Saturday, January 05, 2008

5th Blogiversary: Some thoughts

-- by Dave

So it was five years ago Thursday that I published my first post at Orcinus (a twofer on Matt Hale, who was just about to implode before our eyes, and Chris Simcox, who had just arrived on the scene). It's been a wild, entertaining and (for me at least) alternately inspiring and exhausting ride since.

I'm grateful, really, to a lot of people: the thousands of readers (we've had over 5 million visits) who've come along, and especially those who've taken the time to comment and e-mail; and the countless bloggers who've found the work Sara and I have undertaken here worthy of pointing out and discussing. I'd start naming them here, but it's a long, long list.

Suffice to say that some people have played truly key roles in making this blog what it is, both in the beginning and today: Atrios (who truly is the blogfather of Orcinus); Digby and the gang at Hullabaloo, who continue to read and link what we do, which is the highest compliment imaginable; Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake, who has been kind enough to provide me with a weekly slot at her superblog; and Rick Perlstein at The Big Con, who's done likewise, again among the highest compliments I can imagine.

Whenever I hit benchmarks like this, though, I try to stand back and assess things: see what we've done, try to figure out where we're going. It's all a big experiment, and I'm just kind of groping along, really -- going by feel, as it were.

Sometimes it's easy to forget why we do what we do. I remember when I started, and in a lot of ways this was just a project borne out of being a stay-at-home dad; I needed a writing outlet that I could make work around my short spurts of available time, and blogging fit perfectly. So much of those first couple years' worth of posts were written during my daughter's naps and in the evenings, even late into the night.

That's sort of the practical making-it-work-in-the-life-you-have aspect of blogging, but I had other reasons, of course. One of them, as I've explained previously, was my disgust and dismay with the direction of the craft of journalism as it became a mega-business. After enduring the Clinton impeachment debacle and its aftermath at, I was interested in finding a way to publish reporting that mainstream editors either wouldn't touch or were too busy chasing (and manufacturing) Al Gore's gaffes to be interested in, particularly in my areas of expertise -- the far right and its manifestations in mainstream America.

How I fell into that particular line of work to begin with is a story worth telling, because it may help readers understand why and how Orcinus operates.

I'd had numerous journalistic encounters with the racist right over the years I spent in newspapers (1977-96), but it was always a sporadic thing, usually coming in stints as a cops-and-courts reporter or general news reporter and editor. When I first started writing about militias in the 199os, it was actually from the perspective of an environmental reporter covering the right-wing backlash against conservation efforts.

I'd been exposed to the far-right scene often enough to understand that they constituted both a systemic and a long-term problem, but the idea of covering it as a consistent journalistic beat had never been broached at any of the papers where I worked, mainly because their resources were always too stretched to be able to make the assignment. For awhile, one of our reporters at the Missoulian was being consistently assigned to handle these stories, but he asked to be taken off the beat after awhile, mainly because he and his wife began having children.

When I began writing about militias regularly in the mid-'90s as a freelancer, I wound up spending a lot of time with the civil-rights activists in the Northwest who monitored them. Many of them are impressive people, deeply thoughtful and deeply dedicated. These included folks like Chip Berlet, Leonard Zeskind, Eric Ward and Devin Burghart. But the one who most influenced me was a former priest named Bill Wassmuth.

"Father Bill," as he was affectionately known, had experienced the violent side of the far right up close and personally: in 1986, a group of thugs from the Aryan Nations -- whose activities Wassmuth had organized a local coalition of church, business and civic leaders to combat -- pipe-bombed his home near Coeur d'Alene, and he narrowly escaped injury or death. He went on to found the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which much later on became the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity. It was in his capacity as the head of those organizations that I got to know him.

At first, most of them were leery about any journalist in their midst, and after awhile, I figured out why. Wassmuth, as well as the others, often noted that there were very few journalists who devoted their work to covering the far right, which was a frequent source of grief for them. Most reporters who contacted them were practicing classic "parachute" journalism -- dropping in to breathlessly cover some disaster or major crime or sensational case, then moving on without spending the time required to dig deeper or connect the dots between the actors and organizations involved.

In the process, they often misunderstood motives, got facts wrong, and created false paradigms for their readers. The worst of these typically would report a quote from the Aryan Nations leaders, then report a counter-quote from Wassmuth, and then move along as if that "balanced" the story. As Wassmuth would point out, that's "balancing" the words of racists, proven liars, and known criminals against community leaders, law enforcement officials, and church leaders, suggesting that one said was merely "ultra-conservative" and the latter the equivalent "ultra-liberals" -- when in fact they represented very much the mainstream of local culture.

Somewhere along the way, hanging out with Bill Wassmuth, I decided to be a different kind of journalist when it came to dealing with the far right: to cover them consistently and thoroughly and thoughtfully. It was not, and is not, my favorite subject (see some of my posts on killer whales for that), nor even one I particularly enjoy doing. Certainly, there's some personal and even familial risk involved.

But it's important work that needs doing. The alternative is that a lot of bad information about the far right gets circulated without being corrected, and a lot of misperceptions about how it works naturally arise. Moreover, the gravest danger -- in which the far right's agenda is mainstreamed and empowered -- is more often than not completely overlooked.

