Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The righteous role of church basements

Sam Smith

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 nicer way of expressing it. For example, one of their meetings explains it this way: “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: religious leaders who translated their varied beliefs into common action and left faith in the back pew.

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. He even obtained  a grant from a local Lutheran Church to get me going. Neither the minister nor the church questioned my lack of religious faith because it was clear we shared values and goals.

By the time the 1960s were over, I had worked with about a dozen preachers, some of whom would seem strikingly odd 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 Catholic priests. I once stuffed $20 bucks into the pocket of a handcuffed Presbyterian minister arrested in a protest so he could use it for bail. And there was a black minister who was also a cab driver and wore his waist change maker while preaching. 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.

Among the assets of some of these preachers were basement meeting rooms in their churches. During the scores of times I found myself in such rooms, we pressed anti-war protests, started the DC Statehood Party, began a bi-racial pre-school, and upped the ultimately successful battle against freeways in DC.  And no one made you recite a creed before the meetings began.

When I try to figure out why this seems a bit strange today, a number of things come to mind. One has been the huge influence of evangelical churches on our definition of religion, especially in the media. Until Pope Francis came along, think how rarely we’ve heard about non-evangelical activism in recent years. In more than a few ways, conventional Christians had let evangelicals define religion. 

The other factor is what might be called the non-profit moat. As sources of funding for non-profits have become more complex and difficult, the caution of those seeking the funds has greatly increased. This has affected secular non-profits as well, but there is no doubt that churches are much more cautious than they were a few decades ago.

But there are a couple of other factors as well. One is that interest in religion is declining in America as demonstrated in recent Pew survey.

 And this is particularly true among the young.

Thus if religion doesn’t find new ways to reach out to other Americans, it may be in serious trouble.

Then there is the growth of what in Latin America is called a culture of impunity. As I have described it:

In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, and at best practices only titular democracy. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself.
In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.
One of the aspects of such a culture is that the media becomes far more interested in the exercise of power rather than the values behind it. The greedsters win because of their power rather than because of logic or virtue.
Churches are among the few places where an alternative culture can still be built.  But they must move beyond the safety of declared theological virtue and faith and share their physical, moral and mental space with those of similar values and goals. They did this so well during the civil rights and anti-war movement and they can do it again. And a lot of it begins in the church basement.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Galaxy Update: The Clingons & the Process People on Planet Potomac

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2003 -   The two most powerful subcultures on Planet Potomac are the Clingons and the Process People.

The former got their name from their skill in hanging onto various branches of power with one hand while speaking on the phone with the other, valiantly ignoring the laws of gravity, ecological factors, common sense, and all the non-Clingons grabbing at their feet and trying to pull them to the ground.

While the Clingons traditionally exercised their power at will, typically to the distress of the humanoid serfs on the planet and elsewhere, in the past decade or so they have been so successfully challenged and infiltrated by the Process People that it is increasingly difficult to tell them apart.

Whereas older Clingons liked to brag about what they actually did, the newer ilk discovered that the Process People had it much easier for they didn't actually have to do anything - they just talked about it. They have also changed the nature of language so that adjectives have become nouns, numbers have become adjectives, and reality is but a mission statement away.

On an average day this doesn't matter much. There are enough humanoid serfs around to actually do what needs to be done, so the elites can concentrate on impacting, strategizing, partnering, thinking, reporting, commenting and holding conferences about what is happening. Where this breaks down, however, is when the things that need to get done suddenly become too large and too real - as on September 11 or when someone decides to start a war.

The response of the Clingons to September 11 reflected their subversion by the Process People: the first thing they thought of was to create a new bureaucracy second only to that of the Pentagon. Their assumption that this would make us safe illustrates what happens to the brain after years of inactivity. Like higher functioning autistics, the neo-Clingons could only recycle what already filled their minds and perseverate about it rather than respond in a pragmatic and rational fashion based on judgment, perception, and experience, informed and adjusted by the actual situation in which they found themselves.

Thus we were presented with a series of suggestions - some of them deadly, some just silly - about how we might react to a bio-chemical attack. The local colonial government - long in the grips of the Process People - even inexplicably suggested that pet owners stock up a longer supply of food for their animals than for themselves and the city's health department went out and hired one of the city's least effective ex-mayors to conceptualize, integrate, and communicate its own anti-terrorism strategy for a mere $236,000.

The Washington Post reported that a D.C. official acknowledged that former mayor Sharon Pratt did not know "specifically" about bio-terrorism. On the other hand, according to the contract, her five-year-old consulting company "has the capability to provide the necessary expertise based on its established relationships." Which is to say, it's not what you know, but who.

Said a department official, "She came with some big management expertise before she was mayor. We needed someone to represent and to think strategically as to how, where and what we need to do to interact with that office."

When, on a subsequent talk show, I pressed her as to how many emergency beds would be available in town should a bio-chemical crisis arise an hour from now, she was unable to give me an answer but said that officials were attempting to improve "surge capacity," not to mention planning for "syndromic disease surveillance programs."

Under the agreement, Pratt is to meet with high-level government officials and write a report outlining opportunities and tentative communications and resource-sharing agreements. The report is to include timelines for achieving collaborative goals and solutions to potential obstacles.

But, when the bomb goes off, who has time for achieving collaborative goals?

What is far more frightening though, and more immediately relevant, is that the Process People have also taken over key elements of our military. This has been going on for some time, although still not generally recognized. As early as the late 1980s, the Pentagon began talking about things such as a "generic composite peer competitor," "myriad formless threats,' and even an "asymmetrical niche opponent." If only we had only known then that they were thinking about Iraq.

Today many of our top generals are verbally barely distinguishable from your average management consultant. Take, for example, that former haven for plain talk, the Coast Guard. Its current commandant, Admiral Thomas Collins, in just one recent speech, managed to use the following phrases:
Comprehensive legislative framework to enhance. . . systematic approach . . . assessing vulnerabilities. . . protecting vital infrastructure, partnering with others at home and abroad. . . acquire and build Critical Security Capabilities. . . prepare our forces to transition easily "Between homeland security and homeland defense operations. . . sustain a lasting partnership between the military and law enforcement communities. . . flexibility to embrace necessary change, while maintaining vital continuity in service, is crucial to our enduring commitment to operational excellence.
It was especially comforting to know that "we have developed state-of-the-art techniques for assessing crew endurance risks; we have instituted new crew endurance management principles into our operational doctrines." If Admiral Collins had been around at the right time, the Lifesaving Service would have undoubtedly been called the US Maritime Endurance Management Collaborative.

This sort of gobblygook has spread throughout the military so that we now hear grown men with lots of medals talking about a 'robust battlefield environment; a commander complaining that "the enemy we're fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against," and a Pentagon representative reassuring us that the Secretary of Defense believes in "a mix of services and capabilities they offer."

While such language is initially used as a way to deceive others, it soon becomes a form of self-deception because it is based to an extraordinary degree on abstract and ultimately meaningless euphemisms. Language forms the structure of thought and increasingly in Washington that structure, even in the military, is one of cards rather than of bricks.
Reality becomes indistinguishable from the mushily contrived.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The real issue behind gay marriage

Sam Smith – The gay marriage case before the Supreme Court is not really about gay marriage as much as it is about something that isn’t being talked about much: freedom of religion.

The Constitution calls upon the government to make no law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

If there was true freedom of religion in this country, it is clear that gay marriage would be legal everywhere.

Once you remove the legal gobbledygook from the arguments, what is driving the efforts against gay marriage is a small group of Chistian evangelists.

A recent poll, for example, find that even 60% of Catholics support gay marriage as do 62% of mainline white Protestants, 77% of Jews, 84% of Buddhists and 55% of Hindus. Another poll found that even 40% of evangelical millennials support it and 60% of Republican millennials under 30.

Among the religions approving or accepting gay marriage to some degree one finds Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, and Unitarians. There is even acceptance in American Indian culture – the concept of two spirit people as described by Wikipedia:

Not all tribes have rigid gender roles, but, among those that do, some consider there to be at least four genders: masculine man, feminine man, masculine woman, feminine woman. The presence of male-bodied two-spirits "was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples" and, according to Will Roscoe, both male- and female-bodied two-spirits have been documented "in over 130 North America tribes, in every region of the continent."

Which pretty much leaves you with evangelical Christians, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, Orthodox Jews, Theravada Buddhists and Catholic officials (albeit not a majority of their congregation) who think gay marriage is unacceptable or evil.

The opponents like to cite tradition in defense of their position, but in reality the tradition they are speaking of is a religious one based on the faith to which they belong. And there is no way tradition should get to trump the Constitution in court.

Thus, should the Supreme Court rule against universal gay marriage, it essentially will be granting superior legal status to some religions over others. If you are a running water Baptist in Alabama your view on this religious matter will carry the force of law while Unitarians will have to accept your view or move to another state

And that’s about as unconstitutional as it gets.

My easy and fully legal alternative, as I have noted before: if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry a gay.   

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why is Hilary Clinton in so much trouble so early?

Sam Smith – I confess I’ve been a bit startled by all the trouble that Hillary Clinton has found herself in more than a year before she’s due to be nominated at her party convention.

Even the stupid Republican stuff – like the Benghazi incident – has gained a prominence you wouldn’t have expected if the Secretary of State had been, say, Bill Clinton. And the email controversy isn’t the sort of issue you would expect a clever politician to let come to the fore so easily and with so many bad answers.

