Knowledge is not power: The limits of wonkery

A recent study that compiled thousands of scientific papers on climate change showed that 97% of them agreed that global warming is happening and humans are the cause.

Does it matter?  Probably not even a little bit.

This exposes the inherent limitations of being a policy wonk.  The major barriers to tackling climate change are not that the science doesn’t prove it’s real, or that we haven’t developed effective policy mechanisms for dealing with it.  It’s that the fossil fuel lobby is richer than God and down to get dirty.

I think it’s important for all of us doing political work to have a strong grasp of policy.  It not only helps us make persuasive arguments, it keeps us from wasting our time fighting for stupid shit.  Understanding all the wonky things allows us to identify our goals for social change, for example equal opportunity in education, and pick good ideas to fight for, like universal preschool, rather than bad ideas, like forgiving all student debt.

Now I spend a lot of time nerding out and getting my Wonkblog on.  But there’s a certain arrogance within the world of policy that drives me crazy.

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Policy expertise without the political muscle to back it up is a body-less brain floating in a jar of self-satisfied goo.  We could call it… I don’t know… a think tank?

Among the things I dislike about DC is that everybody wants to be a policy analyst.  People naturally like the clean ivory tower where they can all pat each other on the back for being a smartypants and go to conferences and speak on panels and whatnot.

If wonks had their way we would eliminate agriculture subsidies, replace taxes on good things like income with taxes on bad things like carbon emissions, and shift almost all aid programs to the poor (food stamps, rental subsidies, etc.) to direct cash assistance that they could use to buy whatever they want.

Why don’t any of the above policies happen even though probably 90% of PhD economists would agree with them?  Ask anyone who works on Capitol Hill and they’ll tell you they’re not “politically feasible”.  What does that mean?  What defines the realm of political feasibility?

Power.  It doesn’t matter if all the smart people agree on something.  Smart people are not the same as powerful people.

Knowledge is not power.  Only power is power.

From knowledge, emerges ideas.  Ideas inspire organizers who draw together people and resources.  Those people and resources build organizations that drive forward movements.  And that creates the power to make social change.

But often we forget all the steps in the middle.

Power comes from doing all the things we don’t like.  We don’t like squeezing our refined ideas into everyday language to appeal to the hearts and minds of the uneducated masses.  We don’t like ruthlessly cutting down our intellectual explorations into short soundbites for the media so they can reach a broader audience.  We don’t like the exhausting and disheartening cycle of outreach and rejection necessary to recruit new members from outside our narrow intellectual circles.  We don’t like the slow, frustrating task of developing the skills and confidence of doe-eyed young activists and who have some tiny possibility of becoming leaders one day.  We don’t like asking for the money we need to run every single day-to-day operation of an organization.  We don’t like the give and take of building alliances with groups whose interests don’t perfectly align with ours.   We don’t like the secrecy and bitterness and messiness of backing imperfect candidates running for office or the tedious foot-work of getting out the vote.

We all want to work at a goddamn think tank.

My message to the wonks out there is not to give up your wonkery.  It’s to get out from behind your desk every once in a while and dive into the more messy, uncertain work of politics, the stuff that your parents think is less respectable.

Engage directly with the everyday people impacted by the policies you think about.  Bring together people who are suspicious of each other at first.  Take risks.  Get rejected.  Get a door slammed in your face.  Learn something every day from someone who hasn’t gone to college.  Chant till you lose your voice.  Look stupid sometimes.  Smile when an elected official gives you and your crowd that frustrated look.  Work on an issue you think isn’t that important but that a majority of your group voted on.  Give up a TV interview to someone else whose leadership you’re developing, even if you know they’re going to fuck it up.

Maybe you’ll end up feeling like I do, that alternating back and forth between wonky research and mass communications and grassroots organizing is the most fulfilling work you can do.

Or maybe not, but at least you’ll prove me wrong when I call you a nerd.

