FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The limits of the past


Sam Smith -  In recent months there have been three notable examples of a politician being judged severely by events in his or her past: Virginia Governor Northam, Brett Kavanaugh and Elizabeth Warren. In only one instance – Kavanaugh’s – does history seem significantly to help lay the ground work for present values of the target and thus is useful in defining that person today.

In the case of Northam and Warren, the flaws of the past reveal little about who they are now. And it is notable that, given the attention to these old errors, there is so little coverage of Warren’s remarkable rise as a defender of consumer rights or the list of liberal policies advocated by Northam what I could find in only one media outlet other than the Progressive Review.

But we live in a time when, thanks in no small part to the increased percentage of college degrees among the powerful, where action often takes a second place to analysis and the past challenges the present for importance.

For example, when I started as a journalist, over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education. You learned to judge people instinctively by how they were acting today. There was no Google to check out the past. 

Of course, history is important. But whether it helps to define how one is today varies markedly. History is of a different time and different folk. Were we not able to learn from history – as opposed to being defined by it – we could kiss the idea of progress good bye. And democratic policy is at its heart, imperfect people taking past failures and turning them into something better.

One of the things you find in dysfunctional families, is folk who are inexorably and interminably tied to an awful past rather than rebelling and changing from it.

A few years ago, I wrote of our problems:

The best metaphor for all this may be the dysfunctional family. It, too, can be indifferent to logic, morality, kindness, cooperation, courage and decency. Much of our behavior as victims of the elite mimics the frustrated reactions of familial victims.  We respond with increasing anger, aggressiveness or, on the other hand, apathy and surrender, but in either case with a striking lack of independence from the community that brought us down. And we easily turn on others for having failed to save us.

There are other choices. In the past these have included the creation of countercultures such as  beats and punks, in which a new generation declared its cultural independence from the past. Nothing of that scale exists right now.

And we have had efforts such as the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements that redefined an era by collectively tossing out old evils in favor of new dreams.

Part of the secret of these past efforts was that you could join without clearance of one’s correctness, and with an understanding that change included the transformation of presently misguided or indifferent hearts. It was what one did now that counted far more than where one once stood.

We live now – thanks to a variety of factors ranging from cellphones to activist group competition for funding and media – in a far more atomized world in which it is easy to ignore or suspect people and groups that once would have naturally been seen as allies. And so we are often dysfunctional even working for change. From right to left, it is increasingly common to diss those who do not share all our presumed virtues and to believe we can define ourselves simply by condemning others. The fact that in this rejected pool are the very people we need to convince or convert is increasingly forgotten or ignored.

It is easy in a dysfunctional family or community to be so used to seeing the mistakes and cruelty of those around us that we fail to see the potential of others and how to share and build upon it. Both right and left suffer from this.  Conservatives contrive  an ever growing hate list of supposed threats to freedom even as they campaign for those actually removing those liberties. Liberals and libertarians fail to unite on issues about which they agree. And both ends of the spectrum define themselves by what and who they dislike.

Part of the trick in changing all this is to understand our past but not to let it rule our present and future. If our only response to the evils of the past is anger and protest, then we have added little to the story. But if we take the past and figure out how to redefine and redraw it for time to come, then we not only defeat the wrongs of the past but start to create a better future. We learn to treat anger and protest as the alarm, and not the ambulance.

With blacks consisting of only 12% of the population and liberalism defining about a quarter of the vote, finding and building new allies couldn’t be more fundamental to positive change. Thus, neither Bernie Sanders nor Black Lives Matter can pull it off without new and stronger friends and working with each other is a good place to start.

Part of the secret is to organize by issues, and not ideology or identity. Part is learning how to enjoy the partnership of those with whom you don’t fully agree but do agree on something important right now. Part is judging people by their words and actions today and not by their past behavior or that of their culture or ethnicity. The future can’t be the future without replacing the past.

Like the member of a dysfunctional family who walks away from the anger and misery it has created in order to find and/or build a new life, so all of us can walk away from the American past that is strangling us, and find new friends and ideas that help us move forward, even if differences remain between us. We can grant these allies reciprocal liberty, the same allowance for mistakes that we grant ourselves, and the warmth that that comes on common ground.

