FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Improving ethnic relations by teaching and leading

  Sam Smith – The recent Capitol riots are yet another reminder of how we have failed to build a successful multicultural society. One little discussed reason for this is that even the most decent concentrate on eliminating the evils in current ethnic relations while actually building new relations are typically underrated or passed over.

This is unfortunate, because a successful multicultural society has to value its relations and not just treat them as a problem to be solved.

I feel strongly about this in part because my personal experience as a white guy has been greatly improved thanks to my relationships with those of other cultures whether it be Puerto Rican nephews and nieces, playing for decades in bands that performed historically black jazz, working for civil rights leaders like pre-mayor Marion Barry and Julius Hobson, or living for five decades in a majority black Washington DC. I don’t talk about it much, because accepted conversation these days is about racism, not its remedies and alternatives.

I got into this early. I not only started my school’s first jazz band, I took one of what was then just two high school anthropology courses in the country and then became an anthro major in college. I  like to think that I was inspired in part by being one of six children, a good way to learn early in life that others don’t always think and act like you. 

Maybe also being individualistic, I happily found in other cultures the right to be different. In any case, I remain attached to the view that the variety of our communities have made life much more interesting and satisfying.

Finally, going to a Quaker school for six years taught me what has been called the Friend’s notion of “reciprocal liberty,” i.e. I can’t have my freedom if you don’t have yours.

Key to appreciating multiculturalism is education in the right direction. We need to show the young the value of people not like themselves - before older bullies and bigots teach them otherwise. For example, Matthew Lynch has written

There are a wide range of classroom activities that can help students recognize the essential humanity and value of different types of people.  For instance, providing students with an opportunity to share stories of their home life, such as family holiday practices, provides fellow students with a window into their peer’s cultural traditions.

Showing students everyday photographs of people of different ethnicities, shapes, sizes, and garb gives students the opportunity to see people that look very different from themselves and their family engaging in the same types of activities that they and their family participate in; this activity can help humanize types of people that a student has never had an opportunity to interact with personally.  Welcoming guest speakers into the class that hail from differing backgrounds and have all made a positive contribution to important fields can also help dispel any preconceived notions that students might possess about the relative competence and value of people from different cultures.

Teaching students about multicultural role models also serves as an effective method for demonstrating that people of all genders, ethnicities, and appearances can have a positive influence on the world and deserve to be respected and emulated. It’s important to avoid teaching students about the same minority role models repeatedly; after all, if students never learn about prominent African American citizens other than Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X then it’s likely that some students will assume that few other African Americans have made substantial contributions to American culture and politics.  If students are taught about the contributions that people of various ethnicities, genders, and creeds have made to a variety of different artistic, scientific, and political fields then they’re more likely to respect and value diverse culture backgrounds as a whole.

There are scores of techniques. For example, when I was president of a parents association at a DC public elementary school, the principal had an assembly that consisted of students describing their religions. And a school in Maine recently had the former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana help nine students build a tradition wigwam. Said a community volunteer, Susan Cochran, it was a “profound lesson about Native American values, lifestyle, and treatment of the environment.” And, said Dana, “I took the kids into some really fine skills and they just nailed it.”

Part of the trick is to not just protest but to educate and lead. I recently took part in a conference about the DC civil rights leader Julius Hobson and as I was preparing, I realized that one of the reasons some of these local activists had been so effective was because they approached problems as leaders of a new city - both black and white - and not just as victims of the old one. Cross cultural issues, rather than identity, were at the forefront. Thus they fought against DC Transit fare increases, freeways that would have wrecked both white and black neighborhoods and for DC statehood that would benefit residents whatever their culture.

Yes, you have to protest and fight the bastards in the courts, but the skills we need to emphasize more for a better society is teaching and leading others in a better direction. I have, for example, a dream that black and latinos could take a significant part of the leadership of America’s labor movement – helping white workers as well as those of their own ethnicity.  This could dramatically change things, including  swiping from Trump some of his misguided supporters.

