A Q&A with author and political pundit Michael Smerconish

This week in North Philly Notes, Michael Smerconish talks about how he came to politics, his opinions, and his new book,  Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

How did you develop your role as a political commentator?
I was interested in Republican politics and benefitted from some unique experiences at an early age. I was an assistant GOP committeeman, elected alternate delegate to a national convention and state legislative candidate all before age 25. By the time I was 29, I was appointed to a sub-cabinet level position in the George H.W. Bush Administration. Those experiences put me on the radar of some Philadelphia local network television affiliates who then began to call upon me for election commentary.

How did your background in politics shape your opinions, and how did it influence your approach to writing about local and popular culture?
I’ve always enjoyed writing about both political and cultural topics. As I look at the breath of my work as a columnist, it is pretty evenly divided between the two. I’ve written about a variety of 9/11 related issues, war, political candidates, and the economy. I’ve also written about yard sales, holiday decorations, and family pets.

You are always looking for a “good story” to turn into a column. In this age of “click bait” journalism, what makes a “good story,” or motivates you to think critically and provide thoughtful analysis?
A good story to me has nothing to do with the Red State/Blue State divide. What I most enjoy are telling those stories that are Seinfeldian, a slice of life that may (or may not) highlight areas of different opinion but not along the partisan divide. The kind of issues we enjoy talking about and maybe laughing about without being at each other’s throats.

Clowns to the Left of Me_smCan you describe the criteria you used to whittle down the more than 1000 articles you published to the 100 in the book?
Like Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, “I knew it when I saw it.” By my count, I published 1,047 columns for the Daily News and Inquirer between 2001 and 2016, and although I was making some swaps until the final submission, for the most part I had an easy time picking what I wanted to re-visit. Some things I got right and wanted to crow about, some things I got wrong but wanted to own, and others just plain stood the test of time and were insightful.

What observations do you have about the Afterwords you wrote for each entry? In some cases, you apologize for things you wrote, and in others, you show how your thinking on a topic has evolved.
I think most of us evolve over time with regard to our thinking. What separates me from many is that my opinions are all chiseled in granite, er, newsprint. And so you can easily discern how I viewed literally more than 1,000 issues. As I re-read everything I have published, there were certainly areas where my views have changed and I wanted to explain why. But there were plenty of times when I looked at what I’ve written and concluded that the times have changed, not me.

You write about everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby. You write about paying more money for a Cat Stevens concert than you care to admit. Who impressed you the most—or the least?
While I have been immensely fortunate to interact with many household names, those aren’t often the encounters that created the most meaningful columns. Yes, I interviewed Barack Obama and wrote about him, and Bill Cosby, and had a funny encounter with Led Zeppelin and Pete Rose—but the columns I’m most proud of are those I wrote about an old college professor, a woman who worked for our family in a domestic capacity, and a guy I went to junior high school with who today is a tomato farmer. Real people with compelling stories.

Do you have a favorite column that you published?
I once wrote a Daily News column—with my thumbs on a Blackberry—while standing in a 2-hour viewing line as it snaked through South Philadelphia. I think the headline was “Requiem for an Era.” I’m very proud of that column.

You are donating your author proceeds for the book to the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. Can you explain why this charity is so important to you?
CCTC exists to serve children who are victims of trauma. If you hear a heartbreaking story about something that has happened to children, chances are, CCTC is involved. My wife is on the board and I wanted to highlight their good work.

About the author:
Michael A. Smerconish
is a SiriusXM radio host, CNN television host, and Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper columnist. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he is of counsel to the law firm of Kline & Specter. He resides in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and his wife have raised four children.

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Arguing against public land privatization and transfer

This week in North Philly Notes, Steven Davis, author of In Defense of Public Lands provides his arguments for why privatization, transfer, and deregulation of our public land are disastrously bad policies. 

