Tom Paxton’s We Didn’t Know

(The first time I  heard this, the Vietnam War was raging.  It was sung either by The Kingston Trio or The Chad Mitchell Trio.  It requires no imagination to substitute words like, “I guess we’ve  gotta’  drop those bombs if we wanna’  keep Iraqis and Afghanis  free.”  Or,  “Torturing prisoners is an Al Qaeda game and you can bet they’re doing the same.”    Citizens and policy makers  who stand in the way of  a just reckoning for those who ordered torture  are writing   verses for all our children, grandchildren and theirs.)

We didn’t know said the Burgomeister,
About the camps on the edge of town.
It was Hitler and his crew,
That tore the German nation down.
We saw the cattle cars it’s true,
And maybe they carried a Jew or two.
They woke us up as they rattled through,
But what did you expect me to do?

We didn’t know at all,
We didn’t see a thing.
You can’t hold us to blame,
What could we do?
It was a terrible shame,
But we can’t bear the blame.
Oh no, not us, we didn’t know.

We didn’t know said the congregation,
Singing a hymn in a church of white.
The Press was full lf lies about us,
Preacher told us we were right.
The outside agitators came.
They burned some churches and put the blame,
On decent southern people’s names,
To set our colored people aflame.
And maybe some of our boys got hot,
And a couple of niggers and reds got shot,
They should have stayed where they belong,
And preacher would’ve told us if we’d done wrong.


We didn’t know said the puzzled voter,
Watching the President on TV.
I guess we’ve got to drop those bombs,
If we’re gonna keep South Asia free.
The President’s such a peaceful man,
I guess he’s got some kind of plan.
They say we’re torturing prisoners of war,
But I don’t believe that stuff no more.
Torturing prisoners is a communist game,
And You can bet they’re doing the same.
I wish this war was over and through,
But what do you expect me to do?

Words and Music by Tom Paxton

The Week That Was: Words & Brainstorms

It’s been a  flurry all week.  Here’s a collection of pieces:

US Army and Marines report a sharp escalation in soldier and veteran suicides.  (LA Times)  Caregivers on the front lines cited, among other issues, more and longer deployments, family stress, hopelessness, drugs, alcohol and extreme psychological fatigue.

In the Senate Banking Committee Hearing (Chaired by Sen. Chris Dodd),  Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve Chairman and Obama advisor offered,  “…other nations regulate the risk of  functions  rather than of entities  or particular business models.”  

 (Author note:  our present system regulates banks, for instance, but  the function of mortgage-backed securities slipped through the jurisdictional cracks of  twenty understaffed  regulatory agencies.  (See CSPAN videos.)

In the same hearing, Gene  Dodaro, Acting Comptroller General of the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Elizabeth Warren, Chair of  the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP  described faultlines in our financial structure and offered comments:  (1)  it’s inefficient, ineffective and inflexible; (2) it permits inadequate disclosures by credit institutions; (3)  the “financial illiteracy” of the populace  and inadequate disclosures by institutions combined to create predatory loans with incomprehensible terms; (4)  Federal and State jurisdictional issues created holes in oversight/regulation;  (5) institutions that originated loans passed the risk to other institutions without keeping “skin in the game”;  (6) we need  new ways to value  the debt because we don’t know who’s holding it or what it’s  worth;  (6)  current compensation models  encourage bad loans because there’s little or no  risk to the  originating broker. 

In an umbrella statement,  Dodaro described the current  financial model as pitting consumer protection against economic growth and urged Congress  to recognize that growth is impossible without the  trust and health of the consumer.

Senator Mark Warren referenced financial illiteracy  and  the  lack of regulation that’s allowed lenders and insurance companies to prey on our soldiers and their  families.

Witnesses in the hearing  concurred that:  (1)  we don’t know where the bailout funds are;  (2)  institutions who received funds feel no obligation  to reveal what they did with them; and regardless,  (3)  the bailout has not  significantly improved the flow of investments or loans; and (4) small business failures  and foreclosures are escalating.

Obama, stumping for the Stimulus Plan, described it as a strategy, not a piecemeal, temporary fix.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) told homeowners to stay in their homes when they’re foreclosed.  She told Amy Goodman (Democracy Now)  “…there’s a number people can call:  (888-995-HOME)  to get the proper legal representation so they can actually have the scales of justice be balanced rather than, now, all the power to Wall Street and none of the justice to Main Street.” 

