The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Saturday, January 24, 2004
SAM SMITH: THE THREE-DOT INTERVIEW: The first time I interviewed
Progressive Review editor Sam Smith was in 1997. He was coming to Seattle to promote a book, and I had arranged for him to stop at KSER, a community radio station where I had been DJing in my spare time. This involved picking him up at Seattle's NPR outlet after his appearance there and ferrying him to my station, which gave us about half an hour to talk before we recorded the show.

On the way to my car he made a comment -- I don't remember what it was -- that seemed to assume I agreed with him on some issue where I actually didn't. So, choosing my words delicately, I said, "I guess this is the time to mention that I'm a bit more libertarian than you are."

"You're a libertarian?" he answered. "Oh, good. That means you won't mind if we eat lunch at McDonald's."

That was when I knew for sure that I liked the guy.

I interviewed him again about a year later, in the other Washington. A Chronicles writer had told me the magazine was doing a theme issue on "radical reactionaries, reactionary radicals," and suggested that I contribute a piece. I proposed a profile of Smith, who as a Chestertonian lefty seemed to exemplify the sort of crossover politics they were writing about; besides, I was spending a year in D.C., so he was right in my backyard. The idea was approved, the interview was conducted, and the article appeared in the November 1998 issue, alongside essays on Dwight Mcdonald, William Borah, and Dorothy Day. I had hoped to persuade them to publish the interview itself, but it was too long for the space.

Fortunately, that is no obstacle to publishing it here. Six years late but barely out of date, I give you the Perpetual Three-Dot Column interview with Sam Smith.

Q: The Progressive Review has gone through a number of incarnations...

A: It started out as a neighborhood newspaper on Capital Hill. I became 30 in 1967, so I was too young to be part of the people the 1960s crowd was fighting against and too young to be trusted. Then, in 1968, we had what has been called the Great Consumer Rebellion -- i.e. the riots. Unfortunately, two of the major riot strips were in our circulation area. A certain number of our readers had decided to burn down a certain number of our advertisers. This created a very difficult marketing situation.

Also, following the riots, there was a major change in the relationship between black and whites in this town. Blacks and whites who had worked together no longer did. I was doing public relations work for Marion Barry, who was head of the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I went to one meeting in the basement offices on Rhode Island Avenue, and in walked Stokely Carmichael, who was then the national chair of SNCC. He announced, I thought rather blandly, that whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. That was part of the spirit of the times.

So, trying to figure out what to do, I changed the focus and turned the paper into much more of what you think of as an alternative or underground newspaper. But because of its strange heritage and because of my somewhat odd situation, it wasn't like most other alternative papers. It was much more community-oriented, less hippie.

We ran the first regular column by a person in prison. We ran what I believe was the first urban planning comic strip in America. I mainly wanted to do politics, but my wife, who had actually been a journalism graduate, convinced me that I needed some arts and culture. I said, "If you want me to have some culture in this newspaper, you're going to have to find it." So she went out and did. The first person she got was Tom Shales, who was later the TV critic for the Washington Post. He covered the media and drama for us for some time. After he went to work for the Post he continued to write for us under the pseudonym of Egbert Sousé until one of his bosses discovered this and told him to stop.

Come the middle of the '80s, I was pretty burned out on the local angle. It's like E.B. White once remarked: when he read his stuff, it seemed like he had said it before, only better. That's when The Progressive Review started.

Q: What kind of local issues did you focus on?

A: Well, in the early days the freeway was one big one. The impact of the War on Poverty on our community was another. Then there was building alternative community structures -- a new approach to urban planning, a new approach to urban organization. It's hard to realize, coming to Washington today, that in the 1960s Washington was up there with Madison and Berkeley. It was a fairly radical place. In Adams-Morgan they were trying to grow trout in the basement of a building. This was one of the great efforts in urban agriculture -- which came to a crashing halt when we had our first post-trout brownout. All the fish died, and we went back to eating trout from natural streams.

Q: There still seems to be, in the stuff you write, an interest in local issues, even if they aren't always based in Washington, D.C. There's a localist focus.