Why I’ll Probably Never Work in National Politics

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If this week taught me anything, it’s that national politics is inherently disempowering.  I felt that way during my brief time in DC in college, which is why I didn’t go back after graduation.  Now I think I probably never will.

NY Magazine has a great article on how our dysfunctional political system killed the gun background check bill.

And once the national immigration reform effort is over, I don’t think I personally ever want to work on moving anything through Congress again.  The bill released this week should have been disappointing:  An arduous 13 year path to citizenship, with at minimum a decade in second-class status, paying taxes without any rights, with a trigger preventing anyone from becoming a citizen until billions of dollars of drones, fences, federal agents and electronic surveillance systems are sent to the border.

But I wasn’t really disappointed.  It was mostly what I expected.  (See above article on why nothing truly progressive can make it two steps past the starting line in Congress.)  My reaction was basically “Sigh… It is what it is.”

I do politics because I believe my world is bursting at the seams with injustice and pain because of deep systemic imbalances of power.  I do politics because it’s exhilarating to see the disempowered become empowered.  Nothing sends a chill down my spine like that look of invincibility in someone’s eyes when they realize their potential to be an agent of change.  But congressional politics is so completely disempowering for those who engage in it, that it defeats the purpose of my political involvement.

Here’s why:

1. It takes forever.

The founding fathers did this on purpose.  They were down with democracy, but afraid the poor people would vote to take all their shit and distribute it freely amongst the unbathed toothless masses.  So they created checks and balances to make sure the will of the majority couldn’t happen too fast, if at all.

For example, every once in a while there’s a big high-profile gun massacre.  Suddenly everyone realizes that gun violence kills people every day, and this briefly creates the political willpower to beat the gun lobby.  The masses tweet about it, TV pundits rant about it, and politicians make somber speeches about rising above partisanship to address this national tragedy.  But by the time legislation actually grinds its way through the sausage machine of Congress, media attention moves on to something else and the public loses the urgency to push.  But lobbying interests like the NRA can hold out for the long fight.

And sometimes the fight is really long.  I worked to pass a financial aid bill in college that student advocates fought over with banks for 15 years before it finally reached the president’s desk.  I got the taste of victory.  But how many students calling for reform for years before me left with the lesson that big banks always win and activism is useless?

2. It’s an inside game

Major pieces of legislation are complex.  Bills are hundreds of pages long and nearly impossible for a non-lawyer to read.  This is better than short, vague bills that are full of loopholes, oversimplify social issues, and ultimately have to be sorted out in lawsuits.  But the consequence of complexity is that it shuts out regular people from the process.

Worse, it’s even inaccessible to many members of Congress.  There are so many bills and amendments to constantly vote for.  They just don’t have enough staff to follow and analyze all of it.  So they rely on lobbyists.  One of the secret weapons of lobbyists is that they usually know way more about the subject matter than the member of Congress and their staff does.

The big decisions don’t happen in the big floor vote when everyone is paying attention.  They get made in bill markups when little amendments get added and key words get switched.  Those are the kinds of decisions regular people can’t access.  How is a farmworker supposed to track a subtle amendment in federal legislation that might exclude them from immigration reform or indefinitely delay their path to citizenship?

The strategy and tactics needed to win an inside game are bad for developing leaders.  Strategy has to be coordinated nationally and relies on closed-door negotiations between power brokers.  Grassroots community members can’t really be part of strategic discussions and instead wait for directions to be passed down by those coordinating the central effort in DC.  They usually never meet the decision-makers or the opposition.  The tactics needed are low-skill, low-engagement actions like call-in days that are bad for building organizations and their members.  At the end, it’s easy for people involved to question whether their work really made a difference at all.

3. It’s all about money

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I have a healthy mixture of respect and horror at anyone willing to run for Congress.  It’s exhausting, miserable, and absurdly expensive.  You spend most of your day kissing donors asses, all while working every waking second and hoping your sleep-deprived brain doesn’t say something stupid while under constant media scrutiny.  The average winning candidate for Congress raised over $2,000 per day in 2012.  It doesn’t end once you get elected.  The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recommends its sitting members spend 4 hours every day in “call time” (making fundraising calls).

