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.