Where the past isn’t even past.
March on Washington. (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Next week, as no one will be allowed to forget, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. In a country in which ignoring history is just about the national pastime, somehow this event—what it was like, and what it accomplished—is remembered indelibly. But here is what we have forgotten: how the event was thought about before it happened. In a way, the contrast between how the March on Washington was envisioned by most Americans on August 27, and how it was recalled on August 29, was its greatest accomplishment of all—the reason it became one of history’s hinges.
As I wrote in my book Before the Storm, “It was hard for white America to see anything benign in a mass gathering of Negroes. The fears were primal, subliminal. ‘I don’t like to touch them. It just makes me squeamish,’ one Northerner told Newsweek. Another said, ‘It’s the idea of rubbing up against them. It won’t rub off, but it don’t feel right either.’ The magazine’s polling showed that 55 percent of whites would object to living next door to a black person—and 90 percent would object if their daughter married one.”
Yesterday I did a deeper dive into what happened when a country that thought like that, pictured thousands of angry black people massing in Washington, DC. The answer was: violent chaos.
The first news stories about, as the first Associated Press story put it, “Police intelligence reports that 100,000 Negroes might march on Capital Hill,” came on June 23. Some context: that May had begun the escalating confrontation between the forces of Martin Luther King Jr. and the forces of Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama. By Memorial Day, civil rights protests spread to half a dozen cities, including Columbus, Ohio, where two men chained themselves to the furniture in the capitol building. On June 11, registration day for new students at the University of Alabama, the state’s new governor George Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door” in Tuscaloosa to make sure no blacks were among them. His supporters included the editorialists of the Winona (Kansas) Leader, who wrote, “The very people who have the greatest stake in preserving the Constitution”—black people—“are doing the most to destroy it” with their meddlesome protesting. The same night as George Wallace’s stand, one of those meddlesome protesters, NAACP voter registration coordinator Medgar Evers, returned home from a day’s work past midnight and was shot dead in his own driveway. That evening, President Kennedy had given a brave, bold speech announcing his support for a civil rights bill to outlaw segregation in public accommodations—“a moral issue…as old as the scriptures…as clear as the American Constitution.” On June 19, the president presented his legislation in a special message to Congress. It included this admonition: “There have been increasing public demonstrations of resentment directed against this kind of discrimination—demonstrations which too often breed tension and violence. Only the federal government, it is clear, can make these demonstrations unnecessary by providing peaceful remedies for the grievances which set them off.” He repeated the point at the end of the speech: “I want to caution against demonstrations which can lead to violence.”
I explained Kennedy’s strange logic, which was all but universal among whites and even among plenty of timorous blacks, in Before the Storm: “In their conclusions the White House betrayed a constellation of unspoken assumptions about race relations—about social relations—in the United States: introduce bold legislation and the troublemakers would quit, like kidnappers who had been paid their ransom.”
But the troublemakers did not quit. And that freaked people the hell out.
The Associated Press: “It was learned from a top informant that Washington and Capitol police officials have expressed strong doubts that incidents could be avoided if 100,000 demonstrators, or even fewer thousands, began milling about Capitol buildings or grounds, or attempted to stage ‘sit-ins’ in or around the offices of any filibustering senators.”
Ooooh! “Milling” integrationists: scary, kids!
Martin Luther King, bless his soul, understood the game: don’t back down. He joined a group of leaders who met with the president. “Dr. King had told a banquet group just the before that ‘if they start filibustering, by the hundreds and the thousands and by the hundreds of thousands white people and black people ought to march on Washington.”
Damn, he spoke well. That sentence is poetry, pure pulsating rhythm: “by the hundreds and the thousands and the hundreds of thousands.” He also strategized well: he understood how the popular fear of violence advantaged the marchers. It was, as we’ll see, a sort of bargaining chip. And he would not trade it away lightly. The opposite, you might say, of Barack Obama, who keeps a bust of King in the Oval Office, and will no doubt have sonorous words on tap this Wednesday lionizing King—whose thought I don’t really think he understands at all.
Obama should actually keep a bust of Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, because that is more who he is like. “I have never proposed sit-ins at the Capitol,” Wilkins said, according to The New York Times. “I have said that any demonstrations, in Washington or elsewhere, should have specific, not general, objectives…I am not involved in the present moment.” Five days later he warned against what he termed a “whoopin’ and a hollerin’ operation.” I suppose he had reason to fear. For what the marchers were proposing to do might well be illegal. Explained the AP: “Federal laws specifically forbid demonstrations at the Capitol, Capitol buildings, or Capitol grounds without permission granted specifically by the vice president and the speaker of the House, acting jointly…. The blocking of roads and streets leading to the Capitol, and unauthorized ‘harangues’ also are forbidden in the Capitol area.” (Informed readers: is this still true?)
The AP cited their inside source, the one who warned about the possibility of violence: “One plan under consideration…is an effort to induce leaders of civil rights groups in ‘reasonable numbers’ to accept a ‘dramatic confrontation’ meeting with congressional leaders and other appropriate Congress members as an alternative to sit-ins. ‘Citizens have a right to petition the Congress,’ this source said,’ but they do not have a right to try to overpower it.’ He said there has been official consideration of whether the police might have to be augmented by military personnel if no compromise can be evolved.” The next day, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy warned the march’s organizers off: while he had “great sympathy” for protest, “Congress should have the right to debate and discuss this legislation without this kind of pressure.”
Right. Because the “national conversation” would have happened on its own, without the rude interruption of Edward Snowden, oops, I mean A. Phillip Randolph and Martin Luther King…
In the weeks ahead, as desegregation protests roiled (memorial rallies for Medgar Evers, a “wade-in” at a Biloxi beach that saw seventy-one arrested and packed into a single moving van while 2,000 jeering whites looked on) the debate would churn, though it really wasn’t much of a debate: everyone who mattered agreed the march plans were insane. As one editorialist confidently explained, “Marches on the nation’s capital in the past have been much smaller than the one proposed by Negro leaders. They have been extremely well disciplined; nevertheless they have been marked by violence…. Chances are that even the huge operation the Negro leaders threaten will be equally futile, for while individual congressmen may be no braver than their fellow men, they certainly would not accept physical intimidation. And however nonviolent the demonstrators professed themselves to be, intimidation would be the implication—if not the clear intent—of the march. And even those most earnestly involved must see that the resultant frustration would only multiply the threat of violence.”
Yes: the point was that violent backlash was protesters’ fault. Before the Storm: “Theirs was an almost desperate belief that America was by definition a placid place, if only ‘extremists’ could be kept in check. That didn’t just mean the racists who perpetrated the violence—but also those who ‘disturbed the peace’ on the other side by protesting racism.” (I found one example of a civil rights worker charged with disturbing the peace for getting pistol-whipped. At the time, a John F. Kennedy might have even agreed with the charge. The thing that makes Martin Luther King’s masterpiece “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” such a political watershed was that it was one of the first texts to explicitly take this mad consensus on, as explained beautifully in this timely book.) As the Milwaukee Sentinel opined on Independence Day, “Although still not convinced that ten of thousands of demonstrators in Washington are going to do anything to advance the cause of civil rights by courting mob violence, we welcome the assurances that they do not intend to throw themselves on the wheels of congress, as it were.” Thanks, Milwaukee Sentinel!
Their was another fear driving polite opinion: the tides of right-wing reaction. That same Independence Day conservatives thronged a massive Barry Goldwater rally at the DC armory despite the sweltering heat; around that time, a congressman told columnist Stewart Alsop, “A few race riots in the North and Barry might make it.” (And wouldn’t that all be your fault, Martin Luther King?) The Air Force announced a policy of allowing its personnel to participate in civil rights demonstrations; George Wallace responded, “The Air Force is encouraging its personnel to engage in street demonstrations with rioting mobs…. Perhaps we will now see Purple Hearts awarded for street brawling.” March organizer A. Phillip Randolph responded on August 3, promising “There will be no ‘lunatic fringe ‘in the march and no Communists…. He said that about 2,000 persons had been trained as a cadre to keep the march orderly.” He confirmed that no sit-ins were planned for within the Capitol. Perhaps he felt comfortable sounding conciliatory because they had just won a huge concession: JFK had endorsed the event as “in the great tradition of lawful protest” and that it gave “every evidence it is going to be peaceful”—although, at that, leaves had been cancelled for the entire DC police force.
The controversy had not abated. On August 14 the AFL-CIO announced it would not participate. Three days later, an AP article on crowd control (“Ready for Rights ‘Flood’ ”) explained, “Thousands of troops will be at nearby barracks in case of trouble. Fire department apparatus can get to the scene in a hurry in case of a blaze.” Now the fears concentrated on the forces of American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell, who couldn’t get a permit for his own counter-march.
Three days out, the NAACP finally praised the enterprise with faint damn: “Wilkins said Sunday night that Wednesday’s civil rights march on Washington was worth the risk of violence or disorder.”
Two days out, and the AP reported, “Leaders continued to pledge calm and dignity…. But there was still apprehension about transportation, about the uncertainty of numbers, about unexpected violence.” (Transportation fears: railroad workers happened to be threatening a national strike that week—quaint!—threatening the progress of the twenty special trains each carrying perhaps 1,000 riders that had been scheduled across the country.)
