Fifty years ago today, John Glenn circled the Earth three times aboard Friendship 7, the first American in orbit. Fifty years ago yesterday, the New York Mets opened their first spring training with Casey Stengel's stories in St. Petersburg, Florida. And 50 years ago tomorrow, I slipped into this world. My parents had watched Glenn coverage on snowy black and white television the day before, and my grandfather bought a new camera for the occasion of my birth. There was a snowstorm in New York.
Such a round number, fifty. The states of course. The half dollar. The knowledge that within limits of human biology, 50 is often the biggest anniversary most people attain. The Rolling Stones are 50 this year. So is Darryl Strawberry, that meteoric and magical Met, born three weeks after I was. David Foster Wallace would have been 50 tomorrow, born the same day as me in upstate Ithaca.
My father was a newspaperman on the production side, and my mother a school teacher. The American world they brought me into was far smaller and less connected, far more conservative and tribal than the one my children will bring their children into. In 1962, the year that James Meredith sought to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, much of the South still broiled under legal segregation. Women had little access to the top ranks of the work place, and the Ivy League was all-male. Homosexuals hid their identities away, or faced terrible consequences. The idea that a one-year-old baby born in Hawaii the year before me to mixed race parents would someday occupy the White House was the stuff of pure political fantasy.
Time is a strange phenomenon, particularly when considering generations. The last Civil War veterans died during the decade before I was born, but veterans of the frontier wars against the American Indian and the Spanish-American War were still around when I came on the scene. World War I vets were grandfathers, and World War II vets were the still-young middle-aged managers. The U.S. had a few military advisers in Southeast Asia, and the idea that an American army would someday invade a Middle East nation wasn't even on the radar screen, nor was Islam much of a geo-political factor. The enemy was communism and its spread, personified by 35-year-old Fidel Castro and his patron in Moscow, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Winston Churchill still lived, as did Harry Truman, Jawaharlal Nehru, Douglas MacArthur and Charles DeGaulle. Mao ruled China. JFK was President, RFK his Attorney General and Martin Luther King was a young civil rights leader. Marilyn Monroe still had a few months to live.
'Tis strange to be 50, I'll admit. So much still to do, so many projects simmering. The challenges mount (precluding much time on this blog, long-suffering followers). But some things are timeless, and music is one of them. Here then, as a little gift to myself, one of the chart-toppers of 1962 (number one on some charts) - and a true classic of the genre:
In his most recent book Liberty Defined, libertarian Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul takes dead aim at Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms," the ideas that created the social foundation for the American compact on the edge of the great mid-century war against fascism and totalitarianism. Seventy years removed from that 1941 speech, Roosevelt's words may seem to some as gauzy as the Gettysburg Address did during the FDR's time, yet this passage from that speech - delivered 11 months before Pearl Harbor with the certain knowledge of the national peril ahead - reinstated in absolute terms the American commitment to her founding ideals, and the evolution of her place in the wider world:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
These were heady words for a man restocking the arsenal of democracy in order to fight and win a global war over both Atlantic and Pacific hegemony, a fight that brought the nation into its next stage of massive armament and its generational opposition to communism in general, and the Soviets in particular. Yet at the time, FDR's speech was also a political broadside - something of a killing blow, really - against the isolationists of the era, personified by Charles Lindbergh. The America First campaign attracted many anti-war liberals, particularly young intellectuals like Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal, but also socialist leaders like Norman Thomas. No matter that nativism and anti-Semitism fueled much of the isolationist movement, and filled halls for Lindbergh speeches, the left could join the nativist right in opposing military campaigning.
Roosevelt's Four Freedoms cut through the claptrap isolation-and-bigotry brew of the American Firsters like a scythe over amber waves of grain, and they established idealistic 20th century goals to be pursued by American policy-makers. Have we ever lived up to any of those Four Freedoms completely? No, we haven't (nor did Roosevelt). But many of those who believe in this notion of a democratic republic with strong communitarian values believe we should keep on trying. Ron Paul, on the other hand, fills his halls (at least partly) with those who reject that view and believe FDR's Four Freedoms were a radical cul de sac off the main highway of America's real national ethic: the acquisition and preservation of property.
Writes Paul in his book (h/t Daily Beast): “Any effort to mandate or enforce the goal of making everyone free from want and fear through government action will guarantee the destruction of the concept of personal liberty. Whether it’s local government or world government, and no matter the motivation, this effort can only destroy one’s right to life, liberty, and property.”
Notice the bastardization of the original American set of rights: the "pursuit of happiness" has become property. This mutant strain has been living in vitro in American public life since Roosevelt used the power of the Federal government to battle the Great Depression's, and extended its reach in modern life. The New Deal, the Great Society, Medicare, Social Security, the G.I. Bill, Federal aid to schools, the nation's highway system, the EPA, FEMA, Head Start, the Labor Department, and of course, national defense and the military, were all responses in their own ways to the embrace of a greater communitarian spirit embodied in the four freedoms.
The libertarian obsession with property rights is in direct conflict with the ideas of national unity that have linked the majority of Americans since 1941. Ron Paul may associate with some unsavory racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, anti-immigrant, gay bashing supporters and that association – best seen in 20 years' worth of newsletters he claims not to have written nor edited nor approved – is both offensive and disqualifying to a candidate of a major American political party.
Yet their offensive character, is really just a sideshow to the ideological threat that the rise of Ron Paul represents. The linking of so many liberals and civil libertarians on the left with either tepid or bold support for Ron Paul signals an abandonment of those communitarian ideals in favor of a very narrow reading of American destiny. Weary of war, of corporate warcraft, of heightened state security, and battered its by the malfeasance of deregulated financial monsters, many liberals understandably feel their hearts skip a beat when they flip on the latest Republican televised debate and hear the isolationist Congressman from Texas rail against the military-industrial complex and the Federal Reserve.
Yet this is just the candy that a predator uses to lure his unsuspecting victim into the back seat of his car. If the left joins this right, our future is a wasteland. The path that Ron Paul represents, should he be elected president of the United States, leads to what is rightfully described a Somalian in in nature. For there, removed from the community of nations, lies the ultimate libertarian state. It is a place where property is valued more highly than the lives of the people who inhabit the land, and where property is protected by force of arms and the freedom to use a weapon. There is no social safety net. There is no national economic system. There is no reserve bank. There is no healthcare, no education, no welfare, no collective bargaining, no interstate highway system, no truly national defense. As David Atkins writes in Hullabaloo:
This, by the way, is why racism, theocracy and libertarianism go hand in hand, when from a philosophical point of view they should have little to do with one another. The negative effects of the lack of a central government are so obvious in developing countries that wherever the social order fails as in Somalia, it must have been due to bad religion, or the defect of having been born to an inferior race. Ron Paul fans must reassure themselves that such things would never happen to white, Christian folk. They're immune from the Somali problem by virtue being of different stock and different values, you see.
In a post on the Naked Capitalism blog, Matt Stoller describes model modern liberalism as comprising two distinct – and as he hints, equal – elements: a central Federal government that protects the rights of individuals and provides a social safety net, and opposition to warfare. I suggest that while both of these elements are indeed found in modern liberalism, in any left or center-left voting pool in the United States, that they are far from equal. The largest strain of U.S. liberalism is rooted in domestic communitarian values and economic self-interest for the majority of the working public. Opposition to military adventurism and to what some progressives call American Empire comprises a strong, often loud, highly principled, and righteous strain of the liberal polity. Long may it hold sway in primary campaigns, and warn American politicians of the limits of a democratic republics hegemony.
Yet it is a mistake to place what Stoller called "distrust of centralized authority" on the same level as the concern for economic well-being and domestic civil rights. Economics always comes first. This may be ungenerous, this may not be the highest ideal of a great nation, this may mean the pale watering down of one of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, but it is also the truth. We should all oppose our sad and unethical drone warfare and the erosion of civil liberties in the era of military adventurism and anti-terrorism "security" apparatus expansion. But we also need to realize that Ron Paul opposes these and other excesses not because they're wrong, but because they're paid for by a strong Federal government he seeks to abolish - the same elected government that guarantees our liberty, regulates commerce, and provides some measure of social safety net.
I am a liberal, more of a social democrat actually, as I grow older. There may be some phrases and ideals embedded in the tumor that is libertarianism, but I trust neither Paul's judgment nor his ethics. He would lead us backwards, and abandon many of the freedoms in this hard land of ours that organizers and advocates have fought so hard to attain. The dalliance with Ron Paul that so many liberals, center-lefties and civil libertarians seem to be engaging in during this Republican preseason, does not seem - if I may be frank - to be intellectually rigorous. Too many war-weary liberals seem happy to waive the rest of their communitarian views - and with them, their responsibility to work for reform. Roy Edroso cannily knocks that chip off the liberal shoulder with a post on Paul's libertarian cronies and their real ideas about "freedom" on the American scene:
These guys can always work together, because they all came out of the same Big Bang of hatred for the New Deal and its legacy: Big Government and the coalition that sustains it -- blacks, gays, unionized workers, women, et alia. Each conservative tribe has its own relationship to that legacy -- some of them (the more intelligent ones, generally) are deeply cynical, and some are as sincere as any schizophrenic street preacher. But all of them deeply hate that a bunch of minorities have coalesced to get something that they think belongs by right to them and people like them, and many of them have learned that it would be more effective (and, these days, more popular) to strike at the state that enables that coalition than at the minorities themselves.
What mania, particularly, animated Paul's newsletter stories of criminal-natured blacks and AIDS-drama-queen gays doesn't matter to me. I know that he's a Republican Libertarian and, having been born earlier than yesterday, that is enough for me.
UPDATE: Maha Barbara perfectly captures a central objection to the hard-core libertarianism (and its close connection to social bigotry) with this passage from her excellent post on the choices Ron Paul presents for liberals:
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — modern libertarianism was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. That’s when President Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce desegregation of the schools and protect nine African-American students from being torn apart by a howling mob for attempting to enter a school.
Ever since those years, white racists have embraced the argument that only the authority of the federal government is oppressive. Whatever the state does, is OK. The philosophical basis of this argument is that state governments are closer to the people and therefore more responsive to them.
Read the whole post - it's quite good and responds directly to Paul promoters who are ostensibly on the left, like Glenn Greenwald. Scott Lemieux also finds the links to key portions of Paulism that should offend any progressive:
It’s wrong to think of Ron Paul’s racism and his libertarianism as two distinct parts of his political persona, when in fact they are deeply tied together. White supremacists understand what Glenn, apparently, does not; the absence of Federal authority makes it easier for private actors and local governments to repress the civil and political rights of minorities.
Exactly. And frankly, the most frustrating aspect to Greenwald's angry scorn for Obama - and for liberals who dare to disagree with his pure civil libertarianism - is his frequent descent into trying to divine the hidden motivations of progressives who don't see things his way. His common use of ridiculously divisive language - derivations of "coward" make daily appearances in his work - serve to put off and ultimately disengage the very polity he's trying to convince from the very issues upon which we might all agree. Engaging Greenwald on the merits is far more interesting than dealing with his latest flame war (I for one, remain glad that Greenwald's out there making the arguments that he makes), as Tom Hilton did so well last week, when he pointed out the flaws inherent in the natural attraction to Paul's anti-war views:
...the nature of his anti-war stance is fundamentally different from that of liberal opposition to any given war. The tipoff is in his opposition to foreign aid, and his anti-United Nations position: he's anti-war because the rest of the world just isn't worth it. His is not the pacifism of the anti-war movement but the nativist isolationism of the America-Firsters; Paul is "to the left of Obama" the way Lindbergh was to the left of Roosevelt. (That may be true in a fairly literal sense, although I wouldn't trust anything from Big Government without further corroboration.)
