Monday, November 4, 2013

Strategically speaking, it's time to rise up

The Left ought to aspire to relevance

With some awareness of the grandiosity of my ambition, I recently assigned myself the task of describing the way the U.S. Left has wandered through the wilderness these last 40 years or so and what, exactly, the Left ought to start doing about it besides acknowledging its own existence and finding ways to build unity. One critical requirement for writing about such topics is a bit of clarity about where the country is now, how it got that way, and what writers on the Left think about such things.

In "Strategic Thinking on the U.S. Six Party System," socialist and veteran peace and justice activist Carl Davidson puts it this way:

"Successful strategic thinking starts with gaining knowledge, particularly gaining adequate knowledge of the big picture, of all the political and economic forces involved (Earth) and what they are thinking, about themselves and others, at any given time (Heaven). It's not a one-shot deal. Since both Heaven and Earth are always changing, strategic thinking must always be kept up to date, reassessed and revised," Davidson wrote.

Davidson's "Heaven and Earth" metaphor might seem gimmicky, but it grows out of the very useful understanding that strategic thinking requires the broadest possible look at the variables affecting the universe under consideration and that universe is always changing. Davidson's piece wants to take a hard look at that part of the universe conventionally understood as the two-party system; in reality, he argues, "that we live under a six-party system with two labels [Democrat and Republican]."

In the process, Davidson also notes that many would argue "...that the US has only one party, a capitalist party, with two wings, the bad and the worse."

That is, more or less, the position that Chris Hedges, a journalist widely respected by many on the Left, takes in "Our Invisible Revolution." Hedges doesn't even deign to mention Republicans in his piece, but Democrats of all descriptions "are effective masks for corporate power," he writes.

I prefer Davidson's take: The notion that we are actually living under one-party rule "is reductionist to a fault," he writes, "and doesn't tell you much other than that we live in a capitalist society, which is rather trivial." Of course, the point isn't trivial, at all, but Davidson is focussed on describing a complex reality here that includes the Tea Party, the Republican Multinationalists, the Blue Dogs, the 'Third Way' New Democrats, the Old New Dealers and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (and the Progressive Democrats of America). The last grouping, PDA/Congressional Progressive Caucus, lies at the heart of Davidson's assertion that it is reductionist and misleading to claim that Republicans and Democrats are simply two wings of one party fronting for and managing on behalf of corporations and capitalism.

The PDA/CPC's "...policy views are Keynesian and, in some cases, social-democratic as well. Its recent 'Back-to-Work Budget' [would serve] as an excellent economic platform for a popular front against finance has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Davidson writes, using such slogans as "'Healthcare Not Warfare' and 'Windmills Not Weapons'." That congressional progressives haven't gotten very far with their agenda doesn't seem to be a function of their alleged role in one-party rule, but the result of political weakness on the Left, the absence of a movement of any sort that could force Congress to take such policy positions seriously.

And speaking of "a movement of any sort," a recent Nation article, by Greg Kaufmann warned about impending food stamp cuts that would adversely affect 48 million people receiving benefits. The piece, titled "This Week in Poverty: No Time to Wait on a Movement," argued that "...when it comes to responding to the struggles of the more than one in three Americans who are living below twice the poverty line—on less than about $36,600 annually for a family of three—we prefer to look the other way."

This is true, of course, but the problem here is that there wasn't anything that the Left could do about the cuts when Congress passed them and the President agreed to them, and there wasn't anything anybody could do to stop them last week, either. On Friday, the budgeted cuts became reality in the lives of millions of households around the country. But as a title for the piece, "No time to wait for a movement" is misleading. We can't just "wait" for a movement to come along, of course, but until we build one, we're going to see more safety net cuts, more government shutdowns and more healthcare debacles.

Hedges seems to feel that a movement is already on the way. "...once the tinder of revolt has piled up, as it has in the United States, an insignificant spark easily ignites popular rebellion. No one knows where or when the eruption will take place. No one knows the form it will take. But it is certain now that a popular revolt [against the corporate state] is coming." Hedges has more to say, but most of it raises a single set of questions in my head: How does he know this? And, where is the evidence?

As a journalist, Hedges has great skill, courage and instincts for the kind of news that the rest of us need to hear and read. But when he's merely sharing his opinion, he's rather like a lot of the rest of us on the Left, full of stories about how we're gathering strength, about how we stopped an American attack on Syria, about how we prevented the appointment of Larry Summers as head of the Fed, or about how Occupy was "...ruthlessly crushed by the corporate state."

But if anybody or anything stopped a Summers appointment, it was the Congressional Progressive Caucus' ability to swing at least a little weight against a possible Obama appointment before it became a certainty. There was a popular outcry on the Left against armed intervention in Syria, to be sure, but ordinary Republican resistance to anything Obama, as we have witnessed repeatedly for the last five years, would have been (and was) more than sufficient to force Obama into a different course of action. Further, if taking away Occupy's tents was, overall, about what it took to crush that movement, then, yes, the corporate state behaved ruthlessly.

It might be past time for a movement, but it ain't gonna happen in advance of a strategy to build it. At the end of his piece, Carl Davidson quotes Alvin Toffler: "If you don't have a strategy, you're part of someone else's strategy."

For a long time now, what has happened to the Left in the U.S. has been part of someone else's strategy.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Time To End the Left's Long Losing Streak

It's going to take a while and it's going to take a strategy

The shutdown and debt ceiling fight had me thinking hard about exactly where in the wilderness the American Left might be and what the map back to relevance might look like. I blogged about that a bit in "A few thoughts about the debt ceiling and a call for a Left political strategy." In the process, I started outlining a blogging/writing challenge for myself that goes something like this: Outline the elements of a comprehensive strategy and make the case for a Left unified around that strategy.

Ridiculous pipe dream, right? Still, I really do think the Left has been wandering through a desert of political irrelevance for almost 40 years now and it is past time for settling down and committing to something different.

