A Washington Lefty in King George's Court:
A Conversation in Medieval America with
Progressive Review Editor Sam Smith

by Adam Engel
November 18, 2003

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ENGEL: We're constantly bombarded by Mainstream Media Polls that portray "The American People" as idiots.  Each time I hear or read about one of those polls in which the "American People" (whoever or wherever they are) belie their almost super-human capacity for ignorance, I say to myself, "why bother?"  Obviously, as the title of your book, Why Bother? Getting a Life in a Locked Down Land, indicates, I'm not the only one thinking this.


Until recently, I hadn't bothered to ask myself whether the polls themselves are a complete hoax, especially the claim that 69% of the American people allegedly believe Saddam was responsible for 9/11 (lampooned by Gary Trudeau in "Doonesbury" a few weeks ago).  If, even after Bush himself made the (impeachable?) admission that there is no connection between Saddam and 9/11 (and apparently no connection between Bin Laden and 9/11 for all we hear about Osama in the Mainstream news and White House press conferences), those who believe in such a connection deserve whatever verbal abuse comes their way.


But again, what if those numbers are completely false? It would certainly be helpful to the Administration to have an "American People" so docile and bone-headed that they will believe and support the Government, "regardless of the facts."


Where do these polls come from?  Who are the "American People" they're polling?  I don't think I've ever met one of these "American People," but if I could locate one I'd surely introduce myself.  Why should these polls be taken any more seriously than the rest of the Corporate Media's lies?


SMITH: Polls are the standardized test used by the media to determine how well we have learned what it has taught us.


The problem is not in the polls, which tend to be quite accurate. For example, three quarters of the major polling firms came within three points in calling the 2000 election. In state races, the major firms also came within three or four points.


The problem is with what is being measured, namely the effects of living in a semio-sphere of erroneous, deliberately false, or badly distorted information. For example, in the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion, the TV channels were inundated with 'military experts,' despite the fact that making peace requires considerably more expertise than making war. But absent comparable time for 'peace experts,' one can't expect the public to understand the arguments or even that there are any.


And it's not just a liberal vs. progressive matter. For example, our schools long ago decided that teaching students how to drive, or why they should avoid a drug far milder than the vodka their principal drinks each evening was more important than teaching history, the Constitution, or contemporary affairs. For this we have paid mightily.


Further, we are living in quasi-revival of the middle-ages in which social behavior and choices are governed by mythology rather than rationality -- only with the arbiter being cable television rather than religion. The truth no longer seems to set us free; it just makes us catatonic. Far easier to pretend we're living in a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role.


ENGEL:  I still remember last year's "open discussion" between you and Alexander Cockburn regarding the "grass roots left" and the "Academic left."  You've been around as a journalist/lecturer, you've seen much of America. I don't really know my own country outside of New York-Boston-LA etc.   I know what people are thinking in the Universities, but not in their neighborhoods.  Is there a leftist or at least left-leaning movement in this country?  The mainstream media shows only Democrats and Republicans, occasionally Greens. Is there a "movement" growing in America?  I thought the anti-war demonstrations last year in NYC were surprisingly large.


SMITH: I don't think there is a left movement of any great strength in the country. But there are pieces of it.  And there are all sorts of opportunities for crossover politics on issues such as civil liberties.  A lot of people get nervous about that, but I tell them that if you can find a gun-toting, anti-abortion nun who wants to save your forest with you, put her on the committee. Worry about the other stuff later.


I am the third of six kids, so it comes naturally to me to be around people who disagree with me.  You learn to build your coalitions one issue at time and they may not all look the same. I got started in activist politics in part by being involved in a local anti-freeway movement. We kept Washington DC from looking like LA. The day I knew we were going to win was when I went to a rally and the two main speakers were Grovesnor Chapman from the all white Georgetown Citizens association and Reginald Booker, head of a group called Niggers Incorporated. Part of the secret of politics is to put people together whom the establishment wants to have fighting with each other.  It's what the white establishment did in the south with rural whites and rural blacks: convinced them they were enemies. One of the reasons Huey Long was considered so dangerous was because he started to break up that myth.


