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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Politics, and why Washington doesn't work

The Washington Post yesterday published a provocative opinion piece by Thomas E. Mann of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute under the headline, "Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem." With a headline like that, you just know the piece is going to be inflammatory.

And it is. Needfully so. They write:
"We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

"When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“'Both sides do it' or 'There is plenty of blame to go around' are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach."
A powerful indictment, that, and the piece goes on to back it up (I highly encourage you all to go read it). But it also fails to give proper weight to the real problem behind the Republican Party's shift to extremism. The article quotes a line from former Republican Congressional aide Mike Lofgren, written at Truthout after he retired, in which he says the "Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.” And Rep. Alan West's striking a Joe McCarthy pose and accusing Democratic members of Congress of being communists was a disgusting throwback to our red-bating years (he also has equated Democrats with Nazis).

Yet the writers of the Post opinion piece overlook a key factor here. Any American political party reflects the political views of members. Gerrymandering has helped lock in the power of the extremists in both parties, but you can't lose sight of the fact that the science-denying, red-baiting right-wing extremists in Washington were sent there by voters. The problem, and fault, lies in us, the electorate. The authoritarian nature of the GOP these days reflects the people who voted them in (and the right-ward cast of talk radio helped propel that after the FCC's Fairness Doctrine was killed during the Reagan administration) .

We are locked now less in a crisis of dysfunctional politics than in a crisis of the nation's political soul. And if you doubt that, go read the comments on the article linked above. As Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Read More 
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The Festival of Books, and an unanswered question

Northeast Detroit, summer of 2010.
Well, it was a hectic couple of days at the LA Times Festival of Books, with an appearance on a panel Sunday and writing up three blog posts for the Times's Jacket Copy blog Saturday and Sunday morning. But I found myself thinking last night about an answer that slipped away.

I was on the "We Built This City " panel Sunday, moderated by LA Times book editor Jon Thurber, and that included former Times c ity editor and columnist Bill Boyarsky and writer Rebecca Solnit. Boyarsky was there to talk about Los Angeles, Solnit about San Francisco, and I about Detroit. Before it was opened to audience questions, Thurber asked about catastrophic events, and how cities seem to pull together after them (something Solnit has written about) and why, in a case like Detroit, they don't. Before I got a chance to weigh in the conversation drifted a bit, and I didn't bring it back.

So here is my answer: Because people tend to respond to incidents they can react to in an immediate, and human way. We don't, as a society, react to slow evolution. Or, in the case of Detroit, a slow dismantling.

A popular theme in Detroit is to say that the city is just as devastated as New Orleans, but without the hurricane. There's some truth to that. People like to donate to the Red Cross and other organizations in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, or something like the 9/11 terror attacks. It helps them feel connected, as though they've done something that recognizes their sympathy with those directly affected. It makes them feel good.

But when it comes to large but slowly unfolding socio-economic crises, we turn a blind eye. Especially if those suffering are outside the mainstream - people of color, the chronically poor, the detritus left behind by an economic ebb tide. Which is really quite interesting when you think about. These slowly unfolding crises are the results, in most cases, of national and corporate policies, regional housing patterns, a crumbling sense of physical community, and a surrender to individual fears and prejudices.

A hurricane we rally around. Our national sins, not so much. And it's all the odder when you realize that many of us who are getting by in this economy are one serious illness away from abject poverty - even those of us with health insurance. We need to pay more attention to these glacial, and transforming, changes in our national fabric, and our national priorities. We need to start thinking more about ourselves as part of a inclusive community.

A lot of people these days are quoting the Founding Fathers as they try to define what the government is, and should be. It would behoove us to heed another quote from that era, too, about what happens if we don't all hang together..... Read More 
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Why today should be marked in red on your calendar

This date has a habit of sneaking up on me. I look at the calendar and am a little shocked to see it rounding out again. There are others who have the same feeling, I know (a few post on Facebook). But it remains just another day for most people, including labor supporters, which has long struck me as a bit of an insult to history.