Bill died in August 2002, and his death affected me deeply; I still miss his sage advice and keen insight. I was feeling increasingly frustrated in my efforts to find editors who would run the reportage I was assembling after I left in late 2000, particularly discussing the far right's permeation into the Republican Party during and after that year's election. Atrios gave me the idea to start publishing it at a blog, and so Orcinus was launched.

I know I was feeling close to burning out about a year and a half into it, and so I sort of set myself down and decided to focus on what the blog was doing that was actually providing readers with something of value. Again, I thought about Wassmuth's advice and his example, and concluded that reporting on the far right and its effects on mainstream culture was what needed to be this blog's mission. I've tossed in some environmental reporting along the way -- it's what, frankly, I'd probably rather be writing about -- but we all know why readers come here.

This has had some unfortunate side-effects; I think a lot of people, in trying to figure out what makes me tick, assume that I report on the far right because I'm obsessed with them or see them as the most important issue on the planet. More than a few commenters -- some of them even otherwise sympathetic -- have suggested I'm too one-dimensional and too obsessive.

The truth is that, of course, I fully understand that the far right's influence on the mainstream remains limited by a number of factors, the greatest of which is the basic decency of such a large segment of the populace. There are at times much more important issues than these people. But it's important that someone keep a spotlight shining on them and their activities -- important because it's a fundamental part of making the public aware and informed, which is the most important part of effectively combating them and their poisonous effects in our culture and our lives -- and I'm well-equipped to do the job.

I've thought about tossing in some of my other interests here as post material: besides environmental issues, I also like to write about sports and music (having also been a sportswriter and music critic at some of my various newspapering stops) as well as bicycling, of which I'm an ardent personal advocate. And maybe, in the coming weeks and months, I will indeed start doing some more of that. I suppose it might let people see that there's a difference between a beat and an obsession.

But I still think about Bill Wassmuth and why he did what he did. And as long as there are racists and far-right ideologues spreading hate on the airwaves, permeating the public discourse with vicious bile about the Other, I still have this important work to do, as he did. Maybe someday all I'll have to write about will be killer whales, the Seahawks, and the Burke-Gilman Trail. I'd like that. But until then, count on Orcinus to keep doing what it has done for five years running, and for the foreseeable future.

On that note ... I'm going to kick off my annual fund-raiser Sunday. I'll have a brief note about that tomorrow. But anyone who wants to help chip in to the work that we're doing here should feel free to click on the ol' PayPal button at the upper left.

The Great Law-Breaking Holiday

-- by Sara

Over at Street Prophets, commenter Coleridge Lite brought up something that Democratic field organizers probably ought to be paying close attention to:
I think there is a strong chance that there was a great deal of illegal preaching by tax-exempt pastors in Iowa last Sunday.

It might bear looking into on the next great right-wing feast day in your state, The Sunday Before the Primary. See also the great law-breaking season culminating in The Sunday Before General Election.

I think it is a fine thing to exhort one's congregation to their sacred duty as citizens of a free nation under God.

But the line is crossed if candidate's names are named, or if the flock is threatened with eternal judgment for the alleged "sin" of casting a vote on behalf of a candidate who is "anti-life" or "anti-marriage."
One of the most dangerous things about the fundamentalist mindset is that those afflicted with it will tend to put their interpretation of The Will of God above any other consideration. If you have to break man's law in order to enforce God's Will, then so be it. As the movement has grown in power and arrogance, its tendency to play fast and loose with the IRS's strict rules against politicking has risen right along with them. Seven years of good-'ol-boy winking and nudging from the Bush Administration have lulled many ministers on the religious right into a sense of invincibility on this front. They'll say what they want, confident (often wrongly so) that the IRS won't know, won't care, and certainly won't intervene.

With Huckabee in the race, the desperate urge to violate those rules will rise to the level of an overwhelming temptation. If Huck wins the nomination, local ministers who step forward early with strong support will find themselves right out in front of his organization. These next few weeks, they'll be testing the waters: if they get away with a little bit of politicking during the primary season, you just know they'll become more blatant in using their churches as Huckabee HQs as the year wears on. But if we catch these guys early and hold their feet to the fire, we can go a long way toward slowing down Huckabee's ground game across the country.

That's why there's vast quantities of long-term political hay to be made in sending observation teams around to Evangelical and fundamentalist churches in New Hampshire tomorrow morning. Organizers in other states should also be making plans to deploy their own watchers on the last Sunday before their own primaries and caucuses. That one Sunday, more than any other day, is where we're most likely to catch the religious right with their IRS exemptions down around their ankles.

The Southern Baptist Church, in particular, has been known to play very fast and loose about this kind of thing. Back in August, I blogged about the SBC's national vice president, Wiley Drake, who persisted in using church stationery to raise funds for Mike Huckabee even after he'd been called on the carpet by the church's attorney. Last fall, Drake finally found himself on the wrong end of an Americans United for Separation of Church and State lawsuit -- and responded by instructing his flock to curse the AU staffers responsible, in one of the more deranged right-wing moments of the year.

