FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Thursday, July 09, 2020

One reason liberals don't do better

Sam Smith – As noted here before, the rise in education has helped to produce a liberal class that is increasingly separated from the lower, less educated classes, which helps to explain why liberals are not doing as well as they used to. Another factor has been the drastic decline in union membership as unions not only organize workers they teach them about politics.

Some figures from the Pew Trust help to illustrate this. For example, among non college graduates, Democrats gained only one percent of men and two percent of women between 1994 and 2019. Among college grads they gained ten percent of men and 17% of women.

During this period the share of voters who were white non-college graduates and  Democrats went from 57% down to 30%.

And 54% of those with a post grad degree have liberal values compared with 27% of those with only a high school education or less. 

Indicative of this change is the emphasis liberals are putting on symbolic rather than more dramatic progress, as exemplified by the name changing of institutions and the destruction of confederate statues. This is intellectually satisfying but doesn't change the life of the working class.

Without strong unions and with a liberal class increasingly based on a college educated constituency, it was much easier for Trump to lie his way into the lower economic constituencies. Unless liberals face this reality and do something about it, their troubles may outlast Trump.

Alice Paul

The terrific two part PBS series on how American women got the vote strongly featured the work of Alice Paul, a key figure in the story. The name wasn't strange to me. As I wrote some years ago:

Sam Smith – In the 1960s I started and edited a newspaper east of the US Capitol in a area generally known as Capitol Hill but which we dared to dub Capitol East to include a much larger heavily black community beyond the “the Hill.”

One of the buildings in our neighborhood was the Sewall-Belmont House which has just gotten some overdue attention, thanks to Barack Obama. Reported the NY Times:

The red-brick house on Capitol Hill served for decades as a national headquarters and dormitory for the so-called iron-jawed ladies lobbying for equal rights, even as male members of Congress sought to raze it to make room for offices for themselves. British soldiers set it on fire during the War of 1812 to squelch American resistance, and generations of Washington brides and grooms have held their wedding receptions in its historic halls. On Tuesday, President Obama designated the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum as a national monument for women’s equality, declaring the three-story structure a symbol of the American fight for civil rights.

Back in the 1960s, my wife Kathy decided to write a piece for the Capitol East Gazette  about the building and knocked on the front door only to be greeted by none other than Alice Paul, who Wikipedia describes this way:

American suffragist, feminist, and women's rights activist, and the main leader and strategist of the 1910s campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibits sex discrimination in the right to vote…. Alice spent a half century as leader of the National Woman's Party, which fought for her Equal Rights Amendment to secure constitutional equality for women. She won a large degree of success with the inclusion of women as a group protected against discrimination by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She insisted that her National Woman's Party focus on the legal status of all women and resisted calls to address issues like birth control.

Paul agreed to talk with Kathy on one condition: that she call her representative in Congress and seek support for National Women’s Party’s current agenda. Kathy explained she was a DC resident and so was unrepresented in Congress, but that she had been assistant press secretary to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. After she put in a call to her former staff buddies, Paul granted her an interview.

A few years later I wrote a song sung by an actress playing Alice Paul in a musical about DC that  went like this:

My name is Alice Paul
Although I have been called
A lot of other things
that I won’t tell you.

Because I have perceived
That women are aggrieved
And they surely need
Some civil liberty.

We don’t find it too enrichin’
To be messing in the kitchen
If you want us to stop bitchin’
You had better start in switchin’

I am a suffragette.
They say that I’m all wet
They aint’ seen nothing yet
I’m gonna tell you.

The fight for women’s rights
May last ten thousand nights
But we won’t rest
Until the fight is won

 

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Easing multi-ethnic conflict by creating multi-ethnic alliances

Sam Smith – One of the great problems with the way that we approach ethnic discrimination is that we rarely discuss cures other than the condemnation of its examples. The media, for example, seldom discusses solutions. This approach is in full swing right now as can be seen in how little real police reform is being discussed and proposed. Doing away with choke holds won’t come close to solving all the problems. We seem to assume that identifying evil is its cure, which is sadly not the case.

One major exception has been Rev William Barber II who started Moral Mondays in North Carolina in 2013 and has since revived the Poor People’s Campaign.. As historian Timothy Tyson  put it, Barber is "the most important progressive political leader in this state in generations," saying that he "built a statewide interracial fusion political coalition that has not been seriously attempted since 1900."

