November 25, 1987

was a Wednesday and found me on a train, delayed, sitting in the LaSalle Street terminal in downtown Chicago. I was on my way to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving. It was a morning of shock and desolation for me and for much of Chicago. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black Mayor, had just died of a massive heart attack. He was 65 years old.

The train was delayed because, coincidentally, a stout middle-aged man had collapsed in the doorway of my passenger car. The paramedics were called. Someone was giving him chest compressions. When they arrived, the paramedics got him stabilized enough to move, but it didn’t look hopeful, nor did it look hopeful, at that moment, for Chicago.

My own involvement with Washington was simply as one of the thousands of volunteers who worked on his 1983 and 1987 campaigns for Mayor. It was mostly phone work for me, as I recall, though there may have been a few occasions for canvassing and voter registration… It’s been a while and memory fades.

Washington’s reign as Mayor also corresponded with several years when I was more or less taking a break from politics, except occasionally in a “Jimmy Higgins” role. My organization, the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), had endorsed Washington’s 1983 campaign at a meeting in a church in the Logan Square / Palmer Square area. Harold Washington appeared at the meeting to make a pitch for his campaign. I remember being at the meeting though I no longer recall what Washington had to say.

DSA, I should add, made a credible contribution to Washington’s 1983 and 1987 campaigns in terms of volunteers, campaign leadership, and even some money. This was not reported then nor is has it been mentioned in any of the Chicago histories or Washington biographies that I’ve read.* Part of it is a cultural bias. Have you noticed how the indexes of U.S. histories mention far more individuals than they do organizations; how the histories are written mostly about individuals and not about organizations? It was also a very different time politically. An organization like DSA would not have been considered part of mainstream politics and thus not in the horse race. Plus, Washington’s “horse race” would be mostly decided in the Black and Hispanic wards. That was why he insisted on a successful voter registration drive prior to formally beginning the 1983 campaign. Most histories follow the story in those communities. Everywhere else was a side-show. In that side-show, DSA’s contribution was matched or more by the Independent Voters of Illinois — Independent Precinct Organization (then the Illinois affiliate of the Americans for Democratic Action, maybe 2 to 4 times Chicago DSA’s size with a good deal more money) and the Heart of Uptown Coalition (a community group).

The last time I saw Harold Washington was just a few weeks before his death. It was at a banquet that was part of a “Democratic Alternatives for Illinois” conference held in Chicago. “Democratic Alternatives” was a series of conferences organized across the nation by DSA but this particular event was organized primarily by the Illinois Public Action Council (now known as Citizen Action / Illinois) with DSA and other groups (including some unions) in a supporting role. All of the conferences were directed at strengthening the left in electoral politics, but this one had a particular urgency as Washington’s second term would be the first where he had majority support in the Chicago City Council. His hands were finally free of an obstructionist opposition, but so were Washington’s allies. Washington had a stellar record as a state legislator and as a U.S. Representative, but he had his start as part of the Mayor Daley’s Regular Democrats. This made for awkward choices while he was in the Illinois legislature. Not all of his community and city council support were all that interested in liberal / left policies but would have preferred to simply trade a White political machine for one of color. Washington faced a municipal budget crisis not too dissimilar to what Chicago faces today, and his response was “austerity”. To paraphrase Marx, humans make history, but not just as they please. How would or could Washington balance these tensions?

We’ll never know.

And yet, those brief four years that he was Mayor made a huge difference in Chicago’s political culture. Some of it was timing and some of it was Washington himself. But that’s another story.

* I don’t claim to have read any where near everything published about Washington’s campaigns. I do know that Jim Weinstein mentioned DSA in passing in an In These Times op-ed about the Chicago municipal election in April of 1983. But that was a socialist publication. Right-wing polemicists (Stanley Kurtz, as an example) for whom merely mentioning the word “socialist” is an inspiration to fear and outrage discovered DSA’s support for Washington some years ago, mostly in the context trying to persuade people that Obama is / was a socialist: an excellent example of how ideology can sometimes make people politically tone deaf. They ramped up the noise around that narrative right when the economy was crashing.

I don’t recall that the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (a predecessor organization to DSA) was particularly involved with Washington’s unsuccessful 1977 campaign for Mayor, but the New American Movement (the other predecessor organization to DSA) certainly was.


How to Rig an Election

A review by Bob Roman

How to Rig an Election by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. Yale University Press, 2018. 310 pages, $26.00.

howtoriganelectionBeing a Dude of a Certain Age gives one the potential (at least) for a perspective informed by history. In my case, also being a long-time Chicagoan, I listen to conservative ravings about voter fraud with a certain amount of sympathy. Don’t get me wrong. It is raving: a toxic mix of deliberate lies and Stage IV cynicism…. But election fraud, of which voter fraud is but one manifestation, does indeed happen. And any activist participating in Chicago elections up until about 1990 would have been either a witness to voter fraud or blind. Thus it is completely natural that I grabbed this book from the Chicago Public Library shelf as soon as I saw it.