As Coleridge Lite suggests, it wouldn't be hard for progressives to make sure that Drake becomes the first of many. A well-executed observation campaign during both the primaries and the general election is the very definition of low-hanging fruit: it would be easy to organize, simple to execute -- and has the potential to do vicious damage to the religious right in general and the Huckabee campaign in particular. A few specific thoughts about how such a thing might be organized:

1. This can be done on the most local of levels. All you need is a couple of people per church. They must be willing to dress appropriately, behave discreetly, listen carefully, and take good corroborating notes of anything questionable that gets said. A pocket tape recorder is always nice to have. They do not have to introduce themselves around (though they should stand and sit when the congregation does, so as not to stand out), and should fade away quietly as soon as their task is done.

2. These observers should be fully briefed on what is and is not allowed. The relevant IRS regulations are described clearly at the AU website here; they might want to print this article out for reference. They should not only note what's being said from the pulpit; they should also scan literature tables for voter guides and other political materials that violate the rules.

3. If you can only monitor a few churches, start with your local Southern Baptist and Assembly of God churches. These two denominations have proven unusually arrogant in the face of IRS restrictions on political speech.

4. Pastors in small churches that aren't affiliated with large national organizations tend to have little or no training, are less likely to know where the lines are, and don't expect anyone to do oversight or hold them accountable. On the other hand, while megachurch pastors are typically better trained and will tend to be more cautious, those with sufficiently inflated egos and close connections to the GOP may be feel so impervious to investigation they'll say what's on their minds anyway, IRS rules be damned.

5. When violations are found, they should be reported directly to Americans United, which is the national clearinghouse for this issue. Their attorneys can take it from there.

6. The best-case scenario is that, with enough observers, we can find patterns of misbehavior that can allow for IRS charges to be filed not just against individual churches, but entire national denominations. The worst-case scenario is that we find nothing -- but local pastors are put on notice that they're being watched, and that local progressives are standing by to hold them accountable the first minute they turn their pulpits into political soapboxes for Reverend Huck. Either way, we win.

7. Make it fun. Pick a restaurant where everyone can gather for for a decompression-and-debriefing brunch afterward. A couple mimosas in the company of reality-based people can be a useful antidote to a morning spent with fundies.

If Huckabee's momentum continues, the country's Evangelical churches are going to be the local nuclei around which his campaign takes shape. These churches need to know, in no uncertain terms, that the days when the last Sunday before an election was the country's unofficial Great Law-Breaking Holiday are over.

2008, Part IV: On Denial, Collapse, and the Laws of Physics

-- by Sara

A few more thoughts this fine windy Saturday about denial, the GOP crackup, and what might yet emerge.

If I Close My Eyes, The Monsters Can't See Me
In the previous post, I talked about the way the management class tends to go into denial when deep structural failures start to appear in the systems they're responsible for managing. Most of us who've endured corporate life have dismal stories about this; but willful cluelessness has a long history at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as well.

The whole narrative arc of the Hoover administration can be told in the White House's ongoing denials that anything untoward was happening to America. A fifth of the country was out of work. Millions of middle- and working-class families were being thrown into bankruptcy, homelessness, and starvation. And despite desperate appeals from all corners of the country, all they got -- from October 1929 through Hoover's last day in office in 1932 -- was an ongoing stream of sunny reassurances that "prosperity is just around the corner." (Hoover also kept up his heavy schedule of sumptuous entertaining at the White House, believing that the American people found inspiration and reassurance in seeing things go on "as normal." The American people, of course, took it as proof that he was a cold-hearted bastard.)

The gap between what Hoover saw from the White House balcony and what average Americans saw from their own front porches was so wide that it constituted two separate realities. The frustration that built up over just three years of willful non-comprehension was so great that it our great-grandparents not only tossed the Republicans out of office -- they kept them on the outs for the next 50 years. Never underestimate the power of denial to create a backlash.

A similar denial has been at the root of the entire Bush Administration. We understand now that Bush seized office on the essential proposition that America must control the world's oil taps at all costs; and that military means are the only effective way to accomplish this. Every other policy, every statement, every priority of the country is subservient to this belief. Global warming is not an issue. Terrorism is not an issue. Alternative energy is not an issue. The economy is not an issue. The health, aspirations, and well-being of the American people is not an issue. The opinions of the rest of the world never entered into it at all. The Bush cartel's entire reason for being is to maintain a status quo that most of us knew was cracking dangerously under our feet. They are managers, put in place by enormously powerful people making one last-ditch attempt to prop up an oil- and consumer-based system even they knew was headed toward failure.

And that, at the root of it, is why the Bushies lie. People in denial always lie -- first to themselves, and then to everyone else. To concede even one error is to open the door to the awareness that everything they know is wrong, and everything they've done has only made things worse.

However, it's obvious now that denial itself compounds the problem by several orders of magnitude. Companies, communities, and countries that make the effort to spot trouble while it's still on the far horizon usually find they have time to think through their options, and make well-reasoned preparations for the transition. (Most of what we're facing now isn't news; almost all of it was well understood the day Clinton took office 15 years ago.) Those whose leaders choose to hunker down in denial, using distraction and distortion and scapegoating and whatever else they can think of on the fly, are doomed to face the full fury of the storm without plans or preparations of any kind. The longer they live in denial, the more catastrophic the actual change process will be when it does come. When Bush stole the election, he also stole from us eight critical years of prep time. The price we will almost surely pay for that loss may ultimately be beyond reckoning.