In order to have a well working multi ethnic society we need to discuss how to design it. Just attacking  racism won’t create its alternative. Here are a few excerpts from an interview Chris Hayes did with Rev. Barber a year ago:

Rev Barber: We commissioned a study called the … Souls of Poor Folk, Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People's Campaign. Two or three things came up. Number one, we removed poverty out of the political discourse, worst thing we could have ever done, and race as moral issues. So you go through 26 presidential election debates in 2016, not one of them was on poverty. Not one whole debate was on poverty even though 43.5 percent of your people live in poverty and low wealth.

Number two, not one of them is about voter suppression and gerrymandering and restoring the Voting Rights Act, even though in 2016, you have less voting rights than you had in 1965 when the Voting Rights was passed on August the 6th.

That kind of anemic, weak political debate and discourse keeps us in a rut. It's not honest… Most time if you talk about poverty, people say, "Well, there are more black people in poverty." That's not true. There's more of a concentration of poverty among black people, but in raw numbers, there's more white people in poverty.

And here's the ugliness we've got to show people. The very people who engage in racist voter suppression and gerrymandering today, when they get that power, guess how they use it? To hurt mostly white people. There are 40 million more poor and low-wealth white people than there are black. People get power using race, then use the power to hurt in raw numbers. Why? Because if you take those former Confederate states, you get close to 170 electoral votes. If you can just control the 13 former Confederate states, you get 31 percent of the United States House of Representatives, and 26 members of the United States Senate.

… If I could put a pin that's one of the mistakes that I believe of how the health care piece has been pushed. We haven't rolled it out in the South and shown people in the South how it impacts them, and that's why you can get a state like North Carolina blocking 500,000 people getting health care, and 346,000 of them are white. And yet people think that it's primarily going to just minorities.

If you look at what Reconstruction was about, it was about policy. And they were able to find the linkage to show poor white people, their connection to black people, and black people their connection to white people, and how the persons that were the ones that were pushing the racism, pushing the division were actually hurting everybody. And so, you have to learn in this season to do that same kind of moral fusion.

Sam Smith – Fifteen years ago I took part in one of the most remarkable one day conferences I have ever attended. It was designed to bring progressives of different ilks together to agree on a common program. Here’s my report from the time:

In 1995, as an active member of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, and Democratic Socialists of America. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but Green activists John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along.

We established two basic rules:

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

o We would reach that agreement by consensus.

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

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

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

Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert's Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform "to provide a level playing field in elections;" initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities "consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights."

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

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

I have since repeatedly had the dream that national leaders of the black, latino, women’s, labor and youth communities would come together for similar discussions.  You can’t create a working multi-cultural society if you don’t even sit down and talk with each other.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Confront the strong, convert the weak

Sam Smith – One of the problems I have with activism these days is that we seem to have lost both the capacity and desire to convert the weak. Too often there is a style I’ve come to think of as evangelical liberalism in which organizers and those who agree with them will be saved, but the rest will just go to hell.

Philosophy aside, this is not particularly good activism or politics. It eliminates large numbers of people whose misplaced positions and priorities are often the direct result of false propaganda by the powerful and fears for which the system provides no solution. For example, as noted here before, the currently widely used term “white privilege” can’t be expected to be received well by poor whites who number twice as many as poor blacks. And there is little sense, as Martin Luther King wanted us to hope, that some day our enemies might be our friends.

A handy alternative approach is to confront the strong for their evils, but convert the weak they have falsely convinced. One reason the latter have been fooled, for example, is because the percent of workers who belong to a labor union that might educate them towards more progressive views is one third what it was in the 1950s. In terms of influence, there is no equivalent powerful alternative to the lies and misdirection of a Donald Trump.

 The decline of community is another factor working against us. There are too many who live in too small worlds that work against understanding a more decent and collective approach.

At the same time, broad as our current problems are, we tend to ignore the fact that we have made considerable progress in recent decades thanks in part to the changed minds of Americans who once favored segregation and other forms of ethnic bias. One small example from Black Demographics: 

Of the 100 largest cities in the country, 39 have had elected black mayors. In 2018, 57.1% of black mayors served in cities (over 40,000) that did not have a black majority population…. Perhaps the introduction and prevalence of the Black mayor has helped America become more comfortable with Black politicians in positions of major leadership. In 2018 there were about 32 Black Mayors of cities with populations of more than 40,000 according to our estimates.

