Thursday, June 10, 2021

Diversity at Harvard in the 1950s


 From our overstocked archives. This was a follow up to an essay about my time at Harvard in the 1950s.

Sam Smith - Re my piece on Harvard, a reader asked about women and blacks. Some notes:
The Harvard student body was diverse by the standards of the 1950s, which is to say mainly that there was a rough parity between white male public and white male private school graduates. All the states were represented; there were foreign students, athletes, seminal scientists and so forth. There were Jews and even a handful of blacks. Harvard's job was to turn them all into Harvard men.
Women who were in every one of my classes were still non-persons of the Harvard Class of '59 because they were students of Radcliffe rather than of Harvard College. After all, one of the privileges of Harvard was to note only that which it wished to see. The worst thing that could happen to a Harvard student, in the eyes of Harvard, was that he be "expunged." The university simply denied he was ever in attendance.
I was reminded of this when I was on the Harvard sailing team and was censured and lost my first place in a race after a formal hearing by the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Assn. My sin: I had used a Radcliffe student as my crew.
Thirty years after she graduated in 1962, New York politician Elizabeth Holtzman would say, "Nobody protested. We didn't know yet what was unfair. I felt privileged to be getting a Harvard education." A New York Times article the year of her graduation said that "Radcliffe girls," like those from other women's colleges, "don't do much of anything beyond marrying and raising children." The article was written by a Harvard man. And in another NY Times piece, Peggy Schmertzler of the Radcliffe class of 1953 recalled, "I remember the deans' telling us an educated person made the best mother. . . She could sing French songs to her children."
And the aforementioned Dean F Skiddy von Stade said once: "When I see the bright, well-educated, but relatively dull housewives who attended the Seven Sisters, I honestly shudder at the thought of changing the balance of males versus females at Harvard. Quite simply, I do not see highly educated women making startling strides in contributing to our society in the foreseeable future. They are not, in my opinion, going to stop getting married and/or having children. They will fail in their present role as women if they do."
On the other hand, many of the Cliffies held their own. One of the stories told was of the professor chiding a woman student for knitting in class. "Knitting," he said, "is a repressed form of masturbation." Replied the student, "When I knit, I knit. When I masturbate, I masturbate."
As for the first woman professor to get tenure at Harvard, Cora Du Bois, see here

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Getting along with others without critical theories

 Sam Smith

The current infatuation with Tulsa, slavery and critical racial theory has left me feeling  a bit out of it all. I thought you were meant to discover how to get along with others and not merely recite the sins of the past by some. Sure, you learn from history, but one of our jobs on this planet is to make things better than history, not just keep talking about it. 

I suspect that part of my problem is that I am – in the manner of reporters, detectives, and doctors – an inductive thinker. I think from the bottom up, basing my theories and conclusions on facts and observations rather starting with general theories and working the other way, as is popu1ar among many intellectuals these days. Thus, I notice things like a multi-ethnic bunch of kids playing happily in a playground and wonder why we adults have so much more trouble. And how athletes hide their ethnic differences in behalf of a better mutual score.

There is stunning little discussion of how those of different ethnicities can get along better, aside from dealing with a wealth of rotten behaviors. But while banishing police chokeholds is a totally worthy and necessary goal, it hardly is enough to build warmer cross-ethnic relationships.

Puzzling over this, I thought about my own past and some incidents that affected my ethnic relations came to mind  For example, in the in the 1950s I started the first jazz band my high school had, inspired in no small part by black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller, who had near hero status in my mind. I didn’t think about ethnicity; it was the music that counted.

A few years later I went to college and one of my favorite books was not on any course reading list. It was Stride Towards Freedom by Martin Luther King. In it he said, “Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”

I had recently graduated from a Quaker high school, half impressed by, and half cynical of, the experience. It was where I used to say things like,  “The trouble with Quakers is they don’t fight hard enough for what they believe.” Now I had left the peaceable kingdom of the Friends for the oscillating values and  tumult of college and King's book proved more than a highly valuable introduction to the civil rights movement. It helped straighten out messages I had received about a lot of things, but had never quite understood.

I was too lusty and too enthralled by politics to think that simply being good and not bopping people on the head was a sufficient approach to life. King helped to explain it in new terms: "My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil. . . Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate."

His four pages on Marx also appealed to me. I had just been introduced to Marx and, unlike college students of a later generation, thought him dreary and opaque. I found it difficult to understand how revolutions had risen on his words. Those classmates who were interested in Marx I also found somewhat dreary and opaque, but since they were getting better grades, I listened to them and tried to remember what they had said for my blue books.

King approached Marx with curiosity and analysis and when he was through, concluded, "My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each, represents a partial truth. Historically, capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise, and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth-century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal."

So Martin Luther King came to me not only as a civil rights leader but as a philosopher-friend, the first non-mushy pacifist I had run into, and a guy helping me get through Marx. King synthesized wandering feelings, giving them a point and words: "When a subject people moves towards freedom, they are not creating cleavage, but are revealing the cleavage which apologists of the old order have sought to conceal." Try to say that as succinctly when you're a sophomore.

And then, in the 1960s and now a college graduate and still in my twenties, I took part in a protest against a DC Transit fare increase. Over 100,000 DC Transit riders – both black and white – stayed off the buses that day. Never had so many Washingtonians done anything so irregular and contrary to official wishes. I drove 71 of them to their destination. After the bus boycott, I wrote an article about it and a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after, the leader, Marion S. Barry, was sitting in my apartment  talking  about how I could help in SNCC's public relations. I readily agreed and became Marion’s PR guy. For the first time in my life I had joined a movement. Years later, Barry would describe me as “one of the first white guys who would have anything to do with me.”

When I mention to activists these days the value of finding issues that can appeal across ethnic lines, they often move on to another topic. But, as with Washington’s anti-freeway and statehood movements, in DC such actions created an alliance that would eventually spur a half century of black  mayors among other things, thanks to power started in no small part by activists like Barry and Julius Hobson who found issues that joined different identities into a common cause.

We now live in a time in which progress is seen as something that can be institutionalized and where policy is treated as action. In fact, we are still human beings and our minds are driven in no small part by personal experience and relations. History can be a useful tool for us but it doesn’t create the alliances, enthusiasm, and common interest that make change easier to come by. A successful multicultural society can’t be built just on anger on one side and guilt on another. It needs those in it to learn to appreciate others, work with them, and share some dreams.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

When Sears got in trouble

 From our overstocked archives

SAM SMITH, WASHINGTON POST, 1993 – Eugene Talmadge used to campaign through Georgia saying, “Y’all got only three friends in the world. You got the Lord God Almighty, you got the Sears Roebuck catalog, and you got Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them.”
Eugene Talmadge died long ago and this week Sears Roebuck announced its was ceasing publication of what was, for many decades, America’s most important publication. I hope God can handle it alone.
I know it’s going to be tough on me. Not only has Sears dumped its catalog, it’s going to close its store on Wisconsin Avenue with rooftop parking so practical and inviting that the company has to warn away those who would use it for ancillary purposes such as automobile repairs. During World War II, the Sears on Wisconsin was where my father would start coasting as much of the way to Georgetown as possible, an exercise encouraged by gas rationing. The Indians used Wisconsin Avenue in much the same way, a “rolling road” down which they tumbled barrels of tobacco.
Like millions of other Americans, I came to believe in Sears. It was not so much quality that drew us, but consistency and utility. As recently as this fall, when my wife and I decided it was time to replace our 30-year-old gas stove, I discovered that only Sears had a model in the right color and a drip pan under the burners that prevented wok splatterings and overboiled soup from congealing in inaccessible recesses. It wasn’t the prettiest stove, just the one that worked best.
When I read David Oglivie’s Confessions of an Advertising Man and learned that this sophisticated Britisher bought his suits from Sears, I followed his example until my friends and relatives ridiculed me towards “at least Raleigh’s for chrissake.” I still went to Sears for slacks because Sears sold clothes designed for the classic American male — a man who actually performed physical labor — rather than for thighless pencil-necked geeks whose greatest exertion was hefting a law brief. If the store did not have my size, I could peruse the catalog and choose in the privacy of my own home between the regular and the full-fit. the tall and the big, without enduring the disdain the proportionally impaired sense upon entering a traditional menswear store.
Above all there were the tools. Even the name, Craftsman, made a weekend project seem more appealing. Further, you knew as you adjusted the nut on your Craftsman Skill saw that throughout this great land, millions of others were asking the same probing question, “Is that tight enough?” Sears was what America was meant to be all about: a place that gave you the right tools to do what you wanted.
Beginning in the 1980s, Sears found itself in trouble. The country was no longer interested in utilitarianism. It wanted style, prestige and designer labels. People found me odd when I suggested that if you couldn’t find it at Sears you probably didn’t need it. Over the course of the next decade Sears laid off close to 100,000 workers.
Sears, it was said, had gotten out of step with the times, although times that require the layoff of 100,000 employees because their firm has the sole attribute of being useful may be a bit out of step themselves.
The experts quoted in the papers the past few days say that our economy isn’t about being useful anymore. I saw some of these experts on television. They were fashionably dressed 
and quite self-assured about the failings of Sears, perhaps because they understand that our new economy is much kinder to experts on Sears than it is to people who work there.
People like the red-vested man who worked the tool section as if it were his own hardware store, the woman who didn’t mind telling which answering machine was really best, and the grandmother who never could quite get the optical scanner to work right
As I drive the extra half hour to the Sears at Montgomery Mall, I shall undoubtedly come to accept the omnipotence of the marketplace. But I’ll be damned if I’ll be grateful for it.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Why reparations aren't the answer

