Saturday, December 06, 2014

When the bad congeals and the good scatters

Sam Smith

Never in the history of the United States have the powerful been so closely intertwined in so many ways and with such contempt for the rest of the country. Democratic and Republican politicians are beholden to the same large corporations and wealthy individuals who bribe them regularly in the guise of campaign contributions. The major news media are deeply embedded in the values, perspectives and interests of the powerful they publicize rather than expose. Corporate America has outsourced both its production and its profits thanks to trade agreements and offshore tax havens. Its largest domestic expansion has been in the number of lobbyists it has hired to get Washington pols to do its will, the money it spends on campaigns, and the pay it gives to its CEOs. Academia has surrendered its integrity in no small part to get big money from corporations and government. It has let its business and law schools write the language and standards it uses to analyze our economy, politics, and morality. And too much religion watches it all and barely says a mumblin’ word.

The participant media gives all this only a passing glance. But then, after all, it is the Washington Press Club that holds the annual dinner celebrating the incestuous relationships of politicians, Hollywood, Wall Street, the media and academia. And it is the media that offers us shows like House of Cards, The Good Wife and Madam Secretary that help accustom us to drugs, crime, murder and torture in high places and learn to live with it.

We have never had a more corrupt, criminal and narcissistic elite, one that functions with such integration and impunity thanks in no small part to the fact that those at the top share the same destructive rules.

The irony is that those who are abused, manipulated, ignored and deceived by this elite enjoy no such unity. They are atomized, pacified, scattered, niched, and often even critical of their fellow sufferers.

There are many reasons for this. For example, as America has become an increasingly urban nation, its citizens’ lives have become further removed from the sort of community, cooperation and mutual support one finds in smaller places.

Those organizations that once would have led a counter-movement against the elite have become increasingly dependent on funding from foundations and other sources opposed to serious activism. Further, these organizations are seeking their money in competition with those who should be their allies in action.

The Internet, which some of us naively thought would be a great tool for progressive activism, has too often just provided one more screen to put between us and others. And our cellphones help teach us that life is a vicarious experience.

As one who daily checks the sites of all sorts of progressive organizations, I am struck by how seldom this news supports or cites coalitions beyond the specific interests of the group involved. After all, as was recognized in earlier times such as the New Deal or the Sixties, a budget cut can hurt both the environment and schools, NSA can illegally spy on both black and senior citizens’ phones, and a war takes money away from every decent cause.

There are notable exceptions, such as Moral Mondays, but in a larger sense there is no national counter culture, too few cross-cultural coalitions and little talk about the important service they could provide.

Meanwhile, liberalism has turned from being a movement to being a demographic that is often contemptuous of, or indifferent to, those such as lower class whites who were, in the New Deal and Great Society, part of their shared coalition.

And when in power, as the Obama administration sadly demonstrates, responsibility is now disproportionally given to those who favor data over decency, legal labyrinths over logical legislation, and picky process over populist progress. In the past four decades, Democrats in Washington haven’t come up with any legislation as clear and broad as that which brought us social security, a minimum wage, or a 40 hour work week or scores of similar actions of earlier times.

While there’s no doubt that a part of Obama’s problems are due to ethnic prejudice, that doesn’t explain the fact that his approval rating among white non-college graduates has fallen over 20 points since he first took office. While some of this may come from watching too much Fox News, it would be helpful if Democrats recognized that they have done hardly anything to improve the life of these voters.

And it would help to realize that talking about “white privilege” doesn’t go over too well in a white family on food stamps. According to Census data, there are over 7 million more whites in poverty than there are black and latinos combined. While the percentages for blacks and latinos are higher, that doesn’t make any easier for a white without jobs or food. Yet there is little in the liberal discourse that recognizes this.

And a different approach isn’t all that hard. Here’s one example, as reported recently by Al Jazeera America:

While there were notable exceptions, white craft unions in the U.S. were often at odds with the non-union black underclass in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1913, W.E.B. Du Bois – the philosopher, writer and activist – wrote that black workers being kept out of unions had convinced “the American Negro that his greatest enemy is not the employer who robs him, but his fellow white workingman.”

But in recent years some of the most fertile union organizing now has the explicit backing of racial justice organizations.

Case in point: This summer the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the fast-food workers’ movement. That movement [is] made up various groups in roughly 150 cities demanding the right to form a union and an industry-wide base wage of $15 per hour.

Members of the fast-food coalition voted to approve the strike during a conference call. Rev. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, joined the call to draw an explicit connection between the civil rights movement and the modern labor movement.
“I want you to know without a shadow of a doubt that the fight for labor wages and the fight for civil rights are two movements headed in the same direction,” he told workers on the call.

Many fast-food workers have returned the favor. In addition to leading the state NAACP, Barber is the architect of what he’s dubbed the Moral Mondays movement: a series of demonstrations and sit-ins against North Carolina’s government and its policies on issues such as Medicaid expansion, voting rights, education cuts and reproductive health. Several fast-food workers have joined in the Moral Mondays protests.

If low-wage labor campaigns and civil rights groups share a sense of purpose, it’s largely because they are often organizing the same constituency. Much of the labor movement’s most intensive organizing is now taking place in the low-wage service and retail sectors, where black and Hispanic workers make up a disproportionate share of the labor force.

“The same people being constantly victimized by police brutality are also being consistently victimized by deprivation of resources and not having access to living wage jobs,” said [Montague Simmons, head of the St. Louis-based group The Organization for Black Struggle]

One of my current dreams is that black, latino, and labor coalitions will explode and become the national movement we have been waiting for. Hell, they might even get the backing of some police officers’ unions since the average cop earns less than the national median wage. If that sounds impossible, consider that the Maine State Troopers Association backed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud, a gay, card carrying member of the United Steel Workers.

Unless we do change our dreams and our habits, though, it’s not going to happen. At present we are too often prisoners of the propaganda and false premises of an elite that want the unhappy to fight with each other rather than with those at the top. Just like in the days of segregation when the Southern elite taught white sharecroppers that blacks were the cause of their troubles.

And when groups and individuals break the boundaries it’s rarely reported. For example, the Religious News Service is where I had to go to learn things like this:

Evangelicals  are teaming up with environmentalists to support the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. Mitchell Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, submitted comments from more than 100,000 “pro-life Christians” who he said are concerned about children’s health problems that are linked to unclean air and water.

Or this from a story on how white evangelicals are getting involved in the protests against police brutality:

“I weep & pray for his family,” tweeted Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the day before he led a prayer for justice at his school in Wake Forest, N.C. “I beg our God to bring good out of this tragedy.”….
Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-chair of the National African-American Clergy Network, sees a growing interest among white Christians and others to speak up about the “pile on” of events capped with the Garner decision.

“It just so offends the human spirit of people of every race that it compels them to act,” she said. “We don’t have to ask young white students and young white adults anymore to act. They understand . . . if the system will so violate the rights of people of color today, they will violate everybody’s rights tomorrow.”

It was a confluence of causes and cultures that created the 1960s . It is still the reassembling of political, ethnic, cultural and economic differences in a common direction that leads to change.

Admittedly, this is hard to see in the wake of recent police killings. It’s easier to speak with anger about racism than to try to build communities of decency despite it all. Anger, however, is too often an unspoken admission of helplessness. And if one is helpless nothing changes. The odds improve when there is an alternative to what makes one mad. Your mind moves from frustration with the wrong to plans for the just and decent.

As you do so, you discover new friends and allies. They may be black., they may be white, they may be IT junkies, musicians, ecologists or even a white guy whose pension has been cut and is about to lose his house and blames it all on Obama because Bill O’Reilly and Ted Cruz told him to – and no one, until you came along, has told him a different way.

It’s okay if people don’t agree with you on every issue. You’re not converting them to a religion; just be happy that they’re willing to help you on what you’re doing today. As I’ve put it before, if you find a gun toting, abortion hating nun who’s willing to help you save the forest, put her on the committee.

