packers stock do not include the same rights traditionally associated with common stock or preferred stock, although the shares are referred to as "common stock" in the offering document. They don't include equity, dividends, can not be traded, have no securities-law protection, and stock ownership brings no season ticket privileges. While newly purchased shares can be given as gifts, once ownership is established, transfers are technically allowed only between immediate family members. Packers shareholders, however, are entitled to voting rights, an invitation to the corporation's annual meeting, and the opportunity to purchase exclusive shareholder-only merchandise...

Green Bay is the only team with this form of ownership structure in the NFL; such ownership is in direct violation of current league rules, which stipulate a limit of 32 owners of one team and one of those owners having a minimum 30% stake. However, the Packers corporation was grandfathered when the NFL's current ownership policy was established in the 1980s, and are thus exempt. The Packers are also the only American major-league sports franchise to release its financial balance sheet every year.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Pope Francis got his saints half right

Sam Smith I suppose it’s none of my business, but if you had as many Catholic roommates and friends as I did as a young guy, it sort of wears off on you. And one of the things you pick up is that it’s alright to talk about it.

So I can tell you that I thought Pope John XXIII was really cool, and that Pope Paul II was just another one of those rightwing pompous Vatican prigs.

Pope John XXIII came along when I was a junior in college. I was a beret wearing, cigarillo smoking drummer who considered the way the rules had been set up to be pretty crummy but also pretty immutable. Nothing was happening in America so for the Vatican to start dumping part of its past was remarkable.

I wasn’t the only one. In his memoir Joseph Califano, later in LBJ’s cabinet, talks about the excitement in New York City when the new pope called for more lay involvement in the church. A few years earlier, his friend Ed Rice had started Jubilee, “a magazine of the church and her people” with help of others like a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton and articles by people like Jack Kerouac, whose book On the Road was published one year before Pope John took over.

It was a time when so little was happening that even a better pope could be considered your friend.

When Pope Francis came in, I wrote:
The church these days is widely seen for its failings, including its treatment of women and gays. But largely forgotten are times when there were those in the church seeking and practicing an approach that appealed far beyond the bells and towers.

For example in the early 1940s, a worker priest movement sprung up in France. As Time magazine described it later, the church was "putting young priests into secular clothes and letting them work in factories, to regain the confidence of the French working class, which [had] almost completely abandoned the Catholic faith."

In 1945 Pope Piux XII reluctantly approved the idea but by the 1950s, reports Wikipedia, “the worker-priest movement fell out of favor with the Vatican due to their role in left-wing politics and perceived abandonment of the traditional priesthood. The worker priest movement was ‘severely constrained.…

“The French bishops informed the worker-priests that they must return to their parishes. About 50, however, chose to stay on at their work. Moreover, by 1953, of some 90 priests, 10 had married, and about 15 were working with the communists. ”The Pope sent verbal orders that the movement be suppressed, but the French cardinals managed to persuade the Pope to allow the worker-priests to continue 'in principle,' after some major changes in the setup."

“In November 1953, all worker priests were recalled and required to leave their work and unions…. In 1963, priests were allowed to return to the industrial workplaces, and in the 1990s there were about 2,000 priests of the workers mission in France, although they were ageing in line with the wider population of Catholic priests in that country.

“However, the worker priests had gained certain insights about the alienation of the Church from the modern world and the poor from their experience as workers. These had been shared with many others including the bishops by means of letters, newsletters, books and meetings and the then Papal Nuncio to France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli. When Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he called the Second Vatican Council, at least partly as a result of what the worker priests had revealed. During that council, the French and Belgian bishops in particular were very influential in shaping its direction towards renewal and engagement with the modern world.”

To American activists involved in the 1960s, it was not strange to find oneself working closely with former or active priests.

And then there were ones you read about, like the Berrigan brothers, two priests put on the FBI’s most wanted list in 1968 for their anti-war protests.

It didn’t matter what one’s own religious or secular views were. If you were anti-war or pro civil rights, the godly were on your side. The theological issues you put aside for later.

