Historical Boston, from Above

Bostonography points us this wonderful first photo of Boston from abovewhich also happens to be the first aerial photo of any city in America. It comes from a wonderful treasure trove of aerial photos from the Boston Public Library.

As a lover of history, Boston, and photography, I just had to share these photos. You can spend hours just browsing these photos, noting communities that no longer exist,  enjoying the early stages of what would become Logan and wondering how long those planes were delayed relative to ours, and marveling how Back Bay has and has not changed. It’s truly something.

If you are visiting this site, this is where the background to this blog comes from. This is the State House and Boston Common area circa 1930.

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January 28, 2011. Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

Reaction to the State of the Union Address

The history of great American leadership is the history of those who dare to act boldly, to shun old ways of doing things, and who look forward with optimism and hope for a better tomorrow. My biggest criticism of most Presidents is not ideological. My measure of a Presidency is the capacity to not only think big but act boldly to achieve our nation’s potential.

This speech, in some ways, achieved a good deal. To me, it echoed themes found in Kennedy’s New Frontier. President Obama challenged us to win the future through innovation and entrepreneurship. He challenged us to invest in alternative energy and in our schools.  He reminded us of the Barack Obama we all saw in 2004 when he said that we are not a nation of red states and blue states, that we are the United States of America.

It was all the gauzy talk that always has my liberal knees-a-quivering. I was proud when he called on young people to become teachers saying that our nation needs them.  He suggested that we need fair immigration reform. He helped restore the rightful place of science as something exciting and important in our society. These are big and important ideas, and I am glad he spoke vaguely enough about them to allow the particulars to be decided later. President Obama challenged us with real goals, one of which captured my imagination: 80% clean energy by 2035.

It was great. But I find it unfortunate that the credibility of his main argument — that we need to think big to win the future by investing in science and education — is diminished by his assertion that we can do it all without adding to the deficit or increasing domestic spending in the short term.

It felt like the speech had something for everybody. Strategically, it was a great choice to remind liberals that he will fight against oil companies and for small business innovation and remind conservatives that he’s their president, too. He’ll fight for education and infrastructure and believes that government has a role to play at all levels of our society. He deftly moved on from the debate over healthcare by saying that he wants to fix any problems in the legislation, and improve on it to cut costs and increase quality, but refused to go backwards. That is a good move: make new reforms the status quo as quickly as possible in order to make it harder to take away. Pivoting to the right, the President wrapped himself in deficit-hawk cushions to shield him from the hammers of the far-right by calling for a spending freeze, yet also called for a restructuring of our government and simplification of our tax code. And he threw in medical malpractice, because it’s a good way to play nice with Republicans.

But, to make this address truly great, he had to answer some questions. For one, how can we invest in major infrastructure improvements without increasing domestic spending? Why are earmarks bad, other than they are the scape goat du jour? (This has always been a pet peeve of mine. Earmarks are simply the way Congress says, use this money for this project. Would we have a Congress send a transportation bill to the President for billions of dollars without having any input as to which projects the bill will go towards? Congresspeople often know the needs of their district better than the rest of the federal government and can push for good projects. They bring home the bacon, sure, but they also know when a project is really necessary.)

Moreover, while the Race to the Top program is a good way to start investing in accountability, I am not convinced it is the best way to innovate. It often continues us on the path of simply forcing standardized metrics across the board. How will Race to the Top really change our educational system, and what besides that does he have in mind?

He also failed to address any issues of gun control in the wake of the Tuscon shooting. He failed to address any issues of poverty in America outside of education.

And he implicitly failed to defend his own stimulus plan. I say that because this was a speech aimed at cutting the deficit. Yet one reason our deficit has increased in the last few years is that we needed to invest in stimulus programs that saved our economy from a Depression. To simply attack deficits as always bad misses the whole point of how he was able to pull off one of his biggest achievements, and it reinforces conservative narratives. It’s not a bad thing that we primed the pump and spent $787 billion on a stimulus, plus gave tax breaks to the middle class. But that costs a lot of money.

Finally, it was clearly a more moderate speech, and that’s fine with me, even as a die-hard progressive. This speech was geared towards rallying our base (teachers, Latinos, geeks, youths looking to be inspired a la JFK) while reaching out to moderates who will not vote D all the time. And it pressured Republicans to work with him. That’s all he had to achieve, but he also called for a return to American curiosity and innovation. Well done.

One last thing. I do not now, and never will, care where members of Congress sit or who they sit next to; I only care where they stand on the issues and what they are willing to fight for.

January 26, 2011. Uncategorized. 2 comments.

Delicious thin crust

I am in DC for a couple of days helping my brother take care of his baby boy. We’re staying at his in-laws place, and yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting up with a friend I hadn’t seen in months over in Georgetown.

We went to the delightful Pizzeria Paradiso with the appropriate URL http://www.eatyourpizza.com/

Salads were light and leafy, pizza appropriately cheesy. The service was prompt, but the pizza delayed. Still a nice experience with gourmet (slightly overpriced) pizza. Not a bad DC treat.

January 25, 2011. Uncategorized. 1 comment.

A few problems with mass protests

For some of the older folks, it’s weird to think I was in high school during the start of the war in Iraq. But that is when I got my start as an activist. Fiercely anti-war, I wrote screeds in my high school newspaper about the war. “Even if I’m wrong and Saddam DOES have WMDs,” I wrote, “does anybody really think that having an American-made power vacuum in Iraq is going to be a good idea?” I went on from there. It totally baffles me that a high school student could have more foresight in foreign policy than, you know, our entire government. Anyway, so I joined the protests. I was never the kid who protested for the sake of protesting — I always thought it was supposed to DO something.

But here’s what I found and let me explain.

  • Massive protests didn’t do anything. We still went to war. (Duh.)
  • If you actually attended one of those protests, there were tons of conflicting messages.
  • Nothing was particularly out of the ordinary.
  • We were easily marginalized.
  • Showing up made people feel really good.

If you think about mass protests, in an ideal world they are supposed to accomplish something, or make it so clear that the status quo is so unjust that a change needs to be made. It typically works best when the decision maker feels some sense of shame about the whole thing. But the Bush Administration was always going to go to war, it had decided, and no amount of protesting would change that. Nor would it put pressure on Senators to vote against, because it was not made 100% clear that there was a true injustice. I am going to talk more about that in the next post.

At the protests, you saw signs for every lefty cause under the sun. It wasn’t just “NO WAR IN IRAQ” it was also about, for some reason, the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, the environment, civil rights, Puerto Rico (seriously), the occasional socialist or anarchist that gets marginalized, and everything else. The message was totally inconsistent and while we were happy to have the large numbers, it didn’t make any sense. The message got garbled. But if you have a million people in one area, they should really be saying one thing. I am going to talk a lot about that more in another post because this problem stems from one of the progressive movement’s strengths, which is its diversity.

I was also struck by how ordinary it was. Police were completely prepared for every protest I attended, folks came and went, by and large peacefully, and the pesky folks who didn’t were handled easily. It was like, great you made your point, now let’s get back with our normal life. It’s a protest, we’ve seen it before in other, more interesting protests. Yawn. It was a great gathering, but it did not change the way anybody thought about the issue. Folks watching at home would think at best “Oh there’s a group of people over there who think one way. OK. I think another.” Meanwhile, Fox News et. al. called us all sorts of bad names. We were at best benign ex-hippies trying to relive the glory days of the 1960s, at worst unpatriotic and treasonous. That makes us easily marginalized.

We were pumped. There was excitement. We were part of a big movement just like in the 1960s. We were sticking it to the man. We hadn’t ever seen protests that big ever! It felt like maybe we were going to have a new generation of activists on the left and new organizers. It was all so refreshing to us.

But we forgot Martin Luther King’s core teaching of process. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail King said, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

The war hadn’t started yet, so technically, there was yet no injustice. But we were trying to prevent it, OK. Now we need to prove just how the war would be unjust. We did not do that. Our message was unclear. We did not attempt any negotiation other than “Give the inspectors more time.” Nobody bought that we were negotiating, and to be fair, there really was nobody to negotiate with. We did not self-purify and prepare for real consequences of direct action. Instead, we wanted to essentially go to a rally and just feel good about ourselves. We weren’t prepared to make real sacrifices for the cause, other than getting arrested. It was immature. A lot of folks skipped school “in protest” but really, it was just about skipping school. And our direct action wasn’t that direct. It was a set of marches, and it took nobody by surprise. It didn’t do anything different or stop anything besides traffic. But most importantly, we jumped from step 1 to step 4.

People often bemoan to me the lack of activism among many young people. They want to see more big protests when there are major injustices. They prefer the tactic, never realizing that it must fall into a larger strategy. You don’t protest for the sake of protesting. You protest because that is the most effective means of achieving your goal. I have a bunch of friends in college still who like to protest at the drop of the hat. But mostly, that just separates them into the ‘activist’ clique and doesn’t really do much.

One final thought: we’ve seen this movie before. When folks did massive sit-ins or marches in the 1960s, it was NEW. People hadn’t seen these kind of non-violent protests before, and there was the opportunity to catch authorities and the public off guard. Now it’s become so commonplace that it’s no longer interesting. The good organizer knows that people can see your tactics but they cannot see your strategy. We’ve become so used to the tactics, that we forget sometimes the strategy on which they are based.

January 21, 2011. Uncategorized. 1 comment.

Defining Progressive Success

Awhile back, I started talking about how progressive organizers define success over at Blue Mass Group during a discussion started by Charley about how 99.8% of kids in Massachusetts have access to health insurance and how we have the best access to health insurance of any state in the nation.

Something Ryan said really struck me, though. Ryan wrote:

tell me about the % of people who are getting good care, not the % of people who have crappy insurance they may or may not be able to afford to use when they need it. Any other numbers are a smokescreen.

Later he added:

Our health care system, even in the almighty Hub of the Universe, is TeH Suck. We may suck slightly less than most other states — though not by the margins many of us would wish — but we still suck.

On the face of it, I can get behind that. What matters is health care, not health insurance rates. Massachusetts’ reform, in my view, was health insurance reform. Insurance is not the ultimate end, good quality care is.

But it irritates me that the first reaction to a story about universal insurance for children has a glass half empty viewpoint. Having all but universal health insurance for all children in Massachusetts is unmistakably a remarkable accomplishment achieved in no small part because of our health insurance reform effort. Should there be improvements? Uh, yeah. Ryan, I hope to see you during the next phase of health insurance reform organizing for that. We need to improve quality and decrease costs. We’ve got everybody in the boat, now we need to make sure it doesn’t sink.

But this is not just Ryan. In the same post that Charley makes a point about how great it is that we’ve achieved this milestone Masslib writes about the need for single payer. Ryan notes that there is more work to be done. Christopher questions Charley’s motives for even supporting this kind of reform, when anybody who has followed this blog knows how important health insurance reform has been to Charley for as long as this blog has been around. Really, guys? I mean, really.

This glass-half-empty approach is not just wrong, in my view, it’s counterproductive. I think it’s extremely appropriate and important to pat ourselves on the back for this and other achievements because making progress towards our ideals helps us make the case to continue striving to reach them, rather than getting discouraged and letting the other side take control. If every achievement we make just isn’t good enough, it discourages people from getting on board. People want to win. People want to celebrate.

It’s an old conversation, but especially during a time when we seem to be having a lot of conversations about compromise, it seems appropriate to talk on the flip about how we define success.

The response in Charley’s post, for me, is symptomatic of what progressives tend to do to ourselves time and time again. Our virtues become our vice; we cannot accept a victory when we see one because we are working to always fight the status quo, always move toward our ideal, always have a healthy skepticism of what people in authority say.

Instead, let’s define our success, celebrate and disseminate it when we achieve it, then go back to work. Here are some rules of thumb that help me define success. I’m not saying this is how we should all measure our political lives, but these help me.

  • When you have a bill you’re hoping to become law, it will never, ever, ever be exactly what you want. Success means that you make progress towards your overall goals and you don’t sacrifice too much (however you define too much) to get there.
  • Success means having measurable, achievable, and aggressive goals — and then meeting them.
  • Once you have defined your measurable, achievable, aggressive goal, don’t “move the goal post” on that issue until you have properly celebrated and disseminated how you met that goal. There is always, always, always more work to be done. But let us start somewhere and move forward from a position of strength.
  • If you are going to move the goal posts, do so strategically so that it will hurt your opponents. (See for example: literally everything the Republicans ever do in the spirit of bipartisanship.)
  • When you legitimately fail, learn from your failure. Do not wallow. Voters, volunteers, donors, and frankly even your friends, aren’t attracted to wallowers. It’s a lot of fun to complain about how the world doesn’t work the way it ought to (and boy, it really doesn’t). But people will want to work with you if you act with confidence and grace, not when you question the intelligence or motives of the voters or legislators (even when you’re right).

OK. So let’s take two very different cases: health insurance reform as passed by Pelosi/Reid/Obama, and the pending tax cut/employment insurance compromise. I am a huge proponent of one, but not the other, even though a lot of my progressive friends see both as equally compromised. Obama himself said that the tax cut fight seemed like the public option fight all over again. It’s not.

I saw national health care reform as wildly successful — even without the public option and without single payer. It was the very first major upheaval in social legislation moving towards progressive ideals we’ve had since the 60s/70s. We know that the health insurance reform bill passed by Pelosi/Reid/Obama will help insure more people, eliminate pre-existing conditions, extend insurance for people up to 26 yrs old, create a more fair market for insurance in the exchanges, help protect consumers in any number of ways, achieve more equality for women in their health insurance, and more. Those are real accomplishments. Is it perfect? Hell, no. Did I want the public option? Yes! Yes I did. But it’s a great step in the right direction. Civil rights wasn’t passed in one bill. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1957, then a major reform in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And you know what? You can’t have real civil rights without voting rights, so they passed a law about that, too, in 1965. I think health insurance reform in America will be like that, if we can keep it.

Progressives should be championing this major victory, just like we in Massachusetts should be championing the fact that almost no children go without some form of insurance. It is a step, but it’s damn important. I also worry that if it is seen as a failure, then people will be less likely to want to do the hard work of defending it against Republican/conservative attacks. And should they become successful in dismantling it, we won’t make more progress on health reform because it will have “failed.” We certainly won’t have the public option and you can forget about single payer. Instead of saying that Obama caved, let’s talk about all the good that it does and will do and build on that.

The tax deal is altogether different. Ending the Bush tax cuts was a key part of Obama’s platform in 2008. We have a situation where Republicans are pretending to care about the deficit, but this will balloon it. And the argument on behalf of Republicans as to why they could not afford benefits for 9/11 first responders was — I kid you not — concern over how to pay for it, according to the New York Times.

Now, the new Speaker-Elect explicitly said that if the only option he had was to vote for tax cuts for the bottom 98% or nothing at all, he said of course he’d vote for it. This ad speaks for me.

If you can’t figure out the messaging that we need to pay for benefits to 9/11 first responders and hold down the deficit by not renewing Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest … I just don’t know what to tell you. Oh, and, by the way, saying that your agenda is being held hostage and then giving the Republicans exactly what they want is not going to deter them from holding the rest of your agenda hostage.

I know that everybody’s definition of “sacrificing too much” varies. But can we agree that compromising in order to pass the biggest piece of social legislation in decades is not the same as compromising to extend unemployment benefits and continue tax breaks and extend tax credits?

Let me get back on track for a moment. The tax cut deal doesn’t meet my criteria for success. It does not fit in with our aggressive goals, it sacrifices too much now and in the future, it doesn’t put us in a position of strength, and Obama and progressives are both wallowing over the deal.

We need to find a way to move forward productively. The stakes are too high these days to sit around criticizing ourselves and therefore weakening ourselves for the next go round.

Crossposted at BlueMassGroup.

January 19, 2011. Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

Let’s get this started with some questions

I’ve been unemloyed for the last few months. But I’ve worked in electoral politics for awhile and I empathize with a lot of the issue organizer’s dilemmas. We have all sorts of questions that we ask ourselves, constantly, in a fit of self-doubt, hopeful that we’ll find some way of doing well enough to live and doing good.

  • Which issue to organize around?
  • Do I work in electoral work or on issue campaigns in an effort to make progress on a particular issues?
  • At what level do I work? National? State? Local? Is it better to try to effect change at a larger level or directly one on one? Is it more meaningful to help 20 people at a time directly in a personal and meaningful way, or to try to affect policy for 200,000 but dilute your voice?
  • What defines success? When is a victory a victory when the work seems to always go on?
  • What are some of the most effective strategies and tactics for today’s politics? How do I know I’m actually doing what is most effective? What’s compromising?

And on and on and on. I know, I know, folks have read Rules for Radicals and Letters from a Birmingham Jail. And there’s a million activists who pontificate about activism. It’s one of our favorite things. Especially as the White Elite Farmer’s-Market-Shopping and Social-Construct-Constructor Elite.

But sometimes, we need an update. Like, how do I use Twitter and not be stupid?

This blog will be my attempt to help answer a lot of these questions for the year 2011. It’ll also be one way I write more. I’ll also probably comment on whatever is going on in the world. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll talk about pizza, because it’s delicious.

Also maybe burritos.

January 18, 2011. Uncategorized. Leave a comment.