A: I think that's philosophical. Martin Marty said we need a place from which to view the world. And one of the things I notice about people in power in Washington is how rootless many of them are. It's been said that they're the sort of people that when they're in a room by themselves, there's no one there. Without a sense of place, it's very difficult to talk in any sensible way about any policy. Because you've stepped out from the real. You've stepped into a totally theoretical world. I've found over and over again that my local experiences have been helpful in writing about national politics.

Q: Could you give an example of that?

A: Well, the sense that just because the federal government is doing something, it's actually happening -- one of the ways I differ from a lot of liberals is that I think if you're going to build a Department of Housing and Urban Development, you ought to have some housing and urban development come out of it. I've proposed, for example, that there ought to be a quota for every employee of HUD. You know: so many houses have to be built for each employee, or else they have to reduce their staff.

If you're at the receiving end of the great federal government, you get quite a different perspective than, say, if you're at the Metropolitan Club or in the editorial offices of the Washington Post or in the upper floors of the department itself.

My major housing program would be a shared-equity program, in which the government would provide funds for people who buy their first house. The program would be funded this way: when the house was sold, the government would get its share of the equity back. Now, the beauty of that is that you don't need a large bureaucracy to run it. You'd have an instantaneous effect on the housing margin. That's the sort of approach I would take.

Q: It seems like you've been more critical of the left in recent years than at the beginning.

A: I was telling some folks in Providence the other day that most people who are alive today have never seen a liberal do anything worthwhile. I'm old enough to remember when leftists and liberals actually did something, which is why I would not describe myself as anti-liberal or anti-leftist. I just think that the current crowd is pretty pathetic.

Back in the '80s I made a rather naive attempt to get involved in Americans for Democratic Action. I thought, Here is a group which has a large national membership and a good deal of money flowing in; maybe it can be turned into something useful. I actually spent a number of years there. I ended up as an executive vice president. Then I helped form something called the Progressive Caucus of ADA. The people in power there didn't appreciate the irony.

Among the things we tried to do was to get the ADA to support an alternative drug policy, one that wasn't based on the premise that it was all right to send young black males to jail for preferring marijuana to daiquiris. On two occasions we passed resolutions at the national convention that represented a significant shift in ADA's thinking.

Well, the powers that be just went up in arms. They buried both resolutions. They were not very pleased. On one occasion Rep. Charlie Rangel, who was the chair of ADA, showed up just to debate that one issue. He was so furious that there were these out-of-control people proposing something other than an entirely punitive approach to drugs.

I mention that because, as you know, ADA hasn't been heard from much of late. But the other day I noticed Amy Isaacson, their director, was quoted standing up for the right of Kramerbooks not to be subpoenaed by Kenneth Starr. I thought to myself, you know, that's the first time I've heard them get involved on a major civil liberties issue. In my mind, the drug issue is somewhat more important than the subpoenaing of Monica Lewinsky's books.

I tend to think of them more as being AWOL rather than being wrong.

Q: ADA, or liberals in general?

A: Liberals in general. They have missed out on a lot of very, very central issues. Such as the War on Drugs. Such as the militarization of society. Things that liberals used to be concerned about. And the left media -- The Nation, Mother Jones -- got themselves in a terrible bind with Bill Clinton that they have yet to get themselves out of. Defending a reprehensible president hardly seems to be the place to position yourself as a political movement.

Q: Hasn't there been a hysteria among liberals towards rural populism? An attitude towards movements like FIJA or the property rights movement or the militias that seems to be based on a fear of what these people in the fever swamps are doing rather than an interest in what might be motivating them to protest?

A: Yeah. I think there's a lot of cultural problems and hang-ups that liberals and leftists have. I don't think a lot of them like Americans all that much, in all their diversified glory. In my mind, being an American is like being a member of a large family, and it means getting along with people you don't agree with as well as those you do. I don't understand the idea that there are groups of people who are beyond the pale. I'm not talking about leaders now, I'm talking about masses of people. One of the things I tell people is: Don't attack followers, attack leaders. If you've got a problem with Rush Limbaugh, take it out on him, but don't take it out on his listeners.

