Bernie Sanders & the intersectionality of movements

At Ecowatch, Ted Glick has a strong piece on the need for urgent action in the face of the climate crisis and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Glick connects the grassroots, people-powered movement that is fueling Sanders’ campaign with the Vermont senator’s strong positioning on climate action. Presidential campaigns provide rare moments of political engagement, popular attention, and a space for big ideas to be brought to the forefront. Glick also notes, rightly, that Sanders’ outspoken belief in the need to excise corporate money from the political process is almost certainly a fundamental precursor to actually achieving the sorts of executive, legislative and regulatory actions needed to confront climate change on a national and global scale. Quite simply, as long as dirty energy companies and multinational corporations can make their voices louder than the public, it is highly unlikely that meaningful action will happen on climate change and energy policy.

Lastly, Glick highlights how Sanders’ campaign is living proof of Naomi Klein’s theory that economic inequality and climate change are issues and movements that must be treated as intersectional if there is a chance for success in confronting them. More recently, Sanders has begun talking forcefully about another major, intersectional issue in America – racism and white supremacy, especially vis a vis the criminal justice system. Sanders has both spoke out and introduced legislation that would create pathways for education and employment, instead of the prison industrial complex, for young black Americans.

Taken together, it’s becoming clear that the Sanders presidential campaign is becoming a locus for grassroots movement building that recognizes the intersectionality of the major issues of our time and is seeking to build power by speaking to them and organizing around them. I don’t think we’ve seen a presidential campaign like this in many decades, so it’s hard to predict how far this formula can take an outsider like Sanders. But as of yesterday, he is surging within striking distance of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, so I wouldn’t write it off.

Bill de Blasio and political multitudes

Over at Jacobin, Samuel Stein has a review of Eric Alterman’s new book on Bill de Blasio’s first year as mayor. The whole piece by Stein is worth a read, in no small part because de Blasio has been held up as a populist progressive icon of the highest calibre, with little scrutiny on his whole body of work or how well his actual policies reflect on a rising left populist movement in America. But Stein’s closing line strikes me as critically important, not just for how the left thinks of de Blasio, but any Democratic politician.

Praising the mayor for his genuinely progressive accomplishments while discounting or disregarding his conservatism isn’t merely a cop-out. It’s a lie. It dances around the perils of his programs. And it puts the Left in the position of defending a figure it should be fighting.

To put it differently, politicians contain multitudes. Just because someone is good on one set of issues – rhetorically or in practice – doesn’t mean that they’re good on all issues. Elizabeth Warren is a brilliant advocate for the middle class, for breaking up Wall Street banks, and fighting rampant corporate power. But she’s pretty milquetoast on, say, foreign policy and has adopted some very establishment positions as a sitting senator that many on the left would disagree with. Likewise Howard Dean’s vocal opposition to the war in Iraq was critically important for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in 2003-2004, while today he lobbies for Big Pharma and is squarely in Hillary Clinton’s corner. I say this not as a reflexive discount of Clinton, who will certainly be good on some issues and bad on others, but as a recognition that Dean is a fairly centrist Democrat who happened to be right on the Iraq War.

Politicians serve the public. They serve as ciphers for the political ideologies ascribed to them. It does no political movement any good to let politicians get away with behaviors that reflect negatively or are diametrically opposed to the movements they are presumed to represent. Celebrate a politician when it is deserved and criticize when it is deserved – that’s the role of a movement.

Live streaming isn’t new to American politics

Dan Pfeiffer puts it well when he describes Meerkat as a platform “no one seems to know how to use…yet.” It’s brand new and may well be offering something that people find applications for, in politics or beyond. But for now descriptions of how Meerkat is going to change the 2016 elections are premature. Pfeiffer’s hype of Meerkat seems to be a bit much to me, particularly given his apparent ignorance of other live streaming platforms from the present and recent past.

For starters, Pfeiffer seems to be unaware that live video streaming technology already exists and has been around with varying degrees of success since before Barack Obama was even nominated by the Democratic Party for President in 2008. UStream and launched in 2007. Qik launched in 2008. YouTube has had live streaming functionality for quite some time too.

These platforms launched before smartphones with decent video cameras were ubiquitous. But they existed and they have been (and are) used quite widely — to broadcast live streams of puppies, of baby bears, of concerts, and yes, American politicians.

