The Really OTHER America

the aliens among us

A version of this was originally published in New Ground 97, November — December, 2004.

by Bob Roman

The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when conservatives were largely on the defensive, conservatives spent part of their time studying what their enemies (that’s us) were doing, what worked, what could be applied toward building a conservative movement. We should do the same.

If this seems like an invitation to wade through a sewer of rhetoric and ideological fantasy in search of treasure, this book by two journalists from The Economist is really where you should turn. They pledge in the introduction to avoid the jibes that are commonplace between “the two great political tribes that dominate the American commentariat”. And they succeed. Mostly. After all, they are British, if not European, conservatives, the same genus (perhaps!) but a rather different species than American conservatives. And part of their intended audience is indeed Europeans bemused if not horrified by the Bush phenomenon.

Yet they are journalists. They can certainly synthesize a narrative from a multitude of sources, but they are not particularly good at analysis. And while quotes are documented, statistics frequently are not, leaving the reader wondering about sources and definitions.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge have divided their book into four parts. The first two, “History” and “Anatomy” will be of most interest to a left audience, as they deal with the construction of conservative hegemony in the States.

The history of the contemporary conservative movement, as told by Micklethwait and Wooldridge, parallels Sidney Blumenthal’s 1986 book The Rise of the Counter-Establishment but with additional material, particularly on the Bush dynasty and the Clinton years, thrown in.

According to this narrative, the end of the Great Depression found conservatism absent from American politics, never mind academia, except for a few lonely voices howling in a liberal wilderness. Eisenhower was not a conservative, or at best he was a conservative equivalent to Bill Clinton. But just as the Left was beginning to stir in the form of the Civil Rights movement, the Right was also taking form. Then came Barry Goldwater. The campaign was a disaster and it might have remained so, according to the authors, but for the Democratic Party’s inexplicable (or at least unexplained) lurch to the “far” left.

This is at best a half-truth albeit an interesting half-truth. Lefties will instantly think of the McCarthy witch-hunts, the Taft-Hartley Act, the Cold War, the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about when those post-war years are discussed. Despite the stirrings of the Civil Rights movement and cultural phenomenon like the Beats, the 1940s, 1950s, even the early 1960s were a socially conservative time with the Right having won the last round of culture wars in the first three decades of the century. Abortion was illegal; contraceptives often illegal; sex roles and sexuality still very traditional and not often discussed. (In the 1950s when CORE would picket in protest of racial discrimination, skirts and ties were required!) Prohibition may have died, but if Jim Crow was fatally sickened, it wasn’t particularly obvious at the time.

What the Right lacked then was a unified social movement and institutional infrastructure to support and develop the movement’s ideological rationalizations.

What The Right Nation doesn’t tell you (and to some extent, it’s outside the scope of the book) is the degree to which the history of the Right and the Left parallel each other during that mid-century period. Both sides were interested in an ideological realignment of the Republican and Democratic parties. The Democrats did not veer to the left so much as they were driven that way, often against their will, and much the same could be said of the Republican Party. The authors make it sound as if the Democratic Party left the majority of the electorate behind, when in fact the social movements that had supported the Democratic left turn were in a slow but accelerating process of disintegration. The ground essentially disappeared from beneath the Democrats, leaving some penned in safe liberal district ghettos and others scrambling find a way to take advantage of the conservative social movements that were organizing and unifying.

The details of the historical development of the conservative movement and infrastructure are interesting. There is, for example, the role that the American Enterprise Institute played in the Goldwater campaign, something that gave it credibility at a time when it was still very small (as late as 1969, the Institute had only two resident scholars). Or there is right wing direct mail maven Richard Viguerie’s purchase of George Wallace’s donor list in 1973. (Wallace’s independent run for the Presidency in 1968 ended with many votes and many unpaid bills.)

Then there is the rise of the Christian right. It had always been with us, but as late as 1976, a majority of Evangelical Christians would still vote Democratic. By the 1970s, white Evangelical Protestant churches had a major twenty year investment in “Christian Academies” where Southern whites had re-segregated their children from the now integrated public schools. In 1978, Carter’s IRS began questioning the tax-exempt status of these schools and that started the Evangelical stampede to the Right. The Right Nation is amazingly forthright, though diplomatic, about the role that racism and other chauvinism has played in the construction of the conservative movement.

But the authors’ failure to assess the disintegration of the social movements that drove the Democrats leftward for a while also greatly undermines their discussion of the Clinton years and Bush the Elder’s one term. Expect some insight as to how the Right became what it is but not much enlightenment about the Left. This may seem odd, considering the degree to which conservatives have defined themselves by opposition, but the conservatives’ “left” has always had a more than slightly imaginary tinge to it.

The second part of The Right Nation is a discussion of the “anatomy” of the conservative movement as it is today. It covers some of the same material as Blumenthal’s book but updated and rather broader in scope; appropriately, as Blumenthal is a brilliant Beltway carp and Micklethwait and Wooldridge are wannabee Alistair Cookes. They begin, appropriately enough, with a discussion of George W. Bush’s first term in office. They portray Bush as a Texas export and make a good argument for it but I’m not sure how useful this insight is for the Left.

The next two chapters discuss the ideological infrastructure of the conservative movement, the grassroots movements it supports, and its funding. There are four observations worth taking home from this.

