Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Smart Words on Middle East Peace

If the Obama administration really wants to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, the president--and his secretary of state--should remember what I learned in the 1980s from the Israeli dove, army officer and historian Meir Pa'il: the best Jewish thinking on Middle Eastern peace issues is often found farthest from New York City.

By that, Pa'il meant that the national Jewish organizations headquartered in New York City were a dead weight on peacemaking efforts. As much as he liked New York City (because it felt Middle Eastern, he told me) he found Jews far from New York far more receptive to his advocacy of a two-state solution for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

For a while, I thought the two-state solution was gaining ground. Today, it is a fading possibility--even though it remains the best chance for peace between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Yet I still think Pa'il's point holds. If Hillary Clinton wants to become the secretary of state who delivers peace in Israel and Palestine, she should avoid the kind of mainstream Jewish organizations who have nothing to say. Instead, she should embrace the people in organizations like Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek. For decades, they have recognized what needs to be done: a two-state solution, sooner and not later.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I know that Rob wants to weigh in on this too, but let me just say a few words about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. We have been down this road before, and not too many years ago, both in Israel and the US. Let me stipulate that Hamas is an ugly organization; a gun-toting theocracy whose rise to power is both a cause and an effect of the general disarray and chaos of the political situation in Israel/Palestine, a nasty dictatorship that certainly has little or no interest in seeking any sort of peace with Israel, and doesn’t seem to have much regard for the Palestinians under its control either. And I can understand those in Israel and elsewhere who argue that in response to the continuing rocket barrages into the Negev, Israel was obliged to “do something.” But if there is one lesson, above all, to be learned from the disasters of the invasion of Iraq it is that few endeavors have a lower likelihood of success than regime change, and that seems to be just what Israel is embarked upon; an effort to create a more satisfactory government in Gaza by killing off and destroying the current Hamas led-regime.

We heard all the liberal hawks caw in 2002 and 2003 about how Saddam Hussein’s human rights policy obliges all right minded people to support an American invasion, and we hear now that the rocket attacks on the Negev required a counterattack on the scale that Israel started on Saturday. What Bush needed to do in 2003, and what Israel needs to do today is protect its citizens, and this does not mean embroiling this unfortunate part of the world in another war, which can only end with the enmity increased on both sides. Israel will never be able to intimidate its neighbors into a lasting peace. Never. Ever. Rehearsing the mistakes and missed opportunities on both sides serves no purpose. For me the problem with the Israeli response is less that it is grossly disproportionate (though it is that), but that it just one in an endless series of tats that will provoke further tits, just spinning the cycle of violence. Breaking the cycle will not be easy, but it is the only step forward. One thing is clear. The current invasion of Gaza will not bring Israelis any lasting peace or security.

It is hard to find much cause for optimism. Over the last forty years I have seen tentative steps forward accompanied by giant steps backward. It is an anti-messianic era in the Middle East. All sides are busily beating their plowshares back into swords. Lions and lambs build fences to keep out their enemies, and then quarrel among themselves that their countrymen are insufficiently anti-lion or anti-lamb. And yet the basic facts have not changed. Neither side will able to eliminate the other. There is no alternative to living with each other in genuine peace. None. The path towards peace is perhaps inevitably, ineluctably, maddening wayward and meandering, a long discursive journey that will seem, until the very last step, little more than a series of futile digressions. Perhaps it is the Hegelian in me that hopes that eventually, the only possible resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian problem will be reached, though probably not before all alternatives are exhausted, and perhaps we are not that far away from this glorious nadir. The real is the rational, and the rational is the real. Or perhaps Isaiah said the same thing as Hegel, what needs to be must be, and therefore will be, even if the road to reach it seems unimaginably arduous, and will require the world to be radically reconfigured to achieve it. But we need our faith to continue to believe that in the end “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

Saturday, December 27, 2008


When journalists look into the past, the era of Watergate looks like a better and braver time. Yet the genius of Ron Howard's new film Frost/Nixon is that it shows how much of our contemporary culture of infotainment and celebrity were present in the years right after Watergate--and how, at the right moment, even a a dodgy enterprise like David Frost's interviews with Richard Nixon could drag revealing words from the ex-president.

To be accurate, Frost at the time of the Nixon interviews wasn't quite as oily as he appears in the film. And Elizabeth Drew makes a good case that the "confession" wrung from Nixon, as depicted in the film, wasn't quite as momentous as Howard's picture makes it out to be.

Still, the negotiations between Frost and Nixon--which resulted in Nixon being paid for appearing in the interview--are a reminder that ethical compromises are nothing new in television. More valuable, however, is the idea that even a flawed venue like the Nixon/Frost interviews can produce valuable bits of history.

Frost/Nixon presents the interview as a battle between David and Goliath, in which Frost finally finds his nerve and pins a wily Nixon in an interview on Watergate. Even if this is a bit hyped, it does elicit the two utterly unforgettable quotes from Nixon: "when the president does, it, that means it is not illegal" and his maudlin statement on how he was not the victim of a coup, but of is own errors--how he gave his enemies a sword that they wielded with relish.

The first quote, which essentially places the president above the law, echoes into our own time in the wrongs of the Bush administration.

The second, which is Nixon at his most self-pitying, arrogant and cynical, treats his fall not as the consequence of his own dishonesty, but as result of a political error exploited by his enemies in good Washington fashion. Thus did Nixon contrive to look humble while casting aspersions on all politics.

America, and the world, have suffered enough from presidents who think they are above the law. And American politics has certainly been blighted by the notion, rampant since the Nixon years, that our politics is nothing more than the naked pursuit of selfish gain. Both points are worth remembering and both are driven home nicely by Frost/Nixon.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Hidden History from New Orleans

As one of the many people who viewed the ravages of Hurricane Katrina through the prism of television, I am haunted by images of fellow Americans fleeing through floodwaters in the absence of any semblance of a humane rescue plan. Those scenes were an irrefutable indictment of cruel inequalities and injustices that permeate our politics and economic system. But now, from The Nation magazine and Rebecca Solnit in TomDispatch, come even more disturbing reports about New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm: stories of white gunmen intentionally shooting down black men

The big, rumor-driven stories of the Katrina disaster were all about looting and mayhem in the Superdome. Both turn out to have been exaggerated, especially the stories about the Superdome. But the reports of white gunmen, who have surfaced a bit up to now, deserve more attention.

In The Nation, A. C. Thompson's article of 17 December 2008, "Katrina's Hidden Race War," carefully tracks down eleven shootings. Focusing on Algiers Point, a white enclave in the larger black neighborhood of Algiers, he comes up with eleven shootings, some of which may have been fatal. Bad coroners' records, and the chaos of the city at the time of the killings, explain the ambiguity in the figures. So does the absence of prosecutions.

Equally useful for understanding this is Rebecca Solnit's "The Grinning Skull" in the latest TomDipsatch. Solnit reports one estimate of as many as 18 killings, but allows that may be a little high. Even if that is the case, she is clear on the true dimensions of these unrecognized crimes of New Orleans.

While the national and international media were working themselves and much of the public into a frenzy about imaginary hordes of murderers, rapists, snipers, marauders, and general rampagers among the stranded crowds of mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, a group of white men went on a shooting spree across the river.

Their criminal acts were no secret but they never became part of the official story.


O for an administration still in utero, functioning umbillically, when all is still embryonic , and when all analogies still seem plausible. Everyone born in the United States can grow up to be president, as unlikely as that must have seemed in 1961 to the parents of Barack Obama. And everyone elected president can have the chance to grow up to be George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, as unlikely as that seems. Obama has already generated a lot of analogies and analogizers. We look to the past for portents of the future. Will this potential for a new age of progressive reform resemble the 1930s of FDR, a Newer New Deal? Or will it resemble the era of reform in the 1960s, Kennedy/Johnson-like, a Greater Great Society?

It seems to me that most of the analogies have been to FDR. Part of this is because of family resemblances—a huge economic crisis to contend with, and an administration composed of what seems to be competing centers of power and brain trusts on every issue—and part of this is wishing and hoping-- FDR’s presidency, the Great Depression and horrors of WWII notwithstanding, makes for more of a feel-good story than the Vietnam-ravaged presidencies of the 1960s. And Obama has gone out of his way to avoid make references to LBJ including—rather shamefully—keeping the celebration of his centennial, which occurred during the Democratic convention, out of prime time.

But it seems to me the analogy to make, and the analogy to watch out for, is to LBJ, not FDR. All analogies are imprecise. In the 1930s the motive of reform was that America was failing, and we could do nothing else than transform our country and remove its inequalities and injustices. In the 1960s the motive for reform was that America was the richest country on the face of the earth, and doing better every year, and therefore we had no choice to but transform our country and remove its inequalities and injustices. And Obama’s motive for reform will combine both; a very rich and very powerful country down on its luck. The New Deal was primarily a series of economic reforms that left the country’s political realities largely unchanged. The Great Society was primarily a series of political reforms that left the country’s economic realities largely unchanged. Obama is in his appeal a soul changer, not an economic fixer, and the racial component of Obama’s message is inescapable. If his approach has been practical, his basic appeal has been spiritual—to regain America’s good name, after it has been traduced and besmirched.