One day out: “Authorities still insisted they looked for no major trouble, but they were taking extraordinary precaution. For example, in a last-minute move, the District of Columbia commissioners prohibited all sales of alcoholic drink from midnight Tuesday night to 2 am Thursday. Some 5,000 police, National Guardsmen, deputized firemen, and police reservists have been assigned to crowd and trouble control duties. About 4,000 regular Army troops and Marines are in barracks nearby, with big helicopters ready to ferry them into the heart of the city if necessary.” Senator Hubert Humphrey, defensively: “These marchers are not trouble-makers and rabble-rousers but responsible American citizens” A black minister organizing a contingent from Connecticut: “He said the march ‘is committed to a purpose and is not just rabble rousing.’…The ‘Connecticut Guardians,’ an organization of Negro policemen, acted as monitors to keep order on the train.”
The Milwaukee Sentinel had worried, “The danger is that a march turn into a stampede. That would be a tragic ending, to have the Negro equality movement dashed to death on the steps of the Lincoln memorial.”
Nope. August 28. They came. They sang. He spoke. We conquered. The rest is history.
Gary Younge writes about how Dr. King’s dream is still misunderstood.
US Postal Service Stamp, 1962. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Here’s a personal observation with a political thrust: if I were single, I don’t think I could handle dating a graduate student in the humanities or the social sciences. Or someone with a PhD but not a tenure-track job. Or perhaps even a junior professor working for tenure. When I close my eyes and think of friends who’re sweating their way up that greasy pole to find steady work as a professional scholar, the images I come up with are of people at wits’ end, often hardly capable of healthy relationships at all.
I think of one, a recently minted history doctorate, for whom a two-year postdoctoral fellowship fortuitously dropped from the sky—but whom before that happened I regularly had to almost literally talk down from the ledge, so frazzled was she by the thought of piecing together more years with a $15,000 income; or maybe (she didn’t have any teaching lined up for this fall when the postdoc came through) no income at all.
I think of another, a gifted and committed teacher, the single mother of a disabled son, whose employer, a downtown commuter college, began cutting her course load the more experienced she got—the better she got—because it was cheaper to hire teachers who were green. She referred to this as her “poverty summer,” and I think she was near to the ledge too.
There’s another guy, a romance languages doctorate from one of the world’s great research universities, also a gifted and committed teacher. He came from a working-class background—his dad drives a truck for Coca-Cola, and he himself has had jobs like warehouseman and forklift driver. Because of all that, he possessed a psychological profile that made thriving in academia difficult: namely, he is self-possessed, confident and utterly lacking in the other-directed brown-nose-itutde that is the mark of the modern professional managerial class. When he realized that most critical theory wasn’t to his taste, he avoided it—except when he had to parrot it back to his professors to pass his field exams. He also didn’t frantically seek lines on his curriculum vitae, grinding the same research into half a dozen all-but-identical conference papers. He didn’t suck up. Instead, all he did was write a brilliant dissertation with a timely and politically relevant theme, in elegant, readable prose. All the while he feasted upon books about every subject under the sun. An insatiable auto-didact, his love of knowledge burns more brightly than that of just about anyone I’ve ever met, and outshines every professor I know. A natural-born teacher, he simultaneously and joyfully practiced the arts of citizenship just about every day of the week in the form of long, passionate and generous e-mails to his working-class relatives, most of them Christian conservatives, teaching them about the sins of the national security state, the historical accomplishments of the welfare state, and so on and so forth. In a better world, academia would beat a path to this gentleman’s door. Instead, he knows tenured employment is almost unimaginable. So he’s applied to about a hundred jobs this summer, desperate to keep up with his mortgage—every kind of job, including one as an on-campus building manager. He finally ended up with a year-long contract at a private school teaching science to eighth graders. Though he has no particular interest in and no experience with science, he’s glad to be working at all.
I think about a junior professor I know, also at a great research university—I have to be careful here; academics are petty, and who knows what identifying detail might set off one of (his or her) colleagues on whom the rest of (her or his) professional life depends—who is up for tenure this year. When I listen to (him or her) talk about this, it sounds a little bit what it might be like to be a protagonist in a Kafka story. The decision sits in the hands of a small group of reviewers, judging via criteria that are ostensibly transparent but are for all practical purposes opaque. (He or she) works and plays beside (her or his) reviewers every day. Who knows what faculty meeting or dinner party faux pas might place one of them in a blackballing mood? Who knows whether that paper (he or she) wrote, passed around delightedly by graduate students because it takes on a trendy academic superstar, will catapult (his or her) esteem among (her or his) reviewers, or capsize it? Who knows—(she or he) certainly doesn’t—whether (he or she) suddenly, from one day to the next, will learn that (she or he) is suddenly guaranteed a lifetime sinecure within an upper-middle-class professional elite, deferred to for the rest of (his or her) life, or whether (he or she)…won’t?
It must not make for a very balanced inner life.
I could add a half-dozen similar stories; these, though, are the archetypes. I think of them, and I contrast them to the tenured professors I know. They live unimaginably charmed lives, in this season of our austerity.
I think of one academic couple I know, of whom I am very fond, and whose contributions to teaching and scholarship and left-wing activism are exemplary. I don’t begrudge them their gorgeous home with the expansive deck overlooking mountains and ocean; I don’t begrudge one of them for letting slip—we all have moments of hubris—that they make $400,000 between them. I don’t begrudge another such couple the fancy catered dinner parties they’re able to throw in their fancy home, because, hell, I was the guest of honor at one of those dinner parties. In fact, I’ve been the guest of honor, as a visiting independent scholar, at fancy dinners at all sorts of fancy universities, and am invariably fond of my hosts, for the most part decent, dedicated people: 1960s veterans, mainly, who’ve done their best to keep their values intact.
But here’s their problem—a tragic flaw. They’re hardly aware that they’re aristocrats, and that they oversee an army of intellectual serfs. Because no one saw this coming.
The history of American higher education over the twentieth century is an extraordinary one, the story of the creation of a powerhouse set of institutions that are the envy of the civilized world. Once they were the province, both among the student and faculty bodies, of children of privilege, generally WASPS. Then state land-grant universities and urban city college systems (where, in the state of California and New York City, tuition was free) expanded opportunities for entry into the middle class to new ethnic groups, farm kids, strivers of every description. The GI Bill expanded those same opportunities yet further through the glorious infusion of federal cash, and the Cold War imperatives that midwifed the National Defense Education Act expanded the administrative capacity of university after university such that when the frolicksome baby boomers began flooded their gates there was plenty of room to accommodate them. The trajectory, in other words, once went in only one direction: expanded opportunity.
Qualitatively, too, the expansion of college education became a genuine ornament of mass democracy. It made America more decent, more lovely, more cultured, more critical, even—ask anyone who went to college in the 1960s or ’70s—more fun. It made America richer too, both spiritually and materially; though in an important sense the first condition fed the second, as the liberation of intellectual imaginations midwifed a thousand productive careers in every field, careers that were productive precisely because they were inspired by a “liberal arts” attitude, not merely pinched Babbit-like commercial aspirations. Some of these folks, gifted with a college education, chose a professional life that continued within those colleges. It was one of the ways a capitalist society healthily reproduced itself: by making life in our capitalist society more worth living, more savory, more decent (and again: more fun); and, too, by producing the professionals and managers it took to keep that society running.
Now all we seem to care about is reproducing the managerial class.
It changed slowly at first, but then with headlong rapidity. Ronald Reagan was a leading indicator: he instituted tuition at the University of California system, famously asking why California taxpayers should be forced “to subsidize intellectual curiosity.” (But subsidizing intellectual curiosity was what made California one of the most prosperous economies in the world.) I hope to write more on these subjects in the coming months as school comes into session, as they occur to me: the “MOOCs”—massive online open courses, which may well render most professors redundant; the death of free college education at what few institutions, like Cooper Union, that until recently nobly upheld it; the actions of the board of the University of Virginia to thumb their nose at the school’s founder, a fellow named Jefferson, who wanted his school open for free to all young gentlemen of talent in the colony.
I want to write more about a contradiction: people still clamor for the chance to lead spiritually enriching lives as professional scholars, because it’s an opportunity they saw all around them in college, a model for an engaged and decent life—even as the possibilities for engaged and decent lives retreat more every semester.
I want to write, in other words, about the death of democratic higher education, and the re-enshrinement of an idea that only seems impossibly old-fashioned until you think about it for more than five minutes: the gentleman scholar. The person of means and leisure. Because, dammit, aren’t the only ones now who can afford to risk the miniscule chances of professional advancement in academia the people who already have enough to get by on their own?
It’s time for us to begin chewing on that: what we lose when democratic higher education dies. That is how a healthy capitalist society eats its seed corn.
Katrina vanden Heuvel on how debt is destroying higher education.
Demonstrators protest against ALEC in the lobby of the Palmer House Hotel. (Courtesy of Flickr user Mikasi)
The notorious American Legislative Exchange Council is meeting in Chicago, and the city’s mighty protest warriors are in effect: writes Micah Uetricht today on the Nation website, “A crowd of forty protesters took over the lobby of the Palmer Hotel on Monday, with six people arrested as religious, environmental, and labor activists denounced ALEC. A group of several dozen hoodie-wearing protesters staged a die-in at the hotel this morning, noting the group’s role in spreading Stand Your Ground laws that helped protect George Zimmerman after shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, a mass rally has been called for Thursday organized by the Chicago Federation of Labor, and other actions are expected throughout the week.”