And it doesn’t help to scold those you are trying to encourage or convert, such as with post-Ferguson headlines like this one from a liberal news service: “Dear White People: Here Are 5 Reasons Why You Can’t Really Feel Black Pain.”

The first protest I ever got involved with was a 1966 boycott against a hike in DC bus fares. As this then 20-something white person wrote later:

At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it. Want a cup of coffee?”


“I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn’t.”

We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.

“We’ve got to live together, man. You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed. “You ever worked with SNCC before?” “Nope,” I said.

‘Well, I’11 tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they’re a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they’ll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good, man.”

One cup of coffee, one exchange and carrying 71 people down their bus route began a lifetime of activism. And a few weeks later I became the media guy for the SNCC leader, a fellow named Marion Barry.

Sometimes when advocates of good causes say things, they don’t realize are putting others off, or drawing a fence around their own righteousness, or dissin’ someone they should be enlisting. That  SNCC guy had simply welcomed me into the club of possibility.

Over the years, other activists have taught me some good stuff. Things like:
  • Organize by issues not by ideology
  • Go after the big guys but find common ground with the ones they’ve been fooling. That’s why economic issues are so much better than moral ones.
  • Build a community and a counterculture and not just a cause
  • Value songs and symbols. That’s why we still use the peace sign and sing “We Shall Overcome.”
  • Be the person you want us to be; not just someone reacting to what makes you mad.
  • Encourage the idea of reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my freedom unless you have yours. Your friends get to keep their guns, mine get to have abortions. And if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry a gay, but don’t stop others who want to.”
  • Enlist others in your cause by helping them in theirs.
  • And, as someone put it once, don’t try to be a saint, just be a sinner trying harder.
Never in our history have so many at the top of our society been so disloyal to our constitution, its principles and to the people they are meant to lead, so rapacious in their greed, so indifferent to the pain created by their misdeeds and so cruel in their paranoia.
And never in our history have so many been so frustrated by such excesses without knowing which way to turn.

Yet as the black activist Florynce Kennedy said, “Don’t agonize, organize.” All around you are those who share your concerns. They may look, talk, or think differently, but in this very variety lies our secret power.

It is when the angry, oppressed, concerned and annoyed come together to share their dreams and discover their collective strength and values that change occurs. For far too long we have tried to do it in too many separate and disconnected pieces. Put those pieces together and you have a movement of great power and direction, one we can embrace because we embraced each other.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Bronx ate my postings

From 50 years of our overstocked archives
Sam Smith

Your editor's casual inattention to duty over the past few days is in part the result of an unpredictable pleasure of parenthood: being swept into the migratory path of one's children - in this case from Long Island to the Bronx.

For the past eight years I have been an occasional visitor to Suffolk County, discarding stereotypes in favor of a view based on innumerable random experiences ranging from the pleasures of the Montauk coastline to the less pleasurable experience of being imprisoned with my wife and a crew member for 45 minutes aboard the Bridgeport to Port Jefferson ferry on a 85 degree day.

I have come to learn that Long Island does indeed have more shopping malls per square mile than just about any place on earth, but that not far behind is the acreage devoted to farming, some of the most productive in the state, that no one had bothered to mention to me. I have learned to expect to drive within blocks from a corner dominated by a futon discount store to a revolutionary era post road whose buildings and trees still remind one of what once happened here.

It is a place where the past and present have been dumped together, a place that can spawn both Walt Whitman and Bill O'Reilly, and where patriotic icons of post-constitutional America sprawl about the landscape like exhausted geese unable to reach their destination, yet where you can attend a Unitarian church and hear a guitar backed choir singing about Joe Hill.

Except when out on the battlefield known as the Long Island Expressway, the residents seem quite content with their inconsistencies. They neither brag about them nor even seem to notice them. It is the stranger, arriving with misapprehensions, who finds it all extraordinary.

But now, as uncontrollably as a tie-up at exit 47, it is time to leave Long Island and make friends with North Bronx, site of my daughter-in-law's next adventure with the medical profession. From a little cottage within walking distance of Long Island Sound to the eighth floor of an apartment building overlooking a subway yard and distant Manhattan. From a landlord who happily enclosed a porch for our granddaughter to the complexities of getting a new rug in an old, large New York apartment building. To one who has always felt threatened by the negotiations of everyday New York life, I watched with amazement as my son and wife double-teamed the issue with the aid of a cleaning woman who said she had told the super "I wasn't going to clean that rug because it was a waste of money. He was going to have to get a new one anyway."

Even as this is written the apartment is being repainted and rerugged and I have turned my energies to other matters like checking out the stores within walking distance and finding some lights for under the kitchen cabinet. We also ate in a restaurant that offered cream cheese for your bagel in two varieties: full or schmeared.

I am already proud of my new proxy neighborhood and am making secret plans to run my granddaughter for lieutenant government based on her connections with both Suffolk County and the Bronx. She walks with the self-assurance of a New Yorker so the rest shouldn't be difficult.

Meanwhile, I apologize for the dilatory postings and expect things to be back to normal by Tuesday.

John Wiebenson

Sam Smith, 2004 -Architect John Wiebenson died the way he lived - helping somebody and fixing something. He had gone to Martha's Table to check out a fumed filled space below an old auto garage planned as part of the social service organization's expansion. The fire department said later that only 4% of the air down there was oxygen, not enough to keep someone alive. In fact, for several hours the only people who went in wore gas masks and hazmat clothing.

But Wiebenson was not easy to dissuade once he decided something needed to be done. And he had imported to this capital of risk aversion some of the casual affection for adventure of the Colorado in which he had been raised. Wieb, as everyone called him, simply did what he thought had to be done.

Which is one reason there was housing for Resurrection City in the 1960s and the Old Post Office is still on Pennsylvania Avenue and some of the niftiest maps of DC were published and Bread for the City got a new headquarters. And some landscaping. The Washington Post reported that the organization had told Wieb it couldn't afford any landscaping. The executive director "arrived at the site one Sunday to find Wiebenson there, digging with a shovel and pulling weeds."

Wieb was also one of that tiny party of architects who really understand that buildings are meant to serve people and not the other way around. He also understood that one of the ways this happened is with spaces that made you happy. Joanne Leonard wrote in the Washington Post, "With cutout paper letters stuck to the window of his Connecticut Avenue office, John Wiebenson identifies himself and his partner, Kendall Dorman, as 'basic' architects."

I knew that office well because for 23 years I was a subtenant in a back room at ridiculously low rent. It was a complicated arrangement because while I was Wieb's tenant, he was my cartoonist, and I had the only fax machine on the floor. And the only bathroom. Wieb created for the DC Gazette (now the Progressive Review) the first urban planning comic strip in the country, Archihorse, a subtle graphic blend of his professional and geographic background.

One of the things I noticed along the way was how comfortable Wieb was with something that either bores or baffles some architects - the details of making your dreams actually function. There was just no conflict in Wieb's mind between imagination and results. It had to be different and it had to work.

His house was right around the corner on S Street where he lived with Abigail - his wife, anchor to windward, enthusiast, calmer down, brightener up, and head of Lowell School - plus three sons striving to outdo their father in independence, competence, and humor. They lived in an anarchistic mélange of styles, but mostly in a place that, while lacking the look, still somehow had the feel of a western cabin that you had just entered after a long ride in the snow.

It was there that Wieb had presided over Wild Man Nights, Friday meals at which he and his young sons would prepare and eat a meal without any utensils or normal table manners, picking up steaks in their hands and smashing baked potatoes with their fists while reading and discussing the latest comic books. Like most of what Wieb did or built, Wild Man Nights had several primary characteristics: they were different, they were fun, and they worked.

What you have read here over the years has been deeply affected by my proximity to this remarkable man who loved freedom and common sense and helped me to cling on to them. I hope I can still do it without his encouragement and laughter.