By 1970, for Catholics it got even more so. Father Robert Drinan was elected to Congress from Massachusetts. He became the first member of Congress to introduce a referendum calling for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, was strongly anti-war and, yes, pro-abortion as a legal matter while being personally opposed.

If you like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren you would have loved Robert Drinan. And he wasn’t alone. In 1975, Wisconsin elected Father Robert Cornell as a member of the House after he had served for five years as chair of the Eighth District Democratic Party. On top of that, there was Gino Baroni, a priest who organized the Catholics for the March on Washington and became assistant secretary of housing under Carter. And another, Father Ray Kemp, was elected to serve on the DC school board. Kemp, a native Washingtonian who had worked with Saul Alinsky, went through the 1968 riots that included his church’s neighborhood. He was hit with police tear gas more than ten times during that period.

Then in 1980, things changed radically in the vast territories known as America and the Catholic Church. In the former, the great counter American revolution that is still underway was launched by corporatist toy boy Ronald Reagan. And in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II told all priests to get out of politics.

For both Americans and Catholics the party was over.
Which is why I squirmed when I heard of Pope John and Pope Paul being named saints at the same time. One had opened the door. The other had shut it. And that was before you get into things like the latter’s handling of church sex abuse and the Italian bank scandals.

As John Allen wrote in the Boston Globe, “In the Catholic street, John XXIII is an icon of the left, remembered as the pope who launched the reforming Second Vatican Council and opened the Church to the modern world. John Paul II is a hero to the right, the pope who brought down Communism, who fought what he called a ‘culture of death’ behind liberalizing currents on abortion and other life issues, and who insisted on strong Catholic identity vis-à-vis secular pressures to water down the faith.”

A story in the Guardian, noted, “When, last year, Francis announced the double canonization of the two very different popes, it was widely seen as a bid to give both sets of admirers something to cheer about.”

That was something politicians did all the time, but I thought there were higher standards for sainthood.

For me, Pope John had dramatically changed my mind about the Catholic Church for the better, and Pope Paul had turned it back again. Which Is why I was glad to learn about a new pope named Francis even if he only gets his saints half right.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

There's no business like show business (except news business)

Sam Smith

The other evening I saw a report on a case in which the NSA was found to have tapped the phones of several lawyers and a governor. It was scary, troublesome and convincing.

The only thing was that it wasn’t real.

It was an episode in the TV series, The Good Wife

As I watched it, though, I realized that while the specifics had been invented, the story was a better description of the hazards of the NSA’s blatant contempt for the law and the Constitution than I had seen on any TV news show.

Over on Fox and MSNBC, the so-called news anchors and their guests had been obsessing over some nut named Cliven Bundy of whom the nation had been blissfully ignorant until a few days earlier and already knew just about every useful fact about him.

These days the news media treats some stories as if they were dough it wants to turn into thin crust pizza. It beats, twirls and flips them into the air endlessly. Meanwhile NSA, climate change, and the war on public education continue unbothered by serious attention or hard questions.

Just count the stories you’ve heard more than enough about: the Korean ferry, George Zimmerman, Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy, the missing Malaysian plane. As Jon Steward noted, “Why don’t we strap some wings to Wolf Blitzer and just let him loose?”

It’s not that these stories don’t deserve coverage; they just don’t deserve obsession. There was even speculation, on one hand, as to whether Chelsea Clinton’s baby was a plot by her mother to grab attention for her campaign, and, on the other hand, whether Chelsea might run for president some day.

The goal, it would seem, is to distract us from anything that might actually affect our lives, say like the fact that California is totally in drought. Instead the media creates little resorts of fantasy where viewers or readers can lounge comfortably on their beach chairs and – until it’s too late to do anything about it – pretend that reality doesn’t matter.

There are, to be sure, co-conspirators, including the GOP, the most reactionary party since Post-Reconstruction, and the Democrats, who have dumped progress achieved by the New Deal and Great Society and now spend their time endlessly recounting the blatantly obvious faults of the opposition instead of providing some decent alternatives.