This past spring break, I had the privilege to visit Chiricahua National Monument in the rugged southeast corner of Arizona. From Tucson, I drove several hours through a lonely, desolate landscape until I came to this extremely remote spot, far from any town. To my amazement, I found it crowded with visitors, an indication perhaps, of how much Americans (and many others) love public land. Chiricahua, named, in Apache, for its fantastical rock formations, is managed by the National Park Service, and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of additional acres of the Coronado National Forest. It is what’s known as a “sky island forest” rising high enough from its sun-baked surroundings to wring moisture out of the sky. Its forests of juniper, Ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir teem with wildlife. As such, this complex of public land is like some sort of fountain pouring out a continuous flow of precious and valuable things; aesthetic, historic, cultural, biological, and economic. And best of all, it belongs to all of us collectively.

DavisBlogPhoto

Unfortunately, our federal public lands now face unprecedented waves of proposed legislation to either privatize their ownership or else transfer large blocks to state control (to do with as states please). Even short of privatization, public lands now face an onslaught of resource extraction and lax regulation. The Trump Administration’s recent elimination of nearly 2 million acres of National Monument designations at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah is the largest such declassification of protected land in U.S. history.

In Defense of Public Lands_SMIn my book In Defense of Public Land, I lay out biological, economic, and political arguments for why privatization, transfer, and deregulation of our public land are disastrously bad policies. Reviewing a great deal of literature and data, I specifically find that: 

  • By nearly every measure of ecological health examined, including individual populations of imperiled species, degree of forest and habitat fragmentation, ecosystem stability and permanence, acreage of imperiled landscape communities, amount of suitable habitat for conservative species, and forest biodiversity, public land, as a whole, outperforms private land. 
  • Since there are no functioning markets for such things as ecological restoration activities, endangered species recovery, rare landscape communities, or forest biodiversity, they generally occur on public rather than private land as their costs are collectively absorbed as public goods. 
  • Public lands are far more valuable than traditionally assumed by torturously narrow free market valuation models. Models that more broadly measure economic multiplier effects or else incorporate a wider range of non-market values, find tremendous economic value in public lands. The ROI (Return of Investment) data for public land acquisition and operation shows 400-1100% returns, while Western counties with the most federal land outperform neighboring counties with less federal land in employment growth, personal and per capita income, and population growth. 
  • This ledger sheet becomes wildly imbalanced in favor of public land when one considers that they also provide trillions of dollars worth of mostly unpriced ecosystem services for such things as water filtration, water retention and flood control, pollination services, carbon sequestration, soil retention, etc. 
  • The total annual operational cost for managing this 640 million acre treasure trove of federal land is $11.1 billion, about a billion dollars less than one month of Iraq War operations at the height of the war and about half of the annual costs for just air conditioning at our military bases in Iraq. 
  • Like libraries and public schools, public lands are profoundly democratic; with full access for all. This is no small thing in a country that lacks the guaranteed right-of-way on private land that is common in European countries. Some of the greatest wonders on this continent are a common inheritance.  
  • Because it is determined in the political sphere, management of public land inevitably becomes a messy, conflictual, and deeply polarized affair. But it is also a largely democratic process that is wide-open to public participation, access by varied stakeholders, and the accountability afforded by administrative appeals and judicial challenge. None of this is available on private land.

Our public lands are an absolute treasure which some people, whether for ideological or mercenary reasons, want to wrest from the many and give to the few. We should not allow them to.

 

Books about Moms and Motherhood for Mother’s Day

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase Temple University Press books about Moms and motherhood for Mother’s Day. 

The Paradox of Natural Mothering, by Chris Bobel

1581_regSingle or married, working mothers are, if not the norm, no longer exceptional. These days, women who stay at home to raise their children seem to be making a radical lifestyle choice. Indeed, the women at the center of The Paradox of Natural Mothering have renounced consumerism and careerism in order to reclaim home and family. These natural mothers favor parenting practices that set them apart from the mainstream: home birth, extended breast feeding, home schooling and natural health care. Regarding themselves as part of a movement, natural mothers believe they are changing society one child, one family at a time.

Author Chris Bobel profiles some thirty natural mothers, probing into their choices and asking whether they are reforming or conforming to women’s traditional role.