Comments at the dedication
of the John Wiebenson playground
May 22, 2006

SHORTLY AFTER IT OPENED, I spent a week inside the National Air and Space Museum working on an article for a British magazine. It was the only such institution in the history of Washington that had opened three days early and a half million dollars under budget. As I wandered about, I began noticing something else unusual: the people who created this museum enjoyed it as much as I did. There was a mini-exhibit about the starship Enterprise. And there was a pie tin from the Frisbee Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. I mentioned this to the deputy director. He immediately got up from his desk, went to the closet, pulled out a Frisbee, and then commenced to give me a pleasant lecture on the aerodynamics of the device. Later, I noticed some model plane kits shoved amongst the data in a lateral file, apparently waiting for someone to open them up and start building them over lunch.

At the end of the week, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, rudely remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in his museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, "There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them."

Those who knew John Wiebenson know why I tell this story, for Wieb similarly understood that childhood was not something to grow out of but to build upon.

He also understood some other things. Such as Albert Einstein's shrewd observation that imagination is even more important than knowledge. And the point columnist Russell Baker made that too many people in Washington think they are being serious when they are only being somber. John Wiebenson clearly understood the difference.

And in how many different ways did these wise perceptions manifest themselves: Planning of Resurrection City on the Mall for nearly 3,000 members of the Poor People's Campaign just a few weeks after Martin Luther King's assassination. Helping mightily to save the Old Post Office Building. Drawing one of the niftiest maps of the city. Bringing Bread for the City a new headquarters. And creating the country's first urban planning comic strip, Archihorse.

My friendship with Wieb was easy, my working relationship a little more complicated. He was my landlord and I rented his back office for 23 years. But I was also the editor who published his cartoons and, perhaps more importantly, had the only fax, copier and bathroom on the floor. So, as long as I paid the rent, I remained slightly ahead.

When I walked out of my office I looked directly into his at the end of a short hallway. Sometimes Wieb would be bent over his high desk figuring how to where to put the bathroom or skylight. . . Sometimes he would be talking to a contractor with a remarkably detailed knowledge of the work to be done. . . And sometimes he and his partner, Kendall Dorman, would be sitting around a low coffee table, covered several times over with books, folders, and samples of window moldings, bricks and other construction effluvia, reading the paper, drinking coffee, and discussing a recent comic strip. While contributing to the office's enthusiasm, skill, or public concern, Kendall also added some Midwestern sanity to the aura of the Wild West that floated around Wieb, who was a true son of uninhibited and then mostly uninhabited Colorado.

Wieb's approach to fatherhood was as interesting as some of his designs, including the infamous Wild Man Nights when the family ate steak with their fingers, mashed baked potatoes with their fists, and read and discussed comic books at the table.

And what did this produce? Well, there's son John, director of operations at Martha's Table, so competent and kind that his first name is "Let's Ask" as in Let's Ask John. There's Derek, director of product development for something that I can't even pronounce. And then there's Sam, whom I have to constantly remind is only the penultimate Sam on this planet, but who has risen from being, while in high school, John's and my combination trash hauler and computer expert to becoming a highly skilled something or other at the Rand Corporation. I'm not cleared to know exactly what but strongly suspect it involves creating a hybrid RV. About a year and a half ago, Sam told me how to deal with a laptop malfunctioning during a damp summer. He said to put it in the oven. Initially stunned, I then thought: well, that sounds like something his father would have said. Since it was either Best Buy or the oven, I put it in for an hour at 150 degrees and it still functions to this day.

Now, it is true that having so much talent, imagination, and fun in one home is actually a violation of the DC Housing Code, but they never got in trouble thanks to a critical factor: Abigail Wiebenson, wife, mother, and luckily a wonderful educator well used to dealing with boys with various attention disorders. She added peace to chaos and direction to anarchy, though it must be admitted that it often had the feel of Rostropovich trying to conduct the Rolling Stones.

One of the times I miss Wieb is when new issues com up. Like the reports that a city government that helped chase over 100,000 children out of town over the past three decades thinks that small schools and playgrounds aren't cost effective. And so a lot of them will be closed. This despite evidence such as the study that found "when students from similar backgrounds are compared, those in smaller schools are safer, have higher graduation rates and test scores and are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities. They're also likely to have involved parents and more satisfied teachers."

I know something about this because I went to an elementary school just about the size of Ross. It was, in fact, also on R Street just 13 blocks to the west of here. But unlike Ross, at Jackson we only had 4 teachers for 160 kids. Two of the teachers were maiden sisters, known to everyone as the Fat Miss Waddy and the Thin Miss Waddy. The Fat Miss Waddy was sweet and kind, the Thin Miss Waddy was tough as nails, and together with the other teachers at this understaffed and inefficient school, they helped produce - just among my contemporaries - one head of the Catholic University art department, one director of energy in Puerto Rico, one professor of urban planning, and a NY Times reporter.

And here's another interesting thing: the DC city government actually closed Jackson in an economy move two weeks before the start of a school year. All the furnishings were removed. But the parents petitioned and managed to reverse the move and classes resumed only two days late.

When I heard about the proposed new school closings, I thought about Wieb. I imagined suggesting to him that all the students in endangered schools be given T shirts that read, "DON'T LET A LOUSY CONDO REPLACE MY COOL CLASSROOM' and then have them stage a mass march on the school headquarters. An image leaped to my mind of Wieb stopping his work on a new house, pulling out some of that strange textured architect's paper and sketching a design, complete with Archihorse's face. And then arguing with me over the words 'lousy' and cool.' It made me miss him all over again.

Then the old labor song came back
We shall not, we shall not be moved
We're fighting for our children,
We shall not be moved

Especially now there is this great playground from which we shall not be moved, the ultimate school without walls. Yes, to succeed one must pass those tests inside, learn to spell and count, and get your work done on time. But out here is where the body is strengthened, happiness blossoms and dreams are born. I ask the teachers to remember this when you are little slow coming back in. Certainly Wieb would understand if not, in fact, being a co-conspirator in your delay.

Out west they say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens on the Ross playground can be with you the rest of your life. Use it well and if you want to thank Wieb, just make somebody smile. - Sam Smith


Ernest Percell White Jr

Sam Smith, 2002 - In the early 1990s, Ernest White asked me to be a regular guest on his TV show otherwise comprised of African-American journalists. During a time in which that I was being isolated from my own culture, another had welcomed me. It would have been an unblemished pleasure had not the black city served by the program been under severe attack. A combination of a fiscal embargo by Congress and fiscal mismanagement by the local government would soon lead to a federal takeover of DC and the largest de facto disenfranchisement of American voters since the days of Jim Crow.

The show really had viewers. One day, a DHL guy delivering a package to my office gave me a second look and said, "Didn't you used to be on TV talking about DC?" It led to a long discussion about the sad state of the city and how hard it was to find any discussion of it on the airwaves. On other days people would stop me on the street and just start talking about the city as though we had always known each other.

The television station was owned by the University of DC, the land grant campus that served as an educational underground railroad for the neglected and forgotten young of the city. The fiscal problems of the Washington had already hit UDC. The elevators could no longer be relied upon; it was wiser to walk the four flights up to the studio. The air-conditioning in the studio became unreliable and finally one night the station manager told us they could no longer afford to continue the show. In our place, the station began running stock footage from NASA.

The faculty protested the budget cuts and the students tried to rebel and even blocked busy Connecticut Avenue one day. But the city and its politicians failed to respond and the president of the university, a weak man of colonial sensibility, went to the White House and sat silently as other heads of black colleges futilely made what should have been his case.

After the TV show was canceled, Ernest asked me to appear weekly on his radio program, Cross Talk, an outlet for those seldom heard in this capital of power and pretense. Ernest and I got along well.  One day we were discussing Marion Barry's revival as a mayoral candidate. "I'm all for redemption," I told him, "but I don't see why it has to be carried out in the mayor's office." I then described an Irish bishop who had resigned when a long-ago affair with a woman had been revealed. He had gone off to tend the Indians in the Guatemalan mountains. That, I suggested with a straight face, was a good model for Marion. The thought of Marion Barry taking care of Guatemalan Indians was too much for Ernest who broke up completely.