I was once involved in a campaign where a student I trained lobbied a senior Democratic senator to support closing offshore tax havens and was explicitly told by her DC staff that the member couldn’t support the bill because some of her biggest corporate donors used those offshore tax havens.  Brutal honesty.  All governing bodies are swayed by powerful interests.  But nothing compares to the U.S. Congress.

I used to think local politics was boring, tinkering at the margins, something weird old people with too much time on their hands did.  Now I see the value of local politics as a place to develop authentic leadership among the disenfranchised, to directly confront power face to face, and to win victories that the community feels direct ownership over.

Sorry, DC.  My suits will mostly stay collecting dust in my closet.  I’m not coming back.  

The 5 Most Interesting Things I Learned From Twitter Today

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Ok, after Day One of actively using Twitter, I’m sold.

Here are five great links I read today from Twitter that I wouldn’t have read otherwise (they wouldn’t have shown up, even in my Google Reader, which pulls from about 50 different blogs and news sources).

Study shows college professors are not as liberal as people think

Black Americans waited twice as long as white Americans to vote last November

Organizing workers outside traditional unions is needed, but the current models are unsustainable

Climate activists publicly wonder “What do we do when the Democrats suck?”

Talking about female candidates’ appearance, whether positive or negative, hurts their chances of winning

P.S. follow me: @lucaszucker

My Inner Turmoil Over Twitter

Graph courtesy of blogger Nick Beaudrot

Graph courtesy of blogger Nick Beaudrot

 

About a week ago, I made a Twitter account out of curiosity just to see how many friends of mine were on Twitter and what they were talking about.

My reactions ranged from this…

To this…

I’m having social media angst.  Facebook, having swallowed Instagram, seems to be gradually becoming it.  Their News Feed algorithm increasingly favors photos and downplays links.  This sucks, because I want to use Facebook to read interesting things my friends post, and post things I think are interesting for my friends to read.  I don’t want to see any pictures of your fucking food.  That’s fine if you use Facebook primarily for promoting your cat’s existence and how silly it looks doing things.  The great thing about Facebook is it’s versatile.  I do me, you do you.  I just feel like Facebook is becoming biased against literate dialogue.  Even national conversations about social and political issues on Facebook are being reduced to quotes from B-list celebrities next to their pictures.

So I’m flirting with the idea of picking up a little Twitter on the side.

I like social media because I like to write and I like to read.  But to be honest, I think books are a pretty limited way to write and read.  They mostly have to be written by “experts” that have made it through the approval process of some publishing company, take forever to produce and so are never up to date, and have to be about 300-400 pages long because some Unelected Gods of Bookery decided so, even though most interesting ideas can be concisely expressed in 3-4 pages.

On the other hand, I think my friends are pretty smart and they’re a lot more diverse of a crowd than the world of published authors and they read blogs and news sources I don’t and share the good stuff on Facebook.  Social media also gives me a way to write quickly and whenever I feel like it and share ideas and links to things that I think are interesting without having to get a book deal.

Twitter seems like a pretty good platform for that in general.  But it’s also kind of a wasteland of mindless blabbering you have to wade through to find things that you actually care about.  Here’s how I look at it.

Upsides of Twitter:

  • It’s mainly text based.  You can link to pictures, but they don’t take up all the space
  • You’re part of an international dialogue that can include important people whose thoughts you’re interested in but you’re not personally friends with
  • You can spread your readers to people who aren’t already your friends, which is useful for things like promoting a blog

Downsides of Twitter:

  • The character limit means most things posted on Twitter are witty, snappy soundbites made to get as many retweets as possible, but it’s harder to convey interesting ideas with real substance
  • The culture of Twitter involves posting many times a day.  This makes people more willing to post stupid shit, because they don’t have a filter between their brain and their thumbs.  It also means Twitter is more time consuming to keep up with
  • Way less people are on Twitter.  About 2/3rds of Americans use Facebook, only 16% use Twitter.  And among my friends it feels like even less.
  • The hashtag thing is so fucking annoying

 

So friends– what do you think?  Do you use Twitter?  Why or why not?  Share your wisdom with me.

