Who? Are? The Ninety-Nine Percent?

Dear Ivan,

For a little while I was hoping this 99% rhetoric was the answer to all the Left’s disorganizing problems. Finally, an easy way for United Statesians to talk about class, a rallying cry more unifying than the reactionary myth of the vanishing “middle class,” with broader appeal than the freighted “working class” (I told a colleague once, “I like the term ‘working-class,’” and she snapped back, “That’s because you’re not working-class”) and more descriptive than the increasingly absurd “working people” or “working families,” in an era when unemployment hovers near ten percent. Sure, we’re a nation of strivers, eager to identify with the folks just above us and distance ourselves from the folks just below, but who wouldn’t proudly claim membership in the 99%? Who doesn’t resent the excesses of the 1% elite? Why didn’t I ever think of this before?

Well. As it turns out, one clever phrase hasn’t dismantled the entire edifice of misplaced class allegiances in the United States. We’re finally having a high-profile public conversation about class, and that’s a big step forward, in itself. But the shape of the conversation exposes the long road we still have to travel.

I write this to you in mid-November, more than a month into the wave of occupations of public spaces that began with Occupy Wall Street and spread around the world. This weekend it looks like police actions against occupations are on the upswing, presumably beginning to prepare for the biggest shopping day of the year just a couple weeks away in downtowns across the U.S., and presumably also counting on a certain amount of public disenchantment with campers as the novelty wears off. For instance, in Portland, my ostensible home (though I’m on the road so much for work these days that I have mostly watched events unfold over the internet), cops tried to evict the Occupiers last night, and a joyous crowd that by some accounts swelled to ten thousand pushed them back all night; watch this thrilling video! In the morning, once most defenders headed home to sleep, the cops moved back in and broke down the camp. Anyway, though, what I really want to talk about here is the conversation around the cops’ closing the camp, how it’s being justified in Portland and elsewhere, and whose movement this is.

You know concern trolling? As a denizen of the internet, you are probably all too familiar with the tactic: expressing insincere concern about a group’s plans while pretending to share its overall goals. It’s used to sow doubt and division, and it’s not limited to the internet (for instance, in a union organizing campaign, the boss expresses a lot of altruistic concern about whether workers will lose money on dues or have a truly democratic voice in their union, when really the boss just doesn’t want to see workers develop organized power) but the anonymity of online forums makes it easy. So does a movement that defines itself around a membership (of almost everyone) rather than a goal.

Let me give a couple of Occupy examples. Check out this nonsense sentence from a Seattle KING 5 news report: “Even some supportive college students want the protesters gone.” What could it possibly mean to be “supportive” of a movement so far primarily defined by protesters camping out in public space, if you “want the protesters gone?”

Similarly in Portland, a Facebook commenter under the name “Better Image for Occupy,” pushing a petition calling for the mayor to forcibly shut down the camp, claimed on behalf of petition signers,

We are a group of protesters as well. We are for the movement…. We just used signatures instead of protest signs… Hear us, because we are the 99% too.

Signers of the petition gave pretty obviously spurious reasons, like “the recent 18% increase in crime just in that area where the encampment exists,” “what they are doing to our parks,” and occupiers “being a danger to themselves and others by marching in the streets!” I doubt these petition signers are really even inconvenienced, much less endangered, by the protest’s occupation of a couple among dozens of blocks of park in downtown Portland. And what would it mean to be “for the movement” but oppose its primary tactic?

One particularly vitriolic Facebook commenter asserted:

Seriously…..the majority of the people who are down there right now have NOTHING to do with the original cause….and that’s a BIG PROBLEM…the outcry against the serious issues at hand that spurred this movement is lost among the homeless/street junkies/vagrants who have decided to turn a genuine and worthwhile demonstration into a ‘tent city’. No voices are going to be heard when they are associated with the filth that has become those couple city blocks downtown.

Ugh. What “original cause” does this commenter have in mind? It would be hard to argue that people experiencing homelessness or addiction to street drugs are part of the wealthiest 1%, and I would say that the cause (purpose) of this movement has everything to do with the causes (reasons) of homelessness and addiction.

