June 2, 2012

It's not even autumn, but ...

For years, going back at least to October 2006, every fall we read about the latest agricultural crisis caused by insufficient illegal infiltrator peasants. One harvest time, it's pears rotting in the field, the next it's kumquats. Just fill in the blanks on the press release. Each one-time-only outsized crop caused by fluke weather justifies a permanent change in the American population.

But last year, American farmowners enjoyed their most profitable year in history. So, this year, they aren't even waiting for fall to start agitating for lower wage workers. From Bloomberg News in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Farmers scrambling to find harvest labor

June 1, 2012

Diversity before Diversity: Evonne Goolagong

A running theme at iSteve over the years has been to question the conventional wisdom that white racism long completely prevented the efflorescence of talent among the diverse and thus, under our more enlightened system of today, various diverse superstars in numerous fields will be arriving Real Soon Now. 

Yet, in quite a few fields, I can recall various non-whites of the past who accomplished more than their more numerous and more accepted co-ethnics today. For instance, Pancho Gonzales, a cholo from East L.A., was among the the top American tennis players from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, while there are no Mexican-American touring pros today.

With the French Open tennis tournament going on currently, I'm reminded that Australian Aboriginal-surnamed Evonne Goolagong won the French Open in 1971, 41 years ago, following up with a Wimbledon triumph later that year. You can't get much more diverse than Australian Aborigine. During this peak era in the popularity of tennis in general and women's tennis in particular, Goolagong (after her marriage, Goolagong-Cawley) won 7 Grand Slam individual titles from 1971-1980. She was well-liked by the public; not as pretty as Chris Evert, but cuter than Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. 

One question is how Aboriginal she is. There was never any doubt in the public's mind about her surname: Goolagong is an obviously Aboriginal sounding word, similar to "billabong," which is famous from the opening line of Australia's unofficial national anthem "Waltzing Matilda:" "Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong."

On the other hand, Aboriginal looks seem to be somewhat recessive. If she weren't named "Goolagong," it's not clear if non-Australians would have immediately guessed she was part-Aboriginal. This was an era of fashionable tanning and tennis players then tended to be well-tanned. Also, the most prominent Aboriginal facial feature, the heavy brow ridge, is less noticeable among female Aborigines.

Both her parents identified as mixed-race Aborigines who were assimilated into rural Australian working class culture. They were as beige-skinned as her, but some of her seven siblings ranged from brown to black. The Goolagongs were poor but not impoverished. They were the only Aboriginal family in a small town, and the Goolagong kids went to school with the white kids. Her father Kenny Goolagong was an itinerant sheep-shearer, but also the town's golf champion. In the British commonwealth, golf is a less elitist sport than in America. And, Australia is possibly the most sports-oriented culture on earth.

May 31, 2012

Do artists get better after they get boring?

The mostly hung jury in the trial of former Democratic Veep nominee John Edwards over funneling cash to his mistress reminds me that I read a novel about the woman in question over 20 years ago. Jay McInerney's Story of My Life is the first person memoir of a party girl named Alison. If the phrases "party girl" and "Alison" sound like they go together, they do. McInerney used lyrics in his novel from Elvis Costello's 1977 song "Alison" and 1979 song "Party Girl."

They say you're nothing but a party girl,
Just like a million more all over this world

Alison, I know this world is killing you,
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.

That got me that thinking that it's quite possible that many artists get objectively better after public boredom with them sets in. To take one small example to help explain the phenomenon that the fate of all artists, whether Elvis Presley or Tom Stoppard or Tim Burton/Johnny Depp, is to have people tell you they liked your early stuff best, I noticed in the 1990s that Elvis Costello had made himself a better singer now than in his 1977-1983 heyday. He likely has taken a lot of singing lessons since then and worked hard at his craft.

For all I know, he might be a better songwriter now than he was when he wrote the songs that eventually made him (mildly) famous. 

It's possible that fifty years from now, the handful of people interested in Costello's career will judge that, objectively, he was at his peak as a singer-songwriter long after the spotlight had faded from him. I don't know, though. In truth, I'm not interested enough in music any more to find out, and I doubt if I could be objective because his early songs are tied to a lot of memories.

With Costello, it's pretty easy to track the course of his early years, which follows a typical pattern. He'd been performing with little success since 1970, and by the time he recorded his first album on the cheap in 1976, had a lot of good songs ready to go. His debut "My Aim Is True" album was finally released in Britain in mid-1977, by which point his "angry young man" persona could be conveniently plugged into the punk rock narrative dominating the British music press, even if, stylistically, it was an odd fit. 

I bought "My Aim Is True" in import as a Christmas present for myself in 1977, then on January 27, 1978 I paid $3 to see him in a Houston beer hall with his new band, the Attractions. They played all the songs on their first album, such as Alison, Mystery DanceLess than Zero, Watching the Detectives (a single), and The Angels Want to Wear My Read Shoes. Then, Costello brought out his producer Nick Lowe, who played three of his own songs, including I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll. Good show. But instead of leaving, they announced an intermission, which seemed strange because they'd already delivered a fine show and played all their songs. 

When Costello came back, however, they played everything from their as of yet unknown upcoming album This Year's Model (which went on to win lots of critics' awards as the best album of 1978), such as Radio RadioI Don't Want to Go to Chelsea, This Year's Girl, and finishing with a barn-burning encore of a new song entitled Pump It Up that left the audience banging beer mugs on the stage for 15 minutes in time to Pump It Up's bass line, until the bouncers managed to shove us all out the door. (Pump It Up's similarity to Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues made it the perfect song to hear for the first time in concert: the verses resemble Dylan's, but the chorus slams home harder.)

The man and the moment had come together. Granted, in the big city of Houston in January 1978 there were only 200 or 300 people who would pay $3 to see Elvis Costello. But we were the right 200 or 300 people, the ones who wouldn't shut up about him. 

Costello enjoyed much success d'estime over the next few years, although not having a Top 40 hit in the U.S. until Everyday I Write the Book in 1983. But by that point the quality of his output seemed to wane, whether due to fighting with his bass player or creative exhaustion or physical exhaustion (which can't be overlooked) or whatever. 

He's made various comebacks since then. For example, in 1988 he had a hit with "Veronica," a fine song he cowrote with Paul McCartney. (My theory is that in the best of all possible worlds, McCartney and Costello would have started collaborating a decade earlier when McCartney's ability to write hooks was still strong, but his overall output was being dragged down by McCartney's poor lyrics and weakness for kitsch. Costello's astringent, rather John Lennon-like personality would have been the best fit for what was lacking in McCartney's solo work.)

But, by then, Costello's early loyalists like myself were getting older and less obsessed with music. Teens weren't that interested in this old geezer with the complicated lyrics (which reached a peak of brilliance on 1982's Imperial Bedroom album, but he seem to be starting to lose his gift for catchy melodic hooks). So, I really have no idea whether Costello's later stuff compares to his early stuff.

Moreover, a huge amount of cultural capital has built up over time focused on Costello's early songs. For instance, when I see The Avengers, I am reminded that the first movie I ever saw Robert Downey Jr. in was 1987's "Less than Zero," which was based on Brett Easton Ellis's novel with the titled lifted from Costello's 1977 song. Ellis named a later novel Imperial Bedrooms, but by then the "I liked your early stuff best" phenomenon was setting in for Ellis and McInerney, too.

So, that explains a fair amount about why artists, if they are lucky, mostly just get one short window of relevance.