First, while the total volume of money spent on conservative “think tanks” and media is fairly considerable, relatively small amounts of money can often make a big difference. “Relatively” is the key word here. In discussing the financial angels of the Right, the authors identify five major players in the last half of the 20th Century. One of them, Richard Mellon Scaife, is estimated to have contributed $620,000,000 in current dollars over 40 years (p 78). That amounts to only about 15.5 million each year, not a lot even when divided among only several causes. But how much do you really need? So some students want to start a conservative college paper and they have a good business plan? Less than a hundred grand will get it off the ground and in return you have an ongoing farm team for future journalists, scholars, graphic artists, politicians as well as yet another outlet for conservative propaganda. When, over a decade ago, the University of Chicago Young Democratic Socialists wanted to start a community magazine (The Digger), Chicago DSA was able to come up with $600: enough for one issue. Such is the virtue of being able to throw money at a problem and the handicap of poverty. Money is something the Left needs take seriously.

Toxi Sludge Is Good for You
Tom Tomorrow, 1992

Second, one of the features of the conservative movement documented by Micklethwait and Wooldridge (and in Sydney Blumenthal’s The Rise of the Counter-Establishment) is a great investment in “think tanks”, institutes, publications, foundations. What neither book mentions but looking at the institutions themselves seems to imply, is that these are not just public policy shops or ideological knife-grinding services, they also seem to be very much in the business of constructing plausible arguments. Rhetoric, if you will. At its worst (so far), this has resulted in a kind of conservative Lysenko-ism. Global warming is a myth. Soil erosion is no great problem. And on, and on, to Tom Tomorrow’s parody of it: “Toxic sludge is good for you!”

My impression is that of most the left or liberal equivalents are much more concerned with public policy rather than the rhetorical or ideological justification of it. This attention to rhetoric is worth emulating if we can find a way to keep it honest.

Third, it’s common enough to hear lefties complain about the “fragmented” Left. In fact, the Right is no different albeit with some important exceptions. The authors begin their discussion of the Right as a movement with a visit to the 2003 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held annually by the American Conservative Union. They start with a quote from the Duke of Wellington upon reviewing his army on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo: “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy. But, by God, they frighten me.” That CPAC meeting drew 4,000 activists, 1,700 of them students. This is larger but similar in scale to the old Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists conferences in Chicago at their best or the ongoing Socialists Scholars conferences. And like these left equivalents, it’s made up of a multitude of “special” or single issue groups, their primary loyalty not to “conservatism” but to their particular cause. As the authors put it:

“The parallel that springs to mind is, once again, of an army but this time of a medieval army. As king, George W. Bush may place his standard in the center of the line, but most of his troops wear the livery of other causes.” (p 174)

Finally, the authors consider how the Right keeps its troops together. Part of it is a matter of scale:

“Yet the Right is more cohesive than logic suggests. In part this is a matter of personnel. The same names keep recurring in the world of the Right.” (p 195)

According to the authors, this is true as well on all levels: national, state and local. They do not say so, but it’s reasonable to assume that these people not only facilitate communication but also money. You can see a certain amount of this interlocking of organizations on the Left as well: how often have you heard comments about “the usual suspects”? But I suspect the degree of interlocking (particularly between labor and the rest of the Left) could be much better and I suspect we’ll also need alternate, additional means of coordination and solidarity.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge also feel that something more is at work here, “Something even more important than ideology holds the Right together: culture.” (p196) This is, they concede, vague, but politically it works out to: “are you one of us or one of them?”

The Norman Rockwell painting gracing the cover of this book wonderfully illustrates the thesis. It’s set in a crowded working class cafeteria. Cigarette butts litter the floor. A cold gray light filters through a grimy, rain streaked window, rendering the outside industrial urban landscape vague. A quaintly dressed grandmother and her grandson, travelling, have just sat down at the last two spots available. They are saying Grace. Two young men have been at that table longer, possibly much longer with one of them nursing a cup of coffee to placate the proprietor. They stare at grandmother and grandson with a defensive curiosity, uncertain how to react. One of them is wearing a cap with a button clipped to it. A union button, perhaps, and maybe it’s a political journal the two were sharing until interrupted or maybe it’s an utterly trivial publication. They are smoking. Behind the young men, at the left edge of the painting, is an older man in the act of leaving. His face is beat, tired, and prematurely lined with care. He regards the praying couple with a tight smile of some suppressed emotion. In the foreground a stout, balding man with grease permanently embedded in his hands is enjoying a post-meal cigar, newspaper and coffee. He stares at grandmother and child in frank amazement. For surely these two are aliens in this country.

But really, this is “the Right Nation’s” perception of the other America of the Kerry voters, of the “secular humanists”, of baby-killers, of those who are supposed to someday herd Christians into concentration camps. In reality, in such a restaurant two quaint travellers saying Grace would merit a glance not a stare. They would hardly be an incident worthy of comment never mind the moment of small drama illustrated in the painting.

Being journalists, I don’t think Micklethwait and Wooldridge make a strong case for their argument for “culture”, but I do think that they are on to something. Culture wars have been a recurring feature of U.S. politics. It’s not a matter of political economy versus culture. Being an immigrant nation, ethnicity has typically played a major role in how we work and in who gets what. It’s not an either or situation. Politically, culture war has been used strategically, sometimes to maintain control of a potentially chaotic, explosive nation, and sometimes as a wedge to expand popular power (consider the various liberation and civil rights movements of the 1960s).