Coming up with that strategy and some sort of stirring call to action must cover a range of important considerations. Among them:

Describe the wilderness. What has the Left devoutly wished for these last four decades and failed to accomplish? What has been lost? Who is it, exactly, who has been doing all that wandering? What were the Left's achievements during that period and why weren't they the path to larger political success? Other than its appeal as part of a metaphor, why make 40 years the period of concern?

Compare the Left's decades-long failure to the political success of the extreme right-wing, which never should have achieved the influence it has, given both the cruelty and the lunacy of most extreme-right policy positions.

The list goes on, of course. What are the main causes of the Left's failure? What are the strategic perspectives that ought to shape the development of a new Left strategy? Who should be a part of a newer, bigger Left and why should they bother? What should be the goals and objectives of that strategy? What tools, resources and institutional structures are necessary to support a struggle for political relevance?

There are other important questions, I know. Every time I sit down to think about the whole idea (or get up to wander and noodle the idea), I come up with a different list. But I'm pretty certain that I'm not going to reach any kind of clarity about the project until I start it.

So that's what I'm going to do. And I'm hoping this blog will help me move the project along. This post isn't really the beginning of that discussion--it's more like the introduction, but the discussion, maybe, starts here, if others will weigh in. I don't really care if I end up with any ownership of the idea, what I care about is that all of us who have been wandering in the alleged wilderness come out of it together, more aware of what we need to do and how we must work together to do it.

I'm rereading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland right now. The book focuses on the years 1964-1972, a period bookended at the start by Lyndon Johnson's overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater and, at the other end, by Richard Nixon's smashing defeat of George McGovern. Perlstein writes that between 1964 and 1972, "...the battle lines that [currently] define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire."

What struck me most in the early parts of Nixonland is the sense of how close the country came in 1964 and '65 to establishing a policy and politics that would serve the best interests of the vast majority of Americans.

As Perlstein puts it:

"Johnson kept on rolling out his Great Society: preschool for poor children. college prep for poor teenagers, legal services for indigent defendants, economic redevelopment funds for lagging regions, landmark immigration reform, a Department of Housing and Urban Development, national endowments for the humanities and arts--even a whole new category for the liberal agenda, environmentalism: a Highway Beautification Act, a Water Quality Act, a Clean Air Act..."

There was also the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, but then Watts burned, and LBJ expanded the war in Vietnam, and the wheels came off the Great Society. It all seemed to run into a wall almost at the moment the ride began. The losses and compromises litter the road since and now, from exile, we watch the Tea Party, the mother-ef'n Tea Party, for gosh sakes, exercise a power that eludes the rest of us. That's why we need a strategy.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A few thoughts about the debt ceiling and a call for a Left political strategy

Not raising the debt ceiling would be like a rather simple-minded declaration of bankruptcy, but the big question is how to turn a Republican setback into a long-term political rout

1. John Boehner is right; the Republicans did fight "the good fight" and they lost it, but the debt ceiling was never a real issue. It was only a viable tactic for Republicans because Democrats had given in before, e.g., the sequester. The Republicans' maneuver was an inspired procedural action, but they won't weaponize it again. Democrats have shown that they have an effective defense against that weapon.

2. It was, in any case, always a dumb idea. Not raising the debt ceiling is like declaring bankruptcy without any legal protections. Imagine a decision to stop paying bills without filing for bankruptcy. One would be entirely at the mercy of creditors free to proceed against you as they wished. It would be like leaving your front door unlocked and posting a sign out front inviting all comers: "Take what you want, I am without hope."

3. Meanwhile, there were an awful lot of people relegated to bystander status or worse during the federal shutdown. Federal employees watched the fight from the sidelines. So did most voters in Blue states, though those who insisted that their elected representatives hold the line on the debt ceiling and shutdown may have helped to strengthen Democratic spines. Working people and poor families across the country had no political options while they suffered through layoffs, lost work time, closure of Head Start programs and food stamp cuts. The list could go on and on, but the point is that working folks in huge numbers found they could do little or nothing that would affect the standoff.

4. The fight was at least a temporary disaster for Republicans. But absent a political strategy to attack the House majority in red-state congressional districts, the Tea Party will live to fight another day and the Republican House will continue to be the tail that wags the dog.

5. In the week or two before the shutdown, plenty of people on the Left were busy celebrating so-called "populist victories" over the elite. A friend of mine, apparently in the full belief that popular resistance to intervention in Syria and opposition to the appointment of Larry Summers as Fed chief were attributable to some long-awaited resurgence of the Left in the United States, declared his belief that we have reached "the end of nearly four decades of rightward drift in the United States." In view of the fact that the Left was another of the groups watching helplessly from the sidelines while the Tea Party celebrated obstruction and shutdown, it's hard to take that claim seriously.

6. But the assertion that we have lived through "... four decades of rightward drift ..." does resonate. Right to work laws, stagnating wages, growing wealth inequality, record levels of incarceration, new and higher barriers to voting, prohibitively high college costs, virtually unregulated campaign spending by corporations and the wealthy, and more are features of the rightward drift that sometimes feels like a stampede.

7. Arguably, the last really sustained and effective progressive movement in this country was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s that resulted in the Civil Rights Act(s) of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The liberalization of national politics that grew out of that movement also helped to assure the creation of Medicare in 1965. That liberalization also created cultural space for feminism and new employment protections for women and minorities.

8. The celebrated anti-war movement of the '60s and early '70s raised important questions about the Vietnam War, U.S. imperialism, in general, and the military-industrial complex, and raised important questions about mainstream politics and media, but petered out with no strategic accomplishments to show for a great deal of political engagement.

9. One of the great strategic actions of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement that followed were that they took political action in the South and the great cities of the North. Those movements empowered people who might otherwise be victims of an oppressive political environment to take action on their own behalf. They also attracted supporters to the fight, often getting those supporters to establish roots for the long-term in places where the struggle was centered.

10. From where I stand, the challenge now is to articulate a political strategy that takes the fight to where success, measured in a variety of ways, will make the most difference:

--to the red states, for example, to engage in sustained electoral action aimed at replacing Republican representatives with Democrats, where possible, and aimed at making uncompetitive state legislative and congressional districts competitive,

--to do this for the long haul, not merely for 2014, or 2016, but through 2020 and the opportunity to redistrict in the red states,

--to build district-based networks capable of maintaining a permanent educational and organizing presence.

