Thursday, July 08, 2010

Attention, strategies, and sides

The second US Social Forum, a gathering of community activists and organizers from across the US that is an outgrowth of the annual World Social Forum, took place in Detroit the last week of June. About 15,000 people gathered to share experiences, ideas, and build ties. The forum opened with a march and rally of several thousand people that gave a taste of the wide-ranging issues and constituencies represented.

And, of course, with the exception of a couple of stories in local press, it went almost entirely unnoticed and unregarded by mainstream media.

In a piece at AlterNet, Sally Kohn tries to puzzle out not only why the press isn't paying attention but "the center-left political establishment isn’t paying attention either."
Why is it[, she writes,] that the Tea Party - the right-wing edge of the conservative political sphere - exerts a gravitational pull on the Republican party and the conservative mainstream while the United States Social Forum and the leaders and groups gathered here, who represent the left of the liberal mainstream, are disregarded as marginal and irrelevant - that is, if they’re regarded at all?
It's a good question and she offers three answers, each of which has value and each of which, in different contexts, I've in some ways addressed in the past - but she omits an important one, and maybe two.

Consider first the three possible answers she gives, which, in brief, are:

1. While the USSF has "a disproportionately large number of poor people and people of color," the predominant demographic of the TPers is white men. That will, at the top, give them more social power.

2. "Shiny, new things" like TP demonstrators "always catch our eye, including our collective political eye, more than old and seemingly tired things." She notes that many of the groups and "ideological perspectives" at the USSF have been around "for decades" and even new groups embrace the sort of "anti-oppression, pseudo-Marxist, liberation rhetoric" that makes them seem old.

3. "[T]he Tea Party is profoundly majoritarian in its rhetoric and vision. The Tea Party claims to represent mainstream America. ... [T]he left wing of progressive politics as represented at the Social Forum does not evidence equivalent majoritarian convictions or aspirations." Instead, she suggests, "the left wing of the left" has "bought into the false dichotomy that there is a necessary trade-off between seeking political power versus sticking to one’s ideological beliefs."

Taking those possible answers in order, her first point has, of course, been made by others but that makes it no less true. I would, however, amend it slightly by saying that it's not only a matter of social power but also of social legitimacy in the eyes of the media and politicos.

Some years ago, in a dispute with the IRS (which we eventually won hooray for us), I came across the term "presumption of commissioner correctness." It meant, simply, that if the IRS said it did something such as send a notice on a certain date, any court would assume that it actually did so unless you somehow could prove otherwise. The reverse, of course, was not true: If we said we sent something, we damn well better have a receipt proving it. I first encountered the legal principle years earlier as a draft counselor, when it was called "presumption of regularity." It was simply assumed, without the need for any evidence, that the government - but not you - acted according to all the rules unless it could be proved otherwise.

Why this is important is that this doesn't just apply in legal or bureaucratic matters. It occurs socially as well. It is simply taken for granted, not even thought about really, that some voices are more legitimate, more worthy of consideration, at the bottom more trustworthy or at minimum more reliable, than others. Just as "official" voices are generally given more weight than "unofficial" voices (even when those "official" voices are confirmed repeated liars); just as "serious" commentators are accorded respect denied to DFHs (even when the latter were the ones proven to be correct about major events such as Iraq and Afghanistan); just as environmental and labor groups are dismissed as "special interests" while corporate PR flacks are not, so too here are the voices of "middle America," defined as conservative suburban and rural white males, regarded as somehow realer, more significant, more "the people," than other voices.

The point I want to emphasize is that this is not some conscious conspiracy, this is not the product of some media cabal sitting around a table going "we have to silence the advocates for justice," this is a built-in assumption, it is part of their, to use a term I've used several times, worldview, the way they mentally organize the world. (And, truth be told, likely part of many of ours as well.) Indeed, I suspect that if you challenged some media figures on precisely these grounds, that they are simply, unthinkingly, biased in favor of certain voices over others, they would deny it, perhaps vociferously - and likely believe they are being truthful. So part of our own thinking has to be about de-legitimizing those dominant voices - or, more exactly, how to de-legitimize them in comparison to others. (That, by the way, is why Jesse Jackson's poem "I am Somebody" resonated so: It was a challenge to the internalization of the assumptions of the broader society by those affected by them.)