It was 98 years ago today that a day-long gun battle erupted at a coal strikers' tent colony at the edge of the Great Plans in southern Colorado. The violence led to the suffocation deaths of 11 children and two mothers (they died in an underground bunker as fire swept through the tents above), but it also represented one of the most extreme encounters between workers and their bosses, and state military forces. Another child and several men were killed that day, too, including the apparent cold-blooded murders of union miners by National Guardsmen The deaths at Ludlow occurred within the sweep of a seven-month guerrilla war between the miners and their supporters, and mine guards and the Colorado National Guard. At least 75 people were killed in what amounted to open insurrection. Yet few of you have ever heard of it.

With the centennial looming - the strike began in September 1913 - I'm hoping the events at Ludlow gain more of our national attention. Meantime, after the jump you'll find a short excerpt from Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, my first book, about that long ago day in southern Colorado: Read More 
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Sunday at the LAT Festival of Books: 'We built this city'

There's a busy weekend ahead with the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I'll be on a panel Sunday, but it also looks like I'll be blogging from some of the events for the LAT's Jacket Copy blog, which I've done for the past few festivals.

The panel should be quite interesting, with me talking about Detroit, Bill Boyarsky talking about Los Angeles, and Rebecca Solnit talking about San Francisco (I presume; she's written about it). The moderator will be the Times's book editor, Jon Thurber. We'll be in Taper Hall Room 101.

So I'll be around the grounds of the University of Southern California for both days of the festival. I hope to see some of you there. Read More 
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Rep. West, Joe McCarthy, and the flames that won't die

Maybe someone should get Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) a copy of my last book, The Fear Within, to get a sense of the lunacy he was channeling during this appearance (see the clip below). And not surprisingly, the Tea Party folks in attendance didn't laugh at the absurdity of his comments. So maybe they should order in a couple of boxes of the books.

The Fear Within is about a slice of the Red Scare era after World War II. It's a narrative retelling of the criminal trial of 11 overt leaders of the Communist Party-USA on charges that their political beliefs, the articles and books they wrote, and the classes they taught, were illegal under the 1940 Smith Act. The law banned advocating the necessity of overthrowing the U.S. government, or teaching about it, and the U.S. Department of Justice's case was bizarre: Communism as a theory calls for the violent overthrow of capitalism; the U.S. government is part of a capitalist system; ergo, the CPUSA was trying to overthrow the US government by violence. There were no overt acts, mind you, beyond the exchange of ideas. No plots were hatched.

They 11 defendants were convicted in Dennis v. U.S. (the case I write about) despite the obvious conflicts with the First Amendment, a wrong that wasn't righted until Yates v. U.S. about six years later.

So for a time, a specific political belief was, in effect, outlawed in the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave (remember, our enemies hate us for our freedoms). You'd think political extremists - including Tea Partiers - would be very sensitive to that, and to the kind of shunning implied by West's absurd allegation.
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'Rest?' What is this word, 'rest'?

John Paul Jones's crypt in Annapolis. Photo: U.S. Naval Academy
With Detroit: A Biography doing well less than two weeks after its official pub date, I've already been looking ahead to the next project. And I'm pleased to let you know that my agent, Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich, has reached an agreement with Chicago Review Press for Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero (that's the working title, anyway), a look at the obsessive hunt in fin de siecle Paris for the body of the man recognized as the father of the U.S. Navy. I'm doubly pleased because CRP did such a great job with Detroit, and I'll be working with the same editor, Jerome Pohlen, and his crew.

John Paul Jones had a checkered life after the Revolutionary War, and died of natural causes in Paris in 1792 in the midst of the French Revolution. Amid the tumult, his body was dropped in the sole Protestant cemetery and the location promptly forgotten, the cemetery eventually covered over with buildings. More than a century later, U.S. Ambassador Horace Porter - a Civil War vet, former top aide to Ulysses S. Grant (in the Union Army and the White House) and the moving force behind establishing Grant's Tomb as a monument - decided Jones deserved better. So he made it so, in dramatic fashion and at his own expense, including digging a network of shafts and tunnels beneath buildings in Paris to explore the old cemetery to find the right body.