There is more to suggest, of course, but the point is that even if the brief bright flare of Occupy, the resistance to intervention in Syria and to the appointment of Larry Summers to the Fed mean more than I think they do, they will mean little without a commitment by the Left to organize electorally and to take that effort to where the fight is. It has been many years since the Left has made any political difference one way or the other in the United States. Even the Tea Party makes more difference than we do. Are we ready to change?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Errata or

What might be the intro to the 2nd printing,
were such a thing to happen

                  It turns out I owe Jill Littlewood an apology, whether she thinks so or not. On the way to publishing Wild Once and Captured, I wrote a preface, an author’s introduction to the terrible, terrible deeds recently committed by the writer, soon to be shared with the reader. It was not actually a very confessional piece; it was instead a justification of sorts for publishing my own damn self without good reasons, beyond vainglory, for the action and the product that resulted.

                  I remain, by the way, quite proud of the work that Ella Epton, the book’s designer and my sister-in-law, and Stacee Kalmanovsky, the book’s illustrator and my niece, did in making Wild Once a reality. Happily, I have also grown fonder of some of the poems within.

                  In that preface, I sought to frame myself as a poet, coyly beginning the whole thing with the phrase “if I am a poet” so that I might maintain deniability . “Oh, no,” I would claim, “I didn’t mean to say I was a poet, only that if there were readers out there who considered the contents to be poems, and if any of them were to wonder, in a general way, how I came to write some of them or all, then here, in a general way, is how that came to pass.”

                  The truth, of course, is that I would like for you to consider me a poet, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. That was the argument beneath the apology in the preface that begins by crediting Geoffrey Chaucer, Mr. Rast and Jill Littlewood for their continuing influence on me, up to and including the point where I thanked them for instigating in me a love of writing in short phrases and forms.

                  Jill and I were in all the same English classes throughout high school. We were never really friends, but she seemed to be a good student. Knowing myself to be anything but studious, I respected that apparent characteristic in Jill. In the original preface I attributed a line from a poem, “mud luscious and puddle wonderful,” to something she wrote.

                  This turns out to be a sort of recovered memory of mine. The phrase is actually from an e.e. cummings poem, one that I likely encountered later in life, but somehow conflated with a memory of Jill.

                  When I tracked Jill down (after nearly 50 years of no contact) and sent her a copy of Wild Once and Captured, she responded quickly, noting with regret that she had plagiarized e.e. cummings in her youth. She also said very nice things about the book. Unfortunately, I can’t track down that message, which raises the possibility that sometime in the future I will misrepresent her, again.

                  In any case, the fact that I misattributed a line from cummings to Jill needs to be clear. It was my bad, notwithstanding her willingness to take the rap.

                  The follow-up lesson here is that one can create facts out of memories regardless of their accuracy, making fraudulent history in the process. This also suggests to me that writing is almost by definition a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland experience in which words always mean either more or less than they were supposed to mean and never define, describe or depict exactly what I intended them to mean.

I also have no difficulty imagining myself picking up a pencil and writing a piece that borrows the words of another writer. Obviously, I’ve done it already—in the event, stealing words and then framing Jill for the theft.

One of my poems, The Unfolding, references my relaxed position on plagiarizing:

I set out line by line
to steal a poem from others
and piece by piece
to build my own.

Nevertheless, writing, sometimes a burdensome process, is often great fun for me. Sometimes, it is the most liberating thing I do. After all, humans can imagine just about anything.

This is a capacity that most of us, myself included, underutilize. Still, I try. I’ve attached another poem here, perhaps one day also to be included in a reprint of Wild Once and Captured. The poem, titled “The Transgressive Acts of Men,” may need a little explaining, which I’m not actually going to do.

But let me say, regarding the title, that the poem has little to do with multiple transgressions and wrongdoing by men of whatever description. This may be disappointing to some readers, but then Norman Mailer’s 1967 novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, only mentioned that country once and provoked numerous discussions about whether the book had actually answered the question it raised. So it might be with “The Transgressive Acts of Men.”

The transgressions in question here are in reality singular and limited to me imagining myself to be an earth mother of sorts. Hubris and delusion, yes?

The Transgressive Acts of Men

Excluded from the matrilineal ascent,
I intrude.
I am before and beyond
all my mothers,

all my daughters,
mothering the clan;
in my DNA,
the Amazonian last daughter

staring in wonder
at the brink,
holding the hand
of all my sisters,

mindful of our brothers,
among whom I once was counted;
all who we were,
all who we are gone nova.

The end
when it comes,
almost more than we can bear,
more for certain than we can know,

memories on the way,
partners on the road,
dreams on the wing,
exploding outward.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Storm's coming,

but not yet.

Soon enough, though. The wind's rising and the sky's getting quite dark.

Just a bit ago, I was walking up the hill on 17th, getting to Jackson. To my right, there was a cop on a motorcycle, cruising slowly up to a stop sign. The vibe I got was pretty relaxed. Still, a cop.

Since the time I first sat in front of a TV watching thugs with guns and badges beat civil rights marchers, and ever since I got caught up on the losing side in a police riot in Chicago in 1968, and all the times since that I got myself thrown to the ground and handcuffed, when I see a cop my first response is to assess possible risks.

But at the Dayton Voice in the 1990s, I had a very different, and somewhat sustained, experience of a cop who was always getting himself in trouble with other cops, particularly chain of command-type trouble--Lt. David Sherrer. Constantly in conflict with his superiors during his career with the Dayton police department, Sherrer came to the Voice in '97 or '98 with a story about how the department was persecuting him for criticizing other cops who didn't follow procedure, and brutalizing people on the street. Sherrer was also detailed in his criticisms of the way the department dealt with African-American officers in general.

Early in our collaboration, I told Sherrer that I didn't trust police very much and had my doubts about him. Suck it up, he responded. After all, he observed, he was in a postion where he had to trust a white newspaper publisher.

