Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Just a thought: the GOP's proto-Nazi moves

 Sam Smith - I covered my first Washington story over 60 years ago and, since pre-civil rights southern segregation, I have seen nothing so offensive to the principles and practices of democracy as the current GOP efforts. Based in no small part on lying and the covert segregation of the voting system, the Republican effort may not have reached full fascism yet, but it is important to remember that Nazism grew over time, and in the early stages even some of its advocates thought the behavior of the US South was excessive.  

This is the nature of change. Where it starts may only suggest where it will end, but when you have a president who, according to the Washington Post, lied or misled 7600 times a year during his presidency, when you have a major party deliberately deceiving its members about election results and when you have the whole election system under attack, you can be sure it is not going in a good direction. It is fair, in fact, to consider it proto-Nazism because if Trump and his part are successful America will not longer be a democracy. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Moving from anti-racism to pro-multiculturalism

Sam Smith - Although we have to keep fighting against racism, an aspect of this issue that gets lost is how to create a well functioning multi-cultural society in which our  relationships are considered assets and not just major problems to be solved. With considerable assistance from the media we have come to view ethnic relations by their negative aspects rather than as a better society for which to strive. 

As a anthropology major, jazz musician, uncle with four Puerto Rican nephews and nieces and as an activist who lived as part of DC's white minority for five decades, this is not a major problem for me, but I'm conscious, especially in following the media, of how little attention is given to how multiculturalism makes folks lives better. So I thought I'd offer a few suggestions, not about ending racism, necessary as that is, but taking advantage of the multi-ethnicity that we are have. For example

Let's hear more from and about bi-ethnic couples. The latest estimate is that 17% of new marriages are bi-ethnic. Black ethnicity, by contrast, makes up only 12% of the population.  But neither the media nor public seem pay much attention to inter-ethnic marriages. And what about the history of multi-ethnic effort. For example, one the things that helped DC blacks to power in the 1960s was their common support with whites for home rule and against freeways

Don't just lecture your kids, tell them stories. What have been some of the happy cross-ethnic experiences in your life? We tend to forget that good tales can affect people as much as sad or bad ones. 

Let the kids tell their stories at school. One of the best assemblies I attended as head of the parents association for a DC public school was one in which a bunch of students got to describe their religion, ranging from Catholic to hippie Sikh. The same could be tried in class for students of different ethnicities describing how they were being raised in their culture. 

Offer courses in multiculturalism in grade and high school. How do we expect the young to understand other cultures if we don't even explain them to them? I was blessed with what was then one of only two high school anthropology courses in the country and it helped greatly. 

Redesign the police. There are lots of things we could do to improve our police departments. For example we could get cops out of their cars a few days a week and have them work a neighborhood, and get to know people in it, while patrolling on foot. We could assign lawyers to every police precinct headquarters to train officers in legally acceptable approaches to their efforts. We could hire social workers to work with officers in handling mentally based problems. We could have neighborhood leaders meet with officers to discuss how best to handle folks in their 'hood. In other words, we could bring police into our communities and not have them act like military overseers. 

Include black, latino and other cultures in high school history courses: And don't forget to teach the multicultural history of your own town. It makes it more personal. For example, I became an even greater fan of Frederick Douglass when I visited his house and found he had a shed to which he escaped to write and think and called it his growlery. 

Emphasize the future over the past. One of the things that worries me these days is the emphasis on terrible things that happened in the past that tend to suggest we're not going to do much better. It's sort of like what you find in dysfunctional families where some of the children never overcome the bad things done to them when they were young. Yes, teach slavery but also teach about blacks who overcame bad times and what we could be doing now.


These are just a few suggestions to help start redefining the tone and techniques .our approach to ethnicity.  There are lots more, but I just thought it was time to talk about making things better rather than just dealing with the evil resulting from our failure to do so. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Virtue and power

 Sam Smith – I’ve just finished reading some books and watching documentaries on a bunch of public figures I have long admired including Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Winston Churchill, Jack Kennedy, and Ernest Hemingway. The net result is a somewhat lower opinion of them based on their private rather than public actions -  yes, even Eleanor Roosevelt ignored her marriage for a lesbian affair. And, of course, Hemingway was the worst of all, something nobody told me when I was learning how to write in high school thanks in part to him.

On the other hand, I also realized that this inconsistent relationship between virtue and power was not a new experience for me. After all I had long noted that Lyndon Johnson got more good legislation passed than any president other than FDR but you wouldn’t want him anywhere near your daughter. And I had early learned in places like Philadelphia and Boston as well as covering Capitol Hill as a young radio reporter that bad guys could do good things and vice versa.

It turns out that back in 2013 a group of psychologists rated our presidents by their narcissism and at the top of the list was LBJ with FDR in 4th place, Jack Kennedy in 5th with true modern con men Nixon and Clinton only coming in 6th & 7th. In short, back then, love of power did not have to kill virtue.

I believe that television, social media and public relations has changed all that as the perpetual liar Donald Trump well demonstrated. You don’t have to do anything real to gain power, the later crowd – beginning with Nixon - was learning. Fiction would do the job. Before these major tools of deception were handy, virtue was a useful way to help get you to the top. Now you just need to create an image of it.

But there’s still a little hope. Longtime pol Joe Biden, like his increasingly long ago predecessors, is looking for popular virtue and running with it. This is about the best we have ever gotten from a president and perhaps is so rare these days that many do not recognize it.

So where do you look for real virtue?  At the opposite end of society. As I’ve argued before, change comes from the bottom. The top merely chooses that which will help their status the most. Consider the civil rights, labor union, anti-war and environmental movements as prime examples.

But we tend to demand more of our leaders than they will ever provide. The trick is to become so powerful they have no other choice in order to retain power.

Which is one reason I have urged blacks, latinos and white lower paid white workers to discover their common economic interest and organize around it. After all, there are almost twice as many poor whites as there are poor blacks.. A revival of labor unions would be the sort of thing that the most narcissistic liberal Democratic president would join in support. Just like LBJ and FDR. We need to reteach our politicians that virtue can add to power.