If the Left is to stop losing, we certainly need to create a common rhetoric, an ideological framework that will reach across the national divide. We certainly need to grow the institutes where ideas and language are developed and power rehearsed. But ultimately, I think we are a pragmatic people. If people turn away from organizing around their economic interests, it’s at least partly because organizing around such interests simply doesn’t seem practical. When union density in the private sector has declined to single digits while a majority of Americans still think a union would be a good idea, can you really argue with their judgement?

Getting rid of Bush might have been a big first step toward changing this. Absent such improvement to our nation, consider giving The Right Nation a read while you’re waiting to mount up for the next skirmish. If you have the time and can find it, you might want to read Sidney Blumenthal’s The Rise of the Counter-Establishment first. The two books are quite complimentary.

Chicago Rallies for Peace and Justice

the guiding principle for the peace movement should be to speak loudly and carry a big stick

A version of this article was originally published in New Ground 96, September — October, 2004.

by Bob Roman

While hundreds of thousands marched against the Bush agenda at the Republican National Convention in New York, similar demonstrations were held on a much smaller scale in numerous cities across the nation on Sunday, August 29. In Chicago, some fifteen hundred people gathered in the Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams for a Unity Rally for Peace and Justice, a demonstration against the Bush agenda.

Some press reports estimated the crowd at 1000, others at 500, and all of them were accurate. It was a bright, unseasonably chilly afternoon. Even fifteen minutes after the scheduled start, there were only a few hundred people. The numbers then ballooned until, after about an hour, people began drifting away faster than they gathered. But people had come from all across the metropolitan area and beyond. A “feeder” rally was organized in DuPage County with participants taking the train into Chicago, a chartered bus came from the Rogers Park neighborhood, and car pools were organized from as far away as Fort Wayne, Indiana.

One of the goals of the rally was to answer the policies that the Bush Administration would be advocating at the Republican National Convention by providing the news media with an alternate story. And the rally was somewhat successful at this despite the modest turnout.

The “Unity Rally for Peace and Justice” was organized by a coalition of community, labor, political and religious organizations. In July, a call to organize the rally was issued by 30 of the leaders who had organized the March 16, 2003, Daly Plaza demonstration against the Iraq war. The number of participating groups grew to over 60 by August 29. Much of the organizing work was done by Chicago Jobs with Justice and its Committee for New Priorities, Chicago Labor for Peace Prosperity and Justice, Chicagoans Against War and Injustice, and the American Friends Service Committee. But the event actually mobilized a significant percentage of the sponsoring organizations to help with various tasks beyond mobilizing their own people.

Rallies such as this one are not cheap. This event had a bare bones budget of $12,000. That this was an ad hoc coalition and that the money had to be raised in a month and a half, these facts made fundraising interesting. Deep pocket contributions from SEIU and UNITE HERE started the process, but the overwhelming majority of the money came in smaller amounts from each of the other sponsors, including Chicago DSA. Some additional money came from a grant and from individuals.

The rally organizers emphasized that the opposition to the Bush agenda was far more than just being against the Iraq war and occupation. But they did want that issue prominently displayed at the rally. To that end, Chicago DSA distributed hundreds of fluorescent “No War” buttons. DSA signs also complimented the broader agenda of the demonstration and were quoted by the press, for example: “Bush says leave no billionaire behind” and “Georgie Porgie, president by theft. We will not miss you, once you have left.”

The rally organizers needn’t have worried about the war. While the speakers at the rally did indeed cover a range of issues, they also made the war a central issue. It is ironic, then, that the speakers almost uniformly boosted Kerry, a candidate with not exactly an anti-Iraq war record. (The organizers had told the speakers that this was not a Kerry rally, but once you let people loose on a platform…) It’s even more ironic that the best turn out for the rally was from the anti-war movement.

But I think it’s true that if the rally audience had been polled, the vote would have been overwhelmingly (not at all unanimously) for Kerry. And it’s not that most of those (and certainly not the rally organizers) have any great expectations for Kerry. We’ve had far too many Presidents who have promised peace then delivered war. For example, Daniel Ellsberg pointed out in his memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, how U.S. policy toward Vietnam was really pretty consistent from Truman through Nixon. Ellsberg does not claim that it makes no difference who wins a presidential election even in the context of Vietnam, but it does illustrate the difficulty in voting for peace except, perhaps, as a gesture or wishful thinking.

Yet from Tariq Ali to George Kennan, analysts have noted how domestic political considerations in the States (and we are not unique) have driven U.S. foreign policy. In electoral politics here, the foremost principle guiding most of our politicians is “Cover Your Ass.” It seems that it should be easy: that the guiding principle for the peace movement should be to speak loudly and carry a big stick.

Except it’s never so straightforward. Because of the deliberately built in advantages of incumbency (including gerrymandering of districts), Kerry will (should he win) most likely face a Congress still run by Republicans, Republicans mostly well protected by safe districts. It will be conservatives who have a first and best shot at Kerry’s hams.

What to do? This is very much on the minds of the rally organizers. And in the weeks and months following the November elections, you will be hearing more from them as part of an effort to address that very question. But that brings us to the final goal of this rally, one explicit in its title: unity.

Those with an eye for such things will have noticed a fairly well balanced selection of speakers at the rally, from politicians (Representatives Schakowsky and Gutierrez, Alderman Munoz), labor (Lynn Talbott and Tom Balanoff), religious, community and others. This was not to display an aesthetic of political correctness; these speakers were intended to illustrate the breadth of opposition to the Bush agenda and the unity of the opposition to it. I’m afraid the latter is mostly wishful thinking.