David was pretty much always angry. There didn't seem to be much happiness in his life. He's gone now; here's his obituary, which tells quite a lot about his difficulties with his employer and the troubles in his life generally.

So, there was the cop on the bike. He looked around at the stop sign and rolled through. He looked at me and nodded. I waved a hand and laughed. He was still a cop, and he looked  pleased to be one, but it didn't look like he was so full of the power of his position. He just looked like he felt pretty good on a warm day, looked as though something like joy pulsed through him. A feeling that David Sherer didn't have very often.

All of that is probably beside the point that needs to be made, which is this: Cops are the shock troops for maintaining the status quo in communities where the status quo is generally a painful thing. That's not going to change, not until the status quo stops hurting so much, stops being a matter of unemployment and dim prospects, a matter of exclusion from social benefits, a matter of brutal policing and false arrests and wrongful convictions. David Sherrer knew this, I think, and in his small way waged a difficult fight to change it. Sherrer died too young and the struggle that laid heavy on his mind and heart was one of the reasons for it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Privacy, security and umbrage

I have concerns I'd like to discuss,
but I don't share the apparent hysteria.

 Is it too blunt to say so? To suggest that so many on the Left--colleagues and allies and heroes and Facebook friends--are overreacting to the news that the NSA is capturing data about the phone habits and patterns of tens of millions of Americans? I mean, I love Daniel Ellsberg, but I sure don't share his assessment that Edward Snowden's actions in revealing a classified NSA-operation is an act of courage and sacrifice even remotely close to Ellsberg's actions in stealing, compiling and releasing the Pentagon Papers.

The publication of those classified documents in 1971 made clear for the first time that government strategists believed that the Vietnam War could not be won and that elected officials were lying about what they were doing and what they intended to do. The New York Times was briefly enjoined from publishing the documents and Ellsberg, who made no claims about his own courage and sacrifice, was systematically and illegally investigated and harassed by the same Nixon-administration operatives central to the Watergate break-in.

History may one day affirm the notion that Edward Snowden did a great thing, but it can never show that Snowden revealed anything that most of the Left and much of the rest of the country didn't already know. For evidence, I submit a column by Walter Pincus, "A surveillance history lesson," in today's Washington Post.

More than 40 years ago, Pincus tells us the NSA was engaged in a whole range of spying activities that  surprised staff of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, collecting data from ordinary eavesdropping, but also from "cables and intercepts from satellites," Pincus writes. The committee demanded and eventually received "a full description of the NSA's then expanding worldwide collections, how the material was being used, and the means by which the NSA minimized reading or listening to non-relevant material on U.S. citizens."

In his piece, Pincus also notes a 1979 Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court ruling that said, in part, "there is no constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers dialed into a telephone system."

One can, of course, object passionately to the court's decision, but it is another matter for anyone on the Left to experience shock at the notion that our government is engaged in surveillance of all sorts of people and all manner of activities that seem routine and ought to be private. We know better than that. We know our history. We know that governments, both democratic and otherwise, will use every available technology to gather any information that the government deems necessary to protect and/or control. And we know that the U.S. government spies on us in ways that we'd rather not think about.

We also know that government will go too far in defense of its prerogatives and that some agents of the government will try to evade oversight in the exercise of police power. Snowden may not be a hero (check out Richard Cohen's take on Snowden, "A scoop of hot air"), but it is a demonstration of overreach to characterize him as a traitor. He must not be punished for telling us what we already knew.

Marrianne McMullen, the person to whom I am married (and a federal employee), points out that the Department of Health and Human Services manages a database that has the name, salary, social security number and other information about every single legally  employed person in the United States.  The database is used only for child support enforcement and may be one of the most important factors in reducing poverty in single-parent households. Access to the database is absolutely restricted to authorized personnel engaged in child support collection activities.

Ultimately, the employment/income database exists because the technology to collect and manage the information exists. Not collecting it would be a grievous government failure.

Do I believe that the government may go too far in collecting data? Yes, absolutely. But I also believe that if an extended computerized analysis of information that does not compromise individual identities or jeopardize people without probable cause can help identify danger to Americans, it's worth doing. The important questions go way beyond whether such data collection is occurring. The areas that need full public discussion are connected to who collects the data, who oversees the collectors, and where the line between privacy and security is drawn.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Missing the moral fortitude to oppose gentrification

Why I'm not gonna get involved

I got back from walking Jetta at about 10:00 this morning. On the last leg of the walk, Jet and I went down a block with several newly planted street trees. It was obvious that when those trees reach some green-crowned maturity, the whole streetscape will be beautified. Into the bargain, the air will be a little bit cleaner and the houses below will be little bit cooler on an 80-degree day like today. The houses will all be worth more, too.

That all sounds good, I suppose. Who wouldn't want to live in a more valuable property, in a cooler house on a shadier street?

Nobody would wish otherwise I think, assuming the changes don't suddenly make living there unaffordable. But that's the way Washington, DC is headed for a lot of people who have roots here two or three generations deep, roots deep in the house they live in now, deep in the neighborhood, deep in a local church, deep and solid like the work they did and the businesses they built and maybe passed on.

Parts of Northwest DC have been very upscale for a very long time. The rest of the city has long been a different place--majority African American, lower income, and frequently the object of official disinterest and neglect. But always home to hundreds of thousands of African Americans who were born here or moved here, were educated here, raised families here and from here participated in every struggle for freedom and civil rights and for a new deal and a better deal.

You don't really have to walk down a street and see a few young trees to predict that upscale and mostly white and very professional Northwest DC is expanding inexorably into Northeast and even parts of Southeast. You can see it at every Red Line Metro station in Northeast. You can see the mid-rise, high-density housing coming for the recent college graduates and the new political interns flooding into the city. You can see it in every remodeled supermarket with their salad bars and their health food aisles. You can see it in the new taverns with craft beers on tap replacing the old neighborhood bars. You can see it in the fading community churches selling land to developers. You can see it in all the new young families moving in, some black, most white.