Monday, April 12, 2021

My ethnic problems

Sam Smith – One my ethnic problems is that, having been an anthropology major in college, I don’t believe in race, which is why I call it an ethnic, and not a racial, problem. Here’s how I described it in The Great American Political Repair Manual,  a book I wrote back in 1997:

[The evolutionary biologist] Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that "it would be highly desirable if we could banish the question-begging term 'race' from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase 'ethnic group.' That would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at hand." Anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1942 called race our "most dangerous myth."

Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that which is fluid is declared immutable.

Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has little impact on our views. 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.

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). But that's not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. 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.”

Racists and their vigorous opponents both act as though race is a genetic determinant of fixed character and thus the actual science of the matter hardly gets mentioned in the media or in our discussions and disputes. This is sad, because if we would recognize ethnicity as mainly culturally and environmentally created, we might find it easier to change some of our relations for the better.  Yet, for the most part, even those who share this view mostly just keep quiet about it all.

That’s not the only reason this white guy is out of step with the current debates. I also lived almost two thirds of my life in a majority black city known as Washington DC. I enjoyed it, learned from it, and was engaged and accepted in it. One of the things I found, however, was that hardly anyone outside of DC expressed much interest in the local city. Yet if we going to have a successfully diverse country, some examples would prove useful. And DC should be near the top of the list.

For example, DC has a lower violent crime rate than 21 cities. And while it has had crises like the 1968 riots, even ethnic conflict has often been easier to resolve in DC. Lately I’ve been considering what was different about the city. Among the things that come to mind is that Washington has long been ahead of much the South. For example, as early as the 1830s thirty percent of Washington’s blacks were free. There are other factors such as forty recent years of black mayors, a long history of federal employment of local blacks,  Howard University (which dates back to 1867 and from its beginning open to blacks and whites), and an economic and social complexity within the black community  that undermines ethnic cliches.

Historian Marya Annette McQuirter has noted, “During the Civil War and Reconstruction, more than 25,000 African Americans moved to Washington. The fact that it was mostly pro-Union and the nation's capital made it a popular destination. Through the passage of Congress's Reconstruction Act of 1867, the city's African American men gained the right to vote three years before the passage of the 15th amendment gave all men the right to vote… The first black municipal office holder was elected in 1868. When Washington briefly became a federal territory in 1871, African American men continued to make important decisions for the city. Lewis H. Douglass introduced the 1872 law making segregation in public accommodations illegal.”

Another factor that helped black-white relations in DC was that its civil rights leaders of the 1960s organized more by issues rather than just by identity. Matters such as a proposed massive freeway system, home rule and DC statehood affected whites as well as blacks. Black activists thus became strong leaders of a whole community.

In short, DC has been ahead in ethnic trends for a long time, something that has also improved black-white relations. The rest of American could learn things from the city’s story.

I’ve discovered one other reason why I don’t fit comfortably into the ethnic debate these days. And that is because liberals– in no small part due to their improved education in recent decades – now approach problems in a way I think of as a  gradocracy: applying academic and intellectual standards to political and practical problems.

For example, if you compare the effective action of the civil rights movement in the 1960s with what is going on today, there is no doubt that we’re living in a time when analysis has a higher priority than effective action.  If’s as if we just talk about racism long enough it will go away.

Unfortunately that’s not the case. And there’s a more practical approach. For example, blacks could be leading a cross-ethnic  working class movement for higher wages and regrowth of labor unions, but rather than talking about “white privilege” despite the fact that there are more poor whites than there are blacks in total.

I have also realized for some time that being an inductive thinker – examining life from the bottom up as do reporters, detectives, and many scientists - made my college experience and later life more difficult. I was educated and lived in a world of controlled by theories yet I was always looking at the evidence and asking what it meant and what you could do about it rather than just lumping it into a theoretical status.

For example, when I meet someone for the first time, I certainly notice their color, their height, and their weight. But I make no assumption that such obvious indicators will tell me all that much. And so I go after facts that are far more significant such as their work, their views, their personality and their history.

The current ethnic debate Рon both sides Рtends to conglomerate the variety of human existence into very simplistic labels.. In other words we fight one clich̩ with another instead of coming up with pragmatic ways of really changing things.

For example, many of those who engage in racism are poorly educated. So why not change our school system so kids learn the truth about mutli-culturalism at an early and useful age? Do we really think that convicting a murderous racist cop is more important than teaching over 50 million children what ethnicity is really all about?

In the end, it’s cures we should be seeking, not condemnation as we discover solutions and not just causes.









Monday, March 29, 2021

Decency beyond the law

 Sam Smith -  Generally under-discussed is how our collective decency is determined not just by the law but by choices we make of our own free will. For example, even convicting a police officer for choking a black citizen to death will not likely change our general attitudes towards those of another ethnicity. Important as the police problem may be, much more of the pain felt by minorities in this country comes from other sources. Yet the media provides us with few examples of how we might improve things, treating ethnic issues mainly a crisis to be resolved  rather than a community to be improved.

 I was reminded of this by news that for the first time, less than half of Americans belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. Although I have long been a non-attender, I have also understood the role that religious institutions can play in improving or hurting our mutual moral existence. I learned this back the 1960s when my fellow activist friends included a number of ministers with whom I closely agreed save for my schedule on Sunday morning.

 According to Gallup, as recently as 2000, 70% belong to a religious center. Now it is only 47%  Among those born before 1946, 66% belong compared to only 36% among Millennials.

 Gallup reported, “A 2017 study found churchgoers citing sermons as the primary reason they attended church. Majorities also said spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers, community outreach and volunteer opportunities, and dynamic leaders were also factors in their attendance.

 In other words, beyond matters of faith, these religious institutions help their members getting through life in a decent way.