Mothers, Daughters, and Political Socialization: Two Generations at an American Women’s Collegeby Krista Jenkins

2236_regMothers, Daughters, and Political Socialization examines the role of intergenerational transmission—the maternal influences on younger women—while also looking at differences among women in attitudes and behaviors relative to gender roles that might be attributed to the nature of the times during their formative years. How do daughters coming of age in an era when the women’s movement is far less visible deal with gendered expectations compared to their mothers? Do they accept the contemporary status quo their feminist mothers fought so hard to achieve? Or, do they press forward with new goals?

Jenkins shows how contemporary women are socialized to accept or reject traditional gender roles that serve to undermine their equality.

My Mother’s Hip: Lessons from the World of Eldercare, by Luisa Margolies

1721_regAfter her mother’s double hip fracture, Luisa Margolies immersed herself in identifying and coordinating the services and professionals needed to provide critical care for an elderly person. She soon realized that the American medical system is ill prepared to deal with the long-term care needs of our graying society. The heart of My Mother’s Hip is taken up with the author’s day-to-day observations as her mother’s condition worsened, then improved only to worsen again, while her father became increasingly anxious and disoriented.

Weaving Work and Motherhood, by Anita Ilta Garey

1360_regIn American culture, the image of balancing work and family life is most often represented in the glossy shot of the executive-track woman balancing cell-phone, laptop, and baby. In Weaving Work and Motherhood, Anita Ilta Garey focuses not on the corporate executives so frequently represented in American ads and magazines but, rather, on the women in jobs that typify the vast majority of women’s employment in the United States.

Moving beyond studies of women, work, and family in terms of structural incompatibilities, Garey challenges images of the exclusively “work-oriented” or exclusively “family-oriented” mother.

Pushing for Midwives: Homebirth Mothers and the Reproductive Rights Movement, by Christa Craven

2073_regWith the increasing demand for midwives among U.S. women, reproductive rights activists are lobbying to loosen restrictions that deny legal access to homebirth options. In Pushing for Midwives, Christa Craven presents a nuanced history of women’s reproductive rights activism in the U.S. She also provides an examination of contemporary organizing strategies for reproductive rights in an era increasingly driven by “consumer rights.”

By framing the midwifery struggle through a political economic perspective on reproductive rights, Pushing for Midwives offers an in-depth look at the strategies, successes, and challenges facing midwifery activists in Virginia.

 

Honoring Mexico on Cinco de Mayo

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase books about Mexico in honor of Cinco de Mayo.

urban leviathanUrban Leviathan: Mexica City in the Twentieth Century by Diane E. Davis

Why, Diane Davis asks, has Mexico City, once known as the city of palaces, turned into a sea of people, poverty, and pollution? Through historical analysis of Mexico City, Davis identifies political actors responsible for the uncontrolled industrialization of Mexico’s economic and social center, its capital city. This narrative biography takes a perspective rarely found in studies of third-world urban development: Davis demonstrates how and why local politics can run counter to rational politics, yet become enmeshed, spawning ineffective policies that are detrimental to the city and the nation.

effects of the nationThe Effects of the Nation: Mexican Art in an Age of Globalization edited by Carl Good and John V. Waldron

What is the effect of a “nation”? In this age of globalization, is it dead, dying, only dormant? The essays in this groundbreaking volume use the arts in Mexico to move beyond the national and the global to look at the activity of a community continually re-creating itself within and beyond its own borders.

Mexico is a particularly apt focus, partly because of the vitality of its culture, partly because of its changing political identity, and partly because of the impact of borders and borderlessness on its national character. The ten essays collected here look at a wide range of aesthetic productions—especially literature and the visual arts—that give context to how art and society interact.

Ethical Borders sm compEthical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration by Bill Ong Hing

In his topical new book, Ethical Borders, Bill Ong Hing asks, why do undocumented immigrants from Mexico continue to enter the United States and what would discourage this surreptitious traffic? An expert on immigration law and policy, Hing examines the relationship between NAFTA, globalization, and undocumented migration, and he considers the policy options for controlling immigration. He develops an ethical rationale for opening up the U.S./Mexican border, as well as improving conditions in Mexico so that its citizens would have little incentive to migrate.