First, my experience with ad hoc coalitions has been that they do their work then die or they are institutionalized as an organization or as part of an organization, gaining resources while narrowing in scope. Except that the core of this coalition is a network of organizations that have a history of working together, I don’t see that there is any reason to expect things to be different. The coalition that organized this rally will not be that One Big Venue sought so earnestly and endlessly by the left, nor will it even be the harbinger of it.

Second, with respect to foreign policy, the movement has always been fragmented among a variety of ideologies, theologies and constituencies, all speaking in one way or another to a basic political fracture. That is: it would be possible to develop a laundry list of policies and approaches to policy for a democratic, peaceful foreign policy that would be supported by a large majority of the movement. But there would be no agreement on whether it would be possible to use as tools the State Department or the Defense Department to implement such a policy. The arguments vary from case to case, from ideology to ideology, etc., but the point is the permanent lack of agreement.

The peace movement is fairly good at saying “no”. Often enough that is a good and honorable statement. But it is a crippled vehicle for proactive advocacy.

Even so, the Unity Rally for Peace and Justice accomplished most of its immediate goals. The two most common criticisms were that, however worthy individually, the speakers in sum were too much. And a great many people really were not in the mood to be talked at; they wanted to march, to demonstrate their displeasure, something that a rally alone did not provide.

Dark Money

Dark matter mysteriously warps space-time; dark energy mysteriously speeds the expansion of the universe; dark money subverts our democracy. How? This 2016 video will explain the money part, at least. You’ll have to go elsewhere for the physics.

Incidentally, if you’re at all concerned about foreign influence on our elections, the role of “social welfare” 501c4 organizations seems to be getting overlooked. These nonprofit corporations do not need to publicly disclose their donors so there is no telling where that money is coming from. Occasionally, some hapless foreigner gets caught and a candidate fined, but it’s usually egregious carelessness that does them in. Democrats have gotten burned as well as Republicans.

I have filled out IRS corporate tax returns; for many years Chicago DSA had to file. I can tell you that, back then, large donors did need to be reported… to the IRS but that donor information was not public though the rest of the return is required to be public. It’s like being a professional criminal; the IRS is legally bound to not give a damn provided you file and pay any tax.

For you right-wing conspiracy nuts out there, Chicago DSA never had any contributions large enough to be reported.

However, for other conspiracy aficionados, the McClatchy wire service reported on January 18 that the FBI was investigating whether various Russian interests had supported Trump’s Presidential campaign by routing the money through the National Rifle Association:

“The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.

“FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia‚Äôs central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA, the sources said.

“It is illegal to use foreign money to influence federal elections.”

Read more about it HERE. There’s a lot more to the article.

If Trump activists feel put upon (Putin upon? begging your pardon.), I strongly suspect, with no more evidence than my cynicism, that several other Presidential campaigns received foreign money laundered through independent campaigns and 501c4 corporations in 2016 and before, and I wouldn’t rule out Clinton either.

It’s time we had elections in the United States instead of auctions.


Lest We Forget Thee, Bronzeville

This was originally published in New Ground 93, March — April, 2004. The second of the projected three volumes came out in 2008, and I’m ashamed to say that I quite neglected it. Posting this has put it back on my to-do list.

by Bob Roman

Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration, an Oral History by Timuel Black, Jr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press / Chicago: DuSable Museum, 2003. 616 pages, hardcover, $29.95

Let me begin with the trivial. This is a physically lovely book. Now and again I encounter a book that, as an object, is just a pleasure to hold. In my more prosperous moments, the content of such a book almost doesn’t matter. For this book, the moths in my wallet turned to gold.

But Timuel Black’s book may not be what the casual browser expects. The book includes a complimentary forward by the distinguished University of Chicago historian John Hope Franklin and it is to the point. It also includes a fulsome forward by Studs Terkel. Studs Terkel has done some wonderful work with oral histories, but he is not really an historian. He is a journalist, an entertainer, and most especially a polemical storyteller. Terkel’s people may tell their own stories in their own words, but in sum they provide chapters in Terkel’s own narrative. Bridges of Memory deserves Terkel’s praise but the reader should not expect a book by Terkel.

What Timuel Black has given us, the first in a projected series of three volumes, is basically an edited anthology of field notes. While Black has an agenda, his interviews do not tell a story in the way that Terkel’s more popular work would have had them do. Methodology was never one of my interests so I can’t comment on Black’s interview technique, but I can tell you that much of what you will get from this book will be based on what you bring to it.

For someone oblivious to Chicago history and most particularly to Black Chicago history, these interviews might quickly blur into one geezer after another wheezing about How Tough Things Were, How Better Things Were (even the women were prettier), What I Accomplished, and The Kids These Days. So there’s a point to this, dude?

Well, yes. Imagine, if you would, that some decades ago Manhattan had been hit by a few neutron bombs. There might have been some property damage, some even severe, but mostly it would have been depopulated and since become the home for people who could find no refuge anywhere else. Even a Chicagoan can appreciate what a cultural void this would leave. And if you had been there during the glory years, wouldn’t you wish to preserve a living memory of what those times had been like? This may overstate what has happened to Chicago’s “Black Metropolis”, but it is the essence of it and of what Timuel Black intends.

