FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Sunday, November 29, 2020

What progressives can do now

 Sam Smith – With the Trump tyranny almost over and the Biden years about to begin, it’s a good time for progressives to figure their new course. Here are a few suggestions:

·        Presidents are not agents of change; they are reflections of change. From a progressive perspective, there is little doubt that Biden will be a disappointment, but attacking him for not being good enough will largely be a waste of time. The trick is to create a progressive environment that the White House feels it must respond to.

·        This is not just a matter of issues; it is a matter of culture. America hasn’t had a thriving counterculture for years. There is a lack of alternative music, lifestyle, symbols and voices that strongly conflict with the establishment culture.

·        Most change starts in small places, witness the spread of state and local environmental laws before the federal government got  nto it, or the origins of the legalization of marijuana. Washington learns from change at the state and local level.

·        Come up with police reform polices that go beyond how cops handle crises. One reason police do a bad job is because they have become increasingly separated from the communities they are meant to be serving. Banning choke holds is good but it won’t deal with the weak community connection in many police forces.

·        Face the fact that in recent decades, as liberals have moved up educationally and economically, they have lost some of their interest in issues effecting the working class. This, combined with the collapse of labor unions, has allowed people like Trump to con this constituency without effective opposition. Liberals have also become increasingly urban and so have lost interest in rural America. This needs to change.

·        The young need to do more than vote. They need to teach older America what they want and need and find colorful ways to demonstrate this.

·        The same is true of blacks and latinos. They should see themselves as leaders of a new America, rather than just victims of the old one, and include in their priorities issues and solutions that will also benefit white working class voters. A black and latino led labor movement would dramatically change not only the status of issues, but improve ethnic relations as well.

·        Teach the young how to get along with those who don’t look like them. The easiest  time to teach good ethnic relations is before the young get a bunch of bad ideas from others.

·        Create as well as solve. If we only look at issues like ethnicity, police and economics as problems to solve, we can actually miss a lot of the alternative, namely creating a society that enjoys what it is rather than just worrying and arguing about it.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A speech to 8th graders

Sam Smith, 1977 - In June 1977, I was asked to give a graduation speech - at John Eaton School where I had recently been president of the parents association.  John Eaton was one of the first public schools in DC to add a 7th & 8th grade to a normal elementary curriculum, hence the somewhat odd situation of addressing a group of eighth graders at a graduation. Here is what I said:

When your principal, Mrs. Greer, asked me to give .this speech, I don't believe she realized how fitting and proper a decision it was. For eighth grade was a high point in my career - my criminal career some might say. When I got to ninth grade, I reformed. For example, I gave up smoking, although I could still perform the trick learned in eighth grade - holding a lighted butt under my tongue and flipping it into my mouth and closing my lips.

I have to confess that my recollection of early education is somewhat fuzzy. Except for eighth grade. In eighth grade I learned, as they say now, to deal with the system. Admittedly  I didn't always do it very well. Sometimes we didn't deal very well with Mr. Brauniger, our math teacher, and he would make us do laps around the school building. We had more success with Mr. Gordon, our English teacher. I would later take another class from Mr. Gordon and realize that he was one of the great teachers. But in eighth grade he was just a challenge. You see Mr.Gordon was always late. for class. We would station a guard at the door of the classroom so that we could do whatever it is that eighth graders do when the teacher isn't around. Mr. Gordon caught on and laid down a simple but eminently fair rule. If he came around the corner and got the draw on you first as you stood in the hall watching for him, you would have to stay after school. If you could go "bang" at him before he saw you, you were home free. It was high noon every day at 11.

Then there was last period Friday, a study period. The only thing was that the teacher never took attendance. We had a little club in the eighth grade: we called ourselves the Society of Cruds. Our insignia was the creeping crud —ballpoint pen marks on the inside of our right wrists. Many members of the Society of Cruds were supposed to be in that Friday study period, but since our absence wasn't missed, we excused ourselves to take in the double feature at the movie nearby. Worse, we would send our smallest member in at half-price, and he would open the exit doors s othe rest of us got in for free. Another :member of our party would be the hat man, assigned to fill his cap with popcorn fo rus when the attendant wasn't looking. Wen ever got caught until the last period of the last Friday of the school year, this very hour of our last Friday 26 years ago, when, as luck would have it, a sub-stitute teacher showed up — and took attendance. It was, yes, the old gunslinger, Mr. Gordon.

Now before Mrs. Greer, Mrs. Parker,and Mr. Urqhart forcily eject me from the room, let me state that I am not suggesting how the ideal eighth grader should behave. But it has been my observation that being a teenager is filled with more than its share of hassles, terrors, and frustrations, and. it is perhaps reassuring to know that at least one totally disreputable eighth grader grew up to be invited to address a graduating eighth grade class.

Well, here I am half way through my speech and I haven't told you anything important, edifying, or useful — or maybe I have. Because one thing we adults do.to our children is conceal what rotten kids we were. And growing up is hard enough without feeling that everyone else does it without making a lot of mistakes along the way. So the next time some adult tells you that kids aren't as good or nice -as they used to be, you tell them, "No,they never were."