Obama is starting out as a president primarily focused on domestic matters. My worry is that like both FDR and LBJ, he will find his domestic agenda truncated as he becomes consumed and absorbed in foreign affairs. This ended up better for FDR than Johnson. FDR’s war was a good war (or at least the enemy was a truly evil enemy), and FDR won the war. Johnson’s war was a losing effort in a bad war. I am afraid of analogies to the early 1960s, when Kennedy brought in the “best and the brightest” (which as Frank Rich pointed out a few weeks ago, always needs to appear between irony quotes), and promised a foreign policy brainer and suppler than Eisenhower’s; fighting the Cold War with a bit more panache, and less emphasis on total world annihilation. This was a good thing, and there were successes along these lines, the hot line, and the partial test ban treaty, for instance, before everything got swallowed up by Vietnam. For unlike either era of Democratic reform, we are beginning it while still fighting two wars, one apparently cooling off, the other apparently heating up. Nothing reorders domestic priorities like major combat overseas. Sometimes wars are inevitable, sometimes, as recent American history demonstrates, they can be all too evitable. We can only hope that somewhere in the Middle East there is not a country that bleed an Obama administration into impotence, drowning in the Tigris, the Euphrates, or the Mekong Delta.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Of Paterson and Ponzi Schemes

People are always fascinated by Ponzi schemes, and this has been a week of articles on Ponzi schemes and Ponzi schemers like no other. What are they? Why do they always fail? And if they always fail, why are new Ponzi schemes always hatched? The Times had a long article on that one, the reporter incredulous that smart people start Ponzi schemes, since they must know that what goes up will eventually go down.

The article missed the point. The recent why Bernard Madoff could have run a Ponzi scheme for so long is simple. For forty years he made a ton of money off it, became rich, powerful, and respected, consulted by the SEC on how securities firms should be regulated, able to bestow his largess on properly obsequious beneficiaries. And he also thought that things would never go down, and if they did, he was smart enough to figure a way out of it. Oh, I suppose it is the vulgar Marxist in me, the Bertold Brecht writing the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, who would reduce all of American capitalism to a con game. No, it is not that simple, if only because most of the players are (were) convinced of their rectitude, and avoided the overt swindling of a Bernie Madoff. Most of our capitalist crooks can go to bed with clean consciousnesses—it’s part of the beauty of the system; our system insists that one of the responsibilities of the filthy rich is to lecture us on the superiority of their morality. And if the financial industry is not simply a big Ponzi scheme, it is close enough. Lots of people thought they could make something out of next to nothing, and were clever enough to live on the peaks and avoid the troughs, and if they were wrong, well, at least they would become rich trying to do. The most interesting article this week, in my opinion, was a little noticed piece that because of the way the TARP money has been distributed—none of it actually used to purchase “toxic assets”—none of the already loose restrictions on executive compensation will be able to be applied. The one thing we know is that those who got filthy rich during the recent asset bubble, except for those, who like Bernie Madoff, were openly involved in swindles, will be able to keep all their money, though the papers are already full of sob stories about multi-billionaries who have been reduced to morosely hanging on to their last billion.

This takes me to the real point of this post; David Paterson’s new budget. Because of a number of factors, of which the most significant is the Wall Street turndown, the New York State budget is seriously in arrears. To address this, and the constitutional requirement that all New York State budgets be balanced budgets, Paterson has proposed a number of service cuts, primarily in education and health care, and a number of revenue enhancers, primarily “levies” of one sort or another, such as a tax on sugary soft drinks, on haircuts, and on cable television. These taxes are almost all regressive, and what is conspicuous in its absence is the lack of a hike in the state income tax. Paterson has rounded up the usual suspects to defend this—an income tax hike will hurt business, people will take their jobs elsewhere, etc. But beyond the question of shared pain, raising income taxes on the wealthy is by far the most efficient way to increase government revenues, and it would also be the most efficient way of ensuring that money, redistributed from the rich to the relatively modest, would be spent and not hoarded. Everyone is expecting Obama to be the second coming of FDR, but the effect of a large stimulus package would be completely undercut if it feeds into fifty state budgets that reincarnate the economics of Herbert Hoover.

Part of the problem is that I think we have remembered only half of the legacy of the New Deal. Part of it was fashioning economic stimuli in various forms. But the other part, was, as it was vulgarly put at the time, was an effort to “soak the rich” by unprecedented increases in income taxes. But the fear of raising taxes is so ingrained in our politicians, that Obama has already moved away from his campaign promise to eliminate Bush’s tax cut on the wealthy. And for all sorts of reasons, it would be easier for Obama to increase taxes than the already strapped state governments. Yes, it is true, imprudent tax increases can further depress a declining economy. But this would only be the case if the government doesn’t spend it. In any event, we can’t be afraid to soak the rich. They are, as Willie Sutton would have said, where is the money is. Any other way to raise revenue, besides questions of fairness, is bound to inefficacious. The rich have utterly failed us, and have come close to ruining the economy, but expect the rest of us top clean up their mess. As always happens in Ponzi schemes, it is we the victims, who have been swindled and been left holding the bag, and we are expected to pay dearly for the misdeeds and miscalculations of others. Suckers of the world unite, we have nothing to lose but other people’s bad debts.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Where Is the Washington Press Corps?

Just when the imminent arrival of the Obama administration sparks talk of everything from a new New Deal to a second Great Society, there's one element missing from the familiar mix in Washington: a robust press corps.

As Richard Perez-Pena points out in today's Times, a wave of cutbacks and layoffs at newspapers has shrunk the number of reporters working in D.C. You don't have to be a fan of inside-the-Beltway journalism to see this as very bad news.

As media scholars have pointed out, Washington journalism isn't always the watchdog that it is cracked up to be. Inward-looking, quick to establish a consensual "narrative," and above all dependent for information on many of the elite sources that they cover, Washington journalists have a mixed record.

Journalists may like to remember the courage of Woodward and Bernstein in Watergate, but they were often alone in their willingness to take on the White House. As far back as the early days of the Vietnam War and as recently as the run up to the war in Iraq, Washington journalists have amplified the conventional wisdom more than they have challenged it.

However, when there are vigorous two-party debates, and obvious violations of the law, Washington journalists have done valuable work to monitor power and explain what is happening to the rest of us. Their record may be uneven, but I would rather work with them than without them.

The solution to the problem of relying on official sources in Washington can be addressed by developing greater expertise among journalists and by cultivating sources beyond the usual elites. But all of that won't work if there are too few reporters in our Washington.

If the mainstream newspapers can't find ways to maintain their bureaus and reporters in Washington, we'll have to find a new way of covering the Federal government.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembering the Spanish Civil War

In 1937, a young poet and novelist named James Neugass went to Spain to serve as an ambulance driver with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He came home with a handwritten manuscript recalling his experiences, but died of a heart attack in 1949 at the Sheridan Square subway station in New York City before it could be published. Now it is in print, thanks to the New Press and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, and it can take an honorable place alongside the best memoirs of the Spanish Civil War.

War is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War is a beautifully written book with an ironic title. Edited by Peter N. Carroll and Peter Glazer, my colleagues at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, the book presents vivid descriptions of the terror and exhaustion of driving an ambulance in wartime alongside deeply humane meditations on the experience of war.

Carroll and Glazer wisely edited lightly, and Neugass' prose shines. "Why did the wounded lie so still and so seldom cry out?" he asks. "Why did the sight of an old woman at midnight far from any town hobbling her way towards the Rear affect us more than rows of dead?"

Yet for all of Neugass' eloquence on the Spanish Civil War, his service was a shrouded presence in his postwar life. Shortly before his death, Neugass' novel Rain of Ashes was accepted for publication by Harper and Brothers. The editors note that a biographical statement he wrote for them did not mention serving in the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps, in the climate of the Cold War, he didn't want to be labeled a subversive--a fate common to members of the Lincoln Brigade, with its communist origins. His own son Jim, upon reading the manuscript, was introduced to a side of his father that he did not know.

The publication of War is Beautiful restores James Neugass, ambulance driver in the International Brigades, to his family and to all who care about the history of the Spanish Civil War. Read it to understand how a veteran could write, "We killed naturally and with constant gnawing desire to kill more and more, but we hated death and war and we could never manage to think of ourselves precisely as soldiers."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

From Buying Elections to By-Elections

The thread that connects the Caroline Kennedy boomlet in New York State and Rod Blagojevich’s simony in Illinois (to which one might connect Delaware’s governor’s decision to name a warm body to keep Joe Biden’s senate seat warm until his son is ready to run for it) is obvious-- governors ought not to be selecting US Senators. US Senators should be popularly elected, as the 17th amendment mandates. (Perhaps this was the best of all progressive reforms.) There is talk of the expense of new state wide elections as a reason for gubernatorial selection, but this is an obvious smokescreen—there is nothing that American politics and politicians abhor more than a free, unplanned election, where candidates can rush to run, and the usual, laboriously elongated and attenuated election process gets condensed to a glorious month or two. The worst thing about American politics is its utter calendrical predictability, so the election day can be approached and prepared for years in advance, so that by the time the actual election day rolls around, most voters have been hectored into submission, their choices limited usually to lesser evil A or greater evil B. Snap elections are as close to Athenian-agora type democracy as we get in this country. In parliamentary democracies, they have by-elections all the time; in this country unplanned elections are kept to the absolutely unavoidable minimum. Gubernatorial selection rather than popular election is bad all around. It was running for senator that gave the Illinoisian-Arkansan first lady her legitimacy as a US Senator from New York; the same would do wonders for Caroline Kennedy as well. Anyway, I hope the question of the US Senator from New York is cleared up soon, so we can turn our attention to that other paragon of democracy, the New York State Senate.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Elliot Carter

On Dec 11, 2008, Elliot Carter will celebrate his 100th birthday in New York City, where he was born, grew to personal and artistic maturity, and where he has lived almost all of his life. By any standard, he is one of the most distinguished creative talents ever to emerge from the city, and was probably the most important American classical composer in the second half of the 20th century (or at least from, say, 1950 to about 1980.) And what is most remarkable about Carter is that he is still active, still composing. In the entire history of classical music, there is no one of similar stature who has stayed active at such a great age. Other great composers who have created great works late in their careers, like Verdi’s Falstaff or Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, both written when their composers were about 80, seem in comparison like schoolboys in their nonage. A new work of his will have its premiere this weekend, the first of his second century.

