FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The making of a mediarchy

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 1988

This year's presidential campaign, otherwise without socially redeeming virtue, has at least effectively destroyed the myth of Ronald Reagan as mediameister. George Bush has proved that anybody can do it.

This had been long concealed because of a natural confusion between cause and effect. Reagan appeared to be manipulating the media when, in fact, he was simply reaping the benefits of being its most diligent and well-behaved student-politician. What appeared to be a Stygian skill called from deep within him was nothing more than a long and total commitment to the media's own rules and mores.

That the effect can be replicated virtually at will was amply demonstrated by the Bush campaign. Bush entered the race absent a verifiable microcurie of charisma, with little rhetorical ability, and seemingly lacking even elemental shrewdness. Yet his media triumph has put even that of the Great Prevaricator to shame. What took Reagan years of GE commercials to achieve, Bush has mastered in a few short weeks.

The dramatic alteration of the presumed persona of George Bush should come as no surprise to students of the tube. After all, television long ago learned that talent was the least of its requirements. It discovered it didn't need a comedian as good as Ernie Kovacs, a journalist as good as Edward R. Murrow or some actress imported from Broadway to fill a dramatic role. It could simply manufacture a reasonable likeness out of the endless pool of attractive, inoffensive faces and bodies trooping through its casting offices.

One of the earliest and longest smash hits of television was Howdy Doody, a seminal production that recognized television's potential as the electronic successor to the Punch & Judy show — in which life is portrayed by farcical characters engaged in fantastic situations evoking the most generic mythical symbolism.

In drama this potential has brought us to Miami in music to MTV. Our news anchors are Punch & journalists, Ted Koppel symbolizes Thought, Vanna White is Beautiful Woman, Tom Braden does his political transvestite act as The Leftist. Even Saturday Night Live now seems a recreation of the original as performed by puppets. George Bush stars in this season's mini-series: The Presidency, Part XXXXI. And J. Danforth Quayle plays Robert Redford playing a Quayle-like candidate.

To be sure the real survives in strange corners of the box, as I have discovered with pleasure grazing through the back forty channels of my newly acquired cable system. But the dominant character one sees on television today is an actor or actress playing a role ~ even when that which is presented is supposed to be real.

The ability of television to corrupt whatever its ubiquitous eye finds can be frequently observed during sports coverage. Coaches and players have learned what television expects of them and even the most inarticulate attempt to adapt themselves whenever the microphone pops up. Similarly, many victims of tragedies have learned unconsciously to speak of their sorrow in modulated and analytical terms when confronted with the cameras of Eyewitness News. We all speak television now. American life has become a docudrama and we keep forgetting which part we just invented.

Reality as nostalgia


In such an environment it is small wonder that we choose our presidents for their symbolic virtue more for their policies, that political debates are really little than national screen tests, and that facts have become the icing on the cake of myth.

We are not electing a president any more. We are selecting a mediarch, one who rules through the media. The person we chose is the one who best performs the symbolic role of president as we would like to see it on TV.

Presidential elections have become a process by which the American voting public decides which advertising agency it likes best.

The newly trained George Bush looked and acted the part best. Right height, right accent, right smile, right ethnicity...

Backed by virulently mendacious advertising aimed at making his opponent look unpresidential, Bush seized the media initiative.

There's an irony here, because at the start Dukakis had the media edge. He is actually a superb performer, as he belatedly demonstrated during a town meeting with Illinois high school students. Holding a hand mike and wandering around the stage like a low-key Phil Donahue, Dukakis was forceful, convincing and, yes, even likeable.

The problem is that we don't think of our presidents as low keyed Phil Donahues. George Bush is more like it. You're great, Mike, but not quite what we're looking for, you know? Besides there's the Greek thing and - er, urn, the mixed marriage, you know what I mean?

Many who were raised on rationalistic values, educated to respect truth, fact and knowledge, have felt a bit stunned by the insignificance of the real in the 1988 presidential campaign. But if, as mounting evidence suggests, we have moved into a post-rational age driven by symbols and myths, the real may be as unrecallable a piece of nostalgia as the "free enterprise system" is to Ronald Reagan.

One can not, for example, explain the massive change in the poll results from summer to fall based on anything that actually happened. Nothing actually happened. Except on television.

One of the shamans of contemporary politics, Democratic pollster Peter Hart, was asked about this. Does this mean issues aren't important anymore? His reply: "Issues are important because they define character." A screenwriter's answer. Issues are just another tool of the trade.

The Next Hurrah

The era of old machine politics is over, but television, and such related crafts as political polling and consulting, have become our new political machines, machines strikingly different from the previous ones because, fundamentally, they are not really that interested in politics.

One hundred and eighty ten-year-old kids were surveyed on a variety of subjects. One of the questions asked them to name as many US presidents as they could; another asked them to name as many alcoholic beverages as they could.

On the average, they were able to name 4.8 presidents and 5.2 alcohol products. And there were those who could correctly spell Asti Spumante who could not spell Ronald Reagan.

Consultants take on political clients with the eclecticism of lawyers; pollsters are, they will assure you, independent professionals; and television pretends it is merely an onlooker, reminiscent of one of its earlier creations, the bumbling Cauliflower McPug, whose favorite sound-bite was, "I wasn't doin' nuttin'. I was just standing there." But there is no way that television can just stand there.

It has increasingly dominated national politics, from determining which candidates are visually acceptable to sopping up so much campaign money that there isn't even enough left for political buttons. Pollsters and the political consultants are similarly intrusive. Many of the latter get paid like advertising agencies, based on the size of their media buys, which means a vested interest in steering politics towards high-cost television ads.

One of the most vivid images of the last campaign came from a PBS program on European coverage of the race. The scene was set in what might be best described as the convention control booth. In the background were monitors showing delegates waving red and blue Dukakis signs. A man - would he call himself a convention producer? - paced up and down yelling, "I want the red signs down and the blue signs up! Red down, Blue up! Get that? Red down, blue up!" His minions reached for the phones and a close-up revealed a woman screaming into the mouthpiece, "No, get those red signs down!" A few seconds later the monitors showed not a single red sign. Those in the control booth broke into self congratulatory applause.

I sat there wondering: for this, we got rid of the Richard Daleys of the world? Could it really be that there were no Democratic delegates who would wave their red signs in defiance of capricious orders from some unseen, unelected expert in the control booth? Apparently not in the politics of 1988.

Now back to the newsroom

Television news, most notably CBS, made some effort to counteract the damage its own medium has done. But these attempts, such as pointing out the lies of the Bush television ads, were sapped of their strength by the media's inexorable fear of appearing unbalanced. Thus the Bush falsehoods were treated as basically no more serious than the largely technical flaws found in Dukakis's claims. Television news' on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that approach to such matters actually furthers the falsehood and may help to explain why so many voters fail to understand the real differences between their politicians.

In addition, television news has been irrevocably changed by television advertising. One of the most instructive articles of the campaign, by Lloyd Grove, appeared in the October 20 issue of the Washington Post.

Grove's point was that TV news and ad images were becoming intertwined to such an extent that, as pollster Marvin Bainman, put it, "People are confused as to what is advertising and what is not advertising. To the extent that the ads look like news items or the reverse, that just contributes to the confusion." Grove quotes Brian Healy, senior political news producer at CBS as saying: 'In the 1970s, when we looked at commercials and advertising techniques, and the pacing of popular TV programs, we saw that the American mind was capable of handling a lot of different camera angles, quick shots and short bites, because Americans had seen commercials all their lives. So we have borrowed from the advertising techniques of commercial film making to put our spots together." Democratic media consultant Robert Squier says that if you did a history of the sound bite, you'd find that ten years ago, a candidate could get 45 seconds on the air. A 1984 study by George Washington University found that the sound bite was down to 14.79 seconds and this year's preliminary work at the University of Texas found the average sound bit running about nine seconds.

At this rate, by 1992 all television will tell us about the candidates is their last names. And they'll bill it as a debate.