In spring 2007 I went to work for Chris Dodd’s presidential campaign. Dodd, at the time a five term Democratic Senator from Connecticut, never got above two or three percent in national polls and exited the race after the Iowa caucus in early January 2008.

Prior to that exit, though, we deployed live video streaming as a core part of our campaign’s engagement with the public. As deputy internet director, I traveled with Dodd on essentially all of his political trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Michigan and other early states. Along the way, I used UStream to live stream anywhere from one to three speeches and Q&A sessions per day.

People following the presidential primary were able to engage in the same dialogue with a candidate as residents of the early states. Using UStream’s embedded chat functionality, as well as monitoring comments on the sites where our streams were embedded, we were able to bring in questions from people across the country into Dodd’s Q&A sessions with voters in New Hampshire and caucus-goers in Iowa.

The technology was simple and easy. A small camcorder hooked up to a laptop and broadcast on UStream. For the best streams we would use an ethernet cable, but the best was rarely possible. Most of our streams were done over wifi or even a Verizon air card. I was able to set up live streams in back yards at house parties in New Hampshire or in greasy spoon diners rural Iowa. At big political forums I was able to run live streams from the press risers alongside CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.

We promoted live streams on Twitter and kept a scroll of recent tweets and streaming feeds on the home page of the campaign’s website.

During the Google & YouTube-hosted debate in South Carolina we even UStreamed senior campaign staff commenting and fact checking what was being said during the course of the debate in real time. According to UStream, that feed have over 10,000 views. Following the debate commentary, I broadcast live from the post-debate spin room while Senator Dodd answered questions from reporters.

Again, this was in 2007.

The Dodd internet campaign, under the leadership of Tim Tagaris, turned our website into a video hub for speaking directly to voters. Tagaris’s vision was to give people greater access to Dodd and the campaign via streaming video — to create “Big Brother” for politics with brand new technology. We built DoddTV — a multi-channel repository for live streams of speeches, saved videos of Dodd talking on key political topics, and interviews with senior campaign staff talking about our work. DoddTV even included a live stream of the Dodd campaign headquarters to watch staff work (naturally we didn’t broadcast sound).

To state the obvious, the Dodd campaign’s innovative use of live streaming technology and public engagement via streaming video did not move the needle an inch in the Democratic presidential primary. Maybe it’s because we were eight years ahead of our time. But more likely it’s because the forces of political sentiment in America are too big to be influenced by one technology platform or one medium of engagement.

I have no clue if Meerkat will revolutionize political engagement during the 2016 cycle and neither does Dan Pfeiffer. Maybe the spread of smartphones with good video cameras and faster data connections will bring live streaming into politics in a bigger way than we did in 2007. Maybe the fact that recording broadcasts for later viewing is actually a really key feature for spreading what happens at political events won’t be relevant to Meerkat’s growth in politics or beyond.

I just hope we can have a discussion of Meerkat that recognizes the technology platforms that came before it, as well as the applications that those platforms were deployed in, before we anoint live streaming as the “new” technology of the 2016 election cycle.

Cross posted from Medium.

Is it time for everyone to leave everywhere?

In The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has asked “Is it time for Jews to leave Europe?” The piece has received praise around the American political press for the shear hotness of Goldberg’s take, built heavily on anecdotes and anti-Muslim suspicions. Fredrik deBoer has an excellent response to Goldberg here, as well as a detailed explanation as to why he doesn’t feel compelled to layer his response to Goldberg with heavy caveats about his belief in the existence of anti-Semitism.

I’ll differentiate from deBoer slightly and add some caveats to my post. I’m Jewish. I believe anti-Semitism is real, as it has been a real phenomenon for millennia. I believe it exists in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Americas.  I believe that there are anti-Semitic Christians in positions of power in Europe. I believe there are poor and working class anti-Semitic Muslims who are themselves powerless in Europe. I believe anti-Semitism exists because the horror of the Holocaust and the global recognition of that horror did not, in fact, magically dissolve millennia of anti-Semitism – just as the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, like the Emancipation Proclamation before them, did not end racism in America.

The problem with a hot take like Goldberg’s is that it argues fallaciously via anecdote and a presumably deliberate misrepresentation of power dynamics, both in history and today. DeBoer:

One point of Goldberg’s is the most absurd, the most toxic, and the most dangerous. Goldberg argues that there is a chance that Europe’s Muslims will form a coalition with Europe’s rising far-right political parties. He then explicitly analogizes that possibility to the conditions that led to Nazi party. This is utter, absurd lunacy, an idea so inherently ridiculous and straightforwardly wrong that it should totally disqualify his piece even from the many people who are bent on agreeing with it. As his own reporting makes clear, Europe’s actually-existing far-right parties hate Muslim immigrants and would never, ever form a coalition with them. The National Front, a white supremacist group, they’re going to get cozy with a bunch of poor Arabs and Persians? Really? Golden Dawn, which literally contributed to war crimes against Serbian Muslims? They strike you as a group eager to join forces with Muslims? The English Defence League, a movement that started explicitly to harass and exclude and degrade Muslim immigrants in the UK? Really? Indeed, the very rise in those far-right parties that he describes is happening because of anti-Muslim sentiment. The very idea of explicitly Aryan-supremacist, pro-white, anti-immigrant, pro-“Western civilization” parties forming a bloc with the very people they are rising up to oppose is so farcical that only a publication as motivated by intrinsic bigotry as the Atlantic could allow it to be published.

Indeed the existence today (as there has existed for millennia) of individual acts of anti-Semitism in the forms Goldberg articulates – graffiti, casual curses, an outrageous “comedian” and recently a small number of violent acts – are oceans away from the structural anti-Semitism in the form of the political machinery of the German state in the 1930s and 1940s. To equate the two is, as deBoer writes, insane.

But suppose we indulge Goldberg’s hot take for a moment. If he’s right, who else should consider packing their bags and leaving their land of residence for greener pastures?

As deBoer notes, Muslims in Western Europe are the target of large political parties, slurs, graffiti and sporadic individual violence. Following 9/11 there were ample examples of anti-Muslim acts across America. Today the US government wages a transnational war against Muslim terrorists and anyone who is in the same remote geography as these terrorists. Even here in America in a non-governmental capacity in recent weeks, Muslims have been shot and killed for the photographing snowfall and dropping their daughters off at school.

Surely Goldberg and his editors at The Atlantic would want us to ask,  “Is it time for Muslims to leave America?”

In the last year, there have been thousands of instances of rape and violence perpetrated by American men against American women. Women who have publicly objected to sexism have been targeted with death threats, rape threats, harassment, and doxxing of their private information. When women have complained to social media companies like Facebook and Twitter that they are being abused, the platforms have largely protected their male attackers.

Surely Goldberg and his editors at The Atlantic would want us to ask,  “Is it time for women to leave the internet?”

But perhaps the most concerning question must surely be related to the sickness of white supremacy and racism in America. Despite previously passing laws that ended slavery and largely ended segregation, white supremacy and racism still exist in America. In the last couple of years, there have been the repeated killings of unarmed black men and women. Sometimes it’s been by vigilantes like George Zimmerman or other home “defending” sociopaths who naturally escape legal sanction due to permissive Stand Your Ground laws supported by the gun lobby and NRA, historic bastions of white power. But more recently and more concerning to blacks is that police officers have repeatedly killed unarmed black men and not only gotten away with it, but never charged for these murders in the first place. In Missouri, in New York, in California, across the South, and in Ohio, it’s quite simply the case that the government has legally sanctioned the killing of black Americans.

Surely Goldberg and his editors at The Atlantic would want us to ask, “Is it time for blacks to leave America?” 

The simple reality is that as a global society, we have problems to overcome. We have structural inequities and historic hatreds that have not been expunged by the passage of time nor the recognition of past horrors (like the Holocaust or slavery). Anti-Semitism exists. Islamophobia exists. Homophobia exists. Racism exists. Transphobia exists. It is entirely reasonable and necessary that smart people around the world discuss these scourges so as to shine light on them and hopefully make them regress further from not just individual consciousness but from the halls of political power.

But this project is not aided by alarmist, dishonest, bigoted pieces like Goldberg’s. If we want to confront the sickness of hatred in our world, we need to do it without the baggage of hatred. You can’t end anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. It just doesn’t work that way.

The Importance of Utopian Demands

Sarah Jaffe, in her newsletter (I highly recommend you subscribe), makes a really important point about the ways in which progressive movement organizations are trying and maybe failing to act on par with the sentiments of grassroots left activists that ostensibly would constitute their base. She writes:

I was chatting with a friend this morning, apropos of a meeting I attended yesterday, about the disconnect between the existing liberal/progressive infrastructure, political organizations and labor unions mostly, and where what I’d broadly call “the people” are politically. There’s the “Beltway Bubble” effect, certainly, but there’s also something more.

It’s no secret that I think the financial crisis was a turning point for a lot of people and for American politics. But that’s been hard for existing institutions to grapple with–even if they share that analysis, it seems, turning the ship around (so to speak) is not an easy task. And so we see people chaining themselves to barrels and shutting down highways and demanding not just the firing of a police officer but that we actually examine a system of white supremacy, and the response from the groups that exist to push policy is…what? Body cameras? The $15 minimum wage was a good demand in that it seemed almost utopian when the first fast food workers walked off the job and yet very quickly became achievable, at least in some cities. But what beyond that? It seems like a lot of groups are coalescing around the idea that Elizabeth Warren should run for president, but if there’s one thing we should have learned by now it’s that electing one person to office isn’t going to solve our problems, and it’s a little hard for me to figure out how throwing an endorsement to a person who doesn’t appear to want it builds institutional power for big changes.

Utopian demands don’t necessarily become policy, but they give us something to work towards, and maybe more importantly, they serve as a statement of values that, alongside a system analysis, is actually a basis for a politics.

I’m not an organizer, just a reporter. But the reporting I’ve done in recent years has told me that people are ready for big demands and big changes. I just finished a conversation with a group of workers who’ve been fighting for a union since 2011, and they’re connecting their struggle with all the other struggles happening right now, from other labor actions to Black Lives Matter. They’ve got big ideas. We can make some bigger demands. [Emphasis added]

The US is obviously a different political system than Greece or Spain or Ireland. But there’s a reason that Syriza, Podemos and Sinn Fein are gaining political traction – by offering people “big demands and big changes,” particular as what they are campaigning on is following from popular protest movements espousing similar utopian demands. These demands are a direct response to the economic collapse of 2007 and 2008, and the political response which fundamentally failed to hold the perpetrators of economic fraud accountable. Worse, the imposition of austerity that broke these countries’ economies, kept people out of work and in varying degrees crippled a generation’s economic progress.

We don’t know what will happen with Syriza in charge of Greece, nor do we know what will happen in Spain (or Ireland, Portugal, or Italy). But for people here in the US who are interested in creating progressive political change, the model of presenting ideas that approach the scale of the problem we face is likely one that needs to be followed here in America.

This is what it’s about

At the tail end of an outstanding dismantling of Jonathan Chait’s recent hippy punching, anti-speech-that-makes-him-feel-uncomfortable screed against the so-called “pc movement,” Jessica Valenti offers up an excellent description of why it is so important to give space for historically marginalized people to voice their opinions and raise their objections to the policies, assumptions, and behaviors of the powerful and privileged. Valenti writes:

We are finally approaching a critical mass of interest in ending racism, misogyny and transphobia and the ways they are ingrained into our institutions. Instead of rolling our eyes at the intensity of the feelings people have over these issues, we should be grateful that they care so much, because racism, misogyny and transphobia can and do kill people. If the price we all pay for progress for the less privileged is that someone who is more privileged gets their feelings hurt sometimes – or that they might have to think twice before opening their mouths or putting their fingers to keyboards – that’s a small damn price to pay. That’s not stopping free speech; it’s making our speech better.

When I look around, I see tremendous progress being made not necessarily in policy (though sometimes things get better) but in sentiment and public culture. There is widespread, multi-racial support online for ending racism and fighting police brutality. There is pushback against misogyny, not just from feminists but from anti-racist and pro-worker activists. There is open support and love for transgender people who are helping to shed light on what it is to be trans, from Wikileaker Chelsea Manning to punk rocker Laura Jane Grace to former Navy SEAL Kristen Beck.

The rise of vibrant, vocal support for “ending racism, misogyny and transphobia” has meant things like the sports blog Deadspin and the celebrity(ish) blog Gawker are consistent sources of bleeding edge thinking on how to wage these fights and call out problematic moments. Which is to say, as Jessica does, that this is not a marginal movement, it’s cultural progress on a transformative scale. It might mean that white dudes (like, say, me or Jonathan Chait) are forced to feel uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s a miniscule price to pay for the elevation of dignity and equality to all people, especially those who have historically not been granted it by straight white dudes. It doesn’t just make speech better, but it creates space for more speech by more people. I’m pretty excited about these developments and if you’re threatened by them, you probably need to check your privilege settings.