The media – at least the good part of it – used to see its assignment as one of introducing truth into the political stage show. As a reporter, you might like something but you didn’t join its public relations department. Today – with Fox and MSNBC perhaps the worst offenders – the media merely redundantly piles its views on top of those of the cause it favors.

And it’s not necessarily even a matter of ideology or belief. It seems to come more from a fear of drifting out of, and a desire to be part of, the mainstream system responsible for its advertising, jobs and stories.

Thus we find ourselves spending more time on the character of Edward Snowden than on the integrity of NSA. And more on the probable life expectancy of Hillary Clinton rather than on known facts of her past years such as her being the only First Lady to come under criminal investigation, to have three of her close business associates end up in prison, and nine of her major backers and/or fundraisers convicted of, or pleading guilty to, crimes.

And more about the racism of George Zimmerman and Cliven Bundy than about the ethnic effects of the war on public education. And more on a sunken ferry than on rising sea levels due to climate change. And so on.

The rise of Barack Obama is a painfully useful example. In 2009, we reviewed some of the facts that were available about him during the primaries but overwhelmingly ignored by the media and by liberals. He had:
  • Aggressively opposed impeachment action against Bush
  • Had argued that conservatives and Bill Clinton were right to destroy social welfare,
  • Supported making it harder to file class action suits in state courts
  • Voted for a business-friendly “tort reform” bill
  • Voted against a 30% interest rate cap on credit cards
  • Had the most number of foreign lobbyist contributors in the primaries\
  • Ws even more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain
  • Was the most popular of the candidates with K Street lobbyists
  • Was named in 2003 by the rightwing Democratic Leadership Council named Obama as one of its “100 to Watch.” After he was criticized in the black media, Obama disassociated himself with the DLC. But his major economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, was still the chief economist of the conservative organization.
  • Supported the war on drugs
  • Supported the crack-cocaine sentence disparity
  • Supported Real ID
  • Supported the PATRIOT Act
  • Supported the death penalty
  • Opposed lowering the drinking age to 18
  • Lent his support, as Paul Street of Z Mag noted, ” to the aptly named Hamilton Project, formed by corporate-neoliberal Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and other Wall Street Democrats to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party.”
  • Endorsed US involvement in the failed drug war in Colombia.
  • Voted for a nuclear energy bill that included money for bunker buster bombs and full funding for Yucca Mountain.
  • Came in at 48th in the ranking of senators by the League of Conservation Voters
  • Supported federally funded ethanol and was unusually close to the ethanol industry
  • Promised to double funding for private charter schools, part of a national effort to undermine public education
  • Supported the No Child Left Behind Act
  • Favored expanding the war in Afghanistan
  • Supported Israeli aggression and apartheid
  • Favored turning over Jerusalem to Israel
  • Wouldn’t rule out first strike nuclear attack on Iran
  • Opposed gay marriage
  • Opposed single payer healthcare
  • Supported restricting damage awards in medical malpractice suits
  • Wanted to expand the size of the military
  • Called the late Paul Wellstone “something of a gadfly”
  • Said “everything is on the table” with Social Security.
It is almost as though politics has come down to two choices: Republicans who openly are not on our side and Democrats like Obama and Clinton who pretend to be, but aren’t either.

And it’s not just the negative realities that get blocked out. It’s their possible cures as well. How often have you seen or read stories (outside of journals like this) about alternative systems of voting, state banks, publicly owned Internet and cable systems, a negative income tax, cooperatives, restorative and community justice, a shorter work week, time banks, a guaranteed income,  or usury limits on credit cards, just to name a few.

There’s a real world out there and real possibilities. But don’t expect major media to tell you about it. Too often, they join the problem and become just more political show business.

Guess I’ll just have to keep watching The Good Wife..

What fascism is really about

Sam Smith, 2006 -  One needs to separate Hitler, Nazism and fascism. Conflating these leads the unwary to assume easily that all three are inevitably characterized by anti-Semitism, when in fact only the first two are. By avoiding this distinction we don't have to face the fact that America is closer to fascism than it has ever been in its history.

