FROM THE WRITINGS OF SAM SMITH
Conservatives believe in the sanctity of life from conception until exit from the birth canal. Progressives believe in the sanctity of life from birth to death.
Thought without action is the coitus interruptus of the mind
You can’t text your way to the presidency, you can’t Facebook a revolution and you can’t save the planet with Twitter. At some point real people have to join with, talk to, and help other real people.
The average American is subjected to 3,000 commercial messages a day. If you have a good day, a half dozen people will tell you a truth worth remembering. Thus the lies win out 500 to one.
Increasingly, our lives are being run by logos rather than logos, symbols rather than reason.
The four leading causes for the decline of the American republic were:
Margaret Thatcher, who provided Ronald Reagan’s with brains
The Yale Law School, which has cursed us with everything from Clarence Thomas to Bill Clinton.
The Harvard Business School which taught a generation of managers that they didn’t have to know a damn thing about what they were managing
The disco drum machine, which inaugurated our cultural collapse
In the end, it is not the culture from which we came but the one each of us is helping to create that will matter. It is our common fate rather than our disparate pasts that will ultimately describe, redeem, or destroy us.
America is not the answer; it is only a good place to look for the answer. America has never been perfect; it’s just been a place where it was easier to fix things that were broken.
We have, it would seem, entered a postmodern paradise where the pursuit of the moral and the decent is not only unnecessary, it has all the status of a bad 1970s disco band.
The fraud, the huckster, the salesman are not new phenomena in America; what is new is that they now so strongly control every estate of our society. Those of a character that would have once caused Americans to close the door, hang up, or say “no thank you,” now teach our children, run our government, and tell us what to think. They are the Enron generation, filled with postmodern versions of Willy Loman: “He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’ s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” America once made things people wanted, said things that needed to be said and fixed things, including itself, that needed fixing. Now it is out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. The problem, as Willy Loman discovered, comes “when they start not smiling back – that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished.”
A good way to think about the history of our country is that it has involved repeated conflict between the specifics of the soul and institutional abstractions — between people and places on the one hand and, on the other, a succession of systems desiring to exploit, subjugate or supplant them. You can say that one of the great characteristics of Americans has been not merely opposition to a system of the moment but antipathy towards unnatural systems in general — opposition to all systems that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of human beings and the natural assets of their habitats.
We should seek a cooperative commonwealth based on decency before profit, liberty before sterile order, justice before efficiency, happiness before uniformity, families before systems, communities before corporations, and people before institutions
Today almost every principle upon which this country was founded is being turned on its head. Instead of liberty we are being taught to prefer order, instead of democracy we are taught to follow directions, instead of debate we are inundated with propaganda. Most profoundly, American citizens are no longer considered by their elites to be members or even worker drones of society, but rather as targets – targets of opportunity by corporations and of suspicion and control by government.
Those who run the country, whether in government, business or media, seldom speak of this land anymore with feeling, affection or understanding. They too often carry forth their affairs unburdened by place, history or culture — without conscience, without country, and without any sense of the pain they have caused. America is no longer a place to serve and to love. Because they have, in the name of global glories, cut themselves off from their own land, it is becoming for them increasingly a place of danger — a place of long, grim shadows, the sort of shadows that too often conceal a foe.
We live in a nation hated abroad and frightened at home. A place in which we can reasonably refer to the American Republic in the past tense. A country that has moved into a post-constitutional era, no longer a nation of laws but an autocracy run by law breakers, law evaders and law ignorers. A nation governed by a culture of impunity … a culture in which corruption is no longer a form of deviance but the norm. We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.”
One test of the state of an empire is whether a handful of angry young men with box cutters can wreck your major economic and military edifices and throw the country into total panic. One test of the state of your culture is whether you can think of much over the past few years to which you reacted by thinking “that’s the best [whatever] that I’ve seen-heard-read in a long time.” Another test is when you find yourself saying of some public figure, “I’m sure glad such people are around at a time like this.”
When you can’t trust your presidents of either major party, your beloved Constitution is in tatters, you have to submit to investigative fondling before flying to Des Moines, your Catholic cardinals say it’s okay to bugger little boys as long as you don’t do it too often and it doesn’t become “notorious,” a corporation thrice declared by Fortune Magazine to be the most innovative in the country turns out to be a den of thieves, the accountants who are meant to protect us from such scoundrels turn out to be co-conspirators, our lawmakers spend most of their time finding new things to prohibit, we feel we have to give kids drug tests to make sure they’re safe to sing in the choir, our teachers have forgotten how to teach our children how to read, and our journalists have forgotten how to write or to tell a lie from a fact, you’ve got a problem and one that’s not really Al-Queda’s fault.
Empires and cultures are not permanent and while thinking about the possibility that ours is collapsing may seem a dismal exercise it is far less so than enduring the dangerous frustrations and failures involved in having one’s contrary myth constantly butt up against reality like a boozer who insists he is not drunk attempting to drive home. Instead of defending the non-existent we could turn our energies instead towards devising a new and saner existence.
The drug Soma, obstacle golf, Feelie movies and Centrifugal Bumble-puppy were used in Huxley’s Brave New World to placate the masses. These have been supplanted by a enormous variety of political tranquilizers ranging from actual drugs to distractions such as video games and even substitute elections such as American Idol and Survivor. Never have Americans in their off-work hours had so many ways to avoid what is really going on. Never have so many Americans been deactivated in imagination, creativity and energy by drugs prescribed by medicine rather than by taking those of their own choice.
Those who would preserve the better America and recreate from its damaged remains are not naive fools; they are the new founders of a time and place still to come. Nor are they fantasizing. Any place, any community, any gathering can become what Hakim Bey called a temporary autonomous zone, an oasis of freedom, decency and hope, in which a new culture can take sprout. Name it, enjoy it, use it. It’s the best we have at the moment.
Let’s go to a time and place so distant that no one knows when or where it was, a time and place whose importance is as infinite as its obscurity. The moment we are seeking is the one during which a single individual, or a small group of individuals, did something so unusual that it helped free their ilk forever from the shackles of the environment and genetics — grabbing destiny from the tree of nature and making it human. . . On the first day of my freshman anthropology class, the professor drew an invisible evolutionary time line on the wall of the lecture hall. As we twisted in our seats the eras, periods, and epochs of musical name and mystical significance boldly circumscribed the room. Finally we came back to where the professor stood and when there was nearly no place further to go, he announced that this was the beginnings of us. We were only inches from the first fire maker.
I didn’t know it then, but I had joined not so much a discipline as a rebellion. Under the guise of studying the often rigid rules, customs, and traditions of different human communities, anthropology was actually opening a benign Pandora’s box of choice, laying before the world its own wondrous variety, opportunity, and concomitant pain and joy. It was not a popular rebellion. Only one or two of my courses had more than 20 students. Years later, academics and media would discover something they called multiculturalism or diversity. They would speak of it in ponderous tones and as their discovery, and they would describe it as a problem and demand that we do something about it. Too few would notice that what we were talking about as a problem was really a gift and an opportunity and a potential source of our own happiness and freedom.
While the range of choices, values, and constraints among cultures is stunning in its variety, it is impossible to find a functioning society in which choices have not been made. Similarly, though individuals may reject society and even design their own micro-cultures, they are no less dependent on their decisions, whether conscious or not. To not make them is to drift aimlessly and lifelessly, pushed this way or that by others quite anxious and ready to make choices for you
Our own culture, for all its wonders and faults, represents but a tiny fraction of the choices humans have collectively made over time and space. These choices, distant as they may be, beckon us towards possibilities lying dormant within ourselves. They also mock the self-assurance with which we run our little corner of the world. Secondly, the nature of culture is drastically changing from being something in which the individual is indoctrinated and absorbed, towards something the individual must preserve, restore or recreate in order to avoid the destruction of all culture save that of the corporate market and the political systems that support it. Finally, the strategies by which this can be accomplished depend on no small part on the imagination, passion, obstinacy, and creativity of ordinary people who refuse their consumptive assignments in the global marketplace, who develop autonomous alternatives, and who laugh when they are supposed to be saluting. The business of constructing culture is no longer an inherited and precisely defined task but a radical act demonstrating to others that they are not alone and to ourselves that we are still human.
Part of what had attracted me to anthropology in the first place was a search for a society that would find my personal traits and rituals acceptable enough for membership. Like, I suspect, many real anthropologists, I was a subculture of one looking for my lost tribe. I began this search for the lost tribe of Sams at an unusually early age thanks to the fact that my school – Germantown Friends in Philadelphia -was one of only two high schools in the country that offered a course in anthropology. And in ninth grade. At this precise moment of teenage alienation and confusion, the school offered the reverse of a Pandora’s box, for when opened, anthropology freed not evil but hope and possibility, leaving locked safely inside the myth of the single, homogeneous cultural answer. In the middle of the stolid, segregated, monolithic 1950s, Howard Platt showed us a new way to look at the world. And what a wonderful world it was. Not the stultifying world of our parents, not the monochromatic world of our neighborhood, not the boring world of 9th grade, but a world of fantastic options, a world in which people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways. Mr. Platt did not exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural sensitivity, the regulation of diversity, or the morality of non-prejudiced behavior. He didn’t need to. He taught something far more important. Mr . Platt opened a world of variety, not for us to fear but to learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not a problem, but a gift.
My relationship with the fire maker, and with the creator of the stone ax, the inventor of the spear thrower, and the first potter, would never cease to be both humbling and glorious. Humbling because our true evolutionary insignificance daily mocks our pretensions. Yet also glorious because without the endless random reiteration of individual creation, choice, and imagination, we might still be shivering in the dark instead of reading a book with our feet up and wondering whether there’s another beer in the fridge. We are nothing and everything, inexplicably and inseparably bundled together.
Art is the serendipity that occurs when imagination meets discipline and skill. Every work of art is a challenge to the status quo because it proposes to replace a part of it.
Key to the Asperger style of politics and media is the constant repetition of thought patterns and the imperviousness of the practitioners’ thinking to outside fact or argument. The technical name for this is perseveration which has been defined as “the persistent repetition of a response after cessation of the causative stimuli; for example, the repetition of a correct answer to one question as the answer to succeeding questions,” an almost perfect description of what regularly occurs on your average Sunday talk show. A less technical but even more generally apt definition is “continuation of something usually to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point.” Silently, without argument or recognition, the logic of our nation has drastically changed – from “show me” to “tell me,” from experience to propaganda, from the empirical to the virtual, and from debate and discussion to addictive perseveration.
Politicians and the media have taken to talking about “rights and responsibilities,” as though free speech and free religion and not having cops raiding your house without a warrant were privileges we citizens only get when we’re well-behaved. When politicians or journalists say that a constitutional right must be balanced by something else, they are really talking about reducing or eliminating that right. In fact, the rights listed in the Constitution are not bargaining chips, but permanent guarantees. Your constitutional rights, to borrow a phrase from the Declaration of Independence, are “unalienable.”
Baseball is among the most democratic of sports. Each player is given great freedom and specific turf to guard, but this individuality only works when all the members of a team cooperate. Baseball, Eugene McCarthy has pointed out, is unique in that the game is not restricted by either time or space — games theoretically can go on forever as can an out-of-the-park homer. He also notes that while in other sports you might hear fan suggestions that the ref be fired, it is baseball in which the crowds cry, ‘Kill the umpire!’ Thus the game, like America itself, celebrates not only a deep distrust of authority and a lack of limits, but also cooperation, individuality, and community.
We tend to think of the 1950s as a time of unmitigated conformity, but in many ways the decade of the 60s was merely the mass movement of ideas that took root in the 50s.
It is instructive during a time in which even alienated progressives outfit themselves with mission and vision statements and speak the bureaucratic argot of their oppressors to revisit that under-missioned, under-visioned culture of what Norman Mailer called the “psychic outlaw” and “the rebel cell in our social body.” What Ned Plotsky termed, “the draft dodgers of commercial civilization.” Unlike today’s activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters.
To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.
HOW TO AVOID BLAMING THE WRONG THING
1. Count the bodies. If something bad is happening there should be evidence of it. Besides, counting the bodies helps to order priorities.
2. Get facts before you get scared. Just because a politician or a journalist says there’s a threat doesn’t mean there actually is one.
3. Just because it’s on TV doesn’t mean it happening to you or your neighborhood. Just because it’s at the top of the news doesn’t mean it should be at the top of your mind.
4. Fight issues not people. Your gun-loving, anti-abortion neighbor may also oppose plans to store nuclear waste nearby. Find out. After all, most of us are right only part of the time.
5. Don’t try to crush those with whom you disagree; convert them.
6.Before “they” can do you any real harm, “they” probably need money and power. If “they” don’t have it, you are probably worrying about the wrong “they.”
At times, it seems that there are no governments anymore, only budget offices. As the numerologists rose in power, programs increasingly became transformed into line items. Numbers began serving as adjectives, ideas were reduced to figures and policy became a matter of where one placed the decimal point.
While Condoleeza Rice’s intent is that of an imperialist, her manner is that of an prissy third grade teacher apparently unaware that not only are most whom she scolds not in the third grade, they’re not even in her school district.
George III, failed to prevent the creation of the American republic, which lasted over two hundred years until a dysfunctional despot, George II, destroyed it.
While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like “entrepreneurship” and “risk-taking,” the average enterprise of any magnitude is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance. We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time and space, they might implode into us. Every law office is a testament to our fear and lack of trust.
Richard Cheney says the election of Kerry-Edwards might lead to a major terrorist attack. Could be. We don’t really know. What we do know is that the election of Bush-Cheney certainly did.
George Bush is consistent, but consistently wrong. John Kerry is inconsistent, which means he is occasionally right.
This would be a good year to follow the Mae West dictum: whenever faced with a choice between two evils, always pick the one you haven’t tried before.
Don’t think of this election as a choice between candidates but between battlefields. Would you rather spend the next four years fighting Republicans or Democrats?
Today, every politician in Washington takes bribes, from the president on down. Only please call them campaign contributions.
Most assume that to bribe someone you have to commit a crime. Not so. Dictionary definitions of ‘bribe’ include both criminal and merely distasteful acts.
For centuries ordinary people knew exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to “to influence corruptly, by a consideration.” Another 16th century definition describes bribery as “a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct” of someone.
In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving “money or other thing of value, with intent to influence” to a government official. Simple and wise.
But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time during the Clinton administration when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official “for or because of an official act” didn’t mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the briber was dumb enough to give you a receipt.
The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like “inappropriate gift,” “the appearance of a conflict of interest,” or “campaign contribution.”
Yet, according to various dictionaries, campaign contributions fall comfortably within the definition of bribes. And hardly anyone in Washington talks about it.
.Behind the public drama of the S&L solution is the most egregious example to date of no-fault capitalism and lemon socialism. The former is the remarkable principle that – notwithstanding all the fawning over the “”free market economy”” – our largest business institutions are philosophically, fiscally and criminally exempt from the ultimate consequences of laisse faire. The latter is the equally inconsistent principle that to maintain the free market the government is responsible for anything out of which private enterprise can’t make a profit. It may not, however, help support this magnificent non sequitur through activities that might actually provide income for the government, No, the rules of the game are that a major industry is allowed to make whatever mistakes it wishes in pursuit of the holy grail of free enterprise, the costs of which to be fully borne by the taxpayer,
Sometimes I stand in an airport bookstore and try to figure why God decided to reveal all of life’s mysteries in such a place. Why didn’t God make philosophers and theologians and poets as all knowing as MBAs?
If you ask important people in politics, think tanks or the media where they stand politically, many will say “in the center.” A lot of these folks like the center because it makes them sound reasonable and moderate. It also allows them to call other people extremists or gadflies or wishful thinkers for disagreeing with the conventional wisdom of the moment. Some members of the American elite have made whole careers of being measured and cautious. They like to write somber columns asking pompous questions like “Can the Center Hold?” What they really mean is: can they hold on to their power? But even if you do find the center, it’s not necessarily the best place to be. My navigation instructor at Coast Guard Officer Candidate School explained it well: “If you take a navigational fix and it places you on one side of a rock and then you take another fix and it places you on the other side of the rock — don’t split the difference.” Unfortunately, it’s a rule not often followed in American politics.
Even the KKK, so often cited as an example of the sort of threat the contemporary right poses, was powerful primarily because it was at the center, holding political and judicial and law enforcement office as well as hiding beneath its robes. In some towns, lynching parties were even announced in the local paper. And in the 1920s, both the Colorado governor and mayor of Denver were members of the Klan, the latter well enough regarded to have had Stapleton airport named after him.
From the American revolution to the underground railroad, to the organizing of labor, to the drive for universal suffrage, to the civil rights, women’s, peace and environmental movements, every significant political and social change in this country has been propelled by large numbers of highly autonomous small groups linked not by a bureaucracy or a master organization but by the mutuality of their thought, their faith and their determination. There is no reason it can not happen again.
Whatever the source, it now takes longer, requires more paper, and stirs up more intimations of liability to do almost anything worthwhile than it once did. While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like “entrepreneurship” and “risk-taking,” the average enterprise of any magnitude is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance. We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time and space, they might implode into us. Every law office is a testament to our fear and lack of trust.
The reporter risking status by telling the truth, the government official risking employment by exposing the wrong, the civic leader refusing to go with the flow — these are all essential catalysts of change. A transformation in the order of things is not the product of immaculate conception; rather it is the end of something that starts with the willingness of just a few people to do something differently. There must then come a critical second wave of others stepping out of character long enough to help something happen — such as the white Mississippian who spoke out for civil rights, the housewife who read Betty Friedan and became a feminist, the parents of a gay son angered by the prejudice surrounding him. But for such dynamics to work there must be space for non-conformity and places for new ideas and the chance to be left alone by those who would manipulate, commodify, or destroy our every thought.
Even when you can’t change things you can change your attitude towards them. For example, we tend to think of the 1950s as a time of unmitigated conformity, but in many ways the decade of the 60s was merely the mass movement of ideas that took root in the 50s. Because in beat culture, jazz, and the civil rights movement there had already been a stunning critique of, and rebellion against, the American establishment.
Contemporary America actively opposes choice. Choice is repressed by a government that increasingly interferes in its citizens’ personal lives; choice is manipulated by advertising and public relations; choice is distorted by mass media and the politicians it creates; it is limited by the growing homogeneity of commercial and cultural life, it is ignored by schools that prefer teaching driver ed to analytical skills, and it is suppressed by a cornucopia of illegal and legal drugs that allow one to avoid the pain and hard work of decisions — seductive relief from what Sartre called the “vertigo of possibility.”
We easily observe and deplore the absence of choice when we see it in its adolescent form — such as in the gang — but we are less perceptive when it happens to us, especially when it occurs incrementally and in a climate that permits the evocation of what we once were to conceal what we are truly becoming.
We have in recent decades been so intent on making our cities neat and orderly that we have forgotten that the major contribution of the city is its explosive and random potential. Our goal has been physical order and fiscal benefits; the results have been social disorder and huge deficits. A thriving urban ecology should not just be about clean air and trees; but also about communities and economic survival, justice, decent education, security, happiness, the joy of chance, variety, and opportunity.
Cities often fail us but it is their enduring service to both shelter and venture that makes even the grimmest among them continuing magnets. Even as those who have used them well and long for their own purposes flee to the quiet, comfort, and safety of another place, the artist, the drug dealer cashing in his chips for a legal business, the ambitious new immigrant, the young college grad, the entrepreneur, move in and begin the urban story again. Free from the predetermined human and physical geography of a rural or small town community, we have a chance to design our own environment. In the end, the city, becomes not just a place but, as Brown University’s Arnold Weinstein has suggested, “work being done.”