The commenter above is not alone. Many seem eager to exclude marginalized people of various stripes from the so-called 99%. In an article called “Occupy’s Asshole Problem” that made the internet rounds a few days ago, Sara Robinson characterizes “drummers, druggies, sexual harassers, racists, and anarchists” as assholes inhibiting the movement, and urges other occupiers to get together and kick them out, especially the drug users. Her justification: “There is nothing totalitarian about asking people who join your revolution to act in ways that support the goals of that revolution.” But she never explains just what she believes those goals are, or how they are harmed by folks using drugs (or playing drums, or believing state power is illegitimate). Or what makes it “your” revolution, for that matter.

It’s become a pervasive narrative about Occupy: On the one hand there are the noble (if naïve) protesters, who have come to address an abstract injustice like “money in politics” or “corporate personhood,” or possibly something as concrete as unemployment or student debt. They may be looking for work, or coming by the camp before and after work, or maybe they even bravely quit their jobs to take part in the protest, but a month ago they they didn’t have to live on the street. On the other hand, there are the people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, or drug addiction, who are “using” the camp to meet their needs of food, shelter, and some degree of protection from police abuse. These needs, however real, are seen to distract from the larger protest purpose, whatever that is.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams has been repeating this narrative to explain why he decided to shut down the encampment. He told NPR,

Well, the unsustainable aspects of the camp that I’m most worried about are the drug overdoses. The fact that Occupy Portland itself has said last weekend that people are abusing their good will by using the camp – not my words – using the camp as camouflage for criminal activities. And, you know, at open-air camp like this is no place for folks that are facing, you know, illness, mental illness or drug addiction to be. And the concentration of all that is, you know, just beyond the ability of folks, with the best of intentions who put the camp together and are trying to maintain it, it’s just beyond their own ability to handle.

The Mayor’s altruistic sentiment rings a little hollow when you stop to wonder where, exactly, folks experiencing mental illness, homelessness, and drug addiction were facing these challenges last month before the camp was set up, where they’ll be facing them next month after the cops shut down the camp, and why they’ve taken refuge at this camp in the first place. What better options is the Mayor prepared to offer?

Most unsettling to me is that we are hearing this rhetoric not only from the Mayors and reporters and armchair concern trolls of the world, but even from activists within the Occupations. Occupy Portland’s public statements and actions have been mixed on the issue. I thought Occupier Jim Oliver had it right when he told PBS,

Hundreds of people are homeless out in the street every single night, regardless of whether Occupy exists or not. And it seems to only be a crisis when it’s actually at City Hall’s doorstep. The existence of our movement has cast light on the plight of economic refugees whose lives have been endangered and are forced to sleep on the street, thanks to the policies of the 1 percent.

On the other hand, a press release on the OccupyPortland.org blog last weekend announced the conclusions of a late-night “emergency” meeting to address the “growing problem” of “illicit drug use, violent behavior, and otherwise disruptive conduct.” According to the statement,

Occupy Portland didn’t create these problems however it has become a space for some of them, and it distracts from the message of the movement and the effort of our volunteers…. We do not wish to be an impediment to the efforts of social workers and public safety officials who exist to address these issues. Those who met planned to work with the Portland Police, established drug treatment programs, and other civil services to eliminate these problems from the space…. Occupy Portland was formed out of a popular sentiment that systemic problems within society were preventing the 99% from having a voice in our government, in our economy, and in our lives. We continue to focus our efforts on these things, and in creating a space for the people, we must remove the elements which are a danger to themselves and others.

The statement asserts that social workers, police, and city officials “exist to address these issues” and can “eliminate these problems from the space,” which must just mean kicking the offending people out of the park. The author of the statement betrays no awareness of the irony in stating that, on the one hand, “systemic problems within society were preventing the 99% from having a voice in our government, in our economy, and in our lives” and on the other hand planning to remove people (“elements”) suffering acutely from those systemic problems from participation in a public protest.