But I suspect there won’t be any large celebrations for Elliot Carter. (They do things differently in France. A few weeks ago, the eminent anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss also turned 100, and President Sarkozy paid him a visit at home. I’m sure Carter has more important things to do than meet with Bush, but it’s the thought that counts.) The problem with celebrating Elliot Carter is that his music is dense, difficult, and recondite; gnarly with dissonances, bristling with atonalities. His music celebrates complexity, and there are works, like his Piano Concerto, in which every orchestral musician has a different part, and it sounds like it. Even in smaller scale works, like his five string quartets, what is often produced is not a blending, but clashing and tumult.

But Elliot Carter’s music is a true product of New York City. He is a late product of the New York school of the 1920s, a fertile time for modern music that produced such stalwarts as the early pre-Popular Front Aaron Copland, Edgard Varese, and Charles Ives, who was a mentor of sorts to Carter. He started out writing works in a Coplandesque vein, but around 1950 moved to his mature style. New York mid century music and art is often celebrated for its complexity and contrapuntal layeredness, and no one has ever taken this further than Carter. For many, this is too much a good thing, and it must be admitted that Carter’s music is easier to admire than love, and that there has a reaction against Carterian complexity in recent decades, with composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich leading a new “New York School” of composition. In our post-post-post modernist age, Elliot Carter, in his love of difficulty and abstraction is the last of the high modernists. His music will probably never be popular, but in honor of his 100th birthday, it would be nice if every New Yorker would at least give him a listen. Okay, its not "Rhapsody in Blue" but Elliot Carter also composed the music of New York City.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More Allison Blogging

So there’s a picture in the Times this morning of Allison Snyder, for whose Bat Mitzvah I recently journeyed to New York City for, all Ethel Merman-esque, arms extended, belting out a song in an audition for a high school for the performing arts. The article is about Allison’s efforts to get into high school, and the challenges she is facing in choosing the right school. The point of the article is that Allison’s mom, my good friend Clara Hemphill, as the author of numerous books on rating and evaluating the city’s best and worst public schools, has in many ways the same problems as any other parent; a bewildering array of choices, deadlines, essays, interviews, and hoops through which to jump on the way to making a high school decision for Allison. As Clara says, they made a conscious decision first to get crazy about the Bat Mitzvah (at which, as I have already noted in a previous post, Allison, ever the experienced trooper, just wowed ‘em) and then get crazy over high school.

I suppose the article conveys the gift of a bit of Christmastime schadenfreude to parents in similar situations. If Clara Hemphill, the reigning deity of picking the best high schools, is frustrated, I guess its okay that little mortal me is having similar problems. (I know all parents like this dreamed they could be like Michelle Obama who had the administrators of Washington’s best private schools falling over themselves to admit Sasha and Malia, rather than telling her “we’re very sorry but you missed the deadline and we don’t accept transfers during the school year.")
But the underlying point of the article is that the high school application process in NYC has become such a meritocratic muddle that few parents can figure it out, or can afford the time to maximize the options of their children, which means that the best positions often go to those who do have the time and money to figure it out, the children of the well-heeled and well-connected. Nothing has been more oversold in the three decade reign of the free market than the importance of “choice,” and whether the abundance of choice in education has been a good thing or a bad thing seems to me something very open to debate. (The answer, unsurprisingly, is some of both. Some choice is better than no choice when the only available option is unsatisfactory, but too much choice creates a perpetual game of musical chairs when parents are forever running after a limited number of desirable seats. Choice is good when it leads to fundamental changes in the underlying product, but all too often all that changes is the complexity of choosing.)
I hope Allison, a very talented performer, gets into the school that most enhances her artistic and academic potential. And I hope that Clara continues to produce her first rates guides to what has become the teeming complexity of the high school application process. The need is there, and there can be no better cicerone than Clara. But there is a part of me that feels, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht on heroes, while guides to high school education serve an important purpose, unhappy the land that needs guides to high school education.

Monday, December 8, 2008

No Caroline, No

If I can borrow the title of a somewhat obscure Beach Boys song, I can’t say that I am thrilled by the prospects of Caroline Kennedy becoming the next US senator from New York State. I have nothing against her; I’ve always liked her, and had a bit of a crush on her when I was six, in the way that I suppose this generation of six year olds will have a crush on Sasha and Malia. I have nothing against the Kennedy family either, the American house of Atreus, ill-favored by the gods, beloved by the American people . But I don’t like the name of the Tri-borough Bridge being renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, replacing a name that could only exist in New York City with a memorial that could exist anywhere. (I have nothing against Jackie Robinson either, but he replaced the other major borough-centric name in the city, the Interboro Parkway.) Why not rename the Major Deegan, named after a nonentity of a Democratic hack from the 1920s? Or the Tappan Zee, standing over a river (albeit a tad unsteadily) that Robert Kennedy did so much to clean up? Or the LIE or the Cross-Bronx? (Okay, they are somewhat dubious honors.) Or why didn’t the Port Authority in 1968 rename the airport the JFK and RFK airport, the way, I am sure, the Illinois-themed tunnel under the Hudson will one day be named the Lincoln-Obama tunnel.) Obama will no doubt have more things named after him than anyone since Martin Luther King, Jr.

But my biggest problem with Caroline Kennedy as senator is simply that I think it is upstate’s turn for a statewide appointment. I hate to be so parochial, but the upstate region and major cities have been stiffed for a long, long time. No governor since Nathan Miller, who served a two-interregnum from 1920 to 1922 during the reign of Al Smith, and who was a cantankerous reactionary best forgotten. Even getting rid of Spitzer didn’t help things, because Paterson, unusually for a lieutenant-governor, was also from NYC. No US Senator, if I am remembering correctly, since Charles Godell of Jamestown who was picked to finish out RFK’s term, only to be defeated in a three way race in 1970 by James Buckley because Godell had the temerity to criticize the war in Vietnam. No Attorney General since the horrible Dennis Vacco, and as far as I know, there has never been a state comptroller from upstate, or at least since the endless reign of Arthur Levitt.

It’s not a matter that a downstater cannot somehow “understand” upstate. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton both did an excellent job in this regard. Its just with its glamour, with its role as a center of commerce and intellect and culture and just about everything else, everything else being equal, there were always be more downstaters and NYCers who would be natural claimants for positions. I think it would be great if downstate would become acquainted with some of the excellent politicians upstate, such as former Rochester mayor Bill Johnson, or congresswoman Louise Slaughter (neither of whom has been seriously mentioned by the Great Mentioner.) A progressive upstate Democrat would be just the thing the rest of the state needs to puncture continuing illusions about upstate being a pasture of rural hicks. Let Caroline Kennedy get appointed to something, but let the appointer be Barack Obama, not David Paterson.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Remembering "The Best and the Brightest"

Today, Frank Rich's column in the Times restores a proper measure of irony to the one phrase that will always the associated with the late reporter and author David Halberstam: "the best and the brightest."

As Rich points out in a column whose really quarry is the latest Obama appointments, Halberstam used the phrase in his book of the same name published in 1972. When The Best and the Brightest Came out, it was acclaimed as an exploration of the pride, overconfidence, and misplaced verbal agility that propelled the grand men of the Kennedy administration into Vietnam. They may have been the "best and the brightest," Halberstam concluded, but they failed to see the hazards of escalating the Vietnam War and led us into a disaster.
In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

Rich is concerned that not only are people resurrecting the phrase "best and the brightest" without appreciation for its origins, but they are enthusiastically applying it to Obama appointees whose pride and economically centrist politics could lead us down a bad road. The brightest, as the title of the column argues, are not always the best. Let's see.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Big and Small

Eliot Spitzer, who has become one of the most perspicacious commentators on the current financial crisis ( I don’t see why cavorting with whores should be a prima facie reason for not considering him for the SEC, when Obama has the chance to name commissioners) had a very interesting article in Slate this past week. He wrote a theme that has popped up in a few places over the last several months—too big to fail is too big to exist, and we should create a network of smaller and stabler banks, and seoarate out these gargantuan monstrosities that create moral hazard by their very interrconenctedness with other gargantuan financial monstrosities. Giants walk the earth, and their biggest threat is that they will die, jack in the beanstalk-like, and fall on us, so they demand to get propped up by us dwarves.

This is an issue that is close to my heart. When I imagine my ideal state, it always comes down to one of two options. Either a universal superstate, sort of like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, with one world government supervising everything and everybody, or a world that is inhabited by myriad self-supporting communes and cooperatives, each independent though loosely linked together, without any sovereign countries, but with perfect freedom and amity existing among the world’s communities. The socialist and the anarchist vie in my breast, and I guess I don’t really care which side wins.

In less utopian ways, the contest between the beneficent powers of bigness and smallness have long vied in American reform politics, from the bigness of Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Croly’s New Nationalism, to the smallness of Wilson’s and Louis Brandeis’s New Freedom, to a variety of New Deal programs, with the NRA and TVA on one side, and Thurman Arnold’s TNEC on the other. The SEC and the Fed was under Roosevelt were advocates of the usefulness of smallness, breaking things apart, rather than putting them together, separating commercial and investment banking, enforcing rules against promiscuous branch banking and interstate banking holding corporations, breaking up the huge utility holding companies. Over the past thirty years, the trend has been to put things together again, with huge daisy chains of international corporations of bewildering complexity.

Over the last few months we have made some useful moves towards bigness (quasi-quasi nationalizing the already quasi-national Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac), but have otherwise kept the financial structure more or less intact, and those who run it would be very happy to keep the status quo around, now kept alive by massive financial subventions.

Probably in times of financial crisis, as happened during the New Deal, strong governments irresistibly move toward both bigness and smallness, nationalizing or taking over some things, and breaking apart others into more manageable constituent parts. I completely agree with Spitzer, we should use this crisis, as we take over failed financial institutions, to use a strong central government and regulatory apparatus, as we did in the 1930s, to rediscover the benefits of financial smallness, while working with other nations to build a super-SEC of international scope and powers, of the sort that the United Federation of Planets would be proud of. In any event, the worst of all possible worlds, and one that is unfortunately more likely than not, is that in the end, we will end up with a marginally chastened version of the current financial status quo.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Green Acres

When I was growing up in Rochdale Village in the 1960s, the shopping destination of choice was Green Acres, a large shopping mall in Valley Stream, just over the Queens/Nassau County line. Green Acres has been in the news this past week as the site of that horrible tragedy in a Wal-Mart, where on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which for some reason is called “Black Friday” (though in this case not inappropriately), a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by a horde of shoppers hoping to make off with swag, a metaphor for something about our consumer culture.
It’s a horrible situation all around, and as usual in America today, we divide the country into entrepreneurs and consumers, while the workers are afterthoughts, poorly protected, and trod upon by all. (See the current debate over the fate of Detroit’s Big Three.)

My sympathies to the family of the dead worker, and my hostilities to both Wal-Mart for manufacturing this artificial frenzy (look at all the bargains! Look at the idiots! Don’t be left out and get your ass down here while there’s still some good stuff left!) and the crazed maenads they summoned up by their stupid sale. May they all be prosecuted for negligent homicide.

But when I was growing up in Rochdale, Green Acres was something else; the mall; shoppers heaven. I remember pestering my mother so we could go to Green Acres, sometime in the spring of 1967, to purchase Sgt. Pepper, though all the times my mom dragged me there to purchase pants or a shirt all sort of fade together. Green Acres was one of the first shopping malls on Long Island, and when we first moved there it was much as it was when it opened in the mid-1950s, an open air mall, with the shoppers exposed to the elements as they made their rounds of bargain hunting. In around 1968 the mall was enclosed, fully weather controlled. I remember being quite impressed by this technological marvel. Green Acres had become its own world, unattached and separate, much as its owners had intended.

But this freedom from the world’s travails cannot be said of the other shopping area close to Rochdale, on Jamaica Avenue. This was probably a bit closer than Green Acres, and was much more accessible by public transportation-almost every bus you would take from Rochdale, by definition, would cross Jamaica Avenue, the supposed dividing line between Jamaica proper and South Jamaica. Jamaica Ave. was a great shopping area, where, I think in 1936, Michael Cullen opened the first King Kullen, the prototype of the modern supermarket, where the customers pushes the carts rather than the grocer getting you stuff from behind the counter. In my time, there was a Macy’s, and several Macy’s wannabees on the avenue, such as May’s and Gertz’s, and many other stores, along with the Loews Valencia, one of those bejeweled movie palaces of the 1920s. But the big difference between Jamaica Ave and Green Acres in the mid-1960s was that the clientele on Jamaica Avenue was predominantly black, and that in Green Acres was predominantly white. Since the 1930s, when there was a Jamaica equivalent of the Harlem “don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign there were efforts made to force the Jamaica Ave retailers to hire more, and more visible black workers. Promises were made, in the 1930s, in the mid-1940s, and again in the early 1960s when the so-called Rochdale Movement, an offshoot of the demonstrations at the Rochdale construction site, started to picket Jamaica Avenue stores. This was a fairly radical movement—Malcolm X came to Jamaica to speak to a rally of the Rochdale Movement on Nov 28, 1963, perhaps his penultimate appearance as a minister of the Nation of Islam. (His notorious “chickens coming home to roost speech” was only a few days later, on December 1.) This and similar promptings finally opened Jamaica Avenue to black employees in a serious way, but as so often happened in the 1960s, the victory was pyrrhic. The beginning of widespread black employment coincided with a sharp and essentially irreversible decline of Jamaica Ave as a commercial center, the fate of so many urban shopping districts. Few of the stores from its glory period remain.

So, more and more black people came to Green Acres. After I left Rochdale in the 1970s this became a problem, and by the 1990s there were plenty of snide comments about the “Rochdale crowd” coming to Green Acres for its shopping and movie going, and complaints that the local security forces had different standards for black and white teenage mall milling about. I’m not sure how this was resolved but I suspect that Green Acres shoppers are far more “diverse” in their racial background than it was forty years ago. And the unfortunate man who was killed at Mal-wart was an African immigrant. I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, but I think we need a new slogan. “ Don’t buy where you can’t work,” is a struggle that has more or less been won. Perhaps the new slogan should be “don’t work where they don’t treat you as a human meaning, and where both employees and customers are treated as cattle,” or “don’t buy anything that involves you queuing at 5 am in the morning.” Or simply “don’t buy anything that might involve a charge of criminally negligent homicide.” In any event, once again my deepest sympathies to the family of the deceased.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thoughts in a Cold Season

It's early December in Rochester, New York. Everyone knows what that means; ice, pelltings of sleet, lacings up of boots, layering of sweaters; lake effect snow bands promiscuously picking up moisture over Lake Ontario, only to drop off their ill-gotten gains on the peaceful villagers of upstate New York. In the immortal words of Ezra Pound: Winter is icummen in
Lhude sing Goddamm
Raineth drop and staineth slop
And how the wind doth ramm!

But no singing of Goddamm for me. Obama Hosannas instead. Because one of the less-remarked upon novelties of an Obama presidency is that he will be the first president from a cold weather climate in a long time. It does my heart good to see photos of him bundled up in a winter coat, wearing a hat with ear muffs. And after a long run of sunbelters, Obama returns the presidency to those of us who know the difference among the four seasons. Our recent presidents have hailed from, in reverse order, Texas, Arkansas, Texas, California, Georgia, Michigan (the brief interregnum of Gerald Ford), California, Texas, Massachusetts (a cold enough clime that), Kansas/Texas (Eisenhower’s a tough one to locate), and Missouri. And the first upper-Midwesterner (Ford once again excepted) since Herbert Hoover.
What do we get from a cold weather president? A president from a state people are moving away from, and not to. A state with a declining industrial base, that will not be able to support itself through software engineering and asset bubbles in housing, a state that has seen better days. We desperately need a president who has witnessed the underside of America over the past thirty years. Texans, Californians, and Arizonans (this means you, John McCain, need not apply.) A blast of cold air is just what this country needs. As a northern Minnesotan once said, the times, they are a changin’.

Item two: Now that Hillary will be moving on, and we need to pick a new senator, let me add my voice to those upstate who think it might be nice to have an upstater picked. The only way an upstate pol gets to statewide office these days is by appointment—the last upstate senator was Charles Godell, appointed by Rocky to finish out Robert Kenendy’s term. Various names have been bruited about, and let me add one, former Rochester mayor William Johnson, who is probably too old to be considered, but he is one of the most thoughtful politicians I have ever known, and he would be an ornament to the Senate. Andrew Cuomo has plenty of time to do his greasy pole climbing.

Item three: Congrats to the Canadians for figuring out a way to topple Stephen Harper’s Bush wannabe-ish government. It was nice while it lasted, a few weeks when United Staters would tease their Canadian friends about our country having a more progressive government than theirs, inquiring if they were making their plans to move south of the border. One question—a coalition government between the NDP and the Liberals seems so natural, a center-left government, that why wasn’t this tried before? Canada evidently, like Britain, doesn’t really do coalition governments, but this link up, to one who doesn’t know the intricacies of the Canadian system, seems like something that should have been tried a long time ago. Anyway, this winter seems like a decisive shift, all over North America, to progressive, cold weather politics. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Favorite Work of American History

I’m a professional historian. I am not really supposed to have a favorite book. I read American history for quantity , not quality. My favorite book is the one I have just finished reading, another notch in my belt, and I move on. Love and leave ‘em, I always say. Favorite books are like best friends, something suited to one’s intellectual adolescence, not to one’s historiographic maturity, where you have a group of books you value more than others, but singling one out seems a bit, what to say, overwrought and precious. Besides, when you’re a professional historian, the better the book, the more “important” it is, the more likely you are to want to take notes, evaluate it in terms of other books in the field, to study it, to admire it, rather than really like it. And important books are generally read only once, and thereafter only occasionally consulted, while it gathers dust on your book shelf.

The most important quality of a favorite book is that it is read often, repeatedly. It is a book that you want to read, not merely a book you have to read. At the same time, a favorite book has to have some depth. I have found myself, in a year of sorrows, repeatedly reading the Bertie and Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse this past year; very funny but quite insubstantial. Not enough there for a “favorite book.”
But despite all these structures, I think I do have a favorite book in American history, and I was reminded of it this past week, reading a wonderful review of a reissue of it by Christine Smallwood in the Nation (have you noticed that the book review section in the Nation is getting better and better?) And the book is Names in the Land, by George R. Stewart, originally published in 1945, a history of geographic naming practices from first European contact to the middle of the 20th century. I have read it, I suppose, four or five times, and have heavily thumbed a companion volume of sorts, American Place Names, a sparkling short encyclopedia of 11,000 place names published in 1970. George R. Stewart was not a historian, but a professor of English at Berkeley, a fairly well-known novelist in his time (“Storm” and “Fire,” gripping reads both, are probably the best known, accounts of men and women in extreme circumstances), along with some first class historical narratives on westward expansion, of which the best known is his 1936 Ordeal by Hunger, a still unmatched account of the travails of the Donner Party. And Names on the Land, while it certainly is non-fiction, is probably best taxonomized as historical geography than history proper.
So why do I like Names on the Land so much? I can’t think of any other work that quite captures the teeming heterogeneity of American history, the slice after slice of early settlers and their practices that left an onomastic mark on the physical landscape of America, Indians, Dutch, French, Spanish, English in several varieties, places named after great persons, great events, things very real and things imaginary, names graphic and euphemistic, people who left only their names, and people who went out of their way to eliminate all traces of their predecessors. America’s place names captures this chaotic complexity perhaps better than any other single marker. Of course, since the frontier has been closed since 1890 or so, the pace of naming has perhaps slowed down a bit, though with new streets and subdivisions, there will be never a lack of new things to name, or old things to rename.
Names on the Land has a bit of a WPA feel to it, inclusive and broadly non-judgmental, a popular front in which Indians and conquistadors, slaves and their masters alike all had their roles to place in naming America. It is a story in which accident and happenstance play as big a role as the big determining forces of history. I think that more often than not, this is how things actually happen, and Names in the Land is a history of America somewhat distractedly and eccentrically putting itself together and naming itself. My favorite chapter, “Of Ancient glory renewed” is on the vogue of classical place names that got its start in 1790 when the New York State settlement of Vanderheyden’s Ferry rechristrened itself Troy. (Another good chapter, on the myriad Columbii and Columbias that dot the American landscape, is called “American discovers Columbus.”) Perhaps the accumulation of odd facts that fill the book can best be loved by a compiler of encyclopedias, but I think it remains one of the best introductions to the cultural history of the American people ever written. Anyway it was has been reissued in a new edition by the NYRB press, and I urge anyone who has never cracked its pages to give it a try.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Allison's Bat Mitzvah

Rob probably is too polite to boast and play the doting father, but the social event of the season, heard all cross the Upper East and Upper West Sides, was his daughter’s Allison’s Bat Mitzvah last Saturday. For this unbiased and neutral observer, a more stylish Bat Mitzvah was never seen, and I have never heard a perkier D‘var Torah. She just swept all before her. Allison’s parents, Rob and Clara, have every reason to be extraordinarily proud of their daughter, and everyone who was there discovered, if they did not know already, that Allison is a very special young woman. Mazal Tov.

But this is a blog of political commentary , not a jotting of social notes, so to remain on message, the question must be asked, what does Allison’s Bat Mitzvah have to do with the election of Barack Obama? In her excellent D’var Torah, Allison spoke about the first meeting of Isaac and Rebecca, and their love at first sight. Allison was of course correct to suggest that falling in love at first sight is a tad superficial, and that those who form connections solely on the basis of first appearances and impressions are generally condemned to a romantic life of disappointments and ephemerality. And yet the paradox of first impressions is that sometimes (as the book of Genesis certainly intended for the initial meeting of Isaac and Rebecah) our first impressions are true, and form the basis of lasting commitments.

Most Americans met Barack Obama on the basis of his keynote speech in 2004. Four years later he was elected president. No one in American politics, perhaps since William Jennings Bryan, has gone further on the basis of a first impression. Of course, in romance and politics, all you really gain from a good first impression is the chance to make a good second impression, and onto the third, the fourth, and so on. So far Obama has passed all the tests, and we have made a real commitment. If, as Allison points out, there is reason for skepticism for a relationship based on early impresions, there is also reason for much optimism. If this is not our time, our time will never come. But to return to the main theme of this post, whether or not, in the person of Barack Obama, the American people have a rendezvous with destiny, Allison’s rendezvous with her growing maturity was carried off with her usual aplomb. Mazal tov.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ministry all of Talents

This was the sobriquet attached to the British government formed William Wyndam Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville in 1806, after the death of Pitt the Younger. A wartime government, it drew on Whigs and Tories alike, though fervid Pittites eschewed the chance to join. It was short-lived, lasting only through 1807, and was a fairly progressive government, with its greatest achievement the momentous decision to end the African slave trade, which went into effect in 1808. And there is much evidence that Obama is planning on constructing a ministry of all talents to accompany him to Washington, with much talk about giving Hillary the State Department. (Was this part of Obama’s plan back in the summer when he refused to seriously consider Hillary for the veep slot?)

People are comparing this to Lincoln’s cabinent, with Seward and Stanton, and that is an important precedent, but I would rather look to Britain. In a responsible country, where we recognized that we elect not just individuals but parties, this should happen all the time. Hillary is the second most important and best known Democrat in the country, why shouldn’t she get the equivalent of the chancellor of the exchequer? Of course there are vast differences between the two systems. In this country, everyone, including Hillary will serve at the pleasure of Obama, and there is a long history of secretaries of state being undermined by national security advisors (Dean Rusk, William P. Rodgers, Cyrus Vance, Colin Powell.) Presumably this won’t happen if Hillary gets the nod. All of this speaks to Obama’s maturity, and his recognition, I think, that his victory is a victory for the Democratic Party and its values.

At the same time, the decision by the Senate Democrats, evidently with the covert support of Obama, to allow Joe Lieberman to retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security committee seems to be comprised of two parts magnanimity and three parts pusillianimity. There is a way in which calls for bi-partisanship—we see this in David Paterson—all too easily become excuses for keeping the status quo in tact. If there is anything worse than the two parties going at each other like cats and dogs while dispensing calumnies by the box full, it is when they are trying to get along, and carrying on like the love feast of the apostles. At best you can say that the Democrats wanted him, in the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson, inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, and presumably Lieberman will be his best behavior ,and I can only hope that if he tries in any way to retard or challenge the Democratic agenda, , they will waste no time in calling for head on a silver platter. Or so one might hope.

Speaking of British prime ministers and Jews, I was reading the latest issue of New York Review of Books (which can IMHO, go jump in a effing lake—the editor of the NYRB promised to publish a letter I wrote about Obama and Howard Thurman in early July, and Thanksgiving in upon us, and still no letter) which had an interesting article on the endlessly fascinating Benjamin Disraeli. Now it seems to me that if there one person in the past two hundred years of democratic politics that can be compared to Obama, it is Disraeli. Since Disraeli in the 1870s climbed, in his famous words, to the top of the greasy pole, what other member of a despised outsider group, still suffering from the effect of civic and social disabilities, has overcome remarkable odds to become the elected leader of the most powerful country on earth? To answer my rhetorical question, I can’t think of anyone.

Having said this, there doesn’t seem to a hell of lot in common between Obama and Disraeli, except that both men were superb writers—Disraeli the best writer of any prime minister, the platitudinous Churchill included, and Obama the best writer of any American president, with only Theodore Roosevelt really in the conversation as an author of literature—and both men used their status as somewhat exotic outsiders to their political advantage. Disraeli would have written a fine novel about the dark skinned man with an African name who conquered Washington poltics, to the astonishment of all.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reversals of Fortune

Elliot Spitzer broke his year long silence in the Washington Post over the weekend, with an excellent op-ed on the financial follies that have unfolded since his personal follies exploded, offering a cogent analysis of what when wrong, and what will be needed to correct it. Certainly Elliot Spitzer’s tenure as attorney-general and governor are looking better and better in retrospect. His downfall was applauded by his many enemies on Wall Street (and for some conspiratorial minded persons, perhaps in some way aided or abetting by strategic leaks by Wall Street people in the know.) At the time of his downfall, last March, some speculated that the growing financial crisis Spitzer’s fault (his investigations had damaged Wall Street precious “liquidity” ), though this never made any sense, and if anything his effort to rein in deceptive and unsafe practices at bailed out insurance giant A.I.G were not searching and hard hitting enough. His voice was ultimately a lone one, crying in the wilderness, against the voices, Democrat as well as Republican, that tried to stop anyone from getting too close to the golden-egg laying goose. This should have been his time, his hour, his vindication. He has been missed, and if Spitzer’s op-ed was an effort by his to angle for the SEC chairmanship and his redemption, he gets my vote.