 Sam Smith - The 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre has revived talk of reparations - reimbursements for the descendants of those who suffered a historic disaster at the evil hands of others. 

And it accompanies a striking revival of criticism of past wrongs such as slavery, but sadly unaccompanied by a sufficiently broad reaction to the injustices of the present. 

I attribute this in part to that fact that liberals have become much better educated in the past half century or so and, as a result, have become far more efficient at analysis than with action. For example, when I started out as a journalist, over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education. And I can't remember, when a member of SNCC, the subject of slavery getting more than passing reference among 1960s civil rights activists. It was what you did now that mattered. 

Basically, you can't rewrite or repair the past, but we have massive choices about what we do with the present and the future. Yes, the Tulsa story is important history, but is Tulsa where our most serious problems are today? 

Interestingly, reparations were part of the response following the world wars. But as th Encyclopedia Britannica notes: 

Experience suggests that the smaller the reparations levy, the more likely it is to be paid, and conversely that large levies are unlikely to be collected. In both World Wars the failure to obtain desired reparations was unmistakable. Indeed, some of the victors eventually had to make payments to the defeated countries in the interest of restoring economic and political stability.

Another problem has been the activist shift from issues to identity. What gets forgotten here is that the suffering identities aren't large enough to accomplish their goals alone. They need to create or discover cross-ethnic causes that will bring others to their side. For example, there are twice as many whites in poverty as there are blacks. And blacks represent only 13% of the population.

In Washington DC in the 1960s, the solution was for blacks to become leaders in local cross-ethnic issues like stopping the construction of freeways or getting home rule. A noted black activist - Julius Hobson - started the modern DC statehood movement. 

Today, blacks and latinos could become cross-ethnic leaders of the working class movement. Not only would it make the movement more effective but ethnic conflict would decline as blacks, whites and latinos find things they have in common. 

Yes, slavery and the Tulsa massacre were awful, but we can't change that. We can only learn from it. What we can change is right before us. The present and future are waiting for us.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Why I feel a bit out of it

Sam Smith - For the first time I can remember, I feel somewhat at odds with a lot of liberal talk. It's not that I oppose the goals, but rather I find myself uncomfortable with some of the approaches and language being used to reach them. 

For example, the huge preference for the phrase "anti-racism" as opposed to something like "improving ethnic relations" or "defunding police" instead of, say, "bringing police back into the community." 

I view the purpose of politics and social change as being to improve the life of all, not merely to punish or restrict those of contrary intent. It's not just about doing away with evil, but about creating something much better. 

My guess is that part of the problem is that while liberals generally were greatly increasing their educational levels - witness the growth of those with law degrees in recent decades - they were also increasing their tendency to choose analysis over action and to seek legal and procedural, rather than cultural, change. 

As an anthropology major and the graduate of a Quaker high school, I tend to view positive change as something that happens for cultural reasons. As I described it a while back:

Although Quakerism may seem just an esoteric religion to many, it in fact has a strong pragmatic side. For example, unlike most religions that put virtue ahead of action, the Quakers were more like existentialists – emphasizing actions reflecting their virtues. Thus the Quaker meeting that ran my school had come out against slavery in 1688.

The Quakers also believed in reciprocal liberty, the idea that if I am to have my freedom you have to have yours even if I don’t agree with all of it. Thus the Quakers got along with other cultures – such as Pennsylvania Germans and native Americans – far better than say, New England pilgrims even worked with other religious groups.

In anthropology, you learn that laws don't necessarily change habits - witness, for example, our national use of illegal drugs despite the vehement legislative opposition. Thus, even banning racism doesn't assure positive intercultural relations. 

So what bothers me about the phrase "critical race theory" is not only its somewhat elitist academic sound, but that, from what I've read, it does little to make us like each other better. Further it's a description, not a solution. 

For example, yes, slavery was evil, but where in  critical race theory is seen the need to teach the techniques used to defeat it or the extraordinary blacks who did good things despite the evil around them? When I was involved in the 1960s civil rights movement I can't remember slavery coming up more than occasionally. There was too much to do tomorrow. And when I think about why I got involved, I recall some of my role models back then, including black jazz musicians and Martin Luther King, whose Stride Towards Freedom, was the best book I read in college yet wasn't on any required reading list.  

Today, the liberal habit is to treat blacks only as victims rather than as role models and there is little talk of how blacks could be leaders today, for example joining with the white working class to fight for better conditions.

And where are the courses on multi-culturalism that should be in every school? Or gatherings where adults get to share their ethnic stories with others? Or mediation centers to handle cultural conflicts? 

The same problem is found with the police. Yes, we need to stop choke holds and improper use of weapons, but instead of "defunding" the police, let's  demilitarize  them and find ways to bring them back into our communities.

This is not a matter of law or bureaucratic procedure. It requires the recognition that we are all imperfect creatures and we need to discover - or rediscover - techniques that make more of us more human towards each other. Behind every lawless behavior towards another human being is not just legal contempt, but a lack of rational understanding of one's relationship with them, This doesn't require critical theory, just a discovery of common sense and decency.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Recovering decency

Sam Smith - One of the matters that rarely gets discussed these days is how power has replaced decency as a fundamental standard of our society. Thanks to the rise of corporatism, legal interpretation of social matters, media priorities and entertainment values, we have become obsessed with having more power than others, rather than healthily sharing our time on earth with them. 

Not surprisingly, our education system backs this up, preparing its students to compete far more than to coexist. I learned this years ago as head of a public school parents' association and coming to realize that it was only in sports, music and plays that the students actually learned to work with each other. 

The Trumpian and GOP disaster has brought this to the fore.  Add into this the rise of artificial intelligence and the decline of religion and there are increasing signs that what was once a culture valuing common goals and relationships has descended into an increasingly bitter fight to make it to the top.

There are signs all around us. Ethics are not high on the curriculum of our schools, We overwhelmingly attempt to solve inter-ethnic problems by passing laws rather than changing cultural habits. The media is obsessed with issues to be overcome but rarely points to rational solutions. And even this Seventh Day Agnostic can worry over the collapse of religion, not because of its theology, but because of the social values it encouraged. 

I moved from a lifetime in Washington, DC, to Maine in part because I needed a home where community and decency still mattered and where people struggled to moderate their ambitions with shared values. I like to say that you can't do business in Maine without an anecdote. . . because in Maine you need respect as well as influence. It's far from perfect, but even Susan Collins doesn't try to imitate Ted Cruz or Mitch McConnell. 

While in Washington - whatever was going on at the top - I was blessed to live in real communities. Back in the 1960s I started a community newspaper east of the Capitol and in the 1970s I was elected an elected member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a way DC found to give more power to the city's bottom.  What I learned from such experiences included a realization  that power and fairness were two different things. The neighborhoods had to constantly struggle just for normal human coexistence. 

Donald Trump has declared war on decency in favor of power his whole life.  When he first came to the fore, I couldn't believe so many would fall for him and tried to figure out why, for me,  his fraud was so obvious. What quickly came to mind was that as a boy I read lots of comic books, and when you did, you learned to stay away from those like Trump. Now we find ourselves in a time when kids learn from television screens that glorify success over formerly respected human values. We are all in a race to the top. 