 My sense of what we can do now is to create or improve community institutions that could provide similar services absent the faith element.

 One primary example would be to improve civics education in our schools As Brookings reported last year:

 Americans’ participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government. Without it, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last. Of increasing concern to many is the declining levels of civic engagement across the country, a trend that started several decades ago.Today, we see evidence of this in the limited civic knowledge of the American public, 1 in 4 of whom, according to a 2016 survey led by Annenberg Public Policy Center, are unable to name the three branches of government. It is not only knowledge about how the government works that is lacking—confidence in our leadership is also extremely low. According to the Pew Research Center, which tracks public trust in government, as of March 2019, only an unnerving 17 percent trust the government in Washington to do the right thing. We also see this lack of engagement in civic behaviors, with Americans’ reduced participation in community organizations and lackluster participation in elections, especially among young voters.

 Schools also do a lousy job of introducing students to multiculturalism, something well worth doing as early as the elementary level.

 It could be that existing community organizations might help by holding meetings that dealt with moral or cultural issues in their neighborhood. In other words, these groups could help fill some of the gap left by declining church attendance. What, for example, if a community group had an occasional session modeled on Quaker meeting – at which residents could get up and talk about troubles they have in the neighborhood?

 We should at the very least stop not discussing this problem and move beyond relying on the law to solve all our communal difficulties. The decline of churches does not mean the disappearance of the  issues they tried to address.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How to pay for Biden's public works

  As President Biden prepares to launch of multi trillion dollar public works project – aka by the liberal gradocracy as “infrastructure” – the question arises: where will the money come from? Your editor addressed this in his 1997 book, The Great American Political Repair Manuel. A few excerpts:

 The national debt is really not the same as yours

 While there are similarities, the parallel between personal and public finances is often misleading. For example, when you borrow money from the bank, you owe it to someone else and you know there will be trouble if you don't pay it back. But when America borrows money, it borrows mostly from itself. America is not about to foreclose on America. Besides, everyone  who owns a savings bond, has money in treasury bills or notes, or in publicly invested CDs is a creditor of the United States as well as a debtor. Most pension plans get at least some very secure income thanks to the federal government owing them money. This makes government debt quite different from yours. Abraham Lincoln thought this so clear that he over-optimistically concluded that citizens "can readily perceive that they cannot be much oppressed by a debt which they owe themselves." 

 All debt is not the same

 When we talk about the national debt, we tend to make no distinction between types of national debt. There is an immense difference between going into debt for capital investments like schools and bridges and going into debt to pay current operating costs. That's why a bank will lend you money to buy a house but not for dinner and a movie. Our national budget makes no distinction between buying schools and  buying doughnuts. It should.

 Revenues are part of budgets, too

 Lost in the great balanced budget mania of the 1990s was a fact obvious to anyone in business: a really good way  to improve your books is to increase your revenues. For government, this simple notion has gone out of style. The assumption has become that the only way to reduce the deficit is to cut expenses. But just as a business needs customers, our country needs thriving citizens and companies to keep it going. 

 Cutting the deficit only slows the growth of the national debt. It does not reduce it. To cut the debt, the government would have to create a surplus and apply it to the national debt. At which point politicians and citizens would start hollering for a tax cut -- and everyone would probably forget about the national debt.

 Cutting the budget may not even cut waste

 Few of us like to see the government waste money. Yet while Americans have been sold on the notion that cutting the deficit will cut waste, it seldom does. In part this is because the same politicians who claim to be budget-slashers also have a bunch of pet projects they want funded. Multiply that instinct by the number of congressional members and you've got 535 big problems.

 Cutting budget deficits can be hazardous

 Cutting deficits can easily have unfortunate side effects. Investment manager Warren Mosler has closely studied the relationship between the economy and deficits. He finds that with remarkable consistency, reducing the deficit as a percentage of the gross domestic product leads shortly to a slowdown in economic growth or even to a  recession. Further, he could find no cases where cutting the deficit has increased the rate of economic growth. As Mosler explains it:

 “The noble attempt by Congress to balance the budget will result in a weaker economy. … Every time the budget deficit, as a percent of GDP, drops the growth rate drops a few quarters later. It is only after the deficit begins to expand again the economy recovers. The historical correlation is 100%. “

 Cutting the national debt can be disastrous

 History suggests that cutting the national debt can be even worse than slashing the deficit. Mosler notes that we have only had six periods of sustained debt reduction.  For example, the national debt was reduced by a third in the 1920s. Andrew Jackson even managed to produce a surplus of $440,000. Each time the national debt has been significantly reduced,  a major depression has followed. There are no contrary cases.

 Most money doesn't exist

 The total federal state, local and private debt in this country in 1996 was around $14 trillion. The actual money supply was just under $6 trillion. So what happened to the rest of the money?  Most of it doesn't exist and never did. We call this imaginary money debt. This debt is money that we (as individuals, companies and government)  have borrowed, primarily from private sources. As Bob Blain, a professor at Southern Illinois University, put it: “Most debt is not the result of people borrowing money; it is the result of people not being able to repay what they owed [to banks or individuals] at some earlier time. Instead of declaring them bankrupt, creditors just add more to their debt.”

 This new debt is called interest. Many people think the idea of  the government printing money is shameful, yet our laws permit private financial institutions to create money all the time. Every time you fail to pay off your credit card, you're letting a banker print some more money.  

 You're not the first, of course. For example, when the Congress met in February 1790 to figure out how to pay off the Revolutionary War debt of $75 million, Alexander Hamilton strongly advocated issuing debt certificates and using them as money. Congressman James Jackson of Georgia warned that this would "settle upon our posterity a burden which [citizens] can neither bear nor relieve themselves from.  …Though our present debt be but a few millions, in the course of a single century it may be multiplied to an extent we dare not think of."

