Six decades on the case

Sam Smith

Sixty years ago I got my first full time journalism job, working for a Washington radio station and a news service for 26 stations around the country. I covered everything from murders and fires to White House news conferences. driven in part by the assumption that given the facts, the public and its leaders would do the right thing.

For the next two decades the changes occurring in America lent support to this idea. From civil rights to getting out of Vietnam it was just a matter of working hard enough at it.

Even my own role changed. I no longer just wrote about things, I became a part of things – like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the DC anti-freeway movement. I started one of the early publications of what would become known as the underground press and brazenly turned my back on job offers from the NY Times and the Washington Post.

There were plenty of things to do. For example:

In the 1970s we published a first person account of a then illegal abortion.
In 1971 we published our first article in support of single payer universal health care
In 1970, we ran a two part series on gay liberation.
In 1970, we proposed DC statehood and explained how it could be achieved. We also proposed an elected district attorney which the city would get in 2014. Today statehood is supported by 80% of DC’s residents.
In 1966 we published two articles on auto safety by Ralph Nader
In 1965 we called for the end of the draft.
In the 1960s we proposed community policing

You didn’t know when change would come, but you knew it would if you and your friends just worked hard enough. Even such things as the DC riots or the heavy struggle over Vietnam didn’t slow you down.

But forty years ago something began happening that would ultimately climax in the mob regime of Donald Trump. Something that would turn action based on heartfelt optimism into a grim existentialism in which you tried to do the right thing regardless of the outcome. As one existentialist had put it, “Even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.”

A decade ago when my wife and I left Washington I put it this way:

Washington has contributed so little to the nation other than to endorse, codify and promote policies leading to the collapse of the First American Republic. Since 1976 Congress has passed more laws than it did in the previous two centuries. And to what end? To place us in the dismal condition in which we now find ourselves.

I sometimes find myself reciting the lines of Tennessee Williams in Camino Real: “Turn back stranger, for the well of humanity has gone dry in this place. And the only birds that sing are kept in cages.”

Those of us who have fought for alternative approaches have constantly been met with contempt and disinterest by those in power, whether in politics or the media …. One of the privileges of power is to set standards, even if they are the standards of the slowest kids in the class. Another privilege is never having to say you’re sorry. Which is why, beginning in the 1980s, we began to lose the struggle and have been doing so ever since.

In considering what caused this change I often turn away from traditional news and think about the changes in our culture, those alterations often massive yet under-reported because they don’t have public relations agents. Here are a few things that come to mind:

Corruption has changed massively. As I have noted before, prior to television corruption was a feudal arrangement in which power was traded for services. If you examine the big bosses of an earlier time – like Mayors Curley, Daley or LaGuardia – you find men of great influence without great wealth. But with television, service was replaced by image, and the question became who could could get the most money to pay for the best image. Actual service to the community became irrelevant.

The corporatization of America over the past forty years has not merely been an assault on economic justice. It has vastly changed the nature of our culture, as I wrote some years back:

About sixty years ago, America was just a decade past the last war it would ever win. The length of the average work week was down significantly from the 1930s but real income had been soaring and would continue do so through the 1970s. We had a positive trade balance and the share of total income gained by the top 1% of the country was only around 8%, down from 24% in the 1930s.

As Jermie D. Cullip describes it:

“From 1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%. The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for their children would be even better. . . The number of college students doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite

“Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . . Growth in the economy also led to increasing popularity of other financial intermediaries. Life insurance companies flourished for the first half of the decade and a large number of new private firms entered the market to absorb the excesses of personal savings.

“By mid-1955, the country had pulled out of the previous year’s recession and gross national product was growing at a rate of 7.6 percent. The boom was so great that the budget for 1956 predicted a surplus of $4.1 billion. With the surges in production and the economy, the 1950s is often recognized as the decade that eliminated poverty for the great majority of Americans. Over the decade, GNP per capita almost doubled and the public welfare reacted accordingly as the cost of living index rose by just 1 percent and unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent'”

But here is the truly amazing part – given all we have been taught in recent years: America did it even as its universities were turning out less than 5,000 MBAs a year. By 2005 these schools graduated 142,000 MBAs in one year.

In other words, even the economy was doing well before the corporatists took over. Now we not only have a tougher and far less fair economy, the corporate values we have been taught have overwhelmed the country’s traditional community, religious and moral standards.

The rise of the gradocracy: MBAs wasn’t the only degree that exploded in recent decades. For example, when I started over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education. I didn’t let my sources or my colleagues know I had gone to Harvard because often it would have worked against me. Also, in 1977 there were 10,000 lawyers in DC. Now it is about 55,000. That’s 788 per 10,000 Washingtonians vs. only 89 per 10,000 in New York.

The rise of a gradocracy in the capital and in the country had a number of effects. For example, the politicians I covered when I was young were notable because of their social intelligence. They were able to relate personally with their constituents.

Again, before television, politicians knew how to make real contact with real people. But as pols became better educated they thought and spoke differently. For example, the plethora of MBAs and lawyers put the emphasis on approved process rather than wise politics.Lyndon Johnson, for example, would never have proposed legislation as complicated and hard to decipher as Obamacare. The old pols talked about public works, not infrastructure

The growth of education has also affected liberalism generally, moving it away, for example, from the working class approach to things. I can still remember a couple of labor songs I learned when I was young because liberals back than thought unions were important: “When you see a sign on a picket line saying this place is unfair, just pass it by like a real nice guy. The stuff is just as good elsewhere.”

The average liberal today speaks much more like someone trained in class rather than in the ‘hood. One of the prices of this is an emphasis on analysis over action. Thus racism is constantly dissected even as actual efforts to rid us of it are weak. And being verbally correct on an issue has become more important than dealing with it effectively.

The atomization of liberalism – When I got involved in activism, one of my mentors had been trained by Saul Alinsky. Among Alinsky’s principles was bring different groups together to combat those at the top. As Wikipedia puts it, “He wanted them to start ‘banding together to improve their lives’ and discovering how much in common they really had with their fellow man.”

Today we have a strong atomization of those groups that could reach their goals far easier were they in alliance with others. Aided by the niches of the Internet and the sanctity of analysis taught by colleges, it hard to find cross-cultural alliances. There is little understanding, for example, that there are more poor whites than there are blacks in total or that while ethnic prejudice is bad, economic disparity can be more damaging. And if a low paid white guy sees someone attacking “white male privilege” on television it’s not a particularly useful way to bring him into the cause.

The Dixiecrat revival: While there has been a lot of talk about the similarities between Trumpism and fascism, America’s own South may be a better model. In fact, even the Nazis got some of their ideas from the segregated south, as Becky Little notes:

In 1935, Nazi Germany passed two radically discriminatory pieces of legislation: the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. Together, these were known as the Nuremberg Laws, and they laid the legal groundwork for the persecution of Jewish people during the Holocaust and World War II.

When the Nazis set out to legally disenfranchise and discriminate against Jewish citizens, they weren’t just coming up with ideas out of thin air. They closely studied the laws of another country. According to James Q. Whitman, author of Hitler’s American Model, that country was the United States.

“America in the early 20th century was the leading racist jurisdiction in the world,” says Whitman, who is a professor at Yale Law School. “Nazi lawyers, as a result, were interested in, looked very closely at, [and] were ultimately influenced by American race law.”

In particular, Nazis admired the Jim Crow-era laws that discriminated against black Americans and segregated them from white Americans, and they debated whether to introduce similar segregation in Germany.

Yet they ultimately decided that it wouldn’t go far enough.

What Trump has done is to revive the spirit and strength of an anti-black predominately southern culture that had been suppressed by the civil rights movement. As with the Dixiecrats, it is dependent upon the powerful giving license and language to those who hate. And the essential trick was for rich whites to convince poorer whites that their problem is poor blacks.

In thinking how to tackle these problems, it is worth remembering that good change is most easily driven by the young and by the local. The young did it in the 60s and it can happen again. And we tend to ignore the fact that most change is started by local activism, including, for example, the environmental and marijuana movements.

It is also worth remembering who creates and controls our problems. They are not the folks who have been badly misled by the likes of Trump; they are a small group of the powerful who are actually quite afraid. Bear in mind that as far back as the Middle Ages, the powerful were scared enough to live behind moats and castle walls.

Today’s elite is just as afraid. How do we take them on? By bringing all who feel screwed together. To find what your identity and subculture can share with others. Not everything to be sure, but if blacks, Latinos, women and labor unions sat down and reached a consensus on things that mattered to all, the powerful would not only be scared, they could be beaten. at 4/29/2019 Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to FacebookShare to Pinterest

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