PET ISSUES

A characteristic comment from Kos:

we won’t have a governing majority until the energy expended in pursuing pet interests gets redirected toward getting Republicans out of power and getting Democrats — even some of the imperfect ones — elected to replace them…take a look at the new progressive organizations arising the past few years — MoveOn, the blogs, Democracy for America, National Political Hip Hop Conference, etc — all of them movement-based multi-issue organizations. That is the future of the American progressive movement. Not the single-issue groups that continue to hold their narrow interests above those of the broader movement.

What’s frustrating about comments like this is the uncritical conflation of the “broader movement” and the Democratic party. What’s a “pet issue”? Well, it’s an issue taken up by people you think could spend their time better doing something else. Since Kos’ goal – certainly an urgent and worthy one – is to replace Republican elected officials with Democratic ones, he tends to snipe at progressives who focus on pretty much anything else – be it reducing poverty or expanding civil liberties – as a higher priority. And his hammering on the all-too true point that the Right in this country has demonstrated much stronger long-term strategy than the Left over the past few decades only makes it that much more disappointing each time he makes the short-sighted argument that progressive groups which too strongly criticize or withhold support from Democrats who don’t share their values are selfish for not subordinating their cause to the goal of winning the next election. That’s not how conservatives accomplished their takeover of many of the powerful institutions in this country.

What really gets me about this particular post, though, is the way it conflates Kos’ “every left-wing group in the country should work to elect anyone to Congress who will vote for Pelosi for Speaker” critique with a critique I agree with: the left hasn’t done a sufficient job of building lasting multi-issue coalitions, and progressive activists have too often failed to see and articulate the connectedness between their causes. For Kos, the latter critique must be the former, because the only legitimate form for multi-issue cooperation to take is the Democratic party or organizations or websites mainly devoted to electing Democrats. But that’s not the view of many of the most articulate exponents of the latter critique, including the “Death of Environmentalism” essay which he rightly highlights as a crucial document (here too, I agree). In fact, the very excerpt he quotes in his post is:

Our thesis is this: the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

“What’s that,” you say, “it’s possible to have a long string of defeats under a Democratic President? (For a sobering account of just how poor a job NRDC and the Sierra Club did at cashing in on their work electing Bill Clinton, check out Randy Shaw’s Activist Handbook). So much for the idea that all progressive groups have to do to advance their causes is get Democrats elected.

BIBLICALLY INCORRECT

Democracy for America just e-mailed to announce an on-line petition against Pat Robertson’s fatwa on Hugo Chavez reminding the pastor of the biblical commandment that “Thou shalt not kill.” I’d be all for spreading a little gospel to the everyone’s favorite venal, hateful, antisemitic (didn’t stop the ADL giving him an award for supporting the Israeli occupation) pastor, except for one problem: There is no biblical commandment that says “Thou shalt not kill.” There is a biblical commandment saying lo tirtzach. But that doesn’t mean “Do not kill” (not reason to dress it up in Old English). It means “Do not murder.” The Torah has lots of words for killing itself, but they don’t show up in the Ten Commandments – they show up at the various points where God affirmatively commands Israelites to kill particular people or peoples.

That’s not to say that opposition to violence itself doesn’t have support in Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s just to say that opposition to killing people across the board has no more grounding in the literal meaning (or p’shat) of the Torah than, say, opposition to aborting fetuses. What the Torah is clearly against is murder – killing unjustly. And the plentiful body of (inter alia) Jewish commentary on what counts as wrongful killing provides plentiful arguments for serious discretion in the use of lethal force. One cluster of examples would be the set of restrictions on the application of the death penalty which rendered it virtually impossible for human beings to carry it out (rules like the traditional prohibition on executing anyone based on a unanimous verdict, because a unanimous verdict suggests that the jury didn’t struggle with the issue hard enough). Needless to say, there are no lack of compelling religious arguments for why murdering a democratically-elected foreign leader in cold blood is something other than a good idea.