I think it's a form of snobbism. Part of it is political, but -- just as there are a lot of conservatives who feel that they're superior to various ethnic groups, so there are a lot of liberals who feel superior to fundamentalist Christians, or people who grew up in a hunting environment, for example. And all the messages are wrong.

Let's take guns. I'm a product of a Quaker school. I hate guns. I don't have anything to do with them. Part of that is because if I had a gun I'd be dangerous. I proved that when I was in the Coast Guard. I got nothing on my target; the guy next to me got all of his and mine too. But I also know that gun control should be regarded as an urban/rural issue, not a left/right issue. I was interested to see Bob Kerrey talking about this yesterday on C-SPAN, up in New Hampshire. He made a point I've seen very few politicians make in this country. He said in western Nebraska, there's no problem with guns. In Omaha, there is. And you've got to come up with solutions that recognize that.

Well, part of that solution is not to define everybody who comes out of a culture where guns are important as evil. Because it includes people like my wife, whose father was a longtime hunter up in Wisconsin. So I sort of take it personally if the liberals want to knock people who come out of that environment.

I can tell you where the line was drawn in Maine on the gun issue -- physically, one place where it was drawn. It was on the back steps of a suburban house on the edge of a woods, where a woman came out in her white curlers one day and was shot for being a deer. Now that story tells more about the gun issue than anything else. That was a conflict between the two cultures. The woman had no sense that she was in any danger, and the hunter had no sense that he was in an urbanized area.

Q: Do you think there's a link between that sense of snobbery, among conservatives and among liberals, and the sense of abstraction you were speaking about earlier?

A: Yeah. I've been involved in biracial politics for a long time, and I really don't believe that getting people to say the right thing is all that important. I mean, I would like to see people not use prejudiced language. But in a hierarchy of things, if you create a society in which people learn to hide their feelings, you're in a much more dangerous society than one in which you can tell what the problem is. The real danger with politically correct speech, for example, was demonstrated to me when I was on a plane going to Brown to see my son. I was sitting next to a guy from North Carolina. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me he was going up to see his brother at Brown. I said, "How's he getting along?" He said, "He's getting along pretty good. He's learning how to deal with those liberals." And I said, "How's he doing that?" He said, "By keeping his mouth shut."

I thought that was a wonderful description of what 's wrong with that approach. If the lesson you teach is for people to keep their mouths shut, then you don't change feelings and you don't change relationships. You end up with what I think of as the George [H.W.] Bush Syndrome. You couldn't imagine George Bush ever being rude to a black person personally, but he had a total incapacity to deal with their problems if they became aggregated in any way. So you have on one hand an immense civility, and on the other hand you have a lot of bodies lying around.

One of the buzzwords of the day is "civil society." You know what I think of when I think of civil society? I think of all those seminars, all these private meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations, all these talking heads on C-SPAN, all these thoughtful speeches. And then I think of nearly two million dead Iraqis since they started the embargo. That's UNICEF's estimate. It's this conflict between this language of civility and abstraction, and these dead bodies, that gets to me.

I don't know whether that's ideological or not. I sometimes think my politics is just based on a strong dislike of bullies.

Q: Do you think those values are more important than ideology?

A: I got a call recently from Philip Weiss, who's a columnist for the New York Observer, a liberal weekly. Weiss is an interesting fellow because he's one of the few reporters who's really changed his views of Clinton as a result of his reporting. We were talking about Whitewater. He said, "Does it bother you to hang around and be connected to all these right-wingers?" And I said, "No! I grew up in a family with six kids. I'm used to being around people who don't agree with me." It turns out, I was third of about six kids, and I think he is too. that got me started, so I did a little survey -- I wrote to Roger Morris, Chris Ruddy, Sally Denton, and Hugh Sprunt, and did a little anthropological study of people who had investigated Clinton. And you know, I think something like four out of the six of us had come from families ranging from four to 14 kids. Christopher Ruddy is eleventh out of fourteen kids. And that has an effect. That isn't ideological.