We must, in short, become like more like what we want to be than what we and others have been in the past.  An image of possibility rather than merely more evidence of dysfunction.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

How not to help politics

Sam Smith - There are various ways we don’t help politics, one of which has come to the forefront with the Ralph Northam controversy. The conflict, which has become more complex with the question of whether the KKK photo in his yearbook was chosen by him or by those editing the book, raises a more general issue that seldom gets discussed: politics, a highly imperfect craft, is about change and you can’t make progress just with those who have been right their entire life.
A classic example was Lyndon Johnson. Here is how Barack Obama described it in a talk in 2014:
Like any of us, he was not a perfect man. His experiences in rural Texas may have stretched his moral imagination, but he was ambitious, very ambitious, a young man in a hurry to plot his own escape from poverty and to chart his own political career. And in the Jim Crow South, that meant not challenging convention. During his first 20 years in Congress, he opposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the push for federal legislation “a farce and a sham.” He was chosen as a vice presidential nominee in part because of his affinity with, and ability to deliver, that Southern white vote. And at the beginning of the Kennedy administration, he shared with President Kennedy a caution towards racial controversy.

But marchers kept marching. Four little girls were killed in a church. Bloody Sunday happened. The winds of change blew. And when the time came, when LBJ stood in the Oval Office -- I picture him standing there, taking up the entire doorframe, looking out over the South Lawn in a quiet moment -- and asked himself what the true purpose of his office was for, what was the endpoint of his ambitions, he would reach back in his own memory and he’d remember his own experience with want.

And he knew that he had a unique capacity, as the most powerful white politician from the South, to not merely challenge the convention that had crushed the dreams of so many, but to ultimately dismantle for good the structures of legal segregation. He’s the only guy who could do it -- and he knew there would be a cost, famously saying the Democratic Party may “have lost the South for a generation.”

That’s what his presidency was for. That’s where he meets his moment. And possessed with an iron will, possessed with those skills that he had honed so many years in Congress, pushed and supported by a movement of those willing to sacrifice everything for their own liberation, President Johnson fought for and argued and horse traded and bullied and persuaded until ultimately he signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

And he didn’t stop there -- even though his advisors again told him to wait, again told him let the dust settle, let the country absorb this momentous decision. He shook them off. “The meat in the coconut,” as President Johnson would put it, was the Voting Rights Act, so he fought for and passed that as well. Immigration reform came shortly after. And then, a Fair Housing Act. And then, a health care law that opponents described as “socialized medicine” that would curtail America’s freedom, but ultimately freed millions of seniors from the fear that illness could rob them of dignity and security in their golden years, which we now know today as Medicare.
If someone had discovered the number of civil rights bills he had once opposed, would it have been wise to demand his resignation from the White House? I think not.

The truth is, except for slavery and succession, the Civil War in many ways continues to this day and it is in place like Virginia that one finds strong echoes. For example Northam won the governorship by beating Ed Gillespie who, as Slate notes, “ran ads designed to provoke fear of Hispanic immigrants and defended Confederate monuments.”

Northam, on the other hand, supported abortion rights and Planned Parenthood spent $3 million to back his campaign.

According to Wikipedia, “in June 2017 Northam stated that the statues in the state Capitol that the General Assembly has jurisdiction over "should be taken down and moved into museums.” … He has said that there should be more public memorials to historical Virginia civil rights leaders such as Barbara Rose Johns, Oliver Hill, and Samuel Wilbert Tucker.

He is opposed to the death penalty.

He has proposed a minimum wage of $15

He has also called for phasing out the grocery tax on low-income people and ending business taxes in struggling rural areas.

He has proposed free community college education in high demand fields provided the students commit to a year of paid public service.

He accepts the science on climate change.

He supports a ban on assault weapons

He cast a tie-breaking vote in the state Senate against a bill to ban sanctuary cities in Virginia

He favors decriminalizing marijuana.