Sounds Modern Nation smallSounds of the Modern Nation: Music, Culture, and Ideas in Post-Revolutionary Mexico by Alejandro L. Madrid

Sounds of the Modern Nation explores the development of modernist and avant-garde art music styles and aesthetics in Mexico in relation to the social and cultural changes that affected the country after the 1910-1920 revolution. Alejandro Madrid argues that these modernist works provide insight into the construction of individual and collective identities based on new ideas about modernity and nationality. Instead of depicting a dichotomy between modernity and nationalism, Madrid reflects on the multiple intersections between these two ideas and the dialogic ways through which these notions acquired meaning.

MinichCompFinal.inddAccessing Citizenship: Disability, Nation, and Cultural Politics of Greater Mexico  by Julie Avril Minich

Accessible Citizenships examines Chicana/o cultural representations that conceptualize political community through images of disability. Working against the assumption that disability is a metaphor for social decay or political crisis, Julie Avril Minich analyzes literature, film, and visual art post-1980 in which representations of nonnormative bodies work to expand our understanding of what it means to belong to a political community. Minich shows how queer writers like Arturo Islas and Cherríe Moraga have reconceptualized Chicano nationalism through disability images. She further addresses how the U.S.-Mexico border and disabled bodies restrict freedom and movement. Finally, she confronts the changing role of the nation-state in the face of neoliberalism as depicted in novels by Ana Castillo and Cecile Pineda.

Mexican Voices Border Region compMexican Voices of the Borders Region by Laura Velasco Ortiz and Oscar F. Contreras

Mexican Voices of the Border Region examines the flow of people, commercial traffic, and the development of relationships across this border. Through first-person narratives, Laura Velasco Ortiz and Oscar F. Contreras show that since NAFTA, Tijuana has become a dynamic and significant place for both nations in terms of jobs and residents. The authors emphasize that the border itself has different meanings whether one crosses it frequently or not at all. The interviews probe into matters of race, class, gender, ethnicity, place, violence, and political economy as well as the individual’s sense of agency.

Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities by Mary Pardo

mexican american women activistsMexican American Women Activists tells the stories of Mexican American women from two Los Angeles neighborhoods and how they transformed the everyday problems they confronted into political concerns. By placing these women’s experiences at the center of her discussion of grassroots political activism, Mary Pardo illuminates the gender, race, and class character of community networking. She shows how citizens help to shape their local environment by creating resources for churches, schools, and community services and generates new questions and answers about collective action and the transformation of social networks into political networks.

nothing nobodyNothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake by Elena Poniatowska

September 19, 1985: A powerful earthquake hits Mexico City in the early morning hours. As the city collapses, the government fails to respond. Long a voice of social conscience, prominent Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska chronicles the disintegration of the city’s physical and social structure, the widespread grassroots organizing against government corruption and incompetence, and the reliency of the human spirit. As a transformative moment in the life of mexican society, the earthquake is as much a component of the country’s current crisis as the 1982 debt crisis, the problematic economic of the last ten years, and the recent elections.

Musica Nortena sm compMúsica Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating Community Between Nations by Cathy Ragland

Música norteña, a musical genre with its roots in the folk ballad traditions of northern Mexico and the Texas-Mexican border region, has become a hugely popular musical style in the U.S., particularly among Mexican immigrants. Featuring evocative songs about undocumented border-crossers, drug traffickers, and the plight of immigrant workers, música norteña has become the music of a “nation between nations.” Música Norteña is the first definitive history of this transnational music that has found enormous commercial success in norteamérica. Cathy Ragland, an ethnomusicologist and former music critic, serves up the fascinating fifty-year story of música norteña, enlivened by interviews with important musicians and her own first-hand observations of live musical performances.

New ImageSurviving Mexico’s Dirty War: A Political Prisoner’ s Memoir by Alberto Ulloa Bornemann

This is the first major, book-length memoir of a political prisoner from Mexico’s “dirty war” of the 1970s. Written with the urgency of a first-person narrative, it is a unique work, providing an inside story of guerrilla activities and a gripping tale of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Mexican government.