Timid new world
One of television's least noted destructive side-effects is how it bullies us into timidity. It has taught us that the reality of the world is too complicated for us to understand, that being perceived as being right is more important than being right, that if we are not threatened by war, famine or flood, we are definitely threatened by whatever exotic disease is used as a crutch for the latest docudrama. The only really safe place is in front of one's television set.

This lesson has been well learned by the nation's politicians who, unfortunately, are not in front of the set but inside it. We sit down for a safely contained vicarious experience and find our candidates acting like couch potatoes, i.e. just like us. And the price they pay for projecting security is that they bore us. Late in the campaign, one poll found that nearly two-thirds of the voters wished someone else was running.

But even if a candidate were brave enough to talk about a real issue insome depth, would it work? According to Robert Abelson of Yale University, probably not.

Abelson and Robert Kinder has studied the polling samples of the 1980 and 1984 National Election Study and, says Abelson, feelings are three to four times more important than issues or party loyalty in a presidential election.

The samples measured four variables: people's perceptions of the candidates' personal qualities, the feelings aroused by the candidates, party affiliation and positions on current issues. According to a report in Psychology Today, Carter was seen as vague and indecisive and Mondale failed to inspire hope and pride. Says Abelson, personality judgements and feelings "are close to our daily experiences; they package a lot of complicated things very neatly, they're a much more natural response than rational reflections on policy choices." Another study, at the University of Minnesota, found that emotional reactions to Reagan and Mondale were twice as important as party affiliation to a sample of 1500 voters.

Still another study, this one at the University of Pennsylvania by Garold Zullow and Martin Seligman, found that you could judge winners by their campaign speeches.

The one with the most optimistic speeches took the White House. As Zullow put it: "People tend to vote for the candidate who makes them feel more hopeful about the country's future." Interestingly, earlier this year, the pair analyzed the speeches thus far by Dukakis and Bush an)'' gave the election to Dukakis. But that was before Bush had taken his Berlitz course in television and begun describing Dukakis, totally unfairly but incessantly, as a prophet of doom and gloom.

Democracy: more than a feeling?

Those who find much of the above alien to everything they thought choosing a president should be about might note that Robert Abelson is not some political philistine. He is an academic, presumably a Phd, trained in the rational, telling us that feelings are a more natural response than rational reflections. While it is unlikely that he would extend to his students much tolerance were they to function on such an assumption, here is yet another indication of the rising importance of the non-rational in American life, even academic American life.

I recently visited several colleges. At one, semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, was offered as a major. Semiotics teaches us, among other things, that red and green mean nothing until they are put in relationship, as hi a traffic light. Similarly, I suppose, Willie Horton and Michael Dukakis mean nothing until they are put in relationship, as in a TV commercial. At another school, a basic psychology course outdrew every other course on campus by a factor of three to one.

Determining, marketing, and analyzing how we feel and how we react to the symbols that engulf us may be one of the last great industries we have to offer the world.

Progressives, propelled by fact, logic and critical thinking, resist the trend. We don't like to talk about symbolism of our own efforts or engage hi practices imply contempt for our audience. This is honorable but places us at risk of becoming a stolid, ineffective sect clinging to values that no one challenges but no one accepts.

Everyone thinks the Amish are good and noble people, but they don't get many converts.

Curiously, it was the left in the 1960s that gave symbolic politics one of its greatest boosts, combining a rational assault on the establishment with great theatre and a cry for the liberation of our symbols and our feelings. But with time, the theatrical left grew up and dried up, replaced by somber advocates of change who seem at tunes more like Talmudic scholars than rebels. Todav some of the dullest people in Washington are public interest activists who know plenty of statistics but few songs.

In conventional Democratic politics, the trend has been in the same direction. The last four Democratic candidates -McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis-- have been sincere and decent but not all that interesting. Good utility infielders don't fill the ball park.

In better times, this would be merely unfortunate. But the real danger of rule by media is that the tyranny of symbols doesn't disappear on election day. It continues to obscure real issues, real poh'cies and real practices throughout an administration. America is far less a democracy than it was when Ronald Reagan entered the White House. That's bad enough but far worse is the fact that America doesn't know it.

The first job of progressives after this dismal election is to come to terms with the semiotic society we have become, a world in which signs and symbols mean more than facts and figures, a world in which you lose elections because of a bad choice of ad agencies rather than a poor choice of issues. We proved in the sixties that myth and reality can be integrated in such a way that the symbols support real change. There will inevitably be a conflict between the symbols and the reality, but if the symbols are based on honest dreams rather than the hypocritical images of a Reagan or a Bush, they can help us towards a better reality.

Roosevelt understood this, so did Jack Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Millions of young Americans understood this in the sixties. And these myths, these symbols, sustain us still, breaking through the wall of our rationality, giving us something to live and fight for when the facts say we have lost.

It is time not only to dream again but to give mythical substance to our dreams. The alternative is to leave the American spirit hostage to the fraudulent symbols of a crypto-authoritarian right which will steadily but surely rob democracy of its essence leaving us only with endlessly repeated images that assure us that nothing has changed.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

April 1968





Sam Smith - On the evening of April 4, 1968, this 30 year old was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the DC mayor's house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted cops.

The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office a few blocks away to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman had walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn't have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.

There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Other areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.


H STREET BURNING AS SEEN FROM THE AUTHOR'S ROOF FOUR BLOCKS AWAY

We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we then settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.

At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn't in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any windows, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.

DC FIRE DEPARTMENT PHOTOS

That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were and I did not want to alarm them by speaking what was in my mind.

For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration and helplessness washed up on my mind's shore.

I subconsciously prepared myself for it to get worse. In the middle of one of the riot nights, I awakened to a rumbling noise in the street and ran to the window expecting to see tanks rolling past our house. There were no tanks. In fact, the physical threat of the riots barely touched us.

DC PUBLIC LIBRARY




H STREET THE MORNING AFTER
SAM SMITH PHOTO

The strange ambivalence -- the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the televised sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple's home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation -- made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out. For months after, when sporadic violence hit stores in our neighborhood, I expected to find our newspaper office smashed and looted. It wasn't, despite the inviting glass storefront. I was inclined, with normal self delusion, to attribute this to having paid my dues. It was more likely that our second hand electric typewriters weren't worth the candle when there was a whole Safeway supermarket up the street and a cleaners right on the corner.

Some people seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been, or was still, with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.

Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, was more blasé. A lady walked into the gift shop one day and, spotting the pile of Gazettes on the floor, said, "Isn't that a Communist paper?"

"Oh no," Len replied cheerfully. "The editor's a communist but the paper isn't."

The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street..

During the riots, the black mayor Walter Washington had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that "you can replace material goods, but you can't replace human beings." Hoover then said, "Well, this conversation is over." Replied Washington, "That's all right, I was leaving anyway."

Black businesses posted large "soul brother" signs on windows and walls. Private social agencies and anti-poverty centers were left alone. A laundry near the US Marine Barracks received special attention; guards with fixed bayonets protected the troop's clothing inside. The riots had created their own rules.

SAM SMITH PHOTO


At Mr. Henry’s – where a young Roberta Flack was the featured singer and who would go on to win two Grammies – the windows were boarded over and a sign was scrawled that read: “Soul brothers & sisters work here. Don’t put us out of work.”

MR HENRY'S, WHERE ROBETA FLACK WAS SINGING

At the time of the riot nearly 25% of the labor force in Capitol East was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had eight years or less schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.

Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers held a sunrise service on riot struck 8th Street, refusing what Camus called the sin of despair.

The riots weren't the end of it. Even where there was a building to come back to, business on H Street wouldn't really return for decades. A real estate dealer's home was fire bombed as was a local settlement house. White and black friends no longer saw each other. And one day, in the dingy basement offices of SNCC for which I had been handling the media, Stokely Carmichael arrived and said that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. People like me were out.

The dream of a functioning bi-racial community was in pieces. H Street, with its jagged free standing walls and piles of rubble, looked like photos from a World War II retrospective. For me, hope had lost its virginity.