The deep and growing contempt Americans -- left and right -- have for the Bush White House, the Democratic Congress, and the mainstream media is rooted in our fury that we still can't even get the people in charge of managing the status quo to talk about the problems we face in any kind of open and honest way. The environment, working conditions, foreign policy, health care -- whatever we care about most, these so-called "leaders" will almost mechanically distort, distract, dismiss, evade, elide, spin, ridicule, or simply ignore it. It's not a democratic dialogue; it's ossified elites issuing edicts that the lumpenproles will obey to their own detriment. As long as the conversation goes only one direction, we have ample reason to fear that whatever changes lie ahead will have very little to do with restoring the common good.

Nature Abhors A Vacuum
The conditions leading up to the moment of crisis change both who we put in power, and the means by which they get there. Consider, for example, the plight of the GOP this year.

Ever since the late 70s, they've been intensely focused on priming their political pump with a rich flow of potential candidates. To this end, they've been hand-picking preachers and PTA presidents, packing school boards, sending people off for elite candidate training courses, hooking them up with money people, and generally doing far more to cultivate their native leadership talent than the Democrats even thought about doing until Paul Wellstone came along. This aggressive candidate-building infrastructure has been a core source of the GOP's power for about 30 years now. They take it very seriously -- and they're very, very good at it.

Given all this, how did we end up with that sorry passel of White Christian Males parading across the stage at the GOP debates? All those years, all that money, that whole infrastructure -- and this is the very best their party can offer us now? I mean, really? Mussolini-wannabee Rudy Giuliani, with his nasty divorces and a record that makes him one of the most despised men in New York? Unctious, officious Mormon good-boy Mitt Romney? Ron Paul, who stands tall for the essential liberties of everybody who doesn't happen to be brown or female? Reverend Huckabee, who thinks some Americans are more equal than others and doesn't believe in evolution? And Fred Thompson? FRED THOMPSON? In what universe is this man a serious presidential candidate?

This Pale Male circus is only possible because the GOP's superbly effective candidate farming efforts also included the germ of an ecological disaster. To wit: they spent those same 30 years doggedly hunting RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) to extinction, eliminating the party's moderate wing. Now, at the moment the country is craving someone reality-based who can find common ground and talk some sense about the stuff that really matters, all it has left in its pockets to offer us is a strange fistful of ideologues.

Four years ago, if you'd asked a GOP strategist who the front-runners would be going into 2008, you might have gotten a earful about Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, and Sam Brownback. These were the guys who'd followed the far-right script to the letter, and were emerging as the party's leading lights as a result. John McCain would have figured prominently, too -- war hero, straight talker. Right.

But it all changed so fast. The Abramoff scandal. Terry Schiavo. Mark Foley. And, yes, the war. Three of those 2004 golden boys are now completely out of Congress; Brownback's campaign never made it out of the starting gate. McCain, in the end, really is simply too old and out of touch. Something terrible has happened. And the GOP can't even find words for it, because they're just this moment finally coming out of their long denial that anything's gone wrong at all.

And, in a better world, even if the GOP hadn't hunted their RINOs to extinction -- even if a few Goldwaters still lurked in their midst -- none of those folks would be stepping forward now. Instead, they'd be proving just how smart they are by sitting this one out. If they ran, and won, what would they win? The honor of being the next GOP president in charge of the GOP's war? The glory that comes with raising taxes to cover the bills? The joy of explaining to the religious right, once more with feeling, that they're not going to get their stem-cell bans and prayer-in-school bills?

No, all a GOP candidate stands to win this time around is full inheritance rights on Bush's failures. A Democratic president will be expected to make a fresh start; a Republican can only deliver more of the same. Any sensible candidate would look at those prospects, and decide to spend the next four years playing golf instead.

And so the GOP is dealing with a big gaping void of its own, which is simply a smaller symptome of the larger one that's opening up under all of us. Unfortunately, political vacuums -- for all of history -- have always, always, sucked in the worst sort of rank opportunists, forcing the absurd, the corrupt, and the unqualified to the front of the field. Enter then, stage right, Mitt and Huck and Ron.

It's striking how many of this year's GOP hopefuls were guys who would have had zero chance, who wouldn't have even made it through the money primaries, in any other year. The very motliness of the crew is a testament to the fact that the center is no longer holding -- because if it were, they wouldn't be there. A functional Bush regime would have picked a successor, and used the past four years to position him for a win. The fact that that didn't happen is yet another testament to their looming failure. Nobody's interested in continuing their policies. Nobody even wanted so much as their blessing.

Not even Wall Street will fund the GOP now -- their money's flowing into Hillary's war chest instead. Not even the Religious Right, finally having reached the limits of their forgiveness, will suck up and take another compromise. On January 20, 2009, the GOP as we've known it since the mid-70s will pack up their ball and go home to patch their wounds.

But let's not get cocky. It doesn't necessarily mean we'll have the field all to ourselves.

Filling the Void
The upshot of all this is that we're at a point where it's all up for grabs. When the center fails to hold, the right to define the new reality belongs to whoever can move in their first with a big, compelling idea, and get people to start organizing around it. It's a moment of creative chaos that's bursting with new energy and tremendous potential -- for those who are ready to jump in there and lead.