Or consider this story from Associated Press: ‘More Americans than in 2015 say police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person than a white person, 61% today compared with 49% in 2015. Only about a third of Americans say the race of a person does not make a difference in the use of deadly force, compared with roughly half in 2015. And 65% say that police officers who cause injury or death in the course of their job are treated too leniently by the justice system, compared with 41% in 2015.”

And a recent Slate story by Priya Satia tells the tale of a a police officer in British India who  “quit after five years out of a deep sense of shame, evident in his first published piece, in which the narrator, a police officer in Burma, is quietly complicit in the execution of a colonial subject… A dog is the only being that acknowledges the prisoner’s humanity, jumping up to lick his face, to the crowd’s horror.”

That police officer was a guy named George Orwell who went on to write 1984.

The point is that people do change for the better and successful activism is based on this assumption and the skills with which to achieve it.

I attribute evangelical liberalism in part to the fact that liberals are much much better educated and better off financially than was the case, say, in the New Deal or Great Society.

Take for example the case of Frances Perkins, the Roosevelt labor secretary who during her term of office, championed many aspects of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. With The Social Security Act she established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard 40-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service.

Name any leading Democrat in the past fifty years who came close that.

In fact, the Perkins model offers a hint of what black, latino and white liberals could be doing together now. With the economic chaos that awaits the end of our lockdown, we will need to be redefining how money is created and used, instituting reforms such as a guaranteed income and more cooperatives, and providing decent places and programs for those most hardly hit by the current disaster. This provides an opportunity for progressives of all ethnicities to join in a cause of substance, and blacks and latinos could lead..

In the end, the best way to get a real progressive national movement is to confront the powerful but convert the weak

Monday, June 29, 2020

Beyond chokeholds and Confderate statues

Sam Smith - After we get rid of choke holds and Confederate statues we may find ourselves wondering why life still isn’t what we would like it to be. We have been raised in a society that values regulatory process, legal reform, and procedural improvements. But it is easy in such a world to forget the importance of some basic positive human traits such as cooperation, kindness, and enjoyment of others. You can’t legislate or require such things as they are the product of culture and not the law.

And so we may be left with a gap that law, analysis and procedures have failed to fill, namely how we really feel, act and think about others… and what we can do about it.

I have been aware of this throughout much of my own life thanks to such things as having five siblings who, along with my parents, taught me early that other folks don’t always see things the same way as I do. As time went on I gained four nephews and nieces from Puerto Rico,  three from Scotland and would live comfortably for five decades in a Washington that was then a majority black city.

I was also an anthropology major and so came to .understand the immense, largely unspoken, power of culture.  As a journalist I have been repeatedly reminded of how often culture doesn’t get reported without an event, action, or official attached to it. Thus, for example, most are not aware that 15% of marriages these days are of mixed ethnicity.  Or that race is a cultural rather than a scientific thing. Or that institutions like churches and schools no longer have the moral significance they once had.

We do not need to turn our backs on law and procedures but we need to start talking and thinking more about ways we can, beyond regulation, not just get along but actually enjoy each other.

A good place to start is schools. As these institutions have slipped more towards the standards of our corporatist society, moral and personal issues  - enlightened by civics and history - have drifted out of the educational agenda.  How many elementary schools, for example, introduce their students to the incredible diversity of human culture? How many help their students work with others? And if competition and corporatism are the values their elders value most, where do kids learn cooperation, mediation and how to get along with those with whom you disagree? If math and spelling can be taught at this stage, why not decency and the celebration of diversity?

Years ago, I was president of a parents association at a public school in DC, about which I later wrote:

A parents bulletin around that time reported 20% of the students to be native Spanish speakers. There were children whose families came from 34 countries and Puerto Rico and about 20% of the school was African American… The ethnic mix was rounded out by a commune of born-again Sikhs who lived nearby.

If all our governmental institutions were run by people as pragmatic, sensitive, intelligent and imaginative as the newly appointed principal, Pat Greer, we would live in a much happier country. For example, when the potentially difficult issue of religious celebration arose, Pat adopted the principle laid down by the theologian Reinhold Niehbur, who said once that you don't solve the conflict between church and state by doing away with the church. And so the assembly before the year-end vacation included a traditional American Christian segment, a latino Christian portion, a Jewish presentation and, as a climax, a kid from the Sikh commune telling the legend of the sword. Everyone had a good time and Pat and I agreed not to let the ACLU know what we were up to.