SAM SMITH PHOTO

Four decades later, I was in the block where my office had been and there standing on the corner was a National Guardsman with a rifle in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other. It took me a moment to recall the last time that I had seen a National Guardsman with a rifle on that corner. And then I remembered.

But this day it was different. Because eight blocks away, at the nation’s Capitol, Barack Obama was about to be inaugurated.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How Mad Men control politics


Sam Smith

At the presidential level at least, politics as we were taught to understand and admire it is dead. A major cause, of course, has been the financial assault on democracy best characterized by the Citizens United decision. But there is another factor: the replacement of a candidate’s record, history and positions with a brand.

It is almost as if voting booths have been converted into supermarket aisles down which we are supposed walk and pick the person we want, based on a brand that has been manufactured on behalf that candidate.

If that seems exaggerated, consider this. The last Democratic presidential primary was basically a contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Theoretically, voters knew far more about Clinton, given her decade and a half presence on the national scene. It was a history scarred by scandals, issues, and moral questions, but none of these played any significant role in the race. Nor was the fact that Hillary Clinton’s only significant proposal was an extremely poor health care bill that fortunately didn’t succeed. To this date, Hillary Clinton has achieved little aside from increasing her power, yet that, these days, is considered an adequate manifestation of accomplishment. It makes her a successful brand, regardless of the contents. More importantly, she ran to be the first woman president and that, for many, was enough.

Still, to this date, there has been little evidence, other than the symbolism of words, to suggest that she has been an effective feminist. She served on the board of Walmart, hardly a corporation on the side of its women workers. She defended her husband against women making charges about his sexual behavior. She speaks of breaking “glass ceilings” but far less of weaker women who never get under that ceiling, but merely want to get through the front door.

And when Hillary Clinton tweeted last year that “20 years ago, women made 72 cents on the dollar to men. Today it’s still just 77 cents. More work to do,” a commentator noted, “Seeing as how Clinton paid her female staffers 72 cents to the dollar that she paid men, she must still be living in the 90s.”

Meanwhile, her opponent was running to be America’s first black president, which assumed that skin color and the ethnicity of one’s father outdistanced every cultural factor including who actually raised you. In fact, here is Wikipedia’s summary of Obama’s experience with his black father:
On August 4, 1961, at the age of 18, [Ann] Dunham gave birth to her first child, Barack Obama II. She took classes at the University of Washington from September 1961 to June 1962, and lived as a single mother in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle with her son while her husband continued his studies in Hawaii. When Obama Sr. graduated from the University of Hawaii in June 1962, he was offered a scholarship to study in New York City, but declined it, preferring to attend the more prestigious Harvard University. He left for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he would begin graduate study at Harvard in the fall of 1962. Dunham returned to Honolulu and resumed her undergraduate education at the University of Hawaii with the spring semester in January 1963. During this time, her parents helped her raise the young Obama. Dunham filed for divorce in January 1964, which Obama Sr. did not contest.
In other words, in less than three years, young Obama’s time with his black father was over. He was thereafter raised by a white mother and white grandparents. But because our definition of ethnicity – whether we be black, white, conservative, or liberal – favors simplistic and visible biological evidence over actual cultural history, Obama had no trouble running as a black as long as he kept his actual upbringing in the background. And the fact that categorizing people by the color of their skin is a deeply racist concept got no attention at all.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, reactionaries – with no little help from an historically ignorant and easily embedded media – were able once again to present themselves as representatives of the average American and trustees of American tradition when this was, in factual terms, an immense fraud. I have been working recently on a compilation of ways in which the GOP has recently been at odds with both the will and the interests of ordinary citizens and what I find striking and frustrating is how this simple truth has been so effectively ignored.

But Republican or Democrat, the primary fact is that their supporters back them on the basis of a strikingly false image of what they really stand for and intend to do.

What has happened is that thanks, in no small part, to television, politics has become just another product marketing operation in which one’s brand identity trumps facts, positions and history. The Mad Men run politics as well as so much else.

Behind the notion of a brand, and branding, is that reality is easily submerged or distorted, by actively creating a new mythology. For a sense of what those in power actually value these days, this 2011 article by Dorie Clark in the Harvard Business Review on “Reinventing Your Personal Brand” helps:
People reinvent themselves all the time—to take on a new challenge, shift into more-meaningful work, or rebut perceptions that have hindered their career progress… Taking control of your personal brand may mean the difference between an unfulfilling job and a rewarding career..

What’s your unique selling proposition? That’s what people will remember, and you can use it to your advantage. After losing popularity to newer, even more right-wing talking heads, the conservative pundit Ann Coulter had to reinvent herself. She didn’t entirely abandon her old brand; she reconfigured it to compete in a new marketplace. Leveraging her unique blend of blonde vixen and conservative firebrand, Coulter is now courting gay Republicans who enjoy diva-style smack talk….

Once you’ve embraced your rebrand, making new contacts is the easy part—they’ll take the new you at face value. The harder slog is reintroducing yourself to your existing network…

In some cases your reintroduction may also involve addressing negative perceptions—and being disciplined about sticking to new behavior that better reflects your aspirations….

Also think strategically about your “unveiling.” Are there projects you can get involved with that will showcase your new interests and abilities (or help you develop them)?...

Especially in the internet era, traces of your old brand will never completely disappear—and as long as you’re thoughtful about what you’ve learned along the way, that’s OK. The challenge is to be strategic about identifying how you wish to be perceived, developing a compelling story that explains your evolution, and then spreading that message.
It used to be the job of journalists to be cynical about such things, but in today’s society media folk have to brand themselves as well, and so you write about a candidate’s “optics,” how the public perceives them, rather about what they actually did and what it means. I haven’t heard that old journalistic standard - “who, what, when, where, how & why” – mentioned for some years. Far easier to spend a half hour on TV talking about what a politician’s message was about and how people perceived it.

I don’t have any solution, although it did occur to me that we might start a campaign to require the sort of warnings on political ads that we see endlessly see on TV for drugs. Such as:
“If any of the following side effects occur while listening to Ted Cruz, check with your doctor immediately. These may include bloody or black, tarry stools, bloody or cloudy urine, fainting, uncontrobable anger, fever with or without chills, pain in the lower back and/or side, skin rash, hives, loss of Medicare, reduction in Social Security, or another major invasion in the Middle East.”
Beyond that I don’t have any great suggestions other than to be aware that the Mad Men have taken over our politics as well as everything else. As a result, words just don’t mean what they used to mean.

And remember one other thing when someone speaks of branding or rebranding: In its original use, the cattle that were subject to branding did not change their character in the slightest. It just let people know who owned them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Nintendo Generation

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 1990 -
I recently spent a weekend in a house occupied in no small part by an eight-year-old and a Nintendo set. Having had no eight-year-olds around the house for some time, I had ample excuse for ignoring what those to whom we will pass the torch were about. Nonetheless. it would have been a mistake. If my weekend sample is any indication. a new America is arising in darkened living rooms and arcades throughout the land that will shape the course of our history as much as perestroika or the downfall of Drexel Burnham.
 

Since I don't really understand what is going on, I shall simply report what I have found and let the reader determine what a new elite of the digitally dextrous means for human society as we know it. Nintendo is an outgrowth of what we, in simpler and happier times, referred to as Atari games. Atari is still around, as is a third competitor named Sega, but as my informant noted: "I know some people who have Atari, Sega, and Nintendo but nobody plays Atari even if they have it." According to newspaper reports, Nintendo was the most popular Christmas request of any sort by American children. A recently released game, 'Super Mario Bros 3', sold 700,000 copies in a month. One bereft mother claims to have driven 200 miles searching in 20 stores for a copy.