To understand why, one needs to look not at Hitler but at the founder of fascism, Mussolini. What Mussolini founded was the estato corporativo - the corporative state or corporatism. Writing in Economic Affairs in the mid 1970s, R.E. Pahl and J. T. Winkler described corporatism as a system under which government guides privately owned businesses towards order, unity, nationalism and success. They were quite clear as to what this system amounted to: "Let us not mince words. Corporatism is fascism with a human face. . . An acceptable face of fascism, indeed, a masked version of it, because so far the more repugnant political and social aspects of the German and Italian regimes are absent or only present in diluted forms."

Thus, although the model generally cited in defense of organized capitalism is that of the contemporary Japanese, the most effective original practitioners of a corporative economy were the Italians. Unlike today's Japanese, but like contemporary America, their economy was a war economy.

Adrian Lyttelton, describing the rise of Italian fascism in The Seizure of Power, writes: "A good example of Mussolini's new views is provided by his inaugural speech to the National Exports Institute on 8 July 1926. . . Industry was ordered to form 'a common front' in dealing with foreigners, to avoid 'ruinous competition,' and to eliminate inefficient enterprises. . . The values of competition were to be replaced by those of organization: Italian industry would be reshaped and modernized by the cartel and trust. . .There was a new philosophy here of state intervention for the technical modernization of the economy serving the ultimate political objectives of military strength and self-sufficiency; it was a return to the authoritarian and interventionist war economy."

Lyttelton writes that "fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly." It was a point that Orwell had noted when he described fascism as being but an extension of capitalism. Lyttelton quoted Nationalist theorist Affredo Rocco: "The Fascist economy is. . . an organized economy. It is organized by the producers themselves, under the supreme direction and control of the State."

The Germans had their own word for it: wehrwirtschaft. It was not an entirely new idea there. As William Shirer points out in the Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich, 18th and 19th century Prussia had devoted some five-sevenths of its revenue on the Army and "that nation's whole economy was always regarded as primarily an instrument not of the people's welfare but of military policy."

Has "civil discourse" been harmed by knowing the foregoing and the uncomfortable similarities it bears with what is happening to our country today?

Another more complex example is Adolph Hitler. On many grounds, the analogy does not serve us well:

Germany's willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. Still, consideration of the Weimar Republic that preceded Hitler does us no harm. Bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:

- A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

- The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the "rationalization of production." There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a hyped version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

- The Nazis as the first modern political party. As University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers explains, the Nazis discovered the importance of campaigning not just during campaigns but between elections when the other parties folded their tents. With this "perpetual campaigning" they spread themselves like a virus, considering the public reaction to everything right down to the colors used for posters and rally backgrounds. Knowing this, one can not watch the manic manipulations of public moments by the Bush regime without a sense of déjà vu.

- The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies.

- The Nazis as the inventors of modern political propaganda. Every modern American political campaign and the types of arguments used to support them owes much to the ideas of the Nazis.

- The suddenness of the Nazi rise. The party went from less than 3% of the vote to being the largest party in the country in four years.

- The collapse of the country's self image. Childers points out that Germany had had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our battered self-image.

So while many of the behaviors that would come to be associated with Nazis and Hitler - from physical attacks on political opponents to the death camps - seem far removed from our present concerns, there is still much to learn from their history.

We are clearly in a post-constitutional era; the end of the First American Republic. Depending on what day it is we think of its replacement variously - ranging from an adhocracy to proto-fascism. But one does not need to know the end of the story to know that we headed at a rapid pace away from the extraordinary principles of American democracy towards the dark hole of power with impunity, to the sort of world in which, as Rudolph Giuliani has calmly asserted, "freedom is about authority."

If we describe present differences only in contemporary terms then we have nothing to guide us but what happened yesterday.

George Bush and his capos have capitalized on this disinterest in history to rewrite the Constitution and other things. He's not the first.

For example, Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic stated, "In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform the Reichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands."

It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according to Childers, the 'democratic" Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler's ascendancy.

