Brighten things up with a new America

Sam Smith – Okay, we get it. Trump is mentally unstable, cruel, incompetent and dishonest. But if we only talk about Trump & Co, we will end up with a singularly depressive image of our land and its people. I know it’s easy to do. Hell, I’ve been doing it myself, but increasingly I’ve been trying to think about the alternatives.

This is the way change takes place. Not just by itemizing the sins of the past and present but by building a constituency for a better future.  At present, there is too little of the latter. We have the new Poor People’s Campaign, high school students marching for better gun control, not  to mention a growing number of teachers on strike. These are great but just the start.

Every great revolution requires not only understanding of the evils of the past and present but hope and a vision for the future.  Here are a just a few ways we can help in two areas causing a lot of trouble right now: ethnic relations and economics:

Analyze but then act: One thing I’ve noticed when I compare today’s activism, say, with the 1960s, is that that many activists seem more like academics than doers.We have immense amounts of analysis (to which I’m afraid I have contributed) but action seems weak. Take police misbehavior against minorities as just one example. There is hardly any mention of how we could change this. A police reform movement might include things like this:

  •  Getting police out of their cars for several days a week and assigning them to a particular community not only to patrol but to learn about and become a part of. 
  • Making police feel more responsible by giving them access to civilian lawyers who visit police stations and advise cops on how to behave more professionally. Access to psychiatrists and social workers could help them understand suspects’ mental problems better and how to handle them short of gun fire.
  • Have a civilian review board to consider cases of officers accused of offenses. 
  • As DC did back in the 1960s, assign recreation department staffers to help work with youth gangs. 
  • Reform the court system

 – Organize by issue: We live in a diverse country but one thing that can bring people together is shared concern over an issue.  Again, there was strong support for this approach in the 1960s but today’s emphasis on identity has shoved this goal to the rear, with some striking exceptions such as Reverend William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign efforts. Common goals can unite as much as common color or gender. And it can help lay differences aside. As I put it once, if you find a gun-toting, abortion-hating nun who can help you save the forest, put her on the committee. Worry about the other stuff later.

Don’t define diversity only by its injustices – I often think of today’s social debates as having much in common with what one finds in dysfunctional families, namely that some children survive by creating a new life for themselves while others are left with nothing but inescapable anger and frustration. It is really important at a national level not to slip into the latter condition. Yes, awful things have happened to various groups in America but we need to counter these memories with new visions of what is possible and the actions to make them real.

Lead others.  A greatly underrated truth about American minorities is that they often do well when they become leaders of  others, including the majority.  Irish politicians understood this, as did Jews and Martin Luther King Jr. For example, political scientist Milton L. Rakove, credits Irish dominance in Chicago partially to the fact that the Irish ran saloons that “became centers of social and political activity not only for the Irish but also for the Polish, Lithuanian, Bohemian and Italian immigrants. . . As a consequence of their control of these recreational centers of the neighborhoods, the Irish saloon keepers and bartenders became the political counselors of their customers, and the political bosses of the wards and, eventually, of the city.”  As one politician put it, “A Lithuanian won’t vote for a Pole, and a Pole won’t vote for a Lithuanian.  A German won’t vote for either of them — but all three will vote for an Irishman.”

Reverend King was immensely influential not just for blacks but for a generation of whites who learned from him. His book, Stride Towards Freedom, was the best book I read in college and it wasn’t on any reading list. 

– Stop oversimplifying ethnicity and ethnic relations – One of the advantages of living most of my life in DC was that I learned that ethnicity was really complex.  Generalizations were modified by neighborhood, income, education, politics, and job. The current national debate on the topic strikes me as grossly oversimplified. Not just by the white right, but by those who talk about “white privilege,”  ignoring the fact, for example, that there are more poor whites than there are blacks of every income. 

A good first step is to stop using the term race. As I wrote in one of my books:

It doesn’t really exist. At least not the way many Americans think it does. There is simply no undisputed scientific definition of race. What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural habit and environmental adaptation.  Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that “it would be highly desirable if we could banish the question-begging term ‘race’ from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase ‘ethnic group.’ That would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at hand.” Anthropologist Ashley Montague in 1942 called race our “most dangerous myth.”

Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that which is fluid is declared immutable.

DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that’s not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S. Martin has written: “The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two ‘races’ have the same skin color…. There is no clearly distinguishable ‘white race.’ What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly slight.”

Teach the young and the media to handle the issue better: Among the victims of modern faux school reform have been history, culture and civics. Yet learning to get along with those different than yourself is just as important as algebra. The media, for its part, treats ethnic relations mainly as an insoluble problem with lots of gory examples. It rarely offers examples of where it working, how groups are resolving problems and the importance of minorities to our  history and politics.

Get into alternative economics – Like the over-generalizations about race, our discussions about economics are exceedingly narrow minded, aided by a media that refuses to ask hard questions about our current system or examine alternatives. A classic example is our indifference to the excellent idea of cooperatives. As I wrote some time back: “Capitalism and socialism are not the only economic alternatives available to us. There is, for example, the cooperative — essentially a company in which all shareholders have an equal voice. Because cooperatives must please all shareholders and not just the big ones, and since shareholders are typically also employees, customers and members of the community, cooperatives tend to be much more socially responsible than the typical corporation. The cooperative has a long history in the United States — especially in rural communities where the co-op was often the major store. According to Renate Hanauer in the journal Deep Democracy, 30% of American farmers’ products are still marketed through coops. Co-ops can be huge businesses. In Japan, cooperative societies have some 18 million members and 2,300 stores.”

There are lots of other economic alternatives that schools, colleges and the media tend to ignore. Here are some examples:

Community time banks

Credit unions

Guaranteed income

Postal banking

State banks

And there are others things we can do that will make building a new America easier. Here’s just one example:

Create a counterculture. For people to learn that there is another way of doing things, even a small number can create a visible counterculture that begins to have an impact of the majority.  This isn’t just about politics; it’s alternatives others can see. They may not join but it can remind them that they have choices they hadn’t considered. And remember that the civil rights movement was driven in no small part by good music and the peace movement by one symbol that is still in use.


And that’s just a start. I haven’t mentioned the environment,  health or urban planning. But remember that change is still possible in lots of places and lots of things we do. The Trump phenomenon is the product of a aging and dying culture.  And if we don’t come up with some good alternatives now, it may haunt us for the rest of our lives.

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