To give some idea of the advance in video game technology, the strategy for the game Tetris, a relatively simple spin-off of the Nintendo era, takes ten pages to describe in a recent issue of Nintendo Power, the bimonthly Bible of Nintendo aficionados. Tetris involves a series of geometric shapes that descend from the top of the screen onto a wall at the bottom. One attempts to build a solid horizontal line of bricks by sliding, turning and twisting these shapes at the appropriate moment. When successful the reward is a higher score and a pleasant cacophony of computer noises combined with a partial collapse of the wall. When unsuccessful, the shapes pile up on the wall and as they do so their successors fall with increasing velocity and perversity until the wall fills the screen and the dreaded words Game Over! appear. By Nintendo standards, it's a piece of cake. No mutant turtles, double dragons, nerve centers, Vo.H Stages, surprise jaders, heat waves, dragon breaths, wraith chambers, rope rooms, fire bridges, haunted islands, thirteen levels of experience, specters, terstorms. statues of unknown agents, aero circuses, and so forth with which to contend.

In fact, Tetris doesn't even make the list of the 25 players' favorite games according to Nintendo Power. Therefore it is humiliating to report that the highest score I was able to achieve in Tetris in my first forays was 780. By comparison, my eight-year-old advisor, who had a personal best, told me that in the basically, the only reason" adults did so poorly was because "Nintendo wasn't around when adults were young. You really have to be born at the right time to like it."

Then on reflection he added, "Say you're 60 years old and you suddenly get Nintendo. It'll probably take you five years to learn it. But if you were 12 it would only take 2 or 1 years." Besides, he noted, "You don't come home from work and go to an arcade, do you?" I agreed that was not my usual pattern.

Yet if our relative abilities are in any way typical, it suggests that one's potential for the game regresses at a rate of approximately 1000 points a year. (My informant's father challenges this with certain unverified claims concerning his own skill but, like Nintendo Power. I shall await a photograph of his winning game before I believe him.)

Age is not the only disparity upon which Nintendo feasts. It is also clearly a boys' game. Given the substantial attention given to ending subtle distinctions by sex in child-rearing it is remarkable that a generation of feminist mothers has not noted this and done something about it. My informant tells me that for girls, "Nintendo is a word that's not even in their vocabulary." And a study of the list of recent Nintendo high scorers in NP finds only about 8% being names of girls or women as the case may be, although most likely the former.

Further, over half of the winners come from only seven states, with California alone taking 17% of the trophies. You may say that it is only a game (or more precisely a complex of dozens of games). But one can not read the 100 graphic-packed pages of NP without an uneasy sense that this corporation is up to something far more. As my advisor pointed out: "The brain is very big in Nintendo." And if one disregards the ultimate mindlessness of the objective being taught, JVP is at its core a highly sophisticated curriculum, teaching young minds how to deal with conflict, complexity, and rapidly changing events.

In other words, your average world of tomorrow. Nintendo Power could, in fact, be a model for any school system wallowing in despair over the failure of its current efforts. Put Kierkegaard in the costume of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle under the direction of the software team at Nintendo and every kid in America could understand him. Most particularly NP is preparing young Americans for a world dominated by computers and computer thinking. The magazine mimics adult publications, including a feature called Counselor's Corner which deals with such issues as "How do I pass the dancing Japanese zombies in level five?" - no small feat especially when you think of the amount of unsuccessful effort Washington puts into figuring out how to pass sitting Japanese politicians at level one.

Another page describes in some detail the making of "Mario Bros. 3." Keeping in mind that we are talking about a children's publication, consider this excerpt:

A tool that makes this procedure easier is the Character Generator Computer Aided Design (CCGAD) machine. Using this computer, designs can create 'character banks' which contain the graphic shapes used to draw images during game play. Each shape is given a number which the NES can use to access the shape and combine it into a complete image. A NES game program consists entirely of numerical data strings for doing the the graphics of the game...


Forget about porn, did you know your kids were reading this stuff? Perhaps most striking is the personality profile — in this issue up close and personal with Shigeru Miyamoto who is not a Japanese hunk or rock star, but a pleasantly nerdy looking gentleman in white shirt and tie among whose claims to fame is the fact that he invented Donkey Kong in 1980, the first big success of Nintendo. This novel role model for the young has a BA in industrial design and likes to listen to bluegrass. "A typical working day for Mr. Miyamoto starts at a flexible time in the morning and sometimes lasts until the wee hours of the morning. During a typical day he will check on the six or seven software projects for which he supervising development..."

Parents might have some problems with a culture hero proud of the "dastardly, fascinating and repulsive enemy characters" he has created, but the case might be made that Nintendo will prove the ideal outlet for aggression in post-perestroika America. One indulgent father tells me that the games have a combination of silliness and sadism that appeals to the national pysche.

Those concerned about Japanese-American competition, however, would do well to turn their minds from trade barriers to Terra Cresta and Twin Cobra. One cannot peruse NP without a sense that a second front is being opened here. Are we, in fact, reading a training manual for future colonial administrators? I probed my informant for incipient jingoism, but he was unconcerned and cautiously optimistic that "Americans could put out something that good." It was .just that "Japan started it first."

In any case, the American spirit is not totally moribund; a nine-year-old boy in Bridgeport, Conn., has filed a a class action suit against Nintendo of America charging that 'Major League Baseball,' a Nintendo-licensed product, fails to provide sufficient data to allow one to make the managerial decisions promised and that there is no way to verify the statistics included in the game. He wants his $40 back.

There is no moral in all this except that change sometimes comes when we're not looking. Nintendo has considerable potential to affect the course of employment choices, inter-sex relationships, and international affairs, but because it's only a game, people who study things that matter haven't given it much attention. They probably should. It may be the beginning of Nintendo and not the end of history that truly shapes the world. Besides there is evidence that the Nintendo gestalt is infiltrating adult values as well. Egghead Software is offering a simple software program called The Boss Key. Its function is to turn off the game on one's computer when the boss enters the office. People appear to be buying it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A hidden Washington that works

Sam Smith

It is easy these days to give up on Washington ever doing anything right. Which is one reason I've enjoyed being on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government for the past quarter century. The fund, started by the late Stewart Mott, has helped create and support groups that have blown whistles, gone to court, raised hell, saved citizens and exasperated tormentors in an extraordinary variety of ways.

Its board and its fundees are a walking Wikipedia of what's wrong with Washington but also what to do about it. To sit with these folks for four and a half hours several times a year makes you feel that maybe there is still a chance for this fair land. And it can make a difference. One day I picked up the New York Times and found three articles and one editorial that cited the groups FCG helps to the fund.

This week I was struck by executive director Conrad Martin's description of the numerous legal technicalities of accounting for different non-profits - some of which we merely fund and others we parent. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, if those at the top of our government were as diligent at enforcing the Constitution as the IRS was at enforcing minor details? But it's the way Washington works: one form can get you in trouble, while, if you're important enough, what happens to 55,000 emails is just another media problem.

At our meetings there are always some surprises. At the last FCG gathering we had talked about the work of the Government Accountability Project in providing legal representation to Edward Snowden. This time, however, GAP president Louis Clark spent more time talking about its work in attempting to end the abuses at meat processing operations. How many people do you know who can take on NSA and Hormel all in the same day's work?

And that's far from all. Back in 2011, with the help of GAP, the SEC established a whistleblower program as part of the Dodd Frank law. Since then more than 6500 whistleblowers from 68 countries have approached the agency and scores have received significant monetary awards from the money that the government has recovered.

Of course, the bad guys can still get worse. For example, corporations are now coming up with things like draconian nondisclosure agreements to keep their wrongdoing secret and some banks have threatened to bring criminal charges against employees who release their documents, even if they reveal criminal activities.

Our afternoon goes on. I learn that Open the Government, along with other groups, got the Senate Committee on Intelligence to release a summary of its investigation into the CIA torture program The Project on Government Oversight revealed that a top Treasury nominee was going to receive more than $20 million from his Wall Street firm if he took a government job. The nominee, Antoni Weiss, eventually withdrew his nomination albeit sadly taking a job with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that didn't require Senate confirmation.

The Tax Justice Network continues to work on ways to reduce the amount of offshore tax avoidance. And the Peace & Security Funders Group brings together the backer of peace groups to discuss common problems and possible solutions.