There are eerie similarities between Article 48 and George Bush's approach. When you add to this the remarkable incompetence of the current regime, the collapse of both traditional liberal and conservative politics, and the economic crises, it feels like a new Weimar Republic setting the stage for awful things we can not at this point even imagine. It may be that history has something to tell us after all. -

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Campaign financing

From our overstocked archives, a speech by your editor at a rally on the steps of the Capitol fifteen years ago

Sam Smith - I have three objections to our current system of campaign financing.

The first is literary. Being a writer I try to show respect for words, to leave their meanings untwisted and unobscured.

This is alien to much of official Washington which daily engages in an activity well described by Edgar Alan Poe. Poe said, "By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip, .... I could 'demonstrate' that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton."

For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to "to influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value, with intent to influence" to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time not so many months ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official "for or because of an official act" didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like "inappropriate gift," "the appearance of a conflict of interest," or the phrase which brings us here today: "campaign contribution."

Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, "Officer, I wasn't giving her money, I was just giving her a speech." If that doesn't work you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that "I have the right to remain silent." And so forth. I wouldn't advise it.

As George Orwell rightly warned, "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

My second objection to our system of campaign financing is economic. It's just too damn expensive for the taxpayer. The real cost is not the campaign contributions themselves. The real cost is what is paid in return out of public funds.

A case in point: Public Campaign recently reported that in 1996, when Congress voted to lift the minimum wage 90 cents an hour, business interests extracted $21 billion in custom-designed tax benefits. These business interests gave only about $36 million in campaign contributions so they got out of the public treasury nearly 600 times what they put in. And you helped pay for it.

Looked at another way, that was enough money to give 11 million workers a 90 cent an hour wage increase for a whole year -- or, to be more 1990s about it, to give 21,000 CEOs a million dollar bonus.

This is repeated over and over. For example, the oil industry in one recent year gave $23 million in campaign contributions and got nearly $9 billion in tax breaks.

The bottom line is this: if you want to save public money, support public campaign financing.

My final objection is biologic. Elections are for and between human beings. How do you tell when you're dealing with a person? Well, they bleed, burp, wiggle their toes and have sex. They register for the draft. They register to vote. They watch MTV. They go to prison and they have babies and cancer. Eventually they die and are buried or cremated.

Now this may seem obvious to you, but there are tens of thousands of lawyers and judges and politicians who simply don't believe it. They will tell you that a corporation is a person, based on a corrupt Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment from back in the robber baron era of the late 19th century -- a time in many ways not unlike our own.

Before this ruling, everyone knew what a person was just as everyone knew what a bribe was. States regulated corporations because they were legal fictions lacking not only blood and bones, but conscience, morality, and free will. But then the leg of mutton became a turnip in the eyes of the law.

Corporations say they just want to be treated like people, but that's not true. Test it out. Try to exercise your free speech on the property of a corporation just like they exercise theirs in your election. You'll find out quickly who is more of a person. We can take care of this biologic problem by applying a simple literary solution: tell the truth. A corporation is not a person and should not be allowed to be called one under the law.

I close with this thought. The people who work in the building behind us have learned to count money ahead of votes. It is time to chase the money changers out of the temple. But how? After all, getting Congress to adopt publicly funded campaigns is like trying to get the Mafia to adopt the Ten Commandments as its mission statement. I would suggest that while fighting this difficult battle there is something we can do starting tomorrow. We can pull together every decent organization and individual in communities all over America -- the churches, activist organizations, social service groups, moral business people, concerned citizens -- and begin drafting a code of conduct for politicians. We do not have to wait for any legislature.

If we do this right, if we form true broad-based coalitions of decency, then the politicians will ignore us only at their peril.

At root, dear friends, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Recovering values

Sam Smith

Last week I attended, as I have for the past quarter century, a board meeting of the Fund for Constitutional Government, which among other things, helps support the work of several groups dedicated to telling the truth about what is happening in government and other American institutions. One is the Government Accountability Project, which, among scores of other cases, is currently helping to represent Edward Snowden, but is also aiding a whistleblower at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who told CNN that 8-10% of UNC-CH revenue-sport student-athletes from 2004-12 could not read at a third-grade level.