We can certainly learn from the past but we can’t change it. The future we can if we work together.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Problems that helped create Donald Trump: Declining church membership

 Another problem that preceded Donald Trump and will survive him

Church membership declined by over a third between the 1940s and 2018 according to Gallup. Now it may seem strange for a Seventh Day Agnostic such as myself to see that as a problem, but it is important to realize that religion is not just about faith, it is also about what you do with it. Thus you may not like the theology but find the adjoining morality quite good. I addressed this in a piece some time ago:

As Americans increasingly grow less interested in religion, moral and ethical matters are also losing their longtime home.

Consider, for example, the role that religions have played in our civil rights and peace movements. Did one have to become a Baptist to follow Martin Luther King? Of  course not.

The Quakers have a nice way of expressing it. One of their meetings, for example, explains, “Friends are people of strong religious views, but they are quite clear that these views must be tested by the way in which they are expressed in action… Friends are encouraged to seek for truth in all the opportunities that life presents to them. They are further encouraged to seek new light from whatever source it may arise.”

I went to a Quaker high school and attended meetings every Thursday for six years. Only once can I recall a confrontation on theological matters, and that was quickly eased by a “weighty” Quaker elder who explained that a meeting was not the place for such debates.

Later, I was introduced to existentialism - the notion, it has been said, that “faith don’t pay the cable” and the view that “even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.” I came to realize that the Quakers had beat Jean Paul Sartre by several centuries in the realization that it is what one does and not what one believes that makes the real difference in life. In fact, the meeting that ran our school came out against slavery back in the 17th century.

So I was somewhat prepared for what I found as a journalist and community activist in 1960s DC - namely religious leaders who translated their varied beliefs into common action and left faith on the back seat.

I was, for example, pushed into starting a community newspaper in an ethnically mixed neighborhood east of the Capitol by a minister trained by Saul Alinsky and who even got me a grant from a local Lutheran Church to get going. Neither the minister nor the church questioned my faith because it was clear we were all on the same track..

By the time the 1960s were over, I had worked with about a dozen preachers, most of whom would seem strikingly odd to many today. None of these ministers ever questioned my faith or lectured me on theirs.

They ranged from the head of the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happening Now to past and present Catholic priests. Meanwhile in the larger capital, we had two Catholic priests in Congress, one as Assistant Secretary of Housing, and one elected to the DC school board.

One of the assets these preachers had were basement meeting rooms in their churches. Among the scores of times I found myself in such rooms, we pressed anti-war protests, started the DC Statehood Party, began a mixed ethnicity pre-school, and upped the eventually successful battle against freeways in DC.  And you didn’t have to recite a creed before the meetings began.

When I try to figure out why this seems a bit strange today, one reason has been the huge influence of evangelical churches on the definition of religion, especially in the media.

Based on its present principle of following the noise rather than the news, the media gives disproportionate attention to distorted evangelicals while hardly paying any attention to someone like Rev. William Barber, reviving the Poor People’s Campaign. I sometimes wonder whether Martin Luther King would have gathered today’s media’s attention.

In any case, the decline of church membership has reduced the power and presence of moral gatherings and values and made it much easier for someone like Donald Trump to endlessly blow his horn. Among the possible solutions would be for churches to become more friendly to activists as they were in the 1960s and for there to be non-religious meeting places elsewhere to discuss current moral issues.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Problems that helped create Trump: A culture of impunity

Another part of the story of problems that preceded Donald Trump and will survive him unless we do something about them

Sam Smith - I have argued for a long time that America had quietly ended its first republic and that we were in an ill-defined succession perhaps best described in a term used in Latin America: a culture of impunity.

One based on hegemonic liberty i.e. the more power you have the more freedom you have to use it. Traditional external factors such as history, law, community, religion and culture values move to the rear or disappear. As I’ve described it:

In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, and at best practices only titular democracy. A culture of impunity differs from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a new culture does not announce itself.

In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.

The major political struggle has become not between conservative and liberal but between ourselves and our political, economic, social and media elites. Between the toxic and the natural, the corporate and the communal, the technocratic and the human, the competitive and the cooperative, the efficient and the just, meaningless data and meaningful understanding, the destructive and the decent.

 

Monday, January 04, 2021

Problems that helped create Trump: The Reagan years

 Sam Smith – While it is a terrific relief to anticipate the replacement of Donald Trump by Joe Biden, what is not so joyous is to reflect on the reasons Trump rose to the top in the first place, many of which remain powerful forces in our society.