For example, "Watching the Detectives" strikes me as a pretty terrible single, the most annoying Costello song of his early years, but it still gets played on some radio stations a lot for reasons, presumably, of path dependency: perhaps it was the first Elvis Costello song that many people became familiar with. By the standards of Oliver's Army or I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea or Beyond Belief or Strict Time, Watching the Detectives is a bad Costello song, but it's still a recognizably Costelloish song.

And it could be that that's what matters most: the artist has to reach some level of quality and then what carries him is largely the freshness of his personal style, which is heavily dependent on his unique personality. And after awhile, his personality doesn't seem so unique anymore, even if the quality increases.

Loyalties: Boyish concentric conservatives v. adolescent leapfrogging liberals

In my review of Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, I suggested:
What Haidt never quite gets across is that conservatives typically define their groups concentrically, moving from their families outward to their communities, classes, religions, nations, and so forth. ... 
In contrast, modern liberals’ defining trait is making a public spectacle of how their loyalties leapfrog over some unworthy folks relatively close to them in favor of other people they barely know ....

As an example of leapfrogging loyalties, an archetypal white liberal would be President Obama's mother, Stanley Ann "They are not my people!" Dunham Obama Soetoro.

In contrast, as an example of the concentric pride typical of a white conservative, consider this 1998 article "In His New Novel, Tom Wolfe Unearths His Southern Roots" by Peter Applebome in the New York Times:
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was born in 1930 into an old Virginia family at a time when the Civil War was still as much a part of Richmond as the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. His father, whose Virginia roots go back to 1710, was an odd Southern hybrid of agronomist, teacher and businessman who taught at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, edited a publication called The Southern Planter and ran a company, Southern States Cooperative, that became a Fortune 500 company. His mother, Helen Perkins Hughes Wolfe, came from an old Virginia family as well. ... 
Wolfe strayed from the steamy Eden of his youth, but his friends say that to understand his work -- the (dare one say?) cavalier detachment from the passing parade; the acerbic skewering of most elements of modernism from art to architecture; the conservatism about politics, art and race; the withering disdain for what he calls the think-alike "intellectual etiquette" of liberal Manhattan -- one need only think of Wolfe not as dandy or New Journalist or satirist, but as Virginian. 
"It's what he's all about," said Ed Hayes, a Manhattan lawyer who says he is the model for Killian, the defense lawyer in Wolfe's first novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities." "Tom doesn't talk about this stuff publicly, but he has this Scotch-Irish sense of honor, of duty, of family, about masculinity. 
"He's the grandson of a Confederate rifleman and grew up with the sense of the Lost Cause, of glorious doomed charges at Gettysburg, of a sense of personal honor and what constitutes masculinity that has largely been rejected by the urban intellectual elite of the Northeast."

In fact, Wolfe went on to spell out the concentricity of a small boy's conservative pride explicitly:
And Wolfe grew up with a sense of entitlement so profound that each night when he got down on his knees to pray, he began by thanking God for the miraculous gift of his place of birth. 
"I used to think of it every night," he said, as he sipped his tomato ("ta-MAH-to") juice with a dash of salt and pepper. "First, I thanked God for having been born in America, which was obviously the greatest country on earth. I was pretty dead right on that. And in what was obviously the greatest state, because more presidents came from Virginia than anywhere else. And from the greatest city in the greatest state in the greatest country, because it was the capital of Virginia. Just think of all the people not fortunate enough to be born in Richmond, Va." 
He paused a moment to contemplate that injustice for a moment and realized he had not fully conveyed his enthusiasm. 
"Oh," he added, "and I also thought I lived in the best location in the greatest city because from my window, when the state fair was in town, I could see all the fireworks. How many children could say that? I can see now that I had -- what's the word? -- literally an egocentric view of the world. But it wasn't all that far from the truth."

So, in this model, the emotional foundations of conservatism are boyish, and liberalism adolescent.

Pinker on language wars

Steven Pinker writes in Slate:
Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. 
If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language. This pseudo-controversy, a staple of literary magazines for decades, was ginned up again this month by The New Yorker, which has something of a history with the bogus battle. Fifty years ago, the literary critic Dwight Macdonald lambasted the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary for aiming to be “a recording instrument rather than … an authority” and insufficiently censuring such usages as “deprecate” for depreciate, “bored” for disinterested, and “imply” for infer.

Surely, these three examples are presented backward: 

- CPAs don't say, "We'll deprecate that asset over three years" (unless it's a Windows Vista PC, in which case it deserves relentless deprecation).

- Supreme Court Justices don't say, "I'll have to recuse myself in this case because my financial ties to the plaintiff mean I am not bored."

- Historians of science don't say that "From the Michelson-Morley experiment and the problem with the orbit of Mercury, Einstein implied that something must be inadequate about Newton's system." 

The last is the least severe of the three problem pairs, since you can usually turn the sentence around to make either imply or infer work: "To Einstein, the MM experiment and the Mercury problem implied ..." But the other two pairs are apples and oranges. 

I am especially adamant against using "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," since the distinction between a disinterested and an interested party is so crucial to a decent civic life. For example, I've long pointed out that the so called experts quoted in the press on how much Hispanic voters want more Hispanic immigration are "not disinterested" because they make their livings claiming to lead a huge number of Hispanics, so they have an interest in expanding that number by claiming that Republicans are facing ruin at the polls unless they submit on immigration. But, it's ever harder to get across this notion as more people think, "Well, of course they aren't bored with immigration."  

As for the Language Wars in general, I'm not a terribly active participant. I lack the precision of mind to set a good example. I appreciate that my readers don't seem to mind my frequent solecisms. And I appreciate brief comments helpfully pointing out errors. I try to fix them when I have time. 

In general, it's been educational for me over the years to meet heavyweights with extremely precise minds, such as Pinker, Charles Murray, and John Derbyshire. In contrast, I make a lot of mistakes and can't follow instructions well. I suspect I have poor working memory and good long term memory, so I'm able to dredge up lots of examples. This access to examples allows me to have some success at reductionism.

For liberals, diversity trumps everything

Disraeli had a character exclaim in one of his novels, "Race is everything." Increasingly, it appears that for liberals, all other values, such as gender equality, are subordinate to the prime directive of Nobody Notice Nuthin'.

For example, Dana Milbank opines in the Washington Post:
Republican’s abortion bill risks alienating Asian Americans 
Republicans long ago lost African American voters. They are well on their way to losing Latinos. And if Trent Franks prevails, they may lose Asian Americans, too.
The Arizona Republican’s latest antiabortion salvo to be taken up by the House had a benign name — the Prenatal Non­discrimination Act — and a premise with which just about everybody agrees: that a woman shouldn’t abort a fetus simply because she wants to have a boy rather than a girl. 
The problem with Franks’s proposal is that it’s not entirely clear there is a problem. Sex-selection abortion is a huge tragedy in parts of Asia, but to the extent it’s happening in this country, it’s mostly among Asian immigrants.  
For Franks, who previously tried to pass legislation limiting abortions among African Americans and residents of the District of Columbia, it was the latest attempt to protect racial minorities from themselves.  
“The practice of sex selection is demonstrably increasing here in the United States, especially but not exclusively in the Asian immigrant community,” he announced on the House floor Wednesday afternoon. He quoted a study finding that male births “for Chinese, Asian Indians and Koreans clearly exceeded biological variation.” 
Democrats found Franks’s ­paternalism toward minority groups to be suspect. Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), identifying herself as a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the bill would “lead to further stigmatization of women, especially Asian Pacific American women.” Various Asian American legal and women’s groups opposed the bill.  
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Franks didn’t dispute that Asian Americans would be targeted. “The real target in the Asian community here is the Asian women who are being coerced into aborting little girls,” he told me, adding: “When the left doesn’t want to make abortion the issue, they say you’re being against minorities.”  
Franks is a principled and consistent opponent of abortion, but his strategy has raised eyebrows before because of its racial component.