But then as I thought about it more, I realized that there has been a noticeable difference in the way Hillary Clinton and her husband handle their curves and cons . HRC actually has a long history of not doing it all that well while WJC seems to get away with everything.

One theory I’ve come up with is that to be a really good hustler you have to have grown up around hustlers and see life as a perpetual con rather than an entitlement.

One of Bill Clinton’s early national cons, for example, was that he had been raised in a place called Hope. The problem with this is that when he was seven years old his family moved to Hot Springs, a fact that rarely would get mentioned in the media.

Hot Springs is where Al Capone is said to have had permanent rights to suite 443 of the Arlington Hotel. Clinton's stepfather was a gun-brandishing alcoholic who lost his Buick franchise through mismanagement and his own pilfering. He physically abused his family, including the young Bill. His mother was a heavy gambler with mob ties. According to FBI and local police officials, his Uncle Raymond -- to whom young Bill turned for wisdom and support -- was a colorful car dealer, slot machine owner and gambling operator, who thrived (except when his house is firebombed) on the fault line of criminality.

Paul Bosson, a Hot Springs prosecutor, put it this way: “In Hot Springs, growing up here, you were living a lie. You lived a lie because you knew that all of these activities were illegal. I mean, as soon as you got old enough to be able to read a newspaper, you knew that gambling in Arkansas was illegal, prostitution was illegal. And so you lived this lie, so you have to find some way to justify that to yourself and, you know, you justify it by saying, Well,’ you know, ‘it's okay here.’"

As Clinton’s mother, Virginia Kelly once said, “Hot Springs was so different. We had wide-open gambling, for one thing, and it was so wide open that it never occurred to me that it was illegal - it really didn't - until it came to a vote about whether we were going to legalize gambling or not. I never was so shocked.”

Going back the 1930s, Hot Springs represented the western border of organized crime in the U.S with the local syndicate headed by Owney Madden, a New York killer who had taken over the mob's resort in Arkansas. Owney Madden was an English born gang member who had been arrested more than 40 times in New York by the time he was 21. Madden got the assignment from his boss, Myer Lansky. The plan for Arkansas was modeled on an earlier one in which Governor Huey Long opened a Swiss bank account into which the mob would put $3 to $4 million annually for the right to run casinos in the state. Lansky then moved to Hot Springs where he hired Madden, former operator of Harlem's Cotton Club. According to one account, "The Hot Springs set up was so luxurious and safe that it became known as a place for gangsters on the lam to hole up until the heat blew over." And Hot Springs was where Lucky Luciano was arrested and brought back for trial prosecuted by Thomas E.Dewey.

Now compare this with Hillary Clinton’s childhood as described in Wikipedia:
Hillary Diane Rodham … was raised in a United Methodist family, first in Chicago and then, from the age of three, in suburban Park Ridge, Illinois. Her father, Hugh Ellsworth Rodham, was of Welsh and English descent; he managed a successful small business in the textile industry. .. As a child, Hillary Rodham was a teacher's favorite at her public schools in Park Ridge. She participated in sports such as swimming and baseball and earned numerous awards as a Brownie and Girl Scout. She attended Maine East High School, where she participated in student council, the school newspaper, and was selected for National Honor Society. For her senior year, she was redistricted to Maine South High School, where she was a National Merit Finalist and graduated in the top five percent of her class of 1965.
When you consider the pair’s subsequent history it’s becomes clear that while Bill was a street hustler and, as Senator Bob Kerry said in 1996, “an exceptionally good liar,” Hillary dealt with her crises as though they were a challenge to entitlements resulting from all her achievements. Thus those who questioned her activities were “haters” or part of a “vast right wing conspiracy."

To be a victim of a conspiracy against you and your husband is one thing; for it to become vast seems somewhat narcissistic.

Her hyper-self assessment led her at one point, Brian Wiliams style, to claim on New Zealand television that she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary. At the time of Mrs. Clinton's birth, Edmund Hillary was an unknown beekeeper.

This was not the only time this sort of thing happened. In 2009 the Times of London reported:
Hillary Clinton . . . was back in Belfast last week, giving a gentle push to politicians dragging their heels over a final piece in the peace process jigsaw. But according to the Sunday Life newspaper, during a speech she made to the Stormont parliament, she said that Belfast's landmark Europa Hotel was devastated by an explosion when she first stayed there in 1995.

The Europa, where most journalists covering the decades-long conflict stayed, was famed as Europe's most bombed hotel, earning the moniker "the Hardboard Hotel". However, the last Provisional IRA bomb to damage the Europa was detonated in 1993, two years before President Clinton and his wife checked in for the night. The last time the Europa underwent renovations because of bomb blast damage was in January 1994, 22 months before the presidential entourage booked 110 rooms at the hotel.

Mrs Clinton told assembled politicians at Stormont: "When Bill and I first came to Belfast we stayed at the Europa Hotel . . . even though then there were sections boarded up because of damage from bombs."
And describing her visit to Bosnia, she said, "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport but we just ran with our heads down to get in the vehicles to get to our base." After archive news footage was shown of her walking calmly from her plane with her daughter, Hillary Clinton admitted: "I did mis-speak the other day”

Thus it is not surprising some questioned other claims such as:
  • · She played pickup basketball when she was young
  • · Telling New York voters that she had been a Yankees fan when she lived in Chicago.
  • · Telling upstate New York voters that she had been a duck hunter.
And then there has been the constant rearrangement of reality. For example, in 1997 HRC was pictured reading to sick kids. The problem: sick children don't look that cute, especially those who are bald from cancer treatments or fitted out with tubes and such. The solution: replace the sick children with well versions belonging to the hospital staff. It worked beautifully.

And then there is the repeated specification of reality such as reported by Laura Myers in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:
Hillary Rodham Clinton likes to travel in style. She insists on staying in the “presidential suite” of luxury hotels that she chooses anywhere in the world, including Las Vegas. She usually requires those who pay her six-figure fees for speeches to also provide a private jet for transportation — only a $39 million, 16-passenger Gulfstream G450 or larger will do.

And she doesn’t travel alone, relying on an entourage of a couple of “travel aides,” and a couple of advance staffers who check out her speech site in the days leading up to her appearance, much like a White House trip, according to her contract and supporting documents concerning her Oct. 13 speech at a University of Nevada, Las Vegas Foundation fundraiser.

.... Documents obtained by the newspaper show that she initially asked for $300,000 and reveal that she insists on controlling every detail of the private event, large and small, to ensure that she will be the center of attention.

“It is agreed that Speaker will be the only person on the stage during her remarks,” according to the May 13 contract the Harry Walker Agency signed for Clinton’s keynote address at the Bellagio.

According to her standard speaking contract, Clinton will remain at the event no longer than 90 minutes; will pose for no more than 50 photos with no more than 100 people; and won’t allow any press coverage or video- or audio-taping of her speech.

The only record allowed will be made by a stenographer whose transcription will be given only to Clinton. The stenographer’s $1,250 bill, however, will go to the UNLV Foundation.

The foundation, meanwhile, is prohibited from advertising the event on radio, TV or billboards. Mail and website ads are allowed, although Clinton staffers must approve in writing any promotional material. One unhappy UNLV Foundation official in an email complained of “meddling” after Clinton’s agency edited a description of the annual dinner to “dumb it down.”

And Clinton’s demand for approval of all website material before it hits the Internet prompted a UNLV Web designer to grouse in an email that it seems “assbackwards in my mind.”

According to a May 31, 2013 email, Clinton’s standard contract usually includes... Hotel accommodations selected by Clinton’s staff and including “a presidential suite for Secretary Clinton and up to three (3) adjoining or contiguous single rooms for her travel aides and up to two (2) additional single rooms for the advance staff.”
And there is a long history of treating criticism not with countering facts but as if it were a personal affront to someone above such criticism.

During the 1992 campaign, Hillary Clinton defended her role in the Madison Guarantee S&L scandal by saying, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was pursue my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."

Forgotten, however, is what inspired this homily: accusations that Ms. Clinton had represented Whitewater business partner Jim McDougal's S&L before her husband's government. Here's what the New York Times reported on March 17, 1992: "Hillary Clinton said today that she did not earn 'a penny' from state business conducted by her Little Rock law firm and that she never intervened with state regulators on behalf of a failed Arkansas savings and loan association. . . "

Records would show that she did, in fact, represent Madison before the state securities department. After the revelation, she says, "For goodness sakes, you can't be a lawyer if you don't represent banks."

Finally, there is a curious indifference to how others might respond to her concealing information. For example, long before her 5,000 missing emails cropped up, in 1996 she talked to Jim Lehrer on PBS News Hour about the problem:
JIM LEHRER: Are you keeping a diary? Are you keeping good notes on what's happened to you?

HILLARY CLINTON: Heavens no! It would get subpoenaed. I can't write anything down. (laughing)

JIM LEHRER: So well, when it comes time to write this book, you're just going to sit down and try to remember all this?

HILLARY CLINTON: I have tons of, you know, schedules and information and all that stuff, but you know, there's been a real crimp put in history by these absurd investigations that have gone on where people, you know, don't even want to, you know, say I had dinner last night with--because if you say that, the person you had dinner with is likely to get called before some committee somewhere.
She added that her comments would be used to "go after and persecute every friend of mine, everybody I've ever talked with, everyone I've had a conversation with. ~ It's very sad."