Meanwhile in the Times today was an interview with the man most responsible for the financial crisis we face today, former Senator Phil Gramm, who has left the senate to porkily enjoy Wall Street lucre. For fifteen years, from the late 1980s through about 2000, Gramm spearheaded congressional efforts to free financial institutions from sensible oversight. From the S & L crisis, when the ability of mortgage derivates to wreak havoc was amply demonstrated, to his successful effort to prevent the Commodities Future Trading Commission (headed for a while by his wife) to regulate derivatives, to his overturning of Glass-Steagall in 1999, no one played a bigger role in encouraging our financial services to engage in greedy, irresponsible behavior, and to encourage our regulatory bodies to look elsewhere. Gramm tries lamely to defend himself, arguing that deregulation was not at the heart of what has gone wrong, but it will convince few. (Even Gramm acknowledges in the interview that there might be a need for greater regulative scrutiny from here on out.) All in all, if I were worrying about my legacy, and how I will be viewed by historians, I would rather be Elliot Spitzer than Phil Gramm.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Eisenstadts I Have Known

Actually, not that many. Our family is small, and has experienced negative population growth in recent years. I have very few relatives named Eisenstadt, and I have had, in my fifty-plus years only a handful of conversations with unrelated Eisenstadts. When I lived in Park Slope, at 576 5th street, there was a woman living at 578 5th Street named Jane Eisenstadt, and we chatted a few times. Then there are the famous Eisenstadts, whom I only have read about. Probably topping the list is S.N. Eisenstadt, the Israeli sociologist and dedicated Weberian, who like the great Max himself, seems to have written or edited volumes on every possible arena of human social endeavor. In my field, there’s Abraham S. Eisenstadt, a distinguished American historian who taught for many years at Brooklyn College, and who is an expert on historiography. We spoke once. There’s the novelist Jill Eisenstadt, who was very fashionable in the 1980s and early 1990s, but seems to have less productive lately. And there are the talmudists, such as Meir ben Izkak Eisenstadt, known in the trade by his acronym, the Maharam Esh, one of the most gifted writers of responsa in 18th century Europe, and not to be confused with his 19th century successor, Meir Eisenstadter, another peerless talmudist. (My branch of the family has spent less time in the cheder, I am afraid.) And then there are the variant spellings, such as Stuart Eizenstat, an advisor to Jimmy Carter, and active for many years in obtaining financial justice for Holocaust survivors, and the most famous Eisenstadt (or Eisenstaedt) of them all, the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, he of Life magazine, and the famous photo of the V-J day embrace in Times Square. Perhaps my favorite variant spelling is the mellifluous Oona Ajzenstat (pronounced Eisenstadt), who has written on the important French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. And then there are translations into other languages, most commonly Hebrew, and there are many Israeli Barzalis who have an Eisenstadt somewhere in their family tree.

All of this is to say, that Eisenstadt is a sufficiently uncommon name that when I hear of a new Eisenstadt, my ears prick up, eager to add another number to our smallish ranks. And this week, a new Eisenstadt was added to the list of famous Eisenstadts (sort of), Martin Eisenstadt. As was revealed a few days ago, Martin Eisenstadt was a creation of two hoaxers, who invented Martin Eisenstadt as a senior fellow of the non-existent Harding Institute for Freedom and Justice (named after Warren G. Harding, one of the least distinguished of American presidents, though if you ask me I prefer him to his predecessor). And Martin Eisenstadt had a blog, where he confirmed tidbits such as Sarah Palin’s ignorance of the status of Africa as a continent, and his blog posts were read and followed up by a host of other bloggers, and the little flares of rumor were soon fanned into a conflagration of hearsay. And the point of the hoax, like all hoaxes, is to demonstrate the credulity and gullibility of those who had been suckered. Or so argued the hoaxers, that living in a 24-hour news cycle, no filters remain within our news gathering apparatuses, which sucks anything that floats by into its ever-open, ever-insatiable maw.

This is no doubt true, but I will leave to our media critics and analysts, prime among them my dear friend Rob Snyder, to explore the finer and deeper points of this scandal. But my concern is more parochial. Why, invent an Eisenstadt? Why not, say, a Snyder? For starters, there is a Michael Eisenstadt, who toils at a neo conservative think-tank for Middle East policy, who perhaps gave them the idea. The hoaxers said that Jewish neo-cons tend to have very Jewish last names and very un-Jewish first names (Paul Wolfowitz, Jack Abramoff, Michael Chertoff.) I suppose that is true. Eisenstadt is a very Jewish name—I have never heard of a non-Jewish Eisenstadt—but not so ostentatiously Jewish to call attention to itself (Cohen, Levy, D’Israeli.) And many Eisenstadts, starting with myself, have rather un-Jewish first names, starting with mine, first belonging to the rock on which Jesus built his church, the humble fisherman in the Galilee that heard the good news right from the horses’s mouth, as it were. All I can say is that I am grateful the hoaxers did not invent a Peter Eisenstadt. (My phone would still be ringing.) And those who are reading this blog and have never met me, you will have to take it on my shaky assertion that Peter Eisenstadt exists beyond the occasional blog post.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Times Hoax

A hoax edition of the New York Times appeared on the streets of New York yesterday, its lead story announcing "Iraq War Ends." Produced by a group of political pranksters called the Yes Men, according to Reuters, the edition sparked thoughts about a better future and the place of journalism in our politics and culture.

Reuters reported that 1.2 million copies of the fake edition, which took six months to produce, were handed out in New York and Los Angeles. The Reuters report included a statement sent from the Website of the fake edition:
"We've got to make sure Obama and all the other Democrats do what we elected them to do," Bertha Suttner, identified as one of the newspaper's writers, said in the statement. "After eight, or maybe twenty-eight years of hell, we need to start imagining heaven."

The 14-page issue is packed with "stories" that I'd like to see come true, from the construction of more bike paths to announcements of free public universities to efforts to build a "sane economy."

For me, one of the interesting questions in the whole episode is why it took the form of an edition of the Times. The pranksters could have printed up their own press release announcing the same thing, but obviously that would not have had the same impact. So why does the Times have the impact that it has?

Answers will vary. Some will tell you that the Times enjoys its authority because it is a uniquely credible source of information. Others will say that the paper is simply a megaphone for power.

I'm too skeptical to accept the first explanation and too disturbed by the Times' coverage of the run up to the Iraq war to categorically dismiss the second.

Instead, thinking back to the writings of the historian Edward Thompson on law and the courts in eighteenth century England, I am inclined to think of journalism as contested terrain: something worth fighting over. Its virtues are not innate but its purposes and actions are not automatically determined by whoever holds power at the moment. Journalism has to be thought about and fought about, year in and year out, if it is ever to live up to its best possibilities.

Surely one of mainstream journalism's enduring traits is its tendency to report the world according to the common sense of its time. For the last eight years and more, that common sense has been skewed far to the right.

The hoax edition of the Times distributed yesterday helped us imagine a tomorrow that looks different from today. With luck and hard work, we might even see that reflected someday in the real Times.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Pathways to Empathy at the African Burial Ground Memorial

Over the weekend, on a walking tour of lower Manhattan with my students from Rutgers-Newark, we visited the African Burial Ground Memorial on Elk Street. For me, the memorial is one of the most moving sites in the city. But on this visit, a ranger explained to me that I've been walking through the site backwards.

I've always entered the memorial from left to right. I walk down a spiraling ramp, past African spiritual and religious symbols that remind me how the people buried here were people of heart and mind, with their own faiths and traditions.

Then,in a subterranean space, I read the engraved messages about the physical remains of the people buried there: that in one plot was found a man aged 22-28 years, in another a woman 18-20, in another a baby. For me, this makes the dead a living presence.

Then, I enter a tight chamber with only one exit, through a narrow door at the opposite end. My heart runs cold every time I do this, because I think of the millions of Africans who passed doors of no return before they were shipped to the Americas.

Through door and I'm in an open space, with all the memories of the passage and ambiguities for freedom before me.

It turns out, according to the ranger, that I have it entirely backwards.

As she explained, the memorial should be experienced first with the entry through the door, then the confinement of slavery, then the engraved identities of the interred, followed by an ascent alongside religious and spiritual symbols.

Frankly, I think the memorial is so good that it works either way. But next time, I'll try the preferred route. And if you haven't been there yet, visit soon.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Changing History

The headline in the local paper is “Changing History.” And that is of course just what Barack Obama’s election has done. Epochal events not only change the present, they change the past. This happens all the time. In 1953, Queen Elizabeth, good Queen Bess, scourge of the Catholics, and whose Royal Endowment for the Arts supported a few struggling playwrights, got a new name, some 350 years after her death, Queen Elizabeth I. Less trivially, in 1939, the Great War became World War II (I’ve long wondered why it wasn’t called Great War II.) There is a whole era in American history, the ante-bellum period, that is defined by what came after it. Does German history from Luther onwards somehow naturally culminate the disaster that began in 1933? Does colonial American history ineluctably lead to July 4th, 1776? And will we able to, ever again, write about African American history without our knowledge of what took place on Nov 4th, 2008? I don’t think so.