A couple of years later, after the university's faculty had been slashed still more and the public relations and alumni affairs offices had been closed and the water cooler was no longer being stocked, the station manager came in one day and told us to make the show a good one because it was to be our last. The university was preparing to sell the station in order to help cover its deficit. Just one mile to the west was Radio Free Ward 3 -- WAMU, the public radio station of affluent Washington with its pristine studios and prissy paradigms. Somewhere in that mile crossed the city's fault line.

At first it appeared that a Christian sect would buy WDCU, but the deal fell through. Eventually the station was purchased by the Shrine of the Immaculate Center, C-Span, allowing the city's establishment to hear still more affirmation of its pet paradigms.

I wrote later, "Cross Talk on WDCU has gone off the air after fifteen years. The show's demise had been run by guest hosts since the recent serious illness of longtime host and maximum Washington spirit, Ernest White. Ernest called in the last day, and I told him the truth, which was that in the forty years I had been around broadcasting, I had never had a finer time then when working with him.

"Before Cross Talk, when I was one of the commentators on Channel 19's Ernest White Show, I used to call myself the "real earnest white on the Ernest White Show." Towards the end, Adrienne Washington and Jerry Phillips and I started to mix it up. One viewer wrote: "After the rather lively discussion on crime . . . it suddenly dawned on me that Sam Smith and Adrienne are married and Jerry is Sam Smith's dad. Just listening to the interactions between the three of you reminded me of a few discussions I had with my ex-wife and my own dad. Those were heady days, but I'm sure glad they're over though. So Ms. Washington, tell that wonderful husband of yours that you both have to nip these strong emotional responses toward one another in the bud. Don't' be afraid of marital counseling, either.'"

As the station disintegrated so did White - with AIDS, drugs and alcohol. A man who had been one of the few true links in a fractured city was spotted begging for change outside the annual dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Washington Post's Courtland Milloy wrote:

"White had been one of black Washington's most treasured resources . . . For White to end up unemployed, homeless and begging on the street gave the phrase 'disposable society' a painful new face. White had helped hundreds of people. During one of his many on-air Thanksgiving fund-raisers for the homeless, he received a telephone call from a woman who said she had been on the verge of committing suicide but had changed her mind after hearing him play a song of salvation. After the show, White took the woman several bags of food and clothes, then talked her into surrendering her life to God.

"Now, at age 52, White himself is in trouble. A viral infection in one leg left him in a wheelchair, and his descent into alcohol and drugs was so stunningly swift that nobody really knew how to help him. Efforts to provide him with temporary shelter, food and clothes did not amount to much, for none of those things could ultimately address the spiritual crisis in which he was embroiled. A month ago, after being kicked out of a local motel for having undesirable guests, he moved into the Randolph Shelter in Southwest Washington, where he now wages nightly battles with lice, rats and crack addicts."

As White was falling apart, the city he had loved was being bullied, squeezed, and demoralized by the federal takeover. Schools would be closed, health clinics eliminated, inmates sent hundreds or thousands of miles away to privatized gulags. A form of socio-economic cleansing was underway, only with budget cutbacks and tax policy rather than with land mines and rifles. The corporatist technocrats of both parties wanted Washington rich and free of human reminders of the failure of their inhuman policies. They wanted a Singapore on the Potomac.

In Ernest's obituary in the Post, Claudia Levy wrote:

"Mr. White's friends, including a number of journalists whose careers he helped, said they tried to help him in turn but were frustrated at his inability to cope. He stayed at homeless shelters and motels but mainly lived on the streets."

A few days ago, Ernest Percell White Jr passed. He had given so much life to the city but died a lonely metaphor for its own slow disintegration.


Sam Smith, 2000 - In the time before the walls of the capital were irrevocably breached by the bagel boosters of Manhattan, the technocratic terrorists of the Harvard Business School, and the hubristic hordes of Yale Law, Washingtonians often spoke of things other than work, power, and food. Restraint on the latter topic was immeasurably aided by a lack of restaurants, modest menus, early closing times, and a peculiar local tradition of surly waiters.

The food was often more nondescript than bad, which was all right because restaurants then were places to go to be with your friends rather than to be seen by your adversaries. Eating out was an extension of community, not politics by other means, or a stage on which to display one's exquisite and ostentatious knowledge of trivial gastronomic variations.

Of course, community and good food are not mutually exclusive; a few examples of their synergistic potential still survive even in boomer Washington, most notably La Tomate on Dupont Circle, AKA the Review's conference room. It's the sort of place that, when the owner died a few years back, 500 people showed up for his funeral including politicians, cops, and this alternative journalist.

But for the most part, Washington's better known restaurants mimic the brutalist capital culture they serve, places of power and image, of price and pretense.

In 1987 wrote a piece for Washington's City Paper in which I complained:

"Life in Washington's slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than half-million residents who don't subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town. This elite is not content with the mere possession of money, power, and success; it feels compelled to plaster its icons and totems all over town, giving the place the oxymoronic aura of franchised trendiness, coincidentally destroying the places and symbols of indigenous Washington."

It being also quite a literal city, the restaurant critic of the Washington Post, Phyllis Richman called to inquire the name of the 537th best restaurant in town. I quickly devised an answer, bestowing the honor on a hole in the wall on New York Avenue I had recently visited. Richman wrote a piece in which she called me a "capital curmudgeon," and noted that my ranking was a bit off since the place in question had an award from another publication hanging on its wall.

When I wrote that, I was actually thinking of places such as the long-gone DC Diner into which came cops, drunks, prostitutes and college students returning from dates or, on early Sunday mornings, from the midnight mass that the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception thoughtfully provided the Catholic young and restless. My routine was to order the steak and egg breakfast. A beefy cook would grab a couple of eggs and burst them on the grill. The steak followed. He then reached over for a handful of home fries from the foot-high pile that sat nearly cooked in a cool corner of the stove. Almost simultaneously the chef lunged for a fistful of salad from a five gallon potato chip can resting under the counter and plopped it into a side dish. During the whole procedure no kitchen utensil touched his hands, yet few meals have tasted as good.

Or Spack's Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also "the world's smallest bar" -- a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles. "Now someday this place is going to have class," Spack once told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. "You know -- cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance," he said as he reached for an object under the counter, "this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?"

There was a whole subset of restaurants, though, that specialized in surliness: Martin's in Georgetown, the AV Ristorante on New York Avenue, and a Capitol Hill favorite, Sherrill's Bakery. Sherrill's is about to close to make way for yet another Starbucks, purveyors of hot, flavored water and milk to urban sophisticates who enjoy hearing themselves say, "one latte grande with a chocolate biscotti, please." The only place in America where you have to take a Kuder preference test before getting a pound of ground coffee.

Sherrill's wasn't like that. Once when a parent asked for two donuts for her kid, the woman behind the counter said, "he only needs one." On another occasion, a dissatisfied customer picking up her cake became so frustrated she threw her acquisition at the staffer and stormed out. The sort of place you miss when it's gone.

There are still a few real Washington eateries left, though. Like Jimmy T's just five blocks from the US Capitol. It hasn't been refurbished in over three decades, the paint hangs like stalactites, and when we entered the other day, the kid sitting on the stool was told to "go in back and get your shirt on. We've got customers." The only sign on the place is a neon one in the window that says "OPEN." You just have to know where you are.

They don't waste money on signs at such places. My old office, not too many blocks away, was right next to Helen & Lee's Carryout. They would advertise their pork chop sandwiches and other specialties as "recommended by our five doctor sons." Then Helen died and for years thereafter, the carryout had a sign that read, "& Lee's Carryout."

The other night, Hallmark put on one of those sappy movies I never watch, except this time the setting was DC, so I did watch it. There was a scene in which the leads went to a funky eatery in Georgetown, except they don't have any funky eateries in Georgetown, and so they ended up across town at Jimmy T's. I was reminded of my conversation with the owner during which I had listed some of Washington's rudest restaurants. He said, "And don't forget me." As I was leaving, I shook his hand and said, "My name's Sam," and he looked me straight in the eye, and said with perfect impassivity, "Mine's Juanita."