It’s not just Portland. According to a blogger named Jason, at Occupy Detroit, folks have actually started giving out wristbands to restrict access to food and supplies, and a ‘security’ team patrols the park with dogs, intimidating people. He writes,

some of the homeless people who have been hanging out and sleeping in that park for years are starting to resent being what they perceive to be as segregated and restricted from the rest of the occupiers, while others are getting angry at being pushed out of the park. Certainly there are issues that need to be addressed here. Some of the homeless who have joined the occupation are just there to hustle occupiers, while others are stealing things out of tents and selling drugs. But at the same time, they’re fucking homeless and we’re essentially occupying their park; what’d we really expect to happen, an endless chorus of Kumbaya? They’ve been doing this to survive long before we showed up, and they’re going to continue doing whatever it takes to survive long after we retreat to our regular lives…. It’s almost comical in that the occupiers are setting up a mini version of the system they’re protesting; and there seems to be a big disconnect between occupiers and the homeless, which should be natural allies in this fight.

The best piece I’ve read on this topic is the scathing “Occupy Wall Street is basically the most oppressive protest I’ve been to in my life,” on a blog called innocuous. You should read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

When I ask anyone from any of these groups what the hell is up with that, they go on some classist and ableist rant about how they’re trying to “deal with” the homeless people. A mantra that gets repeated pretty often is “this isn’t a homeless shelter” — they want the homeless people OUT. Why did Food stop serving after 7? Because homeless people were coming here to get food. Why doesn’t Comfort have socks? Because homeless people come here to get things.

Of course, they don’t realize while they’re telling me this that I’m a homeless person with psychotic and personality disorders and a learning disability. From my end, the conversation goes something like this:

“You know, I’m really feeling marginalized at this protest! I thought it was supposed to be about the 99%, but really it feels like it’s only about the 99% who don’t need help to survive so we can take part in the movement, and it seems like a replication of the rugged individualism that got us into this mess in the first place.”

“Actually, us activists are working on ways that we can exclude and marginalize you further so that you leave the park entirely.”

I don’t think they realize how this sounds to me while they say this.

And there’s a lot of anger at the park over these situations, as there should be — what they don’t realize is that the crisis situations that happen when it rains and comfort is underprepared is what happens to homeless people every time it rains, period, unless someone steps in to help us. What they don’t realize is that, exactly, this is what it’s like. We want things to be different more than anyone. That’s why we came to Occupy Wall Street in the first place.

Like I said, read the whole thing. But I guess what I’m saying is, without a more explicit definition of who’s with us, who’s against us, and what we’re fighting for, the movement risks re-inscribing the status quo class system. Heck, Mayor Sam Adams claims to be on the side of the Occupy movement, even as he sends cops to shut it down locally, and even as he continues to push for severe budget cuts that will lay off union employees at the city. At the moment, being on the side of the 99% can mean absolutely anything you want it to mean.

Look, I don’t mean to join the right-wing media chorus of “the protesters don’t know what they want.” I think it’s been clear that folks want lots of different things, and that’s a strength of the movement. For now, it may be enough—it may be the best we can do—just to make a big stink about the many faces of the misery of capitalism, without having a unified platform on how to fix it. Maybe it’s okay that some folks think this movement is about “getting money out of politics” or “ending corporate personhood” (even if to me those kinds of articulations combine boringly abstract with boringly moderate) while others think it’s about creating jobs, raising wages, taxing the rich, or abolishing student debt, while folks like me think it’s about abolishing capitalism. Alas, we don’t have nearly 99% unity on that one; not yet, anyway. The strength of the 99% language is how it unites us. At least we can all be mad as hell together. But it worries me that so many people are framing the movement to exclude the people more marginalized than themselves, while including the forces of State power. If we’re going to talk like that, we might as well go back to talking about “restoring the middle class.”

Solidarity,

Al

Re: Misreading antiracism in the Left Business Observer

Dear Ivan,

Thanks for sending this my way! I actually agreed with a fair amount of what Professor Reed had to say, and found his article clarifying. What a stroke of luck for you and me, who so often agree, to find this opportunity for a little lively interchange. I’ll bet our blog readership, um, doubles.

So let me first say that I read the scope of Reed’s project here as somewhat narrower than you seem to read it. I don’t think the article is an attack on all the organizing being done by self-identified anti-racists. (And of course I agree with you that lots of good people are doing good work that’s identified that way.) Rather, I think it’s a critique of the limitations of the idea of anti-racism as a focus for movement-building.