Alberto Ulloa Bornemann was a young idealist when he dedicated himself to clandestine resistance and to assisting Lucio Cabañas, the guerrilla leader of the “Party of the Poor.” Here the author exposes readers to the day-to-day activities of revolutionary activists seeking to avoid discovery by government forces. After his capture, Ulloa Bornemann endured disappearance into a secret military jail and later abusive conditions in three civilian prisons.

Is It McCarthyism Yet?

This week in North Philly Notes, Rachel Ida Buff, author of Against the Deportation Terrorwrites about immigrant rights in this xenophobic era.

Travel bans based on nations of origin; local law enforcement officials compelled to perform federal surveillance work; lists of suspected subversives; prohibition of solidarity or sanctuary work; massive deportation; and the disappearance of the names of the deported from mass media. These recent trends are part of a renewed xenophobic turn in U.S. politics. They also have historical precedent in the infamous era of McCarthyism.

Often filtered through middle school readings of The Crucible, memories of McCarthyism tend to feature an honest person confronting the inquisitorial voices of Joe McCarthy and his notorious House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). But the McCarthyist Red Scare featured assaults against foreign-born activists as well as a massive and well-publicized roundup of Mexican Americans in the Southwest and California: Operation Wetback.

Buff approved 032017.inddWell before the heyday of HUAC, anti-communist legislators succeeded in passing laws aimed at curtailing the allegedly subversive activities of “foreign-born radicals.” The 1940 Smith, or Alien Registration, Act made advocating governmental overthrow, or belonging to any group believed to advance such an agenda, deportable offenses. Subsequent laws extended deportability to include guilt by association, as well as targeting particular areas of the globe as undesirable nations of origin for immigrants attempting to enter the United States.

These anti-subversive laws were frequently used against immigrant labor and community leaders accused of “UnAmerican activities,” like organizing for wages and rights.  These foreign-born Americans were vulnerable to McCarthyism, much as contemporary Muslim and Arab American leaders are subject to enhanced scrutiny and the possibility of detention and deportation.

Under the Smith Act and subsequent McCarthy era laws, local law enforcement agents often provided evidence in the trials of immigrants accused of subversive activities.  The push for 287(g) and “secure communities” policies today has clear antecedent in this use of municipal forces. As many police unions point out, however, this use of local policing for surveillance and repression alienates immigrants, making all communities more dangerous.

Billed as “cleaning up the border” of “illegal aliens” suspected of political subversion, Operation Wetback commenced in 1954. This Immigration and Naturalization Service campaign eventually resulted in the deportation of a quarter million Mexican Americans, some of them legal residents and American citizens. (Estimates vary; in 2015 then-candidate Donald Trump claimed that this program resulted in 1.5 million deportations.)

While unsuccessful in stopping the flow of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, Operation Wetback institutionalized the kind of deportation sweeps of immigrant communities currently taking place. And it was during this campaign that the names of those in deportation proceedings vanished from popular media accounts, being replaced by the ominous science fiction of the “illegal alien.” How many people who do not interact regularly with immigrant communities can name just one of the over two hundred thousand deported in 2017?

Campaigns of repression, like McCarthyism or the wave of xenophobia prevalent today, portray foreign-born people as dangerous, subversive, and UnAmerican. Their power is to rob vulnerable non-citizens of their power and livelihoods. For example, the announcement of the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was timed to coincide with the first day of school, forcing thousands of young DACA recipients to experience this traditional time of excitement with dread.

Brave individuals stood before HUAC and refused to name names, eventually exposing the grim machinations of repression as the real UnAmerican activities. Similarly, immigrant rights advocates labor to defend the rights of those targeted by the forces of xenophobia and hate. Their efforts are part of the struggle to defeat McCarthyism, then and now.

Brazil Heads Toward 2018: Originalities and Tendencies

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, pens a dispatch on Brazil’s anti-corruption campaign and next election.

