Saturday, October 13, 2018

Flotsam & Jetsam: True false testing

The Idler was the predecessor of the Progressive Review

 The Idler, December 1964 - They’ve got a computor up at the Mayo Clinic that takes a patient’s answers to 550 true-false questions and uses the information to indicate whether he should see a psychiatrist. The machine comes up with diag- noses such as: “Patient is probably somewhat eccentric, seciusive and withdrawn. Has many internal conflicts. Consider psychiatric evaluation.”

And, according to a news report, “it picks out not only the patient in mental trouble but can also print: “ ‘Patient quite well organized in thinking.  Follows instructions.’ ” It is, I suppose, to be expected of a creature of the machine age that it scorn eccentricity, seclusion, withdrawal and internal conflicts in favor of “following instructions.”

It lives a life without philosophical or moral complexity so it is only natural that it believe we should also. The computor makes its judgment based on the results of the true-false test, called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Faithfully obeying instructions, the question never arises in its transitorized mind that men who invent tests called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory may not be the best qualified to judge the thinking processes of others. The thought never occurs to it that some people prefer the company of interesting eccentrics to that of jargon- ridden psychologists.

I would recommend that the doctors at Mayo not take this machine too seriously. I suspect it of jealousy It couldn’t be eccentric if it wanted to. They’d have an IBM repairman down there within minutes and soon it would be happily following instructions again. It knows no internal conflict arid thus is totally incapable of speculative thinking and critical exam- ination of itself and the world. It cannot make a Thoreauan withdrawal while doctors are shoving thousands of Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventories through it. In brief, my diagnosis is this:
    This machine suffers from extreme anxiety transferred and rationalized through a subconscious degradation of the human being whom it secretly ad- mires but feels incapable of emulating. Further, there is reason to believe that the machine has a serious neurosis brought on by its sexual impotence. Consider psychiatric evaluation. 

America's collapse: Top rot

Another in our series on the collapse of America, this one written some years ago.

Sam Smith – One good way to judge the state of a culture is to check out its leadership. Absent a strong, continuing rebellion from the bottom or a conscious devolution of power, this leadership leaves its mark on every aspect of society.

For us, this is not a new problem. Shortly before 9/11 I wrote:
Over lunch one day, I asked journalist Stephen Goode how he would describe our era. Without hesitation, he said it was a time of epigons.

An epigon, he explained to my perplexed frown, is one who is a poor imitation of those who have preceded. The word comes from the epigoni — the afterborn — specifically the sons of the seven Greek chieftans killed in their attempt to take Thebes. The kids avenged the deaths by capturing Thebes – but they also destroyed it. They were generally not considered as admirable and competent as their fathers.
Being around epigons is like being trapped at a bad craft fair where everything you see seems to have been made before, only better.

Of course, you can not expect your leaders in politics, academia, business or the media to tell you this. People have to figure it out for themselves and that can take a long time.

In politics, for example, our conservative leaders are devoting themselves to the revival of segregation, even attacking unfettered voting that civil rights activists early targeted as essential for a decent society. These conservatives do not use slur words and other crudities of the old south but in some ways are even more dangerous since they seek to discriminate formally not only against blacks, but against every ethnic minority, women, gays and anyone not making enough money to contribute to their campaign. Because the mass media has so thoroughly embedded itself in the culture of our leadership, there is little hint of this on the evening news. Stealing the voting rights of citizens is treated as just another political issue to ponder soberly and not – as it should be – a crime.

In a collapsing society, one of the best clues is to look at the supposed good guys. What we find in politics is a Democratic Party that has not only betrayed its present supporters, but is actively undoing the progress it made over 80 years in economic equity and civil liberties, just to name two examples.

We like to think that changing parties alters far more than it often does. There may be a cultural trend that affects, for better or worse, whoever is in power. Thus, we have the irony of Richard Nixon being the last president whose domestic politics could be fairly described as liberal, while people like Clinton and Obama have moved the country to the right.

Driving this now is a culture of impunity, which, some years back, I described this way:
In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, and at best practices only titular democracy. A culture of impunity differs from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a new culture does not announce itself.

In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.
The major political struggle has become not between conservative and liberal but between ourselves and our political, economic, social and media elites. Between the toxic and the natural, the corporate and the communal, the technocratic and the human, the competitive and the cooperative, the efficient and the just, meaningless data and meaningful understanding, the destructive and the decent.

Today almost every principle upon which this country was founded is being turned on its head. Instead of liberty we are being taught to prefer order, instead of democracy we are taught to be follow directions, instead of debate we are inundated with propaganda. Most profoundly, American citizens are no longer considered by their elites to be members or even worker drones of society, but rather as targets – targets of opportunity by corporations and of suspicion and control by government.

Meanwhile, in academia, theoretically a source of national wisdom, a strange silence prevails. Could it be the effect, as reported by the Congressional Research Service, of the approximately 60% of federal research and development funds that go to academic institutions?

And what about a media controlled by fewer and fewer large corporations with journalists who have an increasingly hard time separating their jobs from the social and economic benefits of being nice to those in power? Just one small example:

“Project Censored researched the board members of 10 major media organizations from newspaper to television to radio. Of these ten organizations, we found there are 118 people who sit on 288 different American and international corporate boards proving a close on-going interlock between big media and corporate America. We found media directors who also were former Senators or Representatives in the House.”

Finally, we have from the arts little leadership as well, including not one major protest subculture since the punk rebellion.

It is not just the people who are the problem. It is the ideas and values that they spread with their power.

Consider how business school clichés have infected even non-profit organizations and how the media just accepts them as truths.

Or how our government is driven by data drones, process obsessives, legal lemmings, and test tyrants.

Or how our public school system is being wrecked by grotesquely erroneous concepts of education.

Or how our freedoms are being slashed in the name of a security that is drifting ever further away.

Or how truth, reality, decency, integrity, fairness and cooperation have become, in the eyes of our elite and its subservient media, just toys of the left and the naïve.

In such an environment, it is hard for anything good and valuable to survive, including a democratic republic.

The role of ReaganThe decline of DemocratsElite emigration

Friday, October 12, 2018

Places I owned for awhile

Sam Smith, 1964 - There are several places in this world that I own. Not because I paid cash for them, nor because I can produce any deed to support my claim. I own these places because when I go to them no one is there. No one seems to want them. So, until another makes a claim, they are mine.

Someone has made a claim on one of my places. I only went there once, but I immediately decided that it would be mine. Now I must give it up, and I'm a little sorry. Hurricane Island lies close to the Vinalhaven, the large island that guards the entrance to Maine's Penobscot Bay. It once had a small village and a quarry.  But when I visited the island, it was empty. I climbed to the highest point of the island and, from that massive, moss-coated rock, stood a long time looking between the islands that line Hurricane Sound to the sea beyond that changed its color as it reflected the slowly descending rays of the sun.

Below, and it seemed very far below, lay the little 40' cutter on which I had sailed to this place. I stared down the sheer face of the rock. The drop, as close as I could figure it, was a hundred feet almost straight down, until it met with the soft mattress laid by years of falling softwood needles, twigs, and loose bark. I would, perhaps, someday build a house here. In fact, the house was partially constructed. The rock face was as sturdy a wall as one could desire. The ground was as comfortable as the most expensive rug. Three more walls, one of them with a huge window from which to look down the sound, a roof, and the house would be complete.

I returned to the boat and told the others I wished to spend the night here. They shrugged; I gathered up my sleeping bag and returned ashore. There was much to see on my new property and little time, for we were sailing on the next morning. I walked over the land making a mental list of my assets: A huge tree that had been recently struck by lightning and was lying on the ground with a moist yellow scar running a full fifty feet along its proud, straight length. It looked brutal then, but I knew that in a few months the scar would fade from prominence as the tree died. Tough little bushes that had fought their way up through cracks in the granite. Various berries. Some were bitter and some tasted sweet, but all gave a pointilist's touch to small sections of the island. A few boards, held together by fragile and rusted nails, with a purposeless strand of wire reaching out, but finding nothing to hold to, and so ending in the grass a few feet away. A battalion of softwoods standing at attention, ready to defend the ground from the sun and the rain.

I slept on top of the rock that night, making a soft bed out of pine remnants on which to place my sleeping bag. The next morning, I awoke damp and a little cold, but very much awake. The sun had passed to the other side of the island during the night and now it was rising to my left as I looked toward the sound. I walked down to the rocks from which the water was slowly receding as it did twice each day, dropping 9 feet then returning to the same place. The boat was near. I returned to it.

