The existential theat to existentialism

Sam Smith – As a real existentialist, I am repeatedly befuddled and also a bit annoyed when public figures such as journalists use, as they do increasingly, the term “existential” as an adjective presumably meant to mean, “listen up, this is real serious” – as in “ISIS presents an existential threat to our way of life.”

Just for the record, the existential has been more correctly defined as “a philosophical attitude associated especially with Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, and Sartre, and opposed to rationalism and empiricism, that stresses the individual’s unique position as a self-determining agent responsible for the authenticity of his or her choices.” Or, as it has been put, the belief that no one can take your shower for you.

That has nothing to do with ISIS or other “existential threats.”

Sam Smith, Why Bother –  The history of existentialism is murky and confusing, for those lumped in the category have agreed on neither religion nor politics. But for the purposes of getting a life rather than obtaining tenure, Jean Paul Sartre’s definition works pretty well. Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse of predestination and original sin with their presumption of an innate essence. Said Sartre, “Values rise from our actions as partridges do from the grass beneath our feet.”

In fact, some existentialists argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a choice of how to approach the gallows.

Wrote Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”

Sartre, while the father of modern existentialism, was not the first existentialist. For example, there was the theologian Kierkegaard, as conscious of God as Sartre was of Marx. According to Kierkegaard, writes Donald Palmer,

We can never be certain that we have chosen “the right values.” This means, among other things, that there is no such thing as existence without risk, and that existence at its very core must be experienced as anguish and dread by every sensitive soul.

To show just how murky existentialism  can be, one of the most famous existentialist writers, Albert Camus, even denied he was one, telling one interviewer:

No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. . . .

Perhaps this antipathy stemmed in part from the fact that Camus was a novelist rather than a philosopher like Sartre, and perhaps because they disagreed on politics, but whatever you want to call it, few have spoken as wisely on behalf of the uncertain human spirit. “There is no love of life without despair of life,” said Camus. “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

These are not the precise and pedagogical words of a philosophy rising, yet, as with art and love, there is no particular reasons why life should be hostage to logical words, among the least fluid of human expressions. Robert Frost, asked to explain a poem, replied that if he could have said it better he would have written it differently. Louis Armstrong, asked for a definition of jazz, replied that if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And, said Gertrude Stein, there ain’t no answer. There never was an answer, there ain’t going to be an answer. That’s the answer.

In a world dominated by dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach, not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon, “a sensibility …. an attitude towards oneself, an attitude towards one’s world, an attitude towards one’s behavior.” ..

This sense of being individually responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. “What if I’m wrong?”  And when he spoke of rebellion he also spoke of moderation:
There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history . . .  Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests. … The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.

Camus thus avoids the pedagogue’s death by definition, preferring attitude and values rather than direction.

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FUNNY BOOKS

Sam Smith

Most Washington journalists graduated with degrees in the humanities or social sciences. As a result they are easily conned by the numbers that buzz like mosquitoes around the capital or just don’t bother to question them.

For example, some time ago, Washington pols discovered the decade. You take whatever figure you like or don’t like and multiply by ten. If you’re lucky you can turn tens of millions into hundreds of millions or hundreds of millions into trillions. The decade figure is misleading in a number of regards including the fact that the people using it aren’t likely to be around to answer for any error in their calculations and, further, the accuracy of predicting something ten years from now is inevitably far less precise than estimating next year’s budget.

Another major scam might be called the public-private option. Both parties use it. Take healthcare for example. The GOP gives frightening estimates of what public healthcare expenditures will be without ever subtracting the parallel reduction in private healthcare costs. The Democrats, pushing for a mandatory purchase of health insurance for many, simultaneously claim not to be raising taxes. Of course, to the individual involved, whether you write the check to Aetna or the Treasury doesn’t make all that much difference.

The care and feeding of non-profit boards

Sam Smith

2007
One of the hazards of leading a visibly active life is that someone may ask you to serve on their board. In my case, the risk has declined markedly in recent years thanks to a growing assumption that the purpose of a board of directors is to raise money and not to offer direction. Since I’m the sort of person who has a hard time even asking someone to change a ten dollar bill, there has been a lessened demand for my services.

I’m not, however, such a bad board member in the right circumstances. If the body is new, brave and slightly chaotic, I can offer a bit of gratuitous imagination, generate a few laughs and share the pragmatism of a petit bourgeois businessman, a somewhat unfamiliar skill in the non-profit world.