ENGEL: Well it would be nice to "win a game" once in a while, or even score a goal. It seems like the more the right demands, the more it gets, and there's no real way to stop this. Even "influential" people and organizations known to the progressive community (is there a progressive community?)  are relatively powerless and unknown among the "other" 99 percent of Americans.


SMITH:  Unfortunately, many liberals and progressives fall into the trap the conservatives have set - which is to argue more about religious and social issues, which should be individual decisions, than political and economic ones, which should be collective choices The trick is not to win the argument on religious grounds but to change the grounds of the argument.


One concept that helps in this is that of reciprocal liberty, which is to say that I can't be free unless you are also free.  If you look at an issue like abortion, you find surprisingly little change in the public split over the years.  Yet both sides have spent extraordinary effort to convinced the other that they are wrong.


But what if you restate the issue based on the real problem, which is how can people in favor of and opposed to abortion live together in America with neither side causing more than minimal interference in each other's values and practices? The argument of both sides starts to change.


ENGEL: This would entail real liberty and democratic values. People would have to withdraw from "movement" rhetoric (regardless of the issue) and think for themselves. As you said yourself, the mainstream media is not interested in promoting independent thinking.  This is related to my earlier question regarding polls.  Are people even capable of independent thought in a society saturated with either/or Manichean dichotomies promoted by Mainstream Media?


SMITH:  I liked what one of the existentialists said: even the condemned man has a choice of how he approaches the gallows. We can't choose our time in history, but we can always choose how we react to it.  Coming out of a Quaker education, I take this somewhat for granted. One of the reason Quakers have been so useful at critical times in our history is because they have been willing to repeatedly and continually fail between those times. A good example is the first women's conference at Seneca Falls in 1848. Out of 300 persons at the meeting, only one woman lived long enough to vote. Was it worthwhile going to Seneca Falls anyway?


One of the reasons I have spent my life in the alternative media is because I think it's a good thing to do while waiting for something good to happen. And certainly better than working for the archaic media. The conventional press rarely does anything useful in helping human evolution or social transformation. This is why the Washington Post is still bragging about Watergate, a story that is 30 years old. Nothing much has happened since.


The really important media in this country has been the alternative one, starting with Peter Zenger and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine and moving on to Frederick Douglass and two thousand different labor newspapers and I.F. Stone and right on down to Indymedia and Counterpunch.


Another good thing to do in bad times is to create communities that subvert what is, scorn those who accept it, and suppose something better. A good model is the beat culture of the 1950s.


The media could be an enormous help in this, but unfortunately believes that all of life is a football game that someone has to win and someone has to lose. The media is also full of silly or damaging religious myths including the notion that criticizing Israel will bring back the Holocaust or that the only Catholics are the Pope and a bunch of pedophiles.  But the non-religious are also non-visible. Ted Koppel doesn't do a show on their problems.  'Religious tolerance,' doesn't include tolerance of the skeptic. And there are no national holidays for doubters.


ENGEL: Personally, I'm rather put off by organized religion.  Having been a 'skeptic' since the age of ten, I see nothing but trouble emanating from the "peoples of the book" (Old and New Testaments; the Koran). If I could go back in history and strangle an infant in his cradle, it wouldn't be Hitler, it would be Abraham.   Whatever I believe personally, the "Great Religions" have me down as a Jew, just as the "Two Party System" has me down as a Democrat.  Again, there is a movement away from individual liberty and conscience.  And again I ask you, is this "really" happening on the scale I'm led to believe it is, or is it magnified greatly, if not invented, by mainstream media?


SMITH:   Well, I've argued that what this global crisis needs is a good Seventh Day


Agnostic. If bin Laden were a Unitarian, or Sharon a secular Jew, or Bush a mushy


Episcopalian, we wouldn't be in this mess.  Faith transformed into certainty and self-righteousness has been one of humanity's deadliest sins. . . 


On the other hand, as a one-time anthropology major, religion and its excesses don't surprise me much.  And religious extremism is often the sign of the end of something rather than the beginning, as with the long nosed God complex that spread rapidly through American Indian cultures as they were under near terminal attack by whites. The problem is that now everyone feels under attack - American, Israeli, Muslim. So everyone gets to try out their brand of extremism.


Then there is the myth of the non-existence of the non-religious. In fact, according to a recent Harris poll, atheists and agnostics amount to about ten percent of the population.  (Other surveys put the figure at close to 15%). Of those that believe in God, there is a sharp division as to whether the almighty is a he, a she, a them or it. And only about one third of those who believe in God bothers to go to services regularly to find out the answer. This is not the picture of religion one gets from the media.


On a global basis, the non-religious fall somewhere between Hindus and Buddhists in numbers.  In America, the non-religious are roughly 2.5 to 3.5 times as common as all U.S. Jews and Muslims put together, even including the 5 out of 6 Jews who only go to synagogue a few times a year.


ENGEL: But isn't self-righteous faith a hallmark of America, from Manifest Destiny to the Abolitionists, to the McCarthyist "Christian vs. Communist" vision to today's Bushite Christian Fundamentalists and Zionist Christians and Jews?   Doesn't this separate us from a good part of the "West" in that (with the exceptions of German Nazis and Soviet Russians) America whips up popular outrage by placing foreign and domestic policy in religious terms (i.e. good versus evil etc.)?   The corporate elite may have its sights on Mid East oil and global hegemony, but the message to the people, no matter what Bush says, seems to be "Judeo Christian" America versus Muslim Arabs?


SMITH:  America has had a number of periods of religious excess, sometimes called the Great Awakenings. Some scholars would say we are presently in the middle of the fourth one.  One of them, Robert William Fogel describes them this way:


"A cycle begins with a phase of religious revival, propelled by the tendency of new technological advances to outpace the human capacity to cope with ethical and practical complexities that those new technologies entail. The phase of religious revival is followed by one of rising political effect and reform, followed by a phase in which the new ethics and politics of the religious awakening come under increasing challenge and the political coalition promoted by the awakening goes into decline. These cycles overlap, the end of one cycle coinciding with the beginning of the next."


The American Revolution, the abolitionist, women and labor movements, as well as the New Deal all followed such religious revivals. I suspect what happens is that people get tired of waiting for God's miracles and turn back to politics. In any case, if this construct is correct, cheer up. The best is yet to come. One good cure for bad religion is good politics. And good politics start with getting people to think about the right things. We have, for example, always had fundamentalist Christians; we just had other names for them -- like 'New Deal Democrats.' That's because the Democratic Party of that era got people thinking about economic and social issues rather than religious  ones.


ENGEL: I've had it with the Democrats. In 2000, when I volunteered to distribute pamphlets for the Nader campaign, simply because I'd "had it" with the Democrats and Liberalism, I experienced the same harassment as I did when I opted out of Judaism because I just simply didn't believe in any sort of anthropomorphic god and wanted to be left alone.  The unrelenting emails from (former) friends and strangers I'd met in discussion groups, begging me to "come back" and see the light and what not.  The Democrats, in my opinion, are shameless. They should have been fighting Bush Inc. tooth and nail from day one.  Instead, many voted for unlimited war powers and the Patriot Act and turned their backs on the underhanded trashing of Cynthia McKinney.  Now I get newsletters/emails telling me, more or less, that all of America's troubles began on November, 2000  (why didn't Gore fight? If it were Nader, he'd STILL be in court demanding a recount) and if we'd only vote for Dean or Kucinich or (gasp) Clark, the days of milk and honey would be back by mid-term.


SMITH:  What I tell my Democratic friends is that if they want my vote they have to treat me at least as nice as a soccer mom or one of their corporate campaign contributors. How come, I ask, Greens are the only constituency in history that you think you can convince by hectoring them? What are you going to do for my vote? I ask. And they look at me perplexed.