Finally, as I've come to expect, Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center raises some issues I hadn't expected. Like the possibility that the Siri lady and my Samsung TV might be listening to me. As well as some issues that are sadly familiar, like EPIC trying to find out what the unconstitutional FISA intelligence court is really up to.

All the foregoing are just a few examples that probably took up less than a third of the afternoon, but it gives you the flavor and is a comforting reminder that there are still some people in Washington working on your behalf.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beyond the blame

Sam Smith

Following the coverage of the SAE incident and the Ferguson situation I have been increasingly struck by how much time is being spent blaming someone and how little on moving towards a solution.

To be sure there have been exceptions, such as Rev. Traci Blackman who told CNN last week:
I was out here last night after the vigil and perhaps there were tense moments before I arrived, but I got here about 9:00 and I stayed until the end, and I was amazed at what happened. What I saw were police officers in a much more lax position than they have been before.

I saw police officers engaging with protesters and protesters engaging with police. I saw protesters able to exercise their rights and police officers not being threatened by the exercising of those rights. I believe that we were out here last night as community and as one humanity. Yes, we might not all share the same vision of what should be happening, but there was something different about last night and then about 11:30 the protesters gathered in a circle, said some chants, some encouraging words, and everyone went home.

So, in Ferguson, like in Fergusons all over the United States, we all have to get it. And I did see last night, I'm grateful for the response of the officers and I am grateful that they allowed the protesters to exercise their rights without aggressiveness.
This is the way one talks if you’re trying to move a difficult situation forward. You find the little positives and slide them towards the next step. But it’s an approach that doesn’t have a lot of appeal in an America that believes it is far more important to punish and condemn than to mediate, reconstruct and restore. And in an America where its news channels constantly feature military experts but hardly ever those skilled in building peace.

And so we have some teenager SAE members singing a nasty and cruel song being lumped with a cop who is part of a massively prejudiced department and wrongfully killed a black man.

The university expels the students and closes down the fraternity and now many feel much better because the respectable role in such situations these days is to be right. We can leave the expansion of rights to another time.

This attitude is widespread in our culture. For example, we have dramatically expanded our criminal law, led by a brutally counterproductive war on drugs.

And in the past four decades, America’s liberals have come up with few significant new measures or programs of the sort that characterized the New Deal and Great Society, preferring instead to demonstrate their virtue by trashing the very constituencies they need in order to change the course of our politics. Thus we hear increasing talk of “white privilege” from those who appear unaware that there are, for example, many more whites than blacks on food stamps.

Cross cultural alliances are rarely sought (with some marked exceptions like the Moral Mondays movement). And the evils of the past and the present drown out consideration of how to reach a better future..

Even in the Christian church, there has been a powerful drift from the practice of religious values in public matters to the search for personal salvation in which sanctified belief soars in importance over socially positive behavior.

What these phenomenon have in common is that condemnation and punishment take precedent over reform and decent practice. Our honor is created not by our acts but by highlighting the faults of others.

And so, in the case of Ferguson, there has been little discussion of how restorative justice and community policing might change the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens. Or what we might learn from the past from places like Ireland and South Africa that recreated themselves after decades of pain . Or how you build a police department that serves, rather than perpetually suspects, a community.

And at Oklahoma University there is no attention given to the fact that if a 19 year old thinks it’s fun to sing a racist song then perhaps his education lacked something, including at the university level.

Further, few seem bothered that a teenager finds himself in the same public metaphor as a whole urban police department.

Partly because our media likes to keep it simple, we often skip the solution part of the story, creating instead easy villains. And the media tends to ignore the difference between people with real power and those who have been miseducated by them. Some time ago I noted this in an article:
Many years ago, I was surprised when David Carr - now with the New York Times but then with Washington’s City Paper – blew up at me when I told him that having moved from covering national affairs to editing a community paper [in 1960s Washington] I had to learn how to be more gentle with the folks I covered., He called me condescending and shortly hung up. But I still believe it. You write about ordinary folks differently than you write about presidents.
That’s not true of much of our major media which will take its villains wherever it can find them. And, without press aides and a deeply embedded Washington news corps, the misguided student or the misinformed Tea Party member makes an easy target. So you go after them and forget about what those running OU or Missouri have failed to notice and failed to do.

As longtime journalist Djelloul Marbrook put it the other day, “Let the press not pose as innocent observer and enlightened commentator here. The American press has substituted polarization for inquiry. The American public entertains a broad consensus on an array of major issues that is not reflected in the press or in our political leadership. The press calls reportage that tears the fabric of society journalism, but real journalism requires inquiry, and that requires money, courage and commitment, none of which our press lords are willing to devote. Instead get rants and smart-ass opinion, always emphasizing what divides us… The press had decades to expose corruption and racism in Ferguson, but it waited until violence gave it an opportunity not to enlighten but to incite. This is not journalism, this is gasoline on the flames.”

For my part, having covered Washington from its segregated days through the election of its first black mayor I know, as a practical matter, that it’s not about punishing or blaming the past but creating a better future. When I started as a reporter in DC, I heard white cops use the N word as well as teenagers. And as things changed for the better, it became not about saints vs. sinners, but about so many getting wiser and learning new things about others.

Back in 1997, I put it this way in The Great American Political Repair Manual:
And so we come to the Catch-22 of ethnicity. It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory, unprejudiced society in which race and sex matter much. Yet in our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely important.

For example, our laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to conflict, plays up the issue. And the very groups that have suffered under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering stereotypes -- "you wouldn't understand, it's a black thing" -- as a form of protection. Thus, we find ourselves in the odd position of attempting to create a society that shuns invidious distinctions while at the same time -- often with fundamentalist or regulatory fervor -- accentuating those distinctions.

In the process we reduce our ethnic problems to a matter of regulation and power, and reduce our ambitions to the achievement of a tolerable stalemate rather than the creation of a truly better society. The positive aspects of diversity remain largely ignored and non-discrimination becomes merely another symbol of virtuous citizenship -- like not double-parking or paying your taxes.

Martin Luther King said once:

Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.

Sorry, Martin. Our approach to prejudice and discrimination is not unlike our approach to drugs: We plan to simply rule them out of existence. In so doing, we have implicitly defined the limits of virtue as merely the absence of malice.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The media's anti-left bias



Sam Smith, 2005

Dana Milbank’s snotty attack on critics of White House behavior as revealed in the Downing Street memos illuminates a carefully concealed truth about the media: its definition of objectivity stops at the edge of anything left of center. Standard Democratic policy is okay, even a liberal quote or two, but anything further to the left is simply excluded from coverage unless – as in Milbank’s case – it is there to ridicule. Milbank’s dislike for the left began long ago and writes of it in a style that might be called unmaturated preppie.

For example, in September 2000 the Washington Post reporter said of one of the presidential candidates, Ralph Nader, that his “only enemy is the corporation.” Skull & Bonesman Milbank also described Greens as “radical activists in sandals.” Since your editor was soon to speak with Nader at an event in Washington, I brought along a pair of sandals so Milbank’s description would not be totally false. Of course, he didn’t show up because Nader and the Greens fell into that classic media category: important enough to scorn but not important enough to cover.

Being among the last progressive journalists in the capital I am conscious of the massive disinterest of the rest of the media in anything left of center. When I started in 1964, my work was appealing enough to mainstream journalism to be offered jobs at the New York Times and the Washington Post. I was frequently called by journalists wanting to know what was going on in the civil rights or anti-war movement. These calls were seldom hostile: the left was a reality that needed to be covered and even the Post had some good reporters on the case. I tried, then as now, to serve as an helpful interpreter rather than as a rhetorical advocate and even developed a few friends along the way. But these days I rarely get calls from the conventional media.

Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, down the hall from my office, reports a similar phenomenon. Two guys with decades of history and background about progressive politics that is considered totally irrelevant by establishment Washington. The left, progressive movements, and social change are simply not thought to be worthy subjects by the corporate media – or by NPR for that matter.