 It's really okay  for the government to print money

 An alternative to Congress borrowing money to pay off its debt would have been to have created the $75 million, using Congress's constitutional power to "coin money and regulate the value thereof." Instead Congress began a long tradition of borrowing the money that -- five trillion dollars of debt later -- many believe we can neither bear nor relieve ourselves from.

 In the early 19th century, the little British Channel island of Guernsey faced a smaller but similar problem. Its sea walls were crumbling. its roads were too narrow, and it was already heavily in debt. There was little employment and people were leaving for elsewhere.

Instead of going still further into debt,  the island government simply issued 4,000 pounds in state notes to start repairs on the sea walls as well as for other needed public works. More issues followed and twenty years later the island had, in effect, printed nearly 50,000 pounds. Guernsey had more than doubled its money supply without inflation.

 A report of the island's States Office in June 1946 notes that island leaders frequently commented that these public works … had been accomplished without interest costs, and that as a result "the influx of visitors was increased, commerce was stimulated, and the prosperity of the Island vastly improved." By 1943, nearly a half million pounds worth of notes belonged to the public and was so valued that much of it was being hoarded in people's homes, awaiting  the island's liberation from the Germans.

 About the same time that Guernsey started to fix its sea walls the town of Glasgow, Scotland, borrowed 60,000 pounds to build a fruit market. The Guernsey sea walls were repaid in ten years, the fruit market loan took 139. In the first part of the the 20th century, Glasgow paid over a quarter million pounds in interest alone on this ancient project.

How did Guernsey avoid the fiscal disaster that conventional economics prescribed for it? First and foremost by understanding that when you build roads or sea walls or colleges or houses, you are not reducing your society's wealth. In fact, if you do it right, you are creating something that will add to its wealth. The money that was created was simply backed by public works rather than gold or "full faith and credit." It was, in fact, based on something more solid than the dollar bills in our wallets today. In contrast, tacking on an interest charge to public works -- as we do in the US -- creates no new wealth, but merely transfers claims on existing wealth from debtors to creditors.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The 1950s Cambridge City Council

Your editor recently mentioned his coverage of the Cambridge city council for the Harvard radio station as one of the reasons he has never regarded politicians as role models. Here are some details of this experience.

Sam Smith - On a May morning, the Harvard Crimson came out with a story that Cambridge city councilor Alfred Vellucci had announced plans to introduce an order asking the city manager to "confiscate" all of the university's lands because of the Harvard administration's "lack of cooperation" in solving the city's parking problems. Vellucci was quoted as saying that "I am going to fine every Harvard student who parks his car on the public street at night unless the university makes all its property available for public parking." Down at the radio station, where I was news director, I assigned one of our reporters the job of calling Councilor Vellucci. He got an earful:

The citizens and taxpayers are sick and tired of supporting Harvard. The time has arrived when Cambridge should break away and let the state and federal government support the school. Our taxpayers are not able to do the job alone ... Our police department has to rush to the university every time the students start one of their foolish riots ... The fire department has to go in there on school fires. We have to put police officers on extra duty to handle the traffic situation after one of the football games ... Let the university become a state of its own like the Vatican in Rome and pay for its own fire and police departments.

Vellucci added: "John Lund, commander of the local Sullivan Post, American Legion, has told me every veterans organization in the city will support my bill." He went on like that for twenty minutes. We ran excerpts on the 11 p.m. news and student listeners began calling the station demanding to hear the full interview. It was not just the words; the Vellucci voice lent impetus to the message. It was the precise antithesis of a well-cultivated Harvard accent and even at its most irate had a buoyant quality tinged with the faintest hint of satire that in those amusement and issue-starved years of the fifties, tickled the student ear. These were not times when you worried about the impact of the media on events; there were no seminars on TV and violence, no breast-beating over whether the press covered a hostage situation correctly. There was, however, a lot of boredom and whatever else he might be, Al Vellucci was certainly not boring. I ran the whole interview at midnight and calls from those who tuned in during the middle of it were so numerous that I ran it again at one a.m. The next morning, the story was page one in the Boston Globe -- culled from the WHRB interview -- with a two column headline:


The Crimson had the Vellucci story first, but in its stately way had missed the exploitation potential. It was WHRB's Vatican angle that caught the imagination of Harvard's student body. Some of us, I suspect, also subconsciously recognized in Vellucci a man who, despite his attacks on students, was really waging war on a mutual enemy, the Harvard administration. It would still be some years before students learned to stand up to their campus oppressors and Vellucci was a prophetic voice, calling for rebellion not just by the citizens of Cambridge against Harvard, but, subliminally, by the students as well.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The quiet revolution of the young

Sam Smith – In a curious way, the defection from British tradition by Prince Harry is right in step with things happening in America as well. A 36 year old royal doesn’t want to play by the old rules any more. And as with today’s American young he didn’t quit in a noisy, revolutionary way but with uncertainty and polite confusion.

Having come of age in the rebellious 1950s –the warm up band for the 1960s – I find the lack of direction and determination among today’s young a bit frustrating. There’s no political music, no counterculture, no noisy demands. But that doesn’t mean something isn’t happening. It’s just happening more quietly. And age has a lot to do with it, as does ethnic change.

It is likely, for example, that Donald Trump was the last of the aged right to run the show. His bizarre behavior had more to do with proto-dementia than with well examined policy.

Part of his efforts was to block an inevitable change that was taking place in the country, namely that whites were becoming less important.  In fact, as Brookings pointed out several years ago, “The new statistics project that the nation will become “minority white” in 2045. During that year, whites will comprise 49.7 percent of the population in contrast to 24.6 percent for Hispanics, 13.1 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians, and 3.8 percent for multiracial populations.”

As someone who lived happily in a majority black Washington DC for some fifty years, I don’t see this as a problem, but then I’m not an old Republican.

How big is the age difference? Well one exit poll found that 65% of those aged 18-24 voted for Biden while only 47% of those over 65 did.

But age was not the only factor. The rise of minority populations made a big difference. Actually 53% of whites 18-29 voted for Trump while only 10% of young blacks and 28% of young latinos did.