By now most everyone on the left knows of ALEC and how it works, which is an accomplishment in itself: it writes “model bills” intended to ram right-wing notions through state legislatures, to institute the “right to work” (for less), to repeal the minimum wage—and, of course, Stand Your Ground. And they did so under the radar—until, that is, a brilliant and concerted activist effort to flush them out into the light of day. Now you can learn everything you need to know about them in this outstanding episode of Bill Moyers & Company, “The United States of ALEC.” Which means, in one important respect, ALEC has already been beaten. For escaping the notice of Washington-focused observers was always their goal.
As the 1980 book Thunder on the Right, by Alan Crawford, documented (a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the rise of the Reagan Revolution), there had been an American Legislative Exchange Council before the right-wing godfather Paul Weyrich convinced Richard Mellon Scaife to cough up $80,000 in seed funding to turn it into a right-wing ideological wrecking crew in 1974. But it had merely been sleepy educational exchange for right-leaning state legislators, and one which besides, as a 501(c)3, was banned from direct political participation. One day, however, quite nearly out of the blue, that $80,000 check arrived from Scaife. ALEC’s executive director, whose name was Jaunita Barrett, asked Weyrich, Scaife’s emissary, why in the world he would want to underwrite such a shell of an outfit, and a non-political one to boot. He responded that this was precisely her organization’s appeal: “Juanita, ALEC is the only state legislative organization in the country—of our persuasion—which has a 501(c)3. If they took ALEC to Washington and did a good job, they…could go back to Scaife and get Scaife to set up a Political Action Committee to finance state legislative campaign races.”
It worked: dismissing the meddlesome Jaunita Barnett, ALEC set up shop in both Washington and the rent-free office of a conservative Illinois state representative, whose phone lines it illegally made use of, and began surreptitiously advancing the conservative infiltration of state legislative agendas. ALEC wasn’t even mentioned in any newspapers until 1978. By which point the Trojan Horse had already begun ferrying politicians on propaganda junkets Taiwan, sponsoring conferences to seed Proposition 13–style movements around the country—and surely more, but it’s hard to know what, because they had been so effective in avoiding publicity. And hardly at all before the 1990s—and, until a couple of years ago, even political junkies didn’t know it existed, even as it became one of the most powerful forces in state capitols around the country.
Well, ALEC can’t hide any more. Certainly not in Chicago. I’ll be there yelling and screaming at them in front of the Palmer House Hotel tomorrow, Thursday, at noon, side by side with my Chicago Teachers Union brothers and sisters—kids, come by and say “Hi!”
Micah Uetricht writes about the coalition of labor, community and environmental groups is making it clear that ALEC isn’t welcome in the union town.
Barry Goldwater. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Claire Conner was about 13 years old when her parents handed her a John Birch Society membership form and told her, “You are old enough to take part in saving the nation.” For Claire that meant getting her dollar-a-month dues automatically subtracted from her allowance—and doing a whole lot of cringing. Her father, who was the first Bircher in Chicago, and her mother, who was the second, had taken out lifetime memberships, which cost $2,000 ($12,000 in today’s money). For years they had been convinced that the John Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch, was one of America’s truest heroes—certainly after they received a numbered, mimeographed copy of a black-covered book called The Politician. I interviewed Claire, who is now a retired teacher and a most un-retiring liberal activist based near Orlando, Florida, about her memoir of growing up Birch, Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right, at the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Hyde Park, where every month I host an author or activist for an interview in my “Rixonland” series. That particular sunny afternoon, she picked up a prop I had brought along for the occasion, and the audience’s attention was riveted:
“The Birchers call this the ‘Black Book. They call their bible the ‘Blue Book,’ because it has a blue cover…. This book”—she waved my copy of The Politician, a spiral-bound thing that I had ordered from John Birch Society headquarters in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1997—“is a tract written over a period of years showing Dwight Eisenhower as a dedicated Communist. Who reported, by the way, in Mr. Welch’s theory, to his brother Milton”—the president of Johns Hopkins University—“in the Communist Party. This book was given—secret copies, numbered copies—to certain individuals. Bill Buckley had one. Barry Goldwater had one. My father had one. My father got it in 1955, when I was 10, three years before the John Society ever existed…. You had to sign a pledge that you would never reveal the contents of this book. So, as the John Birch Society developed, there were rumors that developed that there was this”—she whispered—”secret book. ‘There’s a secret book! There’s a secret book! There’s a secret book! And it names real Communists in the government!’ And my father would say, all the time, at every meeting, when people said, ‘What about the secret book?’ that, ‘There is no secret book.’
“So I didn’t believe there was such a book.”
Her father and mother were fanatic adherents of Joseph McCarthy, who had been censured by the Senate the year before, and who died two years later. Basically, he drunk himself to death, but you couldn’t tell her mother that. “She said, ‘They killed him because he knew too much.’ And my father said, ‘It will take a lot more Joes to save this country.’ And as I say in the book, I didn’t realize that three years later my dad would be one of those Joes!”
By 1960, her dad, Jay Conner, was the leader of Chicago’s Birchers. That summer was a hot one, so the Society was holding its recruitment meetings in the nice, cool basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview. (The pastor, she is sure, was a Bircher.)
“My dad was speaking to 200 people and giving his standard speech—about the United Nations and the conspiracy and so on—and during the question-and-answer period this woman [was] waving her hand, and my dad called on her, and she said, ‘What about this secret book?’
“So my father said, ‘There is no secret book. There is no such book. There will never be a book’—he went through this whole thing.”
The woman then reached into her satchel, pulled out the secret book, and partook to read from the section that said Dwight David Eisenhower was a secret Communist.
There happened to be in the audience a columnist for the Chicago Daily News, Jack Mabley, who wrote the first article that revealed to the non-wingnut majority the existence of this strange political sect who believed that the nation’s beloved Republican president was a Communist five days later, and wrote a second article a day after that focusing on the Birchers’ Chicago sachem, Claire Conner’s father.
It’s no small thing to see your own father exposed nationally not just as a lunatic but a liar. I wrote about much of this stuff, and what happened next, in my first book, Before the Storm: how the John Birch Society suddenly became a national sensation; how the Republican power structure and the “mainstream” conservative movement led by William F. Buckley and National Review purged Robert Welch from their ranks, careful, however not to alienate the massive Birch membership that formed its most determined activist cadre in elections; and how the “Birch issue” came to largely to define the civil war within the Republican Party over the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater—his famous convention-speech line “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” was, in context, largely a tacit defense of the Birchers’ patriotic bona fides. And I think I tell the story well. But it’s something else altogether to read it, as I put it in my blurb of Claire’s book, “from the inside out”—from the perspective of a family within which right-wing extremism served as an efficient machine for something just short of child abuse. Like I said in that blurb, I’ve been waiting for a book like this for a long time. I recommend it with the only reservation that it is too short.
Hear what happened when her mother returned from a rhapsodic tour of a literally fascistic nation. “The first night—now, I was 12 years old—we were sitting over dinner. And my mother said, ‘I want to tell you children a story about Spain.’ She lights her cigarette.” She told her children about the left-wing general who kidnapped the son of one of Franco’s generals and said that unless certain political prisoners were released he would kill the son. That boy, her mom was careful to explain, was exactly her age. “The general said to his son on the phone, ‘say your prayers like a good Spaniard.’ And he was shot.’ ” She writes in the book eloquently about her reaction: “Something happened to me after that night. I had frequent headaches and stomaches. A rash appeared on my neck, arms, and legs…. After Mother and Father were dead, I knew that one of the Commies would put a pistol to me head and pull the trigger.”
She told me, “When they walked down this path, I sort of walked with them. Because there was no other way to go”—that’s how families work. They fuck you up, your mum and dad. And then you work to unfuck yourself: “I’ve been trying to make some sort of peace with this for, oh, thirty-five years.” Of such stories great family memoirs are made. And this is a great family memoir.
But it also bears a political argument we need to absorb. Explained Conner in Chicago, “The John Birch Society built the most effective, best-funded right-wing populist organization in the United States of America. Now, not all my friends on the left want to hear this. It’s so easy to say, ‘These people were crackpots.” But Robert Welch “was a brilliant man. That doesn’t mean he was correct about anything. But he was a brilliant man. And he loved to sell.” And what comes through strikingly in the book is that, even as Welch and his organization were excoriated, the stories they told, frequently through carefully disguised front groups with pleasant-sounding names—say, the one from the 1960s about how sexual education was teaching children how to be sexually promiscuous; or the one in the early 1990s promoting the impeachment of Bill Clinton—were sold quite effectively to the broader political culture. They achieved things.
We really, really don’t want to believe this. Even Claire Conner did not want to believe this. She writes, remembering the Kennedy assassination, blamed in the wider political culture as a product of just the sort of extremism Birchers were promoting, “the whole right wing is kaput. My parents and the Birchers just became ancient history.” Less than eight months later, of course, Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential nominee. She writes of her conviction of how the miserable failures of the Bush years were “killing America’s appetite for right-wing Republicans.”