We now comprehend the hazards of blithely pouring DDT over crops, slashing through treelands, or fouling the air. But we still act as thought we can, without penalty, wipe out neighborhoods, force mass migrations, rip out favorite meeting places for people, or tear down centers of communications, culture and commerce that are as important to a community as a marsh is to a flyway
One of the reasons liberals don’t do better is because they use phrases like “urban sprawl” to describe the places where about half of America lives, most by some degree of choice. While there is nothing wrong with trying to encourage denser, less traffic dependent communities, it doesn’t help to bad mouth all contrary communities while doing it. What is happening now is the suburban equivalent of the 1960s when liberals and urban planners disparaged inner city communities by calling them ghettos. Like Toronto planner Terry Fowler, one can speak of the importance of replacing mobility with access or of the advantages, with high fuel costs, of having more of what we need closer to where we live. People will respond to practical solutions far better than to vague goals disrespectful of their communities. The key point should not be to reach some abstract goal but to improve the life of communities affected by decades of poor urban planning. Many of these communities are already attractive places to live but suffer from transportation, shopping and energy inefficiencies. The key is to plan for the people who live there and not for the soulless desires of master plans. The next time you’re tempted to use the word, just remember: it ain’t sprawl, it’s somebody’s home.
Good urban economics would be the economics of small business, of self-generating economies, of cooperatives and of neighborhood-owned companies. It would be the economics of recycling money within the city, of making things other cities need, and of giving every resident a fair chance to make a buck.
The key to the economic revival of the older city is the development of these self-generating economies. The self-generating economy has a long history in America. Many of the country’s early communities were largely self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency, however, disappeared with the concentration of industry and land ownership. In cities, one can easily find self–generating economies although we seldom recognize them as such. The explosion of the legal profession, for example, reflects in no small part the ability of lawyers to create jobs for each other. The yuppie phenomenon can be seen as a self-generating economy: yuppies creating artificial needs for other yuppies and with some selling and others buying items that fulfill these needs. The importance of such economies tends to be disregarded because they don’t have the visible form of a single corporation or factory.
The more we step into a paradigm of urban ecology, the more we find ourselves drifting closer to other things — our work, our food, our environment, and our neighbors. Our sense of order no longer relies — in the tradition of American city planners from L’Enfant to Robert Moses — upon outward symmetry, illusions of order, and grandeur. Rather it seeks inner integration and grace. Our concept of the city steps away from the cold rigidity of the blueprint and comes closer to the joyful exuberance of a Richard Scarry drawing. We stop worrying about the sleek exterior of the car and concern ourselves with the less aesthetic but more essential engine.
For each of us there is a public and a private city. Some live primarily in former and typically describe the city with concrete numbers — so many of some problem per 100,000 — and abstract phrases such as “we need a public-private partnership.” Many, many more, though, know the city as a collection of specific stories and people. It is not just understanding that gets lost in this gap. Urban policy seeks to improve a city’s numbers rather than the specificity of individual lives. The result is that many plans still — although more covertly than in the days of “urban removal” — implicitly assume that part of the solution is a better class of people moving to the place being planned. We do not yet require human impact statements that might reveal a plan’s true cost in higher rents, ethnic and economic change, effect on existing social structure and institutions, or access to places that matter.
The problem with urban planners is two fold. First, they work for the wrong people, the government, rather than for the citizens. As local governments have become more corrupt and more beholden to the interests of a small number of developers and other businesses, urban planning has inevitably come to reflect these perverse priorities. Second, urban planners believe in sweeping physical solutions to social problems. The idea, Richard Sennett has written, goes back to the 1860s design for Paris by Baron Haussmann. Haussmann, Sennett suggests, bequeathed us the notion that we could alter social patterns by changing the physical landscape. This approach was not about urban amenities such as park benches and gas lighting or technological improvements such as indoor plumbing but about what G. K. Chesterton called the huge modern heresy of “altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”
Modern planning was in part spurred by the desire of the elites to recover their cities from the immigrant politicians and riff raff who had seized urban America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of what was described as “reform,” was in fact just a transfer of power – including the power to corrupt – back to the elites.The same thing would happen again folloowing the migration of blacks to the cities in the last half of the 20th century. It was not urban development for the masses but urban recovery for the elites.
The question of whether we should give up our citizenship in favor of customerhood or being a taxpayer has never made it to the ballot. It doesn’t have to. Like much political change these days, the idea has grown more by osmosis than by choice, the product of a “shared vision” among the elite, dutifully disseminated by a media that has lost much of its capacity for skepticism.
One of the worst indictments of the Clintons is that they helped create a nation that is so pessimistic it believes a Clinton is the best it can do.
If this was a just world, Bill Clinton would resign, Al From and the New Democrats would settle a product liability suit for selling defective politics by taking a vow of perpetual silence, the entire Democratic congressional leadership would be arrested for loitering on federal property, and every journalist who told us how wonderful life would be under Clinton would commit themselves to at least 1000 hours of community service. – 1994
In the 1950s before cool and hip became another form of corporate cooptation, they were symbolized by an indifference to, rather than an obsession with, style.
IF YOU CHALLENGE the contemporary “communicator,” you are likely to find the argument transformed from whatever you thought you were talking about to something quite different — generally more abstract and grandiose. For example if you are opposed to the communicator’s proposed policy on trade you may be accused of being against “change” or “fearful of new ideas” and so forth. There is an hyperbolic quality to this language that shatters one’s normal sense of meaning. Simple competence is dubbed “a world-class operation,” common efficiency is called “Total Quality Management,” a conversation becomes “incredibly transforming,” and a gathering of hyper-ambitious and single-minded professionals is called a “Renaissance” weekend.
“A breakdown in communications,” if you listen carefully to the eleven o’clock news, is the source of all human problems viz: “Police officials blamed the accidental shooting of three orphans in a drug bust on 7th Street on a breakdown in communications.” –
The native American was forced westward by the young escaping the limits of east coast villages that had been established only a generation or two earlier by parents escaping the limits of European villages. From then on, whether seeking a whale, rafting with Huck Finn, easy riding with Peter Fonda, or next week in Cancun, there has been a strong belief in America that happiness lies somewhere else. And yet as we find freedom we also rediscover loneliness. As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says, we require both shelter and venture. We need freedom and support, silence and cacophony, the vast and distant but also the warm and near, a voyage and a harbor, the great adventure and the hobbit hole. Much of the iconography of our times gives little sense of this. Instead, the individual is treated as a self-sufficient, self-propelled vehicle moving across a background of other things, other places, and other people.
Our own experiences with community may in large part represent something from which we have fled — a fouled-up family, a stifling neighborhood, an oppressive religion — rather than that which we seek. We may have declared, either consciously or unconsciously, never to go through that again. And so we look for maximum freedom and decline to make the trade-offs — except, of course, when we are working, commuting, or buying those things that are supposed to make us free. In the end, ironically, we may find ourselves having mostly freed ourselves from voluntary associations. Those relationships, appointments, and activities required by our status, employment, or to pay for our totems of liberation, are not impeded at all by our declaration of independence; rather they sit there happily munching away at what we, with an increasing sense of nostalgia, call our “free” time.
Communities are easiest to build in times of stress or out of painful need. Impressive self-sufficient communities were constructed in New York’s Harlem and Washington’s Shaw in response to racial exclusion. Similarly, to many veterans, few communities can compete with the bonds created under fire. Yet wistful as such memories may be, few would really attempt to recover them by reviving segregation or going back to war.
Communities do things that individuals can’t and things that institutions won’t. From the friend who drives you home when you have had too much to drink, to farmers rebuilding a neighbor’s barn after a tornado, people draw strength from others that is unavailable in isolation. And in the process, they become themselves.
Throughout history, community order has largely grown out of the cooperation and effectiveness of individuals, schools, families, and the strength of local institutions. The police have been there not to maintain order, or even to define it, but to assist and protect the community and to intervene in those rare cases the normal community systems can’t handle. One should not expect the fire department to come over and cook your dinner safely or light the logs in your fireplace; nor should one expect the police to replace the normal functions of individuals, families, and community institutions. Yet that is precisely what we have done.
The drive for family and community remains so strong that some of the young have created a surrogate for what has disappeared. They call it a gang.
Consequences can’t be wholly unintentional once you’ve imagined them. Successfully deny or ignore them and you’ll die happy. Open your eyes and you become irrevocably responsible, with all the pain, doubt, and fear that goes with it.
The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was invented by elite media and politicians to denigrate questions or critical presumptions about events about which important facts remain unrevealed.
The intelligent response to such events is to remain agnostic, skeptical, and curious. Theories may be suggested – just as they are every day about less complex and more open matters on news broadcasts and op ed pages – but such theories should not stray too far from available evidence.
Conversely, as long as serious anomalies remain, dismissing questions and doubts as a “conspiracy theory” is a highly unintelligent response. It is also ironic as those ridiculing the questions and doubts typically consider themselves intellectually superior to the doubters. But they aren’t because they stopped thinking the moment someone in power told them a superficially plausible answer. Further, to ridicule those still with doubts about such matters is intellectually dishonest.
There is the further irony that many who ridicule doubts about the official version of events were typically trained at elite colleges where, in political science and history, theories often take precedent over facts and in which substantive decisions affecting politics and history are presumed to be the work of a small number of wise men (sic). They are trained, in effect, to trust in (1) theories and (2) benign confederacies. Most major media political coverage is based on the great man theory of history. This pattern can be found in everything from Skull & Bones to the Washington Post editorial board to the Council on Foreign Relations. You might even call them conspiracy theorists.
Other fields – such as social history or anthropology – posit that change for better or evil can come as cultural change or choices and not just from the decisions of “great men.” This is why one of the biggest stories in modern American history was never well covered: the declining birth rate. No great men decided it should happen.
The unresolved major event is largely a modern phenomenon that coincides with the collapse of America’s constitutional government and the decline of its culture. Beginning with the Kennedy assassination, the number of inadequately explained major events has been mounting steadily and with them a steady decline in the trust between he people and their government.
You don’t need a conspiracy to lie, do something illegal or to be stupid.
If you’re going to debunk conspiracy theories about 9/11 you’d think you’d start with the biggest one. That created by the Bush administration to justify the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Somehow that never made the debunker list.
Why are we allowed to have theories on every topic from the creation of the universe to who is going to win the World Series with the sole exception of wondering who in power is screwing us and how?
What we think of as culture and history is really a form of artificial evolution. While both cooperation and selfishness have deep roots in our genetic core, nothing in this core made inevitable the Civil War or the end of small pox, Martin Luther King or Margaret Thatcher. Human choices did that, choices that included deciding what tools, virtues, bludgeons or trickery to pull out of the overstuffed closet of humanness.
The rise of corporations truly represented a counter-coup against the values of the American Revolution. It dramatically undermined both political and economic freedom, corrupted politicians and ransacked national assets. It replaced the feudalism of the monarchy with the feudalism of the corporation.
1. Hit the corrupters at least as hard as the corruptees. The real danger in corruption is what the bribe buys, not the soul of the bought politician (which probably never was in that great a shape anyway).
2. The worst corruption tends to be legal, therefore hardly anyone notices it. Remember that corrupt not only means dishonest, it also means without integrity. In most jurisdictions the latter is not a violation of the law.
3. Just because the corruption is legal doesn’t mean you have to accept it. Martin Luther didn’t — and so helped to reform a little church-run protection racket known as indulgences.
4. Simply because corruption is bad, don’t assume all reforms are good.
5. If forced to choose between minor corruption and major incompetence, take the former. It’s cheaper and easier to live with.
6. Favor corruption that is well distributed– that gets down to the street over that which only favors a few. Thus: reform zoning policies before you worry about parking tickets.
We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.
The people running America, its politics, its media and its corporations, might well be called crats, after the semantic fantail signifying members of a ruling body — as in plutocrats, autocrats, mediacrats, technocrats, and bureaucrats, just to name a few. Crats are characterized by their loyalty to institutional and professional procedures and values above all else. Unlike normal humans, which have to be cloned in order to be copied, crats imitate each other by choice. This is why one can gain a sense of deja vu even before completing one zapper cycle on cable TV.
A culture may define the four winds as persons under certain circumstances, it may also define a slave or someone from another tribe as not a person at all. Nonetheless the slave or the outsider really exist so at some level are treated as a person anyway. Hence people in such societies may trade goods with the stranger or attempt to convert the slave to Christianity even though they are not considered human. Or the society may try to quantify such anomalies as Americans did when they declared a black legally equal to three-fifths of a white person. Or it may create a hierarchy as Aristotle did when he confidently declared that “the deliberative faculty in the soul is not present at all in a slave: in a female is present but ineffective, in a child present but undeveloped.” Or it may declare that “all men are created equal” but really mean only white male property owners. Or it may fight a revolution for liberty but leave women as chattel. Or the culture can painfully change such values over two centuries and still have to go repeatedly to court to fight over what was really meant by the change.
While the range of choices, values, and constraints among cultures is stunning in its variety, it is impossible to find a functioning society in which choices have not been made. Similarly, though individuals may reject society and even design their own micro-cultures, they are no less dependent on their decisions, whether conscious or not. To not make them is to drift aimlessly and lifelessly, pushed this way or that by others quite anxious and ready to make choices for you. Unfortunately, we receive little instruction in how to deal with this. Anthropologists, other academics, and journalists prefer to aggregate individual variety into something both grander and simpler, politely known as a culture, paradigm, ideology, or trend, or (if you don’t care for the resulting generalizations) a stereotype. Thus we have little sense of what it is like to be a punk Buddhist, a Hindu convert to Unitarianism or a follower of both Confucianism as well as the Dallas Cowboys. The mere number of cultural traits and values available for adoption in a world in which the grandchildren of Margaret Mead’s anthropological subjects watch MTV has engorged us with possibilities.
As we become more aware of our options – or more sophisticated, as we like to call it — the choices we have already made, or have been made for us, may lose their allure and we can find ourselves wandering in a cultural void somewhere between the Trobriand Islands and Trenton. A detachment from one’s indigenous culture can set in, a trait observable in diplomats, military personnel, international business executives, and anthropologists. It is not that they are without a culture, rather theirs becomes a culture that lacks place. This can have some odd results, such as the anthropologist’s high school daughter who begged that the family at least stay in the US her senior year so she would have a room to remember as “home” when she went to college. One of the things driving such restlessness is an assumption that our own culture must inevitably be locked in combat with our own nature. In drawing this conclusion we may place inordinate emphasis on the faults of our parents, the sins of the marketplace, racism, and the “oppression of the system.” This is not to say that these wrongs do not exist and need not be confronted, only that they hardly define the whole of our culture’s influence on us. As Americans, for example, it tells nothing of values of pragmatism, fairness, reinvention, and freedom that have survived the worst years of our collective experience.
One response to society’s assault on human variation is the creation of an “identity,” around which the icons, values, and artifacts of a culture are consciously built. Identity cultures — such as the black, lesbian or disabled “community” — are intentionally designed to end discrimination but perhaps also are unconsciously part of a broader reaction to the threat against culture itself. Many may feel the need for an identity not merely because of prejudice against their ethnicity, but against the biggest race of all, the human one. The obvious advantage of identity culture is the protection of a group. The less obvious disadvantage is that over-emphasis on one’s status, sex, or ethnicity can be just as much an obstacle to individualism as, say, loyalty to the corporate culture. It converts context into classification. When someone stands up in a meeting and says, “Speaking as a gay Jew. . .” they are defining themselves as far less than they really are.
The nature of culture is drastically changing from being something in which the individual is indoctrinated and absorbed, towards something the individual must preserve, restore or recreate in order to avoid the destruction of all culture save that of the corporate market and the political systems that support it. The strategies by which this can be accomplished depend on no small part on the imagination, passion, obstinacy, and creativity of ordinary people who refuse their consumptive assignments in the global marketplace, who develop autonomous alternatives, and who laugh when they are supposed to be saluting. The business of constructing culture is no longer an inherited and precisely defined task but a radical act demonstrating to others that they are not alone and to ourselves that we are still human
Our culture feels like a bad craft fair where everything you see seems to have been made before, only better.
Despite the improved economic and social status of women and minorities, despite decades of economic progress, despite Velcro, SUVs, MTV, NASA, DVD, cell phones, and the Internet you can’t raise a majority that is proud of this country. We neither enjoy our myths nor our reality. We hate our politicians, ignore our moral voices, and distrust our media. We have destroyed natural habitats, created the nation’s first downwardly mobile generation, stagnated their parent’s income, and removed the jobs of each to distant lands. We have created rapacious oligopolies of defense and medicine, frittered away public revenues and watched indifferently as, around the world, the homeless and the miserable pile up.
A culture that has so lost its way and forgotten so much is not the same as a flawed society bumbling through history trying to make itself better. Worst of all, such a fallen society lays the burden of its own failure upon each of us. Just as a strong culture buoys the individual and provides a stage upon which the brave, the compassionate, and the imaginative can act, so a craven, crumbling culture makes every act of individual will that much harder.
Culture of impunity
In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, and at best practices only titular democracy. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself.
In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.
When we talk about the national debt, we tend to make no distinction between types of national debt. There is an immense difference between going into debt for capital investments like schools and bridges and going into debt to pay current operating costs. That’s why a bank will lend you money to buy a house but not for dinner and a movie. Our national budget makes no distinction between buying schools and buying doughnuts. It should.
We can declare a free America in the space around us – either geographical, organizational or intellectual – easing ourselves out of being victims of cultural collapse and becoming the nascent builders of a second democratic republic that may recover our land from the terrorists who have bombed the American soul.
One can not tell how much longer America has before it gives up on democracy completely. What we can say, however, is that the road has gotten much shorter.
The democratic franchise, while greatly broadened from a time when only propertied white males could vote, has lost its depth. We have, in effect, more people sharing less power. Take, for example, the New England town meeting, often cited as a model of direct democracy, in which each enfranchised resident had a voice and a vote in the proceedings of the community. By the 1990s the term’s meaning had been completely turned on its head: now it is a meeting, perhaps nationally televised, in which citizens of a remote, impermeable government listen to, and are cynically manipulated by, an official or candidate. All three key elements of the original town meeting — community, decentralized power and direct democracy — have decayed and disappeared.
We can not be free if we can not retrieve the part of politics that once made it a natural, integral and pleasurable part of our lives, and if it now becomes so distant or so dirty or so cruel that we would rather not even think or speak about it, someone else, to our great danger, will fill our silence.
About the most important job of a democracy — next to serving its people — is to make sure it stays a democracy. Forms of government don’t have tenure, and governments that rely on the consent of the governed — rather than, say, on tanks and prisons — require constant tending. As things now stand, we could easily become the first people in history to lose democracy and its constitutional freedoms simply because we have forgotten what they are about.
One of the best ways to revive democracy in our country is to make sure that every organization, church, school, or club is run according to its principles.
THE MAJOR POLITICAL struggle has become not between conservative and liberal but between ourselves and our political, economic, social and media elites. Between the toxic and the natural, the corporate and the communal, the technocratic and the human, the competitive and the cooperative, the efficient and the just, meaningless data and meaningful understanding, the destructive and the decent.
TODAY ALMOST every principle upon which this country was founded is being turned on its head. Instead of liberty we are being taught to prefer order, instead of democracy we are taught to be follow directions, instead of debate we are inundated with propaganda. Most profoundly, American citizens are no longer considered by their elites to be members or even worker drones of society, but rather as targets – targets of opportunity by corporations and of suspicion and control by government.
WHY WOULD a hard-won democracy willingly drift in such a direction? One reason is that if one is going to tolerate a growing divide between rich and poor, between those with power and those without, it is necessary to deal with the anger and alienation that results. If the traditional democratic approach — making the system fairer — is ruled out, then some form of oppression is required.
The problem with the Democrats is that their contributors and their constituents don’t agree.
I left the Democratic Party because I didn’t want to be liable under the RICO statute.
The most common reaction to despair may be no more dramatic than a sense of boredom, of apathy, and indifference. In many ways, this is precisely the response our culture would prefer. It makes us ideal consumers of experience and excitement and assures that we won’t interfere with the flow of goods and services by introducing novel notions of how society might be better rearranged.
