America’s increasing proto-ISIS behavior

Sam Smith – If you step back from the ideological goals of ISIS, it is clear that its way of achieving these goals is what upsets decent folks the most, a presumption that if what you are seeking is considered godly, then you are entitled to achieve it anyway you want.

We are horrified when we read of the ways that ISIS acts on this presumption, but we fail to note how this same concept is increasingly driving public behavior in the United States. Thus it is argued by some:

  • That police may kill, injure or abuse persons at will provided that they do it in the name of law and order.
  • That America may use drones regardless of how many civilians are killed, provided that at least one presumed target is declared a terrorist.
  • That Republicans can pass legislation that results in the death, hunger or homeless of large number of citizens provided that it is done in the name of its political goals.

It is hard to argue effectively against such proto-ISIS behavior when our churches are quiet, the media disinterested, and our universities too busy finding new dollars from students and corporations. We must first understand far better than we do how modern corporatism promoted by morally vapid MBAs, modern law controlled by morally indifferent lawyers, and a media interested only in power and not how it was obtained have helped get us to this spot.

We may not be as bad as ISIS, but we are headed in that direction.

The real World War III: Corporations vs. nationhood

Sam Smith

The recent IMF loans to Ukraine with their dictatorial provisions are one more example of the world’s concealed great war, which is to say the massive invasion of nationhood by corporations. Far more dangerous than any current military threat, corporations have already taken huge territories, legal and financial as well as geographical. Our politicians, many of them covert allies of the corporations, say little of this. And the major media, massive corporations themselves, steadfastly hide the truth from their audience.

For America, not since the Civil War has the sovereignty and constitution of this land come under such assault. In the two previous great wars the damage mostly occurred across two great oceans. Now the victims of the battle are in the heart of our land, witness the deleterious economic effects of NAFTA, the political disaster of Citizens United and the corporate assault on our public schools parading as education reform. Nestles is grabbing our water, our language has been mangled by corporate gobbledygook and even non-profits have adopted the organizational misanthropy of modern corporations.

Without debate, without formal conflict, without even much consciousness, we have absorbed the principles of America’s greediest, adopted their language, and surrendered our constitution and other values to their will. Our last three presidents have been willing participants in undermining our sovereignty, our values and our culture. One might well expect this of a Bush, but Clinton and Obama were just as deeply involved and their liberal constituency hardly said a mumblin’ word.

We may not win this war but we certainly won’t until we admit we are in it and must stand as firmly for American standards and beliefs as we have in great military conflicts.

The Battle of the Economic Bulge – aka TPP – is the struggle presently before us, involving arguably the most disloyal legislation since secession. We still have time to stand up against it. But to do so, we can’t pretend it’s just another measure. We have to recognize the stakes of the battle that we’re in. Our leaders are not surrendering America, they’re just selling it away bit by bit. But the results could well be the same.

Normalizing failure

 Sam Smith The tediously unsuccessful manifestations of American intervention in the Middle East brings to mind the lengthy unwinding of the Vietnam War during which our leaders – like alcoholics avoiding treatment – never admitted that they had made terrible mistakes and never publicly discussed the alternatives. They just ran it all out until they had to give up.

In fact, to this day the establishment and its embedded mainstream media regards those who opposed the deadliest stupid war in American history as nuts or extremists while those who organized the withdrawal years after it should have occurred as our wise leaders.

The same is true today, which is why you are not likely to see any serious critics of our Mid East policy on the Brian Williams show. Truth is not regarded as a matter of accuracy but of timing, as determined by approved sources. It is not a question of if the truth is said, but who says it and when,

Thus it is not surprising that American have such little awareness of how many ways our society is silently failing. After all, who with power is there to tell them?

Here are a few cases in point:

– A drug war that has been failing drastically for over four decades.

– The Iraq and Afghanistan wars – the longest unsuccessful military efforts in American history.

– An economy which, once you move past a few comfortable approved indicators, is still in its worst shape since the Great Depression.

– A level of ethnic conflict we haven’t seen since the days of segregation.

– Police and courts that have moved increasingly towards military rather than constitutional standards of behavior, with America just another occupied country.

– A nation that has silently closed down the First American Republic in favor of a post-constitutional, oligarchic adhocracy whose future remains unpredictable but which history suggests will not return to the better.