 

Why Immigration Reform Matters More Than You Think

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You could fill a high school yearbook with superlatives about different issues within the broader progressive movement: Most Likely to See a Victory This Year, Most Important Total Lost Cause, Best Facebook Profile Picture, etc.

Foreign Born Chart

Today I want to cast my vote for “Most Strategic”.  I’d define “strategic” as the issue that focusing resources on to win a major victory now will most build the long-term strength of our movement and set us up to be more effective in taking on everything else.

We’ve all heard the talk about how immigrant communities won the election for Obama in 2012 and the Republican Party is doomed.  There’s some truth in it.  The percent of Americans born in another country is the highest it’s been since the 1920’s.   The combined political muscle of those who are immigrants, live in immigrant neighborhoods or have immigrant family members is pretty hefty.  Immigrants tend to have more progressive views on most issues than people born in America.  And American-born Latinos and Asians are even more progressive than their parents.

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But I think we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Latino and Asian voter turnout is still really low.  Latinos and Asians are shamefully underrepresented in Congress, more so than African-Americans.  Community organizations in Latino and Asian neighborhoods tend to be weaker than those in black neighborhoods.

Lack of political power is a cycle, a positive feedback loop.  When a community is disenfranchised and oppressed, people see no value in engaging in a political system that shits on them.  This weakens their organizations, results in scarce political representation, and an absence from the negotiating table over policy.  This leads to being shafted even further by policy and budget decisions, which further heightens the community’s distrust of politics.

It takes a major social movement to break this cycle.  The Civil Rights Movement and its echoes grew political power within the black community.  The civil rights generation saw their collective action directly result in change in their daily lives.  They saw powerful institutions panic in the face of their strength and scramble to maintain the status quo.  And they saw themselves win.

It’s not emphasized enough that winning is fucking important.  People like winning.  They feel afraid, powerless, and insignificant until they win.  Even incremental, incomplete victories create organizations and develop leaders and build the confidence to win again.

It’s no accident that despite a massive coordinated effort to suppress them at the ballot box, black voter turnout rates in 2012 may have surpassed whites for the first time ever.  The dominant media narrative said the novelty of voting for the first black president had worn off and turnout would plummet.  Maybe true for white liberals.  But for the black community, it was no novelty.  It was a moment in history where many people of color felt a sense of their political power and the motivation to win again.

We won’t see the true power of American immigrant communities until we win a major victory.  The Chicano Movement was smaller and won far fewer victories than the Civil Rights Movement.   Immigrants’ rights activists have seen a few small victories lately like deferred action for DREAMers.  But something big has yet to come.  And when it does, the result will be a shift in our political landscape.

I expect the passage of comprehensive immigration reform to create a shift in communities like the ones I organize in.  I believe folks will see the power of taking to the streets and demanding justice, and many more will join future struggles over education, income inequality, even climate change.

Now I’m not saying everyone drop whatever you’re doing and work on immigration reform.  I am saying leaders and participants in all progressive movements should be paying close attention to what happens here, because it affects all of us.

Even symbolic displays of solidarity make an impact, especially on issues strongly dependent on winning public support.  When a black civil rights leader, a union president, or an LGBT rights activist publicly takes a stand on the issue of immigration, it signals to their followers that their struggles for dignity are bound to each other.