There has always been a Black Chicago. Our contemporary city was founded by Jean Baptiste Pointe de Saible (DuSable), after all, and by the 1840s there was a small community of fugitive slaves from the South and free Blacks from the East, mostly on Chicago’s south side. They were not well appreciated by their neighbors. Blacks could not vote. They could not testify in court against whites. Intermarriage was forbidden by law. Segregation in schools, public accommodations and transportation was legal and maintained. Chicago may not have cared for slavery, but neither did Chicago care for slavery’s victims.

It is one of life’s multitude of ironies that by the time of the first great wave of Black migration to Chicago, the legal status of Blacks in Illinois had improved considerably. By the 1870s, Blacks could and did vote and formal school segregation had been outlawed. Probably because Blacks did vote, when the U.S. Supreme Court began voiding Federal civil rights legislation, Illinois passed its own. If the Illinois laws were not especially effective, neither were they dead letters. They were occasionally enforced. This was enough to leave useful fractures in what was a formidable wall of white fear, hatred and exploitation.

Even so, Blacks arriving in the city found they were severely limited in where they could live, what jobs they could realistically aspire to have, what education was available, what businesses they might create. This resulted in a physically compact (Manhattan is an apt comparison), solidary community. It also resulted in a split ideology that on one hand aspired to be a part of (or at least have access to) the larger society on an equal basis and on the other hand, despairing of its practicality temporarily or permanently, emphasized racial solidarity, “self help” and alternative institutions.

It is the latter that informs Bridges of Memory. It’s true, as Studs Terkel points out in his forward, that the majority of the interviewees in this first volume are well to do or upper class members of the Black community but it’s also beside the point. The people Timuel Black selected for this first volume are the pioneers, the institution builders. It forms Black’s definition of “the first wave”, by which he means the people who came to the city during the first flowering of African-American institutions or their children. It also informs the index to this volume, in which individuals are pretty thoroughly indexed but organizations are not.

Each interview is prefaced by an introductory essay by Black. These essays are quite helpful in placing the subject of the interview, both generally and frequently in relation to the author. Occasionally, as in the introduction to the Willis Thomas interview, they are minor nuggets of history in and of themselves. The introductions are often admiring, sometimes with the affection of a friend, but sometimes with an appreciation for accomplishment made more piquant by a web of mutual acquaintance.

The introductions and the interviews portray a community whose members were very much aware of one another, where competition was a part of cooperation, where each one’s victory was a victory for more than just one’s self. You can see this in the almost routine awareness of “firstness”. And why not? In a community compressed and hemmed by racism, something as mundane as becoming a taxidermist for a major museum became another open door of possibilities.

Likewise, a portion of each interview is spent on location. Where did you live and when? Who else was living there? The interviews, cumulatively, give the sense that this is more than just of historical interest. At the time, it would have been an item of gossip, of important social information. Because in the circumstance of housing inadequate in size and in quality and over-priced as well, information about new places where it would be safe (permitted) to live was of some immediate consequence. It might even be an interesting project to map the locations mentioned in the interviews by date and type.

The interviews are interesting in varying degree. My favorite was actually the last, with Dr. Barbara Bowman, the head of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school affiliated with Loyola University in Chicago. This was mostly because of her discussion of her work and the application of Erik Erikson’s model of child development to education.

For me, the most intriguing interviews were with Jimmy Ellis and Morris Ellis, brothers and successful musicians. These interviews caught my attention concerning a topic mentioned in almost in passing: the merger of the segregated Black Musicians Union Local 208 with the white Chicago Local 10. Both brothers are rather bitter about the merger, on the face of it a victory for civil rights, because they feel Black musicians ended up losing more than gaining anything from it. Both quit the union. What I find particularly interesting about this is the thought of how much more there may be to this story.

Musicians, performing artists in general and many other skilled trades unions, are not just workers. Musicians can also be bosses by being band leaders or even impresarios. They are also property owners, landlords in a sense, by being owners of intellectual property. If they become sufficiently successful, they might become themselves property: stars, “hot commodities”. Many unions recognize this by circumscribing the roles their members can play in the union depending upon their role in the profession. For example, one of the scandals that rolled off Ronald Reagan like egg off teflon was the question of whether he was really eligible to serve as President of the Screen Actors Guild based on his role in producing the TV series “Death Valley Days” (he was more than just the Host).

Indeed, Morris Ellis gives Red Saunders a disgruntled, sanctioned member of Local 208 and a major community impresario, an unspecified major role in bringing about the merger. Saunders had been sanctioned because, Ellis says, Local 208 finally stopped letting Saunders get “away with all kinds of stuff” in his employment practices at his place of business. Given that Black praises both the Ellis brothers as being businessmen as well as musicians and given the nature of their specific complaints, one wonders just whose ox was really gored by the merger and what else may have happened to hurt the working Black musician. What intrigues me is the thought that the merger and other changes in the music entertainment business may be a great case study for what happened to the larger community that Timuel Black is documenting: an after the fact canary in the mine, so to speak.

Readers with an interest in history will find other such nuggets of interest in these interviews. I’m serious when I suggest this volume may be a worthwhile place to look for dissertation topics.

Scholars are one of Black’s target audiences. The other is “young black people under the age of forty” who know little of this history. I’m a bit dubious as Americans in general and The Kids These Days in particular tend to be fairly ahistorical. But the timing of release of this book is great as many others are thinking along the same lines. One example is the HistoryMakers project ( that on March 13 had an affair at the Palmer House where they honored several dozen historical notables, including Timuel Black.

