Thursday, August 06, 2020

The fading of community

Sam Smith - After three and a half years of turning our country over to a manic narcissist it may be time to rediscover the advantages of sharing one’s goals, concerns and ideas with rational others. Of all the changes that have occurred in America in recent years, one of the least noted has been the decline of community. We have in many ways become three hundred and thirty million individuals taught to pursue our own  purposes, the virtues we believe they contain and to share these primarily with those who have in common our color, our culture, our employment and our education. We have developed not only identity politics but identity living.

The factors causing this change are numerous; As America has become more urbanized, those who live in a recognizable community have declined,  offering much less joint substance. Fewer neighborhoods offer moral and social support thanks in part to the decline of local groups that brought residents together. Churches have drifted away from being not only  religious but also neighborhood institutions, illustrated in my former home of DC by their role as meeting places for various causes in the 1960s.

There was also in activism in of that time a  broad sense that to win you not only had to assemble the convinced but convince the unassembled. Instead of identity politics leading the way, you sought ways to identify with those who didn’t look or talk like you but who nonetheless were potential allies. This was not so much a moral choice as a pragmatic one because we wanted not only to be right but to win. Change demands not just one’s virtue but the pragmatic application of arguments and actions in its behalf. Today we find, for example, Internet havens of own niches and many who hardly break out into the larger worlds.

I discovered communuity early in part because I went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia. 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 – far better than say, New England pilgrims worked with other religious groups.

As described in Four British Folkways in America

The founders of Pennsylvania were a different group of Englishmen…. Their idea of liberty was not the same as that which came to other parts of British America. The most important of these differences had to do with religious freedom—“liberty of conscience,” William Penn called it. This was not the conventional Protestant idea of liberty to do only that which is right. The Quakers believed that liberty of conscience extended even to ideas that they believed to be wrong. Their idea of “soul freedom” protected every Christian conscience.

I have found some of this spirit in Maine, where I moved full time eleven years ago in part because DC was becoming a increasingly simplistic haven for power over decency and status over friendliness. Maine, where I had gone many summers, was infinitely more communal even if I was “from away.” Folks respected one another and treated them fairly. For example, I came to realize that you couldn’t do busines without an anecdote, a simple tale to connect you with someone personally as well as to transact with them. I also realized that speaking truthfully was important. Bulls in the barn and  field were the only creatures generally allowed to spread BS.

Community builds trust, mutual reliance, understanding and sympathy of others, as well collective power. We don’t have to agree on everything, just discover what it is we have in common.

When I think of communities of which I have been a part, happy visions come to mind. Although most of my writing and work have involved larger issues, I have refused  to turn my back on the local and communal. It leads me to wiser places on the larger subject. Thus, I do a Facebook page for my current Maine neighborhood that has over 550 readers. I was an elected advisory neighbhood commissioner in DC. When I think back to my days as operations officer aboard a Coast Guard cutter I’m reminded of how a sense of community among those 50 guys helped get our work done well. And when I went out for lunch from my Dupont Circle office of over 20 years, even the street panhandlers were friendly.

In politics more than almost any place else we need to rediscover the virtue of community. The color of your skin or the nature of your politics will not do the job by itself. Just consider the numbers. For example, blacks, latinos and working class whites are a majority of our population, but despite the problems they have in common you’d never know it.

When I think of those who have helped create my passions and values, I find myself quickly leaving my own identity and reflecting on those with whom I worked and enjoyed things including black urban activists and white Maine farmers as well as roommates with all sorts of different stories and neighbors who were also close friends.

Good politics is like that as well. Keep and celebrate your own identity for sure. But share it with others for common goals, such as the new shared national identity we desperately need.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Some good news hidden in the virus crisis

Sam Smith – Even in the worst of times, some good news may be hidden in the disaster. In the case  of the current virus, we can find an example in an unlikely place: money

The virus has removed some of the fiction from our monetary mythology. We have discovered – at least temporarily – that our vaunted system (aka capitalism) under which Elon Musk has over $70 billion in net worth while more than a half million of his fellow citizens are homeless won’t get us through this crisis. And so we’ve done some things in the name of a real life emergency that we’ve long declined to go for in theory.

For example, the $600 a week unemployment aid and the $2400 stimulus check. Or the protection for renters in danger of being evicted.

Also striking has been the increase in national debt which has occurred with surprisingly little  controversy and without the past-projected inflation.

We are now seeking pragmatic solutions in a time when economic theory won’t keep us going.

What’s interesting is whether we’ll learn from this or, in better times,  just go back to old ways. My hope – perhaps na├»ve – is that we can ditch such phrases as capitalism and socialism and begin to treat our economic problems the way we’re doing now – seeking pragmatic solutions to real issues.

Here are a few examples of things we might consider:

  • ·        Redefining our budgets so they reflect the difference between operating and capital debt, the latter having a much more productive effect on the economy – a fact we generally ignore. We could help recover from the virus and its economic effects by a massive program of rebuilding deteriorating structures like bridges. And by making distinctions between types of capital expenses. For example, a bus that helps revive an urban area for a decade or more is far more valuable than a tank that is blown up in six months.
  • ·       Guaranteed income: It work recently with the unemployed. Let’s broaden its use.
  • ·        A shorter work week
  • ·        Cooperatives
  • ·        State banks that help their communities rather than just making money off of them.
  • ·        Postal banking: Big banks often refuse to open branches in poor or minority areas, and the few banks still around shutter thanks to industry consolidation and online banking.
  • ·        Credit unions
  • ·        Time dollars, described in the book Time Dollars: A Currency for the 90's by Edgar Cahn and Jonathan Rowe, operate like a blood bank. People help others in their community and get credits in a computer data base that they can draw upon in times of need.
  • ·        Corporate codetermination. Wikipedia describes how it works in Germany: “The law allows workers to elect representatives (usually trade union representatives) for almost half of the supervisory board of directors. … It applies to public and private companies, so long as there are over 2,000 employees. For companies with 500–2,000 employees, one third of the supervisory board must be elected.”

And that’s just for starters. The point is that there is a wealth of solutions waiting for us to give them a try. The trick is to forget the theory stuff and experiment with such ideas.

The virus has gotten us started on this. Let’s take it from there,

Monday, July 27, 2020

The ethnic thing we don't talk about

 Sam Smith – Perhaps the most undiscussed aspect of multiculturalism is its positive effects on everyone. I’m as guilty as others in this regard, letting it slip thanks to the effort required to deal with  the discriminatory ways  in which it presently functions in our society.

But if we are to create a truly positive multicultural society, we not only need to undo the evil that exists but appreciate and enjoy the benefits that result. 

For example, we do a lousy job of introducing children to the multicultural character of the land they are going to live in. And as we get older, we tend to define it by its unresolved problems rather than its advantages.

For instance, as a high school jazz musician in the 1950s I was already impressed by black  culture. The civil rights movement came to me not just as a moral challenge but as logical fairness for those who had placed so many songs in my heart.

Living as a minority white in Washington DC for over half my life, I was blessed to enjoy the pleasures of multiculturalism but now find myself concerned by some of the tone of the current ethnic debate that is far stronger on condemnation than it is on resolution. There is little sense of what Martin Luther King described as “I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

I’m familiar with the more pessimistic view. In the mid 1960s, I was working for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, handling public relations for its local director, Marion Barry, when national leader Stokely Carmichael showed up at one of our meetings in a church basement and announced that whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement.  But I soon got involved in the anti-freeway movement and the fight for DC statehood -  both cross-ethnic efforts and the latter led by Julius Hobson, perhaps the most underrated civil rights leader of the 20th century.  When I hear today’s activists bad mouthing whites collectively I recall Stokely Carmichael and how lucky I was to have run into a different approach. 

And all this happened while I was still in my 20s. This young white guy had turned into an activist thanks to cultural experiences as well as pursuing laws and logic. Black culture was worth preserving not just because it was fair and decent but because it had added a lot to my own life.

This is just one fellow’s story. Part of the wonder of multiculturalism is that everyone’s story is different. And part of the secret of making it work is not just the right laws, protests and name calling but friendly gatherings, discovering what you have in common, thoughtful sharing and appreciation of what others are saying and doing. We shall know we have succeeded at multiculturalism when collectively we recognize that it is not only decent but it’s made life a lot better.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

How to get along with other Americans

From Sam Smith’s 1997 Great American Political Repair Manual

Be friendly and respectful: In a culturally varied society, it is easy to transmit signals that are misunderstood but, fortunately, kindness, friendliness and respect come across clearly. Make good use of them.

 Learn about other cultures: We typically try to resolve inter-cultural tensions without giving people a solid reason for liking one another. Mutual enjoyment and admiration provide the shortest route between two ethnicities. Education is one thing that we know reduces prejudice. Yet for all our talk about diversity, this isn't so easy to come by. We could well spend less time on abstractions of racism and more on the assets of  each other's traditions.

We could be teaching, in high school anthropology classes and college seminars, the variety of the world as something to explore and enjoy, not just as a problem or an issue. You don't have to teach diversity. Diversity is. You don't have to defend it in lofty liberal rhetoric. Studying humanity's medley is not a moral act; it is simply intelligent. Limiting one's understanding to the "western intellectual canon," makes as much sense as teaching leeching to medical students or limiting one's knowledge of the universe to that data available to Copernicus.  It's not that it's evil; it's just not very smart

And you don't have to learn it all in school. France became a haven for black exiles earlier this century in no small part because of French enthusiasm for jazz and African art. Similarly, jazz clubs and concerts were among the few places in  segregated America that  apartheid was regularly ignored.[1]

Today we are sometimes more hospitable to foreigners than we are to strangers in our own land. One notable exception is the ethnic restraurant. Why? In part because all parties involved get a fair deal out of it. In part because it is enjoyable. In part because it is natural. No one is self-conscious; no one is made to feel uncomfortable. The owner makes a good living; the customers get a good meal.

Diversity within cultures  counts as well as that between them: Just because jazz is important to black culture doesn't mean all blacks like jazz. Or that colleges shouldn't recruit black cellists as well as black forwards. Or that just because someone's white, they have to be Anglo-Saxon or a Protestant.

Share power fairly.  One of the clearest manifestations of decency is equitable power. In a society wedded to winner-take-all solutions, sharing power can be difficult to achieve. But it's worth trying. One way is to learn from children. Notice how much time they spend on whether the game is "fair."  They're on to something.

Find something in common that's more important than what's not: It can be a political goal, a sport, an avocation or a business. I've seen it work in situations as diverse as a project to train church archivists or a  kid's team headed for a playoff. The importance of ethnicity is often inversely proportional to what else we have on our minds

Stop being shocked by prejudice. We have attempted to exorcise racism much as Nancy Reagan tried to get rid of drugs, by just saying no. It has worked about as well. Once we recognize the unpleasant persistence of human discrimination, once we give up the notion that it is merely  social deviance controllable by sanctions, we will be guided away from puritanical corrective approach towards ones that emphasize techniques of mitigating harm, and towards activities and attitudes that become antibiotics against prejudice.

Get real; When not on the podium or in front of a mike,  people  in politics talk real talk about real things. Like how you're going win the black vote or carry a Polish ward or not piss off the gays. Elsewhere, then the subject of ethnicity or sex comes up, the discussion often turns disingenuously circuitous or maddeningly abstract. This is one time when the politicians are on the right track. Lay problems and feelings honestly on the table and then deal with them.

Talk about it but not too much: At a meeting called to discuss racial problems, a black activist said, "I don't want to talk about race unless we are going to do something specific about it."  It's not a bad rule for every public discussion of race. Unproductive talk can leave people feeling more helpless and frustrated than when it began.

Diversity includes people you don't like. Even liberals don't talk about this but a truly multi-cultural community will include  born-again Christians opposed to abortion, Muslims with highly restrictive views on the role of women, prayer-sayers and atheists, Playboy readers as well as Seventh Day Adventists. Remember that you're not required to express -- or even have -- an opinion about everyone else in the world.

Don't sweat the small stuff. Common sense is a great civil rights tool. Even in a multi-cultural society, loutish sophomores are going to use tasteless language, fundamentalists will sneak in private prayers on public occasions, and eight-year-old boys will grab girls where they shouldn't. Hyper-reaction to such minor phenomena hurt and trivialize the cause of human justice.

Go for the important stuff. One of the reasons the little stuff gets such big play is because of the lack of a clear and meaningful agenda of social justice. People wouldn't be talking so much about who said what to whom and in what tone of voice if there was a serious effort underway, for example, against  discrimination in such long-neglected areas such as housing  and public transportation.

Try to avoid putting virtues in competition: School bussing placed the virtue of integration in direct conflict with the virtue of neighborhood schools. Often such conflicts can be avoided or mitigated by choosing other tactics. For example, why was there so much attention to bussing and so little to residential integration?

Lighten up on the lawyers. While of great assistance in securing basic rights, lawyers are not well equipped to deal with complex human relationships. We need to train large numbers of people who can serve as peace-keepers, mediators, and referees.

Timely courage helps: When anti-Semitic attacks began in Billings MT, the town responded quickly -- getting rid of Nazi symbols and posting paper menorahs in the windows of homes. A little early courage at such times works better than a lot of belated hand wringing.

Attack economic discrimination, too: After every  group gets its rights, the powerful among them will discriminate against the weak and the wealthy against the poor. As Saul Alinsky said, "When the poor get power they'll be shits like everyone else." Opposition to affirmative action might have been much less had the programs been based on zipcode as well as on race and sex.  Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in 1964 that "the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education." 

Stop worrying so much about language. It provides a warning sign and serves as an inter-cultural safety valve. Paul Kuritz, in an article on ethnic humor in the Maine Progressive, pointed out that "as early as 1907, the English-speaking rabbis and priests of Cleveland united to protest the Irish and Jewish  stage comedians. ~ The suppression of crude ethnic humor both accompanied the economic exploitation of the lower-class work force and paralleled the dismissal of the lower classes' tastes as 'offensive' to the newly refined sensibilities of upwardly-mobile second and third generation Americans."

Kuritz, a third-generation Slovak, was arguing that the real problem with a recently fired French-Canadian radio host was not that he had made fun of his own culture but that the full panoply of ethnicity was not also represented on the air. This would have allowed all these groups to experience what anthropologists call a "joking relationship," helping to reduce tensions between potentially antagonistic clans. Said Kuritz, "As a general rule of thumb, an attempt to suppress speech as 'offensive' or 'disempowering' is not a signal to lessen the amount of talk, but to increase the amount.”

Today, inter-ethnic joking is mainly found in rough-and-tumble environments such as  the modern vaudeville of  comedy clubs or in sports and politics, but is frowned upon by those whose social status leads them to presume that manners create reality. The problem is that  under the latter ground rules, words often  disguise  feelings, sidetrack action, and no longer serve to keep tension and hate apart. 

Be tough on leaders, not on followers: Those with tightly defined ideas about how we should behave often make little distinction between people who merely accept the values of their culture and those who market and manipulate them. It helps to remember that we are all creatures of our cultures and often speak with their voice. This may not be an admirable characteristic but it certainly is a human one.

Make justice pay off: The modern civil rights movement started with  a bus boycott -- and many more economic actions soon followed.  Its leaders  understood that one of the easiest ways to get people to give up a prejudice is to discover that it's costing them money. That's why you may find more racial mixing at a shopping mall than you will in a nearby church, club or neighborhood.

Recognize that we are all part something else. By dint of exposure to TV alone, it  is virtually impossible to live in America and not have absorbed aspects of other cultures. We all, in effect, belong to a part-culture, which is to say that our ethnicity is somewhat defined by its relationship  to, and borrowing from, other cultures. There are almost no pure anythings in America anymore. The sooner we accept and enjoy this, the better off  we'll be.

Remember that everyone is an ethnic something. There are no unethnic Americans.





Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Note to Greens, Bernie backers and others on the left

Sam Smith

Elections are just a reflection of the progress you have already made rather than an actual tool of progress. Your job on election day is not to  prove your virtue but to help create the best possible battlefield for future efforts.

In the case of this year's election, not voting for Joe Biden could help elect America's first dictatorship. This would not be a moral action; but rather either stupid, narcissistic or a combination of both. The fact  that you support better programs than Biden shouldn't let you share responsibility for Trump's reelection.

Infinitely preferable is to elect Biden and then return to pressing your progressive agenda.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Some tips for our times

Sam Smith

·        Make black lives matter even more by leading whites and others on key issues. The 1960s civil rights movement not only improved black lives but those of other Americans by pressing key common issues. Today, housing, health care,  schools and similar issues are begging for stronger leadership and blacks could help themselves and others by heading the collective voice of change. For one role model, check the work of Rev. William Barber II and the second Poor People’s campaign

·        Watch your language. Calling for “defunding police” may sound good to liberals but Trump is already featuring an ad that suggests Joe Biden doesn’t even want the 911 number promptly answered. This is a classic problem for liberals: they come up with expressions that sound good to them but don’t check to see how the broad public will react.

·        Come up with programs that ordinary folk can understand: One of the problems with Obamacare was that it was intensely complicated.. At the time it was being debated I proposed adding a provision to lower the age of Medicare to 55, something easy to understand and which would benefit everyone sooner or later. But Obamacare was written by lawyers and economists who didn’t know how to talk United States and thus helped to lower support for it.

·        Recover the working class – With the decline in unions and the growing wealth and education of the liberal class, the gap between lower income workers and college grads has increased. And in part because of the lack of working class organizing by liberals, Trump was able to turn many of them his way. 

·        Make third party action a local activity: Of the nearly 200 elected Green Party officials only a handful are at the state level and none at the federal. The party has hurt itself by running presidential candidates who build no support for the party and alienate many voters. Change comes from the bottom up which is why Green Party candidates do much better at the local level.

·        Politics is not a religion: Change comes between elections, the latter merely reflecting some of the progress (or lack thereof) that has occurred. The purity of your position – i.e. your faith – is largely irrelevant. What matters is whether the election will make change harder or easier. Think of it as a battlefield and not an altar.

·        Bring identities together.  Few things would scare the establishment more than if blacks, latinos, women, labor and youth came together to press a common agenda. This wouldn’t replace identity politics but great;y enhance it. What do the good folk agree on. . .and then go for it.

·        Statues are just symbols -  Sure, get rid of bad symbols like Confederate statues and the Redskins name, bur remember that you are only dealing with symbols of the past  and current real substance still awaits you.