The Importance of The Great Society, 50 Years Later

April 10, 2015

Cartoon about American politics and the economy during the Great Recession, May 9, 2010. (Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (low resolution, relevance to subject matter).

Cartoon about American politics and the economy during the Great Recession, May 9, 2010. (Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (low resolution, relevance to subject matter).

This weekend marks a half-century since President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the first series of bills into law that signified his Great Society/War on Poverty work. We won’t hear much about this, though. Not with 2015 being a benchmark year for commemorating and celebrating so much else. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Appomattox at 150, along with President Lincoln’s assassination, Juneteenth, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, ending legal slavery (except for prisoners, of course). The trench warfare of World War I, and the Battle of Gallipoli (if one’s a real war trivia buff). Even the 30th anniversary of Back To The Future and the UN Conference on Women, which gathered in Nairobi, Kenya in the fall of 1985, will likely get more air time, cyber time, and ink than the first of LBJ’s Great Society programs.

But the Great Society was supposed to be a grand experiment and experience. It was supposed to wipe out poverty, end all legal forms of discrimination and segregation, and make the opportunity to achieve the modern American Dream of a middle-class life or better a reality for almost everyone. And it would’ve worked, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids, um, LBJ’s pesky decisions to go escalate the Vietnam War. The war cost $269 billion in 1970 dollars, or, $1.7 trillion in 2015 money.

What $1 trillion looks like,  January 2012. ( via Elsolet Joubert).

What $1 trillion looks like, January 2012. ( via Elsolet Joubert).

Yet it’s not exactly true that it would’ve worked, or that it didn’t work. You see, despite the best efforts of an elitist, right-wing and ineffectual federal government corrupted by plutocrats and its military-industrial complex, the Great Society programs are still with us. For starters, there’s the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, the first one LBJ signed into law on April 11, fifty years ago on this date.

Without these laws, the modern era of educating millions of children whom states, colleges and universities and local school districts had shut out of K-12 and higher education wouldn’t have occurred at all. With federal government dollars and regulations, not to mention a foundation in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ESEA and HEA in its initial years provided real hope for “an equal opportunity for all.”

This wasn’t and isn’t just about Jim Crow and racial discrimination and segregation, whether de jure in the South or de facto via residential segregation and redlining in cities outsider the South. This became about opening doors for whole classes of children and adults that had been steel-reinforced-concrete walls before.

Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, July 16, 2007. (

Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, July 16, 2007. (

Technocrats and other public education crises gurus of the likes of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and Roland Fryer would have us think that the $600 billion that states and the federal government via ESEA spend on public education each year is all wasteful spending. They say that we have about the same number of students in schools today (about 50 million) as we did in 1970.

Of course, they don’t tell the whole story, leaving out a lot of truth for us. For in my lifetime, students with disabilities (cognitive, physical, emotional) have gone from shutout to included in public schools as part of the Americans with Disabilities Acts of 1989 and 1992, and of course, ESEA. Students with language proficiency issues became part of the public education fabric under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision in 1974, with funds provided out of ESEA. Charter schools, magnet programs, school counseling, and so many other things that have made public education more inclusive and also more expensive wouldn’t have been possible without ESEA. Meaning, technocrats, that public education was severely underfunded and exclusionary prior to 1965.

The HEA hasn’t had the same effect, primarily because we as a society tend to think of higher education as a luxury and not a right, and have fought hard to make many colleges and universities the exclusive domain of “the worthy.” Still, without HEA and the Pell Grants (named after former Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI, 1961-97), the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, the Direct Student Loan Program, and the Supplemental Loan Program, a whole generation of low-income and middle-income families wouldn’t have been able to send their kids to college. They were often the first in their families, as Blacks, as women, as Black and Latino women, as working-class Whites with only a steel mill or automobile plant in their future. At least back then.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, Master's Gymnasium, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, November 8, 1965. ( In public domain.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, Master’s Gymnasium, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, November 8, 1965. ( In public domain.

There’s also the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Head Start program, and Congress passing Medicaid and Medicare, providing health coverage for the elderly and deeply poor for the first time. And all in 1965.

What does all of this mean in 2015? That despite the mountains of books written on LBJ and the failures of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, that these programs worked and work in ameliorating poverty and expanding opportunities for all, even across racial lines. Would they have been more effective with more investment, especially in those initial years, when Vietnam became more of a priority? No doubt.