One aspect of Milbank's complaint is the sacredness of abortion, but the bigger part is that some hick from the sticks has dared to notice something ungood about a minority group. Granted, the protected group is only Asians and what he's noticed -- aborting girl fetuses -- is pretty bad, but still ... This Republican white guy noticed. What can be worse than that? We must shame him into not noticing anything.

Here's a great topic for Milbank to take on next:
Koreans Busted for Stamina Pills Made from Dead Babies

If any white Republicans object, they're racist! And thus they deserve to lose the crucial East Asian-American vote, both eaters of dead babies and their co-ethnic non-eaters of dead babies who must stand shoulder to shoulder in racial solidarity with the dead baby eaters. Now, you Republican racists might say that most Asian voters object to eating dead babies on principle, and thus most Asian voters wouldn't allow Democratic demands for Asian racial solidarity to trump their aversion to eating dead babies. But that just shows what a white Republican racist you are to even hope that there won't be complete racial solidarity among Asian voters on the eating-dead-babies thing. As we enlightened white Democrats know, race is everything! Or, at least it ought to be when it comes to how nonwhites vote. So, if legislation against eating dead babies would have disparate impact on any minority, then it's racist to even imagine there should be a law against eating dead babies. What can't you understand about that? I, Dana Milbank, would personally eat a dead baby to prove Republicans are racist.

Tim Duncan Announces Shoe Deal With Florsheim

The San Antonio Spurs are now 10-0 in the NBA playoffs, as they go for their fifth NBA title since 1999 in their Tim Duncan Era. Even before this season, the Spurs' veteran Big 3 of Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili had the three highest career winning percentages among active NBA players. 

Duncan is from the American Virgin Islands, and was intent on becoming an Olympic swimmer until a 1989 hurricane wrecked the only training swimming pool on St. Croix. (Competitive swimming is the exact opposite of basketball in typical personality type.) So, being huge, he then took up basketball at St. Dunstan's Episcopal High School, then off to Wake Forest.

Duncan is always praised as having the best fundamentals of any big man in the NBA, but that says more about the decline of fundamentals in U.S. basketball. He's not particularly huge for an inside NBA player at 6-11, he didn't pay attention to basketball until high school, and the Virgin Islands are not a basketball hotbed, and probably didn't offer anybody close to his size in his age group.

Yet, by his sophomore year at Wake Forest, Duncan was college defensive player of the year and clearly an NBA lottery pick. But he'd promised his dying mother he'd get his college degree, so he played for free for two more years.

The Onion has a running gag about Duncan's responsible, staid un-NBAness. 

Tim Duncan Delivers Heartfelt Speech On Fiscal Responsibility During Spurs Victory Celebration

Tim Duncan Offers To Do Taxes For Entire Spurs Team

Tim Duncan Forwards Story About Particle Accelerator To Spurs Teammates

Tim Duncan Offers To Drive NBA Players To Polling Place On Election Day

Tim Duncan Hams It Up For Crowd By Arching Left Eyebrow Slightly

Tim Duncan Makes Citizen's Foul Call

Tim Duncan Announces Fifth Straight Successful New Year's Resolution

Matthew Yglesias has a good rant in Slate, The Most Ignored Dynasty in Sports, about how the fact that nobody outside of central Texas cares about how quietly excellent the Spurs have been for, roughly, ever shows that, despite what we might claim to admire, Americans actually like show-offs, hoopla, and drama queens. (Parker appears to have been trying to generate a whoop-tee-do via his tumultuous marriage to Desperate Housewives actress Eva Longoria, but that comes up more in the entertainment than sports gossip columns.) 

Yglesias points out:
It’s the popularity of the [Oklahoma City] Thunder, the Spurs’ opponents in the Western Conference Finals, that proves San Antonio’s lack of sex appeal isn’t a consequence of geography. 

One thing that's going on is that San Antonio's longtime Big 3 are, more or less, foreigners. The NBA is a leading expression of African-American culture, and none of these guys quite fit into NBA fans' desire for stereotypical African-Americans basketball players. Duncan is a bourgeois West Indian, Parker was raised in Europe, and Ginobili is some kind of white guy from the other side of the world.  

Moreover, San Antonio has relatively few blacks and many of them are there because of military connections, so it's low on, as they say, vibrancy. It's a Mexican and military town, and that's not very interesting to NBA fans. 

One interesting nature-nurture question about West Indians that I don't know enough to have a useful opinion upon: Is it easier for West Indians to act white because they come from black islands? Did the Duncans successfully raise Tim to act respectable, to act middle class because it's not a race thing there, it's a class thing?

The Wayan Brothers' old TV show In Living Color had a long running parody showing what African Americans think of West Indians, Hey Mon Hedley, about a hard-working family from the Caribbean who look down upon African-Americans as shiftless.

Every February since 1999, I've been volunteering to go to the West Indies to research this important question, but nobody has taken me up yet on paying for my trip.

May 30, 2012

I hereby forgive the CIA for Abstract Expressionism

One of the interesting unanswered questions about post-WWII arts and literature (e.g., the Mad Men era) is how much was it funded and molded by the CIA as part of a "twilight struggle" to make America look cooler than the Soviet Union. For example, old CIA agents have long claimed to have played a sizable role in the triumph of abstract expressionist (or "New York School") painting. 

As I've said before, but have to keep repeating in an (almost certainly futile) attempt to prevent people's Conspiracy Theory! Ahhh-ooog-ahh! alarms from going off: It's useful to conceive of the CIA not as omnipotently manipulating everything; instead, think of The Agency as players in an international version of the municipal "favor bank" explicated in The Wire and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Thus, the fact that, say, President Obama's best known private sector job was at a newsletter company, Business International, that had admittedly served as a cover story front for at least four CIA agents doesn't mean that Obama is a creation of the CIA, but it does serve to point to his parents' connections to American power in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Kenya.

What about the CIA as a patron of literature? The highbrow Anglo-American magazine Encounter, co-founded by English poet Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol, was long ago revealed to be something of a CIA front. Questions have also persisted about the funding of the literary magazine The Paris Review, which specialized in introducing new writers,  ever since the magazine's founder, nature writer Peter Matthiessen, admitted to some help from the CIA. The Paris Review was long edited by Matthiessen's friend, bon vivant George Plimpton,

A long new article in Salon fleshes out The Paris Review's relationship with the CIA. I haven't read the whole thing, but I have to say that the idea of my tax dollars being used to fund George Plimpton's lifestyle is probably the best news I've had all day. 

I'm sure nobody under about 45 remembers Plimpton, but he was a consistently delightful figure in the media during my childhood, a Park Avenue honk who would come up with these strange participatory journalistic exercises, such as, in Paper Lion, going through the Detroit Lions training camp as their fourth string quarterback, even quarterbacking three downs in an NFL exhibition game.

A fellow who worked for me in the 1980s repairing personal computers had previously interned at the Paris Review for Plimpton (my friend's grandfather had gone to prep school with Plimpton's father), and he had lots of good Plimpton stories, such as that Plimpton was a professional partygoer. If you were, say, a prosperous orthodontist, you could hire Plimpton to be one of your guests, and he would charm all your other guests and raise your social standing in their eyes.