We set sail, floated down the sound, then, with the sun, moved slowly to the west. That was nearly ten years ago. I never had a chance to return to Hurricane Island. I sometimes felt guilty, being an absentee landlord, but I felt sure the island was safe. Then, recently, I read a brief announcement somewhere : "Outward Bound, a system of survival schools which originated in Great Britain, will be doing preliminary work on a new school to be established on Hurricane Island, Penobscot Bay, Maine) this summer.”

Another claim had been made. I had no receipt, no deed, to show that it was still my island.  Hurricane Island could no longer be one of my places. Now it belonged to others. I’m a little sorry, but also happy, for it would be selfish to prevent others from gazing down the sound or tracing to its source the thin rivulet I had found. The new owners sounded like good people, people who would understand the reason for the island, people who would tend it, perhaps, far better than I. I have other places, but Hurricane Island was one of my favorites.

America's collapse: The elite emigration

Sam Smith - America is currently experiencing an internally caused disaster matched only by the Great Depression and the Civil War. What follows is another in a series of notes on factors that helped to end the First American Republic, some of which are a copy or a remix of earlier writing. More will appear in coming days 

There is major concern over the effects of immigration on our economy. It is also badly misplaced.

The foreign born population in the US – as a percentage of the total – is about what it was from 1860 to 1910: 13%. It has ranged from a low of 5% in 1970 to 15% between 1880 and 1900. The only time it has fallen below 10% in the past century was between 1940 and 1980.

The truly bad effect on the American economy and on the First America Republic has not been the undocumented immigration of the poor but the undocumented emigration of the country’s elite, a record number of whom today have moved to a virtual global community without laws, without taxes, and without a nation and communities to which they feel loyalty and responsibility. While they still live in America, their jobs, employees, profits and souls all reside elsewhere.

We have never had an economic elite so fiscally separated from, and in many ways disloyal to, our land. Even the robber barons at least reinvested their money in Americans jobs and industry. The defection of our elite has been a major factor in the collapse of the First American Republic.

Some time ago I suggested testing out the role of immigrants with these questions:

        Has a Mexican ever fired or laid you off?
        Has the plant for which your worked until it was sent overseas been bought by Mexicans or is it still owned by the same people you used to work for?
        Has a Mexican ever cut your pension or health benefits? Outsourced your job to India?
        Do you think Mexicans or the pharmaceutical corporations are more responsible for high drug costs?
        How much of the corruption in Washington has been instigated by the Mexicans?
        Did the Mexicans’ make us invade Iraq?

The new reality I described it this way in Shadows of Hope, a book on Bill Clinton, in 1993:

    The real Clinton foreign policy is simply this: there are no foreign countries any more, there are only undeveloped markets. The slogan has become “Make quarterly earnings growth, not war!” Trade has replaced ideology as the engine of foreign affairs.

At one level this should be celebrated, since it is far less deadly. On the other hand, this development also means that politics, nationhood and the idea of place itself is being replaced by a huge, amorphous international corporate culture that rules not by force but by market share. This culture, in the words of French writer and advisor to Francois Mitterand. Jacques Attali, seeks an “ideologically homogenous market where life will be organized around common consumer desires.” It is a world that will become increasingly indifferent to local variation.

And when Attali speaks of American influence he says: “We have to build a word which would be ‘New York-Hollywoodization,’ because we are not Americanized in the sense that we are not going to be closer to St. Louis, Mo., or someplace else. These countries are far from us and we are far from them. They are less in advance, less influencing than New York and Hollywood.”

Here is a world in which Babar loses out to Mickey Mouse in France and where a sophisticated Frenchman speaks of St. Louis — but not Hollywood or Manhattan — as a foreign country. It is the world of what Marshall Blonsky calls “international man.”

International man — and he is mainly just that — is unlocalized. He wears a somewhat Italian suit, perhaps a vaguely British regimental tie, a faintly French shirt and shoes — says international man Furio Columbo, president of Fiat USA — “with an element of remembering New England boats and walking on the beach.” As Blonsky puts it, “You self-consciously splice genres, attitudes, styles.”
International man thrives in Washington. At the moment you call, though, he may well be in Tokyo, Bonn or London sharing with colleagues who are nominally Japanese, German or British a common heritage in the land of the perpetually mobile.

It is this unnamed country of international law, trade and finance, with its anthem to “global competition in the first half of the 21st century,” that is increasingly providing the substance and the style to our politics. It is their dual citizenship in America and in the Great Global Glob that characterizes the most powerful among us, now more than ever including even our own political leaders. International man dreams of things like NAFTA and GATT and then gets them passed. And he knows that he, as a corporate executive or licensed professional, will pass quickly through Mexican customs in his somewhat Italian suit and shoes with a hint of a New England beach because the agreement he helped to draft and pass has declared him entitled to such consideration. The union worker, the tourist from St. Louis, are, under the new world order, from far countries and so it will take awhile longer.

This then became our foreign policy: it is the policy of International Man, a policy that brings Mexico City ever nearer and starts to makes St. Louis a stranger in its own land. . .

How could any republic survive when its own elite deserts it the way ours has?

Earlier essays on America's collapse
The role of ReaganThe decline of Democrats 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Why America collapsed: The decline of Democrats

Sam Smith - America is currently experiencing an internally caused disaster matched only by the Great Depression and the Civil War. What follows is another in a series of notes on factors that helped to end the First American Republic, some of which are a copy or a remix of earlier writing. More will appear in coming days

The last clearly identifiable period during which the Democratic Party was a positive influence on the country was during the Johnson administration. Since then the number of Democratic Party led improvements have been minor. If this seems excessively critical consider the following list of things achieved before 1970 and compare that to more recent legislation:

- Regulation of banks and stock brokerage firms

- Protection of your bank account

- Social Security

- A minimum wage

- Legal alcohol

- Regulation of the stock exchanges

- Right of labor to bargain with employers

- Soil Conservation Service and other early environmental programs

- National parks and monuments

- Tennessee Valley Authority

- Rural electrification

- College education for innumerable veterans

- Housing loans for innumerable veterans - FHA housing loans

- The bulk of hospital beds in the country

- Unemployment insurance

- Small Business Administration

- Medicare

- Peace Corps

- Veterans benefits including health and housing

While manyn of the problems of the Democratic Party began in the Carter era, they escalated with the choice of Bill Clinton as its presidential candidate. He was elected by the Democratic Leadership Council in part for the purposes he served, namely undoing key elements of the Democratic past that even Ronald Reagan couldn't achieve such as backtracking on social welfare. Clinton was followed by another DLC vetted candidate, Barack Obama, who has not only showed contempt for the Constitution on various civil liberties issues but is the first president to propose reducing the benefits of Social Security and Medicare, from which he later backed off.

Because the media has increasingly narrowed political coverage topics to the presidency, it is not widely known, for example, that Democrats held a 1542 seat lead in state legislatures in 1990. As of 1998 that lead had shrunk to 288. That's a loss of over 1,200 state legislative seats, nearly all of them under Clinton. Not to mention that over 400 Democratic office holders became Republicans during the Clinton regime.

By 2011, the Democratic state legislative lead had disappeared the GOP was ahead by 622 seats.

Further, in 1992, the Democrats controlled 17 more state legislatures than the Republicans. After 1998, the Republicans controlled one more than the Democrats. Not only was this a loss of 9 legislatures under Clinton, but it was the first time since 1954 that the GOP had controlled more state legislatures than the Democrats (they tied in 1968). Today the GOP fully controls 8 more state legislatures than the Democrats.

As for the 2000 election, Democrats love to blame Ralph Nader for their loss, but the facts point in quite another direction: to Clinton and Gore. If, for example, you check the changes in Bush's and Nader's poll figures during the last month of the campaign, it is clear that Gore lost far more votes to Bush than to Nader.

It is also apparent that if Gore had disassociated himself from Clinton, he would have done far better in the campaign. According to the 2000 exit polls:

- 60% of voters disapproved of Clinton as a person

- 68% said he would go down in the history books for his scandals rather than for his leadership

- 44% thought the Clinton scandals were important or somewhat important.

- 15% of those who had voted for Clinton in 1996 voted for Bush in 2000.

And it was just not the leadership that was responsible for the party's decline. As a portion of the Democratic base became more affluent, it increasingly separated itself from the concerns of less wealthy party members. This started the rise of the "Reagan Democrats" and continued as the party elite lost interest in economic issues that concerned a major portion of the American electorate.

There was nothing mutually exclusive between these economic issues and, say, gay or women's rights, but Democrats lost the capacity to deal with both at the same time. As the Review noted some time back, "Franklin Roosevelt's labor secretary, Frances Perkins, was central to more progressive economic legislation than the entire liberal movement has been able to come up with in the past thirty years. It's hard to get liberals excited anymore about issues like pensions or the minimum wage and eventually politics reflects this fact. Consider the example of the women's movement, which - with a few exceptions like the group Nine to Five - has been stunningly uninvolved with the most oppressed women in the country, those of lower incomes and social class. Further, treating those you should be organizing as just a bunch of Bible thumping, gun toting idiots doesn't help much."