There is no easy way around this. After all, power is powerful. But there have been times when the reasonable and decent successfully challenged it. When, for example, I think of the 1960s I think of the role that churches played. It was a time when about a half dozen of my activist friends were ministers or priests who never challenged my lack of theology and during which church spaces were repeatedly used to gather people on behalf of  a cause.

We could do it again. Church spaces, theaters, school auditoriums, and library centers could be loaned for decent leaders to gather and help others understand how we have dumped our ethical base and become tools of the most egregiously self-important. To discuss how we can build communities that truly value  decency and cooperation. To use these spaces we'd have to keep it non-political but the simply philosophical aspects of this discussion might be enough to get a larger movement going. 

We have been cursed by the narcissistic powerful but we don;t have to stay silent about it.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Galaxy update: The Clingons and the Process People on Planet Potomac

 From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2003 -   The two most powerful subcultures on Planet Potomac are the Clingons and the Process People.

The former got their name from their skill in hanging onto various branches of power with one hand while speaking on the phone with the other, valiantly ignoring the laws of gravity, ecological factors, common sense, and all the non-Clingons grabbing at their feet and trying to pull them to the ground.

While the Clingons traditionally exercised their power at will, typically to the distress of the humanoid serfs on the planet and elsewhere, in the past decade or so they have been so successfully challenged and infiltrated by the Process People that it is increasingly difficult to tell them apart.

Whereas older Clingons liked to brag about what they actually did, the newer ilk discovered that the Process People had it much easier for they didn't actually have to do anything - they just talked about it. They have also changed the nature of language so that adjectives have become nouns, numbers have become adjectives, and reality is but a mission statement away.

On an average day this doesn't matter much. There are enough humanoid serfs around to actually do what needs to be done, so the elites can concentrate on impacting, strategizing, partnering, thinking, reporting, commenting and holding conferences about what is happening. Where this breaks down, however, is when the things that need to get done suddenly become too large and too real - as on September 11 or when someone decides to start a war.

The response of the Clingons to September 11 reflected their subversion by the Process People: the first thing they thought of was to create a new bureaucracy second only to that of the Pentagon. Their assumption that this would make us safe illustrates what happens to the brain after years of inactivity. The neo-Clingons could only recycle what already filled their minds and perseverate about it rather than respond in a pragmatic and rational fashion based on judgment, perception, and experience, informed and adjusted by the actual situation in which they found themselves.

Thus we were presented with a series of suggestions - some of them deadly, some just silly - about how we might react to a bio-chemical attack. The local colonial government - long in the grips of the Process People - even inexplicably suggested that pet owners stock up a longer supply of food for their animals than for themselves and the city's health department went out and hired one of the city's least effective ex-mayors to conceptualize, integrate, and communicate its own anti-terrorism strategy for a mere $236,000.

The Washington Post reported that a D.C. official acknowledged that former mayor Sharon Pratt did not know "specifically" about bio-terrorism. On the other hand, according to the contract, her five-year-old consulting company "has the capability to provide the necessary expertise based on its established relationships." Which is to say, it's not what you know, but who.

Said a department official, "She came with some big management expertise before she was mayor. We needed someone to represent and to think strategically as to how, where and what we need to do to interact with that office."

When, on a subsequent talk show, I pressed her as to how many emergency beds would be available in town should a bio-chemical crisis arise an hour from now, she was unable to give me an answer but said that officials were attempting to improve "surge capacity," not to mention planning for "syndromic disease surveillance programs."

Under the agreement, Pratt is to meet with high-level government officials and write a report outlining opportunities and tentative communications and resource-sharing agreements. The report is to include timelines for achieving collaborative goals and solutions to potential obstacles.

But, when the bomb goes off, who has time for achieving collaborative goals?

What is far more frightening though, and more immediately relevant, is that the Process People have also taken over key elements of our military. This has been going on for some time, although still not generally recognized. As early as the late 1980s, the Pentagon began talking about things such as a "generic composite peer competitor," "myriad formless threats,' and even an "asymmetrical niche opponent." If only we had only known then that they were thinking about Iraq.

