Monday, September 21, 2020

POST EMPIRE SURVIVAL GUIDE: Create a labor organization like AARP

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 20, 2020

POST EMPIRE SURVIVAL GUIDE: Boycott bad corporations

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Post Empire Survival Guide: Find some useful precedents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University has described Orwell’s underclass this way:

“The Proles were the poorest of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and optimistic. The Proles were also the freest of all the groups. Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry about the Thought Police. . .[Orwell] concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group.”

Friday, September 18, 2020

Learn from the past; act for the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The stress of activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Trump's incremental fascism

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2020

Removing trash in the 1960s


From our overstocked archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The ethnicity that the media ignores

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 07, 2020

From our overstocked archives: An island I briefly owned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Another way in the neighbhorhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the great myths about American politics is that change comes from the top. The truth of the matter is that change typically starts at the bottom and slowly works its way  up to the top… As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drives towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws, permitting gay marriage and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Improving ethnic relations: some things that get ignored

 Sam Smith

Cities with a majority black population: How are places like Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans different from other American cities? The nation’s capital is currently almost evenly split but was majority black for over five decades. I lived there as a white guy during this time and wonder why those years lacked the sort of conflict that’s going on elsewhere now. One thought that occurs to me is that DC had a complexity of which ethnicity was just a part. Also on the board, for example, was economic class and neighborhood. Incidentally, we’re also talking about a city in which 25% are not religiously affiliated and 10% are gay or lesbian. Diversity is diverse.

Diversity can be fun, instructive and a pleasant way of living: Thanks in no small part to a media concentrating on the evils of our time, we tend to ignore the fact that diversity doesn’t just cause social conflict, it can add variety, enjoyment and education to our lives. If everyone was just like me, I’d be bored as hell.

Race is a racist concept: As I wrote some years back: “Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse of power. As Thomas S. Martin has written: ‘The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two 'races' have the same skin color.’ DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it).” In fact you can find more genetic differences within the black “race” than between say, your average “white” and “black.”

Which is why I use the term ethnic instead of race. Understanding that our differences are predominantly cultural rather than genetic greatly increases our capacity to change how we think about them.

More emphasis on history  and civics – A couple of years ago Education Week found that fifteen states require students to take a U.S. history exam and 19 for civics. Education Week did a 50 state survey that found that “while most states require students to study civics, just eight require them to take a yearlong civics or government class in order to graduate. In comparison, a year of U.S. history is a graduation requirement in 31 states.”

In other words, in 19 states you don’t even have to take a history course and in 35 there is no history exam. How do you learn about things like slavery, if our school system shrugs off history?

Unmentioned is the study of cultures. I was blessed by one of the country’s then two high school anthropology courses  and went on to major in the subject in college. It has had a big effect not only on my view of things but my journalistic work, where I find culture playing a larger role than is typical in the field. There are some striking exceptions – like journalist Colin Woodard’s excellent cultural analysis of our land, American Nations, but on the whole culture is ignored because it’s just there and not “news.”

Teach kids about cultures. If you let diversity introduce itself to the young as just another teen problem, you are contributing to the problem. We need courses for the young on cultures that not only educate them as to the nature of the world, but also encourage them by a positive recounting of their own culture.

Reciprocal liberty – This concept – I can’t have my liberty if you don’t have yours – was favored by the early Quakers and helped them get along with other people such as the Germans and native Americans. Instead of forcing people to take your views – like the anti-abortiion movement – you accept the complexity of life and get along with those who think differently.

Our differences cause problems because of the way we handle them, not because we’re all that different. A good starting point is to celebrate the varieties of human existence and not just treat them as a problem we can’t resolve.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Confessions of a third party sinner


Sam Smith – Back in the 1990s, when John Rensenbrink asked me to come to a Green Party organized meeting, I told him, “I’m not good enough to be a Green.” Rensenbrink replied like a Tammany Hall pro, "That's all right Sam, there'll be a libertarian there, too." Later, I would describe myself as the chair of the Big Mac caucus of the Green Party because, even with my participation in its birthing, I didn't always feel completely at home.

Although I had a reputation for being ahead of the curve, my introduction to politics had been in places like Philadelphia and Boston where the words “decent” and “political” were rarely used in the same paragraph. I had learned that change occurred between elections, not as  a result of them, and that politicians were reactivists, not activists.

But I was not opposed to pushing the limits. I was one of the founders in 1970 of the DC Statehood Party, which actually held a seat on the city council and/or school board for 25 years. And while the party is politically weak these days, its underlying cause has the support of 80% of the city and has been approved for the first time by the House of Representatives.

