The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Jun 19 14 2019

Wiki Way

There’s a fracas over at Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation Office banned Fram, an experienced and highly-respected administrator; this was unprecedented. After review, Floquenbeam — another prominent administrator, lifted the ban as an act of civil disobedience. Floquenbeam was banned. More of this ensued, and the carnage continues.

Ward Cunningham’s Wiki Way lies at the heart of this conflict, though I doubt many people see that. The core question in this mess is a conflict of two views.

  • Rank in modern Wikipedia is extraordinarily difficult to attain. It requires years of diligent editing, the public demonstration of conspicuous tact, and thousands of hours of volunteer time. The most senior and highly-respected editors in this radically egalitarian project view themselves as the equal of anyone else involved.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation views itself as a charity that provides opportunities for volunteers to have fun and do good. But they’re volunteers; the Foundation is inclined to think that everyone on the payroll outranks any volunteer.

To high-ranking volunteers, the radical egalitarianism of The Wiki Way is the project’s core idea. To the Office, it’s a footnote to prehistory and they’ve got a business to run.

For the last 18 months, I’ve been deeply embroiled in a long, local political struggle. That struggle ended unexpectedly, Saturday morning, in a satisfactory compromise.

I’ve not written much about this here, because this fight was very local and most of my readers are not. It’s not obvious that scholars in Amsterdam or authors in Adelaide would be interested in a small political committee in a small American city. On the other hand, I think some aspects of this mess might have some general interest.

  • We’re at the start of a political campaign that will, more than any election since 1860, determine the fate of the nation and perhaps the planet.
  • All politics are local. Even if you live in Bergen, the details Trump’s defeat matter.
  • The story touches on social media and the Web, even though this is a party committee drawn from a small suburban city.
  • It’s a tale of community organizing in disarray, of local politics carried out through social media campaigns and coffee chats.

The problem: The Malden Democratic City Committee is elected every four years by voters in the Democratic primary. It had, for some years, been tiny and obscure if not secretive. More recently, it’s been the vehicle for holding two parties a year, and having nine Saturday morning informational meetings. It doesn't endorse candidates or take positions on issues or raise money for immigration lawyers or #BlackLivesMatter, for @abortionFunds or ACLU.

Efforts to change this foundered because the Committee almost never had a quorum, and because the Committee had misplaced its minutes and its bylaws. So new bylaws were drafted.

I felt the proposed bylaws set the quorum too high. Robert’s Rules says, sensibly, that the quorum should be the highest number of people who can be relied upon to attend every meeting, unless the weather is very bad. The proposal’s quorum might be reached once every year or two.

Why did it matter?

In the US, only two political parties can matter. One of those parties has gone nuts. We’re the other one.

The US stands today on the threshold of fascism. That seems incredible. It must have seemed pretty incredible in Kishinev back in 1903, or Berlin in 1933, or Vichy in 1942.

Today, we deplore those who did nothing. Yet we — the representative body for the Democratic Party of a city of 60,000, a city that should be a Democratic powerhouse, a city where swastikas keep popping up — we hold two parties a year.

So many reasons why

Why was this so important? Why would anyone care so much about a quorum proviso in a set of small-town bylaws?

At first, I wasn't sure why it mattered. On reflection, I found six million reasons. The shadow of Manzanar and Minidoka as well, of Gila River and Bosque Redondo. The graves of Camp Logan and Tulsa, the specters of Harlan County and Haymarket.

A country goes Fascist two ways: gradually and then suddenly.


Perhaps it can’t happen here, and all this will blow over. We’ll tear down our concentration camps for toddlers, write reparations checks to the families we tore apart, make Pride a national holiday, restore science, replenish the courts, rejoin the Paris Accords.

Still, it is better to be able to act and find that you don’t need to, than to need to act and discover that you cannot do enough in the time you have.

The solution

Leadership wanted a quorum of 20%, which could be as high as 56. I proposed a quorum of 12. After a long and bitter fight, we wound up at 20 — a number that should be workable.

On the final morning, I fully expected to lose.

The consequences

I worked hard on this for a very long time. I wrote many memos, lots of emails, a newspaper op-ed, handouts and flyers. I ran a long, long Facebook campaign. I wrote three full-dress speeches. I got a haircut.

I lost friends. One neighbor who used to come to dinner all the time now calls me “jerk” and “asshole” on Facebook. A sign that I’m not cut out for politics is that this bothers me.

Aside: Facebook is bad for Democrats

Many local Democratic Committees rely heavily on Facebook. That’s a mistake.