I think we are seeing the construction of a Myth comparable to the classic American taming or winning of the “Wild West”. Myth is a necessary part of civilization, but there’s always collateral damage in such projects. Some may be concerned about scholarship (always a casualty) but there are political concerns as well. The HistoryMakers web site has an interesting institutional and biographical dictionary wherein all ideology is erased from radicalism. It is possible, for example, that Bobby Rush today would not object to the Black Panther Party being described as simply a “progressive organization”, but I can’t help but wonder what he would have thought back then.

There’s also a personal concern. Heroism is a great way of setting the imagination afire, of priming ambition with possibilities other than the often self-destructive hedonism of the consumer culture. But luck always plays a role. For all the heroes feted by such projects as the HistoryMakers, there are uncounted casualties buried anonymously along the road, out of sight, out of mind. The dark side of the heroic myth is that even in these relatively benign times, it is the equivalent of encouraging human wave assaults against automatic weapons.

It will be interesting to see to what extent, if at all, the next two volumes of Timuel Black’s work deal with ideology and ideological organizations. In the meantime, if you have an interest in history, buy this book. (The Chicago Public Library has many copies, but you won’t find them!)

Health Care Justice!

Everybody In! Nobody Out!

This was originally published in New Ground 93, March — April, 2004. I’m not sure what was gained through the process put in place by the Health Care Justice Act except to further open the door for the leadership of the Campaign for Better Health Care to abandon their commitment to a “single-payer” health insurance. This was not inevitable, but (see paragraph 10) I can say, “I told you so!”

by Bob Roman

By the time you read this, the Illinois Senate should have passed the latest iteration of the Health Care Justice Act. This is the legislative equivalent of the proposed Bernadin Amendment to the Illinois Constitution. The Bernadin Amendment would have committed the State to institute a universal health care system. The Health Care Justice Act would commit the Illinois state legislature to passing a universal health care act by 2007. Rather than going through the legislature, it sets up a task force of stake holders to write the bill. This latest iteration is numbered SB 2581 and HB 4562.

The Campaign for Better Health Care has been working versions of this bill for some years now. They never had much success until the Democrats took control of the Illinois legislature. Last session, the bill made it through the Illinois House but was blocked in the Senate by a few Democrats who took exception to the requirement that the legislature pass whatever the task force composed. This was partly a matter of principle, but you wouldn’t be overly cynical to assume it was the insurance industry attempting to preserve a veto over whatever the task force my come up with.

Efforts to move the bill were given a boost by the fortuitous coincidence of a National Day of Action on health care declared by Jobs with Justice and the labor movement. Chicago DSA participated in this by distributing stickers and information encouraging people to call their state legislators to support the bill. We targeted our members and individuals that we’ve had contact on the issue for the past several years. Many other organizations did the same. That some 50,000 stickers were distributed in Illinois alone gives some idea of the size of the campaign.

The Day of Action also involved a number of workplace actions where health care is an issue. It linked up with SEIU’s Hospital Accountability Project that is intimately involved in hospitals’ care of the uninsured for an action at Christ Hospital. The Day of Action in Illinois may not have generated much press but it did generate some buzz in places where it needed to be heard.

The barricade in the Senate was removed by simply conceding the issue. The proponents of the bill agreed that it would be amended to allow the Illinois legislature to pass, delay or kill the legislation composed by the task force. This doesn’t exactly “gut” the bill though it changes its nature considerably. Universal health care is now not the inevitability that the original bill implied, but it is still on a “fast track”. This issue removed, the bill now appears set for passage in the Senate and, having made it through okay in the last session, passage in the House.

That a major item of legislation should move in an election year is partly to do with the Democrats controlling both houses. Even more significantly, the bill has picked up some Republican co-sponsors and a number of health care, insurance industry and business endorsers (Chicago Chamber of Commerce!!). Much of this all most certainly has to do with the deepening health care crisis: the way issues of affordability and access to care are moving up the class structure, the way insurance costs are affecting hiring decisions by employers, the way these costs are affecting labor relations, and the way these costs are affecting companies’ “ability to compete”. All of these are things “we told you so”.

But some of this also reflects the symbolic role of the legislation at this time. The Health Care Justice Act does not commit this body of legislators to do anything while it also sounds great without being specific. This is primo politician bait.

In fact the really hard part comes next. The task force will be appointed, and just who is appointed will be important to its success or failure. This is where leadership or its lack will play a real role.

Then there is the actual work of the task force. Because public hearings are an integral part of the plan, there is an opportunity for grass roots organization to participate. Given that the legislation now gives the Illinois legislature a veto, it would be wise to also find ways of involving, even in an ex officio way, as many members of the legislature as practical.

The product of the task force will almost certainly be some manner of universal health care insurance plan rather than a health care system. Because of the political power wealth brings and because of the way creating opportunities for accumulating wealth is such a part of the script for government in our country, there will be a powerful inclination to try to do this with some mixture of private and public insurance. It will probably resemble Nixon’s 1971 approach to the problem that mandated standards for employment based insurance with public subsidies for marginal and small employers and a public system for those not employed.

