AFTER CHOKEHOLDS AND CONFEDERATE STATUES

Sam Smith – After we get rid of choke holds and Confederate statues we may find ourselves wondering why life still isn’t what we would like it to be. We have been raised in a society that values regulatory process, legal reform, and procedural improvements. But it is easy in such a world to forget the importance of some basic positive human traits such as cooperation, kindness, and enjoyment of others. You can’t legislate or require such things as they are the product of culture and not the law.

And so we may be left with a gap that law, analysis and procedures have failed to fill, namely how we really feel, act and think about others… and what we can do about it.

I have been aware of this throughout much of my own life thanks to such things as having five siblings who, along with my parents, taught me early that other folks don’t always see things the same way as I do. As time went on I gained four nephews and nieces from Puerto Rico, three from Scotland and would live comfortably for five decades in a Washington that was then a majority black city.

I was also an anthropology major and so came to .understand the immense, largely unspoken, power of culture. As a journalist I have been repeatedly reminded of how often culture doesn’t get reported without an event, action, or official attached to it. Thus, for example, most are not aware that 15% of marriages these days are of mixed ethnicity. Or that race is a cultural rather than a scientific thing. Or that institutions like churches and schools no longer have the moral significance they once had.

We do not need to turn our backs on law and procedures but we need to start talking and thinking more about ways we can, beyond regulation, not just get along but actually enjoy each other.

A good place to start is schools. As these institutions have slipped more towards the standards of our corporatist society, moral and personal issues – enlightened by civics and history – have drifted out of the educational agenda. How many elementary schools, for example, introduce their students to the incredible diversity of human culture? How many help their students work with others? And if competition and corporatism are the values their elders value most, where do kids learn cooperation, mediation and how to get along with those with whom you disagree? If math and spelling can be taught at this stage, why not decency and the celebration of diversity?

Years ago, I was president of a parents association at a public school in DC, about which I later wrote:

|||| A parents bulletin around that time reported 20% of the students to be native Spanish speakers. There were children whose families came from 34 countries and Puerto Rico and about 20% of the school was African American… The ethnic mix was rounded out by a commune of born-again Sikhs who lived nearby.

If all our governmental institutions were run by people as pragmatic, sensitive, intelligent and imaginative as the newly appointed principal, Pat Greer, we would live in a much happier country. For example, when the potentially difficult issue of religious celebration arose, Pat adopted the principle laid down by the theologian Reinhold Niehbur, who said once that you don’t solve the conflict between church and state by doing away with the church. And so the assembly before the year-end vacation included a traditional American Christian segment, a latino Christian portion, a Jewish presentation and, as a climax, a kid from the Sikh commune telling the legend of the sword. Everyone had a good time and Pat and I agreed not to let the ACLU know what we were up to.

I once got a call from Pat saying that she had caught two 8th graders using pot. She explained that she had called the 2nd Police District and asked them to send over an officer but that he was to do nothing but scare the hell out of the kids and then leave. Sounds good to me, I said, but of course those were the 1970s when we still naively thought teachers and principals knew more about educating kids than cops, judges, and the President.

Twenty years later, in a speech to a global cultural diversity conference in Australia, Pat Greer, who is black, explained her approach:

“John Eaton School is child-centered. That means that we value and build on the strengths that each and every child brings to our school and to our classrooms. That is especially important to us in our multicultural environment. Our learning environment builds on the heritage and background of all of our children. The result is that our students are eager, curious students, students who are focused on learning and are responsible for their own learning.”

“At another DC public school a teacher had asked the question, ‘What do people need to get along?’ A student had written, ‘cooperation’ and the teacher had crossed it out and written, ‘rules.’ In a few decades, the whole nation would try to run education that way, with lots of tests to make sure the instructions were being obeyed. But it didn’t work because it lacked the combination that on most days had made John Eaton work: competence, to be sure, but – just as important – cooperation, enthusiasm, and love.

“Our parents, teachers and staff are caring, talented, resourceful and positive role models for our students. And I am a highly visible school principal. I know each student by name and I greet them each morning when they arrive at school, and again when they go home at the end of the day. I talk to my students; I visit their classrooms; and I sometimes work with them in their classrooms. And I welcome them into my office when they want to talk to me. ..”

The curriculum at the school was affected by two impressive biases. One was a prejudice towards writing. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. The school clearly understood the shortest route to good writing: do it. The other emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music, activities that require students to work well with each other. With excellent teachers and adequate time, the kids threw themselves into their projects as though Broadway rather than high school was the next step. The encouragement came right from the top – not only from the principal but from Mr. Urqhart, her administrative assistant, who – dressed in his most colorful suit – would sing a single applause-stirring number in his mellow bass voice in each of the big shows – the only adult permitted to thus intrude.

I became conscious of how serious the dramatic side of Eaton was one day as I was taking a group of 4th graders home from an event. One kid stepped carelessly into the street and a companion called her back, saying, “Be careful, you could ruin your whole life that way.’ Another added, “yeah, or even your career.” Once safely in the car, there commenced the sort of surreal debate that only the young can withstand. The topic (clearly involving the stage rather than the lesser trades) was: what is more important – your life or your career? ||||

There are plenty of police departments that could use someone like Pat Greer. While banning chokeholds is a start, we need to think about ways to reintegrate police into our communities instead of having them consider the neighborhood as a threat. Getting them out of their cars and back onto the streets is one way. Creating neighborhood commissions such as those in DC where the police can discuss problems with real citizens. Adding lawyers and social workers to each police station not just to train officers but to work with them over the problems they run into would also help.

All are partial solutions beyond the law and procedures but part of the complex and universal world of decency and cooperation. We can not just regulate ourselves out of this mess, we must learn how to share our world with others and enjoy what we discover. And if kids can learn how to do it, it’s possible we adults can as well.

Why America keeps going anyway…x

Sam Smith – I can’t think of a time when so many of America’s huge systems have so collapsed. Our scientists can’t stop a massive pandemic, long functioning major businesses are going into bankruptcy, the rest of the economy is a mess, we have the dumbest and cruelest president in our history, Congress is unproductive, our schools are closed, millions are unemployed, six decades of civil rights efforts are in shambles and the police are seen by millions as the enemy of those they were hired to protect.
And yet we keep struggling along. Obviously it’s not thanks to our massive institutions, our so-called leaders or favored principles like capitalism that keeps us going. No, it something more important, namely us.
Even in good times, we tend to underrate the importance of the ordinary citizens of America in keeping the place of that name going. For example, during political campaigns the needs of small business are rarely addressed but now, for example, we have relearned the importance of restaurants by the damage done to them by both the pandemic and the protests. At the very time that we are reviving the tales and experiences of police brutality, we read stories of police officials urging decency on everyone’s part and see pictures of individual cops hugging demonstrators, as well as officers in New Jersey, carrying a a banner that read “Standing in Solidarity,” and Santa Cruz Chief Andy Mills down on his knee with protesters.
Then there is the pandemic disaster that our scientific experts can’t decode and so has been turned over to thousands of doctors, nurses, and EMTs who have saved untold lives and mitigated illness anyway. Tens of thousands of teachers have gone on line and revamped their curricula. And even some traditional true Christian preachers have ended their silent submission to the noisy faith scammers.
Thanks to the overwhelming influence of the media we have been taught to discount the role of ordinary folk in determining the course of our country, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it. A lot of people are comparing what’s happening now to the 1968 riots that I lived through east of the US Capitol. One of the things I learned then was the strange ambivalence of such times. The slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the smoke of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple’s home four and a half blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation, — made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out
I had started a neighborhood newspaper and was part of a small group of blacks and whites who had come together a few months earlier to deal with some of the community’s problems. It was all too little and too late. In the vicinity of nearby H Street some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged further to the south on or near 8th Street.
But even in this chaos, individuals made a difference.. During the riots, black Mayor Walter Washington had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Mayor Washington refused, saying that “you can replace material goods, but you can’t replace human beings.” Hoover then said, “Well, this conversation is over.” Replied Washington, “That’s all right, I was leaving anyway.”
Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers held a sunrise service outside on a charred 8th Street, refusing what Albert Camus called the sin of despair. The neighborhood had already started rebuilding itself.
Six decades later we have a president who, like Hoover, wants to shoot the looters. And again you have decent souls who know better. We can’t predict the future but we can follow Albert Camus’ advice, avoiding the sin of despair by creating new power thanks to acts and alliances of decency that even bullies can’t overturn. And remembering that regardless of whether we do something or nothing, we are all demonstrating our position and making a difference.

America: Trouble at the top

Sam Smith – They no longer build pyramids in Egypt, Mexico or Guatemala. The British royalty is beginning to fall apart. We elected someone like Donald Trump to lead us through the worst pandemic in a century. The US Senate was helpless to deal with Trump. The electric grid system in Texas couldn’t handle a bad snow storm. In short, cultures do decay. We just don’t like to talk about it.
To be sure, we have Joe Biden to brighten things up a bit, but it’s worth remembering that in the first hundred days of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, it passed an emergency relief act, an employment systems act, an industrial recovery act, an agricultural act and created the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. I’m not sure we could handle that sort of efficiency these days.
Given the congressional margins with which he has been cursed, we can’t expect Biden to match this, but he still stands out as a different sort of leader than we’ve become accustomed to. As someone who has covered presidents since Eisenhower, I think of Biden in a small class of presidents such as Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson who were good at getting things done – not just because the things were good but because they knew how to work with other people and the actual facts of the matter.
Sure, Obama was a nice guy but he quite a different training. As I wrote a couple of years ago:
Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP. One unnoted factor in this: the liberal elite has become wealthier and better educated. For example, back in the 1950s we were turning out 5,000 MBAs a year, by 2005 the figure was 142,000. In 1970 we produced 65,000 Phds, last year the figure was 181,000. And in 2009 the Washingtonian Magazine estimated there were 80,000 lawyers in DC.
Barack Obama thus represents a new era in American politics: the ultimate triumph of the gradocracy. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of his early career:
“In late 1988, Obama entered Harvard Law School. He was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year and president of the journal in his second year. During his summers, he returned to Chicago, where he worked as an associate at the law firms of Sidley Austin in 1989 and Hopkins & Sutter in 1990. After graduating with a J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard in 1991, he returned to Chicago. In 1991, Obama accepted a two-year position as Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School to work on his first book. He then taught at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years-as a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996, and as a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004-teaching constitutional law. In 1993, he joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a 13-attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development, where he was an associate for three years from 1993 to 1996, then of counsel from 1996 to 2004. His law license became inactive in 2007.”
Key to such a career is intense attention to process, regulations, the manipulation of language and data. Applied to politics, this means the human factor can start to bring up the rear. Politics is then no longer like music in which soul and skill are melded; instead it becomes another bureaucracy. Good evidence of this in the Obama years would be Obamacare, a two thousand page hard to decipher collection of virtue, uncertain results, payoffs to the health industry, and excessive paper work. A good politician of another time would have led with something that everyone understood, such as lowering the age of Medicare, and then adding on their favorite sweetheart deals.
It is not that it is wrong to study or practice the law, economics, business or education. But to usurp other skills, behavior, empirical knowledge and types of wisdom makes no more sense than for a dentist to attempt to instruct an attorney on how to address the court because he’s an expert on teeth.
I covered my first Washington story back in the 1950s and one of the things that fascinated me about politicians back then was their ability to talk United States. Public works were public works, not infrastructure. And racism didn’t need “systemic” attached to it. One of the problems with the liberal elite these days that it no longer knows how to talk to those who haven’t been as successful as they. And so we have a con artist like Donald Trump pretending to be a friend of the working class and getting away with it because liberals don’t even know how to talk to those who used to form the liberal base. Whether liberalism can recover this former base is uncertain at best. But it’s worth a try.
One way you can see how things have changed is to look at the childhood of a couple of the more effective politicians.
James Earl Carter was … the first child of farmer and small businessman James Earl Carter and former nurse Lillian Gordy Carter. At five, Jimmy already showed a talent for business: he began to sell peanuts on the streets of Plains. At the age of nine, Carter invested his earnings in five bales of cotton, which he stored for several years and then sold at a profit. With this money he was able to purchase five old houses in Plains… Following his father’s death from cancer, he returned to Plains to manage the family-owned farm and peanut warehouses. In order to keep up with modern farming methods, he studied at the Agricultural Experimental Station in Tifton, Georgia. During these years in Plains, Carter was active in a number of civic organizations.
[Harry Truman’s father John] Truman was a farmer and livestock dealer… When Truman was six, his parents moved to Independence, Missouri, so he could attend the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. He did not attend a conventional school until he was eight. While living in Independence, he served as a Shabbos goy for Jewish neighbors, doing tasks for them on Shabbat that their religion prevented them from doing on that day.
[Truman] rose at five every morning to practice the piano, which he studied more than twice a week until he was fifteen, becoming quite a skilled player…. After graduating from Independence High School in 1901, Truman enrolled in Spalding’s Commercial College, a Kansas City business school. He studied bookkeeping, shorthand, and typing…
Truman made use of his business college experience to obtain a job as a timekeeper on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, sleeping in hobo camps near the rail lines. He then took on a series of clerical jobs, and was employed briefly in the mail room of The Kansas City Star. Truman and his brother Vivian later worked as clerks at the National Bank of Commerce in Kansas City.
Now let’s look at Joe Biden:

Biden’s father had been wealthy, but suffered financial setbacks around the time Biden was born, and for several years the family lived with Biden’s maternal grandparents. Scranton fell into economic decline during the 1950s and Biden’s father could not find steady work. Beginning in 1953, the family lived in an apartment in Claymont, Delaware, before moving to a house in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden Sr. later became a successful used-car salesman, maintaining the family in a middle-class lifestyle

Biden credits his parents with instilling in him toughness, hard work and perseverance. He has recalled his father frequently saying, “Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.”.

As a child, Biden struggled with a stutter, and kids called him “Dash” and “Joe Impedimenta” to mock him. He eventually overcame his speech impediment by memorizing long passages of poetry and reciting them out loud in front of the mirror.

Now let’s go back to the pandemic and the Texas grid disaster. The fact is that folks like Biden, Carter and Truman don’t make it to the top so easily any more. Much better to become a really good lawyer, an MBA or well trained in public relations. A major part of our organizations are run by principles stemming from these sources, despite the fact that the ultimate purpose of these organizations may be electrical energy, health services or education. Those at the top have become less trained to deal with the real purpose of their job. And, unlike the Bidens, Carters and Trumans they are less trained or inclined to ask help from those who know something.

Hence we had a president treating the pandemic like it was just another Trump Tower operation.

I have a sense of this little discussed problem in part because when I entered journalism over half of the reporters in the country only had a high school education. What they knew was how to tell a story right.

I also learned it from youthful summers working in Maine where I heard an expression I still recall from time to time: “Fix it up-make it do-use it up -do without.”

It is this skill with the specific that we are losing as a culture so we can look forward to some more overlong pandemics and cities without power.

It was more fun when more at the top understood what they were doing.

The imperfection of history

 Sam Smith – The decision in San Francisco to rename over 40 schools – including ones named for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – brings to the fore the arrogance with which we often view history.

If there is one consistent thing that history teaches us it is the imperfection of it and the people who create it. If there is one consistent thing that makes us feel better about this is that many of these imperfections are now past, which is why we call them history.

But the current trend to judge those in the past by current standards lends us little judgement for dealing with the present. What are the issues we are ignoring that some day will be considered essential?

And it is far more complicated than many would have us believe. For example, the properly praised Frederick Douglass supported women’s suffrage but, as Black Past notes,  “in 1869 he publicly disagreed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who called for women’s suffrage simultaneously with voting rights for black men, arguing that prejudice and violence against black men made their need for the franchise more pressing.” Do we take his name off all buildings for this?

A more sensible approach is to accept human imperfection and praise the occasional escape from it, despite the fact that the praised of the past may have ignored their children, lied on their tax returns or engaged in marital infidelity. We are not honoring the whole individual but specific good that they did.

As a long time activist. I’m conscious of how dramatically the status of an idea can change over time. For example, fifty years ago few supported DC statehood or legalized marijuana. Those of us who did were considered kooks at best.  I know some well known groups and politicians who opposed DC statehood long ago but now support it.

Politics is like that. You can’t be a successful politician without making some of the mistakes that the time you live in seems to demand. And goodness is rare enough that we should celebrate it even if it does not define a whole life or its viewpoints.

Bringing the police back home

Sam Smith – One of the problems with our problem solving these days is a tendency to legalize, institutionalize and formalize relationships that actually depend on wise social behavior. Consider, for example, how different our ethnic relations might be if we actually taught school children about the nature and virtues of cultural variety before their views got distorted by bigots and bullies.

The same is true these days in discussions about the police, where  the emphasis is on suppressing the most violent and unfair behavior, with hardly any talk about how to integrate police better into the lives of our communities.

This is something I have long followed, having edited a community newspaper in the mid 60s east of the US Capitol, a neighborhood that would include two the city’s four major riot strips in 1968. . I early came to realize that part of the trick was to get cops out of their patrol cars and having a neighborhood based relationship with some of the city’s citizens.

It early seemed clear that isolating cops in cars didn’t help matters. While on a 1960s panel that included a local police official and a representative of a national police organization, I made this argument. A columnist for the Washington Post turned to a friend of mine sitting next to him and asked, “Who is that nut?”

But there is something else I also remember from that time: a story I did on two young black cops patrolling a public housing project. One of them, Isaac Fulwood, told me that “they never check with us” before building such a place. Fulwood also lived on the Hill and a few years later, we attended a baptism class at a local church together.

It was just an ordinary story except for one thing. Fulwood would eventually become chief of the DC police and later chair of the US parole board.

And Fulwood was no ordinary chief. As the Washington Post wrote of his youth after his death:

In many ways, the family was the District in microcosm, engaged in a grim struggle with the hardships of poverty, drug abuse and crime. [His brother] Theodore Fulwood, known as Teddy, was locked up, accused of selling cocaine on a District street, when his brother was named police chief. Theodore’s long police record ranged from assault to bank robbery. “I loved him,” Mr. Fulwood said, “but hated his behavior.”

And Mr. Fulwood, though rarely in trouble as a youth, recalled his father’s encounters with unhelpful police officers and his own unpleasant interactions with them. “I had met very nasty policemen who would say anything to black people or do anything to them,” he told The Post in 1991. “Very rarely did you see black police officers.”

In another Post story, Fulwood faced the reality of his position:

Once, when Fulwood was chief, a riot broke out inside Lorton Correctional Facility. …. Fulwood helicoptered over. “I’m inside the jail, looking around. There are a couple thousand people in there. I swear, they all look black.”

After he and his men had Lorton under control, Fulwood took a walk around the place, bullhorn in hand. He heard a voice, a very loud whisper.

“Junior! Junior!”

Fulwood wheeled. He spotted an old family friend from the neighborhood around Kentucky Avenue SE where he grew up. “I said, ‘Come here. What you in here for?’ He said, ‘Robbery.’ “

The man asked Fulwood to visit his mother, tell her he was all right, which Fulwood did.

“I looked around that prison and said, ‘What a waste of human life,’ ” Fulwood recalls. “I came home and said to my wife, ‘Why can’t we break this cycle?’ It’s still a question I’m always struggling with.” ….

He says: “I believe communities have a right to be safe.”

He says: “You try to be tough. But at the same time you try to figure this damn thing out.”

One of the ways he handled this as head of the parole commission was to take someone on parole with him when he went to speak to high schoolers. In short, he could be tough but this didn’t mean he deserted his community. In fact, after leaving the force, he taught some courses at the University of DC on community policing.

There was an example of this sort of policing that sticks in my mind. When our sons were kids, they played baseball on teams run by the police boys club. I admit I sometimes felt a little nervous watching my son up to bat with an umpire wearing a pistol on his hip, but  it was a fine experience. Today these clubs, now merged with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, reach some 35,000 youngsters annually and have seven club houses in the city.

These are just two little example of community policing at work

The incident floated back recently as I read a detective novel by the sainted Michael Connelly in which the following appeared:

Through political opportunism and ineptitude, the city had allowed the department to languish for years as an understaffed and underequipped paramilitary organization. Infected with political bacteria itself, the department was top-heavy with managers while the ranks below were so thin that the dog soldiers on the street rarely had the time or inclination to step out of their protective machines, their cars, to meet the people they served. They only ventured out to deal with the dirt bags and, consequently, [detective Hieronymus] Bosch knew, it had created a police culture in which everybody not in blue was seen as a dirt bag and was treated as such….You ended up with a riot the dog soldiers couldn’t control.

Part of the problem was expecting the police to do it alone. That’s why I’ve suggested that every police precinct have a civilian lawyer and a psychotherapist on hand to coach the officers, answer their questions, and – in the case of the therapists – accompany them on cases where their skills might be useful.

In DC, as the cops were taking to squad cars, the Recreation Department was sending “roving leaders” out on the street to work with kids and their gangs. Several decades later, Jim Myers in the Hill Rag described how they did it:

Dennis Homesley, principal of Payne Elementary School, often talks about Roving Leaders. He got his start working with kids as a Roving Leader from 1972 to 1981, and he still believes in the concept.

The program, run by the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation, was bigger in Homesley’s day. But the idea remains the same: You don’t wait for kids to cause trouble. You go out and find the kids who are heading in the wrong direction and help them.

The program seemed to founder in the late 1980s. By the 1990s, it was too easy to spot kids in the neighborhood that the system wasn’t reaching – the ones most susceptible to negative influences. Thereafter, you could watch them “progress” on corners and local playgrounds from alienation to car thefts and stick ups or drug selling.

Now, we have Darby Clark and Bridget Miller, the two Roving Leaders who are assigned to work the schools, recreation centers and playgrounds of eastern Capitol Hill. Clark, 37, has been a Roving Leader for seven years. Miller, 41, a gang worker for 20 years, joined Roving Leaders only last year. . .

I saw Clark take a dozen squirming, noisy kids with their attention flying all over the place and turn them into a cooperative, engaged group of youngsters who raised their hands to participate in discussions about having positive attitude.

Magic it wasn’t, but a serious change took place before my very eyes. “They want attention and structure – and consistency,” says Clark. “Like if I say I’m going to be there for them at a certain time, I’ve got to be there.” It sounds so basic, but these are missing elements in many kids’ lives. . .

At Eastern High, Clark picks up names of kids who are not showing up for school – eight or nine kids in some weeks, he says – and visits their homes.

Thinking about history

Sam Smith – Reading Colin Woodard’s remarkable book, Union, has led me to ponder about some of the failings and successes of history in our society and what we can do about it. A few thoughts:

  • Stop shortchanging history in our schools: A 2014 study by the National Assessment of Educational Programs found that only 18% of high school student were proficient in history. Neither our schools nor our media care enough about history and we pay the price.
  • Keep reading history. Along with Woodard’s book I’ve been reading new histories on Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. They have all reminded me of how much I don’t know about some aspects of history and how useful it is to learn more.
  • Learn from the past but don’t live it. Slavery was a terrible part of black history, but the tendency of some of today’s blacks to define their current state by it is similar to what you find in dysfunctional families where some live their life defined by their terrible childhood. The trick is to learn from the past but create a new present and future. All major change comes from rewriting the present and future – not reliving the past.
  • Use history to tell how we’re doing today. For example, we don’t talk about it, but the American inclination to solve problems by warfare has dramatically changed in the past 75 years. The number of American military deaths in the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars was roughly one quarter that of WWII. The Google Book Ngram viewer shows that even the mention of war in English language books has declined by over 85% since the early 19th century. This doesn’t mean all trends are positive, witness climate change, or that you can’t have hopefully temporary retreats such as the Trump regime. But following the history of concepts such as war is as important as remembering actual events.

In short, we need to revive the importance of history in our lives and live not as its victims but as its recreators. And while we’re at it, let’s add civics and cultural studies to our to do list.

A few things I learned in DC

Sam Smith – On Thursday I take part in a zoom conference on the late DC civil rights leader Julius Hobson. If you don’t live in DC and haven’t heard of Julius Hobson don’t be surprised. What happens at the local level in America’s capital colony is of little interest to the media and, as a result, to the public in general.

In fact, Hobson should be considered one of the most admirable civil rights activists in modern America. He played a major role in desegregating the DC school system and hospitals, led 80 picket lines at retail stores resulting in 5,000 new black jobs, achieved the first hiring of black bus drivers and auto salesmen. And he launched the effort for DC statehood.. As he put it once, ““My experience leads me to the conclusion that discussion is not as effective as direct action.”

In preparing for the Hobson conference, I found my mind drifting off to questions such as how did I spend five decades as part of the white minority of Washington so comfortable with the ethnic character of the city given the current national angst about the topic? I  came up with no single answer that convinced me, but came up with some random notes that might be worth sharing:

Washington’s black history goes back to its beginning. And while it was part of the south, with slavery and later segregation, it was different than much of the south. For example, segregation did not apply in certain places such as libraries and public transit and, in fact, blacks had to move to the back of a streetcar when it crossed the river to the deeper southern state of Virginia. Black slaves in Washington were sometimes warned that if they misbehaved they could be sent further south.

Twenty percent of blacks in Washington were free as early as 1800. This percentage would grow with many free blacks getting government jobs. In the 1960s, working with Marion Barry, I became aware of the hostility of some older black residents towards young black activists who were threatening the status they had established with the white government. But if you studied this older subset you also found a remarkable heritage of cultural survival. 

As Frederick Gooding Jr argues in his book, American Dream Deferred, Washington blacks had not only gained a large number of jobs with the federal government, they were also involved in a long struggle for equity in pay and rights within that government. And he quotes Franklin Frazier as observing that due to the “large numbers of Negroes employed in the federal government, Negroes in the nation’s capital had incomes far above those in other parts of the country.” Yet it was still a struggle. Gooding reports that “The irony was that many blacks, after having migrated to the nation’s capital to escape abject poverty, constant social slights, and fear of instability, found themselves in curiously similar employment positions they would have occupied had they stayed in the South (e.g., janitorial service, lawn maintenance)—even though they had federal jobs.”

The 1960s DC activists – such as Hobson and Barry – were leaders of change, not just protesters. They had a clear agenda of what they wanted. Julius was a major example. The leaders organized by issues and were not unhappy to have whites in the effort. And whether it was statehood, an end to freeway construction, or some other cause, you knew what the goal was.. And the city was changing. By 1970 it was 71% black.

When DC finally got some home rule, nine of the first 13 city councilmembers were activists, a new establishment of former rebels. . Washington would have black mayors for the next 45 years.

I took part in Marion Barry’s  early boycott of the transit system because of a planned fare  raise. Tens of thousands stayed off trollies and buses that day. I was one of them, driving 75 folks, black and white, to their destinations.. After reading my article about the protest, Barry, head of the DC Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, came to my apartment and asked me to help him on media issues. Which is how a young white guy who had never protested anything before started working with one of the town’s leading activists.

Even though the SNCC national head, Stokely Carmichael, came to town and announced that whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement, locally it didn’t happen like that. Admittedly, Barry and I eventually fell apart over his positions and activities as mayor. He told a friend, “Sam’s a cynical cat” but coming from Barry I considered that an honor not a slap..

DC had a black college – now Howard University – in 1867. During segregation many Howard graduates couldn’t get teaching jobs and some ended up teaching in DC public schools. America’s soon to be first black vice president went to Howard as did Julius Hobson.

Barry had master’s degree in chemistry. Hobson was working on a masters in economics Barry was completing his doctoral studies at the University of Tennessee when he decided to leave and help start SNCC, where one early meeting included 126 student delegates from 19 colleges, They had the skills but lacked the opportunities that should have come with them and decided to do someeting about it.

Multiculturalism was not strange to DC. Both Julius Hobson and Hilda Mason, another key activist leader, had white spouses. The classic DC civil rights activist – Frederick Douglass – not only had a white wife, it is said  by a number of historians that he also had a white father and some native American blood. Further, as Wikipedia notes:

Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, be they white, black, female, Native American, or Chinese immigrants.  He was also a believer in dialogue and in making alliances across racial and ideological divides… When radical abolitionists, under the motto “No Union with Slaveholders,” criticized Douglass’ willingness to engage in dialogue with slave owners, he replied: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

This spirit survived in DC, witness the big anti-freeway movement that was started by black and white middle class homeowners, unlikely sorts to become activists. During this effort I attended a rally that had only two speakers, a pin stripe suited white Grosvenor Chapman from Georgetown and Reginald Booker, who led a group called Niggers Incorporated. When I saw them, I said to myself, “We’re going to win” – and we did.

DC also has a large number of black Catholics. In 1949 – five years before Brown v. Board of Education – Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle integrated the city’s Catholic schools. One of my friends with Irish roots remembers that while he was there, his basketball team could only play Catholic schools or black public schools. According to one study, an “African-American eighth-grader in a D.C. Catholic school performs better in math than 72 percent of his or her public school peers.”

Part of the story of places like DC is that blacks and whites – even under segregation – lived close enough physically to learn each other’s sins and virtues. One example of this was Odessa Madre, the nearest DC ever had as a mob boss, a black woman who controlled drugs, prostitution and numbers. She also ran the Club Madre that featured performers like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  Part of her success was that she had grown up near Irish kids some of whom became the city’s cops. The Washington Post reported that “Madre had even bragged to a reporter a few years ago that at one time she had so many police officers on her payroll that she ‘practically ran that damn police department.’”  And the Post quoted a retired vice squad police officer who said, “”She loaned a lot of needy people money, as well as provided contacts for gambling and drugs… She knew practically every big-time gangster nationwide. She was what they call a counselor in the mob. She mediated disputes between blacks and whites, a referee. She kept a lot of people from getting hurt.”

There were so many blacks in DC that the term meant less. Were you talking about blacks in Anacostia, Adams Morgan, or upper 16th Street? A black lawyer, cab driver, or artist? Which brings to mind the story of the Washington Post black journalist who was mowing the lawn in front of his house. A white  guy drove by, stopped his car, and called out the window, ‘What do you get for mowing lawns?” Replied the journalist, “I get to sleep with the lady of the house.”

In DC there was no way to talk about ethnicity without someone saying, “Yes, but .” and telling you something different. I learned that over a half century ago when a black Howard University professor told me about integrating a bowling team. The problem was that now he felt he had to go bowling whether he wanted to or not. What he was really fighting for, he realized, was the right to be as bad a bowler as everyone else. He was seeking a decent normalcy.

These random notes suggest a place that has handled ethnic relations differently than many of the stories you read or hear today. There are other towns with similar tales, but together they don’t create enough of a crisis  to make the evening news. Still, in the end, good ethnic relations are not just about ending chokeholds but also about creating real communities…like DC.

What progressives can do now

 

Sam Smith – With the Trump tyranny almost over and the Biden years about to begin, it’s a good time for progressives to figure their new course. Here are a few suggestions:
— Presidents are not agents of change; they are reflections of change. From a progressive perspective, there is little doubt that Biden will be a disappointment, but attacking him for not being good enough will largely be a waste of time. The trick is to create a progressive environment that the White House feels it must respond to.
— This is not just a matter of issues; it is a matter of culture. America hasn’t had a thriving counterculture for years. There is a lack of alternative music, lifestyle, symbols and voices that strongly conflict with the establishment culture.
–Most change starts in small places, witness the spread of state and local environmental laws before the federal government got nto it, or the origins of the legalization of marijuana. Washington learns from change at the state and local level.
— Come up with police reform polices that go beyond how cops handle crises. One reason police do a bad job is because they have become increasingly separated from the communities they are meant to be serving. Banning choke holds is good but it won’t deal with the weak community connection in many police forces.
–Face the fact that in recent decades, as liberals have moved up educationally and economically, they have lost some of their interest in issues effecting the working class. This, combined with the collapse of labor unions, has allowed people like Trump to con this constituency without effective opposition. Liberals have also become increasingly urban and so have lost interest in rural America. This needs to change.
— The young need to do more than vote. They need to teach older America what they want and need and find colorful ways to demonstrate this.
— The same is true of blacks and latinos. They should see themselves as leaders of a new America, rather than just victims of the old one, and include in their priorities issues and solutions that will also benefit white working class voters. A black and latino led labor movement would dramatically change not only the status of issues, but improve ethnic relations as well.
–Teach the young how to get along with those who don’t look like them. The easiest time to teach good ethnic relations is before the young get a bunch of bad ideas from others.
–Create as well as solve. If we only look at issues like ethnicity, police and economics as problems to solve, we can actually miss a lot of the alternative, namely creating a society that enjoys what it is rather than just worrying and arguing about it.

Trump: The beneficiary as well as the creator of evil

Sam Smith – Seventeen years ago I wrote An Apology to Younger Americans” in which I noted that, “Even members of Confederacy had the grace to secede from the union; my generation has remained within like a deadly virus, subverting it, shaming it, screwing it, stealing from it, and finally strangling it. It will likely be known as the worst generation – the one that brought the First American Republic down – unmatched in the damage it has done to the Constitution, the environment, and a two century struggle to create a society democratic and decent in its politics, economics, and social concourse.”

In understanding the Trump disaster it is important to realize that he was not only a creator of our troubles but a major beneficiary of them as well. We tend to overrate both the evils and successes of our political leaders when, in fact, they are often the results of actions and events that long preceded them. Trump is no exception.

Here are some examples of things that made someone as awful at Trump possible:

[] In 1981 Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who were members of the PATCO union. As David Schultz wrote a couple of decades later, “The firing of PATCO employees not only demonstrated a clear resolve by the president to take control of the bureaucracy, but it also sent a clear message to the private sector that unions no longer needed to be feared.” This was only a particularly dramatic example of an anti-union trend that produced a two-third drop in their membership. And one thing not noted about unions as that they are educational institutions for workers. With their decline it became much easier for those like Trump to pretend they were on the side of workers.

[] You can’t have a decent democracy without an educational system that introduces the young to its nature and standards. In recent decades there was been a stunning decline in civics education and a far less informed citizenry has been one of its biggest prices with people like Trump its beneficiary.

[] When I started out as a journalist, only about half of the trade had a college degree. As late as 1976, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that journalism was not a profession. When I started covering Capitol Hill in 1959, I hid the fact that I had gone to Harvard because it would have worked against me. Today Washington journalists are part of what I call the gradocracy – a huge increase in MBAs, lawyers and journalists whose degrees and culture puts them far further apart from ordinary citizens and made it easier for con men like Trump to get into the action.

Back in the 1950s we were turning out 5,000 MBAs a year, by 2005 the figure was 142,000. In 1970 we produced 65,000 Phds, last year the figure was 181,000.  And in 2009 the Washingtonian Magazine estimated there were  80,000 lawyers in DC.alone. The gap between the liberal elite and the people it was trying to reach had grown enormously.

[] As this gradocracy grew in power its amoral basis spread throughout the country and people like Donald Trump became among those to be admired and not criticized. Business school became in charge of our theology.

[] While I call myself a Seventh Day Agnostic I have always appreciated the role of organized religion in teaching and encouraging moral behavior. Obviously this doesn’t apply to all sects but it is significant that while, according to one study, 85% of members of the Silent Generation like myself are religiously affiliated, that figure is only 56% for younger Millennials. Combine the decline in religious involvement with the lack of civics education and you see the Trump gap opening.

[] As America became more urbanized the values of smaller communities was replaced by an increasing emphasis on individual success and contentment. Fewer Americans were part of something that could be called a community and were making it on their own, causing a decline in the value placed on community.

[] [] []

Donald Trump is a terrible human but we need to bear in mind the factors that made it so easy for him to get where he got. He didn’t invent the mindless acceptance of his sort of evil; he just figured out how to take advantage of it.

Some positive approaches to ethnic relations

Sam Smith

Because of the cruel  history of ethnic relations there is an emphasis on problems, crises and outrageous examples, but far less attention to the positive results of improved relations and how to reach them. Here are just a few suggestions that I’ve gathered from my own life.

Treat multicultural relations as an asset rather than just as a problem to be solved: Being involved with those of another culture or studying these cultures can easily be both educational and enjoyable. Among the facts we ignore is that about 17% of marriages are bi-ethnic. This is more than the percent of Americans who are black or latino yet we seldom talk about cross cultural relationships in the way we do individual ethnicity. In politics we sometimes just ignore it. As with Barack Obama, who is universally described as black even though he had a white mother and who spent more time at Harvard Law School than he did with a black parent. And did you know that Kamila Harris was the daughter of a mother from India and a father from Jamaica? Or that key Senate candidate Sarah Gideon also had a father from India and a mother from Armenia? This is real America, folks.

Among the places where we find multiculturalism working are shopping malls, sports arenas and ethnic restaurants. Why? Because most think they’re getting a decent deal.

Use the term ethnicity rather than race: As an anthropology major I learned early that the term race was not only a bad definition, it had racist roots. That’s why I use the word ethnicity  reflecting a culture rather than an immutable genetic stature. Here’s how I descrbied it in my 1997 book, Sam Smith’s  Great Political Repair Manual:

Give or take a few thousand years, it’s unlikely that those of a Nordic skin complexion would stay that way living under the African sun. Similarly, the effects of a US diet are strong enough that the first generations of both European and Asian Americans found themselves looking up at their grandchildren. In such ways adaptation mimics what many think of as race.

But who needs science when we have our own eyes? If it looks like race, that’s good enough for us. Further, we are obsessed with the subject even as we say we wish to ignore it.  A few years back, a study of urban elections coverage found five times as many stories about race as about taxes. We can’t even agree on what race is. In the 1990 census, Americans said they belonged to some 300 different races or ethnic groups. American Indians divided themselves into 600 tribes and Latinos into 70 categories..

Teach the young about ethnic diversity: Does your elementary or junior high school teach about our different ethnicities?  Why do we leave the task to Fox News and MSNBC, or worse to Donald Trump, when it’s such an important part of our lives? Why do we leave only its problems in clear view?

Even if your school system doesn’t allow for cultural civics, student assemblies, churches and public libraries can be used to introduce folks to a variety of ethnicities. .

The key is to teach the world as it exists not just as a moral issue but as reality. How do students learn to adapt to and enjoy this real world? You start by learning how varied the world really is and that you are just a small part of it.

Don’t let ethnicity overwhelm all our other differences: In the half century that I was part of the white minority in DC I learned how little terms like black and white really told you about someone. Better was which neighborhood did you live in? What sort of work did you do? What is your religion? What’s your job and your politics?

DC, for example, is one of the leading cities for black Catholicism. DC also had a large free black population going back to the early 19th century. And blacks on upper 16th Street are much better off than those in Anacostia. And that’s just for starters.

Bring the police back to our communities: Police departments don’t need to be defunded, they need to be retrained, and reabsorbed into the communities that they serve. Along with other government agencies they have increasingly become absorbed into their own values and procedures. A Department of Justice report in 1988 expressed part of this:

Police have tried in the past to control neighborhoods plagued by predators without involving residents. Concerned, for example, about serious street crime, police made youths, especially minority youths, the targets of aggressive field interrogations. The results, in the United States during the 1960’s and more recently in England during the early 1980’s, were disastrous. Crime was largely unaffected. Youths already hostile to police became even more so. Worst of all, good citizens became estranged from police. Citizens in neighborhoods plagued by crime and disorder were disaffected because they simply would not have police they neither knew nor authorized whizzing in and out of their neighborhoods “takin’ names and kickin’ ass.” Community relations programs were beside the point. Citizens were in no mood to surrender control of their neighborhoods to remote and officious police who showed them little respect. Police are the first line of defense in a neighborhood? Wrong – citizens are!

Among the ways to deal with this disconnect are these:

Get cops out of their cars to spend more time in neighborhoods and get to know the people there. Just answering calls won’t do it. As the report above noted, one study found that ten percent of addresses then were responsible for 60% of police calls. A black DC police chief, Isaac Fulwood, instituted more community based policing and, as the Washington Post reported, “is advocating a back-to-basics style of patrolling, which will include permanently assigning officers to a given neighborhood, and increasing foot and scooter patrols.” Back when my sons were growing up in DC we even had neighborhoood police boys clubs playing baseball against each other with cops as  coaches and umpires

Have officers visit schools and talk with students about dealing with their problems and following the law. When, later in his career, Fulwood was chair of the US Parole Commission, he would take inmates on parole to help him address public school students.

Offer a college course on the ethnicities of the community. The University of DC offers such a course for police officers.

Have a lawyer and one or more therapists assigned to every police precinct to provide education and assistance to police officers. Being a good officer is an immensely complicated job and continuing assistance would not only make them better officers, it would help them see themselves as more professional and less just  as tough guys. The therapists could also accompany the officers on family abuse calls.

There’s lots more but the aforementioned would be a start towards redefining policing so it is seen more generally as a community asset rather than another problem, especially for minorities.

Gatherings for the non-religious

Sam Smith – As a long time Seventh Day Agnostic who majored in anthropology I both ignore religion’s theology and respect its moral and ethical role in society. As Americans increasingly grow less interested in religion, moral and ethical matters are also losing their longtime home.

Consider, for example, the role that religions have played in our civil rights and peace movements. Did one have to become a Baptist to follow Martin Luther King? Of  course not.

As I wrote back in 2015:

“I’m a Seventh Day Agnostic and, as such, I don’t give a shit about what you believe, only what you do about it.

“The Quakers have a nice way of expressing it. One of their meetings, for example, explains, ‘Friends are people of strong religious views, but they are quite clear that these views must be tested by the way in which they are expressed in action… Friends are encouraged to seek for truth in all the opportunities that life presents to them. They are further encouraged to seek new light from whatever source it may arise. Their questing and open attitude to life has certainly contributed to the tolerance with which Friends try to approach people and problems of faith and conduct.’

“I went to a Quaker high school and attended meetings every Thursday for ix years. Only once can I recall a confrontation on theological matters, and that was quickly eased by a “weighty” Quaker elder who explained that a meeting was not the place for such debates.

“Later, I was introduced to existentialism – the notion, it has been said, that “faith don’t pay the cable” and the view that “even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.” I came to realize that the Quakers had beat Jean Paul Sartre by several centuries in the realization that it is what one does and not what one believes that makes the real difference in life.

“So I was somewhat prepared for what I found as a journalist and community activist in 1960s DC – namely religious leaders who translated their varied beliefs into common action and left faith on the back seat.
I was, for example, pushed into starting a community newspaper in an ethnically mixed neighborhood east of the Capitol by a minister trained by Saul Alinsky and who even got me a grant from a local Lutheran Church to get going. Neither the minister nor the church questioned my faith because it was clear we were all on the same track..

“By the time the 1960s were over, I had worked with about a dozen preachers, most of whom would seem strikingly odd to many today. None of these ministers ever questioned my faith or lectured me on theirs. They ranged from the head of the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happening Now to past and present Catholic priests. Meanwhile in the larger capital, we had two Catholic priests in Congress, one as Assistant Secretary of Housing, and one elected to the DC school board.

“One of the assets these preachers had were basement meeting rooms in their churches. Among the scores of times I found myself in such rooms, we pressed anti-war protests, started the DC Statehood Party, began a mixed ethnicity pre-school, and upped the eventually successful battle against freeways in DC. And you didn’t have to recite a creed before the meetings began.”

When I try to figure out why this seems a bit strange today, one reason has been the huge influence of evangelical churches on the definition of religion, especially in the media. Until Pope Francis came along, think how rarely we’ve heard about non-evangelical religious activism in recent years. As I watched Francis is action, I felt strangely comfortable because I had known, and worked with priests, who would have done much the same if they had become Pope

With the most immoral and unethical president in history now running the place, it may well be time to bring back that existential link between religion and action that one found in the 1960s.

How you do this is uncertain. But one possibility would be to create regular non-religious gathering places for folks known, say, as Communal Friends or the Community of Decency. It doesn’t have to be complicated. After all the Quakers have lasted for centuries in some of the dullest large rooms you’ll find anywhere.

The Quakers are, in fact, not a bad model in other ways. Such as the idea of a meeting place without an agenda where people can arise and discuss what’s troubling them. Or you could have some in which one or two leaders give a brief talk to set off the larger discussions of the day. Or places and events created by a coalition of religions who agree to create havens for moral discussion without theological interference.

It’s not just traditional religion that has been in a down fall. There has been a noticeable decline in visible academic leadership and a media willing to take on issues more complicated than some politician’s lies.

The invitation for new gatherings might include this nice distinction between morals and ethics offered by the web page Daily Writing Tips:
:Although the words can be considered synonyms, morals are beliefs based on practices or teachings regarding how people conduct themselves in personal relationships and in society, while ethics refers to a set or system of principles, or a philosophy or theory behind them. … Morals are the tools by which one lives, and ethics constitute the manual that codifies them.”

When did you hear something like that on MSNBC? Yet aren’t morals and ethnics more important than which politician exaggerated the most today?
In short, we must find new ways to share beyond religion consideration of decent way of living. After all, you don’t have to take communion to realize what a mess we’re in and why we need to talk more about it with each other.

Another problem with the Proud Boys

Sam Smith – As I watch Proud Boys and other “white supremacists,” a question keeps arising in my mind: how come these guys think they can define what white guys like me are about? And if I were inclined to form a group of white supremacists would they look like Proud Boys?

According to BBC, “A Proud Boy must declare that he is ‘a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.’ They want to end welfare, give everyone a gun and “glorify the entrepreneur.”

As I was growing into white manhood, I can’t remember any of these issues being of interest to me. In fact, if you were to take more normal standards of superiority, I suspect that I have weighed less, been better educated, had a more successful career, been married longer and bench pressed more than the average Proud Boy I’ve seen.

In short, if I actually believed in white supremacy, the Proud Boys would be among my least likely role models. In fact, what they demonstrate strongly is that whites can be as screwed up and incompetent as any culture.

And if I were to actually claim – as I never would – that whites are better than other ethnicities, I would certainly not use Proud Boys as part of my argument.

Learn from the past, act for the future

Sam Smith – Now that Donald Trump has extended his noisy ignorance to history, it’s worthwhile for the sane in this land to reflect on the useful role of the past in what we do today.

Being married to a historian, I’ve learned not to underrate the past, but also to differentiate it from where we are today and where we might be tomorrow. Unfortunately, we seem to be in a moment when the past is being melded into the present in a confusing fashion. While one can certainly argue for understanding of slavery in our history, and the repugnant nature of Confederate statues, dealing with these issues does not compare, say, with providing adequate income for the poor or ending police brutality. We can not create a decent future by merely condemning the past.
What is happening now reminds me of a dysfunctional family in which some of whose members obsess through adulthood over the wrongs they experienced when young. The good trick is not to deny these memories but to figure out ways to replace them. In other words to learn from the past, but act for the future.

And the past, if you look at it seriously, can often be much more complicated than one thought. For example, I have just finished Colin Woodward’s superb American Nations, a stunning examination of the complexities of creating a state that tries to call itself one nation, but which really isn’t.


For example, before the slave trade developed there were white indentured servants. Says Woodward: “Scholars estimate indentured servants comprised between 80 and 90 percent of the 150,000 Europeans who emigrated to Tidewater in the seventeenth century…. The mortality rate was as high as 30 percent a year…. Indentured servants – some of whom had been kidnapped in England – were bought, sold and treated like livestock.”


And is was not just in the south. Woodward notes that under the Puritans, “Dissenters were banished. Quakers were disfigured for easy identification, their nostrils slit, their ears cut off, or their faces branded with the letter H for ‘heretic.'” … One sea captain was put in the stocks because on returning home he kissed his wife at his doorstep, “lewd and unseemly behavior” in the eyes of the court.
What we can learn from this is that slavery was the most dramatic and disgusting result of what is sometimes called a culture of impunity in which the powerful are allowed to ignore laws and decency. But it was not alone. Even today, we have a president who, while not owning any slaves, regards himself as functioning with impunity, a status achieved in the same manner that created a southern political dominance for decades after slavery during which lower class whites were repeatedly convinced their problems stemmed from blacks rather than from the Trumpish type leadership that controlled the era.


To deal with this today one would really have to include post-reconstruction American politics as well as the slavery era. As it happened, this was the era that introduced me to national politics as a young Washington reporter, one in which it seemed at times that the whole Capitol had a southern accent. It certainly passed southern laws.


Unfortunately, we tend to treat history like food. We have our favorite dishes – e.g. slavery – but ignore other facts such as women not getting their constitutionally backed vote until five decades after black men.
I was blessed to have covered Washington when it was moving from one favorite dish to another. The southern dominance was under attack by a new civil rights movement and one of the things I learned was that history was past. The issue now was what you did about it.
We recognized that while we couldn’t rewrite the past we could create a new future. And, frankly, we didn’t have time to tear down Confederate statues back then. There was just too much more important stuff to do.
For example, what if Black Lives Matter began to matter even more by leading efforts to make lower income Americans matter on various issues, regardless of their ethnicity? What if blacks became real leaders instead of just perceived victims?


Martin Luther King’s Stride Towards Freedom was the most important book I read in college even though it wasn’t on any assignment list. Among other things it taught this graduate of a Quaker high school (who used to say that Quakers didn’t fight hard enough for what they believed), how to be both manly and peaceful. And starting the first jazz band my high school had, I was strongly guided by my admiration for and education from, various black musicians.
In other words, black lives came to matter to me, in part, not because of history but because what was happening in my own life.


And I came to realize that while history was instructive, what really mattered was what I did today and was going to do tomorrow. And it’s a truth that still works.

Removing trash in the 1960s

Sam Smith, The Idler, May 1965 -I have been observing the trash collection operation in my Washington DC neighborhood. It is an immensely complicated procedure [including commercial recycling] that I am only beginning to understand, but here’s a preliminary report. My first contact with the removers of waste came shortly after I moved back to Washington last summer. Early one July Monday morning, there was a knock on the back door. Answering it, I found a perspiring trashman who inquired, “You got any beer, buddy?” The question was so matter-of-fact that I immediately went to the refrigerator and broke out a six-pack. As if on signal, a half dozen trashmen appeared in the alley and the cans of Budweiser quickly disappeared. I was thanked in the same casual tone of the original question and that was the end of the incident.


I thereupon determined to become better acquainted with trash collection in order to find out if there were any other civic responsibilities I had overlooked. In this regard, I was eventually aided by receipt of a four page memorandum on keeping my neighborhood clean. I was relieved to discover that nothing was mentioned concerning maintenance of an adequate supply of beer on summer Monday mornings.


What was unusual about this document, however, was the slogan at the bottom of each page: THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY CARES ABOUT YOU. It developed that Marguerite Kelly, Captain of Democratic Precinct 63, was just trying to bring the Great Society to my back door. It was the nicest thing a politician had done since City Councillor Alfred Velucci drove a sweeping machine through the streets of his Cambridge, Mass. ward to dramatize the lack of proper cleaning by the city. Old time ward bosses combined their extralegal operations with a genuine concern for the personal needs of constituents. One’s ward leader was a friend out of court who, because of his willingness to fix tickets or arrange individual relief from bothersome local ordinances, saved the voter the need to have a friend in court. Today we demand that our local politicians not fix tickets or in other ways pervert the steady application of the law. But the cost of such political purity has been a loss of personal concern on the part of lower level political figures.
It was nice to find a precinct leader who wanted to help get rid of any rats in my basement. Even the police around here are interested in sanitation. One day I was visited by a constable who explained that he was afraid the D.C. Health Department would consider the 1954 Chrysler parked in my alley lot – aka Gloria since she was sick transit, a public nuisance. He made it quite clear that he would not report me, but it did appear, since I had Rhode Island license plates and since I obviously wasn’t driving an illegally registered car on the streets of the District, that my car was abandoned, a potential haven for rodents, and thus, a public nuisance. The problem was, he went on, that the health inspectors might come around and issue me a notice directing abatement of the nuisance within five days and he certainly didn’t want that to happen to me. I analyzed his advice carefully, got my car registered in the District and have heard nothing from the D.C. Health Department. The officer had, after all, clearly indicated that rats would not reside in a car that was properly registered.

Local politicians and police do not, however, regularly concern themselves with the trash problem in my alley. This task is left to the Sanitation Division plus a surprisingly large number of private firms and individuals. Besides the regular Monday government pickup, various private trash and garbage trucks frequent the alley to remove the contents of specific cans and boxes. I haven’t quite figured this out but I believe there is a local regulation that prohibits government from encroaching too far on private enterprise and leaves a set percentage of waste for private removal. I also suspect this ordinance specifies that private collections by firms with trucks shall take place only during the hours of midnight to six a.m. Or at least that’s the way it sounds. The individual trash collectors, on the other and, work only during daylight hours. These types push long wagons with two small iron wheels. There is one man who removes only newspapers and empty bottles (no magazines), another cardboard and a third who concentrates on rags.

My greatest admiration is for the newspaper man. I have seen him on several occasions carefully time his arrival in the alley with that of the District truck. Then, for several minutes, massive Federal power and Goldwaterite individualism work happily side by side. After the District trashmen toss the cans up to the truck to be emptied, the waste is sifted for old Washington Post and New York Times, which are then thrown back down to the fellow with the wagon. It’s a smooth operation. The District worker on the truck calls out, “Here you go, paper man,” and then – plop! – a stack of newsprint hits the pavement. For the District’s men, the collection of trash is not just a job; it is an art, a sport and subject for boisterous debate, accompanied by a cacophonous chorus of clashing cans.

The first problem is to back the large sanitation vehicle into the alley. This task is made more difficult by the apparent incapacity of the driver, the one mute member of the team, to move his truck an inch without the best advice of all his compatriots. The result remarkably similar to the sound of a squad of athletes peppering a ball around the infield. Somehow the driver is able to choose among the often conflicting suggestions and steer his grey beast between fence and wall. Then the game begins. The cans are tossed back and forth with precision and grace. Occasionally a container comes back low and outside. The man on the ground grabs for it but misses. A brief, noisy critique is held and they try again.

The aesthetic part occurs as the trash cans are returned. They are not placed back in their previous tightly bunched arrangement. Rather a free-form sculpture is created throughout the yard, with a can placed on its side at one corner to neatly balance another dropped upside down at the foot of the back steps. The tops are then scattered to coordinate the design and the truck, after considerably more consultation among those involved, moves on.

The enthusiastic chatter never ceases. These are men with a mission and in a city of bland, quiet bureaucrats it is a delight to find individuals who attack their jobs with such verve and volume. The affair reaches a climax when the truck pulls out into the street again. Several of the trashmen have gone ahead to scout for other grounds of combat. The only trouble is that some have gone north and some have gone south and all have decided their location is the most preferable one for the truck to drive to next. The discussion, which previously had been limited to an alley, now expands until it covers several blocks. And the call, “Over here, Joe” is immediately countered by an unseen voice far off in the other direction: “Come on, Joe, I’ve got it here.” Joe, that somber, silent, embattled man in the cab of truck, sticks his head out of the window, looks around briefly, assays the situation in the light of his experience, and turns right. The decision has to be made. And Joe, his ears calloused to the criticisms of his co-workers, is man enough to make it.

The ethnicity that the media ignores

Sam Smith – According to most of the media, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris are black and Naomi Osaka is Asian. Which is, in fact, only half true. Harris’ mother came from India, Barack’s white mother was born in Kansas, and Naomi Osaka’s father is Haitian.
These are just three examples of how a growing biethnic minority in this country remains largely unobserved. Obviously, as in the three cases above, the choice is typically made in part as a personal right, but the fact remains that America’s multiethnicity is growing substantially without much attention.

For example, the Pew Research Center found that intermarriage rose from 3% in 1967 to 17% in 2015. Among blacks it rose to 18%. For Hispanics it was 27%. Among new born babies, the figures varied from 28% in Oklahoma to 4% in New Hampshire. Clearly we will have a substantial number of social and political voices in future generations of a multiethnic nature. By comparison, in the census only 13% list themselves as black, and 18% Hispanic.

If we purport to be trying to improve ethnic relations, it seems odd at best that we ignore those who have dealt with the issue on such a personal basis. I have a number of such friends and they are strong, wise and active. Admittedly, it’s not always so easy for their children. For example, one of them is my godson and when he was a young child of a black father and white mother, he even became a Republican for a while, posting a Dole-Kemp sign in our yard. But moving on to another school, he met some socialists and that all changed.


I understood why Obama ran as a black, but it occurred to me that once elected he might have used his bi-ethnic experiences as a teaching tool for the country. He might have said, “I have lived multiculturalism personally and I can help you do the same.” But there was no support for this sort of thing in the media or politics, because we suffer the illusion that we can end racism without turning the multicultural into a broadly perceived asset. The failure to recognize and honor who have taken the lead illustrates this, They have shown us that multiculturalism is not only livable, it can be lovable as well.

Another way in the neighborhood

Sam Smith – Trying to figure out why the last few months have not been worse for me, I’ve come to realize that living in a Maine rural town has been much closer to what used to be normal for humans than the urban life I lived so long. The most annoying change has been the low contact with others and having to remember not to try to shake hands when you do meet again.

Now more folks are dropping by and our pandemic patio with its six well separated chairs, grill and table are being used more frequently. Furthermore, unlike my historic forebears in these parts, we have fine internet and TV service. I even love Zoom, especially when someone is being boring and I can just sneak off to another site. Couldn’t do that back in real life.

But the other thing this crisis has reminded me of is that I have lived much of my life moving between the local and the national. This has been because, unlike many liberals, I often found the latter choices – especially in Washington – to have become tedious, presumptuous, pompous and ineffective. One of the reasons I moved to Maine eleven years ago from my native city of DC was that I had wearied of verbal abstractions constantly replacing real matter. Over time DC had lost its colorful politicians and now it seemed everyone in power (relentlessly reported by a similarly dull media) just said things that sounded good for a few minutes and then left you back wondering what the hell to do about it. Now I live next to a farm where the only approved BS is that found on the fields.

There had been a lot of local things that kept me busy in DC – like the 1968 riots four blocks from our house, another story for the neighborhood newspaper I had started there with the help of a donation from a local church. And the efforts to do something about it all – such as a neighborhood legal service, local credit union, and places like Friendship House where the middle class would help low income neighbors. We even had a cop in the ‘hood who would go on to be one of the first black police chiefs ink the country.

Later, I became one of the first bunch of elected advisory neighborhood commissioners – a new idea that provided communities with a louder voice – raising the standing of the ‘hood albeit weak in actual power.

But there was in those days as now a strong assumption by liberals that meaningful change was a federal matter.. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

One of the great myths about American politics is that change comes from the top. The truth of the matter is that change typically starts at the bottom and slowly works its way  up to the top… As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drives towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws, permitting gay marriage and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.

To take just one current example, improving police behavior and service requires in no small part a change in the relationship between our communities and those patrolling them.

Moving to Maine increased my appreciation of the power of the local. Despite nearly half that time having been under the rule of Donald Trump, my town and state remain sane and decent places and remind me of the Maine official who had grown up in Hungary and once told me that even during the Cold War her town was run democratically.

This isn’t a bad thing to keep in mind as we contemplate the hazard of four more years of Trump terror and tantrums.

I, for example, feel better about the future by reflecting periodically on what the New York state attorney general might have in her files. Or when I see a strong response from governors to some madness at the top. The media, to be sure, does a poor job of reporting non-Washington stories but perhaps if governors and mayors would meet together periodically, the press might notice them more.

In any case if you’re feeling frustrated, angry and frightened because of what is happening nationally it may help to remember, as Fred Rogers might have put it, there’s another way in the neighborhood.  The national story is only one part of our lives.

The Civil War (Cont’d)

 Sam Smith – As noted here before, one can argue that other then ending slavery and secession, the South actually won the Civil War. One need only to consider that it took almost a century for the civil rights movement’s efforts against segregation to begin to be successful.

 As a new reporter covering the Capitol six decades ago, I recall one of my strongest thoughts was how much more southern it all was than I had imagined. Part of this was due to southern pols holding their seats, and thus their power, longer but there was also a deep  southern aura about the place that still sticks with me.

On a more factual basis consider this: if Donald Trump had run for president without the aid of formerly Confederate states, Hillary Clinton would have won by 60 electoral votes. And our regular update of state rankings and actions finds none of the formerly Confederate states in the top ten, but eight in the list of the bottom ten.

This is another example of how the conventional media tends to ignore culture and history in its coverage, ignoring the truth that these factors can influence things as much or more as what some politician said yesterday.

Ironically, one of the reasons that the former Confederacy hasn’t changed more is that as late as World War I some 90% of blacks lived in the south. Thanks to their efforts to get the hell out of there, the figure was only about 54% in the 2000 census. Thus the potential political power of blacks to change things in southern America has actually declined.

As I wrote eight years ago:

[][][][] It has been as bad for the south as for the general population as recent recounted by Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic:

“By nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states… The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. … And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue: New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota, and Hawaii. The numbers on infant mortality, life expectancy, teen pregnancy, and obesity break down in similar ways.

“Advocates for the red-state approach to government invoke lofty principles: By resisting federal programs and defying federal laws, they say, they are standing up for liberty. These were the same arguments that the original red-staters made in the 1800s, before the Civil War, and in the 1900s, before the civil rights movement. Now, as then, the liberty the red states seek is the liberty to let a whole class of citizens suffer.

“ Because we tend to view t’he north-south issue primarily in terms of ethnicity we fail to observe a cultural difference of huge import: the south is still trapped in a power system that pits the less successful against each other based on false interpretations of race, religion, and economics. All these interpretations favor power by the few.

“This is one reason why the deadly alliance between the old south and the contemporary predatory capitalism of people like Romney is proving so effective. Both believe in power without limit, integrity, or cooperation. Now, the corporation is treated as a person, the citizen increasingly as just property. If Romney only had the right accent, he would be right at home as governor of Missisippi or as an actor in Gone With the Wind. He evokes power both handsome and horrible.”

The southern view of freedom is what David Hackett Fisher refers to as hegemonic liberty. The website Orcinus notes:

 “Fischer quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson, pondering the cavalier view of freedom. ‘How is it,’ Dr. Johnson asked, ‘that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ …

Fischer has an answer. He argues that the cavalier cry against tyranny expressed by Jefferson, Washington, and other Virginians wasn’t the least bit out of character. In fact, it came straight out of their essential conviction that free white men of property are the morally proper holders of all the rights and liberties that matter.

Writes Fisher:

 “Virginian ideas of hegemonic liberty conceived of freedom mainly as the power to rule, and not to be overruled by others. Its opposite was “slavery.”….It never occurred to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen — a property which set this ‘happy breed’ apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world….

“One’s status in Virginia was defined by the liberties one possessed. Men of high estate were thought to have more liberties than others of lesser rank. Servants possessed few liberties; and slaves [and women] had none at all. This libertarian idea had nothing to do with equality. Many years later, John Randolph of Roanoke summarized his ancestral creed in a sentence: ‘I am an aristocrat,’ he declared. ‘I love liberty; I hate equality.’”

To be sure, with time more have been allowed to join the elite, but the principle still lurks deep in much southern politics. Even a poor southern boy like Bill Clinton understood the rules. You play the game to get to the top and then you get to do whatever you want. Power is its own justification.

This view, writes Fisher, differs from the New England one that liberty is defined by the community, or the Quaker perspective that liberty should be reciprocal, or even the libertarianism of the west, which the individual’s power was limited to one’s own choices, not one’s choices over other.

The success of the southern political elite (along with today’s business school elite) has required a consistent development of mistrust amongst the very masses who should be rising up against it.

The Economic History Association reports that “In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion. . . . The value of capital invested in slaves roughly equaled the total value of all farmland and farm buildings in the South.”

History Central adds: “Most Southern white families did not own slaves: only about 384,000 out of 1.6 million did. Of those who did own slaves, most (88%) owned fewer than 20 slaves, and were considered farmers rather than planters. Slaves were concentrated on the large plantations of about 10,000 big planters, on which 50-100 or more slaves worked. About 3,000 of these planters owned more than 100 slaves, and 14 of them owned over 1,000 slaves.

In other words, if you just consider economics, less than one percent of Southern families were truly enjoying the benefits of slavery just as today less than one percent are truly enjoying the benefits of contemporary corrupt capitalism.

As we might ask of today’s middle class supporters of the GOP uncivil war, why did the rest of the whites go along? One of the rarest phenomena in the South – practiced by populists such as Earl Long – was a serious political effort to help poorer whites see what they had in common with blacks and how they were being ripped off by the white elite – while today even liberals prefer to see the GOP base as devils equal to its leadership rather than as misguided victims waiting to be saved.

Key to each period was the myth that the elite was helping everyone preserve their “way of life.” The Southern mythology – celebrated in everything from books to musicals to movies – essentially described a culture that only a few could enjoy just as today the Republicans have not come up with a single program to significantly help their middle class or lower income constituents. The benefits of “free markets” accrue only to campaign contributors…

A century later, with the civil rights movement redefining the Democratic Party from its segregationist southern past, the GOP essentially took over planter politics and has been practicing it ever since.

Today, the GOP has raised planter politics to new levels. There are no ideological gifts to the many, only money and power to the few. And one can draw a direct line from the Civil War of the 1860s to the uncivil wars of today.

As with the southern Democrats of long ago, the GOP is waging class war against the very constituency it pretends to represent and there is hardly anyone around to tell this constituency how they are being ripped off.

Until that happens, until a true populist movement takes form, the Republicans will continue their uncivil war against American democracy, taking apart the very laws and policies that allowed their present constituency to get where they were before the current disaster began. [][][][]

Today, Donald Trump is our leading planter politician, creating his own liberty as the expense of those around him and lying to them in such a manner has to deceive them into thinking he is on their side. The Democrats, on the other hand, have done a lousy job of defending and helping the working class that is Trump’s target compared say to the New Deal and the Great Society. Until they do a better job of helping ordinary citizens our civil war shall continue.