Which may explain why she had to pay Barbara Feinman $120,000 to ghostwrite It Takes a Whole Village, albeit without credit and even claiming in the preface: "It takes a village to bring a book into the world, as everyone who has written one knows. Many people have helped me to complete this one, sometimes without even knowing it. They are so numerous that I will not even attempt to acknowledge them individually, for fear that I might leave one out."

The thing that all these tales have in common is that a really good hustler would have done it far better. Mixing ego and con just doesn’t work well. Which is why Hillary Clinton finds herself in so much trouble so early in the campaign.

I know her husband hasn’t been all that faithful, but maybe in such matters, he could give her some good advice.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The biggest threat to America: Ourselves

Sam Smith 20011 - Based on facts and not posturing, the greatest damage to the United States over the past decade has been done by its politicians and their embedded media rather than Al Qaeda and similar groups. For example:

- During this period the United States government has not taken a single significant step to reduce hostility towards it in the Muslim world, thereby serving as a continuous de facto recruiting tool for Al Qaeda et al. After all, the best way to reduce the appeal of the most extreme is to meet the concerns of the most rational.

- Excessive spending for unnecessary and counterproductive military conflict has done far more damage to the country's fiscal state than Al Qaeda could even imagine.

- The dismantling of the Constitution and the steady drift towards a police state damages our safety or freedoms, and supports the arguments of Al Qaeda et al.

- Finally, and hardly ever mentioned, the US government has been over three times more deadly to its citizens due to its policies than has Al Qaeda and similar groups. In addition, as this rare and remarkable 2009 chart by Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy illustrates, we have also killed over a quarter million Muslims, hardly a good approach to a safer America.

In short, our policies over the past decade have been probably the most counterproductive and damaging to the country we claim to be defending that America has ever pursued.

What too many journalists no longer understand about corruption

Sam Smith - At some point in recent decades, Washington - from the White House to Capitol Hill to the lobbyists and to the media - adopted a novel notion: that if what you do fails to result in indictment or impeachment, it is okay.

These are the rules our capital city currently observes. As any normal parent or teacher knows, however, it is not a particularly good approach to morality. Nonetheless, it's just fine with people like Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast, witness this item:
Clinton has been in our faces for 20-plus years. Where is any evidence of real corruption? I don’t mean stuff you may not have liked or that kinda looked funny. I mean actual, Rhode-Island-style, steal-a-hot-stove corruption.

Don’t say Whitewater. She endured millions of dollars’ worth of investigations by a prosecutor (Ken Starr) who quite obviously wanted to nail her to the wall, and he came up with nothing. I still remember, by the way, the hopped-up political atmosphere after Bill Safire wrote a column calling her a “congenital liar” and predicted that she was going to be indicted any day now. It was not unlike the mood this week, as we anticipate The New York Times and The Washington Post’s reducing themselves into effectively collaborating with Fox News to trumpet Peter Schweizer’s book, Clinton Cash. But Safire was wrong, as he in fact so often was about so many things, and Starr never got her.

Cattle futures, billing records—it’s all the same. Thousands of people, people who hate her and want to see her thrown in jail, have been over and over and over these things. I know the fact that she walks freely among us suggests to many people that she and Bill are so brilliantly devious that they always knew exactly how to get away with it. But just maybe Occam’s Razor applies here, and she’s never done anything illegal.
And Tomasky is not alone. For example a recent  Quinnipiac poll reports:
American voters say 54 - 38 percent that Clinton is not honest and trustworthy, a lower score than top Republicans. Voters say 62 - 34 percent that she has strong leadership qualities, besting Republican men by margins of 10 percentage points or higher.
Extrapolate that and you find that only a little more than a third of voters see honesty and trustworthiness as a strong leadership quality.  Which tells a lot about our times.

Having lived in the Rhode Island cited by Tomasky, as well as in places like Boston and Philadelphia when I was young. I can assure you that, on average, political corruption is an offense that is fun to talk about and, theoretically, indictable, but hardly ever indicted.

Until the last couple of decades, every self respecting reporter understood that. Now, according to the media and our political leaders, as long as you're not arrested you're okay.

Which is one more thing that makes being a parent or a teacher so hard these days.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What baseball and poker can teach us about climate change

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2009  - One thing is clear as the climate change debate chugs along: we need to teach math better in our schools. And it wouldn't hurt if journalism schools taught some math as well.

For example, it is apparent that those who argue that one good snow storm destroys the case for climate change never got a good introduction to odds and averages.

An exception seems to be baseball. I have never heard a critic of ecological theory argue that a good hitter's failure to get to base in a particular game indicates that he should be immediately traded. Sometimes it's because he swings badly and sometimes because the pitch is low and outside, but nobody says that's proof he's a bad hitter.

Yet, have one cold winter and they want to dump climate change.

I'm mystified by this. My only explanation is that sports writers have done a far better job getting people to understand (or just accept) things like odds and averages than scientists or journalists. The unfortunate thing is that too many seem to think they only apply to sports.

Maybe we should have a Monday Night Climate Countdown on TV.

There are some other people good at figuring out odds and averages, such as poker players.

In 1997, I offered a poker player's guide to environmental risk assessment. Key points included:
1. Figure the stakes as well as the odds.

2. The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations - especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium - it is the latter odds that are important.

3. When confronted with conflicting odds, ask what happens if each projection is wrong. Temporary job loss because of environmental restrictions may come and go, but the loss of the ozone layer is something you can have forever.

4. When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don't have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time - or with the economy or with the environment - that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.

5. Don't let anyone - in industry, government, or the media - define an "acceptable level of risk" for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.

6. If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can't stand the pain, don't attempt the gain.
So if someone tells you that the snow outside proves there's no global warming, remind them that this year, Albert Pujols  - six-time Silver Slugger who has led the National League in home runs, batting average, doubles and RBI - only got a hit 33% of the time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How you became the enemy

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 1997 - At the end of the Cold War, a top Soviet official promised America one last horrible surprise. We are, he said, going to deprive you of an enemy. The official turned out to be more perceptive about American politics than many in Washington. In at least one Pentagon office there is still a sign that reads: WANTED: A GOOD ENEMY.

Mostly unreported, America's political and military planners have been working hard developing an external threat to compensate for the disappearance of the USSR. Although in the short run, the Pentagon has been remarkably successful in exempting itself from the deficit-cutting hysteria, there is always the danger that the public and politicians might start asking too many questions. Even those defense contractors whose basic expertise is the creation of weapon cost overruns are hedging their bets. A slew of these companies, for example, are bidding to take over the Texas social welfare system, thus diversifying from one form of human misery to another.

Lately the military's dilemma has come a bit more out in the open thanks to something called the Quadrennial Defense Review, a sort of Olympics of Pentagon budgetary navel gazing. In the subsequent angst as displayed in policy papers, conferences, and trade journals, it still appears that the military and foreign policy junkies lack a decent foe.

So uncertain is their trumpet, in fact, that planners have been forced to resort to abstractions that are not only uninformative, they are truly absurd. I am not speaking of euphemisms, mind you, for a euphemism is word or phrase substituted for something else. In this case, there is no something, at least until around 2010 when it is optimistically projected that a non-euphemistic enemy might actually emerge.

In the meanwhile, we just have to make do with -- and spend hundreds of billions to protect ourselves against -- a generic composite peer competitor, myriad formless threats, or even, god forbid, an asymmetrical niche opponent. (What did you do in the last war, daddy? Well, son, I killed 14 generic composite peer competitors and would have wasted more if a frigging asymmetrical niche opponent hadn't got me in the chest.)

To produce a justification for defending against such gossamer threats, retired Vice Admiral John Shannahan of the Center for Defense Information notes that the Department of Defense has "day by day, hour by hour plans" to make sure that its version of the quadrennial defense review is reflected in federal appropriations and the public prints. As every Pentagon official knows, the most predictable threat to the American military is the budget cycle. Franklin C. Spinney, a top DOD budget analyst who has recused himself from the current charade, describes his colleagues as busy changing charts and changing colors on the changing charts as they plan for the future. "They're off in virtual reality," he suggests.

Toys, not boys

For all the new jargon, there is something strangely familiar about it all. In fact, the QDR is at heart a repackaging of military modernization plans first created in the last days of the Cold War. Much of it has little to do with defending America from enemies known and unknown. Rather, argue critics, its purpose is to manufacture threats to justify the current force structure -- including the 45% of the military (more than 600,000 people) who perform non-combat functions (such as preparing charts for the Quadrennial Defense Review).

The QDR is propelled by budgets, not strategy. Not only that, it is driven by a particular sort of budget, exemplified by another poster found recently at military bases to advertise Armed Forces Day. The sign shows ships (including, strangely, an obsolete battleship), planes and tanks, but absolutely no human beings. This is fitting because the modern military is not so much about fighting men and women as about equipment sold to the military by corporate men and women. The saying is that it's about "toys, not boys."