That’s just it, though. Most Americans — who despite the fears of Ted Cruz and Rudy Giuliani, remain White — didn’t care about poverty and racism and the structures that supported it then, and they mostly don’t care now. They want Congress to work, just not on issues that would permanently unbalance the social hierarchy that they’ve assumed as their birthright for two centuries.

Hence the constant one-two punch of a relationship they see with poverty and those with black and brown skin. Hence the constant carping about taxes and needless spending on food stamps and welfare, even though the true face of government assistance in the US has always been a haggard White one. Hence the constant media tropes about hard work and so-called self-made men worth billions making their money without holding a college degree, who somehow can tell the rest of us how to live. The Great Society, for all of LBJ’s foibles and its weaknesses, remains a great legacy of what America could be, and at times, has been, but overall, refuses to be.

Fake Booms, or a Tide That Raises a Few Yachts

April 2, 2015

"Rising Tide Leaves Workers Behind" cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 5, 2006. (R.J. Matson). Qualifies as fair use due to lower resolution and relevance to topic.

“Rising Tide Leaves Workers Behind” cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 5, 2006. (R.J. Matson). Qualifies as fair use due to lower resolution and relevance to topic.

It’s been a week and a half since my last post, mostly because I’ve been busy with other projects. Kind of like the American aristocracy, as they continue to distract us plebes with controversies over “religious freedom” laws and undisclosed emails while continuing to hoard trillions in wealth.

Not that these controversies are just abstract distractions, but they follow a pattern of division, deception, and misdirection. Our nation’s elite impose their views of the country and the world in such a way as the truth itself becomes a lie. Apparently for them, the First Amendment to the US Constitution’s a lie, since this first of these Bill of Rights guarantees “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This Establishment Clause has NEVER been absolute, especially in cases in which religious practice violates or interferes with others’ civil and constitutional rights.

Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam via Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (1508-1512), with America's Prosperity Gospel stuck in between, September, 2009. (

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam via Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (1508-1512), with America’s Prosperity Gospel stuck in between, September, 2009. (

But for the purposes of my post today, this truth-as-lie isn’t the biggest one the American plutocracy has pulled on us in the past forty years. Not even close. You see, the biggest lie they’ve sold us as truth is the idea that the US has been going through bust and boom cycles as normal for any wealthy capitalist democracy since the 1970s. That with every recession, or period of inflation, or deflation, or job stagnation, or changes in the economy, that a period of unbridled growth and social mobility has followed, keeping the American middle class the richest of the middle classes on Earth, indeed, in the history of the world!

Let’s start with the reality that median income has declined enough to show evidence of a shrinking American middle class. This decline isn’t a recent phenomenon. Since the end of World War II, there have been two lengthy patterns. One is a pattern of great economic growth, coinciding with America’s dominance of the global economy between 1945 and 1973. This growth of median income by a factor of six (from $2,379 in 1945 to $12,050 in 1973) was a reflection of the US economy’s glory years. The other is the current pattern of a slow, sometimes meandering but steady decline of economic dominance. All during a period of greater competition from Europe and Asia, job outsourcing, and a reduced industrial base, the last the heart of America’s economic growth before 1973.

Median Income Since 1945, Calculated in Actual/2013 Dollars


Median Income

Median Income in 2013 $






















Sources: US Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-002, P60-043, P60-097 , P60-146, P60-188, P60-226, P60-245, Consumer Income (now Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage): 1948, 1964, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2004, 2013. ( and Calculations based on CPI Inflation Calculator via the Bureau of Labor Statistics and, using 2013 as the most recent calendar year baseline ( and

Median income in 1973 was 20.1 percent higher ($65,000) than it is today ($52,000). In the intervening years, median income never grew enough to match or exceed the growth that occurred during the peak of the middle class’ development. Not in the years after the double-dip recession of the early 1980s. Not even after the Information Revolution under the business and credit-friendly Clinton years of the 1990s.

The boom-turned-bust, April 2, 2015. (

The boom-turned-bust, April 2, 2015. (

Keep in mind, too, that the 400 wealthiest households in the wealthiest nation of all time hold a net worth that exceeds the net worth of the bottom fifty percent of all US households. It’s simple math, really — 400 > ~100,000,000 households or roughly 155 million people with kids and other relatives. Or, $1.5 trillion for 400 > $1.4 trillion for 155,000,000.