Another is the Project on Government Oversight which gained fame uncovering Pentagon waste such as $7000 coffee makers and a $436 hammer and is still at it, recently uncovering that over the last decade, hundreds of federal prosecutors and other Justice employees violated rules, laws, or ethical standards governing their work, but whose malpractice has not been revealed.

Then there’s the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which, among many other things, helped to get rid of the TSA scanners that digitally stripped searched passengers.

These are among the great unsung heroes of Washington and I leave these meetings both inspired, but also somewhat depressed, because over the past quarter century the willingness and/or ability of America – from top down – to react wisely and honorably to such revelations has noticeably declined.

The recent news about NSA’s unconstitutional mass spying on American’s phone use is but one example and demonstrates an underlying evil of such violations of our rights: people become used to what they experience.

For example, four years before 9/11, I wrote in The Great American Political Repair Manual:

“We, too, think we are free. But let's review the bidding. Here are some restrictions on American freedoms that are less than a generation old, each instituted, we were told, to protect us from a danger, a crisis or a threat to national security:
· Roadblocks as part of random searches for drivers who have been drinking or using drugs

· The extensive use of the military in civilian law enforcement, particularly in the war on drugs

· Black school children in Prince George's County MD are being taught by the police how to behave when stopped or arrested. It is assumed by both school officials and the cops that it will happen

· The use of handcuffs on persons accused of minor offenses and moving violations

· Jump-out squads that leap from police vehicles and search nearby citizens

· Much greater use of wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance

· Punishment before trial such as pre-trial detention and civil forfeiture of property

· Punishment of those not directly involved in offenses, such as parents being held responsible for the actions of their children, employers being required to enforce immigration laws, and bartenders being made to enforce drinking laws

· Warrantless searches of persons and property before entering buildings, boarding planes, or using various public facilities

· Closing of public buildings or parts of buildings to the public on security grounds

· Increased restrictions on student speech, behavior, and clothing

· Increased mandatory use of IDs

· Increasing restrictions on attorney-client privacy

· Greatly increased government access to personal financial records

· Loss of a once widely presumed guarantee of confidentiality in dealings with businesses, doctors, accountants, and banks

· The greatest incarceration rate of any industrialized country in the world

· Mandatory sentencing for minor offenses, particularly marijuana possession

· Increased surveillance of employees in the workplace

· Laws in 11 states that make it a crime to suggest that a particular food is unsafe without a "sound scientific basis" for the claim

· Random traffic stops of blacks are so frequent that the drivers are sometimes said to have been stopped for DWB -- driving while black

· Increased use of charges involving offenses allegedly committed after a person has been halted by a police officer, such as failure to obey a lawful order

· Widespread youth curfews

· Expanded definition of pornography and laws against it

· Greatly increased use of private police forces by corporations

· Persons being forced to take part in line-ups because of some similarity to actual suspect

· Loss of control over how personal information is used by business companies

· Eviction of tenants from homes where police believe drugs are being sold

· Public housing projects being sealed to conduct home-to-home searches

· Use of stereotypical profiles (including racial characteristics) to justify police searches

· Seizure of lawyers' fees in drug cases

· Warrantless searches and questioning of bus, train, and airline passengers

· Random searches of school lockers

· Random searches of cars in school parking lots

· Increased number of activities requiring extensive personal investigation and disclosure

· Lack of privacy in transactions such as video rental or computer use

· Video surveillance of sidewalks, parks and other public spaces

· Involuntary drug testing increasingly used as a prerequisite for routine activities such as earning a livelihood or playing on a sports team

· Steady erosion by the courts of protection against search and seizure
As you read this list and find yourself occasionally saying something like, ‘So, what’s strange about that?, you are illustrating the change in your own life that has taken place within a couple of decades. The disturbing, the unreasonable, and the unconstitutional have increasingly become the normal.