These have always been the moments when progressives throughout history were able to make their biggest gains -- to seize entire nations, and drag them off in radically new directions. The future belongs to the group that gets there first, with the best plan and the biggest vision. If we miss this one, none of us are likely to live to see another chance like it again.

But, as usual, opportunity comes with the potential for crisis. The churn of change also leads to vast economic and political dislocations that provide perfect conditions for authoritarian movements, too. Alongside all the other problems bearing down on us, that's a very real risk that we need to keep at the front of our minds. If we don't step up and fill that yawning hole with something that brings out the best in people, inspiring them toward hope and progress -- well, then, you can bet that somebody else, selling a very different future, will get there first with something that will bring out the worst, and drive them toward madness and death. Either way, our grandchildren will be living with the consequences a century hence. It's not a moment we can afford to screw up.

The next post will look more closely at the opportunities and risks of this moment -- at the differences in worldview that can serve to tip this moment one way, or the other.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

2008, Part III: Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish

-- by Sara

The job of articulating visions, uniting people behind them, and creating the climate of trust that enables people to greet change belongs to people called leaders. (You may remember them. America used to produce good leaders the way it produced good food, good jobs, and most of the other good things the world needed, but it's been a while.) Since the great task of this coming year is to choose ourselves a leader who's going to take on the heroic effort of seeing us through this mess, it may be useful to contemplate the qualities that this moment in history demands.

The big thing to bear in mind here is that that leadership is not the same thing as management.

Leaders are change agents who know how to create and build new systems. They're able to select the most preferable future from the wide range of options; draw vivid and detailed pictures of what that future looks like, show us all what must be done to get there, and motivate us to willingly put our resources into the effort. They've got a keen sense of what pieces of the past can be left behind, and what must be brought forward to build on. They are, necessarily, as honest as they can possibly be: it's impossible for nations to navigate great changes without implicit trust between the leaders and the led. They embody the culture's core purposes and values, and depend heavily on those values to guide their decisions. They're not afraid of making hard choices, saying "no" to powerful people, putting the common good over anyone's personal interests, and using every lever of power at their disposal to get people on board with the program. When the leader's work is done, chaos navigated, goal achieved -- that's when the managers take over.

Managers are skilled at sustaining existing systems and keeping them operating for the long haul. They're not about change; they're about maintaining the status quo. They don't stir shit, they don't take risks, and if they have big thoughts, they keep them to themselves. All that risk and vision stuff just gets in the way of their real job, which is to nurture what they're given, optimize it for better performance, and make the necessary compromises that allow the enterprise to keep functioning day to day. During those long eras when things are stable over time, when changes are small and gradual and trends are predictable, managers who can respect what's been built and keep it working productively are exactly what you need.

One of the ways you know that that era of stability is ending and a transformative shift is at hand is that everything that used to work gradually stops working. Even the best managers simply can't smooth over the grinding gears any more. Systems that once worked flawlessly now behave unpredictably. Odd things happen that nobody could have imagined -- and the managers, as the ones nominally in charge of smooth operations, almost always end up getting the blame.

When things begin to seriously break down, the managers, in over their heads at last, typically go into hard denial. People are holding them responsible for everything that's going wrong, even though the problems are due to large-scale (often externally-imposed) issues that are outside their line of authority and well beyond their control. Since they can't fix it, their only defense is to deny flat out that it's broken at all -- a farce they'll keep up long past the point where they become completely ridiculous, and lose all credibility with reasonable people. The phrase "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" was coined for this exact moment.

The problem we've had with our politicians in the past few years -- both Republican and Democrat -- is that they're managers in denial about the fact that the system they're ruling over is in total breakdown, and hurtling toward a fundamental reorganization. Take Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, both of whom are running as seasoned, experienced corporate candidates who are savvy managers of the status quo. The fact that they're offering their management skills as a selling point tells you everything you need to know about just how out of touch they are with this particular historical moment. They haven't even admitted to themselves, let alone us, that the American life we've known for the past 60 years is collapsing underneath our feet: instead, they're still blithely making happy promises to take us back to the glory days of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, respectively.

Those promises, far from being reassuring, should terrify us. These candidates apparently haven't noticed yet that the world they want to take us back to doesn't even exist any more. They're still in denial, offering the benign security that comes with doing things they way they've always been done. (Pay no attention to those four horses. They're just there to tow our carriages back across that bridge to the past.)

And Mitt and Hillary, of course, aren't the only ones. There's no shortage of people still in denial about the magnitude of the changes we face -- and it's unnerving that most of them seem to be the people now in power. But one of the universal truths about these moments in history is that the center usually fails to hold because the managers in charge of sustaining it simply don't have what it takes to lead us through a transformation.

And so it's time for us to thank our nation's managers for their service, give them a gold watch, and escort them from public stage. What we need to be electing for this moment are leaders -- people with strong imaginations tied to an even stronger moral core, who know how to speak to our values, highlight our strengths, and move us through treacherous times. America has been beyond fortunate in the past that our best leaders have usually emerged and risen to the occasion at just these moments, when we needed them most.

When we think of the greatest presidents, we name the ones who were able to provide resolute strength and soaring vision through our years of deepest change. (Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover are remembered as two of the presidency's most tragic failures, in large part because both were highly skilled managers doomed to preside in a moment that required decisive leaders.) Last time things came apart this badly, FDR saw us through; the time before that, it was Lincoln. These days, a lot of people are wondering out loud where our "next FDR" is. We know intuitively that we're not going to find our way back to the center without someone like that to show the way.