What Cheeseman and Klaas have not done is provide a how-to cookbook on the subject. Their primary interest is in examining the increasing number of multiparty elections being held in the world in the face of a coincident general decline of democracy. They take the Polity IV scores for democracy (an established political science measuring tool with CIA finger prints) of nations and divide the nations into four categories: pure authoritarian, dominant authoritarian, competitive authoritarian, and electorally democratic. It is the middle two categories that are of interest to the authors. Why would the ruling elite (and especially the guy at the top) go through the charade of having an election? What are the strategies they apply to ensure a favorable outcome? Why do they choose one strategy over another?

This is not an exercise in kicking around the less developed world. The authors emphasize that the strategies surveyed have been practiced nearly everywhere and some date back to the Roman Republic. They illustrate the strategies with case studies from Belarus to the United States (including Chicago). The strategies discussed are reflected in the chapter titles: Invisible rigging: How to steal an election without getting caught; Buying hearts and minds: The art of electoral bribery; Divide and rule: Violence as a political strategy; Hack the election: Fake news and the digital frontier; Ballot-box stuffing: The last resort; Potemkin elections: How to fool the West.

Every strategy is going to present trade-offs in terms of benefits, costs, and possible consequences. Cheeseman and Klaas attempt to show the choices made are reasonable decisions though not necessarily rational decisions. (Inherent biases do not make for maximized self-interest.) The authors seem to feel that access to foreign aid is a significant factor in these calculations. The book didn’t provide me with any means of deciding just how important a factor it is though maybe it’s a cheap way of financing a military. They do examine just how consequential charges of fraud are to foreign aid. For aid provided by the United States, the consequences vary widely, apparently on geopolitical considerations.

It’s also not always clear just what constitutes “rigging”. The authors do deal with this ambiguity. For example, vote buying: in some cultures, it might be legal if not also expected. If the secrecy of the ballot is preserved, does it really make much of a difference? Take the money (or whatever) and vote as you please. And gerrymandering: this is something that has been widely practiced here in the States. Indeed, the term derives from Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, one of the authors of the Bill of Rights and an early practitioner in the art of district drawing. The authors use Illinois’ 4th Congressional District as an example and they get it wrong. They assert: “The net result is a weakening of the power of the Latino vote and more Republican-electing districts than the electoral maths should reasonably allow.” But the 4th Congressional District was drawn specifically so that the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities would be nearly guaranteed to have a representative: In other words, maximizing “the power of the Latino vote”. The 4th Congressional District is an instance of ethnic gerrymandering, something required (to a point) by Federal law. As for partisan gerrymandering, the Illinois House and Senate were in charge of redistricting in 2011. Each were controlled by a Democratic caucus with a Democratic Governor. This was not a Republican gerrymander. In any case, a Republican district in Chicago would be a genuine work of art; there are so few of them. It’s only recently that partisan gerrymandering has become widely regarded as dirty word in the States, and that’s mostly because it recently became so one-sided. Otherwise it’s been a standard feature of the system. The League of Women Voters in fact challenged the 2011 Illinois map on its partisan bias and got nowhere in state or Federal court. So is it a bug or a feature?

In my humble opinion, the weakest part of the book is the final chapter that deals with how to stop election rigging. The authors agree that “Long-term democratic reform is almost always driven from within” but then go on to concentrate on what the international community might do. Most of us are nowhere near the levers that steer the international community and considering how geopolitical considerations influence those who are near the levers, the rest of us have some reason for skepticism. So is there anything to take away for the rest of us? Possibly. It is useful to think of the rigging strategies in terms of their costs and benefits. Thinking that way helps in deciding what charges of fraud are plausible amid all the usual noise and it provides a way of considering how the cost of fraud might be raised when considering reforms.

But I think that if we want honest and (heaven forfend) fair elections here in the States, three things may be necessary. One is money. Election campaigns swim in money, but the process of voting and tabulating is expected to run on the proverbial cold dog soup and rainbow pie. Aside from better voting equipment, election judges need to be better paid and, in return, to be better trained. Another is transparency. For all the love “transparency” gets as a buzz word, local governments tend to be unreasonably, indeed illegally (at least in Illinois) private. Elections, here in the States, are done by local government. Activists concerned with the digitized tabulation of ballots have found getting an audit of any given election means being heavily lawyered-up. The knee-jerk reaction by local officials seems to be a deep desire to have the most recent election done and off their desk and panic that any outside examination of the books would reveal a comedy of incompetence. And maybe fraud? And finally, an openness to alternative systems of voting would be useful, provided we also keep in mind the ways in which they might be gamed. Since elections are so local, we have huge opportunities for experimentation, though forums for evaluating the results are somewhat lacking.