And so it became possible for the Republicans to pose falsely as friends of the middle and lower classes while the Democrats did little to prove this was wrong while dismissing constituencies that once had been central to the party.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Why America collapsed: The role of Reagan

Sam Smith - America is currently experiencing an internally caused disaster matched only by the Great Depression and the Civil War. While we are taught to regard such crises in political terms, a large number of cultural factors also made it possible for us to elect Donald Trump and suffer the consequences.

In 2003 I initially suggested that the First American Republic was over. But not until the Washington takeover by Donald Trump has this phenomenon  been widely discussed. What follows is one in a series of notes on some of the factors that helped to end the First American Republic, some of which are a copy or a remix of earlier writing. More will appear in coming days

From Grand Old Party to Greedy Old Prigs
Although there were signs of trouble as early as 1944, when the conservative Human Events magazine was launched, Republicans in general stayed within traditional American culture until the Reagan administration. There were exceptions, the most striking being Joseph McCarthy and his ilk, but on the whole Republicans represented a wing of American politics rather than, as at present, a political asteroid threatening to blow the whole place up. People such as Robert A. Taft and Margaret Chase Smith were like your grandfather and grandmother, out of touch with the times but still members of the family. Dwight Eisenhower was a moderate and Richard Nixon - for all his personal faults - was on domestic issues the last liberal president America has had.

That changed radically with Ronald Reagan, who applied principles he had used to sell Chesterfield cigarettes to hawk a toxic form of government described well by Robert Lekachman:

"Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000".

Of course, Reagan had help, including from Margaret Thatcher who served as his brains as he went around oh shucksing the voters.

There is considerable evidence that the collapse of the First American Republic began in no small part with Reagan's inauguration:

- The number of federal inmates increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to about 170,000 today.

- From 1947 to 1979 family income of the bottom 20% went up 116% and those in the top 20% went up 99%. Between 1980 and 2009, the bottom 20% went up 15% while the top 20% went up 95%

- Middle class debt has leaped.

- Personal bankruptcies went up

- Student loan debt has soared.

- In the 1980s there were 50 corporations controlling most of the major media. Now there are six.

- During the Reagan administration the number of families living below the poverty line increased by one-third.

= Reagan began the dismantling of the labor union movement

There are other aspects of the Reagan years we tend to forget. For example, the Reagan administration was among the most corrupt in American history including, by one estimate, 31 convictions of top officials. By comparison 40 government officials were indicted or convicted in the wake of Watergate. 47 individuals and businesses associated with the Clinton machine were convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes with 33 of these occurring during the Clinton administration itself.

David R. Simon and D. Stanley Eitzen in Elite Deviance, report that 138 appointees of the Reagan administration either resigned under an ethical cloud or were criminally indicted.

Reagan's policies also led to what was then the greatest financial scandal in American history: the savings & loan debacle which cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

In short, Reagan started the dismantling of the New Deal and the Great Society and the major progress of those eras. We have had not recovery since, and Donald Trump has made it far worse.

Monday, October 08, 2018

The road to literacy is paved with words, not tests

Sam Smith, 2007

Among the many myths of No Child Left Behind is that schools are in charge of literacy. I got an early inkling of the fallacy of this as I listened to black teenagers conversing in our DC neighborhood in the 1960s. As a writer, I was struck by their use of metaphor – trading insults while “doin’ the dozens” – and by their clear acceptance of language as a weapon of survival in life. Yet these were the same kids who had already been largely assigned to failure by the schools and others.

Why the disconnect? I mentioned this the other day to an educator friend, David Craig, who soon returned with two academic articles that shed fascinating light on the topic.

The first, from the American Psychologist in 1989 by Shirley Brice Heath, dealt with shifts in the oral and literate traditions among black Americans living in poverty.

Heath pointed out that both cold stats and warm culture had changed dramatically among the black poor since the 1960s. This was a period of migration from the rural south to the urban north. Even the ghettos in the north changed. Instead of primarily two family dwellings or small apartment houses “with the 1960s came high rise, high-density projects, where people took residence not through individual and free choice of neighbor and community, but through bureaucratic placement.” By the 1980s, not only did nearly half of all black children live in poverty, but “the proportion of young black families with fathers fell drastically.”

Among the impacts: a loss of adult contact. Describing the earlier culture, Heath wrote, “Male and female adults of several ages are often available in the neighborhood to watch over children who play outside and to supplement the parenting role of young mothers.” In the later urban inner city this was no longer the case.

And, of course, the more adults that are around, the more language is used in both quantity and variety:

“Children take adults’ roles, issue commands and counter-statements, and win arguments by negotiating nuances of meaning verbally and nonverbally. Adults goad children into taking several roles and learning to respond quickly to shifts in mood, expectations and degrees of jest.”

Further, in these earlier communities families were far more likely to be involved in other organizations, not the least of which was the church:

“For those who participate in the many organizations surrounding the church there are many occasions for both writing long texts (such as public prayers) and reading Biblical and Sunday School materials, as well as legal records of property and church management matters. Through all of these activities based on written materials, oral negotiations in groups makes the writing matter. . . The community values access to written sources and acknowledges the need to produce written materials of a variety of types for their own purposes, as well as for successful interaction with mainstream institutions.”

Now jump to the 1980s:

“Young mothers, isolated in small apartments with their children, and often separated by the expense and trouble of cross-town transportation from family members, watch television, talk on the phone, or carry out household and caregiving chores with few opportunities to tease or challenge their youngsters verbally. No caring, familiar, and ready audience of young and old is there to appreciate the negotiated performances.”

Heath got one mother to agree “to tape record her interactions with her children over a two-year period and to write notes about her activities with them.” During “500 hours of tape and over 1,000 lines of notes, she initiated talk to one of the three preschool children (other than to give them a brief directive or query their actions or intentions) in only 18 instances. . . In the 14 exchanges that contained more than four turns between mother and child, 12 took place when someone else was in the room.”

I have just been pouring over this years’ dismal NCLB results for DC public and charter schools. As I did so, I wondered whether the experts with whom we have entrusted America’s children’s literacy are aware the sort of factors that Heath noted:

“In a comparative study of black dropouts and high school graduates in Chicago, those who graduated had found support in school and community associations, as well as church attendance; 72% of the graduates reported regular church attendance whereas only 14% of the dropouts did. Alienation from family and community, and subsequently school, seems to play a more critical role in determining whether a student finishes high school than the socioeconomic markers of family income or education level.”

Heath wasn’t too optimistic: “For the majority of students that score poorly on standardized tests, the school offers little practice and reward in open-ended, wide-ranging uses of oral and written language. . . Yet such occasions lie at the very heart of being literate: sharing knowledge and skills from multiple sources, building collaborative activities from and with written materials, and switching roles and trading expertise and skill in reading, writing and speaking.”

Of course, the danger in all of this is that such occasions also encourage critical thinking, little valued by NCLB or by the establishment that created it, an establishment far more interested in compliant drones than in independent minds.

Once, talking to a large group of DC public high school students, I was struck by the fact that, concerned as they were about drugs and violence, they were unable even to phrase the questions they wanted to ask. I mentioned this to a friend with long experience in the DC public schools and she replied with sadness, “But they are not meant to ask questions; they are only meant to answer them” – perhaps the best summation of NCLB I’ve heard.

The second article came from a 2001 edition of Reading Research Quarterly, written by Susan B Neuman and Donna Celano, who had gone out and examined four Philadelphia neighborhoods of different ethnicities and economics to discover how much written material was easily available. The poverty rates ran from 0% to 85% and the percent of black residents ranged from 5% 82%.

It was a highly detailed and academic study but over and over again – examining different factors – the mere access to words seemed to play an important role. They considered signage, public spaces for reading and books in child care centers, libraries and drug stores.

The poorest neighborhoods, for example, had 4 stores selling children’s reading material while the better off neighborhoods had 11 and 12. More dramatic was the number of titles visible in these stores: 55 in the poorest neighborhood (most in pharmacy and Dollar Store) vs. 16,000 in the wealthiest [including Borders) and 1597 in the second wealthiest. Signage was far more equal: 76 business signs in the poor neighborhood vs. 77 in the richest. But the content was different. In the better off neighborhoods “children could conceivably read their environment though these signs, with pictures, shapes, and colors denoting the library, the bank, and the public telephone.” In the poor neighborhoods, signs “were often graffiti covered and difficult to decipher.”