For example, as one of the resident Philistines on the then new DC Community Humanities Council, I developed the exclusive Bang/Buck Ratio, by which I rated, with consummate objectivity, each of the grant requests. I also provided cartoon minutes of meetings and, according to the official version of those minutes, once actually got the group to accept my solution to the perpetual issue of the proper relationship between executive director, executive committee and board:

“The item concerning budget amendments (Section IV,A) was resolved by S. Smith’s ‘Principle of Escalating Anxiety,’ best explained as follows: ‘If it doesn’t make [the executive director] nervous it’s probably okay to let her handle it. If it does, she goes to the executive board. If it makes them nervous it’s probably a matter for full council consideration.’

See how simple these things can be?

The humanities council, happily, was new, brave and slightly chaotic. I loved our meetings, our arguments and my fellow board members. Besides, with how many groups can you go on retreat and end up playing jazz harpsichord in some West Virginia condo with a philosophy of science professor who carried around a miniature trumpet in his attache case?

I currently sit on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government, which would be a delight even if it wasn’t helping the cash flow of groups protecting scores of government whistle blowers, uncovering tons of government waste and fighting innumerable would-be censors of the Internet. This worthy organization was founded by Stewart Mott, who also, as far as I can tell, funded much of the 1960s. I was approached by the president of the board, Anne Zill, who suggested that she and Mott come over and have lunch with me. That day I may even have worn a tie and I’m sure I replaced my running shoes with loafers, but it wasn’t necessary. Zill and Mott arrived at my office, each carrying a motorcycle helmet. Right away I knew we shared a paradigm.

The fund’s board meetings average somewhere between four and six hours in length, shared by some of the most competently eccentric folk I have met in this fair city. Journalism grant committee meetings take almost as long over lunch at La Tomate, as one might imagine of a confabulation that includes Christopher Hitchens, myself and Hamilton Fish Number Whatever He Is from the Nation.

During board meetings we hear reports from some of the most useful people in America (our fundees) as they patiently deal with some of the most contentious people in America (their funders). At one end of the large table sits Mott, who may or may not be wearing a day-glo orange hunting vest, and the chair, Russell Hemenway, who is almost certainly wearing a suit in which each pin strip has been individually pressed. Hemenway, accustomed to the more sedate ways of the Big Apple, regards us not unlike a grandfather painfully observing his obstreperous, penultimate genetic responsibilities. You soon learn that when Russ stops glaring and stands up that the party is over and we actually have to do something.

Since my wife has been involved in a number of more well-mannered civic enterprises, I have found around the house books on board governance, the well-functioning non-profit and so forth. I get the impression that the authors don’t have the slightest idea of what they are talking about. For example, I have served as president of three organizations, helped to start nine and served on the board of 15 and have never had a strategic vision even in the middle of a  dark and stormy night.

Here, on the other hand, are some of the key principles of a well-functioning board that I have discovered:

– Ideally, the organization should be new and, if not new, should at least be doing something that is new. You can easily test a group’s raison d’etre by attending a board meeting and calculating how much time is spent on matters that, if you had just wandered accidentally into the room, would in no way identify the organization’s reason for existence. This includes all discussions of budgets, by-law changes, and most mission statements. The only mission statement I ever liked was that of the Seattle alternative paper, Eat the State. Its mission statement declared that missions had been created by the Catholic church to subjugate the Indians and that “we oppose them.”

– A good time to resign from a board is when it discovers that it doesn’t have a personnel policy and decides to do something about it. Bear in mind that one of the most important American organizations of the last century was the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. It went some 40 years without bylaws or a constitution.

– In the best organizations, the relationship between the executive director and the board is relaxed, cooperative and productive. No policy directive can create this. There is also a good relationship between the organization and its volunteers, the latter being regarded as assets and not as annoyances. As non-profits strive to be more “professional,” as opposed to being acts of grace, then – as Emily Dickinson wrote – “a formal feeling comes – the nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.”

– The best boards have a passion for something greater than the personal interests of anyone in the room.

– Board debates should favor philosophical, political and aesthetic matters. Detailed discussions of finances and structure should be left to committees.

– Boards should be picked in such a manner that the chosen will not bore each other. Preferably, in fact, they should inspire, entertain and enlighten other board members without the latter minding a bit.

– Don’t let yourself be chosen as a token anything, unless you plan to parlay it into higher office. Being a token merely allows others to become smug at your expense.