(Author note:   When tenants were thrown out of their homes in the 1920s and ’30s,  their neighbors and activists overcame dogs, sheriff ‘s deputies and head-cracking batons to haul each other’s belongings back inside.)

Obama:  Companies  that receive TARP funds will limit executive compensation to $500,000.  This has caused corporations to worry they won’t be able to “attract the best talent.”   (Rewarding incompetence seems to have worked so well for all of us.)  

Aren’t our Graduate Schools  loaded with financial and administrative wizards?  Let them take take the mound and relegate  the Geithners,  Summers, Rubins and financiers to advisory positions in the dugout.  One idea is that executive officers be rewarded only after their policies result in  sustained profit growth over a number of years.  (No more $18 billion bonuses for collapsing a world economy in a single year.)

National Prayer Breakfast  and broadening of the old “faith-based” service model. My agnostic self is staying out of this one but my community organizer is shouting “hallelujah!”   (Perhaps the idea would be less offensive if we called it a “National Meditational Breakfast.)   “Community Service”  is, apparently,  fertile ground for another “Moral Majority” showdown.  It reminds me of  the efforts peace activists made  “to take back the flag”  after Bush invaded Iraq.  Obama’s model incorporates secular groups and recognizes a place for both secular and religious organizations.  My objection would be  to  religious bias dictating  what, how and to whom our civil services are provided.  (See:  First Amendment on separation of Church & State:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”)  Certainly, stringent guidelines must be enforced if  community service is to remain free of  religious dogma.

According to Bloomberg News  on February 4, 2009“Bank of America’s CEO (Kenneth Lewis) told employees that his management team and strategy have the board’s support and January results were ‘encouraging’ as turmoil in the credit markets eased.”  

The  very next day, “Bank of America’s  (BAC) shares  fell as low as $3.77 before finishing up 14 cents at $4.84.  The bank’s shares had fallen for five days prior to Thursday.”  (In the period from  January 1, 2009 to February 5, 2009 — 36 days — BAC has fallen from $14.08 to $4.56.)  No kidding,  some pundits are wondering whether Lewis is the “right guy for the job.”

Bank of America still won’t let people sully their great glass windows with community announcements.

Today,  “January’s sharp drop in employment brings job losses to 3.6 million since the start of the recession in December 2007 and…about half the decline occurred in the last three months.  January’s losses followed upwardly revised cuts of 577,000 in December and 597,000 in November.”  (CNBC

In an Orwellian way,  these unemployment numbers are good news because coincidentally, average hourly wages have risen from 0.3-0.4%  over last year. I guess that’s what happens when mass layoffs and retail closings  eliminate low wage earners from the statistical pool.

And finally, 14 year old actess  Dakota Fanning  strode  pencil-thin  onto the stage of late night television in a pair of  spiked heels.


It’s my birthday. I realized it last night when The Daily Show announced the date.

If it wasn’t for money being short, I’d be obnoxiously satisfied with my life.  There aren’t many rules and most of them are fluid.

The ironies that made me laugh when I was young are barely different now. (The Three Stooges were a favorite only because Dad banned them from the house.)

Humans mouthing Corporate Speak as if their edges have blurred  and people ganging up on weaknessthose things still knock me sideways.

Bank of America reminded me Monday how near the edge I am — even during my birthday week.

When I asked the teller if I could put a sign on the bank’s outside doors to let people know our food banks were running low, her face settled like a key in a hole.  “Bank of America won’t let you hang up a sign,”  she said.

Things have been marginal in the village for a while. The hardware store closed a few years ago, followed by two restaurants, a couple of realtors and a fitness center. There’ve been others but recounting the disappeareds doesn’t help.

Besides, it’s no different in your neighborhood. The locally-owned supermarket is penned on all sides by box stores. Artists sit in empty shops and the man who owns the health food store has aged this year. Our cashiers are teens whose parents are unemployed. The young guy folding clothes at the laundromat stares self-consciously at his feet. Neither he nor the cashier got their  college loans for next semester.

In all that economic want, our village sports three banks. One. Two. Three. In a rural village that can’t support a hardware store, we have a cornucopia of banks. The biggest is Bank of America though its stock is falling.