What’s missing in this shift is a young agenda as well as young angst. And that agenda could be aided by young blacks and latinos seeing themselves not just as ethnic victims but as leaders of a new majority in about 25 years.

For the young and for ethnic minorities, the numbers are on their side. Now they have to figure out what to do about it.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The rise of puritanical politics


Sam Smith – I was introduced to politics in Philadelphia and Massachusetts as a teenager. I recall an FBI agent coming to our house to interview my father about a member of the Philadelphia city council and I still remember a Cambridge city council member arguing with another one and saying, “We’re all Christian gentleman here” and his target – the council’s only Jew – just grinning back.

It was a time when politics was not only imperfect, but most people understood that it was. In the over 50 years that I’ve been in journalism I never thought of politicians as role models, but rather as a lake to be crossed to get where you’re going, a battlefield, or another in a never ending list of hassles. When I think of politicians I really admire, I can’t come up with much more than Gene McCarthy and Gaylord Nelson. I’m not shocked or upset; it’s just the way it is.

So when the Andrew Cuomo controversy came up, I kept my mouth shut. I knew we were in a different time, one in which politicians and other public figures were increasingly held to new puritanical values in which a few sins makes one evil whatever else you’ve done with your life.

Increasingly, we call it a “cancel culture” but it’s not a culture at all. A culture includes both the good and the bad, but in the cancel version you need only make a few mistakes to get written off.

I was no fan of Cuomo. I preferred his father and his brother. I sensed there was more than a little amount of bully in him. But before I wrote about him, I thought I better do what few in the public or press have thought about. First, I went to the great web site, On The Issues, and checked out what he had actually done over the years. There was some bad stuff, but on the whole he came out pretty good.

But could he win if he ran again?  Well, one recent poll found 64% saying he shouldn’t run again. And what about a replacement? There’s no good answer except that Democrats comprise 60% of the state’s voters. For a take on possible alternatives, check this out.

Given his mistreatment of several women and misstatements on covid nursing home facts, why even worry about this? For the simple reason we should have learned from Trump. You elect the wrong politician and instead of a handful of women and stats being mistreated, you could have many people dead and many more suffering.. As I noted years ago, Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell got more good legislation through than just about anyone, but you wouldn’t want either one near your daughter.

Morality in politics doesn’t lend itself to the puritanical approach. It is a count of virtues against sins, not the nearly inevitable presence of the latter. In fact, it’s the way the rest of us humans are as well. Let's hope someone remembers our good side.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Making multiculturalism an asset and not just a problem

 Sam Smith – Drastically missing from our talk about ethnic relationships is discussion about positive ethnic relations. We treat the matter as a huge problem to be solved by things like changes in law, improved policing, social guilt and pressure. In fact, good relations exist because they work for all those involved.

You can’t define this in legislation because each experience is different. But what we can do is to look at ways various ethnic groups can work and play together better.

It begins with children. We don’t typically introduce the young to the ethnic variety of the world which they will grow into. They learn about other ethnicities from older children or from adults many of whom have strong biases. Combating this with positive education about the variety of humans out there and how to get along with them would be greatly useful.

Helping teenage values – The teen years are when childhood habits start to turn into more permanent adult values. It’s an excellent time for high school courses in the multiculturalism of society and how to be part of it, as well teaching the history of various ethnic cultures, including not just grim stories like slavery, but the tales of those who beat the system in the past.

Providing experiences – such as theater and music – where students work together to accomplish is something can change their perceptions of others.

Another useful idea: having the young describe positive experiences they’ve had with others of another ethnic background. This can also be done by adults in story telling sessions at their church or elsewhere.

Celebrate a locally diverse culture – There are all sorts of ways to do this. For example, an art show with the work of diverse local artists or a music festival. You can even have a parade as they have in Singapore. As Wikipedia notes:

[A] largely Chinese parade became a multi-cultural one from 1977 when Malay and Indian groups started joining in the performances, which was to mark a major precedent in the overall flavor of the parade into one which has become largely multi-cultural in character… The 2018 Chingay involved 2,000 parade volunteers and 6,500 parade performers, and also featured many examples of smart technology, including dancing robots and driverless cars.

Blacks and latinos should see themselves as among leaders of a new America. The problem with defining yourself only as a victim is that it’s a hard concept to change. But there are ways that blacks and latinos can lead. For example, there are more poor whites than there are blacks in total. Blacks and latinos could make organizing the working class – whatever its ethnicity – a high priority. I saw this work in the early days of the modern civil rights movement when in DC, a young activist named Marion Barry helped make a name for himself by organizing opposition to a rise in DC Transit fares. Similarly blacks and whites came together to fight (in large part successfully) a planned freeway expansion in the city. One problem with being in a minority is the numbers. Organize by issues rather than by identity and the numbers can improve significantly.   

Include a course in multiculturalism in journalism schools – One of the reasons we don’t see the positive side of multiculturalism is because our journalists treat it overwhelmingly as a crisis. Included in their coverage should be stories about examples of how ethnicities can get along. TV series could also help in this.

Stop ignoring mixed ethnicity – Some 17% of new marriages are now of mixed ethnicity, but following the media and other discussions you might imagine it doesn’t exist.  For example, the public and the media consistently referred to Barack Obama as black, when in fact he spent more time at Harvard Law School than he did with a black parent. And there’s a high probability that Frederick Douglass’ father was white.

Ironically, this habit of ignoring mixed ethnicity has some of its roots in an anti-black concept known as the one drop rule. Says Wikipedia:

The one-drop rule is a social and legal principle of racial classification that was historically prominent in the United States in the 20th century. It asserted that any person with even one ancestor of black ancestry ("one drop" of black blood) is considered black. . This concept became codified into the law of some states in the early 20th century. It was associated with the principle of "invisible blackness" that developed after the long history of racial interaction in the South, which had included the hardening of slavery as a racial caste and later segregation.