And according to US Today, Northam, after the [Charlottesville] rally, denounced the "ugly" event and praised the city and its residents for promoting a place that values "openness, diversity and inclusion."

This is not the man as characterized in his 20s by the current controversy.

I have covered politics for 60 years and I can tell you this: if you find a guy who’s gotten better with time, don’t dump him for it.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Who needs walls?

Sam Smith- The latest cover of the New Yorker showing Trump building a wall around his White House desk brings up a topic that has been missing in the discussion of the Trump border wall: namely who needs walls?

Walls are manically important to those who have great wealth or power yet fear those without them. I wrote about this some time ago:

Many years ago some people built castles and walled cities and moats to keep the bad guys out. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured out how to get across the moats and opponents learned how to climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces over the town wall during their siege of Siena.

The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption.

And After 9/11 I wrote:

After 9/11 the Capitol turned into an armed camp. The Capitol Visitors Center, under construction, was modified to serve as a bunker for members of Congress in case of an attack and the Capitol police force soared to three officers per member of Congress with the greatest number of police per acre of any spot in America. In the end the visitor’s center/bunker would cost over $600 million, just slightly less than the city’s new baseball stadium. Perhaps the most telling change was when the Capitol police, as a security measure, moved all tourist bus traffic a few blocks away. In essence, the police declared the lives of residents of 3rd & 4th Streets less important than those of officials working at or near the Capitol.

I would later tell people that I knew exactly where the war on terror ended: 2nd Street. Living four blocks further to the east, there would never be the slightest sign that my safety was of any concern to the White House or Homeland Security.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The real history of populism


Populism has lately been given a dirty name by the media and the establishment. In fact, it has an important and healthy history in America, as this article notes

Sam Smith, 2008 - American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.

One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.

The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.

In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle -- with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan "Not Now" and its goal of maintaining the timorousness of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.

As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn't long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It's not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a candidate on its own.

The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power.

The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another - including young non-college educated whites - until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power.

Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.

Populism's hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University's School of Journalism, found that "Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that's not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. . . "

A review of Doppelt and Shearer's work notes that "In the 1996 elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age 30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as minorities."

And the study also found that 52% agreed with the statement: "The federal government often does a better job than people give it credit for." 83% of nonvoters thought the government should have a major policy role in the realms of healthcare, housing, and education.

While a follow-up study found that nonvoters divided pretty much the same way as voters on the presidency, the fact that they didn't do anything about it was more telling. Besides, we're talking about a huge number of people. If those of voting age simply turned out in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would be about 24 million more voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That's a lot of people looking for some difference between the candidates and some new directions.

But there are also big problems. We have, for example, reached a stage where many minorities have produced enough winners that the greater number of losers not only have to battle their oppressors but the indifference of, and misleading impressions caused by, their own role models. All pressure groups - farmers, labor unions, women, ethnic groups - have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the citizens at the bottom of each of these causes - the poor farmer, the unemployed laborer, the tip-dependent waitress, the slum dweller - has hardly been allowed a bite. We have created the superstructure of a welfare state without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.

Not even the organizations supposedly dedicated to correcting this imbalance have been up to the task. The Black Congressional Caucus remains silent as the toll mounts of black young men sent to prison or to their death thanks a war far more deadly to them than Iraq, namely the war on drugs. The major women's groups are far more interested in Nancy Pelosi than in women working at Wal-Mart. In fact, the most effective women's and minority groups in the country are unions like SEIU and Unite Here, which actually help some of those most in need.

Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to drive its SUV to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right thing. Faith vs. works.

Interestingly, populism - despite its bad rap - has far more potential for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to people's personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles. But you won't break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You don't do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and social equity.

Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn't think they qualified as Democratic voters.

The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by a growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of "cultural creatives" saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.

The black writer, Jean Toomer once described America as "so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes." Writing in 1919, Toomer said, "It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition."

So what might a populist agenda look like? Let's look at two examples - neither a paragon of virtue - yet far better, and stunningly so, than any of today's politicians in starting programs that helped large numbers of people. Their legacy was not to be found in their own amply noted inadequacies but in the adequacies they made possible for others. In a time of shallow political celebrities incapable of even modest achievement, these men remind us what democracy was meant to be about.