But there's a lot of uncertainty in our choosing process, too. When things come apart, everything comes apart -- and that includes the systems and structures through which we develop and choose our leaders. As the chaos rises, odd things happen that could never happen in more stable times. And that's what we'll be looking at tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

White man's land

-- by Dave

There was a noteworthy piece the other day in the New York Times about threats being made against the NAACP -- in Maine, of all places:
In October, the N.A.A.C.P. chapter for northern Maine got shocking news. A man from a nearby town had threatened to shoot “any and all black persons” attending the group’s meetings at an old stone church here, and state prosecutors were worried enough to seek a restraining order.

Such remarks are not unheard of in Maine, the nation’s whitest state, which has fewer black residents — 10,918 in 2006, or less than 1 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau — than some neighborhoods of Chicago or New York. But nor are they usually so blunt. The chapter has since held meetings at police stations and canceled its annual Kwanzaa celebration, which normally draws people from up and down the coast of Maine.

“It’s discouraging and it’s heart-wrenching,” said Joseph Perry, president of the chapter, which has 175 members from Augusta to the Canadian border. “There are still people who aren’t comfortable, who don’t feel safe.”

The man who made the threat was Kendrick Sawyer, 75, whose doctor at a veterans hospital in Augusta reported it to the police. Mr. Sawyer also said that Maine “should be a ‘white’ state,” according to court documents, and that he owned a .45-caliber handgun. No criminal charges have been filed, but law enforcement officers removed the gun from Mr. Sawyer’s home in Brewer, across a river from Bangor, and the Maine attorney general’s office filed a civil complaint against him.

“This man’s threat was shocking in its specificity and the anger it contained,” said Thomas Harnett, the assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement. “It’s not often you see something articulated so clearly and so filled with acknowledged prejudice.”

Still, Mr. Harnett said his office received 250 to 300 reports of bias incidents every year from around the state, most of them racially motivated.

Many come from Lewiston, where more than 3,000 Somali immigrants have settled in recent years. In July 2006, a group of Somalis were worshiping in a storefront mosque there when a white man rolled the head of a pig, an animal considered unclean in Islam, across the floor. And last month, a Somali student at Lewiston High School said, a white man threw sand and dirt in his face as he ran at a cross-country meet.

Last year, a white man shouted racial slurs at a pregnant black woman in Hancock, near Bangor, and kicked her in the abdomen, according to Mr. Harnett’s office. And in March, Assata Sherrill, a black resident of Bangor, told the police that three white boys had thrown stones and shouted racial epithets at her as she walked her dog near the city’s waterfront.

Much of the rest of the country is fond of believing that racism is primarily a creature of the South -- a legacy of the Civil Rights era, when the fight focused on ending the system of Jim Crow laws and segregation. The North, by contrast, was relatively unscathed in much of this fight, particularly when it came to school desegration: their school districts faced no such issues because blacks weren't allowed to live within their communities in the first place.

They had all been driven out during the era of "sundown towns," or what James Loewen, the author of the best study of the phenomenon to date, calls "the Nadir" of race relations in America -- a period in which, after the migration of African Americans into their communities following the Civil War, rural and suburban towns undertook an "ethnic cleansing" of sorts, creating a system of residential segregation (with blacks clustered into poorer urban centers) that persists to this day.

As Loewen's book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism explores in some detail, the vast majority of these towns were in the Midwest and Northeast, as well as a substantial portion in the West; the South, which preferred its system of Jim Crow oppression, had comparatively few (with some notable exceptions, such as Georgia's Forsyth County).

Loewen lays this out in a chart that shows marked declines in black populations in a number of counties in states ranging from California to Wisconsin to New Hampshire. And then there was Maine:
...[I]n 1890, every county in the state of Maine had at least eighteen African Americans, except one with just two and another with nine. By 1930, Maine looked very different. Now five counties had eight or fewer African Americans. Several showed striking drops in their black populations: Lincoln County from 26 to 5, for example, and Piscataquis from 19 to 1. Hancock County dropped from 56 in 1890 to just 3, yet Hancock had more than 30,000 people in 1930. Geography does not seem to account for these declines; the counties with fewer than eight African Americans were sprinkled about, not concentrated in Maine's isolated in rural north. [p.57]

As Loewen notes, none of these were "natural" declines -- "something else was happening." That "something" was the determination of whites that African Americans were "the problem" and they needed to be driven out to keep "white culture" safe.
Moreover, beginning in about 1915, African Americans from Dixie started moving north in large numbers, a movement now known as the "Great Migration," in reponse to the impact of World War I, which simultaneously increased the demand for American products abroad and interfered with European migration to northern cities. More than 1,000,000 African Americans moved north between 1915 and 1930. Thus the absolute declines in black population by 1930 in many northern counties are all the more staggering. Without a retreat to the cities, these increases in overall black populations would have caused the number of counties with zero or few blacks to plummet.

