CINDY SHEEHAN: NOT SO PROGRESSIVE

More surprising than Cindy Sheehan’s return from her ostensible break from activism is her willingness to embrace conservative cant against the income tax:

The Federal Reserve, permanent federal (and unconstitutional) income taxes, Japanese Concentration Camps and, not one, but two atom bombs dropped on the innocent citizens of Japan were brought to us via the Democrats.

The 16th amendment empowers the majority to legislate against subjugation and plutocracy. It institutes a critical tool to confront on the badges of slavery abjured in the 13th amendment and realize the equal protection promised in the 14th.

Cindy Sheehan’s inane legal argument and her outrageous ethical argument against the income tax are disappointing. What’s more discouraging is skimming through the comments and realizing that taking on Nancy Pelosi arouses more outrage from DailyKos commenters than taking on the income tax.

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BEDROOM POLITICS

Last year, Grover Norquist told a New York Times reporter that he had little trouble getting the culture warriors over at the Eagle Forum to stand with the auto industry in opposition fuel efficiency standards because “it’s backdoor family planning. You can’t have nine kids in the little teeny cars.”

Certainly, leaders on the modern American right, as well as the left, struggles with how to keep its constituent movements working constructively together, or at least keep them from actively undercutting each other. But those struggles seem to turn out better on the right. Arguably, that’s because the right has real power to mete out amongst the groups and individuals who make it work and can therefore keep them in line. But there’s as strong a case to be made that being out of power is more unifying – that’s why, in the fall of 2004, well-justified and broadlyy shared anti-Bushism made it so much easier to imagine that there really was a coherent, unified left in this country. That example itself suggests one of the problems we face: while there’s more discussion these days about the importance of broad-based, multi-issue progressive coalitions, the people most vocally pushing for them want such coalitions to work essentially as extensions of Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees. “Netroots” folks like Kos actually pride themselves on their lack of ideology (and get vouched for on this count over at The New Republic).

Meanwhile, while a certain amount of the hand-wringing on the right about Bush’s supposed unconservatism is just a strategic response to his unpopularity – that is, an attempt to save the conservative brand from public dislike of its most prominent example – there is a genuine gap between certain aspects of what Bush is doing and the preferences of the grassroots activists and house intellectuals of the conservative movement, and it seems to be spurring renewed consideration at least in the pages of the right-wing mags about whether there can be a multi-issue conservative ideological coalition that’s not a partisan one. If conservatives do a better job than liberals of organizing across issues for a vision beyond the electoral fortunes of a party, even as conservatives and not liberals are running the government, then the left will have been outmaneuvered again.

That’s why folks across the left should be excited about UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, part of the union’s international Hotel Workers Rising project, through which hotelworkers in cities all over North America are using concurrent contract expirations to leverage strategic pressure on major hotel chains to raise the standard of living for all their workers and agree to fair organizing conditions for those without collective bargaining rights (I start work with HWR tomorrow; views expressed here are my own). Sleep With the Right People represents a crucial alliance of progressives committed to the dignity and empowerment of people too often marginalized based on sexuality, class, gender, race, or the intersection of these identities.

As Hugh argues here and here, this campaign represents a critical stand against the view that “difference” should be “a cause of fear.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of the freedoms to join a partner in building a life together, and to partner with co-workers to build a more democratic workplace, each without sacrificing safety from violence or freedom from want. It’s a step towards the ameliorating the too-frequent insensitivity of the labor movement towards identities other than class and the too-frequent insensitivity of the LGBTQ movement towards identities other than sexuality. There are more steps ahead.

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.

CULTURAL CRITICISM, LEFT AND RIGHT

A series of dust-ups in the media about the media this summer – from the flap on Kos about an ad with women mudwrestling to Jon Stewart’s arguments with Bernard Goldberg, Zell Miller, and Rick Santorum about whether the culture has coarsened – has gotten me thinking about the different ways liberals and conservatives consider and critique what’s in the movies and on TV.

One clear but too-often-obscured distinction is between criticism and calls for censorship. Rick Santorum gets at this in his book when he insists in his book that “If it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral.” If one accepts Santorum’s frame – which is also Catherine McKinnon’s – then the question of what should be in the media and the question of what should be censored from the media are – at least in particularly agregious cases – mapped onto each other. Too often, progressives answer other progressives’ media criticism as if it were an implicit call for censorship, rather than as the “more speech” which the left has traditionally and rightly seen as the answer to bad speech.

Liberal and conservative approaches to media criticism are also distinguished by choice – or at least prioritization – of boogeymen from amongst sex, violence, bigotry, et al. And, arguably, by the question of how much we should care at all.

But related, and – I think – more interesting – is a distinction I haven’t seen discussed: Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses? By asking the question and making the distinction, I guess, I’ve already pegged myself in the liberal camp that says that the distinction is a meaningful one and that what’s endorsed is a more worthwhile ground for consideration or condemnation than what’s exposed. That’s not to say that it’s possible to present images or actions with neutrality – only that it’s possible to present the same ones with a whole range of meanings and judgments.