The first was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Here's how Wikipedia describes him:
|||| In his four-year term as governor, Long increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana from 331 to 2,301, plus an additional 4,508 2,816 miles of gravel roads. By 1936, the infrastructure program begun by Long had [doubled] the state's road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .
Long's free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state's mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year. . .

As an alternative to what he called the conservatism of the New Deal, Long proposed legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. . . In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.

Long proposed a new tax code which would limit personal fortunes to $50 million, annual income to $1 million (or 300 times the income of the average family), and inheritances to $5 million. The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans' benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours. . .

Long, in February 1934, formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country, and Long's Senate office was receiving an average of 60,000 letters a week. Pressure from Long and his organization is considered by some historians as responsible for Roosevelt's "turn to the left" in 1935, when he enacted the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security; in private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to "steal Long's thunder." |||
The other example is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's gross mishandling of Vietnam has obscured memory of the fact that he fermented the greatest number of good domestic bills in the least time of any president in our history. Again, some examples from Wikipedia:
|||| Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the first two years of Johnson's presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations. . .

The War on Poverty . . . spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school; Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children.

The most important educational component of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. . . initially allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002

The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. . . In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. . .

In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. . .

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states . . . The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. . . Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe. Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children's sleepwear, but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards. Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales. Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided standards and recalls for defective electronic products. |||||
It is virtually impossible to conceive of any elected official today being as productive as Johnson and Long. Yet Johnson never went to business school; he was just a teacher. And Long took the bar exam after one year at Tulane Law school and then went out and sued Standard Oil. These were not people who are meant to succeed by today's distorted and ineffectual standards, yet they did. In fact, if you want to find anything comparable one of the few names that springs to mind is Harry Hopkins who put millions to work within months for FDR. Hopkins was a social worker by trade. With such leaders, hearts and smarts were the credentials they really needed.

What would a new populist program look like? It might include things like this:

- Universal healthcare with no trough-slopping by insurance companies

- A housing program in which the federal government would be an equity partner with lower income house purchasers. It would be a self-sustaining program as each partner would get their equity back when the house was sold.

- An end to usury in credit card lending.

- Pension protection

- A revival of high quality vocational training

- Election reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing

- Expansion of cooperatives and credit unions

Monday, January 14, 2019

Telling just the bad part of the story


Sam Smith - Watching Green Book, I was pleasantly relieved to see a film dedicated to telling a story of improved ethnic relations. If you base your assumptions on the media, it would appear that nothing much in this sphere is getting better. While the media is not at fault for telling the true bad tales, it fails in its disinterest in examples of improved cross-ethnic relations and so, unintentionally, projects a dismal future for them. We are not, for example, told of the rise in bi-ethnic marriages or the fact that Barack Obama actually spent more time at Harvard Law School than he did with a black parent. It was not just his blackness but his cross-ethnic understanding that gave him strength.

And is it really true that there are no police departments that have done a better and fairer job of treating the ethnic varieties in their purview? Are there no public schools where black and white students actually get along? And why so little mention of improvements in our justice system such as those developed by the Center for Court Innovation? How do we make progress in our dealings with others without examples, encouragement and exposure?

As a native of Washington DC, I have seen both the suffering and recovery. I went to a segregated elementary school, and when I returned to the city after college it was still in many ways a mean southern town. Yet in a few years, as blacks were becoming a majority in the city, and the civil rights movement was taking hold, things dramatically changed. With protest and resistance, yes, but with progress as well.

I experienced both the bad and the good. In 1968, I was editing a newspaper In a community where two of the city’s four major riots occurred, with buildings as close as one block away attacked. But I had also been in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and would help to launch the DC statehood movement. And when we finally got home rule and elected a mayor, he was black - as every mayor has been since.

In short, I lived through the bad and the good with the latter building the energy to deal with the former. And although through most of my adult life in Washington I was part of the white minority, I never once felt sorry for that. The bonus of the struggle had been a diverse community that got along with each other in ways that still seem impossible in many parts of the country.

