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.

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.

In search of virus sanity

Sam Smith – In my search for virus era sanity I have tried to recall anything that had approached the dysfunction this experience has brought to my normal life. Two thoughts arose. I remembered three decades ago driving by a fast food eatery in my Washington neighborhood and reflecting on my recently discovered cancer. “My life is ruined,” I started thinking but then suddenly said aloud, “No, this is my life.” My approach to the illness totally changed.

The other recollection, two decades earlier, was of the bridge of my Coast Guard cutter in deep night storms as we headed to rescue fishing vessels.  In the total blackness there were three of us – a helmsman, quartermaster and me, the officer on watch – with nothing to say but with a silent common goal: what had to be done.

Once again, function obliterated emotion, reflection, dreams, habit, and history. The only thing that mattered was what you did now.

We are in such a moment now in which our normal lives are involuntarily suspended as we share what is probably the most extraordinary period of our lifetimes. Never have we had to face not just a critical health crisis, and to do so during a time when the economy is collapsing and our democratic government is being dictatorized,

Even by disease standards, it is an extraordinary moment. The Huffington Post, for example, reports that “Vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez predicted the coronavirus will continue to plague the United States ‘for years and years, even after vaccines are out and we get people vaccinated.’”

And the past suggests we’re in for change in many ways. Writing in Rolling Stone, Wade Davis notes  that

“Pandemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors. In the 14th Century, the Black Death killed close to half of Europe’s population. A scarcity of labor led to increased wages. Rising expectations culminated in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, an inflection point that marked the beginning of the end of the feudal order that had dominated medieval Europe for a thousand years. The COVID pandemic will be remembered as such a moment in history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis.”

And bad times are not always as bad as they seem.  For example, dinosaurs survived on the earth 27 times as long as humans have been here, so we may still have a few million years ahead of us. And after telling someone that I felt these days like I was living in the 19th century, I later thought I better check on something. Sure enough, life expectancy in 1860 was 39 and in 1920 it was 53.

Still, there are things we can learn from the past. For example, the pace of social activity was much milder thanks to things like no cars, television or cellphones. Living in rural Maine, I have been struck by how painlessly less dramatic the virus has been to my lifestyle than, say, if I was still in Washington.  In fact, musing about a workable Covid era lifestyle I found myself thinking of  running an Internet Service out of a farm, offering gigabytes and egg bites at the same time.

We are in a period in which imagination and creativity will have higher value.  And a period full of pain and misery. As citizens we can’t change virus story except to wear our masks and keep our distance, but we can end the Trump virus by electing a new president.

Our job is not to solve our health problem but to give serious assistance to those with the skill to do so and to end the assault on their efforts. Whether we succeed or become one of the victims, we can not foretell but even if we are among of the latter, we can at least have done something to prevent others from joining us. And chances are, it didn’t happen, as in 1860, when we were only 39 years old.

 

 

The fading of community

Sam Smith – After three and a half years of turning our country over to a manic narcissist it may be time to rediscover the advantages of sharing one’s goals, concerns and ideas with rational others. Of all the changes that have occurred in America in recent years, one of the least noted has been the decline of community. We have in many ways become three hundred and thirty million individuals taught to pursue our own purposes, the virtues we believe they contain and to share these primarily with those who have in common our color, our culture, our employment and our education. We have developed not only identity politics but identity living.

The factors causing this change are numerous; As America has become more urbanized, those who live in a recognizable community have declined, offering much less joint substance. Fewer neighborhoods offer moral and social support thanks in part to the decline of local groups that brought residents together. Churches have drifted away from being not only religious but also neighborhood institutions, illustrated in my former home of DC by their role as meeting places for various causes in the 1960s.

There was also in activism in of that time a broad sense that to win you not only had to assemble the convinced but convince the unassembled. Instead of identity politics leading the way, you sought ways to identify with those who didn’t look or talk like you but who nonetheless were potential allies. This was not so much a moral choice as a pragmatic one because we wanted not only to be right but to win. Change demands not just one’s virtue but the pragmatic application of arguments and actions in its behalf. Today we find, for example, Internet havens of own niches and many who hardly break out into the larger worlds.

I discovered community early in part because I went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia. Although Quakerism may seem just an esoteric religion to many, it in fact has a strong pragmatic side. For example, unlike most religions that put virtue ahead of action, the Quakers were more like existentialists – emphasizing actions reflecting their virtues. Thus the Quaker meeting that ran my school had come out against slavery in 1688.
The Quakers also believed in reciprocal liberty, the idea that if I am to have my freedom you have to have yours even if I don’t agree with all of it. Thus the Quakers got along with other cultures – such as Pennsylvania Germans – far better than say, New England pilgrims worked with other religious groups.

As described in Four British Folkways in America

The founders of Pennsylvania were a different group of Englishmen…. Their idea of liberty was not the same as that which came to other parts of British America. The most important of these differences had to do with religious freedom-“liberty of conscience,” William Penn called it. This was not the conventional Protestant idea of liberty to do only that which is right. The Quakers believed that liberty of conscience extended even to ideas that they believed to be wrong. Their idea of “soul freedom” protected every Christian conscience.

I have found some of this spirit in Maine, where I moved full time eleven years ago in part because DC was becoming a increasingly simplistic haven for power over decency and status over friendliness. Maine, where I had gone many summers, was infinitely more communal even if I was “from away.” Folks respected one another and treated them fairly. For example, I came to realize that you couldn’t do business without an anecdote, a simple tale to connect you with someone personally as well as to transact with them. I also realized that speaking truthfully was important. Bulls in the barn and field were the only creatures generally allowed to spread BS.
Community builds trust, mutual reliance, understanding and sympathy of others, as well collective power. We don’t have to agree on everything, just discover what it is we have in common.

When I think of communities of which I have been a part, happy visions come to mind. Although most of my writing and work have involved larger issues, I have refused to turn my back on the local and communal. It leads me to wiser places on the larger subject. Thus, I do a Facebook page for my current Maine neighborhood that has over 550 readers. I was an elected advisory neighbhood commissioner in DC. When I think back to my days as operations officer aboard a Coast Guard cutter I’m reminded of how a sense of community among those 50 guys helped get our work done well. And when I went out for lunch from my Dupont Circle office of over 20 years, even the street panhandlers were friendly.

In politics more than almost any place else we need to rediscover the virtue of community. The color of your skin or the nature of your politics will not do the job by itself. Just consider the numbers. For example, blacks, latinos and working class whites are a majority of our population, but despite the problems they have in common you’d never know it.

When I think of those who have helped create my passions and values, I find myself quickly leaving my own identity and reflecting on those with whom I worked and enjoyed things including black urban activists and white Maine farmers as well as roommates with all sorts of different stories and neighbors who were also close friends.

Good politics is like that as well. Keep and celebrate your own identity for sure. But share it with others for common goals, such as the new shared national identity we desperately need.

Some good news hidden in the virus crisis

Sam Smith – Even in the worst of times, some good news may be hidden in the disaster. In the case of the current virus, we can find an example in an unlikely place: money

The virus has removed some of the fiction from our monetary mythology. We have discovered – at least temporarily – that our vaunted system (aka capitalism) under which Elon Musk has over $70 billion in net worth while more than a half million of his fellow citizens are homeless won’t get us through this crisis. And so we’ve done some things in the name of a real life emergency that we’ve long declined to go for in theory.

For example, the $600 a week unemployment aid and the $2400 stimulus check. Or the protection for renters in danger of being evicted.

Also striking has been the increase in national debt which has occurred with surprisingly little controversy and without the past-projected inflation.

We are now seeking pragmatic solutions in a time when economic theory won’t keep us going.

What’s interesting is whether we’ll learn from this or, in better times, just go back to old ways. My hope – perhaps naïve – is that we can ditch such phrases as capitalism and socialism and begin to treat our economic problems the way we’re doing now – seeking pragmatic solutions to real issues.

Here are a few examples of things we might consider:

  • ·        Redefining our budgets so they reflect the difference between operating and capital debt, the latter having a much more productive effect on the economy – a fact we generally ignore. We could help recover from the virus and its economic effects by a massive program of rebuilding deteriorating structures like bridges. And by making distinctions between types of capital expenses. For example, a bus that helps revive an urban area for a decade or more is far more valuable than a tank that is blown up in six months.
  • ·       Guaranteed income: It work recently with the unemployed. Let’s broaden its use.
  • ·        A shorter work week
  • ·        Cooperatives
  • ·        State banks that help their communities rather than just making money off of them.
  • ·        Postal banking: Big banks often refuse to open branches in poor or minority areas, and the few banks still around shutter thanks to industry consolidation and online banking.
  • ·        Credit unions
  • ·        Time dollars, described in the book Time Dollars: A Currency for the 90’s by Edgar Cahn and Jonathan Rowe, operate like a blood bank. People help others in their community and get credits in a computer data base that they can draw upon in times of need.
  • ·        Corporate codetermination. Wikipedia describes how it works in Germany: “The law allows workers to elect representatives (usually trade union representatives) for almost half of the supervisory board of directors. … It applies to public and private companies, so long as there are over 2,000 employees. For companies with 500–2,000 employees, one third of the supervisory board must be elected.”

And that’s just for starters. The point is that there is a wealth of solutions waiting for us to give them a try. The trick is to forget the theory stuff and experiment with such ideas.

The virus has gotten us started on this. Let’s take it from there,

The ethnic thing we don’t talk about

Sam Smith – Perhaps the most undiscussed aspect of multiculturalism is its positive effects on everyone. I’m as guilty as others in this regard, letting it slip thanks to the effort required to deal with  the discriminatory ways  in which it presently functions in our society.

But if we are to create a truly positive multicultural society, we not only need to undo the evil that exists but appreciate and enjoy the benefits that result.

For example, we do a lousy job of introducing children to the multicultural character of the land they are going to live in. And as we get older, we tend to define it by its unresolved problems rather than its advantages.

For instance, as a high school jazz musician in the 1950s I was already impressed by black  culture. The civil rights movement came to me not just as a moral challenge but as logical fairness for those who had placed so many songs in my heart.

Living as a minority white in Washington DC for over half my life, I was blessed to enjoy the pleasures of multiculturalism but now find myself concerned by some of the tone of the current ethnic debate that is far stronger on condemnation than it is on resolution. There is little sense of what Martin Luther King described as “I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

I’m familiar with the more pessimistic view. In the mid 1960s, I was working for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, handling public relations for its local director, Marion Barry, when national leader Stokely Carmichael showed up at one of our meetings in a church basement and announced that whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement.  But I soon got involved in the anti-freeway movement and the fight for DC statehood –  both cross-ethnic efforts and the latter led by Julius Hobson, perhaps the most underrated civil rights leader of the 20th century.  When I hear today’s activists bad mouthing whites collectively I recall Stokely Carmichael and how lucky I was to have run into a different approach.

And all this happened while I was still in my 20s. This young white guy had turned into an activist thanks to cultural experiences as well as pursuing laws and logic. Black culture was worth preserving not just because it was fair and decent but because it had added a lot to my own life.

This is just one fellow’s story. Part of the wonder of multiculturalism is that everyone’s story is different. And part of the secret of making it work is not just the right laws, protests and name calling but friendly gatherings, discovering what you have in common, thoughtful sharing and appreciation of what others are saying and doing. We shall know we have succeeded at multiculturalism when collectively we recognize that it is not only decent but it’s made life a lot better.

Easing multi-ethnic conflict by creating multi-ethnic alliances

Sam Smith – One of the great problems with the way that we approach ethnic discrimination is that we rarely discuss cures other than the condemnation of its examples. The media, for example, seldom discusses solutions. This approach is in full swing right now as can be seen in how little real police reform is being discussed and proposed. Doing away with choke holds won’t come close to solving all the problems. We seem to assume that identifying evil is its cure, which is sadly not the case.

One major exception has been Rev William Barber II who started Moral Mondays in North Carolina in 2013 and has since revived the Poor People’s Campaign.. As historian Timothy Tyson put it, Barber is “the most important progressive political leader in this state in generations,” saying that he “built a statewide interracial fusion political coalition that has not been seriously attempted since 1900.”

In order to have a well working multi ethnic society we need to discuss how to design it. Just attacking racism won’t create its alternative. Here are a few excerpts from an interview Chris Hayes did with Rev. Barber a year ago:

Rev Barber: We commissioned a study called the … Souls of Poor Folk, Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign. Two or three things came up. Number one, we removed poverty out of the political discourse, worst thing we could have ever done, and race as moral issues. So you go through 26 presidential election debates in 2016, not one of them was on poverty. Not one whole debate was on poverty even though 43.5 percent of your people live in poverty and low wealth.

Number two, not one of them is about voter suppression and gerrymandering and restoring the Voting Rights Act, even though in 2016, you have less voting rights than you had in 1965 when the Voting Rights was passed on August the 6th.

That kind of anemic, weak political debate and discourse keeps us in a rut. It’s not honest… Most time if you talk about poverty, people say, “Well, there are more black people in poverty.” That’s not true. There’s more of a concentration of poverty among black people, but in raw numbers, there’s more white people in poverty.

And here’s the ugliness we’ve got to show people. The very people who engage in racist voter suppression and gerrymandering today, when they get that power, guess how they use it? To hurt mostly white people. There are 40 million more poor and low-wealth white people than there are black. People get power using race, then use the power to hurt in raw numbers. Why? Because if you take those former Confederate states, you get close to 170 electoral votes. If you can just control the 13 former Confederate states, you get 31 percent of the United States House of Representatives, and 26 members of the United States Senate.

… If I could put a pin that’s one of the mistakes that I believe of how the health care piece has been pushed. We haven’t rolled it out in the South and shown people in the South how it impacts them, and that’s why you can get a state like North Carolina blocking 500,000 people getting health care, and 346,000 of them are white. And yet people think that it’s primarily going to just minorities.

If you look at what Reconstruction was about, it was about policy. And they were able to find the linkage to show poor white people, their connection to black people, and black people their connection to white people, and how the persons that were the ones that were pushing the racism, pushing the division were actually hurting everybody. And so, you have to learn in this season to do that same kind of moral fusion.

Sam Smith – Fifteen years ago I took part in one of the most remarkable one day conferences I have ever attended. It was designed to bring progressives of different ilks together to agree on a common program. Here’s my report from the time:

In 1995, as an active member of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, and Democratic Socialists of America. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but Green activists John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along.

We established two basic rules:

o We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.

o We would reach that agreement by consensus.

We broke the body into tables of ten or so, each dealing with a different topic. All policies that were proposed were written on newsprint posters. Then participants were given three color stick-on dots with their names on them. Everyone then went up to the board and placed their dots on their favorite issues (cumulative voting style, so that all three dots could, if desired, be placed on one issue). After the vote, those with only their dots on a particular issue were allowed to move them to their second choice (a la instant run-off voting) and so forth until a clear consensus of three issues emerged. This scheme not only produced a consensus, but one that was physical and visual as well as intellectual and was fun to watch.

When the various groups produced their recommendations, they were turned over to what was known as a “fishbowl negotiation.” Each small group selected a representative to negotiate for it with representatives of all the other tables. The representatives sat in a circle with those they represented behind them. Anyone could stop their representative and request a small group conference but only the representative could speak in the larger assembly. It worked remarkably well.

The small group that had the most difficulty with such techniques was comprised mainly of Marxists who had selected economics as their area of concern. One result, ironically, was that the weakest section of the final statement was that dealing with economics. On the other hand, the libertarians came to the organizers at one point and offered to leave the meeting so a full consensus could be maintained. We encouraged them to stick around, changing our own rules to accept several levels of consensus.

Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert’s Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform “to provide a level playing field in elections;” initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities “consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights.”

Not bad for a group ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers and Democratic Socialists of America. It shouldn’t have worked at all, but because the rules we had used felt fair to those present, it did. By ignoring topics of obvious disagreement, we even surprised ourselves with the level of consensus.

We had also discovered the possibility of a political transformation, of moving beyond left and right. We understood that these were different times — not the thirties, not the sixties — times that required different imaginations and different risks. We had reached out and had found that we were not alone.

I have since repeatedly had the dream that national leaders of the black, latino, women’s, labor and youth communities would come together for similar discussions. You can’t create a working multi-cultural society if you don’t even sit down and talk with each other.