One reason to bring mixed ethnicity into the discussion is that the more complex people see our relations, the less likely they will use cruel cliches to describe it.

.Face the truth about race: Historically, the concept can be fairly described as a racist one. And it goes back a long way. Carolus Linnaeus declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others made up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish).

Modern science tells us something different. For example, writing in Harvard’s Science in the News, Vivian Chou explained:

In the biological and social sciences, the consensus is clear: race is a social construct, not a biological attribute . . .  The popular classifications of race are based chiefly on skin color, with other relevant features including height, eyes, and hair. Though these physical differences may appear, on a superficial level, to be very dramatic, they are determined by only a minute portion of the genome: we as a species have been estimated to share 99.9% of our DNA with each other. The few differences that do exist reflect differences in environments and external factors, not core biology.

Which is why I use the term ethnicity instead of race, the former a description of culture rather than biology or genetics.  

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Reviving the local

 Sam Smith – As the Covid crisis has painfully demonstrated, our national systems aren’t working well these days. There are lots of reasons for this such as the growth of a gradocracy including lawyers and MBAs, who have helped process, overwhelm, collapse, misdirect or confuse actual policy. Then there’s television and the internet that has helped replace actual response to communities in politics with simple images, cliches and lies, as well as members of Congress so much more dependent on corporate contributions that their actual constituents no longer matter as much.

This is not all that new a phenomenon. For example in 2012 I wrote:

Having challenged the establishment my whole life, I’m feeling a little down right now. It is one thing to take on an elite revered by presidents, academics, media and the public for their illusion of wisdom and knowledge and quite another to find oneself in the ring with a mob of fools, prevaricators and pathological bullies whose only claim to fame is their claim to fame.


Allen Dulles has been replaced by Donald Trump, Katherine Graham by Sarah Palin, McGeorge Bundy by Lindsay Lohan. 


To be sure, the old establishment was repeatedly cruel, hypocritical and wrong, witness the Harvard intellectuals who helped talk LBJ into entering and staying in Vietnam. But one could embarrass them, and with a strong enough anti-establishment convince the public that something was badly wrong. It was tough but – as the civil rights and peace movement discovered – you could win if you fought long enough.


The current dysestablishment, on the other hand, makes little sense and possesses less. It shuns rational thought, words or action. And it is encouraged by a media that is content to speak in the same meaningless abstractions created by lobbyists for political marketing purposes.


The real has been replaced by adjectives. Politics has become just another form of advertising. And presidential kitchen cabinets these days are not composed of establishment figures in law, politics and foreign affairs but of clever hustlers in the techniques of Madison Avenue – as well as those seeking to parlay public service into later private profits.

A major player in all this has been the Washington press corps that has undergone huge changes. For example, in 1918 a survey found that  about 40% of Washington correspondents were born in towns of less than 2,500 population, and only 16% came from towns of 100,000 or more. In 1936, the Socialist candidate for president was supported by 5% of the Washington journalists polled and one even cast a ballot for the Communists. One third of Washington correspondents lacked a college degree in 1937.

And what also existed was much more competition in the news industry. By the 1980s, most of what Americans saw, read, or heard was controlled by fewer than two dozen corporations. By the 1990s just five corporations controlled all or part of 26 cable channels.

I once described how this change affected me:

When I started out as a Washington reporter in the 1950s, only about half of American journalists had more than a high school degree. They naturally identified with their readership rather than with their publishers or elite sources. I didn’t let anyone know I had gone to Harvard because that would not have improved my standing either with staffers on the Hill or colleagues in the media.

Ben Bagdikian, a bit older than myself, described the craft in his memoir, Double Vision:

“Before the war a common source of the reporter was an energetic kid who ran newsroom errands for a few years before he was permitted to accompany the most glamorous character on the staff, the rough-tough, seen-it-all, blood-and-guts police reporter. Or else, as in my case, on a paper with low standards, reporters started off as merely warm bodies that could type and would accept $18 a week with no benefits.

“Some of us on that long-ago paper had college educations but we learned to keep quiet about it; there was a suspicion that a degree turned men into sissies. Only after the war did the US Labor Department’s annual summary of job possibilities in journalism state that a college degree is ‘sometimes preferred.’”

And there were changes at the top as well. One of my first major shocks about my chosen trade was listening to a top Washington editor talking about how he had been discussing with the White House the best way to handle the arrest of Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s top aide who had been caught giving a blow job to a man at a local YMCA. It had never occurred to me that an editor would actually consult with politicians on how their stories were to be covered. But in a few decades journalists would be thoroughly “embedded” both in war zones and at the White House and find nothing strange about it.

Now, a few decades later, it’s gotten worse. It is as if our whole culture has been nationalized from the news media to show business to politics. With the aid of the internet and cable television along with the decline of local newspapers and radio shows, we now all share a common mythology about what we are and who is doing what.

It may be too late to reverse this, but as someone who has long been involved in things at both the local and national level, I think it is worth recognizing as a problem and trying to do something about it.

My thought is that we should face the reality of how our minds have been turned so strongly towards the large and grand, and find ways instead of reinstituting the wisdom and knowledge that one gains from more local experience. This isn’t about our individual action, relations and choices but how we can bring the local back into our collective social and political experience and discussion.

Our failure to do so is overwhelmingly ignored despite what we could learn from it. For example The nation’s capital has been run by black officials leading a black majority for some five decades,  yet, even in the face of national ethnic turmoil, hardly anyone bothers to look at what the instructive history of a bi-ethnic DC could tell us.

Here are just a few steps that might be taken to make the local more important:

  • Have governors and the mayors of major cities hold a conference several times a year in Washington, the locale forcing the capital’s press corps to give some attention. The conferences, among other things, would outline the major state and urban issues that are not getting enough attention at the national level.
  • Use the internet to create local media even as the more traditional versions continue to disappear.
  • Create a national organization to deal with state and local issues that require federal attention.
  • Create a national internet program that supplies information about state and local developments useful to other locations.
  • Put pressure on media to interview and cite professors, scientists and other knowledgeable individuals more than at present. This has happened with the coronavirus and has been strikingly useful. The powerful in Washington and Hollywood don’t have all the answers.