Similarly, Paul's positions on civil liberties issues aren't actually about civil liberties as we understand them; they're about his opposition to Federal authority. (An opposition that is somewhat conditional, it should be noted.) For example, in talking about the death penalty, he makes clear that he opposes it only at the Federal level. His opposition to the PATRIOT Act, the War on Drugs, and domestic surveillance come from the same root as his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He has no real objection to states violating the rights of their citizens; it's only a problem if the Feds do it.
That natural attraction to Paul's language among liberals weary of war and the constant intrusion of "security" on our lives in the long decade after 9/11 is well-defended by Levi Asher, in his response to my post here. Here's the toughest part:
...nowhere in Tom Watson's appraisal does he show that he takes pacifism seriously, or that he sees any momentum towards worldwide adoption of an antiwar agenda. In fact, the peace platform is a platform that never rests, and there is always momentum in the world towards pacifism. The popularity of Ron Paul is one indication of the dynamic nature of antiwar politics, and the great Occupy movement that began on Wall Street (which is solidly and blessedly antiwar) is another indication.
Doesn't Tom Watson hear the chimes of peace? Instead, his article seems rooted in nostalgic "good war" imagery, with enough World War II references for a Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg movie. Watson mentions "the great mid-century war against fascism and totalitarianism" ... "11 months before Pearl Harbor with the certain knowledge of the national peril ahead" ... "a man restocking the arsenal of democracy in order to fight and win a global war over both Atlantic and Pacific hegemony". But these allusions to World War II are stale and inappropriate. Many recent history books like Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker and Breaking Open Japan by George Feifer have pointed out the many ways that our understanding of the motivations behind World War II has hardened into cliche, and led us to believe too easily that World War II was a "good war". This causes us to forget the larger truth that there is no such thing as a good war.
I've observed in these pages before that pacifism is a lonely position. It's lonely in the Democratic party and it's lonely in the Republican party. Ron Paul has helped to make pacifists a little less lonely in 2011, and that's why I'd rather praise him than bemoan his flaws. Next, maybe we can forget about Ron Paul and find a new Republican or Democratic or no-party presidential candidate with an antiwar platform ...who isn't unelectable for one reason or another. Then maybe we can finally get some changes made.
Levi puts me in the right intellectual vise: yeah, I'm not a pacifist. Though I would argue that I do take that point of view seriously and favor the stripping away of the American security state that has changed our society by force force of fear and corporate profit in the last decade. But I'm just not willing to barter the civil liberties that our representative democracy and an activist Union guarantee after centuries of struggle to pay for it. That's a trade I'm not willing to make. And to me, that's the trade that Ron Paul represents.
[Cross-posted from the Sidney Hillman Foundation]
For all the splashy immersion in code, data, platforms, and techniques that generally soaks the discussions and analysis of the democracy and civil rights movements among the digerati, it was striking how little technology asserted itself Monday night at Personal Democracy Media’s “instant” conference on Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party organizing at New York University.
While the network itself was at the center of the rangy panel discussion, there was little on Facebook and Twitter, text messaging and video platforms from those on the stage, and not much from the audience either. This was surprising in some ways, because from where I sat, the 10th floor of the Kimmel Center was basically Geek Central, East Coast Chapter, convened by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej.
Yet the web seemed almost a side player, a stipulated tool in the hands of craftspeople making something shinier and more valuable. To some, it was the network itself, with a perfect circle of actor/activists signaling the highest purpose of our digital connections. This is a standard point of view among those convinced that social networks and the digital ties that bind necessarily offer a brighter future for democracy and the public commons.
But there was another factor in last night’s discussion of how Occupy and the Tea Party captured hearts and minds and moving feet that clearly rivaled the network and its much-studied effect: human empathy.
To my ear, speaker after speaker stressed the appeal of an empathetic connection within organizing groups to challenge the powers that be.
“Communities and networks are becoming communities of care–we care for each other space,” said grassroots organizer Marianne Manilov, co-founder and co-director of The Engage Network. She said much of the success of Occupy’s core group of organizers came from their collective realization that in today’s society, “there's no one coming for us." Pulling together into “small circles of trust “ isn’t a technique – it’s a necessity, she said. “People are coming together and they’re re-knitting the broken fabric of our broken communities by standing together.”
Jessica Shearer, executive director of SEIU ‘s Healthcare Education Project and a veteran political organizer, talked with disarming directness about organized labor’s lack of the human touch. She told of fleeing the scene of domestic violence as a child, and how her mother had called the union for help. “No response. Not a single word. Not ever. In desperation she turned to the evangelical church. By nightfall we had a place to stay and a turkey stew.”
Shearer said that big unions like SEIU struggle to reach people in real ways, and really empower their members. “Everywhere unions stagnate, we shrink. Unions fall victim to our own scale and sophistication. We know that Occupy is important but we’re still learning our lesson.”
She contrasted organized labor’s response to the Tea Party and said that while unions were altogether smarter and more sophisticated with their “large professional call centers and mass mailings,” the truth was that “the Tea Party, you” – turning to California Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler, who sat next to her on the dais – “kicked our butts.”
Shearer talked about the October 5 march in New York, when organized labor first endorsed Occupy Wall Street and swelled its numbers to more than 12,000 marchers (including me). A month later on November 17, the crowd grew to more than 30,000 people including major union leaders. But she pointed out that those numbers, while large for the Occupy movement, are tiny compared to the millions of potential boots on the ground. What’s lacking still, Shearer asserted, is the visceral connection to people, to members, to workers who might want to organize: “Labor is on the edge of a cliff. What we lack -- what we feel we can no longer afford -- is human scale outreach.”
The crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo just might have the opposite problem, according to social analyst Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, who has spent time with the networked revolutionaries and written about freedom movements on her technosociology blog. The Egyptian freedom activists gravitated toward the rewarding and now-familiar human interaction at Tahrir, missing their moment in the recent elections. Tufekci scratched a bit at the sacred hide of “the network” during her talk, worrying aloud that small groups of organizers can fall in love, in essence, with organizing itself and their own perfectly-formed (and basically closed) circles, while ignoring models like the U.S. civil rights movement which, led by goal-oriented visionaries, plunged ruthlessly on in pursuit of legal and societal change – and succeeded. Yet she couldn’t help but tell the wonderful tale of the Twitter-powered creation of ad hoc field hospitals in Cairo to treat the hundreds of casualties from the clashes with authorities.