It’s also worth noting that a cancerous cynicism is pandemic in the land and that, too, is a danger to democracy. It’s a cynicism that’s hard to argue with: Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, “I did not have sex with that woman”, Weapons of Mass Destruction… on and on. What’s not to mistrust? Add to that the professionalization of politics (inevitably drawing boundaries between the professionals and the laity), that politics is very much a business like automobiles or real estate or banking with its own barriers to entry and jargon and technical knowledge — politics becomes not something we do but something that happens to us, will or nill. In that case, why vote? Well, you should, even if a riot might seem to be more effective. This needs to change. It’s also outside the scope of this book.

Finally a note on the book: it’s not exactly a political science monograph, or rather it’s not just that. It’s also a good and entertaining read. It can be read as a serious study or it can be read as a sort of political voyeurism. Either way, it is worth your time. After all, rigging elections is as American as cherry pie.

Vote!! November 6

“Voting never makes any difference.”

“If voting changed anything, they‘d have made it illegal.”

I generally respond by pointing out that it usually only takes up no more than an hour of your time, often less, and what do you expect from such a small investment of time? Quite frankly, I’ve spent days on picket lines to less effect. With early voting and vote by mail you have really no excuse. This is your last chance.

And for those who complain of not being able to “vote my values”, why do you assume this is all about you?

Your vote does make a difference, in some contests more than in others and in some elections more than in others. Which side you’re on is beside the point: if you value some degree of nonviolence in how we settle disputes, get to the polls on Tuesday, November 6, and vote.

Football and Protest

The Black 14

When the topic of protest among professional football players comes up, we might recall the protest at the 1968 Olympics as a model, but the 1969 protest by collegiate football players in Wyoming is gone from memory:

Note how the reporter and coach both use the term “fired” with respect to the Black 14? But of course, they’re supposed to be amateurs. At least, that’s what colleges and universities say whenever compensation is brought up. It’s union time.


a review by Bob Roman

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2017. 301 pages $25.99

For months now, book reading has become an alienating experience. You might say that it’s my own fault. Go ahead. Blame the victim. After all, it’s mostly genre fiction that I’ve been reading. So we’re talking about a steady diet of variously, occasionally cleverly, modified remixes of clichés, tropes, plot devices, MacGuffins and characters – why, it may as well be a months-long diet of pizza. Even an occasional new topping would hardly be an inspiration for appetite. Once I looked forward to visiting the library. Now, walking into the Chicago Public Library threatens to become a visit to a temple of monotony.

(Don’t get me started on all the other things deficient at Chicago’s public libraries.)

And of course such a jaundiced attitude is going to color any reading experience. So when I picked up Annalee Newitz’ new first novel, my expectations were seriously low. Neal Stephenson’s cover blurb, “Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the internet,” did not help. I tend to avoid Stephenson’s work and don’t get me started on William Gibson and “cyberpunk.” I’m none to enthused about most treatments of Artificial Intelligence, either. Nonetheless, I borrowed the book.

It took a while, but I came to like this book very much.

The story overall could be characterized as an optimistic dystopia. It’s mid-22nd Century. Humanity has been through a catastrophe including climate change but civilization and scientific progress continues. The trade-off being that, in most parts of the world, property rights have become primary above all else. This includes a resurrection of slavery in the guise of “indentured servitude.” Since it’s done with “consent” and “contract” and is not hereditary, the slaves have some rights and judicial recourse – about as much as one might cynically expect. In this way, the institution of slavery more closely resembles that of the Roman Empire than that of the U.S. South, but it’s still pretty ugly. Likewise, intellectual property comes close behind in enforcement if not ahead. Sci-fi habitually deals with big issues, and for this novel, one of them is: “Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

Enter “Jack”, aka Judith Chen, an intellectual property pirate who reverse engineers proprietary new drugs so that the latest medicines can be available to all. Usually she does due diligence on her work, but she was in a hurry. It may have seemed harmless at the time, but cloning Zaxy’s new work aid (“productivity enhancer”) “Zacuity” without having done so turns out to have been a Really Bad Idea. The drug, used without supervision, turns out to be massively and disastrously addictive.

Enter International Property Coalition agent Eliasz and his nearly fresh-off-the-assembly-line robot partner Paladin, who are tasked with hunting down Jack as the most likely suspect responsible for turning loose a deadly new street drug.

And of course, from there it is a violent chase with excursions into side issues of gender and sexuality.