When the change spreads far enough, DC will be a majority white professional city with first-class bike lanes, new trolley lines and, even, improving public schools. Though there will be a spreading chain of Bus Boys and Poets restaurants and bookstores with a bias toward empowerment and human rights, all the bus boy-poets, like the young Langston Hughes once was, will be gone. No more of the community that nurtured Chuck Brown's Go-Go mix of funk and soul and rock 'n roll, either. No more of the Chocolate City that showed George Clinton and Parliament the love.

It wasn't all good. No way. After Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, rioting in DC left 12 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and 6,000 arrested. Twelve hundred buildings were burned, almost 1,000 businesses destroyed. Historic black business strips in Columbia Heights and U Street and H Street were devastated. For some, the riots were merely an opportunity to take what they felt had been denied them. But for others the riots were an expression of pain and loss and frustration and rage. Still, even some of the scars from the riots have acquired a patina of beauty and a whiff of something profound just from aging in place. From enduring. Those monuments of street and struggle will be gone, also.

What a loss. It's too bad that I don't have the courage or fortitude or energy to join with the opponents of gentrification here in the city, don't have the will to testify to the value of the community and the history and the slaves and free men who came here and built this city.

Right now, I live in the nicest house I've ever lived in on the quietest street I've ever lived on. The house may get a little nicer over the years as we work on it. Those changes might not make the house more valuable, but they will make it even nicer for us. The street won't change much, either. But the streets around us will likely improve in that the houses on those streets will be renovated and remodeled and, as time goes on, increasingly occupied by people who are wealthier or more professional than the people they replaced. And everybody's house will go up in value. Quickly. So will their taxes.

People unable to keep up with higher taxes and insurance premiums will move away. Heritage and soul and community of a particular sort will be lost. And I won't be standing in the way.

I like that my house will increase in value. I like that a super market will be developed nearby. And that we won't have to leave the neighborhood to find a good restaurant. I don't want to live anymore in a neighborhood that's falling apart, like Five Oaks in Dayton did, or in a low-income community with a lot of marginal housing and big parking lots and no trees like 33rd and S. Wallace in Chicago. And I can't work up any particular hate for the newcomer in our DC neighborhood, either. After all, we're among the "pioneers" in a neighborhood that was fully pioneered long before we got here.

So, I'm not going to stand in the way, but I'll tell you that I dream of something else entirely. I don't want to be a gentrifier. Nor do I want to be gentrified. Instead, I dream that someday I'll live up in northern Michigan somewhere, near Petoskey or Traverse City. I'll build a big, roomy house to live in, on a piece of land that's green and inviting and all of you who go on fighting the good fight will be welcome to come by and stay for a little R & R.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Worst Thing about Drones

I drove Brendan to school this morning--actually, I do that every morning. His school day is long enough as it is. If he had to take the DC metro and bus system to and from school, it would add more than two hours to his day. Throw in his track or basketball practice and he would spend almost 12 hours a day marching in lines under somebody else's command. Call me a slacker, but I think that's a bad deal even for adults, no matter that they get paid for some of that marching.

On the way home, I heard a story about a former Air Force drone operator on NPR's Morning Edition. He's a kid, really, but by the time he was, oh, say 20 years old, he had likely killed more than one innocent and killed at least one child with missiles he fired while sitting in a trailer on an Air Force base somewhere in Nevada.

Brandon Bryant's in college now, but it sounds like he's hurting and probably battling PTSD, a battle a lot of soldiers end up losing. And how can he actually win that fight? To a certainty he knows he killed a child while running no risk to himself at all.

I know this: Left to my own devices that kind of guilt would bring me to my knees.

And he sure as hell is left to his own devices. The American public doesn't even know Brandon Bryant went to war. That's the worst part of the drone program--suddenly almost all war is on the verge of becoming clandestine. And we in the US are going to lose track of our wounded vets when the day comes that none of their scars are visible.

Over the past two generations, we have done so many things to make war more bearable for civilians. We eliminated the military draft. We acquired global military superiority and a whole range of weapons that would allow us to kill wholesale at a great reduction in American dead and wounded. Now, we have drones and a kind of silent combat we can wage from our desks.

It's a game in which we run up the score and always shut out the other side. But our combat vets are invisible and, as has always been the case in war, the children they kill are invisible, too. The collateral damage is mounting. And every drone that explodes in Yemen or Mali or Sudan also blows up something here. Early education funding, maybe, or unemployment spending, to say nothing of the damage to a warrior's conscience.

Friday, May 3, 2013

No-fly zone in Syria should be a no-no

The odds of U.S. intervention in Syria accomplishing much other than increasing the death rate seem very low to me. Sure, destroying Syrian air fields in order to keep Syrian planes on the ground would reduce the rate at which Bashar al-Assad can kill civilians. That would be an unequivocal good.

But a Tomahawk missile costs $1.4 million. And, according to Sharon Weinberger of the Center for Public Integrity, quoting William Hartung, the no-fly zone in Iraq cost $1 billion a year to maintain. The one established in Libya cost more than $100 million in the first day of operations. In a time of sequester, in a time of cuts in childcare funding and unemployment benefits, every missile exploded in Syria also injures Americans.

Arguably, immediately reducing the rate at which Assad kills civilians would make no real long-term difference. After all, he has so many other options, like tanks, mortars and automatic weapons, for a more retail approach to killing civilians. Assad's regime will fall, but the sectarian violence that follows will make victims out of tens of thousands of other Syrians.

This is not a slam at Muslims or Arabs, either. Great power intervention and exploitation in the Middle East has structured the region geographically and politically in a way that ensures continuing power struggles and fratricidal violence.

The Iraq Body Count Project reports more than 100,000 documented civilian deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2012. Sanctions on Iraq during the period between the first Gulf War and the U.S. invasion of Iraq reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraq children. That figure has been disputed, but even, a libertarian operation, concedes that sanctions probably caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi children.

Tens of thousands of Afghani civilians have died since the U.S. launched a war against the Taliban in 2001. Hundreds of thousands of Afghani civilians died during the Soviet Union's invasion and ten-year war that ended there in 1989. During that period the U.S. gave billions of dollars in aid to various Afghani military governments and to insurgents, many of whom evolved to become the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

And, though U.S. forces have almost completely withdrawn from Iraq, IEDs are still exploding every day, maiming and killing Iraqis. The question must be asked: How, exactly, does U.S. intervention spare civilian lives in the before, during or after the event?