If we’re concerned about sex, we can worry about whether sex happens on TV or we can worry about whether the sex on TV is portrayed as a good or bad (or healthy or unhealthy, or cool or uncool) thing. If we’re concerned about sexism, we can worry about whether people are portrayed being or acting sexist on TV or we can worry about whether that sexism is presented in a favorable light. In each case, I’d say that if you see the thing as an evil (my take: sexism is, sex isn’t), your time and energy is better spent worrying about how good or bad that evil is portrayed to be than about how often it appears on the screen.

That’s why the fixation on nudity on TV is doubly conservative – conservative for the contention that human sexuality is what media consumers should be guarded against and conservative for the concern over the naked image itself rather than the social meaning with which it appears. Sure it’s easier to keep a tally of naked breasts than of positive portrayals of behaviors you think are negative, but the tendency of right-wing critics to go for the former approach seems to be about more than convenience. And that approach – grouping together breasts shown breast-feeding, breasts shown in an intimate moment between spouses, and breasts shown on a child being molested – leaves them looking that much more like middle-schoolers.

Among the problems with an approach to media criticism which fixates on what viewers are exposed to rather than what they see endorsed is that it lets pass all kinds of social meanings which are problematic but not explicit. Whatever your values, your chances of seeing them spread in society are affected more by G-rated movies than Playboy.

Kos loses it:

Once upon a time, party officials feared NARAL, they feared the unions, they feared the Sierra Club, they feared trial lawyers, they feared NOW, they feared the NAACP, they feared Latino groups, and so on. For the first time, it looks like they’re starting to fear people, not special interest groups. We’re growing up as a party.

Wal-Mart is a special interest because it leverages a tremendous amount of money and power to serve narrow ends which benefit a tiny constituency of plutocrats and wreak havoc on the lives of most Americans.

Unions pool and leverage the power of their members and their willingness to engage in organizing and collective action to secure justice for themselves and for millions of working Americans. There is no comparison.

To say that bevy (however large) of bloggers (folks who are disproportionately whiter, richer, and maler than America, let alone the Democratic party) are real people in a way that organized workers, organized environmentalists, organized women, and organized people of color are none is outrageous.

More on felons and the political process: The Associated Press apparently did some research, discovered that America Coming Together (ACT), one of the largest national groups sending canvassers out to register and educate voters for the election, had hired some former felons, and they were shocked – just shocked. ACT’s response, to their credit, has been defending its policy:

We believe it’s important to give people a second chance,” Elleithee said. “The fact that they are willing to do this work is a fairly serious indication that they want to become productive members of society.”

RNC Chair Ed Gillespie, shamefully but unsurprisingly, is claiming that having been convicted of a felony should disqualify Americans from handling official documents with private information. His essential contention – that the democratic process is too pure to be sullied by the involvement of those with crimminal records – should be all too familiar to those who saw it marshalled by a slew of dKos posters to defend Arizona’s disenfranchisement of felons in the name of keeping Nader off the ballot.

More power to ACT for hiring everyone who’s prepared and qualified for the hard, urgent work of empowering people to make demands of our democracy. I know I’ve found few people as excited about that work here in Florida as those felons who’ve been purged from the process. Everyone (almost) claims to want to see those who’ve served their time productively and smoothly reintegrated into society. Except not into my neighborhood. Not into my workplace. Not into my democracy.

A Dkos poster replies to me:

If you think drug laws are unfair, work to change the drug laws so that drug offenders are no longer convicted felons.
But don’t let convicted felons have a position of fiduciary trust in the voting process. Let them have jobs, apartments, let them vote, yes. If this bothers you, ask yourself: would you want a convicted felon (and I don’t mean a drug offender; I mean a child molester, white-collar criminal, or gunpoint robber) to be president? I wouldn’t. Sure, maybe his rehibilitation made him especially wise, but I wouldn’t want to take a chance. The risk is just too great. And where did Nader or the firm he hired find 19 convicted felons to put on payroll? Did they recruit especially for that demographic?

Would I vote for a convicted felon for President? Well, it would depend on what his platform was, who he was running against, and (to a lesser extent) the circumstances under which he became a convicted felon. Would I want to be denied the chance to vote for that candidate by having him purged from the ballot? Sure as hell not, no matter who he is.

For those who don’t know, the proportion of convicted felons among young men of color in many communities in this country – including some here in Florida, where I’ve been registering voters the past few weeks – is as high as one in four. So no, you don’t have to be looking to find them. As for fiduciary trust, there’s no justification for barring felons as a class (and let’s be honest about the size and demographic of the class we’re talking about) from working for the government, from voting, or from working to give those who desire the chance to exercise their democratic right to sign their name to a petition. What the process needs is oversight of signatures as they come in, not purges of the people who collect them.