I once got a call from Pat saying that she had caught two 8th graders using pot. She explained that she had called the 2nd Police District and asked them to send over an officer but that he was to do nothing but scare the hell out of the kids and then leave. Sounds good to me, I said, but of course those were the 1970s when we still naively thought teachers and principals knew more about educating kids than cops, judges, and the President.

Twenty years later, in a speech to a global cultural diversity conference in Australia, Pat Greer, who is black, explained her approach:

"John Eaton School is child-centered. That means that we value and build on the strengths that each and every child brings to our school and to our classrooms. That is especially important to us in our multicultural environment. Our learning environment builds on the heritage and background of all of our children. The result is that our students are eager, curious students, students who are focused on learning and are responsible for their own learning.”

“At another DC public school a teacher had asked the question, ‘What do people need to get along?’ A student had written, ‘cooperation’ and the teacher had crossed it out and written, ‘rules.’ In a few decades, the whole nation would try to run education that way, with lots of tests to make sure the instructions were being obeyed. But it didn't work because it lacked the combination that on most days had made John Eaton work: competence, to be sure, but - just as important - cooperation, enthusiasm, and love.

“Our parents, teachers and staff are caring, talented, resourceful and positive role models for our students. And I am a highly visible school principal. I know each student by name and I greet them each morning when they arrive at school, and again when they go home at the end of the day. I talk to my students; I visit their classrooms; and I sometimes work with them in their classrooms. And I welcome them into my office when they want to talk to me. ..”

The curriculum at the school was affected by two impressive biases. One was a prejudice towards writing. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. The school clearly understood the shortest route to good writing: do it. The other emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music, activities that require students to work well with each other.  With excellent teachers and adequate time, the kids threw themselves into their projects as though Broadway rather than high school was the next step. The encouragement came right from the top - not only from the principal but from Mr. Urqhart, her administrative assistant, who - dressed in his most colorful suit - would sing a single applause-stirring number in his mellow bass voice in each of the big shows - the only adult permitted to thus intrude.

I became conscious of how serious the dramatic side of Eaton was one day as I was taking a group of 4th graders home from an event. One kid stepped carelessly into the street and a companion called her back, saying, "Be careful, you could ruin your whole life that way.' Another added, "yeah, or even your career." Once safely in the car, there commenced the sort of surreal debate that only the young can withstand. The topic (clearly involving the stage rather than the lesser trades) was: what is more important - your life or your career?

There are plenty of police departments that could use someone like Pat Greer. While banning chokeholds is a start, we need to think about ways to reintegrate police into our communities instead of having them consider the neighborhood as a threat. Getting them out of their cars and back onto the streets is one way. Creating neighborhood commissions such as those in DC where the police can discuss problems with real citizens. Adding lawyers and  social workers to each police station not just to train officers but to work with them over the problems they run into would also help.

All are partial solutions beyond the law and procedures but part of the complex and universal world of decency and cooperation. We can not just regulate ourselves out of this mess, we must learn how to share our world with others and enjoy what we discover. And if kids can learn how to do it,  it’s possible we adults can as well.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Fifty years later

Sam Smith -The House passage of a DC statehood bill brings to mind that fifty years ago this month, I wrote an essay explaining for the first time how DC could become a state without a constitutional amendment. The plan was to reduce the size of the federal district created in the Constitution and to let the remainder become a state. This was not a novelty; after all back in 1846, Alexandria Virginia had been dropped from the federal district to satisfy that town’s pro-slavery agenda.

The total reaction to my article was that a reader sent me five dollars, asking that it be contributed to the cause if it ever got going. I thought, well there’s another one down the drain.

Then four months later, I was invited to a meeting to discuss the candidacy of Julius Hobson for non-voting delegate to Congress, a token that the federal government had thrown our way to help calm the city down.

We met in a barren church basement hall on East Capitol Street. Just a few of us, our chairs pulled in a small circle. After a while, Julius asked on what platform we thought he should run. Someone in the room mentioned the article I had written about statehood.. Julius listened, we discussed it for a few minutes and then he said, “That's what I'm going to run on.”

Julius Hobson is probably the most underrated civil rights leader of recent time - another example of how colonies like DC not only lack power but respect for their stories.