Now the title of my speech is "The Future Lies Ahead." This pretty much sums up what people are meant to say at graduations, so I thought I would take care of it in the title and move on to some other business. It has always seemed to me that graduation was a little late to be giving advice but perhaps a few random notes may be of some assistance. First of all: parents. They're middle-aged, right? And Peter Ustinov says, the trouble with middle-aged people is that they're too far away from either of the most important mysteries of life: birth and death. My father used to say that the reason that grandparents and grandchildren got on so well was because they had a common enemy. For myself, I think one of the problems with parents is that they never can decide whether you should be in the White House or in jail.They exaggerate both their expectations and their disappointments. But remember that most often this exaggeration comes from two sources: hope and love.

They have higher hopes for you than anyone other than yourself and this is nice. But you know your hopes often disappoint you and that's hard enough. It's even harder some-times to deal with someone else who has high hopes for you, and I'm sorry to say it doesn't end when you leave your parents. At 39, I still find dealing with other people's expectations very difficult. John Cage, the experimental composer, once said that when people finally approved of what he did, all they wanted him to do was repeat it. He wanted to try something new, but the pressure was to just do it over again. This kind of dilemma will follow you to your grave, so relax and learn to live with it.

Love is also a two-edged blade. It provides warmth, humanity, and comfort, but it also demands and takes. Remember that Mr. Spock didn't understand love because it wasn't logical. In fact, especially with your parents, its manifestations sometimes seem to border on mental illness. Which is why, perhaps, so many people go to psychiatrists looking for love. I can't tell you how to deal with this conflict except to recognize the unavailability of the free lunch. If you want to go through life with complete freedom, with unimpeded self-expression ,then you also have to be ready to go through life lonely. If you want to share in love and community and mutual support .then you have to be willing to give up something of yourself in return. Parents offer love and hope but in the process become like that definition of the English House of Lords — indefensible and indispensable.

Second, a note on being a teenager: Adults conform just as much as teenagers do. The problem is that teenagers are asked to conform to both adult and teen-age values at the same time. This can get a little confusing. But there's something else wrong with the setup. Adults tend to regard your age as the ragged, unruly end of childhood, rather than the beginning of adulthood. Go back a couple of centuries and you'll find 16-year-olds who were captains of ships and 14-year-olds who were serving as apprentices or doing a full day's adult work on the farm. You are capable of it, but if you were to drop out of school and try to find a job in what we adults strangely call "the real world," you wouldn't have much luck. Why? The truth is that we need people to stay in school as long as they can in order to keep the unemployment rate down. It is not our social system but our economy that has determined that there be no useful role for teenagers.

Now adults don't want you to discover this so when you start demanding something meaningful, they may give you freedom rather than responsibility,. and when the sort of aimless freedom that adults sometimes grant young people backfires in a car accident or a drug bust, we blame the teenager. It is, of course, stupid to ask young people to find purpose in life when the system is specifically designed to deny them a useful function.

Well, pretty much. If we ever get in a war again, you'll find the country suddenly finding a place for you —on the front lines. I would think a country that can trust its teenagers to defend it in time of war could find more useful roles for them in time of peace. But we adults won't fight this battle for you, although we have taken a few steps, like lowering the voting age. You've got to figure it out for yourselves and make us listen. And. you only have a few years in which to do it. Then, you, too, will be too old and may begin to stop caring.

Third, a note on failure: Everyone tells you how to succeed, but I bet you get damn little advice on how to fail —which is strange, because if you're normal, you're going to spend more time failing than succeeding. Try to learn the difference between the failure that comes from laziness, indifference, or stupidity and that which comes from other sources. For example, there's the failure that comes with trying to do something that you won't be able to do right until tomorrow or the next day or next year. Those of you who took part in the musical yesterday know what I'm talking about. It took many hours of voluntary failure to produce one hour of success. And now that you've succeeded you perhaps have the courage to fail again so you can succeed at something even harder next time.

Then there's the failure of the just cause. Most good causes started out as lost causes. If no one had been willing to fail at a just cause, we would still be fighting in Vietnam, eating at segregated lunch counters, and the women in the Eaton class of '77 would not be expected to go to college.

Finally there is the failure that is not yours, but the judgment of other people. Don't let other people tell you when you've failed. Listen to them, but not at the exclusion of your heart or own judgment. Other people are poor judges of your success or failure.

One last note: I'm sure people have asked you, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" There are two things wrong with that question. First, I know and you know that you are right now. If you put off being until you're fully grown, you may discover that it's passed you by. Second, adults usually want you to respond with a noun: I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, an investigative reporter. You can fool them by answering with adjectives like I want to be warm, useful and happy. It is, after all, those sorts of wants that  will matter most in the long run. If what you want to be is only a noun, you'll probably end up like that, and the sadder for it. But if you pick the right adjectives, you can end up like Frank Skeffington, the political boss hero of The Last Hurrah. In the last scene he lies on his death bed and one of his lieutenants piously intones, "Well, the one thing we all know is that if Frank had to do it all over again, he would have done it differently." Frank Skeffington raises himself from his bed, looks the guy in the eye and says, "Like hell I would." And dies. Happy.