Today many of our top generals are verbally barely distinguishable from your average management consultant. Take, for example, that former haven for plain talk, the Coast Guard. Its current commandant, Admiral Thomas Collins, in just one recent speech, managed to use the following phrases:

Comprehensive legislative framework to enhance. . . systematic approach . . . assessing vulnerabilities. . . protecting vital infrastructure, partnering with others at home and abroad. . . acquire and build Critical Security Capabilities. . . prepare our forces to transition easily "Between homeland security and homeland defense operations. . . sustain a lasting partnership between the military and law enforcement communities. . . flexibility to embrace necessary change, while maintaining vital continuity in service, is crucial to our enduring commitment to operational excellence.

It was especially comforting to know that "we have developed state-of-the-art techniques for assessing crew endurance risks; we have instituted new crew endurance management principles into our operational doctrines." If Admiral Collins had been around at the right time, the Lifesaving Service would have undoubtedly been called the US Maritime Endurance Management Collaborative.

This sort of gobblygook has spread throughout the military so that we now hear grown men with lots of medals talking about a 'robust battlefield environment; a commander complaining that "the enemy we're fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against," and a Pentagon representative reassuring us that the Secretary of Defense believes in "a mix of services and capabilities they offer."

While such language is initially used as a way to deceive others, it soon becomes a form of self-deception because it is based to an extraordinary degree on abstract and ultimately meaningless euphemisms. Language forms the structure of thought and increasingly in Washington that structure, even in the military, is one of cards rather than of bricks. Reality becomes indistinguishable from the mushily contrived.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

The time we're in

 Sam Smith - The other day I found myself wondering who among the famous and powerful I still admired and discovered my list painfully short. Instead, I began thinking of liars and con artists or, at best, popular figures much better at appearing to be what they were meant to be than actually being it. 

While the Trumpians of course led the pack, even well-meaning media voices have unconsciously redefined objectivity by treating the political right fraud as if it was merely another alternative. And presumably wise academics join by regarding our status as within the range of normal. 

In my lifetime, however, I would rank this as the worst for America, partially matched only by the horrors of the McCarthy era. In both cases, lies turned into accepted reality. 

The McCarthy period came back to mind thanks to a book I've been reading, JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, by Fredrik Logevall. I was never a big fan of Kennedy, in part because I had learned to judge politicians by what they did rather than whom they seemed to be. Kennedy was the first president to benefit from show business, particularly the new technology of television. In fact, while JFK won the post television debate poll against Nixon, he lost among radio listeners. During the 1960 campaign, Norman Mailer wrote that Kennedy was "going to be seen as a great box-office actor."

But what I never knew about this actor was his friendly relationship with Joseph McCarthy, described in part by Logevall:

Kennedy knew Joe McCarthy and got on well with him. He was a fellow Irish Catholic who, like Jack, had served in the South Pacific during the war .... and who had come around for dinners at the Georgetown home in 1947, when both men were new on Capitol Hill. Jack got a kick out of McCarthy’s affability and energy on these evenings, and Eunice, too, welcomed his presence. McCarthy’s penchant for profanity didn’t bother Jack; he himself could curse like the sailor he had once been. In due course McCarthy would squire both Eunice and on occasion her sister Patricia to evening events in Washington and Boston, and would visit the Kennedys in Hyannis Port. He attended Robert Kennedy’s wedding to Ethel Skakel

 A 1954 poll found that 50% approved of McCarthy and only 29% disapproved. It is interesting that, given the current role of Rep. Liz Cheney, that the rare voice to speak out again McCarthy in the Senate was a Republican woman, Margaret Chase Smith.

Today we're in a similar period in which the purportedly constitutional and democratic establishment is painfully weak, in which lies are given normalcy, fiction treated as a rational version of truth, and the despicable are judged by rank and notoriety,  not reality. 

The obvious cure is for those supposed homelands for the moral -  academia, media and churches for example - to dump their fear and caution and rise up for democracy and decency. If Liz Cheney and Margaret Chase Smith can do it, they can too.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Moving from anti-racism to pro-multiculturalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Virtue and power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 12, 2021

My ethnic problems

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

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

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

Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has little impact on our views. Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse of power.

DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that's not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S. Martin has written: “The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two 'races' have the same skin color.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









Monday, March 29, 2021

Decency beyond the law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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