I'm going back.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Dead Hubcap Society


Sam Smith, 2007 -Your editor welcomes readers to join him in forming the Dead Hubcap Society, open to anyone whose lifetime fleet of personal vehicles has included at least half made by brands no longer in existence. With the passing of Oldsmobile, I barely fall into the category – having owned two Olds, two Plymouths, two Chryslers, one Volvo, and a Honda. My wife came to our marriage with a VW Bug, which disappeared from production and then returned, so we’ll consider that a wash. The first Olds – a 1941 model – was bought in 1961 while in the Coast Guard - literally from a little old lady who only drove it on Sundays. It had 26,000 miles on it, still smelled new, and featured a hydromatic drive. Unfortunately the final attribute lasted only about six months and I sold the car to a engineman first class who managed to convert it into a semi-automatic. The second Olds, a station wagon, was in an accident that necessitated a complete paint job. Unfortunately, I did not make my intentions adequately clear and the whole vehicle was repainted red, including the grillwork. It was thereafter known as the “Outboard Apple.” The Volvo didn’t run when it was cold, hot, or wet and was quickly replaced. The Chrysler was called Gloria because it was sick transit. The Honda was stolen twice. The first time it disappeared from a parking lot right next to the Brookings Institution. The DC constabulary thought we would not see it again but at 11:30 that night I was awoken by the Prince Georges County police with word that it had been located at a public housing project recently in the news for the frequency of its murders. We were invited to retrieve it promptly or it would be taken as evidence in a drug bust. Which is why, at 1 AM, my wife and I found ourselves in a parking lot in the most dangerous locale in the Washington region. The second time, no one found the Honda . . . One month later our Plymouth mini-van was totally demolished by a cow.

My parents could easily have joined the Dead Hubcap Society having had at one point in the mid-fifties a 1952 DeSoto station wagon (the first new car my father had purchased since 1936), a 1948 Chrysler New Yorker, a 1946 wooden Plymouth station wagon, its 1941 forerunner, a 1946 six-wheeled Dodge Army personnel carrier, a 1939 Plymouth laundry van, a 1938 Cadillac four-door convertible, and my mother’s 1936 Plymouth. In 1955 I drove to college in the then 14-year-old Plymouth wagon and little concern or surprise was expressed when the front hood flew up at 60 mph on the New Hampshire Turnpike. The mangled hood was secured with a jury rig and the car continued in service. There were, however, limits. When the DeSoto, with more than 100,000 miles on it, lost its front wheel on the Maine Turnpike, it was reluctantly retired.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Eighth Street

Sam Smith, 2005 - Eighth Street SE in DC is one of those places progress didn't think was worth messing with. They even ran out of fire engines by the time it burned in the 1968 riots leaving the Marines from the barracks to send some sentries to guard the laundry through which their dirty uniforms flowed. A Sunday or two after the riots, three ministers held a sunrise service out on the street, but not much has happened since.

Thirty-five years later it offers little but utility - a headquarters and laundry for the Marines; a Popeye's; overflow space for the Shakespeare Theater; a Seven-Eleven and a Subway, the sina qua non of urban survival; one of Capitol Hill's two hardware stores; a dollar emporium; video stores, a fire station, and some restaurants that were looking for cheap space. It's one of the few urban strips where you'll find homeless, yuppies, gays, Marines, firefighters, and Shakespearian actors all enjoying the same space.

The secret of such places is their non-discovery and 8th Street was too close to the already found and desiccated to last. It is, after all, the holy jihad of planners to root out such heresies and turn them to the path of progress. Having already done their work in downtown, where the last of the quirky and the human have been exorcised, they are now turning towards our neighborhoods, promising the infidels there that no block shall remain unplanned. They even have over a hundred places picked out for monuments. And no one will ask the good citizens of Brookland whether they really need a statue of Robert Dole on a horse.

They have already discovered 8th Street, which is now being spruced up as part of Main Street, a campaign to cleanse America of urban greasy spoons, seedy emporiums with seedy customers, and places of scruffy usefulness. My neighbors seem to welcome it. I have gently tried to suggest that they should welcome instead being one of the few hoods in America with two hardware stores, but in this land only resurrection ranks ahead of progress.

It is absolutely predictable what will happen. Eighth Street will become a tree and bench lined paragon of new urban style; in fact you may even get confused and think you're in downtown Alexandria or Warrenton, for progress comes in only one flavor these days. The rents will rise to meet the charm and the scruffy and the seedy and greasy will not be able to pay the rents and will be gone. In its place will come antiseptic, clerical urbanity.

It is already happening even as the street is torn up for the greater glory of God and revitalization. Payless Shoes will soon be replaced by Paymore Coffee, a.k.a. Starbucks, where you can drink your latte grande and be grateful that 8th Street will soon be just like everywhere else.

Talk radio the way it's supposed to be

From 50 years of our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2006 - One of talk radio's best hosts is gone for now. Your editor has done more than 600 talk shows but few calls delighted him more than one from Charlie Spencer at WHYN asking him to be on his Saturday morning program in Springfield, Massachusetts. The program was rated tops by Arbitron for the area and was one of the original progressive talk shows in the nation, beginning in 1993.

Sharing space with the likes of Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Howie Carr, he wasn't a shouter and he wasn't a debater. Like my other big favorite, Richard Kaffenberger of KAAA and KZZZ in the tri-state area outside of Las Vegas, he understands that radio is really the ultimate conference call and that the proper patois is conversation not bombastic rhetoric. Every week Kaffenberger leads a conversation between a real conservative and myself. It was on this show that I got conservative journalist Marc Morano to admit he was an "a la carte" socialist since he used Washington's subway system. "You're a subway socialist," I had told him. "You're just not a healthcare socialist."

Secular Franciscan Spencer has kept busy since leaving the show. He writes, "I spent most of August in Bolivia spending time traveling the headwaters of the Amazon investigating Conservation International's role in Madidi, in addition to learning from the Andean people. . . I still retain my position as Curator, Wildflower Gardens, Stanley Park of Westfield, molding and managing the second largest public woodland wildflower garden in Massachusetts. I'm also working on an internet 'field guide to eastern wildflowers.'" Not your typical talk show host in more than one way.

I grew up on radio as conversation. As a kid in Washington I listened to a local show hosted by Arthur Godfrey who casually demeaned the "dirty old bear" in front of one of his advertisers, Zlotnik the Furrier. Later, in Philadelphia, I listened regularly to one of the first of the late night talkers, Steve Allison, who claimed to be the "man who owned midnight" and was, as far as I could tell, right. At my college radio station, I practiced the tradition as best I could, coming to regard my audience much as a blind man might: they were present, just unseen. They weren't there to be manipulated or yelled at; they were, after all, your friends.

Later, as a radio newsman, I would run into these friends on the street. Or they would call in with their news tips like the man who started coughing as he described a nearby apartment fire, finally saying, "I think . . .(cough) I'd (cough) better go now." And Dan, who lived alone with his multiple police scanners and would call to say, "I've got a body for you, Sam." Another dollar went to Dan for his tip.

I remember once, as a guest host on the DC public radio station, gently scolding a caller who had questioned guest Sy Hersh's patriotism: "Look we're all good Americans here. . .Else we wouldn't be listening to WAMU." It wasn't strictly logical, but it shut the guy up.

You get used to that sort of thing. Once in San Francisco I got a call from a guy who wanted to complain about aliens. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn't Mexicans that bothered him but those from outer space. "Look," I replied, "I think we ought to treat space creatures like all other newcomers to this country. Welcome them and make them part of us." The caller hung up without debating the point. In recent years, talk radio has too often become pompous, tedious, raucous or just plain nasty. Somewhere between Diane Rehm and Rush Limbaugh, however, there is a happy valley of conversation that a few hosts like Charlie Spencer and Richard Kaffenberger have used with great skill. It doesn't seem to hurt their ratings and they probably could do just as well nationally as they do at home. After all, part of the secret of America finding itself again is to stop yelling and start talking with each other.