 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Back when politicians were interesting

 Sam Smith – Watching City So Real, with its shots of Chicago politicians acting and arguing like true human beings reminded me of an idiosyncrasy in my approach to politics, namely that I have never fully integrated my taste for progressive reform with the enjoyment of early personal experiences that would horrify today’s reformers. I was introduced to politics by political characters in places like Philadelphia and Cambridge, Massachusetts, who were the exact opposite of current moral role models but to a young guy seeking relief from the excessive propriety taught by parents and school, a wonderful experience. I, in effect, came to know politics because of those who were fun, different and impressive while offering no wise course to virtue. And though I eventually found other tracks to decency, I still can’t watch a Chicago politician at play without enjoying it.

After all, when I was in high school my liberal father was interviewed by an FBI agent about a dubious Republican city council member. One of my aunts was accompanied by a GOP agent into a curtain voting booth to show her how to cast her ballot. And when one of my sisters had a pre wedding party at my parents’ house, I spotted a police car in the back loading a case of champagne. I learned early that the world wasn’t perfect.

Here are some other examples from past Progressive Review article:

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Marion Barry story changes again

They've named a building in Washington for its former mayor Marion Barry, the latest reflection of the complex reactions folks have had  towards Barry over the years. For example, here is something your editor wrote about him some time ago

Sam Smith, 2006 - Marion Barry and I split back in the 1980s. I can't remember the exact issue, but it was one time too many that Marion had promised one thing and then done another.

I first met Marion in 1966. We were both in our 20s and he was looking for a white guy who would handle the press. He had just organized the largest local protest movement in the city's history - a bus boycott - and I had participated and written about it. The typical twenty something doesn't get over 100,000 people to stop doing something for a day. I gladly took on the assignment.
 
We hit it off and remained allies even after the day Stokley Carmichael walked into SNCC headquarters and said that we whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. Barry would later describe me as one of the first whites who would have anything to do with him. I backed him when he ran for school board and in his first two mayoral bids. And in those days, I have to say, he got pretty good press.

But even by the time of the second run for mayor I was feeling queasy. A couple of friends and I held a fundraiser for Marion but our wives would have nothing to do with it. I introduced him by listing the reasons why people might be ambivalent about Barry and then added, "On the other hand. . ." Marion pointedly wiped his brow.

I was already becoming aware of Marion's addiction to that most dangerous, if legal, drug called power. Later, I would be listening to a talk show discussing a book about cocaine in the executive suite and suddenly realize how similar the two addictions were and how I could no longer tell which was affecting Barry more.

I saw less and less of him. We had lunch one day but I told him some things he didn't want to hear and he later told a reporter, "Sam's a cynical cat." In 1986 I told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "He's basically done to ethnicity what Ronald Reagan has done to patriotism. He's turned it into a personal preserve." About the same time Marion told a reporter doing a feature on me that "Sam and I go back a long way, and over the years he's become more radical, and I've become more conservative."

But I still saw that it was a complex story. At one point, Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, asked me to do a piece on him. I told him that I would be glad to but that I wasn't going to trash Barry. And I suggested a headline, "Failing the Faith." A few days later, Peters cancelled the lunch at which we were to discuss the article and never got back to me. The next thing I knew, the Washington Monthly ran an article by Juan Williams trashing Marion Barry and using a variety of the headline I had suggested. Williams was on his way.

When Barry ran for mayoral reelection the last time, I took the position that I was all in favor of redemption; I just didn't see why you had to do it in the mayor's office. I broke up one talk show host by suggesting that Barry follow the example of a recently disgraced Irish bishop and go help the Indians of Guatemala.

On another talk show, Barry said that the press was always blaming him for all the city's problems. I said that wasn't fair; I only blamed him for 26.7% of the city's problems. "I'll buy that," Marion replied. . . Later a white Washington suit actually asked me, "How did you derive that number?"

Yet I also knew that Barry - like other urban ethnic politicians - had far more to blame than himself. Whatever his faults - he knew he had been granted dispensation because - like a feudal lord - he provided significant favors in return. Barry had lived in Memphis and I often suspected he had learned his politics from Boss Trump. For he understood the quid pro quo of traditional urban corruption that had helped the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles break down the worst corruption of all - that of an elite unwilling to share its power with others. Later I would call Barry the last of the great white mayors because his approach had more similarity with that of a Daley, Curly or La Guardia than that of more recent city officials.

It was far from a perfect deal but in the interim before "reformers" seized office again on behalf of their developer and other business buddies, more people would get closer to power than they ever had or would again.

And now the reformers are back. The young gentrifiers who think the greatest two moments in the city's history are when Barry went to jail and when they arrived in town. And their politicians, who don't feel it necessary to even tithe to the people.

Some years back, Marion, at a public dinner, ran into my wife and asked, "Where's that sonofabitch?" But when he saw me we hugged because despite all our differences we both know we are still kin in a too tough world. I'd just lucked out better.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A few things liberals can do right now

 Sam Smith - One of the generally unnoticed aspects of the 2020 election was that a number of the ultimately key states - Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia - had a strong rural quality. In fact, even Pennsylvania does.  As Wikipedia notes: "In 2016, Pennsylvania ranked first in the United States in Agaricus mushroom production, fourth in apple production, fourth in Christmas tree production, fifth in dairy sales, fifth in grape production, and seventh in winemaking.”

In recent decades America’s liberals have become increasingly urban and upscale and, as a result, far less interested in rural or small town America. While this works as far as the popular vote is concerned, it doesn’t sew up the electoral count.

And it doesn’t have to be this way. For example, the liberals of the Roosevelt Administration introduced soil conservation programs, the TVA and rural electrification.