Loewen notes a 1915 editorial from the local paper in Beloit, Wisconsin, as fairly representative of the broad sentiments at play:
The Negro problem has moved north. Rather, the Negro problem has spread from south to north. ... Within a few years, experts predict the Negro population of the North will be tripled. It's your problem, or it will be when the Negro moves next door. ... With the black tide setting north, the southern Negro, formerly a docile tool, is demanding better pay, better food, and better treatment. ... It's a national problem now, instead of a sectional problem. And it has got to be solved.

One of the ways this desire to protect all things white expressed itself was through the formation of Ku Klux Klan chapters during its second incarnation in the 1915-1930 period. This later Klan, as many today conveniently forget, was a nationwide organization that briefly became a political powerhouse in a number of states, including Oregon, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Oregon ... as well as Maine.

David Chalmers describes this in his book Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan:
The first Maine unit of the Klan was in Bangor, but its largest Klavern and its home and its heart came to reside in Portland, where Eugene Farnsworth set up headquarters in a $60,000 estate out on Forest Avenue. The Klan emerged in the public eye and the political arena when it threw its support on the side of municipal reform in Portland and helped -- though some said hindered -- the adoption of a city-manager form of government. Being on the winning side meant not only permission to demonstrate against the Knights of Columbus on Columbus Day, and a membership which grew to an estimated 2700 in Portland, but also enlarged prestige throughout the state. In the spring elections of 1923, Klan-endorsed tickets, headed by "one-hundred-percent Americans" broke the traditional Democratic hold on the towns of Sacco and Rockland. In many parts of Maine, townsmen who had always skeptically opposed the increased levies requested by the school boards, eagerly laid out the money to protect the little red schoolhouses of America through joining the Klan.

Although Klan strength probably never reached much beyond the fifteen-thousand mark, this meant, with the votes of the Klansmen's wives included, control of more than one out of every ten votes likely to be case. The very secrecy of the Klan made it possible power seem even greater, and concentrated as it was within the dominant Republican Party, it meant that the Invisible Empire might well hold the power to pick the eventually successful candidates.

As Chalmers goes on to describe in some detail, this is what happened in 1924, when the Klan played a critical role in the election of Owen Brewster to the governorship.

But of course, it wasn't just in Maine. This was a national phenomenon. That same year, the Klan made waves at the Democratic Convention when the Klan-backed candidate, William Gibbs McAdoo of Georgia, declined to denounce them. Al Smith of New York managed to block his nomination, largely on these grounds, and West Virginia's John Davis emerged as the compromise selection. He lost to Calvin Coolidge.

This is the legacy we live with today, because the beliefs that fed these movements are very much still with us. What's happening in Maine is happening in many other places as well -- though the hues of non-white may vary, the impulse to "defend white culture" by excluding and eliminating all others is alive and well in America. Just ask an "illegal alien."

As Joseph Perry, the NAACP director in Maine cited in the NYT piece, put it:
“Something like this pops up,” he said, “and you realize you have a longer way to go. You can’t just say it was one of those crazy things that will never happen again.”

Sadly, this is true not just for Maine, but for all of us.

2008, Part II: Hold On Tight To Your Dream

-- by Sara

One of the things we've learned about eras of transformative change is that the people and groups that navigate them with verve and style -- and ultimately come through them in better places than they started -- are, in every case, those that hold tight a coherent worldview that keeps them together and moving in the same direction. This worldview usually contains:

-- a strong common history and culture that gives their actions meaning
-- a broad yet clearly detailed vision of the bold new future they're working for
-- a set of values, usually transmitted through history, family, community, and religion, that fosters mutual trust and understanding and guides them in setting goals and priorities
-- a sure sense of their own unique mission and purpose in the world that provides their essential reason for being.

As long as that core vision holds -- as long as people in the group remember who they are and what they're about -- individuals, families, communities, organizations and nations can make and re-make themselves over and over, re-defining themselves to adapt to whatever comes. Leaders come and go. Generations die off and are replaced. Invaders can take away every damn asset they have, sack their cities, pillage their homes, kill their cattle and salt their fields -- but as long as their ability to create collective meaning and purpose remains intact, that internal vision gives them everything they need to regroup, rebuild, and carry on.

And, conversely -- once they lose that shared worldview and purpose, cultures lose their ability to make any sense out of the world, and dissolve into incoherence. It is, in the end, how they die. As an example, consider the Plains tribes: the buffalo were so central to their culture that when they were gone, many tribes literally lost their ability to order their days, assign significance to their experiences, and define their relationship to each other and the world. Their ability to make any kind of sense of reality died with the buffalo. As Crow chief Plenty Coups put it, "After that, nothing happened."

Of course, things actually did happen. But for the Crow, these events simply stopped having any meaning. There was no context, no way to explain things, no purpose to anything, and no reason to continue on as a people. In the end, this loss of cultural coherence was the real fatal blow for many Native American tribes. Those that were able to salvage some of the fragments and reconstruct their identity around other values (as the Crow did under Plenty Coups' leadership in the 1920s) are the ones that still exist. The ones that couldn't were lost to history.

It's natural, staring into that abyss that's now falling away in the place where our center used to be, for us to ask hard questions about who we are, how we're living, what we should be doing differently, and what we really want for our children. In a healthy culture, the answers and the new solutions will come straight out of the context provided by that common worldview. The material, political, economic, and technological world around us is about to undergo massive and necessary changes. But whatever new thing we end up with, if some recognizable piece of our best underlying American spirit and values still shine right through, it'll be proof that we probably got it right.