Also, I noticed that the Salon article by Joel Whitney wanders off to the topic of Yale's American Studies Ph.D. program. I realize the following excerpt will be kind of dull, but I was struck by it because I just recalled another writer, one even more famous that Plimpton, who earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale in 1957, somebody whose name will be back in the news later this year (if all goes according to plan):
The weaponization of culture starts at Yale. Prof. Norman Holmes Pearson is cited on the Paris Review web site as the intelligence officer who recruited Matthiessen (Yale College, 1950) into the CIA. This fact may explain the subtle cultural politics of the supposedly apolitical Paris Review. Pearson’s career is a mashup of literature and spying. A friend of the modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (aka, “H.D.”), he hired H.D.’s daughter as his secretary. She then became that of his assistant, the CIA’s bogeyman, James Jesus Angleton. After an illustrious record during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services alongside CIA founding light William Donovan and CIA director Allen Dulles, Pearson returned to academe to take charge of Yale’s fledgling American Studies program.
How does covert propaganda or intelligence work link up with American Studies? Answer: Monomania and the Cold War. Consider a letter from Yale’s dean at this time to its president:
From such a study we will gain strength, both individually and as a nation … strength, which we need so badly in our time to face the changing, and in part, hostile world  … This is an argument … for the establishment of a strong program of American Studies at Yale, which in many respects is our most native university … In the international scene it is clear that our government has not been too effective in blazoning to Europe and Asia, as a weapon in the “cold war” the merits of our way of thinking and living … Until we put more vigor and conviction into our own cause … it is not likely that we shall be able to convince the wavering peoples of the world that we have something infinitely better than Communism … 
Yale’s American studies “would be ‘positive,’” as one academic has written, “not a matter of preaching against communism, but one of advocacy for the American alternative.” Where the CIA would get into the game — call it cultural propaganda or psychological warfare — it would avail itself of both “positive” and “negative” means, celebrating American cultural achievements on one hand while attacking Soviet ideas and policies on the other. 

For decades I've been reading that "New Journalists," such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, made themselves the centerpieces of their articles, but I've always found that to be much truer for Thompson than Wolfe. I've read over a million words by Wolfe -- and I'm a rather close reader -- but he remains a somewhat engimatic character to me. 

One reason for Wolfe's relative reticence about himself is that he's an unrepentant white Southerner. His agronomist father edited The Southern Planter and his grandfather fought for the Confederacy.

But, that aside, I'm struck by a couple of bullet points from his biography:

- While Thompson liked to portray himself as a "Doctor of Journalism," Wolfe actually is Dr. Tom Wolfe, holder of a Ph.D. from Yale in American Studies. This doesn't come up much in his books, however. I can recall one passage in which he expresses loathing of grad school poverty. 

- Wolfe covered Castro's Revolution in Cuba as a reporter for the Washington Post. That seems like rich material for any writer to mine in his subsequent works, but, as far as I can recall, Wolfe has been strikingly reticent on the subject. Wolfe's upcoming novel about Miami, Back to Blood, will, presumably, make use in some fashion of his Cuban days

It now occurs to me that there could be common denominator between Wolfe's Yale American Studies Ph.D. and his time in Cuba as a journalist.

Just idle speculation, of course.

Now that I think of it, Wolfe's 1968 bestseller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a biography of novelist Ken Kesey, who was introduced to LSD in a 1959 Stanford experiment paid for by the CIA.

Economists v. Child Labor and Immigration Laws

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen links to a study of why child labor expanded so much during the laissez-faire era of the industrial revolution. The comments are mostly the usual libertarian chest-pounding, leading up to Roy Swanson's:
I got my first job when I was nine. Worked at a sheet metal factory. In two weeks, I was running the floor. Child labor laws are ruining this country.

Well played, sir. 

On second reading, I've come to believe this is a pitch-perfect parody of 21st Century libertarianism. Having never worked in a sheet metal factory, I couldn't say for sure, but I would guess that there are a lot of opportunities for sheet metal workers to lose fingers or even heads without adequate adult supervision.

[Update: Commenters have pointed out that Rob Swanson is the libertarian Tea Party government bureaucrat (the one who looks like Teddy Roosevelt) on the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation. Sorry about ham-handedly explaining the entire joke. But, at least, I did recognize it was supposed to be funny.]

When I was majoring in economics, history (especially of Britain), and business at Rice in the 1970s, child labor in Dickensian England was a major intellectual sore spot. 

The libertarians were just beginning their ascendance in the academy. Rice, a science / engineering-focused college in the booming oil capital of Houston, was unusual among elite universities because its faculty averaged less to the left than was the norm in the 1970s. While the economics department was increasingly libertarian, it was striking at the time that even the history department had two star converts to pro-market ideas in Allen Matusow and Martin J. Wiener, who is obscure in America but subsequently became hugely controversial in England in the early 1980s because of his influence on Thatcherism via Keith Joseph.

A major PR problem for laissez-faire ideas back then, however, was the extremely well documented history of a previous era when laissez-faire ideas had been dominant: in England in the first 3/4ths of the 19th Century. In particular, nobody who read about the era wanted to go back to not regulating child labor.

Since then, the Dickensian Era has become less of a problem for intellectual libertarians. People don't read Dickens as much. Nobody watches Oliver! the 1968 Best Picture winner (I played Oliver Twist's grandfather, Mr. Brownlow, in the St. Francis De Sales elementary school's 1970 production of Oliver!). Time passes and less and less is remembered.

Over the centuries, laissez-faire argumentation for low wages has shifted from insisting upon the iron necessity of child labor to the wonderfulness of open borders. But the combination of monetary interest driving intellectual arguments remains very similar. 

Perhaps the best critique of the ideological rigidity of laissez-faire England comes from Paul Johnson's 1972 A History of the English People. This preceded his famous conversion to neoconservatism in the brilliant Modern Times of 1983. But in 1972, Johnson was the last heir of Orwell in his English patriotic democratic socialism. In VDARE.com in 2007, I explained how Johnson's analysis could be applied to current debates over immigration:
We don't think of the British as being terribly ideological. But during the second quarter of the 19th Century, their justifiable national pride in developing economics for once overwhelmed the vaunted British common sense. A dogma based on a crude interpretation of the works of Malthus and Ricardo presumed that low wages were crucial to profits, just like the sophomoric economics of today's open borders crowd. 
Back then, the ruling class didn't fulminate over plucking chickens but over sweeping chimneys. 
Consider the fates of the little boys, from age four on up, who were widely employed by master chimney sweeps to clamber up inside long flues and knock down the soot, at horrific cost to their health. Paul Johnson writes in A History of the English People (p.285), “often they were forced up by the use of long pricks, and by applying wisps of flaming straw to their feet. They suffered from a variety of occupational diseases and many died from suffocation.” 
The ruling ideology of the age assumed that, as regrettable as this might be, the laws of economics required it. 
After all, how else would chimneys ever get swept? 
The first bill banning the employment of children under eight from chimney sweeping passed Parliament in 1788. But, like many immigration laws in America today, it was ignored. So was the 1834 act. 
Then, the greatest reformer of the Victorian Era, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, began his almost endless crusade to abolish child labor inside chimneys. Like William Wilberforce, the victor over the slave trade, Shaftesbury was a Tory, an evangelical Anglican, and a relentless parliamentarian.
In 1840, Shaftesbury carried a bill to regulate child chimney sweeps over ”resistance that can only be called fanatical”, in Johnson’s words. 
It also was not enforced. 
Three more of Shaftesbury’s bills failed in Parliament in the 1850s. He succeeded in 1864, but the legislation proved ineffective “due to a general conspiracy of local authorities, magistrates, police, judges, juries, and the public to frustrate the law. Boys continued to die…” including a seven-year-old who suffocated in a flue in 1873. 
Shaftesbury finally succeeded in passing effective legislation in 1875. 
And, of course, that winter everyone in Britain froze to death due to clogged chimneys. 
Oh, wait … sorry, that was in Bizarro Britain, where the reigning interpretations of economics actually applied. Rather like in Senator Kennedy’s Abnormal America, where nobody will be able to afford to eat chicken without the Liberal Lion’s amnesty and guest worker programs. 
In the real Britain, however, the master chimney sweeps quickly found other ways to clean chimneys. 
What we’ve learned since the early Victorian Era is that the world works in ways more responsive to intelligent effort than was imagined by Thomas Malthus: 
- High wages can often spur technological advances that more than make up for their costs. 
- The key to economic prosperity is not low wages but high human capital.
In contrast to Dickensian England, with its Scrooge-like obsession with cheap labor, Americans traditionally enjoyed high wages because the country was underpopulated relative to its natural resources. This inspired American entrepreneurs to invest in labor-saving innovations, which, in a virtuous cycle, allowed even higher wages to be paid. 
The most famous example: Henry Ford doubling his workers’ salaries in 1914 after inventing the moving assembly line. 
In the long run, the cheap labor obsession debilitated the English economy. After the brilliant innovations of the early Industrial Revolution, the English textile industry tended to stagnate. Paul Johnson explains: 
“Factories paid higher wages than domestic industries; all the same, they were very low, chiefly because most of the factory hands were women and children. Low wages kept home consumer demand down; worse still, they removed the chief incentive to replace primitive machinery by the systematic adoption of new technology.” 
And then there was the long run impact on Britain’s economic culture. Johnson writes: 
“State limitations of human exploitation came too late, and were too ineffective, to make the quest for productivity a virtue; the English did not discover it until the twentieth century, by which time the trade union movement had constructed powerful defenses against it.” 
Victorian Scroogeonomics helped engender its own nemesis. It drove the British working class far to the left of the American working class, leading to both the nationalization of major industries in the 1940s and a hatred of productivity improvements among unions, exemplified in the 1959 Peter Sellers’ movie I’m All Right, Jack.