For example, Bill McKibben, one of America’s foremost leaders of the movement to stop climate change, recently wrote an op-ed in the LA Times supporting immigration reform.  Environmentalists and immigration advocates haven’t always been BFFs.  But McKibben gets it:

Election after election, native-born and long-standing citizens pull the lever for climate deniers, for people who want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, for the politicians who take huge quantities of cash from the Koch brothers and other oil barons. By contrast, a 2012 report by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza found that Latinos were eager for environmental progress. Seventy-seven percent of Latino voters think climate change is already happening, compared with just 52% of the general population; 92% of Latinos think we have “a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creation here on Earth.”  These numbers reflect, in part, the reality of life for those closer to the bottom of our economy. Latinos are 30% more likely to end up in the hospital for asthma, in part because they often live closer to sources of pollution.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign came under fire last week for telling one of their speakers at their rally in front of the Supreme Court not to mention that he was an undocumented immigrant.  The largest gay rights group in the country should know that “coming out” as undocumented is a key strategy for moving hearts and minds, because like with LGBT issues, people are most likely to change their minds if they know someone personally affected.

 

Listen, all I’m saying is, this shit is really important, not just for undocumented immigrants, but for all of us.  So try to say nice things and don’t fuck it up, okay?

Where is Our Modern Martin? (It’s Not Barack)

One might say the ultimate dream of progressives is to replicate the Civil Rights Movement and the accompanying progress on a range of political issues that occurred throughout the 1960’s (and to some extent 1970’s).  In fact, I like to talk a lot about how I believe we’re at the beginning of a “movement time”– a decade or so where social change advances quickly on many fronts.   (Here’s my case for why I think conditions are ripe.)  But if so, it seems like a problem that the face of progressive America is Barack Obama.  (I’d challenge anybody to come up with someone else who they can honestly call the face of progressive America.)

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013, which also happens to be President Obama’s second inauguration, like many in the media, I’m irresistibly drawn to compare and contrast the two men.

I’m not angry about Obama being sworn in on MLK’s bible.  I’m a strong Obama supporter and I think by historical standards of American presidents, he’s been great for progressives.

But Barack Obama has done a good job as an American president, not as an American social movement leader.  As much as the Obama team has adopted the language of organizing, as much as he painstakingly emphases passages in his speeches like “this has never been about just one election” and  “this campaign belongs to you”, Barack Obama left the community organizing business decades ago.  He inspires people to come to events to see him speak, and to wait in lines to vote for him.  He can claim the most “liked” picture in Facebook history.  But he does not inspire people to march on Washington together or engage in civil disobedience to demand change (except the Tea Party).  Not a personal failing.  That’s just not what presidents do.

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President Obama sits inside the bus made famous by Rosa Parks

Barack Obama is not our Martin Luther King.  Barack Obama is our Lyndon Johnson, to a yet-undiscovered Martin Luther King.

I’m really interested in his new organization that he’s been asking his supporters to join, the revamped OFA– Organizing for Action.  I think it could be an innovative tool for advancing the president’s legislative agenda in Congress– it’s got a big list and can probably generate insane numbers of phone calls and petitions etc.  But I don’t think anybody seriously believes it’s going to be a movement-building organization like MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  It’s run by people with the Campaign Brain, and will never be truly independent of the Democratic Party, will never have people willing to be beaten and jailed and shot for it.

At the time of his death, King was not just the de facto leader of the civil rights movement, but also one of the nation’s most prominent labor/antipoverty activists, one of America’s premier antiwar activists.  He did not need to engage in fiscal cliff negotiations.  His job was instead to fuel the burning engine of pure human will that drove forward social progress– and allow the axles and cogs of the legislative machinery to be ground along by the miserable grunts of the United States Congress.  As a social movement activist, he was not constrained by the demands of re-election, by the pull of donors, by the gravity of his office.  He could say things like this, that Barack Obama could never say:

“In the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers, as I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.

But they ask — and rightly so — ‘what about Vietnam?’ They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

He could take unequivocal stands for justice without having to hedge his words while simultaneously awkwardly holding the reins of a government whose laws dictate separating undocumented immigrant parents from their children and sending suspected enemy combatants to detainee camps.  The leader of a movement cannot also be the Commander in Chief (unless his name rhymes with Schmitler).