And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone have cost the U.S. somewhere between $4 and 6 trillion, a spending decision that has had adverse consequences in both the Middle East and in this country. A truly humanitarian intervention supported by the U.S. would rely on the UN and NGOs and be exclusively focused on aiding Syrian refugees wherever they might be and finding ways to get Syrian civilians out of harm's way. But the history of other U.S. interventions in the Middle East suggests that only Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Tomahawk missile, stands to benefit from establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Courage All Around

Boston could mark a point on the path to building a national community that we would like to live in.

More or less the letter I wrote to the Washington Post the day after the bombings at the Boston Marathon:


I've been struck by how many conversations I've heard (or overheard), both public and private, focusing on the suddenly imaginable possibility that we've entered a period in history when Americans face new threats from bombings aimed at civilians. This might indeed be so. Experts have predicted the possibility for years. So have novelists and screenwriters.

If it happens, it will be a different sort of mayhem than the kinds we have faced in the past as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. It will require no more of us than has already been demonstrated by workers who work at dangerous jobs, or by victims of abuse and battering, or by children who grow up in dangerous places.

Each death from terrorism will be a tragedy. But it will also be a profile in courage of those who choose to continue living in public places. The individual suffering may be horrific, but collectively we will survive it and, even, transcend it. A test of shared courage, perhaps, but exactly what we ought to expect of ourselves.

Jeff Epton, Washington D.C

Have we finally arrived at our berserker future?

The Post edited it down a bit and headed it in a way that suggested the letter was responding to an article in their paper. But it was a response to an event, not to the relentless media coverage of the event. So be it. (See the Post's version, "Living in public after violence.")

When I heard the news about Boston, about runners and spectators, civilians randomly victimized in a terror attack, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar came to mind, as it has many times since I first read it in the early '70s. The novel tells the story of a highly urbanized, overcrowded, dystopic world--one that in reality seems to have been creeping up on us for a very long time.

Of course, though Brunner's vision could not have been accurate in most details (after all, even tomorrow and the day after seem a little hazy from here, no matter that we are standing quite close), more than a few of us seem to be living within shouting distance of Zanzibar. In Brunner's world relative innocents, shopping and dining and purposefully walking in crowded places, sometimes fall victim to berserkers, hyperadrenalized maniacs exploding into suddenly murderous rages that usually don't end until the maniacs burn themselves out.

I couldn't help wondering if we'd finally arrived at our berserker future.

What the letter meant to say, maybe

If that's our future, then we will need to make more deliberate choices to live in public places. But we should not kid ourselves on either of two points.

One, we are not heading into combat here. Plenty of people--neighbors, friends, family--already live their lives courageously. We will be required to follow their lead. No more.

The corollary to that is we should also learn that the courage shown by soldiers or by first responders is not a different sort of courage, either. Their courage is human courage, we all have it in us. Skills and strength and a little training help, too, but we can teach each other what we need to learn (and maybe fix our public schools along the way).

The Courage All Around

When Marrianne and Brendan and I first got to Washington, I'd go a couple of times a year to Bus Boys and Poets open-mic night. It was always very exciting. Most of the poets who made it to the mic were rappers. They were driven by rhymes and rhythms and an apparent need to get up on the stage and say who they were and what they cared about.

And every once in a while I'd get up and try to rumble a few lines, injecting a little blank verse, substituting assonance or alliteration for rhyme and, quite obviously, an occasional longer word when a shorter one might have done. The audience was always patient, but usually hungry for the next rapper. 

In the upshot, I learned far more from them than they learned from me. And, watching the risks they took, I learned that I needed to take more risks, too, and put more heart into speaking my poems. I wrote "The Courage All Around" for them:

Late-night honest
with myself
My boy shames me
The courage he shows
drumming at the Metro
Spare change pours in
Folded bills drifting like
snow covering his lap

Ten years old, first
sharing a buck
with a woman who asks,
then shooing her away
when she won’t stop
asking for more

He goes about his business,
a lionheart tending his
pride of intentions,
while I flinch at the work
before me, at stepping up
before you, at speaking my piece

But where he’s heading,
where heart and skill
and the company of others,
the company of you,
colleagues with an instinct
to be movement and reach

we can believe in,
that place, that thought, swells
my heart The world you will build
beckons and beguiles
and because the heart is
a complicated thing
I feel no shame here
I feel the courage all around

The point, maybe, is still another thing.

There ought to be some emphasis on what we might get, if we learn to live together with more courage. We might learn to prefer human-scale humans and human-scale events over celebrity and spectacle. We might learn to get out of the way of little acts of creativity and sharing, and to see how much such things enrich our lives and strengthen our communities.

I could lengthen that list, but so could you. I could try to prove that I'm right, but I ain't got no data.

All I know is that right after Boston, following on the heels of my thoughts about the berserkers in our future, I was suddenly excited by the thought that we really could do much, much better.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Passover and the Biblical Argument for Israel

Religious belief leads to bad policy, but remembering when we were slaves in Egypt might work

I've blogged about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 34 times during the past five years. The optimal time to do that probably is the week before Passover. After all, it is the biblical story of the Exodus that undergirds the argument in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. On that point, I've had plenty to say, but I've never gotten the timing right.

Even this year, I'm a good week late--the first Passover Seder this year was Monday night. And people who were looking last week for a critical perspective on Israel and Palestine are likely not hunting hard for commentary this week.

One traditional phrase from the Passover seder expresses the hope that the seder will be held "next year in Jerusalem." Indeed, these last many years a good number of seders have been held at various locations in Jerusalem (one wonders how the phrase is turned when the seder is, in fact, in Jerusalem). In any case, my personal, aspirational, Passover phrase goes something like this, "next year I blog about the biblical argument for a Jewish state in Palestine in a more timely way."

Yes, the phrase needs work. Maybe it should be something more like, "next year, blog in Jerusalem."