– Retreats should be held with some frequency, ideally in surroundings more reminiscent of summer camp or a Masterpiece Theatre 19th century setting than of whatever it is you are actually meant to be doing.

– All the foregoing 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.

In short, 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. And the smartest among them know that salvation lies not in the proper mission statement but in the right menu.

Five years of failure

Sam Smith

In 1986, I was asked to give a toast at the fifth anniversary celebration of the DC Community Humanities Council. Here is what I said:

Five years ago the DC Community Humanities Council was formed, charged with the diffusion of ideas, the encouragement of thought and the inspiration of rational discourse within this our nation’s capital. This was a little like trying to sell Bibles in a brothel, and I think that any fair assessment of what has occurred around us since we began would indicate that we have failed miserably. The best efforts of the council and its sainted staff have failed to halt a national and local stampede towards what is perhaps the most anti-humanistic era of our lifetimes.

It is an era, to be sure, 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.

It is an era when we propose to devise the most complex weapons system ever created, but when we go to explain it to people, our government feels compelled to use comic book stick figures on television. We have become the first society to know more about the external world than we do about ourselves. And now we even seem to be losing the ability to talk or write about the problem.

It is an era in which, like the fifties, the man in the gray flannel suit is in the ascendancy, but unlike the fifties, when he was viewed with the ambivalence that the market forces upon us, he or she is now a cultural role model, and, unbelievably, even considered hip, charismatic and sexy.

And it is an era in which we know how to promote, facilitate merge, network, manage, integrate, finalize and bottom line, but are losing the ability to make or to create. I have a nightmare that one day the country will awake and discover that there is nothing left to manage, finalize and facilitate. And there will be no one left to build anything.

So we have failed — here in the jaws of the lion — but I would argue that given the powers arrayed against the humanistic ideal, failure has been the only sane and honorable course. And the failure, one hopes, is only temporary. Long ago, John Locke warned of the constant decay of ideas, and how they must be “renewed by repeated exercises of the senses.” If not, “the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen.”

The print is fading, but, thanks in part to this band of happy humanistic warriors, it could have been a lot worse. It has engaged in repeated exercise of the senses with an integrity, decency, fairness, sensitivity and good humor rarely seen in this town anymore. In a city that is obsessed with style, it is one of the few real class acts. So a toast to the Council for all it has done and will do and to the humanistic spirit. May we live to see it once more.

Retrieving the Democrats’ reason for existence

Sam Smith

JOHN EDWARDS has done the Democrats an enormous favor. He has retrieved the party’s reason for existence from the attic where it has been stowed lost and forgotten for some four decades.

What Edwards does with the discovery remains to be seen, but the mere removal from storage of the populist notion that Democrats are meant to serve the little guy has a significance that is hard to overrate.

To understand why, you have to look at some of the party’s other lost and forgotten history, a history that directly challenges the myths of the moment.

For example, there have only been two Democratic presidents over the past three-quarters of a century who have gotten significantly more than 50% of the vote: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom received 61% in one election. While neither fit the definition of a populist, many of their programs – from FDR’s minimum wage and social security to LBJ’s war on poverty and education legislation – were part of a populist agenda.

Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted its populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP.

Although current party and media mythology treats Bill Clinton and other Vichy Democrats as symbols of Democratic triumph this is far from the case:

– Clinton did no better than Kerry, Gore, Carter, JFK, and Harry Truman. All of them came within two percent of the midpoint despite markedly different styles and programs. It is fair to say that in each case, party loyalty proved more important than the candidate.

– Michael Dukakis, the unfairly assigned butt of party jokes, did three points better than Clinton in the latter’s first election and only three points worse in the second. Even more striking, Dukakis beat or equaled Clinton’s best percentage in 12 states including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma, a record dramatically at odds with the spin of the Clintonistas and the Democratic Leadership Council.

– Democratic losses at the state and national level under Clinton were worse than any seen by a party incumbent since Grover Cleveland. Clinton proved a disaster for the Democrats. What happened in Congress this year was a partial recovery from this disaster.

In short, the only thing that has really worked for the Democrats have been campaigns heavily populist in nature.

American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.

One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.

The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.

In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle — with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan “Not Now” and its goal of maintaining the temerity of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.

As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn’t long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It’s not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a candidate on its own.

The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power.

The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another – including young non-college educated whites – until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power.

Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.