On the browser’s title bar there’s an apparently alternative title for the article: “Antiracism: vague politics about an nearly indescribable thing.” Reed makes the obvious point that racism is a very broad term, encompassing a great many “disparate, often unrelated kinds of social relations and ‘attitudes,’” from personal prejudice to housing segregation to unequal health outcomes (and that’s just within the United States).

I take his central argument to be that this collection of things is not a unitary structure against which you could develop a strategy, but rather a pattern of rationalizations and symptoms. It’s a Marxist argument he’s making (and I mean that as a compliment). Even when you talk about “instutionalized racism” or “systemic racism,” what institution, what system are you talking about? It’s capitalism, isn’t it? The underlying problem is inequality, whether that inequality is based on race or gender or anything else.

The central question on which Reed disagrees with anti-racist analysts, as I understand it, is this: Is racism structural to the project of sustaining inequality? And the contrapositive of that question: Can we strike at the heart of capitalism by undermining its racist rationale?

His answer is no. Capitalism is adept at finding pseudo-biological justifications for its brutal outcomes. When the fiction of race is not convenient to the exploitative project at hand, capitalism turns to the fiction of sex or the fiction of nationality or some other fiction. Push one down, another pops up. It’s no use fighting against the ideology of racism because there is no ideology of racism. There is racism, certainly, but it isn’t a coherent ideology. It’s a mutable set of rationalizations, perfectly able to adapt to change, sustain contradictions, and co-opt challenges.

Reed writes that he doesn’t object to invocations of racism as galvanizing rhetoric, but “as the basis for social interpretation, and particularly interpretation directed toward strategic political action, they are useless.” The article is about what should be the content of left movement popular political education, and Reed is action-oriented. What analytical tools can we provide ourselves and each other that will help us develop coherent strategy and action? Rather than target an elusive and ill-defined ideology, Reed argues for identifying and targeting the mechanisms. He cites the examples of people organizing against employment discrimination, against housing segregation, and for voting rights.

The People’s Institute (and, I’m sure, many other smart anti-racists) define racism as “race prejudice plus power.” This was very important to me as a younger person when I learned it. It really seemed to clarify how the world worked. But now I look back and it seems impossibly vague, especially as a framework for action. Power, okay, but how does power function? How do you effectively dismantle it? And isn’t power itself the problem, whether or not it’s combined with race prejudice?

In a recent talk (which I highly recommend), the philosopher Slavoj Zizek warns of the perils of vague terms and capitalism’s flexible ability to coopt words, ideas and symbols. He says:

This is the strength of today’s capitalism, to present itself as cultural capitalism…. Even Che Guevara became the icon signifying all and nothing, that is to say, whatever you want it to signify: youth rebellion against authoritarianism, solidarity with the poor and exploited, saintliness… But as usual, harmless beatification is mixed with its opposite, obscene commodification. Recently a friend from Australia sent me a publicity motto of an Australian company which put on the market ‘Cherry Guevara’ ice cream, focusing its promotion on the eating experience, of course. Here is its description: ‘The revolutionary struggle of the cherries was squashed as they were trapped between two layers of chocolate. May their memory live in your mouth’ and so on and so on. You see, that’s a joke, but it’s a very effective joke. That is to say, this is the triumph of today’s capitalism.

I think Reed is right to worry that racism, too, has come to mean whatever someone wants it to mean. Nearly everyone is opposed to it, and defines it in a way that conveniently places themselves on the correct side. You have a rally against racism, no one thinks you’re talking about them. Capitalism hires diversity trainers for its offices. The flexibility of the term allows plenty of room for people to claim to oppose racism while continuing to operate within the ideological framework of capitalism, producing and taking advantage of racial inequalities. At times, such a vague term may even lend cover to the powerful.

To return to the topic of your previous post for a moment: In recent months, news media have focused a great deal of attention on the racism of working-class white small-town people, at these teabag rallies and town-hall protests, and speculated that fear of a black president underlies their mobilization. But is it these people’s race prejudice that sustains global capitalism and the impoverishment of people of color in the U.S. and around the world? If you see the word “racism” in print in the New York Times, it may be describing a small-towner with a sign, or a Senator who made an offensive remark, but it won’t be describing an insurance executive who made a bundle of profit putting people out of their homes, or the CEO of an apparel company, or Congress’s collective dithering on health care reform, or the President’s sending more troops to shoot and kill people of color. So “racism,” as discussed in the Times, means personal prejudice. That level of discussion becomes more a distraction than an aid in identifying and targeting the systematic causes of inequality.