And yet now we have thirty states with Republican majorities, many of them veto-proof.
And at that point, in Chicago, Claire Connner concluded in thunder. “These people are at the point of changing our government. If you want to see how, look at Texas, look at Florida. Look at Ohio. Look at Wisconsin, for God’s sake—my state. Look at Michigan, for heaven’s sake: they think they elected a moderate, but they elected a right-wing radical. That’s how this game is played. They’re changing the policy. And the whole thing is so deep that when they vote them out of office, number one, half of them won’t be able to vote. And number two, we will have years of problems to fix…. We were so happy that we won the popular vote, but they’re buying the place….they’ve virtually stopped the government for five years.”
Claire Conner knows of what she speaks. She was there at the inception—as a sad-eyed, vulnerable adolescent—then watched as the machine was put together: a machine whose deceptively smooth surface has always only barely hid the corrosive ugliness and cunning anti-democratic cleverness underneath, convincing too many liberals, too many times, that the ugliness could not but fade away in the fulness of time—convincing them wrong. Read her, and listen well: there is nothing new under the wingnut sun.
Rally to protest school closings and teacher layoffs in Chicago. (AP Images)
Xian Barrett is the kind of hero-teacher about which they make sentimental, inspiring movies. A young, handsome guy of Chinese extraction, he was a statistics expert at a computer startup before he turned to teaching; then, working at a tough inner-city high school, he hit on an idea. Xian spoke Japanese. A lot of the kids he was teaching were reading manga, and riveted by martial arts culture. Because Percy Julian High was a “non-selective enrollment” school—the kind where they don’t expect much of kids—they would never get a chance to take a Japanese class. So he opened up the school's small, exclusive Japanese program to every student. Soon, it was massively popular—dozens of tough black kids, buckling down and learning something very, very difficult. And because of that, they were thriving like never before in all their subjects. “For a lot of kids Japanese was a gateway drug to academic success,” he told me this past spring when I interviewed him for my article on Chicago activism. He got a $10,000 grant from the Japanese consulate. A student of his gave a speech accepting the award—in Japanese.
Soon after that, in 2010, Xian was laid off from Julian.
For another of the ways Xian also helped his students thrive was by advising them in their political activism. Not guiding them; his kids never would have stood for that—when I sat in on a meeting of the thriving group Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools in the basement of a DePaul University building, their hottest term of derision was “adultism”: activist jargon for “pushy grownups telling us what to do.” Xian just helped facilitate, and gave advice when he was asked. He was also one of the founders of the Chicago Teacher’s Union’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the militant faction led by current CTU president Karen Lewis, who won the strike last year against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Although Xian wouldn’t say so, it’s hard to think of any other reason than his activism and dedication to teach as a hell-raiser, in order to educate hell-raisers, that he was fired.
Xian won’t say it—but I interviewed the student who gave the speech in Japanese, a really smart kid named Jeremiah Raye, who will. He described life at Julian after the a new principal, one beloved of the suits at the school board, arrived and ended up firing his favorite teacher: “The atmosphere changed…oppressive, to be honest with you. She usually targeted teachers who were more for the students…she would pretty much threaten certain teachers’ jobs, and then my junior year they got fired, like Mr. Barrett. The teachers that weren’t cut were the ones who were either neutral teachers or the ones who were on the side of the board.” Incidentally, with the layoff the Japanese program was gone with the wind, too—leaving $6,000 of the $10,000 grant on the table.
Xian next landed at Gage Park High, a school with a history: it was through this neighborhood of classic Chicago bungalows, once all-white, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched for open housing in 1966, got a rock thrown at his head, and famously said, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” Gage Park ain’t all white any more; it’s one of the roughest inner city schools in town. The kind of place, in other words, where teachers like Xian Barrett love, are needed most, and thrive. As he wrote recently on his blog, “Teacher X,” “This was my best teaching year by far. Better than the year that I raised the scores the most; better than the year I won that national teaching award”—the U.S. Department of Education Teaching fellowship. “This year I listened most deeply to the largest portion of my students and learned to support them in all the right battles: for student voice, against sexism, homophobia, ableism, and racism, for student/teacher unity and against the school-to-prison pipeline. The classroom was open and the youth shared amazing personal stories…. I would not trade this year away for 100 years as the football star I dreamt I would become when I was a tiny little 10-year-old who didn’t really understand the physics of professional football.”
Here’s the thing: blog post was written to respond to the public outpouring of response that followed the news this week that Xian had been laid off again. At Gage, Xian had helped students who led a symbolic boycott of standardized tests. Maybe that’s why he was laid off again.
If so, his principal had a nice bit of cover—his layoff was part of the axing of 2,113 Chicago Public School employees who got the ax in what is being sold as an absolutely necessary budgetary move.
Displaying the sensitivity for which city government under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has become known, the layoffs came just before the announcement of the awarding of a $20 million no-bid contract to train principles and other administrators, to an outfit called “Supes Academy,” for which Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has recently enjoyed a lucrative consultation contract. Supes is co-run by an “education reform” hustler named Gary Solomon who took a settlement with a suburban Chicago district in 2001 for allegedly sending sexual explicit e-mails to students; he went on to such sterling and selfless educational endeavors as sales associate for Princeton Review (CPS was one of his clients). His partner Thomas Vranas, whose online biography, the sterling Chicago education reporter Sarah Karp found, boasts “that he got his start by creating an urban tutoring program in Chicago that served 8,000 students. However, none of the biographies specify the name of the tutoring program and he did not respond to e-mail questions about it,” and “that he started a wireless Internet company, a sales and marketing company and a venture capital firm. None of the companies are named.”
The firings, incidentally, also came shortly after Mayor Emanuel announced a $55 tax-increment financing grant to a very rich private university, DePaul, to build a basketball arena on the lakefront. The grant is especially horrifying because it makes mincemeat of the standard “TIF” formula—where the money is ostensibly paid back to the city in the form of future property tax revenues—because the land the arena is to sit upon will be effectively tax-exempt. It looks like a straight up giveaway.
But the city can’t afford to pay teachers like Xian Barrett. Make no mistake about that.
As for Xian, he’s leaving teaching for a while: “I’ve decided to that this might be the right time to step away from the classroom for a moment. I realize looking back that I’ve neglected self-care for quite a long time, and do not have the energy to work with a new group of amazing young people to build to a new vista. This isn’t a permanent state, but with each heartbreak, we must heal.” But he’ll still be teaching, he says, in his own way: I will take my expertise to teach those failing to run our society.”
That’s what guys like Xian always do. When I interviewed Xian this summer, I asked him how high-stakes testing has changed his life as a teacher. He answered, “It’s sort of omnipresent and it takes away from what should be going on. All of our professional development now is around testing and managing data.” But, he emphasizes, it is crappy data—which, as an algorithm expert and a rotisserie baseball obsessive, he should know. “I love statistics, but that’s what’s so frustrating about it: it’s as if the sabermetric revolution happened in baseball but instead of Nate Silver leading it, you know, it was somebody with no understanding of mathematics—maybe what we’re seeing is education reform by the people who [insisted on the predictive value of] game-winning RBIs and ERA.”
As for his former student Jeremiah Raye, he’s doing great at DePaul University, majoring in world studies. Mr. Barrett, and his home-brewed Japanese program, helped change his life. But don’t you worry: Xian Barrett won’t be changing any lives like that any time soon. More and more every day, the Chicago Public Schools will be safely rid of the likes of him.
Rick Perlstein goes inside the resurgent protest movement fighting back against Rahm Emanuel’s austerity agenda.
William Scranton (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The dinosaurs are nearly extinct. One of the last of the liberal Republican giants, William Warren Scranton of Pennsylvania, died this week at the age of 96. Let us not so much eulogize the man. Let us eulogize the species.
His aristocratic identity was announced by his name. William Warren Scranton: his ancestors founded the Pennsylvania town. William Warren Scranton: his mother was from the Warren family that sailed over on the Mayflower. From that Mayflower side, the liberal convictions came at the knee of his mother, who began picketing for women’s suffrage at the age of 16; she had her son gathering precinct returns by telephone at the age of 9, and the next year took him to the 1928 Republican convention. Why the Republican convention? Well, for one thing, the Democrats were the party of low-bred louts: people like Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi who would go on to write the segregationist masterpiece Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. And the bosses who gathered the teeming urban immigrant masses into a block vote that tried to turn the Democratic Party “wet.” So there was snobbishness. But there were also liberal heroes in the Republican Party of the early twentieth century—people like Robert La Follette Sr., who, before he founded his own Progressive Party in 1924, invented the direct primary, installed the first workers’ compensation legislation and championed the vote for women. That was part of the Republican living tradition in which Bill Scranton was born and bred to.