Brazil’s ongoing investigations into corruption have been discussed with a certain sense of national pride, that they may offer something in the way of originality. The targets are white collar criminals in high places of government and the economy. Everybody knows there will be more revelations, arrests and indictments of political and business leaders that will continue to scandalize voter citizens. The judiciary remains diligently engaged in uncovering and prosecuting the guilty within the framework of law and established democratic institutions. It’s an effort to discover crime and punish the guilty carried through WITHOUT THE USE of exceptional powers of which there are few examples in history, certainly none in Brazilian history.

Are there other Brazilian originalities? President Michel Temer heads a conservative government that responds to wishes of entrepreneurial much more than labor groups. The former want more flexibility in hiring and laying off workers, outsourcing, etc. With Temer’s encouragement, the Brazilian congress revised parts of the 1943 Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT). The CLT had acquired an almost sacrosanct status. Some of it is imbedded in the 1988 constitution. It served workers, employers and Brazil well during periods of economic growth, and economic turmoil. However, the Temer government now argued that changes were necessary, that the CLT needed to be modernized in order to satisfy domestic and foreign investors. It was necessary to break away from the bondage of bureaucracy and labor courts where workers bring thousands of suits each year against employers. Changes to the CLT enacted in 2017 were hailed with government fanfare. But there is also resistance to applying them led by labor court judges, lawyers practicing labor law, and labor law intellectuals. Labor law is a major area of Brazilian jurisprudence. The labor courts or Justiça do Trabalho are organized in a national system with regional tribunals. Critics of the changes argue that important principles protecting workers present in the constitution, obviously inspired by the CLT, cannot be modified by simple legislation. A new collective bargain agreement cannot leave workers worse off in benefits, working conditions, and salaries. Courts will be deciding these issues. A young Brazilian lawyer said to me, “No country has the kind of labor law and labor courts that we have.”

Layout 1Yet another originality, or at least unusual, is the system of election courts (tribuna eleitoral) which like labor courts are organized throughout the country in regional jurisdictions. There is a supreme court. In 2017, its members in sharply divided opinions voted 3 to 2 not to cancel the candidacy, and therefore of election of Michel Temer as Vice-President in 2014. Among the charges against him: Accepting illegal campaign contributions. While Temer survived, other executive branch office holders have not. In 2017, the judiciary has removed on average one mayor a week on charges of corruption.

Of corse, there are ways in which Brazil stands alone, or nearly alone in disrepute. Brazil has greater socio-economic inequality than any Latin American republic as measured in income distribution. The issue goes beyond Brazil’s standing in Latin America. Brazil belongs to a small group of countries that include Middle Eastern oil states, and the Union of S. Africa as examples of extreme inequality. New studies by both foreign and Brazilian researchers have focused on this issue, putting it in the spotlight of public discussion. One study compares bolsa familia or family grant program with investments in public education and asks how much each might reduce inequality. The conclusion: Both contribute, but investments in public education contribute more to reduce inequality. While the Temer government continues to proclaim its support for bolsa familia, it has cut support for education, and otherwise largely ignored mass anxieties. Another study by Irish economist Marc Morgan, a member of the Thomas Piketty, CAPITALISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY research group, produced the conclusion that if the annual income of the top 1% of the richest 10% of Brazilians, a group of 140,000 people, was reduced to that of the top 1% in France and Japan, and the money transferred to the poorest 50% of Brazilians, their income would nearly double. This is a striking demonstration of how low is the income of the bottom 50% of the population. The income of poor Brazilians, and for that matter a large portion of the Brazilian middle class is in fact very low both by world and Latin American standards. The income of the 80% of the Brazilian population below the top 20% is comparable to the poorest 20% in contemporary France. Low income helps explain why people in Rio de Janeiro are not riding a new Metro subway line in expected numbers. A preference for riding busses continues though surely not because the trip takes longer, and can be far less comfortable than the Metro. However, bus fare is R$3.60 while the Metro charges R$4.10 a ride. The difference is 50 centavos or about 16 cents which nonetheless represents an all-important difference for low income riders. Moving up to the richest 10% of Brazilian households does not mean immediately moving from low to high income. Entry into this group begins at 4,500 reais per month or about US$1,500.