The best measure the US currently has for different socioeconomic classes that isn’t from a complex university study or an ideological think-tank is the experimental Supplemental Poverty Measure, developed jointly by the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The AP and dozens of other news outlets first reported the use of the SPM after the two agencies developed a report on Americans in poverty and with low-income with it in November 2011. Taking into account tax credits, non-cash benefits (e.g., SNAP or food stamps), out-of-pocket medical expenses, and other in-kind contributions, the Census and BLS constructed a Ratio of Income/Resource to Poverty matrix that accounted for both the official calculations of poverty (which the federal government originally developed in 1964) and calculations done with the SPM. The news media headlined the December 2011 results with “1 in 2 People Are Poor or Low-Income.”

As sobering as this is, it’s not the whole story, not for those Americans working under the assumption that they are middle class. According to the Census’ latest report using the SPM (November 2013), 16 percent of Americans (49.7 million) live at or below the poverty threshold of $23,000 in income/resources per year, while another 31.2 percent (97.1 million) have at most $46,000 a year in income/resources, fitting the SPM definition of low-income. Another 107.6 million Americans have incomes/resources that are between two and four times the national poverty threshold (or between $46,000 and $92,000 in total resources per year), while the top 56.6 million of Americans (18.2 percent) have annual incomes/resources above $92,000.

Large saline and silicone breast implants -- could easily be, housing boom (1999-2008), boom (1994-2001), credit boom (1973-?), April 2, 2015. (

Large saline and silicone breast implants — could easily be, housing boom (1999-2008), boom (1994-2001), credit boom (1973-?), April 2, 2015. (

There are two really simple reasons why most Americans don’t see the plutocratic lie of “prosperity for everyone” despite all evidence of the truth. One is because they believe in that dangled carrot of somehow becoming rich, through hard work, prayer, giving out of need, or sheer luck, despite the debt it takes to remain even somewhat middle class. Two is because most believe they’re prospering whenever the Dow Jones’ Industrial Average breaks 10,000 or 15,000, or because the media faithfully reports monthly declines in unemployment, or because the average White family has a net worth that’s eight times that of Black and Latino families.

And those beliefs are reinforced by the societal taboo of rarely, if ever, talking about our income, our net worth or lack thereof, by acting as if the poverty or prosperity conversation violates the US Constitution. Without this serious conversation, how can we really claim that any tide of economic prosperity has lifted any boats other than those of the yacht-owning set since 1973?

In Finally Seeing Selma

January 24, 2015

Selma movie poster, January 2015. (

Selma movie poster, January 2015. (

My son had an extra day off from school this week, the day after MLK Day. To give him a break from his daily dose of manga and anime, I took him to the downtown Silver Spring cineplex to see Selma. I hadn’t planned to see it until after Selma had come out on DVD or streaming via Netflix or Comcast, because I knew my son would have questions. And he did — lots of them!

But I was also curious. Not about the history. As the historian I am, I really didn’t need to see Selma to confirm the brutality of Jim Crow racism and violence, that I’d in fact seen and lived much worse. I wanted to see how Ava DuVernay’s treatment of Dr. King, Coretta Scott King, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bayard Rustin, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and so many others would stack up against years of research, writings, lectures and discussions (some of which are my own) on the period. I wanted to know if the staunchest critics of the film were in any way accurate in their criticisms, or if they were just holding DuVernay and Selma to a double-standard.

Billy Drago as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables (1987), falling to his fictitious death at Elliott Ness' hands in 1931 (he actually died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1943). (

Billy Drago as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables (1987), falling to his fictitious death at Elliott Ness’ hands in 1931 (he actually died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1943). (

In light of so many other films, from Mississippi Burning (1988) to Remember the Titans (2000), from The Untouchables (1987) to The Hurricane (1999), it’s obvious the art of film-making isn’t as exact as a scalpel. This may well be sacrilege, but I as a historian and educator do not expect movies to be 100 percent accurate depictions of historical events. A great film can educate as well as entertain, but education is far more than getting all the facts correct because some folks want to hold a “Black” film to a higher standard than Zero Dark Thirty (2012) or Schindler’s List (1993). Making a very good movie requires the right context for facts, whether the accuracy level is 50 percent or 98 percent. It requires the right language and words, the right intonations and inflections, the correct mood and emotions, not just accuracy levels only a scholar with 800 endnotes and 1,200 sources could meet.