I also don't think you'd describe it as ideological if you were raised in a heavily value-oriented community or family. That was something else that came out. Why were Hugh Sprunt and me essentially on the same wavelength on this? Well, when I asked him a few questions one of the things that came out was that he'd gone to a church school, and he had gone to church once a week, which was treated like a class. I went to a Quaker school, and I was going to a Quaker meeting once a week, which was treated like a class. Even though he was reading Ayn Rand at the same time I was reading Martin Luther King, we had this other thing in common.

Ruddy is the son of an Irish cop. Sally Denton is the descendent of someone who was chased out of Utah by Mormon enforcers. And Roger Morris had a grandmother who was around in Kansas City during the Pendergrass machine, and she passed on to him a distrust of politicians. I mention this just to show how many influences there are on people that will lead them to the same position. What appears to be a vast right-wing conspiracy turns out to be a kind of oxymoronic confederacy of the open-minded.

I guess one of the unique situations I'm in is that I'm one of the few genuine apostates in this whole Clinton business. It's one thing to be a right-winger and go after Clinton. but I wouldn't know where to find Richard Mellon Scaife, let alone get any money out of him. I've done some thinking about how I got into this situation, and aside from some of the things I just mentioned to you, I went back and thought about my time at Harvard U., where I graduated magna cum probation. I realized -- going back and looking at some things I had written, so it's not just something I sort of recreated out of this current experience -- that I had gone to Harvard from a Quaker school with the idea that life is something you engaged in, that you made choices about. It was not something to analyze, put into boxes, describe which categories various phenomena belonged to. To my mind, I felt like I was being told that there were these things like the Industrial Revolution or the Freudian Era which my job as an educated person was to slip all phenomena and experiences into. And I just didn't think that way. It was alien to me.

Which is probably one reason why I majored in anthropology. Not only was I sort of a proto-journalist at that point, but I was also interested in anthropology. In both of those fields you start picking up things, every little piece of data you can, and then after you've done that you start to figure out what it all means. It's the reverse of what a classically "well-educated" political science major or English major at Harvard would be doing. The longer I hang around, the more I see that my friends who came out of this sort of background have lost their capacity to experience data fresh. They immediately put it into slots.

That's the sort of experience I'll have when I'll say to someone -- it could be a well-educated reporter or a liberal friend -- "Look, I'd feel a lot better about Vince Foster's death if I knew how he drove to Fort Macy Park without any car keys." And the typical reaction is, "Oh, you don't believe in that right-wing crap, do you?"

Look what happened in that little conversation. I referred to some data. The proper negative response to what I said is, "Well, didn't you know that his keys were found? They were in the bushes three feet away." But if you say, "You don't believe that right-wing crap, do you?" -- then you've completely shifted. Barbara Tuchman would say you've changed an issue of fact into a matter of motivation. I find that happening all the time.

The whole Clinton experience has helped explain something that has been puzzling me all my life: why I don't get along with the Washington mindset, or the so-called intellectual mindset, as defined by the Ivy League and similar institutions. I think life involves constant reinterpretation of what the facts may be. If you decide that you're going to live your life as a Marxist or a Freudian, you may be in for some big surprises.

Q: What do you see around you that gives you hope that things are getting better? Or worse? Or both?

A: I think of this as a great unstable period. If I had to bet on it, I'd bet that things were going to get a lot worse.

But I graduated from college in 1959. We only had two riots during my period there, one of which I helped to start, neither of which had any great meaning. One year later, black students organized the first sit-ins in the South, and the first big demonstrations against the bomb occurred. There's no way I could have predicted that.

One of the things I do these days is talk to groups of younger activists. And one of the things missing today is the idea that seemed normal to me, as a child of the existential period and a product of a Quaker education, that you have to make choices, whether the times are good or bad. I think this is a very central point today, especially among younger people, because the idea of choice and of possibility is beginning to disappear.

I was talking in a bookstore in Maine, and a guy who was about 30 came up to me afterwards. He said to me, "I came in late to your talk, and I heard you talking about choice. And I assumed that you were talking about abortion. You know, you really ought to be careful using that word, because people might misunderstand you."

Q: And you said, "No, I was talking about school vouchers."