– The replacement of votes with money as the primary denominators of elections.

What all these have in common is that our declared ideals have been repeatedly subverted, perverted, and averted to a degree so overwhelming that our leaders, our media and even much of our public consider these stunning failures to be normal.

And as the Germans discovered many decades ago, once you accept the false as normal, anything can happen.

50 years of alternative journalism: Some random notes

Sam Smith, January 2, 2015 –  Having just completed fifty years of alternative journalism, I’m left with a few notes I’d like to clear off my desk:

The biggest improvements over the past half century have been in health, machinery and technology. Good as this is, I still find myself imagining a world in which a 130 year old Dick Cheney drives a hovercraft at 130 mph to his favorite torture chamber while emitting hateful messages that are automatically transferred from his brain to the world via Google glasses.

 Now a few other things that have changed since I started out:
Back then, most politicians got where they were in part by giving people a hand. Now they do it by just selling them a brand. Television was the main change that  turned politics from being based in community, service and reputation into a virtual fantasy with ever lessening connection to reality.

When I started, over half the reporters in the country had only a high school education. As journalists moved up the social ladder so did their interests and loyalties.

Good writing was something you learned from  teachers and writers. Today, writing standards have been outsourced to business schools and public relations firms. Who needs E.B. White or H.L. Mencken when, at the end of the day, you can envision a robust entrepreneurial comprehensive strategic approach to whatever the hell you’re talking about?

Politics was full of conflict, debate and confrontation. Now we have “dialogues” and “conversations” no matter how violent the context.

Most successful business people didn’t have a MBA, yet the economy was improving rapidly. Now we’re producing over 20 times as many MBAs annually and the economy remains a mess.

Climate change happened four predictable times a year and it was largely thanks to nature rather than huge corporations and their subservient politicians.

Washington politicians often had high social intelligence while being weak in formal degrees. This has been reversed, vastly increasing the length and complexity of legislation and our inability to comprehend what it is really about.

Baseball was the national sport, as well as a metaphor for democracy. Each player had their own turf but couldn’t succeed without helping the others, Now football – a metaphor for brutal power and cultural concussions – has risen to the top.

Many of the weakest in our society couldn’t attend, apply or sit. Now some of them can’t even breathe.

Our society was a flawed democracy that we were trying to fix. Now it’s a rampant oligarchy that doesn’t give a damn what we think.

Liberals were deeply concerned with the fate of the least fortunate in our society. As the economic and social status of liberals improved their interest in the least fortunate faded. Which is how some children of liberal Democrats became members of the Tea Party.

Activism was easier – in part because there was a strong counterculture that provided support, friendship and aid to all who were trying to make things better. Today activism is far more atomized, institutionalized and lacking in the common songs and symbols that help bring everyone together.

Being hip wasn’t about fashion or where you lived, Like Miles Davis, the hip played with their backs to the audience and avoided things that corporations and mass media liked. Today, hip is too often just another corporate commodity.


When the Review started (then called The Idler) there were only a handful of alternative news publications in the country – like the Texas Observer, the Village Voice and the Carolina Israelite. In a few years there would be over 400 underground newspapers. In time, these were replaced by “alternative weeklies” that too often fostered a culture in which hipness was defined by one’s purchases; dissent was limited to critiques of style, activism was limited to the gym, and politics was considered the last refuge of the hopelessly dull.

When  this journal started, your editor was respectable enough to be offered a job by the Washington Post and James Reston of the NY Times. By the 1990s, his exposes of the Clintons and his role in helping to start the Green Party helped make the Review unacceptable to even liberal media. Its editor was banned by CSPAN and the DC public radio station.   

Now  many reporters aren’t reporters anymore; they’re just semiotic sharecroppers on some corporate plantation. The number of corporations dominating mass media in the 1980s was 50. Today it is six. And many national reporters, as Gene McCarthy well put it, are like blackbirds on a power line. One flies off and they all fly off.

Despite it all, however, your editor will continue to bring you news while there is still time to do something about it, even if he falls into that category the FBI had for Americans opposed to Spain’s Franco, namely “premature anti-fascists.” Remember that while we may not control history, we can always control our reaction to it.