Throughout the years of Washington's awakening, no one individual had changed the course and the psychology of DC more than Hobson. In a city where it could be said that never had so many sold out for so little, Hobson refused to compromise. Even prospect of an early death from multiple myeloma failed to chasten the man. He described the conversation he would have with the Lord, if there turned out to be one, as Hobson presenting a bill of particulars on behalf of the oppressed people still back on earth. And he concluded, "That's what I'd have to say to the Maker. And if the Maker doesn't like it, to hell with him."

Between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson had run more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated campaigns that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers, black auto salesmen and dairy employees and directed anti-discrimination efforts against the public utilities, private apartment buildings, the Washington Hospital Center, and private business schools. In 1967, Julius Hobson won a suit that outlawed the existing rigid school track system, teacher segregation and differential distribution of budgets, books and supplies.

Our meeting in the church basement led to the creation of the DC Statehood Party which would elect a member to the city council and/or school board for 25 years. And it’s only taken a half century for the issue to come to the national fore. The current Senate clearly won’t approve it, but a Biden victory in the fall combined with a Democratic Senate could create a new state in a matter of months.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Update on my upright

Sam Smith - Several years ago I told you about the 1898 Steinway I bought in the early 1970s when uprights were not popular. The guy at Kitt's Music Store in DC told me that I should just come in and get whatever they had that day. The afternoon I followed his advice. The Steinway was the only upright in the shop. And so I bought it. For $300.Several years ago I told you about the 1898 Steinway I bought in the early 1970s when uprights were not popular. The guy at Kitt's Music Store in DC told me that I should just come in and get whatever they had that day. The afternoon I followed his advice. The Steinway was the only upright in the shop. And so I bought it. For $300.

Now, nearly fifty years later, this upright is on a 1200 mile trip to one of my sons, a fine musician.

For years the piano was cared for by James Shadd. Shadd was a pianist and band leader who had backed up Josephine Baker during WWII among other things. Shadd started his piano hospital in 1941 and one of the delights of having him tune your piano would be that he would tell you some great stories and, when he was through, let loose with a few jazz numbers.

Once he told me that his mother had a band that Doris Duke used regularly. Doris Duke gave his mother a white Cadillac, "but, you know, my mama drank that Cadillac right up."

When James Shadd passed, his son Warren took over. His firm sold and fixed all sorts of pianos, Warren, whose mother was a stride piano player and aunt was Shirley Horn, was not only deep into pianos but started playing drums when he was four. . .He serviced pianos for Herbie Hancock, Tony Bennett, and Aretha Franklin. and performed or recorded on drums with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and Dizzy Gillespie. So my $300 upright has had some pretty wonderful attention.

 Then the story had a new chapter thanks to a story on Warren in the Washington Post:

"Shadd, who, as far as anyone knows, is the nation’s only African American piano maker, has his high-end, made-to-order instruments in several Rolls-Royce dealerships, on the set of the television show “Empire” and at the Vatican. It helps that he is an accomplished musician with a salesman’s drive and a showman’s charm. When he first heard the Holy See was looking for a piano, he wrote Vatican officials a letter. To his amazement, they wrote back. In 2015, three donors gifted an instrument to the Vatican, and Shadd personally delivered a gleaming black grand piano emblazoned with the papal seal.

" …By the time Shadd was 8, local newspapers were chronicling his skills as a drummer. He started piano lessons at age 5 but did not focus on the instrument more seriously until he was about 12. “That’s when I started thinking that I could write music, and you needed a piano for that,” he says. He left Howard University his junior year to play jazz organ with Lionel Hampton, then drums with other jazz greats, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Horn among them.

"Today, Shadd upright pianos start at $22,000, its concert grands at $185,000. Custom pianos can go for more than $300,000. He has chosen to focus, with patented designs, on improving the way pianists hear what they play.

"Shadd works out of his home and keeps costs down by marketing on the Internet and social media. Shadd still recruits customers himself. Two years ago, he cold-called Caroline Perzan, a veteran set decorator who developed the look for “Empire,” to convince her that his pianos fit the style of the series, about a music mogul. Perzan needed a piece for the ornate office of protagonist Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard. “Empire” “was going for an ambitious high-end look, so the pianos were one of my main challenges,” Perzan said. “I just sent my wish list to him.”

"The show now has six Shadd pianos."

I will miss the piano but love its memory and the stories that came with it.