This is the tremendous problem against which organizations like GAP, POGO and EPIC struggle. When you blow the whistle, someone has to hear it and be moved into action.

Government and corporations have obviously been the worst offenders in redefining the normal, but there are others that attract less attention, such as the media, churches, and educational institutions.

How do we retain our democracy if our children’s schooling is reduced to learning to pass endless tests in time that once was devoted to things like American history. democracy and civics? How effective can watchdogs be if the media becomes just a bunch of power-lapping puppies? And how are the corrupt greedster values of politics and corporations challenged if the former heartland of values such as churches. community leaders and universities are so silent or afraid?

The dominant values of America today are far more likely to come from a business school curriculum than from teachings of honor and integrity. Without the latter values, the work of whistleblowers and watchdogs is greatly diminished in effectiveness. And if the media will not report such values’ existence, then the wrong becomes the norm.

There are still a huge number of good people in America but they need to find new ways to make themselves heard. For example, communities can come together – businesses, activists, churches etc. –and create a code of conduct for politicians. It need only cover those issues that most decent citizens agree about. Those politicians who pledge to follow these principles – regardless of their policy differences – could indicate this support. And Pope Francis has shown how churches can reintroduce the importance of integrity.

In other words, citizens must find ways to organize not just around issues but around decent values just as the American right has organized around false, cruel and indecent ones. Not just around the minimum wage but around maximum honor. Perhaps then, even the mass media might hear.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Why being first may not be much

Sam Smith - A recent Gallup poll finds Americans think the most positive thing about a Hillary Clinton presidency would be her serving as the nation's first female president. But then they felt the same way about Barack Obama being the first black president and things haven’t quite worked out as well as expected.

I suspect that Jackie Robinson made us unduly optimistic about such matters, for, in fact, being first in no way guarantees that one will be best, or even good.

For example, if you truly believe in equality amongst ethnicities and genders then one has to assume that saints and sinners will be equitably distributed within such categories, in which case the first at the gate may only be a successful hustler rather than an admirable role model.

Of course, it can be argued that, at least, being first opens the gate for others of a similar ilk, but it doesn’t always work that way. For example, a new black candidate for president would undoubtedly have to spend considerable time explaining why he or she was different than Barack Obama. 

It was fascinating, in the Obama instance, how the first at the gate mythology overwhelmed his actual story, such as his lack of significant achievement, his promotion by the anti-liberal Democracy Leadership Council, and the fact that the only election he had lost was to another black man, a former member of SNCC and the Black Panthers. Bobby Rush, who has represented his congressional district for over 20 years, described his opponent this way: “Barack Obama went to Harvard and became an educated fool. Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it." Obama got only 30% of the vote, relying heavily on whites in Hyde Park.

But none of this was talked about in his presidential effort. Portrayed as an heir of Martin Luther King come finally to the voting booth, he was in fact a run of the mill manipulator of favorable circumstances. 

Furthermore, the record since then shows that breaking glass ceilings doesn't necessarily meaning opening more doors. The unemployment rate for blacks, for example, has moved down only slightly since Obama took office. And the poverty rate for blacks has gone up.
 

Hillary Clinton’s inconsistent story is even more dramatic. Not only is she extraordinarily thin on achievements (other than promoting herself), her past is hardly one around which to celebrate gender liberation. With three of her business partners gone to prison, five of her major funders convicted of - or pleading guilty to - crimes, a compliant six years on the board of the anti-woman, anti-union Wal Mart, the subject of a number of serious and potentially criminal investigations, and a record far more in tune with the corrupt culture of Arkansas than with dreams of a new America, there is little reason she would even be considered for the job if she were a man.  Add to the fact, that if elected, she would be matched only by Richard Nixon and her husband in her shady past, it hardly seems the best way to enter a new era.

But we live in a time in which fantasy has overwhelmed reality. We consider Crimea more important than climate, fame more important than achievement, words more important than action, and power more important than integrity  - and something for the media to celebrate rather than question.

We no longer do anything as wise and simple as happened with Jackie Robinson before choosing him as  the first of something new: check his batting record.