Small towns are also a purposeful field for liberals. Given the increasingly autocratic quality of federalism, what we do at the state and local level becomes ever more important for retaining democracy and progress. But according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans control 59 state legislative chambers while Democrat have only 39.

And at a county level, we find a revealing trend. Back in 1998, some 45% of rural counties leaned Democratic. By 2017 it was down to 38%.

There are lots of things liberals could do to help rural and small town America such as improving Internet service, better transportation and better access to health services.

The other huge shift in liberalism has been the decline in its interest in working class America. Again a look at the New Deal offers a strong alternative.

Its Works Progress Administration employed 8.5 million people in its seven-year history, working on 1.4 million projects, including the building or repair of 103 golf courses, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,100 parks, 12,800 playgrounds, 124,000 bridges, and 125,100 public buildings.

And then you add things like the regulation of banks, a minimum wage, legal alcohol, right of labor to bargain with employers, housing loans, unemployment insurance and the Small Business Administration. 

Nothing like this has been seen in more recent times and this failure, combined with the sharp decline in union membership, has left the working class susceptible to con men like Donald Trump. The answer is a liberalism that  increases its concern for  that group of voters, And there’s plenty to talk about such as hiking minimum wage, better overtime wages and helping unions come back.

In short, make the concerns of rural, small town and working class America a high priority and the liberal-conservative story will dramatically change.

 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A belated confession

Sam Smith – I have tried to downplay in my writing about  how old I was getting to be. But it’s become increasingly an unavoidable fact and so would like to confess that in less than a month I will be 83 years old.

On one hand, this feels somewhat impressive given that I have lived  longer than three generations of males in my family with the sole exception of one grandfather who doesn’t count because he was senor warden of  his church and so had God on his side.

Further  I have kept track of the passing of friends and others with whom I have had connections over the past decade and a half. I have lost 177 of them.

So basically, being still alive, I have little to complain about. Still, thanks to the death thing, you can find yourself mulling over the declining possibilities of the future.  This, though, is nothing new. When I was a teenager I learned from my reading that a polar bear might attack you at any moment -- that is if you were living a truly interesting life. This would be tragic -- but in a literary sense a story that others would tell and weep about for years to come. It made me sad to think about it; on the other hand it would be a good story and it was, it seemed, far better and more interesting to die young by polar bear attack in the Arctic than of respectable, stultifying old age.

In a strange way, I find myself back in my teen years – often irrelevant in purpose, pondering unlikely styles of death and uncertain as to what I’m meant to be doing anyway. After all, I have exceeded the life expectancy of a white American male by about 8 years. Neither our schools nor our economy have figured out what to do with someone who does that. And my 16 year old granddaughter just got her first driver license - far more fun than wondering  whether your eyes are going to be good enough to get your license renewed for the umpteenth time.

And so I do what I have done all my life. I write about it. Writing has gotten me out of more trouble than anything else I’ve ever done. Even in the worst of times it offers the comfort of an inscription on a gravestone. And in the best of times, it tells me something I hadn’t noticed until then.

There have been other things that have comforted or aided me. Playing music is the cheapest, and one of the most effective, forms of therapy there is. 54 years of marriage has been a godsend. Having two sons who turned out to be as independent as their dad is a pleasure and their children a delight.

I still feel as the wisest course now is to do what I’ve always done, which is to once again do what I’ve always done and hope it still works. Writing this piece, for example, has worked but now that it has come to its end and I have to find something else to do. Wish me well.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Why I don't dress better

 From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2015 - As a member of the beat generation of the 1950s, clothes rank somewhere below car washing on my list of priorities. And as a child of this period I am stunned that the term we invented - hip - has been so distorted that it now even includes wearing approved coverings for your body.

I early adopted Jonathan Swift's view that "I have always had a sacred veneration for anyone I observed to be a little out of repair in his person, as supposing him either a poet or a philosopher." And Oscar Wilde's assessment that "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six month." And in the 1970s, I wrote:

    If the truth be told, I wouldn't mind being considered well dressed. I would love to be elegant if there were not other things I loved more which have a peculiar way of interfering with my efforts to put my best side towards the world. As far back as college, a roommate had me pegged: "You're the only man I know who could make an English tailored suit look as though it came from Robert Hall's." I suffer under the delusion that I work better when I am comfortable. College students, mechanics and farmers all know that.

Another trade that has somewhat maintained honorable indifference to fashion has been journalism, albeit only among its members who do not appear on television.

So I was pleased to see a NY Times article interviewing Wendy Chuck, the fashion designer for Spotlight, a new film about some Boston journalists which included this exchange:

    How would you describe the style of journalists?

    A. It’s an unthought-about uniform. It mirrors school uniforms really. It’s something you don’t think about when you dress. You don’t really care; you’ve got other things to think about that are not clothes. It says you’re comfortable, but nobody is going to comment on how you look or how you appear. You’re not going to offend anybody. Nobody is going to be able to read much into you.

Sam Smith, 1978 - The father was trying to explain to his son why he shouldn't button the  bottom button of his new man's style suit. "But what's it there for, if it's not meant to be buttoned?" The nine-year-old logic smashed over the net. "Well it's, er, decoration. Look at your lapels. They don't do anything either. They just look nice."