The Pentagon lobbyists and their contractors are brilliant at keeping this DOD money machine churning. They have even revived Star Wars, that megabuck fraud of the Reagan era well described as a system that doesn't work designed to be used against a threat that doesn't exist.
We will protect your purchasing power -- Budget director Franklin Raines to a meeting of high-level Pentagon officials.
More modest goals include selling Congress hugely expensive weapon systems on the specious grounds that they will be cheaper to operate than older versions. By the time Congress discovers that the operating cost estimates are wrong (something it might have surmised if it had used common sense instead of lobbyists' press releases) the defense contractors involved are billions richer and ready to recycle the scam one more time. The stakes are not insignificant. A typical fighter plane at the end of the Cold War cost about $28 million. Ten years from now, your run-of-the-mill fighter will set you back $88 million.

Waiting for Godzilla

Of course, just as people really can be out to get paranoids, so even a rampantly misguided military establishment can really face some serious threats. This fact raises America's military myopia from absurdity into the realm of justifiable concern.

An open discussion of such threats, however, is virtually impossible. Even the right to talk about such things is a tightly held prerogative of the mandarin class. The Council of Foreign Relations, a cult-like like organization that journalist Richard Hardwood approvingly calls "the nearest thing to a ruling establishment in America," routinely holds meetings at which participants (including guests) are prohibited from speaking about what transpired.

It's not that one would really want to listen to much of it. The men and women who have designated themselves the guardians of America's future policies are among the most boring and unimaginative folk one finds in Washington. Many are like those described by LBJ as having gone to Princeton and ended up in the CIA because their daddies wouldn't let them into the brokerage firm. Still it is not too comforting to realize that in the quiet places of Washington, the first half of the 21st century (as they never tire of calling what the rest of us call the future) is in the hands of the conceptually dyslectic.

And the media is not about to challenge these folk. One good reason may be found in a 1995 membership roster of the Council on Foreign Relations as reported by Public Information Research. Here are just a few of the media CFRers:
Roone Arledge, Sidney Blumenthal, David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, William F. Buckley Jr., Hodding Carter III, John Chancellor, Arnaud de Borchgave, Joan Didion, Leonard Downie Jr., Elizabeth Drew, Rowland Evans Jr., James Fallows, Leslie Gelb, David Gergen, Katharine Graham, Meg Greenfield, Jim Hoagland, Warren Hoge, David Ignatius, Robert Kaiser, Marvin Kalb, Joe Klein, Morton Kondrake, Charles Krauthammer, Irving Kristol, Jim Lehrer, Anthony Lewis, Michael Lind, Jessica Matthews, Jack Nelson, Walter Pincus, Norman Podhoretz, Dan Rather, Stephen Rosenfeld, A. M. Rosenthal, Diane Sawyer, Hederick Smith, Laurence Tish, Garrick Utley, Katrina vander Heuval, Milton Viorst, Ben Wattenberg, Lally Weymouth, Roger Wilkins, and Mortimer Zuckerman.
Ask any of these people what went on at their last CFR tête-à-tête and you'll probably find their concern for a free press rapidly evaporating. Katherine Graham, for example, once told a CIA gathering: "There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn't."

There are substantial implications to all this. If, for example, the CFR puts out a report decrying restraints on the CIA, may we infer that the aforementioned concur? If not, how many have publicly stated their disagreement? How, in fact, can we tell what is going on if foreign policy discussions are handled in the manner of meetings of the Masons, Montana Militia, or Skull & Bones?

The rest of the liberal establishment, for its part, is sometimes willing to challenge the Pentagon on cost grounds, but becomes considerably more befuddled when considering strategy and downright timid when confronted with growing evidence of military intervention in civilian life.

Part of the problem stems from the lack of a coherent liberal foreign strategy short of supporting the UN, Israel and Nelson Mandela. Part of it stems from the chronic cowardice of contemporary liberalism. But the biggest challenge comes the fact that liberals have bedded down with the most right-wing president of modern times. The price for this includes going along with Clinton's schizophrenic, short-term, and amoral foreign and military policies, which are driven far more by the needs of major campaign contributors than by American interests.

Building a threat

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our policy towards China. If there is to be a real "peer competitor" in the foreseeable future, China easily makes the finals. As the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. General Patrick Hughes, told a Senate committee recently:
Overall, China is one of the few powers with the potential -- political, economic and military -- to emerge as a large scale regional threat to US interests within the next ten to twenty years. . . . In a worst-case scenario, China would view the United States as a direct military threat.
Now, if this is a fair assessment, there could be a number of reasonable responses. One might, for example, demote China to a trade category somewhat below that of most favored nation. One might be fairly strict about concessions such as permitting them only after improvements in China's treatment of its own people. One might maintain a cool civility of relations or even make bombastic noises from time to time just to stay in practice.

What one would likely not do as President -- if the opinions of the DIA director are worth a jot or a tittle -- is:
· Let persons with close ties to the Chinese government (and particularly its military) play major roles in your political fundraising machine and get access to top secret materials.

· Ship highly advanced computers and software to the Chinese.

· Help the Chinese get advanced fighter aircraft technology.

· Pretend that Tiananmen Square was just an unfortunate faux pas.
Yet the fact is that we currently have two contradictory policies towards China. One, enunciated by General Hughes and costing us hundreds of billions a year in military spending; the other, practiced by President Clinton and his political machine, in which all of America and its economy seems to have become a loss leader designed to attract the Chinese.

Admittedly, there has been similar schizophrenia in the past as when American corporations helped Hitler become enough of a "peer competitor" to launch his half of World War II. Or when large numbers of Ford tractors tilled the collective fields of Stalin's Soviet Union. Or when the Bush administration helped build up the Iraqi military prior to launching war against it.

But little as blatantly inconsistent has occurred in American history as the China policies being pursued today on either side of the Potomac River (and even in different parts of the Pentagon).

Much of the bizarre detail of this may not have reached the average reader, but examples include:

· Insight magazine reports that supercomputers were sold to China. Other hyper-high tech systems were sold to the China Academy of Science, apparently with the approval of then-Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and the director of the NSA.

· While his employees pumped up the budget to prepare for a Chinese threat, Defense Secretary William Cohen announced that working with China and Russia would be a cornerstone of his military policy. To make this clear, Cohen not only sent General Shalikashvili to Beijing (the flaggiest American officer to appear there in 14 years) but during the same period gave Russian defense secretary Igor Rodionov lunch, lengthy conferences, and a 19-gun salute.

· A 1995 GAO report found that the US had approved 67 export licenses to China for military-industrial products between 1990 and 1993, including $530 million of military-related technology.

· Israel is reported to be helping China build an advanced jet fighter using technology that originally came from the US.

· Another Chinese jet fighter, the FB-7, was started with US aid and assistance during the Reagan/Bush administration.
The vanishing nation

One of the reasons there is so little interest in the consequences of such policies is that modern governmental and media technocrats don't really believe in countries any more -- even their own. In a logic system overwhelmingly dominated by money and its passage from here to there, the nation-state has become a nostalgic anachronism, useful primarily as a symbol with which to appeal to aged members of the electorate on Memorial Day.

I would wager that President Clinton has evoked loyalty to America less than any president to date. Instead, patriotism has been replaced by such corporatist goals as being "globally competitive" or "maintaining productivity."

While the dubious history of jingoism may lead some to shrug off the decline of nationalism, if we are to be transformed from a major country into just another corporate conglomerate, shouldn't we at least be allowed to vote on the matter? Even the stockholders in leveraged buyouts get that much.

There is another and more subtle problem. As emotional ties to our country are diminished or severed, there becomes less and less reason to respect those protections, habits and ideals that have characterized America. Clinton's rampant contempt for civil liberties, while in part the product of the southern feudal culture from which he sprung, demonstrates how expendable constitutional values are in a system where the last line of the budget is considered more important than the first lines of the Bill of Rights and where next quarter's trade with China is considered infinitely more significant than the possibility that the next generation's might end up fighting it.

Once one has applied the puerile, short-ranged, soulless, and avaricious principles of modern corporatism to foreign and domestic policy, everything else becomes expendable: sovereignty, loyalty, democracy, freedom, happiness, decency, environment, and morality. o

This is not some future threat we face but our present condition. In the dollar-driven logic of Clintonism, behavior that in the Cold War would have been regarded as near treasonous is now considered business as usual. We still, in order to restrain anarchy, severely punish as spies those who sell secrets to foreign countries without higher authority. If however, the president or secretary of commerce support the transaction, we call it trade policy and make upbeat announcements about it.

Similarly, for nearly all our history, any US official who dared give up American territory without a struggle would be pilloried or worse. Yet today the greatest surrender of sovereignty in US history, our signature on the GATT agreement, is chalked up as an inevitable result of globalism.

This abandonment is not controversial, nor even readily apparent, because Americans simply have not been told that it has occurred. They do not know that their country -- which defeated in turn the British, the Mexicans, the Confederacy, the Spanish, the Germans (twice), the Japanese and outlasted the Soviet Union, has surrendered without a whimper to a junta of trade technocrats armed with nothing more menacing than cell phones.

They do not know that the US Trade Representative can go into court and sue any state or local government for pursuing policies at odds with the dictates of international trade tribunals -- policies that for more than two hundred years have been considered the rightful and righteous business of American governments. They are probably not aware that a three-member panel of the world Trade Organization has already ruled that the European Union's ban on hormone-treated beef is illegal, a ruling that could easily be replicated again and again against American local and state environmental, civil rights, and labor legislation.