What I had learned was the third parties are just another tool for getting things done. And they work best at the local level. They aren’t a church of higher virtue or a refuge for the sainted. If they work, great. If not, try something else.

And so, among my numerous subsequent sins, I have, since moving to Maine, adopted the practice of changing my registration to Democratic in time to vote in the primary and then switching back.

Up to now that’s worked pretty well. But at a time when there is no cause more important that getting rid of Donald Trump, I find myself repelled by the self-righteousness of those who, because they correctly summarize some of the faults of our times, assume a vote carried out in piety rather than pragmatism will actually make a difference.

Because I am, as Marion Barry once described me, a cynical cat, I want nothing to do with sanctimony at the polls. I just want the most practical best answer.

The numbers lend support to my approach. For example, between 2010 and 2020 the Green Party nationally has increased in numbers a  grand total of 232 voters. Meanwhile in Maine, where the Greens have long been important at the state and local level, the party membership has gone up over 10,000 members, a one third increase. Clearly, treating the party as a local action tool rather than a national declaration of sainthood makes a lot of sense.

And so, as I look at the blank voter registration card of the sort I used to switch to Democrat a few months back, and now puzzle when to become a Green again, just writing this piece has inspired me to do nothing until after the election. I’ll vote for Biden and Sarah Gideon (seeking to beat Senator Collins) and shortly after the vote will become a Maine, rather than a national, Green again. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Civil War (Cont'd)

Sam Smith – As noted here before, one can argue that other then ending slavery and secession, the South actually won the Civil War. One need only to consider that it took almost a century for the civil rights movement’s efforts against segregation to begin to be successful.

 As a new reporter covering the Capitol six decades ago, I recall one of my strongest thoughts was how much more southern it all was than I had imagined. Part of this was due to southern pols holding their seats, and thus their power, longer but there was also a deep  southern aura about the place that still sticks with me.

On a more factual basis consider this: if Donald Trump had run for president without the aid of formerly Confederate states, Hillary Clinton would have won by 60 electoral votes. And our regular update of state rankings and actions finds none of the formerly Confederate states in the top ten, but eight in the list of the bottom ten.

This is another example of how the conventional media tends to ignore culture and history in its coverage, ignoring the truth that these factors can influence things as much or more as what some politician said yesterday.

Ironically, one of the reasons that the former Confederacy hasn’t changed more is that as late as World War I some 90% of blacks lived in the south. Thanks to their efforts to get the hell out of there, the figure was only about 54% in the 2000 census. Thus the potential political power of blacks to change things in southern America has actually declined.

As I wrote eight years ago:

[][][][] It has been as bad for the south as for the general population as recent recounted by Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic:

“By nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states… The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. … And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue: New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota, and Hawaii. The numbers on infant mortality, life expectancy, teen pregnancy, and obesity break down in similar ways.

“Advocates for the red-state approach to government invoke lofty principles: By resisting federal programs and defying federal laws, they say, they are standing up for liberty. These were the same arguments that the original red-staters made in the 1800s, before the Civil War, and in the 1900s, before the civil rights movement. Now, as then, the liberty the red states seek is the liberty to let a whole class of citizens suffer.

“ Because we tend to view t’he north-south issue primarily in terms of ethnicity we fail to observe a cultural difference of huge import: the south is still trapped in a power system that pits the less successful against each other based on false interpretations of race, religion, and economics. All these interpretations favor power by the few.

“This is one reason why the deadly alliance between the old south and the contemporary predatory capitalism of people like Romney is proving so effective. Both believe in power without limit, integrity, or cooperation. Now, the corporation is treated as a person, the citizen increasingly as just property. If Romney only had the right accent, he would be right at home as governor of Missisippi or as an actor in Gone With the Wind. He evokes power both handsome and horrible.”

The southern view of freedom is what David Hackett Fisher refers to as hegemonic liberty. The website Orcinus notes:

 “Fischer quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson, pondering the cavalier view of freedom. ‘How is it,’ Dr. Johnson asked, ‘that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ …

Fischer has an answer. He argues that the cavalier cry against tyranny expressed by Jefferson, Washington, and other Virginians wasn't the least bit out of character. In fact, it came straight out of their essential conviction that free white men of property are the morally proper holders of all the rights and liberties that matter.

Writes Fisher:

 “Virginian ideas of hegemonic liberty conceived of freedom mainly as the power to rule, and not to be overruled by others. Its opposite was "slavery.”....It never occurred to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen -- a property which set this ‘happy breed’ apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world....

“One's status in Virginia was defined by the liberties one possessed. Men of high estate were thought to have more liberties than others of lesser rank. Servants possessed few liberties; and slaves [and women] had none at all. This libertarian idea had nothing to do with equality. Many years later, John Randolph of Roanoke summarized his ancestral creed in a sentence: ‘I am an aristocrat,’ he declared. ‘I love liberty; I hate equality.’”

