The fading of community

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

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

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

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

As described in Four British Folkways in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversity is more than two

Sam Smith – One of the reasons it’s so hard for America to come together these days is that we have increasingly divided the nation into twos: black and white, male and female, old and young, rich and poor, socialist and capitalist. One of the few exceptions is LGBT+ – a bizarrely bureaucratic phrase, to be sure, but one encompassing the varieties of alternative sex.

Ironically a lot of this bifurcation is done on the premise that it is helping to reduce racism, sexism and so forth. In fact, the more you minimize the complexity of groups, the more the results become cliches. including highly derogatory ones that work counter to the presumed goal.

For example, applying the term “white privilege” to all whites ignores the fact that there are more poor whites than there are blacks in total and that applying the term, say to a mine worker or a car builder is not likely to help your cause.

And, as noted here before, Barack Obama is almost universally described as our first black president yet, in fact, spent less time with a black parent than he did at Harvard Law School. What is rarely noticed is that one reason Obama may be as popular as he’s been is because he understood  both cultures and the complexities in their relationship.

In fact, Obama, as a child of an interracial couple, reflects 17% of all marriages today and 10% of all married folk. Back in 1967 only 3% of marriages were cross-cultural.

Further, while strong  identity may have considerable psychological and cultural value, it can work against one’s political goals for the simple reason that if you don’t represent a majority you have to find allies. Finding issues that one shares with others won’t damage your self-identity; it will in fact improve the view of that identity in the minds of those with whom one works. This has been perhaps most strongly exemplified in the past by groups like the Irish and Jews who learned that one of the best ways to advance is for a minority to lead the majority – as, for example, Martin Luther King Jr did so effectively.

In reaching this goal, it helps to educate both children and adults in the true complexities of various cultures. If, for example, you teach kids about the varieties of history and culture within blackness, they will be less likely to reduce it all to a cliche.If the media would stop oversimplifying it to an either/or matter, adults would be helped as well. For example, the media might admit that our society is partly socialist already and we’re not about to dump our public fire departments.

i learned about cultural complexity as one of six kids with the same last name and skin color but different in many other respects. I like to tell the tale about having my older brother – then energy secretary of Puerto Rico – working to build an oil port there at the same time that my youngest sister was fighting one in Maine.

And living in DC where, for five decades, we whites were in the minority. skin color didn’t hold a candle to neighborhood, job, politics, education, achievements and so forth. After all, in many elections you had to choose between two or more black candidates. You learned to replace race with a name and a record.

According to the latest projections, America will become like DC in a couple of decades. Whites will be in the minority. The best way to handle this is to stop dividing American into twos. And for the media to report the true complexity of our various demographic groups instead of quietly supporting the damaging cliches about them. And let’s stop treating cultural diversity as a two sided coin rather than countless variety. After all, the more true diversity we recognize, the more likely we will find something in common.

Rediscovering the good

Sam Smith –  I’ve been watching The Godfather movie series, the first of which came out in 1972, the same year in which a bunch of men broke into the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington on behalf of Richard Nixon who was reelected later that year.

Nixon was our first modern presidential thug, followed by corporate mob pawn Ronald Reagan, a corrupt Bill Clinton and now Donald Trump.

While the sins of our recent presidents have been duly noted, what doesn’t get much notice is the fact that we, the citizens of America, elected them.

Somehow, for a half century,  large collections of us have become dutiful followers of one misdoer  or another. Like residents of Michael Corleone’s neighborhood we have learned to treat evil like the weather, something to complain about, prepare for, but not prevent. As I noted over a decade ago, “we all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.” Or as one of the characters in The Godfather put it, “Politics and crime: they’re the same.”

This is not just a political problem; it is a cultural one. There has been a fading of moral voices in our society as we become more accustomed to a few deciding what happens. I am enough of an optimist to believe there are still things we can do to combat this culture but we need to recognize it and start talking and doing things about it. Here are a few suggestions:

The media: Large media are owned by far fewer companies and local print media are disappearing. Meanwhile the most watched TV channels typically define national news by what is happening in Washington, what the powerful in the capital are saying about it, and how the DC press corps analyzes it. This creates a huge bias towards the capital’s elite while fifty states and thousands of towns and cities – the places where real change usually starts – are ignored. 

Television has also had an enormous effect on political ethics. Before television, corruption was largely a feudal system in which power was traded for known services given. Now purchasable TV image has replaced real rendered service and we have lost both our relationship with, and understanding of, politicians. We even elected a president we largely knew because of a TV show.

This is damn hard to combat, but the local could be brought more alive through the sort of alternative media that spread in the 1960s (although now better on line than in print) and not just at the city or state level. We need more neighborhood online information and discussion and more non-national good voices in our lives. 

At present, moral views are not considered newsworthy. There has been a decline of  good people considered worth covering. Religious, intellectual, state and local figures are ignored unless they do something controversial.  For example, is Alan Derschowitz really the only Harvard guy worth quoting?

And it’s not just news. When I was kid, reading comic and real books or going to the movies, I searched for role models and ways to do things right. And the mass media was happy to help me. Now, as I look for movies to see or TV shows to watch, I’m stunned by how few of the choices aren’t violent, dismal, or full of psychological conflict. In fact, I’ve been wondering lately whether Jusse Smollett wasn’t inspired to do what he did by the very TV series in which he played a role, a series that features people making a lot of bad choices.

The problem even exists in popular music, witness this from Pacific Standard:

“Lyrics obtained from a random sample of pop music from the top charts revealed that this genre utilizes violence in lyrics at a level similar to hip-hop/rap, and more so than any other music format,” write University of Missouri researchers Cynthia Frisby and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz.

The researchers analyzed the lyrics of 409 top-selling songs released between 2006 and 2016. The songs, by artists including Jay-Z, John Legend, and Justin Bieber represented a variety of genres; all had sold at least one million copies.

The team noted which songs contained profanity, references to violence, and misogyny, which the researchers defined as lyrics that depicted women as “beneath men” or referred to women as “usable and expendable.”

Their most striking finding: The best-selling pop songs almost uniformly contain violent imagery. Amazingly, 99.5 percent of the pop hits they analyzed (198 in total) referred to violent acts. That’s slightly higher than the 94.7 percent of hip-hop numbers to feature such language, and far greater than the percentage of any other genre.

What’s clear is the music most popular with today’s adolescents frequently “communicates violence, demeans and objectifies women, and perpetuates gender stereotypes,” the researchers conclude.

Reading this made me look at my list of over 80 traditional jazz and pop songs I regularly play and could only find a handful that even mentioned and none that emphasized violence.

We underrate the importance of pop culture to how we think and act but I learned not to trust people like Donald Trump not by going to college but by reading comic books when I was young. And if you count the number of role models you see now in the movies, on television shows or on the evening news, you’ll get a sense of the problem.

The devaluation of history and civics in schools – How do you teach the young the principles of democracy or the history of ignoring them? The prime answer is easy, but, as these two clips indicate, far from what is going on now:

Washington Diplomat:  When pop star Taylor Swift posted on Instagram last month her support for two Tennessee Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, the number of voter registrations on skyrocketed, outpacing in just 24 hours the total number for all of August.

… Defined as the study of citizens’ rights and duties and government workings, civics education has been languishing for years. Studies show that civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low.

… Apathy, meanwhile, is widespread. The U.S. has among the lowest voter turnouts among developed nations. Despite some fluctuations, only about half of the country’s voting age population tends to cast a ballot in a presidential race.

The lack of knowledge about how our system of government works starts young. More than 80 percent of college seniors at 55 top-ranked schools would have earned a D or F on historical knowledge, according to a 2015 study published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni members.

We’re really fortunate to teach social studies and do civic education in Washington, D.C., because there’s such a wealth of resources all around that the city can become the classroom,” said Scott Abbott, director of social studies for DC Public Schools.

Sometimes that’s a field trip to a Smithsonian Institution museum. … Some students at Dunbar High School chose gun control, and before the March For Our Lives gun control demonstration earlier this year, they met with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to discuss their bill.

Two years ago, DCPS partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on visits for 10th-graders studying World War II. About 1,500 students have participated each year.

Chronicle of Higher Education: Since the Great Recession of 2008, writes Benjamin M. Schmidt in Perspectives on History, undergraduate majors have been shifting away from the humanities. And of all the disciplines, history has fared the worst, even as college and university enrollments have grown.

Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, looked at the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2008 there were 34,642 degrees awarded to history majors. In 2017 that number was 24,255, a 30-percent drop. And there’s been about a 33-percent decline in history majors since 2011, the first year in which students who watched the financial crisis unfold could easily change their majors, Schmidt found.

Urbanization – The loneliness that comes with urbanization is not just a personal problem; it is a social one. If you have an increasing number of people who don’t regularly relate with others, this not only affects psychology, it affects politics. Having had a father who worked in the New Deal for almost its entire length, I am struck by how little concern today’s urban liberals express for those who aren’t like themselves. A striking example is the stunning decline in liberal enthusiasm for labor unions. As Tony Matthews wrote in The Conversation: Loneliness is a hidden but serious problem in cities worldwide. Urban loneliness is connected to population mobility, declining community participation and a growth in single-occupant households. This threatens the viability of our cities because it damages the social networks they rely on.”