Another liberal tributary came from his father’s side: the biblical notion that to those whom much is given, much is expected. Taking care of people: dismiss it as noblesse oblige if you want, but at least rich people back then felt the obligation. Done right, it very well can become the seedbed of progressive change. As I wrote in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,
“A Pennsylvania squire who said that the free market brought only blessings would be run out of town on a rail. Scranton, the city, had been the anthracite coal capital of the world before the market for the fuel collapsed in mid-century, the nation’s industrial center began sliding southwest, and radical new automation technology began sluicing off some 40,000 industrial jobs a month nationwide. In Pennsylvania, unemployment was 50 percent above the national average and fifty-six of fifty-seven counties were federally designed as depressed areas; in the same years that Phoenix grew from 50,000 residents to 500,000, Scranton shrunk. It was a quiet, underlying dread in the 1960s that these economic forces, as Rhode Island’s liberal Republican governor John Chafee”—dad of Lincoln, who of course ran screaming from a Republican Party that no longer had a place for the likes of him in it—“put it, would ‘dump the unskilled and semi-skilled worker into the human slag heap.’”
And back in the day, there were crazy kooky Republicans who actually believed enlightened, activist government could do something about it.
Bill’s dad started something called the “Scranton Plan,” combining private and public resources to spur industrial redevelopment, helping lure fifty industries and 20,000 jobs back to Lackawanaa County. Upon his father’s death in 1955, Bill Scranton took it over. He was 37, an accomplished lawyer with a promising career still ahead of him (his Yale Law fraternity pledge class, which included two future Supreme Court Justices, a future secretary of state and some dude named Jerry Ford, was nicknamed “Destiny’s Men”). He surely could have done something else—and lived anywhere but in a stagnating old coal town. But: obligation. “By the time he was plucked to become a State Department briefing office in 1959”—more obligation: there was a cold war on—“the chamber of commerce’s executive secretary described him as ‘the best-informed man in the United States on how to bring jobs back to depressed areas.’ ” I wrote of how he “burned with one of the core convictions of managerial liberalism: In a complex modern economy, only ‘labor market coordination’ by centralized government could save the free market from bringing about waste, inefficiency, and ruin as a side effect of prosperity.’ ” This notion that something other than the “free market” could help realize human flourishing—that human beings might be masters of their economic fates rather than playthings of it: Republicans used to believe that. Pretty crazy, huh?
(I reached the president of the Scranton Chamber of Commerce, Austin Burke, who had worked with Governor Scranton since 1972. He reflected, “The governor was recognized as a world-figure, but we knew him as a person who was totally dedicated to the well-being of his hometown. And I think that that the economic troubles of Scranton over the decades that the governor witnessed made him sensitive to the needs of the guy in the street, the people who needed some help from the government. And so it allowed Governor Scranton to be a Republican with a social conscience.”)
The next year the best-informed man in the United States on how to bring jobs back to depressed areas won Lackawanna County’s seat in the US House of Representatives, where he was only one of twenty-one Republicans to vote in 1961 to expand the size of the Rules Committee—a procedural attempt, akin to today’s fight over filibuster reform, to break a crucial bottleneck blocking bills on matters like civil rights and raising the minimum wage. He wrote a depressed-areas bill far to the left of a Kennedy administration he voted with over half of the time.
The next duty to call him was the Pennsylvania Statehouse. He took office the same week in 1963 when another new governor, George Wallace, pronounced, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” The New Republic called him “the first of the Kennedy Republicans.”
In Pennsylvania, the unemployment rate started falling by percentage points. And soon duty called again. The wingnuts were taking over the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater rose; Nelson Rockefeller fell. After Rockefeller was crushed in the June, 1964 California primary, the party’s liberal aristocrats prevailed upon Scranton to take up the moderate standard in the Republican Party’s civil war at the convention that went on to nominate Barry Goldwater, and cement the party’s rightward turn. I tell that story in far too much detail in Before the Storm, and won’t rehearse it here. Except to make a single point: about the liberal Republicans’s tragic flaw.
It was their arrogance, their sense of entitlement. Perhaps that story is best told in an image: Henry Cabot Lodge, one of those Republican aristocrats whose statement to the platform committee was to the left of Barack Obama, or maybe even Bernie Sanders—he called for a “Republican-sponsored Marshall Plan for our cities and schools”—sat in his hotel room, leafed through the roll of delegates and cried, “What in God’s name has happened to the Republican Party! I hardly know any of these people!”
Scranton, entering the presidential race in the middle of June, actually imagined that “these people” would come to their senses at the convention, do the responsible thing, switch their allegiance from Barry Goldwater to him and save the Republican Party from insanity—for that is how one of “destiny’s men” saw the world. It did not, of course, work that way.
Following his resounding defeat, he pledged never to run for elected office again. Though when duty called, he still answered. As his New York Times obituary said, “Not yet 50, he became a youngish elder statesman. He served on government commissions, advised the White House on arms control and took on presidential missions—for Richard M. Nixon in the Middle East, for Gerald R. Ford at the United Nations, for Jimmy Carter on urban policy and intelligence oversight and for Ronald Reagan on Soviet-American relations.”
The most prominent of these was the commission charged with studying the May 1970 Kent State shootings, which Scranton chaired. Its report concluded, “Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified…. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.” It recommended that the best way to prevent such violence in the future was “ending the Vietnam war, reforming the universities, and a continuing commitment to social justice.” Fifty-four Republican congressmen (and four Democrats) immediately responded: their spokesman called that “weak-kneed” and “wishy-washy.”
Rest in peace, William Warren Scranton. Rest in peace, Republican Party with a social conscience.
Is Martin Indyk the right man to guide the Israel-Palestine peace process?
Mall of America security department office. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
I recently picked up a lost piece of luggage at a TSA office near Midway Airport in Chicago. While waiting there, amid giant American and Illinois flags, pictures of graduating security officers in freshly pressed uniforms, the obligatory portrait of the president and the—also apparently obligatory—motivational posters depicting Mount Rushmore (“Gold is tried by fire, brave men by adversity”) and a team of skydivers (“When a team makes a commitment to act as one, the sky’s the limit”), I had the occasion to, um, obtain a copy of the trade magazine Emergency Management.
(Don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to end up on anyone’s no-fly list. It’s the January/February issue; I don’t think they’ll miss it.)
I love trade magazines, any trade’s magazine: by entering into what is taken for granted in a world not your own, you better recognize the vastness of the social universe—for there are so, so many worlds that are not your own. In this case, though, the journey is not just exotic. For this world—the world of “interoperable” communications systems, best practices in “behavioral profiling,” “Amazon web-mapping tools,” and patrol boats “equipped to serve as the ultimate platform for port and border security with hundreds of options ranging from gun mounts, to laptop docking stations, light bars and even CBRNE—detection apparatus (CBRNE, Wikipedia informs me, stands for Chemical, Biological Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosives)—is our world too, as citizens, whether we like it or not.
So what does this world look like, from the perspective of the trade magazine that advertises itself by the slogan “Strategy and leadership in critical times”? Come with me, dear reader, to Bloomington, Minnesota, home of the world’s largest shopping center, the Mall of America, where we meet, in a feature by associate editor Elaine Pittman, “The New Mall Cop.”
“After 9/11, the Mall of America enlisted behavior profiling to increase security at one of the Midwest’s most popular tourist attractions.” That’s the subhead of the piece. The text begins, “After 9/11, the owners of the Mall of America handed the facility’s security director a blank check.”
It is, of course, the document’s controlling trope. September 11, 2001, invented a world. A magazine like this is one of that world’s myriad droppings. I decided to try an exercise: randomly, I affixed the phrase “After 9/11” to the beginning of sentences to try to find one whose meaning was thereby changed. It was very hard to find one—certainly not these:
“After 9/11, if I wanted to harm your society, I would take your electricity and water away for a while.”
“After 9/11, having a national network would allow a police officer in Atlanta, for example, to contact an officer in Florida, confirm the officer’s identity and get help with whatever was needed.”
“After 9/11, transportable interoperable communications devices are essential during emergencies, and C4i’s two new technologies, the Communications On-the-Move (C-OTM) flyaway kit and LTE Picocell Cellular Interface Unit, provide field-ready communication systems that fit inside an aircraft overhead bin.”
They should just call the thing After 9/11 magazine.
Anyway, back to Minnesota. It turns out that a 4 million square-foot shopping mall complete with indoor amusement park, cameras and metal detectors just won’t cut it for your security needs. “Looking to Israeli security methods,” security director Doug Reynolds “learned about how behavioral profiling is used in the country, especially at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.”
He attended a training there. “Most people think that behavioral profiling started in Israel,” he says, “but it did not; it actually started in the U.S. through the FBI to do different types of profiling for crimes, such as serial killers, sexual predators, that kind of thing. The Israelis—when they were looking for best practices—found the FBI doing it, and they took it on and honed the skills and perfected the science.”
He hired former Israeli Airports Authority security agents for his 150-person staff. “What creates a true deterrence is an unpredictable system—a security system that is there and looking for intent constantly,” he says. So now what the FBI wrought to find serial killers, and the Israel uses to catch suicide bombers—a “Risk Assessment and Mitigation program,” or RAM (they love acronyms in this world), training “officers to look for behavior that isn’t considered normal in the mall setting”—is coming soon to a mall near you. Or a school. Or office park. “ ‘We want people to know about this program,’ Reynolds said. ‘We want this to be the new industry standard.’ ” The Greenway Plaza business complex in Houston adopted “RAM” a year and a half ago. “American Security and Investigations is in the early stages of rolling out the program in a Minnesota school district.” (Google it: “Formerly American Security Corporation. Services include armored cars, security professionals, cash management, and investigations.” Nice!)
