You and What Movement?
A Response to Naomi Klein
By Al Giordano
An Opinion Column
April 18, 2009
Naomi Klein is suffering, along with some other sectors of the academic North American left, an existential crisis.
In a recent column she published in The Nation and in The Huffington Post, she complained about “the awkward in-between space in which many US progressive movements find themselves” now that Barack Obama is president of the United States.
Revealing a bizarre contempt and college-educated condescension toward a vast multi-racial swathe of progressive supporters and sympathizers of Obama and his movement, Klein seeks to explain us away as dupes. We (I use the first person plural proudly and without hesitation) are, according to Klein, part of a “superfan culture,” that, she says, believes we can “save the world if we all just hope really hard,” and that suffers from the following psychological ailments: “Hopeover… hoper coaster… hope fiend… hopebreak… and hopelash.”
Her theory, that progressive Obama supporters are now inflicted by buyer’s remorse, flies contrary to all objective measurement. The pollster.com aggregate of all recent public opinion surveys finds that 61.8 percent of Americans view Obama (less than 100 days into his presidency) favorably, compared to 32.9 percent that view him unfavorably. As Gallup notes, President Obama’s first-quarter average favorability of 63 percent exceeds that of the first three months of his eight immediate predecessors: Presidents Bush II, Clinton, Bush 1, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon or Johnson.
Ah, but Klein is talking about “progressives,” so let’s take a look at the hard data that is available. Separate out the crosstabs, and those numbers are even sky higher among progressive demographic groups. Among Democrats, according to an early April Pew survey, 88 percent view the young president favorably, so it’s not really clear who Klein is talking about, imagining or inventing out of thin air when she devotes an entire column to claim a non-existent demographic trend.
Among African-Americans (without which there can be no successful “progressive movement” in the United States), a towering 94 percent approve of how the president is doing his job, according to the Quinnipiac survey. Among Hispanic Americans (just as important to any progressive future in the US), 73 percent feel the same way. Among Americans that earn less than $50,000 a year (the working class and the poor), a solid 60 percent approve. The question must be asked: What “movement” does Klein thus imagine? An exclusively white and college educated one? I fear that the truth may not be far from it if she is so quick to insult and dismiss such a large bloc of people who skew non-white, poor and working class.
There is currently no quicker way for white progressives to further divide themselves from African-American, Hispanic-American, working class and poor Americans – all sectors without which serious and successful progressive movements in the US would be impossible – than to invent derogatory psychobabble terms for us because we do not share Klein’s tendencies to feel somehow demoralized by the country’s first African-American head of state, and demonstrably its most progressive since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
That such complaint comes after less than 100 days, when the President has just eased the Cuba embargo that was foolishly embraced by Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II, is nothing less than pathetic. In the same week, Obama made the classified torture memos public (and as any working journalist or investigator knows, every department of his administration now responds quickly – usually overnight – to our Freedom of Information Act requests for information; a sea change from all previous administrations). The passage of Obama’s economic Stimulus bill marked the single largest expenditure ever on jobs and social programs like unemployment insurance, Medicaid and public education in the history of any country. He has already made the orderly withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq official policy with a timeline that has most of it done before the 2010 midterm elections. And in three short months, Obama has restored the principle of progressive taxation to the United States.
Yesterday, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, the US president extended a long overdue hand of friendship to his Venezuelan counterpart, a democratically elected leader that suffered an attempted military coup d’etat that was cheered, if not planned, by Washington. The President, in short time, has already defused an entire string of similar policy time bombs left by previous administrations (Republican and Democratic alike). Will there be more tensions between Chávez and the US? Very likely the answer is yes, but the gravity and context of them has shifted positively. This hemisphere is already a safer place for dissident journalists, community organizers, governments of the left and other grassroots change agents. That, alone, makes it more possible for us to organize and make bigger and better changes – of the kind for which we do not need any government’s permission – in the days and years ahead.
I quite agree with Klein’s belief that “demanding” is better than “hoping” when it comes to changing public policy. But where I get off her bus is upon her inference that we who are supportive of – and more happy than not about – Obama’s presidency somehow believe differently. Her claim only demonstrates her gross ignorance toward the important sector of the left (including parts of the Obama movement) that are community organizers. “Demanding” is necessary but without “organizing” to back it up it is merely an act of intellectual masturbation. It accomplishes nothing. It never has won a single battle. And that’s why, until 2008, the US left in particular – so busy demanding without doing the hard work of organizing – went through at least three “lost decades.”
The problem with too much of the “activist left” in North America is that so many of its adherents don’t really want to do the hard work of community organizing. I wonder: when was the last time that Klein went door-to-door, or staffed a phone bank, or otherwise reached out directly to real people demographically different from her? Any journalist or writer that hasn’t, at minimum, accompanied organizers doing that real work of change should shut the fuck up when it comes to opining about “the people.” They don’t have a clue as to who “the people” are. Activism that doesn’t involve one or more of those tasks does not rise to the level or effectiveness of organizing. And those that don’t do it really have no idea where the public is at: the masses (or “the multitude” in current jargon) are imaginary cartoon characters to these people. Their view of us is as elitist as it is condescending.
They can complain about, for example, US policy toward Israel and Palestine, seemingly oblivious to how US public opinion on the matter keeps those very bad policies in place. If they got off their duffs and knocked on doors to ask real people about it, they’d get a lesson in civics, and perhaps learn better ways to move public opinion in a better direction. They can bemoan the “bailouts” (essentially government loans to financial services industries) ignorant of the fact that when big corporations fall they land hardest on the workers and the poor, as would a 1929-level crash of the kind that nearly occurred last October. They can demand “nationalization” of the banks, without offering any detail as to what that would look like. I live in Mexico where the 1982 bank nationalization proved disastrous for the country’s workers, and helped destroy its middle class. The devil is always in the details.
I am not a member of the Democratic Party, and I did not vote for twelve years prior to 2008 until Obama’s candidacy gave me a reason to do so. While the academic North American left went jet-hopping from summit protest to social forum across the globe, I went to Latin America, lived, worked and reported alongside the authentic social movements that many of them came to visit for a weekend or maybe a month. I’m more comfortable with an anarcho-syndicalist view of the kind of society that I daily work toward than I am with electoral politics. Socialist, although it’s a moniker that seems a bit statist and conservative for me, is still a term that I’m more comfortable with than “Democrat.” And yet every day I see the President moving the United States closer to my own version of utopia, after a lifetime of watching each of his predecessors pull it farther away. More importantly, for me, as a journalist and an organizer, the Obama presidency has created much more space for people like us to get out there and do this hard work without the repression and marginalization that we have struggled under for decades.
Here’s what the academic left – hopping mad, frustrated and now, like Klein, lashing out at those of us in the working left – doesn’t get: It was Obama – not Klein’s post-Seattle ’99 milieu of “anti-globalization activists” – who opened the doors of the American left for the first time since the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s to the building of an authentically multi-racial movement. It was Obama – not Klein and her colleagues – that got working class whites struggling alongside working class blacks and Hispanics in the United States, and who turned a new generation onto the art of community organizing that the activist left had abandoned.
When colleagues like Klein so summarily insult Obama supporters and sympathizers, they are driving yet another stake between their white college-educated ghetto and the 94 percent of African-Americans, and the 73 percent of Hispanic Americans, and the 60 percent of the entire American working class, that is pleased, as I am, that this unique historic figure is, for the next four years at least, the President of the United States.
I’m reminded of the scene from the Martin Scorcese motion picture, The Aviator, in which Kathryn Hepburn (Cate Blanchette) brings Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) home to meet her family. “We’re socialists,” the mother tells Hughes. And then, when she thinks Hughes is speaking ill of President Franklin Roosevelt, she nearly runs him out of the house. FDR, like Obama, wasn’t a socialist (and unlike Obama, he was born into privilege). But a great many socialists, communists and even anarchists of the era understood that their work was made so much more possible by his presidency. And that cultivated an intense synergy, not to mention a renaissance of labor and community organizing during that epoch. In retrospect, that synergy between the working left and the FDR presidency brought with it many of the 20th century’s most progressive advances.
The same is happening now – although Klein and others haven’t done the investigative or organizing spadework to recognize it – and that (even without the many progressive policies enacted by the Obama administration already, and those important ones like immigration reform yet to come) makes me an unabashed, eyes wide open, Obama sympathizer, guilt-free, without any of the feelings of remorse Klein seeks to assign to me and millions like me. That enthusiasm hasn’t turned us into blind followers: these pages are already filled with hard-hitting critiques when the Obama administration has been wrong; on Plan Mexico, on the drug war, and other deadly serious matters. And yet even on those fronts, our ability to push back and serve as a check and a break on the extremities of those bad policies vastly outweighs what we were able to do for many previous decades.
But I’m not going to sit back silently while some white progressives – dripping with the nastiest forms of envy because, truth be told, the Obama movement succeeded at resurrecting community organizing and multi-racial struggle whereas their tired tactics and strategies had failed again and again to do so – try to claim to me or anyone else that they’re the ones doing the demanding while we’re somehow sitting back and thinking we can “save the world if we just hope really hard.”
Memo to Ms. Klein: Go back to the only school that ever got the left – in which I take no back seat to you in either mileage or scar tissue – anywhere: that of community organizing. We’re doing it. You’re not. And when you go to give your next speech at some university or activist hall, look around at the white, privileged faces that occupy more than half those seats. Study how many of them choose to self-marginalize from workers or racial minorities with their freak-show narcissistic – and yet humorless! – antics. You know what I’m talkin’ about. And you probably wince regularly as they ask you to sign your book for them.
Ask yourself, “are these the so-called masses that are going to make a progressive movement succeed?” You know damn well, in your heart, that they’re not. They do buy hardcover books though, a lot more than the workers and the poor ever will. With all due respect I must ask: Have you become an intellectual prisoner of what you think it takes to pander to your own college-educated consumers?
No thank you, Ms. Klein: When it comes to the United States, I’ll take my chances with the multi-racial community organizers of the Obama movement, and the tens of thousands of young organizers they’ve inspired and trained, at least until the non-electoral North American left gets its shit together, which, after reading a column like yours, seems still a long and far away struggle.
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