The most useful (and provocative) definition of racism I have ever read comes from the brilliant geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore:

Racism is the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies. (R.W. Gilmore, “Race and Globalization,” in Geographies of global change: remapping the world, p.261)

Gilmore’s excellent article should be read in its entirety, but for the moment I extract only a couple of points. The evidence of the twentieth century, she writes, suggests that “race, while slippery, is also structural,” leading to the question: “But what structures does race make?” While noting that “the realities of racism are not the same everywhere, and represent different practices at different geographical scales,” she reaches this central point:

[A]t any scale, racism is not a lagging indicator, an anachronistic drag on an otherwise achievable social equality guaranteed by the impersonal freedom of expanding markets. History is not a long march from premodern racism to postmodern pluralism…. Rather, racism’s changing same does triple duty: claims of natural or cultural incommensurabilities secure conditions for reproducing economic inequalities, which then validate theories of extra-economic hierarchical difference. In other words, racism functions as a limiting force that pushes disproportionate costs of participating in an increasingly monetized and profit-driven world onto those who, due to the frictions of political distance, cannot reach the various levers of power that might relieve them of those costs.

Now that’s a specific and coherent analysis! If I were responding directly to Reed, I would challenge him not to find useful grounding for action in Gilmore’s words. But often the conversation about racism does not occur on nearly this level of precision.

I want to take one example from the web site of NCBI, one of several organizations you linked in your post that provide ideological trainings about systems of oppression. On their “Theory & Philosophy” page, the organization notes that

NCBI has learned to raise social class issues at all of its diversity and peer training programs. Many people have little understanding of the ways in which their class backgrounds have shaped their views of the world and their interactions with others. Since racism and classism are so closely related, whenever the issues of class are addressed NCBI has discovered that the dynamics of racism have been better understood.

I will say this first: I don’t really like the term “classism.” (Although I notice I used the heck out of it in my reply to your previous post here!) It seems to locate the primary problem in the wrong place, as though people simply aren’t politely accepting social inequality like they should. The underlying problem is not classism; it’s class!

Of course, I have to admit, classism is a problem too, a symptom we have to actively struggle against, even inside our movements, all the time: Do working-class people have roles of leadership in our organizations? Do our movements privilege the voices of those with college degrees? Is participation in our work feasible for low-income people and those with limited transportation options? Do we offer childcare at our events? What invisible cultural assumptions are we making?

These are all important questions to be asking in our work, to make it more humane and inclusive, and to grow our ability to organize en masse. But working to notice and fight against these kinds of classisms is not the same as working to eradicate the class system itself! People’s prejudiced beliefs about the poor are just one of the many painful effects of social inequality, not the cause of it. Until we abolish class, these symptomatic inequities will keep showing up.

In a similar way, I think Reed is probably right that “anti-racism” on its own is too vague a rallying term to provide a useful blueprint for struggle. On the other hand, I am persuaded by the work of Gilmore and others that the discourse of race plays some structural role in inequality, and I think it’s worthwhile to work to make that discourse visible and undermine it. But I take seriously Zizek’s admonition that a vague term will be deployed within capitalism’s ideology for its own interests. So I join him Reed in the call for greater precision, and I share his enthusiasm for more talk of structure, mechanism, and specific action plan.

Misreading antiracism in the Left Business Observer

Dear Al,

At first glance I have to say that Adolph Reed Jr. seems to have a very different experience with antiracism than me, based on his recent article, “The limits of anti-racism” in the Left Business Observer:

In the logic of antiracism, exposure of the racial element of an instance of wrongdoing will lead to recognition of injustice, which in turn will lead to remedial action—though not much attention seems ever given to how this part is supposed to work. I suspect this is because the exposure part, which feels so righteously yet undemandingly good, is the real focus. But this exposure convinces only those who are already disposed to recognize.