A: (laughs) But that really set me off thinking. And I realized, choice for young people is a choice of consumption, a choice of association; the idea that it is a constant moral activity is not very strong. I find there's a lot of will for change out there, but people aren't getting a lot of help in coming up with a philosophy to get them through the hard times. Matthew Arnold talked about living in two world, one dead and the other not able to be born. That's the sort of sense you have of this time. But it can explode.

John Adams said that the revolution occurred before the outbreak of the hostilities -- it occurred in the hearts and minds of the American people. If you read a book like Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution, you see little pieces that went together to create the possibility of the revolution. One of the reasons I'm so enthusiastic about being involved in the Greens is that if you have a movement that has created 70 parties in countries around the world without any central leadership, something's going on in people's hearts and minds. If the Greens had been organized by Richard Mellon Scaife or by Ted Turner, I'd feel quite differently about it. The very fact that it's an almost anarchistic movement that has sprung out of people's own common assessment of what the need is, is really impressive.

Another issue I've talked a lot about that's beginning to get attention is that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to provide equal status for freed slaves. It was not designed to give human status for inhuman corporations. Yet that's the way it's been used. By the 1930s, something like 95% of the cases coming to the Supreme Court under the Fourteenth Amendment involved corporations rather than blacks. I would like to see an amendment to the Fourteenth Amendment that would make it clear that when we talk about persons, we're talking about natural persons. I take a very traditional American view of the corporation, as a creation which is fully within the powers of the state and federal government to license and to regulate and to ensure that it is operating in the public interest and necessity. I think I might've even gotten Adam Smith's vote on that.

Q: I want to close with--

A: Don't close, because we've got to find out why I'm not a conservative, and why I'm not a libertarian.

Q: All right. Why aren't you a conservative, and why aren't you a libertarian?

A: (long pause) I think the bind I find myself in is that too many conservatives want to ignore people who have problems, and too many liberals want to tell them what to do.

I could never be an acceptable libertarian, although I clearly have libertarian streaks, because I believe in community too much. I don't want to live in the libertarian ideal. My ideal is a jazz band, in which I get to take my solo and when I'm through I back up everybody else. A baseball team is another example of the same philosophy. If you think about it, one of the wonderful things about baseball is how much individual freedom people have on their own turf, and yet how beautifully it all works together. It's that combination of freedom and community that's very important to me.

Q: Don't baseball teams play better when everyone wants to play?

A: Yes. (pause) You've scored a point so subtle that I can't figure it out. (laughs) Well, you got me there. What the hell?

Q: (laughs) Well, this is an interview, not a debate, so I wasn't going to move into the full Socratic dialogue--

A: (laughs) Oh, well, do. Help me out on that one.

Q: OK. If libertarianism is based on the idea of voluntary action, whether it's voluntary community or voluntarily acting on your own, doesn't that leave room for jazz bands and baseball teams? Can't coercion get in the way of that kind of cooperation?

A: On what day, in what community, where? that would be my response to you.

See, you've got a paradigm to defend.

Q: So you've caught me in an abstraction.

A: See how much freedom that leaves me?

Now, I will tell you this. You can find in jazz everything from bands that play off of full charts, and then the soloists come in on the lap; to more typically what they call a lead sheet, which is just the melody and the chords; to those who know the song so well they don't need anything.

The other thing about my own thinking that affects me is that I spend a lot of time in Maine. I've had this lifelong experience of comparing the values of one place against the values of another. I'm old enough to have been around to help move a portion of a house of skids, pulled by a tractor. I've helped to jack a barn, to put new stones -- and those stones are still there today, and the barn is still standing. There is a pragmatism, and a sense that anything is possible -- but you have to get through it, you have to do it.

If you apply this to politics, it leads you in certain directions. You become interested in, "Well, does it work?" Nothing is so derided in Maine humor as the person who's all show.

Humor is another important thing. It's about putting things together that aren't meant to be together. A place like Washington runs on keeping things that should be together apart, so that you don't look at Bill Clinton's sex habits along with his foreign policy. to me, they're intimately related. His political approach and his sexual approach are basically the same: he's a Don Juan. He leaves his policies as fast as he leaves his women.

Self-sufficiency, integrity -- I can't tell you how different dealing with people from Maine is from dealing with people in Washington. I once bought a used car for my son over the phone from friend in Maine who ran an auto shop. I figured I'd do better buying a car sight unseen from him than I would going into an used car lot in the Washington metropolitan area. As it turns out, that car made four and a half trips across the United States and went through two sons. There is a value to that sort of relationship that you just can't calculate.

And it's not just an individual thing. I mean, if you go to L.L. Bean's today you will find what will strike you, if you analyze it, as an extraordinary level of trust. To this day, you can return things to L.L. Bean that are 10 years old. You can come up with some cockamamie story and they'll take the thing back. When we got a wedding present of some thermos jugs from L.L. Bean, one of the insides was cracked and we sent it back. They sent us some new thermos jugs, plus we got an envelope with the postage for what it cost to send the stuff back to them.

This is different from living in Washington. So I've been very much affected by that experience, too, which again is not ideological; it's very value-oriented.

Q: You're speaking of Washington as one place--

A: Oh, yeah. It's like talking about "the media." It's a bad habit. I hate it.

Q: There's a theme through a lot of what you write, distinguishing official Washington from the real city.

A: When I'm real sharp I make that distinction, because I mean it. There's a huge difference. People don't understand why anyone would want to live in this place, but this has been a wonderful city for me. It's been a wonderful place to raise kids. One advantage to raising boys in this town is that you can end up with at least two white guys who can jump. Learning how to play decent basketball is worth the price of admission for some people. I think also -- I've noticed this not just with my own children, but with others -- that white kids who grow up in this town are culturally very sophisticated in a street-smart sort of way. And I like the results. I like seeing young people grow up here and what they do and how they think.

Environmentally, it's a nice town. You can actually see the sky almost anywhere in the city, which you can't in New York. And it's got a nice, pleasant pace to it, as long as you're not striving to get too much power or striving to make too much money.

Q: I was going to close with a statement you repeated at the Third Party Summit back in 1995. An activist friend of yours said, "Look, Sam, all I really want to do is sit on my front stoop in the sun, drink beer, and shoot craps."

A: I wrote something a long, long time ago in which I spoke about disliking the abuse of power not only because of the pain it caused, but because it distracted us from enjoying the pleasures of life in all their social irrelevance. It's another way of saying what the guy was saying. The choice we're often put into is that we either find ourselves being members of the volunteer fire department, on constant call, or else we're one of the arsonists. My ideal community would be one in which you devote a reasonable amount of time to civic activity, but not too much, because things would work pretty well. That, of course, was the model of many smaller communities.

I think when a large number of people has to spend full time correcting things, you've got a serious, serious crisis. Then one of the dangers is you might start to enjoy the fire, to push the metaphor to its limits. That's what you find with a lot of the public interest groups in Washington. Environmentalists, civil liberties and civil rights groups, labor organizations -- you see these folks up close, and they are not doing their job.

Of course, this is another reason why I'm in such trouble with some of my friends -- because I say things like that. But it's true. I think any labor union guy or woman who managed to see the lifestyle of the leaders of their unions would be pretty disappointed. You find environmental lawyers essentially operating like ecological Vichy officials. You find women's groups defending Bill Clinton. You find not a single civil rights organization in Washington pointing out that perhaps the most segregated major public institution in our society is the United States Senate. How can you do anything about equality in our society when you have a Senate that is as distorted as ours is? Not just in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of women, geography--

Q: And profession.

A: Profession. Yes. That's a whole other thing we haven't gotten into. I'd love someone to make the argument that lawyers as officers of the court are not allowed to sit in the legislature. That might be the best reform we can come up with.

I first got involved with the Greens at a meeting up in Maine, in which not only were there Greens but there was a guy from the Reform Party and a couple of Libertarians. The fellow from the Reform Party wrote a piece in which he said the difference between the Greens and the Reform Party is largely centered over the issue of property. But then he said that we agree that we don't want this issue decided by the national media or by national politicians.

And that, I thought, was a very profound comment. The things we disagree on do not necessarily have to be decided at the macro level. We can work out our own arrangements, we can have our own debates, and that's a lot healthier.

posted by Jesse 7:08 PM
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