Weekend update

Sam Smith – During a trip last weekend to the coastal area north of Boston, my wife and I stayed at the Emerson Inn by the Sea in Rockport. It was neither its original name nor in its original location. It had once been a tavern nearby until in 1856 some 200 townswomen, as well as three men, began a destructive raid against alcoholic spirits. According to the inn’ s account, “Hiding their weapons beneath lacy shawls, the protestors set out to destroy every drop of alcohol. . .Five hours after the siege began, the weary but victorious women went home to fix supper for their families.”

In the wake of this chaos, the owner decided to turn the tavern into an inn since Pigeon Cove had begin attracting a growing number of summer visitors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, originally brought by his friend Henry David Thoreau

Emerson would spend several vacations here with his family and wrote about it in his diary with less than careful reserve:

Returned from Pigeon Cove, where we have made acquaintance with the sea, for seven days. Tis a noble, friendly power, and seemed to say to me, “Why so late and slow to come to me? Am I not here always, thy proper summer home? Is not my voice thy needful music; my breath, thy healthful climate in the heats; My touch, thy cure? Was ever a building like my terraces? Was ever a couch so magnificent as mine? Lie down on my warm ledges and learn that a very little but is all you need. I have made thy architecture superfluous, and it is paltry beside mine. Here are twenty Romes and Nineveho and Karnacs in ruin together, obelisk and pyramid and giant’s causeway here they all are prostrate or half piled.”

As It turned out, our room was just two down the hall from Emerson’s, which would have been heart warming were it not for the fact that his pre-Expedia assessment of the inn was in stunning contrast with some of his other comments on travel that I have regularly quoted, to wit:

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. . .I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . .My giant goes with me wherever I go.

He who travels to be amused, or to get something which he does not carry, travels away from himself and grows old even in youth among old things.

But it wasn’t the only historic clash of the weekend. Upon arriving in nearby Salem we were immediately reminded that Halloween was only a week away as it was already being cheerfully observed by an extraordinary number of people wearing odd costumes and pointed hats. The mood was mindlessly celebratory, at least until we joined a few other people in the town’s visitors’ center to see a documentary on where Salem’s interest in witches had begun, namely in 1692 during trials that resulted in the hanging of 19 women in nine months of hysteria about the subject. describes it this way:

The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. By September 1692, the hysteria had begun to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the Massachusetts General Court later annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and granted indemnities to their families, bitterness lingered in the community, and the painful legacy of the Salem witch trials would endure for centuries….

In January 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the tragedy of the Salem witch trials; the court later deemed the trials unlawful, and the leading justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the process. The damage to the community lingered, however, even after Massachusetts Colony passed legislation restoring the good names of the condemned and providing financial restitution to their heirs in 1711. Indeed, the vivid and painful legacy of the Salem witch trials endured well into the 20th century, when Arthur Miller dramatized the events of 1692 in his play “The Crucible” (1953), using them as an allegory for the anti-Communist “witch hunts” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

To view a documentary on this subject in a nearly empty auditorium and then to step into a main street of Salem jammed with a contemporary celebration of sorcery was a troublesome reminder of how little we often learn from history

The war that never ended

Sam Smith

About a decade ago, I wrote of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary:

We tend to view wars in the isolation of their military events. By such a standard, there is no doubt the North won. But what about the social, cultural and economic aftermath?

For example, while the Civil War ended slavery, it would take more than a hundred years to begin enforcing effectively the equality that was presumed to result in its wake.

Right into the present the South enjoys a disproportionate influence on our politics and values. When was the last time you saw a politician afraid of what New England might think?

Further, the increasingly hegemonic structure of our business, political and cultural life has far more in common with the southern past than with that of the anarchistic old west or more democratic Northeast.

But none of this gets discussed because we judge military triumphs on such a narrow basis, despite there being much more to it all.

If there is any moral that should be drawn from the commemoration of the Civil War – but almost certainly won’t be – it is this: just because your troops win doesn’t mean that you did.

A decade later, little seems to have changed. Our political and cultural debates are distorted by still vigorous remains of Confederate values whether we’re discussing race and gender or which country to invade next.

What’s driving this in no small part are aspects of traditional southern culture, particularly a hegemonic view of liberty, that gets too little attention.

The hegemonic view of liberty, as outlined by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed, is that liberty is a function of power. A slave had none, the elite had as much it wanted, This contrasted with liberty being defined by community values as in New England, the Quaker notion of reciprocal liberty (I can’t have mine without you having yours) and the western idea of what we might today call libertarian liberty.