May 29, 2012


From my column in Taki's Magazine:
MIT’s Daron Acemoglu is a rock star among economists, one of the ten most cited in his profession. This is largely because of the paper the Istanbul-born Armenian cowrote in 2001: The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development. Other economists have found that it provides a suave way to finally answer the embarrassing question of why, in the 21st century, some countries are rich and some are poor. Acemoglu has a big new book out with James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, that makes his case at great length.
To understand Acemoglu’s professional popularity, you have to grasp how awkward the major features of global economic reality are to careerist economists.

Read the whole thing there.

Obama: My high school highs actually a story of race and inheritance, when you stop and think about it

The new revelation that President Obama spent his teen years thoroughly baked is not really that new. As I wrote in VDARE.com in March 2007:
I particularly like how Obama rationalized his preppie drug use as "something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind . . ." His classmates, in contrast, in these articles seemed to find his explanation puzzlingly gratuitous. Many of them smoked dope on the beach, too, but they didn't need a racial identity crisis caused by the white power structure to justify their getting high. It was, like, Hawaii in the 1970s, you know? Maui Wowie, dude!

May 28, 2012

George Orwell's "Animal House"

I don't really know how Twitter works, but you can follow the discussion of George Orwell's Animal House here.
All animals are equal, but some are more fat, drunk and stupid than others, son.

Thilo Sarrazin's new book

Thilo Sarrazin, the former Social Democratic central banker with a doctorate in economics whose previous book on immigration policy has sold 1,100,000 copies in Germany, has a written a new book, Europe Doesn't Need the Euro. In the Atlantic, Miss Heather Horn finds herself disturbed by Sarrazin's sinister reasonableness:
The Controversial German Book Linking the Euro to Holocaust Guilt 
It's hard to think of a good American equivalent to Germany's Thilo Sarrazin, the politician turned best-selling author. The closest one could be Pat Buchanan: in some circles, he and his writings are considered entirely legitimate. In others, they're considered shocking and revolting to the point of scandal. ... 
Now, Sarrazin is addressing the euro crisis. Tuesday, his new book Europe Doesn't Need the Euro, hit the shelves. If you're just paging through idly, it doesn't seem to be as provocative, and, on balance, it really isn't: you'd expect as seasoned a provocateur as Sarrazin, especially with his leanings towards ideas of ethnic and educational superiority, at least to say some obnoxious and offensive things about Greek people or their ability with a balance sheet. He doesn't do that. The book, nevertheless, has immediately drawn fire -- and with good reason.  

I can tell how old I am because I can remember a day long ago when journalists would describe a book as "provocative" and "controversial" to whet readers' interest in the book. Today, the words "provocative" and "controversial" have become code for Move Along, Nothing to See Here.
... Many of the paragraphs are entirely reasonable ... Nevertheless, this is a little bit, like an American treading awfully close to a racial stereotype while prefacing his statement with "now, I don't want to be called a racist." Why? Because what Sarrazin is really saying is that Germans are hostage to their sense of not wanting to be responsible for Europe's failure. Germans are hostage to their sense of historical guilt. To use Der Spiegel's translation for one of the pre-publication excerpts, pro-euro Germans "are driven by that very German reflex, that we can only finally atone for the Holocaust and World War II when we have put all our interests and money into European hands." ...
What we're left with is a book that has some superficial similarities to G√ľnter Grass's controversial poem about Israel and Iran back in April, though Sarrazin's economic credentials are significantly better than the poet's foreign policy credentials. It's not that the arguments themselves don't have merit. It's that the author doesn't seem all that concerned with complexity. Toss in a casual suggestion that Germans are suppressing their natural reactions due to Holocaust guilt, and the whole thing starts to look offensive ... 
The really provocative and revealing part of Sarrazin's book isn't the oft-repeated quote about Holocaust guilt, it's sentences like, "It's certainly very complicated, but on the other hand not as complicated as many want to make it!" or "Everyone who has an opinion on the euro also has either consciously or unconsciously an opinion on Europe." ...
... Outside of Sarrazin's head, it is possible to have an opinion on the euro and have no idea whether Greeks are fundamentally culturally and ethnically similar to Frenchmen. ...

To "have an opinion" on policy while simultaneously to "have no idea" about the facts the policy confronts appears to be the perfect summation of the kind of intellectual discourse that is considered appropriate in the 21st Century. The role model for contemporary thinkers is Sgt. Schultz from Hogan's Heroes: "I know nuffink!"
And it's possible for uneducated immigrants to produce the next generation's engineers and poets -- and, even if they don't, to be no more or less morally deserving than ethnic Germans with a university degree. Thilo Sarrazin's two books, when you get down to mechanics, aren't all that different.

I am shocked, SHOCKED to hear that one of the world's most experienced technocrats has written an extremely well-documented book arguing that the Euro is not a good idea. Well, I never ...  If Germans don't pile all copies of Sarrazin's new book up in their town squares and burn them tonight, somebody might get the idea to translate his 2010 bestseller on immigration into English and publish it in America. And we can't have that, now can we?