This is a politically cheap and a fiscally expensive approach. The public system will almost certainly be stuck with most of the more expensive clients. Retaining employment based, private insurance will not significantly reduce costs to employers or employees even with public subsidies. Thus a disincentive to hire and a competitive handicap for international business will remain. The public cost will be greater at a time when state finances are not good and politicians are unwilling to face the issue of tax reform. And private insurance is generally more expensive to run: more administrative overhead, the need to return a profit, vulnerability to downturns in the financial markets that in turn increase premiums. There are probably ways to minimize much of this, but retain private insurance and you’re stuck with them.

Medicare - socialismBut a more radical approach will almost certainly be subject to an attempted veto by the insurance industry and ideologues of the right. Unless there is a significant change in public attitudes in the next few years, the veto would likely be successful; the legislature is now under no obligation to pass the task force’s bill.

The political demands on advocates of universal health care are legion and constrained by time. The creation and operation of the task force mandated to write the bill will require a focused attention to detail. But the success of the task force will require a canny and focused campaign of public education and agitation, and not simply preaching to the choir, a mistake every one in politics commits but one the left is particularly prone to do. These are tasks beyond the capacity of any one organization, but this adds the problems of consensus and coordination to the mix.

We can do it.

Immigrant Freedom Ride

This was originally published in New Ground 91, November — December, 2003.

by Bob Roman

The Chicago leg of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride hit the road from a rally held at Chicago’s downtown Federal Plaza on Saturday, September 27. Organizers claimed some 3,000 people attended on a beautiful fall afternoon. My guess would have been about half as many, but even the official number was rather less than the organizers’ original ambitions and less than some other rallies held in support of immigrant rights in Chicago in recent years. This diminished turn out seemed fairly consistent across the country though the final rally in New York drew somewhere around 100,000.

counter demonstrators
Counter demonstrators at Immigrant Freedom Ride rally. Photo by Roman.
2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
Backup crowd control. Photo by Roman.

There were even some counter demonstrators at the Chicago rally, though they were few indeed and limited to the ideological fringe: some unknown variety of Nazi and Matt Hale’s “World Church of the Creator”. Police insisted they remain across Dearborn and for good reason. Some of the Freedom Ride Rally’s ideological fringe definitely wanted to get it on.

On October 1, in addition to passing a resolution disapproving of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution supporting the Freedom Ride.

I’m not sure what to make of the turnouts because in many other ways the Freedom Ride was a success. In particular, the press coverage was large and sympathetic, a mother load of human interest stories about the immigrant experience today and yesterday, and memories of the Civil Rights movement.

This sympathetic media atmosphere makes it more difficult for rightwing demagogues to set up immigrants as hate objects. Though they keep trying. “Freeloading Free Riders”, “The Attack of the Open Border Elites”, “When Did America Lose the Rule of Law” were some of the typical web headlines on right wing “news” sites.

2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
The 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally with Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo” stabile as a backdrop. Photo by Roman

Some of this vitriol was in connection with one of the victories associated with the Freedom Rides: the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the “DREAM Act” to the full Senate for a vote. This legislation would allow undocumented children who entered the U.S. before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, have graduated from high school and don’t have a criminal record, to get conditional residency for six years. They have that time to attend colleges at the in-state rate and they become eligible for citizenship if they spend at least two years in college or in the U.S. military.

The bill has broad, bi-partisan support in the Senate with some three dozen and counting cosponsors. It stands a reasonably good chance of passing. The companion bill in the House, “The Student Adjustment Act”, remains bottled up in committee. Likewise, the two more comprehensive immigration reform bills mentioned in New Ground 90, HR 440 and HR 152, have not stirred in any way.

Chicago DSA had supported the Ride and the Rally by doing a 4,300 piece post card mailing urging members and friends to attend. Photos of the Freedom Ride Rally are posted on our web site.

2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
Headdress at 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally. Photo by Roman



This was published in New Ground 91, November — December, 2003. Chicago DSA was a member organization of the Chicagoland Coalition on Civil Liberties and Rights and I attended many of the Coalition’s meetings. This was a project that the late Tom Broderick also did a great deal of work on. Libertarians did indeed complain about the USA PATRIOT Act, but they were scarce on the ground during this particular fight. The Coalition remained a center-left entity.

by Bob Roman

Score one for the good guys. On October 1, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution against the USA PATRIOT Act. The vote was overwhelming. Only seven aldermen voted against the resolution. Chicago became the largest city to join a national campaign to put America on record against this law. By the end of October, three states (Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont) and 197 municipalities and counties had passed resolutions and ordinances in opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act. In Illinois, Evanston preceded Chicago by passing a stronger resolution last May.

The campaign for the resolution began early this year with the formation of the Chicagoland Coalition on Civil Liberties and Rights (see New Ground 88). The Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights served as an organizational center for the Coalition, but it very quickly picked up support from religious, community, political and anti-war groups. Of particular interest is the joint work done on this campaign by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Muslim Civil Rights Center.

By July, a proposed resolution had been introduced in the City Council by Helen Shiller (Ward 46), Joe Moore (Ward 49), Freddrenna Lyle (Ward 6) and Ricardo Munoz (Ward 22). It quickly gathered more than a Council majority of cosponsors and avowed supporters. Everyone was cheered by this but nobody thought this guaranteed the resolution would pass. There have been far too many past examples of legislation with nominal majority support in the Chicago City Council that never emerged from committee or were killed when it did or were seriously compromised.

Considering that the Chicagoland Coalition is very much an ad hoc entity with many of the strengths and weaknesses of such, it did mount a credible lobbying and educational campaign, including a well attended July 10th public forum (see New Ground 89). Member organizations also produced educational materials with talking points and some of them held meetings with local aldermen. Nonetheless, some observers opine that it was the aldermen who introduced the resolution who did the “heavy lifting” with regard to the Council.

Whatever the case, the public side of the struggle in the Council was the September 25th Committee on Human Relations hearing on the Resolution. Member organizations of the Coalition, including Chicago DSA, did their best to turn out an audience for the hearing, and if the Council chambers were not standing room only, empty seats were a distinct minority. At least one high school class attended the hearing as a civics lesson.

Anyone can sign up to speak at most City Council hearings, and many in the audience took the opportunity to do so; however, in the week prior to the hearing, the Committee members and the Coalition agreed upon a list of witnesses. Those who signed up at the door would be accommodated as time allowed and, as it happened, time did not allow. As a partial consequence, only one person testified against the Resolution, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. In a peculiar way, he ended up being the star of the event. He certainly did as much damage to the cause of the Resolution as the other witnesses did in its favor. Yet in doing so, he managed to also demolish his own cause.

In essence, Fitzgerald’s testimony came to this: most of the abuses critics attach to the USA PATRIOT Act were done using laws already on the books and many of the “new” tools available through the Act were already on the books. Detention of immigrants? Didn’t use the PATRIOT Act. Look at your library records? Could already do that. Bank records? Ditto. Sneak and peek? Been there. Done that. The main practical consequence of the Act, he contended, has been to facilitate communication among law enforcement agencies and with the intelligence “community”. This improved communication, he implied, made life much easier for law enforcement.

Patriot businessman
Meme graphic against the USA PATRIOT Act.

The Committee members reacted with some deference to Mr. Fitzgerald’s assertions. After all, what elected official would care to be accused of interfering with law enforcement? But one Alderman did observe that the USA PATRIOT Act was a large document. If the only substantive change for law enforcement was a matter of communication, why did we need this massive legislation? The question went unanswered though the image of a stampeding herd of panic stricken Congressmen hastily covering their butts probably came to more than one mind.

Anti-USA PATRIOT ACT meme graphic.

Mr. Fitzgerald did not go unanswered though it mostly came five days later in a three page press release from the Chicago Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Some of the press release addresses points that, on the face of it, only a lawyer could love, such as does the USA PATRIOT Act create a new crime of “domestic terrorism”? The press release does make a case as to why this matters, but the strongest point in its argument addresses Fitzgerald’s claim that the USA PATRIOT Act had nothing to do with immigrant detentions:

“Title IV of the USA PATRIOT Act calls for the ‘fast-track’ creation of entry and exit databases to track non-citizens entering the U.S. without immigrant visas, e.g. foreign students, businesspeople and tourists. This data is also available to be shared not only among all Federal, state and local law enforcement, but with foreign governments as well. Since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Federal government has issued regulations known as the ‘Special Registration’ program that specifically target only adult males from 20 predominantly Muslim countries plus North Korea, requiring that they register each year and each time they move or change jobs. Many non-citizens have complied with this new regulation, only to be detained for days or weeks on minor irregularities in their files. While the USA PATRIOT Act did not specify how this entry and exit database was to be operated, we can see the earliest fruits of it in operation today.”

It was Fitzgerald’s contention that the USA PATRIOT Act had nothing to do with immigrant detentions that brought the strongest reaction from the audience: an extended snort of disbelief. Fitzgerald’s insistence that this was true incorporated the useful legal strategy of limiting the discussion to the USA PATRIOT Act thus excluding the broader context. But in doing so, Fitzgerald made the tactical error of looking backward to address the audience. This constricted his vocal cords, making his reply sound like the bleat of a cornered animal. This was the voice of a man uneasy in his position. Was it the contortion or was it a guilty conscience?

It should be a guilty conscience. For while nearly every critique offered at the Committee Hearing at least touched upon this, the central danger of the USA PATRIOT Act is the way in which it systematically amends and supplements a whole range of already existing legislation to remove procedural safeguards, create walls of secrecy, and create an environment where law enforcement and prosecutors can operate with impunity.

Fitzgerald’s ultimate dismemberment of his own case was to present the Act as nothing more than an extension of already existing legislation. What we are seeing revealed in this interlaced network of already existing legislation is the basic architecture of an American police state. Chicken-Little libertarians and smash-the-state marxist-leninists have been proclaiming Leviathan for more than a lifetime. Judged in the context of U.S. history, the USA PATRIOT Act might not seem too drastic. But put it in the context of a prison-industrial complex, put it in the context of the new Department of Homeland Security and the prospect of a security-industrial complex, put it in the context of a politically motivated war against an ill defined enemy that could go on for how long? Put it in that context and one is suddenly reminded that “even paranoids have enemies”.

The movement against the USA PATRIOT Act shows every sign of continuing to grow. There is, for example, an ongoing effort to make Oak Park the next Chicago area local government to disapprove of the Act. The Chicagoland Coalition on Civil Liberties and Rights’ role in this movement is still to be decided. Should it attempt to have Illinois join the three states already on board? Should it encourage or help organize campaigns in counties and municipalities downstate? Should it press Chicago to go further and, as some cities have done, adopt an ordinance requiring non-cooperation? A conference is very tentatively planned for early December to discuss just these questions.

Patriot nerd
Anti-USA PATRIOT Act meme graphic.