Populism’s hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, found that “Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that’s not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. . .

A review of Doppelt and Shearer’s work notes that “In the 1996 elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age 30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as minorities.”

And the study also found that 52% agreed with the statement: “The federal government often does a better job than people give it credit for.” 83% of nonvoters thought the government should have a major policy role in the realms of healthcare, housing, and education.

While a follow-up study found that nonvoters divided pretty much the same way as voters on the presidency, the fact that they didn’t do anything about it was more telling. Besides, we’re talking about a huge number of people. If those of voting age simply turned out in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would be about 24 million more voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That’s a lot of people looking for some difference between the candidates and some new directions.

But there are also big problems. We have, for example, reached a stage where many minorities have produced enough winners that the greater number of losers not only have to battle their oppressors but the indifference of, and misleading impressions caused by, their own role models. All pressure groups – farmers, labor unions, women, ethnic groups – have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the citizens at the bottom of each of these causes – the poor farmer, the unemployed laborer, the tip-dependent waitress, the slum dweller – has hardly been allowed a bite. We have created the superstructure of a welfare state without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.

Not even the organizations supposedly dedicated to correcting this imbalance have been up to the task. The Black Congressional Caucus remains silent as the toll mounts of black young men sent to prison or to their death thanks a war far more deadly to them than Iraq, namely the war on drugs. The major women’s groups are far more interested in Nancy Pelosi than in women working at Wal-Mart. In fact, the most effective women’s and minority groups in the country are unions like SEIU and Unite Here, which actually help some of those most in need.

Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to driver its SUV to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right thing. Faith vs. works.

Interestingly, populism – despite its bad rap – has far more potential for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to people’s personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles. Karl Rove is just the George Wallace of another time.

But you won’t break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You don’t do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and social equity.

Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn’t think they qualified as Democratic voters.

The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by a growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of “cultural creatives” saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.

The black writer, Jean Toomer once described America as “so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes.” Writing in 1919, Toomer said, “It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition.”

So what might a populist agenda look like? Let’s look at two examples – neither a paragon of virtue – yet far better, and stunningly so, than any of today’s politicians in starting programs that helped large numbers of people. Their legacy was not to be found in their own amply noted inadequacies but in the adequacies they made possible for others. In a time of shallow political celebrities incapable of even modest achievement, these men remind us what democracy was meant to be about.

The first was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Here’s how Wikipedia describes him:

|||| In his four-year term as governor, Long increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana from 331 to 2,301, plus an additional 4,508 2,816 miles of gravel roads. By 1936, the infrastructure program begun by Long had [doubled] the state’s road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .

Long’s free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state’s mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year. . .

As an alternative to what he called the conservatism of the New Deal, Long proposed legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. . . In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.

Long proposed a new tax code which would limit personal fortunes to $50 million, annual income to $1 million (or 300 times the income of the average family), and inheritances to $5 million. The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans’ benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours. . .

Long, in February 1934, formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country, and Long’s Senate office was receiving an average of 60,000 letters a week. Pressure from Long and his organization is considered by some historians as responsible for Roosevelt’s “turn to the left” in 1935, when he enacted the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security; in private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to “steal Long’s thunder.” |||

The other example is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s gross mishandling of Vietnam has obscured memory of the fact that he fermented the greatest number of good domestic bills in the least time of any president in our history. Again, some examples from Wikipedia:

|||| Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the first two years of Johnson’s presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations. . .

The War on Poverty . . . spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school; Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children.

The most important educational component of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. . . initially allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002

The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. . . In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. . .

In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. . .

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states . . . The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. . . Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe. Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children’s sleepwear, but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards. Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales. Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided standards and recalls for defective electronic products. |||||

It is virtually impossible to conceive of any elected official today being as productive as Johnson and Long. Yet Johnson never went to business school; he was just a teacher. And Long took the bar exam after one year at Tulane Law school and then went out and sued Standard Oil. These were not people who are meant to succeed by today’s distorted and ineffectual standards, yet they did. In fact, if you want to find anything comparable one of the few names that springs to mind is Harry Hopkins who put millions to work within months for FDR. Hopkins was a social worker by trade. With such leaders, hearts and smarts were the credentials they really needed.

What would a new populist program look like? It might include things like this:

– Universal healthcare with no trough-slopping by insurance companies

– A housing program in which the federal government would be an equity partner with lower income house purchasers. It would be a self-sustaining program as each partner would get their equity back when the house was sold.