May 27, 2012

An old white lefty's view of where Obama is coming from

The late Robert Fitch, a veteran critic of New York real estate insiders, gave a speech to the Harlem Tenants Association on November 14, 2008 applying his brand of analysis to the history of Obama's rise in Chicago. 
In fact, as Obama knows very well, for most of the last two decades in Chicago there’s been in place a very specific economic development plan. The plan was to make the South Side like the North Side. Which is the same kind of project as making the land north of Central Park [i.e., Harlem] like the land south of Central Park. The North Side is the area north of the Loop—Chicago’s midtown central business district—where rich white people live; they root for the Cubs. Their neighborhood is called the Gold Coast. For almost a hundred years in Chicago, blacks have lived on the South Side ...
And in the 1980s, the argument began to be made that the public housing needed to be demolished and the people moved back into private housing. For a while, the election of the city’s first black Mayor, Harold Washington, blocked the demolition. But Washington died of a heart attack while in office, and after a brief interregnum, the Mayor’s office was filled in 1989 by Richard M. Daley—whose father had carried out the first urban renewal. Daley was his father’s son in many ways. By 1993, with subsidies from the Clinton Administration’s HOPE VI program, the public housing units began to be destroyed. And by 2000 he’d put in place something called The Plan for Transformation. It targeted tens of thousands of remaining units. 
With this proviso: That African Americans had to get 50% of the action—white developers had to have black partners; there had to be black contractors. And Daley chose African Americans—as his top administrators and planners for the clearances, demolition and re-settlement. African Americans were prominent in developing and rehabbing the new housing for the refugees from the demolished projects—who were re-settled in communities to the south like Englewood, Roseland and Harvey. Altogether the Plan for Transformation involved the largest demolition of public housing in American history, affecting about 45,000 people—in neighborhoods where eight of the 20 poorest census tracts in the U.S. were located. 
But what does this all have to do with Obama? Just this: the area demolished included the communities that Obama represented as a state senator; and the top black administrators, developers and planners were people like Valerie Jarrett—who served as a member of the Chicago Planning Commission. And Martin Nesbitt who became head of the CHA. Nesbitt serves as Obama campaign finance treasurer; Jarrett as co-chair of the Transition Team. The other co-chair is William Daley, the Mayor’s brother and the Midwest chair of JP Morgan Chase—an institution deeply involved in the transformation of inner-city neighborhoods thorough its support for—what financial institutions call “neighborhood revitalization” and neighborhood activists call gentrification. 

William Daley went on to serve as Obama's second chief of staff, following Rahm Emmanuel, who is now mayor of Chicago.
If we examine more carefully the interests that Obama represents; if we look at his core financial supporters; as well as his inmost circle of advisors, we’ll see that they represent the primary activists in the demolition movement and the primary real estate beneficiaries of this transformation of public housing projects into condos and townhouses: the profitable creep of the Central Business District and elite residential neighborhoods southward; and the shifting of the pile of human misery about three miles further into the South Side and the south suburbs. 
Obama’s political base comes primarily from Chicago FIRE—the finance, insurance and real estate industry. And the wealthiest families—the Pritzkers, the Crowns and the Levins. But it’s more than just Chicago FIRE. Also within Obama’s inner core of support are allies from the non-profit sector: the liberal foundations, the elite universities, the non-profit community developers and the real estate reverends who produce market rate housing with tax breaks from the city and who have been known to shout from the pulpit “give us this day our Daley, Richard Daley bread.” Aggregate them and what emerges is a constellation of interests around Obama that I call “Friendly FIRE.” Fire power disguised by the camouflage of community uplift; augmented by the authority of academia; greased by billions in foundation grants; and wired to conventional FIRE by the terms of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1995. …
Yes, Obama worked with Ayers, but not the Ayers who blew up buildings; but the Ayers who was able to bring down $50 million from the Walter Annenberg foundation, leveraging it to create a $120 million a non-profit organization with Obama as its head. Annenberg was a billionaire friend of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Why would he give mega-millions to a terrorist? Perhaps because he liked Ayers’ new politics. Ayer’s initiative grew out of the backlash against the 1985 Chicago teachers’ strike; his plan promoted “the community” as a third force in education politics between the union and the city administration. Friendly FIRE [i.e., liberal, multiracial Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate interests] wants the same kind of education reform as FIRE: the forces that brought about welfare reform have now moved onto education reform and for the same reason: crippling the power of the union will reduce teachers’ salaries, which will cut real estate taxes which will raise land values. 
Is Obama a minion of Richie Daley? It’s true that Obama has never denounced Daley. He actually endorsed him for Mayor in 2007. Even after federal convictions of Daley’s top aides. After the minority hiring scandals. And after the Hired Truck scandal which showed that the Daley machine shared its favors with The Outfit. But the Daley dynasty has expanded far beyond wiseguy industries. The Mayor’s brother, William Daley, who served on Obama’s transition team, also serves now as a top executive of J.P. Morgan Chase. He heads the Midwest region. And chairs J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, the core of friendly FIRE. Here’s an excerpt from a recent report: "…[we] achieved significant progress toward our 10-year pledge to invest $800 billion in low- and moderate income communities in the U.S.—the largest commitment by any bank focused on mortgages, small-business lending and community development. In 2006, we committed $87 billion, with total investment to date of $241 billion in the third year of the program. Played a leadership role in the creation of The New York Acquisition Fund, along with 15 lenders and in conjunction with six foundations and the City of New York. The Fund is a $230 million initiative to finance the acquisition of land and buildings to be developed and/or preserved for affordable housing.“ 
It’s also true that key Black members of the Obama inner circle are Daley Administration alumnae—but they’ve moved up—now they’re part of Chicago FIRE. Like Martin Nesbitt. Obama is Nesbitt’s son’s godfather. He’s the African American chairman of the CHA. But his principal occupation is the vice presidency of the Pritzker Realty group. Although they’re not well known outside of Chicago, the Pritzkers rank among the richest families in the U.S. There are ten Pritzkers among the Forbes 400: Thomas is the richest at2.3 billion. Anthony and J.B. are next at $2.2 billion; Penny in fourth, at $2.1 billion—Daniel, James, Gigi, John, Karen, and Linda weigh in with $1.9 billion. Penny is finance chair of the Obama campaign. Martin is the treasurer. 

Daley saw Obama as a potential rival for the mayor's office. After Daley brushed aside Rep. Bobby Rush's challenge for his job in 1999, Daley turned around and provided some quiet aid to Rush in 2000 to help turn back Obama's challenge to Rush. Daley saw Rush, a former Black Panther, as easy to beat, but saw Obama as potentially a greater long term challenge.
Penny Pritzker herself has had a rocky career as a commercial banker. In 1991, she founded something called the Superior Bank of Chicago which pioneered in sub-prime lending to minorities. Superior was an early casualty of the sub-prime meltdown, though, crashing in 2001 when it was seized by the FDIC. Depositors filed a civil suit against Penny charging that Superior was a racketeering organization. The government charged that Superior paid out hundreds of millions of dividends to the Pritzkers and another family while the bank was essentially broke. There was a complex settlement in which the Pritzkers were forced to pay hundreds of millions in penalties; but the agreement contained provisions that may enable the Pritzkers to earn hundreds of millions. Notwithstanding the Superior bank disaster, Penny is being touted as Obama’s next Secretary of Commerce. 
Valerie Jarrett is another black real estate executive. Described as “the other side of Barack’s brain,” she also served as finance chair during his successful 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. Jarrett was Daley’s deputy chief of staff – that was her job when she hired Michelle Obama. Eventually Daley made her the head of city planning. But Jarrett doesn’t work for Daley anymore. She’s CEO of David Levin’s Habitat—one of the largest property managers in Chicago—and the court-appointed overseer of CHA projects. Habitat also managed Grove Parc, the scandal-ridden project in Englewood that left Section 8 tenants, mostly refugees from demolished public housing projects, without heat in the winter but inundated with rats. Grove Parc was developed by Tony Rezko, who’s white. And his long-time partner Allison Davis, who’s black. 
Let’s look at Rezko and then Davis. It was Rezko’s ability to exploit relationships with influential blacks—including Muhammad Ali—that enabled him to become one of Chicago’s preeminent cockroach capitalists.