Obama has not only changed the world we live in, and the world we will live in. He has changed the world we used to live in. It will be far more difficult for the detractors of the civil rights movement, on whatever side of the political aisle, to deny that was wrought by Howard Thurman in India, by Martin Luther King in Montgomery, by the Brown decision, by the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, were so much window dressing for gullible liberals, leaving the basic racial problem unaddressed and untouched. By the same measure, I hope, by providing a definitive and emphatic statement on what has been accomplished, it will shine an even brighter light on the remaining gap, the yawning abyss, between our ideals and the reality. No one will ever be able to say again, when any racial problem is discussed, that solving it is impossible.
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Friday, November 7, 2008

The First Negro

By the 1930s, it was already a cliché. This, from a 1939 article about Howard Thurman in The Crisis, the distinguished African American theologian whom I have been spending a great deal of time writing about as of late, on his many engagements to speak at white colleges “In most of the engagements filled by Howard Thurman, he is “the only Negro” or “the first Negro” (with apologies for these overused terms.)” But anyone who writes about the history of African American achievement in this country will reuse the phrase again and again. In some ways, the easiest barrier to breach in the ending of racial discrimination in this country was recognizing persons of extraordinary talent and ability. (In comparison to say, the tangled questions of inner city poverty and welfare.) To be sure, there was nothing easy or straightforward about minorities winning this basic right, but even before the combined efforts of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there had been positive results. In 1949 William Hastie, a onetime colleague of Thurman at Howard was appointed the first federal judge. In 1967, in a selection in which the person chosen was as symbolically powerful as the act itself, Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the US Supreme Court. Appointments have been relatively easy; Johnson named Robert Weaver to the cabinet in 1965, and ever since there have been minority faces at the highest echelons of power. And even the current miserable excuse for a president saw fit to appoint two African Americans to what was traditionally seen as the most important cabinet position, secretary of state.

Elective success, certainly elective success outside of “black” districts, has been much more halting. Starting with Edward Brooke, elected senator from Massachusetts in 1966, few blacks have been elected to predominantly white constituencies. Black mayors were elected in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago in the 1980s. So far, all of their successors have been white (and in one case, Latino.) Obama was only fourth or fifth black senator elected since Reconstruction. (And even Obama started on his path the usual way for black politicians, representing a predominantly black district in the Illinois legislature. )

But now, a black American has been elected to the highest position in the American government, and will become the de facto most powerful person in the world, and we are scrambling to understand what it means. Obama will become only the second person who is not a white Protestant male to become president. (We’re still working on that male part, and John Kennedy, the first non-Protestant, has now been succeeded nine anti-Papists, and the first non-Christian president is nowhere in sight, though Barack Hussein Obama is as close as we have ever come, with a non-Christian parent—perhaps now he can get his beautiful middle name back.) For Thurman citizenship was about possibility, about not being limited by artificial distinctions, about recognizing that a radical equality between all people was a precondition for true democracy. Today, if all barriers are not breached and eviscerated, I hope we can finally say that nothing is impossible.

A common comment in the past few days has been the wish expressed by many that their parents or grandparents had been alive to see this day. It is a wish perhaps most fervently expressed by blacks, but shared by many. I wish my father was around to see this, and that my mother was not so addled by dementia that she could understand what was happening, or that brother, a big Obama supporter, hadn’t decided to take his own life this past year. Indeed, I wish everyone was alive to see this event, Martin Luther King, Howard Thurman, Frederick Douglass, Denmark Vesey, back to the first slaves brought to Virginia in 1619, and every black man and woman who ever suffered under Jim Crow and slavery And for that matter, I would love to hear what Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Robert E Lee, Thomas Jefferson (with or without Sally Hemmings) all the Founding Fathers had to say, and lets not forget Sitting Bull and Geronimo, Fred Korematsu and all the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, and every one who has ever felt disinherited in America or wondered how the American experiment would turn out. It has always struck me as unfair that history is so asymmetrical. Everyone who studies American history from this day forward will know what happened on Nov 4th 2008. It is a pity that those who came before will never know what happened this week, though I would like to think that somewhere, their spirits are absorbing the news, with a shared incredulity.

There are no make-ups or do-overs in history, and no preordained happy endings, no restorations to an earlier status quo. Europe was the center of Jewish life for some 1900 years, until European Jewry was destroyed in six short terrible years. It will not be restored, nor will New York State be returned to the Iroquois, California to the Mexicans or Indians, or the descendants of the Africans ripped from their homeland during the slave trade to the mother continent. But for a moment, the United States seems to have reached what Thurman and many others have dreamed about, the realization of true and radical meaning of genuine citizenship.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Election in Maine

One thing sums up the 2008 election in Maine for me: signs. Political signs seemed to litter every street corner and yard, which seems ironic in a state that bans roadside billboards. But in this rural state, the plethora of signs speaks to our enthusiastic, independent-minded electorate. Voter turnout in Maine is high, and involvement in town councils and boards is common. It is this local energy that struck me as inspiring and truly American in this election year.

When I lived in New York City, it felt hard to separate state and local politics from national politics. City issues were national issues and vice versa. Often city leaders are seeking the state or even national spotlight, giving them remote, untouchable quality.

In Maine, local politics has an intensity that I’ve not experience elsewhere. The makeup of small towns and districts means you’re almost always voting for a neighbor or friend of a friend. It’s truly the politics of handshakes and knocking on doors Take my own small mid-coast town. My neighbor across the street ran for our local house seat in the Maine state congress; my other neighbor ran for school board director. In the house race, her opponent lived a few neighborhoods over; they share friends, acquaintances and business relationships.

Another example of the personal canvassing was when our democrat candidate for the state senate pulled up to my house one day in an unassuming Honda Civic. I literally did a double take when he handed me the brochure with his picture on it; I thought for sure he was there to solicit donations to some local boys’ scout troupe or sports team.

Political signs in Maine belie this sense of local interest. While there were certainly a fair number of Obama/Biden signs, and a lesser, though notable, number of McCain/Palin ones, the lion’s share of political messaging on street corners and in front yards went to local races. I marveled at the efforts by some to bombard you with signs on one candidate or issue; did the candidate with 5 signs really offer better solutions to our everyday issues than the one with 3? The campaigns must have thought so.

Maine promotes itself as a “vacationland” full of a range of outdoor recreation offerings. It combines a rural natural landscape with a rich New England history and culture. Towns work hard to draw tourists and maintain a sense of charm and “mom and pop” quality to their downtowns and main streets. All of this makes the excess in political signage all the more ironic.

But political races in Maine are about the individual and not the party; signs strive to achieve that name recognition that makes you choose Joe Smith versus Joe Jones; party affiliation alone is not enough. Independent-minded voting makes its way up the ranks from local to national elections here.

While in recent years, the state has voted Democratic for president, it did help elect both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the latter of whom maintains a large summer home in Maine. Both Maine senators are Republicans, albeit moderate ones. Northern Maine, or district 2, was seen by the McCain campaign as potential ground for 2 electoral votes this year (Maine is one of 2 states that can potentially split electoral votes by congressional district). Nonetheless, despite visits from both Sara and Todd Palen, Obama handily won the state’s entire electoral offering.

When I lived in New York, I voted at a local school in the neighborhood where I lived. This offered a sense of community in the face of such a large urban backdrop. In Maine, I vote on the grounds of our town’s annual agricultural fair, where livestock is traded and Ferris wheels spin. What’s interesting about this setting is that it brings the entire town together under one roof to vote. For our local politicians, the fair grounds are the uncontested last stand: and stand they did, all day long, shaking the hand of every town resident to cross the threshold.

I voted at around 5 p.m. on Election Day, on my way home from work. As I turned into the fair grounds, I marveled at the number of signs going up the hill to the main building where I was to make my voice heard. On one side were literally 10 signs in a row for one local candidate; on the other side as many for the opponent.

Did they really think I would choose one over the other because I saw their name more often or more prominently place? I suppose it’s the low-budget version of a barrage of TV ads on the day of an election. Regardless of its effect on my voting, the signs did add to the sense of magnitude in this year’s election, that is, until I parked the car.

Despite rumors of long lines and waits, I walked right in to my polling station. I gave my neighbor, stationed outside with other local candidates, a hug for luck in her house race, and cast my ballot, all in about a minute. It was somewhat anticlimactic on such an historic day, but I guess that’s what election days are all about: the end of the promises, slogans and signs and the beginning of the work to fulfill them. I just hope they clean up all those signs soon.

Cameron Myrick, a former New Yorker, lives in Maine.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama in Excelsis

Obama in excelsis. Obamamissio. The shot heard round the world. Let me quote the estimable sportswriter Red Smith, on the original shot heard round the world, Bobby Thompson’s 1951 home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.” But of course, no one outside the United States really cared who won the National League pennant in 1951. This was truly heard around the world, reverberating and vibrating with deep and profound resonances on every continent, and every corner of the world.