– An end to usury in credit card lending.

– Pension protection

– A revival of high quality vocational training

– Election reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing

– Expansion of cooperatives and credit unions

It is possible that we have so fouled our own nest that nothing like LBJ or Huey Long will ever be possible again. And there is no guarantee that John Edwards, having discovered the populist treasure in the Democratic attic, will use it well. But there are so few real reasons to cheer about our politics these days, news that one candidate is seriously interested in programs that do the most good for the most people – an almost extinct goal in the Democratic Party – deserves a big cheer. And if he abuses this new found treasure, grab it from him and put it to better use .

Retrieving the Democrats’ reason for existence

Sam Smith

JOHN EDWARDS has done the Democrats an enormous favor. He has retrieved the party’s reason for existence from the attic where it has been stowed lost and forgotten for some four decades.

What Edwards does with the discovery remains to be seen, but the mere removal from storage of the populist notion that Democrats are meant to serve the little guy has a significance that is hard to overrate.

To understand why, you have to look at some of the party’s other lost and forgotten history, a history that directly challenges the myths of the moment.

For example, there have only been two Democratic presidents over the past three-quarters of a century who have gotten significantly more than 50% of the vote: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom received 61% in one election. While neither fit the definition of a populist, many of their programs – from FDR’s minimum wage and social security to LBJ’s war on poverty and education legislation – were part of a populist agenda.

Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted its populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP.

Although current party and media mythology treats Bill Clinton and other Vichy Democrats as symbols of Democratic triumph this is far from the case:

– Clinton did no better than Kerry, Gore, Carter, JFK, and Harry Truman. All of them came within two percent of the midpoint despite markedly different styles and programs. It is fair to say that in each case, party loyalty proved more important than the candidate.

– Michael Dukakis, the unfairly assigned butt of party jokes, did three points better than Clinton in the latter’s first election and only three points worse in the second. Even more striking, Dukakis beat or equaled Clinton’s best percentage in 12 states including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma, a record dramatically at odds with the spin of the Clintonistas and the Democratic Leadership Council.

– Democratic losses at the state and national level under Clinton were worse than any seen by a party incumbent since Grover Cleveland. Clinton proved a disaster for the Democrats. What happened in Congress this year was a partial recovery from this disaster.

In short, the only thing that has really worked for the Democrats have been campaigns heavily populist in nature.

American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.

One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.

The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.

In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle — with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan “Not Now” and its goal of maintaining the temerity of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.

As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn’t long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It’s not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a candidate on its own.

The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power.

The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another – including young non-college educated whites – until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power.

Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.

Populism’s hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, found that “Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that’s not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. . .

A review of Doppelt and Shearer’s work notes that “In the 1996 elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age 30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as minorities.”

And the study also found that 52% agreed with the statement: “The federal government often does a better job than people give it credit for.” 83% of nonvoters thought the government should have a major policy role in the realms of healthcare, housing, and education.

While a follow-up study found that nonvoters divided pretty much the same way as voters on the presidency, the fact that they didn’t do anything about it was more telling. Besides, we’re talking about a huge number of people. If those of voting age simply turned out in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would be about 24 million more voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That’s a lot of people looking for some difference between the candidates and some new directions.

But there are also big problems. We have, for example, reached a stage where many minorities have produced enough winners that the greater number of losers not only have to battle their oppressors but the indifference of, and misleading impressions caused by, their own role models. All pressure groups – farmers, labor unions, women, ethnic groups – have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the citizens at the bottom of each of these causes – the poor farmer, the unemployed laborer, the tip-dependent waitress, the slum dweller – has hardly been allowed a bite. We have created the superstructure of a welfare state without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.

Not even the organizations supposedly dedicated to correcting this imbalance have been up to the task. The Black Congressional Caucus remains silent as the toll mounts of black young men sent to prison or to their death thanks a war far more deadly to them than Iraq, namely the war on drugs. The major women’s groups are far more interested in Nancy Pelosi than in women working at Wal-Mart. In fact, the most effective women’s and minority groups in the country are unions like SEIU and Unite Here, which actually help some of those most in need.

Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to driver its SUV to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right thing. Faith vs. works.

Interestingly, populism – despite its bad rap – has far more potential for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to people’s personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles. Karl Rove is just the George Wallace of another time.

But you won’t break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You don’t do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and social equity.

Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn’t think they qualified as Democratic voters.