That, parenthetically, is one of the reasons that Michael Moore inspires such passionate denunciations from the right: Never mind the particulars of his politics or proposals, few of which go very far beyond the mainstream, but just consider that the effect of his films is to de-legitimize the institutions he goes after. It makes them fair targets for mockery and ridicule - and that is an attack on their social power, on their, if you will, "presumption of correctness."

(As a sidebar, Kohn included "financially well-to" and "well-off" as descriptions of the TPers. That's not really accurate: As I noted in this post, while they are overall middle to upper-middle class and assuredly not poor, they are not generally "well-off" as the term is generally understood.)

Kohn's second point, about "shiny, new things" is surely true and echoes arguments I've made many times over the past my gosh 30 years or so, as when I said this in a talk to a Socialist Party conference in the fall of 1981, discussing some "lessons" from a run for Congress I had made the year before:
That brings me to the subject of words and their use. We Americans like to think of ourselves as a rational, clear-headed people. For that reason, Americans have a very low tolerance for what they perceive as slogans or rhetoric. Now, of course the Democrats and Republicans engage in rhetoric all the time, but the point is most people don't recognize it as such. It's part of the genius of the major parties that they can make their slogans sound like analysis, while we all too often make our analysis sound like slogans.

The message here is: Avoid rhetoric! Avoid lefty slogans! Avoid buzzwords! ... It's altogether possible with a little thought to express the most radical positions in a non-rhetorical fashion and doing that had a big impact, as people who'd always thought of "socialist" as a dirty word found what we were saying reasonable and even at least somewhat persuasive.
That argument was perhaps best illustrated by the reporter who later told me that I had the ability "to make the most radical positions sound like a voice of sweet moderation."

On the other hand, Kohn's (and my) argument here is limited in that it does let the media off too easily. Even if the rhetoric, or at least some of it, was "tired," a gathering of 15,000 political and social organizers and activists could not (and would not) be properly ignored as a news story just because it wasn't shiny. The reasons for the lack of attention must go beyond that and I'm going to suggest two such reasons a bit further down.

Her final suggestion, that of a lack of "majoritarian convictions or aspirations" on the part of "the left wing of the left." takes up the biggest part of her piece, which is proper because it is the most important point, one which connects to a similar point I raised in that same post about the TPers linked above, a point I said then had gotten surprisingly little attention:
[T]here is an overwhelming, an extreme, sense of what can only be called entitlement in the entire undertaking. It comes through clearly.... They repeatedly, repetitiously, say “it’s our country.” They loudly declare that they’re going to “take it back.” They insist that government failure to do what they want is “ignoring the will of the people.”

Leave aside the obvious responses of wondering just who it is that they’re going to “take it back” from and why elections are not “the will of the people” and consider a particular point in that NY Times/CBS survey. One question asked “Do the views of the people involved in the Tea Party movement generally reflect the views of most Americans?” Some 25% of all respondents said yes - while 84% of people who identified themselves as TP supporters did.

Overwhelmingly, they are convinced that they do represent “the people," that they are "the people."
And as a result they act that way and they talk that way, a way we seem to find beyond our psychological reach.

In fact, I remember the time (again sigh some years ago) when during a talk I listed a number of issues where, according to public opinion polls, the position taken by the majority of the public was the same as that pushed by the peace/social justice movement. I punctuated each by saying "On [this issue], we are the voice of the American people." I ended the whole list with "And it's damned well time we started acting like it." Why this is relevant is that I saw a number of people nodding and whispering to each other some version of "that's true" in a way that clearly indicated they hadn't thought about it that way before. They had never conceived of themselves as the majority, even when they were. It appears that we still don't - even when we are.

So I find value in all of Kohn's suggestions as to why the TPers get so much more attention than the USSF did - but there are two others which I believe also matter.

Well, in fairness, this first one may or may not matter in the particular case since I don't know the details involved, but it's valuable enough as a general principle to raise it anyway.

The USSF didn't get much press coverage - in fact, for all practical purposes beyond movement outlets (including such as The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and the like), there was none to speak of. (If you want to depress yourself, try for example Google News and do a search on "US Social Forum.") That is simply a fact. However, the question here is, how much press outreach did the organizers do? Did they do any? Or maybe just a press release? Or did they send several releases as plans developed, did they contact the assignment editors and the regional bureaus of the national media and say "Hey, we've got 15,000 people coming to this thing, who are you sending to cover it? We want to make sure we can greet them and get them the info they'll need."

Perhaps the organizers did all that and more and still got skunked for the other reasons laid out here and by Kohn. But if they didn't, they have very little basis for complaint about a lack of coverage. One of the lessons of getting ink and air that we need to absorb is that it's not up to the media to find us, it's up to us to find the media.

Which still, however, leaves that one other thing, that one possibility that Kohn omitted. She did brush up against it a couple of times, as when she noted the supposed separation of "political power" from "sticking to one’s ... beliefs," and again when she mentioned the wind in the sails of the TPers provided by such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, but it squirms away each time.

As Kohn says, not only the media, but "the center-left political establishment isn’t paying attention, either." There is something of a mutually-reinforcing cycle in that: Because the "establishment" isn't paying attention, the media (giving deference to the "legitimate" voices) feels comfortable ignoring such as the USSF, which thus get less publicity, enabling the establishment to continue ignoring them, and around we go.

But there is another consideration beyond that, something unrelated to that cycle except as it hints at a means to break it. Again, events such as the USSF get ignored by that center-left political establishment - but more importantly, the perspectives and proposals that form it and grow out of it are ignored as well, even in cases when those perspectives represent a majority or at least a significant minority of public opinion.

And this is the key thing that Kohn does not address: That establishment can act that way because there are no consequences for doing so. They can ignore things like the USSF - and people like us - because they pay no price for it. They are prepared to assume - correctly so far - that when it comes right down to it, we, or at least a sufficient number of us, will meekly accommodate ourselves to whatever half-baked quarter-measure soporific program or candidate they dish up, cowed either into silence by the monstrous looming threat of THE REPUBLICANS! THE TEA PARTY! OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD! or into internalizing an image of ourselves as an eternal political minority by being repeatedly dismissed or ignored.

Over the past few to several months I've sensed a growing anger in some parts of the blogosphere, a growing frustration about the gap between "we are the change we've been waiting for" and actual signs of the change for which we're still waiting. The approach taken by a fair number is to argue for (and offer support to) more liberal (in both meanings, number and degree) primary challengers to Democratic incumbents.

I'm not going to get into the advantages and disadvantages of such a strategy or into the inside versus outside (i.e., primary challenges vs. third party candidacies) argument, as they're not relevant here. What I am going to do it to point out the reaction of the center-left political establishment to such challenges, which is to rally around their own. The most notorious case remains that of Ned Lamont versus Joe Lieberman, but the more recent example of Bill Halter versus Blanche Lincoln serves equally well.

Halter, as Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas, was hardly even an outsider, much less some radical. And if the White House and the Democratic leaders in Congress were really interested in advancing what they claim is their agenda, they would prefer Halter. Instead, that center-left establishment gathered the wagons around Lincoln to the point where in the closing days of the run-off, they openly campaigned against labor on her behalf.

These people are not on our side! Oh, certainly, individuals are and have been on our side at least on specific issues, but as a group, as a whole, they are not. And they will continue to not be on our side, to ignore us, to dismiss us, to deny us as the lord of the manor denied the bastard son he fathered by the servant girl even when he was the legitimate heir - that is, to bring this back to reality, to deny us even when we represent the majority - as long as we continue to make it possible for them to do so. It is when, it is only when, there is an actual cost, an actual consequence, an actual price to be paid through our open opposition and denial of support, done both electorally and non-electorally (i.e., in the streets) will they - grudgingly - pay attention.

In electoral terms, does that mean running the risk of loss? Yes. Does it mean the GOPpers might win some elections that they wouldn't have because we refused to support the Dimcrat who trashed everything and everyone to the left of Ben Nelson? Yes. Does it mean that our favored candidates might lose? Yes.

But does it also mean that to do otherwise, to try to avoid that risk, is to condemn ourselves to an unknown number of years (history says decades) of having such as Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Blanche Lincoln be regarded as "centrists" and "moderates" while the right is regaled and the left is loathed, the right is "right" and the left gets left? Yes. Period. And that is too big a price to pay. There is no guarantee of the success of resistance but there is a guarantee of the cost of acquiescence.

More and more these days I have been thinking of the old labor song "Which Side Are You On?" That's the question we need to be asking ourselves and each other over and over and more and more these days. This has nothing to do with making political compromises on particular issues or organizing strategies or any other individual or surface considerations. It has to do with your worldview. So ask yourself: Which side are you on?

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