What this sounds to me like is the squishy-diversity workshop approach to racism, in which white folks feel really bad about racism and the possibility that they might do something racist, and spend a lot of time focusing on how to become better people, usually looking to a person of color to educate them on just how to do that.

Similarly, Reed’s impression of the target of this “antiracism” also seems familiar to me:

As the basis for a politics, antiracism seems to reflect, several generations downstream, the victory of the postwar psychologists in depoliticizing the critique of racial injustice by shifting its focus from the social structures that generate and reproduce racial inequality to an ultimately individual, and ahistorical, domain of “prejudice” or “intolerance.”

Certainly that individualist, unaccountable, white-focused and, in my view, racist type of study/thinking does exist, and perhaps in some places it goes by the name of antiracism. But the overall movement of antiracist theory and action has been away from just that type of approach, which I think of as more common in the 1970s and ’80s.

Reed also seems to think that a commitment to antiracism means being uncommitted to working to dismantle any other forms of oppression, notably classism and capitalism. After accusing Tim Wise — whom he says is a “professional antiracist,” which sounds to me like calling a labor organizer a “professional anticapitalist” — of downplaying Van Jones’ history with a Marxist organization, Reed writes:

This … deepens my suspicions about antiracism’s status within the comfort zone of neoliberalism’s discourses of “reform.” More to the point, I suspect as well that this vitriol toward radicalism is rooted partly in the conviction that a left politics based on class analysis and one focused on racial injustice are Manichean alternatives.

My experience has been just the opposite. I see most writing, training and organizing around antiracism as happening within the context of an anticapitalist, feminist, queer-friendly framework that sees an overall system of oppression privileging the few at the expense of the many.

It’s just really hard for me to believe that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz or Paul Kivel or Helen Luu or Daniel Hunter or anyone else who “does” antiracism would argue that it’s all about awareness, or that we should focus on individuals, or that classism and racism aren’t intertwined.

In 1997, Reed wrote that then-President Clinton’s desire for a “national conversation on race” was not connected to any real substance:

It’s just part of the fundamentally empty rhetoric of multiculturalism: diversity, mutual awareness, respect for difference, hearing different voices and the like. None of these notions is objectionable on its face, but that’s partly because none of them means anything in particular … The problem isn’t racial division or a need for healing. It is racial inequality and injustice.

I think he was right to identify the mainstream liberal approach to race as sidestepping rather than confronting the systemic injustice of racism. But in pointing the finger at antiracist activists, I think he misidentifies the very community that’s been working to more effectively dismantle systems of oppression.

What are your thoughts?

Re: Organizing communities, on the left and right

Dear Ivan,

As usual, you are a voice of great clarity.

I think Tim Wise is right [Red-Baiting and Race: Socialism as the New Black Bogeyman] that there is an element of racism in some of the anti-Obama anger and fear that people are expressing in Town Halls and blogs.

But I also think there’s an element of classism in some of the scorn and fear that people on (what you’ve called, perhaps oxymoronically) the Mainstream Left are directing back. Folks are portraying the people turning out to these town halls as ignorant, irrational, stupid, crazy and violent; it’s disheartening to see the words “thug,” “goon,” and “mob” used so frequently. Obviously I disagree with the town-hallers’ point of view on health care (and on socialism), and I do think a lot of it is based on misinformation. Nonetheless, it’s exciting to see working people passionately organizing and effectively confronting their Congresspeople.

I think much of the middle-class Left fears and scorns working-class people, especially rural conservative working-class people. We saw that in this discourse about red states vs. blue states, in the joy people took in pointing out Bush’s grammatical errors, and in a lot of the anti-Palin discourse too. You know I think the conservative agenda does working people great harm — but I also think if we hope to build mass movements of working people it’s not enough to wring our hands and deplore how people vote against what we believe to be their interests. It’s more constructive, probably, to instead do some serious listening to where people are coming from and what they’re concerned about, and see if we can find some common ground. By which I do not mean compromise.

Both left and right are expressing fears of rising fascism, each scorning the other side’s fears as absurd. [E.g. Sara Robinson: Is the U.S. on the brink of fascism?, Tim Wise: Sick Heil] This could provide an opportunity for public conversation about who wields actual power in this country — President and Congress? CEOs and bankers? media? people with guns? I think it’s mostly an expression of fear, frustration, and a widespread sense of powerlessness.