None of this really surprises me. After all, I learned to read and write – despite my parents’ prohibitions – with no small help from a massive number of comic books. It seems perfectly obvious to me that the easiest way to learn the word “deviation” is to read it in a balloon above the head of a mean looking Nazi officer shouting to his frightened mignons, “I will stand no DEVIATION from my orders!!!” The story-telling and the silent translation of the art combine to make one of the best reading aids of all times.

And at least one academic study found that:

“There was no difference in frequency of comic book reading between a middle class and a less affluent sample of seventh grade boys. For both groups, those who read more comic books did more pleasure reading, liked to read more, and tended to read more books. These results show that comic book reading certainly does not inhibit other kinds of reading, and is consistent with the hypothesis that comic book reading facilitates heavier reading.”

But comic book sales have diminished and with them another door to literacy is harder to open. Now instead of Captain Marvel, we have No Child Left Behind, a program that gets reading off to a bad start by even lying in its title.

Among my other untested contact with matters of literacy:

– I was blessed to have been a parents’ association president of an elementary school that understood the importance of quantity in teaching words. The school realized that the shortest route to good writing was to do it. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. There was also an emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music, which among their other virtues offer the opportunity to sing or say words over and over until they become a part of your soul.

– Starting out in journalism, I had to write nine radio newscasts a day for a while. You won’t find that suggested in any writing manual or school curriculum but I still recall trying to come up with new ways of saying the same thing just to keep from being bored.

– As an editor, I have often offered a standard cure for writers’ block: just write crap and don’t worry about it. Then go to bed and retrieve the good parts the next day.

– My own list of unauthorized literary aids would include memorizing Burma Shave signs, devouring Ogden Nash poems, reading under duress from the Book of Common Prayer at Holy Communion, learning jokes, listening to Edward R. Murrow, following instructions on how to build an HO gauge model freight car and absorbing the lyrics to endless popular songs.

Make a list from your own life and the virtues of constant exposure to words in sound and print without regardless of their purported quality will become clear.

Above all is the need to enjoy what you’re reading or writing. The greatest sin of NCLB is to make what should be a lifelong joy into a tedious, bureaucratic exercise – making words far harder to learn and infinitely harder to love.

Kids need more words in their lives – and fewer tests.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Things Irish-American Protestants should know about Ireland

By Sam Smith, 2006

St, Patrick’s Day celebrations were begun by American Irish Protestants. According to Edward T. O’Donnell in the History News Network:

“The practice of honoring St. Patrick on March 17, traditionally understood as the day of his death (c. 493) at Downpatrick in County Down, is a tradition that comes from old Ireland. For centuries the people of Ireland marked the day as a solemn religious event, perhaps wearing green, sporting a shamrock, and attending mass, but little more. No one knows for sure when the first commemoration of St. Patrick’s Day in America took place. One of the earliest references is to the establishment of the Charitable Irish Society, founded on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston in 1737. Another early celebration took place in New York City in 1762, when an Irishman named John Marshall held a party in his house. Although little is known of Marshall’s party, it is understood that his guests marched as a body to his house to mark St. Patrick’s Day, thus forming an unofficial ‘parade.’ The first recorded true parade took place in 1766 in New York when local military units, including some Irish soldiers in the British army, marched at dawn from house to house of the leading Irish citizens of the city. With few exceptions, the parade in New York has been held every year since 1766. Thus was a tradition born – an American tradition only recently adopted in Ireland itself.”

 The idea spread. For example, on March 17, 1812, in Savannah GA, thirteen men founded the Hibernian Society dedicated to aiding destitute Irish immigrants, largely Catholic. A few months later, the group, now up to 44 members, adopted a constitution and the motto, “non sibi sed alis” (not for ourselves, but for others). Not one charter member was a Catholic. One year later, on March 17, the group marched in procession to a Presbyterian church for a service and oration.

 Thanks to Irish-American Protestants, St. Patrick’s Day became secularized rather than, as in Ireland, considered a day of holy obligation. In fact, until the 1970s the bars in Dublin were closed on March 17.

 Over the next few decades, groups such as the Hibernians, the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, and Irish Aid societies sprung up in America as a reflection of Irish loyalty and concern for Irish immigrants.

 The Catholics were not the only religion persecuted by the English. Presbyterians, who had fled Scotland to escape persecution, found a similar fate in Ireland. It was one of the causes of Irish emigration to America prior to the potato famine. As one history recounts:

“Though they naturally contributed to the stipend of their own preachers, Presbyterians (and other dissenters: Quakers, Baptists and, later, Methodists, as well as Roman Catholics) were obliged by law to financially support the Church of Ireland, through payment of tithes; this provoked deep resentment. Ulster Presbyterians deeply resented being obliged to submit to, support and obey the Episcopalian church interests of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy . . . By the archaic Test Act, Presbyterians were barred from holding public office — unless they took the communion sacrament according to Church of Ireland rites.”

This account also describes a fundamentalist twist that may seem odd to today’s reader:

“The radical biblicism of Ulster Presbyterians meant that they took most seriously scriptural concern for social and political justice. When oppressive, despotic government denied them civil and religious liberty, liberal Presbyterians in late 18th century Ulster began to clamor for constitutional reform of their (Irish-based) British parliament. Political questions, they contended, were ultimately moral and religious concerns and Presbyterians saw it as their duty to create a just society; the state needs be ‘born again.'”

 1791 saw the creation of the multi-denominational United Irishmen. Its members initially merely sought political and economic reforms, but within four years had begun arming themselves and talking of liberation. They also revised their oath to read:

“In the awful presence of God, I do voluntarily declare that I will persevere in endeavoring to form a Brotherhood of affection among Irishmen of every religious persuasion. And that I will also persevere in my endeavors to obtain an equal, full and adequate representation of all the people of Ireland.”

 While many Presbyterians declined to support or withdrew from the United Irishmen, the group was central to the uprising of 1798. This largely Protestant revolt was a failure and, with the exception a minor skirmish in Tipperary in 1848 and one at Chester Castle in 1867, there would not be another Irish armed rebellion until the 20th century.

 Irish Protestant emigrants played a major role in the American Revolution and the revolution in turn influenced events in Ireland. For example, the first copy of the Declaration of Independence to be printed outside of North America appeared in the pages of the ‘Belfast Newsletter.’ A less direct influence came when England was forced to rely on Irish volunteer companies to defend Ireland because its regular troops were in America. After the war, the 80,000-strong Volunteers pressed for political reform.

 Some Irish Protestants and Catholics joined in support of the French revolution and in encouraging a French invasion of Ireland on behalf of the Irish cause. The French national assembly even promised military and financial support for an uprising against the English.

 Among the influences on Irish Protestants were the writings of Tom Paine. His ‘Rights of Man’ was declared “the Bible of Belfast.’ 40,000 copies were sold in Ulster and it was reprinted in four Irish newspapers.

 Following the American revolution, Paine encouraged similar uprisings in Europe, suggesting, “it is not difficult to believe that the spring is begun”.

 Among pro-nationalist Protestants of the time was Theobald Wolfe Tone, who wrote an early “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.” He also served as secretary of the Catholic Committee. Tone, upon his capture in 1798, was refused a soldier’s execution by gunshot and was sentenced to be hung. He made an eloquent speech about the virtues of republicanism in court and then returned to his cell where he cut his own throat.

 Irish Protestant Thomas Addis Emmett, brother of 1798 uprising leader Robert Emmett, was captured and condemned but later won a reprieve. In 1804, a year after his brother was hung, he emigrated to America. He became the highly regarded attorney general of New York, well enough known nationally that a New Orleans attorney said of him, “his name rings down the valley of the Mississippi, and we hail his efforts with a kind of local pride.” Tom Paine liked him well enough to leave him $200 in his will.

 A 20th century Protestant fighter for the Irish cause, Erskine Childers, was executed on charges of possessing a small pistol after helping Eamon de Valera and other IRA members lead a rebellion against the Irish free state government. His son would become president of Ireland in the 1970s. Childers, regarded as the father of the modern spy novel (“Riddle of the Sands”), used his 50-foot ketch to smuggle arms to the Irish rebels. In support of his execution, Winston Churchill said, “no man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavored to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being.”

 Although he would later become far more conservative, Protestant poet WB Yeats as a young man was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. An 1899 police report called him as “more or less revolutionary” and he wrote a poem about the 1916 uprising:

Now and in time to be,
Wherever the green is worn,
All changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born

 Yeats said of Irish Protestants during a 1925 Senate debate on divorce, “We . . . are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

 History News Network –In several polls and surveys conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, researchers discovered what at first seemed an astonishing fact: a majority of Americans who identify themselves as Irish also identify themselves as Protestant. For a nation (and an ethnic group for that matter) that had grown so accustomed to conflating Irishness with Catholicism, this announcement was greeted with disbelief. Among some Irish Catholics, the reaction was anger.