It’s been 17 years since I first suggested that the first American republic was over and many aspects of that decline happened long before that. Today, I would cite the Reagan administration as perhaps the greatest first sign of collapse. For  the next few issues, we’ll offer a facts and reflections on this topic, beginning with some of the older ones:

The Reagan factor

Progressive Review, 2013 - Although there were signs of trouble as early as 1944, when the conservative Human Events magazine was launched, Republicans in general stayed within traditional American culture until the Reagan administration. There were exceptions, the most striking being Joseph McCarthy and his ilk, but on the whole Republicans represented a wing of American politics rather than, as at present, a political asteroid threatening to blow the whole place up. People such as Robert A. Taft and Margaret Chase Smith were like your grandfather and grandmother, out of touch with the times but still members of the family. Dwight Eisenhower was a moderate and Richard Nixon – for all his personal faults – was on domestic issues the last liberal president America has had.

That changed radically with Ronald Reagan, who applied principles he had used to sell Chesterfield cigarettes to hawk a toxic form of government described well by Robert Lekachman:

"Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000".

There is considerable evidence that the collapse of the First American Republic began in no small part with Reagan’s inauguration:

- The number of federal inmates increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012.

- From 1947 to 1979 family income of the bottom 20% went up 116% and those in the top 20% went up 99%. Between 1980 and 2009, the bottom 20% went up 15% while the top 20% went up 95%

- Hours worked per employees are the highest since the 1980s.

- Middle class debt is the worst since the 1980s.

- Personal bankruptcies are up 400% since the 1980s.

- Student loan debt is the worst since the 1980s

- In the 1980s there were 50 corporations controlling most of the major media. Now there are six.

- During the Reagan administration the number of families living below the poverty line increased by one-third.

There are other aspects of the Reagan years we tend to forget. For example, the Reagan administration was among the most corrupt in American history including, by one estimate, 31 convictions of top officials. By comparison 40 government officials were indicted or convicted in the wake of Watergate. 47 individuals and businesses associated with the Clinton machine were convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes with 33 of these occurring during the Clinton administration itself.

David R. Simon and D. Stanley Eitzen in Elite Deviance, report that 138 appointees of the Reagan administration either resigned under an ethical cloud or were criminally indicted.

The Reagan administration also had secret plans for an unconstitutional takeover of the federal government under an ill-defined national emergency. Members of the government created by the coup had been selected and included Richard Cheney.

Reagan's policies also led to what was then the greatest financial scandal in American history: the savings & loan debacle which cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

And according to Steven Komacki in Salon, “By the summer of 1992, just 24 percent of Americans said their country was better off because of the Reagan years, while 40 percent said it was worse off -- and that more Americans (48 percent) viewed Reagan unfavorable than favorably (46 percent).

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Bringing the police back home

Sam Smith – One of the problems with our problem solving these days is a tendency to legalize, institutionalize and formalize relationships that actually depend on wise social behavior. Consider, for example, how different our ethnic relations might be if we actually taught school children about the nature and virtues of cultural variety before their views got distorted by bigots and bullies.

The same is true these days in discussions about the police, where  the emphasis is on suppressing the most violent and unfair behavior, with hardly any talk about how to integrate police better into the lives of our communities.

This is something I have long followed, having edited a community newspaper in the mid 60s east of the US Capitol, a neighborhood that would include two the city’s four major riot strips in 1968. . I early came to realize that part of the trick was to get cops out of their patrol cars and having a neighborhood based relationship with some of the city’s citizens.

It early seemed clear that isolating cops in cars didn’t help matters. While on a 1960s panel that included a local police official and a representative of a national police organization, I made this argument. A columnist for the Washington Post turned to a friend of mine sitting next to him and asked, “Who is that nut?”

But there is something else I also remember from that time: a story I did on two young black cops patrolling a public housing project. One of them, Isaac Fulwood, told me that “they never check with us” before building such a place. Fulwood also lived on the Hill and a few years later, we attended a baptism class at a local church together.