I stared at the teller and the blinding plate glass windows behind me. All that empty, pristine space.  Scenes from The Matrix danced in my headshards splattering like a crystal xylophone.  In another birthday year, I might have thrown a rock. I might have picketed. I might have railed at the stunned number-cruncher behind her knee wall.

I’m not a dewy-eyed optimist, but I like my birthday. I like the tasks that come with aging. I like the flow of breasts sagging and butts drooping. When I was little, I wanted to be Jewish. “How lucky,” I thought, “to celebrate for eight endless days and nights.”

That early disappointment in Chanukkah’s shortcomings  was surpassed the day I turned ten.    “Eve’s Curse” clamped my life in an iron jaw. It was ghastly. I knew what it was but thought of it  like Death–something for others, never me.

Being a girl wasn’t in my cards. I still smelled like a mushroom-y kid, for pete’s sake. My bath water still turned gray after a day in the barn or on the baseball field or climbing in the trees.

The next day – the day before I turned ten — JC called me a “girl” and I spent my birthday in detention for bloodying his nose.

But the deepest cut of all was to come. As Mom’s German chocolate cake melted on my tongue, Grandma snorted. She’d heard my whispered birthday wish. “The Cleveland Indians aren’t gonna’ let a girl be a ballboy,” she said, cuffing my head.

Ten years later, as I popped a slip of chocolate mesc in New Orleans and jumped into The Gulf, The Paris Peace Accords were being signed. Though it skipped my bedraggled mind  that day, I haven’t forgotten it since.

This birthday is something else. Barack Obama’s first interview as our President was with Al Arabiya. Conyers subpoenaed Rove again. Children around the world are being born and  named Barack.  George  Mitchell is on his way to the Middle East. Pastor Warren’s narrowness will fall of its own strictures.

The world is shifting and when we aren’t holding our breath, we’re clasping our hands in glee. I’m so pleased to have made it this far.

Happy birthday to me — for the next eight days.

Is Obama Clearing the Way to Criminal Charges?

On January 21, 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order that revoked George W. Bush’s  Executive Order 13233.  Bush had sought to severely limit  access to the records of former United States Presidents.    His previous and  more exclusive version was drafted by then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and issued by President George W. Bush on November 1, 2001.

In signing the Executive Order,  President Obama  returned to the law as it was signed  by Ronald Reagan in 1989.

Obama’s  revocation affected two substantive changes  in what happens when a former president is asked to release  his presidential records.

Obama’s new order  reduces from 90 to 30  days the length of time a former president has to review records being requested.  This is important to the issue of delay as practiced for eight years by the Bush Executive.

More substantively,  the old version  (Bush’s Ex. Order 13233)  would have given Bush de facto veto power over Obama  if  Obama believed  Bush’s claim of  Executive Privilege was bogus:

“… the Archivist shall not permit access to the records by a   requester  [b]ecause the former President independently retains the right to assert constitutionally based privileges… the Archivist shall not permit access to the records by a requester unless and until the incumbent President advises the Archivist that the former President and the incumbent President agree to authorize access to the records or until so ordered by a final and nonappealable court order.

According to Bush’s rule,  both the former and incumbent Presidents would have to agree to the document disclosure.

Obama’s new rule allows the current President   to overrule the  former President’s claim of Executive Privilege:

[Upon receipt of a claim of executive privilege by a living former President], the Archivist (b)  In making the determination referred to in subsection (a) of this section, the Archivist shall abide by any instructions given him by the incumbent President or his designee unless otherwise directed by a final court order.

Even under Obama’s Order,  the former President has theoretical recourse to  the Courts.

Is  Obama clearing debris  from the path  to criminal charges?  In part, that will depend on what happens to Cheney’s records and how President Obama treats  “Executive Privilege.”

Bush’s Executive Order 13233 mentions the Vice President’s records specifically.  Obama’s order does not — as if Obama believes  the Veep’s documents are  integral to the  Executive Branch.  That would be a new view. As you know,  Cheney believed his office existed in a misty venue somewhere between the Executive and Legislative branches.