Do we have to stop and figure out what it means? Can’t we just enjoy it, and revel in its dimensions? I was feeling too elated this morning to have anything sad or depressed to relate to my grief counselor. Call it Obama therapy. Perhaps Obama can get his middle name back now. We should be proud that the next president of the United States will have a Swahili/Muslim name, Barack Hussein Obama. And I am proud to be an American, and not for something eccentric or minor, but for something that was wrought by a majority of Americans, acting decisively, in the exercise of their civil duties. Liberals and progressives have been afraid of democracy for decades, afraid that the people out of doors were inherently reactionary, and would if given a chance tear down the structure of civil liberties, and were a bunch of God-sodden jingoes lusting after foreign entanglements. We showed them. I’m not sure what it means for race relations, other than this does not, by itself, change anything. And that feeling good about yourself is an emotion that rapidly cloys. But this is the first great victory of liberal and progressive forces in this country since the mid-1960s. Everyone knows Marx’s famous aphorism about history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. I don’t know where 60s’s liberalism fits into this model—it probably was a combination, tragedy and farce at once. I hope the new liberalism, the new progressivism, the new populism, representing a profound rebuke for how this country has been governed in recent decades, and lead and epitomized by a brilliant politician who epitomizes its values, avoids those extremes. Rather than tragedy or farce, we need a politics of light comedy, a romance of inclusion, that resolves in a happy ending with everyone satisfied. God Bless America. Or, to quote Irving Berlin again: “Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my hearts beats so I can hardly speak.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Glory, Glory Hallelujah

In any decade, the election of our first African-American president would have been a historic triumph. But the election of Barack Obama to the presidency should be doubly celebrated because it also affirms something that was badly battered in recent times: American democracy.

Out of the stolen election of 2000, and all the wrongs inflicted by the Bush Administration since 9/11, the Obama campaign has built a democratic movement for change that has restored the Democrats to power and democracy to our politics.

There will be plenty of time for criticism and disappointments. President Obama will not be able to be all things to all his supporters. But on this night, it is time to savor the achievements and the possibilities wrought by Obama's campaign and Obama's victory.

Tonight, I cherish the images of my family's contributions to the victory. My children canvassed in Pennsylvania on Election Day. The sight of Allison scampering down sidewalks, and reports of my son Max standing up to a man who tried to stop him from leafleting for Obama and Congressman Patrick Murphy, give me great pride and hope for the future. I also love my wife's stories of phone banking in Greenwich Village, where Peter Yarrow led the volunteers in singing "We Shall Overcome."

The Obama victory also gives me a great opportunity to quote a poem that has inspired me for many years, a poem by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The long thread of sorrows in Irish history draws attention to the best and worst of human possibilities. In one of his poems, "Voices from Lemnos," written more than a decade ago, Heaney set down words suited to the Obama victory.

Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted or endured.

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

My Kind of Town; My Kind of President

I was in Chicago for a conference over the weekend. Shall I name drop? I shall. I was on a panel and had dinner with Cornell West. Needless to say there was only one topic of conversation, wherever I went. In Hyde Park, where Obama lives, every store front had an Obama sign, ever book store we entered had a display of Obamiana in the entrance to the store. I suspect in Hyde Park the only people voting for Mc Cain today will be members of the University of Chicago economics faculty. As we drove past Grant Park on Sunday afternoon, the police barriers were already up, and there were about fifty or so of those remote television trucks already lined up. I can only imagine the scene now. Although there was some nervousness about the results tonight, the main topic of conservation was not if he gets elected, but what happens next. Cornell West advised that Obama is not a black leader. He is an American leader, and if blacks expect anything special coming from an Obama victory they are likely to be sorely disappointed. Others suggested that West was too pessimistic, though I think the fantasy love affair that many, black and white, have been conducting with Obama is likely to be shattered in the aftermath of his victory. This is all to the good; fantasies are not the basis on healthy long term relationships, and that is what we will need to create, starting November 5th.

Anyway, it was very exciting being in Chicago over the weekend. Unless all the pundits and polls are wrong, and Dewey does defeat Truman, today will be the greatest and most memorable day in the history of Chicago since the Fire in 1871, and even Mrs. O’Leary’s cow didn’t start a blaze that has burned as brightly or with more energy than that ignited by Barak Obama. But as Cornell West said, it is not the elevation of blacks to high position that we should be celebrating, but the promise that democratic possibility has to raise the least and the smallest and most despised and disinherited among us.
PS It was sad that Studs Terkel didn’t quite survive to see this greatest of Chicago days. And sadder still that the “liberal” New York Times saw fit to offer a redbaiting appreciation of Terkel by Edward Rothstein that linked him to Bill Ayers that utterly missed the point of what made Terkel unique. Yes, Terkel was perhaps the last living representative of the Popular Front, but what made so special was his sensibility, a sensibility shaped but not beholden to his left of center politics, that celebrated what we shared in common, and had moved far from slavish adherence to a party line decades before the Soviet Union went the way that I hope and expect eight years of catastrophic Republican rule will go this evening.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Newark and Greater New York

While you can see the West Side of Manhattan from my building at Rutgers-Newark, on some days Newark's struggles to recover from bad government, collapsed capitalism and racism make the Brick City seem very far from New York. Yet a healthy future for Newark, a visiting scholar at the Ford Foundation argues, demands that we think of Newark as part of the New York metropolitan area. And that makes sense to me.

Mark Willis, who has worked for both New York's City government and JPMorgan Chase Bank, offered these thoughts at a recent forum at Rutgers-Newark organized by the Center for New York City Affairs of Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy. The event was titled "The New Newark: Part I: Maintaining Momentum for Renewal in a Slowing Economy."

Even in the current economic crisis, the Booker administration in Newark is arguing that the lower cost of doing business in Newark, along with the city's competitive advantages, can lure business to the city. Chief among these assets is location.

Newark has extraordinary transportation links. It is home to an international airport, an international seaport, interstate highways and national and regional rail lines. Yet part of what makes those assets valuable is their proximity to the vast New York metropolitan area. Seen in this light, Newark should be nurtured to grow as part of this region--not just by attracting residents or businesses from New York City, but also by attracting new people from all around the country and the world.

Doing the economic, social and political work that will make Newark attractive takes time, Willis observed. And as dt ogilvie, founding director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick argued, it will be best for Newark if development strategies embrace the needs of low and moderate-income people.

Economic development to serve the vast majority of New Yorkers is an issue in Gotham as well. That said, it is hard compare Newark and New York without concluding that New York is a wealthier, healthier city. But that shouldn't lead Newarkers to despair.

It is easy to forget, though, that as recently as the early 1990s people were arguing that New York City was finished. In retrospect, that was ridiculous. The New York experience, Willis argued, shows that cities can do well and that old cities can thrive in a new economy. Here's hoping that Newark and New York thrive together in the metropolitan area.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A View From Oregon

Over the weekend, a canvasser left us a door hanger in support of Obama: “Vote for change. It’s easy.” And here in Oregon, you get the feeling that it is, in fact, easy. We vote by mail-in ballot, starting as early as October 17.

This system has been in place since I moved here from New York City seven years ago, and they’ve got the kinks pretty well worked out. Although I dearly miss the communal aspect of heading to the polls on Election Day, I have to admit that the Oregon system seems quite straightforward and free from drama in comparison to the rumors and concerns we hear from other states.

Outside of a couple of ballot measures – always with the ballot measures in the Northwest – and one hotly (and nastily) contested U.S. Senate race, I would say that “calm,” “straightforward,” and “drama free” accurately describe the 2008 election in Oregon, at least in the greater Portland area where I live.

According to recent polls, Oregon is tracking 57% for Obama and 38% for McCain. And only 3% “undecided,” which somehow makes me feel better. As David Sedaris brilliantly noted in his recent New Yorker column titled “Undecided”: “I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?” But I digress…

Unmistakably blue this year – at least as pertains presidential politics – Oregon has seen no recent visits from the Obama or McCain camps, or even from their more noteworthy lieutenants. (We’re not complaining, Oregon did have a rare moment of national political glory during the Democratic primaries, delivering Obama his largest crowd to that point (70,000+) and helping to solidify his delegate lead.) I do get e-mails from the Obama campaign describing Oregon as a crucial battleground state, but not much else echoes that. It’s clear at this point that the campaign is marshaling volunteers to help place more calls from Oregon to get out the vote in true battleground states.

Oregon is an interesting conundrum, and I would argue a microcosm of America as a whole, boasting a clear and sometimes polarizing division between the more dense urban areas and the idyllic pockets of what Sarah Palin deems the “real America.” Oregon has seen extensive population growth and transformation over the last 10-15 years. Like Washington to the north, Oregon has been transformed by a steady influx of people – and money and values – from other states.

Ultimately, although Oregon is politically diverse, it clearly does not qualify as anything approaching a swing state this year. And to an extent, one might argue that this is an important indication of how little traction the McCain-Palin ticket has.

Independent and conservative voters in the West would seem as likely as anyone to embrace a uniquely Western Republican ticket and the “maverick” mindset, but that’s where people surprise you: they are really not that simple. And while it’s been slower to hit here than many places, Oregon is definitely feeling the impact of the collapse of the housing market and, with increasing severity, the job market.
In Oregon, like New York and the handful of other uncontested states, we continue to work diligently to get out the vote.

We express quiet but steady support for our candidates through lawn signs, bumper stickers, blog posts and mail-in ballots. We anxiously digest and dissect the latest polling data and analysis from the swing states. And we wait, with a mixture of optimism and apprehension, for November 4.

Jennifer Kelley, who does account strategy and management for high-tech companies for CMD Agency, lives in Portland, Oregon. A proud alumna of Columbia University and New York University, she moved out of Brooklyn with her husband Colin on 9/10/2001.