Knowing this, I dismiss nearly all the critics who’ve been pissed that LBJ was portrayed as a racist. Well, he was! He grew up in rural Texas, ran as part of an anti-Black Democratic machine for Congress and the Senate. Still, he also cared about people, about eliminating poverty, and even about providing federal civil rights protections for Blacks. This may be a contradiction, but what else is new in human nature? We’re not simply black or white, evil or good. We’re gray and mercurial, obsequious and hypocritical. So yes, LBJ was a racist and a progressive and a warmonger, and as far as I am concerned, the best president since FDR.

The idea that we should completely discount Selma because DuVernay didn’t make rabbis obvious in the film is ridiculous. That argument has been based on the exclusion of one Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who was front and center in the third Selma march on March 19, 1965, from the images in the film. As one person who actually saw the film, however, it seemed no single actor portrayed Heschel or any other yarmulke and robe-wearing rabbi. There were at least two scenes, though, in which David Oyelowo (who played Dr. King) appeared to interact with men of Jewish faith. They were rabbis, but not dressed obviously so.

Co-Executive Producer Oprah Winfrey, Oscar Nominee David Oyelowo, and Director Ava DuVernay at AFI Fest premiere for Selma, November 12, 2014. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images, via

Co-Executive Producer Oprah Winfrey, Oscar Nominee David Oyelowo, and Director Ava DuVernay at AFI Fest premiere for Selma, November 12, 2014. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images, via

So let’s put Selma right up there with Howard the Duck (1986)! Except that this outrage over historical accuracy is as false as American Sniper‘s (2014) depiction of Arab Muslims as blood-thirsty caricatures of real human beings. Long-ago released tapes (now at the Johnson Presidential Library) indicate that LBJ regularly used the n-word, and that he wanted to wait on the Voting Rights Act, with it coming so soon after the Civil Rights Act.

To complain about the lack of religious Jewish garb in Selma, though, would be like Blacks complaining about film directors not portraying them as liberators in holocaust films. And yes, there are at least two confirmed instances in which segregated Black Army units did in fact help liberate concentration camps in western Germany in the final weeks of World War II. When that film comes out about the segregated 761st Tank Battalion’s exploits and participation in liberating camps, then I will take much more seriously complaints about the lack of yarmulkes and tzitzits in Selma. As in, not seriously at all.

The only complaints about Selma that have made sense to me have come from Bill Moyers, press secretary under LBJ from 1965 to 1967. Moyers recently refuted the idea that President Johnson gave the go-ahead to J. Edgar Hoover to release the so-called sex tape to Coretta Scott King during the Selma march period, contrary to how this DuVernay portrayed this segment in Selma. Wow! Two minutes out of a two-hour movie! (The interplay between Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Dr. and Mrs. King over the tape was as engrossing as it was gut-wrenching).

Preview clip screen shot of American Sniper (2014) with lead actor Bradley Cooper, January 23, 2014. (

Preview clip screen shot of American Sniper (2014) with lead actor Bradley Cooper, January 23, 2014. (

I did enjoy the movie, found Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King Oscar-worthy (if not as perfect as some believe), and actually found nearly all the characters real and truly representative of the times. It should be said, though, that excuses of inaccuracy are always made by those who really have no excuses for snubbing really well done films. Especially ones that aren’t White clichés. Like American Sniper. No question that the Academy Awards committee should’ve nominated Ava DuVernay for best director, but for their faux liberal racial sensibilities.

Je Suis Charlie – Non!

January 13, 2015

An estimate 1.6 million were part of Sunday's unity march following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the hostage situations in Paris last week, Paris, France, January 11, 2015. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images, via

An estimate 1.6 million were part of Sunday’s unity march following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the hostage situations in Paris last week, Paris, France, January 11, 2015. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images, via

Okay. So my French is horrible. But nothing should be lost in translation. I’m not for Islamists and other similarly motivated people murdering in the name of a religion. I’m not for the suppression of free speech, or free expression, or religion, or atheism. Like millions all over the world, I find it unacceptable that anyone would murder a group of Charlie Hebdo staffers and editors because of their work.