Monday, November 17, 2014

No one left but us

Sam Smith -  The recent election - in which the minimum wage for some workers was raised while the minimum intelligence for some politicians was lowered - illustrates a few points this journal has been trying to make, namely that Americans are more progressive on quite a few issues than their leaders and that choosing the right issues is often a better tool for change than choosing the right candidate. As I noted some time back, the American left can either remain a victim of alternative predators - the right on one hand or the Clintons and Obamas on the other. Or it can take charge of its own future and that of the country by agreeing within itself on clear programs and then - in the manner of abolitionists, populists, socialists, suffragettes, and civil rights activists - take this message to every little corner of the land.  Further, change does not build purely on argument, analysis or power. It requires a common community as well.

On the first point,  the issues on which, according to polls this year, the public leads the politicians of both parties (not to mention much of the major media) are quite extraordinary and include:

    restoring voting rights to ex-nonviolent offenders
    opposing racial profiling by police
    opposing militarization of police has gone too far
    considering Snowden a whistleblower, not a traitor
    opposing mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses
    opposing the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United
    sporting pot legalization and medical marijuana
    wanting carbon pollution cut even if it costs more.
    wanting Americans want GMO foods labelled
    believing humans cause climate change
    saying global warming should be a priority
    believing the economy is unfair to middle class
    favoring fair pay for women, a higher minimum wage, paid family and medical leave and paid sick days.
    believing wealth should be more fairly distributed
    supporting federal spending to help economy
    believing job creation should be the top priority. Only 33 percent said deficit reduction
    supporting food stamps
    opposing using student test scores to evaluate teachers.
    wanting government to invest more in higher education
    opposing spending by Super PACs
    thinking we give too much aid to Israel
    opposing getting involved in Ukraine
    favoring normal relations with Cuba
    believing the Afghan war wasn't worth it
    favoring laws prohibiting workplace discrimination against LGBT people
    backing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally
    supporting paid vacations
    overwhelmingly opposed to NSA spying on them
    Banning Super PACs
    wanting Social Security spending increased or held steady

 Add to this the fact that while Democratic candidates have been losing ground, issues like gay marriage and legalizing marijuana have made considerable progress. This dichotomy, caused in no small part by the legalization of corporate bribery (including Citizens United) that has funded an explosion of perverted television ads, will not soon be resolved. And there is only the smallest chance that the Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanders will suddenly explode.

One reason is that Washington has become a capital of explosive dysfunction in which the Democrats serve as the abused children of maniacal Republicans, narcissistic gradocrats from schools of law, business and economics, lecherous lobbyists and a media unable to perceive beyond the lies it is told.

As in any dysfunctional family, playing by its rules gets you nowhere. The trick is to break free physically, mentally and socially to a stage in which the past no longer has tenure.

This is why emphasizing issues over candidates is important.  Obama and Hillary Clinton, for example, are the creations of the very culture we wish to change. We may, wisely, want to vote for them in order to have a better battlefield on which to struggle, but there is no reason to pin any significant hope on their fluid, fatuous fantasies and facades. Our goal is not to support such mirrors of cultural metastasis but to change the environment in which such metastasis spreads.

Strangely, a place where liberals and other Democrats might have learned this lesson is from the right itself. Abortion, gay rights, and immigration didn't gain such disproportional importance by accident. It was the result of a conscious effort to redefine reality in terms that could demonize Democrats while ignoring all matters - such as rational  economics - that might otherwise drive national debate. And the message of the right included the argument that the Democrats not only had bad values but they wanted to take values away from those who disagree with them.

There is, however, another important factor well described by Rabbi Michael Lerner: the current difference in the role of community within left and right. It hasn't always been like that and certainly wasn't, for example,  during the 1960s, but one finds little honor for community in the liberal discourse. And our most popular form of government - the local - is dissed by Democrats in favor a federal rules.

On the other hand, writes Lerner:
    When many Americans encounter a different reality in right-wing churches that have specialized in creating supportive communities, they feel much more addressed there than they've ever felt in progressive movements that focus on economic entitlements or political rights and sometimes disintegrate due to internal tensions over dynamics of relative privilege ("hey, my group is more oppressed than yours, so I deserve more attention for my pain than you do for yours") and unproductive feelings of guilt ("who are we to challenge this society when we've failed to make our own lives as fulfilling as they ought to be"),

    Only rarely do these liberal or progressive movements actually manifest a loving community that seems to care specifically about the people who come to their public talks or gatherings-the experience is more about hearing a good speech than about encountering people who want to know who you are and what you need-precisely what happens in most right-wing churches.

    Is it really a surprise that people who so rarely encounter this kind of caring among the people with whom they work or the people whom they see angling for power or sexual conquest in the movies and TV would feel more seen and recognized for having some value in the Right than in much of the Left? Sadly, the cost of belonging to those right-wing churches is this: that they demean or put-down those deemed to be "Other"-those who are not part of their community. These "others" (including feminists, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and increasingly all liberals or progressives) are wrongfully blamed for the ethos of selfishness and breakdown of loving relationships and families. This is ironic because in fact the breakdown of loving relationships is largely a product of the increasing internalization of the utilitarian or instrumental way people have come to view each other, a product of bringing home into personal life, friendships, and marriages the very values that the Right esteems and champions in the competitive economy.

    It is the ethos of capitalism that is destructive to loving relationships, families, and caring communities. Yet this is rarely discussed by liberal or progressive organizations, though doing so would start to suggest to people that we actually cared about these issues which are normally described as "personal" but are in fact a perfect example of how the personal is political-because they are so massively impacted by the values that are being instilled in all of us by the workplace, the marketplace of consumption and the media.

    Progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party need to develop a Spiritual Covenant that can apply [a] New Bottom Line to every aspect of our society-our economy, our corporations, our educational system, our legal system. In short, a progressive worldview that deeply rejects the way most of our institutions today teach people the values of "looking out for number one" and maximizing one's own material well being without regard to the consequences for others or for the environment. Armed with an alternative worldview, progressives would have a chance of helping working people stop blaming themselves for their situation, stop blaming some other, and see that it is the whole system that needs a fundamental makeover.
As a rock bottom Seventh Day Agnostic, I don't care much for words like "spiritual" or "covenant," but that part's easy to rewrite. Forget the religious slang and consider the goals of a "network of spiritual progressives" that Lerner helped to form:
    Founded in 2005 by Tikkun Editor Michael Lerner, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, and Princeton University Professor Cornel West, the NSP … is not only for members of religious communities but also for people who do not believe in God or do not associate with any religion but do realize the need for a New Bottom Line in our world today.

    Here's what is spiritual: Ethics, aesthetics, love, compassion, creativity, music, altruism, generosity, forgiveness, spontaneity, emergent phenomena, consciousness itself, and any other aspect of reality not subject to empirical verification or measurement.

    Many scientists are also spiritual: They understand that the scientific method is appropriate for describing regularities in the natural world, but not for understanding all of reality. Those aspects of reality that cannot be reduced to publicly observable and verifiable behavior we call spiritual.

    What Is A Spiritual Progressive? (Hint:  You don't have to believe in God or be part of a religion). You are a spiritual progressive if you endorse the New Bottom Line: A New Bottom Line is one that judges the efficiency, rationality, and productivity of our institutions (education, healthcare, legal, etc.), government (and its policies), corporations and even our personal behavior based not on the old bottom line of whether they maximize money and power, but instead assessing them on the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, empathy and compassion, social and economic justice, peace and nonviolence, and environmental sustainability, as well as encourage us to transcend a narrow utilitarian approach to nature and other human beings. You don't have to believe in God, deny science, or be part of a religion to be a spiritual progressive.
Despite my decidedly aspiritual approach to life, I like this stuff, in part because the last time I lived in an America that was dramatically changing for the better, aka the 1960s and early 1970s, it was a period when issues were far more important than political personalities and the country was awash with alternative communities to which one could belong and in which one could find support. A time when hipsters, preachers, cynics, artists, academics and street activists not only had a plan but a home, and felt at home with one another.