As artificial intelligence adds to this attack on the importance of individual and small group knowledge, wisdom and decency, we need to take a stand for human answers to human problems and recognize that all the answers will not be found in the nation’s capital.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

America: Trouble at the top

 Sam Smith  - They no longer build pyramids in Egypt, Mexico or Guatemala. The British royalty is beginning to fall apart. We elected someone like Donald Trump to lead us through the worst pandemic in a century. The US Senate was helpless to deal with Trump. The electric grid system in Texas couldn’t handle  a bad snow storm. In short, cultures do decay. We just don’t like to talk about it.  

To be sure, we have Joe Biden to brighten things up a bit, but it’s worth remembering that in the first hundred days of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, it passed an emergency relief act, an employment systems act, an industrial recovery act, an agricultural act and created the Civilian Conservation Corps,  the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. I’m not sure we could handle that sort of efficiency these days.

Given the congressional margins with which he has been cursed, we can’t expect Biden to match this, but he still stands out as a different sort of leader than we’ve become accustomed to. As someone who has covered presidents since Eisenhower, I think of Biden in a small class of presidents such as Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson who were good at getting things done – not just because the things were good but because they knew how to work with other people and the actual facts of the matter.

Sure, Obama was a nice guy but he quite a different training. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP. One unnoted factor in this: the liberal elite has become wealthier and better educated. For example, back in the 1950s we were turning out 5,000 MBAs a year, by 2005 the figure was 142,000. In 1970 we produced 65,000 Phds, last year the figure was 181,000.  And in 2009 the Washingtonian Magazine estimated there were  80,000 lawyers in DC.

Barack Obama thus represents a new era in American politics: the ultimate triumph of the gradocracy. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of his early career:

“In late 1988, Obama entered Harvard Law School. He was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year and president of the journal in his second year. During his summers, he returned to Chicago, where he worked as an associate at the law firms of Sidley Austin in 1989 and Hopkins & Sutter in 1990. After graduating with a J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard in 1991, he returned to Chicago. In 1991, Obama accepted a two-year position as Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School to work on his first book. He then taught at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years—as a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996, and as a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004—teaching constitutional law. In 1993, he joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a 13-attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development, where he was an associate for three years from 1993 to 1996, then of counsel from 1996 to 2004. His law license became inactive in 2007.”

Key to such a career is intense attention to process, regulations, the manipulation of language and data. Applied to politics, this means the human factor can start to bring up the rear. Politics is then no longer like music in which soul and skill are melded; instead it becomes another bureaucracy. Good evidence of this in the Obama years would be Obamacare, a two thousand page hard to decipher collection of virtue, uncertain results, payoffs to the health industry, and excessive paper work. A good politician of another time would have led with something that everyone understood, such as lowering the age of Medicare, and then adding on their favorite sweetheart deals.

It is not that it is wrong to study or practice the law, economics, business or education. But to usurp other skills, behavior, empirical knowledge and types of wisdom makes no more sense than for a dentist to attempt to instruct an attorney on how to address the court because he’s an expert on teeth.

I covered my first Washington story back in the 1950s and one of the things that fascinated me about politicians back then was their ability to talk United States. Public works were public works, not infrastructure. And racism didn’t need “systemic” attached to it. One of the problems with the liberal elite these days that it no longer knows how to talk to those who haven’t been as successful as they. And so we have a con artist like Donald Trump pretending to be a friend of the working class and getting away with it because liberals don’t even know how to talk to those who used to form the liberal base. Whether liberalism can recover this former base is uncertain at best. But it’s worth a try.

One way you can see how things have changed is to look at the childhood of a couple of the more effective politicians.

James Earl Carter was … the first child of farmer and small businessman James Earl Carter and former nurse Lillian Gordy Carter. At five, Jimmy already showed a talent for business: he began to sell peanuts on the streets of Plains. At the age of nine, Carter invested his earnings in five bales of cotton, which he stored for several years and then sold at a profit. With this money he was able to purchase five old houses in Plains… Following his father's death from cancer, he returned to Plains to manage the family-owned farm and peanut warehouses. In order to keep up with modern farming methods, he studied at the Agricultural Experimental Station in Tifton, Georgia. During these years in Plains, Carter was active in a number of civic organizations.

[Harry Truman’s father John] Truman was a farmer and livestock dealer… When Truman was six, his parents moved to Independence, Missouri, so he could attend the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. He did not attend a conventional school until he was eight. While living in Independence, he served as a Shabbos goy for Jewish neighbors, doing tasks for them on Shabbat that their religion prevented them from doing on that day.

[Truman] rose at five every morning to practice the piano, which he studied more than twice a week until he was fifteen, becoming quite a skilled player…. After graduating from Independence High School in 1901, Truman enrolled in Spalding's Commercial College, a Kansas City business school. He studied bookkeeping, shorthand, and typing…

Truman made use of his business college experience to obtain a job as a timekeeper on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, sleeping in hobo camps near the rail lines. He then took on a series of clerical jobs, and was employed briefly in the mail room of The Kansas City Star. Truman and his brother Vivian later worked as clerks at the National Bank of Commerce in Kansas City.

Now let’s look at Joe Biden:


Biden's father had been wealthy, but suffered financial setbacks around the time Biden was born, and for several years the family lived with Biden's maternal grandparents. Scranton fell into economic decline during the 1950s and Biden's father could not find steady work. Beginning in 1953, the family lived in an apartment in Claymont, Delaware, before moving to a house in Wilmington, Delaware,  Biden Sr. later became a successful used-car salesman, maintaining the family in a middle-class lifestyle


Biden credits his parents with instilling in him toughness, hard work and perseverance. He has recalled his father frequently saying, "Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.".


