Memories revived by "The Irishman"

Sam Smith I went to see “The Irishman,” expecting just the fine movie that it is, but was surprised by a number of passages that also brought back memories of my own life. For starters there were the shots of the 1957 Senate hearing by the Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management. I was then a 19 year old sophomore with a summer job as a reporter for WWDC News in Washington and covered the hearing shown in the film, including an interview with Hoffa. And then there were a number of references to mob involvement in the assassination of John F Kennedy, an alleged role that remains unresolved. Kennedy also kept popping up in my life as I wrote about some years back:

In the summer of 1957, I covered a Senate investigation of the Teamsters Union. Among those seated at the long panel table was young John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts. His brother, Robert, served as a counsel for the committee. At one point, a prostitute witness made some off-color comment that brought guffaws from the audience; and Bobby’s own giggles were amplified by his mike. The humorless chair, John McClellan, rapped his gavel and told Kennedy that “This is not a joking matter.” It would be the only time I ever saw a Kennedy look chastened.

The testimony of Hoffa went like this:

Robert F. Kennedy: Did you say, “That S.O.B., I’ll break his back”?

Jimmy Hoffa: Who?

Kennedy: You.

Hoffa: Say it to who?

Kennedy: To anyone?

Hoffa: Figure of speech… I don’t even know what I was talking about and I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Kennedy: Uh… Mr. Hoffa, all I’m trying to find out, I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. I’m trying to find out whose back you were going to break.

Hoffa: Figure of speech… figure of speech.

Later, I wrote in a 1959 letter:

The Kennedy brothers – like the remark about the Quakers — came to Washington to do good and did very well. Jimmy Hoffa, who’s astute if corrupt, told me once in the midst of the rackets hearing, “Bobby Kennedy is trying to make headlines for his brother so he can get him to the White House, but he can’t find his way out of this room.”

It may be that what happened in that hearing room helped to lay the groundwork for Kennedy’s later assassination – if theories of a mob hit are true. Certainly Hoffa hated the Kennedys and Washington investigator author Ron Goldfarb wrote that in “August 1962, Hoffa recruited an aide to kill RFK. In February 1963, John Kennedy told Newsweek’s Ben Bradlee that Hoffa had recruited an assassin to kill the attorney general.”

Frank Ragano, long-time lawyer for both Santos Trafficante Jr. and Hoffa, wrote a memoir with NY Times reporter Selwyn Raab in which he recalled several conversations between the two mobsters:

<blockquote class="tr_bq">
<p>Trafficante: Somebody is going to kill those sons of bitches. It’s just a matter of time.</p>
<p>Hoffa: Something has to be done. The time has come for your friend and Carlos [Marcello] to get rid of him, kill that son of a bitch John Kennedy. This has got to be done. Be sure to tell them what I said. No more fucking around. We’re running out of time – something has to be done.</p>
</blockquote>

After JFK’s assassination, Ragano claimed that Marcello told him, “When you see Jimmy, you tell him he owes me, and he owes me big.”

And Trafficante thought they had got the wrong man: “We shouldn’t have killed John. We should have killed Bobby.”

Goldfarb quotes the brother of Sam Giacana as boasting, “We took care of Kennedy. The hit in Dallas was just like any other operation we’d worked in the past.” Writes Goldfarb: “Sam Giancana himself was murdered in 1975 just days before he was suppose to talk to the Senate intelligence committee about plots to kill Castro.”

He also notes that “Two biographies of leading mobsters report that Marcello exclaimed, ‘Don’t worry about that Bobby son of a bitch. He’s going to be taken care of ‘ According to one participant Marcello told his listeners he would recruit some nut to kill Kennedy so it couldn’t be traced to him, ‘like they do in Sicily.’” Marcello would later deny the quote.

As Goldberg – who went on to work for Bobby Kennedy and knew a lot about organized crime – wrote in a 2009 article for Daily Beast:

Drawing on incriminating tapped phone conversations, new literature and investigations, and Trafficante’s lawyer’s 1994 memoir (Frank Ragano’s Mob Lawyer), I concluded that the assassination was generated by Jimmy Hoffa. Oswald was, as he claimed, a patsy. It was a mob touch to use someone to carry out their deadly assignments, and then to kill that person to avoid detection.

THE AUTHOR, 2nd FROM RIGHT, INTERVIEWS JFK RIGHT
AFTER HE ANNOUNCED HIS PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDACY.
Photo by Hank Walker, Life Magazine.

If Goldfarb is right, then during my introduction to journalism, I not only interviewed John F. Kennedy but one of those responsible for his assassination. I interviewed JFK moments after he had announced he was running for president, a photo of which appeared in Life Magazine. Later, in January 1961, I made my only foray into the real world of network television. I was hired for Kennedy’s inauguration by CBS News as a news editor. Along with fellow WWDC newsman Ed Taishoff, I sat all day capped with a headset in a ballroom of the Hotel Washington, turning phone calls from CBS correspondents into stories which were then placed on Walter Cronkite’s personal news ticker. If there was one thing Ed and I knew, it was how to take news from callers, turn it into copy and get it on the air fast.

Meanwhile, the military draft was breathing down hard and the Coast Guard had accepted me for its officer candidate school. My strange first assignment was as public information officer for the Second Coast Guard District, headquartered in St. Louis. I would explain that it was harder to guard the coasts in St. Louis, because on the Mississippi River there were two of them.

The Coast Guard was short on officers and so one’s list of collateral duties ran long, in my case two of them thanks to the newly elected John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy had noted during his inauguration parade the lack of any blacks in the Coast Guard Academy contingent and called our bosses at the Treasury Department the next day to seek a remedy. And so the word went forth, even to the federal building in St. Louis, to do something about it and I found myself, although the name hadn’t been invented in 1961, serving as the district’s affirmative action officer.

I was totally unsuccessful. St. Louisians of any ethnicity were disinclined to think that going out on any of the major oceans was a good idea for either themselves or their children. The black businessmen and civic leaders I addressed agreed and seemed to regard me as an agent of the devil when I described what a Coast Guard officer actually did and under what circumstances he often did it.

Kennedy had also declared the nation unfit and wanted the military to set an example for everyone else. And so I found myself assigned to run a physical fitness program for the hundred men of the district headquarters. It all went somewhat better than the affirmative action effort, but in the end those who started out fit tended to stay fit while similar trends prevailed among the flabby. Being in charge of all this inertia did, however, inspire my own efforts and I pumped iron regularly in the dingy YMCA gym with that marvelous assortment (including my case a professional wrestler) one found in such places before fitness was defined by silly people in spandex jumping up and down and yelling faux encouragement at their bedraggled wards to the sounds of excessively loud rock.

Eventually I would end up as operations officer aboard the CG cutter Spar out of Bristol RI. Our job was maintaining aids to navigation and heavy weather search & rescue. In November 1963 we were also assigned to take two 40 foot patrol boats to be used to guard John F. Kennedy when he was vacationing in Florida. At a flank speed of 15 knots it had taken us days to get down there and days to get back. I had the conn as we finally pulled up to the dock at Bristol with everyone anxious to go ashore.

We weren’t more than a hundred feet off the dock when a crew member came out on the deck below and called up to the bridge, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” I thought: what a stupid thing to say ata time like this. I edged the ship up gently to the pier, got the lines properly secured and went below. Only then did I realize that it was true. Despite days away from home port, no one left the ship for three hours as we huddled around the mess deck’s television.

The fading of ethics

Sam Smith – Watching the House investigation into the Ukrainian situation has led me to feel that I was seeing two vastly different species of human beings. On the one hand, many of the foreign service officers were precise, fact based, honest, and non-judgemental in their descriptions of what had happened. Meanwhile, their Republican questioners chose to create false or mythical conflicts, exaggerate or distort, and, in general, sound like third rate attorneys for Donald Trump. In searching for a precedent, I thought of the years that Dixiecrats fought civil rights in Congress.

It also reminded me of how the moral in our society  – whether offered by teachers, ministers, public servants or activists – has been increasingly downplayed by a media in favor of serving power that is clever or entertaining, but indifferent to ethical content. Even in religion the mainstream news prefers to quote noisy faux Christian evangelicals more often than real Christians who lack the hype that the media wants to project at every opportunity.

And nobody talks about it. It’s just a given. As I thought about this topic, however, I had to confess that even I contribute to the problem. I ride my recumbent bike daily watching TV shows like The Office, Parks & Recreation, Mad Men and Rake – all programs that feature people cleverly manipulating  their roles without much concern for honesty or ethics. But then, from a theatrical point of view, moral values are sort of dull. So I save them for my news reporting, but not my bike riding. And, in my defense, Steve Carell is certainly more decent than Rep. Jim Jordan.

And yet our politics have increasingly become a form of entertainment. Go back before television and it would have seemed really strange to nominate an actor like Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump for president. Our understanding of a congressional  hearing would have been based on the reporting of print journalists rather than treated as another mid-day online contest.  

How to deal with this irony – in  which political news has become a battle between alternative fantasies – is hard to tell. But if we don’t want to live the rest of our lives with politicians like Trump we better start talking and doing something about it.

Diversity is more than two

Sam Smith – One of the reasons it’s so hard for America to come together these days is that we have increasingly divided the nation into twos: black and white, male and female, old and young, rich and poor, socialist and capitalist. One of the few exceptions is LGBT+ – a bizarrely bureaucratic phrase, to be sure, but one encompassing the varieties of alternative sex.

Ironically a lot of this bifurcation is done on the premise that it is helping to reduce racism, sexism and so forth. In fact, the more you minimize the complexity of groups, the more the results become cliches. including highly derogatory ones that work counter to the presumed goal.

For example, applying the term “white privilege” to all whites ignores the fact that there are more poor whites than there are blacks in total and that applying the term, say to a mine worker or a car builder is not likely to help your cause.

And, as noted here before, Barack Obama is almost universally described as our first black president yet, in fact, spent less time with a black parent than he did at Harvard Law School. What is rarely noticed is that one reason Obama may be as popular as he’s been is because he understood  both cultures and the complexities in their relationship.

In fact, Obama, as a child of an interracial couple, reflects 17% of all marriages today and 10% of all married folk. Back in 1967 only 3% of marriages were cross-cultural.

Further, while strong  identity may have considerable psychological and cultural value, it can work against one’s political goals for the simple reason that if you don’t represent a majority you have to find allies. Finding issues that one shares with others won’t damage your self-identity; it will in fact improve the view of that identity in the minds of those with whom one works. This has been perhaps most strongly exemplified in the past by groups like the Irish and Jews who learned that one of the best ways to advance is for a minority to lead the majority – as, for example, Martin Luther King Jr did so effectively.

In reaching this goal, it helps to educate both children and adults in the true complexities of various cultures. If, for example, you teach kids about the varieties of history and culture within blackness, they will be less likely to reduce it all to a cliche.If the media would stop oversimplifying it to an either/or matter, adults would be helped as well. For example, the media might admit that our society is partly socialist already and we’re not about to dump our public fire departments.

i learned about cultural complexity as one of six kids with the same last name and skin color but different in many other respects. I like to tell the tale about having my older brother – then energy secretary of Puerto Rico – working to build an oil port there at the same time that my youngest sister was fighting one in Maine.

And living in DC where, for five decades, we whites were in the minority. skin color didn’t hold a candle to neighborhood, job, politics, education, achievements and so forth. After all, in many elections you had to choose between two or more black candidates. You learned to replace race with a name and a record.

According to the latest projections, America will become like DC in a couple of decades. Whites will be in the minority. The best way to handle this is to stop dividing American into twos. And for the media to report the true complexity of our various demographic groups instead of quietly supporting the damaging cliches about them. And let’s stop treating cultural diversity as a two sided coin rather than countless variety. After all, the more true diversity we recognize, the more likely we will find something in common.

Six decades on the case

Sam Smith

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 thing.

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.
In 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

You 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.

But 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:

Washington 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.”

Those of 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 since.

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:

“From 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.

“By 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'”

But 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 standards.

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.

The 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

The 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.”

The 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.”

Today 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:

In 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.

When the 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 States.

“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. at 4/29/2019 Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to FacebookShare to Pinterest

Some Democratic primary concerns

Sam Smith – There are several concerns about the Democratic primary race that are worth keeping in mind, not because they are decisive but because they might have an insufficiently noticed effect. They include:

Are there too many candidates? It’s an extraordinary number and one of the problems is that it will distort the results of state primaries. In other words, someone might win a state by, say, 29% but not be the collective second or third choice of that state’s voters. In other words, the biggest niche beats the consensus. Among other things, this reflects the lack of clear leadership in the Democratic Party. Of course, still to be enacted ranked choice voting would deal with the problem but that’s for the future. 

Is show business going to beat substance? Trump is our greatest example of image defeating reality, but it is an increasing character of much of American politics. It helps to explain the number of candidates who have personalities but are weak on policy and experience. And it helps to explain why someone of real substance  – like Elizabeth Warren – (who comes across as sort of teacherish)  isn’t doing as well as she might. 

Are the two leading candidates – Biden and Sanders – too old? Your opinion on this doesn’t matter. It is a decision voters in general are going to make and it could be something of a sleeper. Bear in mind that only 8.4% of those 75 or older work full time in U.S.

– How do you attract white voters if you attack them? Too much liberal talk includes sweeping criticism of whites. Bear in mind the next time you talk about “white privilege” that there are more whites in poverty than there are blacks in total. The rhetoric needs to focus on the guilty leaders and not their followers. 

Rediscovering the good

Sam Smith –  I’ve been watching The Godfather movie series, the first of which came out in 1972, the same year in which a bunch of men broke into the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington on behalf of Richard Nixon who was reelected later that year.

Nixon was our first modern presidential thug, followed by corporate mob pawn Ronald Reagan, a corrupt Bill Clinton and now Donald Trump.

While the sins of our recent presidents have been duly noted, what doesn’t get much notice is the fact that we, the citizens of America, elected them.

Somehow, for a half century,  large collections of us have become dutiful followers of one misdoer  or another. Like residents of Michael Corleone’s neighborhood we have learned to treat evil like the weather, something to complain about, prepare for, but not prevent. As I noted over a decade ago, “we all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.” Or as one of the characters in The Godfather put it, “Politics and crime: they’re the same.”

This is not just a political problem; it is a cultural one. There has been a fading of moral voices in our society as we become more accustomed to a few deciding what happens. I am enough of an optimist to believe there are still things we can do to combat this culture but we need to recognize it and start talking and doing things about it. Here are a few suggestions:

The media: Large media are owned by far fewer companies and local print media are disappearing. Meanwhile the most watched TV channels typically define national news by what is happening in Washington, what the powerful in the capital are saying about it, and how the DC press corps analyzes it. This creates a huge bias towards the capital’s elite while fifty states and thousands of towns and cities – the places where real change usually starts – are ignored. 

Television has also had an enormous effect on political ethics. Before television, corruption was largely a feudal system in which power was traded for known services given. Now purchasable TV image has replaced real rendered service and we have lost both our relationship with, and understanding of, politicians. We even elected a president we largely knew because of a TV show.

This is damn hard to combat, but the local could be brought more alive through the sort of alternative media that spread in the 1960s (although now better on line than in print) and not just at the city or state level. We need more neighborhood online information and discussion and more non-national good voices in our lives. 

At present, moral views are not considered newsworthy. There has been a decline of  good people considered worth covering. Religious, intellectual, state and local figures are ignored unless they do something controversial.  For example, is Alan Derschowitz really the only Harvard guy worth quoting?

And it’s not just news. When I was kid, reading comic and real books or going to the movies, I searched for role models and ways to do things right. And the mass media was happy to help me. Now, as I look for movies to see or TV shows to watch, I’m stunned by how few of the choices aren’t violent, dismal, or full of psychological conflict. In fact, I’ve been wondering lately whether Jusse Smollett wasn’t inspired to do what he did by the very TV series in which he played a role, a series that features people making a lot of bad choices.

The problem even exists in popular music, witness this from Pacific Standard:

“Lyrics obtained from a random sample of pop music from the top charts revealed that this genre utilizes violence in lyrics at a level similar to hip-hop/rap, and more so than any other music format,” write University of Missouri researchers Cynthia Frisby and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz.

The researchers analyzed the lyrics of 409 top-selling songs released between 2006 and 2016. The songs, by artists including Jay-Z, John Legend, and Justin Bieber represented a variety of genres; all had sold at least one million copies.

The team noted which songs contained profanity, references to violence, and misogyny, which the researchers defined as lyrics that depicted women as “beneath men” or referred to women as “usable and expendable.”

Their most striking finding: The best-selling pop songs almost uniformly contain violent imagery. Amazingly, 99.5 percent of the pop hits they analyzed (198 in total) referred to violent acts. That’s slightly higher than the 94.7 percent of hip-hop numbers to feature such language, and far greater than the percentage of any other genre.

What’s clear is the music most popular with today’s adolescents frequently “communicates violence, demeans and objectifies women, and perpetuates gender stereotypes,” the researchers conclude.

Reading this made me look at my list of over 80 traditional jazz and pop songs I regularly play and could only find a handful that even mentioned and none that emphasized violence.

We underrate the importance of pop culture to how we think and act but I learned not to trust people like Donald Trump not by going to college but by reading comic books when I was young. And if you count the number of role models you see now in the movies, on television shows or on the evening news, you’ll get a sense of the problem.

The devaluation of history and civics in schools – How do you teach the young the principles of democracy or the history of ignoring them? The prime answer is easy, but, as these two clips indicate, far from what is going on now:

Washington Diplomat:  When pop star Taylor Swift posted on Instagram last month her support for two Tennessee Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, the number of voter registrations on Vote.org skyrocketed, outpacing in just 24 hours the total number for all of August.

… Defined as the study of citizens’ rights and duties and government workings, civics education has been languishing for years. Studies show that civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low.

… Apathy, meanwhile, is widespread. The U.S. has among the lowest voter turnouts among developed nations. Despite some fluctuations, only about half of the country’s voting age population tends to cast a ballot in a presidential race.

The lack of knowledge about how our system of government works starts young. More than 80 percent of college seniors at 55 top-ranked schools would have earned a D or F on historical knowledge, according to a 2015 study published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni members.

We’re really fortunate to teach social studies and do civic education in Washington, D.C., because there’s such a wealth of resources all around that the city can become the classroom,” said Scott Abbott, director of social studies for DC Public Schools.

Sometimes that’s a field trip to a Smithsonian Institution museum. … Some students at Dunbar High School chose gun control, and before the March For Our Lives gun control demonstration earlier this year, they met with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to discuss their bill.

Two years ago, DCPS partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on visits for 10th-graders studying World War II. About 1,500 students have participated each year.

Chronicle of Higher Education: Since the Great Recession of 2008, writes Benjamin M. Schmidt in Perspectives on History, undergraduate majors have been shifting away from the humanities. And of all the disciplines, history has fared the worst, even as college and university enrollments have grown.

Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, looked at the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2008 there were 34,642 degrees awarded to history majors. In 2017 that number was 24,255, a 30-percent drop. And there’s been about a 33-percent decline in history majors since 2011, the first year in which students who watched the financial crisis unfold could easily change their majors, Schmidt found.

Urbanization – The loneliness that comes with urbanization is not just a personal problem; it is a social one. If you have an increasing number of people who don’t regularly relate with others, this not only affects psychology, it affects politics. Having had a father who worked in the New Deal for almost its entire length, I am struck by how little concern today’s urban liberals express for those who aren’t like themselves. A striking example is the stunning decline in liberal enthusiasm for labor unions. As Tony Matthews wrote in The Conversation: Loneliness is a hidden but serious problem in cities worldwide. Urban loneliness is connected to population mobility, declining community participation and a growth in single-occupant households. This threatens the viability of our cities because it damages the social networks they rely on.”

Atomization of subcultures – Another noticeable change has been an atomization of subcultures. Some of this may be due to the Internet, which encourages people to concentrate on groups and things they identify with, but is also due in part to identity politics which, ranging from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, encourages relations culturally similar to one’s own with little discussion or approaches to relate to others. There are striking exceptions, such as the Poor People’s Campaign, but for the most part identity is regarded as more important than effective coalitions. There is no doubt, for example, that a coalition of blacks, latinos, and labor could have a political effect unlike anything today, but such concepts are hardly discussed.

As I put it a couple of years ago”

The origins of this trend may have some of its roots in what I have come to think of as “niche activism,” which is to say activism based on the presumed perfection of one’s cause combined with a lower impression of those not part of it. At its worst the others are condemned, which is considered an effective activist technique even if adds not one person to the cause and may further alienate many. The Internet, with its tendency to attract people to their own political and cultural coves, plays a role in this.

Another factor has been the increased role of academia in shaping people’s views of current issues. While in the 1960s there were plenty of college students involved in protests, their professors largely ignored the underlying issues and there certainly wasn’t a widely accepted academic analysis of the various causes of resistance.

Now there Is so much academic cultural analysis out on the streets that it is often mistakenly seen as an effective response to real life situations, say like the St Louis police department.  

As the son of someone who worked in the New Deal and having covered and been active in the 1960s and the Great Society’s reaction to it, I am sometimes stunned not only be how passive liberalism has become but how little attention is paid to dealing with actual issues and building cross cultural alliances to deal with them.

Key to this in the past has been the blending of social and economic matters. I tell people that we have always had evangelical working class white guys; we just used to call them New Deal Democrats.  And that Roosevelt got more economic bills through in his first 100 days than liberals have done in the past 30 years.

Key to changing this is to cut back on analysis and organize around issues. Nothing changes people’s assumptions about others more strongly than to discover that they heartily agree on something.

Condemning the weak instead of converting them – Having been trained in the 1960s civil rights movement and the organizing philosophy of Saul Alinsky, I tend to look at those with whom I disagree and wonder, how can I change them? Basic to this approach is not to condemn. For example, talking about “white privilege” to those in a world whose ethnicity has twice as many in poverty as do blacks is not particularly effective.  Telling people that I was part of a white minority in Washington DC for some fifty years and greatly enjoyed that city is a more effective way to start the discussion. 

Recognizing the other guy’s problems is another good start. Timothy Carney in Alienated America  gives some hints:

There’s Hillary Clinton’s brag … that she won the counties with the most economic productivity and lost the counties producing the least. Nate Silver’s colleague Ben Casselman, a statistician, found that “the evidence suggests that anxiety did play a key role in Trump’s victory.” In places where jobs were more vulnerable to outsourcing or foreign competition, Casselman found, Trump did better than Romney had. Where fewer men had college degrees, Trump did better than Romney had. “Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores”. . .

More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support

And he quotes Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo who looked at the numbers in nine states with county level data: :  “’In every state except Massachusetts, the counties with high rates of white mortality were the same counties that turned out to vote for Trump.’ … Trump outperformed Mitt Romney the most in the counties with the most suicides, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths. This was especially true in the industrial Midwest: Trump outperformed Romney by 8 points in the counties with the lowest rate of these deaths but outperformed him by a full 16 points in the counties with the highest rate of suicides, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths. “

Now, you can call these folks racist or examples of “white privilege” but if you want to change this country so it doesn’t keep electing Trumps, you face the job of a teacher, not a scold. As the New Deal Democrats and Lyndon Johnson did, you have to give them something better to think about.

Religious and secular matters –  The decline of church attendance is clearly not working in favor of a more decent society. But even a Seventh Day Agnostic like myself found comfort in church basements in the 1960s as we organized against freeways, for civil rights and even launched the DC Statehood Party. The spirit and action of many city churches in those days was not just built on faith, but upon acting on one’s faith. This brought Christians, Jews and atheists together and I can’t remember a single time – despite a half dozen ministerial pals – that anyone questioned my  faith or lack thereof. And I dug them because they were doing good stuff.

This would be a good spirit to revive, both to make churches more relevant and help them grow again. And you don’t even have to believe in God. The Religion News Service reported recently:

In early March, more than 30 atheist, humanist and secular leaders gathered at a residence overlooking Southern Californian vineyards to discuss politics, social issues and how to draw in more people at a first-ever SoCal Secular Leadership Summit.

Sarah Levin, director of grass roots and community programs at Secular Coalition for America, said that her organization recently found that nonbelievers felt well-connected to national secular organizations but disconnected from others like them locally.

“We realized we need to help strengthen these networks of local groups so that they can be mobilized for political advocacy,” Levin said.

To that end, last weekend’s summiteers broke the day up into frequent intensive discussions about common interests, rather than asking them to sit through lectures. The Angelenos talked a lot about homelessness and climate change, while San Diegans picked up on local buzz about offering their fellow residents a public-sector alternative to the corporate monopoly that provides energy.

Rebecca Kitchings of the Inland Empire Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists group said they have the largest membership in Southern California with more than 2,500 people on their Meetup, a site and app used to organize online groups that host in-person events or meetings. But not all are active, paying members, something she hopes to increase.

Building a counterculture – We need to stop thinking of our problems as just political or economic. They are also deeply cultural. For example, if we have a new Martin Luther King Jr the media is not covering him. Our popular musicians and movie stars stay away from politics. And the young are only beginning to discover their power, as after the Parkland shootings. It can all happen quite fast. When I was in mj twenties, I started one of the few alternative papers in the country. Within a few years there were 400. It can happen fast if those with cultural power – ranging from famous stars to the unknown young – start to challenge and redefine that culture.

In short, if we do not want Donald Trump to represent us, we have to represent ourselves – loudly and clearly.

Why the media doesn’t like Green Book

Sam Smith – I can’t remember an Oscar winner getting so much criticism as Green Book Admittedly, it is a charming story that does not reflect far more painful ethnic relations of the time and it may be historically inaccurate. But it was released when ethnic issues seem stunningly void of possible decent resolution, when hate is on the rise and the country is inundated with sad examples of ethnic conflict.

I would argue that the reason people such as myself liked and were moved by it was in part because it was needed relief from all this bad news. More importantly, it offered an encouraging example of how we might rise above our times. If that thuggish white chauffeur can do why can’t many more?

The movie and the media reaction to it is yet another example of why I have come to think of America as a huge dysfunctional family in which you find some offspring forever trapped in a miserable past in which they and their predecessors were raised and to which they react throughout their lives with anger and misery. And then there are a smaller number who learn from the past and devote themselves to rebuilding the present and the future so the past does not repeat itself. Progress comes not from denying history, but by replacing it.

And that happens at both a personal and broader level. You can be lucky to be born into a time of positive movements or you can figure out how to react personally to life despite its wrongs. Green Book tells just one story of how someone made the transition, an example you rarely find in today’s media.

Why is the media so obsessed with defining ethnic relations as an apparently irresolvable problem and so angry at those who suggest otherwise?

One possibility that has recently occurred to me is that, compared to when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, younger folk of whatever ethnicity are better educated. For example, only 28% in my generation – the Silent one – went to college, even without graduating. For Millennials the figure is 67%.

One big thing you learn in college is how to analyze phenomena like ethnicity. But, in many cases, you don’t learn how to do anything about it. I am struck these days by how media attention is given to ethnic problems and how little to solutions. And I notice that those groups doing something get largely ignored.

This, I suspect, is a bias inculcated by institutions dedicated to analysis rather than action.

Civil rights icon John Lewis, who introduced the Green Book award, has a long history in the latter and he said of Green Book, “I can bear witness that the portrait painted of that time and place in our history is very real.”

I sometimes wonder how Martin Luther King Jr would do with today’s media. And how much attention would a black student named John Lewis get these days as he organized in Nashville.

As one joining the civil rights movement about four years after the Green Book story, I soon figured with my colleagues that our job was to condemn the big dudes but convert the little ones. You didn’t go up to a white guy, accuse him of “white privilege” and then assume he would do the right thing.

The goal was change -not just attempting to prove you were right and they were wrong.

But I also was living in Washington DC where things were different. For some fifty years, I was part of its white minority. You rarely heard the sort of ethnic clichés that currently dominate the national conversation. You learned early in politics that blacks up on 16th Street were different than the ones in Shaw and Anacostia. And that the whites in Upper Northwest weren’t the same as those on Capitol Hill. Except during the 1968 riots I never felt threatened or endangered. I felt just another part of the collective maze of DC. And it was fascinating and fun.

It is this sense of ethnic complexity that is missing from national discussions. And too many – both black and white – become annoyed when their simple definitions are challenged by the reality of cultural differences within an ethnic group.

We won’t even face the fact that “race” was invented as a racist term (which is why I use the word “ethnic” in its place) And the media pays little attention, for example, to the increasing number of cross-ethnic individuals in our society. Consider how little attention was paid to Barack Obama’s white mother and Indonesian-American half sister.

Part of the secret to resolving ethnic conflict is to report, discuss, and enjoy ethnic complexity. If we only define it all in terms of troubles we just make resolution all that much harder.

Yes we need to confront the evil, but giving us heart and a sense of direction, somethlng like Green Book doesn’t hurt at all.