Today, the Democratic Party offers neither a plan nor a home. There are some hopeful models, such as Moral Mondays. And when I meet a new fellow Green Party member, it is to like finding a long lost cousin.

But generally our discussions do not recognize the importance of creating common space and common dreams. The environmentalists take care of the pipeline and the civil libertarians fight NSA and seldom the twain shall meet.

You don't have to call it spiritual. You can just call it community, fellowship or simply human. But we have been deserted by our leaders in politics, academia, and the media, so it's up to us to rebuild what America is meant to be about and the communities in which it can happen. There's no one else to do it.  Just us.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

A coalition for the comnon good

Sam Smith  - Washington will soon have the most xenophobic Congress since the days of segregation. The old southerners mainly hated black people, while the new crowd can’t stand anyone who doesn’t look, act and believe like themselves.

Their voting ID restrictions not only echo the southern poll tax but sometimes are twice as costly. And while their prejudice is not publicly avowed it is easily apparent in the statistics from their prisons, from schools and from the mistreatment of the homeless.

And who is there to challenge them? The weakest and most purposeless Democratic Party in nearly a century. This is not a new development. Go back 26 years and you’ll find conservative Democrats beginning a series of nearly 100 meetings held at the home of Pam Harriman to plot strategy for the takeover of the Democratic Party. Donors coughed up $1,000 to attend and Harriman eventually raised $12 million for her kind of Democrat. The right-wing Dems would eventually settle on Bill Clinton as their presidential choice. That same crowd would later bring Barack Obama to the fore.

Anyone who has looked carefully at Clinton’s or Obama’s record would see what has been going on. Clinton’s assault on social welfare, the repeal of bank regulations, the dismantling of public housing all occurred right before the eyes of a liberal constituency that never blinked. Obama’s refusal to challenge intelligence agency attacks on the Constitution and the creation of a healthcare bill that grossly favors insurance corporations would follow suit.

Flawed as Jimmy Carter may have been, he was our last real Democratic president.

And now, as Scott McLarty puts it, “Republicans are the party of bad ideas. Democrats are the party of no ideas. Gullible people can be inspired by bad ideas. No one is inspired by no ideas.”

The risks in this are enormous, as Germany learned many years ago. About the pre-Hitler era I once wrote that there was:
- A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

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

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

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

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

- The collapse of the country's self image. Thomas Childers points out that Germany had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our battered self-image.
In trying to figure a sane manner in which to prevent something similar happening to America it helps to remember that this is not a fight about individuals. It is about the battlefield on which we and they struggle. We can’t change the Democratic Party or Hillary Clinton in two years, but we can change how they behave by changing the reality around them.

Unfortunately, over the past few decades, worthy activism has too often been atomized. One choses to attend to the environment, abortion or gay rights, for example, and unconsciously in the process ignores the need for all these causes to find common ground.

The agendas that many liberals have chosen has been either too specific and/or too controversial inspire any broadbased coalitions, which is why you find Colorado quite hip on marijuana and still sending Mark Udall to the cleaners.

Further, liberals have adopted a puritanical form of politics most vividly seen in their approach to gun regulation. Instead of seeking common ground with hunters on reasonable reforms, they instead launched a full scale attack that sent the message that the owners of some 270 million guns are evil souls. It is, for example, quite possible that in Maine, the Democrat lost the governorship in part because of the greater turnout of hunters over a referendum that would have banned bear baiting. Given all the issues affecting decent people in that state, bear baiting was near the bottom. And similarly, given all the other issues out there, why piss off a large number of San Francisco voters with a “sin tax” on soda? Whatever happened to priorities?

Most dramatically, what liberal puritans – in sharp contract with New Deal and Great Society Democrats – have missed is that if you want to bring people together at the polls, you need to raise economic, health and widely shared social issues to the top of your list.

When Frances Perkins was asked by FDR to be his labor secretary she gave him a list of four items that he would have to agree to work on before she would come aboard: a forty hour work week, a minimum wage, social security and a national healthcare plan. Not in nearly half a century have we seen Democrats push for programs anywhere near as broadly helpful to the whole American community.

So here is a modest proposal:

Create an organization called something like the Coalition for the Common Good. It would be formed by leaders of groups the Democrats hope or expect to be in their corner but in recent times have exerted little effective power in the party. These groups would include, among others, those representing blacks, latinos, labor, and women. This coalition would endorse no one, contribute to no campaigns, and not deal with issues specific to its member groups. It would instead organize and lobby for policies that benefit a major portion of the American public – just as so many New Deal and Great Society programs did and so few do today.

What might these programs include? A few possibilities:

  • · Increased minimum wage
  • · Restoring Glass Steigall Act
  • · Ending credit care usury
  • · A negative income tax.
  • · Creating state public banks
  • · Expanding worker cooperatives
  • · Fairer elections including ranked choice voting and and to discriminatory practices like voter ID.
  • · An end to corporate personhood
  • · An elected Attorney General
  • · Public campaign financing
  • · Single payer health plan
  • · A fairer approach to looming housing foreclosures such as co-ownership with the government.
  • · Restorative justice and community courts
Note that all these (and these are just examples) have a general effect on the American community and are not designed to assist a specific subculture.

Is it practical? Well, for decades the Leadership Conference on Civil Right was one of the most important groups in the country. For much of that time it lacked bylaws and a constitution but what it had was an extraordinary community of organizations as members that shared its vision. Here, for example, were some of its members that begin with the letter A:

AARP, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Alaska Federation of Natives, Alliance for Retired Americans, American Association of People with Disabilities, American Association of University Women, American Baptist Churches USA American Civil Liberties Union, American Federation of Government Employees, , American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, American Nurses Association, American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO, American Society for Public Administration, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Americans for Democratic Action, Anti-Defamation League, Appleseed, Asian American Justice Center, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Associated Actors and Artistes of America, AFL-CIO, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Association of Junior Leagues International, The Association of University Centers on Disabilities
If all these groups could come together over civil rights, why couldn’t an even broader policy approach attract as many or more?

A more current example is that remarkable movement, Moral Mondays. From its guide:
The first Moral Monday was on April 29. Justice-loving people from across the state gathered at the capitol to express their concern about the announced political agenda of the new majority in the General Assembly and the Governor. The legislators’ and Governor’s extreme and immoral agenda was a declaration of war on the people of North Carolina - - women, minorities, children, and the elderly…

Moral Mondays have been successful. Moral Mondays have turned a moment of concern, fear, and uncertainty into the Forward Together, Not One Step Back Movement for change that has drawn tens of thousands of North Carolinians in this righteous struggle to voice their dissatisfaction with the actions of the legislators who, have cut unemployment benefits for 170,000 people without work, deprived a half a million people of health care, decimated public schools, endangered the environment, and threatened voting rights.
Nation Magazine reported on Moral Mondays and its effects:
The movement’s most important accomplishment has been to build a multi-issue, multiracial, statewide progressive coalition, one that North Carolina—or the South, for that matter—has never seen. “In a Southern state, an African-American is leading a multiracial movement that I believe represents the majority of the people of the state,” says Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that is advising the North Carolina NAACP. “It’s a huge breakthrough in terms of racial barriers in the South.”

… Western North Carolina, which is heavily white, is the home of five new NAACP chapters—including places like Mitchell County, where no one ever dreamed of starting one before. “We saw the NAACP as the most organized and most aggressive group taking action against the Legislature,” said Joy Boothe, a local Moral Monday leader in the mountain town of Burnsville, who helped start the Yancey/Mitchell County NAACP. It now has 126 dues-paying members, nearly all of them white. In fact, the five new chapters are the first majority-white NAACP affiliates in the state.
How does a group like the Coalition for Common Ground decide what to do?

