FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Friday, May 17, 2024

Our split America

Sam Smith, 2024 – Fifteen years ago my wife and  I moved from decades in Washington DC to a small town in Maine where I had spent many summer vacations. I realized that I had survived the increasingly difficult capital city in part because, even there,  I had deliberately spent a lot of time living the life of a neighborhood and its local folk. Maine offered a permanent vacation from the people and issues that ran the national Washington.

Lately I have been reminded of this because the conflicts in our national culture have deteriorated to the point at which we might even elect Donald Trump as president again.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that what allowed Trump to rise so easily were factors that had been functioning for a long time. For example, television – with its deceptive advertising and visual fantasies – was an early instructor in the acceptance of mythology, whether buying a product or choosing a president. Today traditional elements of what we used to call community - including town meetings, churches, schools teaching ethics as well as multiplication, and gathering places for families - have become ever less important. Instead our way is increasingly guided by mass media, huge institutions, corporations, public relations and artificial intelligence.

This repeatedly comes to mind because of experiences I have in small town Maine. A few days ago, for example, I was at a monthly potluck supper gathering of neighbors in a one room 19th century schoolhouse that has been preserved. And I can’t remember ever being conned or insulted by anyone in the town.

And when I recall major training moments in my life, I repeatedly find myself returning to the small and the local starting with a Quaker high school where we sat in meeting for an hour each week waiting for one of our classmates to arise and report the current occupation of their mind. Then there was Harvard University, where I graduated magna cum probation, in no small part because I had already decided to become a reporter and even my major – anthropology – required a study of the ordinary and common rather than power and success. My best course at Harvard was covering the Cambridge city council for the student radio station. How many students have a mayor and other politicians helping you learn what life is really about? Then in summer I worked on my parents’ farm learning that the only useful bullshit in life was that in a field or a barn. After college – with the draft approaching – I joined the Coast Guard and as operations officer on a cutter and learned , like on a farm, you can’t talk your way out of a tough situation.

There was one other advantage to such experiences: unlike law or business school, getting a PhD or becoming a public relations director, I had repeated contact with the less educated living ordinary lives and so learned how to converse across cultural lines and find things to share in common.

This is a big factor missing in our politics today. When I started out, for example, labor unions helped liberal leaders - even the best educated among them - learn to speak in an understandable voice.  

Donald Trump is a fake version of what populist pols were like back then, but because we have been so overwhelmed by advertising and conceptual manipulation that even the good guys don’t know how to deal with it.

For example, I checked out Biden on Wikipedia and here are a few things I found that I had no knowledge of, yet tell of a different guy than we have been taught to perceive:

Biden's father had been wealthy and the family purchased a home in the affluent Long Island suburb of Garden City in the fall of 1946,  but he suffered business setbacks around the time Biden was seven years old, and for several years the family lived with Biden's maternal grandparents in Scranton. Scranton fell into economic decline during the 1950s and Biden's father could not find steady work. Beginning in 1953 when Biden was ten,  the family lived in an apartment in Claymont, Delaware, before moving to a house in nearby Mayfield. Biden Sr. later became a successful used-car salesman, maintaining the family in a middle-class lifestyle.

Biden had a stutter and has mitigated it since his early twenties. He has described his efforts to reduce it by reciting poetry before a mirror.

Biden is a teetotaler. He has said he abstains from alcohol because there were "too many alcoholics in my family".

Biden earned a Juris Doctor from Syracuse University College of Law in 1968. He ranked 76th in a class of 85 students after failing a course because he plagiarized a law review article for a paper he wrote in his first year at law school.  He was admitted to the Delaware bar in 1969.

A few weeks after Biden was elected senator, his wife Neilia and one-year-old daughter Naomi were killed in an automobile accident while Christmas shopping in Hockessin, Delaware, on December 18, 1972. Neilia's station wagon was hit by a semi-trailer truck as she pulled out from an intersection. Their sons Beau (aged 3) and Hunter (aged 2) were in the car, and were taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Beau with a broken leg and other wounds and Hunter with a minor skull fracture and other head injuries. Biden considered resigning to care for them, but Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield persuaded him not to. Biden contemplated suicide and was filled with anger and religious doubt. He wrote that he "felt God had played a horrible trick" on him,[53] and had trouble focusing on work.

Biden was consistently ranked one of the least wealthy members of the Senate, which he attributed to his having been elected young. Feeling that less-wealthy public officials may be tempted to accept contributions in exchange for political favors, he proposed campaign finance reform measures during his first term. As of November 2009, Biden's net worth was $27,012…

The political writer Howard Fineman has written: "Biden is not an academic, he's not a theoretical thinker, he's a great street pol. He comes from a long line of working people in Scranton—auto salesmen, car dealers, people who know how to make a sale. He has that great Irish gift."…

In short, Biden is much more the creature that Trump pretends to be but the ways of modern media permit Trump to grossly pretend otherwise. In addition, liberals these days tend to boast more of success than tell stories of the pain they suffered to get there. And the voting public has little idea of the true tales.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Tales from the attic: Causing a riot in Harvard Yard

  The Palestine protests in the Harvard Yard brought to mind the one time that your editor helped cause a riot – and it was in Harvard Yard. Here’s the story:

Sam Smith - On a May morning in the late 1950s, the Harvard Crimson came out with a story that Cambridge city councilor Alfred Vellucci had announced plans to introduce an order asking the city manager to "confiscate" all of the university's lands because of the Harvard administration's "lack of cooperation" in solving the city's parking problems. Vellucci was quoted as saying that "I am going to fine every Harvard student who parks his car on the public street at night unless the university makes all its property available for public parking." Down at the student run radio station, where I was news director, I assigned one of our reporters the job of calling Councilor Vellucci. He got an earful:

The citizens and taxpayers are sick and tired of supporting Harvard. The time has arrived when Cambridge should break away and let the state and federal government support the school. Our taxpayers are not able to do the job alone ... Our police department has to rush to the university every time the students start one of their foolish riots ... The fire department has to go in there on school fires. We have to put police officers on extra duty to handle the traffic situation after one of the football games ... Let the university become a state of its own like the Vatican in Rome and pay for its own fire and police departments.

Vellucci added: "John Lund, commander of the local Sullivan Post, American Legion, has told me every veterans organization in the city will support my bill." He went on like that for twenty minutes. We ran excerpts on the 11 p.m. news and student listeners began calling the station demanding to hear the full interview. It was not just the words; the Vellucci voice lent impetus to the message. It was the precise antithesis of a well-cultivated Harvard accent and even at its most irate had a buoyant quality tinged with the faintest hint of satire that in those amusement and issue-starved years of the fifties, tickled the student ear. These were not times when you worried about the impact of the media on events; there were no seminars on TV and violence, no breast-beating over whether the press covered a hostage situation correctly. There was, however, a lot of boredom and, whatever else he might be, Al Vellucci was certainly not boring. I ran the whole interview at midnight and calls from those who tuned in during the middle of it were so numerous that I ran it again at one a.m. The next morning, the story was page one in the Boston Globe -- culled from the WHRB interview -- with a two column headline:

COUNCILOR ASKS SETUP LIKE VATICAN
DEMANDS HARVARD SECEDE FROM CITY

The Crimson had the Vellucci story first, but in its stately way had missed the exploitation potential. It was WHRB's Vatican angle that caught the imagination of Harvard's student body. Some of us, I suspect, also subconsciously recognized in Vellucci a man who, despite his attacks on students, was really waging war on a mutual enemy, the Harvard administration. It would still be some years before students learned to stand up to their campus oppressors and Vellucci was a prophetic voice, calling for rebellion not just by the citizens of Cambridge against Harvard, but, subliminally, by the students as well.

The Cambridge citizenry kept calm but not the students. It began, as those things often did, with a peculiarly unrelated and insignificant act the very next night. During a drunken argument in the offices of the college humor magazine over the relative merits of prose and poetry, someone (by some accounts Neil Sheehan, later a famed NY Times correspondent) threw a typewriter out of a window. The riot was on. Two thousand men of Harvard gathered shouting alternatively, "Hang Vellucci," "Vellucci for Pope," and "We want Monaco." Beer cans and water-filled bags were tossed about. Eddie Sullivan, the mayor of the city, showed up in his radio and siren-equipped Chrysler Imperial and attempted to quell the disturbance. He failed to get the attention of the crowd, part of which was busy letting the air out of all four of his tires. From one of the dormitories blared a recording of Tchaikowsky's 1812 Overture. The cops sent reinforcements to Al's home but no one strayed from the campus.

The riot ended in typical fashion: once half the students had marched into Harvard Yard, its gates were closed and the ones not trapped inside counted their losses and retired to their rooms or to Cronin's bar and grill.

With what the city would come to realize was his normal tactical brilliance, Al Vellucci had succeeded in turning Harvard against itself. A few students were arrested, a few faced disciplinary action and by one a.m. it was over. Those of us in the WHRB news department went to sleep content in the knowledge that in twenty-four hours we had created a celebrity and a riot. Not a bad day's work for a few student journalists.

For the rest of my time at Harvard, Crimson reporter Blaise Pastore and I faithfully covered city council meetings, relaying every juicy quote and snipe at Harvard that Vellucci and his cohorts provided. Our mentors at the press table were a trio of sardonic and knowledgeable Irishmen from Boston's dailies, who loved delivering their sotto voce lectures to a couple of Harvard students as much as we enjoyed hearing them. The councilors were solicitous, especially Al, who recognized our symbiotic relationship. Harvard educated lawyer Joseph Deguglielmo, eschewing bifocals for two pairs of glasses stacked on his nose and forehead in the order required at any particular moment, explained the workings of a city government with great patience, once commenting that he was uncertain how to vote on a police pay increase because he had to keep in mind that each cop was probably receiving, in goods and cash, several thousand dollars more a year than his official salary. It was literally the end of an era. While I was covering the council, James Michael Curley, the former mayor of adjoining Boston, passed away. I had heard the last hurrah.

I tell folks that covering the city council was the best course I took at Harvard, even if it was off the curriculum. I also worked for a fine former AP reporter in charge of the Harvard News Office. Which helps to explain how I graduated from Harvard magna cum probation albeit with a radio news job and lots more waiting for me in Washington.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A brief guide to avoiding socialism

Sam Smith, 2009 - Socialism is about the state running things on behalf of the public; fascism is about the state running things on behalf of corporations. Adrian Lyttelton in his book on Mussolini wrote that "fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly." It was a point that Orwell noted when he described fascism as being but an extension of capitalism. Lyttelton quoted Italian Nationalist theorist Affredo Rocco: "The Fascist economy is. . . an organized economy. It is organized by the producers themselves, under the supreme direction and control of the State."

This is the way we have been heading for some time. What if we set out to rid ourselves of all intrusions of this purported political curse called socialism? Here are a few things we might do:

- Return to the old system of fire fighting in which blazes were handled by private fire brigades hired by private insurance companies. Brooke Harrington described the practice in Economic Sociology: "If you wanted a fire brigade to come to your aid in . . . emergencies, you had to join a kind of club with private membership fees. It worked like this: you ponied up the fees, the club gave you a plaque to put over your front door, and then if fire swept through the neighborhood, the club dispatched help, but they only assisted paying members. So if you didn't have that plaque over your door, the fire rescue teams would pass you right on by. It would not be uncommon to find that your house burned down while the one next door would be saved." Sounds a little like our health insurance system.

- End public education. Public schools - which strongly aided the growth of America - are about as socialistic as you can get.

- Close down all federal highways or sell them off to the highest bidder so they can turn them into profit-making roads using tolls.

- Abolish Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and all other such welfare programs.

- End all government interference with the banking and financial industries.


- End all veterans programs including closing veterans' hospitals.

- Sell off all public transportation to unregulated private interests.

- Close all public hospitals, end public subsidies to other hospitals and privatize all ambulance service.

- End all government regulation of food or health products.

- End the practice of government plowing streets after a snow storm. As Boston mayor James Curly put it, "The Lord brought it; let the Lord take it away."

There.

Feeling better yet?

Bet you never realized what a bunch of closet socialists we are.

We got there, though, because - instead of hurling theories and cliches at each other - we decided on a case by case basis who could do a particular job best. And the funny thing is, it's worked pretty well.

People who complain about the threat of socialism remind me of the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran's hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. When he retired he went on Social Security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, parked in the public lot, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

 

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

60 years on the case

 Sam Smith – In September, it will be sixty years since your editor first published a journal belonging to what became known as the “underground press.” This journal, The Idler, was joining lonely territory mainly occupied by the NYC’s Village Voice. But two years later, in 1966 the Underground Press Syndicate was formed with the participation of five newspapers and by 1970 where were at least 457 underground papers.

Although they haven’t been given much credit, these papers were essential to the changes we associate with the 1960s. As RB Frick wrote: “From political assassinations and a war in Vietnam to the Civil Rights Movement, the Sixties had a profound impact on the future of the United States… While at first glance the Underground Press may not seem like an extremely important element of the Sixties, the Press helped to spread the elements of the Counterculture and the Civil Rights Movement across the United States.”

Getting into print journalism was a novelty for me, then in my mid twenties, for my previous experience had been in radio, including having been news director of the Harvard student radio station and then working as a reporter for the prominent Washington all news station WWDC and covering everything from murders and fires to White House news conferences.

My goals in starting the Idler were less than noble. As I later wrote:

While looking around for a good title for this magazine, I happened to run across some of the writings of old Sam Johnson. Sam Johnson wrote a series of essays from I753 to 1760 in a paper called The Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette. The pieces appeared as The Idler.  The name seemed to fit as comfortably as a pair of sneakers after a good summer’s use. In his first essay, Johnson described The Idler: “The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours that are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think everything more valuable as it is harder to be acquired… The Idler, tho’ sluggish is yet alive, arid may descend into profoundness, or tower into sublimity; for the diligence of an Idler is rapid and impetuous, as ponderous bodies forced into velocity move with violence proportionate to their weight.”

In the first issue was a five page article by Rocky Whitman on the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, an early effort to register southern black voters organized by a coalition of civil rights organiztions including SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC.

The Idler only lasted a few years. I was living on Washington’s Capitol Hill, a neighborhood that unlike its namesake was of mixed ethnicity and economics. I became increasingly fascinated, finally starting a newspaper there – the Capitol East Gazette -  which expanded its geography to include many more black blocks. I also joined the civil rights group SNCC, providing media assistance to its local leader, Marion Barry.

When the 1968 riots struck DC, two of its four most heavily hit business districts were in our circulation area and one of them four blocks from our house. Afterwards I would say that too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers.

Friday, January 06, 2023

An interview with Sam Smith on the care and feeding of a third party

From an interview conducted by Ben Smith, a history major at Haverford College, on January 12, 2000 at the offices of the Progressive Review. Ben Smith, no relation to Sam Smith, was in Washington studying the history of the DC Statehood Green Party, which has elected candidates to public office for most of its thirty years. Smith was one of the founders of the DC Statehood Party, which last year merged with the DC Green Party, which he also helped to start.

Ben: Let me start by asking you how you became involved in the Statehood Party, and how your involvement with the issue has changed or waxed or waned over the years. What motivated you to become involved in it?

Sam: Well, I wrote an article ["The Case for Statehood" DC Gazette, June 1970] , and at the time I got a total of one response. One guy sent me a check for five dollars and said, "If anything comes of this idea let me know." In writing, you get used to that sort of thing and [you] move on to something else. That was in June and I think it was in September that a group of us -- maybe a dozen of us -- met in the basement of a church on Capitol Hill to discuss a campaign for [congressional] delegate by Julius Hobson, who was a local civil rights leader.

Ben: Right.

Sam: And we were sitting around discussing the campaign, and Julius says, "Well what sort of platform am I running on?" And somebody there says, well, you know, Sam wrote this really interesting article about how DC could become a state. So we sort of talked about it a while . . . Next thing we knew, Julius says: "I like that, I'm going to run on that."

Well, that was the beginning of the statehood movement. I like to tell that story because it shows how random history and politics can be.  I did nothing -- I was just sitting there when somebody else happened to mention it.

We put on a respectable campaign. I think we got about 14% of the vote . . . It was the [city's] first serious election. Although we had had a school board election, there was something about this election that made you feel like you were really into politics. There was a Republican and a Democrat, and there were a couple of other candidates, independent candidates, and public television ran several debates. All the candidates were interesting people; there wasn't anybody really dull or dumb...

Ben: This is '71?

Sam: Yeah. And so, one thing led to another. I had not planned to get involved in politics. In fact, that summer I came back from my vacation thinking about leaving town and moving to Maine, and that sure changed.

Ben: Since that beginning, a lot has happened for statehood over the years in DC. How has your interest waxed or waned? How has it changed over time? That's almost thirty years ago isn't it?

Sam : It's been very interesting, because every time I think the issue is dead, it crops up again . . .

During the seventies, the Statehood Party performed a very interesting function. It was a leader of the statehood movement, but it was also at the forefront of almost all the issues. They wanted to put in a youth curfew and we knocked that down. The fight over the convention center. Almost every issue that came up, the Statehood Party was in the lead. That was pretty much true through the seventies. And then things sort of became. . . you know, the whole notion of change became slightly disreputable as we approached the Reagan era. What was interesting, [however,] was that after things sort of went into apathetic mode, a whole new group of people got interested. . . Ed Guinan just came out of the blue. He'd just been thinking about it and decided that we ought to go and petition for a constitutional convention.

Ben: It sounds a little bit like what you were talking about earlier, about how history can be a little bit random.

Sam: Yes. . . I think it was one of those Latin dudes who said, "fortune smiles on the well prepared." The reason we were able to have a Statehood Party in the first place was because I had written that article. I didn't know what effect that would have at the time, but the fact that it was there made a difference, and the fact that we had had that whole struggle in the seventies made a difference to Ed Guinan. He rediscovered it, reformed it, and pushed for the constitutional convention.

The Constitutional Convention was a very interesting operation, it got very involved with some of the ethnic politics in town, and some of the regular politics. The end result was probably the most radical document ever approved by an elected body in the United States.

Ben: I've looked it over.

Sam: Pretty extraordinary.

Ben: And pretty comprehensive, too.

Sam: Now, my position was that was a great thing to do some time, but it didn't seem to me that when you were trying to get statehood was the [right] time to write that sort of document. I favored just picking up the constitution of Kansas or some other state. I just wanted to fight one fight at a time. And almost as could have been predicted, what happened [was] that the right in Congress began attacking various provisions in the constitution and that sort of distracted from the whole issue of statehood. [On the other hand] once we became a state we would no longer need Congress' approval, we could [have] put anything in the Constitution we wanted. But anyway, it was an interesting experience. And I think what you're seeing now might be called the third great, well it'd be the second great, revival.

Ben: Third wave , second revival.

Sam: Uh huh. Second Awakening, to put it in American historical terms. . .You know there are only a few of us left who were really active, or were even on the fringes of the statehood movement -- myself and Lou Aronica -- and there are a few other people around town, but they're not really involved.

Ben: Anyone else I saw on the meeting on Thursday?

Sam: There was no one else. It's something of a shock to find yourself all by yourself in that category. I hadn't intended it, but things worked out that way. But that's [also] very exciting. . . A lot of things have to be rediscovered. For example, I was somewhere recently where someone just discovered that we didn't need a constitutional amendment to have statehood. Well that was the whole premise of my initial article, but, you know, that sort of thing gets forgotten and you have to rediscover it.

o

I wrote a piece in the mid-eighties saying we should become the DC Green Party. No one knew what a Green party was because it was so new. My position is that we were the world's first Green Party -- we just picked the wrong name. [Like]Victor Borge's uncle [who] invented a soft drink called Six Up [and died bankrupt never knowing] how close he had come. Who would have guessed that the right thing to do was call ourselves the DC Green Party? . .

Ben: Some of the stuff that's happening right now is the law suits and then there's the trial [of pro-self government protesters].

Sam: You have a bunch of people who are genuinely committed. The political odds against the Statehood Greens right now are tremendous. The Post doesn't cover you, the city is changing, the demographics aren't good. The fact that you can get thirty people to a meeting in that environment is extraordinary, and it shows [the] sort of rumbling that is going on beneath the surface of our times. Now they're not always, to my mind, as politically hip as they might be. One of the things I learned from people like Marion Barry and Julius Hobson is that it's good, it's fine, to have an ideology, but you gotta have the events and the actions, and the events and actions have to drive your politics because that's where you get the attention and that's where you get the movement. So what you always have to be doing is looking for an opportunity to express your beliefs in a way that will make the evening news, to be most cynical about it. You're looking for the wedge, the opening, the hole in the dike. And that's a skill unrelated to intelligence, it's unrelated to belief. . . .

I came across something the other day which sort of astounded me. The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, which is really one of the great organizations of the past forty years, never had a constitution or bylaws. Now I wish I'd [known that] when the Statehood Party was trying to make their bylaws for the second time.

Ben: You're talking about what we saw last week?

Sam: That's right. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about. A difference in the spirit of the thing. Saying, "fuck it, let's go do something" But they're a good bunch of people.

Ben: I'm trying to get an idea of what attracted people to the party over time. Let's look at the group right now.

Sam: Well, let me go back to the beginning. You know about the freeway fight...?

Ben: I've read a little bit about it.

Sam: And you know that one of the freeways was going through a biracial community called Brookland and that there were about fifty homes that were going to be taken?

Ben: Yes.

Sam: Well, one of the interesting things about the anti-freeway movement was that it was a biracial movement. On one occasion the head of the[all white] Georgetown Citizens Association named Grovesner Chapman appeared on the same platform with Reginald Booker, the president of Niggers Incorporated, both opposing the freeway. It was that sort of time. Now that scared the shit out of politicians. If you saw Reginald Booker and Grovesner Chapman on the same platform, you knew you had problems. It was also very pragmatic, not very ideological, in the traditional sense.

It always seemed to me that there was a dramatic difference between the traditional left and the Statehood Party, even though it had some very traditional leftists in it, people coming out of a very leftist background. And I think it had a lot to do with the influence of the civil rights movement, which created a whole new culture. A lot of what passed for the left, and still does, basically comes out of NYC. And reflects the cultural values and education of [that city]. But the civil rights movement had a whole different heritage. As a result, you had something quite unusual in the late sixties. You had blacks and whites who were actually working with each other. Even in the midst of the black power movement.

I was doing public relations for Marion Barry when he was head of SNCC [when it] changed. I remember going to SNCC headquarters, and Stokely Carmichael showing up, and announcing that whites were no longer welcome. There were maybe four or five of us [whites] in the room, and that was a fairly big change in the paradigm.

I suppose, in a sense, my drifting towards the statehood group was in part a reflection of what happened after the black power movement got going, which was [that] you lost a lot of black friends. It was a whole different gestalt.

Julius was a socialist and he was an economist and he understood the difference between race and class the way very few politicians of that day or today do. When he filed suit against the school system, he didn't demand busing, he demanded equal spending. And the statistics he came up with showed that not only were poor blacks discriminated against by whites, but they were also discriminated against by wealthy blacks. Which was pretty unusual.

Ben: Which has been an issue in this city over time, definitely.

Sam: Yeah, there are a lot of class issues within the black community here. . . You had 200,000 blacks moving into the city in the 1950s. That not only resulted in a hundred thousand or so whites moving out, but it also meant a disruption of the internal power structure of the black community. Subtle things were going on. There were a lot of politicians, including Marion Barry, who were essentially, in the black community, considered the black equivalent of poor white trash. That was one of the dynamics that was going on.

But anyway, my point was that the Statehood Party really grew out of the anti-freeway fight. It was many of the same individuals. It was like an affinity group that changed its name. I've covered politics and written about politics all over the country, and I've never seen anything quite like the Statehood Party. I wish I could do a better job of describing what it is. I think it has to do with being pragmatic and not too ideological. We thought in terms of specific goals. You didn't hear people getting up and giving speeches about the capitalist structure; it was more specific.

Ben: I could ask you what the chance for statehood are right now, whether we might be successful now or in the future. But you talked about how the Statehood Party addresses lots of different issues at all times--

Sam: I think that's one of the things that's being recaptured. There was a period where statehood was it, and that was unfortunate. I think that was one of its problems. . . People need to think good things in connection with the Statehood Party.

Ben: And you're saying in the eighties...

Sam: It was focused very heavily on the statehood issue...

Ben: As opposed to addressing other issues?

Sam: Yeah.

Ben: I was wondering if people have used the statehood issue as a rallying point for other issues.

Sam: Yes. And people have used other issues as a rallying point for statehood. You like to associate yourself. You want to associate the Statehood Party with tenants, for example, or the environment.

Ben: What I'm thinking is, even if there isn't a current realistic possibility for statehood, does the Statehood Party serve a practical purpose?

Sam: Knowing what you know now, would you have been an abolitionist in 1840?

Ben: Sure.

Sam: OK, the black kids at the charter school [where I taught a class] all gave me the opposite answer.

Ben: Really? Why?

Sam: Well, they thought it was too dangerous.

Ben: In 1840. Also, I guess, a long road ahead, in 1840.

Sam: But you see, the way I framed that question was that you knew the answer. You knew the outcome. Today, you face the problem without knowing the outcome.

Ben: Sure.

Sam: So then your question is, what do you do about it? Well, my models for that include the Quakers. I would describe it this way: they sort of exist outside of history. You essentially take the position that you can't control history, but you can control your reaction to it.

Ben: Right.

Sam: And that is what personal witness is about.

Ben: Right.

Ben: And that is why, if you look over the 300-year history of the Quakers, what you find is, first of all, that they are roughly the same [size] as they were in the 18th century. Second of all, that there [were] repeated cases of failure, but whenever social change did occur, you always found a bunch of Quakers there.

Ben: Right.

Sam: Youhave to put yourself in the position of saying, yes, we're going to fail, but as a matter of survival, of historical survival, we don't know when we're going to succeed and in the meantime, we better be doing something. In 1848, 300 women went to Seneca Falls for what's generally considered the first feminist gathering in this country of note. Only two of them lived to vote.

Ben: Wow.

Sam: So, that's the tricky part. The other example we can use is existentialism. Are you familiar with it?

Ben: Somewhat. Not heavily.

Sam: It's not very popular, you don't hear much about it. And if you do, you hear the term: existential angst. Sort of a Woody Allen thing. But basically, existentialists believe you exist because of what you do and say. Some existentialists would say you don't exist completely until you die, because up to the end you're still making decisions. Even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows. Now, it's that sensibility that isn't very strong today. We're always talking about the bottom line. But, if you're living in an absurd universe, you're either going to be a victim, or you're going to be, to some degree, an existentialist. Those are basically your choices. Because if you're not an existentialist, if you don't say, I'm going to act as if it's going to make a difference, then you become a victim. You become a pawn. You say I can't do anything.

When you look at it that way, then it's not unrealistic, it's not a question of doing something unrealistic. And it's not a matter of doing something noble, it's just a matter of playing the odds. I suspect there may be something genetic in it. Why is it that people do things that risk their own lives to save other people? Certainly you can see it in other animals. Maybe the goal is to save the human race.

Ben: That's a genetic imperative!

Sam: The two great existential religions are Judaism and Quakerism, because they both put a great deal of stress on individual responsibility.

Ben: I have a close friend who is Jewish and took an existentialism class last year, so I'll have to see what he has to say about it.

Sam: Yeah, I'd be interested to know. I think about a quarter to a third of my class at Germantown Friends in the 1950s was Jewish.

Ben: Sidwell same thing.

Sam: Well, the joke is that Sidwell Friends is a place were Episcopalians teach Jews how to act like Quakers.

Ben: Right. I know the joke.

Sam: So there's always been a certain affinity there. But, it's less apparent now. One of the reasons it's not so apparent now is because American Jews, sort of like American liberals, have won their great battle of the twentieth century. Survival of the immigrant groups. It's largely been won. So in the last thirty years, you've lost a certain culture which was very big when I was growing up. I sometimes joke that when I was growing up, I thought Jews were put in this world to run labor unions, 'cause that was the culture But you don't find that anymore.

Ben: And the liberals have won their great battles as well.

Sam: Yeah, and so they're driving around in their SUVS and they couldn't care less. What's going on now is [that] you find liberals being very protective of the liberal brand, the Democratic brand, and not giving a shit about what it means. I've experienced this very directly because I wrote the first book to really challenge the Clinton myth and I got all sorts of shit over that, especially from liberals, even though my politics [are] to the left of them. They saw it as a matter of brand loyalty.

Ben: I wanted to bring that up. On Thursday night I noticed that you've got the Green people and the Statehood people and they talk about the Democratic Party [as if it] doesn't represent liberalism at all. As if it's totally conservative. It seems as if the Statehood Party has always been a radical party, outside the mainstream, [and] doesn't view the two major choices as reasonable or acceptable choices. How do you think that that has attracted some people, kept other people away? How has that been part of it's history?

Sam: If you want a real debate, it would be between the Greens and the Libertarians. They share a lot of things in common and they have certain disagreements. They both, to some extent, represent a reaction against what is happening and [have a] vision of what could happen. My idea was that the libertarians and the Greens [should] take the show on the road to college campuses. And bring in the Reform Party, too, and the Natural Law Party. If you want to have a debate, then have people who are debating about something. Not these two brands of cereal, the Democrats and the Republicans

Ben: That would be a real debate, Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law, Green.

Sam: And I'll tell you, you'd get a lot brighter people. The libertarians are really sharp.

One thing that has happened is that a certain amount of respect has grown up among these groups. For example, Jesse Ventura, when he was debating, was asked who he would vote for if he couldn't vote for himself, and he picked the Green candidate. It's quite different [from] the way the media portrays him. I consider myself sort of a left libertarian. And if I were going to put together the perfect party, it would be 1/3 populist, 1/3 green, and 1/3 libertarian.

Ben: Well where does the Statehood Party fit on that? I mean would you view the Statehood Party as a populist party?

Sam: Yeah, I think it is. It's very much of a populist party. It has very good populist instincts. . . I think populist would be a good way to describe it. Urban populist.

I came out of a straight background. New Deal baby, my father worked for the Roosevelt administration. In 1960 I was co-chair of the first Students for Humphrey. I didn't really break with that until the sixties. By '67 I was thirty so I was already over the hill. So, my decade is the fifties, not the sixties, and I think that's one of the reasons why my perspective is kind of different.

I also was a straight news reporter before I became an alternative reporter. So I had this sense of when the left is looking foolish, because I came from the outside in. And when it's being arrogant and when it's being elitist. To be honest, there's a lot of that stuff. I heard some woman on NPR today talking about how she recycled, and she was talking about how she took apart her orange juice containers, and cut the metal parts off, and the parts that she couldn't recycle she sent back to the company. And she thinks she's helping matters, but if you're trying to get somebody into recycling, that isn't the way to do it. I mean she's free to do that, but she shouldn't talk about it, cause it'll scare the shit of others.

I stayed away from Green Party activities all through the eighties, even though I considered myself very sympathetic to the Greens, 'cause I felt I wasn't good enough for them, 'cause that was the aura they presented. There are political groupings, the ones that I feel most comfortable in, in which you're there because you believe in something and you're not there because you're part of a demographic group. In other words, it's not really a fraternity, although it may turn out to be that way. Being a member of one of the smallest minorities in this country, freethinkers, I'm very conscious of which groups I'm comfortable with and which groups I'm not comfortable with.

Ben: Would you say that right now the Statehood Party is that form that you described, where people are coming to it for an idea, rather than for...?

Sam: Yeah, yeah.

Ben: Which would you say... It strikes me that there are probably pluses and minuses to both types of groups.

Sam: Yeah. I think if you're going to be political, you got to be political.

Ben: You mean people coming together from different backgrounds for an idea.

Sam: You shouldn't be in politics if you're going to screen who is going to join up with you. It's like I told one of my Green friends, I was afraid someone would discover I went to McDonalds. And you don't want to do that in politics. You can do it in religion. You can do it if you're in an avant-garde group, say, in the environment, where you don't really care how many members you have.

Ben: Sometimes those connections and friendships can be what sustains a group over time. It strikes me that that's the upside.

Sam: Yes, that's part of it, but sometimes it can sustain a group long after it should be sustained. I was asked to speak at a conference, "Is there life beyond left and right?" up in New York City. It was at Fordham. We went through a day and a half and I realized that we hadn't talked about any specific proposals. This was a group that was meant to be coming up with some ideas. But all they wanted to do was deconstruct it. I got terribly frustrated. I found it very much like I was in a time-warp, as if I was talking to leftists of twenty years ago.

I'll give you an example. I don't think the Statehood Green Party put the school board issue high enough on the agenda. My gut feeling is this is the hottest thing going. And to put it in the last ten minutes of the agenda is a reflection that there is something a little bit out of balance.

But at the same time, they've been involved in an organic food market in Anacostia, which has a problem because there are no good grocery stores. And you can argue all night as to what the political implications of that are, but I don't think it makes a difference, because it's something people want to do now, and it works.

Ben: It's an example of a practical application.

Sam: Yup, and then there are things like the health care plan. You may not get your health care plan but you may get certain improvements. Knowing where you're going is today considered idealistic. I was a navigator in the Coast Guard, and I take a little different view. I think it's essential to know where your direction is, and one of the things I was taught in navigation class is, if you take fix and it puts you on one side of the rock, and you take another fix and it puts you on the other side of the rock, don't split the difference -- which happens a lot in politics. If you have a goal, only if you have a goal, do you know the value of any particular compromise. If you don't have a goal, if you're a Clinton-type character who calls in his pollsters to decide what to do, you have no basis to judge a particular compromise. For example, I've told people over the years, that I don't mind getting statehood on the installment plan, but I want to make sure that everything we do is moving in the right direction.

Ben: It's what we were talking about earlier, you were saying you could go for the health care plan, you might not get it, but you'll get other things, you could be going for statehood, you might not get it, but you'll get other things. Moving towards the goal, even if you don't reach the goal, still has value.

Sam: And part of it is, you need something to make people aware that there are a bunch of people in town who aren't going to put up with this shit. I think it's as simple as that. Now what I find personally very difficult -- and I wouldn't find it so difficult if I was younger, but people my age aren't meant to act the way I [do] -- what you end up with is quite a lot of isolation. You become a sort of a curiosity. When I wrote about the administration and the Clinton scandals, I found I'd become a threat. I found myself dropping off rolodexes, I was no longer asked to be on C-SPAN, WAMU banned me, wouldn't tell me why. In my own neighborhood, which is a hotbed of Clintonistas, clearly the environment changed.

Ben: Which neighborhood?

Sam: Cleveland Park. Some months back, I was sitting with two of my oldest friends, and they told me that they'd stopped reading my stuff because of what I'd written about Clinton. And I said, well, does it make any difference that I was right? And they said, No. You shouldn't have said it.

Ben: Wow.

Sam: That's the sort of thing which I find personally hard, very very difficult. But, you know, that is just one aspect of all the problems we're talking about, of taking a position which is out of step with the times. I see myself as a moderate of a time that has not yet come. And I think it's very important to think that way. Because I don't think you should think of yourself as a radical.

Ben: Uh huh.

Sam: Because then the temptation is to take on a sort of a cult mentality.

Ben: It's what you were talking about earlier with Seneca Falls. You are preparing for a future time that you believe will come.

Sam: And the other thing is that you're always being fooled. Just when you really get down, as I have been for the last six months, year or so, things start happening. You realize your presumptions aren't right. Or you think you're doing well, and then you fall back. So that's another reason for keeping going, 'cause you just don't know.

Ben: What do you mean, exactly?

Sam: Let's say you've noticed, as I have, a demonstrable drop in the receptivity of my journalistic colleagues to the sort of stuff I'm writing in the last couple of years. That's very discouraging. Because my media is not strong enough to get out there by itself.

Ben: Also, you don't exist in a vacuum. Encouragement and collegial . . .

Sam: That's right. And so that has changed. So, you can assume, when you see that, well, that's it. That's what your heart wants to say, but intellectually you say, well, you know, let's just tough it out a little longer and see what happens. And then you have to ask yourself, how do you react?

If you're discouraged, or if you are hyper, you can get yourself off on some very bad tracks. I'll give you an example on the other side. To my mind there's an excessive interest in demonstrations. And one of the reasons for it is because it's so satisfying to the people involved. One alternative media guru said that if a lot of the money that we'd put into demonstrations had been put into radio advertising it would have been a lot more effective.

Ben: It's a point.

Sam: So, it can work both ways. Camus was asked: would he be willing to die for his beliefs, and he said, "No, what if I was wrong?" You always have to go along through your life assuming that you may be wrong.

Ben: I think we've touched on most of the points I had in mind. I wanted to ask you, I noticed on Thursday night, there was a really strong resistance, it was kind of a subcurrent, to anything in the bylaws that would allow one person to control the party. And I've read about some internal conflicts that happened in the Statehood Party that have happened over time, some of them happened a long time ago, but do you think, have there been conflicts that have affected the party over time?

Sam: That I think comes from the Greens primarily.

Ben: Really. Why?

Sam: Because that's part of their gestalt, and I think we're sort of an extreme version of it. There's this thing with in the Greens that's almost a paranoia about leadership. And, as I think I said at the meeting, my feeling about leadership is [that] it's one of the great graces of democracy, that someone else can do the work for you. All I want as a citizen or an activist or a member of steering committee is to be able to raise my portion of the hell, if necessary.

I don't think our [party's] system is a particularly wise way to do it, but it works better than I thought it would, changing facilitators every meeting. One of the things you do by that is you build up some people who are really good at running meetings.

Ben: It seems that one of the main things the party is serving as right now is as a clearing house and a training ground for activists, people coming there with different interests.

Sam: Yeah, that's one way to work it, and I don't think that's a bad approach. Back in my liberal days when I was chair of the local chapter of Americans for Democratic action, I figured I had [only] a certain number of people and some of them had expertise. Unlike what Scott tried to do the other night, where everyone sat around and tried to come up with the names of the committees, [you] just start with the people, and then have committees that reflect that. All right, so you don't have a health committee, or you don't have a housing committee; maybe you will next year.

o

The Alliance for Democracy was a sort of populist group that was started about the same time as the Greens. It grew a little out of an article that Ronny Dugger wrote in the Nation. He got something like eleven hundred letters about it, so he built this organization. What was interesting about these two groups was [that] I turned out to be one of the youngest in the Alliance for Democracy and one of the oldest in the Association of State Green Parties. And it was fascinating to see the difference in the way the two groups operated. I stopped going to Alliance meetings when someone suggested that we boycott Thanksgiving and Christmas. I said, I think we got our hands full taking on the Fortune 500 without pissing off everybody by trying to get them to boycott their favorite holiday. I was looked at as if I was some sort of apostate of the worst sort. I think if I'd said that in the Greens, people would have said, yeah, they would have debated it, and they probably would have come up with the right answer. [But] am I totally happy with the way the Greens do their business? No, I would have some centralized leadership.

Ben: Well, my historian's suspicion or hope was that it was part of historical memory, going back to earlier struggles

Sam: Well, I think it is. I think that's part of what it is. It's almost like a child rebelling against a parent by doing the exact opposite without being very mindful of the consequences.

o

Ben: In the City Paper I was reading about the idea of " Young Turks" politicians in the past five or ten years who have no connection to the civil rights movement. You mentioned how Marion Barry, how that era has ended

Sam: Well I wouldn't call them young Turks.

Ben: That was the phrase the City Paper used.

Sam: Yeah, I know. The problem is, that the City Paper doesn't know the difference between a young Turk and an old fogey. I mean they remind me of what Benjamin Franklin said: some people die at twenty five and they aren't buried till they're seventy. There's this sort of post-modern tendency to lend drama to something which is incredibly boring and unproductive. Which I guess is sort of what happens when you're living in Pleasantville II.

Ben: Pleasantville II?

Sam: You saw the movie Pleasantville?

Ben: Yes.

Sam: Well, I think we're living in a Pleasantville II. I think this is very similar to the fifties in that the society is saying everything is perfect, and the economy is great, and everything is fine, and all you have to do is play according to the rules and you'll be happy. The books I read in the fifties, that had a significant impact, were things like the Organization Man and the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, [who] were major role models, and they're back again.

Ben: But then, books like "The Lonely Crowd" came out at the same time. That was the next step. I mean, you look in the fifties there is the seeds of the next generation.

Sam: Oh yes. Oh absolutely, and that's one of the points I've made many times, that the sixties were not an act of immaculate conception.

Ben: You could say that the nineties were a preparation for what's next, or you could hope that, in fact.

Sam: That's right.