"Yeah, but the coat would look funny without these.." The nine year old fingered his lapels. "This button just hangs out here. It looks stupid."

"It's the way people do it. But leave it buttoned if you want." Some ten or eleven year old dandy would set him straight soon enough. The father wondered why he had even bothered. He didn't really care. No one had ever told him why that third button was there. The only reason he could figure out was that maybe it was there for a purpose he had discovered long ago: to move it up a notch or two when the first or second button popped and you were too lazy to find a match. He had gone all year with one button on his best blue suit and no one had said anything to his face.

Maybe it didn't matter. But people said it did. People say a lotof things about clothes. And with them. The other day, with the snow on the ground, I watched a bedizened, agitated gentleman hailing a cab. His hair spray was holding in the January wind; the expensive leather jacket and the long leather boots were so spotless I half expected to see the white plastic anti-theft clip from some Georgetown salon still tugging at them. A cab stopped, he rushed in and gave directions, and as he did so he gracefully swung into the taxi his cargo, a glazed bag from the trendy Georgetown store, E.F. Sly. Was he returning something? Going back for more? Or off to some new place to find something that would look even more elegant in the winter slush?

I probably do him wrong; maybe he was only late for work, but I was certain at .the moment that his clothes and baggage betrayed his mission in life: the acquisition of apparel. He was the man described by Carlyle "whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of clothes."

I say it with a bit of envy, for if the truth be told, I wouldn't mind being considered well-dressed. I would love to be elegant if there were not other things I loved more which have a peculiar way of interfering with my efforts to put my best side towards the world

My father, who had attended Oxford, retained not only his old school ties but his old school clothes.. He bought his suits from a tailor on Sackville Row— Jones, Chalk & Dawson. This was not as extravagant an enterprise as it may seem; my father wore his suits with a loyalty one normal-ly devotes only to one's spouse or your grandfather's watch. The orders went to Sackville Row infrequently but consistently.

When I became of age he tried to hand down the tradition. It didn't  work. Shortly after he announced he was  presenting me with a genuine English tailored suit, a set of instructions arrived from JC&D. My roommates and I attempted to follow the instructions but we were handicapped by not having a math major amongst us, no beer, the lack of a tape measure and other sophomoric liabilities. We decided that a yardstick would do the job nicely. All 240 pounds of me were measured, checked and rechecked by my able assistants and the order sent off. A few weeks later a letter arrived from England. It read
:

“Dear Sir: With reference to your esteemed order, we regret to find when going into the measurements you have given, that .these do not appear to be quite in order, and we do not feel we could with confidence make up a suit .We wonder if you would be good enough to have the enclosed form completed, if possible by a local tailor, and return to us at your earliest convenience. Your further esteemed commands shall have our best and personal attention. With our compliments, we remain. Sir, Yours faithfully, Jones Chalk & Dawson Limited, D. Robinson, Director., P.S. Have you a snapshot of yourself which would help?”

I was measured by a local tailor, as suggested, and in time the suit arrived, a massive device that could withstand the worst cold of Boston or the loss of all of His Majesty's colonies, a magnificent garment for Harold MacMillan no doubt, but on me indistinguishable from that I might have obtained from Robert Hall's. I realized then that if clothes were to make the man, I had had it. It was not that I was without taste. When my older brother bequeathed his entire set of early fifties ties ranging from pseudo Picassos to a nude reclining on a red field, I accepted them modestly and hung them in my closet where they remained unworn, favoring instead the 1 3/4" black knit that those of us who grew up in the fading of "Happy Days" knew was now the only right thing to wear, unless you belonged to a club or a fraternity. But I was not able, nor am I now, to adjust my life in such a way that there was adequate time to make  the endless small decisions that separate the exquisite from the rest of us. I will, in a sudden spurt of reform, buy a new suit, a complementary tie and shirt, and then find myself toddling around in shoes that must not be raised on crossed knees less the minimal remaining membrane of the sole spoil the effect.

There was a time when I thought I had solved the problem. Day after day I just wore the same thing. I went through a pink shirt period, a green suit period, a black and blue period.
I even went through a Sears Roebuck suit period.

I actually wear a suit or tie so seldom that it often provokes comment. This pleases me, for I see "nice clothes" as a costume, to be worn to a party or event, which is different than working or doing something.

I would submit that my sin is not one of taste but daring to wear what I wish, letting my clothes reflect the oddments of my mind rather than fighting or betraying it. Anyway, since one of the purposes of dress is to attract attention, my way is certainly cheaper.

So go ahead, kid, button that third button.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Some things liberals could be doing

 Sam Smith

Liberals need to deal with their image

Since the New Deal and Great Society there’s been a major shift in the image of America’s liberals. They are considered by too many these days to be part of a non-friendly elite. The growth of higher education among liberals has been one factor but it’s also true that you just don’t hear liberals talking about working class issues much anymore.. Combined with the collapse of labor unions, this has made it easy for a con artist like Trump to pretend that he is a friend of those at the lower end of the economic system.

The fact that someone has a grad school degree doesn’t mean affiliation with the working class has to be all that difficult. After all, Franklin Roosevelt went to an upscale prep school, Harvard College and Columbia Law School and still managed to create the New Deal.