The explanation for the find is actually quite simple. Huge numbers of Irish immigrants came to America in the colonial period (indeed, 30 percent of all immigrants from Europe arriving between 1700 and 1820 came from Ireland) and the great majority of them were Presbyterians from Ulster. Of the many thousands of Catholics who came in the 17th and 18th centuries, most appear to have converted to some form of Protestantism.

The Protestant descendents of these early Irish arrivals have been multiplying ever since. In contrast, the great migration of Irish Catholics began only in the 1830s (during which time, of course, many Protestant Irish continued to come). A poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center makes this point clear: in the 1970s, only 41% of Irish Catholics were fourth generation or more as compared to 83% of Irish Protestants.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The southern factor in the Kavanaugh disaster

Sam Smith – To understand the Kavanaugh disaster it helps to pay attention to the bitter reaction of two southern senators, Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. Their anger reflected the fact that a principle upon which they were raised had been so dramatically challenged.  This southern principle has been described by historian David Hackett Fischer as hegemonic liberty i.e. the more power you have the more liberty you have. 

Obviously, this is not just a southern principle, but as Fischer explains, the migrations from England to America varied in a number of ways, one these being a view of liberty that altered by region. For New England, your freedom was defined by the community. In the Quaker influenced mid-Atlantic it was a reciprocal arrangement: I can’t have my liberty if you don’t have yours. In the west it was libertarian: you get to do what you want.

In the South it was based on your status. And while obviously blacks were the far worst victims, they weren’t the only ones. For example,  Virginia was largely settled by whites who were indentured servants. The settlers of Jamestown each brought an indentured worker as well.  And, of course, wives and other women ranked well below powerful men as well.

Thus even an not well off Arkansas boy who made it to governor, presumed he had the right to behave as Bill Clinton did with women.

In short it was a model that, as I suggested in an article some months ago, helps to explain the American powerful of the day.  Donald Trump, for example, has the classic values and attitudes of a plantation owner. . . and he’s far from the only non-southern corporate example.  Interestingly, Trump uses another classic southern trick: he tells low income whites that blacks and latinos are responsible for their troubles.

Clearly the South has changed, witness a black candidate leading the race for governor in Florida. But just as many tend to lump all blacks and women together, so there are many liberals who do the same thing with men, when, in fact, in all these cases culture, education and background are far more telling.

Region is also important in ways  we don’t even note. For example half of Americans live in nine states, yet these nine states have only 18 seats in the Senate as opposed to the 26 seats given states formerly with the Confederacy, which currently houses only about a quarter of the country.

The Review keeps a tally of rankings of states by a variety of standards. Seven of the currently ten worst ranked states are in the South including Graham’s South Carolina and McConnell’s Kentucky. No southern state makes it to the top ten.

We tend to think that the civil rights movement ended the old south. Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell remind us that’s not the case.

History's hints for third parties

Originally published in the Green Horizon Quarterly
Sam Smith, 2012 – Added to all the other obstacles faced by third party activists is a paucity of analytical and historical guidebooks for their struggles. The media tends to be dismissive of third parties and lacking in understanding of their contributions to American politics. While some academics have done fine studies of individual movements and parties, scholars aren’t particularly interested in the aggregated effect of third parties. Further, as with journalists, one finds on campus a deep and uncritical reverence for a ‘two party system’ that has, in fact, formed America’s largest conspiracy for the restraint of trade – the trade in political ideas. Finally, activists themselves are usually so involved in what should be that they can forget to look closely at what is and how it works for and against their efforts.

This windshield appraisal of America’s third party movements is not for the purpose of proving a thesis, arguing a point or suggesting reforms, but rather to help activists gain a better sense of the political environment in which they have to work. And to help them recognize both the potential and the limits that present themselves.

First, the good news: America’s third parties have been immensely important to the country as catalysts of political and social progress. Their efforts lent weight to the anti-slavery movement, to the institution of an income tax, and to women’s rights. While most of the power in 20th century politics was held by centrist or conservative white Protestants and Irish Catholics, the major reforms of that period stemmed from three third party movements: the Populists, the Progressives and the Socialists.

One reason journalists and historians tend to discount the impact of third parties is because of their obsession with apexes of power and those who inhabit them. In reality, however, change often comes not from the top or the center but from the edges. Ecologists and biologists appreciate the importance of edges as sources of life and change, whether they be the boundary of a forest, the shore of a bay or the earth’s patina so essential to our being that we call the atmosphere. The political edge, at least metaphorically, has many of the same critical attributes.

Third parties have come in all sorts of shapes and colors. Some have aimed at a single issue such as slavery or drinking. Some have been driven by the popularity of an individual such as Teddy Roosevelt or Ross Perot. The ones with the deepest effect on the country’s history have tended to be both parties and movements spreading like a virus throughout American culture, such as the Populists, Progressives and Socialists. To be any of these represented a commitment far beyond today’s membership in one of the major parties. Finally, there have been statewide parties such as the Farmer Labor Party, New York’s Liberal and Conservatives, and the DC Statehood Party that were far more successful within their constituency than many national third parties.

By far the most successful third party in history was the Republican Party which four years after its first run for the White House elected a president, Abraham Lincoln. But this is only part of the story, because two third parties helped lay the groundwork beginning 20 years earlier with the presidential campaigns of the anti-slavery Liberty Party and Free Soilers.

Two other 19th third parties served either as precursors of something bigger, with the Greenbacks, with its emphasis on monetary policy, a warm-up band for the Populists and the Prohibition Party, which got only 2% in its best presidential bid, but won a whole constitutional amendment 50 years after its founding.

In the 20th century, if you wanted to make a big splash in national third party politics, the best way to do it was with a major icon such as Roosevelt, Wallace or Perot. Here are the best numbers for various third party candidates:

Theodore Roosevelt 28%
 Perot (1992): 19%
 LaFolette: 17%
 George Wallace: 14%
 Debs (1912): 11%
 Perot (1996): 9%
 Anderson: 7%

All other 20th century third party candidates got 3% or less, including Debs in three additional runs and Thurmond and Henry Wallace in the hot 1948 race. It is useful to note that all the leading third party candidates – with the exception of George Wallace and Debs – drew heavily from mainstream constituencies rather than running as radical reformers.

Obviously the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, the New Deal drew from Populist, Progressive and Socialist ideas despite low turnouts for their candidates. The Populists, despite topping out a 9% in a presidential race, influenced the politics of two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.

Still, if you want to affect national politics with a national third party presidential run, history suggests that getting over 5% – preferably closer to 10% – is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a less direct impact for your efforts, perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.

That does not mean, however, that these parties – like certain insects – were merely born, had sex, and then died. In fact, some of the third parties had long, healthy lives, in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic recent example, with a history dating back over 100 years. The party’s own history suggest that eclecticism didn’t hurt:

‘From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of “reform vs. revolution,” the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making “immediate demands” of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of ‘building the new society within the shell of the old.'”

By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending in 1960. And the party reports that Karen Kubby, Socialist councilwoman, won her re-election bid in 1992 with the highest vote total in Iowa City history.

Some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). Albeit in a confused and weakened status at the moment, the Liberal Party of New York remains the longest lived third party next the to the Socialists. Founded in 1944 – in a break with the more radical American Labor Party – the Liberals benefited immensely from New York’s fusion-friendly election laws, which allowed it to support Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and to claim credit for giving Kennedy enough votes for his presidential victory. Other nominees of the party have included Averill Harriman, Mario Cuomo, Jacob Javits, Robert Kennedy, Fiorello LaGuardia and John Lindsey. Swinging the gate of New York politics made it exceptionally important.

The Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota lasted 26 years before merging with the Democrats. During that time it elected a senator and a governor. And in DC, the Statehood Party held an elected position for 25 years and some years later merged with the DC Green Party.

As for the Greens, the recent near victory of Matt Gonzalez for San Francisco mayor is the latest sign of success in viral politics of a party that had already elected a score of mayors elsewhere. While SF mayoralty may not seem as important as a Green presidential run, I was shakened from that assumption a few days after election when it suddenly dawned that Gonzalez’ race was not just local; for me it meant that there somewhere in America there was a city roughly the size of my own in which 47% of the voters agreed with me. It was a remarkably cheering revelation.