The issue of high cost and low quality bus transportation remains a source of intense public dissatisfaction in many large Brazilian cities. Some of the blame can surely be placed on corrupt ties between bus owners and local politicians. The facts and dimension of this corruption are not fully known. However, a Federal police investigation in Rio de Janeiro—Operation Final Stop—culminated in August, 2017 with the announcement that R$500 million reais (about US$175 million) in bribes had been paid by bus owners to former governor Sérgio Cabral (in office from 2007 to 2013, but now serving a lengthy jail term for corruption) in exchange for higher fares, and other favors such as suppressing freelance van competition. However, bus riders are finally getting some relief. This discovery of large bribes paid by bus owners to politicians led to a judge to lower fares. The Federal police, a zealous army of young federal prosecutors, and a growing group of determined, well prepared judges are acting against white collar crime in an ever widening gyre of investigations, arrests, indictments and punishments.

Meanwhile, public security continues in a state of crisis in many areas of Brazil. I can attest to this in my Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Leme. A Sunday in October saw an invasion of the nearby hillside favela of Babilonia by drug traffickers with a noisy exchange of gunfire. A group of Sunday visitors walking up the winding road of the nearby Duque de Caxias army base heard a soldier explain how the clearly audible gunfire was coming from both automatic rifles and hand guns. He added the army could stop the wars in the favelas in a week—there are conflicts in several of them between different drug gang factions–but the politicians won’t allow it. Too much money “esta rolando” or turning over. These are declarations the public is ready to hear and endorse.

Public security budgets have been cut since the great Brazilian recession of 2015. Gangsters or bandidos as Brazilians call them have been emboldened, and the police less and less able to respond. The violence often seems unchecked, and receives ample media coverage.  Public security has always been a leading issue on any list in which the public is polled. Brazil leads the world in number of homicides. The official count was 61,619 in 2016, and includes people murdered by the police. The crisis in public security more than any other issue will test the mettle of presidential candidates in the 2018 election.

As Brazilians approach 2018, they are processing new information about democracy and the rule of law under the socially progressive Constitution of 1988. Thirty or forty years ago, the leading issue was how to pay the tremendous social debt defined as raising the poor out of destitution and poverty. Now it is confronting white collar crime. There is consensus that the investigation and punishment of corrupt actors will continue. Otherwise what should be done, and is likely to shape the coming 2018 election ferment can be best observed by following the broad range of public and media discussion, and the actions of groups throughout Brazil ranging from landless rural and homeless urban workers to wealthy investors creating funds such as Vox Capital, a new fund with social impact ambitions led by Antônio Ermírio Moraes Neto, an heir to the Votorantim group, Brazil’s (and Latin America’s) largest industrial conglomerate. An example of Vox Capital funding is for production of a low cost respirator with easy maintenance requirements for ambulances and hospitals.  The idea of investing with social impacts in mind is said to be new in Brazil. A Brazilian banker explained: “In my 20 years in banking, I never had clients disposed to link the social with the financial.  They want to make money.” But Brazilians are always open to new ideas, and the appeal of the ethical is in ascendance.

Celebrating the life and times of the extraordinary Octavius Catto, and the first civil rights movement in America

This week, in North Philly Notes, we honor Octavius Valentine Catto, the subject of Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin’s majestic biography, Tasting Freedom. Catto is being honored with a statue that will be unveiled on the apron of Philadelphia’s City Hall on September 26 at 11:00 am. 

A video interview with the authors of Tasting Freedom

 

A Q&A with the authors of Tasting Freedom

Q: Octavius Catto was a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement in the Civil War era. Where did you hear about him, why is he so little known, and what prompted you to write his life and times?
A: Murray discovered him in 1993 while doing research for a book he was writing on the history of South Philadelphia. Dan heard a historian talking on the radio about black life in the city in the 19th century and discussing Catto. Catto is little known because he died so young, before he had a chance to become prominent on the national scene. We both thought his life was extraordinary.