But I’ve also learned that there isn’t much interest in that story. We live in a time where ethnic conflict is reported and analyzed but where improvements and successes get little attention.

And so, I was sorry but not surprised when Green Book moved from being a Golden Globe winner to a target of criticism because of something its author had once posted and because the black lead’s historic story was considered inaccurate by his actual family. Once again, we had found the bad more worth considering than the good.

It is not that you ignore the former, but if we fail to note and honor the latter, then we offer no hope for change. Life becomes a catalog of flaws rather than being balanced with recovery from them. We think we’re being accurate when, in truth, we are only telling one side of the story, blinding ourselves from the ways in which that story could be changed for the better.

These ways often do not include master strokes, but rather are little tales of people who found a decent way to do things, such as happened in the local Washington where I lived most of my life. And stories like that of a black musician and a white chauffeur who got along.

We need to confront the evil but not hide the decent in which hope can thrive.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Some essays on music

A half century of American music

Last evening I went to a party for fellow musicians given by singer and trombonist Dave Burns, who for more than three decades and 2,000 gigs has headed the Hot Mustard Jazz Band, a fixture in the Washington area. Burns has been singing since the age of two when, in Pineville Kentucky "they'd put me on the marble counter at the drugstore and I'd sing songs for a penny."

As the Princeton Alumni Weekly explained it, "Burns ran away from Pineville at 15, living a hobo-like existence until landing in D.C., where he dropped out of high school three times before joining the Air Force. A 'voracious reader,' he realized he'd need a degree after his tour of duty and audaciously applied to Oxford, the University of Kentucky, Occidental College in Pasadena, California - and Princeton. 'I told them if they took a gamble on me I wouldn't disappoint them,' he says of Princeton. True to his word, Burns won a Fulbright scholarship and joined the Foreign Service."

I realized when I looked around the room that I was looking at a half century of American music. There was the sainted Keeter Betts who has played bass for just about everyone in jazz locally and nationally, clarinetist Wally Garner who recalled playing with Louis Armstrong, the jazz writer Royal Stokes and musicians with whom I had shared gigs like Gary Wilkerson and Don Rouse. All of us were playing in the 1950s and some even earlier.

It struck me later was what an atypical Washington evening it was. I gave up my own band seven years ago and I had kind of forgotten what a pleasant, friendly bunch of people jazz musicians can be. All those breaks; all those conversations. I suspect it has something to do with the genre, which requires both individuality and cooperation, something I once described this way:


"The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one.

"The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both. Here's how Wynton Marsalis describes it: 'Jazz is a music of conversation, and that's what you need in a democracy. You have to be willing to hear another person's point of view.'"


In defense of bass players

Your editor has long held the view - although quietly for fear of being mugged - that one of the earliest signs of America's cultural collapse was the introduction of the disco drum machine. I was, to be sure, a drummer at the time, so the opinion may have been a bit premature and biased. Nonetheless, since then popular music has become increasingly stripped of melody, chord range, internal variety and surprise, and dynamics. With the arrival of rap, music itself became virtually irrelevant.

These are not matters of taste, but observable phenomenon. For example, the history of western music, until fairly recently, was in part the story of expanding the number of acceptable chords, something that can be readily seen in comparing, say, a traditional folk song to the works of Thelonious Monk. This does not mean that the folk song was bad, only that the later work was far more venturesome at the least, and more creative at best. Growing cultures keep breaking ground. Declining ones just wear it out and break it up. Retrenchment and regression replaces exploration and adventure.

Anyone who grew up with jazz grew up with this sense of adventure, sometimes found in a single tune. It has been described by one music teacher as being in part the interplay between repetition and surprise. Just when we think we know what is coming thanks to previous reiteration, the music surprises us. Further, as far back as Jelly Roll Morton, jazz musicians borrowed from different musical traditions, blending them in new and unusual ways.

There have been two anchors in all of this: the drums and the bass. And even though I was once a drummer, after I switched to piano I found myself increasingly of the opinion that the bass was the sina qua non of jazz. In fact, in my own mainstream group - blessed by a superb bassist - I did away with drums entirely, leaving room for two horns in just a quartet.

Bassists are remarkable people, all the more so because most pay them so little mind. I have, in fact, never met a mean or nasty bass player. They tend to be musicians of good humor, extraordinary patience, and a sense of modesty that can be lacking in the front of the band.

I fear America's growing passion for power without the balance of community and cooperation, and without the magnificent gift of individuals who are always quietly there doing exactly the right thing at the right time and, in the process, making everyone else sound good as well. Which is what bass players are about


Why you don't have to care about Michael Jackson

MEDIA BIAS is not limited to bad politics; it includes bad math, typically manifested in an inability to count above the number two. According to the mass media, our world is one giant 'Crossfire' show divided into pro and anti, liberal and conservative, war and appeasement, free market and socialism. When such bifurcation fails because of the number of participants - as in sports, Democratic primaries, or reality shows - the media solves the problem by ultimately reducing the number to one, with everyone else a loser. It is by such means that the media discovers the outstanding average American male.
This is a form of semiotic suppression as bad in its own way as political propaganda for it steals opportunities, options, and subtleties from us, turning us into either cheering sycophants or worthless outsiders. It also is the playing field on which we learn mindless acceptance of the minimal choices that the media offers us in the political and economic realms.

We are, for example, supposed at this moment to be obsessed with football, especially if one is a virile male. In fact, however, only about a half of American males are interested in football. A 2002 poll found that only 28% of Americans listed football as their favorite sport, with 16% preferring basketball and 12% baseball. Add them all together and you are still left with nearly half of America having something better to do. But you would never guess it from the media.

The same is true with popular music. Michael Jackson, the latest media fetish, is a not atypical example. If you only followed the "news" you would have to be wondering what was wrong with you if you did not find the fate of Jackson of concern or, worse, never liked him or his music in the first place.

Jackson sold 47 million copies of "Thriller," which sounds like a lot until one realizes that Dunkin' Donuts sells more cups of coffee than that in one month. In fact, more people have a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee than watch Bill O'Reilly on the same day. But note where Dunkin' Donuts stands in the media cultural hierarchy compared to Jackson and O'Reilly.

It's actually far worse than that. An ABC News poll last year found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

The ABC News poll is unusual in that it gave actual percentages. Normally, such surveys only list rank, leaving the reader who prefers number six on the list feeling out of it and leaving all readers badly misinformed.

One way to create more honesty in such surveys would be not only to use actual percentages but also instant runoff voting in which second and third place votes would be factored in. These celebrity surveys instead use the same misguided principle that distorts our politics, confusing whoever is first past the post with the consensus choice.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that we do not know how the over 200 million Americans who did not buy a copy of 'Thriller' felt about Jackson. Some were married to a purchaser, some have downloaded it, some picked it up second hand or from a sibling. But is it not possible that among this vast pool we might not actually find a many people who disliked Jackson's music as liked it?

Yes it is. And although I have not been able to find an American study that deals with this issue, a fascinating examination of Japanese adolescent tastes in western music suggests what we might discover.

Here are the percentages of Japanese adolescents who liked very much a genre of music followed by the percentages of those that didn't like it at all:
Rock: 45, 28
Rap: 26, 43
Top Forty: 25, 43
Classical: 23, 48
Jazz: 23, 45
Techno: 22, 47
Soul: 17, 53
Country: 15, 53
Heavy Metal: 12, 48
Punk: 11, 66
Easy Listening: 10, 60

Note that rock is the only category in which the percentage of those not liking it at all does not near 50%. Note also that one of the most disliked genres is something the media has labeled "easy listening."

One of the reasons the media doesn't tell you things like this is that it would be too embarrassing. Far better to using rankings that obscure the fact, for example, that you could fit the entire American audience of CNN into a place the size of Washington DC.

One of the few people honest about all this is Don Imus who says he wouldn't cover the Jackson story, which repels him, were it not for the ratings boost. But that boost, of course, is based on the media's past success in convincing us that Jackson was worth caring about. And even if MSNBC's ratings doubled we're still only talking about three big stadiums full of people.