There is, it appears, no one right way to run a third party in the U.S. It always has to be a form of guerilla politics because the rules are so thoroughly stacked against those not Democrats or Republicans. Thus the judging the right tactics at the right time, as opposed to planning moves strictly on the basis of their presumed virtue, would seem to be the wisest course. To slow down traffic I might be morally justified in stepping into the Interstate, spreading my arms, and shouting, “stop,” but it is probably not the most useful thing I could do for the cause. Besides, like some third party presidential candidates, I might not have another opportunity. My initial virtue might turn out to have been terminal.

For example, the question of fusion arises periodically. History clearly shows that there is no clear answer as to whether fusion is useful or not as a general principle because sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The Liberal Party of New York used it magnificently (thanks in part to the laws of that state) while many feel fusion helped bring down the Populist Party. Beginning in the late 19th century state legislatures began taking action against fusion because, presumably, they thought it was working. And it can be argued that the moves against fusion were part of a broader counter-revolution that included the end of Reconstruction and giving corporations rights of the individual. In any case, today forty states and DC ban fusion.

One may oppose fusion on principal – for it certainly degrades the message of one’s party – but how is it that unprincipled opponents of reform also see it as such a danger? These are the sort of questions that Greens need to answer pragmatically without tying themselves into all sorts of moral and ideological knots. The impact could be profound. For example, the ban on fusion is the only thing preventing a third party from running its own candidate for vice president along with, say, the Democratic candidate for president. If Nader had run for vice president in 2000, his vote total would have been much higher and might have revealed far more sympathy for Green politics than is apparent today. Instead of being blamed for 2000, the Greens might have been actively courted for 2004.

Similarly, the question of whether or how to run a presidential candidate needs to be subjected to the lens of history. Again, the lessons are multiple and far from clear. To me, they suggest that a good third party presidential run should be reserved for when the stars are aligned – a major party weak, an unusually popular voice for your own, and a social revolt in the making.

There is one other factor that is truly new in America: the destruction of constitutional government in the wake of September 11. Besides all its other horrors, the developments make it even more difficult for a third party national campaign. But the war or terror is in many ways a war to protect a tiny percentage of the American elite and their capitals of politics and business – much as only ten percent of those in Orwell’s 1984 were actually members of the party; the rest lived in a countryside living relatively normal lives.

Oddly, however, this presents an opportunity for the Greens. As I wrote recently:
“At present the Green Party seems exceedingly concerned with whom it will run for president, if anyone. This is a time-consuming, agenda-skewing, image-monopolizing business. . . But what if the Green Party declared itself the party of the countryside, of free America, and set its sights on organizing not just the survival, resistance, and rebellion of the unoccupied homeland, but its revival, its discovery of self-reliance, and its energetic practice of democracy and decency? There is a wealth of electoral opportunity. For example, in 15 states more than half the state legislative seats are presently won without a contest.
“There is a logic to the Greens becoming the party of free America. After all Greens are the party most in the American tradition of decentralization, democracy, and cooperative communities. And they have ample precedent in the grassroots Populist Party which took on robber barons of startling similarity to those now served by the Bush regime.”

The important thing, however, in discussing such matters is for Greens to remember that they are members of the same team, selecting the next play not to prove their virtue but to improve their position. The virtue they can take for granted; the position will be determined by each day’s practical choices. If there is any virtue to be observed during these difficult decisions it is that of gentleness towards each other. And while there is much to be learned from the past, perhaps the most important is an appreciation for the magnificent uncertainty of the whole adventure.

Monday, September 24, 2018

How to get along with other Americans

 Sam Smith
From The Great American Political Repair Manual

The most important fact about race

It doesn’t really exist. At least not the way many Americans think it does. There is simply no undisputed scientific definition of race. What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural habit and environmental adaptation. As far back as 1785, a German philosopher noted that “complexions run into each other.” 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. ~ There is no clearly distinguishable ‘white race.’ What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly slight.
Well, it sure looks like race
Regardless of what science says, however, myth can kill and cause pain just as easily as scientific truth. And regardless of what science says, there are no Japanese players in the NBA or, as anthropologist Alice Brues told Newsweek, “If I parachute into Nairobi, I know I’m not in Oslo.”

In fact, give or take a few thousand years, it’s unlikely that those of a Nordic skin complexion would stay that way living under the African sun. Similarly, the effects of a US diet are strong enough that the first generations of both European and Asian Americans have found themselves looking up at their grandchildren.

In such ways adaptation mimics what many think of as race. But who needs science when we have our own eyes? If it looks like race, that’s good enough for us.

Further, we are obsessed with the subject even as we say we wish to ignore it. A few years back, a study of urban elections coverage found five times as many stories about race as about taxes.

We can’t even agree on what race is. In the 1990 census, Americans said they belonged to some 300 different races or ethnic groups. American Indians divided themselves into 600 tribes and Latinos into 70 categories.

The real reason race is important to us
Even as we talk endlessly of race and ethnicity, we simultaneously go to great lengths to prove that we are all the same. Why this contradiction? The answer can be partly found in the tacit assumption of many that human equity must be based primarily on competitive equality. Listen to talk about race (or sex) and notice how often the talk is also about competition. The cultural differences (real or presumed) that really disturb us are ones of competitive significance: thigh circumference, height, math ability and so forth. We accept more easily other differences — varieties of hair, degree of subcutaneous fat, prevalence of sickle cell anemia — because they don’t affect (or affect far less) who gets to the top.

Once having decided which traits are important, we assign causes to them on the basis of convenience rather than fact. Our inability to sort out the relative genetic, cultural, and environmental provenance of our differences doesn’t impede our judgment at all. It is enough that a difference is observed. Thus we tend to deal neither with understanding what the facts about our differences and similarities really mean — or, more importantly, with their ultimate irrelevance to developing a world where we can live harmoniously and happily with each other. We don’t spend the effort to separate facts from fiction because both cut too close to our inability to appreciate and celebrate our human differences. It is far easier to pretend either that these differences are immutable or that they don’t exist at all.

The Catch-22 of ethnicity

And so we come to the Catch-22 of ethnicity. It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory, unprejudiced society in which race and sex matter much. Yet in our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely important.

For example, our laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to conflict, plays up the issue. And the very groups that have suffered under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering stereotypes — “you wouldn’t understand, it’s a black thing” — as a form of protection. Thus, we find ourselves in the odd position of attempting to create a society that shuns invidious distinctions while at the same time — often with fundamentalist or regulatory fervor — accentuating those distinctions.

In the process we reduce our ethnic problems to a matter of regulation and power, and reduce our ambitions to the achievement of a tolerable stalemate rather than the creation of a truly better society. The positive aspects of diversity remain largely ignored and non-discrimination becomes merely another symbol of virtuous citizenship — like not double-parking or paying your taxes.

Martin Luther King said once:
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.
Sorry, Martin. Our approach to prejudice and discrimination is not unlike our approach to drugs: We plan to simply rule them out of existence. In so doing, we have implicitly defined the limits of virtue as merely the absence of malice.

The most important fact about prejudice
It’s normal. That isn’t to say that it’s nice, pretty, or desirable. Only that suspicion, distrust, and distaste for outsiders is a deeply human trait. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that “all primitive tribes agree in recognizing [a] category of the outsiders, those who are not only outside the provisions of the moral code which holds within the limits of one’s own people, but who are summarily denied a place anywhere in the human scheme. A great number of the tribal names in common use, Zuñi, Déné, Kiowa . . . are only their native terms for ‘the human beings,’ that is, themselves. Outside of the closed group there are no human beings.”

Many attempts to eradicate racism from our society have been based on the opposite notion — that those who harbor prejudice towards others are abnormal and social deviants. Further, we often describe these “deviants” only in terms of their overt antipathies — they are “anti-Semitic” or guilty of “hate.” In fact, once you have determined yourself to be human and others less so, you need not hate them any more than you need despise the fish you eat for dinner. This is why those who participate in genocide can do so with such calm — they have defined their targets as outside of humanity.

What if, instead, we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of “no fault justice.” We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King’s admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.

Telling stories
If we are to rid our minds of stereotypes, something needs to fill the empty space. Nothing works better than the real stories of real people drawn from the anecdotal warehouses that supply many of our deepest values, feelings and philosophy.

If you find your classroom, organization or workplace bogged down in cultural tension and abstract confrontation — or perhaps feeling the silence that comes from being near one another and not knowing what to say — why not take a break and let people tell their own stories?

In writing this book, I sat down with a number of people who had crossed the barricades of culture to some good end. I wanted their wisdom but I also wanted their stories, for wisdom seldom comes without a tale.

If I were just to tell you that each had experienced “institutional racism” or had suffered from some sort of “cultural stereotype” you’d probably forget about it before the end of this chapter. Here instead are a few of their stories:

Kyung Kyu Lim is employed by an association of state transportation officials in Washington, DC. He is active with Young Koreans United and has worked in multi-cultural coalitions. He believes that “part of getting Korean-American identity is learning commonalities with other groups.” In the early seventies, Kyung Kyu moved from Korea to an African-American community in LA. In high school, through a program ironically called A Better Chance, he ended up with a white host family in suburban Minneapolis where the overwhelmingly white student body made him feel “wretched,” with its clannishness, nice cars, and derogatory comments about “boat people.”

“I felt myself shrinking,” Kyung Kyu recalls.

Things got no better at McCalester College. The prejudice he found there made him feel “smaller and smaller.” He tried running away by dropping out and moving to Alaska. That didn’t work. Nor did changing schools to University of Connecticut — not long after he arrived, members of the football team spat upon some Asian students.

Rudy Arredondo handles civil rights problems for the Department of Agriculture and has worked with Cesar Chavez and for a city health department. He came to Texas from Mexico when he was three. By five he was working in the fields. At six, his mother put him on a bus to go to kindergarten for the first time. As he sat down, the Anglo passengers started screaming at him. He knew no English so he did not realize that the bus was segregated and that he was in the white section. He knew only that strange people were screaming at him in a foreign tongue and he was very scared. At twelve Rudy tried to buy a movie ticket in Lubbock. The clerk pointed to a sign that read, No Niggers, Dogs or Mexicans allowed.

John Callahan is editing the unpublished works of Ralph Ellison. He grew up in the New Haven. At the age of eight — and a small eight — he was sent to a parochial school in the formerly Irish turned Italian neighborhood of Fairhaven. There he was greeted by some seemingly friendly (and much bigger) Italian kids who asked him, “Do you know what an Irishman is?” John said he didn’t and one of the kids said, “A nigger turned inside out.” They pummeled him and one grabbed his Yankees baseball hat, saying of the team’s star, ‘DiMag belongs to us.'”

Later, when he was 16 and working as a mail clerk for a bank, he overheard a bank officer on the phone. The bank officer was looking out the window, his long legs stretched over a corner of his desk. He was saying, “If the funny little mick doesn’t work out, we can always bring in a nigger.”

But Kyung Kyu, Rudy and John also told me a different type of story.

For example, Kyung Kyu remembered that at his elementary school, it was black teachers who helped him through the wrenching experience of being a young stranger in a new land. They also taught him how to handle the kids who taunted him for his poor English — by saying he was Korean and proud of it.

Kyung Kyu became a community organizer and eventually found his way east and to a MIT program for organizers run by Mel King — a longtime African-American activist and one-time candidate for mayor of Boston. King became his teacher and guide.

When I talked with Rudy, our conversation turned to Sammie Abbott, an Arab-American and local activist who had led the local anti-freeway crusade in the 60s and who eventually became mayor of Takoma Park, MD. Along the way he taught a Latino organizer and an Anglo-Irish journalist a lot about politics and life. At his memorial service I had said that for Sammie, “a cause was not a career move, not an option purchased on a political future, nor a flirtation of conscience. It was simply the just life’s work of a just human.” Rudy recalled that “Sam Abbott had preconceived notions about everything. We would have strong arguments.” Yet when Sam became mayor, the town meetings would often run late, because he “never used a gavel to shut anyone up.”

Someone also crossed the barriers to help John Callahan. Going through — and dropping out of — college, John worked for two African-Americans who “taught me a great deal about the hard work of becoming a man.” Later still, when John Callahan had become a man and an academic, he wrote an essay about a black novelist. He sent a copy to the writer who responded with a long letter and an offer that they get together if John ever came to New York..

That’s how, just before four p.m. one afternoon in 1978, John Callahan found himself ringing the doorbell of Ralph Ellison. “We talked like we were in a Henry James novel,” says Callahan. Ellison called him Mr. Callahan and Callahan called him Mr. Ellison. Then, at precisely five minutes of five, Ellison leaned towards Callahan and asked, “John, would you like a drink?”

“Why yes, Mr. Elli — ah Ralph — I would.” Ellison excused himself and returned with two bottles of whiskey, one bourbon and one Irish. They began to talk again, but no longer as in a Henry James novel and only for the first of many times.

Much later, Ralph Ellison told John’s mother that if he and his wife had had a son, they would have liked him to have been like John. Today John Callahan is editing the unfinished works of a black author who found something of himself in an Irish kid from New Haven.

How Mr. Platt did it
In the middle of the stolid, segregated, monolithic 1950s, Howard Platt taught one of two anthropology courses available in an American high school. I was lucky enough to be among his students. Mr. Platt showed us a new way to look at the world.

And what a wonderful world it was. Not the stultifying world of our parents, not the monochromatic world of our neighborhood, not the boring world of 9th grade, but a world of fantastic options, a world in which people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways. Mr. Platt’s subliminal message of cultural relativism was simultaneously a subliminal message of freedom. You were not a prisoner of your culture; you could always go live with the Eskimos, the Indians or the Arabs. By the time the bell sounded I was often ready to go.

Mr. Platt did not exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural sensitivity, the regulation of diversity, or the morality of non-prejudiced behavior. He didn’t need to. He taught something far more important, something so often missing from our discussions on race, something frequently absent from college curricula. Mr. Platt opened a world of variety, not for us to fear but to learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not an obstacle, but a gift.

Finding the right words

Linguists say that when something matters greatly in a culture there are many words for it. Here in America, we have no single word for a four-wheeled vehicle. Yet when dealing with issues of race and sex, we have comfortably settled on racism and sexism, two overburdened words called to fulfill an astounding collection of functions. The net effect is to dissipate the power of the most violent acts and to exaggerate minor transgressions. Linguistically, we have put genocide and the failure of a professor to assign any reading by a black author on the same level.

If we were really going to do something about our problems we would have more words for them. We would discriminate, linguistically, tactically and philosophically, between a black saying, “Nigger,” a white freshman using the epithet and a white politician saying the same thing. We would be able to describe the difference between the prejudice that comes from being taught that another ethnic group is responsible for your economic problems and that which comes from believing another ethnic group is trying to take your power. We would distinguish among the misguided, the uninformed, the victim of warped acculturation, the viscerally hating, the cynically manipulating, the indifferent, the culturally jingoistic and the paranoid.

We seldom make these distinctions and as a result, tend to favor one recipe for all. It turns out to be no recipe, however, only words as lazy as our actions. As things stand now, America’s cultures are standing on their separate turfs hurling symbols at each other. And some have divined in this the message that it is all right to hurl other things as well.

Working our way out of this jam will take a willingness to come together, to think of the future more than of the past, to learn how to enjoy our differences, and to speak honestly, without violence, of our fears and, yes, even of our prejudices. It will mean finding ways of revealing the individual under the mask of culture. It will above all take a revival of the often forgotten faith that there is a powerful advantage in doing these things. For without that, everything else we do will be a lie no matter how politely we treat each other.

Changing by being together

Janet Hampton, a George Washington University professor whose research specialty is Afro-Hispanic studies, grew up black in Kansas. She exudes a cheerful calm suggestive of having lived around a lot of love, so you might not suspect that she has taught ethnic relations to cops at the local police academy as well as having been on the faculty at both mostly white and mostly black universities. Here’s how she handles the first day of class: “I ask the students to tell a little about themselves. If some one is from a cultural enclave, I tell them about other students from their school or place who have really done well.” She pays particular attention to those who come from “pariah nations” like Iraq. She told a student from Eritrea that he could be very helpful when the class discussed the American Civil War.

I asked her about ethnic slurs. Let’s say, Jan said, that a black student uses the word wetback. “I would make him apologize but I would also say that we don’t want to lose his point.” Corrected but still valued.

Janet informs her students that “As long as you are never disrespectful, you can say anything you want. ~ We will change by just being together.”

Some things that help

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. For example, after three decades of the modern civil rights movement, the University of Wisconsin is the only place you can get a degree in African languages and literature. 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.

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 counts within cultures as much as 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 racism. 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, when 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

Diversity includes those 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.

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 enviroments 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. After all, if it weren’t for Rush, dittoheads would have nothing to ditto.

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.

Recogniz that we are all part of 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 has an ethnicity. There are no unethnic Americans.

Why a white buy likes living in a black city
Despite a widespread yearning for better cultural and ethnic relations, we too often only talk about problems and tensions. So let me tell you a different kind of story. I offer it not as anything special, but simply as an example of the sort of things we could be telling each other but rarely do

I’m a native Washingtonian and have lived in DC most of my life. DC is two-thirds black. When someone asks me where I live and I tell them, they sometimes look at my fifty-something white face and say, “You mean in the city?” What they mean is: with all those blacks?

I don’t live in DC out of any moral imperative. I’m not doing anybody except myself a favor. I live here because I enjoy it. Beside, I’d rather be in the minority in DC than in the majority in a lot of places. Here are a few reasons why:

I’ve found black Washingtonians exceptionally friendly, decent, hospitable, and morally rooted. They’re nice folks to be around.

Black Washingtonians will talk to strangers without knowing “who are you with?” White Washingtonians, especially in the political city, are often far more formal and distant. — and more likely to treat you based on your utility to themselves. Not knowing anyone at an all-white event in DC can be pretty lonely; not knowing anyone at an all-black event in DC means you soon will.

Black Washingtonians understand loss, pain, suffering and disappointment. They have helped me become better at handling these things.

Black Washingtonians value humor; many white Washingtonians try (as Russell Baker once noted) to be somber under the illusion that it makes them serious. I like to laugh.

Black Washingtonians value achievement as well as power. Teachers, artists, writers and poets are respected in the black community. As a writer, I like that.

Living in close proximity with another culture provides a useful gauge by which to judge one’s own.

The imagery, rhythm and style of black speech appeals to me far more than the jargon-ridden circumlocution of the white city.

Many black Washingtonians are actively concerned about social and political change; much of white Washington is seeking to maintain the status quo.

White Washington always seems to want me to conform to it; black Washington has always accepted me for who I am.

Getting along with minorities of the mind

One of the hardest things for many of us is the conflict between what might be called ethnicities of the heart — the things we believe deeply, the clashing moral cultures by which we choose to live.

For example, some of the worst recent violence in this country has not involved race at all, but the issue of abortion. Attacks on abortion clinics come out of a hypertrophied sense of self-righteousness and the belief that one is entitled to not only judge but to punish those with whom you disagree.

Those favoring abortions have responded without violence, but with no less certitude, and thus many of our communities and much our politics has become enmeshed in bitter conflict.

Worse, there are the seeds here of far more serious problems, for it is when both sides deny the existence of moral doubt that cultural values can become deadly. The slaughter in Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and the Middle East is not the inevitable product of beliefs, but of the unmitigated rigidity with which they are held.

Consider, for example, that three-quarters of Americans believe abortion should be permitted when a woman’ health is at stake, the fetus has a serious defect, or a woman has been raped. Roughly half of Americans believe an abortion should be permitted for unmarried women or mothers who don’t want more children.

These figures haven’t changed much in twenty years. Neither pro- nor anti-abortion activists have been particularly successful in changing people’s minds. We can assume that we will remain deeply divided on this issue for the foreseeable future.

So what are we going to do about it? And what about a country that will continue to include both Christian fundamentalists and people who don’t practice religion at all? Feminists and orthodox Muslims? Gun-owners and animal rights activists? Gays, heterosexual adulterers, and people who believe in the sanctity of the male-female marriage.

Too often there is mostly the implicit notion that those who are outnumbered should shut up or go away. Periodic discussions of how many gays and lesbians there are in America, for example, seem to imply that the answer should make some policy difference. In fact, there is no minimum threshold for protection under the Constitution. The theory of that document is that even one of us counts.

Being American means living in close proximity with people whose values, intrinsic nature or behavior may not just be different, but which you may not like at all. Does that mean we just sit on our front porches and glare at our neighbors? Or worse? It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some things we can all do, regardless of what we feel in our hearts:

Encourage debate, not hysteria: Whether at a meeting, speaking to a friend or calling a talk show, we can affect not only the substance of a debate but its tone. Keeping the discussion civil is not just a nicety; it’s practical — it makes it easier to find a solution when you need one. Not only do well-run debates inform, they take the edge off demagoguery. Besides, most people would rather be convinced than manipulated.

Find ways to talk: Even implacable foes can carry on surrogate discussions through a third party. Communities can establish cross-cultural mediation. Everyone should be encouraged to try talking before filing a law suit. Communities should hold regular common ground conferences at which the broadest possible spectrum of citizens — from the prominent to the pariahs — come together to find things about which they can agree.

Dilute divisive issues with unifying ones: Finding issues that bring antagonists together can help mitigate the anger they feel towards one another. A rifle-owning abortion opponent might be an important member of a committee to save the park or a progressive might join with conservative libertarians on a ballot access issue. Remember: nothing scares politicians more than seeing people get together they’d rather have stay apart. Besides, once you start working with these folks, you might find you actually like them.

Find local solutions: Communities are great places to find workable solutions to problems. Actually knowing people makes it much harder to see them as walking bumper stickers. Remember that behind most law suits and mangled public solutions to human problems was somebody’s complaint — and the failure of others nearby to do something about it. Communities are where many of these problems start and where many of them could be resolved.

Give each other some space: I’m a non-churchgoing seventh day agnostic. My wife Kathy has taught Sunday School and has been a vestry member and church archivist. Somehow we’ve managed to work it out so neither of us has felt the need of a class action lawsuit to maintain our respective views of organized religion. The same could be true of most communities. But we need time and space to do our thing, play out our rituals, speak our minds, even express our annoyance and disagreement with one another.

One good rule is this: You won’t have to get the judge’s answer if you can work it out first. The 1st Amendment not only doesn’t restrict free speech, it doesn’t prohibit accommodation and compromise. Come up with a solution with which everyone’s comfortable and the ACLU never has to be the wiser.

Who’s to blame?

The increase in ethnic tensions in recent years is no surprise. When an economy starts to falter, people start looking for someone to blame. The answer they often come to — with considerable help from politicians and the media — is that some other group of Americans is having all the fun.

Economist Leon Keyserling once observed that when the Titanic sank, the men drowned and the women and children were saved. A modern sociologist looking at this, he suggested, might conclude that the men died because of some particular characteristics of men. In fact they died because there weren’t enough lifeboats. This happens in the economy, too.

It’s easy to cite the wrong causes. In 1995, a survey found that over half of white Americans thought blacks were doing as well or better than whites in the job market — this at a time when black unemployment was twice as high as white. The poll also showed that those who were wrong about such basic facts were twice as likely as other whites to favor cuts in food stamp spending, 50% more like to oppose affirmative action and nearly four times as likely to believe that discrimination against whites was greater than that against blacks.

On the other hand, data compiled by Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, shows just how complex the issue of who is really getting what actually is. For example, white men with a high school education or less have seen a dramatic drop in earnings. Yet instead of attracting sympathy, they are often stereotyped as racists. Women seem to be doing well until you realize, for example, that women in the poorest paying jobs earn about $100 a week less than men at the same level and that women lawyers’ incomes lag behind those of males by tens of thousands of dollars. Black men are blamed for taking white jobs when in fact they not only suffer far greater unemployment but are losing ground in wages. Black men blame black women for taking their jobs. And so forth.

So, what’s next?

At least until we all become much better than we are, working things out with other Americans is going to require a lot of trial and error, a lot of patience and a lot of forgiveness. Having a sense of humor won’t hurt either.

Neither will a sense of history. We humans have come a long way from the days when we couldn’t deal with anyone more foreign than our extended family or tribe. While genocide still occurs, the world regards it as an appalling remnant of a primitive past and has organized to prevent it — although often not effectively. Slavery is now inconceivable to most societies. Perhaps someday obsession with race will also be a considered a part of a cruel past rather than an accepted way of relating to each other.

Some scholars believe that the mixture of inherited and acquired characteristics we call race once served a useful purpose. When humans spread throughout the world, they did not, like other creatures, need to split genetically into new species in order to adapt to new surroundings. We changed physically only in very limited ways. Says anthropologist Robin Fox, man “did not have to redevelop his hairy coat in order to survive in Arctic climes — he could invent clothes.” In the end our ethnic and physical variation allowed us to live almost anywhere in the world, an astounding feat for one of the earth’s creatures.

Ethnicity will not disappear. We will continue to be different from each other if for no other reason then because we come from different traditions with different stories. And because we are rightly proud of these stories and will try to protect them just as we protect those of our more immediate family.

At the same time, however, our notion of — and need for — race will undergo steady change. The stages will, of course, overlap: we watch the results of ethnic massacres in Bosnia on CNN, then switch channels for a dose of benign ethnicity on BET or energetic, happy multi-culturalism on MTV. Some may fight against racism yet just as strongly oppose ethnic intermarriage. Some will never lose a sense of the sacredness of the old ways. But increasingly race and ethnicity will be the place we came from and not where we’re going. It will remain at the core of our experience but it will no longer determine the limits of our dreams.

In the end, how well we get along will be decided not by our cultural differences but by the significance we place upon them. We may all be creatures of our own culture, but we are also all free to determine just what that means. Most important, the future is the one culture — for better or worse — we will all inevitably share and all help to make. We are, each of us, brothers and sisters in the tribe of tomorrow.