Regardless, I have argued before that stories Jews generally tell for religious reasons, during seders and otherwise, is not a good basis for making policy. Establishing a theocratic state on land occupied by others based on a history of events that didn't actually happen was, and is, an undemocratic and unethical way to proceed. In "Monotheism and the Accidental God," I put it this way:

"We live in a world substantially shaped by the bible, variously interpreted as it is by Jews, Christians and Moslems. Never mind that there is no archaeological or trustworthy historical evidence for many biblical tales. The foundational story of the Exodus is fiction, however much it might pain me to say so. The Exodus story, and, particularly, the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt, with its implied obligation to side with the oppressed, has been the rock on which I've constructed my (mostly secularized) commitment to social justice. The human capacity for self-deception being what it is, the Exodus story doesn't actually need to be true for me to experience it like some sort of inherited memory. But it can't hurt, I don't think, to seek a better and richer understanding of how the Bible came to be the book that it is, and how and why it came to tell the stories that it tells.

Throughout the 19th Century and a good portion of the 20th, the relatively young science of archaeology was actually focused on proving that much of the biblical account of early history, since about 1500 BCE (before the common era), was accurate. But as the science grew up, archaeologists determined that there is no factual basis for the story of the flight of thousands of Jews from Egypt. There is very little evidence of the existence of Jews, at all, before about 1000 BCE, when they begin to turn up in some Egyptian and, later, Assyrian accounts of a tribal people living in the Galilee and the hills around present day Jerusalem.

There is evidence that there were, briefly, two Jewish states, Israel and Judah, but the northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerers around 800 BCE. After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods. However vexing the worship of other gods was to Jehovah, it was a common practice in the polytheistic Middle East, and a practice tolerated by the kings of the northern state of Israel, who ruled over a kingdom much more diverse than Judah.

Theologians can argue the ways in which monotheism is superior to polytheism (and they do), but the Judean scribes had a much more practical interest in attributing the downfall of Israel to the worship of other gods and to the creation of graven images; they were primarily concerned with creating a rationale to support the reconquest of the Galilee by Judah, the home of the true and devout worshippers of the one god, the one who had promised the land to the children of Israel. Telling a story about how Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made for good propaganda [at the time]."

As it happens, Biblical accounts of things still make good propaganda.  Almost 3,500 actual years after the supposed events of the Exodus, the justification for the establishment of Israel and its maintenance as a Jewish (theocratic) state is frequently based on the notion that Jews were promised the land of Canaan.

But even my version of so-called "real" events places Jews in the area a good, long time ago, when the southern Jewish state of Judah survived the destruction of the northern state of Israel. This is not such dubious history, and establishes the notion that the area was once a homeland for the Jews. One that was never forgotten regardless of the intervening history, a history that somehow became inseparable from godly promises and religious beliefs.

The real history of Jews in the Middle East is a legitimate basis for a "right of return" for Jews in much the same way that history justifies a right of return for American Indians and Armenians and Tibetans and Palestinians. But it does not justify the establishment of a state that privileges Jews on land most recently occupied by Palestinians.

If Passover seders are to teach us anything, I believe they ought to remind us that "next year in Jerusalem" has arrived, and some of us are celebrating religious feasts on land and in homes taken from Palestinians by force. It would be better to discuss what it ought to mean to "remember that we were slaves in Egypt," that we Jews were once enslaved and oppressed by a mighty and pitiless enemy. That ought to expand our understanding of "never again."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Robert McNamara and the Dayton Daily News

A little j'accuse from the Dayton Voice

So, I'm finally taking the time to really think about the Dayton Voice--what the experience was like for me, what it was like for others, what we tried to accomplish, how much of Dayton life it chronicled, the Voice in retrospect, and other passing thoughts. Of course, to interrogate only my own self is to make the story of the Voice about me, which it most certainly was not. To get it right, I would actually have to report, talk to others who were with the Voice and of the Voice and for the Voice, readers and writers and photographers and carriers and sales staff and fellow travelers.

And I would have to set aside time and effort to write about Marrianne McMullen and what she did as co-publisher, editor and writer. She reported some of the papers most important stories, like the Dayton Public Schools' reliance on suspension and expulsion, like what prostitution felt like to the women who had fallen into it, like what Jenny Wilcox, wrongfully convicted and incarcerated, experienced during and after her release, like how the Voice was Marrianne's inspiration.

But as important as it is to make sure that my story of the Voice is not some hagiographic fantasy of myself, I'm going to end this post with a pretty complete transcription of a piece I wrote for the April 20, 1996 issue of the paper about Vietnam, Kennedy-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and U.S. media at the time. In that piece, McNamara didn't lie alone," I was, per usual, much more opinion writer than reporter. And so it goes:

"Last week, the Dayton Daily News joined others in the mainstream media in criticizing former Secretary of Defense robert McNamara for hiding the truth about Vietnam. A News editorial chided McNamara for his "late, awfully late" revelations about the mistakes and failures of the devastating war against Vietnam.

"As the News would have it, the prolonged agony of the war was the responsibility of those who governed at the time and especially of an elite few, McNamara included. Americans wanted to trust their government, but the "...leadership at the top carries...the guilt of having hidden the truth from the American people," said the editorial.

"But DDN misses the point--as it must--that it took an enormous collaborative effort to hide the "truth." And the mainstream media was crucial to that collaboration, the News included.

"The media cooperated in a White House strategy of burying inconvenient facts, and omitted critical perspectives in covering the war. Such editorial policy facilitated the physical devastation of Vietnam, submerged the deepening impoverishment of parts of the United States and, ultimately undermined faith not only in American government, but in the media as well.

"After all, the truth about the war was known fairly early. In 1964, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution that authorized President Johnson "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force" to oppose the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. But in March 1968, I. F. Stone reported in the New York Review that the alleged North Vietnamese attack in international waters on U.S. ships--the incident that the Johnson administration used to obtain passage of the declaration--actually had been a violation of North Vietnamese coastal waters and an attack provoked by the actions of the U.S. Navy. The News ought to check its own file library to see when, if ever, the paper reported that the Congressional quasi-declaration of war had been passed in response to an invented incident.