We have quietly and without debate moved strongly back to the regressive idea of hegemonic liberty aided by a mass media that treats it as normal except on those rare occasions, as with Donald Sterling, when its abuse moves irrefutably into the absurd.

But consider the comfort with we assume that other sports owners are free to do what they want, our entertainment stars are similarly entitled as long as it makes a good story, our CEOs are tacitly permitted to act like barons of the Middle Ages (only our media calls it “free enterprise”), and our politicians can engage in all sorts of misbehavior for which we ask only for an “apology” and that they “move on.”

More than any place else, it is the South – representing about one third of our total population – that has been the region most strongly adhering to such values throughout its history. As a 19th century European visitor put it, the leaders of the South “think and act precisely as do the nobility in other countries.”

But what is notable is the degree to which these values have now spread throughout America to a point where seven of the top eleven GOP candidates for president come from southern states and the leading Democratic candidate – while born in the north – vigorously adopted similar values during the course of living in Arkansas.

And what is extraordinary is the degree to which the mass media has accepted these values as a given, as have post-modern liberals in the case of Hillary Clinton. We now view our leaders whether in sports, business, politics or entertainment as living in a bubble of impunity in which faults, failures or frauds are largely to be taken as business as usual.

Thus, there is the possibility that we will in 2016 be asked to choose between two representatives of what might be called southern planter politics in which power and its access are the only virtues necessary. The Clintons and the Bushes, in best southern style, represent the inherited nobility of ill gained and poorly practiced power.

Bill Clinton, for example, had not a liberal bone in his body, raised innumerable ethical issues, was governor of a state in which the Dixie drug mafia flourished, and could be fairly categorized as corrupt and contented.

But hardly any of this was made known to the general public. A mythology replaced the actual story. What had actually happened in Arkansas was mostly ignored by the media.

The contrast in perspective was striking. For example on the very day that Bill Clinton was nominated for president, Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette wrote in a column:

“His word is dirt. Not a statesman is he, but a common, run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen politician. A mere opportunist. A man whose word is fallow ground not because it is unwanted but because it is barren, bereft of the clean-smelling goodness that nurtures wholesome things. Those of us who cling to the precepts of another age, a time in which a man’s word was his bond, and, morally, bailing out was not an option, cannot join the madding crowd in celebrating what is for some Bill Clinton’s finest hour. We cannot rejoice in treachery.. He subscribes to the credo that the anointed must rule the empire, and he has anointed himself. In his ambition-blinded eyes, one released from a promise has not broken any promise. He ignores the fact that he granted his own pardon.”

Bill Clinton was aided by two major sources of support. One was a post-modern liberal constituency increasingly turning its back on its own values as expressed by the New Deal and Great Society. And the other was a Dixiecentric Democratic Leadership Council whose open agenda was to reverse these values, thus producing a bizarre coalition of political masochists and political sadists. To help things along, Bill Clinton became the fourth of the of the first five DLC chairs who was from the south – just in time to boost his own candidacy.

For 73% of the time from 1992 to now, the White House has been filled by southern backed presidents. Even Barack Obama was aided towards the presidency by being on the DLC approved list, a fact he would try to hide while pretending to be a liberal.

Add to this the rise of a modern planter economy in which banks and other corporations increasingly considered themselves exempt from moral, fiduciary, or legal responsibility. An economy in which the federal government and its Democratic president could find tens of billions to bail out an insurance company but hardly anything to save Detroit.

A planter economy where a Democratic administration considered public schools just more acreage in which to raise profitable crops for its campaign contributors. Where an increasingly large segment of the population found itself in prison because of minor offenses, or going without food so someone in Washington could brag about austerity. And where

Further, like the culture of the South, lower income whites have been convinced by a rampantly deceptive white elite that their problems are due to poor blacks, latinos and immigrants rather than the work of the elite itself.

There are plenty of good souls in the South but they are up against not just a distorted regional tradition but one that has gone national, one that has, in many ways, come to define the collapse of American decency and constitutional government.

It is small wonder that we find blacks and latinos denied the vote, Wall Street getting away with fiscal rape and women denied the right to make the most personal of decisions.

Yes, we ended slavery and preserved the union. But in many ways the old South continues to win.