Sixty years ago I got my first full time journalism
job, working for a Washington radio station and a news service for 26
stations around the country. I covered everything from murders and
fires to White House news conferences. driven in part by the assumption
that given the facts, the public and its leaders would do the right
For the next two decades the changes occurring in America
lent support to this idea. From civil rights to getting out of Vietnam
it was just a matter of working hard enough at it.
Even my own
role changed. I no longer just wrote about things, I became a part of
things – like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the DC
anti-freeway movement. I started one of the early publications of what
would become known as the underground press and brazenly turned my back
on job offers from the NY Times and the Washington Post.
There were plenty of things to do. For example:
In the 1970s we published a first person account of a then illegal abortion.
In 1971 we published our first article in support of single payer universal health care
In 1970, we ran a two part series on gay liberation.
1970, we proposed DC statehood and explained how it could be achieved.
We also proposed an elected district attorney which the city would get
in 2014. Today statehood is supported by 80% of DC’s residents.
In 1966 we published two articles on auto safety by Ralph Nader
In 1965 we called for the end of the draft.
In the 1960s we proposed community policing
didn’t know when change would come, but you knew it would if you and
your friends just worked hard enough. Even such things as the DC riots
or the heavy struggle over Vietnam didn’t slow you down.
forty years ago something began happening that would ultimately climax
in the mob regime of Donald Trump. Something that would turn action
based on heartfelt optimism into a grim existentialism in which you
tried to do the right thing regardless of the outcome. As one
existentialist had put it, “Even a condemned man has a choice of how to
approach the gallows.”
A decade ago when my wife and I left Washington I put it this way:
has contributed so little to the nation other than to endorse, codify
and promote policies leading to the collapse of the First American
Republic. Since 1976 Congress has passed more laws than it did in the
previous two centuries. And to what end? To place us in the dismal
condition in which we now find ourselves.
I sometimes find
myself reciting the lines of Tennessee Williams in Camino Real: “Turn
back stranger, for the well of humanity has gone dry in this place. And
the only birds that sing are kept in cages.”
us who have fought for alternative approaches have constantly been met
with contempt and disinterest by those in power, whether in politics or
the media …. One of the privileges of power is to set standards, even
if they are the standards of the slowest kids in the class. Another
privilege is never having to say you’re sorry. Which is why, beginning
in the 1980s, we began to lose the struggle and have been doing so ever
In considering what caused this change I often turn away
from traditional news and think about the changes in our culture, those
alterations often massive yet under-reported because they don’t have
public relations agents. Here are a few things that come to mind:
Corruption has changed massively.
As I have noted before, prior to television corruption was a feudal
arrangement in which power was traded for services. If you examine the
big bosses of an earlier time – like Mayors Curley, Daley or LaGuardia –
you find men of great influence without great wealth. But with
television, service was replaced by image, and the question became who
could could get the most money to pay for the best image. Actual service
to the community became irrelevant.
The corporatization of America over the past forty years has not merely been an assault on economic justice. It has vastly changed the nature of our culture, as I wrote some years back:
About sixty years ago, America was just a decade past the last war it would ever win. The length of the average work week was down significantly from the 1930s but real income had been soaring and would continue do so through the 1970s. We had a positive trade balance and the share of total income gained by the top 1% of the country was only around 8%, down from 24% in the 1930s.
As Jermie D. Cullip describes it:
1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%.
The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most
people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for
their children would be even better. . . The number of college students
doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite
“Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . .
Growth in the economy also led to increasing popularity of other
financial intermediaries. Life insurance companies flourished for the
first half of the decade and a large number of new private firms entered
the market to absorb the excesses of personal savings.
mid-1955, the country had pulled out of the previous year’s recession
and gross national product was growing at a rate of 7.6 percent. The
boom was so great that the budget for 1956 predicted a surplus of $4.1
billion. With the surges in production and the economy, the 1950s is
often recognized as the decade that eliminated poverty for the great
majority of Americans. Over the decade, GNP per capita almost doubled
and the public welfare reacted accordingly as the cost of living index
rose by just 1 percent and unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent'”
here is the truly amazing part – given all we have been taught in
recent years: America did it even as its universities were turning out
less than 5,000 MBAs a year. By 2005 these schools graduated 142,000
MBAs in one year.
In other words, even the economy was doing
well before the corporatists took over. Now we not only have a tougher
and far less fair economy, the corporate values we have been taught have
overwhelmed the country’s traditional community, religious and moral
The rise of the gradocracy: MBAs wasn’t the
only degree that exploded in recent decades. For example, when I started
over half the reporters in the country only had a high school
education. I didn’t let my sources or my colleagues know I had gone to
Harvard because often it would have worked against me. Also, in 1977
there were 10,000 lawyers in DC. Now it is about 55,000. That’s 788 per
10,000 Washingtonians vs. only 89 per 10,000 in New York.
rise of a gradocracy in the capital and in the country had a number of
effects. For example, the politicians I covered when I was young were
notable because of their social intelligence. They were able to relate
personally with their constituents.
Again, before television,
politicians knew how to make real contact with real people. But as pols
became better educated they thought and spoke differently. For example,
the plethora of MBAs and lawyers put the emphasis on approved process
rather than wise politics.Lyndon Johnson, for example, would never have
proposed legislation as complicated and hard to decipher as Obamacare.
The old pols talked about public works, not infrastructure
growth of education has also affected liberalism generally, moving it
away, for example, from the working class approach to things. I can
still remember a couple of labor songs I learned when I was young
because liberals back than thought unions were important: “When you see a
sign on a picket line saying this place is unfair, just pass it by like
a real nice guy. The stuff is just as good elsewhere.”
average liberal today speaks much more like someone trained in class
rather than in the ‘hood. One of the prices of this is an emphasis on
analysis over action. Thus racism is constantly dissected even as actual
efforts to rid us of it are weak. And being verbally correct on an
issue has become more important than dealing with it effectively.
The atomization of liberalism –
When I got involved in activism, one of my mentors had been trained by
Saul Alinsky. Among Alinsky’s principles was bring different groups
together to combat those at the top. As Wikipedia puts it, “He wanted
them to start ‘banding together to improve their lives’ and discovering
how much in common they really had with their fellow man.”
we have a strong atomization of those groups that could reach their
goals far easier were they in alliance with others. Aided by the niches
of the Internet and the sanctity of analysis taught by colleges, it hard
to find cross-cultural alliances. There is little understanding, for
example, that there are more poor whites than there are blacks in total
or that while ethnic prejudice is bad, economic disparity can be more
damaging. And if a low paid white guy sees someone attacking “white male
privilege” on television it’s not a particularly useful way to bring
him into the cause.
The Dixiecrat revival: While there
has been a lot of talk about the similarities between Trumpism and
fascism, America’s own South may be a better model. In fact, even the
Nazis got some of their ideas from the segregated south, as Becky Little notes:
1935, Nazi Germany passed two radically discriminatory pieces of
legislation: the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of
German Blood and German Honor. Together, these were known as the
Nuremberg Laws, and they laid the legal groundwork for the persecution
of Jewish people during the Holocaust and World War II.
Nazis set out to legally disenfranchise and discriminate against Jewish
citizens, they weren’t just coming up with ideas out of thin air. They
closely studied the laws of another country. According to James Q.
Whitman, author of Hitler’s American Model, that country was the United
“America in the early 20th century was the leading
racist jurisdiction in the world,” says Whitman, who is a professor at
Yale Law School. “Nazi lawyers, as a result, were interested in, looked
very closely at, [and] were ultimately influenced by American race law.”
In particular, Nazis admired the Jim Crow-era laws that discriminated
against black Americans and segregated them from white Americans, and
they debated whether to introduce similar segregation in Germany.
Yet they ultimately decided that it wouldn’t go far enough.
What Trump has done is to revive the spirit and strength of an anti-black predominately southern culture that had been suppressed by the civil rights movement. As with the Dixiecrats, it is dependent upon the powerful giving license and language to those who hate. And the essential trick was for rich whites to convince poorer whites that their problem is poor blacks.
In thinking how to tackle these problems, it is worth remembering that good change is most easily driven by the young and by the local. The young did it in the 60s and it can happen again. And we tend to ignore the fact that most change is started by local activism, including, for example, the environmental and marijuana movements.
It is also
worth remembering who creates and controls our problems. They are not
the folks who have been badly misled by the likes of Trump; they are a
small group of the powerful who are actually quite afraid. Bear in mind
that as far back as the Middle Ages, the powerful were scared enough to
live behind moats and castle walls.
Today’s elite is just as
afraid. How do we take them on? By bringing all who feel screwed
together. To find what your identity and subculture can share with
others. Not everything to be sure, but if blacks, Latinos, women and
labor unions sat down and reached a consensus on things that mattered to
all, the powerful would not only be scared, they could be beaten.
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