The real war

How could our own government so blithely have betrayed us? How could our own media fail to note the coup? Simply because, once the rules of the game changed from a geographic to a corporate definition of international politics, citizenship, patriotism and national self-interest became irrelevant. Your value became not your nationality but your prevailing wage rate. Your country was no longer a homeland but a unit of production. In fact, to the extent that you still consider yourself a party to your government with actual rights and such, you have become at best a problem and at worst a threat.

The greatest change that has occurred in recent years in the relationship between governments and their people is the degree to which the former fears and distrusts the latter. Underlying this fear and distrust is the knowledge that the robber-baron paradigm of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era has reaped a harvest of enormous hostility. Bruce Auster, writing recently in the US News & World Report, noted:
The admirals and generals have been gathering . . . to learn what enemy the visionaries from the Central Intelligence Agency see in their future. The answer, it turns out, is not Russia or China or Iraq. It's demographics. Global Trends 2010, a classified study by the CIA 's National Intelligence Council, finds that growing populations, widening gaps between rich and poor, and continuing revolutions in communications will incite new ethnic and civil conflicts."
Another study, prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reports that "mass communications will vividly depict quality-of-life differences, leading to political instability in some places."

These studies tacitly admit what no politician will: that the policies of the past twenty years have been for the benefit of the few at the brutal expense of the many.

While little of such considerations creep into the Quadrennial Defense Review, this is largely because the means of containing alienated civilian populations are relatively inexpensive. The funds required to maintain a calming American presence in scores of countries would be hard to find on one of those DOD charts if placed next to, say, projected aircraft expenditures.

These funds support something the military calls "Operations Other Than War." OOTW covers a wealth of activities including policing urban areas, search and seizure, civil administration, peacekeeping, and supplying food.

According to an article in Commentary, in 1994 "Army units found themselves reacting to a host of OOTW and deterrence missions in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Northern Iraq, Korea, Haiti, and even in California to fight forest fires."

Many of these activities are carried out by Special Operations, the command in charge of low intensity warfare and psychological operations. According to a report in the Tampa Tribune, Special Ops -- comprised of 46,000 personnel from all three services -- averages 280 missions a week in 137 countries.

Such skills can be easily transferred from Rwanda to, say, Watts. The current militarization of American civilian life is simply Operations Other Than War in a more familiar country. Let's review the bidding:

· The National Guard is now deeply involved in the War on Drugs, from flying helicopter missions to providing logistical support for police paramilitary operations in urban areas.

· JROTC courses are now found in more than 2,200 high schools involving some 310,000 students. These courses teach not only military behavior but inculcate military biases into subjects such as American history. In Washington, DC, students per-ceived to be discipline problems have been told they were required to join JROTC.

· The military is being used to train police officers, inevitably increasing the tendency of citizens to be regarded by these officers as "the enemy."

· The military is ready to provide "overflow facilities for incarceration of those convicted of drug crimes" and "rehabilitation oriented training camps" according to DOD documents. These facilities could be as easily used for incarcerating anyone else for any other reason as well.

· The century-old posse comitatus act, designed to keep the military out of civilian law enforcement, appears to be on its last legs.

· Eight-nine percent of the county's police departments, according to a recent study, have paramilitary units and some of these are used "proactively," deliberately creating fear in minority neighborhoods.

· The military is monitoring the Internet as a potential threat and is working on plans to use the Internet for psychological warfare.

· Plans by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the 1980s to take over the country in an ill-defined emergency appear to have been only partially dismantled after being exposed in the media (including TPR). Among the most striking aspect of these emergency plans was the absence of any provision for a legislature or judiciary. In any event, a long list of presidential directives provide for a massive transfer of political power to the executive branch under uncertain circumstances and even less certain constitutional protections.

Such steps have been prepared without any public debate about who should run the country in a genuine emergency. The Constitution does not address the matter directly, but since martial law is not one of the powers delegated to federal government, it seems clear that in a catastrophe -- say a nuclear attack on Washington -- the country should properly be run by the fifty states. Unfortunately, the governors of these states do not have the power to enforce this view. In fact, their state militias -- once a jealously guarded symbol that we were indeed "united states" -- have been greatly federalized

Occupying urban America
A study reported in the academic journal Social Problems found that 89% of the over 500 police departments it surveyed had fully functioning special operations units trained and modeled on military principles. For all practical purposes, these units represent a military force whose target is American communities and citizens. Not only has the number of paramilitary police units soared but the level of their activity has exploded as well. Between 1980 and 1995, the number of incidents involving paramilitary units has quadrupled.

The study, conducted by Peter B. Kraska and Victor E. Kappeler of Eastern Kentucky University, was carefully designed to elicit the cooperation of police departments. Some police officers spoke with brutal frankness:

"We're into saturation patrols in hot spots. We do a lot of our work with the SWAT unit because we have bigger guns. We send out two, two-to-four men cars, we look for minor violations and do jump-outs either on people on the street or automobiles. After we jump-out the second car provides periphery cover with an ostentatious display of weaponry. We're sending a clear message: if the shootings don't stop, we'll shoot someone."

But are these units really going after the truly dangerous? Out of all 1995 incidents, civil disturbances and terrorist events amounted to one percent each, hostage situations 4% and barricaded persons, 13%. Conducting what the police call "high risk warrant work" (overwhelmingly drug raids) accounted for 76% of the paramilitary operations.

Here are some of the other facts the researchers uncovered:

· Many paramilitary units conduct between 200 to 700 warrant or drug raids a year. These are almost exclusively no-knock entries.

· A paramilitary unit in Chapel Hill NC conducted a crack raid of an entire block in a black neighborhood. Up to 100 persons were detained and searched, all of whom were black (whites were allowed to leave the neighborhood). There were no prosecutions.

· Some 20% of the units regularly patrol just as a display of force, often dressed in extreme military garb, including ninja type uniforms. Police in Fresno CA refer to their patrol area as the "war zone."

· Such tactics are not limited to big cities. In fact, more and more smaller towns have their own paramilitary units. For example: "One mid-west police department that serves a community of 75,000 people patrols in full tactical gear using a military armored personnel carrier (termed a 'Peace Keeper' as their transport vehicle." Says the commander, "we stop anything that moves." Another town's paramilitary commander told the researchers, "When the soldiers ride in you should see those blacks scatter."

· Some of these police departments admit to using "community policing" funds for these military operations. In fact, 63% of those responding to a question on the matter agreed that the paramilitary units "play an important role in community policing strategies." One self proclaimed community policing chief said: "It's going to come to the point that the only people that are going to be able to deal with these problems are highly trained tactical teams with proper equipment to go into a neighborhood and clear the neighborhood and hold it; allowing community policing and problem oriented policing officers to come in and start turning the neighborhood around."

· The nation's capital is being turned into a Singapore on the Potomac as congressional appointees exercise plenary powers on behalf of corporate friends -- with total contempt for elected officials and the citizenry. The Washington DC school system is being run by a retired general of dictatorial inclinations and right-wing ideology. A buddy of Clarence Thomas and a man of no apparent competence in the field of education, Gen. Julius Becton commutes miles into the city and has provided high-paying jobs to old Army comrades, including the former director of the Department of Defense's only maximum security prison.

· An active duty military officer has been put in charge of a state National Guard unit for the first time in American history.

· Several active-duty special operations units have reportedly been quietly integrated into National Guard units.

· The FBI's deputy chief for domestic terrorism is an active duty colonel, despite the century-old posse comitatus act's prohibition on the military taking part in domestic law enforcement.

· Two hundred troops and nine helicopters invaded Pittsburgh the night of June 3, 1996, in what was later described as a routine training exercise but sure fooled a lot of the city's residents. They flooded 911, talk shows, and local media with worried calls. The exercise appears to have been part of an attempt to acclimatize citizens to an increasing military presence in civilian life. Similar exercises have taken place in at least 20 other cities.

· The Pentagon's manual on "domestic support operations" gives a chilling view of how the military sees its role in a post-Cold War America. Says the manual: "Today . . . is a new awareness of the benefits of military assistance to improve the nation's physical and social infrastructure." The role the military projects is extra-ordinarily broad including disaster assistance, environmental missions, law enforcement, and community action. In a section that may have been lifted from a guide to the Vietnam village pacification program, the Army notes that "domestic support operations provide excellent oppor-tunities for soldiers to interface with the civilian community and demonstrate traditional Army values such as teamwork, success-oriented attitude, and patriotism. These demonstrations provide positive examples of values that can benefit the community and also promote a favorable view of the army to the civilian population."

· A remarkable article by military historian and strategist Martin van Creveld in the Los Angeles Times last July 30 gives the flavor of what's in store. Van Creveld argued that "the military systems built up over the past decades are proving useless in the face of the greatest security threat of the next century: terrorism." The reason: these forces "have discovered that their weapons are too cumbersome and their organization too complex for anti-terrorist and anti-guerrilla actions. . .

"In many countries, militaries originally designed for interstate warfare are already taking an active part in the struggle against internal opponents. Others are preparing to take the same road. In France on July 14, police units joined the army in marching down the Champs Elysees for the first time. In the peaceful Netherlands, the Marechausee, or riot police, now forms the fourth service besides army, navy and air force. . .

"As the 20th century draws to an end, it is time that military commanders and the policy makers to whom they report wake up to the new realities. In today's world the main threat to many states, including specifically the US, no longer comes from other countries. Either we make the necessary changes, or what is commonly known as the modern world will lose all sense of security and dwell in perpetual fear."