The exception is that it is generally presumed amongst the media that progressives are fair targets for mockery. In a recent article in the faux hip Vanity Fair on conservative journalit Jeff Gannon, David Margolik and Richard Gooding offered as a positive that Gannon “balanced off some of the left-wingers in the room such as Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, and a Naderite, who once asked McCellan whether, given the administration’s support for the public display of the Ten Commandments, President Bush believed that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ applied to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.”

The fact that the authors considered that a stupid question tells much about the sorry state of Washington journalism. Further, Russell Mokhiber often tells more important truths in one column than Vanity Fair does in a whole issue. The trend is also confirmed by Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian who has published a list of a score of political blogs that DC journalists like. Not one is to the left of Democratic Party liberalism, which these days means saying, “right on” to whatever conservative Democrat is in charge. Of the 20 sites, only two are on my list – the libertarian Hit & Run and the poll-heavy Real Politics. The common characteristic of many of the others is their utter predictability.

Put simply, the media doesn’t like the left, social change, Greens, or progressive thought. It deals with them by ignoring them or mocking them, in either case excluding them from its own perverted definition of objectivity.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why cross cultural coalitions are important

Sam Smith My suggestion that blacks, latinos and labor come together to form a national coalition hasn’t received a lot of enthusiasm. It doesn’t surprise me because we live in a time of atomized activism, unlike the 1960s and 1970s when there was far greater focus on the issues rather than the cultural identity of those supporting them. To even suggest that blacks, latinos and labor could effectively merge their efforts seems odd, but to this Alinsky-inspired activist it still seems not only possible but highly desirable.

Part of the trick is to concentrate on what you have in common with others, not what divides or separates you. Below is a report of a conference I helped organized 20 years ago that did just that and the surprising results that occurred.
Sam Smith - In 1995, as an active member of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, and Democratic Socialists of America. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but Green activists 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.

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 stick-on dots with their names on them. Everyone then went up to the board and placed their dots on their favorite issues (cumulative voting style, so that all three dots could, if desired, be placed on one issue). After the vote, those with only their dots 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 with representatives of all the other tables. 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.

The small group that had the most difficulty with such techniques was comprised mainly of Marxists who had selected economics as their area of concern. We were, one suggested, guilty of what the Master had called "parliamentary cretinism," and the socialists resisted it firmly. One result, ironically, was that the weakest section of the final statement was that dealing with economics. On the other hand, the libertarians came to the organizers at one point and offered to leave the meeting so a full consensus could be maintained. We encouraged them to stick around, changing our own rules to accept several levels of consensus.

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 group ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers and Democratic Socialists of America. It shouldn't have worked at all, but because the rules we had used felt fair to those present, it did. By ignoring topics of obvious disagreement, we even surprised ourselves with the level of consensus.

We had also discovered the possibility of a political transformation, of moving beyond left and right. We understood that these were different times -- not the thirties, not the sixties -- times that required different imaginations and different risks. We had reached out and had found that we were not alone.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Learning to laugh in Maine

Sam Smith

Long before Bert & I, I started collecting Maine humor during my summer visits. One of my sources as a boy was Walter Stowe for whom I worked on various projects.

Mr. Stowe appreciated having someone to instruct and demonstrate his immunity to poison ivy by chewing on some its leaves. He had a stock of sayings of which he never tired. He could recite a blasphemous version of the Lord's Prayer at breakneck speed and when you asked him how much something cost, he always replied, "25 cents, two bits, two dimes and a nickel, one quartah of a dollah." When you picked up your end of a plank, the instructions also never varied: "Head her southeast!" When you said goodbye he said, "Keep her under 60 on the curves." And he offered this assessment of a suddenly departed brother-in-law: "That fella never was any good. Now he's upped and died right in the middle of hay season."

On the other hand, his assessment of Clyde Johnson was more favorable: "He's the only man who can shingle a barn, tell a dirty story and smoke a pipe all at the same time."
When he needed to stall while thinking of a reply, the quite short Mr. Stowe would go into a brief shuffle, observe his feet intently, pick up his dirty baseball hat and scratch his bald head, finally declaring, "Well now!" with the occasional addendum "Ain't that somethin?"
When I introduced my future wife to Mr. Stowe and told him we were engaged, he did his shuffle and his head scratching, glanced at Kathy and then looked up at me over his little round glasses and said, "Pretty good for a girl."

"Er, Mr. Stowe, Kathy's from Wisconsin."

Shuffle. Hat back on.

"Glad to meet you anyway."

John T. Mann recalls that Mr. Stowe had told his father: "If I die afore the end of mud season, just stick me in the gravel pit 'til the road dries out and the ground thaws."
You never knew when a laugh would crop up. Once, as a teenager, I drove into a gas station, stepped out of my car into a puddle and heard someone say "How's the watah?"
And John at R&D Automotive told me many years back that my brother had been in with his car. "He said he kept smelling gas . . . so I told him to stop it."

Then there was the exchange at Ed Leighton's department store:
"How ya doin?"
"You want the long story or the short one?"
"Oh hell, give me the long one."
"Pretty good, I guess."
And there was the time Bob Guillamette, the plumber, came to fix something. I asked him to also look at the tub he had recently installed because the water was slow to drain. He returned a couple of minutes later saying, "Christ, Sam, you're one of the lucky ones. Most of them won't hold water."

Then he fixed it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Hillary Clinton: the post modern and the real

Sam Smith

More than a few of Hillary Clinton’s supporters remind me of Mormons or Scientologists in that their faith is considered infinitely more important than any facts. And if you sully that faith with facts, then – just as the way critics of Israel are so quickly dubbed anti-Semitic – you become a “Clinton hater” and part of a “vast rightwing conspiracy.”

Having lived with this nonsense for more than a score of years, it doesn’t bother me, although I still wonder how you can hate something that has no consistent or tangible character.

Further, as one of the earliest (and too few) spillers of Clinton facts, I got my first information not from vast right wing conspirators but from an Arkansas progressive student group. Yet, before I was through, I had been banned from CSPAN and a DC local NPR station. Nobody actually questioned the facts, just who they pertained to.

I was not alone. Some ten reporters covering the Arkansas scandals were fired, transferred off the beat, resigned or otherwise got into trouble.

I came to see the hyper-reality of the Clinton saga as the true introduction to America’s post-modern political era.

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:
Baudrillard presents hyperreality as the terminal stage of simulation, where a sign or image has no relation to any reality whatsoever, but is “its own pure simulacrum” The real, he says, has become an operational effect of symbolic processes, just as images are technologically generated and coded before we actually perceive them… “From now on,” says Baudrillard, “signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real”
We face an election in which Democrats – and liberals in particular – are joyfully supporting the first First Lady to come under criminal investigation, a candidate who had nine major fundraisers or backers convicted of, or pleading guilty to, crimes, who had three close business associates end up in prison, and who – in just one appearance before a congressional committee - claimed that she didn't remember, didn't know, or something similar some 250 times.

But while reality doesn’t mean much anymore, the battle of signs and symbolism has taken its place. And even in a post-modern world, it’s fair to analyze the impact of it all.

If you listen to the Democrats, things could hardly be rosier. For example, Brent Budowsky actually wrote in the Huffington Post:
It is very possible that Hillary Clinton will be elected president by a substantial margin, return the Senate to Democratic control, name Supreme Court justices who will create a liberal court for a generation and help elect enough Democrats to the House to have a working majority in Congress for history-making progressive achievements, beginning with her first 100 days in the White House.
The problem with this assessment is that it bears no relationship to reality. Forgetting for the moment how the GOP has gerrymandered congressional districts, consider the running averages of polls in a number of key states.

In Colorado, for example, Hillary Clinton is in single digit proximity to all the major Republican candidates and even trails Rand Paul. In Florida she is only two points ahead of Bush. In Iowa she has only a single digit lead over all the Republicans except for Cruz. In New Hampshire she has only a single digit lead over Bush and Paul. In Virginia her lead is single digits against the pack. And the same is true of Wisconsin, except for Huckabee.

But aren’t single digits enough? On election day, yes. But more than a year and half ahead of the vote it is a serious warning signal.