Activists need to put issues ahead of identity

This isn’t a moral argument; it’s a mathematical one. The reason you’re called part of a minority is because there aren’t that many of you. Pick the right issues and you can find yourself with all sorts of unexpected allies. Imagine if black and latino leaders made working class economic issues one of their prime concerns. Based on their experience they would not only be good at it but they would build alliances they don’t have today.  Consider that there are 8 million blacks in poverty but also14 million whites waiting for someone to help them out of this state.

Cut the protests before an election

Adolph Reed Jr put it well: “"A couple of months ago in the midst of the street actions around police killings and Black Lives Matter… I went back and checked to make sure, that in the summer of 1964, the main civil rights leadership, and this included King, Rustin, Randolph and John Lewis of SNCC, the Urban League, CORE, called a press conference and put out a statement calling for a moratorium on demonstrations. They put this statement out on the 30th of July, calling for a moratorium on demonstrations until after the November election. Why? Because of the imperative to defeat Goldwater. And it’s just a way of thinking strategically about politics and they had the cultural force and the organizational ability to see that call through and to enforce the moratorium.”

Have the young launch a counterculture

One of the things that made the 1960s work is that the young had a counterculture that helped to bring them together. We don’t need an imitation of that but something new and relevant to the next generation. Part of the secret is music and symbols, but most of all new values and lifestyle.

Help rural and small town America

Because liberalism is a heavily urban phenomenon, its agenda his little to say about rural or small town America.  But consider the fact, thanks to the electoral vote, that the states that would decide the 2020 elections included ones like Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia. Imagine how that story might has changed if the liberal agenda had included things like rural healthcare, transportation and internet access. Just talking about such things shows a concern that starts to change relations.

Don’t just treat ethnicity as a problem to be resolved

Sure there is too much prejudice and indifference out there, but if we are to build a true multi-ethnic culture we have to do a better job of celebrating and helping cross-cultural communities and projects. The media could be a big help – covering the progress of ethnic groups, mixed ethnic programs and so forth. As noted here before, some 17% of new marriages are of mixed ethnicity but no one mentions it. Also, teach the history of different cultures in schools could make a big difference. Being fair and decent is the first step but our goal should be to become friends and partners.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Filler items for young journalists

 

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2007

[Del Marbrook kindly featured your editor on the Student Operated Press site and an associated podcast. As part of the project, I sent along a few suggestions for young journalists]

The basic rules of good journalism are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, 'if you can't be funny, be interesting.'

Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.

Serve not as an expert but rather in the more modest and constructive role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider yourself a guide who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.

Help citizens tell their government what to think instead of helping government tell the people what to think. Serve your readers, not your sources.

The greatest power of the mass media is the power to ignore. The worst thing about this power is that you may not even know you're using it.

Contrary to the view of many editors, most people still like finding out who, what, when, where, why and how more than hearing in the first sentence how it all affected Roberta Mellencamp, 46, of East Quincy. Try to sneak the news as near the beginning of the story as your editor will allow.

News is something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership

One of the traits of a good reporter is boundless curiosity. If you can pass a bulletin board without looking at it, you may be in the wrong trade.

Reporters don't have to be smart; they just have to know how to find smart people.

Strive to match A.J. Liebling's boast: 'I can write faster than anyone who can write better and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.'

Objectivity, it has been said, is just the ideology of journalism. I've never met an objective journalist because every one of them has been a human. Try going after the truth instead. It's an easier and more fulfilling goal.

The best way to get past writer's block is to write crap. Then, the next morning, save what isn't crap and finish the story.

Don't be afraid of seeming a bit dumb. It's a good way of getting both the kind and the pompous to open up to you.

Think of journalism not as a profession but as a trade, a craft or an art. Your copy will be a lot better as a result.

Avoid the rituals of journalism whenever your boss will let you. For example, news conferences are just a way to keep large numbers of journalists away from the news for awhile. Eugene McCarthy once said that reporters were like blackbirds on a telephone wire. One flies off and they all fly off. If you have a choice, do something else.

Study anthropology. The greatest unintended bias in journalism comes from being a part of a culture different from that about which you are writing.

If something happens that makes you say, 'Holy shit!,' it may well be news. Check it out.

Act like a homicide detective. Follow and report the evidence but only as far as it takes you. Be prepared for lots of unsolved stories.

I.F. Stone noted that most of what the government does wrong it does out in the open. Don't assume that the story is buried. It may just be on page 27 of the report.

Repeat what people say to you as a question and often they'll think you haven't understood and will try to explain it better to you.

G. K. Chesterton said that 'journalism consists largely in saying 'Lord Jones died' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive. If you're writing well about Lord Jones that will no longer be true by the end of the story.

Learn to hear the real story and best quotes as you interview someone. If you approach an interview just as a stenographer, you'll be so busy writing you may miss your own story.

Some of the best stories out there are numbers. Most journalists are educated in the social sciences or English and so tend to ignore numbers. Some even treat them as just another adjective. Go after numbers as if you were an IRS agent and you'll be surprised how many scoops result.

Following some of the above may get you fired. Find out which before it happens.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Where did the Trump myth come from?

 

Sam Smith - In puzzling lately over how the Trump myth got so powerful, I found myself reflecting on the huge role of myth in human existence. So then the question came up: why is political myth so more of less important in some times and different cultures? Here are a few thoughts that came to mind:

  • The daily impact of reality: One of the reasons I like living in Maine, for example, is because myth doesn't interfere with daily life as much as elsewhere. I suspect this is because of its maritime and small farm history, jobs in which false myths could easily prove deadly. Most Americans these days live in a society in which everything from electricity to fire protection is taken care of pretty well by systems or by others. 
  • The lack of civic education: One of the ways to combat political mythology is to teach the young how politics works and what makes it not work. The decline in civic education has been a big cost caused in part by not introducing the young to political reality. 
  • The decline of labor unions: The two thirds drop in percent of workers in unions in the past half century or so eliminated a major source of reality education for these workers. Trump could not have gotten away with his pitches to the working class if unions had been much stronger.
  • The rise of television, videos and other virtual worlds: Before television, politics was largely defined by actual experience with the actions of politicians known either in person or by community accounting and evaluation. Even corruption was community based and mitigated by various actual services provided by corruption politicians. With television that was no longer necessary. All you needed with an image - aka a myth - that would seem believable. Trump is an extreme example of this change.  
  • The gradocracy: With liberalism increasingly defined by economists, lawyers and other grad school types, the valley between these liberals and ordinary folk grew wider and wider. As this gap grew, mythological alternatives seemed more believable.
In brief, for reality to hold its own in a culture you need a pragmatic value system and leadership that not only works but is understood and appreciated by the masses. We live in a time where too many of our leaders are either not understood or not liked for other reasons, a time that allows myth to thrive.  

Sunday, November 01, 2020

A little grammar grousing

Sam Smith – As an editor I try to follow the advice of my high school teacher, Mr. Braunniger, namely “Speaka United States.” But over recent decades, as more liberals have become better educated, I’ve noticed excessively complicated words and phrases  creeping into the political and media vocabulary. One of the examples that bothers me most is infrastructure. Back when we actually used to build infrastructure,  people knew what it was because  we called it public works.  I suspect you could find a statistical relationship between our decline in new bridges and the rise of infrastructure as a word.

Another word – again virtuous in substance but difficult in verbality – is LGBTQ. A survey by YouGov a couple of years ago found that only 53% of the general population understood it while 66% of Millennials did. 80% could decode LBGT but just one added letter – in this case Q – caused the comprehension to drop.  

It gets even worse if you use something like LGBTQIAPK which has been defined as meaning “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Pansexual/Polyamorous, and Kink “ One online citation explained confusion as to its meaning, this way: “Maybe you were looking for one of these abbreviations: LGBTQ - LGBTQ2S - LGBTQA - LGBTQI - LGBTQIA - LGBTTIQQ2SA - LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM - LGBW - LGC – LGCB”

If you’re hoping to have your culture absorbed favorably by the larger society, an excess of initials is not the most useful approach. Absent some new phrase, I use alternative sexuality or alt sex and even the first choice troubles me because the easiest things to understand have three syllables at most. And unless you have been part of the cultural language for decades – like the ACLU and NAACP – initials aren’t the best solution given how excessively they are used by various bureaucracies.

Then was another problem the younger and better known Sam Smith has raised. Last year he posted:

I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM after a lifetime of being at war with my gender Ive decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out. I’m so excited and privileged to be surrounded by people that support me in this decision but I’ve been very nervous about announcing this because I care too much about what people think but fuck it! I understand there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now. Thank you.

In reading something the singer-songwriter had written using “their” in place of “his” mainly distracted me from what he was talking about. Now I only remember the pronoun and not the topic. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come up with a new non-binary pronoun (one  suggestion is heris) but one of the things you learn as an editor is that readers are not your students or your employees. They judge you first by whether they can tell what the hell you’re talking about. And if they can’t , that’s the last you may see of them.

It is worth noting that today only about 39% of Americans have a BA and in the 1940s the figure was 6%. It has long been my sense that as liberals have gotten better educated they have become more removed from the general public and have paid for this at numerous elections. One reason has been their language. Part of the secret to expanding comprehension and appreciation of a situation or status is to use words that others understand in ways they can understand.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Before there was Trump...

Sam Smith – There is an increasing inclination – not without reason – to associate Donald Trump with the behavior of the Nazis and fascists, but this ignores another part of his heritage that we don’t talk about much, namely the tradition of con men and leaders using the American myth as justification for them to badly distort it and gain abusive power.

Coming into teenhood in the 1950s, I was fortunate enough to read a number of books that dealt with this such as The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit, Death of a Salesman and The Organization Man. I also was an avid reader of comic books which gave more than a little insight into powerful hustlers.

But this was just before the full arrival of television. At the beginning of the 1950s there were only about one million America TV owners, by the end there were 55 million, as opposed to 125 million now. My parents bought their first TV when I was in tenth grade.

With this change came a revision of the American myth to fit the needs of television networks just as TV dramatically has changed the nature of political corruption from community based sleaze to national disasters and used the working class mainly for comedy series.

If you look back over American history for periods in which our national myth showed some striking  reality you are left with a pretty short list such as  Reconstruction, the New Deal, the rise of labor unions, and the civil rights movement.

On the other hand, there are periods of stunning evil we hardly mention. A strong example is that, while we talk about slavery, we hardly mention indentured servitude. Google estimates that “the total number of European immigrants to all 13 colonies before 1775 was 500,000–550,000; of these, 55,000 were involuntary prisoners. Of the 450,000 or so European arrivals who came voluntarily, [an estimated] 48% were indentured.”