Rezko was Ali's business manager in the 1980s because he was the business manager for the Muhammad family behind the Nation of Islam.
Altogether, Rezko wound up developing over 1,000 apartments with state and city money. There was more to the Obama-Rezko relationship than the empty lot in Kenwood. Rezko raised over $250,000 for Obama’s state senate campaign. While Obama was a state senator he wrote letters in support of Rezko’s applications for development funds. But Obama ignored the plight of Rezko’s tenants who complained to Obama’s office. Rezko’s Grove Parc partner, Allison Davis, was a witness in the Rezko trial, he’s pretty radioactive too. But you could see why Rezko wanted to hook up with him. 
Davis was the senior partner in Davis Miner Barnhill & Galland, a small, black law firm, where Obama worked for nearly a decade. As the editor of the Harvard Law Review, Obama could have worked anywhere. Why did he choose the Davis firm? Davis had been a noted civil rights attorney and a progressive critic of the first Daley machine. But in 1980 Davis got a call from the Ford Foundation’s poorly known, but immensely influential, affiliate LISC—the Local Initiatives Support Corporation—that had just been founded. LISC, whose present chair is Citigroup’s Robert Rubin, connects small, mainly minority community non-profits with big foundation grants and especially with bank loans and tax credit-driven equity. LISC wanted to co-opt Davis in their ghetto redevelopment program. He agreed and the Davis firm came to specialize in handling legal work for non-profit community development firms. Eventually Davis left the firm to go into partnership with Tony Rezko. Meanwhile, Obama did legal work for the Rezko-Davis partnership. And for Community Development Organizations like Woodlawn Organization. 
In 1994, the LA Times reports, Obama appeared in Cook County court on behalf of Woodlawnn Preservation & Investment Corp., defending it against a suit by the city, which alleged that the company failed to provide heat for low-income tenants on the South Side during the winter. There were several cases of this type, but as the Times observes, Obama doesn’t mention them in Dreams from My Father. In the 1960s, under the leadership of Arthur M. Brazier, Bishop of the Apostolic Church of God, Woodlawn gained a reputation as Chicago’s outstanding Saul Alinsky-stylec ommunity organization. Mainly, TWO [The Woodlawn Organization] battled the University of Chicago’s urban renewal program. But gradually, Brazier’s political direction changed. Now TWO is partnering with UC in efforts to gentrify Woodlawn. When Barack Obama left Jeremiah Wright’s church, he switched to Brazier’s Apostolic Church of God.

I don't believe that's fully true.
Brazier is typical of a much larger group—real estate reverends—who play the Community Development game and in the process have acquired huge real estate portfolios. But it’s really a national phenomenon. Here in New York we have Rev. Calvin Butts whose church has a subsidiary, the Abyssinian Development Corp. In partnership with LISC, the ADC now boasts a portfolio of $500 million in Harlem property alone. Rev. Floyd Flake of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens has a sizeable portfolio of commercial property too. Chicago’s disciples of development include Wilbur Daniel. He’s the Pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Englewood who really did exclaim “Give us this day our Daley bread,” meaning free land and free capital for real estate development. Daniel’s prayers were answered in 2001, when with Daley’s help, Antioch was chosen to be the lead church in Fannie Mae’s $55 billion House Chicago plan for the redevelopment of the South Side. How has Obama earned the support and allegiance of friendly FIRE? Where does he stand on the Plan for Transformation? 
Generally speaking, he’s been careful not to leave too many footprints. If you google Obama and public housing, nothing comes up. But in 1995, a year before he ran successfully for state senate seat from South Side, in Dreams from My Father he wrote about his encounters with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama says he was impressed by Wright’s emphasis on the unity of the black community. But he’s a little skeptical of too broad a unity; of achieving unity without conflict. He says, “Would the interest in maintaining such unity allow Reverend Wright to take a forceful stand on the latest proposals to reform public housing?” Here he’s referring to Clinton’s Hope VI—that provided matching federal money for the demolition of public housing. And the corresponding local initiatives, which culminated in the Plan for Transformation. “And if men like Reverend Wright failed to take a stand, if churches like Trinity refused to engage with real power and risk genuine conflict, then what chance would there be in holding the larger community intact?” 
I have to stop now and put Karnak’s envelope to my forehead. What we see is that the Chicago core of the Obama coalition is made up of blacks who’ve moved up by moving poor blacks out of the community. And very wealthy whites who’ve advanced their community development agenda by hiring blacks. Will this be the pattern for the future in an Obama administration? I can’t read the envelope. But I do believe that if we want to disrupt the pattern of the past we have to make some distinctions: between the change they believe in and the change we believe in; between our interests and theirs; between a notion of community that scapegoats the poor and one that respects their human rights—one of which is not to be the object of ethnic cleaning. Between Hope VI and genuine human hope.

Putting this in a larger perspective, it's reasonable to believe that Obama was drawn to Chicago in 1985 by the excitement of the Council Wars racial struggle between Mayor Harold Washington and the retrograde white leader Fast Eddie Vrodolyak in what seemed like a zero sum racial battle. But Obama found, when he finally got to know real life poor blacks in 1985-1988, that they weren't as uplifting as he had assumed from watching PBS fund-raising documentaries about the Civil Rights era. But he slowly started to realize that who he really liked were affluent, well-educated blacks. So, he bailed for Harvard Law School, intending to come back and lead blacks back to power in the mayor's office.

Over time, however, Richie Daley became mayor and he was more than happy to cut reasonable blacks in on the profits that could be made by clearing out Cabrini Green and the like, just as long as they'd play ball with Friendly FIRE. Michelle Obama had a wealth of contacts -- she'd been Jesse Jackson's babysitter, she worked for Daley's deputy Valerie Jarrett, and she liked money -- and Barack Obama was naturally drawn into this little world centered around Jarrett and Penny Pritzker.

On the other hand, let me point out a subtle distinction. I suspect that the secret end game envisioned by the more hardheaded liberal white leaders (I'm looking at you, Mayor Emmanuel) is likely not just to yuppify the Near South Side and move poor blacks to the Far South Side of Chicago where they can still vote in Chicago elections. Instead, the hard men want to use Section 8 rental vouchers to send poor blacks packing clear out of Chicago to hickvilles like Champaign-Urbana, while middle class blacks move themselves to inner ring suburbs, leaving only Obama-like upscale blacks in Chicago. This would slowly destroy black political power in Chicago, leaving behind only token affluent blacks and pockets of black poverty around the worst toxic waste sites in the industrial deep South Side.

For example, last year, Mayor Emmanuel's Chicago Police Department sent a 40-man SWAT team into just about the last two ungentrified houses in Lincoln Park, only seven blocks from Penny Pritzker's new mansion, to find pretexts for evicting the owners, an extended family of poor blacks.

Assume you are Mayor Emmanuel, and assume you want two decades or so in office like both Daleys got. Your job is going to be a lot more fun in 20 years if Chicago follows Manhattan and D.C. in whitifying rather than go down the path of Detroit and Cleveland.

But, as of 1995, Obama and his spiritual adviser, Jeremiah Wright, objected to what was looming on the horizon as a remote possibility: the more massive economic cleansing of blacks from not just the good parts of Chicago like Cabrini Green and the South Lakefront, but from the inland parts, where Wright's church was and where Obama had done his rather feckless community organizing.

Wright is quoted in Dreams, and Obama echoed Wright's argument in a 1995 Chicago Reader interview, that middle class blacks shouldn't flee to the suburbs to keep their sons from being gunned down. They should make a stand in Chicago (at least farther south than the potentially immensely valuable land around the loop and lakefront). Obama said in 1995:
"The right wing talks about this but they keep appealing to that old individualistic bootstrap myth: get a job, get rich, and get out." ... 