So how does “RAM” work? Only one example is offered. An officer saw a man in a Marine Corps uniform waiting for an elevator. He had a “weird feeling.” They talked to him, and discovered he didn’t know much about rifles. The article then goes on to make no sense: “It turned out he was a runaway [from where? That’s never explained] and his guardians [who? That’s never explained] were retired members of the military…. The man had created a false identity by going onto bases and listening to the conversations of military members.” There the story ends, supposedly a happy ending—but what the threat was, precisely, and why this “runaway” was the business of mall cops is never explained.
Come with me to page 37, and Helsinki, Finland, an interview with someone named Jarno Limnell, cybersecurity director for something called the Stonesoft Corporation, “Europe’s number one network security vendor.” Headlined, “Why So Quiet on the Cybersecurity Threat”—another of the magazine’s tropes: Why are people not freaked out enough? In the interview, the smiling Scandinavian says, “If I would like to harm your nation, I would not use physical power. I would use cyberweapons against your critical infrastructure, affecting your power grids, for example, and transportation systems,” and explains how difficult it would be to defend America’s millions of miles of power distribution lines against such a cyberattack (“At this moment I would say the threat comes from Iran and possible terrorist groups,” Limnell explains with, um, admirable precision). Perhaps that’s why Limnell prefers offense. “You must have offensive capabilities…. You must give others the feeling that you have the offensive cybercapabilities [NB: it is apparently against the canons of emergency management best practices to put a space between “cyber-” and any other word], and if you are attacked, when you locate your enemy, you are ready to use your offensive capabilities.”
That’s it. No followup, no discussion of ethical considerations, blowback potentialities, the harrowing thoughts that must haunt anyone with half a brain thinking about this stuff who does not make the siege mentality their everyday habit and professional metier. Of which, plainly, there are millions. Call it the Emergency-Management-Industrial Complex.
In this magazine, they speak to one another, and advertise to one another. Free training from FEMA’s Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium (“Prepare For The Worst, Train To Be The Best”). “Incident Management Software Solution” from a company called Knowledge Center (“Your team deserves a Best-of-Class solution, battle tested for managing indents and events”; the images include fires, car crashes, a nuclear meltdown). AT&T sells “solutions to protect constituent data”: “Cyber attacks can originate from anywhere in the world and are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Typically targeted are municipalities due to budget deficiencies, resources and lack of protection.” (You only think your little town isn’t hurtling toward cyberperdition—but the very modesty of your circumstances are precisely why you need to send more money to us.) Degree programs, lots and lots of degree programs: Eastern Kentucky University’s “100% online Homeland Security program with Emergency Management focus”; the Center for Rural Development’s Institute for Preventive Strategies’ Homeland Security Certificate Program; Georgetown’s masters in Emergency and Disaster Management in School of Continuing Studies.
And a lot of it is, admittedly, uncontroversial: for instance, the special section on what emergency managers learned from Superstorm Sandy. We read about the work of dedicated, selfless, smart public servants, surely working too hard for too little reward: for instance the New York City Fire Department social media manager who “spent a day and a half straight comforting frantic citizens and giving out critical information over Twitter.” But even the benign stuff reveals malignancies to be concerned about: the seamlessness between public and private spheres—the “Eric’s Corner” column by Eric Holderman, former director of the King County, Washington Office of Emergency Management, writes how federal homeland security funding in 2013 “will be less than half of what it was even just a few years ago” (What?), demanding his fellows “dump government-central thinking and actions,” recommending “working together with anyone and everyone who is willing to partner with our agencies”—which raises questions about the millions to be made, or perhaps profiteered, from the manipulation and exacerbation of fears.
And exacerbation really does seem to come naturally to these folks. “Sandy knocked out power for weeks, but what if the weeks had turned into months…. Supermarkets will be cleaned out in a couple of days. Fresh water will become scarce. Generators will run out of gas, and gas stations will run dry, too…. As law enforcement knows, dark neighborhoods are more vulnerable to crime, especially when a whole city is hungry and scared. As one source suggested, ‘people tend to move down Maslow’s pyramid pretty fast.’…. The social systems begin breaking down within 72 hours,’ Briese said. ‘People’s innate restraint breaks down.’”
It’s like an episode of that zombie TV show. And these are dead on predictions. All the more reason, then, to begin thinking hard about how to make sure emergency response strictly serves public, and never private, interests; that the craft of imagining disaster remain the province of responsible professionals and not money-grubbing corporate fools; and that the people who tell these stories to one another for a living fold fundamental concerns about civil liberties, jurisdictional discretion, abuse of power, profiteering, and privateering, into their professional discourse.
About which, by the way, I could not find a single word in Emergency Management magazine. Not a single mumbling word. And this is an emergency, too. After 9/11, I guess it’s up to the rest of us to manage that.
Stever Fraser writes about those who profited from Superstorm Sandy.
Detroit. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Detroit has now declared bankruptcy. A judge has ruled the act illegal—a decision that may or may not stand. Naturally, New York’s fiscal crisis thirty-eight years ago comes to mind, though in many respects the differences are more important than the similarities: New York was one of the world’s financial and cultural capitals, its private economy largely thriving; as such, the news of government’s bare coffers was shocking, a revelation, something the world at first had a very hard time getting their mind around. While what’s happening to Detroit, no one’s idea of an economic capital, isn’t surprising at all.
But note a striking similarity: reaction of those on the right.
To wit: here comes Senator Rand Paul, saying nothing would be more splendid than to let a major city go bankrupt—because with bankruptcy, you get “new management, better management, and by getting rid of contracts, contracts that give you where [sic] public employees are getting paid twice what private employees are and things come back more to normal.” No matter that so far the White House says only that it’s “monitoring” the situation, though former Obama auto czar Steve Ratner says he hopes Obama will pump federal money into the city. That is what Paul distorted into his claim that “apparently” the president is “making indications that Detroit can be expected to be bailed out.” And that, he says, will happen only “over his dead body.” Because municipal bankruptcy would give Paul the chance to do what right-wingers like him always do, starting with New York in 1975: make excuses for slashing the public sector.
Shock doctrine stuff, in other words. The unwinding of what’s left of the welfare state, by whatever means at your disposal. Same story, then and now. In 1975, its most prominent voice was William Simon, President Ford’s Treasury secretary, who leveraged his work as the butcher of New York to become a major conservative movement leader.
The roots of the Great New York City Fiscal Crisis lay in the recession of 1974–75, which hit the Northeast with a speed and force all out of proportion to the rest of the country. New York had always supported a program of middle-class entitlement unlike anywhere else, a sort of socialism in one city: subsidized housing and daycare centers; free college at the world-class City University of New York; free museum admission; nineteen municipal hospital, many of them world-class; free directory assistance—amenities that seemed only natural for a metropolis transforming itself, in the boom years after World War II, into the greatest city in the world.
It worked, until it didn’t. The city’s manufacturing base declined, and the unemployment rate, under 5 percent in 1970, hovered above 12 percent—shades, but only shades, of Detroit. White middle-class New Yorkers, fearing crime, fled to the suburbs—definite shades of Detroit there. Federal and state aid leveled off; expectations that Richard Nixon’s national health insurance bill would relieve the city of its massive outlays for Medicaid came a cropper when Congress voted it down (conservatives because it was too generous, liberals because it was not generous enough). Bills came due that this newly atrophied level of revenue simply could not cover: by the the end of 1974, the city’s debt was $11 billion, a third of that in short-term notes soon to come due, and over 11 percent of the city’s spending went to interest payments on that debt—to banks, suddenly reconsidering their lending practices in a recession. Other tax shelters started looking more attractive, So did other customers—for instance, some resource-rich Third World nations. So it was that banks started to asking for some of that money back, and started charging more interest to let them rent more.
In December of 1974 Mayor Abraham Beame made a pilgrimage to Washington, DC, to meet with Treasury Secretary Simon. Beame explained the actions he had already taken to correct the city’s fiscal imbalances, freezing most city hiring and merit pay increases; he then argued that, given that America’s greatest international city unfairly had to pay higher interest rates than any municipality in the country, it would be in the national interest for the Treasury Department to loan New York the money it needed by buying municipal paper directly.
The Treasury Secretary flipped.
“Mayor,” he said, “if we did that, the taxpayers would end up financing the campaign promises of every profligate local politician in the country.”
There was something disingenuous in that reaction. Bill Simon had formerly been senior partner in charge of government and municipal bonds at Salomon Brothers—one of the people in charge of lending the money hand over fist during the time when much of this debt was being incurred. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Simon had even served on a debt advisory committee set up by Beame back when he had been New York’s comptroller under the previous mayor, John Lindsay. If New York had been borrowing beyond its means, William Simon was one of the people personally responsible.
He would later complain that he had been gulled—that the city’s “Byzantine accounts” and “tortuous accounting practices” had been willfully devised to forestall just the kind of fiscal reckoning he now insisted the city so desperately required, and that “even the most sophisticated financiers and the Treasury Department itself were totally unprepared” for such a violation of “the basic legal and ethical pact between the city and its debtors.” And surely, within City Hall, there was plenty of blame to go around—just like in Detroit. But other motives, other assumptions, lay beyond Bill Simon’s recalcitrance as well. These were ideological.
As he wrote in a book modestly entitled A Time for Truth, which spent some twenty weeks on the bestseller list three years later: “The philosophy that had ruled our nation for over forty years had emerged in large measure from that very city which was America’s intellectual headquarters, and inevitably, it was carried to its fullest expression in that city. In the collapse of New York those who choose to understand it could see a terrifying dress rehearsal of the state that lies ahead for this country if it continues to be guided by the same philosophy of government…. Nothing has destroyed New York’s finances but the liberal political formula…. Liberal politics, endlessly glorifying its own ‘humanism,’ has in fact been annihilating the very conditions for human survival.”
He spoke for his class. As a staffer wrote in a memo proposing language for First National City Bank’s president to use in discussion for the mayor, the crisis was an opportunity: “many things”—he cited higher subway fares, cutbacks in the city workforce and budget cuts generally—“can be done even if they are not technically possible.” Technically possible, he meant, if interest groups like the municipal unions, the board of education or municipal hospital administrators were afforded their traditional political deference. Well, they had had been deferred to long enough. Now it was time for the capitalists. “The time,” the staffer insisted, “is now:” investment bankers and the the mayor’s Council of Business and Economic Advisors should “work in concert…to prepare a unified analysis which would clearly demonstrate the absolute inviability of the City if it continued on its present course.” (I got this part of the story from the outstanding historian Kim Phillips-Fein’s contribution to The Nation’s recent special issue on New York.)
How to get it done? Like Paul, with his absurd made-up notion of public employee workers making twice what equivalent public sector workers make, they lie—about what Simon called overpaid, “parasitical” municipal workers, separate from the “productive population,” drawing “appalling” pensions.
For what it was worth, the pension of the average retiring New York City policeman—$9,000—was $3,000 less than in Chicago, $8,000 less than Detroit and less than half that in Los Angeles and San Francisco; city teachers and firemen also earned less than in all those cities, with a considerably higher cost of living. The city had fewer citizens per capita public assistance than Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago (an oft-repeated claim that the city spent the most on welfare in the country ignored the fact that expenses covered almost elsewhere by state and county governments were borne by city governments in New York State); among the private corporations that paid their workers out more in pensions than New York City were General Motors and First National City Bank (later known as CitiBank, the financial institution most aggressive in pushing Beame’s austerity budget, whose chairman Walter Wriston, municipal labor leaders never tired of pointing, earned $425,000 a year). Mayor Beame, for his part, never tired of pointing out all the other cities facing similar balance sheet woes—among them Grand Rapids, Michigan, the president’s hometown.
But soon, Simon won the president to his side.
In January of 1975, the city’s comptroller canceled a planned sale of municipal notes; in February, a second sale was canceled. The city’s Urban Development Corporation became the first major government agency to go into default since the 1930s. Two weeks later, on March 6, the city offered another note on the market—and didn’t receive a single underwriting bid. By May, the city’s debt was $12.3 billion, the word had gone forth from the great investment banks that such debt was unmarketable at just about any interest rate, and officials predicted the city would default by June. The mayor made another ill-fated trip to Washington, this time for an audience with the president, Governor Hugh Carey and representatives from Chase Manhattan, First National City Bank and Mortgage Guarantee Trust in tow; a federal loan guarantee, Ford told them, would “merely pospone the city’s coming to grips with its fiscal problems through needed budget slashing.” On May 29 Beame complied, announcing an austerity budget calling for the immediate elimination of 38,000 jobs, over 12 percent of all city employment, a four-day work week, and reductions in CUNY admissions, library and health center closures. He reaped the whirlwind: cops blocking the Brooklyn Bridge, garagemen pledging a pestilence of rats (oh, for the days of labor militancy!)—and no more money forthcoming from banks. On June 10 the state legislature in Albany authorized the Municipal Assistance Corporation, an authority with the power to borrow up to $3 billion in bonds to if city default appeared imminent—with the caveat that they didn’t have to lend money at all if the city did not squeeze its budget according to its specified terms, of which Felix Rohatyn became the most prominent member.
It wasn’t working.
By the middle of October Governor Carey had laid out an austerity plan he said went “to the limits of what we can apply to the city in terms of economies.” And President Ford considered backtracking: he hadn’t entertained the idea of a bailout. But now top advisers proposed he sign a package of loans for the city working its way through Congress. “Hell, no!” a right-wing chief staffer, whose name was Donald Rumsfeld, bellowed. He spoke for the mood of the room.
On October 29, at high noon, the president made a luncheon address at the National Press Club, carried live on all three networks. He outlined Mayor Beame’s argument that “unless the the federal government intervenes, New York City within a short time will no longer be able to pay its bills.” And he responded with the argument of William Simon: it was all New York City’s fault, for giving candy away it could not afford. (Which also, as it happened, was the argument of Ronald Reagan, who once said in a speech, “I include in my prayers every day that the federal government will not bail out New York.”)
And Ford said he wouldn’t stand for it.
“I can tell you, and tell you now, that I am prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a federal bailout of New York City to prevent default…. If they can scare the whole country into providing that alternative…it would promise immediate rewards and eventual rescue to every other city that follows the tragic example of our largest city.” He proposed bankruptcy proceedings in federal court instead. “Other cities,” he concluded, “other States, as well as the Federal Government, are not immune to the insidious disease from which New York City is suffering. This sickness is brought on by years and years of higher spending, higher deficits, more inflation, and more borrowing to pay for higher spending, higher deficits, and so on, and so on, and so on. It is a progressive disease, and there is no painless cure…. If we go on spending more than we have, providing more benefits and services than we can pay for, then a day of reckoning will come to Washington and the whole country just as it has to New York.”
ford to city: drop dead ran the headline in the New York Daily News the next morning—the day before Halloween. Newsweek’s cover starred Abe Beame, swaddled like a baby, Gerald Ford spanking him over his knee.
Rand Paul must have been reading Jerry’s speeches. If Detroit is bailed out, he’s said, ““Those who don’t have their house in order, who are teetering on disaster, will continue to make bad decisions…. You don’t set up an implicit promise from the federal government that everybody is getting bailed out…. It’s sort of like too big to fail for banks. If you have too big to fail for cities or for states and they believe they’ll be bailed out they’ll continue to make unwise decisions.
So you have to, in the words of Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon in the 1920s—charming guys, those Republican Treasury secretaries—“purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.” Or in Rand Paul–ese, a more polite argot, “You need to make these decisions and the sooner you make them the better. If you wait to make them, it’s even harder on people.”
But apparently, stealing people’s pensions isn’t hard on them at all. And plainly that’s what the likes of Paul have in mind—and coming soon to a city near you. “I mean the statistics in California are staggering,” he says. “I think there’s over 100,000 people there getting over $100,000 a year in retirement. You got police chiefs in medium-sized cities getting $350,000 a year for a salary. It’s become untenable. But the main thing is we cannot send a signal from the federal government that cities and states are going to be too big to fail…. Bankruptcy in Detroit is going to much harder than if ten years ago, they had started downsizing and making their pensions and salaries more commensurate with the private sector.”
Right. And if Rand Paul thinks the sole source of Detroit’s fiscal troubles is public salaries and pensions—not, say, the flight of the single industry in a single-industry town, or white flight, or the federal abandonment of urban policy tout court—I have an island to sell him.
John Nichols on why banks get bailed out, but Detroit does not.
(Courtesy of Flickr user Michael Coghlan)
Robert FitzPatrick calls it the “Pyramid Lobby”: a massive outlay of money and muscle from the multi-level marketing (MLM) industry, working “not just to curry favoritism or receive income at the public trough, but to prevent its extinction. This requires thwarting law enforcement and foiling consumer protection.” That is because MLM companies are effectively frauds: their main economic activity is recruiting “distributors,” who do not make profits by selling products but recruiting new distributors, and each new distributor the further down the chain has less of a chance—much of the time, less than a 1 percent of a chance—of making money. “Only the tobacco industry has as much at stake in its political lobbying and its public marketing campaign,” he writes.
And the targets for that campaign are almost exclusively Republicans. For MLM fraudsters are a huge part of the conservative infrastructure.
Of course, in the case of the mighty DeVos family in Michigan, the conservative infrastructure and the MLM industry almost entirely overlap. Richard DeVos Sr. number sixty on Forbes’s 2012 list of wealthiest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion made ripping Americans off, founded Amway—short for “American Way”—in 1959. In 1979, the company was forced by the Federal Trade Commission to tell distributors that over half its distributors do not make money, and that the average distributor made less than $100 month—a stricture they promptly violated. None of that kept the DeVos family from rising in Republican and conservative politics. After all, between 1991 and 1997, Common Cause documented, Amway affiliated companies gave $4.4 million in soft money to the Republican National Committee, DeVos and his wife giving $1 million in April of 1997 alone. In 2000 Amway gave $1.385 million in soft money to the RNC (just $500 less than Enron), and DeVos hosted a party starring Colin Powell on his private yacht at the Republican National Convention. In 2004 DeVos and his cofounder Jay Van Andel gave $2 million each to the right with “Progress for America” 527, and in 2006 his son tried and failed to win the Michigan governorship. Meanwhile I’ll never forget the time—it must have been about ten years ago—when I visited the Heritage Foundation to interview their fellow Lee Edwards for research on my book Nixonland. When we were done, he was kind enough to walk me to the office at Heritage of former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese. On the way, we passed an entire room at Heritage devoted to Amway, including a surreal display of Amway products—like, soap and shampoo. At the time, I was baffled; I had no idea what I was seeing. Now, it makes more sense. Heritage is among the conservative think tanks—others included the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Acton Institute; get the full list here—to which the Richard and Helen Devos Foundation provides massive, sustaining support.
Where does the business end and the conservative politicking begin? You tell me. Among the prominent Republicans to speak for big bucks at Amway events include both Presidents Bush, Ronald Reagan, Ollie North, Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich (who put a tax break worth $283 million benefitting only Amway in a tax bill when he was speaker of the House). The towering tribune of morality Rick Santorum, FitzPatrick writes, “was a favored speaker at large meetings held by Amway ‘kingpin’ Fred Harteis, and received financial support from the Harteis family, their recruits and other kingpins.” (Santorum never did understand the difference between freedom and exploitation anyway).
And that, says FitzPatrick, “readily answers the question of why the FTC, under President Bush’s appointee, Timothy Muris, undertook a policy of protecting illegal business practices. The answer is plain and simple.”
That’s how it works at the federal level. At least we have state attorney generals to save us. Right?
I’m sure you can guess the answer: it depends on what party your attorney general belongs to. Let’s say you are a citizen of Utah—where one can find more MLM companies per capita than anywhere else (“MLM,” Utahans joke, stands for “Mormons Losing Money”). According to reporter Jeff Ernsthausen of Harper’s, Utah’s last attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, got $475,000 from members of the Direct Selling Association since 1999, or 14 percent of his campaign funding from sources other than the state Republican Party. In 2004 he spoke to distributors for an MLM called USANA Health Sciences. “If you work hard, you can realize the dream of financial wealth and success,” he told them. “There is no greater way to do that than through…multilevel marketing programs.” He should know. Half of USANA’s political contributions went to the campaigns of Shurtleff and his successor as Utah attorney general (because, the company said, of their “strong consumer advocacy policies”).
In 2006, Shurtleff testified to the state assembly that they really ought to pass the Direct Selling Association–written amendment to the state’s anti-fraud law that according to FitzPatrick “exempts multi-level marketing schemes.” Texas passed a similar law. (In 2003 the Direct Selling Association wrote a similar bill that a group of Republicans cosponsors introduced in the US House of Representatives.)
The next Utah attorney, John Swallow, also a Republican, got about 17 percent of the first $680,000 he raised for his election from DSA members. “In a moment of candor with a potential donor this spring,” Harper’s Ernsthausen wrote—the donor is an accused telemarketing scammer named Aaron Christner, although also goes under the pseudonym Vince Scarpuzzi—Swallow was taped boasting of his intention to bring the Utah commerce department’s division of consumer protection under his own, rather than the governor’s office.
A similar pattern obtains in North Carolina, where a telecommunications MLM called ACN spent 85 percent of its political money on the Republican attorney general candidate; Idaho, their AG’s biggest donor was an Idaho-based MLM, Melaleuca, which left town ahead of the law (in 1991 it was issued a cease-and-desist order by Michigan’s attorney general); and, of course, Michigan itself, where Ernsthausen discovered “families controlling the Amway fortune have given more than $145,000 to attorney general campaigns in Michigan since 1996, including $87,500 to current AG Bill Schuette.”
Let’s reiterate just who it is these Republican tribunes of the common man are in bed with. FitzPatrick writes of how in the early 1980s Wisconsin’s Democratic assistant attorney general “obtained and reviewed the tax returns of all of Amway’s active distributors in Wisconsin. The losses…were shocking even to the prosecutors…. Average net income of minus $900. Those nearing a net profit were far less than 1 percent of the total consumer participants.” (The company “stated or implied” to recruits that they were likely to make $12,000 in a year.) “The actual odds of winning are significantly better at a Las Vegas craps table than joining the end of an MLM recruitment chain,” FitzPatrick concludes; it all is enough to make one’s head’s spin.
But here is the thing. It’s easy to picture this as knowing hucksters fleecing innocent rubes. Would that it were so simple. Five members of the House Republican caucus are also Amway distributors. So is, for example, Douglas Wead, frequently described as George W. Bush’s “spiritual adviser,” who was an aide in George H.W. Bush’s White House and is the man credited with coining the phrase Compassionate Conservatism. We’re talking about more than rich people cynically buying influence here, and politicians cynically selling it. For there is also the issue of belief. The fact is that the culture of MLM marketing is deeply interwoven with conservative political culture—and evangelical, and Mormon, religious culture. It is deeply interwoven with conservative and religious-right ideology. It is interwoven in ways that speak the pathologies of all these worlds. I will turn to that complexity in my last and final post in this series. It’s about their vision of the American way .
Timothy J. Muris (left), accompanied by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles S. Abell. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A few months back I opened up a series on a ghastly hustle, which saturates the culture of the right: “multi-level marketing” (MLM)—pyramid schemes, if you will. To review:
• When the industry emerged in the mid-1960s, schemes in which original investors, and the companies themselves, thrived even as almost all new recruits further down the chain made nothing, were considered to be frauds, plain and simple. They were thus widely prosecuted.
• The burgeoning “industry,” led by the DeVos family’s Amway, adjusted via clever lawyering—successfully reframing pyramid schemes as “direct selling,” each new “distributor” was now induced to purchase goods each month as part of their “investment”—only under such staggering prices that it’s almost impossible for the distributor to make money. The lawyers in a case against one such MLM company, Trek Alliance, which “sold” (not many) water filters, cleaning products, nutritional supplements and “beauty aids,” did an analysis in which they concluded that of their distributors “98.8 to 99.6 percent fail to achieve any earnings,” and “in all likelihood more than 96 percent…experienced business failures.”
• As noted in a report called “The Main Street Bubble: A Whistleblower’s Guide to Business Opportunity Fraud—How the FTC Ignored and Now Protects It” by Robert L. FitzPatrick, author of False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverance in Multi-Level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes and an expert witness or consultant in more MLM cases than any other private citizen, such massive failure rates “are intrinsic to the design. 99 percent of consumer/investors must lose for a tiny group at the pyramid’s peak to gain…. The system is closed. Value is not exchanged. Money is merely transferred.”
• These hustlers also have to grow or die—expanding the scheme to new marks is key to their business model. Writes FitzPatrick, they “churn through 50-80 percent of victims annually, replacing them with new ones.”
I concluded that opening post, “Under the Clinton administration, regulatory efforts were stepped up.” The Federal Trade Commission’s senior economist was an expert on MLM, and devised a test that determined what percentage of purchases by “distributors” would have to be resold to actual retail customers (instead of future “distributors” down the chain) for the “distributor” to actually make money without recruiting further marks—70 percent, the FTC concluded, which virtually no one ever achieved. “His schema made it easier to prosecute and protect the victims. The prosecutions began.”
Which brings us to the chapter of the story when the prosecutions stopped. According to “The Main Street Bubble,” the Federal Trade Commission has direct regulatory oversight over multi-level marketing. This oversight was effectively abandoned in 2001 following President George W. Bush’s appointment of Timothy Muris to chair the FTC. At that time, Muris was an anti-trust lawyer whose largest client was… Amway.”
I shit you not.
Muris promptly halted the investigation and prosecution of MLMs and failed to monitor enforcement orders against companies already prosecuted (many companies, FitzPatrick writes, “are blatantly violating these orders”), Additionally, he “issued a widely circulated letter that obscured and appeared to permit practices—paying rewards for ‘endless chain recruiting’ without retail sales as a revenue source—that the courts, and 30 years of earlier FTC policy have declared are illegal. The letter was used by MLM companies to persuade millions of consumers that previous FTC policies and court actions that defined pyramid selling fraud were no longer valid.”
And that’s not all.
Muris also ignored consumer requests for action on frauds from which they suffered. When a proposed FTC rule on “business opportunity” frauds that was years in making—what Doug Brooks, an attorney who’s brought ten class-action suits against MLM over the last twenty years, told me was “a very modest pre-sale disclosure regulation”—approached fruition, his staff rejected the approaches of whistleblowers, instead meeting with MLM lobbyists seeking to exempt their industry. (Which, it turned out, they were, making the new rule virtually moot.) The revolving door started spinning: Muris going to work as an MLM lobbyist, to influence the agency he had only just left—a Bush director of consumer protection went to work for Amway. Under Bush, FitzPatrick told me, the FTC “effectively legalized this form of Main Street business fraud”—as Business Week has documented in 2010. “It was only this past January,” Brooks says, “that the Federal Trade Commission announced its first prosecution of a multilevel marketing scheme in six years.”
Amway: it’s the Republican way. The GOP and MLM, it turns out, go together like tea and toast. Or maybe like fossil fuels and SUVs: the first fuels the second, and everyone loses. That’s the story we’ll turn to next time.