The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by a growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of “cultural creatives” saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.

The black writer, Jean Toomer once described America as “so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes.” Writing in 1919, Toomer said, “It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition.”

So what might a populist agenda look like? Let’s look at two examples – neither a paragon of virtue – yet far better, and stunningly so, than any of today’s politicians in starting programs that helped large numbers of people. Their legacy was not to be found in their own amply noted inadequacies but in the adequacies they made possible for others. In a time of shallow political celebrities incapable of even modest achievement, these men remind us what democracy was meant to be about.

The first was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Here’s how Wikipedia describes him:

|||| In his four-year term as governor, Long increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana from 331 to 2,301, plus an additional 4,508 2,816 miles of gravel roads. By 1936, the infrastructure program begun by Long had [doubled] the state’s road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .

Long’s free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state’s mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year. . .

As an alternative to what he called the conservatism of the New Deal, Long proposed legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. . . In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.

Long proposed a new tax code which would limit personal fortunes to $50 million, annual income to $1 million (or 300 times the income of the average family), and inheritances to $5 million. The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans’ benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours. . .

Long, in February 1934, formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country, and Long’s Senate office was receiving an average of 60,000 letters a week. Pressure from Long and his organization is considered by some historians as responsible for Roosevelt’s “turn to the left” in 1935, when he enacted the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security; in private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to “steal Long’s thunder.” |||

The other example is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s gross mishandling of Vietnam has obscured memory of the fact that he fermented the greatest number of good domestic bills in the least time of any president in our history. Again, some examples from Wikipedia:

|||| Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the first two years of Johnson’s presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations. . .

The War on Poverty . . . spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school; Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children.

The most important educational component of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. . . initially allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002

The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. . . In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. . .

In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. . .

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states . . . The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. . . Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe. Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children’s sleepwear, but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards. Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales. Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided standards and recalls for defective electronic products. |||||

It is virtually impossible to conceive of any elected official today being as productive as Johnson and Long. Yet Johnson never went to business school; he was just a teacher. And Long took the bar exam after one year at Tulane Law school and then went out and sued Standard Oil. These were not people who are meant to succeed by today’s distorted and ineffectual standards, yet they did. In fact, if you want to find anything comparable one of the few names that springs to mind is Harry Hopkins who put millions to work within months for FDR. Hopkins was a social worker by trade. With such leaders, hearts and smarts were the credentials they really needed.

What would a new populist program look like? It might include things like this:

– Universal healthcare with no trough-slopping by insurance companies

– A housing program in which the federal government would be an equity partner with lower income house purchasers. It would be a self-sustaining program as each partner would get their equity back when the house was sold.

– An end to usury in credit card lending.

– Pension protection

– A revival of high quality vocational training

– Election reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing

– Expansion of cooperatives and credit unions

It is possible that we have so fouled our own nest that nothing like LBJ or Huey Long will ever be possible again. And there is no guarantee that John Edwards, having discovered the populist treasure in the Democratic attic, will use it well. But there are so few real reasons to cheer about our politics these days, news that one candidate is seriously interested in programs that do the most good for the most people – an almost extinct goal in the Democratic Party – deserves a big cheer. And if he abuses this new found treasure, grab it from him and put it to better use .

Dealing with myths

Sam Smith, 2006

Having been an anthropology major, I don’t get as riled up about mythology in public life as many in the media and politics. Myths can be helpful, benign, sad, or deadly but mostly they’re there to fill the empty places in reality.

Sometimes myths are carried on the backs of famous people because the reality isn’t powerful enough to do the job. A classic case involves the death of Dr Charles Drew, the famous black surgeon.

It is widely told that Drew, then 46, died in North Carolina in 1950 following a car accident for which he was unable to get treatment at a white hospital and had to be transported to a much more distant black hospital, wasting critical treatment time.

But the Annals of American Survey notes:

“The authoritative work by historian Spencie Love entitled, One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles Drew, described how the myth has been cultivated because of the time and place of Dr. Drew’s death and serves as an unfortunate filler between living memory and written history. True enough, a 23-year-old black World War II veteran by the name Maltheus Avery was critically injured in an auto crash on December 1, 1950, exactly 8 months after Dr. Drew’s death. He was a student at North Carolina A&T, a husband, and a father of a small child. Like Dr. Drew, he was treated initially at Alamance General Hospital. He was transferred to Duke University Hospital and subsequently turned away because they had exhausted their supply of beds for black patients. Mr. Avery would die shortly after arrival at Lincoln Hospital, Durham, North Carolina’s black facility. Spencie Love’s book discusses how the story of the lesser-known Maltheus Avery confronted the circumstances of the death of the more prominent Dr. Drew, and thus a myth was born.”

Something similar was at work in the black response to the OJ Simpson case. To many blacks, Simpson was carrying the mythic weight of decades of ethnic abuse under the justice system. In a column at the time for Pacific News Service, a black journalist, Dennis Schatzman, outlined some of the black context for the Simpson trial:

Just last year, Olympic long jumper and track coach Al Joyner was handcuffed and harassed in a LAPD traffic incident. He has settled out of court for $250,000.

A few years earlier, former baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was “handcuffed and arrested at the Los Angeles airport because police believed that Morgan ‘fit the profile of a drug dealer.'” He also got a settlement of $250,000.

Before that, former LA Laker forward Jamal Wilkes was stopped by the police, handcuffed and thrown to the pavement.

A black man was recently given a 25-year to life sentence for stealing a slice of pizza from a young white boy.

In 1992, a mentally troubled black man was shot and killed by LA sheriff’s deputies while causing a disturbance in front of his mother’s house. Neighbors say they saw a deputy plant a weapon by the body.

Simpson case detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of planting a weapon at the side of a robbery suspect back in 1988. The LAPD recently settled for an undisclosed amount.

In North Carolina, Daryl Hunt still languishes in jail for the 1984 rape and murder of a white newspaper reporter, even though DNA tests say it was not possible.

These examples would be rejected as irrelevant by the average lawyer or journalist but in fact OJ Simpson’s case served as the mythic translation of stories never allowed to be told. The stories that should have been on CNN but weren’t. Everything was true except the names, times and places. In Washington, they do something similar when stories can’t be told; they write a novel.

Something parallel took place around the same time when militia members imagined that the Bloods & Crips were being armed by the US government or when blacks believed the same thing about the militias. Or when the UN was thought to on the verge of invading the U.S.

Like urban blacks considering the justice system, the rural right saw things the elite would prefer to ignore. It observed correctly phenomena indicating loss of sovereignty for themselves, their states and their country. They saw treaties replaced by fast-track agreements and national powers surrendered to remote and unaccountable trade tribunals. And they saw a multi-decade assault by the federal government on the powers of states and localities.

Like urban blacks, they were not paranoid in these observations, merely perceptive. But because the story could not be told, could not become part of the national agenda, they turned, as people in trouble often do, to a myth — and, yes, sometimes a violent myth — that would carry the story.

We tend to get very self-righteous when dealing with other people’s myths but very tolerant about our own. Thus a conference dedicated to spreading doubt about the Holocaust is an outrage but a generation of teaching Americans fabrications about the economy in the name of robber baron capitalism is perfectly fine even if it has done infinitely more damage than an anti-Holocaust conference.

The Holocaust conference was a mythological alternative to doing what many participants would like to do but can’t: invade and destroy Israel. Defeat is a prime breeding ground of myth.

But even as the Washington Post was attacking the conference, it was slipping in its own myth, witness this report:

Even by the standards of Neturei Karta, these most ultra of ultra-orthodox Jewish Hasids took a step into the world of the very strange, if not the meshuga, or crazy, when they showed up as honored guests at a conference of Holocaust skeptics and deniers in Tehran. With a hug and a smile for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rabbi Aharon Cohen walked into a conference room with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, discredited academics, and more than a few white supremacists and served up a rousing welcome speech. . .

Neturei Karta is best understood within the confines and context of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which harbors the world’s largest ultra-orthodox Jewish shtetl, or community. Here the garb — black coats and hats for the men, wigs and demure dresses for the women — is that of the 18th century, Yiddish is the lingua franca and there is no deviation from the teachings of Torah and Talmud. The Satmar sect dominates this ghetto, and anti-Zionism is central to their identity. . .

Neturei Karta acknowledged never before having gone to a Holocaust deniers meeting but offered no apologies; they are practiced practitioners of the outrageous. Chaim Freimann used to hang around hotels in Washington during the 1992 Mideast peace talks, wearing a Palestinian flag in his lapel and giving old-comrade greetings to Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman.

The Post thus declared as outrageous the idea of a Jew being on friendly terms with a Palestinian. And what is a Jew doing at Mideast peace talks anyway?

Once again, proof that it’s a lot easier to explode the other guy’s myth than to examine one’s own.

America’s view of the Holocaust, for example, is filled with its own myths. Such as the one that redefines Nazism and the European conflict primarily by its anti-Semitic manifestations, safely exempting us from considering the changes in German governance that led to these manifestations, changes that are becoming uncomfortably familiar in America.

And it is missing important stories, stories like the one Richard Rubenstein tells in the Cunning of History about a Hungarian Jewish emissary meeting with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggesting that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne’s reply: “What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?” Writes Rubenstein: “The British government was by no means adverse to the ‘final solution’ as long as the Germans did most of the work. ” For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand “as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century.”

And this one from the Village Voice:

The infamous Auschwitz tattoo began as an IBM number. And now it’s been revealed that IBM machines were actually based at the infamous concentration-camp complex. . . The new revelation of IBM technology in the Auschwitz area constitutes a final link in the chain of documentation surrounding Big Blue’s vast enterprise in Nazi-occupied Poland, supervised at first directly from its New York headquarters, and later through its Geneva office. . . IBM spokesman Carol Makovich didn’t respond to repeated telephone calls. In the past, when asked about IBM’s Polish subsidiary’s involvement with the Nazis, Makovich has said, “IBM does not have much information about this period.” When a Reuters reporter asked about Poland, Makovich said, “We are a technology company, we are not historians.”

Similarly, in a mythology obsessed with Israel, the American story of secular Judaism has all but disappeared. Last century’s great immigration of European Jews brought with it many rebels who had rejected Zionism if not religion. As I wrote in Why Bother: “They became part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It helped to create the organizations, causes, and values that built this country’s social democracy. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists. It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left. There is, in fact, no greater parable of the potential power of a conscious, conscientious minority than the influence of secular Jews on 20th century modern American politics.”

These stories make the Holocaust more complex than we would like it to be.

Elsewhere in Why Bother, I discussed a less contentious example of myths at work:

Consider, for example, the Ojibwa, described by Brian Morris in Anthropology of the Self. These Indians, a group of nomadic hunters and fishers living east of Lake Winnipeg, “do not make any categorical or sharply defined differentiation between myth and reality, or between dreaming and the waking state; neither can any hard or fast line be drawn between humans and animals. . . . A bear is an animal which unlike humans hibernates during the winter, but in specific circumstances it may be interpreted as a human sorcerer. . . . The four winds are thought of not only as animate by the Ojibwa, but are categorized as persons.”

Not only may a culture 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. . .

Here is how anthropologist Morris describes his own western culture: “It is individualistic, and has a relatively inflated concern with the self which in extremes gives rise to anxiety, to a sense that there is a loss of meaning in contemporary life, to a state of narcissism, and to an emphasis in popular psychology on ‘self actualization.’ ”

Bad as this sounds, though, you will probably get along better in New York or Chicago with a loss of meaning, state of narcissism, or overflowing self-actualization than if you try to escape your angst by acting like the Ojibwa. In the Big Apple, to lack a sharply defined differentiation between myth and reality, between dreaming and the waking state; or between humans and animals, risks not only ridicule but actual legal sanctions. Even in a culture that celebrates the power of the individual, the restraints on that individualism are substantial and we, like peoples everywhere, go about our daily business regarding them as largely normal.”

Mythology soars when a culture is under threat or in great isolation. Might the fact that the U.S. hasn’t talked with Iran for 27 years have anything to do with the latter’s current treatment of the Holocaust?

And what changes this? I have argued that if you want to bring peace in the Israeli-Palestine conflict you just put a few Wal-Marts. Thus you would rid the area of both feuding cultures and replace them with Wal-Mart customers.

The theory behind this is more serious than it appears. People get on better when there is something more important going on than what it is that divides them. Thus, despite all the talk about cultural diversity in liberal circles and on campuses, the places where you are most likely to find people of different ethnic backgrounds mixing well include shopping malls, the military, sports teams and ethnic restaurants. Key to the relationship is the fact that everyone thinks they’re getting something out of the deal.

The same principle would work in foreign policy. The best way to deal with a harmful myth is to eliminate the anger, isolation and other problems that caused it to thrive in the first place. You replace them with a deal that works well for everyone.

These myths are not the problem; they are just good warning signs of the problem. Solve the problem and you’ll get much better myths.