  • Facebook is untrustworthy, and its sympathies lie with our opponents.
  • Facebook, like Twitter, profits by creating bar fights in comment threads, Fights boost their profits while burning out our volunteers and dismaying our supporters. It's win-win for Facebook and Twitter and a disaster for us.
  • We depend on Facebook because Democratic Party institutions rely so heavily on elderly activists and Facebook works well for old folks. This is bad tech shoring up bad tactics.
  • I’ve been saying for more than a decade: comments kill blogs. Comments kill Facebook pages, too.
  • My rivals held the keys to the Facebook group and used them with some skill, but at the end of the day you can’t moderate a Facebook page for an official party committee in the face of a competent opponent. You can make it hard: for a good chunk of time, I had to adopt the dissident Chinese tactic of advocating for an issue by talking about a different issue. It’s hard to block an elected member for outspokenly supporting the national party position on immigration.

This was unnecessary

Nobody seems to have done what seems to me to be the very first thing our opponents ought to have done: find out why the hell this mattered so much. In retrospect, I suspect they still don’t know, or understand why it would have been useful have found out. I don’t think the calculus is hard. I tried to tell everyone who would listen, and many who would not.


Once upon a time, six million tried to get along with neighbors who disliked them.

I’ve been very angry at some of these many meetings. This is bad politics: people don’t like anger. At the very beginning, the sage of the Malden Democrats took me aside. “It’s not that they don’t like your ideas,” she told me. “The problem is, they don’t like you.” She was not wrong.

Amity is a suspect quality, and we used to understand the limitations of being well liked.

All Politics Is Local

by Stephen H. Lekson

The archaeology of the American Southwest has always been rooted in Anthropology, while the archaeology of classical Europe is more closely allied to History. The result, Lekson argues, has been decidedly mixed. In particular, the focus on anthropology concentrates all attention on the ethnographic present, on the way things turned out, and this exclusive focus precludes history.

Sometime in the 13th and 14th centuries in the American Southwest, something happened. Through all his late work, this has been Lekson’s theme. Chaco — unprecedented in the region — vanished. Aztec rose, and vanished. Mimbres, too, vanished — or, rather, moved downstream and changed their art, their architecture, and probably everything else.

Chaco’s great houses look like pueblos, but they weren't. They were palaces.They fell, as palaces fall, to revolution. Chaco was not like a modern pueblo: the modern pueblo was created, in part, from the revolution against whatever Chaco was. That revolution was interesting and ideological; we may never know very much about it, but we should learn what we can.

Billed as a final book by the great historical stylist of his era, this is a book that repays study.

by Rebecca Roanhorse

This sequel to Trail Of Lightning is a stronger book by a writer of growing talent. Navajo stories of the end of the last world and the beginning of the world we know are recast in post-apocalyptic YA language; most of North America is now underwater, monsters — some human, some not — roam the desert, and Gods walk among us. Deities speak — as the deities of the Navajo and of Roanhorse’s Okeh Owinga pueblo speak — with the rhythms of their people’s speech, and with their sense of humor. Of course, when supernatural folk feel like a joke, things can rapidly become unpleasant for the five-fingered.

by JOnathan Dixon

A decade after Michael Ruhlman went to the Culinary Institute of America to write Making Of A Chef, magazine writer Michael Dixon makes the same journey in order to change careers. He’s been miserable at Martha Stewart, he’s not setting the world on fire as a freelancer, he’s pretty sure his girlfriend is a better writer than he is, and he’s hoping to find his calling in cooking school.

It’s an interesting contrast. Ruhlman was on assignment, and he needed to finish quickly because he desperately needed the second half of the advance. But Ruhlman, along the way, also found a vocation. Dixon, on the other hand, went looking for a vocation and not, it seems, a book: at any rate, Ruhlman is always reporting, interviewing his fellow students, interviewing his teachers, interrogating the food. Dixon records himself as very much in the moment. That might have made this second book more vivid, but there's just not enough background and detail about his fellow students, their struggles and their stories, and there's really not enough color in the food. Still, it's a very enjoyable school story with an excellent intermezzo about an externship gone wrong.

by Herman Wouk

Rather than a memoir, this volume is a pleasant afternoon in the company of and old man who was always good company. Wouk, who recently died at age 103, wrote The Caine Mutiny, War and Remembrance, The Hope, and The Glory. He wrote much more. He brought the The Caine Mutiny Court Martial to Broadway after seeing a Don Juan In Hell, with Charles Laughton and Charles Boyer. He was very much a bridge to another age.

A would-be biographer told Wouk that his life had two facets: the sailor of Caine and War and Remembrance and the rooftop fiddler of his books on the holocaust, on Israel, and his nonfiction discussions of Judaism. Wouk nods toward that framework here, in structure as well as title, but Jewishness pervades all his work. Wouk seldom talks much about his reading life here, alas, and it’s a pity that we hear little about his reactions to Roth and Bellow, or for Uris and Michener. Caine comes a few years after The Naked and The Dead, but it’s Mr. Roberts (Thomas Heggen, 1946) that spurs Wouk to drop his gag writing and mine his wartime experience. If Michener’s late The Novel is mostly about Michener, I fancy its protagonist might have a bit of Wouk mixed in as well.