But the three organizers who ran the field hospital creation network weren’t faceless drones in a network in which each member is an exact equal. They were leaders – just as there are leaders of the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, whether they accept those monikers or not. Some of it is indeed based on hubs of information and sharing data. Author and NYU professor Clay Shirky remarked (correctly in my view) that “the person who collates information often becomes the go-to person.” And despite being the only self-identified Tea Party member in the room, Mark Meckler elicited a sea of nodding liberal heads when he said that these movements “are not leaderless, they’re ‘leaderfull.’”
Meckler painted a different painting of Tea Party organizing than is generally accepted by progressive critics – one that reflects both a sharing ethic among organizers and a lack of support from the big institutions (the national GOP, Fox News, and the Koch Brothers made their appearances in discussion and on the Twitter feed for the event). His description closely aligned with the vision of Ori Brafman, co-author, The Starfish and the Spider – the concept of “emergence” and the bubbling up of movements from “starfish” organizations that regenerate their myriad parts and adapt. In a digitally networked world, asserted Brafman, “this is going to be the platform for activism going forward.” In Brafman’s “small circles of trust” the technology drops away.
Occupy organizer Beka Economopolous brought the broad sociological concepts down from 30,000 feet to the pavement in Zuccotti Park. “What's great about OWS is that it gets people out of their houses and off their computers,” she said. Occupy has a strong sense of its own dramatic presence to the left – “we stage defiance and sacrifice and that captures people's imaginations.” And at some level, it’s about “touching people's hearts and fulfilling peoples needs.”
Shirky had the take-away question in my view: at what point, if ever, does Occupy “go all the way” in altering our relationship with government? Or better stated, in a democratic republic, when does it change government – since we have no relationship in theory.
The answer’s unclear, of course. Yet it was heartening to me to hear Shearer’s account on the burgeoning impact of Occupy on organized labor. It’s not quite that the Occupiers are standing over an operating room gurney, charging a couple of electronic paddles, and yelling “clear!” Maybe it’s closer to an ice cold Gatorade to a long distance runner. But I had to agree with her conclusion:
“Occupy Wall Street is not an alternative to real organizing – it is real organizing.”
Lyndon Johnson's journey from the political precincts of segregated rural Texas to the moment in 1965 when he told the American nation "we shall overcome" was a long one, yet the great moments of advances in freedom are best seen in the changes, in the evolution of thinking. The long struggle for equality in sexual orientation doesn't hold the same century-long existential question for the country as a whole, but it has nonetheless been an accelerating freight train of social change in the last decade, a welcome success in the process of smoothing of the rougher, unfair, immoral edges of our society. And the fragrant, flowering success of the gay and lesbian rights movement has given us all proof in dark challenging times that there still exists a willingness in the American spirit to rethink ourselves, to stride into the future with purpose, and to pursue a more perfect union.
And last week, the Obama Administration provided its LBJ speech in that long struggle - and signaled its evolving commitment to linking gay rights to its wider human rights agenda. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself a non-supporter (yet) of full gay marriage and a one-time supporter of the Clinton White House Defense of Marriage Act, threw both her not inconsiderable personal international stardom and the full weight of U.S. foreign policy behind supporting equality for homosexuals - and more importantly, condemning those nations who turn a blind eye to anti-gay violence.
Against the backdrop of the ongoing Republican reality show mess that passes for that sad, obstructionist party's nomination process, the speech didn't get the domestic media play it deserved. Yet it marked a high point of the Obama Administration, and showed the keen coordination that has become the extraordinary relationship between President Obama and Secretary Clinton, formerly bitter rivals. Speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Clinton formally declared the fight against discrimination against homosexuals a key priority of U.S. foreign policy.
"Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today," she said. "In many ways, they are an invisible minority."
Then she took dead aim:
“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights. It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”
In a word: bravo! It's hard to beat the reaction of Dan Savage (with his implicit political message) in HuffPo: "The check I was planning to write to Obama's reelection campaign just acquired another zero."
At Feministing, Easha Pandit praised the speech, especially its muscular and clear-eyed culture message.
I particularly value the connection of social justice issues to human rights language. It’s a powerful statement. This language and the leverage of American diplomatic efforts are vitally important, they give the issue visibility and legitimacy. I particularly appreciated Secretary Clinton’s call for the freedom of expression. She said,
“It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave.”'
Pandit rightly pointed out that U.S. domestic policy still has a ways to go before both anti-gay violence and discrimination disappear from these shores, politely emphasizing the Obama Administration's own slow boat evolution. Yet radio host and gay rights activist Sandip Roy saw a clear lack of hypocritical nagging in Secretary Clinton's landmark speech.
But the most interesting (and un-American) part of the speech was that she didn't use her speech to set up the United States as any kind of beacon for human rights or get on a moral high horse. She acknowledged that the American record was "far from perfect." She didn't use her bully pulpit to just trumpet the Obama administration's own record -- for example, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
She actually looked abroad for inspiration -- to South Africa, Colombia, Mongolia, and India:
"To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, 'If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.'"
That's noteworthy. When foreign leaders decide they need to acknowledge inspiration from India in a speech, they don't usually look to the Delhi High Court. Their speechwriters do a quick search on "Famous Quotes from Mahatma Gandhi" instead.
Secretary Clinton's address in Geneva was strong, dramatic and historic. But it was also given more import with the release of a White House memorandum over President Obama's signature that explicitly ties the U.S. emphasis on human rights to gay rights in our foreign policy. While American foreign policy in general in far from a perfect expression of freedom and civil rights, this is a time for applause and good feeling. Compare Secretary Clinton's address and the sickening, gay-baiting pseudo-Christian political ad released this week by former GOP frontrunner Rick Perry and you'll glimpse the vast contrast between the team we have - and their potential successors. As Leslie Gabel-Brett of Lambda Legal said: "A vision of equality and human rights for LGBT people has taken hold, and the number and power of those who promote that vision is growing. It may be a heavy boulder up a steep hill, but many people are pushing history toward the full recognition of LGBT human rights under the law at home and around the world."