So, Obama here is agreeing with Wright's stance against black flight to the suburbs, which in Dreams from My Father is symbolized by Wright telling his secretary not to move to the suburbs to keep her son safe. But, as Fitch suggests, Obama's opaque statement in Dreams -- “And if men like Reverend Wright failed to take a stand, if churches like Trinity refused to engage with real power and risk genuine conflict, then what chance would there be in holding the larger community intact?” -- can be interpreted to mean that Obama wants to play a dual game that Rev. Wright is too stubborn even though it would be in his own interests: Obama wants to play palsy-walsy with people like the Pritzkers, but also to make sure that public housing project blacks are only relocated as far as the South Side, where they can still vote and still attend Rev. Wright's church, not all the way to exurban hickvilles like Round Lake Beach.

Obama told the Reader in 1995:
"I want to do this as much as I can from the grass-roots level, raising as much money for the campaign as possible at coffees, connecting directly with voters," said Obama. "But to organize this district I must get known. And this costs money. I admit that in this transitional period, before I'm known in the district, I'm going to have to rely on some contributions from wealthy people—people who like my ideas but who won't attach strings. This is not ideal, but it is a problem encountered by everyone in their first campaign.
"Once elected, once I'm known, I won't need that kind of money, just as Harold Washington, once he was elected and known, did not need to raise and spend money to get the black vote."
Obama took time off from attending campaign coffees to attend October's Million Man March in Washington, D.C. His experiences there only reinforced his reasons for jumping into politics.
"What I saw was a powerful demonstration of an impulse and need for African-American men to come together to recognize each other and affirm our rightful place in the society," he said. "There was a profound sense that African-American men were ready to make a commitment to bring about change in our communities and lives.
"But what was lacking among march organizers was a positive agenda, a coherent agenda for change. ... 
"But cursing out white folks is not going to get the job done. Anti-Semitic and anti-Asian statements are not going to lift us up. We've got some hard nuts-and-bolts organizing and planning to do. We've got communities to build."

But, of course, in 2000, Obama's plan to follow Harold Washington's career path to the mayor's office by first getting elected to the House of Representatives was derailed by the whupping he got from ex-Black Panther Bobby Rush in black districts. When he recovered from his depression, he gerrymandered his district to include the rich white Gold Coast north of the Loop that, culturally, is his natural base. When Michelle threatened to leave him unless he came up with a workable career strategy, he gave up on winning major power in the callous world of Chicago politics, where voters expect their politicians to be more than just elegant symbols of the electorate's own refinement, but instead to deliver the goods. Obama thus reworked his goals to winning statewide and even national office by taking his ethereal everything-to-everybody act on the road to the more naive parts of white America.

One big question is what precisely was Obama's role in real estate driven changes in Chicago that Fitch outlines. The answer appears to be: eh, not that much. He was there, he looked dignified, he uttered sonorous speeches, he was friends with the players, he tried to foster compromises that would advance the interests of the rich, white and black, without damaging the interests of demagogues like Rev. Wright by driving blacks all the way out of Chicago.

But, as far as I can tell, he doesn't appear to have been a major player himself. He doesn't seem to have been a driving force in the dealmaking. Was this out of scrupulousness (ethical, racial, or careerist)? Or is Obama, on the whole, just more decorative than dynamic?


To flesh out this subtle point about black flight to the suburbs, it's worth quoting from Dreams from My Father at length about Obama's first meeting with Rev. Jeremiah Wright:
Eventually a pretty woman with a brisk, cheerful manner came up and introduced herself as Tracy, one of Reverend Wright’s assistants. She said that the reverend was running a few minutes late and asked if I wanted some coffee. As I followed her back into a kitchen toward the rear of the church, we began to chat, about the church mostly, but also a little about her. It had been a difficult year, she said: Her husband had recently died, and in just a few weeks she’d be moving out to the suburbs. She had wrestled long and hard with the decision, for she had lived most of her life in the city. But she had decided the move would be best for her teenage son. She began to explain how there were a lot more black families in the suburbs these days; how her son would be free to walk down the street without getting harassed; how the school he’d be attending had music courses, a full band, free instruments and uniforms. 
“He’s always wanted to be in a band,” she said softly. 
As we were talking, I noticed a man in his late forties walking toward us. He had silver hair, a silver mustache and goatee; he was dressed in a gray three-piece suit. He moved slowly, methodically, as if conserving energy, sorting through his mail as he walked, humming a simple tune to himself. 
“Barack,” he said as if we were old friends, “let’s see if Tracy here will let me have a minute of your time." ...
“Some people say,” I interrupted, “that the church is too upwardly mobile." 
The reverend’s smile faded. “That’s a lot of bull,” he said sharply. “People who talk that mess reflect their own confusion. They’ve bought into the whole business of class that keeps us from working together. Half of ’em think that the former gang-banger or the former Muslim got no business in a Christian church. Other half think any black man with an education or a job, or any church that respects scholarship, is somehow suspect. 
“We don’t buy into these false divisions here. It’s not about income, Barack. Cops don’t check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car. These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago [William Julius Wilson], talking about ‘the declining significance of race.’ Now, what country is he living in?” 
But wasn’t there a reality to the class divisions, I wondered? I mentioned the conversation I’d had with his assistant, the tendency of those with means to move out of the line of fire. He took off his glasses and rubbed what I now saw to be a pair of tired eyes. 
“I’ve given Tracy my opinion about moving out of the city,” he said quietly. “That boy of hers is gonna get out there and won’t have a clue about where, or who, he is." 
“It’s tough to take chances with your child’s safety." 
“Life’s not safe for a black man in this country, Barack. Never has been. Probably never will be." 
A secretary buzzed, reminding Reverend Wright of his next appointment. We shook hands, and he agreed to have Tracy prepare a list of members for me to meet. Afterward, in the parking lot, I sat in my car and thumbed through a silver brochure that I’d picked up in the reception area. It contained a set of guiding principles-a “Black Value System”-that the congregation had adopted in 1979. ... There was one particular passage in Trinity’s brochure that stood out, though, a commandment more self-conscious in its tone, requiring greater elaboration. “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,” the heading read. “While it is permissible to chase ‘middleincomeness’ with all our might,” the text stated, those blessed with the talent or good fortune to achieve success in the American mainstream must avoid the “psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!”

It's informative to quote that "value" in full from Trinity's website, much of which Obama left of Dreams:
8. Disavowal of the Pursuit of “Middleclassness.” Classic methodology on control of captives teaches that captors must be able to identify the “talented tenth” of those subjugated, especially those who show promise of providing the kind of leadership that might threaten the captor’s control. 
Those so identified are separated from the rest of the people by: 
Killing them off directly, and/or fostering a social system that encourages them to kill off one another. 
Placing them in concentration camps, and/or structuring an economic environment that induces captive youth to fill the jails and prisons. 
Seducing them into a socioeconomic class system which, while training them to earn more dollars, hypnotizes them into believing they are better than others and teaches them to think in terms of “we” and “they” instead of “us.” 
So, while it is permissible to chase “middleclassness” with all our might, we must avoid the third separation method – the psychological entrapment of Black “middleclassness.” If we avoid this snare, we will also diminish our “voluntary” contributions to methods A and B. And more importantly, Black people no longer will be deprived of their birthright: the leadership, resourcefulness and example of their own talented persons.

Keep in mind that Senator Barack Obama donated $26,770 to Jeremiah Wright's church in 2007, according to his tax return. That's while he was running for President.

How do we make sense of all of this seemingly conflicting information about Obama? I suspect the simplest answer is that Obama never quite made sense out of it all either.