The Town Hall events do provide an interesting case-study in what a difference a favorable press makes. You and I have certainly participated in many packed, angry public meetings, and and usually the press widely ignores them, rather than heralding them as the seeds of some massive populist uprising. The flurry of copycat actions and populist excitement that we are seeing with the Town Halls is exactly the kind of esprit de movement that I hoped for with these factory sit-ins at Republic, Hartmarx and Quad Cities… what I’m always hoping for, in fact, but rarely see. Is it just media hype that makes it feel like a movement? I don’t know, but I’d sure like to see what would happen if mainstream national coverage brought this kind of populist excitement to stories like Immigrant detainees staging hunger strikes to protest deplorable confinement or Strike at Stella D’Oro cookie plant, The Bronx, N.Y or Effort Takes Shape to Support Families Facing Foreclosure. I’m very interested in your further thoughts on what’s making this Town Hall organizing strategy as effective as it’s been at getting attention and looking big.

All that said, it’s a great shame that we’re not having anywhere near the right public conversation about health care. Even what the Dems want to do is unacceptably right-wing, but that conversation has been totally sidelined. All this talk of government death panels, and little talk of how profit-driven insurance companies make harsh rationing decisions right now. A recent headline in a Portland-area suburban newspaper says “Providence gives OK to lifesaving procedure for Lesly Foster.” The story is about a 9-year-old girl whose insurance company twice denied, then finally approved on appeal, her cancer treatment. How is that not a death panel?

Organizing communities, on the left and right

Dear Al,

Has the mainstream left gone insane in response to these town halls on health care reform?

When you have what you see is an illegitimate process set up to provide the appearance of taking people’s views into consideration when in fact the outcome is a foregone conclusion, then of course you try to shut down that process.

I don’t agree with the views or falsehoods or ahistorical analysis (Nazis were socialists, single-payer is socialized medicine, the specter of “death panels,” etc.) put forth with those protesting health care reform — and I wish grassroots movements I’ve been a part of had been bankrolled by huge corporate lobbies and trumpeted by major pundits.

But it’s a legitimate strategy — and it’s not like even most mainstream Democrats haven’t been a part of an angry town hall once or twice when their local library is going to be closed, or someone wants to build a nuclear power plant, or someone’s dumping sludge into the river. Is this giant collective, selective amnesia?

And then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi calls the protests at town halls “un-American.”

Who are these people? Are Democrats really going to position themselves as the party of the anti-populists? Is that even a smart political strategy?

Even more frustrating than the response of politicians have been some grassroots activist groups. In an email to their supporters, Code Pink lamented that conservatives were turning to Saul Alinsky for tactics:

It’s so frustrating watching angry voters at town hall meetings spouting ridiculous accusations like Obama wants to euthanize the elderly and turn this country into Russia. And it’s ironic to see the right contorting leftist tactics. In a memo Rocking the Town Halls, a group called Right Principles urges its members to “Use the Alinsky playbook,” referring to Saul Alinsky, the guru of 1960s grassroots organizing whose work influenced community organizer Barack Obama.

Let’s not be out-organized by violent, right-wing tools of insurance corporations incited by Fox News.

I agree that “we” shouldn’t be out-organized by “violent, right-wing tools of insurance corporations incited by Fox News.” But I actually think it’s kind of exciting that they’re looking to Saul Alinsky for tactics. (Though I don’t really see Alinsky ideas evident in these protests.)

But come on! They’re not “contorting leftist tactics,” they’re using them! Poorly, perhaps; to despicable ends, perhaps. But on balance I’d rather have them looking to Alinsky than William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater. Especially when lefties are regularly wondering about the much more credulous coverage given to these protesters than, say…Code Pink. A world in which politicians were sidelined and people organized their friends and neighbors around issues they cared about sounds like a pretty good one to me.

I think there’s this myth that people on the right don’t do community organizing. I think until it’s been true that most organizations on the right don’t do grassroots organizing, but conservatives have been doing organizing around issues like abortion for a generation now.

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