Is there a more noble goal for a superpower's foreign policy?
When Sandy Alderson, speaking as the newly-arrived Moneyball guru of the New York Mets, openly mocked All-Star shortstop José Reyes with a line about sending the free-agent a box of chocolates to show himhim he was loved, he signaled that the Mets future was a lot dimmer than it has been for decades. Alderson, it seems, got the job to run the Mets in order to disassemble the other major-league team in baseball's largest market. A year ago, Alderson promised Mets fans that the budget for the team would closely resemble (with a few cuts) what it has been for the last few years. He claimed that the Madoff scandal affecting Fred and Jeff Wilpon and their partner sol Katz the ownership group of the New York Mets would not change baseball operations in a significant manner.
He was not telling the truth.
Thus under Alderson's orders the Mets made no offer to one of the top homegrown star players in the team's 50 year history.
In the last 10 years no Mets player has been as bright a spark on the field as José Reyes. Signed by the Mets at age 17 out of the Dominican Republic, Reyes has been the rare baseball talent who publicly delights in playing the game at its highest level. The long triple. That cannon arm from deep in the hole. The race down the first base line on a dribbler past the pitcher. The sprint to short center field to grab a pop-up. The spark, the smile, the crazy hand gestures. The flying dreadlocks and sheer exuberance, and the love of baseball. All gone to Miami.
The Mets never made an offer to Jose Reyes, the greatest shortstop in the history of the franchise. And on the National League side of town, the Wilpons now own a small market baseball team in a new with no hope of competing and a quickly dwindling fan base. Here in Casa Watson the generation of fans that I usually take to the ballgames has informed me in no uncertain terms that they do not wish to visit Citi Field on a regular basis in 2012. They perceive that the business entity known as the New York Mets does not care about retaining their business, that it does not care about their brand, that chooses not to compete for the entertainment dollar in New York area. But mostly, they are sad. They will miss their favorite player. And they realize that the team they call their own simply did not want one of its greatest homegrown stars back. And they know that the team across town would never let one of its star attractions get away.
This is New York Mets baseball. In 2012, the team will celebrate 50 years. But how closely will these Mets resemble the initial team of 1962 in the loss column, only without the lovability, without Casey Stengel, without the sheer joy of beingthe upstart New York National League baseball club. Somewhere Dick Young is applauding Sandy Alderson, and slapping his buddy M. Donald Grant on the back.
Bloggers are the bridge and tunnel kids of the modern media club scene. Sure, we pay the cover charge and provide the much-needed amplification for the really big voices (you know, the ones getting paid to riff on the digital stage) but too often we find we've been allowed past the ropes just so Lou Reed can drunkenly insult us at the bar.
In the Max's Kansas City of the left-leaning web - the actual Park Avenue premises of sainted memory being the scene of an ugly episode that a kid from Yonkers who bore a much skinnier resemblance to me endured at the pointy end of Mr. Reed's claws in 1979 - there's a gentle unpretentious fellow always leaning against the bar to welcome the teeming, blogging, linking masses from the precincts of deep Outer Blogosphere. To the authors and other "content creators" (a term that Jack Donaghy surely must have invented in some far off Liz Lemon day-dream) who have felt the critical sting of his blade over these last few decades at the Village Voice or Esquire or Vanity Fair, the name of this approachable blogging Bing Crosby might come as a surprise.
For it is James Wolcott.
And before this post progresses too much farther, I urge you to hasten in the direction of the nearest bookshop, virtual or the kind with comfy chairs and cappuccino bars, and purchase his forthcoming 1970s memoir, Lucking Out, which I have been reading with real pleasure since the advance copy hit my mailbox last week.
To bloggers like me, and Lance Mannion, and Blue Girl, and Al Giordano, and Roy Edroso, Maud Newton, and M.A. Peel, and the Siren, and a legion of other fine voices, Wolcott's seminal Vanity Fair blog has often been the spigot that provides the attention and conversation that is the real currency we strive for in a world that undervalues both the written word and the earnest discussion. Indeed, he's served as a genial giant of the literary set, the indulgent rich uncle with a checkbook of links and kind words of encouragement.
God help the evil-doers of course. Birthers, neocons, hate-bloggers, Tea Party patsies, war-mongers, and every flavor of fake right-wing "everyman" Bill O'Reilly type known to man has suffered at the point of his pen - as the likes of Richard Ford and Jay McInerney famously have, the latter once splattered with this bloody buzz-killer: "Beware of a novel built upon a catch-phrase. A flip curl eventually loses its hold."
"I sometimes wince at the nasty incisions I inflicted on writers when I cross the line between cutup and cutthroat," Wolcott admits near the book's conclusion - knowing of course that his readers (and his editors) like a bit of blood in their dueling scenes. There are no regrets about his late political work, which has gored all manner of conservative blog wannabes; indeed the Wolcott blog drew so many of us to his virtual side in those gauzy early pre-Dean Scream days when DailyKos was in beta and everything seemed possible.
But this is a book about the 1970s, and there too, I came across James Wolcott. Well, the latter part of the 70s anyway - the dawn of the decade found me in late single digits. Actually, I barely caught the cultural wave that powers Lucking Out, the salty tsunami of music and grime that washed the florid ponderous rot out of rock and roll. But catch it I did, and the back pages of the Village Voice were where we pored over the black and white listings for Max's, CBGB, Hurrah, the Peppermint Lounge, Trax, Mudd Club, and the Ritz. Plans laid, bridges and tunnels thoroughly mapped, there might be time to read the articles and Wolcott's acerbic reviews often provided out-loud teenaged readings, "Hey Maude, listen to this!" moments in the shotgun seat of the old Buick on the FDR Drive or the Broadway IRT.