To view our times as decadent and dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those in power as not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid but perceptive; to be depressed, angry or confused about such things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness. Yet our culture suggests otherwise. But if all this is true, then why not despair? The simple answer is this: despair is the suicide of imagination. Whatever reality presses upon us, there still remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut. The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list.
Wrestling with the pain of living is one of the surest signs that you are still alive. The problem is that you never know when you’re exaggerating and when you’ve got it right.
What works so well in the manufacture of a Ford Taurus — efficiency of scale and mass production — fails to work in social policy because, unlike a Taurus, humans think, cry, love, get distracted, criticize, worry or don’t give a shit. Yet we keep acting as though such traits don’t exist or don’t matter. We have come to accept the notion that the enormous institutions of government, media, industry and academia are natural to the human condition and then wonder why they don’t work better than they do.
All of our systems appear to be on steroids. And like the drugged athlete, nature eventually pulls the plug. The institutions that have imposed a tyranny of size upon us not only fail to accomplish what they set out to do but are themselves disintegrating.
Umbria is a section of Italy north of Rome remarkably indifferent to centuries of its history, where even the homes and whole villages seem to grow like native plants out of the rural earth rather than being placed there by human effort. Yet the Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade organization. Umbria is a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history’s tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.
If we had been born in a time in which the therapy for doubt was punishment, even death, we would not be in such a fix. We would thank or fear whatever gods may be and go about our business if not happily at least with certitude. But the gift of decriminalized doubt changed all that. We are now free to be wrong by our own hand, to not know — worse, to have nothing and no one to blame.
That’s why there are so many attempts to put the question marks safely back into the box, to recapture the illusion of security found in circumscribed knowledge, to shut down that fleeting moment of human existence in which at least some thought they could do the work of kings and gods, that glimpse of possibility we thought would be an endless future.
It is seductively attractive to return to certainty at whatever cost, to a time when one’s every act carried its own explanation in the rules of the universe or of the system or of the village. From the Old Testament to neo-Nazism, humans have repeatedly found shelter in absolutes and there is nothing in our evolution to suggest we have lost the inclination, save during those extraordinary moments when a wanderer, a stranger, a rebel picks up some flotsam and says, “Hey, something’s wrong here. . .” And those of us just standing around say, “You know, you’ve got something there.” And we become truly human once more as we figure out for ourselves, and among ourselves, what to do about it.
No one seeks doubt, yet without it we become just one more coded creature moving through nature under perpetual instruction. Doubt is the price we pay for being able to think, play, pray and feel the way we wish, if, of course, we can decide what that is. Which is why freedom always has so many more questions than slavery. Which is why democracy is so noisy and messy and why love so often confounds us.
If we are not willing to surrender our freedom, then we must accept the hard work that holding on to it entails including the nagging sense that we may not be doing it right after all; that we may not be rewarded even if we do it right; and that we will never know whether we have or not.
The illegal drug trade is estimated to be about the size of the legal pharmaceutical business. If you believe what you read and hear in the media, the drug trade must be the most honest business going since it never has lobbyists working Washington, it never contributes to political campaigns, it never bribes a politician, it never runs PAC ads to get its way. In fact, where politics are involved, it never seems to do anything illegal.
Ecologist Donella Meadows pointed out that if a water lily doubling in size each day could eventually cover a pond in 30 days, half that growth would occur on the 29th day. Do you know what day it is for the climate?
A POKER PLAYER’S GUIDE TO THE ENVIRONMENT
1. Calculate the stakes as well as the odds.
2. The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations — especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium — it is the latter odds that are important.
3. When confronted with conflicting odds, ask what happens if each projection is wrong. Temporary job loss because of environmental restrictions may come and go, but the loss of the ozone layer is something you can have forever.
4. When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don’t have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time — or with the economy or with the environment — that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.
5. Don’t let anyone — in industry, government, or the media — define an “acceptable level of risk” for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.
6. If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can’t stand the pain, don’t attempt the gain.
We have turned our fire engines over to the arsonists and you don’t need a single number to know that isn’t a good idea.
Are economists a leading cause of climate change? After all, they’ve convinced us to be the only species on earth to believe that over-population and over-consumption are the keys to survival.
One of the best kept secrets of economics is that there are lots of systems that work provided, that is, you don’t care who they work for. Feudalism, for example, was great if you were a lord, not so efficient a marketplace is you were merely a serf. And each system works differently depending on the culture in which it operates, which is why communism in the Soviet Union, China and Italy meant such different things. In the end, the real test of an economy is not its math but its social, financial and moral effect on its culture and those who live there.
Economists are fundamentalists who believe in money instead of in Jesus.
As with every society that has ever existed, our economy is not only a conglomerate, but a part of, and dependent upon, a huge number of values, rules, systems, and characteristics that comprise a culture. We can no more isolate the use of money or labor from these factors than we could declare society to be henceforth based on the free lunch.
Fortunately, economists discovered money as an organizing principle rather than, say, defecation. Otherwise we would have a really gross national product.
Margaret Thatcher wrapped herself in economic slogans that justified greed not only to accomplish economic ends but also to deal with gays and abortions and everything else she didn’t like. In her paradigm, the free market and Victorian tyranny formed a civil union. By the time Reagan, Bush, and Clinton were through with the concept, they had created a gaping corporate exemption from common morality and decency. The market not only offered adequate justification for any act, it had replaced God as the highest source of law.
Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are to public education as the right is to climate. The right thinks the climate is all about last week’s snow storm; Obama and Duncan think public education is all about last week’s test..
While it may take only a whole village to raise the average child, in my case it required three counties, two bioregions and an unincorporated territory, and I still don’t have it quite straight
For more than fifty years, America has been consolidating school districts and the main effect has been to replace educators with bureaucrats and wardens,
We need a trial to judge all those who bear significant responsibility for the past century – the most murderous and ecologically destructive in human history. We could call it the war, air and fiscal crimes tribunal and we could put politicians and CEOs and major media owners in the dock with earphones like Eichmann and make them listen to the evidence of how they killed millions of people and almost murdered the planet and made most of us far more miserable than we needed to be. Of course, we wouldn’t have time to go after them one by one. We’d have to lump Wall Street investment bankers in one trial, the Council on Foreign Relations in another, and any remaining Harvard Business School or Yale Law graduates in a third. We don’t need this for retribution, only for edification. So there would be no capital punishment, but rather banishment to an overseas Nike factory with a vow of perpetual silence.
Some day our leaders may again be as good as our firefighters.
Among the powerful, “mistakes were made” but no one has to admit that they were the ones who made them. Instead, the elite rises as one to pronounce it not the time for blame, but rather for moving forward together into the future and putting this or that “behind us.” Everyone nods their heads and the foxes are allowed back into the chicken coop one more time
Like a hit and run driver, America’s elite has left the scene of the accident. More and more, those who run this country have the character of wealthy, isolated strangers — armed but afraid, intrusive yet indifferent, personally profligate but politically penurious, priggish in rhetoric yet corrupt in action. No longer does national myth connect them with the greater mass of America. Nor, any longer, does politics separate them from each other; Republicans and Democrats have become, rather than choices, degrees of the same dismal thing.
One of the greatest myths of America’s elite is that it functions by logic and reason and that it is devoid of myth. In truth, elites function like other people; they choose their gods and worship them. The gods, to be sure, are different. For example, many in Washington believe fervently in the sanctity of data, the Ivy League, the New York Times op pages and the Calvinist notion that their power is an outward, visible sign of an inner, invisible grace. And some, even while professing to be without myth, spend their lives creating myths for others. We call them political consultants and ghostwriters.
The old elite, in its purest form, went to Ivy schools, practiced law or investments, and belonged to the Council on Foreign Relations. The new elite has been raised in the groves of advertising, marketing and focus groups, and is representative not of its legislative districts but of the largest trade associations. Its members speak not American but postmodern Orwellian. Listening to their rhetoric is like being trapped at table 129 — with a bursting bladder and all the doors locked — during a never-endng congressional dinner of the Asbestos Manufacturers Association. The members of this new elite may be different, yet by income, attitude and isolation, they are every bit as elitist as those they have expelled.
This old elite particularly prided itself in its wisdom and intelligence, but its greatest true skill was the successful circumnavigation of collective guilt. No embarrassment was too great, no crisis too unnecessary, no expense too inexplicable, and no war too unjustified, that it became ashamed. Instead, its members would rise as one to pronounce it not the time for blame, but rather for moving forward together into the future. Everyone would nod their heads and the foxes would renovate the chicken house once more.
Psychologically impervious to either misfortune or fact, this elite never felt any need for rigorous self-examination. When things got truly out of hand, as when a president was assassinated, a blue ribbon investigation would be called, producing a ritual of introspection that, almost without exception, came to conclusions that were faulty, incomplete or deliberately deceptive.
When members of the elite faltered — a Kissinger, Helms, McNamara, Abrams and so forth — their peers moved quickly to protect, rehabilitate and restore them to the pantheon of the wise. Given that more than ten percent of the Council on Foreign Relations — a sort of Elks Club for the tenured elite — is composed of journalists, it is not surprising to find the latter often serving as EMTs, reviving some beloved source suffering a momentary attack of imperfection. This service was not, of course, provided to all. For example, surgeons general from the lesser ethnic groups could not expect rehabilitation, nor could individuals whose misdeeds were personal rather than merely an abrogation of the Constitution.
Unfortunately, complex failing systems have little capacity to save themselves. In part this is because the solutions come from the same source as the problem. The public rarely questions the common provenance; official Washington and the media honor it. Even a failure as miserable as that of Vietnam had little effect on the careers of its major protagonists, those men who not only were wrong but were wrong at the cost of 50,000 American lives. They remain quoted copiously, cited as experts and transmogrified into statesmen.
Empires and cultures are not permanent and while thinking about the possibility that ours is collapsing may seem a dismal exercise it is far less so than enduring the dangerous frustrations and failures involved in having one’s contrary myth constantly butt up against reality like a boozer who insists he is not drunk attempting to drive home. Instead of defending the non-existent we could turn our energies instead towards devising a new and saner existence
The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations – especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium – it is the latter odds that are important.
When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don’t have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time – or with the economy or with the environment – that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.
Don’t let anyone – in industry, government, or the media – define an “acceptable level of risk” for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.
Global dumbing involves the virtually imperceptible but steady deterioration of the aggregate human mind — as well as of its institutions — much as the temperature of the earth is apparently rising at a rate so minuscule that scientists will be still be debating its escalation even as the waters of the Atlantic Ocean lap at the potted plants in the lobby of the Trump Plaza. In fact, global warming and global dumbing are intimately connected. Without the latter, something actually might be done before that portion of Washington below the fall line of the Potomac is totally submerged. And like global warming, global dumbing concerns itself with losses incurred by energy transfers and nature’s ceaseless quest for the random equilibrium of chaos. It is, in short, the entropy of the human spirit and of the systems it has created.
In earlier times, it was possible to avoid cultural entropy by stealing energy from somewhere else. This, of course, was the foundation of slave trade, the British Empire and various new world orders of the first half of 20th century. While it still goes on, energy theft has become more difficult as the world has steadily lost its cultural, political, environmental and economic differentiation.
A cursory examination of American business suggests that its major product is wasted energy. Compute all the energy loss created by corporate lawyers, Washington lobbyists, marketing consultants, CEO benefits, advertising agencies, leadership seminars, human resource supervisors, strategic planners and industry conventions and it is amazing that this country has any manufacturing base at all. We have created an economy based not on actually doing anything, but on facilitating, supervising, planning, managing, analyzing, tax advising, marketing, consulting or defending in court what might be done if we had time to do it. The few remaining truly productive companies become immediate targets for another entropic activity, the leveraged buyout.
Fortunately there is no evidence that global dumbing has entered the human gene pool. Nature, before people began fiddling with it, handled the problem rather neatly by regularly killing off the entropic and giving birth to new life and energy. I find considerable comfort in the fact that I have never seen a small child facilitate anything nor one enamored of process in any form. Instead, they like to make things, do things, laugh and sing. Thus I strongly suspect that we have just taught ourselves to be dumb and, however difficult, it remains possible to re-educate ourselves, even if it means going back to kindergarten to learn how.
If global dumbing is not halted, we may wake up one morning and find that no one in this country knows how to make anything anymore. We may discover our dearest friends and relatives in a catatonic state before the TV and the device won’t even be on. When we call for help we may find that 911 has become an endless loop voice mail system from which one can never disconnect. We may even, some day, elect a hologram as president — and we’ll be too dumb to realize it.
It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory, unprejudiced society in which race and sex matter much. Yet in our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely important.
Many attempts to eradicate racism from our society have been based on the notion that those who harbor prejudice towards others are abnormal and social deviants. Further, we often describe these “deviants” only in terms of their overt antipathies — they are “anti-Semitic” or guilty of “hate.” In fact, once you have determined yourself to be human and others less so, you need not hate them any more than you need despise the fish you eat for dinner. This is why those who participate in genocide can do so with such calm — they have defined their targets as outside of humanity.
What if we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of “no fault justice.” We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King’s admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.
Just by dint of exposure to TV, it is virtually impossible to live in America and not have absorbed aspects of other cultures. We all, in effect, belong to a part-culture, which is to say that our ethnicity is somewhat defined by its relationship to, and borrowing from, other cultures. There are almost no pure anythings in America anymore. The sooner we accept and enjoy this, the better off we’ll be.
Remember that everyone is an ethnic something. There are no unethnic Americans.
In the end, how well we get along will be decided not by our cultural differences but by the significance we place upon them. We may all be creatures of our own culture, but we are also all free to determine just what that means. Most important, the future is the one culture — for better or worse — we will all inevitably share and all help to make. We are, each of us, brothers and sisters in the tribe of tomorrow.
The inability of today’s liberal elite to differentiate between those too slow to change and too rigid to change, those whose prejudice stems from cultural ignorance and those permanently perverted by cruelty, and the difference between knowledge undiscovered and knowledge willfully ignored, has helped complicate our ethnic problems.
Let’s go to a time and place so distant that no one knows when or where it was, a time and place whose importance is as infinite as its obscurity. The moment we are seeking is the one during which a single individual, or a small group of individuals, did something so unusual that it helped free their ilk forever from the shackles of the environment and genetics — grabbing destiny from the tree of nature and making it human. This extraordinary coup against the unknown was the simple taming of fire, the stealing of light and heat from a cryptic, tyrannical universe, transforming it into a matter of personal choice. No subsequent human event would be more important yet the names and descriptions of the suspects are still unknown.
On the first day of my freshman anthropology class, the professor drew an invisible evolutionary time line on the wall of the lecture hall. As we twisted in our seats the eras, periods, and epochs of musical name and mystical significance boldly circumscribed the room. Finally we came back to where the professor stood and when there was nearly no place further to go, he announced that this was the beginnings of us. We were only inches from the first fire maker.
The existential spirit, its willingness to struggle in the dark to serve truth rather than power, to seek the hat trick of integrity, passion and rebellion, is peculiarly suited to our times. We need no more town meetings, no more expertise, no more public interest activists playing technocratic chess with government bureaucrats, no more changes in paragraph 324B of an ineffectual law, no more talking heads. We need to think the unthinkable even when the possible is undoable, the ideal is unimaginable, when power overwhelms truth, when compulsion replaces choice. We need to lift our eyes from the bottom line unto the hills, from the screen to the sky, from the adjacent to the hazy horizon.
All expertise is filtered through the prejudices, beliefs, culture and presumptions of those who possess it. For example, one reason it is so difficult to get economic policies that benefit ordinary people is because ordinary people can’t afford to hire an economist. Corporations and governments can.
Facebook is the anti-Internet. It is a gated community designed to protect its residents from the incredible variety of the real Internet. Its guard house is there not to block undesired people, but unwanted information. In the early days, people had to use corporate sites such as AOL to tap into the Internet. Of course, these sites controlled what you could see or visit. Then came the free and open web and a huge increase in the information available to the average viewer. Facebook is an attempt to revive corporate control of the Internet by fooling people into thinking they can get all they want from its links. Of course, one of the prices you pay for this is that a guy named Zuckenberg gets to decide what you see..
Why is it safer to say “fuck” than to say “fascism?” One of the curiosities of post-cold-war rhetoric is that we no longer have a term for those who practice ideologies antithetical to democracy. One American politician once put it this way: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.” Would such a radical be allowed on Sunday morning talk shows today? Probably not, even though his name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Orwell understood fascism. One of the characteristics of his inner party, the ten percent who controlled the rest, was that there was no sexual or racial discrimination. He understood that ethnic eradication, while characteristic of nazism, was not required for fascism. Even earlier, Aldous Huxley set up a similar non-discriminatory dystopia in Brave New World. In fact, one of the characteristics of the modern propaganda state is the use of ethnic and sexual iconography to cover its tracks. Thus Richard Nixon was slurring Jews in Oval Office conversations even as he set a new record in their high-level appointments. And W.J. Clinton was called our first black president by Toni Morrison even as the government was sending young black males to prison in unprecedented numbers.
Facts have became obsolete. They are at best a filler between arguments on TV about what really matters — perception and image. Facts are background noise at a news conference, multi-colored jimmies on scoops of policy and just plain annoying in private conversation.
What this country needs is more people of faith: faith in the Constitution, in democracy, in fairness, and in common sense.
It has been wisely said that “hope don’t pay the cable,” and faith is too often just another drug, producing hallucinogenic visions of a flawless future. This is not to reject either, but rather to return them to their rightful role, that of planting seeds of possibility rather than sowing false prospects.
Psalm for the fast lane
The Lord is my mentor; I shall want it all.
He feedeth me in world-class restaurants and leadeth me beside the sparkling mineral waters.
He restoreth my house and bringeth me in the path of good access.
Yea, though I jog through the valley of the shadow of high rises I shall fear no viable competition; thy clout and thy bottom line shall comfort me.
He shall prepare a game plan against mine enemies, and shall bloweth dry my head and my Volvo shall runneth over to Bloomingdales.
Surely perks and power lunches shall follow me all the days of my life and 1 shall dwell in an upscale neighborhood forever and ever.
For thine is the power and the glory –
But not for long, sucker. I’m right behind you.
Making some people afraid of other people is one of the best ways to control all of them.
While the reach of modern media should make us all more cosmopolitan, it often doesn’t work like that. This is in part because of what we choose to watch and in part because what is chosen for us to see. TV’s typical view of the outside world is of a place rife with danger. Talk shows and programs like Cops can make it feel like you’re under siege. CNN constantly scans the world for new battlegrounds. Before television, you got most of the bad news from your own town and neighborhood. Now you can get bad news from any part of the globe, any time of day or night. It’s hard not to worry.
They called my generation the “silent” one, the one America skipped in moving from George Bush to Bill Clinton. Maybe some of us were quiet because we were trying to figure out how to avoid becoming the man in the gray flannel suit or part of the lonely crowd. The struggle, we thought, was about individuality and no one spoke of movements. Our cultural heroes didn’t organize anything. They hit the road. Our goal wasn’t to overthrow the establishment, someone would say a decade later, but to make it irrelevant. Or, like Miles Davis in concert, play with your back to it. In the 1960s, when we were in our 30s, we were told that we already were too old to be trusted. It wasn’t really true; in many ways the 60s was just the mass movement of something that had started in the 50s with our coffee houses, music and conscious political apathy. We were the warmup band for the 1960s.
Some of us made Humphrey Bogart an anti-hero in part, I think, because we already suspected that America was our own Casablanca, a place of seductive illusions and baroque deceptions, where nothing was at it appeared. After all, we had been taught that if we crawled under our desks, we would be safe from The Bomb. Even our teachers lied to us. Bogie knew how to live in a time of lies.
Unlike today’s activists we lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s we lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters. Although the Beats are frequently parodied for their dress, sartorial nonconformity was actually more a matter of indifference rather than, as in the case of some of the more recently alienated, conscious style. They even wore ties from time to time. Cool resided in a nonchalant, negligent non-conformity rather than in a considered counter style and counter symbolism.To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the Beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.