Perpetual fear

Of course, the irony of such declarations is that a search for security based on such principles is the shortest route to a state of perpetual fear. Imagine, for example, what might have happened to England during the Blitz had it succumbed to the paranoia that now grips so many of America's military and civilian elite. Alternatively: what really would happen if we were to provide our president with the same modest level of protection as, say, a British prime minister? What if, wonders of wonders, we actually tried to deal honestly with some of the problems that lead to insurgencies in the first place?

In a recent article in National Defense, Major General David Grange and Colonel Paul Munch declare that "after reviewing the carnage of the bombs at New York City's World Trade Center and Oklahoma City's Federal Building, Tokyo's poisonous gas attack and other recent events, Congress concluded the United States is no longer immune from a catastrophic terrorist attack."

General Grange has an interest in making it seem thus. He is Director of Military Support, and in charge of training and assisting cities in coping with a guerilla attack. Some 120 cities will undergo this training in the next few years.

In fact, however, last year recorded the world's lowest number of terrorist incidents in 25 years. Only 311 people were killed -- that's one person for every 16 million persons on the planet. You stand a far better chance of being murdered in an American city than you do of being bombed for any reason (by terrorist, spouse or Mafia) anywhere in the US.

Obviously, if there is going to be a nuclear, biological or chemical attack in of these cities it makes sense to be prepared. But there are other approaches that would probably be much more successful than that of General Grange. Such as seeking the consent of the governed rather than just their containment. Such as changing American policy to support without equivocation the creation of a Palestinian state -- not at the end of some interminable "peace process" but now. Such as not replacing simple democracy, which can not be bombed away, with over-glorified and over-powered national leaders who can. The most effective anti-terrorism policy -- both in cost and lives -- is to ameliorate divisions that lead to undesired insurgencies in the first place and to have your country run by scores of low-risk democrats rather than by one easily targeted regent. That's what is called for by the Constitution. But that's not part of the current game plan.

The game plan of America's mandarins absolutely assumes a widening gap between the governed and the governing and between rich and poor, one that will have to be met by force of one sort or another. Those in power are prepared to do business with most favored nations abroad and to suppress least favored citizens at home.

This is a policy without redemption. It is not only economically cruel and profoundly anti-democratic, it is deeply subversive and destructive of American ideals and culture. Those who run the country, whether in government, business or media, seldom any-more speak of this land with feeling, affection or under-standing. They carry forth their affairs unburdened by place, history or culture -- without conscience, without country and without any sense of the pain they have caused.

America is no longer for them a place to serve and to love. And because they have, in the name of global glories, cut themselves off from their own land, it is becoming for them increasingly a place of danger -- a place of long, grim shadows, the sort of shadows that too often conceal a foe.

One way out of the 2016 mess: think government, not president

Sam Smith - Before politics became theater rather than process, presidential election years also included considerable concern over who would run Congress and who might be on the Supreme Court. But the constitutional tripartite system began to fade in importance as television and other factors transformed elections into something much more like deciding which car to buy or who should get an Oscar.

Today the tripartite system gets little attention from the media and so we have learned to gauge an election almost entirely on the faults, assets, and statements of the candidates for the White House. Despite the Constitution, Congress and the Supreme Court no longer seem to matter as much.Nor do state and local elections.

This helps to explain the deep depression any sane person can feel contemplating a choice, say, between Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz.

But regardless of what the media tries to teach us we are still capable of approaching the 2016 election as our founders intended: namely a choice of the government we want rather than merely who will be our next president.

For example, there are four Supreme Court justices who are over 75 and thus there is a good chance the next administration will get to select their replacements. Despite all the common faults of both parties, imagine a court more inclined to follow the Constitution rather than its current reactionary soul. You won't get it voting Republican  or staying home.

In the Senate only 5 seats need to change to give it back the Democrats. In the House the number in 30.

This may seem a high hill to climb, but in part this is because it has not been tried in any serious manner since Howard Dean was chair of the Democratic National Committee. Wikipedia's summary of his efforts notes:
After Dean became Chairman of the DNC, he pledged to bring reform to the Party. Rather than focusing just on swing states, Dean proposed what has come to be known as the 50-State Strategy the goal of which was for the Democratic Party to be committed to winning elections at every level in every region of the country, with Democrats organized in every single voting precinct.  State party chairs lauded Dean for raising money directly for the individual state parties.

Dean's strategy used a post-Watergate model taken from the Republicans of the mid-seventies. Working at the local, state and national level, the GOP built the party from the ground up. Dean's plan was to seed the local level with young and committed candidates, building them into state candidates in future races. Dean traveled extensively throughout the country with the plan, including places like Utah, Mississippi, and Texas, states in which Republicans had dominated the political landscape.

Many establishment Democrats were at least initially dubious about the strategy's worth—political consultant and former Bill Clinton advisor, Paul Begala, suggested that Dean's plan was "just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose." Further changes were made in attempting to make the stated platform of the Democratic Party more coherent and compact. Overhauling the website, the official platform of the 2004 campaign, which was largely criticized as avoiding key issues and being the product of party insiders, was replaced with a simplified, though comprehensive categorizing of positions on a wide range of issues.

Dean's strategy arguably paid off in a historic victory as the Democrats took over control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 2006 mid-term elections. While it is likely this is also attributable to the shortcomings of the Republican Party in their dealings with the Iraq War and the scandals that occurred shortly before the election, Dean's emphasis on connecting with socially conservative, economic moderates in Republican-dominated states appears to have made some impact. Indeed, Democratic candidates won elections in such red states as Kansas, Indiana, and Montana. And while former Clinton strategist James Carville criticized Dean's efforts, saying more seats could have been won with the traditional plan of piling money solely into close races, the results and the strategy were met with tremendous approval by the party's executive committee in its December 2006 meeting.
The 50-state strategy relied on the idea that building the Democratic Party is at once an incremental election by election process as well as a long-term vision in party building. Democrats cannot compete in counties in which they do not field candidates. Therefore, candidate recruitment emerged as a component element of the 50-state strategy.

To build the party, the DNC under Dean worked in partnership with state Democratic parties in bringing the resources of the DNC to bear in electoral efforts, voter registration, candidate recruitment, and other interlocking component elements of party building. Decentralization was also a core component of the party's approach. The idea was that each state party had unique needs, but could improve upon its efforts through the distribution of resources from the national party.

The 50-state strategy was acknowledged by political commentators as an important factor in allowing Barack Obama to compete against John McCain in traditionally red states, during the 2008 presidential contest. In 2008, Obama won several states that had previously been considered Republican strongholds, most notably Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Today nobody in power or in the media is discussing how the grassroots politics of the country might shift. It's all about Clinton and whomever she runs against. There are serious dangers in this.

Someone as controversial and with as questionable a past as Clinton could easily blow up during the campaign in some presently unpredictable uproar. At which point, Democrats all over the country would be in deeper danger.

Further, led by a dismissive liberal elite, Democrats do little to find issues or arguments to turn current Republicans - including Tea Party members - away from policies and programs that are damaging to whole segments of the population including themselves.

We have been increasingly taught to debate personalities rather than policies and so no longer pay enough attention to picking the right issues, presenting them in the right way, convincing the right people, and doing it in the right places.

As things now stand, the choice will not only be between Clinton and her opponent but between the sort of legislation we want coming out of Congress and the sort of decisions the Supreme Court will make. And our states, counties and cities.

Having this choice rest overwhelmingly on people's reaction to Hillary Clinton is, at best, extremely dangerous. Making it a choice, not only about the White House, but about Congress, the Supreme Court, state houses and city hall with an ample collection of good issues that a majority of Americans can support changes both the tone and the potential outcome of the vote in 2016.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Brain Drain: The fall of the American intelligensia

From our overstocked archives
Sam Smith, 2000- Cultural phenomena don't usually sign surrender terms so it's a bit hard to pinpoint when the American intelligentsia collapsed, but the day that 400 historians joined the Clinton defense team will probably do as well as any.

In a statement replete with bad history, lousy law, and childish politics the 400 academics provided intellectual succor to the nation's leading suckee, that felonious fraud in the White House.

Ex cathedra, ex cathedra, ex cathedra onward; into the valley of fin-de-siecle decadence rode the 400. . . It was an act so obsequious in cause and transparent in purpose that only the similarly sycophantic Eleanor Clift could keep a straight face when the matter was discussed on the McLaughlin show.

The ad was the handiwork of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who has been flailing about for the past few decades seeking a president who will treat him as kindly as did John F. Kennedy.

It was not the first time that Schlesinger has served as prop man for presidential mischief.

Back when JFK was getting ready to invade Cuba, the New Republic got wind of the CIA's training of Cuban exiles.

Schlesinger was shown an advance copy' of the article, which he promptly passed to Kennedy, who in turn asked (successfully) that TNR not print it. The New York Times also withheld a story on the pending invasion, which Schlesinger would later praise as a "patriotic act" although he admitted wondering whether if the "press had behaved irresponsibly, it would not have spared the country a disaster." Schlesinger was a prototype for that modern phenomenon, the meddlesome Harvard prof seeking manly vigor by helping presidents ravage this country or that — including sometimes our own. Henry Kissinger and McGeorge Bundy would soon follow. Later, the staff and management of the Harvard Business School would assist at the collapse of the Russian economy even as their colleagues at the Kennedy School were teaching scores of American politicians how to repeal 60 years of social progress.

Of course, gratuitous abuse by the intelligentsia began well before the Bay of Pigs.

Compared to those men of the mind involved in the Inquisition, for example, Schlesinger & Co. look pretty respectable. And it certainly hasn't all been Harvard's fault. As LBJ once told an aide, the CIA was filled with boys from Princeton and Yale whose daddies wouldn't let them into the brokerage firm.

The American intelligentsia has repeatedly let the country down. Consider that exemplar for generations of law school students: Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Prospective litigants have all learned Holmes' immortal warning that "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Fewer, I suspect, have also learned that these words were uttered in defense of the contemptible Espionage Act and that Holmes himself was among those upholding Eugene Debs' sentence of ten years in prison for saying such things as "the master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles." And as early as the turn of the century, Julian Benda noted in the 1920s, there had been a shift among intellectuals from being a "check on the realism of the people to acting as stimulators of political passions.” He described these new intellectuals as being most interested in the possession of concrete advantages and material values, while holding up to scorn the pursuit of the spiritual, the non-practical or the disinterested.

Thus there is no argument here that the capitulation of many intellectuals in the matter of Clinton is novel. What is the unique, however, is the absence of its alternative. There is, for example, nothing even remotely close to the sort of intellectual division that occurred during the Vietnam War in which the Kissingers and Bundys were matched by others — including those the New York Times in 1970 headlined as "1000 'ESTABLISHMENT' LAWYERS JOIN WAR PROTEST." 

In The Twentieth Century: A People's History, Howard Zinn describes a response by some of the intelligentsia stunningly at odds with what we are currently observing: 

The poet Robert Lowell, invited to a White House function, refused to come. Arthur Miller, also invited, sent a telegram to the White House: "When the guns boom, the arts die." Singer Ertha Kitt was invited to a luncheon on the White House lawn and shocked all those present by speaking out, in the presence of the President's wife, against the war. .... In Hollywood, local artists erected a 60-foot Tower of Protest on Sunset Boulevard. At the National Book Award ceremonies in New York, fifty authors and publishers walked out on a speech by Vice President Humphrey in a display of anger at his role in the war.

These, remember, were protests against a far more liberal, far more Democratic president than we have today — a man who had already shepherded through Congress the most progressive social changes since the New Deal.

Further, the demon waiting in the wings was not a bland George Bush virtually indistinguishable from the incumbent but Richard Nixon.

Those, however, were different days. Now we have Toni Morrison exculpating Clinton because of his "blackness" and Schlesinger exculpating him because Reagan lied as well.

Today, on the flimsiest and most sophistic of grounds, the intelligentsia has lined up behind the slimiest president in American history. It's just lucky we didn't have to rely upon this craven crowd when we were fighting George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Carmine DeSapio and Richard Daley. They probably would have lectured us all about party unity.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Small town politics

From our overstocked archives
Sam Smith, 2003 - I was in Maine when the lead story on the Portland radio station reported that "John Cole crossed over last night at his Brunswick home." Mainers put their own cast on death. After my brother-in-law died, my sister was told without any disrespect by a friend, "I heard Chad won't be coming down to breakfast any more." And the morning our mother died at Maine Medical, the doctor gave us a full report and then added matter of factly, "Basically she's shuttin' down."

John Cole shut down and crossed over after an extraordinary life that included commercial fishing, serving as a tail-gunner in World War II, and, in 1968 (along with Peter Cox), starting the Maine Times, a paper not only an alternative to the conventional media but strikingly different from either the underground press at the time or later publications more interested in alternative advertising demographics than alternative news. Said Cole once, "We kind of wanted to raise hell and people's awareness about the fact that, in those days, Maine had no protection against being exploited." The Maine Times treated ideas and issues as news, most importantly introducing people to the numerous facts and problems involved in something most had pretty much taken for granted: the environment.

That Maine today stands as one of the more ecologically conscious portions of the country is due at least in part to the fact that Cole, the editor, and Cox, the publisher, made the environment into news. The Maine Times also inspired younger journalists, including your editor, to keep seeking non-conventional ways to tell the stories around us.

In later years John wrote a weekly column for the Falmouth Forecaster, a lively community paper in southern Maine. Recently John quoted from one of my articles and I felt like the teacher had pinned my paper on the board. His last column appeared the day he died. But it was his penultimate piece about a controversy in the town of Freeport that better gives the flavor of the man.

The town had been in an uproar following the surprise victory of several candidates for council highly critical of the way business was being done. I decided to pay a visit to the town council meeting to get a better feel of the characters and the controversies. I got there ten minutes late and found myself standing with others in the doorway - but the lobbying and discussions in the hall made it impossible to hear the meeting so I left to go watch it on TV. I was still engrossed as midnight approached, in part because among those speaking were residents who had become so incensed by what they saw on cable that they had gotten dressed and driven in the night winter cold just to have their views heard.

I finally surrendered to Morpheus only to learn the next morning from a school board member that, after losing a key vote in their drive to fire the town manager, three of the newly elected councilors had resigned, literally leaving Freeport with no one in charge.

Later that day, I paid a visit to Richard DeGrandpre of R & D Automotive, a former member of the "government in exile" that used to meet at a restaurant for breakfast until it suddenly found itself in power. Rich was the one member of the coup who hadn't quit. He assured me that DVDs of the town meeting would soon be available. I offered him the advice of LBJ: "Just hunker down like a jack rabbit in a dust storm."

Then he gave me a copy of John Cole's next-to-last column, written before the town council disintegrated. It read in part: “Relax folks. In all my forty-something years of being paid to observe and report on municipal government in more than a dozen Maine communities, I have never seen a permanent damage done by the charging bulls in the china shops of their own home towns. But they sure are fun to watch.
“And you folks in Freeport ain't seen nuthin' yet. In an odd paradox, it's Maine's long, cold, dark winters that fuel the fires of municipal rampage. As January closes in and February breaks our hearts, our malice turns inward, conspiracy looms in every dark corner and by town meeting time the hearts of otherwise tepid citizens pulse with winter's accumulated venom. Oh the tumults I have witnessed in the lengthening days of March in Maine.

“And then it all dribbles away. By June, all is forgotten and mostly forgiven as late sunsets tell every merchant, school child, every harassed mother that the wonders of summer are upon us. Light spills its bright wine into every evening, harbors throb with the sound of marine engines and all of us are much too busy to worry about where our town manager sits.”
It's just too bad John never covered Congress or the White House.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Impeachable defenses; What Clinton taught us about the media

Sam  Smith, 1998-In the beginning there was just a governor from Arkansas. Elsewhere, hardly anyone knew much about him.
The few who did included those attending some of the nearly 100 meetings at Pam Harriman's house moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss. The cover charge for contributors was $1,000 a head and Harriman and her friends would eventually raise about $12 million for a conservative Democratic agenda and pick Bill Clinton to carry it out. 

The leap from secret salon to public media was not all that difficult.

After all, there is nothing the Washington press corps does better than mimic the nostrums of the mighty, and you couldn't get much mightier than Strauss, Clifford and Harriman. At least when Kissinger wasn't in town.

When journalists met the candidate, he fully confirmed the elders' wisdom for he was charming, articulate, at ease with Beltway paradigms, and married to a woman every bit as much of the right time and place.

Of course, Clinton couldn't rely entirely on the media. He had to turn moments of debate and interview and speech and walking through crowded rooms into magic for the audience and the viewer. And he had to deal with those few reporters who didn't go along with the program, those who asked for the wrong facts at the wrong time.

Still, near the time of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Hendrick Hertzberg surveyed several dozen campaign reporters and found that every one of them, if they had been a New Hampshire voter, would have cast their ballot for Clinton. The reason, said Hertzberg, was "simple, and surprisingly uncynical: they think he would make a very good, perhaps a great, president. Several told me they were convinced that Clinton is the most talented presidential candidate they have ever encountered, JFK included." This conclusion had been reached with only the vaguest notion of who Clinton was and what he had done in, to, or for Arkansas. Accepting as adequate proof Clinton's popularity among his fellow governors, most of the media overlooked other matters such as:

 • Clinton's had really grown up not in halcyon Hope but in Hot Springs, a town catering to gamblers and hoods, and a long-time resort for the Chicago and New York mobs.

• While infant mortality had declined during his terms as governor, the Center for the Study of Social Policy rated the state only 41st on children's issue.

• According to the Southern Regional Council, Arkansas was in the bottom ten percent of all stales in average weekly wages, health insurance coverage, state and local school revenue, unemployment, blacks and women in traditional white male jobs, environmental policies and overall conditions for workers.

• Clinton had experienced a rocky relationship with labor and environmentalists. At the beginning of the campaign Clinton came under attack by his state's AFL-CIO president who (before the national union ordered him to shut up) sent around a highly critical report on Clinton's record. Labor, it said, should expect Clinton's help only 25-30% of the time. And the League of Conservation Voters ranked Clinton last among the Democratic candidates on conservation issues.

• Arkansas was a major drug trafficking center. Well before the convention there were strong indications that Clinton had followed a three-monkey policy on illegal drugs. One of his close friends had served time on drug charges as had his step-brother. While the story was not as fleshed out as it would later be, there was more than enough shadows of the underworld to raise alarms.

• There were serious questions as to just what part Clinton had played in the central role of Arkansas as a jumping off point for illegal Contra support operations.

• And then there were the women. Plenty of them with plenty of stories.

Beyond the void of mere facts was also a stunning lack of credible description of the culture and values in which Clinton had thrived. The media failed to examine Arkansas political, economic and social feudalism; its corruption; its drug culture; its sexual mores and the cruelties of back country justice. One did not rise in such a place by rejecting its rules.

There were scores of stories that should have been covered during the primaries but weren't. What really went on at Mena? Why was Clinton so disinterested? Did the northern mobs still have influence in Arkansas? Where did the unmistakable footprints of BCCI lead? Why was an immensely rich Indonesian, Mochtar Riady, and other foreign financiers so interested in this tiny state? Who paid for Bill Clinton's fancy hotel room in Moscow while he was a poor student abroad? And so forth.

The bulk of the media not only ignored such questions, they dismissed those who went after any information that threatened the image of a brilliant, articulate, Oxford and Yale-educated charismatic from Hope.

Only a few times — such as when Gennifer Flowers and the draft board stories surfaced — did reality rear its ugly head for any significant period.

Instead, the media mostly just stood alongside the yellow brick road and handed out green glasses.

The result was one of America's great American political frauds.

Neither in character nor in ideology did Clinton turn out to be the man described by the media. Instead he would: help wreck major components of a social welfare system painfully constructed over nearly seven decades.

And  assault constitutional protections, particularly those limiting search and seizure.

And accelerate the incarceration large numbers of minorities for such sins as preferring marijuana to daiquiris.

And greatly solidify corporatist hegemony over the political system, spurred on by record-breaking illegal campaign contributions and corrupt lobbying.

And do more damage to the electoral prospects of other Democrats than any president of his party since Grover Cleveland.

And engage with his associates in an unprecedented series of corrupt acts that discredited his office, his party and the nation.

The media's role would be more excusable if after all this time it had at least admitted that something truly had gone amiss. Instead it has been busy creating yet another fantasy, namely that if it weren't for sex, haste, and the Internet everything in journalism would still be fine This is certainly the theory put forth by the Columbia Journalism Review, formerly an interesting trade publication, but lately a sort of Modern Maturity for prematurely aging journalists. In the most recent issue it turned over six pages so Jules Witcover could ruminate on "Where We Went Wrong." Which sounds hopeful until you discover that Witcover, like many of his colleagues, thinks the Clinton scandal story began this January. He wrote, "Unlike the Watergate scandal . . .this scandal broke like a thunderclap. . . " For the rest of the article — whether out of ignorance or denial -- Witcover continues to act as though there had not been three dozen Clintonista indictments, convictions or guilty pleas; as if Kenneth Starr had done nothing prior to the arrival of Monica Lewinsky; as though Arkansas doesn't exist and as though nothing was at issue but sex and not telling the truth about it.

This is an extraordinary distortion of the matter. In fact, over the past six years, issues raised by special prosecutors, members of Congress and/or investigative reporters have include alleged bank and mail fraud, violations of campaign finance laws, illegal foreign campaign funding, improper exports of sensitive technology, physical violence and threats of violence, solicitation of perjury, intimidation of witnesses, bribery of witnesses, attempted intimidation of prosecutors, perjury before congressional committees, lying in statements to federal investigators and regulatory officials, flight of witnesses, obstruction of justice, bribery of cabinet members, real estate fraud, tax fraud, securities fraud, drug trafficking, failure to investigate drug trafficking, bribery of state officials, use of state police for personal purposes, exchange of promotions or benefits for sexual favors, using state police to provide false court testimony, laundering of drug money through a state agency, false reports by medical examiners and others investigating suspicious deaths, the firing of the RTC and FBI director when these agencies were investigating Clinton and his associates, failure to conduct autopsies in suspicious deaths, providing jobs in return for silence by witnesses, drug abuse, illegal acquisition and use of 900 FBI files, illegal futures trading, murder, sexual abuse of employees, false testimony before a federal judge, shredding of documents, withholding and concealment of subpoenaed documents, fabricated charges against (and improper firing of) White House employees, as well as providing access to the White House to drug traffickers, foreign agents and participants in organized crime.

Witcover, to be sure, does sense that something is wrong, but in searching for it he either engages in manic scab-picking of ephemeral details (similar to that of the cable faces he detests so much) or he launches into pompous tantrums:

Like proven professional practitioners everywhere, Witcover believes God is in the process rather than in the results. For this reason, he fails to notice that he and his colleagues have, for six long and sorry years, simply missed the story.

Witcover implies that everything would regain its balance if weren't for the likes of the egregious Matt Drudge, "a reckless trader in rumor and gossip who makes no pretense of checking on the accuracy of what he reports." Witcover would have us believe that there was a time — before Drudge and the Internet - when journalism was a honorable activity in which no one went looking for a restroom without first asking directions from at least two sources (unless, of course, one of the sources was a government official), in which every word was checked for fairness, and in which nothing made the prints without being thoroughly verified.

There may have been such a time but it wasn't, for example, on January 20, 1925, when the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial declaring that: “A newspaper is a private enterprise, owing nothing whatever to the public, which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no public interest. It is emphatically the property of the owner who is selling a manufactured product at his own risk.”

Nor was it a decade or so later when a Washington correspondent admitted: “Policy orders? I never get them; but I don’t need them. The make-up of the paper is a policy order.. I can tell what they want by watching the play they give to my stories.”

Nor when George Seldes testified before the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the Newspaper Guild which was then trying to organize the New York Times. The managing editor of the Times came up to Seldes afterwards and said, "Well, George, I guess your name will never again be mentioned in the Times."

Nor when William Randolph Hearst, according to his biographer David Nasaw, "sent undercover reporters onto the nation's campuses to identify the 'pinko academics' who were aiding and abetting the 'communistic' New Deal. During the election campaign of 1936, he accused Roosevelt of being Stalin's chosen candidate."

There was, too be sure, a better side, including those who hewed to the standard described recently by William Safire in a talk at Harvard: “I hold that what used to be the crime of sedition — the deliberate bringing of the government into disrepute, the divisive undermining of public confidence in our leaders, the outrageous assaulting of our most revered institutions -- is a glorious part of the American democratic heritage."

In either case, though, Adam Goodheart, of Civilization magazine wrote recently: Journalism didn't truly become a respectable profession until after World War II, when political journalism came to be dominated by a few big newspapers, networks and news services. These outlets cultivated an impartiality that, in a market with few rivals, makes sense. They also cultivated the myth that the American press had always (with a few deplorable exceptions, of course) been a model of decorum. But it wasn't this sort of press that the framers of the Bill of Rights set out to protect. It was, rather, a press that called Washington an incompetent, Adams a tyrant and Jefferson a fornicator. And it was that rambunctious sort of press that, in contrast to the more genteel European periodicals of the day, came to be seen as proof of America's republican vitality." In the late 1930s a survey asked Washington journalists for their reaction to the following statement:

“It is almost impossible to be objective.”

Sixty percent of the respondents agreed. Today's journalists are taught instead to perpetuate a lie: that through alleged professional mysteries you can achieve an objectivity that not even a Graham, Murdoch, or Turner can sway. Well, most of the time it doesn't work, if for no other reason than in the end someone else picks what gets covered and how the paper is laid out. In truth the days for which Witcover yearns never existed. What did exist was much more competition in the news industry. If you didn't like the Washington Post, for example, you could read the Times Herald, the Daily News or the Star. While the number of radio stations in my town has remained fairly steady, it has been only recently that 21 local outlets have been owned by just five corporations.

By the 1980s, most of what Americans saw, read, or heard was controlled by fewer than two dozen corporations. By the 1990s just five corporations controlled all or part of 26 cable channels. Some 75% of all dailies are now in the hands of chains and just four of these chains own 21% of all the country's daily papers.

Today's diuretic discourse over journalistic values largely reflects an attempt to justify the unjustifiable, namely the rapid decline of independent sources of information and the monopolization of the vaunted "market place of ideas." In the end, the hated Internet is a far better heir of Peter Zenger, Thomas Paine,

There were other differences 60 years ago. Nearly 40% of the Washington correspondents surveyed were bom in towns of less than 2500 population, and only 16% came from towns of 100,000 or more. In 1936, the Socialist candidate for president was supported by 5% of the Washington journalists polled and one even cast a ballot for the Communists.

One third of Washington correspondents, the cream of the trade, lacked a college degree in 1937. Even when I entered journalism in the 1950s, over half of all reporters in the country still had less than a college degree.

And H.L. Mencken would infinitely prefer a drink with Matt Drudge than with Ted Koppel.

The basic rules of good journalism in any time are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, "if you can't be funny, be interesting." The idea that the journalist is engaged in a professional procedure like surgery or a lawsuit leads to little but tedium, distortion, and delusion.

Far better to risk imperfection than to have quality so carefully controlled that only banality and official truths are permitted.

In the end journalism tends to be either an art or just one more technocratic mechanism for restraining, ritualizing, and ultimately destroying thought and reality.

If it is the latter, the media will take its polls and all it will hear is its own echo. If it is the former, journalist listens for truth rather than to rules — and reality, democracy, and decency are all better for it.

Which may be one reason that it was a novelist who scooped us all in explaining Clinton and his crowd: It was all very careless and confused:

They were careless people — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

But then F. Scott Fitzsgerald would never have made it in contemporary journalism. For him, the real story was too important. — Sam Smith