We don’t seem to have our time’s Martin– a powerful, independent, multi-issue voice of the American Left, committed to organization and movement building.  Maybe instead we have an equally important behind-the-scenes figure that I’m too inexperienced or unimportant to know about– a modern Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin.  Maybe the army of paid staff of advocacy organizations made possible by the nonprofit industrial complex has replaced our need for a few big leaders as the pillars of social movements.  Maybe we don’t need leaders at all anymore because of the interwebz and tweets and whatnot.

But I do feel like many of the shortcomings of progress in Obama’s first term were due to a lack of outside social movement.  They were due to Obama being the face of the left, the glowing messiah of 2008 who allowed movement activists to chill out and let Barack take care of it.  I believe the first black president is part of King’s legacy.  But I think a new generation of leaders of organizations within an independent movement for equality, peace and freedom would be a more important legacy.

How the Growth of High-Income Asian Communities Will Reshape American Politics

asianamer3.gifNew York Times article today noted the rise in influence of Asian-Americans in philanthropy.  It has some weird stuff about Asian cultures having a tradition of giving to charity, which as far as I know may be made up.  But the point remains that any time you have a growing community of new money, it means new money to give away.

And in this case, the large numbers of highly-educated Asian immigrants (mostly from India, Korea and Taiwan) who have been brought to the US by high-tech employers might be the biggest new money community in American history.  As you might expect, this is making some old money white folks freak out.  Mostly about the prospects of their children getting squeezed out of Harvard by the kids of the engineers who designed their iPhones.  (Some even say there is an “Asian quota” in the Ivy League, similar to those once faced by Jewish Americans, another new money group of highly-educated immigrants that threatened the halls of America’s elite institutions.)

But what America’s elites should really fear is the inevitable result of trying to close the doors on others:  political backlash.

And here’s what it looks like:

Asian and Pacific Islander voters went even harder for Obama last year than Latinos did.  That’s more than double the 31% of Asian-Americans who supported Clinton 20 years ago.

Political analysts are dumbfounded– shouldn’t any group with high average incomes vote Republican out of basic self-interest?  In the aftermath of the election they scrambled to come up with all kinds of stupid explanations– Asian culture is collectivist not individualist, Asians like science and the GOP is anti-science, Asians mostly live in liberal coastal cities like SF and NY– none of which makes sense, since it doesn’t explain the shift over the last 20 years from Asian-Americans being conservative voters in the 1990’s.

My theory is that this trend is being driven by younger second-generation API folks who have grown up within the context of America’s racial politics.  Most countries have some kind of left/right political divide, but America’s left vs. right is deeply rooted in race in a way that isn’t as intuitive to new immigrants.  You also see this among Latino immigrant communities, where US-born Latinos are more likely to self-identify as “liberal” than their parents.

Even if you might have been a conservative in another country, for a person of color in America it takes about 10 minutes of watching Glenn Beck foam at the mouth about Obama’s plans to destroy white America to realize you’re not welcome at this particular tea party.  The more familiar you are with American political culture the more likely you are to notice that American conservatism has a racist, exclusionary undertone in a way South Korean or Taiwanese conservatism probably does not.

According to the National Asian American Survey, taken in late September, young (under 35) Asian-Americans were nearly twice as likely to support Obama as their parents’ generation, and also less than half as likely to be undecided on who to vote for.

asianvotersbyage

I predict eventually Asian-Americans will occupy a strange political space similar to Jewish-Americans.  (Jewish voters have overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates as far back as data is available).  Asian-Americans will also become a group who, despite high average incomes that might otherwise predict conservative leanings, consistently vote Democratic and are heavily represented among prominent progressive activists, academics, politicians and donors.

Money brings political clout.  And you can bet that growing philanthropy mentioned above is not just funding universities and soup kitchens, but candidates and advocacy organizations too.  And because many API advocacy groups are not ethnic-specific but work on behalf of API Americans as a whole, they often take strong social justice stances because of the many smaller API ethnic groups and older immigrants who are low-income and politically disenfranchised.  Like Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans will likely have an influence on politics larger than simple numbers as voters.