What do I like about this novel? Mostly its dystopic optimism, I think. There is a resistance to this property über alles civilization. The resistance does have an academic, hapless hipster vibe to it, thus its ineffective, nibbling at the edges quality is consequently very plausible. The link between resistance and criminality is also quite plausible. Newitz’ villains (the cops) are also given a degree of humanity that some authors might neglect. And finally, Newitz is a good, experienced writer – not brilliant as there were no passages that frizzed my hair, but the narration goes down smoothly.

What do I have to complain about? Well, first of all Eliasz and Paladin are extraordinarily ruthless and violent in pursuit of their duties. It’s not clear from the story just where they have the authority to be so, leaving it open for some to assume it’s just a lefty police stereotype or perhaps it is an artefact of the various “punk” genres where authority, be it corporate or state, can do as it pleases. That the beneficiary of said violence is a Big Corporation just rubs it in. The robots of the story are fairly conventional sci-fi props and therefore not especially credible to me though they do contribute to the discussion of “freedom”. And I do have one big quarrel with the plotting. At one point, Eliasz visits Las Vegas alone in pursuit of a lead, Las Vegas being where he got his start in law enforcement and where he (might) still have contacts among the “usual suspects” who might have that information. Among other things, this excursion allows Newitz to provide some background as to Eliasz’ motivations (humanity!), but Newitz stops Eliasz after precisely one interview. In detective fiction (and probably in reality), there would be several interviews, each allowing for a character sketch of the interviewee and for an education about the demimonde of that society, not to mention what touching base with some of Eliasz’ old police colleagues might have revealed: a missed opportunity though it may have had consequences for pacing.

And what about an answer to Newitz’ Big Question about freedom and property? There’s no straight answer. “Freedom” is a particularly slippery concept in any case, but regardless of what Newitz may have had in mind, each reader is going to bring their own baggage to the conversation. I speculate that Newitz might be okay with a highly qualified “yes” as an answer. At the end of the book, the resistance remains, after all. And Eliasz and Paladin end up emigrating to Mars. My own answer would depend on how one defines, in an operational sense, “freedom.” I’m not sure how much Autonomous contributes to what is a long ongoing conversation, but since I’m still thinking about it, that’s a good sign.

I may be more pleased with this book than I should be, but I’m not the only one. The Chicago Public Library has 15 hardcopies plus 6 electronic “copies” and while, as of July 12, 2018, there are 3 available hardcopies scattered about the city, there are 8 people waiting in line to read the book. You have my recommendation and theirs.

Post Script: for a good discussion about the politics of “cyberpunk” that speaks to many of my misgivings, see Cameron Kunzelman’s Where Are the Radical Politics of Cyberpunk?

What I Saw of the Family Separation Protest in Chicago

The demonstration in Chicago was part of a nation-wide protest of Trump’s immigration policies, most particularly the practice of family separation. Several dozen demonstrations took place around the country. The Chicago demonstration was large. Organizers put crowd estimates at 60,000. Police were not far behind with 50,000. I’m inclined to think those numbers are reasonable and conservative participation estimates but the crowd, at any one time, was likely rather less than that. No matter the number, it was big.

There were a very few counter demonstrators, probably no more than a half dozen anti-abortion advocates. And what did that have to do with an immigrants’ rights protest? They were clearly provocateurs as this particular demonstration would not at all been unanimously pro-choice, but they were treating it as enemy territory. Mostly, they were ignored, but eventually some of the more militant of our side surrounded them and began chanting, “Bullshit! Bullshit!” etc. I expect the counter demonstrators had been hoping for martyrdom of some kind but it was all non-violent if heated.

After a rally in Daley Plaza where almost none of the speakers were intelligible (plaza acoustics are treacherous), the rally formed up for a march down Clark Street and back up Dearborn Street. The head of the march made it back to the Plaza before the tail had left.

It was hot. The CTA had several cooling buses parked at the bus kiosk for the rally. The Chicago Fire Department had a fan driven mist machine stationed on Clark Street for the march. A portion of the crowd was clearly hydrophobic despite the heat.

Here are a selection of the photos, in reverse order, that I took before the camera’s battery gave out. Click a photo to enlarge it.

Bayard and Me

The story of Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle.

Bayard Rustin has gotten a great deal of posthumous love and, IMHO, he deserves it. After all, this is someone who played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, almost entirely behind the scenes. And he was restricted to that role only because he was gay. This short video memoir by the love of Rustin’s life, Walter Naegle, compliments that aspect of Rustin’s life.

Rustin was a rather more complicated character, however, and many of us lefties regarded his later career as being something of a sell-out. But, like Rustin himself, it’s complicated.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bayard Rustin, I’d recommend John D’emilio’s biography Lost Prophet. You can also listen to a 35 minute interview with author D’emilio on Rustin on Episode 14 (March 10, 2012) of Chicago DSA’s Talkin’ Socialism: