Leading With the Left: Fighter Jack Johnson couldn’t be shown beating a white man; can the progressive left be shown beating the right?
Can the ideas put forward by the new Progressive Democratic Summit cure what ails us?
By Steve Bhaerman
Editor’s note: When Santa Rosa author Steve Bhaerman contacted the Bohemian offering to cover the Progressive Democratic Summit that occurred in Washington, D.C., Jan. 21-23, we weren’t sure what to think. In fact, we weren’t even sure whether we were talking to Bhaerman or his famed if slightly esoteric alter ego, Swami Beyondananda. As readers will discover, it was a little of both.
In the early part of the last century, Jack Johnson was an audacious black man who held the paradigm-busting notion that he could be heavyweight boxing champion of the world. In keeping with the custom of the day, no white fighter of note would agree to a match. Finally, in 1910, Johnson got a match with then heavyweight champ Jim Jeffries–and knocked him out. While movie newsreels captured the knockout punch, none dared show the white man hitting the canvas.
Lest we chuckle at this quaint and naive attempt to maintain the illusion of white superiority, let’s fast forward some 95 years to the media coverage of election fraud and intimidation in Ohio–or should we say lack of coverage? Despite testimony of voter intimidation, voting machines turning into vote-changing machines and startling discrepancies in always reliable exit polls (University of Pennsylvania statistician Dr. Stephen Freeman declared that the odds of such a discrepancy occurring the way it did were 250 million to 1), what should have been front-page news was relegated to no-page news. To protect the delicate psyche of the American public (and, not incidentally, the powers that be), representative democracy could not be shown “hitting the canvas.”
Novelist Arundhati Roy has said, “You can wake someone who is sleeping, but you cannot wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.”
So how do you wake the sleeping and tear down the wall of what Noam Chomsky terms “necessary illusions” which those feigning unawareness hide behind?
It is with this question in mind that I flew to snow-covered Washington, D.C., last month for the Progressive Democratic Summit, a strategy meeting for progressive Democrats, Greens and other citizen activists. The event, billed as a counter to Bush’s $40 million inaugural celebration, was organized by Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), a six-month-old national grassroots organization springing from the Kucinich presidential campaign that, among other things, has helped keep the spotlight focused on voting irregularities detected in Ohio and other states during the past election.
Featured speakers at the summit included Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin, Tom Hayden, Rep. John Conyers of Detroit (who almost single-handedly brought the Ohio election fraud issue to public scrutiny), pollster James Zogby, Illinois representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, and journalists Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!) and William Rivers Pitt (TruthOut.com).
Washington, long ago described as a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm, was totally flummoxed by the dusting of snow, resulting in hurried presentations and schedule changes. Having booked my flight based on the original information that the conference would begin Friday evening, I arrived late that afternoon only to realize that there had been a last-minute change. Tom Hayden had already spoken at an opening session in the afternoon and was headed back to L.A. William Rivers Pitt–whom I hoped to interview–presented Saturday morning, then made a hasty dash to the airport. John Conyers, originally scheduled for Friday evening and then Sunday, was unable to make the cross-town trip due to the weather. And my friend Caroline Casey, who was scheduled to emcee the Saturday evening fundraising concert, also canceled due to weather, pressing my alter ego, Swami Beyondananda, into service in her stead (more about that later).
Steve Cobble, a smart, progressive veteran with a sharp sense of humor, officially opened the conference on Saturday morning. He contextualized the conference with an analogy comparing 1965 to 2005. Just 40 years ago, the conservative right lost the presidential election in a landslide. Lyndon Johnson had roundly defeated Republican standard-bearer Barry Goldwater, and conservatives were considered a fringe band of kooks who believed water fluoridation was a communist plot (we have since discovered it was a capitalist plot).
Sixteen years later, they had their first victory with the Reagan presidency. Thirty years later, the Gingrich revolution regained control of Congress. And today, they have every branch of government–not to mention mainstream media–under their control. And now here we are, Cobble continued, a scruffy band of progressives fresh from our most discouraging loss, completely out of power and virtually off the radar, ready to start our march to victory.
While this heartening analogy was designed to inspire much-needed courage, there are at least four things wrong with it: (1) We don’t have 40 years to turn things around. In fact, we don’t have 16 years. With peak oil peeking just around the corner, with global warming and deforestation, and with privatizing privateers sticking their privates into every fertile crescent on the planet, there may not be much of a world to win by the time we get around to winning.
(2) We don’t have Adolph Coors and other big spenders to provide us with infinite funds for think tanks, etc. (In fact, the organizers of this conference were so financially challenged that they had to parse out the last few bucks to see if they could afford a run to Taco Bell.)
(3) We don’t have millions of un-Christian Christian soldiers willing to follow in lockstep. Even in these dire times when we are all too aware of the need for a united front, organizing progressives is still a lot like herding cats.
(4) While the conservatives of 40 years ago may have been fringe, they had a cool, dark place to grow in. They faced a government that was at worst indifferent, not one seeking to–figuratively if not literally–exterminate them. Perhaps most important, they had lots of powerful allies in the military-industrial complex and intelligence community.
Soul & Principles
Nonetheless, the only place to begin is where you are and the only time is now, because as Swami Beyondananda says, “It’s too late to do it sooner.” And so the opening keynote panel addressed the primary issue: “Challenges and Opportunities for Progressive Democrats in 2005.” Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women, said, “What we are up against is a battle for the soul and principles of the Democratic Party.” Indeed, James Zogby and several other speakers faulted mainstream Democrats for failing to admit the mistake of supporting the Iraq war.
Said Zogby of our Middle East policy, “It’s not that Muslims don’t like our values. It’s just that we don’t apply those values to them.” And it isn’t that they don’t understand us, he continued. “They understand us. We just don’t understand ourselves.”
Perhaps the most compelling speaker during this morning session was Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Illinois, so it was possible to forgive him for running over (and over) his time limit. (That poor young woman charged with keeping the time held the “0” sign aloft a good 15 minutes. Several times I noticed she pinched herself, probably to make sure she still existed.) Besides being a good, old-fashioned orator, Jackson Jr. offered a truly compelling idea: Since the Supreme Court in its 2000 selection of George Bush as president admitted that nowhere is there a national constitutional right to vote, why not press for a right-to-vote amendment?
Indeed, he said, Republicans are more than willing to propose constitutional amendments for all sorts of partisan issues (e.g., gay marriage), so why not an amendment for a real constitutional issue? This was one of the few overarching strategic ideas during the weekend, and it received well-deserved applause. Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb echoed this sentiment when he said, “The biggest threat to democracy is the belief we have it.”
The next panel was titled “Communicating a Progressive Message to the American Public through the Media.” Sadly, it consisted more of horror stories than of effective ways to press the press. Jeff Cohen of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting offered the disturbing story of Phil Donohue getting taken off the air despite good ratings specifically because his liberal slant would impugn the war effort. Cohen also reported that MSNBC was given orders to slant coverage to the right. Amy Goodman echoed these sentiments, saying, “The U.S. media is the most valuable weapon the Pentagon has” and describing a dazed populace as the “silenced majority.”
Leila McDowell, a former CNN reporter, bluntly offered her take on the public’s complicity in media deception: “Many Americans are willfully ignorant.” She offered the most encouraging story of the public successfully pressing the press to cover a story it planned to ignore. Prior to activists symbolically “taking over” the Halliburton building, ABC and CNN were specifically targeted with phone calls and e-mails about the action. In the end, they were the only two networks to cover it.
Muscle of the Structure
Citizen activist Liz Herbert offered another encouraging story. As a stay-at-home mom looking to be politically effective, she founded Rapid Response Network (www.rapidresponsenetwork.org), one of the home-grown efforts that sprang up since the Iraq invasion. Rapid Response offers citizens an opportunity to respond to (and in some cases preempt) media distortions. With the muscle of a national structure, this organization encourages pressing the issues via e-mail in local papers and stations, where the news is less controlled.
In my wanderings around the booth area, I found a number of organizations launched by individuals seeking to apply their talents and make a difference locally. One of these is the Backbone Campaign (www.backbonecampaign.org), started by artist Bill Moyer of Vashon Island, Wash. Moyer seized upon the idea that the Democrats needed more backbone in standing up to administration bullying. Through his website, he has a downloadable Spineless Citizen Citation and the corresponding Backbone Award. Like many of these creative projects, the Backbone Campaign can be used to augment other actions around all kinds of issues. Moyer and friends also went to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in a Chinese dragon-like spinal costume. As I watched a video of the spinal column marching in Boston, I noted its flexibility. Yes, we need backbone–but not a rigid one. I wished him great and continuing kundalini, and made my way into the afternoon session.
Old Dogma, New Tricks
This session, “Organizing Spiritual Communities to Heal a Divided Nation,” was the most interesting to me, particularly with the dire need to find a more genuinely Christian alternative to the Christian right. Panelists included moderator Damu Smith (Black Voices for Peace), Philadelphia-based Rabbi Arthur Waskow (the Shalom Center), the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus and the Rev. Carolyn Boyd representing what she called the “mystical perspective.”
As an example of the severe irony deficiency afflicting the body politic–especially when it comes to defining “Christian values”–Smith offered up a quote that he claimed actually came out of a real person’s mouth: “I support the war in Iraq because it’s the Christian thing to do.”
A groan went up from the secular humanist portion of the audience, already religion-averse. And yet, as Smith and subsequent speakers pointed out, there is a need for a spiritual foundation that traditional religious denominations–and secular liberalism–have not addressed. Consequently, membership in mainstream Protestant sects like Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian has declined in the past 30 years while the more fundamentalist and evangelic churches have been growing. The fact that nature–particularly human nature–abhors a vacuum might explain how the Christian right became the Grinch that stole Christianity.
Smith suggested a reframing of Christian values that actually reflects Jesus’ teachings to love thy neighbor as thyself, calling it “Care for Creation.” Thus, “honor thy mother” would actually include Mother Earth, and care for the “born feed-us” would supersede the social Darwinism that some creationists apparently find totally acceptable. Or, to quote the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the focus needs to be taken from “who’s sleeping with whom” to “who’s sleeping in the street.”
Rabbi Waskow spoke passionately about his ecumenical project to restore trust and bring peace to the Middle East, which he called “the Tent of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah.” According to tradition, he explained, Abraham, Hagar and Sarah kept their tent open in all four directions, the more easily to share their food and water with travelers from anywhere. In that spirit, he has gathered leaders of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities to stand together as a force for peace.
In contrast to the we’re-going-to-heaven-and-everyone-else-can-go-to-hell attitude that characterizes the un-fun kind of fundamentalist thought, Rabbi Waskow–like the other speakers on the spiritual-communities panel–presented an example of the “one spirit, many paths” approach that could become the foundation of a progressive spiritual movement.
While most progressives, being tolerant, spoke about inclusiveness and relating to all sides, dualism still informs their political perspective: Democrat vs. Republican, progressive vs. reactionary, religious liberal vs. religious fundamentalist. The Rev. Boyd went further by offering three stages of spiritual development: empire theology, liberation theology and enlightenment.
Empire theology is the easiest for progressives to identify with–and disdain. It is the hierarchical religious structure that keeps the existing power structure in place. Liberation theology, as practiced by the radical Catholic clergy in Latin America and the Catholic worker in the United States, takes Jesus’ message as a cue to liberate the poor and downtrodden. In some form, each of the other three panel members represented this progressive impulse. But there is a third way, the Rev. Boyd insisted, which she termed “enlightenment.” This is a state that transcends religion, where everyone is connected as one family.
To a crowd where any kind of theology was a stretch, the concept of enlightenment–pardon the expression–went over many heads. And yet, in their heart of hearts, many of these nontheists instinctively knew that this state of relatedness is our human potential. It’s just the association with religion, or even spirituality, that tested their secular humanist foundation. At the same time, I noticed many people nodding affirmatively during all of these talks, and that’s a good thing. Because, as Einstein said, a problem cannot be solved at the level of the problem. Resisting Republicanism–or religious fundamentalism–only strengthens the dueling dualities and keeps us from a solution that is bigger than either side.
Gee You Are You
Meanwhile, the progressive Democrats sought to address another issue: the whiteness (as in “white folks”) of the Kucinich-Dean branch of the progressive movement. Being somewhat red-faced about the white face of progressivism, the leadership took steps to expand the constituency by adding the Rev. Yearwood to its National Policy Board. As president of the Hip Hop Caucus, Yearwood has worked with the likes of P. Diddy and Russell Simmons to activate the vote.
In fact, Saturday evening originally was designed as a fundraiser and featured, among others, rapster Trick Daddy. But the Trick Daddy upstairs had other ideas (like a snowstorm), and a few of the performers (including emcee Caroline Casey) could not make it.
And so Swami Beyondananda (my alter ego) was pressed into service to emcee an evening of entertainment which featured two rap artists (Shahead and Nina B.); L.A. singer-songwriter Keaton Simons; Becca Cooper, a Youngstown, Ohio, steelworker and union rep who offered her powerful poetry; and Pokerface, a Bethlehem, Penn., band whose favorite venues are machine-gun shoots. Really. They gather up old washing machines, refrigerators, cars and literally have a blast by shooting them to pieces. This, I imagine, is rage against the machine, white-boy-style.
The first rapper, Shahead, was smart, sharp and pertinent. He was accompanied on bass by Joel Segal, chief of staff for Rep. Conyers (but, he insisted, he’s really a musician at heart), and Brent, the drummer for Pokerface, the machine-gun band. As Shahead was finishing up, something possessed the Swami to ask the band to stay onstage so the Swami could do his rap. That’s right. Years ago, Swami produced a rap song with Chicago-area musician and producer Ed Tossing–the “G-U-R-U Rap Song.”
Throwing caution to the wind, the Swami took the risk and jumped in. It worked, and we had the audience mental-flossing to the beat and chanting, “G-U-R-U, G-U-R-U, G-U-R-U, gee you are you!”
They Are Us
As I reflected the next day on Swami’s impulsive launch into rap, it occurred to me that the “Guru/gee you are you” message was most appropriate for this group. Other than Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., there were no high political officeholders or superstar luminaries on the bill or, for that matter, at the top of this organization. And yet, the Progressive Democrats of America already had a proven track record for getting results. Through lesser-known leaders and on-the-ground activists, the PDA provided the physical presence in the halls of Congress that helped persuade Rep. Conyers to take a stand on the election.
One of the “necessary illusions” that bit the dust after the Democratic leadership’s roll-over-and-play-dead trick in the face of voting fraud (they insisted they would stop at nothing to protect the vote, and that’s exactly where they stopped) is the notion that some fearless leader is going to save us. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the fearless leaders, and they are us.
While it is very likely a good thing that Gov. Howard Dean has wrested the Democratic National Chairmanship from the chicken-livered purveyors of Republican Lite, he cannot provide the necessary air support without lots and lots of ground troops. In late December, before Sen. Barbara Boxer–or any other senator–had made the decision to speak out against certifying the Ohio delegation, I attended a meeting at Sonoma State University where voter fraud issues were examined. An activist stood up and said his group had actually gone to Sen. Boxer’s office and asked her to stand up. Her response was, “Show me the numbers.”
Just as the physical presence of PDA activists convinced Rep. Conyers to move forward and ask that the Ohio vote be de-certified, the numerical presence of thousands of callers and e-mailers convinced Sen. Boxer that her courageous move would be covered.
Most people at the conference had already been disabused of the illusion that the election had been conducted fairly and legally. This is a pretty heavy-duty perpetration to accept, and it’s understandable why most citizens wanting to protect their sanity would be reluctant to go there. It’s also understandable why Democrats in denial have seemed to play battered wife to the Rove-driven abusive-husband Republican machinery. Releasing once and for all the wish that the current gang in power would start attending Assaholics Anonymous meetings, the Progressive Democrats seemed ready to face the awful truth and, hopefully, the awesome opportunity.
The PDA organization is off and running, with chapters in 36 states and the intention to have a presence in all 435 congressional districts. But to lure the average American from the safe harbor of necessary illusions, they (we, actually) must provide the safer harbor of a more compelling future than the Republicans offer. As the opposition party, the Democrats have offered only opposition. The real shift that must take place, however, is to stop being defined by problems and start defining possibilities.
The Republicans are offering a future of never-ending warfare, loss of civil liberties, environmental destruction and a growing gap between rich and poor, all to the tune of un-fun religious fundamentalism. Can we do better than that? Can we create a story that makes more sense to more people than the illusion that is being perpetrated?
I sure hope so.
Steve Bhaerman, aka Swami Beyondananda, is a humorist, political uncommontator, and the author of ‘Swami for Precedent: A 7-Step Plan to Heal the Body Politic and Cure Electile Dysfunction.’ He can be found online at www.wakeuplaughing.com. For more information on the Sonoma County chapter of the PDA, write to [email protected]
From the February 23-March 1, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.