But the numbers will be important too.  Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are now the fastest growing racial group in America.  Jewish people make up only 2% of the U.S. population, much less even than the current API population.  But Asian-Americans are expected to grow to 9% of all Americans by midcentury.  That’s nearly the size of the current black population.

In fact, Asian-Americans will be the fastest-growing, wealthiest, and most rapidly leftward shifting group in America, all at the same time.

And that’s bad news bears for the right wing.

And now for your moment of Zen, Bill O’Reilly being confused by the existence of liberal Asians:

Was the Fiscal Cliff Deal, Weirdly Enough, Occupy’s First National Victory?

 

My reaction to the final fiscal cliff compromise was something along the lines of an exhausted sigh and shrug. Seems fine I guess. The whole manufactured crisis thing is hard to get worked up about after a while.

But I began to think… maybe there’s something being overlooked here: In an odd way, this could be seen as the first national policy victory of the Occupy Movement.

Like the fiscal deal or not, in 2013, the 1 Percent will pay the highest tax rate they’ve paid since 1979.

 

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At the movement’s peak, although I was excited about its potential, I was kind of a pessimist about Occupy. I wrote then that without institutionalizing itself, it would dissolve before achieving the kind of national policy victories that the Tea Party had won.

But there is something to be said for the more intangible impact of social movements. They shape the thinking of everyone from your everyday dude on the street to professors, journalists, leaders of organizations and even presidents.

During Occupy Wall Street’s initial explosion onto the scene in 2011, I was in DC interning for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. It was fascinating to see how think tanks, economists, columnists, even the great global institutions of capitalism like the OECD and the IMF all felt it necessary to respond to Occupy and start talking about income inequality and how to address it.

Then one day the chief economist at the CEA brought all of us into her office to watch on TV as the president gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. It didn’t create much media buzz, but she insisted this was an extremely important speech. And it was. It was the moment where Barack Obama publicly shifted to the strategy and message that won him re-election a year later.

Since the Tea Party’s rise and the miserable beatdown congressional Democrats had taken in 2010, the president had spent the past year moving his rhetoric to the center and trying to appease the right wing. Although in 2008 he originally campaigned on letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire for those making over $250k a year, he had outraged progressives like me in 2010 when he compromised with House Republicans to fully extend them for two more years (which would eventually lead to the fiscal cliff).

But as we saw in his shift on gay marriage, presidents, like any human being, change their minds sometimes. I believe it’s safe to say Occupy changed Obama. After that speech in Osawatomie, when for the first time he talked about the 99% and the 1%, he took a combative approach, with a clear emphasis on one issue: economic fairness. That was the message he used to successfully define the choice between him and Mitt Romney, and what ultimately won him the election a year later.

And in the first major political battle after the election, negotiating with congressional Republicans, he drew a line in the sand back to his original campaign promise that the Bush Tax Cuts must expire on incomes over $250k. Of course, being Barack Obama, he then crossed his line in the sand and offered a new threshold of $450k. But this one he held firm to. And interestingly enough, this is roughly the income level that puts you in the richest 1% of Americans.

 

So the One Percenters will pay the lion’s share of the tax increases in the fiscal deal. Meanwhile, thanks to the almost-impressive vicious stubbornness of the GOP, the incredibly-rich-but-not-quite-obscenely-rich Two Percenters (roughly incomes between $250k-450k) got the best deal. In fact, the downright impoverished will see a larger tax hike than they will next year. But at least in the Occupy frame of the world, the Two Percenters are still part of the 99%.

If anything this deal shows the sticking power of Occupy’s successful framing of our political economy as a conflict between the 99% and the 1%. This frame has, maybe for the first time, made its way into something written into law.

I’m sure if you asked most of the folks who participated in General Assemblies at the height of the Occupy Movement they would not be jumping with joy about this slight increase in the top marginal tax rate. But even if it wasn’t exactly their dream, in a way this is their victory.