There's a malign force closing in on Wolcott's black and white 1970s - you feel it throughout the book - and its color is green. The 80s of Donald Trump (whose name doesn't stain this epic - no accident) ushered in a New York obsessed with real estate and wealth, and turned houses and apartments into the "outward constructs of your identity that required Hamlet-style agonizing for fear that at the root of your being, you might not be an 'uptown person.'" Money plays little role in the sweaty corners of CBGB or the back row of the screening rooms; all that matters is commitment to the written word and to a form of honest criticism that values the creation of art (widely defined) so highly that finely-sliced prose meant for reading is the only respectful way to respond. "Hanging tough is what divides the long-range dedicated from the dilettantes," writes Wolcott, recalling a ballsy and unbowed Patti Smith and her reaction to a serious career setback.
Patti is one of the many heroines in the rare I-was-there rock memoir that actually values women as real people, which discounts the studded leather jackets, sexual abuse, and back alley urination of typical 70s punk tales. Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth is another: "My crush on Tina was instantaneous. It was the only correct way to respond." And the stars of early mainstream porn are given their tender due as elegant actors in the grimy (but addictive) world of pre-Giuliani Times Square.
There are girlfriends, actresses and glammy femme rockers galore in Lucking Out, but there's only one true love affair. Jim creates a portrait of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael that is tender and deeply personal. Matt Haber asserts that "it's one of the dirtier tricks in Lucking Out that Wolcott uses Kael to voice some of the book's most dismissive asides," but I rather think Wolcott has another goal - a second, post-millennial public life for Kael's caustic wit and rock-solid view of what makes a good flick, and what doesn't. It's true that Kael has some of the book's best lines - "I didn't want him to think I was using his racist talk as an excuse to under-tip him" says Kael about an Archie Bunker cab driver - but she's more important as the guiding muse of criticism, as the person who constructed the right literary box for Wolcott to work his four-decade magic act. His long and, it must be said, vastly entertaining story about Kael and her crowd is more than an appreciation of one the decade's great critical voices. It's a public thank you note.
Lucking Out is not the story of the 1970s. There's a lot missing: Ed Koch, the Son of Sam, the Yankees (the Mets!), black people, the outer boroughs, disco and Nixon. But it captures the creative true grit of the small town that existed within a big city so beset and grimy that "entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes." There's a wistful quality that long-ago decade of my own adolescence, but Wolcott doesn't lay on the sentimentalism and it's unlikely that Lucking Out will add too much to popular 70s lore. Which is a good thing in my mind, because we live in a society where the thin veneer of the ever-widening "creative class" has created a manufactured version of alternative lifestyle and consumption that passes for critical thought; every hipster manque with 500 clams can grab an iPad and feel like a downtown denizen, both funky and chic. As Wolcott notes, "all that lore is what made CBGB's compelling long after it became a raucous shell, and what has kept the myth of the Algonquin Round Table alive, no matter how mid-range the achievements of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, and Robert Benchley appear today."
There is much in Lucking Out of what made popular culture today, but it's not a guidebook. It's a story, Jim Wolcott's story. And it did take part of me back to where I once belonged.
A month into this, all became clear - and not just because Occupy Wall Street set up camp three blocks from where Jason Chervokas and I ran a small news operation that covered digital start-ups in the 90s (though it helped).
Occupy Wall Street is a start-up. And it is deeply entrepreneurial. Indeed, if Silicon Alley venture capitalists like my friend Fred Wilson - who is publicly intrigued by the protests - are looking for proven talent in attracting a crowd online behind a product that is lithe, broad, and ripe for vast adoption, they could do worse than surf the crowd of social entrepreneurs sleeping under tarps in Zuccotti Park.
Unlike the bankers and Wall Street firms, who rely on fixing the game in Washington and public bailout money to lock in their billions, the scraggly and gritty start-up team at Occupy Wall Street steers much closer to the idealistic self-improving America of Ralph Waldo Emerson - and even to the capitalist penny passion plays of Horatio Alger. Who has done more with less? The young organizers of Occupy Wall Street - or Jamie Dimon? Who gets a higher return on capital (both social and the green variety) - the marchers on Broadway or Lloyd Blankfein? The bankers are essentially oligarchist socialist types these days, looking for handouts from the government. The protesters? They've got their wits, their sleeping bags, their energy, and their American dream.
Where's the better ROI?
Now, Occupy and its sister spin-offs do not lack in advice after a month of stunning success in spreading their story. Get a message. Get public leaders. Join organized labor. Work for Democratic candidates. Get a message (this is the most popular). But all this sounds exactly like the early days of Twitter to me. Do this, be that, fit into our idea of what you should be. And this is where Fred Wilson's longstanding advice to Internet entrepreneurs is instructive: time and again, he's urged startups to focus on building usership and serving customers. The revenue model will be there, if you do those things right.
And in the case of Occupy Wall Street, the "revenue model" is - broadly stated - changing public policy.
But that's a question for father down the road, much like Twitter in 2006. The focus on growth is the right one. And right now, Occupy continues to grow. Micah Sifry has been tracking social media metrics; on Friday he posted that OWS had doubled in size over the previous eight days, while also noting that the spike in original attention had moderated somewhat.
I think it's also clear that the Occupy movement has moved beyond its "early adopters" - protest-ready young people, online activists, anarchist hacker types, alternative media, and the social media chorus for distributed protest movements. Combine Micah's Facebook metrics with some anecdotal experience and I think the picture is of a startup that is close to its mass adoption moment.
But to carry the startup analogy a step farther, Occupy is also at the point where the sharks begin to circle, sensing a potential hit in the marketplace. This is where things get tricky for successful startups: do you go for that round of capital (in this case, human and social capital from unions, nonprofits, and existing political organizations)? Are you tempted by merger or acquisition? How long is the runway? Because Occupy is so decentralized and leaderless, these questions will undoubtedly have to wait. Yet it was troubling this past weekend to see Wikileaks founder Julian Assange attempt to co-opt the London version of Occupy with a speech that smacked of his unfortunate cult of personality; such an event would clearly not be allowed by Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly tacticians. Who will attempt to "be the leader" of the Occupy movement?