Wikipedia notes:

Indentures could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment (like many young ordinary servants), and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, servants were guaranteed to be eventually released from bondage. At the end of their term they received a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society. One could buy and sell indentured servants' contracts, and the right to their labor would change hands, but not the person as a piece of property.

While indentured servitude was less evil than slavery, typically lasting four to seven years, what is notable is that we neither teach or discuss it. And there are other bits of the early story that get forgotten, such as this item about the Massachusetts Puritans cited in Colin Woodard’s excellent new book,  Union:

Quakers were particularly despised by the Puritan leadership…. Captured Quakers were disfigured for future reference, having their ears lopped off, their nostrils slit or their faces grated with the letter H for “heretic.”

A little while later we had a nation, a constitution and a bunch of “originalists” to set our course. One example, as Time Magazine reported:

At the Philadelphia convention, the visionary Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed direct national election of the president. But the savvy Virginian James Madison responded that such a system would prove unacceptable to the South: “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” In other words, in a direct election system, the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves (more than half a million in all) of course could not vote. But the Electoral College—a prototype of which Madison proposed in this same speech—instead let each southern state count its slaves, albeit with a two-fifths discount, in computing its share of the overall count.

Virginia emerged as the big winner—the California of the Founding era—with 12 out of a total of 91 electoral votes allocated by the Philadelphia Constitution, more than a quarter of the 46 needed to win an election in the first round. After the 1800 census, Wilson’s free state of Pennsylvania had 10% more free persons than Virginia, but got 20% fewer electoral votes. Perversely, the more slaves Virginia (or any other slave state) bought or bred, the more electoral votes it would receive. Were a slave state to free any blacks who then moved North, the state could actually lose electoral votes.

If the system’s pro-slavery tilt was not overwhelmingly obvious when the Constitution was ratified, it quickly became so. For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency.

Just in the last two decades we have had two presidents – George Bush and Donald Trump – elected thanks to the electoral college despite losing in the popular vote.  

Another bitter gap in our history that is still affecting our lives today is the post-Reconstruction era. Except for slavery and succession, one can argue that the South won the Civil War, witness the decades of segregation, the long southern control of Congress and a power of the electoral system that gave Trump 42% more votes than he would have gotten without the former Confederacy.

These are just a few examples of how distorted the story we tell about America can be and that there were Donald Trumps, e.g. abusive and powerful white males, regularly running the show for four centuries.. And one of the tricks of these abusers of other Americans was to convince them that a different ethnicity or culture was to blame for their troubles.  It is for this reason that I think of Trump acting like a southern slyster trying to convince underserved whites that blacks or latinos are the cause of their problems.  

To use poverty as an example of how this affects us, there are almost as many whites in financial misery these days as blacks and latinos combined, yet this common ground is ignored by all but a few like the Poor People’s Campaign.  Even liberals have been quiet as labor unions have lost over three quarters of their share of the labor market  since the 1950s

Even if Trump is evicted, we still face the heritage that helped to bring him to the White House. We may not agree on how to move forward, but we can at least agree to try to tell the truth about the past.  

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Gatherings for the non-religious

 Sam Smith – As a long time Seventh Day Agnostic who majored in anthropology I both ignore religion’s theology and respect its moral and ethical role in society. 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.

As I wrote back in 2015:

I’m a Seventh Day Agnostic and, as such, I don’t give a shit about what you believe, only what you do about it. 

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. Their questing and open attitude to life has certainly contributed to the tolerance with which Friends try to approach people and problems of faith and conduct.”

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.

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. Until Pope Francis came along, think how rarely we’ve heard about non-evangelical religious activism in recent years. As I watched Francis is action, I felt strangely comfortable because I had known, and worked with priests, who would have done much the same if they had become Pope

With the most immoral and unethical president in history now running the place, it may well be time to bring back that existential link between religion and action that one found in the 1960s.

How you do this is uncertain. But one possibility would be to create regular non-religious gathering places for folks known, say, as Communal Friends or the Community of Decency. It doesn’t have to be complicated. After all the Quakers have lasted for centuries in some of the dullest large rooms you’ll find anywhere.

The Quakers are, in fact, not a bad model in other ways. Such as the idea of a meeting place without an agenda where people can arise and discuss what’s troubling them. Or you could have some in which one or two leaders give a brief talk to set off the larger discussions of the day. Or places and events created by a coalition of religions who agree to create havens  for moral discussion without theological interference.

It’s not just traditional religion that has been in a down fall. There has been a noticeable decline in visible  academic leadership and a media willing to take on issues more complicated than some politician’s lies.

The invitation for new gatherings might include this nice distinction between morals and ethics offered by the web page  Daily Writing Tips:

Although the words can be considered synonyms, morals are beliefs based on practices or teachings regarding how people conduct themselves in personal relationships and in society, while ethics refers to a set or system of principles, or a philosophy or theory behind them. … Morals are the tools by which one lives, and ethics constitute the manual that codifies them.

When did you hear something like that on MSNBC? Yet aren’t morals and ethnics more important than which politician exaggerated the most today?

In short, we must find new ways to share beyond religion consideration of  decent way of living. After all, you don’t have to take communion to realize what a mess we’re in and why we need to talk more about it with each other.