Tuesday, April 02, 2024

60 years on the case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 06, 2023

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

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

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

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

Ben: Right.

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

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

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

Ben: This is '71?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben: I've looked it over.

Sam: Pretty extraordinary.

Ben: And pretty comprehensive, too.

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

Ben: Third wave , second revival.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben: As opposed to addressing other issues?

Sam: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Ben: Sure.

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

Ben: Really? Why?

Sam: Well, they thought it was too dangerous.

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

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

Ben: Sure.

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

Ben: Right.

Sam: And that is what personal witness is about.

Ben: Right.

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

Ben: Right.

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

Ben: Wow.

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

Ben: Somewhat. Not heavily.

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

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

Ben: That's a genetic imperative!

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

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

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

Ben: Sidwell same thing.

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

Ben: Right. I know the joke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam: Yeah, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben: Which neighborhood?

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

Ben: Wow.

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

Ben: Uh huh.

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

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

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

Ben: What do you mean, exactly?

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

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

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

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

Ben: It's a point.

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

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

Sam: That I think comes from the Greens primarily.

Ben: Really. Why?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Ben: That was the phrase the City Paper used.

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

Ben: Pleasantville II?

Sam: You saw the movie Pleasantville?

Ben: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Sam: That's right.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Our biggest subcultures

 Sam Smith – Starting with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, America began to turn its back on the New Deal and Great Society and develop two powerful subcultures. One consists of the destructively dominant, those who have the money and strength to gain power while ignoring the needs of others. The other is the dysfunctionally decent, those who, though large in number, lack the skill or heart to organize and create meaningful reforms.

The destructively dominant are symbolized by the collapse of labor unions and the rise of Donald Trump. Their basic goal – their own success – was strengthened by a misleading argument on behalf of capitalism and individual achievement that ignores the role of cooperation and sharing common values in a community.

The dysfunctionally decent  are symbolized by the collapse of institutions formerly leaders in moral and mutual achievement, symbolized by the decline in social and political importance of universities,   the growing subservience of the media to the most powerful, the decline in church attendance and the increasing indifference to community issues – rather than just personal,  goals.

Because the destructively dominant are guided only by power, their control of institutions such as the media and politics have led the larger public to increasingly accept behaviors that were once considered intolerable. As one example, the attempted coup of January 6 was the most traitorous activity since the Civil War, yet even the Democratic  led Congress and Justice Department are treating it more like just another complicated legal matter with slight  public recognition of its historical status. We have also been taught to accept the massive dishonesty of the powerful, even their cleverly revised statements when found in error, with the gap between strength and honor growing ever greater. The lies of a Donald Trump are just more colorful examples of, say, efforts  to convince rural Americans that liberals want to ban beef or take their land under eminent domain. It would be hard to find another time when lies played such a major role in our society.

At the other end, the dysfunctionally decent are either scared or unprepared to react effectively against the falsehoods and other excesses. Once much stronger voices from colleges and universities are now either afraid of endangering their own careers or being ignored by the media. Colleges and universities have themselves drifted into the corporate mode. The students, that in the 1960s were redefining their nation, are stunningly weak in their words and actions. Churches that during that same decade provided haven for the active, now settle on faith rather than the causes that exemplify it. There is not only no lively underground press, local media of all sorts has greatly diminished.  

One way to deal with this mess is to think differently about our society and how it functions. Accept for now that the powerful will betray and lie to us while offering few meaningful solutions. And recognize that the answer, oddly as it will seem to many, with our smaller communities.

As noted here before, over a thousand environmental laws were passed at the local and state level before the first national legislation.  And it was some fifty years before the federal government caught up with the wisdom of many on handling marijuana

I have been blessed by having lived in places where the local held its own against national misdirection. For example, Capitol Hill in the 1960s was a dramatically more decent and positively active place to be than in the nearby great white structure referred to in its name.

And now I live in a small town in Maine where I haven’t heard a substantive lie in more than a decade. Where 8000 people donate enough goods to their local community services organization that its thrift shop earns over $300,000 a year. Where the police respect citizens, and the latter return the favor. Where a volunteer fire department will not only be there on time, but with a lot skill.

I can’t imagine Donald Trump or the staff of Fox News serving in our fire department or on any local committee. It is another world.

The challenge before us is strengthening the power of the dysfunctionally decent. Creating an alliance of those working with cooperation and community against the selfish, dishonest and destructive.. Our numbers are there, just our strength and strategies need help.

A good place to start  could be for middle and lower class blacks and whites to discover and act upon what they have in common – like labor organizing, healthcare and education issues. It could be an Internet news site where communities could share their information, problems and solutions. It could involve a campaign to push public schools to teach local civics and getting along with other ethnicities. It could get churches to open up for activist meetings. It could involve gatherings at which those involved in community efforts explain their work.  And it  could involve creation of a nationwide organization of neighborhood and community leaders.

Above all, we need to give strength to our local  goodness, stop paying so much homage just to national power and give communal decency a new prominence in what we do and say.  We have the power; we just have to come together and act on our hidden strength.

Friday, November 05, 2021

Blendng the past with the present

 Sam Smith - Attendance at history museums plummeted nearly 70% in 2020, thanks to the pandemic. Even in the best of times, though, history is not the easiest topic to gain broad interest, especially in an era in which it is given minor importance in public education and the media. 