Atomization of subcultures – Another noticeable change has been an atomization of subcultures. Some of this may be due to the Internet, which encourages people to concentrate on groups and things they identify with, but is also due in part to identity politics which, ranging from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, encourages relations culturally similar to one’s own with little discussion or approaches to relate to others. There are striking exceptions, such as the Poor People’s Campaign, but for the most part identity is regarded as more important than effective coalitions. There is no doubt, for example, that a coalition of blacks, latinos, and labor could have a political effect unlike anything today, but such concepts are hardly discussed.

As I put it a couple of years ago”

The origins of this trend may have some of its roots in what I have come to think of as “niche activism,” which is to say activism based on the presumed perfection of one’s cause combined with a lower impression of those not part of it. At its worst the others are condemned, which is considered an effective activist technique even if adds not one person to the cause and may further alienate many. The Internet, with its tendency to attract people to their own political and cultural coves, plays a role in this.

Another factor has been the increased role of academia in shaping people’s views of current issues. While in the 1960s there were plenty of college students involved in protests, their professors largely ignored the underlying issues and there certainly wasn’t a widely accepted academic analysis of the various causes of resistance.

Now there Is so much academic cultural analysis out on the streets that it is often mistakenly seen as an effective response to real life situations, say like the St Louis police department.  

As the son of someone who worked in the New Deal and having covered and been active in the 1960s and the Great Society’s reaction to it, I am sometimes stunned not only be how passive liberalism has become but how little attention is paid to dealing with actual issues and building cross cultural alliances to deal with them.

Key to this in the past has been the blending of social and economic matters. I tell people that we have always had evangelical working class white guys; we just used to call them New Deal Democrats.  And that Roosevelt got more economic bills through in his first 100 days than liberals have done in the past 30 years.

Key to changing this is to cut back on analysis and organize around issues. Nothing changes people’s assumptions about others more strongly than to discover that they heartily agree on something.

Condemning the weak instead of converting them – Having been trained in the 1960s civil rights movement and the organizing philosophy of Saul Alinsky, I tend to look at those with whom I disagree and wonder, how can I change them? Basic to this approach is not to condemn. For example, talking about “white privilege” to those in a world whose ethnicity has twice as many in poverty as do blacks is not particularly effective.  Telling people that I was part of a white minority in Washington DC for some fifty years and greatly enjoyed that city is a more effective way to start the discussion. 

Recognizing the other guy’s problems is another good start. Timothy Carney in Alienated America  gives some hints:

There’s Hillary Clinton’s brag … that she won the counties with the most economic productivity and lost the counties producing the least. Nate Silver’s colleague Ben Casselman, a statistician, found that “the evidence suggests that anxiety did play a key role in Trump’s victory.” In places where jobs were more vulnerable to outsourcing or foreign competition, Casselman found, Trump did better than Romney had. Where fewer men had college degrees, Trump did better than Romney had. “Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores”. . .

More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support

And he quotes Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo who looked at the numbers in nine states with county level data: :  “’In every state except Massachusetts, the counties with high rates of white mortality were the same counties that turned out to vote for Trump.’ … Trump outperformed Mitt Romney the most in the counties with the most suicides, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths. This was especially true in the industrial Midwest: Trump outperformed Romney by 8 points in the counties with the lowest rate of these deaths but outperformed him by a full 16 points in the counties with the highest rate of suicides, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths. “

Now, you can call these folks racist or examples of “white privilege” but if you want to change this country so it doesn’t keep electing Trumps, you face the job of a teacher, not a scold. As the New Deal Democrats and Lyndon Johnson did, you have to give them something better to think about.

Religious and secular matters –  The decline of church attendance is clearly not working in favor of a more decent society. But even a Seventh Day Agnostic like myself found comfort in church basements in the 1960s as we organized against freeways, for civil rights and even launched the DC Statehood Party. The spirit and action of many city churches in those days was not just built on faith, but upon acting on one’s faith. This brought Christians, Jews and atheists together and I can’t remember a single time – despite a half dozen ministerial pals – that anyone questioned my  faith or lack thereof. And I dug them because they were doing good stuff.

This would be a good spirit to revive, both to make churches more relevant and help them grow again. And you don’t even have to believe in God. The Religion News Service reported recently:

In early March, more than 30 atheist, humanist and secular leaders gathered at a residence overlooking Southern Californian vineyards to discuss politics, social issues and how to draw in more people at a first-ever SoCal Secular Leadership Summit.

Sarah Levin, director of grass roots and community programs at Secular Coalition for America, said that her organization recently found that nonbelievers felt well-connected to national secular organizations but disconnected from others like them locally.

“We realized we need to help strengthen these networks of local groups so that they can be mobilized for political advocacy,” Levin said.

To that end, last weekend’s summiteers broke the day up into frequent intensive discussions about common interests, rather than asking them to sit through lectures. The Angelenos talked a lot about homelessness and climate change, while San Diegans picked up on local buzz about offering their fellow residents a public-sector alternative to the corporate monopoly that provides energy.

Rebecca Kitchings of the Inland Empire Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists group said they have the largest membership in Southern California with more than 2,500 people on their Meetup, a site and app used to organize online groups that host in-person events or meetings. But not all are active, paying members, something she hopes to increase.

Building a counterculture – We need to stop thinking of our problems as just political or economic. They are also deeply cultural. For example, if we have a new Martin Luther King Jr the media is not covering him. Our popular musicians and movie stars stay away from politics. And the young are only beginning to discover their power, as after the Parkland shootings. It can all happen quite fast. When I was in mj twenties, I started one of the few alternative papers in the country. Within a few years there were 400. It can happen fast if those with cultural power – ranging from famous stars to the unknown young – start to challenge and redefine that culture.

In short, if we do not want Donald Trump to represent us, we have to represent ourselves – loudly and clearly.

The neighborhoods of Fred Rogers and Donald Trump

Sam Smith – An exceptional new documentary on Fred Rogers hit a theme for me about two thirds through: I realized that Mr Roger’s neighborhood was the exact opposite – in decency, integrity, friendliness and happiness – of that being created by Donald Trump.

Fred Rogers wasn’t a perfect individual. He was, in that fine definition of a saint, a sinner who tried harder. He took his own difficult childhood and turned it into something else not only for him and for millions of others. Nothing could be further from the cruelty, falsity, and greed projected in Mr. Trump’s neighborhood.

As I watched the film, I was reminded again of how television and movies have chosen mainly not to celebrate the good but to reflect the evil around us. This is not wrong in itself, but without any major alternatives to this cynical media world, how do we learn how to behave differently? To love? To be kind? Where are our role models for good?

The reason Mr. Rogers moves even adults is in part because he was a model of how we might handle things differently. He was a little corner of hope and joy in a nation that would soon  join Mr. Trump’s neighborhood.




Our culture of impunity

Sam Smith, 1998 – Underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, official Washington — from lobbyist to media to politician — has reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer has to play by any rules but its own.

There is a phrase for this in some Latin American countries. They call it the culture of impunity. In such places it has led to death squads, routine false imprisonment and baroque corruption. We are not quite there yet but we are certainly moving in the same direction and for some of the same causes…

In a culture of impunity the rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values ostensibly guide a county, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, at best practices only titular democracy, and puts itself at the service of what Hong Kong with Orwellian understatement refers to as “functional constituencies,” which is to say major corporations.

Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism. In recent months we have seen it at work.

And in a culture of impunity, what replaces the Constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all sort of arcane stuff? Simply greed. As Michael Douglas put it in one of his movies: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in Washington. What is different today is the stunning lack of restraint on the avarice. The federal city has become a town without heroes, without conflict over right and wrong, with little but an endless struggle by narcissistic boomer bandits to get more money, more power, and more press than the next guy. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win or lose.

The federal government no longer effectively regulates corporate greed. Republicans no longer combat Democratic greed and vice versa. Liberals and centrist Republicans have become pathetically ineffective forces within their own parties. The local bar largely devotes itself to undermining decent government. The media has lost both its will and skill for keeping others honest. And, increasingly, law enforcement, intelligence, and military agencies make their own rules.

The culture of impunity is not an exclusively Washington phenomenon, as demonstrated recently by the NYPD officers torturing a prisoner as they cried, “It’s Giuliani time.” Consider also that the UN estimates the worldwide drug trade accounts for 8% of the global economy — roughly equivalent to the world automobile industry or, in this country, to all state and local government. Is it possible that such a huge industry — alone among major economies — lacks easy access to every statehouse and major city hall?

Still Washington sets the tone, the style, and many of the new rules under which the country increasingly functions. These are not the rules we were taught in civics but the laws of competing mobs in control what we once thought was our capital.

We are talking here of culture, not of conspiracies. If you have a strong enough culture you don’t need a conspiracy. One of the reasons ethnic minorities and women continue to have such a hard time moving into the institutions of our country is precisely because there is no one to blame, no smoking gun, nothing on paper — only the stone wall of implicit values and ingrained behavior.