It was just an ordinary story except for one thing. Fulwood would eventually become chief of the DC police and later chair of the US parole board.

And Fulwood was no ordinary chief. As the Washington Post wrote of his youth after his death:

In many ways, the family was the District in microcosm, engaged in a grim struggle with the hardships of poverty, drug abuse and crime. [His brother] Theodore Fulwood, known as Teddy, was locked up, accused of selling cocaine on a District street, when his brother was named police chief. Theodore's long police record ranged from assault to bank robbery. "I loved him," Mr. Fulwood said, "but hated his behavior."

And Mr. Fulwood, though rarely in trouble as a youth, recalled his father's encounters with unhelpful police officers and his own unpleasant interactions with them. "I had met very nasty policemen who would say anything to black people or do anything to them," he told The Post in 1991. "Very rarely did you see black police officers."

In another Post story, Fulwood faced the reality of his position:

Once, when Fulwood was chief, a riot broke out inside Lorton Correctional Facility. …. Fulwood helicoptered over. "I'm inside the jail, looking around. There are a couple thousand people in there. I swear, they all look black."

After he and his men had Lorton under control, Fulwood took a walk around the place, bullhorn in hand. He heard a voice, a very loud whisper.

"Junior! Junior!"

Fulwood wheeled. He spotted an old family friend from the neighborhood around Kentucky Avenue SE where he grew up. "I said, 'Come here. What you in here for?' He said, 'Robbery.' "

The man asked Fulwood to visit his mother, tell her he was all right, which Fulwood did.

"I looked around that prison and said, 'What a waste of human life,' " Fulwood recalls. "I came home and said to my wife, 'Why can't we break this cycle?' It's still a question I'm always struggling with." ….

He says: "I believe communities have a right to be safe."

He says: "You try to be tough. But at the same time you try to figure this damn thing out."

One of the ways he handled this as head of the parole commission was to take someone on parole with him when he went to speak to high schoolers. In short, he could be tough but this didn’t mean he deserted his community. In fact, after leaving the force, he taught some courses at the University of DC on community policing.

There was an example of this sort of policing that sticks in my mind. When our sons were kids, they played baseball on teams run by the police boys club. I admit I sometimes felt a little nervous watching my son up to bat with an umpire wearing a pistol on his hip, but  it was a fine experience. Today these clubs, now merged with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, reach some 35,000 youngsters annually and have seven club houses in the city.

These are just a few examples of community policing at work

The incident floated back recently as I read a detective novel by the sainted Michael Connelly in which the following appeared:

Through political opportunism and ineptitude, the city had allowed the department to languish for years as an understaffed and underequipped paramilitary organization. Infected with political bacteria itself, the department was top-heavy with managers while the ranks below were so thin that the dog soldiers on the street rarely had the time or inclination to step out of their protective machines, their cars, to meet the people they served. They only ventured out to deal with the dirt bags and, consequently, [detective Hieronymus] Bosch knew, it had created a police culture in which everybody not in blue was seen as a dirt bag and was treated as such….You ended up with a riot the dog soldiers couldn't control.

Part of the problem was expecting the police to do it alone. That’s why I’ve suggested that every police precinct have a civilian lawyer and a psychotherapist on hand to coach the officers, answer their questions, and – in the case of the therapists – accompany them on cases where their skills might be useful.

In DC, as the cops were taking to squad cars, the Recreation Department was sending “roving leaders” out on the street to work with kids and their gangs. Several decades later, Jim Myers in the Hill Rag described how they did it:

Dennis Homesley, principal of Payne Elementary School, often talks about Roving Leaders. He got his start working with kids as a Roving Leader from 1972 to 1981, and he still believes in the concept.

The program, run by the District's Department of Parks and Recreation, was bigger in Homesley's day. But the idea remains the same: You don't wait for kids to cause trouble. You go out and find the kids who are heading in the wrong direction and help them.

The program seemed to founder in the late 1980s. By the 1990s, it was too easy to spot kids in the neighborhood that the system wasn't reaching - the ones most susceptible to negative influences. Thereafter, you could watch them "progress" on corners and local playgrounds from alienation to car thefts and stick ups or drug selling.

Now, we have Darby Clark and Bridget Miller, the two Roving Leaders who are assigned to work the schools, recreation centers and playgrounds of eastern Capitol Hill. Clark, 37, has been a Roving Leader for seven years. Miller, 41, a gang worker for 20 years, joined Roving Leaders only last year. . .

I saw Clark take a dozen squirming, noisy kids with their attention flying all over the place and turn them into a cooperative, engaged group of youngsters who raised their hands to participate in discussions about having positive attitude.

Magic it wasn't, but a serious change took place before my very eyes. "They want attention and structure - and consistency," says Clark. "Like if I say I'm going to be there for them at a certain time, I've got to be there." It sounds so basic, but these are missing elements in many kids' lives. . .

At Eastern High, Clark picks up names of kids who are not showing up for school - eight or nine kids in some weeks, he says - and visits their homes.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Thinking about history

 Sam Smith – Reading Colin Woodard’s remarkable book, Union, has led me to ponder about some of the failings and successes of history in our society and what we can do about it. A few thoughts:

·        Stop shortchanging history in our schools: A 2014 study by the National Assessment of Educational Programs found that only 18% of high school student were proficient in history. Neither our schools nor our media care enough about history and we pay the price.

·        Keep reading history. Along with Woodard’s book I’ve been reading new histories on Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. They have all reminded me of how much I don’t know about some aspects of history and how useful it is to learn more.

·        Learn from the past but don’t live it. Slavery was a terrible part of black history, but the tendency of some of today’s blacks to define their current state by it is similar to what you find in dysfunctional families where some live their life defined by their terrible childhood. The trick is to learn from the past but create a new present and future. All major change comes from rewriting the present and future – not reliving the past.

·        Use history to tell how we’re doing today. For example, we don’t talk about it, but the American inclination to solve problems by warfare has dramatically changed in the past 75 years. The number of American military deaths in the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars was roughly one quarter that of WWII. The Google Book Ngram viewer shows that even the mention of war in English language books has declined by over 85% since the early 19th century. This doesn’t mean all trends are positive, witness climate change, or that you can’t have hopefully temporary retreats such as the Trump regime. But following the history of concepts such as war is as important as remembering actual events.

In short, we need to revive the importance of history in our lives and live not as its victims but as its recreators. And while we’re at it, let’s add civics and cultural studies to our to do list.

Monday, December 14, 2020

A pandemic pastime

Sam Smith – While I’m mostly engaged in the standard dysfunctions of the current pandemic, I have discovered one activity that occupies my time comfortably and which I have never tried before nor have I heard of anyone else doing it.

Namely, I am, on a daily basis, reading seven books. Why, you may well ask, should one read seven books at the same time rather than completing them serially? I have no good answer except that I tried it and it worked.

My standard procedure is to read a chapter, if short enough, or read to the next place where a larger visual gap is placed between paragraphs. You may well attribute this to a lack of attention span and I won’t argue with you, but I have noticed that in murder mysteries, for example, I don’t get tired of the length of time it takes to solve the damn thing. I just move on to another book. And it’s kind of exciting to have a day when you are trying to figure out a killer and how Winston Churchill is going to handle the next Nazi attack.

Three of my current books are in print while the other four are Kindled.  Three are mysteries, two are biographical, one is a collection of delightful Facebook columns by Lt Tim Cotton of the Banger, Maine, police department, and one is Union, the astounding reorganization of American history by Colin Woodard to explain why we are less of a union than we pretend to be.

The best of the mysteries is by my friend Gar Roper, who died only recently, and who wrote Deadly Hypocrisy, a stunning description of a young girl attempting to figure out who had raped her in the woods. Meanwhile Woodard’s  book and the biographical accounts do significant damage to some of my misconceptions of people like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. And there are few thing more worth reading about than the inadequacies of the famous.

While with Roosevelt, it was his unfaithfulness to Eleanor about which I knew a little, with Wilson it was a level of racism that I had never learned about in school or thereafter.

I suppose some will accredit my leaping through bits of different books to a lack of attention, I attribute it to a happy solution for getting through a part of my day with still no contact with so many friends and other souls. I start not with just one project but with seven and as soon as I edit and post this column I will enjoy it all again today.