1.   Wikipedia intro to Bush’s Executive Order 13233

2.   Obama revokes Bush’s  Presidential Records protections

Emissaries For Obama

When the Bush regime gained control of the three branches of the Federal Government, it did so with an ideologic  righteousness that belittled opposing  points of view.  There’s no  evidence  that the outgoing regime enjoyed debates or  evolved through meetings of the mind.

Over the past several weeks, as it became more credible  that  now-President-elect Obama (such a kick to type that!) would be the 44th President of  The United States of America (an even bigger kick to type that!)  the rants of partisans like Bill Maher and Sean Hannity seemed increasingly mean and superficial.  They echoed the hateful tones of a nurse whose blog  vilified destitute refugees from Hurricane Gustav and my equally-hateful response to her.   None of us stopped to imagine the other’s experience but rather, retreated to our comfortable, exclusionary paradigms.

Isn’t intolerance  a fancy way of saying,   “You’re either with us or you’re against us?”  (“You’re either like me or you’re strange.”)   Isn’t it a  swampy place  where we consign  people  and points of view that challenge or threaten us?   If the clerk in the grocery store tells me s/he “voted for  McCain,”  and my response is an aghast,   “Are you nuts?  What the hell were you thinking as a working person?”  will my intolerant ignorance of her life make the clerk feel welcome in the Obama tent?

When Bill  Maher says  religious people are too stupid to vote or too ignorant to have an opinion,  isn’t that just one more way of delineating his  Real America from Another America?

When a foreclosed farmer or an unemployed college professor  is  shadowed by debt  and loss,  where do they turn?  To the familiar.  To the things and ideas that have been traditional sources of comfort.   Mine are my children, family, a few dear friends,  chocolate cake, knitting, Mark Twain, the first three seasons of  Boston Legal,  barbeque chicken and potato chips.    For a vegan,  comfort  might be a bowl of  steamy tofu chili.  Whatever comforts we seek, they’ll be alluring or repugnant to others.  More important than the specific comfort we  seek is the fact that most of us do retreat to familiar cultural  bunkers when we’re threatened.  And you’d better know, I won’t relinquish my comforts to suit you unless you  convince me that my  bunker provides false comfort.  Telling me that  my choice of chicken wings is “stupid and irresponsible”  won’t do it.  Forcing tofu down my throat will just make me throw up.

When The Daily Show and others sneered at “undecideds,”  were those voters encouraged to support Obama?  I know a number of undecided voters who  finally chose in the voting booth.  In the main, they were  social conservatives who disagreed with McCain’s lack of economic vision; or,  they were terrified of  electing an inexperienced President but were equally terrified of Sarah Palin.  They aren’t stupid people and they agonized over their choices until the last possible minute.  One of them wanted so desperately to do what was right, she nearly voted as her deceased grandmother would have.  She knew how proud the life-long Democrat would have been to vote for the young Senator from Illinois.

In the end, I believe  there are remarkable men and women who walk onto the public stage because the historic moment cries out for them  —  great Statespeople who teach us to imagine the minds and lives of our “enemies” and  to walk in their shoes.   I believe that Barack (like Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.) is one of those people.  They teach us that we all  have fears and therefore, prejudices.  As a Populist,  I’m suspicious of anything that divides me from others and mostly, I’m frightened by what happens when we combine fear with ignorance.  Justice and unity  cannot co-exist with intolerance and it doesn’t much matter if the butt of intolerance lives rural or urban,   is  a trades person or  a comedian.

In a pre-election segment of Morning Joe (MSNBC) Willie Geist tried to sell McCain-Palin tee shirts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.   He found two sympathizers among the crowd flowing past him.  The vast majority, however,  were Obama-philes and their snippiness was instructive:  “I don’t know any McCain people.  I wouldn’t have one for a friend.”

None of us is 100% consistent.  Most of us have squirrelly bits that glare balefully at our better selves. They’re easily-recognizable, though;  they often snarl loudly and pound  their fists.   Sometimes the only way to counter  our irrational parts is to poke around in their origins;  to wonder aloud, “What am I afraid of?  What are you afraid of?”

This is not to say we can stand mute in the face of racism, sexism, religious intolerance,  attacks on intellectual freedoms, homophobia or any other threats to civil society; but as Obama emissaries, we must listen to and understand the fears of others.  How else can we  lay those fears to  rest?  How else can we  open our doors  as far as possible and create an innovative and more civil future?