So if you can't stand Jackson or his music, don't feel bad. You are just part of the silenced majority. Go down to Dunkin' Donuts have a cup of coffee like a real American.

Sam's Waltz

Our band was playing at a wedding reception when a woman came up to me and asked for a waltz. I said okay and hoped she would forget about it because my memory has suddenly gone blank and I can't remember any waltzes.

The woman returns so I say to the trumpet player, "Follow me." It takes me a couple of choruses to write a waltz. Bob Walter, the trumpet player, was good enough that he could pretend to be providing fills instead of wondering what the hell I was up to.

We finally got it down and people began twirling happily. When we were finished the crowd applauded and a bearded man asked me for my card.

We were happily back into 4/4 time when a woman came up and asked for another waltz and I replied, "Okay in a little bit."

"No we need it now. The mother of the bride wants to waltz.

So I told Bob to do the waltz again. This time we did it with more gusto and the dancers responded in kind.

The bearded man spun by, stopped and said, "That's great. What's the name of that waltz."

Without hesitation I replied, "Sam's Waltz."
 

Monday, January 07, 2019

The Democrats' inland America problem

Sam Smith - Missing from our political discussions is a major Democratic issue: The party's support mainly comes from states on the western, northern and eastern border of America. In fact, there's a serious question - based on the past half century - of whether Democratic candidates from these border states can win.

For example, during this period, the only Democrats to win have been Obama from Illinois, Bill Clinton from Arkansas, Jimmy Carter from Georgia and Lyndon Johnson from Texas.

Kerry and Dukakis from Massachusetts each won only one non-Democratic border state. Mondale from Minnesota won none and Humphrey from the same state won 2.  Hillary Clinton from New York won 4. Among the losers, only Gore and McGovern came from non liberal states.

Meanwhile, Obama from inland Illinois won seven.

What's going on here? It looks like the Democrats are misjudging the popularity of their candidates based on their status in their own turf.  But that accounts for less than a third of the electoral vote.

Their politics is groomed and tested in these liberal states but doesn't require an associated ability to reach the less liberal ones.Even a black guy from Illinois knew better how to reach inland Americans.



This is something Democrats have to learn to deal with.  Either they have to convert inland and southern America or at least learn to deal with it politically.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Why I'm not running for president


Sam Smith – I won’t be running for president next year. The reasons are mostly the same that have kept me from running in the past: Nobody has asked me to run, I couldn’t raise the money or the votes to win, and I would hate the job. 

This year, however, there’s an added reason: I’m old.  

I turned 81 back in November and the thought of even running for my town council seems absurd. This despite the fact that I have lived a exceptionally healthy life, interrupted only by a weight lifting accident some decades back and prostate cancer in the early 1990s

But a couple of years ago, as I was moving a portable generator around, I did something to my back that set off irreversible signs that my days of doing whatever I wanted, such as regularly pumping iron or bouncing around in a small boat, were over. I had already “swallowed the anchor,” a term for those of the sea no longer comfortable there. I had sold my boat because of my lack of predictable balance and adequately fast response. 

Since then I have become a slow moving, slow step climbing arthritic careful of what I do next. 

Why am I bothering you with this? Simply because this personal transition has occurred in precisely the same time period that would represent the administration of a Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders if they were elected next year. Sanders would turn 80 in 2021 and Biden in 2022. 

Admittedly neither I nor they suffer from amnesia or other gross mental deficiencies of the present younger White House incumbent, but the changes that have occurred in my energy, balance, enthusiasm and drive in the past few years makes me wary of trusting the whole nation to someone of my ilk. 

I recognize the statistical inaccuracy of using my experience as a formula and I realize, for example, that Raymond Kelly, New York’s police commissioner, was born four days before Bernie Sanders. Nevertheless, it’s a fair issue to raise and see what the candidates do about it. Clearly picking the right vice president is at the top of the list. 

I admire Sanders and Biden for their efforts – in Sanders’ case back to the 1980s when he was mayor of Burlington Vermont for four terms - and hope I am no prediction of their future condition. But it’s something worth mentioning  and thinking about.