For example, although Democrats like to blame the loss of the 2000 election on Nader, in fact Nader’s position hardly varied during the campaign but – still unrecognized by either the media or Gore’s backers – Bush’s poll average went from minus nine to plus six in just the last two months.

Another factor in the race that didn’t get reported was that 68% of voters thought Bill Clinton would go down in history more for his scandals than for his leadership. 44% said that the scandals were somewhat to very important and 57% thought the country to be on the wrong moral track.

And Gore wasn’t even married to Bill Clinton.

It is worth noting how silent the Republicans have been about Hillary Clinton. With her huge lead, the last thing they want to do is discourage Democrats from nominating such a prospectively attractive target. But once nominated this will undoubtedly drastically change and the moderates and undecided will hear things about the Clintons that the media has chosen not to tell them all these years.

In short, the Democrats are on their way to nominating a political IUD that could explode at a time or place unexpected. The sad thing is that Hillary Clinton has so hogged their attention that they don’t really have an alternative any more.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Selma

Sam Smith

When I finally went to see Selma, I was reminded of the American Indian who said of his tale, “Some of the facts may be wrong, but the story is true.”

Certainly the depiction of the Selma march and the abuses by white Alabama officials that led up to it more than justifies and honors the film. Oprah Winfrey’s attempt to register to vote moved me particularly because a month or so before Selma, I had covered the US Civil Rights Commission’s hearings in Jackson MS and reported:
Henry Rayburn, a 63-year-old farmer from near Charleston, was approached by a man with a club when he went to vote. Rayburn says the man told him “he would kill me if I tried to vote.” The Commission wanted to know if the police had been notified of the threat. No, Rayburn replied, because “the law coincides with what the other side does insofar as Negroes are involved.”

Alena Hamlett of Scobey registered in 1962. When her name was published in the local newspaper, as required by Mississippi law, a female effigy was hung near her home.

Dorothy Mae Foster went to register with her husband at Fayette in 1963. She was later visited by three men who presented a card that read: “Thousands of Klansmen are waiting, watching, Don’t be misled. Let your conscience be your guide. Ku Klux Klan.”

When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee attempted to organize a voter registration drive in Macomb, 16 bombings occurred.
Selma records such moments for a wide audience in a country that has an increasingly hard time even bothering with the past.

On a far lesser level, I admit some problems with the film. I never saw nor met Martin Luther King Jr, but he was a strong figure in my life from my 1950s college days when his Stride Towards Freedom was the most important book I read in those years and it wasn’t on any course list. The closest I ever came to King was sitting on the grass with a date outside the chapel at Howard University a few years later, part of an overflow crowd that couldn’t fit in the church as he gave the sermon. But I developed an image of a man far more friendly and approachable than the formal and somewhat pedantic version in the film. The movie's warmest moment for me was the kitchen scene where the activists ate, chatted and laughed together. There was the King I thought I knew.

I did have slight contact with a few other of the film’s characters. I liked, for example, the treatment of activist James Forman and John Doar, the federal civil rights official. I only got to know Forman later in life but it didn’t take much to like him. And we shared an ironic albeit unmentioned affinity in that he had been removed as head of SNCC because he was too old and I had been kicked out of SNCC because I was too white.

The federal official John Doar also rang true. I had just one phone conversation with him as he took a public interest law suit led by DC homeless activist Mitch Snyder in which I was one of the co-plaintiffs. However, I still remember him, as in the movie, because of a pleasant pragmatism that I hadn’t expected of one not only deeply involved in civil rights at such a high level but later in the Whitewater investigation as well.

On the other hand, as a young reporter in the late 50s, I had seen LBJ up close on a number of occasions and, beyond the film’s factual inaccuracies already reported elsewhere, I found the character to be off base. You didn’t have to exaggerate LBJ, you just had to get the chords right.

But this is a chronic problem of history, especially when it’s written for a movie theater. And especially in an age when exaggeration is our way of getting people to pay attention.

And we can’t be too greedy in our expectations. Compared to the trailers I saw before Selma, whatever its faults, it is a blessed addition to a land which cares so little for what has happened before.

The real World War III: Corporations vs. nationhood


Sam Smith

The recent IMF loans to Ukraine with their dictatorial provisions are one more example of the world’s concealed great war, which is to say the massive invasion of nationhood by corporations. Far more dangerous than any current military threat, corporations have already taken huge territories, legal and financial as well as geographical. Our politicians, many of them covert allies of the corporations, say little of this. And the major media, massive corporations themselves, steadfastly hide the truth from their audience.

For America, not since the Civil War has the sovereignty and constitution of this land come under such assault. In the two previous great wars the damage mostly occurred across two great oceans. Now the victims of the battle are in the heart of our land, witness the deleterious economic effects of NAFTA, the political disaster of Citizens United and the corporate assault on our public schools parading as education reform. Nestles is grabbing our water, our language has been mangled by corporate gobbledygook and even non-profits have adopted the organizational misanthropy of modern corporations.

Without debate, without formal conflict, without even much consciousness, we have absorbed the principles of America’s greediest, adopted their language, and surrendered our constitution and other values to their will. Our last three presidents have been willing participants in undermining our sovereignty, our values and our culture. One might well expect this of a Bush, but Clinton and Obama were just as deeply involved and their liberal constituency hardly said a mumblin’ word.

We may not win this war but we certainly won’t until we admit we are in it and must stand as firmly for American standards and beliefs as we have in great military conflicts.

The Battle of the Economic Bulge – aka TPP – is the struggle presently before us, involving arguably the most disloyal legislation since secession. We still have time to stand up against it. But to do so, we can’t pretend it’s just another measure. We have to recognize the stakes of the battle that we’re in. Our leaders are not surrendering America, they’re just selling it away bit by bit. But the results could well be the same.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Normalizing failure


Sam Smith The tediously unsuccessful manifestations of American intervention in the Middle East brings to mind the lengthy unwinding of the Vietnam War during which our leaders – like alcoholics avoiding treatment – never admitted that they had made terrible mistakes and never publicly discussed the alternatives. They just ran it all out until they had to give up.

In fact, to this day the establishment and its embedded mainstream media regards those who opposed the deadliest stupid war in American history as nuts or extremists while those who organized the withdrawal years after it should have occurred as our wise leaders.

The same is true today, which is why you are not likely to see any serious critics of our Mid East policy on the Brian Williams show. Truth is not regarded as a matter of accuracy but of timing, as determined by approved sources. It is not a question of if the truth is said, but who says it and when,

Thus it is not surprising that American have such little awareness of how many ways our society is silently failing. After all, who with power is there to tell them?

Here are a few cases in point:
- A drug war that has been failing drastically for over four decades.

- The Iraq and Afghanistan wars – the longest unsuccessful military efforts in American history.

- An economy which, once you move past a few comfortable approved indicators, is still in its worst shape since the Great Depression.

- A level of ethnic conflict we haven’t seen since the days of segregation.

- Police and courts that have moved increasingly towards military rather than constitutional standards of behavior, with America just another occupied country. 

- A nation that has silently closed down the First American Republic in favor of a post-constitutional, oligarchic adhocracy whose future remains unpredictable but which history suggests will not return to the better.

- The replacement of votes with money as the primary denominators of elections.
What all these have in common is that our declared ideals have been repeatedly subverted, perverted, and averted to a degree so overwhelming that our leaders, our media and even much of our public consider these stunning failures to be normal.

And as the Germans discovered many decades ago, once you accept the false as normal, anything can happen.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Twenty years in cyberspace

This is our 20th year on the web. Ten years ago we posted this:


Sam Smith, 2005 - This fall marks the Review's tenth year on the web - and our 11th year of sending out email updates. In the last quarter of 1995 we got all of 388 page views, and in 1996, we got 27,000. This year we are approaching three million. [In 2014 we got over 6 million]

How early was 1995? Well, the number of Americans using the Internet was still less than the number who were watching TV in the mid 1950s. And the Washington Post hadn't yet found a way to stay on line and be happy with the results. Some other papers, however, had gotten into the act. Fredric A. Emmert writes that, "In 1992, the Chicago Sun-Times began offering articles via modem over the America On Line computer network, and in 1993, the San Jose Mercury News began distributing most of its complete daily text, minus photos and illustrations, to subscribers of America On Line. The first multi-media news service in the U.S., News in Motion, made its debut in the summer of 1993 with a weekly edition specializing in international coverage, with color photos, graphics and sound. In 1994, the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service began distributing news to its newspaper customers via computer before their morning editions arrived, and The Washington Post has created a Digital Ink subsidiary, providing an electronic newspaper research service for clients, who can buy custom-made reports on subjects of their choice." The Post dropped the fee-based Digital Ink in favor of its current site in 1996.

Although shorter items from our first year remain online, only one feature story does: America's Extremist Center. From 1996, only the still popular Mission Creep: The Militarizing Of America remains online.

Our earliest email update included with this September 1994 story:

"Strip away the hyperbole and you’re left with yet another American occupation of a small Latin American country for time and purpose uncertain. This occupation, however, can be presumed to have as much to do with restoring democracy in Haiti as the Panama invasion had to do with eliminating the drug trade there -- that is to say, practically nothing. Everyone from the 82nd Airborne to CNN went on full alert, but bear in mind that the Haitian military is about the size of the DC Metropolitan Police plus the Executive Protective Service and the National Zoo Police."

Your editor's interest in the internet was not all that surprising, since he had long ago discovered that keeping up with advances in technology helped compensate for his own deterioration. The Review began as a hot type magazine, The Idler, in 1964 and over the years used such novel technology as Press Type, IBM Selectrics, Radio Shack's TRS-80 (or Trash 80 as it was fondly known), the Model 100 - an amazing battery operated laptop with a six line screen, and Exxon's Qyx, among many others.

Before all that, however, were other influences, starting with Alice Darnell, my high school math teacher who went to Harvard in the summer of 1954 to learn about this new thing, the computer. She returned reporting that she had almost been locked up in a computer overnight, as it needed an entire building to do the work of a present day Mac, and she introduced us to the basics of Boolean algebra.

It would be twenty years, however, before I actually touched a computer: an 8K Atari purchased for my sons. As I fleeted up to 16 and then 32 K it occurred to me that these things might have some journalistic use. In fact, if you wasted a whole Saturday you could already program them to do little things like write messages and keep addresses.

It was a time when an earnest father such as I sent his son to computer camp where he learned to write programs that in just a year or so he could buy at the local computer store. It was a time when a computer expert came to speak at that same son's school and, at the end, the headmaster arose and said, "This is all very well and good, but I'm not running a goddamned secretarial school." Within a year he had purchased an impressive array of computers.

It was also a time short on computer expertise. The Review was blessed with two high school students who came by to empty our floor's office trash who were also seminal cyber whizzes. They shall remain nameless to preserve the security clearance of the one who now works for a major defense contractor, but the latter still provides occasional assistance such as his suggestion that I repair a computer suffering from too much atmospheric moisture by putting it in an oven at 150 degrees for an hour. That was a year ago. It worked and the computer still helps produce the Progressive Review.

Some years back I went to a Shaker village in Maine. While on the tour of this vanishing sect I noted a TV antenna atop the dorm. I mentioned this jarring departure from my image of Shakers to our guide, who explained that the Shakers saw no conflict between technology and their faith. After all, she said, their furniture was technologically advanced for the time.

It was not unlike the Quakers who do not shun change but merely apply their faith to it. About a year and a half after launching our website I tried to give a sense of this approach in a book I was writing, The Great American Political Repair Manual:
"The first rule of media survival is use it; don't let it use you. We must ignore the role the media has prescribed for us -- audience, consumer, addict -- and treat it much as the trout treats a stream, a medium in which to swim and not to drown. The trick is to stop the media from happening to you and to treat it literally as a medium -- an environment, a carrier. Then you can cease being a consumer or a victim and become a hunter and a gatherer, foraging for signs that are good and messages that are important and data you can use. Then the zapper and the mouse become tools and weapons and not addictions. Then you turn the TV off not because it is evil but because you have gotten whatever it has to offer and now must look somewhere else."
WEB WATCH COLUMN, APRIL 17, 1995 - An "ecology of information" is how we need to view the Internet, according to Apple fellow Alan Kay. In his keynote address at the Third International World Wide Web Conference, he said that the old "clockwork" model of systems thinking was obsolete. The complexity of systems today is so great that we can no longer manufacture them. Rather, we need to grow them organically. . .

Alan Kay said that it is the author, not the technologist, which innovates in the new medium. For example, it took 65 years after the invention of the printing press for an author to think of numbering the pages in a book, so that he could cross reference the pages.

Public access to the web will increase dramatically. Microsoft demonstrated their Internet Explorer product, which will be integrated into their forthcoming Windows 95 desktop. Users will be able to access web pages very simply, and drag or drop them onto the desktop, documents, or folders. . .

A new language called Java was introduced. Java safely allows programs, not just data to be exchanged. These small applications, or "applets" allow a new generation of client/server sophistication. One simply clicks on something of interest. The network would install any necessary software automatically, as well as the billing chores.

A REPORT FOUND THAT BETWEEN 1995 and 1996 there was a dramatic shift: "The biggest and perhaps most significant change since 1995 is the increased use of the World Wide Web. Nearly three out of four (73%) report having used the Web, compared to only 21% then. Web use also appears to be more frequent: 51% said they used the Web either yesterday or sometime in the past week, compared to 12% last year. . .

1995 also saw the introduction of search engines.

JON KATZ, WIRED, 1995 - So far, at least, online papers don't work commercially or conceptually. With few exceptions, they seem to be just what they are, expensive hedges against on rushing technology with little rationale of their own. They take away what's best about reading a paper and don't offer what's best about being online. That's the point of a newspaper. . .to filter the worthwhile information, then print it. . . . The newspaper needs to reinvent itself. . . . The object is not to replace, or put into a different format, but to gain a toehold in cyberspace and even absorb some of its values.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Slapstick nation

Sam Smith - The other evening I watched, probably for the last time, the latest episode of Glee. Although the show has long had its fantastical side – such as highly professional musical performances suddenly appearing in otherwise realistic contexts – something more fundamental had changed. People weren’t talking to each other; they were shouting. Rachel was speaking far too fast and too loud. The school principal, Sue Sylvester, had transformed herself from amusingly mean cynic into a ludicrous imitation of herself. And one point, a review noted, “Sue traps Blaine and Kurt in an ersatz elevator before the Warblers perform and, via a mechanized robot, tells them that they must passionately kiss if they want to leave—which they do, after spending over a day in confinement.” Even if you saw it, it made no sense.

In short, Glee had become a slapstick version of itself, an example of a dominant style that is not limited to television series but is leaving its mark on our politics and culture. Beyond the slapstick humor and poor plot of shows like Backstrom, for example, we also find ourselves being loudly lectured by Steven Kornacki, Rachel Maddow and the Fox crew as though we were students of Sue Sylvester.

Move over to politics and we find slapstick candidates like Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, who seem dreamed up by some second rate script writer.

Almost every public space we peer into we find the loud, the dumb, the exaggerated, the boisterous and the super simplistic taking unprecedented dominance. Sometimes, we can’t even hear music anymore without it being overwhelmed by theatrical background, including fireworks and dancing fish. Whether it is a TV show, State of the Union address, snow storm in New York or half time at the Super Bowl we are surrounded by media propelled hyperbole while things that really matter – such as our declining democracy, environment and economy – proceed with little attention.

Perhaps it helps to explain why we can’t get out of Mid East conflicts and are on the cusp of another Cold War. Exaggeration is the language of the day and bombast the favored lifestyle. Even deflated footballs have become inflated matters of concern.

The original slapstick was a device described by one dictionary as “consisting of two paddles hinged together; used by an actor to make a loud noise without inflicting injury when striking someone.”

In other words, slapstick creates the sound of action while not engaging in  any real version of it. Which is pretty much the story of America today; an excess of noise and drama and a paucity of productive action.