The silence may only be the sound of something getting ready to happen.
I would like to apologize on behalf of my generation. 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. To be sure, when we were young we were, as we said then, somethin’ else. We launched the civil rights, women’s, gay, and environmental movements, not to mention creating some memorable music before descending into disco. Soon other things started to go downhill rapidly. We became not only the generation that invented the phrase, ‘never trust anyone over thirty,’ we proved it.
First American Republic
The collapse of the First American Republic has been due in part to four major factors:
– Margaret Thatcher, personal brain coach to Ronald Reagan, who started America’s disintegration. Reagan wasn’t bright enough to do it without her.
– The Harvard Business School, which taught its students that you didn’t have to know anything about what you were managing and which turned the once ridiculed Organization Man into a sex symbol.
– The Yale Law School which produced such decadent figures as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas.
– The Kennedy School of Government which has allowed the Harvard faculty to foul up American domestic politics much as it did our foreign policy during the Vietnam era.
The mechanism is a subtle one, Our academic institutions serve as a sort of covert Jonestown where potentially rebellious activists are enticed by grants in order to drink intellectual Kool-Aid and never again truly threaten the establishment.
I believe in a modified version of the end-of-history theory, namely that most good combinations of foods have already been discovered. Thus ordering mahi-mahi baked in blueberry jam with a sawdust glaze is probably not a good idea.
We are clearly in a post-constitutional era; the end of the First American Republic. Depending on what day it is we think of its replacement variously – ranging from an adhocracy to proto-fascism. But one does not need to know the end of the story to know that we headed at a rapid pace away from the extraordinary principles of American democracy towards the dark hole of power with impunity.
Every time an American decides that it is too dangerous to exercise a freedom, that freedom is diminished. The first rule of staying free is to act free. The other most necessary work of anyone who wishes to be free themselves is to protect the freedom of everyone around them.
On Wall Street there are plenty of free lunches but no free markets. Generally speaking, the smaller the business the more it resembles the great myths of capitalism. If you want to find out what free enterprise is really about talk to a street vendor and not a Fortune 500 executive.
One of the reasons a free market is so hard to come by is because it has never existed.
As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world’s fourth largest belief system doesn’t exist. By one count, in number of adherents it’s behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it’s 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today’s politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation. Another count puts it in third place with Buddhism a distant 6th. Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged. The media acts as though it doesn’t exist. You’d need an exceptional lawyer to sue your employer for ridiculing your belief in it. Its adherents are repeatedly and explicitly excluded from the category of “people of faith” even though they are among the most steadfast and well-grounded in their beliefs. Finally, if one of its major figures dies, you will probably not read about it, let alone find the president, two ex-presidents and a couple of network anchors flying off for the service. So completely is this belief system excluded from our national consciousness that we do not even have a name for it. They are people who believe in secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, and rationalism. These are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science.
Mythologies – religious and secular – have often made humans better and, at times, saved them in ways that rationality simply couldn’t. They have prevented suicides, preserved families, rescued drunks, and helped others climb mountains. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether religious faith should be allowed to intrude with impunity in such secular areas as politics or science and still claim the protection of reverence and law. Once Southern Baptists, Catholics, Jews or Muslims enter the political arena, they are no more entitled to special protection or regulated rhetoric than a Democrat or a Republican.
We need both faith and doubt, myth and science, but this yin and yang can not work if only faith and myth are allowed to sing in public places. We need to celebrate not just Christmas and Hanukah but the daily faith of the Seventh Day Agnostic and of the free thinker. The existentialist needs to be treated as respectfully as the evangelical, the skeptic as well as the fundamentalist. And we need to hear the wise words of secular philosophers as well as those of Jesus Christ. Before unexamined religious faith causes more death and misery we should at least allow doubt, logic, and secular solutions to sit at the table and raise their voice.
A thank you to the much maligned French. They helped us win our best war – the Revolution – and tried mightily to keep us out of two of our worst – Vietnam and Iraq.
We may not have an awful lot of time left. The cynical cruelties of those who lead us are not subsiding. The media has failed us, much of the church remains silent, and the intelligentsia willingly conspires with those in power. In such a time we must find allies not only among ourselves but among strangers, in unlikely ways and in unlikely places. And above all, we must each in our own way avoid the surrender of silence.
How we move from values to action and thence to influence is hard to conceive, but it may help to remember that each honest heart is a political organization in waiting. If it remains silent out of fear, lethargy, or embarrassment, it becomes another locked-up vote for the status quo. All over this country people are being abused by those in power. Their stories must be told and those who tell them must say that these stories are bad stories, even if this is the only power they possess. Movements are, at their core, just people discovering that they think the same thing and finally getting the courage to say it and do something together.
If we accept the apparently inevitable – that is, the future as marketed to us by the media and our leaders — than we become merely the audience for our own demise. Our society today teaches us in so many ways that matters are preordained: you can’t have a pay raise because it will cause inflation, you are entitled to run the country because you went to Yale, you are shiftless because you are poor; there is nothing you can do to change what you see on TV. Campaign finance reform is hopeless. You may not act in a moral fashion because you will look foolish; you may not take action because you might offend someone; and you may not govern — you may only balance the budget. . .
And what if we follow this advice and these messages? If you and I do nothing, say nothing, risk nothing, then current trends will probably continue in which case we can expect over the next decade or so: More corruption, a wealthier and more isolated upper class, more homelessness, increased militarization, a growth in censorship, less privacy, further loss of constitutional protections, a decline in the standard of living, fewer corporations owning more media, greatly increased traffic jams, more waits for services and entertainment, more illness from toxic chemicals, more influence by drug lords, more climatic instability, fewer beaches, more violence, more segregation, more propaganda, less responsive government, less power for legislatures, more for bureaucrats, less truth, less space, less democracy, less happiness. . . .
But what if, on the other hand, we recognize that the future of our society and our planet will in large part simply represent the aggregate of human choices made between now and then? Then we can stop being passive spectators and become actors — even more, we start to rewrite the play. We can become the hope we are looking for.
We are not strong enough to be our own hope, you say. Then tell me how often has positive social or political change ever come about thanks to the beneficence, wisdom and imagination of those in power. Now tell me when it has come about thanks to the persistence of small, committed, weak groups of people willing to fail over long periods of time until that rare, wonderful moment when the dam of oppression, obstinacy and obtuseness finally cracks and those in power finally accept what the people have been saying all along.
The key to both a better future and our own continuous faith in one is the constant, conscious exercise of choice even in the face of absurdity, uncertainty and daunting odds. We are constantly led, coaxed and ordered away from such a practice. We are taught to respect power rather than conscience, the grand rather than the good, the acquisition rather than the discovery. The green glasses rather than our own unimpeded vision. Oz rather than Kansas.
Any effort on behalf of human or ecological justice and wisdom demands real courage rather than false optimism, and responsibility even in times of utter madness, even in times when decadence outpolls decency, even in times when responsibility itself is ridiculed as the archaic behavior of the weak and naive.
There is far more to this than personal witness. In fact, it is when we learn to share our witness with others — in politics, in music, in rebellion, in conversation, in love — that what starts as singular testimony can end in mass transformation. Here then is the real possibility: that we are building something important even if it remains invisible to us. And here then is the real story: that even without the hope that such a thing is really happening there is nothing better for us to do than to act as if it is — or could be.
Here is an approach of no excuses, no spectators, with plenty of doubt, plenty of questions, plenty of dissatisfaction. But ultimately a philosophy of peace and even joy because we will have thrown every inch and ounce of our being into what we are meant to be doing which is to decide what we are meant to be doing. And then to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth doing it.
If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry a gay.
With writing, the standard for politicians should be at least as high as that for college freshmen. If the latter were to pay someone to write their papers, the full weight of academia would come crashing down upon them. At the higher levels of society, however, such behavior is considered normal and even admirable. At the very least, politicians should be required to list the names of their ghostwriters on the ballot and to resign from public office should their scribes decide to change clients.
What corporate America has wanted was nothing less than the Third Worlding of the US, a collapse of both present reality and future expectations. The closer the life and wages of our citizens could come to those of less developed nations, the happier the huge stateless multinationals would be. Then, as they said in the boardrooms and at the White House, the global playing field would be leveled.
And so the greatest surrender of sovereignty in US history was chalked up as an inevitable result of a better world. A country which had defeated in turn the British, the Mexicans, the Confederacy, the Spanish, the Germans (twice), the Japanese, and outlived the Soviet Union, had surrendered without a whimper to a junta of trade technocrats armed with nothing more menacing than cell phones and Blackberries.
Once having capitulated on economic matters, Americans would be taught to accept a similar diminution of social programs, civil liberties, democracy, and even some of the most basic governmental services. Free of being the agent of our collective will, government could then concentrate on the real business of a corporatist state, such as reinforcing the military, subsidizing selected industry, and strengthening police control over what would inevitably be an increasingly alienated and fractured electorate. We would be taught to deny ourselves progress and to blame others for our loss.
The title of my speech is “The Future Lies Ahead.” This pretty much sums up what people are meant to say at graduations, so I thought I would take care of it in the title and move on to some other business. It has always seemed to me that graduation was a little late to be giving advice
A Washington synonym for mental ponderousness and verbal obesity.
There is one way to deal with guerrilla warfare and that is to resolve the problems that allow it to thrive. The trick is to undermine the violence of the most bitter by dealing honestly with the problems of the most rational.
Whatever intelligence I possessed did not seem the sort required to excel at Harvard. Long afterwards I would figure out that much of what Harvard was about was a giant game of categories, in which real people, real events and real phenomena were assigned to fictitious groupings such as the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the Freudian Tradition. If you were brazen enough to examine evidence with as few paradigms and as many questions as possible — in short to use one’s innate capacity to imagine, to dream and to speculate — you risked being regarded as ignorant, or at least odd. In Harvard’s cataloging system, the accidental, the chaotic, the imagined, the malevolent, the culturally unfamiliar, and the unique often got misplaced. Education was something one received, rehearsed, and regurgitated. You didn’t play with it, experiment with it, and you certainly didn’t make it your own.
I had come to Harvard full of passion for phenomena I could see, feel and touch; now it was implicitly suggested that these were childish things to be put away. The educated man concerned himself primarily with what they meant, with which other phenomena they belonged, and what theories could best explain their existence in the first place. I didn’t want to spend my life putting things into little boxes; I wanted to take them out, turn them over, examine them closely, do something with them, and tell others what I had found. If you were brazen enough to think inductively, that is to say to examine evidence and consider what it might all mean — in short to use one’s innate capacity to imagine, to dream and to create — you risked being regarded ignorant, or at least odd. You were, after all, being educated to digest grand principles, major paradigms and random certainties and then to sort and file all of life’s phenomena by these convenient categories.
In such a cataloging system, the accidental, the chaotic, the imagined, the malevolent, the culturally unfamiliar, and the unique often got misplaced. I had come to Harvard with some vague notion that it would teach me how to use my own intelligence better, that I would learn how to educate myself. I didn’t understand then, and wouldn’t until many decades later, that the American establishment wasn’t really all that interested in that sort of thing. From the intellectual epicenter of Cambridge to the political apex of Washington, education was something one received, rehearsed, and regurgitated. You didn’t play with it, experiment with it, and you certainly didn’t make it your own — even if, like the shape of Harvard Square, it turned out not to be as officially described. Life at Harvard was thus several steps removed from life as I knew and hoped it to be. It seemed more like conversations with upper class Philadelphians to whom anecdotes were valued not for themselves but for their references to familiar persons or places. A bad story about a Biddle or Northeast Harbor was preferable to a good one about some person or place they did not know. At Harvard, of course, it wasn’t Biddles and Northeast Harbor, but rather Hume and the Hegelian dialectic. . .
On the gate I first entered upon arriving at Harvard Yard, there was that inscription which read: “Enter to Grow in Wisdom.” As you leave the Yard through the same gate there is a different inscription on the other side. It reads: “Depart Better to Serve thy Country and thy Kind.” No one can doubt Harvard has served its kind to the fullest. And that is why, I came to believe, it is really there.
Heroism is considered in America a lifetime pass to patriotism even though, as Joseph Conrad noted, the hero and the coward are those who, for one brief moment, do something out of the ordinary. At least the heroes we honor, that is. The career firefighter, the inner city grandmother raising six grandchildren whose father is in jail and mother has a lousy job, or the teacher year after year helping to save those who society has preemptively discarded are not treated as sacred, as heroes, or as worthy of special honor during political campaigns and or on the evening news. But killing some Iraqis or Bin Laden, or being killed by them, now that’s the real thing. Further, the myth grants tenure to the heroism of one moment while a different sort of bravery is stunningly absent from our honor, which is to say that marked by lives of steady, constantly reiterated courage and integrity.
Hipness has become a fashion statement – a consumer selection carefully synchronized with corporate intent rather than outward evidence of a state of mind free of the corporatized state.
For nearly all of human history, the dilemmas that cause people to write books, visit psychiatrists, or take philosophy courses in college, were largely moot. Certainly in the west, the idea that humans could have significant control over the definition of their own morality gained popularity only a few centuries ago, spurred by the spread of the Enlightenment and other subversive ideas. With it, humans were no longer depraved, unworthy applicants for post-mortal celestial immigration. With it, they could have virtue, knowledge, power, and possibility, all within their present existence. And with it came choices and the responsibility to make them.
We live in an era not without ideas and a sense of history but what ideas and what history. It’s as if the worst of the past had been resyndicated and put on Channel 20, with none of the other stations working. We draw from the economics of Morgan, Mellon and the British East India Company, the morality of Comstock, the civil liberties of Palmer and McCarthy, the civil rights of Tara, the lifestyle of Babbitt and Gatsby, the religion of Gantry, the political ethics of Teapot Dome, the business ethics of Ponzi, the gentleness of Nietzsche, the altruism of Ayn Rand, the ecological sensitivity of General Sherman, the spiritualism of Warren Gameliel Harding, the imagination of Rutherford Hayes, the brilliance of Franklin Pierce, the expressiveness of Calvin Coolidge and the evolutionary theories of William Jennings Bryan.
Social historians are really just covert anthropologists – filling in the tiny gap between archeology and ethnography.
The past is like the first chapters of a book. They don’t reveal the ending but they sure give some clues
The past is the present and future of another time
Here is the part of the Holocaust that is most frequently denied. Not that millions were slaughtered but that those who did the deed might under certain conditions be either you or I. And we would do it, as Adolph Eichmann suggested, simply by finding the right words for it, what he called ‘office talk.’ It is this unrecognized, undiscussed denial, especially at moments of solemn observance, that most frightens me. And our recovery does not lie in still more talk, ceremonies, and professions of horror. It lies instead in the study, honor, and practice of the good and the decent.
If you watch good people closely, their good comes as naturally as evil came to Eichmann. It does not have to be propped up with memories of great wrongs; it is just the everyday unconscious behavior of those graced with honor: the banality of decency.
We need a museum of the good, curricula in decency studies, and practice in its skills and rhythms. We need peace experts instead of military experts on Fox and MSNBC. We need mediators instead of just lawyers on Court TV. We need movies, heroes, and moving stories that win Academy Awards with models for our children that lead them to the contentment of cooperation and fairness rather than to brutal examples drawn from the play-by-play of violence and wrong that appears with every other click of the zapper.
The frightening thing about Auschwitz is not that some would deny it but how real it still seems. The frightening thing about Auschwitz is that our leaders go to honor it while still denying Guantanamo and Al Graib and Palestine. We will know that we have finally learned the Holocaust’s lessons when we no longer hear new echoes of it.
The amount of homeland security we actually need is inversely related to how good our foreign policy is.
The problem is that hope is not audacious at all. Audacious would be doing something now, audacious would be taking a personal political risk because the country needs it, audacious would be saying something unconventional because the conventional is killing us. Audacity is not turning one’s back on present needs and praying that the future will straighten it all out.
The opposite of hope is not despair, but action.
The humanities like to ask questions without providing answers while politics tends to provide answers without asking questions.
So what’s a humanities? I can’t really give you one answer. But I can give you several. It’s asking why before we say yes. It’s remembering something someone wrote two centuries ago when we can’t remember what we wrote yesterday. It’s mistakes we don’t have to make because they’ve already been made and solutions we don’t have to dream up because someone has already thought of them. It’s how we got where we are and where we might go from here. It’s things we can’t measure yet know have depth and breadth. It’s parts of our culture we might lose like the Indian tribe writing its language down and putting it in a book. It’s parts of our culture that we’re often slow to recognize as such, like the legislature in Georgia finally making “Georgia on My Mind” the state song and inviting Ray Charles to come down and sing it. It’s the moral, philosophical, and historical issues hidden behind the political babble. It’s rights and beliefs and their protection. It’s preserving the past and the future as well as exploiting today. It’s thinking as well as talking, questioning as well as answering. And it’s placing human values and culture at the center of our world and making machines and technology and Channel Seven serve us rather than the other way around.
The more high placed is the person to whom one introduces a new idea, the more likely this individual is to be uncomfortable, dismissive, or suddenly in need of another drink. Unchallenged myopia is one of the most cherished privileges of power.
Every immigrant is another saga of cultural insurrection, a tribute to the enduring human capacity for individual choice.
There is a conspiracy of excess that develops at inauguration time. The president, the media and the public all join in the charade, not unlike youths drawn to mischief that will ultimately result in punishment but seems too much fun to miss. A political situation that months earlier had been seen possibly headed for a constitutional crisis is transformed by January into a mandate, a Mardi Gras, a “season of renewal,” the beginning of the best 100 days ever and one of those rare moments when a poet is actually allowed on national TV.
Why do so many of the people who talk about “intellectual property” seem not all that bright? On precisely what date and under what circumstances did an advertising jingle for a new type of tampon become intellectual property? When I was writing one of my books, I had to write for permissions. When I asked for permission to quote Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” the venerable Ludlow Music Co. took care of the matter in a page and a half. When I wanted to quote from a book, the venerable University of Chicago Press worked its way through the problem in one long page. When I wanted to quote eight words from a Mac Davis song, however, I got a letter from some big LA law firm wanting a synopsis of the book, a copy of the chapter of the book in which it would be quoted, as well as all future earnings of my first-bom son. I decided to write my own intellectual property.
The appointment of an intelligence czar is about as futile as it naming a secretary of decency. Attempting to solve real problems by bureaucratic reorganization is simply a more costly way of not dealing with them. The administration will continue to lack both intelligence and decency regardless of who is purportedly in charge of them.
Integrity is not just honesty but a quality in which all the parts fit together. Watertight integrity on a ship, for example, means that the bulkheads are not three feet thick in one place and rusted out elsewhere. Today those at the top often undervalue completeness, consistency, reliability – preferring the momentary impact, the single-minded pursuit, the exceptional event.
I have been a radio reporter; have edited newspapers and newsletters; have written for local, national and foreign readers; have had articles in more than two dozen publications. And then I took to the Internet. Nothing has made me feel closer to the guardian angels of journalism and more a honest part of the free press than this latter adventure, while nothing has made me feel more distant from those who haughtily claim custody of journalism’s holy grail even as they dishonor its most hallowed traditions. Anyway, in the end, there is only one journalism credential that really counts: telling good and true stories well.
Irony used to be a weapon used against the powerful. Today it is increasingly used by the powerful to demean the weak.
The policy of the Israeli government is clearly distinguishable from the theology of Judaism to all but a small yet powerful and noisy crowd including neo-conservatives, cable TV anchors and semantic bomb throwers. Israeli policy reflects Judaism about as well as the Republican right reflects Christianity.
Our policy towards Palestine, based on polling, is one of the major issues dividing us from the Muslim world. This policy helped lead to the World Trade Center attack and the international disasters that have occurred since. It has also made Israel less safe. We can not solve our current crises nor end our manic fears of the Muslim world without changing our policies towards Palestine and the Middle East.
If what goes on in the synagogue doesn’t stay in the synagogue than it can not be expected to be treated as though it were still there. In other words, if you’re going to ask American taxpayers to subsidize Israel and back its policies, the matter should be handled no differently than building a B2 bomber or putting a federal agency’s office in some congress member’s district. If you want to play by religion’s rules, act like a religion. Otherwise, the rules of politics govern. And anyone who calls that anti-Semitic is either a cry baby or a scoundrel.
Just because you’re pro-Israel doesn’t mean you have to be anti-Islam. The present crisis stems in no small part from conflating the two. American policy has been anti-Islam or cynically manipulative of Islamic states for decades. No policy of ours has been more wrong-headed.
If there is another disaster such as the World Trade Center, it will also be in no small part due to our policies in the Middle East including those toward Palestine. No issue has done more damage to America and none continues to cause a greater threat.
The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one. The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both.
I grew up with the deep and abiding belief that there were three branches of Judaism: your Reform, your Orthodox, and your Liberal Democratic. Of these three, the last was clearly the most important.
The principle of jury rights involves the power to say no to the excesses of government, and thus serves as a final defense against tyranny.
Speak United States. This rule, taught me by my high school math teacher, Mr. Breininger, was the best literary advice I ever got.
In Washington these days, morality is defined not by philosophy or principles but by restrictive words written by lawyers and ambiguous phrases concocted by public relations experts. Politicians, their academic groupies in the think tanks, and the media accept these words and phrases with little question. Thus justice becomes not a matter of broad decency but of narrow definition and indefinable euphemism.
The technology of torts, with its tyranny of precedents and its infatuation with retribution over resolution, has, in the words of the country & western song, walked across our heart like it was Texas. No politics, no ideology, no culture has been immune. All of American life has been hauled into court. Thus we find in our path not only the endless droppings of corporate attorneys, but civil rights advocates who insist that the law will lead us to love each other, feminist counselors who believe that the world’s oldest conflict can be settled on appeal, colleges that publish what amounts to a lawyer’s guide to correct sex, and public interest activists trying to run a revolution out of the courthouse.
Obviously the law has had a crucial role in such matters as civil rights and bringing the megacorporation to heel. But such achievements hardly justify an exclusive contract to direct the course of social change. If today’s lawyer-leaders had come to the fore thirty years ago, the 60s would have been just a lawsuit, not a cultural and political revolution. There would have been no music, no madness, no drama, and without them, probably not much change as well.
Laws should be handled like prescription drugs, but many of our politicians think of them as being more like popcorn or M&Ms — something to munch on. This is unfortunate since much of America’s success to date can be traced to one simple rule: don’t make too many rules. Much of America’s failure to date has come from ignoring this rule.
Whatever the source, it now takes longer, requires more paper, and stirs up more intimations of liability to do almost anything worthwhile than it once did. While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like “entrepreneurship” and “risk-taking,” the average enterprise of any magnitude is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance. We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time and space, they might implode into us. Every law office is a testament to our fear and lack of trust.
The three institutions that most endanger the preservation of any culture are Wal-Mart, TV and law school.
I like to go down to the zoo
And there I sit and watch gnu
Yet lately it has seem to me
The gnu has started watching me.
For hours we just share a stare
A happy, unproductive pair
Stll its the GNU for me.
Let others boost the GNP.
One way you can tell liberals and conservatives apart is with a stop-watch. A liberal thinks someone should be thrown off welfare after three years while a conservative says two. A liberal thinks a drug offender should spend 17 years rather than 35 years in prison.
Neo-liberal: Someone who thinks the Constitution’s commerce clause is more important to defend and expand than the 1st or 4th Amendments. –
Future historians seeking to discover why America so easily surrendered its democratic traditions and constitutional government will find plenty to study in the rise of a liberal aristocracy that became increasingly disinterested in such values. Like all aristocracies, it existed primarily to protect itself, had an impermeable faith in its own virtue, and held in contempt those who did not share its values or accept its hegemony.
Three reasons liberals have a hard time winning elections:
1. NPR has a program called “Marketplace” but it does not have one called “Workplace.”
2. Liberals talk more about gay marriage and abortion than they do about major social and economic issues
3. Liberals give the impression that if you want to vote Democratic you have to give up your gun and your Bible.
Liberals might attract a lot more voters if they would stop dissin’ them so much. Once you eliminate all those who smoke, are too heavy, live in the suburbs, believe in Jesus, belong to the Green Party, own a gun, or lack etiquette when discussing ethnicity, you don’t have that much to work with.
Sending a liberal to Washington these days is, in the words of the late civil rights leader Julius Hobson, like sending a eunuch to an orgy.
Liberalism has become the abused spouse of the Democratic right.
Remember that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, a good lawyer, and the right skin color.
The endless argument about who said what to whom about what demonstrates an illusion about honesty shared by all sides. America – including its politicians, media and ordinary citizens, have accepted a legal definition of honesty, to wit: if a public person can not be proved to have lied by the rules of a criminal court, he or she can’t be called dishonest and, in the case of a nominee, remains qualified for office. In other words, our standard for confirmation to high office had become no better than that for acquittal of a common thief.
But lying often has little to do with court-defined perjury. It more typically involves hyperbolic hoodwinking, unsubstantiated analogy, cynical incitement of fear, deceitful distortion, slippery untruths, gossamer falsehoods, disingenuous anecdote, artful agitprop, and the relentless repetition of all the foregoing in an atmosphere in which facts are trampled underfoot by a mendacious mob and their semantic weapons.
One does not have to analyze such language legally to understand its evil. One need only have enough understanding of the manner of the honest, the sincere and the candid to know almost instinctively when their opposite is in command..
Life is a endless pick-up game between hope and despair, understanding and doubt, crisis and resolution.
Life in America has become one big docudrama and you can’t tell what’s real and what’s make believe.
There were attempts to respond to the slaying of Robert Kennedy with affirmations of a will to change the old ways, but they appeared hollow. The nation had watched John Kennedy die and had not changed; it had watched Martin Luther King die and had not changed. Now it watched Robert Kennedy die and even the most effervescent and optimistic among us could not summon a viable vision of a new order to lessen our brooding. . .
Recent decades have been characterized by the invasive influence of an arrogant, autistic, and amoral class of late 20th century MBAs and similar members of the technocratic elite. This class junked sixty years of social democracy, helped wreck the economy, made every American worker a temp-in-waiting, carpet bombed the English language, trashed every moral concept in their way, and twisted reality so effectively they even convinced many that they were sex objects.
And they are everywhere. You will find them running schools and universities and managing once great museums. They talk mush, think mush, market mush, report mush, and defend mush. They attempt to make up in certitude what they lack in wisdom; they can’t tell the difference between a phrase and a product; and they create infantile and self-serving distortions of economic principles that they declare to be the only principles in life worth observing. They are, in the end, just so many more televangelists, but with themselves as God. Perhaps worst of all, they are without the capacity for shame. Like other sociopaths, they are remorseless.
The fraud, the huckster, the salesman are not new phenomena in America; what is new is that they now so strongly control every estate of our society. Those of a nature that would have once caused Americans to close the door, hang up, or say “no thank you,” now teach our children, run our government, and tell us what to think. They are the Enron generation, filled with postmodern version of Willy Loman: “He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’ s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”
I can usually stop an eruption of Marxist rhetoric for at least a few minutes by asking the simple question: who will run the restaurants in utopia? I find few people even on the hard left who wish to eat and drink the product of collectivism for the rest of their lives. A similar question could be asked of rapid free enterprisers: why do you ride public buses and subways?
Marxists and capitalists share an obsession with money and a taste for clichéd mantras about it. They also share a willingness to reduce the complexity of human existence to just a couple of choices.
I started out as a political reporter. Now I’m a crime reporter. The kind of of people I cover hasn’t changed, only what they do.
The media and our leaders have given us cultural Altzheimer’s and they’re not about to change their ways. As Don DeLillo put it, “History is the sum total of the things they’re not telling us.”
I have tried to help keep alive the beleaguered tradition of plain speaking and truth-seeking that I understood to be at the heart of good journalism. But in a time when much of the media prefers perceptions to facts, bullet quotes to understanding and spin over reality, such efforts are seen as eccentric at best, apostasy at worst. The proper journalist has become, wittingly or not, the accomplice of a system in which news, advertising and agitprop are hopelessly mingled and the facts fatally adulterated. Truth has little to do with it anymore. It is as if we are living in a new Middle Ages, only with the myth being driven by cable TV rather than by the church.
I believe journalists may safely interrogate, investigate, predicate, cogitate, debate, relate and even advocate, but they speculate, anticipate or prognosticate knowing that the best prediction to come of such behavior is that they may end up looking foolish. I know. I try it from time to time and it doesn’t work.
The so-called alternative weeklies , with sadly few exceptions, foster a compliant corpacool culture in which hipness is defined by one’s purchases; dissent is limited to critiques of style, activism is something you do at the gym, and politics the last refuge of the hopelessly dull.
When the faux-hip “alternative weeklies” began replacing the underground newspapers of the 1960s and 70s, they gave the impression that when the revolution started, the guerrillas would come down the mountains on Head skis listening to their Walkmen.
The journalists’ job is not to make the stew but to gather the ingredients. So don’t jump to too many conclusions about what I dump on the table. It’s only the result of today’s forage.
Today’s diuretic discourse over journalistic values largely reflects an attempt to justify the unjustifiable, namely the rapid decline of independent sources of information and the monopolization of the vaunted “market place of ideas.” In the end, the hated Internet is a far better heir of Peter Zenger, Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain than is the the typical American daily or TV channel; and H.L. Mencken would infinitely prefer a drink with Matt Drudge than with Ted Koppel.
The basic rules of good journalism in any time are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, “if you can’t be funny, be interesting.”
News is something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership
The media teaches us that life is a vicarious experience.
The trouble with MSNBC, Fox & CNN is that they can’t tell the difference between breaking news and broken news
Wouldn’t it be nice if the media covered the breakup of the republic as well as it covered the break-in of an office?
Many reporters aren’t reporters anymore; they’re just semiotic sharecroppers on some corporate plantation.
A news conference is a device by which the establishment keeps large numbers of reporters in one room to keep them from covering the news every place else.
If you want to complain about anonymous sources in journalism, is it okay to quote “leading experts” in order to bolster your case?
Why does the media always refer to people defending our civil liberties and the Constitution as “activists” or “advocates?” Wouldn’t “citizens” do just as well?
Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.
This writer proposes to serve not as an expert, but rather in the more modest and more constructive journalistic role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider me simply someone who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.
The first rule of media survival is use it; don’t let it use you. We must ignore the role the media has prescribed for us — audience, consumer, addict — and treat it much as the trout treats a stream, a medium in which to swim and not to drown. The trick is to stop the media from happening to you and to treat it literally as a medium — an environment, a carrier. Then you can cease being a consumer or a victim and become a hunter and a gatherer, foraging for signs that are good and messages that are important and data you can use. Then the zapper and the mouse become tools and weapons and not addictions. Then you turn the TV off not because it is evil but because you have gotten whatever it has to offer and now must look somewhere else.
The media is purportedly our surrogate priest, parent, and teacher, but is, in fact, gangs of burglars breaking and entering our brains and stealing time and space from us in a way not even our parents experienced. What was once extraordinary became merely unusual and finally universal as we moved from manuscript to microphone to camera and cable. With each step, context, environment, and points of reference became ever more distant and external. With each step, we became ever more dependent on things and people we would most likely never see in their unprojected, unfilmed, unrecorded nature.
Today, outlets such as C-SPAN and PBS function as karioke bars of political centrism. Far from encouraging the sort of vibrant debate our country needs, they apply a gag on democracy by limiting how one may speak about it.
Reporters became the first group in human history to dramatically improve their socio-economic status simply by writing about themselves, self-casting themselves among the very elite from whom they had once been expected to protect their audience.
Journalism has always been a craft – in rare moments- an art – but never a profession. It depends too much on the perception, skill, empathy and honesty of the practitioner rather than on the acquisition of technical knowledge and skills. The techniques of reporting can be much more easily taught than such human qualities and they can be best learned in an apprentice-like situation rather than in a classroom.
The First Amendment says nothing about objectivity, professional standards, national news councils, blind quotes, salaries, deep backgrounders, or how much publicity to give a trial. Its authors understood far better than many today that the pursuit of truth can not be codified and that circumscribing the nature of the search will limit the potential of its success. Nor can there be an institutionalization of the search for the truth; it always comes back to the will and ability of individuals.
The greatest power of the mass media is the power to ignore. The worst thing about this power is that you may not even know it’s being used.
The media has created an America it chooses to see, not the one that exists. It has denied access to its pages and its channels to voices representing the majority of Americans on key issues. And it has made us dislike each other even when on many of the critical issues that it ignores or distorts we have much in common.
Journalism has never been the art of the ideal. Its basic problem is that it attempts to perpetrate the truth, relying for financial support advertisers who have little interest in the pursuit of this goal. It’s a bit like a priest being supported by the proceeds of a whorehouse. .
Part of my love of the craft of journalism has been the simple joy of possessing the license to go wherever curiosity leads, to consider no place in the planet alien to my inquiry, to use words as a child uses little plastic blocks. Part of it has been the pleasure of deliberately learning more about something than any reasonable person would want to know..
The design of a daily newspaper is the result of – among other things – tradition, market surveys, the prejudices of the owner and the editors’ attempt to figure out what these prejudices are. It can be, by consequence, a product that nobody really wants.
Contrary to the view of many editors, most people still like finding out who, what, when, where, why and how more than hearing in the first sentence how it all affected Roberta Mellencamp, 46, of East Quincy. Try to sneak the news as near the beginning of the story as your editor will allow.
One of the traits of a good reporter is boundless curiosity. If you can pass a bulletin board without looking at it, you may be in the wrong trade.
Reporters don’t have to be smart; they just have to know how to find smart people.
I’ve never met an objective journalist because every one of them has been a human. Try going after the truth instead. It’s an easier and more fulfilling goal.
Act like a homicide detective. Follow and report the evidence but only as far as it takes you. Be prepared for lots of unsolved stories.
The most misleading myth about the Middle East is that an end to violence is a necessary precondition to peace negotiations. An end to violence should rather be one the goals of peace negotiations. Killings emphasize the need for such talks rather than serving as justification for avoiding them.
Israel is a state like all the rest.
AIPAC is just another political group like the National Rifle Association. It is not a religion but one more Washington lobby corrupting the political process and making American voters less powerful.
The policy of the Israeli government is clearly distinguishable from the theology of Judaism to all but a small yet powerful and noisy crowd including neo-conservatives, cable TV anchors and semantic bomb throwers. Israeli policy reflects Judaism about as well as George Bush reflects Christianity.
If what goes on in the synagogue doesn’t stay in the synagogue than it can not be expected to be treated as though it were still there. In other words, if you’re going to ask American taxpayers to subsidize Israel and back its policies, the matter should be handled no differently than building a B2 bomber or putting a federal agency’s office in some congress member’s district. If you want to play by religion’s rules act like a religion. Otherwise, the rules of politics govern. And anyone who calls that anti-Semitic is either a cry baby or a scoundrel.
The curable cause of the present disaster is not to be found in a cave in Afghanistan nor at a military headquarters in Palestine. Rather it is to be found in a half century of abusive American policy towards the Islamic world including a deadly, criminal embargo against Iraq; the permanent suppression of Palestinian statehood; the promotion, assassination and/or manipulation of a string of leaders against the best interests of peace and our own security; the covert employment (to our later regret) of the likes of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein; and our repeated refusal to listen to the nearly unanimous voice of the United Nations in general assembly.
The untold truth is that the post-WW2 American military hasn’t that much to be proud of. It fought to a draw in Korea, was humiliated in Vietnam, removed a drug dealer from Panama but left all his peers and all the drugs, slunk off from Somalia and was careful not to hang around too long in Haiti. And then we had the Iraq problem and Afghanistan, the longest, futile war in American history. The one place where the modern American military has been successful is right here in the US, where it has long occupied much of the budget and captured many of the politicians.
The great 20th century social movements have been successful enough to create their own old boy and girl networks, powerful enough to enter the Chevy Chase Club, and indifferent enough to ignore those left behind. The minority elites have joined the Yankee and the Southern aristocrat and the rest of God’s frozen people to form the largest, most prosperous, and most narcissistic intelligentsia in our history. But as the best and brightest drive around town in their Range Rovers, who speaks for those who, in Bill Mauldin’s phrase, remain fugitives from the law of averages?
Why do all moral values have to go into families and TV? Can’t we save a few for public policy and budgets?
Once we accept the unpleasant persistence of human prejudice, once we give up the notion that it is merely social deviance controllable by sanctions, we drift away from a priggish and puritanical corrective approach towards one that emphasizes techniques of mitigating harm and towards emphasizing countervailing human qualities that can serve as antibiotics against hate and fear. We move from being victims to being survivors. We start to deal with some of the real problems of creating a multicultural community; we actually start to envision it, to build it not on false politeness but upon realistic interdependence. Multicultural communities will be constructed not by the hustlers of the diversity trade but by a growing local and personal regard for common sense, fairness and, yes, reasonable self interest. The new multicultural community will work because it is jointly and severally proud of itself.
Why is it so hard to deal with multicultural issues while the Arab carry-out across from my office offers a “kosher hoagie?” It is, in part, because most of us are like Bismarck who said when offered German champagne that his patriotism stopped at his stomach. It is also that the ethnic restaurant offers a fair multicultural deal: a good living for one culture in return for good food for the others.
There is a tendency in the museum world these days, as elsewhere in America, to use design as a substitute for evidence, style as a substitute for reality, empty space as a substitute for substance, and abstract words as a substitute for specific knowledge. Ironically, it all costs a lot of money that could better be spent on creating the sort of alternate realities that actually draws people to such places.
As a musician with more than 50 years of gigs behind me I know that among the many services of music is to say things we can’t find the words for – perhaps not yet or perhaps not ever. As a writer with over 50 years of gigs behind me I am still often humbled by what a better job music often does of it.
One of the problems with living around powerful myths is that you can start to feel personally responsible when they don’t work out. If you don’t lose weight, have better sex, kick your phobia, earn 20% annually in the stock market, or get the job you want, there are few around to tell you that such outcomes are pretty normal. Instead, we are surrounded by hucksters of success and salvation constantly luring us towards illusory certainty. If we succumb to these chimeras of profit and prophesy, if we accept the idea that God rightly favors the successful, the economy justly favors the lucky, and society fairly favors the glamorous, it can ultimately leave us with a sense of failure for no greater fault than being a normal human being.
New world order
The new world order emanates from a mandarin class that is neither left or right. Its members often are the sort of which it has been said that when they are alone in a room, there is no one there. In such a culture the marketplace of ideas essentially shuts down. There is no longer any real politics, only deals. No victories, only leveraged buyouts. No ideology; only brand loyalty. No conservative and liberal, only Coke and Pepsi.
All non profit boards will fail totally if the one great principle of board governance is ignored: success is directly correlated to the quality of the food served. This does not necessarily mean expensive food so much as attention to detail and taste. For example, many a worthy cause has foundered on an inadequate selection of donuts. Others have assumed, quite wrongly, that because their cause was noble and pure, their provisions should be likewise. A board meeting is no time for nutritional proselytizing. Or for skimping. Above all, the cookies should be fresh and the mayonnaise plentiful. I have watched once outstanding non-profits wither into obscurity for failing to observe these simple rules.
The best boards are conspiracies of the creative and confederacies of the competent, filled with guerrillas of the good and Aquarian anarchists working for something far grander than themselves.
In recent decades we have come to speak of public interest groups as non-profits and non-governmental organizations. This is like speaking of girls as non-boys or Presbyterians as non-Catholics. And suggests where the real power remains.
Down the little snowflakes fall
Bring hazards to us all
Spreading for the years to come
Particles of strontium
Gently falling helter skelter
On each roof and every shelter
I really wouldn’t give a hoot
But three eyed kids just don’t look cute.
The most conservative Democratic president of modern times pretends promise is a product and that life is just a game of Scrabble in which the best are those who find the right word.
Obama is the sort of guy who offers to split his Swiss cheese with you and then gives you the holes, while he takes the cheese.
Based on his current policies, it is fair to say that if he had been president at the time, Obama would have appealed court decisions granting civil rights to blacks, he would have expanded the war in Vietnam, and he would have opposed the ending of prohibition.
If you watch Obama closely he seems in public to have only two moods, happy or look-how-serious-I-am-about-this, the latter being the quality that allows Washington officials – and Harvard Law grads – to convince everyone else they should invade Iraq and Vietnam or forget about global warming for the time being. The problem is that, as one journalist noted, there is a big difference between being somber and being serious. And gravitas – with which Obama overflows – seems often just a karaoke version of seriousness.
Barack Obama didn’t kill liberalism; he’s just doing a nice job of burying it. The end of liberalism as a meaningful ideology came with the nomination of Bill Clinton. The argument was – although hardly phrased so accurately – that it was far better for liberals to dump their policies and become the indentured servants of an elected Democrat than to continue to press for their beliefs and miss out on all the power and the parties.
Obama isn’t ideological. He takes the positions he does for the same reason that Willie Sutton said he robbed banks: because that’s where the money is
The little available evidence suggests that Obama would more likely be a disappointment than a disgrace. Still in the end it’s a sad choice between the venal and the vacuum. – 2008
A good way to think of Barack Obama’s second term is as a job application for his post-White House employment.
Objectivity is just another religion
Peter Ustinov says that the trouble with middle-aged people is that they’re too far away from either of the most important mysteries of life: birth and death. My father used to say that the reason that grandparents and grandchildren got on so well was because they had a common enemy. For myself, I think one of the problems with parents is that they can never decide whether you should be in the White House or in jail. They exaggerate both their expectations and their disappointments. But remember that most of this exaggeration comes from two sources; hope and love. They have higher hopes for you than anyone other than yourself and this is nice. But you know your hopes often disappoint you and that’s hard enough. It’s even harder sometimes to deal with someone else who has high hopes for you.
Love is also a two-edged blade. It provides warmth, humanity, and comfort, but it also demands and takes. Remember that Mr. Spock didn’t understand love because it wasn’t’ logical. In fact, especially with your parents, its manifestations sometimes seem to border on mental illness. Which is why, perhaps, so many people go to psychiatrists looking for love.
Adults conform just as much as teenagers do. The problem is that teenagers are asked to conform to both adult and teenager values at the same time. This can be a little confusing. But there’s something else wrong with the setup. Adults tend to regard your age as the ragged, unruly end of childhood, rather than the beginning of adulthood. Go back a couple of centuries and you’ll find 16-year olds who were captains of ships and 14 year olds who were serving as apprentices or doing a full day’s adult work on the farm.
We pledge allegiance to the republic for which America stands and not to its empire for which it is now suffering.
Peace is a state without violence, interrogations, and moats. Peace is a state of reciprocity, of trust, of empirically based confidence that no one is about to do you in. It exists not because of intrinsic goodness or rampant naiveté but because of a common, implicit understanding that that it works for everyone.
We tend to discount the importance of unplanned moments because of our fealty to the business school paradigm in which change properly occurs because of a careful strategic plan, an organized vision, procedures, and process. During the past quarter century when such ideas have been in ascendancy, however, America has demonstratively deteriorated as a political, economic, and moral force. In reality, many of the best things happen by accident and indirection. While it may be true, as Louis Pasteur said, that “chance smiles only upon well prepared minds,” part of that preparation is to be in the right place at the right time. In other words, it is necessary to create an ecology of change rather than a precise and often illusory process
We’ve got too many people in this country employed trying to prevent other people from being bad and not enough people employed helping other people to be good.
One of the problems with insiders is that they don’t go outside enough.
The voters think they are being asked to choose between leaders. In fact they are selecting their battlefield.
The 2008 election was a hat trick of infidelity. One candidate’s husband had cheated on her. Another candidate was found to be cheating on his wife. And the winner began cheating on his strongest supporters as soon as he was in office.
I had stumbled upon the outlines of a new American political fault line. It was so new that it lacked a name, stereotypes, cliches, experts and prophets. In many ways it seemed more a refugee camp than a voluntary assembly, yet, as I thought about it, the more its logic seemed only concealed rather than lacking. On one side were libertarians, blacks, greens, populists, free thinkers, the alienated apathetic, the rural abandoned, the apolitical young, as well as others convinced America was losing its democracy, its sovereignty and its decency. On the other side was a technocratic, media, legal, business and cultural elite centered in New York and Washington. At times it felt as if all of America outside of these two centers had turned into a gigantic, chaotic salon des refusés. – 1990s
The political scene can be fairly divided into three camps: the hustlers, the apathetic and the defeated
Politics used to be about remembrance. The best politicians were those who remembered and were remembered the most — the most people, the littlest favors, the smallest slights, the best anecdotes tying one’s politics to the common memory of the constituency. Politics was also about gratitude. Politicians were always thanking people, “without whom” whatever under discussion could not have happened. You not only thanked those in the room — as many as possible by name — you even thanked those without — for “having prepared the wonderful meal which we have just partaken of.” The politician was the creation of others, and never failed to mention it. Above all, politics was about relationships. The politician grew organically out of a constituency and remained rooted to it as long as incumbency lasted. Today, we increasingly elect people about whom we have little to remember, to whom we owe no gratitude and with whom we have no relationship except that formed during the great carnie show we call a campaign.
Reform breeds its own hubris and so few noticed that as we destroyed the evils of machine politics we also were breaking the links between politics and the individual, politics and community, politics and social life. We were beginning to segregate politics from ourselves.
The world of machine politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King It was not the product of spin doctors, campaign hired guns or phony town meetings. It welled up from the bottom. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.
Sure, it was corrupt. But we don’t have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-Contra or the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for the needy or, in the words of one Tammany leader, “grafted to the Republic” no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammny’s brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return.
Politics is the sound of the air coming out of the balloon of our expectations and it is the music of hope. Politics is laundry lists and dirty laundry, new hospitals and old hates, finding out what others think about it, and the willing suspension of our closest beliefs in order to get through the next month or year. It is, suggested one writer, a matter of who gets what, when, where, and how. Not least, as Paul Begala says, “it is show business for ugly people,” a theater in which each voter and candidate writes a different morality play. In the end, the only test of political faith is when it is put to work. It is a test that is graded on a curve — not by its proximity to perfection but by its improvement over all previous, adjacent and potential imperfections. Vaclav Havel says that “It is not true that a person of principle does not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion, and an understanding of others.” This is the part of politics that doesn’t appear in any platform. Done badly, it becomes demagoguery and manipulation. Done well it makes every voter a part of the office the politician holds. It is a standard to which every person in office, including our presidents, can be held.
We have to move towards a politics that offers not a choice between left and right but between corporatism and democracy, not between big government and big business but between overbearing institutions and supportive communities, not between winning and losing but between power and sharing, and not between oppression and anarchy but between the force of the state and the good sense of its citizens.
If you’re going to be serious about politics — the way a race track aficionado is serious about horses — then the first thing you got to figure out is what’s fact and what’s fluff, what you can believe and what you can’t. Fantasies are for sex, not politics. And democracies fail not because of excessive skepticism about their leaders, but rather due to a mass illusion that everything is going to be all right.
GK Chesterton the British liberal and populist, argued that the only place a practical politician could start was with the ideal. Any other commencement of the political journey invites the creation of illogical and unsatisfactory remedies. The ideal provides a constant and necessary navigational marker from which one can compute a compromise’s true cost in distance and time. Without such a marker, a purposeful trip becomes mere random motion. In politics, this can — over the years — produce directionless compromises lumped upon each other leaving us finally, with a system that nobody wanted.
We live now with dishonest politics, disinformed and disinforming media, disconnected cultures, disjointed economics, dysfunctional communities and disrespected citizens. To attempt to repair such conditions without a morally conscious politics makes as much sense as trying to revive a body without a heart. This is not romanticism, idealism or naivete, just basic political anatomy. That we have come to accept a politics that offers no choice save between our acquisition of abusive power or our submission to it speaks only to the depths of our delusion; it says nothing about that which is possible.
We can, as those in charge would like, continue to define ourselves primarily by neatly described identities — either natural or acquired. We can remain interminably and ineffectually absorbed and angry about the particulars of infinite special injustices. Or we can ask what is it that makes our society seem so unfair to so many who are so different? If the young black in Watts and the militia member in Montana and the mother of six in Dorchester share untended miseries, might not those miseries share some common origins? Can we find universal stories in particular pain? If we can, it is the beginning of true change.
For many years now, the Republican right has engaged in a politics of cultural bullying that is the direct descendent of the southern segregationists. It is based on anathematizing a minority in order to solidify its own political base around false assumptions of purity and superiority. It is an illusion that deceives much of its own constituency into thinking that ultimately minor cultural differences are more important than such issues as economics, healthcare or public education. Thus it is not only mean, it is masochistic. One minority ends up being hurt by another that is being conned and hurt in other ways.
There is a lusty tradition in American politics of citizens of disparate sorts, places, and status coming together to put power back in its proper place. At such times, the divides of politics, the divisions of class, the contrasts of experience fade long enough to reassert the primacy of the individual over the state, democracy over oligopoly, fairness over exploitation, and community over institution. This could be such a time if we are willing to risk it, and one of the soundest way to start is to trade a few old shibboleths for a few new friends.
The system that envelops us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis — “like being dead and not knowing it.” The unwitting dead — universities, newspapers, publishing houses, institutes, councils, foundations, churches, political parties — reach out from the past to rule us with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most ecologically destructive century of human existence. What should be merely portraits on the wall of our memories run our lives still, like parents who retain perpetual hegemony over the souls of their children.
At root, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign.
To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the zero tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an overwhelming sense of surrender; far easier to just keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.
Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.
It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel — the courage to emigrate from one’s own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier
We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers. Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.
It is a lifetime’s work to clear away enough debris of fraudulent divinities, false premises, and fatuous fantasies to experience a glasnost of the soul, to strip away enough lies that have been painted on our minds, layer after layer, year after year, until we come to the bare walls of our being. Still, it is this exercise, however Sisyphian, that helps mightily to keep us human. Inevitably such an effort initially produces not beauty or satisfaction, but merely a surface upon which we can work our will should we so choose, a barren facade empty of meaning, devoid of purpose, without rules or even clues to lead us forward. We stand before the wall as empty as it is.
Even the best politics are a pretty poor substitute for life and the worst politics compound their felony by forcing us to leave the front stoop to do something about them. Our quarrel with the abuse of power should be not only be that it is cruel and stupid but that it takes so much time way from other things — like loving and being loved, and music, and a good meal and the sunset of a gentle day. In a nation ablaze with struggles for power, we are too often forced to choose between being a co-conspirator in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. And, too often, as we immerse ourselves in the terrible relevance of our times, beauty and happiness seem to drift away.
We got rid machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.
More and more, living in America seems like living up in a badly dysfunctional family. I sometimes imagine the Republicans as being a collective version of an alcoholic, abusive husband and father while the Democrats are the battered but completely submissive spouse. And the rest of us are the mistreated, powerless kids. But as some in such situations learn, one is not powerless. You are weak but not helpless. You have to find ways to build a new rational reality, something that can happen even in the midst of madness. Neither one’s father nor mother – not Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama – will help with you with this. Your condition is not your fault, but your response is up to you.
A good place to start is with the fact that dysfunction is not normal. Test it out. Count in your own community the percent of people as dishonest and irrational as many of our leading politicians and other establishment figures. Yes, they’re there, but typically they’re in jail, on probation or in therapy. They are not dominating the whole culture. Or read some history and be reminded how rare and frightening is our establishment.
So here we are with only a handful of national figures making much sense or even trying to. We have a major media that has largely lost its ability to think independently of this elite. And we live in a time in which everyone’s visual and auditory space is overwhelmingly filled with images that are either commercial or political fantasy and largely unrelated to the lives we actually live each day. The diaspora of dysfunction has swept over our lives. And nobody can change it but us.
I recently drove from Chicago’s O’Hare airport towards the city at 230 pm on a Friday afternoon. It took one hour to cover eleven miles. On Saturday morning I found myself in a similar jam on a five lane freeway. It occurred to me that it’s not peak oil we need to worry about so much as it is peak us.
More than any other political philosophy, populism offers the potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It brings right and left libertarians together against the totalitarianism of the American middle. It creates common ground for whites and blacks to stand upon as they fight their common predator. It emphasizes the issue that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.
IN THE postmodern society — one that supposedly rises above the false teachings of ideology — we find ourselves with little to steer us save the opinions of whatever non-ideologue happens to be in power. Thus we may really only have progressed from the ideology of the many to the ideology of the one or, some might say, from democracy to authoritarianism. Among equals, indifference to shared meaning might produce nothing worse than lengthy argument. But when the postmodernist is President of the United States, the impulse becomes a 500-pound gorilla to be fed, as they say, anything it wants.
If you’re seeking progress, all presidents are the opposition. You’re just fighting different kinds of battles
We need a movement to preserve and celebrate our communities and cultures as well as we have come to honor our history and natural environment.
A real simple rule on privatization: Ask the following question: Is this something about which citizens should have a say? If the answer is yes, don’t privatize.
You meet alot of process people in Washington. They’re like vehicles without a drive belt. They make a lot of noise; they just can’t go anywhere. Getting things done is now a radical act. Then there are the virtual people. They only exist as images of themselves. Talking to one of them is like watching a bad cable show without a zapper. Some scientists believe that at the rate things are going, process people and virtual people will eventually evolve into species reproductively incompatible with the rest of us. There are already reports of process people and real people mating and producing only sterile offspring ~ a sort of mule that understands all the main policy points.
The American left has a choice. Either it remains a victim of alternative predators – the right on one hand, the Clintons and Obamas on the other. Or it takes charge of its own future and that of the country by agreeing within itself on a clear program and then – in the manner of the abolitionists, populists, socialists, suffragettes and civil rights activists – takes this message to every little corner of the land it is trying to change for the better.
People who complain about progressives are like the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran’s hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. Now he’s retired and on social security and Medicare. The other day, however, he got so mad that he climbed into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.
Public interest groups
Go back to the 60s and Ralph Nader was about the only public interest lawyer in town who wore a suit and his wasn’t pressed. Today, many advocacy groups have drifted into the lawyerly style and pace of the establishment they are supposedly trying to change. They have, in their own way, become capital institutions, part of the ritualized, status-conscious, and very safe, trench warfare of the city.
Quakerism exemplifies the power of personal choice because it prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience – regardless of the era in which we live in or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And the witness need not be in words. The Quakers say “let your life speak,” echoing St. Francis of Assisis’ advice that one should “preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words”
There are about as many Quakers today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000. Yet near the center of every great moment of American social and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends. Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after year between those great moments. Because they have been willing in good times and bad — in the instructions of their early leader George Fox — “to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one ”
With the election of Reagan, this country began to turn its back on values that had sustained it throughout its first two centuries – values that included balancing power and wealth with concern for, cooperation with, and compassion towards others in the community we called America. In their place came a psychotic faith in the ubiquitous virtue of the market, a faith almost creationist in its absence of objective foundation, intellectually barren when not actually dishonest, and as monomaniacal as the creed of the religious fundamentalist. Every other aspect of existence – religion, family, morality, creativity, politics, community, tradition, ethnicity – was declared merely a byproduct of the marketplace. For the first time in our history, the self-serving delusions of the privileged few became the standard for the whole nation, propagated in politics, on campuses and in the media.
I’m not a radical; I’m just a moderate of time that has not yet come. I’m like a bad comedian. I get the punch line right but my timing is all off.
Some time around the middle of the 1980s I suddenly noticed that the truth was no longer setting people free; it was only making them drowsy.
The synthetic images once largely contained within the spheres of entertainment, recreation and culture have become ubiquitous. In fact, an extraordinary portion of the gross domestic product is currently devoted to deception in one form or another, concealed though it may be as marketing, advertising, management, leadership seminars, news, entertainment, politics, public relations, religion, psychic hotlines, education, ab machine infomercials, and the law. We have become a nation of hustlers and charlatans, increasingly choosing attitude over action and presentation over performance and becoming unable to tell the difference. It’s not all that surprising because, whether for pleasure, profit, or promotion, and in ways subtle and direct, our society encourages and rewards those who out-sell, out-argue, and out-maneuver those around them — with decreasing concern for any harm caused along the way.
We live in a time of democratic disguises when everyone — at least until they reach their place of employment — can be whoever they want. A nation of poseurs treating life as though it were an endless masque ball. Those who fail at the deception are the poor, the fat, the shy, the awkward, and the otherwise terminally declasse. For the rest, a manic preoccupation with style and attitude tempts them to become not a reflection of who they are but what they want others to think they are. Our primary business as Americans is to fool each other.
In a society informed by theme park announcements and run by theme park rules, reality becomes the property of the management. Life becomes a giant magic show in which the audience is not allowed to see the real action or the mechanisms that create the real action, but only a dramatization of the action. Our participation is limited to the consumption of false images and false words as we become permanent hostages of the prestidigitators. Even a moderately skeptical and energetic media might help us remember again. But the media is an essential part of the legerdemain, making information ever more a lever of control rather than of freedom. Just to glimpse the problem could change the way a journalist wrote or spoke of the world. But the rules of the magic kingdom rigidly discourage that.
Without revolution and rebellion we would let mating and mutation do their thing. Instead, regularly dissatisfied with our condition, our body, our home, and our government we overthrow genetics through application of imagination, dreams, ambition, skill, perseverance, and strength. Every new idea is an act of rebellion, every work of art, every stretch for something we couldn’t do before, every question that begins “what if. . .”
Every act in the face of wrong carries twin responsibilities: to end the evil and to avoid replacing it with another. This twin burden is analogous to what a doctor confronts when attempting to cure a disease. There is even a name for medical failure in such cases; the resulting illness is called iatrogenic – caused by the physician. In politics, however, we have been taught to believe that simply having good intentions and an evil foe are sufficient..
Most rebellions don’t produce revolutions. A revolution claims, often falsely, to have an known end; a rebellion needs only a known means.
In truth, a large part of me still would have liked to have been one of the popular boys in the class, but things kept getting in the way – some addictive confluence of moral aggravation, periodic accident, undisciplined imagination, sporadic and unpremeditated courage randomly suppressing chronic shyness and cowardice, sloppy romanticism, episodic existentialism, recurrent hope, stultifying stubbornness and an abiding intolerance for the dull. A child’s dreams and an adult’s faith pounding tide after tide on the rock of reality, thinking that maybe this time I’ll float off. Some people take it personally, as though I rebelled simply to annoy them. They make little jokes about the fact that I’m different, as if I had a moral obligation to be like them. When they see someone like me coming, they close the doors of their institutions, their imaginations, and their hearts. We are, after all, thieves who might abscond with their most precious possession: the tranquility of unexamined certainty.
Still, you can’t talk about such things because it would further confirm the belief that you are best ignored, dismissed, or considered absurd. So you become the charming stranger from a strange place, you tell the jokes first, and you change the subject when it starts to get too close to the real. Better yet, you fool them into thinking that you are one of them even though you really blend better with those the urban itinerant Joe Gould once described as the “cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats
I can’t recommend such a way; I can’t even justify having tried it. A lot of it doesn’t make sense. I spurned the normal icons of ambition, yet was so ambitious that I sought the unattainable. I gave the outward impression of a radical but in my heart was just a moderate of a time that had yet to arrive. I constantly sought change but was most happy enjoying the changeless virtues of music and conversation and returning to the mooring after a long, happy day on the bay.
Religion is absolutely fair territory for critics when it leaves in its wake war, a crusade against another religion, ethnic cleansing, the destruction of constitutional government, or the endangerment of domestic tranquility.
We have always had Christian fundamentalists in this country. We just used to call them New Deal Democrats.
Whether you call it God or Nature, argued Thor Heyerdahl, “the disagreement is about the spelling of a word.” Unfortunately, a great many people have died in the name of correct orthography.
If you violated the conformity of the ancient church you might have found yourself branded a heretic or an apostate. Today, if you violate the rules of the secular culture you may find yourself branded a neurotic or dysfunctional. Not all churches are run by people in robes.
It helps to separate our moral decisions from those of religious form, not because they are necessarily exclusive, but because it allows us to see morality out of costume.
The ultimate irony of the conservatives is that they pretend to be a bastion of Christian politics when, in fact, they are comprised in no small part of despoilers, usurers, war-mongers, hypocrites, idolaters and groupies of false prophets – all of whom are frowned upon by the book they pretend to follow. And their opponents, who are more faithful to the words the conservatives only quote, are often such good Christians that they never say a mumblin’ word about it all.
Oh, I know you’re out there, Reverend Dude. That’s not my point. My point is that the system and its media only cares these days about religionists who are out to kill, control, or defeat someone. The worker priests, the cool preachers, the progressive rabbis are still there but struggling in a wilderness of silence and indifference. It’s not my beat to tell you how to change this. I’ve got enough problems of my own to worry about. But I just wanted to let you know that I miss you badly.
I have always tried to separate cause and character and have enjoyed a happy if inconsistent relationship with those of the cloth. Besides, we are all members of what Weber called the pariah intelligentsia, including teachers, ministers, writers, intellectuals and activists. In other words, moral outsiders of supposed integrity, passion, and faith providing guidance to a market, politics, and culture that would often just as soon do without it.
Respect is essential in a functioning society, yet not only are we losing the concept, we don’t even hear much about it. In a society where citizens exhibit mutual respect, class and ethnic conflict is mediated, people feel better about themselves and children are sent in good directions. In a society lacking respect, we start to behave like too many rats in a cage, we lose the sense of both the needs of others and of their value to us, and adult and children alike become lonely warriors in false empires of one.
Revolutions are defined not by the wonder of their promise but by the horrors of what preceded them. They replace evil, but without a warranty.
The strange ambivalence of the riots — the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple’s home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation — made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out.
Mitt Romney succeeded with outsourced jobs and unsourced claims
Both conservatives and liberals use the term “safety net” to refer to matters that used to be called “social welfare,” “decent healthcare,” or a “war on poverty. The phrase reveals how far we are from doing anything about these things because a safety net is something typically placed to prevent death in case one falls or has to jump from a building. In other words, your last chance in the midst of a major disaster. A safety net may rescue you from the consequences of a few seconds’ leap; it doesn’t get you to hospital or fix your broken limbs rescue your child still inside the building, give you decent housing, or restore your livelihood after a recession.
There are two basic ways of securing oneself against others: (1) not making them mad at you and (2) defending yourself when they are. What is so striking about our leaders is that they spend so little effort on the first option and so much on the second. The problem with this is that you not only have to shield yourself from bullets but from the rest of life as well. And it’s worth remembering that no one lives in a medieval castle for protection anymore. It turned out that they weren’t as safe as the inhabitants thought..
The sea seems determined to force men to fight it with their bare hands. It is a teacher of humility, an enforcer of respect, a revealer of fraud. It is indifferent to paper distinctions between men, without regard for fine words, and contemptuous of the niceties of society.
The wondrous mystery of America is found not in its perfection but in its ability to improve, its perpetual search for a more perfect union. The idea had been fading for some time, not just because we came to think of power as an adequate substitute, but because we came to ignore such mundane matters as teaching children democracy with the same vigor that we teach them how to drive or about the dangers of drugs. And so we tried to recover from 9/11 with a flag and loyalty to a place called America, but without its dream. We used instead military power, anti-democratic security measures, seductive technology, and yet another elephantine bureaucracy — offering still more temptations for guerillas with simple weapons and no love of life. The 9/11 attackers, and the tens of millions around the world who share some measure of their anger, have only seen our money and our fist — not the decency, democracy and dream that made America strong in the first place. These virtues are still lying in the rubble. Our job is to recover them, revive them, share them, and become once more a model rather than a target. Only then will we be both safe and free.
Many years ago some people built castles and walled cities and moats to keep the bad guys away. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured out how to get across the moats and climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces during their siege of Siena. The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption.
Like the castle-dwellers behind the moat, we are now spending huge sums to put ourselves inside a prison of our own making. It is unlikely to provide either security for our bodies nor solace for our souls, for we are simply attacking ourselves before others get a chance.This is not the way to peace and safety. Peace is a state without violence, interrogations and moats. Peace is a state of reciprocity, of trust, of empirically based confidence that no one is about to do you in. It exists not because of intrinsic goodness or rampant naivete but because of a common, implicit understanding that that it works for everyone.
This discovery is often hard to come by, but it is still cheaper, less deadly, and ultimately far more effective than the alternative we seem to have chosen, which is to imprison ourselves in our castle and hope the moat keeps the others out.
The journalist Bernard Fall noted that the French, after Dien Bien Phu, had no choice but to leave Southeast Asia. America, with its vast military, financial, and technological resources, was able to stay because it had the capacity to keep making the same mistakes over and over. Our war against “terrorism” has been in many ways a domestic version of our Vietnam strategy. We keep making the same mistakes over and over because, until now, we could afford to. One of these has been to define the problem by its manifestations rather than its causes. This turns a resolvable political problem into a irresolvable technical problem, because while, for example, there are clearly solutions to the Middle East crisis, there are no other solutions to the guerilla violence that grows from the failure to end it.
In other words, if you define the problem as “a struggle against terrorism” you have already admitted defeat because the guerilla will always have the upper hand against a centralized, technology-dependent society such as ours. There is one way to deal with guerilla warfare and that is to resolve the problems that allow it to thrive. The trick is to undermine the violence of the most bitter by dealing honestly with the complaints of the most rational.
Perhaps our problem was that we rebelled before the age of rebellion. Dissident students would later attack frontally many of the things we only picked at.
Of all the monickered demographics, few have attracted as little interest as this one. We were, for example, one of two generations to have never produced a president. My generational peer, Larry Aubach, once said to me, “We will come and we will go and hardly anyone will know we were there.”
If true, it won’t be entirely fair. Caught between the far more assertive, self-asssured and self-important World War II and Boomer eras, my generation did something for which credit is not usually given by power-absorbed historians: we adapted. And one would be hard pressed to find in the past many examples where a group as dominant as the white heterosexual American male of the mid to late 20th century gave up so much power so peacefully so quickly.
By the time we reached full adulthood, the white males of the generation would find the status that we had been promised already threatened. By the time we had reached full maturity almost everything of social significance that we had been taught had been proved or declared wrong. Instead of continuing the role allegedly held for us in usufruct by our elders, our task, it turned out, was to pass it on to, and share it with, blacks, women and gays.
While this was true of all white American men of the time, it was particularly true of our generation because we served as translators of the new to the old. We had, after all, quietly planted some of the change ourselves with the beat rebellion, the irreverence of modern jazz and the civil rights movement. Our generation was the sleeper cell of the Sixties.
Historians don’t care for inchoate change built on things like anarchistic acquiescence but perhaps some revisionist scholar will discover the unnoted truth that the Silent Generation, by choosing adaptation over resistance, did far more for its country than if it had simply followed suit and elected some presidents and started a few wars. A truth unnoted but perhaps to be expected of those who had, after all, given America the idea of “cool” and “hip.”
We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered others like themselves. The freedom schools of the civil rights movement. The politics of the folk guitar.. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple conversations.
Up close, the 1960s often lacked the romance that time has given them. After all, at the end of the decade Nixon was president; tens of thousands of young American men and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had died in a pointless war; charismatic leaders had been assassinated, and the cities were still smoldering. We had moved from “I have a dream ” backwards to a dream deferred.
In my neighborhood on Capitol Hill, the Age of Aquarius often looked more like a war zone. Many of the people there were not part of a counter-culture but of an abandoned culture. As a product of the fifties in which cynicism and disengagement were the highest forms of political activity, I found myself unable to identify with the Aquarian optimism of those just a few years younger than myself. Aquarius was not an age, I thought, but brief happy fireworks in the long night before human understanding.
The 1960s, in many ways, was a huge example of what Hakim Bey called a temporary autonomous zone, as are many periods of great social and political change. The fragility of such chronologic cultures hurtling through a small window of opportunity is often missed by participants. In the 1960s, Bobby Seale presciently warned, “seize the time,” but for many it seemed no more likely that the Age of Aquarius would disintegrate than it might have seemed possible to post-Civil War radical Republicans that their work of reconstruction would be undone barely a dozen years after it started. Still, history favors eruptions more than steady processions, and these uprisings, brief as they may be, are the major seasons of social and political change.
The advocate, the committed, the seeker, the free thinker, the rebel may live in a world that is seldom depicted let alone honored. They may be ignored, disparaged, or even punished; they may lack constituency, funds, or moral support. They may, like the urban itinerant Joe Gould, feel most at home “down among the cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats.” Yet in the end, they can attain that most precious victory of remaining truly human, a state confirmed not by their ultimate triumph but by their interminable effort, and not by their fame but by their fortitude.
Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it. Knowing what we know now about how it’s turned out, what would we do if we suddenly found ourselves back in 1830? Would we bother?
One of the problems with living around powerful myths is that you can start to feel personally responsible when they don’t work out. If you don’t lose weight, have better sex, kick your phobia, earn 20% annually in the stock market, or get the job you want, there are few around to tell you that such outcomes are pretty normal. Instead, we are surrounded by hucksters of success and salvation constantly luring us towards illusory certainty. If we succumb to these chimeras of profit and prophesy, if we accept the idea that God rightly favors the successful, the economy justly favors the lucky, and society fairly favors the glamorous, it can ultimately leave us with a sense of failure for no greater fault than being a normal human being. It is hard in such a context to remember that nearly all people who dial the 900 number beckoning them on the cable screen continue to find hard times on easy street. And it is hard to remember a time when humans had other than monetary value.
Successful people in an earlier time had more fun because they got to live life their way. Imagine Orson Welles working with David Geffen? J.P. Morgan standing still for a photo op with George Bush? Eleanor Roosevelt going on Saturday Night Live to boost her numbers! Once a reward of success meant YOU got to make rules. Today all rules are given you via conference call with your manager, agent, and lawyer
Survivors of abuse, oppression and isolation somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them. They have, without formal instruction, learned two of the most fundamental lessons of psychiatry, philosophy and religion:
You are not responsible for that into which you were born.
You are responsible for doing something about it.
These individuals move through life like a skilled mariner in a storm rather than as a victim at a sacrifice. Relatively unburdened by pointless and debilitating guilt about the past, uninterested in the endless regurgitation of the unalterable, they free themselves to concentrate upon the present and the future. They face the gale as a sturdy combatant rather than as cowering supplicant.
In public education and other government matters, we are spending enormous sums to make sure nothing goes wrong but in fact are just increasing the number of people able to screw things up.
Complex systems usually try to save themselves by doing the same they have been doing badly all along — only harder. This is because the salvation of the system is implicitly considered far more important than the solution of any problems causing the system to fail.
The “system” is not America. The “system” is not us. It represents neither the land nor its people, neither our ideals nor our souls. Rather the “system” is a set of institutions, values, rules and forces that have been imposed on our lives and upon the culture of America. One reason so many of us feel disaffected is because we know in our hearts — even if we can’t find the right words or actions — that much of what we find in the “system” no longer matches what we believe America should be about. Yet the “system” runs America.
Most Americans only profess Christianity, but increasingly – and in a deeply fundamentalist manner – they practice technocracy, relying unquestioningly upon the systems that make it work. Almost without exception, the reaction centers on technocratic solutions of security, warfare, propaganda, and surveillance. At every level – academic, media, and government – such issues are considered stripped of moral, philosophical, ethical, historical, or anthropological content. One need look no further than your own TV screen to observe this. The “experts” on the network news and talk shows are invariably those of technocratic skill rather than those who have demonstrated wisdom, foresight, or human understanding. They exemplify a quality that John Ruskin called “intricate bestiality.”
Adults conform just as much as teenagers do. The problem is that teenagers are asked to conform to both adult and teenager values at the same time. This can be a little confusing.
Everything that television does becomes television rather than what it starts out to be.
If killing Bin Laden was so important, how come we didn’t slash the budget of Homeland Security in its wake?
The war against terrorism is the political equivalent of a stock market bubble – hope, hubris and hyperbole parading as fact.
Three thousand people is, of course, too many to die for any reason. But it is also far too weak an argument for the end of democracy.
Of course, there can be peace with so-called terrorist organizations; it’s just a matter of whether one waits the better part of a century like the British in Northern Ireland or you start talking and negotiating now.
The media and politicians call what happened on 9/11 terrorism. This is a propagandistic rather than a descriptive term and replaces the more useful traditional phrases, guerilla action or guerilla warfare. The former places a mythical shroud around the event while the latter depicts its true nature. Guerillas do not play by the rules of state organization or military tactics. This does not make them cowardly, as some have suggested, but can make them fiendishly clever. The essence of guerilla warfare is to attack at times and places unsuspected and return to places unknown. You can not invade the land of guerillas, you can not bomb them out of existence, you can not overwhelm them with your technological wonders. This was a lesson we were supposed to have learned in Vietnam but appear to have forgotten.
There is one way to deal with guerilla warfare and that is to resolve the problems that allow it to thrive. The trick is to undermine the violence of the most bitter by dealing honestly with the complaints of the most rational.
The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption. Like the castle-dwellers behind the moat, we are now spending huge sums to put ourselves inside a prison of our own making. It is unlikely to provide either security for our bodies nor solace for our souls, for we are simply attacking ourselves before others get a chance.
Soon after September 11,our leaders and much of our media drew the conclusion that our salvation lay in world dominance, in empire. Within just days we moved from tragic reality to delusional myth. Empires don’t have their major military and economic icons damaged or destroyed by a handful of young men with box cutters. Empires don’t turn suddenly phobic at everything foreign, everything sharp, every place crowded. Empires don’t jettison their Constitution and turn on their own people out of blind fear.
The journalist Bernard Fall early in our Vietnam conflict noted that the French, after their failed battle at Dien Bien Phu, had no choice but to leave Southeast Asia. America, with its vast military, financial, and technological resources, was able to stay because it had the capacity to keep making the same mistakes over and over. Our war against “terrorism” has been in many ways a domestic version of our Vietnam strategy. We keep making the same mistakes over and over because we can still afford to. Or think we can.
THE EASIEST WAY for the media to give the impression of independent analysis is to call upon “experts” at the various think-tanks . Many of these experts are, in fact, former government officials biding their time until recalled to the inner sanctums of power or are currently serving as consultants to those in office. While think tanks can sometimes be productive and occasionally provide a haven for truly original thinkers, they primarily function as the Catholic Church of conventional politics, their priests propagating the faith, blessing the faithful, redirecting the errant and showing up at fundraising dinners to add a little class and offer the benediction. And their collection plates are regularly filled by large corporations with some distinctly non-academic goals in mind.
Time and space
Time and space were once an essential part of our nature. Gertrude Stein wrote that “in America there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.” By the 1950s, however, Alan Ginsberg was already speaking of “an America which no longer exists except in Greyhound bus terminals, except in small dusty towns seen from the window of a speeding car.”
The deeply religious, the utopian, the cybernetic, and the fraternal can still escape into frontiers set at odd angles to the geographic. In fact, the freest people left in America may include the computer nerd and the contemplative nun, for each exist in a liberated zone of tolerance for the human soul and imagination.
Others of us pass in and out, shaping our homes, our offices, our associations, and our families into temporary zones of unregulated humanity, finding little oases in the desert of technocratic progress. Or we move furtively into the countryside, like Winston Smith escaping Big Brother, seeking what we have lost.
But most of it we do either alone or in small, polite equivalents of the gangs to which urban adolescents gravitate in their search for something they haven’t lost because they never had it. . .
Then there is the media, purportedly our surrogate priest, parent, and teacher but in fact functioning like gangs of burglars breaking and entering our brains and stealing time and space from us in a way not even our parents experienced. What was once extraordinary became merely unusual and finally ubiquitous as we moved from manuscript to microphone to camera and cable. With each step, context, environment, and points of reference became ever more distant and external. With each step, we became ever more dependent on things and people we would most likely never see in their unprojected, unfilmed, unrecorded nature. Sitting in a bar, riding an exercycle at the gym, or waiting in the airport, we trade proximate reality for a distant, visible, decibeled but ultimately unreachable substitute.
Whatever the source, it now takes longer, requires more paper, and stirs up more intimations of liability to do almost anything worthwhile than it once did. While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like “entrepreneurship” and “risk-taking,” the average enterprise of any magnitude is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance. We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time and space, they might implode into us.
In fact, there are now more people in prison in than there are farmers, which is to say that you are more likely to find Americans kept in a cage than you are to find driving their tractor along a country road. America has moved from frontier to supermax.
Tolerance is a word much out of favor these days yet its organization and promulgation is the underlying genius of the American system. It has been also described as the concept of reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my freedom unless I give you yours. It is based not so much on shared values as indifference to unshared values.
For nearly all our history, any US official who dared give up American territory without a struggle would be pilloried or worse. Yet today the greatest surrender of sovereignty in US history, our signature on the GATT agreement, is chalked up as an inevitable result of globalism. This abandonment is not controversial, nor even readily apparent, because Americans simply have not been told that it has occurred. They do not know that their country — which defeated in turn the British, the Mexicans, the Confederacy, the Spanish, the Germans (twice), the Japanese and outlasted the Soviet Union, has surrendered without a whimper to a junta of trade technocrats armed with nothing more menacing than cell phones.
The adjective beautiful before the noun locomotive is semantic deadheading. I’ve never seen a locomotive that wasn’t beautiful.
Trains could be dirty, cold, hot, late, cancelled, overcrowded, or sit for hours in a wheat field for no fathomable reason. I learned that the silver temperature control knobs in Pullmans were either dummy switches or that the legends on them had been printed in random order. But such annoyances were more than balanced by the pleasures of standing in the vestibule with the top of the dutch door open feeling the air and the country rush by. Or watching from the last car as the roadbed disappeared into a point. Or pasting your nose to the window and seeing the engine pull you around a curve. Or peering into the backyard of America. Or climbing into the top bunk. Or getting off the train in the middle of nowhere and wondering with another passenger what the problem was.
The endless argument about who said what to whom about what demonstrates an illusion about honesty shared by all sides. It is yet another iteration of a phenomenon I first noticed during the Edwin Meese nomination hearings. It became clear then, and so many times since, that America – including its politicians, media and ordinary citizens, had accepted a legal definition of honesty, to wit: if a public person can not be proved to have lied by the rules of a criminal court, he or she can’t be called dishonest and, in the case of a nominee, remains qualified for office. In other words, our standard for confirmation to high office had become no better than that for acquittal of a common thief.
In real life, the truth must always be spoken, but the truth need not always be told. In politics, neither are necessary and both are sometimes fatal.
In 2003, I was asked by Harper’s to compile a history of the beginning of the Iraq war told entirely in lies by Bush officials and advisers. As I began to work on the project, I was reminded over and over of how little lying often has to do with court-defined perjury. It more typically involves hyperbolic hoodwinking, unsubstantiated analogy, cynical incitement of fear, deceitful distortion, slippery untruths, gossamer falsehoods, disingenuous anecdote, artful agitprop, and the relentless repetition of all the foregoing in an atmosphere in which facts are trampled underfoot by a mendacious mob and their semantic weapons.
One does not have to analyze such language legally to understand its evil. One need only have enough understanding of the manner of the honest, the sincere and the candid to know almost instinctively when their opposite is in command.
Yes, some of the Bush capos may have done it so poorly from time to time that they can be successfully prosecuted. But our ultimate standard for judging their words and claims – whether as a Sunday talk show commentator or as an ordinary citizen – should be an ethical and not a legal one. If we let such con artists get away with their ultimate trick – which is having us believe that if we can not prove their swindle we must accept it – we will have fully surrendered to their treachery.
I thought the truth would set us free. Instead it just seems to have made us lethargic.
With the election of Reagan, this country began to turn its back on values that had sustained it throughout its first two centuries – values that included balancing power and wealth with concern for, cooperation with, and compassion towards others in the community we called America. In their place came a psychotic faith in the ubiquitous virtue of the market, a faith almost creationist in its absence of objective foundation, intellectually barren when not actually dishonest, and as monomaniacal as the creed of the religious fundamentalist. Every other aspect of existence – religion, family, morality, creativity, politics, community, tradition, ethnicity – was declared merely a byproduct of the marketplace. For the first time in our history, the self-serving delusions of the privileged few became the standard for the whole nation, propagated in politics, on campuses and in the media.
War is the joint exercise of things we were trained not to do as children.
War is doing things overseas that we would go to prison for at home.
Anyone can start a war. Starting a peace is really hard. Therefore it is much harder to be a peace expert than a war expert.
The media treats war as just another professional sport.
War has rules, which means that we can change the rules.
Murder, rape and slavery still exist. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have banned them. The same is true of war.
Telling a country we won’t negotiate with it until it does what you want is like saying you won’t play a game unless you are allowed to win.
There is no evidence that supporting war, or telling presidents to do so, improves your testosterone level, so Ivy League professors are better advised to stick to tennis.
There is one way to deal with guerrilla warfare and that is to resolve the problems that allow it to thrive. The trick is to undermine the violence of the most bitter by dealing honestly with the problems and complaints of the most rational.
Of course, there can be peace with so-called terrorist organizations; it’s just a matter of whether one waits the better part of a century, as the British did in Northern Ireland, or whether you start talking and negotiating now.
Three thousand people is, of course, far too many to die for any reason. But it is also far too weak an argument for the end of democracy.
Peace is a state of reciprocity, of trust, of empirically based confidence that no one is about to do you in. It exists not because of intrinsic goodness or rampant naivete but because of a common, implicit understanding that that it works for everyone.
Implicit in the “what about their violence?” argument is the idea that what we do wrong is excusable because it has been matched by the other side. Of course, the other side sees it the same way so you end up with a perfect stalemate of violence. When I raised a similar argument as a kid, my mother’s response was, “If Johnny were to jump off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff, too?” I never could come up with good answer to that and so eventually had to concede that somebody else’s stupidity was not a good excuse for my own.
From the moment we commence a moral intervention we become a part of the story, and part of the good and evil. We are no longer the innocent bystander but a full participant whose acts will either help or make things worse. Our intentions become irrelevant; they are overwhelmed by the character of our response to them. The morality of the disease is supplanted by the morality of the cure. In fact, every moral act in the face of mental or physical injury carries twin responsibilities: to mend the injury and to avoid replacing it with another
One of the reasons America is in so much trouble is because it happily makes all sorts of compromises in order to get along with large dictatorships such as Russia and China, but thinks it can handle smaller operations like Hamas, North Korea, and Iran by simple obstinacy and belligerence. In other words, it is happy to talk with big terrorists, but not little ones. In fact, most of these small entities – and those who lead them – suffer from extreme inferiority complexes. By threatening war, imposing massive embargos and so forth, America merely feeds the sense of persecution and encourages the least rational reaction. A more sensible approach would be to constantly negotiate with these leaders and edge them towards reasonable participation in world affairs.
Imagine if we had told Israel and Palestine a few years ago that if they would just make nice we would give them enough money to equal Israel’s GDP for one year and Palestine’s for three. Take the time off, go to the Riviera or the Catskills, forget about productivity, and just party on thanks to the American taxpayer. Or if Israel and Palestine wanted to be really sensible, they could have invested in their countries’ future instead. Think how much safer we would be today. . . But where would such a large sum of money come from? Well, all we would have had to have done was to cancel the invasion of Iraq and used the money as a carrot rather than as a bludgeon. For that is just what it has cost us so far. (2007)
The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption. Like the castle-dwellers behind the moat, we are now spending huge sums to put ourselves inside a prison of our own making. It is unlikely to provide either security for our bodies nor solace for our souls, for we are simply attacking ourselves before others get a chance.
Empires and cultures are not permanent and while thinking about the possibility that ours is collapsing may seem a dismal exercise it is far less so than enduring the dangerous frustrations and failures involved in having one’s contrary myth constantly butt up against reality – like a boozer who insists he is not drunk attempting to drive home. Instead of defending the non-existent, we could turn our energies instead towards devising a new and saner reality.
Places like Harvard and Oxford – and their after-school programs such as the Washington think tanks – teach the few how to control the many and it is impossible to do this without various forms of abuse ranging from sophism to corporate control systems to napalm. It is no accident that a large number of advocates of war – in government and the media – are the products of elite educations where they were taught both the inevitability of their hegemony and the tools with which to enforce it. It will, therefore, be some time before places such as Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations are seen for what they are: the White Citizens Councils of state violence.
Castro, in his early days, spoke at the UN. But the hotels of New York refused him space. The result: Malcolm X found him a hotel in Harlem and a key early step was taken in the alienation of a man who, with just a little respect and effort, might not have tormented every American president since by refusing to die or fade away. Respect is important because it is a door wide enough for peace to enter. We need to try it more often.
We live in a society that condones violence in our public policy and are excessively entertained by it in our private lives.
The difference between being intelligent and being smart is that the former only requires data, the latter requires judgment in how you use it. The capital is full of intelligent people but short on smart ones.
Washington’s “greater sophistication” is virtually indistinguishable from rampant cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity.
At times I felt trapped in the compound of some bizarre cult of overwrought rhetoric, infantile premises and manic mythology. There were no ideas, only a leader; no ideology, only icons; no inquiry, only arrogant certitude.
In June the soft stillness of southern summer returns to Washington. In the everything-controlled environment of the newer city it’s easy to ignore but along the one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable blocks of older Washington you can’t miss it: the leafy canopy, the human tableaux on porches and stoops, and the sounds — a siren, a cry, a song — all the more startling because of the broken quiet. It is during these slow, pregnant green days that Washington becomes most true to itself, and a sweet place still.
A city in which the American dream and the American tragedy passed each other on the street and do not speak.
The new Washington disdains nearly every contact with the city as a community and treats the place as part shopping mall and part Plato’s Retreat for the ego. It is the city of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without It, clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up. The city in which never have so many been paid so much to do so little. The city which has changed from a sleepy southern village to a catatonic northern metropolis.
I am most days an exile in my native town, living in a place whose values I don’t like, whose symbols are jarring, whose language is neither colorful nor convincing, whose obsession with security just creates new fears, and whose ambience often has all the soul, substance, and permanence of a downtown hotel lobby.”
Much that is written about Washington stays comfortably within the two by three mile area in which one finds the White House and the Congress, the Supreme Court and the State Department, the Pentagon, the Watergate and the National Press Club. As typical pasture in the American west, this spread could support about 120 cows and their calves.
How one comes to matter in Washington politics is guided by few precise rules, although in comparison to fifty years ago the views of lobbyists and fundraisers are far more significant than the opinion, say, of the mayor of Chicago or the governor of Pennsylvania. This is a big difference; somewhere behind the old bosses in their smoke-filled rooms were live constituents; behind the political cash lords of today there is mostly just more money and the few who control it. Thus coming to matter has much less to do with traditional politics, especially local politics, than it once did. Today, other things count: the patronage of those who already matter, a blessing bestowed casually by one right person to another right person over lunch at the Metropolitan Club, a columnist’s praise, a well-received speech before a well-placed organization, the assessment of a lobbyist as sure-eyed as a fight manager checking out new fists at the local gym. There are still machines in American politics; they just dress and talk better. There is another rule. The public plays no part. The public is the audience; the audience does not write or cast the play.
Official Washington — including government, media and the lobbies — functions in many ways like America’s largest and most prestigious club, a sort of indoor, east coast Bohemian Grove in which members engage in endless rites of mutual affirmation combined with an intense but genteel competition that determines the city’s tennis ladder of political and social power. What appears to the stranger as a major struggle is often only an intramural game between members of the same club, lending an aura of dynamism to what is in truth deeply stable.
Federal Washington is a culture in which much seems to happen but little gets accomplished. It is a culture in which neither the battles nor the words about them are necessarily real, in which the interests of the federal enclave inevitably proceed those of the country, and in which speaking of something is considered the moral equivalent of actually doing it. It is a culture that can admit neither to itself nor to the larger world the degree to which its various systems are out of control. Nor can it admit that when it defines corruption only by its most precise legal limits it exempts itself from any broader decency. It is finally a culture that has been remarkably successful at isolating itself from the reality it is attempting to govern. The abstract, soulless security of the capital protects it from the pain it causes, the suffering it neglects and the concerns it can quantify but not ameliorate. Here statistics substitute for tears, data for anger, and mechanically modulated voices recounting promises never to be fulfilled serve as a placebo for real hope and joy. It is, in the end, the place described in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real: “Turn back, traveler, for the spring of humanity has gone dry in this place and there are no birds in the country except wild birds that are tamed and kept in cages.”
Just as the Soviets tolerated free thought only within the limits of “socialist dialogue,” so debate in Washington is circumscribed by the limits of what might be called Beltway discourse. Ideas that adjust or advance the conventional wisdom are valued. Those that challenge it are ignored or treated with contempt. Beltway discourse is informed by a number of disciplines but tends to ignore others. The teachings of law and political science as well as those of economics are considered important; those of history, anthropology, religion, literature, philosophy and the arts tend to be discounted.
Although the media presents Washington as a city grappling with the major issues of our time, much of the town’s workday is absorbed by highly specific concerns. The president is worried about the spin to give a statement or appearance. The lobbyist is obsessed with a very particular amendment to a very particular bill. The size of the capital’s bureaucracy is necessitated in no small part by the number and specificity of regulations it must administer. And woe to the member of Congress who lets larger concerns surpass the parochial needs of the district. Washington is awash in the politics of particulars.
The town’s most common skill, its trade of choice, is finding what is wrong with something. For the bureaucrat, this eliminates the need for action. For the politician, it lessens risk. For the lobbyist, it means points with the client. For the public interest group, democracy and justice are at stake. And for the lawyer and reporter, it is just instinctual. All day long, Washington hums with people trying to stop other people from doing something, and with considerable frequency they are successful. At times Washington seems a series of endless loop videos in which policies are debated, lobbied and almost acted upon before the tape repeats itself once more.
If the federal government were a state it would be the fifth largest in the country — bigger than Illinlois It takes a lot of energy to run Illinois, but then that’s Illinois’ business. It takes a lot of energy to run the federal government, but the federal government is supposed to be doing something other than just running itself. Nonetheless, in that government every decision of every day must be weighed against two often uncomplimentary sets of requirements — those of America and those of the system that runs it, the fifth largest state. Even in the best of times, the system may come first; in the worst of times its demands become obsessive as it struggles to maintain itself.
The effect of numbers on the city has been profound. At times it seems that there are no governments anymore, only budget offices. The idea of a budget bureau at the federal level only goes back to Warren Harding. As late as 1975, Austin Kiplinger could write that the president’s budget officials were outnumbered by those of the various departments and thus “have to be especially sharp” and make up in clout what they lack in numbers. Today, few feel sorry for the White House budget squad, which has not only replaced many of the functions of departmental financial officials but those of the departments themselves.
As the numerologists rose in power, programs increasingly became transformed into line items. Numbers began serving as adjectives, ideas were reduced to figures and policy became a matter of where one placed the decimal point.. Thus, what should be a debate about programs becomes one about arithmetic.
Every day in Washington, many of the best and the brightest occupy themselves computing figures, defending them before Congress, citing them before a trade association or recalling them on C-SPAN. Adding and subtracting are among Washington’s favorite activities, often providing a digital shield against discussing what the figures actually represent.
No other American city had so much written and spoken about it by people who had no organic connection with it and who expended so little effort on its behalf. From presidents to Time reporters, the city was what they wished (or had time) to see, and the resulting reporting veered from descriptions of a Grossinger’s for megalomaniacs to a Tolkien-like netherworld inhabited by orcs, goblins, brigands and things that go bump in the night and take all your money. The Washingtonian found few friends among those who passed through. Jack Kennedy called it a place of ‘northern charm and southern efficiency.’ Senate District Committee chairman Thomas Eagleton responded to a complaint that a proposed home rule bill would leave Congress with a veto over all local actions by saying, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” Congressmen with impeccable liberal credentials curried favor with their conservative constituents and financial backers by supporting freeways, developers and ‘law and order’ schemes for the District. Such were our friends.
Then there was the legion of race-baiters, demagogues, and legislators using the District to make deals, political and business, that would have been a scandal if they had occurred in their home districts, and others who used their power over the city to make sure they got cheap liquor and cheap taxi rides.
Washington was a city of dichotomies, contrasts, and striking inequalities. It was the capital of a major democracy that lacked local democracy. It was a citadel of power whose residents lacked power. It was a city with an excess of multimillion dollar office buildings and a shortage of housing. It was a city that was wealthier than most in which a sizable minority lives in great poverty. It had a 70 percent black population but the major decisions were still made by whites. It was a city in which the American dream and the American tragedy passed each other on the street and did not speak. It was, finally, a city that had suffered a form of deprivation known primarily to the poor and the imprisoned, a psychological deprivation born of the constant suppression and denial of one’s identity, worth, or purpose by those in control. Washington to those in power was not a place but a hall to rent. The people of Washington were the custodian staff. And the renters were as likely to visit the world in which this staff lived as a parishioner is to inspect the boiler room of the church. The purpose of Washington’s community was to serve not to be.
The public often misunderstands the importance of Washington scandals, assuming them to be a simple dalliance, individual failing, or private offense. What makes both sex and crime in DC different, at least when those in power are involved, is that there is far more opportunity for blackmail and far more skill at covering things up. . . .In short, there is far more politically related sex and crime in Washington then is generally reported, it is less competently investigated than is generally thought, and it is far easier to cover up than is generally appreciated.
It is a city of magnificent views and dismal viewpoints, wonderful communities and dubious egos, natural spaces and artificial words. It is a city that too often can’t tell the difference between intelligence and wisdom and, as Russell Baker once noted, the difference between being serious and being somber
Between the time your editor awoke and the time he got out of bed this morning, three to four inches of snow had disappeared. Between breakfast and four pm another two inches vanished. At this rate we may be facing a serious drought by bedtime.
One of the besetting sins of many in the progressive movement is that they have made white men the enemy. In fact, no ethnic group in history has given up so much power so quickly and so peacefully. Every social movement of the past 40 years has depended on either the acquiescence or active participation of large numbers of white men. To bash them is both bad politics and bad philosophy, tossing out constituency and logic at the same time. One of the basic reasons for the Democrats’ current problems is that they have implicitly treated minorities and women, on the one hand, and white males, on the other, as mutually exclusive groups. This perception has helped to send white males to the Republicans. While it is obvious that white men have been responsible for most of the horrendous political and ecological policies that have left us in our current situation, it should be similarly obvious that most white men have also been their victims — in everything from war to black lung disease to economic exploitation.
Whistleblowers, in the course of doing their jobs, typically stumble upon facts that point to danger, neglect, waste, or corruption. Far too often this discovery is met not with approbation and as a sign of exemplary public service, but rather as a threat to the agency or company. Among the consequences: firing, reassignment, isolation, forced resignation, threats, referral to psychiatric treatment, public exposure of private life and other humiliations, being set up for failure, prosecution, elimination of one’s job, blacklisting, or even death.
From the doctor in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People to Karen Silkwood, the nuclear industry worker killed after her car was forced off the road on her way to talk to a reporter, speaking truth to power has proved costly. The Mongolians say that when you do it, you should keep one foot in the stirrup. Or as Admiral Hyman Rickover told a group of Pentagon cost analysts: “If you must sin, sin against God, not against the bureaucracy. God may forgive you, but the bureaucracy never will.”
Let’s turn off the television, step into the sunlight, and count the bodies. As we were watching inside, the non-virtual continued at its own pace and on its own path, indifferent to our indifference, unamused by our ironic detachment, unsympathetic to our political impotence, unmoved by our carefully selected apparel, unfrightened by our nihilism, unimpressed by our braggadocio, unaware of our pain. Evolution and entropy remained outside the cocoon of complacent images, refusing to be hurried or delayed, declining to cut to the chase, unwilling to reveal either ending or meaning.
We shade our eyes and scan the decay. We know that this place, this country, this planet, is not the same as the last time we looked. There are more bodies. And fewer other things: choices, unlocked doors, democracy, satisfying jobs, reality, unplanned moments, clean water, a species of frog whose name we forget, community, and the trusting, trustworthy smile of a stranger.
Someone has been careless, cruel, greedy, stupid. But it wasn’t us, was it? We were inside, just watching. It all happened without us — by the hand of forces we can’t see, understand, or control. We can always go in again and zap ourselves back to a place where the riots and tornadoes and wars are never larger than 27 inches on the diagonal. We can do nothing out here. Why bother?
Why bother? Only to be alive. Only to be real, to be made not just of what we acquire or our adherence to instruction, but of what we think and do of our own free will. Only, Winston Churchill said, to fight while there is still a small chance so we don’t have to fight when there is none. Only to climb the rock face of risk and doubt in order to engage in the most extreme sport of all — that of being a free and conscious human. Free and conscious even in a society that seems determined to reduce our lives to a barren pair of mandatory functions: compliance and consumption.
Life is a endless pick-up game between hope and despair, understanding and doubt, crisis and resolution.
We don’t have to worry about Trojan horses much any more. The real danger comes from Trojan words and phrases — appealing statues of rhetoric concealing the enemy.
Speak United States. Avoid the private languages of academia, technocracy and corporations.
As an English teacher wisely noted, you are allowed only three exclamation points in a lifetime. Use them carefully.
Remember that you are talking to a reader, not your therapist. Since you’re don’t pay your readers what you pay your therapist, you should give them something they will enjoy.
If you’re having a hard time, write for one reader: a friend, a relative, your child, Barack Obama. This helps remove the speechifying and makes the task less confusing.
If you suffer from writer’s block, just sit down and write crap. Pay no attention to style, content, or spelling. Just write something. Then read it again tomorrow and save all the good stuff.
Capitalized words can be used for anything that would go on a door, a map, a gravestone, in an address book or at the beginning of a sentence. They are not for words you just think are important.
If you’re being funny or ironic, don’t feel you have to say so. Never explain a joke. It annoys your good readers and the dumb ones still won’t get it.
Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker used to say if you can’t be funny, be interesting.
Avoid abstractions. If the evening was indeed ‘fabulous,’ give us some solid evidence. And if you do a good enough job of describing an incident, you won’t need to call it ‘racist.’ Think of yourself as a photographer using words instead of a camera. Good photographs speak for themselves.
Stories are almost always more interesting than opinions. Use the southern approach and argue by anecdote.
In odd, inconsistent and sometimes crude ways, we in the 1950s served as a sleeper cell for the 1960s.
This is an era not without ideas and a sense of history but what ideas and what history. It’s as if the worst of the past had been resyndicated and put on Channel 20, with none of the other stations working. We draw from the economics of Morgan, Mellon and the British East India Company, the morality of Comstock, the civil liberties of Palmer and McCarthy, the civil rights of Tara, the lifestyle of Babbitt and Gatsby, the religion of Gantry, the political ethics of Teapot Dome, the business ethics of Ponzi, the gentleness of Nietzsche, the altruism of Ayn Rand, the ecological sensitivity of General Sherman, the spiritualism of Warren Gameliel Harding, the imagination of Rutherford Hayes, the brilliance of Franklin Pierce, the expressiveness of Calvin Coolidge and the evolutionary theories of William Jennings Bryan.