I've been married to a historian for 55 years so the problems of the topic are not unfamiliar to me and I have found myself lately thinking about how to make history more appealing to a larger audience. As I once wrote, "I don't rank as a museum expert, still I suspect I'm somewhere in the middle of the pack of those the experts are trying to attract. I love some museums, couldn't care less about others, and prefer to have fun on a Saturday afternoon rather than engage in premeditated acts of somber self-education." 

Lately, however, I've been having some new thoughts, inspired in part by having been an anthropology major where cultural past and present become shared parts of the same story. 

We have been taught to isolate history in our minds, but, in fact, everything we do today becomes history tomorrow. Past and present are inevitably blended. 

Years ago, I spent a week at the national Air & Space Museum while working on an article for the Illustrate London News. The museum at the time had two thirds more visitors than either the Louvre. Among the ways it fascinated me was that it failed to fit into one category, whether it be history or science, past or present. When I challenged its leaders about this, they cheerfully agreed.

I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, boldly remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in his museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, "There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them."

I remembered thinking: what other director of anything in Washington DC would say something like that?

And even the art museum curator Walter Hopps told me the museum had "more aesthetic appeal to most people than most art museums do for most people. I think there is something very atavistic about it. One of the root themes in art is quest - exploration."

Recently I've been asking myself: what if today and yesterday were combined better? What if our historical societies and museums were to blend past and present and become centers for both yesterday's history and today's culture. We spend millions on history but little on showing people the actual culture in which they live. As we become more multicultural it becomes increasingly important that we learn more about people in our community who don't live or look like us.

Thinking of my hometown of Washington DC, I quickly came up with several institutions that might be featured for both their past and present: a famed cafe in a heavily black neighborhood, a jazz center and an old fashioned former farmer's market still functioning as a major site for folks in that 'hood. What are the religions of importance, the architectural styles, and the ways in which life is different in DC than other cities? 

In short,  what if we gave our present culture the same respect as we give its history? Might we not enjoy and respect our present society in ways we haven't? 

Friday, October 29, 2021

Lies on the rise

 Sam Smith - The rise of someone as evil and dishonest as Donald Trump reflects decades of change in the moral culture of our land. As in a mob controlled society truth has become just one more device to distort or destroy not as a rare presumed necessity but as a repeated aspect of life. This is why Trump does not trouble so many Americans; he reflects values that as a culture we have increasingly come to accept. 

There are many factors behind this rise of deceit.  Movies, television and, later, the Internet all played a role aided in no small part by the manipulation of advertising and public relations. Forget about politicians and think how many distortions you see each day on your own TV. 

The decline of church membership and an increasing school emphasis on personal success with indifference to moral community behavior also contributed significantly, as did a media that increasingly became a part of the establishment it was meant to accurately describe. 

In many ways the Reagan era - with its emphasis on corporatism and achievement without moral consideration - gave our present mobster style culture an important boost. Then we had Richard Nixon who resigned to avoid impeachment, Bill Clinton who was impeached and Donald Trump who was impeached twice. Only one other president - Andrew Johnson - had ever been impeached before. 

What is fascinating about both Clinton and Trump is how little interest the media showed in the details of their seamy sides. For example, Clinton was born in Hot Springs Arkansas. As Paul Bosson, a prosecutor in this town put it

In Hot Springs, growing up here, you were living a lie. You lived a lie because you knew that all of these activities were illegal. I mean, as soon as you got old enough to be able to read a newspaper, you knew that gambling in Arkansas was illegal, prostitution was illegal. And so you lived this lie, so you have to find some way to justify that to yourself and, you know, you justify it by saying, "Well," you know, "it's okay here."

When Clinton served as governor, he supervised one of the country’s very top states for the importation of illegal drugs. And there were ties to the BCCI scandal and other matters ignored by the media in favor of just covering Monica Lewinsky.

Hillary Clinton got the same treatment, the media ignoring, for example, the number of key associates -including a business partner, law partner and financial middle man who ended up in jail.

As for Trump, like Clinton, the press has concentrated on the easiest things to cover. Think of how little attention has been given to his alleged sexual misbehavior or to the reality of his business behavior, illustrated by a Wikipedia excerpt:

Four of Trump's businesses have declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy….

Over the course of his career, Trump has initiated and been the target of "hundreds" of civil lawsuits, which his lawyer Alan Garten said in 2015 was "a natural part of doing business in this country"….

In 2009, Trump was sued by investors who had put down deposits, typically $200,000–$300,000 per person, for condos in the failed Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico. …

In 2013, a lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman accused Trump of defrauding more than 5,000 people of $40 million for the opportunity to learn Trump's real estate investment techniques in a for-profit training program, Trump University, which operated from 2005 to 2011…

And that’s just the tip of it. The fact is that we live in a mobbed up community called America.

What can we do about? At the national level not much. Because this is a cultural - even more than just a political - change any reform will probably have to come from the bottom. Our politicians, major media, corporations, and national institutions may not be direct players in the mud but they live in it and assume it to be natural.

I believe it can be changed. For the past decade I have lived in a small town in Maine where the major players – from town councilor to police chief and business owner – are fair and honest. We have a community service agency that provides all sorts of help to those in need supported in part by a thrift shop filled with goods donated by fellow town folk.

Among the things we can do is to change the curricula of our schools so that decency is as important as algebra and that success includes learning how to cooperate with others. Churches could make the practice of good faith as important as belief in it. We could use more business cooperatives and institutions that addressed the real problems of our citizens. And the young could lead us in the right direction as they did in the 1960s.

And remember, there were hundreds of new environmental laws passed by states and towns before Washington ever got around to it. We can do the same thing with decency.