As a child, Biden struggled with a stutter, and kids called him "Dash" and "Joe Impedimenta" to mock him. He eventually overcame his speech impediment by memorizing long passages of poetry and reciting them out loud in front of the mirror.


Now let’s go back to the pandemic and the Texas grid disaster. The fact is that folks like Biden, Carter and Truman don’t make it to the top so easily any more. Much better to become a really good lawyer, an MBA or well trained in public relations.  A major part of our organizations are run by principles stemming from these sources, despite the fact that the ultimate purpose of these organizations  may be electrical energy, health services or education. Those at the top have become less trained to deal with the real purpose of their job. And, unlike the Bidens, Carters and Trumans they are less trained or inclined to ask help from those who know something.


Hence we had a president treating the pandemic like it was just another Trump Tower operation.


I  have a sense of this little discussed problem in part  because when I entered journalism over half of the reporters in the country only had a high school education. What they knew was how to tell a story right.


I also learned it from youthful summers working in Maine where I heard an expression I still recall from time to time: “Fix it up-make it do-use it up -do without.”


It is this skill with the specific that we are losing as  a culture so we can look forward to some more overlong pandemics and cities without power.


It was more fun when more at the top understood what they were doing.






Monday, February 15, 2021

One way out of this mess

  Sam Smith – Having been a college anthropology major, I tend to violate the customs of journalism by seeking cultural explanations of change and not just the words and actions of prominent figures. After all, we as a nation did not elect Trump until he was 70 years old. What caused us after all those years to fall for his cons?

There are a lot of factors including one clearly of service to Trump: the rise of television which created a politics in which image massively replaced actual record. But there’s another factor that has increasingly come to explain much of our crisis: the collapse of our public schools.

Few things extend and support a culture more than its education system. But for that to even begin to happen, the system must teach not just English and math, but mutual values, traditions, cooperation, and moral habits. You need a system that deems learning civics and history at least as important as learning how many square inches there are in the triangle before you. Or learning how to resolve disputes as well as how to solve equations. .

But the model for American education has increasingly been to emphasize individual power and knowledge and to diminish interest in such things as community, compromise and ethics. Law degrees and MBAs, for example, have soared in importance, skills built in no small part on the ability to defeat someone else.

As elementary school principal Holly D. Elmore put it:

Teachers are needed in today’s society, more than ever, to have a profound impression upon the students they teach. Education is not the same field it was in previous decades; yet we are focusing on all the wrong things. When we focus more on a score than the heart, we are losing generation after generation. If it takes a village, then we have to step up and be the warrior for morality. Investing in character education improves attendance. When students know they are valued by not only their teachers but their peers as well, they want to be at school. Respect towards others, honesty, compassion for others, and teamwork are all character traits that do not magically appear when we teach how to take a test.

One of the victims of the current system is the role education could play in improving multicultural relations. We tend to regard such matters only by their failures e.g. how to stop racism in police departments. But we can’t develop a truly working multicultural society without people – beginning with children – learning how to relate well to those different from themselves. And we can’t do it just obsessing with ethnic failures; we need to learn how good multiculturism works. To do this you need education that cares about it and reaching children young enough not to have been taught to be bigots.

Beginning I suspect in the 1980s, Americans were increasingly taught to think mainly about themselves rather than their relations with others. The increasing urbanization of the country added to this effect. And so today, we now find ourselves with the rubbish left by one of the most egocentric, anti-communal leaders in our past.

We can’t rid our story of Trump, but we can learn from it. And to help us we need teachers who show the young why you never want to do this again. How we can learn from history and not just repeat it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The new confederacy

Sam Smith – At least the south in the Civil War seceded from the Union. Donald Trump, although his actions are treated as a miscarriage rather than intentional  treason, was out to overthrow the Union. The only way he could have gotten the second term he sought would be if Congress and the Constitution were destroyed in his behalf.

Our political and media language do not permit us to face the real reality of what Trump was up to, but if we are to avoid such madness in the future we need to recognize that his actions are unprecedented in American history and were, in fact, potentially as serious as the Civil War. A modest way to recognize this for starts is to refer to every senator who voted not to convict Trump as an act by a member of a new confederacy. There is no way to explain this in traditional political terms. It must be seen as what it is; not a defense of Trump, but a betrayal of the basic principles of our nation. We should refer to those who cast their votes for Trump as neo-confederates – willing to surrender their country to a despicable dictator.  

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The imperfection of history

 Sam Smith – The decision in San Francisco to rename over 40 schools – including ones named for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – brings to the fore the arrogance with which we often view history.

If there is one consistent thing that history teaches us it is the imperfection of it and the people who create it. If there is one consistent thing that makes us feel better about this is that many of these imperfections are now past, which is why we call them history.

But the current trend to judge those in the past by current standards lends us little judgement for dealing with the present. What are the issues we are ignoring that some day will be considered essential?

And it is far more complicated than many would have us believe. For example, the properly praised Frederick Douglass supported women’s suffrage but, as Black Past notes,  “in 1869 he publicly disagreed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who called for women’s suffrage simultaneously with voting rights for black men, arguing that prejudice and violence against black men made their need for the franchise more pressing.” Do we take his name off all buildings for this?

A more sensible approach is to accept human imperfection and praise the occasional escape from it, despite the fact that the praised of the past may have ignored their children, lied on their tax returns or engaged in marital infidelity. We are not honoring the whole individual but specific good that they did.

As a long time activist. I’m conscious of how dramatically the status of an idea can change over time. For example, fifty years ago few supported DC statehood or legalized marijuana. Those of us who did were considered kooks at best.  I know some well known groups and politicians who opposed DC statehood long ago but now support it.

Politics is like that. You can’t be a successful politician without making some of the mistakes that the time you live in seems to demand. And goodness is rare enough that we should celebrate it even if it does not define a whole life or its viewpoints.