Q: How and where did you do your research? What surprises did you discover?
A: We did our research in Pennsylvania, New York, Washington D.C., South Carolina and New Jersey in churches, college reading rooms, and the Library of Congress. We scoured diaries, letters, newspapers, census records, box scores and song sheets in an effort that took more than seven years. We didn’t realize until more than a year into the work that there was a civil rights movement in the 19th century.

Q: Tasting Freedom provides an extensive history of the Civil War era and how African Americans faced racism on the baseball field, on streetcars, as voters, in the military etc. How did Catto and his “band of brothers” combat this discrimination?
A: He and his contemporaries in the North needed to fight for many rights that whites took for granted. Their weapons were their organizing skills to mold public opinion and educate whites, exemplary public behavior, bravery on the Civil War battlefield and physical courage in the face of threats and bodily harm to integrate the streetcars.

Q: Catto taught at the Institute for Colored Youth. He was very instrumental in educating free slaves and helping them get established. His famous speech at a graduation begins, “There Must Come a Change!” It started as a history of the school and ended with a call for equal rights. It had an immediate impact and was reprinted and circulated widely. How far-reaching was his speech?
A: The Institute for Colored Youth sent more teachers South to teach freed slaves and their children than any other school in the nation. It’s clear that I.C.Y. students were listening to Catto.

Q: Catto’s story intersects with historical figures such as the “feminist”/abolitionist Lucretia Mott, and famous orators like Frederick Douglass, with whom he shared stages. How did Catto establish himself in Philadelphia society and make the social/political connections he did?
A: Catto was a prominent educator who ran the boys school at the Institute for Colored Youth, the best school for black youth in the city, and arguably the best school for youth of any color. That elevated him to an important role in the community. He was a charismatic speaker who was the son of a well-known clergyman. Active in civil rights activities in his 20s, he fought the same battles that Douglass and Mott were fighting. And he was a rising Republican leader in the black community.

Tasting Freedom_AD(12-16-09) finalQ: Tasting Freedom has a terrific chapter about baseball and Catto’s experiences with the Pythians. Unable to integrate baseball, interracial matches were played unofficially with Catto’s team playing in the first game between white and black clubs. Did he have the respect of whites, or did he have a negative reputation?
A: The Philadelphia Athletics, the top white team in the city in the 1860s, permitted the Pythians to play on the Athletics’ field and were supporters of Catto’s effort to compete against white teams. It was not uncommon to see white ballplayers in the stands watching Pythian games.

Q: The chapter on the battle for streetcars shows Catto’s strength as an agitator. He tried to change laws. What do you think he could have accomplished had his life not been cut short?
A: That’s the question we wish we could answer. But we’ll try: We believe he would run for public office locally and won, and then would have sought higher office in the state. We also believe he might have received an appointment by the President to represent the United States overseas in a diplomatic position. And we think he may have left Philadelphia at some point to run his own school, perhaps in the South.

Q: You provide detailed descriptions of Catto’s enemies and the reaction to his death and its aftermath. How great was the riot that occurred?
A: Catto was shot to death in an 1871 election-day riot in Philadelphia that was one of the worst days of violence that the city had ever seen. We described the riot in the book as “five blocks in one direction and three in the other.” Scores of black men were shot and beaten and an untold number were scared away from the polls.

Q: You end Tasting Freedom with an epilogue on Catto’s legacy. How do you measure Catto’s contribution to history?
A: Influence is difficult to measure. We know that W.E.B. Du Bois knew about Catto because he wrote about him in “The Philadelphia Negro.” And we know that black leaders in the early 20th century read Du Bois. So it makes sense to say that Catto’s life was known to the black men and women who began the NAACP and who led the Harlem Renaissance. We also know students that Catto taught became civil rights leaders in the South and went on to teach black students across the nation.

Q: So what are two white guys doing writing about African American history?
A: We are newspaper guys and what we care about our good stories. The story of Catto’s life is a great story that no one has ever told. Even more important is the story of the civil rights movement in the 19th century, which has been little told. We thought that putting the two together would be a great yarn.

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