I also think that Charlie Hebdo’s work is only a notch or two above disgusting, meaning it could easily be the organ for the KKK, a neo-Nazi party or some other organization whose motto is hatred and intolerance. It’s not just about the prophet Muhammad. They’ve portrayed African politicians as monkeys, being gay as deviant, and immigrants as the scourge of Europe. All in the name of satire. Except that irreverence and satire is actually supposed to be funny, not racist, anti-immigrant, anti-religion and homophobic. Well, at least the French arm of the Neo-Nazi Party’s laughing every week!

In a country of well over 60 million people, Charlie Hebdo‘s average weekly circulation was 160,000, on par with some newspapers in central Pennsylvania. Yet everyone who’s anyone has run to support them with “Je suis Charlie,” as if this is the equivalent of #BlackLivesMatter or something. The folks at Charlie Hebdo didn’t deserve murder, but they also shouldn’t be supported as if they were doing groundbreaking investigative journalism either.

Some of the 2,000 feared dead after Boko Haram massacred and burned down 16 villages, Baga, Borno State, Nigeria, January 8, 2015. (

Some of the 2,000 dead after Boko Haram massacred and burned down 16 villages, Baga, Borno State, Nigeria, January 8, 2015. (

So no, I am NOT Charlie. I am not Charlie because there have been close to a dozen other bombings and attacks all over the globe in the past week, in places like Pakistan and Syria and Nigeria, in Texas and Colorado and other places. I am not Charlie because I refuse to elevate the lives of a few French racists over the wholesale slaughtering of 2,000 in Nigeria by Boko Haram.

I am NOT Charlie because no Muslim should ever have to apologize for being Muslim, just because a small group of radicalized fanatics took their religion’s name in vain. I am NOT Charlie because I understand that anyone can commit a violent and senseless act based on any religion, any belief, and any philosophy. Including killing others based on the idea that there is no God at all.

I cannot nor will not be Charlie because while I believe in free speech and expression, I also believe in embracing a multicultural world. Something that these cretins — Cherif and Said Kouachi and the staff at Charlie Hebdo — obviously didn’t believe in at all. I cannot be Charlie because that would require me to live in a world without context, without understanding that there is a global economic and political context to radical Jihadists. A context that is as much about economic inequality, deliberate religious misinformation, and the political dominance of Europe and the US, that last one going back at least two centuries.

January 13, 2015. (

January 13, 2015. (

I refuse to be Charlie because though I believe we should defend even the most vile and incompetent forms of speech and expression, I also believe that we need to challenge such expression at every turn. I am NOT Charlie because I’m also NOT The Interview. I am also not a stereotype or a monkey or a caricature or someone whom Whites in Hollywood or White Frenchmen running a rag can easily define and pigeonhole. I am not Charlie because I’m not a commodity that can be bought or sold or taken advantage of. I am NOT Charlie because I refuse to support the idea that you should run three million copies of your weekly to take advantage of the deaths of colleagues because the eyes of the European world are on you this week.

I am NOT Charlie. I AM a man, though, who sees all sides of what many have all but oversimplified as a war between good and evil.

Neoliberals, Neocons, and Other Useless Labels

November 4, 2014

The Matrix, Path of Neo, November 4, 2014. (

The Matrix, Path of Neo, November 4, 2014. (

I’ve never really had much patience for technical academic jargon, even in my wide-eyed grad school days twenty years ago. And my patience for terms like post-structuralism, post-modern, neo-Marxist and eschatological has grown government-paper-stock-thin as I’ve approached middle-age. Lately, terms like neoliberal and neoconservative have found their way into my sniper sights, especially with the ’14 midterm elections upon us. These terms may have meant something very separate and distinctive fifty or sixty years ago, but they darn sure don’t now. Except, maybe, to academicians and the elite literati, people who somehow believe that these terms are as useful as food, drink and water.

It wasn’t until grad school at the University of Pittsburgh when I became aware of these terms. Back then, I saw neoliberal or neoliberalism in everything I read about race and economic concerns. Whether it was about Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s ridiculous statistical depiction of slavery in Time on the Cross (1974), or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s work on twentieth-century political shifts in his Cycles of American History (1986), they and the reviewers of their books used the term neoliberal like it was parsley for making pesto.

Neoconservative hasn’t been around as long, a term about a decade younger than it’s post-World War II counterpart. It’s definition has evaded most academicians and the vast majority of lay-folk over the last half-century. Sometimes it’s used interchangeably with conservative or politically conservative, sometimes it’s used in the same sentence as right-wing or the religious right or evangelicals.