These are not minor questions. There is still every chance that Occupy Wall Street goes down as an interesting moment, a nice story for the grandkids, rather than a real movement that changes American policy. Very few startups get their IPO, and really, there's no substitute for winning, as veteran organizer Al Giordano advises in an elegant essay that recounts another generation's Wall Street march against nuclear weapons (one that peripherally involved your humble blogger, who admittedly, was into it for the Springsteen concert).
Winning a civil resistance, a social movement, a nonviolent struggle, a community organizing campaign profoundly changes the participants. It turns them into winners and transforms them into people who can never, ever be conquered by fear or despair ever again. That is why it is called revolution. It turns everything around, upside-down, and inside, out. It is the motor that evolves the species.
Last night, we had dinner in midtown before the Richard Thompson show at Town Hall. On Sixth Avenue, the police were staging a massive show of force - all riot gear, billy clubs, and vehicles. It was if al Qaeda had announced it was marching to Times Square instead of a couple of thousand protesters. Yet NYPD's gross over-reaction showed clearly that Occupy's success extends well beyond its core physical membership, its boots on the ground. It was reacting like Google to the challenge of Facebook - all inelegance, ham-handed action and almost no strategic thought. Meanwhile, the tourists were a little afraid of getting penned in by the cops. And it was really hard to tell the protesters from the - you know - "regular people." Which is to say, the 99 percent - which is the market potential for the Occupy movement.
Fueled by outrage (and empowered in part by the innovative use of technology and communications) Occupy Wall Street has burst out of the founders' garages. It embodies a real entrepreneurial spirit, even as it attacks the worst excesses of big-box, the fix-is-in capitalism. And its brand is going wide. I was standing along Sixth Avenue waiting for the cops to let us through their armored phalanx, when I overheard a midwest-tinged conversation to my right.
"What's going on?" said the older women to her spouse. They were clearly dressed for the theater. The husband answered quickly, and no malice or cultural judgment in his voice.
"Oh you know who it is, hon. That's Occupy Wall Street."
The news of Steve Jobs' death at 56 flashed on the television screen above my head in a neighborhood bar on Fulton Street, about five blocks from the spot where cops were swinging their truncheons at the subset of protesters who were trying to invade the holy shrine that is the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets, a symbolic corner that represents the American public stock markets that made Jobs a billionaire.
Many of those taking a blast of pepper spray and a crack on the head from the dreaded "white shirts" of the NYPD - the pot-bellied, middle-aged ranking officers - are too young to care that this corner has been in lockdown mode since the day after September 11, 2001, when downtown New York and its public markets came under attack. They're also too young to realize that they can't do what they're doing: that they need leaders, and a cohesive strategy, and tighter messaging, and structure, and hierarchy and consultants like me.
And because they realize none of those things, they and their nascent Occupy Wall Street movement are succeeding - wildly, improbably, uncontrollably succeeding - in shaking and bending the iron chains of low expectations and gray conventional wisdom that makes us hunker in our cubicles, thankful every few months for a new gadget launch or sitcom to distract us from society's slow-motion fall.
The juxtaposition of Jobs' death, tragic at a young age with much still to be achieved, and the mosaic mob I'd just marched with from Foley Square down to the now-iconic encampment at Zuccotti Park was so obvious, so seemingly contrived as to seem like a screenwriter's wastebasket filler. There was CNBC announcing the sad death of America's most successful (and indeed, truly beloved) capitalist, the man most responsible for an explosion in portable digital entertainment. In the watering hole of the neighborhood that can safely be described as the backyard of the New York Federal Reserve, our gaggle of technophiles gasped aloud at the news. At the table there were a couple of iPhones and one majestic iPad - that sleek George Jetson consumer device that seems straight out of Vonnegut to me - along with the usual sad copycattish Android screens (including my own). To Twitter we did go, like we're supposed to.
I was thinking about the famed '1984' Apple Super Bowl ad that helped launch the Mac, a spot credited to Jobs as if he were the actual creative ad director (a role played in real life by another visionary, Jay Chiat, and his team) and I couldn't help but think of the rows of minions all watching the big screen. We didn't know then that the screens would be legion (and smaller and cooler) but the futuristic vision often seems pretty apt, and not just because Apple is the exceedingly rare corporate entity with hordes of cultish fans who treat retail shops like churches and product launches like encyclicals. We're the zombies lined up in rows and the firehose of digital media is the constant lithium drip, at least to some of the Occupy Wall Street revolutionaries.
Their vision of technology is far more utilitarian and radical. They look up from their screens. They unplug their earbuds. They keep the message short and wide. Chants and drum circles, cardboard signs and masks. Tiny performance art pieces and costumes. Derided as spoiled trustafarians stinking of patchouli, they don't seem to care. Radically, they're using decentralized digital technology to power a massive amplification of their movement. Twitter and Facebook are just the glaze on their sweet profiterole network, with hashtags used to effectively lure tens of thousands of more casual supporters and hangers on. Anonymity is given real currency in this crowd, and its leaderless quality is taken seriously. As Nick Judd effectively illustrates in TechPresident (which may have to change its name to TechOccupy shortly), anonymous messaging services like Vibe blast the messages out to smartphones. As in the recent Middle East and North African uprisings, direct text messages are an old school standby. Twitter and its hashtags are for amplification outside the zone of conflict.
As is video: the use of LiveStream images from the park and from the marches, highlighting brief but violent clashes with police, has been as brilliant an example of live mobile video catalyzing involvement as I've ever seen. The crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend numbered perhaps 2,000. There were 700 arrests. And at any given time, 20,000 people watched the LiveStream, which was cannily set up to repeat the juiciest bits of conflict when the "streamer" lost a signal.
Personal stories - single individual tales - are told in simple, effective photos on the brilliant Tumblr site, We Are The 99 Percent. To flip through this site any day this week was to surf down the jagged, steep front of our economic collapse - an emotional and moving trip through what's left of the middle class. This is close-in, user-generated journalism and a real model for how to tell a vastly complex story through hundreds of individual contributors.
Then there's Facebook. Much derided by the techno-commentariat, the most social site in the world is once again at the center of public organizing (remember Egypt), the creation of local hives of activity around the general Occupy theme. As Dave Winer said, "occupying Facebook is every bit as good as occupying Wall Street." Micah Sifry has cannily focused on the Facebook activity over the past week, and picked up the sheer velocity with which OWS-themed groups took off:
Of the original 201 "Occupy X" Facebook groups that we had identified as of 4pm EST Tuesday October 4, two days ago, the number of people signed up has vaulted from 384,889 to 480,079 as of 6am this morning. That's a 25% growth rate, matching what we've seen since we starting monitoring the explosion of Facebook groups last Saturday. Our larger dataset of 461 groups (which leaves out any group with less than 6 members) shows 633,606 "likes" in all, up about 20% from yesterday.
Clearly, Occupy Wall Street is tapping into something far deeper than just the energy of its core group of organizers. And by remaining open and not trying to control the message, it is encouraging thousands of people to paint their own version of what the Occupy movement means. It's also fascinating (at least to me) to watch the evolution of groups like Anonymous, the hacking collective that has previously engaged in a form of activism that included silencing speech online by taking down websites. There are Guy Fawkes masks in Zuccotti Park, but they're few - and they're coming off. The Occupy movement was partially stoked by the young technologists of Anonymous; this may be their moment of change and maturity - when boldly acting in public comes to mean more than long-distance dilletantism.
I have no idea where Occupy Wall Street is going, but I'm impressed so far. As Allison Fine says, it's "a delicious and irresistible idea." And I think a mass expression of anger and outrage - even without specific demands, although as Bruce Bernstein noted their crowd-sourced Declaration of the Occupation is "coherent, insightful, and moving - is both appropriate to our times, and needed to get others off the sideline. It's the advance unit of what may come next: the kind of economic and social reform that can heal this democracy of ours. As Harold Meyerson wrote this week: "Here’s hoping the disparate groups of protesters come together, grow and stay in the streets. It will take a massive, vibrant protest movement to bring America’s subservience to Wall Street to its overdue end."
And on the day when the last beloved CEO died, the use of media and technology was changing - not in the labs of Silicon Valley, but on the streets of New York.
Lance Mannion (who I marched with, gaining a cherished Teamsters cap in the process), is filing a series of reportorial impressions at his place, which are well worth catching (including a short interview with an iron worker we conducted together).
Lindsay Beyerstein's photos are here, and she's filing posts at the spiffy new Clear It With Sidney blog of the Sidney Hillman Foundation (disclosure: a client, and it was great to march with executive director Alexandra Lescaze, the fab documentary filmmaker).
Deanna Zandt says I'm known as a curmudgeon (I'm cool with that) but her post earlier this week does a great job of laying out the right reasons for her own skepticism.
Finally, two must-follows on Twitter:
When "new wave" was a newly-minted but short-lived record sales category, Elvis Costello & the Attractions shared a bill at the old Capital Theater in Passaic, New Jersey with Rockpile of Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds partnership and blew the doors into the nearby flood zone with a nuclear version of "Pump It Up!" one of the big hits off This Year's Model, a record that belongs on anyone's 70s playlist. Costello and his band were all crooked angles, bouncing and veering to the swirling keys of the bent, trapezoidal Steve Nieve who sent trills into the rafters while Costello's twangy Fender chords hung around down by the stage, bouncing off the wasted kids doing the pogo in the aisles. The experience remains front and center in the musical mind thirty-odd years on.
Last night, we finished a pre-concert libation at La Casa Del Mofongo before repairing to excellent orchestra seats in the cavernous United Palace Theater on Broadway at 175th Street in Washington Heights - better known in previous years as the earthly home of the Reverend Ike and his United Church Science of Living Institute (an outfit that also rocked, on occasion). Ike has departed for the kingdom above, but the show in his palace got the soul stirring last night, courtesy of the skinny Anglo-Irish lad from Birkenhead, and his Imposters, a tight outfit that features the slightly less-angular Nieve on the swirling killer keys. It may well have been the setting and the hometown crowd (Costello has lived in New York for decades). But two hours and 45 minutes of non-stop songs, enlivened by caged go-go girls (including Weeds star Mary-Louise Parker, who shimmied in the cage while the band blasted through "Monkey to Man") and audience members who spun a huge wheel of hits to create a unique setlist, left us buzzing like it was 1978.
Of course, we didn't have these handy Internet blogs and boards to track setlists back then - nor were we particularly interested in the librarian side of rock in those New York days. But I was amazed last night with the breadth of work that Costello managed to cover in (at least) 34 songs, some of them spontaneously called to the band. The hits were there of course - and the clever covers (I particularly enjoyed the conjoined version of Prince's "Purple Rain" with a bit of the Beatles' "Rain"). But it was the catalogue that wowed, and the artistic energy poured into every song; "Clowntime Is Over," for example, had all the anger and lyrical lashing out it deserved, with Costello's vocal range on full, audacious display.
We're not completists as a usual rule, but this setlist deserves some attention - it'll have me scurrying to download or stream a bunch of B-sides and album cuts.
Watching The Detectives
Everyday I Write The Book
Cry, Cry Cry
I Still Miss Someone
Monkey To Man
His Latest Flame
Waiting For The End Of The World
I Can Only Give You Everything
You Little Fool
New Lace Sleeves
Clowntime Is Over
Man Out Of Time
Out Of Time (Jagger/Richards)
I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea
Pump It up
Heart Of The City
Purple Rain (Prince)
I'm In The Mood Again
I Still Have That Other Girl
The Stations Of The Cross
Watch Your Step
What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding (Lowe)
Wheels (Gram Parsons/Chris Hillman)