Ranked choice voting is one good way. The nice thing about this is that you end up with an agenda that people have really agreed on and you don’t have to worry, say, about Catholics not liking its take on abortion. You leave that fight for someplace else.

It can work. I saw it back in 1995 when a bunch of us Greens organized a conference of third party activists. This is from my report:

Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Ross Perot backers, Democratic Socialists of America, and followers of Lenora Fulani. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin, and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along. We established two basic rules:

- We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.

- We would reach that agreement by consensus.

I was one of the kickoff speakers and said:

"We must stake out a position with real programs for real people, with our enthusiasm on our sleeve and our ideology in our pocket, with small words and big hearts, and -- most of all -- with a clear vision of what a better future might look like. We must tackle what Chesterton called the "huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul."

"This then is our task. Let's embrace it not as sectarians or as prigs but as a happy fellow members of a new mainstream. Not as radicals permanently in exile but as moderates of an age that has not quite arrived. Let's laugh and make new friends and be gentle with one another. Let's remember Camus' dictum that the only sin we are not permitted is despair. "

`We broke the body into tables of ten or so, each dealing with a different topic. All policies that were proposed were written on newsprint posters. Then participants were given three color stickers with their names on them. Everyone then went up to the board and placed their stickers on their favorite issues (cumulative voting style, so that all three stickers could, if desired, be placed on one issue). After the vote, those with only their stickers on a particular issue were allowed to move them to their second choice (a la instant run-off voting) and so forth until a clear consensus of three issues emerged. This scheme not only produced a consensus, but one that was physical and visual as well as intellectual and fun to watch.

When the various groups produced their recommendations, they were turned over to what was known as a "fishbowl negotiation." Each small group selected a representative to negotiate for it. The representatives sat in a circle with those they represented behind them. Anyone could stop their representative and request a small group conference but only the representative could speak in the larger assembly. It worked remarkably well.

Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert's Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform "to provide a level playing field in elections;" initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities "consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights."
Not bad for a meeting at which nobody yelled at anyone.

Which is one reason I think a Coalition for the Common Good is amongf the best things we might do t this moment – whether at a national, state or lcal level.

Let’s face it. Our conventional leaders in politics, business, media and academia have broadly failed us. They care mostly about survival of themselves . It’s time now for the rest to come together and do it differently , to restore honest concern, decency, cooperation and imagination to our political lives.

It is time to join together and seek the common good.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Getting ready to vote

Sam Smith - Fortunately the national and state candidate choices  this year are easy , so I've had plenty of time to try to figure out the far more overwhelming issues in my Maine town. Maine still takes democracy seriously. According to NPR, Nielsen ranks the hearby Portland media market 91st in the country. But it comes in at No. 8 in terms of campaign-ad volume, according to Kantar Media research."

And it's not just TV ads.You can't leave the parking lot at Bow Street Market or approach the dead end of Mallet Drive without confronting several dozen street signs. I confess to not finding these too helpful in reaching a choice but it does remind you that democracy still matters to some.

The hardest and most important decision this year is whether we should end the consolidation of three town school districts which some feel has added to costs and hurt major decisions because of the obstinence of the two smaller adjoining towns when faced with bond issues.The other side says that any lack of progress is due to other issues and that the new plan for a separated school system won't work. I eventually came to the conclusion that those backing withdrawal from the present consolidation have, at best, identified a problem but haven't really come up with a comfortably reliable solution. But I didn't take this lightly, having conferred with an auto shop owner, waitress at the Broad Arrow Tavern who knows a lot of parents, a former school principal, and an oyster fisherman, among others, all of whom were more rational and thoughtful than most of the pols and commentators I see on TV. As I told the town councilor who headed the committee that produced the deconsolidation plan, I had never before consulted a committee on whether to withdraw.

There are other issues such as a statewide referendum on ending bear baiting, another topic that in all my years of journalism I also never faced before.

Then there is the town sewer district. Living five miles from downtown and relying on a private septic system, I probably shouldn't even be allowed to vote on the matter, but I was attracted by the comments of candidate Sally Leland as reported in the Forecaster newspaper:
If elected, she said she wants to address the recent breaks in the system's mains. "That's probably going to be the biggest problem going forward," Leland said. "It's an aging infrastructure." She said it's important to fix these problems before they get worse so that residents aren't affected too much. "People don't really think of the sewer district until it doesn't work," she said.

Leland said she also wants to work on educating the community about the sewer district. She said she wants to start with elementary schools and promote field trips to the sewer facility.
The contest over the sewer district was instigated by the fact that Thomas Hudak has decided to try to move on to the town water district board.  As explained in the Forecaster:
Hudak is one year into his second term on the sewer district board; this would be his first time term on the water district board. He said he wanted to run for the open seat so he could see the other side of the sewer district. "We see what's coming out," Hudak said. "I wanted to see where it's coming from."
So it's tough voting here, but it sure is interesting. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Weekend update

Sam Smith - During a trip last weekend to the coastal area north of Boston, my wife and I stayed at the Emerson Inn by the Sea in Rockport. It was neither its original name nor in its original location. It had once been a tavern nearby until in 1856 some 200 townswomen, as well as three men, began a destructive raid against alcoholic spirits. According to the inn’ s account, “Hiding their weapons beneath lacy shawls, the protestors set out to destroy every drop of alcohol. . .Five hours after the siege began, the weary but victorious women went home to fix supper for their families.”

In the wake of this chaos, the owner decided to turn the tavern into an inn since Pigeon Cove had begin attracting a growing number of summer visitors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, originally brought by his friend Henry David Thoreau

Emerson would spend several vacations here with his family and wrote about it in his diary with less than careful reserve:
Returned from Pigeon Cove, where we have made acquaintance with the sea, for seven days. Tis a noble, friendly power, and seemed to say to me, "Why so late and slow to come to me? Am I not here always, thy proper summer home? Is not my voice thy needful music; my breath, thy healthful climate in the heats; My touch, thy cure? Was ever a building like my terraces? Was ever a couch so magnificent as mine? Lie down on my warm ledges and learn that a very little but is all you need. I have made thy architecture superfluous, and it is paltry beside mine. Here are twenty Romes and Nineveho and Karnacs in ruin together, obelisk and pyramid and giant's causeway here they all are prostrate or half piled."
As It turned out, our room was just two down the hall from Emerson’s, which would have been heart warming were it not for the fact that his pre-Expedia assessment of the inn was in stunning contrast with some of his other comments on travel that I have regularly quoted, to wit:
Travelling is a fool's paradise. . .I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . .My giant goes with me wherever I go.

He who travels to be amused, or to get something which he does not carry, travels away from himself and grows old even in youth among old things.
But it wasn’t the only historic clash of the weekend. Upon arriving in nearby Salem we were immediately reminded that Halloween was only a week away as it was already being cheerfully observed by an extraordinary number of people wearing odd costumes and pointed hats. The mood was mindlessly celebratory, at least until we joined a few other people in the town’s visitors’ center to see a documentary on where Salem’s interest in witches had begun, namely in 1692 during trials that resulted in the hanging of 19 women in nine months of hysteria about the subject. History.com describes it this way:
The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. By September 1692, the hysteria had begun to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the Massachusetts General Court later annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and granted indemnities to their families, bitterness lingered in the community, and the painful legacy of the Salem witch trials would endure for centuries….

In January 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the tragedy of the Salem witch trials; the court later deemed the trials unlawful, and the leading justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the process. The damage to the community lingered, however, even after Massachusetts Colony passed legislation restoring the good names of the condemned and providing financial restitution to their heirs in 1711. Indeed, the vivid and painful legacy of the Salem witch trials endured well into the 20th century, when Arthur Miller dramatized the events of 1692 in his play “The Crucible” (1953), using them as an allegory for the anti-Communist “witch hunts” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
To view a documentary on this subject in a nearly empty auditorium and then to step into a main street of Salem jammed with a contemporary celebration of sorcery was a troublesome reminder of how little we often learn from history

Sunday, October 19, 2014