Asteroid Eros, a near-Earth object, or NEO, June 16, 2014. ( In public domain.

Asteroid Eros, a near-Earth object, or NEO, June 16, 2014. ( In public domain.

Though it’s definition is elusive, it’s history isn’t. Barry Goldwater’s gigantic loss to President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the ’64 Presidential Election led to a host of disaffected Democrats, old-money Republicans and other political misfits getting together and hatching a plan to dismantle the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition. They took advantage of the racism and roiling, boiling resentment of Southern Democrats — Dixiecrats, really — toward their party, the federal government and its growing support for Blacks and civil rights. They also took advantage of wealthy Republicans and the ages-old cry of corporations desperate for lower taxes and ever-higher profit margins. All of this came together in Richard Nixon’s ’68 presidential campaign with the Southern Strategy, turning Southern voters from Democrat to Republican. Not to mention with LBJ and Vietnam, the so-called Silent Majority, and their resentment toward rebellious, privileged college students and protestors.

We know it all worked, because fifty years later, to talk of the South as a Democratic bloc today is almost as ludicrous as it was to talk about the South as being ripe for a Republican takeover in ’64. Beyond that, though, with the inclusion of evangelical Christians and other religious and social conservatives came the inclusion of traditional conservatism, neoconservatism, and neoliberalism in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and in the US’ cultural mainstream by the late-1980s.

By then, these terms neoliberal and neoconservative had lost their original meaning, if they were really that different in meaning to begin with. The Republicans had married the terms and allowed the coupling to have kids and then grandkids with names like smaller governmentderegulationlower taxes for the wealthy (so-called “job creators”) and for corporationsprison-industrial complexending abortion, welfare reformeducation reform, and voter disenfranchisement. This combination of war hawks, an unfettered version of free-market capitalism, with low government regulation and taxes on the rich and corporation, combined with high government regulation of nonconformist activities and peoples (people of color, LGBT marriage rights, women’s reproductive rights, everyone who isn’t Christian or Christian-sounding)? I don’t understand why we don’t call it what it really is.

Quote from Henry A. Wallace, Vice-President of the nited States, 1944. (

Quote from Henry A. Wallace, Vice-President of the United States, 1944. (

Ladies and gentlemen and transgender, what we have in the US today — and have had in increasing measure for more than four decades — is a mild form of fascism, plain and simple. Yes, you can still vote, but the process is rigged from start to finish by greed and corruption and legal barriers to benefit the rich, the greedy and the corrupt. Yes, we have representation, through gerrymandered districts and hundreds of candidates with lined pockets running unopposed. Yes, we still have a Congress, a group who has done nothing to support ordinary Americans without also benefiting the top 1% in more than thirty years. A group who, in recent years, has done next to nothing at all other than raise more money to run for reelection in the past four years. As for the presidency, despite Congress’ control of the purse strings, every president since FDR’s third term has found a way to increase their political power, even as their influence on the legislative branch has decreased.

With all this, I have no use for the terms neoliberal and neoconservative. Not when all roads have led us to oligarchy, plutocracy and fascism.

Whiteness, Where “That’s So Raven” Meets “Real Time”

October 11, 2014

Black square, or Black is the new Black, June 2014. (

Black square, or Black is the new Black, June 2014. (

Why we ever give voice to the vapid and vain I still don’t fully understand. In the past week, we’ve allowed Raven-Symoné (of The Cosby Show and That’s So Raven fame) and Bill Maher (host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and a mediocre stand-up political comedian) to determine our discourse on race, racism, Islam, atheism and terrorism. Proving once again the power of Whiteness in our racially narcissistic nation.

Raven-Symoné certainly isn’t the first Black celebrity or entertainer to declare herself “not African-American” or Black, to Oprah or to the rest of the world. Morgan Freeman’s been making statements rejecting labels like “Black actor,” the term “African American,” and even Black History Month, going as far back as interviews in support of Glory (1989) and Shawshank Redemption (1994) (of course, he also was making the point that he’s an American first). Raven-Symoné isn’t even the first Black entertainer to say they’re “not Black” or “not African American” in 2014. Pharrell Williams holds this distinction, as he allegedly represents the “New Black,” whatever colorblind racist nonsense this is.

Raven-Symoné on Oprah's Where Are They Now, October 5, 2014. ( Qualifies as fair use - picture directly related to subject matter, and of low resolution.

Raven-Symoné on Oprah’s Where Are They Now, October 5, 2014. ( Qualifies as fair use – picture directly related to subject matter, and of low resolution.

It all points to a phenomenon I’ve been calling the “unspecial American” over the past twelve years. The idea that we can discard labels, histories and cultures in an effort to make ourselves unique or special individuals. All of this is born out of a racial narcissism, one which afflicts the most vulnerable to this psychosis — the famous and the wannabe famous. Maybe there’s a bit of internalized racism to this, too — that’s clearly speculation to be sure. But that obsession to be unique, to declare oneself above constructs and labels, but then to latch on to the term “American” as if the world might forget? It reflects on some level stereotype threat, not to mention the defensive posture of someone like Raven-Symoné attempting to preserve their income and elite social status.

Maher’s take on religion, especially Islam, isn’t unique. The idea that he can claim this his Islamophobia has nothing to do with race — his own Whiteness/Jewishness or that of his brown-skinned Semitic cousins — is what makes Maher’s xenophobic argument a specious one. Maher’s is a culture of violence argument, one that attempts to combine the foundational tenets of Islam with the actions of terroristic jihadists in a sweeping indictment of at least half a billion people. HBO and Maher’s friends and fans have let him get away with this ridiculous line of thinly veiled racism and Islamophobia for years. Yet if Maher made the same kind of argument about Blacks, poverty and crime — the culture of poverty hypothesis proposed by the likes of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s — he’d probably lose his show.

"Violence is not our culture," 2011. (Wendy Harcourt via http://

“Violence is not our culture,” 2011. (Wendy Harcourt via http://

That Maher has no sense of history or understanding of human nature isn’t surprising. He’s a stinking comedian, not a historian, political scientist, religious studies professor or philosopher. At this stage of his career, I’d make a better stand-up comic than Maher would a critic of any culture or religion. That Maher has found himself in arguments with Ben Affleck and Reza Aslan is telling. Maher in his late-fifties has become Ronald Reagan — an arrogant White male who firmly believes in the primacy of his brand of White culture above all others.

Both Maher and Raven-Symoné should take a long look at history and learn from it. Raven-Symoné should learn that Black celebrities who deny the existence of racial constructs tend to crash into a few barriers during their lifelong journeys. Maher should look at violent examples of atheism — the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism, among others — and ask if these were the product of narcissism and violent repression or the product of a culture of violence based too heavily on the reliance on the scientific method for ultimate truths. And we should continue to ask ourselves why we ever take people like Raven-Symoné and Maher seriously at all.

The Long-Term Legacy of Humanities’ Soft-Bigotry

September 10, 2014

This week marks thirty-three years since my first days in the gifted-track Humanities Program, a fairly diverse group of very smart and (some) pretty creative students. Despite the common refrain among administrators of this long-gone program, me and my Humanities classmates weren’t the “crème de la crème” when it came to critical or independent thinking. In recent years, I’ve learned that their views on politics, religion, sports, entertainment, family and so many other things are so typically and sadly American.

Since the creators’ premise for the Humanities Program was to develop the whole person, and not just academic success, it seems to me that the program failed in terms of providing a holistic education. That our parents and other authority figures helped shape the opinions and beliefs we take to adulthood is part of my observation here. The disappointing part for me, though, has been the fact that these opinions have gone unadulterated over the past twenty-five or thirty years.

This isn’t an indictment of everyone I’ve ever known from Mount Vernon, New York, or from Mount Vernon public schools, or from MVHS, or even from my Humanities years. There are more than a few individuals who I am so glad to have reconnected with in person or through Facebook, Twitter and WordPress in the past decade or so. Everyone has the right to their beliefs, their ignorance, their opinions, however ill-informed or illogical. But there are consequences to never challenging one’s own beliefs, ignorance and opinions. Consequences that include victim-blaming, xenophobia, religion-as-politics, respectability politics, jingoist hyper-patriotism and colorblind racism.

What I’ve observed over the past ten or eleven years is that, when taken as a whole, it seems that I grew up around and reconnected with a group whose beliefs and opinions differ so much from my own. So much so that it really strains my memory to think that I grew up there. As my wife said to me on her first visit to Mount Vernon in Christmas ’99, after seeing a burned out Mazda smack-dab in the middle of downtown, “You sure you weren’t adopted?”

You Can’t Go Home Again to a Place That Was Never Home

I suspected some stark differences by the time I started working on Boy @ The Window in earnest in ’06. Any number of the ex-classmates I interviewed expressed opinions that I’d heard long before about “illegals,” about how Mount Vernon was some sort of middle-class haven, about our Humanities class being a faux “Benetton commercial” or a “mini-Fame.”

These were the kinds of opinions I remembered hearing from their parents and our teachers back in the ’80s. The sense of paternalism and entitlement, or the sense that MVHS was dangerous or “a jungle” or full of “animals.” It reminded me that there were many classmates who I’d met in seventh grade who’d transfer to private or parochial school or had enrolled in “better” schools in other districts by tenth grade because their parents were terrified by the so-called dangers of a mostly Black and Latino high school, with poverty and criminality being the unspoken words here.

I’ve faced off with the son of our late former principal Richard Capozzola several times on my blog and on Facebook in the past three years over this very issue, of how MVHS was run like a prison-prep program. His rationale for justifying Capozzola’s anti-Black draconian policies at MVHS consisted of “my dad was a great dad” and that I “wouldn’t have survived a day” at MVHS without his father as principal. The frame of MVHS as a war-zone or prison with students of color assumed to be criminals within this frame, this son of Capozzola couldn’t recognize even if Spock did a mind-meld to give him a dose of the Black experience.

Uncritical Melody, On Mount Vernon and the World

Neil DiCarlo, ex-classmate, right-winger, and one-time candidate for NY State Senate out of Putnam Valley, October 15, 2012. (

Neil DiCarlo, ex-classmate, right-winger, and one-time candidate for NY State Senate out of Putnam Valley, October 15, 2012. (

My observations aren’t limited to race or MVHS per se. Among my former classmates, with everything from affirmative action to Zionism, from political parties to education reform, from immigration reform to religious diversity, so many have views that range from conservative to right-wing. For some, every question can be answered with Leviticus or Ephesians, and any disagreement with a condemnation to Hell. For others, the frame for these issues are a “both sides do it” or “let’s look at both sides.” As if any issue involving climate change or social injustice is an algebraic equation, as if these issues are about finding some preposterous balance, rather than about exploitation or oppression.

But where I’ve found myself most at odds with some of my ex-classmates is the very issue of Mount Vernon itself as a city or a nurturing environment. It’s not as if I’ve never acknowledged the reality that if one didn’t grow up in poverty, or had connections to city politics, church or community leaders, or at least thirty cousins within a mile of your domicile, that Mount Vernon was a pretty good place to grow up. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for many people I grew up around.

Yet time and again, as I’ve told my story here and as I began to put Boy @ The Window together between ’06 and ’11, some of my former classmates and a couple of my former neighbors have opined that I have an ax to grind. Yeah, actually, I do, but not about Mount Vernon per se. About the poverty, abuse and ostracism I experienced growing up there, that shaped my experiences there, that authority figures often ignored. In those things, I do have a point that I have and will continue to hammer away at with the sledgehammer I have at my disposal. Too often, my former classmates believe that the only Mount Vernon that should be on public display is the one that emphasizes their raceless or supercool middle-class experience.

Some of My Classmates = Conservative America

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope from Scandal, a show about damage control, controlling the narrative, September 15, 2011. (

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope from Scandal, a show about damage control, controlling the narrative, September 15, 2011. (

Even in this, there’s a conservative perspective. One that says, “don’t rock the boat, don’t express a perspective that’s different than the narrative we want to put out to the world.” I know from experience and as an educator that sweeping truth into a dustbin and expressing only acceptable opinions — or acting as if all opinions, when expressed respectfully, are equal to each other — hurts us all, but especially those who are shut out of the conversation. I wish that so many of my ex-classmates had learned this while growing up in Mount Vernon, while in Mount Vernon public schools, while in Humanities with me.

I’ve come around to Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough’s way of thinking. America is a center-right nation, just as the Founding Fathers intended. Or, to be most precise, America’s DNA is one that has always had the “this-is-a-heterosexual-White-man’s-country” mutation baked into it, a gene that morphs to the point of virtual immutability. A fair number of my ex-classmates also have this mutation, which may explain my inability to fit in more than my kufi, Hebrew-Israelite status, or living at 616 in the midst of poverty domestic violence and child abuse.


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