I've already done some early research, and it's a fascinating story. Look for it in Spring of 2014 (tentative). And naturally, there will be occasional updates before then.

Oh, and the crime novel I wrote? It's still wandering around publishing houses looking for a home. So think good thoughts for that project, too. Read More 
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On the book tour whirlwind

Photo: Jerome Pohlen
Well, I'm back in California, landed Saturday in time to prepare for Easter dinner with my family and some old friends, and now here in the predawn hours I'm getting my week mapped out. Which is also a good time to look at the week behind.

The schedule was posted elsewhere so I won't detail it here, but it was a hectic and fun romp through Ann Arbor, Lansing and Detroit. Met some wonderful people at some great bookstores, and had a great night with old friends and the newly curious at the Anchor Bar in Downtown Detroit. The reception was uniformly positive, supportive, and spiced with personal and family stories about living - or leaving - Detroit. No resolutions were made or solutions found, but that wasn't the intent of the book. I want Detroit: A Biography to give people who don't know Detroit a better sense of what it once was and how it got to be what it is, and to give Detroiters and Michiganders a better sense of themselves, and the problems they face.

There have been some nice recent write-ups and reviews of the book, too, including The Detroit Hub, a ocal news site, and Bookslut, a national book-centric blog. Sales are going pleasantly well, too. Apparently it's the number two best-selling nonfiction title in northern Michigan.

And we've only just begun. Read More 
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Postcard: Greetings from Michigan

One of the many highlights of the book talk and signing part of this business are the moments of surprise, and the chance to encounter folks whose lives have intersected with the topics of one of my books. I’ve been chatting for the past couple of days with a lot of ex-Detroiters in Ann Arbor and Lansing, nearly all of whom have been white, and who left (or whose parents left) Detroit years ago. And it’s interesting to hear anew what that history looks like from inside the personal decisions.

Most have been receptive to the analysis of the broad themes of Detroit’s decline (racism, corporate decentralization, failing institutions, etc.), and been keenly interested in how to stanch the bleeding and begin rebuilding. But mixed in among the conversations was a wonderful path-crossing with Dan Green, who lives with his wife outside Ann Arbor and whose father figured so prominently in my last book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial. Gil Green was a top official in the Communist Party-USA, and was one of the defendants in the Dennis v. U.S. case that was at the heart of my book, and whose conviction, for a time, made belief in a specific political theory effectively illegal (as we well known, the Supreme Court doesn't always get things right). It was a great pleasure to finally meet Dan after so many email exchanges as I was working on that project.

The first talk of this trip was at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, a great independent bookstore (picture to the left). Tuesday evening I spoke at a Barnes & Noble in Lansing, with great interest and support from the staff. Tonight I'm at the Anchor Bar in downtown Detroit (something of a home game; that’s the old newspaper hangout when I lived in Detroit), and Thursday I’m at The Book Beat in Oak Park, another great independent bookstore, where I'll be "in conversation" with friend M.L. Liebler, the hardest working man in poetry. Mixed in are some talks before classes at Wayne State, and Friday morning a talk at TechTown, a business incubator near Wayne State.

Then, like the Easter Bunny, I hop back west in time for Easter. Somewhere in there: A nap.

Thanks to all of you who have come out for the talks, to the journalists and bloggers who have written about the book, and to those of you who have plunked down hard-earned cash for copy. Obviously, without a book-buying public, I – and other writers – wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work. Read More 
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Too many stories, not enough pages

Photo: Library of Congress
As I get ready to head east - or, I should say, midwest - I've been thinking about some of the stories that I was forced to leave out of Detroit: A Biography, and, by extension, this process of distilling a vast subject into digestible form.

Two stories stand out, those of Fred Herrada and James Chambers. Herrada, who died while I was writing the book, spent a couple of hours with me in the condo he shared with his wife in Ann Arbor. An American born to Mexican immigrant parents, he was deported as a young child to Mexico during the Great Depression as part of the federal government's "repatriation" program in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their children - often American citizens - were summarily kicked out of the country. Herrada returned a few years a later; his parents had already resumed their lives in Detroit and sent for the rest of the family. But the experience was another one of those overlooked slices of American history that tend to fascinate me.

I found Herrada through his daughter, Elena Herrada, a political activist and die-hard Detroit booster. She met me at her parents' house and stayed on through the interview, where she learned for the first time that when she was still a young girl and the family was living in Detroit, a neighbor girl had been raped, and that her parents, without letting their children know, feared for the family's safety during racially tumultuous times. Then, like so many others, they moved out of the city. Elena, though, long ago moved back in, and is a member of the Detroit Public Schools board of education. I had hoped to use the Herradas' story to illustrate the stability of the Latino neighborhood in southwest Detroit, but the focus of the book veered in another direction.

Chambers I met through a mutual friend in a bar in the Cass Corridor. He had moved to Detroit as a child from rural Louisiana after a cousin (if I recall the relationship correctly) had been murdered by a white man. The child and other friends, all black, routinely took a shortcut through the man's yard to get to a favorite swimming hole, an act that angered the man. One day he killed the boy with a shotgun blast, a final straw for Chambers' fearful mother, who promptly moved the family north.

Chambers grew up in public housing on the near west side, and told fascinating stories of living through the 1967 riots, the sense of fear and excitement as the buildings burned and the bullets flew. He recalled getting conscripted by neighbors to drive a forklift into a burning rug warehouse and wheel out rolls of carpeting, which promptly disappeared into the streets. A teenager then, he was too young to fully register the significance of what was happening, but in his recollections those burning streets came to life. When I interviewed Chambers, he was living with his wife in a beautiful two-story colonial house, the front stoop guarded by stone lions, in Detroit's Boston-Edison neighborhood, and worked as a line repairman for the telephone company (if I recall, writing this from memory not notes). I had hoped to tell the story of the '50s migration of blacks from the South through him, but wound up using another man's story instead.

Hard choices to make, deciding whose story to tell and whose story to leave out. There are so many slices of history, and so few pages in which to tell them. Read More 
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Road tripping: Detroit, here I come

On April 2 - a week from Monday - I'm starting a five-day tour of southeast Michigan that will cover Ann Arbor, Lansing and, of course, Detroit, marking the official publication of Detroit: A Biography. The book has already found its way to stores shelves, and the usual online outlets. I'm hoping these appearances will draw some attention, and maybe spark conversations about the city's future as Detroit faces a crippling financial crisis.

The biggest event likely will ber a Wednesday night launch gathering at the Anchor Bar, the old newspaper (and sports) hangout in downtown Detroit. Vaughn Derderian hosts an occasional series there called Beer and Politics, which strikes me as a splendid program in an unusual setting where average Detroiters can talk about their city. Very pleased that Vaughn has decided to let me come talk about before such an engaged crowd.

I'll also be in conversation with old friend M.L. Liebler on Thursday night at The Book Beat, a great bookstore in Oak Park. I start the week in Ann Arbor at Nicola's, then up to Lansing for a talk and signing at Barnes & Noble, both of which should be interesting and engaging events. The full calendar of the public events is below (I'll be doing some private talks, too) is below. And there will be some local media coverage, including radio interviews and a Detroit television appearance Monday morning on WXYZ Channel 7, which I'll add to the events page in the next couple of days.

If you have a suggestion of places where we might squeeze in another talk, or if my contacts in the media are interested in covering any of this, drop me an email.

April 2: Ann Arbor, 7 pm, Nicola's Books in the Westgate Shopping Center at Jackson and Maple in Ann Arbor. Phone: (734 ) 662-0600.

April 3: 6 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 5132 W. Saginaw Hwy. in Lansing

April 4, 7 p.m., Detroit, book launch at Beer & Politics event, Anchor Bar, West Fort and First Streets (cash bar).

April 5: 7 p.m., in conversation with M.L. Liebler at The Book Beat, at 26010 Greenfield Road in Oak Park.
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