May 19 24 2019


by Kate Atkinson

Charming and evocative story of a young typist who finds work during the war with MI5. After the war, she’s sent away and hooks up with BBC Schools, and one day inn the 1950s she stumbles across a former colleague in the park. A difficult book to discuss without giving away crucially withheld information, but if you like Atkinson you will enjoy this book.

by William J. Cooper

A fine, thorough political biography. John Quincy Adams started out as the diplomatic assistant of his prominent father. He then became a dissident Federalist senator in a time when New England had no power in the senate; he handled the situation with grace and gravitas. He was elected to the presidency as an alternative to Andrew Jackson, departing four years later when the Jacksonian wave could not be denied; shortly thereafter, he returned to the House where he served until his death as an exemplary and persistent critic of slavery.

May 19 1 2019

What Can We Do?

(Cross-posted from the Malden Democratic City Committee page on Facebook)

Alicia Garza asks what I want the Malden Democratic City Committee (MDCC), of which I am indeed a member, to do on the subject about which I so often write on its Facebook page— the rights of immigrants.

My usual answer is: “Do Something!” Here are 20 concrete steps, off the top of my head.

1. Support only those candidates who promise real and concrete assistance to migrants. (My motion on this topic was reported out of the Issues Committee with its endorsement, and currently lies upon the table.)

2. Formally reprove and widely publicize the crimes of the invidious Trump administration.

3. Send letters of remonstrance to the other Democratic City and Town Committees of the Commonwealth, and urge them to do likewise.

4. Formally urge our representatives to support measures that protect migrants, such as the Safe Communities Act.

5.Our treasury is small, but the need is great. We could make a modest donation to the ACLU.

6. Or, we could break our piggy bank, such as it is, and send (say) 90% of our treasury to RAICES. We can rebuild our reserves; we cannot repair the damage of family separation and mass deportation.

7. Send MDCC members to seminars, activist training, and protest rallies in support of the rights of immigrants.

8. Send MDCC members to the Texas and New Mexico border to support efforts to provide legal and material aid to migrants and to resist Trump’s wall. The Florence Project, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and ProBAR might like a hand or two.

9. Invite leaders to inform the MDCC on migrant rights and policy. Have a symposium. (I think we’ve had enough candidates for Lieutenant Governor and high school civics lectures on “how a bill becomes law” for the moment, don’t you?)

10. The American Friends Service Committee’s Sanctuary Everywhere initiative highlights the value of ensuring openness and inclusiveness everywhere — in schools, in government, and in the streets. MDCC could (and should) oppose racist dress and disciplinary policies in Malden schools, and should highlight racist and anti-Semitic acts from vandalism to social media.

11. Support courageous officials like Newton District Court judge Shelley Joseph, who is being prosecuted by the Trump administration for “obstruction of justice” in declining to turn an unjustly-detained person over to ICE. Show them — and their peers — that they have our protection and assistance today, and will have our gratitude tomorrow.

12. Demonstrate to those officials who would prevaricate or collaborate that there will be a price to be paid, and that we intend neither to forget nor forgive.

13. Purchase good books and journals for the benefit of interested members and our government officials. We should know more about Vichy, for example, than we do. Have we all read Hitler’s Willing Executioners? Our Towns?

14. We hold MDCC meetings in a private drinking club that discriminates against Blacks, Asians, and Jews. This arrangement is convenient, but it is not Welcoming.

15. Times being what they are, the back of the police station is out.

16. Celebrating St. Patrick as one of our two annual events looks backward. Let’s have a breakfast to honor Levi Strauss (Feb 28) or Madeline Albright (May 15) or Joseph Pulitzer (April 10). Frances Perkins (April 10, too!) would work for me. Or Sholem Aleichem (Feb 18/March 2)

17. We should denounce in the strongest terms the increasing tendency of some Malden right-wingers to catechize or ridicule the religious beliefs of their opponents.

18. We should also denounce dog-whistle appeals that call for a return of “old Malden”, a time when Malden was less crowded (it wasn’t) and more thoroughly segregated (it was).

19. We’re about to elect a new MDCC — there are 43 weeks before the March 3 election. What steps are we taking now to elect younger, more diverse, and more representative members? And to ensure that, once elected, they will be able to do something?

20. A clean, well-lighted place — warm and safe — should always be available to people in Malden who need it. The Malden Warming Center was a start, but this should be a public undertaking, not a Christian charity. It should be a right, not a favor or a privilege, and all should be welcome to share it.

Again, this is just a start, and it’s completely off the cuff. I'm sure many better proposals could be added. You could do better. Please do.

In fact, that’s what I’m asking this Committee to do. Do better. Do more. The times demand it.