"Anti-war organizing [at the time] was based on a variety of different considerations. The United States, activists believed, had no legitimate national interest at stake in Vietnam and no reason to fight to maintain client regimes in the old outposts of French colonialism. Of course, rich ore and oil deposits in Southeast Asia and Indonesia were at stake, but access to these resources was not an admitted goal of U.S. war policy.

"Instead, we were fighting to stop a communist takeover and protect the "free world," even though a Vietnamese election in 1956 and agreed to by Ho Chi Minh was stopped by the Eisenhower administration. The News can check to see when it reported that Ngo Dinh Diem was installed with the support of the United States in preference to a freely elected Communist government."

"The national news media, and local outposts like the News, were delighted with the spectacle of protest, which they covered, and uninterested in the substance of these protests. The News, which helped to perpetuate the myth that opposition to the war tied the hands of the U.S. military, ought to go back and check its files to see when, if ever, it reported that more tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were dropped on Europe and Japan during all of World War II.

"Thought the media was comfortable with the studied and persistent omission of the facts about the air bombardment of Vietnam, they delighted in reporting about alleged abuses of returning Vietnam vets by war protestors. The News might consider how many times it covered abuses of vets compared to the far more frequent physical assaults on protestors. Further, compare that to coverage of the estimated 200 or more massacres of Vietnamese villagers by American ground forces. These events were common knowledge among Vietnam vets and war protestors. They were "truths" that Washington elites and a cooperative press ignored.

"The cost of the military build-up resulted in severely underfunding anti-poverty programs. That is one reason why Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out against the war. The News might check its files to see how ofteh the paper reported on Dr. king's opposition to the war.

"Yes, it is terrible that Robert McNamara waited so long to confess. After all, 60,000 Americans and 400,000 Vietnamese died in the war. But mainstream dailies told precious little truth about the war and the Dayton Daily News' editorial maintains that tradition. "Awfully late" is too soon to expect an apology from the News."

"McNamara didn't lie alone," Dayton Voice, April 20, 1995.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Secretary of Peace, maybe, and other notions

including the noisy clatter of destruction,
and grief according to Dylan Thomas,
and Palestinian grief according to Mahmoud Darwish

It's hard to tell whether Rita Dove is bearing witness on behalf of the people about whom she writes, or whether she is placing them beyond our reach, leaving us unable to do anything about what is happening to them. I want her to be clearer--to tell me what to do--after she shares with us the reflections of a slave or of, say, a Benjamin Banneker, who himself seems to have lived with only one foot in this life and one foot out.

Still, Banneker promoted the idea of a cabinet-level Secretary of Peace. And earned the devotion and respect of others. I guess it's fair to say that Dove, a former U.S. poet laureate has done the same.

And she writes some haunting and beautiful poems, too.

"Where his frail hands paused
breath lingered, so that I am now

"restless, a perfumed fan,"

Dove writes in "The Kadava Kumbis Devise a Way to Marry for Love," which appears to involve first marrying a gentle man with a loving touch, although perhaps lacking the robustness to endure, and then marrying another, maybe,

"that ragged man on the hill,
watching from a respectful distance."

And who are the Kadava Kumbis, anyhow? Perhaps a people out of African history, out of African-American lore. Dove's poems may be emotionally rich; they are certainly shrouded in mist, and call for careful exploration, maybe more care than I can muster.

Though Dove may be difficult, Dylan Thomas is more so, but also sonorous as a single bass note.

"And she who lies,
Like exodus a chapter from the garden,
Brand of the lily's anger on her ring,
Tugged through the days
Her ropes of heritage, the wars of pardon,
On field and sand
The twelve triangles of the cherub wind
Engraving going."


The stanza is from Thomas' "A Grief Ago," which, I suppose, is a grief one manages to get over, but almost everything Dylan Thomas wrote seems to carry multiple meanings. I would have thought she who lies could be lying or dead, maybe, or maybe simply lying down, but then there's the rest of the poem to contend with or, even, the next sentence, which is clearly a biblical reference, but even so is quite ambiguous, though I did find a guy writing on something called Insane Journal, who appears to believe the lying is actually "having a shag in  the middle of the garden," which is "the most romantic fucking thing you can think of," which I guess makes sense, given what went on in Eden.

One has difficulty imagining a lily's anger. It's hard to see how that could be the worst part of tugging a burden "of heritage" (family trauma survived for which she seeks absolution?) behind. But it seems also that most people who love Dylan Thomas "hear" his meaning, not think it. One should maybe focus on grokking Thomas' work.

Joy Harjo isn't very prescriptive, either. In fact, in "Who invented death and crows and is there anything we can do to calm the noisy clatter of destruction?" Harjo wants to know what we think. And so she asks,

"What do you make of it?"

A guy I know once stood by the side of a road, hitchhiking, and also tripping (on acid). He watched a whole lot of cars go by during a long wait for a new ride, was asked exactly the same question by a companion. "What do you make of it?" He is reported to have responded, "a potholder," which made no sense at the time, and does not do as an answer to Harjo's question, either.

For relief from ambiguity, we might turn to Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, who was both poet and PLO official. His "Earth Poem" is no call to go green. It concludes:

"And they searched his chest
But could only find his heart
And they searched his heart
But could only find his people
And they searched his voice
But could only find his grief
And they searched his grief
But could only find his prison
And they searched his prison
But could only see themselves in chains"

This message does not have the virtue of lifting our spirits, but it is truth-telling and there is something uplifting about that. Solidarity with Darwish and the Palestinian people also leads me to my own version of truth as I tried to spell it out (no ambiguity here) in my poem Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian, which can be found in its entirety on Outdoor Poetry Season:

"I am Jewish because I am a child of Abraham;
Palestinians, therefore, are my brothers and sisters.
We are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because Jews, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because we have a future together or none, at all.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because Jews have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
Although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers,
I am Palestinian because we all live in the embrace of one mother,
and will return to her.

"If you summon one of us for cruel judgment, there will be no telling us apart. "