To be sure, with time more have been allowed to join the elite, but the principle still lurks deep in much southern politics. Even a poor southern boy like Bill Clinton understood the rules. You play the game to get to the top and then you get to do whatever you want. Power is its own justification.

This view, writes Fisher, differs from the New England one that liberty is defined by the community, or the Quaker perspective that liberty should be reciprocal, or even the libertarianism of the west, which the individual’s power was limited to one’s own choices, not one’s choices over other.

The success of the southern political elite (along with today’s business school elite) has required a consistent development of mistrust amongst the very masses who should be rising up against it.

The Economic History Association reports that “In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion. . . . The value of capital invested in slaves roughly equaled the total value of all farmland and farm buildings in the South.”

History Central adds: “Most Southern white families did not own slaves: only about 384,000 out of 1.6 million did. Of those who did own slaves, most (88%) owned fewer than 20 slaves, and were considered farmers rather than planters. Slaves were concentrated on the large plantations of about 10,000 big planters, on which 50-100 or more slaves worked. About 3,000 of these planters owned more than 100 slaves, and 14 of them owned over 1,000 slaves.

In other words, if you just consider economics, less than one percent of Southern families were truly enjoying the benefits of slavery just as today less than one percent are truly enjoying the benefits of contemporary corrupt capitalism.

As we might ask of today’s middle class supporters of the GOP uncivil war, why did the rest of the whites go along? One of the rarest phenomena in the South – practiced by populists such as Earl Long - was a serious political effort to help poorer whites see what they had in common with blacks and how they were being ripped off by the white elite – while today even liberals prefer to see the GOP base as devils equal to its leadership rather than as misguided victims waiting to be saved.

Key to each period was the myth that the elite was helping everyone preserve their “way of life.” The Southern mythology – celebrated in everything from books to musicals to movies – essentially described a culture that only a few could enjoy just as today the Republicans have not come up with a single program to significantly help their middle class or lower income constituents. The benefits of “free markets” accrue only to campaign contributors…

A century later, with the civil rights movement redefining the Democratic Party from its segregationist southern past, the GOP essentially took over planter politics and has been practicing it ever since.

Today, the GOP has raised planter politics to new levels. There are no ideological gifts to the many, only money and power to the few. And one can draw a direct line from the Civil War of the 1860s to the uncivil wars of today.

As with the southern Democrats of long ago, the GOP is waging class war against the very constituency it pretends to represent and there is hardly anyone around to tell this constituency how they are being ripped off.

Until that happens, until a true populist movement takes form, the Republicans will continue their uncivil war against American democracy, taking apart the very laws and policies that allowed their present constituency to get where they were before the current disaster began. [][][][]

Today, Donald Trump is our leading planter politician, creating his own liberty as the expense of those around him and lying to them in such a manner has to deceive them into thinking he is on their side. The Democrats, on the other hand, have done a lousy job of defending and helping the working class that is Trump’s target compared say to the New Deal and the Great Society. Until they do a better job of helping ordinary citizens our civil war shall continue.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

A few non-political reasons not to vote for Trump. . . .

Of 3,500 law suits, Trump or one of his companies were plaintiffs in 1,900; defendants in 1,450; and bankruptcy, third party, or other in 150. Trump was named in at least 169 suits in federal court. – Wikipedia

Trump has visited his golf courses 286 times since becoming president. He has spent 127 days at Mar a Lago which has cost taxpayers over $59 million.

President-elect Donald J. Trump  agreed to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits over Trump University.

As of last July, Trump had made over 20,000 lies or misleading statements while president, according to the Washington Post.

Number of top aides arrested and/or convicted: 8

From his official declaration of candidacy in June 2015 through the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency, he tweeted over 17,000 times

No president has had such close connections with mobsters…  More

Washington Post -  Trump’s Taj Mahal opened in April 1990 in Atlantic City, but six months later, “defaulted on interest payments to bondholders as his finances went into a tailspin,” The Washington Post’s Robert O’Harrow found. In July 1991, Trump’s Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy. He could not keep up with debts on two other Atlantic City casinos, and those two properties declared bankruptcy in 1992. A fourth property, the Plaza Hotel in New York, declared bankruptcy in 1992 after amassing debt. PolitiFact uncovered two more bankruptcies filed after 1992, totaling six. Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts filed for bankruptcy again in 2004, after accruing about $1.8 billion in debt. Trump Entertainment Resorts also declared bankruptcy in 2009, after being hit hard during the 2008 recession.

25 women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct