Off the Cuff: February 2013

Recently I saw the movie Lincoln, and when I left the theater, I felt highly energized but deeply depressed. Let’s start with the good news: What a wonderful movie! The Abraham Lincoln portrayed, caught in the crosshairs of simultaneously trying to win a war and end slavery in America, displayed a moral leadership that was both moving and necessary. Lincoln knew exactly what had to be done and went after it, staying the course even as he prolonged America’s bloodiest war and took a huge political risk. Lincoln, in fact, was a master politician. But he pulled political levers for one reason: for the good of the country.

That leads to what has me depressed. Our current president has taken whatever lessons might have been learned from his first term and come to a point of … whining. Of feeling sorry for himself. Of not using the beginning of his second term, before he becomes a lame duck, to actually accomplish something. At a time when we need great leadership, when our country’s future is in peril, there just isn’t any.

A couple weeks ago, Barack Obama used the last press conference of his first term to bait Republicans. He declared that GOP politicians “have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.” Then he noted that on Congressional picnics, “Michelle and I are very nice to them, and we have a wonderful time. But it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and, you know, blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”

No wonder Lincoln was such a hit. We are hungry for an actual leader to step up, rather than this whiny, backbiting nonsense. Republican leaders in Congress, of course, are no better. But we don’t have time for the endless posturing and bad blood while our big problems get kicked down the road, left for another day of finger-pointing that will accomplish nothing.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently cited a Harvard economist on why we have a logjam in this country: “Our absence of growth is delivering political paralysis, and the political paralysis preserves the absence of growth.” Friedman believes that the only way to break out of that cycle is with extraordinary leadership. And that if Obama “really wants to lead, he will have to finally trust the American people with the truth.”

The truth, that is, about the problems our country faces and what can be done about them, instead of simply blaming the other party for everything. The crisis Lincoln faced is instructive. He understood that a 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was crucial, even with the North about to win the war; otherwise, Southern states might go right on with that abominable practice. But Lincoln needed the war to continue as leverage to help garner votes for the amendment, which put him in a terrible bind. It also required hardball politics—both schmoozing, and the offer of patronage jobs. But Lincoln held steady, because he kept the country’s long-term good in his sights.

Our current president isn’t willing to play the game, or he doesn’t get it. He might be the smartest guy in every room he enters, but Barack Obama continues to take a pass on true leadership.

Instead, he puts the responsibility for change squarely back on us. “Now, if the American people feel strongly about these issues and they push hard and they reward or don’t reward members of Congress with their votes,” he said at his press conference, “then I think you’ll see behavior in Congress change. And that’ll be true whether I’m the life of the party or a stick in the mud.”

It’s pretty clear, Mr. President, which one you’ve decided to be.

Off the Cuff: January 2013

A couple of months ago, this magazine ran a cover story about innovation in Philadelphia. It focused on more than 50 smart people in town who are doing impressive things, including Penn researcher Carl June, who recently made a revolutionary breakthrough in cancer. The package left me with a good feeling about what’s possible in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, the headlines over the past few weeks give me the sinking feeling that there’s still one thing in Philadelphia that hasn’t changed, and I fear never will: the way our political class consistently puts its own interests ahead of the public’s.

All you have to do is take a look around. Old friend Leland Beloff, the former city councilman convicted of trying to extort $1 million from developer Willard Rouse 25 years ago, is still finding creative methods to keep financially afloat, it seems. Another old buddy, John Dougherty, has popped up again, too. New details of an FBI probe from a half-dozen years ago were just made public; in an affidavit filed in court in 2006, an FBI agent alleged that she had evidence suggesting the electricians union head got $300,000 in free work on his South Philly rowhouse, turning it into a fortress that includes an alarm system with 32 security zones. (No charges were ever filed against him.) Meanwhile, Michael Nutter’s one farsighted idea—selling PGW, the gas utility, to reap $500 million that the city desperately needs—seems to be a dead deal. Why? Because if somebody who actually cared about the bottom line were running the Gas Works, union jobs might be trimmed.

The most depressing part of all of this is how the cast of characters always seems to be the same. A few years ago, I ran into Leland Beloff at a restaurant in Margate. He came up to me and said, “You’re responsible for putting me in jail”—the magazine had written about his bald attempt to squeeze Rouse. Beloff was so mad, I thought he was going to take a swing at me, which is another Philadelphia tradition I love: Blame the accuser instead of taking a look in the mirror.

Recently, the Inquirer detailed how Beloff got $1 million in state grants for the nursing home he owns in Delaware County, arranged by the Urban Affairs Coalition, a Philadelphia nonprofit with ties to State Rep Dwight Evans. Evans is another classic Philadelphia player, one accused a year ago of putting a backroom squeeze on an Atlanta charter-school manager about to get a $50 million contract in Philadelphia, so that a New Jersey company Evans backed would be used instead. The Urban Affairs Coalition, by the way, is supposed to help communities, not ex-con businessmen.

John Dougherty, of course, reemerged in 2011 as the power behind several newly elected councilmen, after learning the hard way he himself wasn’t palatable to the Philadelphia electorate. But old pols in this city never die; former state senator Vince Fumo, tucked away in a prison in Kentucky, is rumored to still have his hand dipped in the sewer of politics here.

The problem isn’t corruption per se so much as how open it is in Philadelphia, which is a sure sign that things will never change. More than one hundred years ago, journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote that our corruption “looked like bad politics” to him. But a local boss set him straight: “We reasoned that if we [did exactly as we wanted] fast enough, one-two-three—one after the other—the papers couldn’t handle them all, and the public would be stunned and—give up. … We know that public despair is possible and that that is good politics.”

Which is exactly why Philadelphia still deserves the infamous indictment St­effens bestowed on us: “All our municipal governments are more or less bad,” he declared. “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.” Happy New Year, everyone.

Off the Cuff: December 2012

“When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.” —Oscar Wilde

The biggest loser in the last election was the mainstream media, led by the New York Times. The media’s credibility has been undermined to the point that it will take years to recover and regain the confidence of the American public, which is devastating. Especially to the Times, our last true paper of record. Published every morning on the East Coast, its news and editorial positions wash over the country like a giant wave. It is read avidly by everyone in media, as well as most leaders in business and politics—so it sets both the news and editorial agendas for the nation.

And for better than a century, the Times has defined itself as our prime source of high-minded journalism, a pursuit of the truth. My, how things have changed. The Times and so much of the media fell hopelessly in love with Barack Obama four years ago; the romanticized view of the President led the press to highlight anything that reflected positively on him and to ignore or bury anything that would show him in an unpleasant light. Remember his race-baiting minister, Jeremiah Wright, the left-wing activist Van Jones, and the troubled community-action organization ACORN? All of those Obama associations were swept under the rug.

Even worse, the deception of the American public kept right on, straight through this past election season—keeping the romance alive, after all, requires turning a blind eye to unpleasant truths. The Times coverage of the murders at the American embassy in Benghazi is a prime example. The Obama administration clung for two weeks to the false report that there was a protest outside the American embassy—thereby also clinging to the notion that the attack was spontaneous and not planned by al Qaeda. The Times finally admitted in print that its reporters had been told early on by Libyan guards at the Benghazi compound that streets were quiet before the attack, yet the paper stuck to the administration’s protest story for those two weeks.

Moreover, this biased coverage of the President has allowed him to remain an enigma. A recent book by longtime political journalist Bob Woodward on 2011’s budget crisis sheds surprising light on the President’s status among other power brokers. Woodward reports, for example, on a phone call that then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got from the President in early 2009; Pelosi was working with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on details of the stimulus package, and she put President Obama on speakerphone. But as the President delivered a sermon about saving the economy, Pelosi hit the mute button so that she and Reid could hear the President but he couldn’t hear them, as they kept right on crunching stimulus numbers.

It’s significant when Congressional members of his own party tune out the President. But we’d never read that in the Times, or in most of the mainstream media. Because most of the media cannot accept anything that would diminish Barack Obama’s image.

Led by the Times, the media fell hard for President Obama, deceived itself, and ended up deceiving the rest of us. When they fail to deliver our President’s blemishes as well as his positive attributes, great damage is done.

Cynicism is now widespread; many people I talk to are skeptical that the media is a place to learn the hard truth about anything. I wish I could tell them they’re wrong.

Off the Cuff: October 2012

I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t have the guts to deal with America’s most pressing problems. And when we refuse to address what’s really going on—when we avoid problems because they’re too painful to face, or maybe too dangerous—they only fester and grow and can remain forever unsolved.

Welcome to inner-city America. The real nature of this crisis is all around us, evident in so many ways. Consider, for example, the recent Chicago teachers’ strike. The toughest sticking point in the negotiations was teacher accountability. Now, I’ve long been in favor of holding our public-school teachers’ feet to the fire; we should have the power to readily fire bad ones and reward good ones. But during negotiations, I actually felt sympathy for Chicago’s teachers, because they clearly feel squeezed by untenable demands. During talks, the union released a statement opposing teacher evaluations that included this:

There are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests, such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues.

That was a polite way of saying the teachers don’t feel they should be held accountable for teaching children who are so badly damaged, they’ve become unteachable. A new understanding of just why that is—why so many inner-city children fail school and descend into self-destruction—came to light in a heart-wrenching article by Steve Volk last month in Philadelphia magazine. Researchers at Drexel University have found that living in violent neighborhoods may be causing alarming rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is usually associated with horrific war experiences. Living in these areas can actually damage the brain, the researchers have discovered, producing people who are emotionally numb, indifferent to the value of life and likely to lash out.

Many people—including me—have long been critical of the self-destructive behavior in our worst neighborhoods. But Volk cited the perspective of Drexel professor Sandra Bloom: “People will ask, ‘Where’s their common sense?’ And that’s a good question. People should ask it. And they should listen to the answer. Because what you and I consider common sense, the ability to plan for the future, to put problems in perspective and respond accordingly—these are some of the functions trauma destroys. And what you get from this is a breakdown of civil society and all its institutions: families, schools, children, everything.”

This, of course, is what has been happening in many of our neighborhoods. There is only trauma, and nothing productive going on. Recently, the Center City District came up with an astounding calculation: For every acre in Center City, there are 129 jobs. As for the rest of the city, that number is four; there are only four jobs per acre in Philadelphia outside of downtown! (I keep thinking Fort Apache, the Bronx.) Hence the terrible traffic jam heading west on the Schuylkill every morning: Almost 200,000 Philadelphians commute to the suburbs for work. Is it any wonder the black middle class is abandoning the city? I don’t know how the signals could be any clearer. So why isn’t the state of our inner cities deemed a national crisis, especially considering the children who live there?

Big cities like Philadelphia, with large neighborhoods subjected to decades of violence, need to think in broader, more dramatic terms. Drexel’s Bloom isn’t afraid to properly frame the problem: “To treat large populations and cause a cultural shift,” she says, “we need to look at the kinds of group treatments that have been employed in war-torn places like Rwanda and Bosnia.” Is that craziness? I don’t think so. I believe the insanity lies in ignoring this terrible reality in our inner cities. No one has ready solutions. But step one has to be facing the truth about what is really going on.

Off the Cuff: September 2012

For almost all of my life, I’ve been involved with journalism–depending on newspapers and magazines for most of my information, delivered with an evenhanded view of what is going on in the world. Every journalist has a personal point of view, of course, but we once could rely on certain standards, where opposing views were at least given their due. But it now seems that even mainstream media impose a biased perspective on the news rather than reporting it objectively–without “fear or favor,” as New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs stated a century ago. Something important has been lost, and I no longer trust the way news is reported by most media in this country.

Recently, Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain, has been lambasted by some politicians because of his fervent and quite public views opposing gay marriage. The New York Times ran an editorial critical of politicians who would like to ban the company from their cities. But there was an odd omission: The Times mentioned “one Chicago alderman” critical of Chick-fil-A but left out Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had made pointed comments hammering Dan Cathy. Why would an alderman be referenced but someone as prominent as Emanuel not be named?

Rahm Emanuel, of course, was Barack Obama’s chief of staff, and I believe the Times’s coverage of the President has always been slanted: Positive stories get played up; negative stories are buried or not written at all. So it seems likely that the paper avoided criticizing Emanuel because of his Obama connection, and that is infuriating.

It would be nice to get both sides. And as far as conservative outlets, I’m exhausted by Fox News and the absurd blather of conservative talk radio. Probably our most down-the-middle newspaper of substance is the Wall Street Journal. Dominated by business and finance, the Journal would seem to naturally slant right of center. Yet recently the paper ran an op-ed by President Obama on the threat of cyber attacks. There’s nothing particularly odd about that. But these days, can you imagine the New York Times running an essay by Mitt Romney?

Most American media have favored liberal causes for a long time, of course, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. I’ve known scores of journalists over the years, and almost all of them seem to get into the business because they want to right the wrongs of the world.

That’s an admirable impulse; today, the problem lies in journalists coating themselves in the armor of truth when they’re really giving you their version of it. Worse yet, their obsessive embrace of political correctness prevents any honest discussion of the serious problems facing all of us.

The heyday of American journalism–the fervent idea of speaking truth to p­ower–emerged out of the Watergate scandal under Richard Nixon. But the romantic impulse of young journalists to right wrongs has been undermined by an outrageously fast news cycle in which creating controversy and playing to liberal causes trumps fair-minded perspective. No wonder most Americans have long believed that the mainstream press is biased.

So why does the New York Times still take the position of giving us “All the news that’s fit to print,” as the paper continues to brag in the upper left corner of page one? A century ago, the declaration of principles that Times publisher Adolph Ochs wrote for his paper was moving: “To give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.” Unfortunately, that was a long, long time ago.

Off the Cuff: August 2012

It’s as if a disease is spreading coast to coast, popping up in villages and cities in every state: Profligate spending by our politicians and unions, who are locked in an unhealthy symbiotic relationship, is bleeding the country dry. Recently,deep economic trouble hit Scranton; Pennsylvania’s sixth largest city is broke,and had to cut all city workers’ pay to minimum wage, on the heels of Harrisburgdefaulting on a payment due bondholders earlier this year. In California, it’s now an epidemic, with Stockton and Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino in financial free fall. In the greatest of ironies, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel- in the city where his former boss, Barack Obama, cut his sweet tooth for spending- would just love to get rid of all government workers except for firemen and police. Philadelphia- well, we all know that story. Our municipal-worker contracts hold the city hostage, sucking up nearly a fifth of our budget just in pension expenses.

If there’s one thing our ongoing economic problems have taught us, it’s that we have to think differently about how we spend our money. All of us have made necessary changes in our lives, and in our businesses- we’ve had no choice. But generally, Americans don’t seem to give a damn that our government hasn’t done the same, that our elected officials are so oblivious to the signs of financial trouble. And that includes government on the smallest levels, in our towns, suburbs and villages. It, too, has to fundamentally change.

My town, Margate, is a prototypical example of public-sector waste. Margate is really a small town calling itself a city, with about 6,000 year-round residents; it’s a whopping 1.4 square miles, yet has two fire stations, a police force of 27 (15 of them superior officers), and three public schools (one of them shuttered for lack of students) with countless teachers and administrators. Everyone in Margate knows that waste and corruption run rampant here, but very few are willing to take on the public sector.

In Philadelphia, the annual city pension payment has grown by a third in the past five years, with no end in sight. Why? Because it was very easy for politicians to cave in to the demands of unions when that bill wouldn’t come due for a long, long time-in other words, when the politicians themselves would be long gone. It seems to be the American way.

In Philadelphia, that shortsightedness goes back to James Tate in the ’60s, followed by tough guy Frank Rizzo. City-fed unions demanded that our mayors meet their every desire or suffer at the polls. Worse yet–at least in the short term–was the threat of strikes. Every mayor withers at the possibility that trash won’t be picked up or heat in city buildings will get cut off. So they cave in.

Several months ago, city finance director Rob Dubow told Philadelphia magazine that he used to compare our pension problem to the Blob, the gelatinous, victim-enveloping star of the 1950s sci- fi film. “It just keeps consuming more and more and more,” Dubow said, “and eventually you will find everything’s gone, the town’s been eaten and destroyed.”

And that, I’m afraid, is what we’re watching now, in big cities and small towns all over the country. It actually makes me feel sorry for Chris Doherty, the mayor of Scranton, who is between the rock and hard place squeezing many mayors.

A judge told Doherty he couldn’t break union contracts. The state won’t let him declare bankruptcy. But he couldn’t afford to pay more than minimum wage. Unions have sued.

This is what we’ve created, and now we’re living with it. The question is, who has the guts to change it?

Off the Cuff: July 2012

As a longtime observer of Philadelphia, I am convinced that the city has a death wish. In fact, it makes a mess of everything it gets involved with, from the airport to parking to cabs to the vaunted but troubled Kimmel Center. Schools? A disaster. Now, after close to $800 million has been spent on the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, critics are calling it a financial flop. And there’s no escaping who’s to blame for this one.

It’s an old story, the power of unions here, going back to Mayor James H.J. Tate declaring with pride a half-century ago that Philadelphia is and will always be a union town. That’s why an old problem has flared up once again. A month ago, the city’s hotel association wrote a letter to the Convention Center’s board. Something has to be done, they said, because Convention Center customers—once they get a taste of the hospitality at the center, courtesy of the myriad unions they have to deal with there—don’t want to come back.

The letter cited a convention of True Value hardware, with 12,000 attendees, that generated $23 million in income for the city. True Value canceled its planned return in 2015, and is debating whether to avoid the city in 2019, too, because the center’s union workers, according to True Value executives, were attempting to steal from the exhibit floor. When the hardware show was being torn down, items ranging from power tools to light bulbs were supposed to be set aside for a local Habitat for Humanity. Instead, True Value says, it found them stashed in corners, presumably to be taken home. (Union heads Ed Coryell and Pat Gillespie denied any attempted theft.)

There have been other cancellations, and according to the hoteliers, the expanded Convention Center isn’t even matching pre-expansion numbers. That is a death knell for a business-poor city that has staked its future on the dollars generated by visitors.

John Dougherty and Ed Coryell, naturally, have gone on the counterattack. The problem, Dougherty claims, is bad center management, not unions. But an email we received from a large organization that also had a bad experience at the center says otherwise:

As for Philly—the same thing … continues. The union situation is untenable. As much as [we’ve been] assured that everything’s fine, it’s not fine, and the added costs and hassles are not worth the effort to bring a large show into town. If you compare the situation there (and NYC and Chicago) to Boston, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Diego, Atlanta—the choice becomes very easy.

Naturally, I wonder why the Convention Center board seems incapable of standing up to the unions, with so much at stake. There are two answers, a former board member says: money and fear. Unions have a lot of political power because they give millions to candidates—not just in Philadelphia, but statewide. That’s why even though the board has state-appointed members, nobody’s willing to take the unions on. In fact, quite the opposite.

This former board member remembers the day Dougherty showed up at a board meeting a few years ago: “It was disgusting to me—grown businessmen and politicians kissing his ass, instead of confronting him. Their attitude was, can I get a little closer? They’re intimidated by these union guys.”

So I have a modest suggestion. Governor Tom Corbett, I’m sure you’ve noticed that other governors, especially Mr. Christie in our neighboring state, have taken on the vested interests of unions. And we’re talking about, after all, the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It is time for you to take over running the center. Because the city is utterly incapable of ever making it work.

Off the Cuff: 50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago this month, I began writing this column. That’s a half-century of poking at what ails Philadelphia, and there’s been no lack of material. Recently, while rummaging through some past columns, I found one from October 1974 that addressed a problem that not only is still with us, but has gotten much worse. Reading it was enough to make me want to sneak onto one of those beach chairs on this month’s cover and hide out for the summer.

Here’s the column, written 37 years ago, in its entirety. (One historical note: Richardson Dilworth was Mayor from 1956 until 1962.)

I remember having lunch with Dick Dilworth a number of years ago during a period when the Philadelphia Board of Education was in the midst of one of its annual financial crises. “Why don’t you just shut the schools down?” I asked him.

“For heaven’s sake,” Dilworth moaned, “if those kids were out in the street all day they’d tear this town apart.”

Well, as we write this, not too much has changed. The school board is in the middle of still another of its financial crises, and everybody is frantically scurrying around trying to find a way to keep the schools from closing down. Perhaps they’ll come up with a patchwork solution. If they do, it will only be temporary.

I will stick to my original suggestion. Just shut down the schools and keep them closed until we can come up with a sensible reason to keep them open and a way to pay for that happy event.

Back in 1964 we published an article called “Crisis in the Classroom.” The pandemonium conditions described in that piece brought all sorts of official denunciations. It was news at the time, but subsequently the deplorable conditions of many Philadelphia schools have been enshrined in folklore.

It’s not only the kids who present the problems. Many of the teachers flunk out by any standards. As their role has changed from educator to policeman, they have lost whatever motivation ever brought them into the profession. As their pay scales have risen, they have put less time and effort into their work until, today, they are mere timeservers crowding the public trough until pension times come rolling in.

The kids know it, and so do their parents. It’s pretty hard to feel like paying them more money in the face of their massive fluff-off.

This time the wisest thing to do on the part of the Board of Education might be just to throw in the towel—close up the schools and rethink the question of what the system is supposed to be doing. Do we need to keep kids in school until the age of 16 when the ones who are given diplomas still don’t know how to read?

The real problems, of course, lie outside the schools. And, at the rate we’re working on them, it could be a generation or two before they’re solved.

In the meantime, the schools continue to deteriorate and nobody knows what to do. Except spend more and more money every year to buy less and less education for our kids. Unfortunately, nothing is achieved by pumping more money into a moribund district. And nobody at the moment really cares about reviving the corpse.

After the schools are closed six months or so, I suspect all of us will start to get a little concerned. And maybe we can come up with real answers.

If there are real answers.

No wonder sitting in a beach chair, accompanied by a bottle of Johnnie Walker, sounds so inviting.

Off the Cuff: June 2012

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about the mess the country is in and what a lousy job you’re doing in Washington. I know that doesn’t surprise you, because according to every poll, most of the country thinks less of you than at any time in the nation’s history. Recently, at a fund-raiser for Shore Medical Center, I heard Charles Gibson speak about the problems in Washington. The former ABC news anchor called all of you an absolute disgrace, and he ought to know. Mr. Gibson covered Washington for 20 years, and like all of us, he is fed up with the way you’re screwing up the country; in my view, none of you even gives a damn.

How can any of you expect to get us out of this mess if you’re only working two days a week most weeks out of the year, with summers off? That’s something Gibson pointed out—how it is now customary for you to jet into Washington on Tuesday afternoons and skip out on Thursday evenings.

When Gibson was covering Washington in the ’80s, he estimates that as many as three-quarters of you brought your families to the city and actually lived there. Recently, he sat in on a conference at Harvard designed to help incoming House members become acclimated. Gibson asked who was moving his family to Washington. To his chagrin, out of about 35 new House members, only one raised his hand.

You whine about how hard it is to get reelected. You say you must leave Washington to raise the enormous amount of money it now takes. Maybe I’d feel for you if you were really driven to serve your constituents, instead of slavishly following the mandates of your parties.

It’s really all about partisanship now. Both your parties separately hold a weekly caucus of senators and congressmen. “It’s like throwing red meat on the table,” Gibson told me, where you “whip each other into a frenzy” to push your extreme agendas. No wonder the polarization in both the House and the Senate, in Gibson’s view, hasn’t been this bad since Reconstruction.

A generation ago, Washington wasn’t like that. When former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh’s father Birch was a senator, he would have Republican Everett Dirksen and conservative Southern Democrats over to dinner. Evan Bayh told Gibson that during his recent 12 years as a senator, he never had dinner with a Republican senator.

That is no small thing. Former senator Tom Daschle told Gibson that the problems in Congress have “a lot more to do with chemistry than issues. If we don’t have chemistry, which only comes from a lot of interactive experience, it’s just not going to happen.”

Charles Gibson did not merely find fault, however; he has a list of remedies. One: You’ll convene starting on the first Monday of each month for all five days of the next three weeks. That’s right: You would actually be required to work 15 days a month. Two: You’ll get you a housing allowance to help you live there. (I realize that even though congressmen start at $174,000 a year, that doesn’t go very far in Washington.) Three: Let’s eliminate the center aisle dividing the parties; it’s a symbolic and practical barrier that needs to go.

Four—and maybe the most important one: Let’s build a Congressional bar where all of you can get together to have a few drinks. You never know—maybe you would actually find that you like each other, and then would hang around Washington to start solving some of our pressing problems.

Isn’t that what we sent you there to do?

Off the Cuff: May 2012

In their hysterical push to make the Trayvon Martin killing proof that racism is still very much alive in America, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, along with their media partners, had lofty goals. This tragic shooting has revealed a great deal, finally, about racial tension in this country—though it’s not exactly the message the ever-present, entrepreneurial Jackson and Sharpton intended.

We have all recently learned that how we speak about race in America is dishonest and tired and guilt-ridden and outdated. Our racial dialogue has also made a mockery of a young man’s untimely death. Trayvon Martin’s shooting immediately became useful—especially to the media and Jackson and Sharpton and their band of race-baiters. Almost no one has had the guts to stand up and say how shameful that is.

There are, though, a few audacious voices. Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of White Guilt and other books. His voice among black leaders and intellectuals is distinct not only for its insight, but in how he’ll take on the conventional narrative on race that we revert to again and again. Last month, Mr. Steele wrote about Trayvon Martin’s killing in the Wall Street Journal:

The civil rights community and the liberal media live by the poetic truth that America is still a reflexively racist society, and that this remains the great barrier to black equality. But this ‘truth’ has a lot of lie in it. America has greatly evolved since the 1960s. There are no longer any respectable advocates of racial segregation. And blacks today are nine times more likely to be killed by other blacks than by whites.

“If Trayvon Martin was a victim of white racism (hard to conceive since the shooter is apparently Hispanic), his murder would be … a bizarre exception to the way so many young black males are murdered today. If there must be a generalization in all this—a call ‘to turn the moment into a movement’—it would have to be a movement against blacks who kill other blacks. The absurdity of Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton is that they want to make a movement out of an anomaly. Black teenagers today are afraid of other black teenagers, not whites.

What’s more, pandering to America’s racist past, as the media is so willing to do, simply throws more gasoline on the outdated divide between whites and blacks as oppressors and victims. This is horribly counterproductive. In Philadelphia, there are more than 300 murders a year, mostly, as Steele points out, blacks shooting other blacks. So why is the national story on race that my colleagues trumpet straight out of Mr. Jackson’s old playbook? Because white guilt—not to mention the risk of being branded a racist—is a powerful inducement to follow the safe groupthink on race. Besides, it still sells.

Shelby Steele concurs:

After the ’60s—in a society guilty for its long abuse of us—we took our historical victimization as the central theme of our group identity. We could not have made a worse mistake.

“It has given us a generation of ambulance-chasing leaders, and the illusion that our greatest power lies in the manipulation of white guilt. The tragedy surrounding Trayvon’s death is not in the possibility that it might have something to do with white racism; the tragedy is in the lustfulness with which so many black leaders, in conjunction with the media, have leapt to exploit his demise for their own power.

I agree with Shelby Steele. And I think the shame of the Trayvon Martin tragedy lies in how few voices are willing to deliver the message that it is high time we move on, instead of pretending that it is still 1968 in America.

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