There are a couple of important things to keep in mind. One is that these phenomena are not fixed in time; we may be laying the groundwork for a new social transformation and not even know it. Second, the fact that someone has thoughts and beliefs that one considers naive or nasty, doesn't mean they will always have them. Martin Luther King used to tell his aides to keep in mind that if they were successful, the people they were opposing would become their friends.


I think progressives need to keep this in mind when dealing with people whose values seem alien.  My rule of thumb is go after the people at the top rather than to blame their followers. Because with any luck, some day the latter could be on your side. If you don't think this is possible, then it's probably best to give up on politics. Once, on a talk show in Michigan Militia country, a caller began, "You know, this fella is right. We've got to stop worrying about all those homosexuals and feminists and start worrying about what the corporations are doing to us."  I thought, well there's 20 minutes well spent.


ENGEL: Okay. We know that propaganda, from the first alleged "kiddie" TV show – usually sponsored by some major corporation – through elementary and high schools and even into college and grad school, not to mention the nightmarish barrage of images pounded into our heads via billboard, television, radio, newspaper, website etc. plays a major role in shaping peoples' thinking. In fact, it plays THE role, especially in a "democracy" such as ours (it's not really a democracy, but it's not Soviet Russia either; I don't know what to call this system anymore). But don't people have some control over their own lives? How can so many people allow themselves to fall into the somnambulant mind-set that enables them to cheer the destruction of Iraq and ignore the $400,000,000 spent on defense while millions of American children -- not to mention Iraqi children – are underfed, under educated and have no healthcare etc?


Shouldn't people be held responsible for their actions or rather inactions, especially if the "selling point" of the whole deal is "freedom and democracy?"


We blamed the German people for "looking away" while the cattle cars passed. We blamed white South Africans for supporting apartheid through silence, and now we blame Israeli citizens for not only allowing their government to engage in apartheid and its attendant horrors against the Palestinians, but tacitly support it by electing Sharon. Again, there's always a minority who protest, but in all these cases, including that of the United States, the majority is silent.


Why do some break away from the fairy-tale world of CNN and the New York Times while others, most others, do not? Is it wrong to blame people for "willful ignorance" (for wherever you live, especially with the advent of the internet and sites such as the Progressive Review, you have access to alternative news) in the face of insurmountable evidence that the corporate/military complex and the elites who run it are destroying this country day after day?


SMITH: As I mentioned, I prefer to aim my fire at the people in charge. This is in no small part a practical choice. In politics you want people to join you, not confess their sins. As an existentialist I believe we are all responsible for our decisions, but I have seldom seen the blaming tactic work particularly well.


In conversation, I use what I think of as the barroom approach to politics, which is to say I try to use arguments that would work - or at least not start a fight. This begins with trying to find common ground rather than points of disagreement.  I once got a great lesson in this. I was on a talk radio station in Idaho - in Mark Furman country not long after the OJ Simpson trial. I was meant to be on for twenty minutes to discuss my book on Clinton, 'Shadows of Hope.'  I was expecting trouble. But the host introduced me by saying, among other things, that I was a supporter of the fully informed jury movement. The right of jury nullification is quite popular among conservatives especially in the west.  But I only had one sentence in the book on the subject.  Somehow that was what he chose to pull out, knowing it would appeal to many of his conservative listeners. And I knew I was home free, which I was, for an hour and a half.  Once having broken the stereotype of the Washington liberal journalist the door opened to a rational conversation.


So while I am sympathetic with your intellectual argument, on a day to day basis with real people, it's probably wiser to approach others with the heart and skills of an educator rather than with the righteous anger of a  wrathful God. Save that stuff for Cheney and Bush in your next column.


Sam Smith is a writer, activist and social critic whose essays have appeared in the newspapers such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe among many others. He is author of Why Bother?: Getting a Life in a Locked-Down Land, and The Great American Political Repair Manual. He is the editor of the indispensable Progressive Review in Washington, DC (http://prorev.com/). He can be contacted at: news@prorev.com  


Adam Engel can be reached at bartleby.samsa@verizon.net


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