The bad news is: we're not doing so well on this front these days. Decades of conservative contempt for shared American values, strong communities, and the common good has left our sense of collective destiny and common purpose in tatters -- just at the moment when we're about to rely on it most. They've rewritten our history, muted our media, squandered our dominance in technology and science, replaced the rule of law with the rule of men, and co-opted government to the point where it can no longer effectively address our future. All these assets were a sort of national trust fund that generations of Americans paid into, specifically so we'd have resources to fall back during times of challenge and change. Like every other American legacy left to us, the modern Republicans have spent it, quite literally, as if there was no tomorrow.

And worse: they almost certainly did it on purpose. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein lays out the events through which conservatives learned how to deliberately undermine other countries' ability to fall back on their common cultural resources to regroup and recover. "Shock and awe" techniques are intentionally designed to cut people loose from these solid moorings. Since no one can articulate shared values, set community priorities, or identify the common good amid all the free-floating chaos that these techniques foment, well-prepared corporate opportunists are able to rush into the void and fill it with a new order of their own design. They destroy cultures on purpose, in order to steal people's futures right out from under them. "After that, nothing happened" -- unless the new overlords wanted it to.

It turns out that the same people who've been bringing corporate-engineered chaos to the Middle East have been busy in the homeland, too. They've spent 30 years quite deliberately undermining all the best, most noble stories Americans have always told themselves about why our nation exists, what its highest ideals are, and what we owe each other as citizens. They've purposefully taught us to mistrust each other and our leaders, making democratic government dysfunctional and often impossible. They've rewritten history so that we can't even agree on its lessons or rely on its judgments any more. They've driven wedges between races, genders, classes, religions, and political parties that have left most of us not speaking to most of the rest of us.

It's not the total-war blitz of "shock and awe;" but over time, the corrosive effects are the same: the right wing has intentionally weakened the bonds of shared vision and mutual trust that have held Americans together for 220 years, and that were meant to hold us together through future eras of transformative change. And they did it on purpose, so they could conquer America, subdue her people, steal our futures, and divide the spoils for themselves.

Let me be blunt here: we're not going to make it through the vast changes looming ahead of us unless and until we can undo the damage done on this one essential front. Our only hope of surviving and thriving through what lies ahead is to create, promote, and unite behind one vivid, detailed, inspiring vision of the America we want to become, and the new society we want to create -- and then find enough common ground to stand on so we can pull together and lay the foundations for the new center, the core of a new era.

When everything else is gone around us, that vision and that trust will be the only things left to sustain us. If they're big, deep, and inspiring enough, they'll also be all we really need.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2008: A Year In Limbo

-- by Sara

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand...

....And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming" (1921)

Things fall apart. It's the necessary precondition for change. The old order can only stand as long as its center holds. A new order can only emerge when that center is finally swept away, leaving the void in which the core of another reality can begin to organize itself. From our own personal lives to the lifecyles of great empires, these occasional transformations -- with their chaos, dislocations, and disorientations -- are the natural process by which we adapt to the changing conditions of the world.

The past seven years have been a season of things falling apart -- and by this point everybody, left and right, is feeling the cold gale blowing up from that broad, bottomless hole that's yawning open right where the safe, secure center of the American Century used to be. We're nervously inhaling the scent of something strange and unfamiliar, straining our ears toward the rising, rumbling breath and growl of that unseen rough beast. We have not seen it yet; but its shadow is looming so large now that it darkens the sky overhead. There's no more doubt in most of our minds that the hour is coming round at last, and that the world has that come before -- the America we lived in, the imperial culture we thrived in, the economy we dominated -- is slouching toward some new Bethlehem that we cannot yet see or imagine, but which destiny is calling us to serve as history's midwives for nonetheless.

There is no going back. Most of us accept that now. Our economy is based on untenable levels of debt and inequality. Our lifestyle is built on a carbon-based energy regime that's reaching its limits, destabilizing entire continents, costing us our very souls, and rapidly cooking the planet to boot. The cultural and political bonds that enable us to sustain communities and act for the common good have been severed by three decades of conservative ideology. Our position in the world is best summarized by the predicament of vain and greedy Brer Rabbit, who struggles with all four feet and his head buried in the Tar Baby while Brer Fox and his friends stand by and laugh. And nobody, but nobody, in our government seems to even be willing to admit that any of this is happening -- let alone courageously step forward and offer us a clear way out.

We realize now that we're on our own -- and that the only way through the coming chaos is, well, through it. In the long meantime that will be 2008, our task is straightforward: this is the year we will gather ourselves for change; pare our kit down to the essentials; and set ourselves to the task of choosing a leader who can set a course, lay out the vision, guide us through the transitions to come, and eventually land us safely on the other side.

In celebration of New Year's Day -- the unofficial holiday of the future -- I'm launching a short series presenting a few things we might bear in mind as we get organized for the long journey ahead. It's already mostly written, so I'll start rolling it out tomorrow.

In the meantime, there's a big iron pot of hoppin' john on the woodstove, and Dave's back from vacation. Make yourself at home as we launch the sixth year of Orcinus, and I'll be back in here with more in the morning.