How Come We Don’t Have Bestselling Novels About Class Struggle Anymore?

lesmiserables

Like millions of others looking for a relatively stress-free holiday family activity, I watched Les Miserables this weekend.

I was struck by an unshakeable feeling of the story’s old-ness.  Maybe it’s the way characters can fall absurdly in love with each other on sight or decide to die after performing tragic monologues.

But to me the clearest sign this story was written in a different time is its unapologetic political statement.  Les Miserables is not about economic inequality in 19th century Europe, it’s about a man’s struggle with personal transformation while being trapped in the sins of his past.  And yet it recognizes that the personal is political and the political is personal.  The suffering Jean Valjean experiences is wrapped in the context of the political and economic system he lives in and the villain is this system, even more than it is Javert.

This all made me wonder: Why don’t we have bestselling novels about class struggle anymore?

The original Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, despite political criticism, was a huge financial success in the western world of the 1800’s.  But today our popular culture seems to shy away from placing characters within a political context.

I want to focus on Hollywood here.  Novels and plays were the medium for popular culture consumption in the 19th century, but today movies and TV are the way regular people interact with storytelling.  (Also if I start talking about books I’d end up revealing, through my complete ignorance, the fact that I mostly stopped reading them at the age of 16.)

I did some research (okay, it was Wikipedia) on the top grossing movies of the 1990’s and 2000’s.  (1990 is the beginning of the After Lucas era, before which nothing is relevant).  Pretty much the closest we’ve got in the A.L. era is The Matrix, which gets points for symbolism.  Maybe at best some sort of vague, fuzzy critique of organized religion in the Da Vinci Code.  Avatar I guess says something about environmentalism and respecting indigenous people?
batman

If anything we’ve moved into the superhero movie era—where our heroes are individuals who seek not to change society, but to maintain law and order.  Perhaps the perfect counterexample to Les Miserables is the latest Batman movie.  Here the masses, discontent with inequality, are easily swayed by manipulative demagogue villains and can be whipped into a dangerous corrupt mob unless fought by a multi-billionaire heir of a military contracting corporation who can use its sheer firepower to restore the status quo.  The political statement is only that social change is at best irrelevant, or at worst an illusion, a convenient backdrop for the epic battles of heroes and villains.

So the more important question: Why?

Is the medium of film, with its badass special effects, simply more suited to the empty-headed action movie?  Or are writers and producers, or at least the most talented ones, becoming more politically apathetic?  Maybe consumers just don’t want to watch political stuff, so political critique is reserved for niche indie film festival audiences and never makes it to the mainstream.

Whatever the reason, this is a problem for those of us in political work.  Social movements cannot exist without artistic and cultural works to win the hearts and minds of the public.  A blockbuster movie is worth a thousand press releases and a bestselling novel is worth a million petitions.

This is a political organizer’s cry for help to the storytellers of the world:  Can we get some movies about the modern-day 99% up in here that don’t involve us getting our asses kicked by Bruce Wayne in a bat costume?

A Quiet Violence

connecticut-school-shooting-547d695bed8c22ac

I was one of those kids that wasn’t allowed to have toy guns.

At the time I thought this was a deeply unfair infringement on my personal liberties.

Not that it stopped me.  I was growing up in a city with one of the highest rates of gun violence in a country notorious for its gun violence.  Boys teach each other about violence on concrete schoolyards across America as inevitably and methodically as they learn about math inside the classroom.

Later, when I worked at a preschool in college, I took an almost perverse glee in confiscating “guns” made of Legos, sticks, rolls of toilet paper.  Little boys will make guns out of literally anything.  Maybe I’m still just jealous of the other kids who had cool gun toys.

After four years of working at a school, when I see news of school shootings I can’t help but wonder how many thousand times each of those kids was “shot” in games on the playground before the day they were shot in real life.  I wonder if it seemed like just another game at first when a gunman pointed the barrel of a firearm in their direction.

We think of certain types of violence as perpetuated by “bad people”, by “others”.  Oh, those gangbangers on that side of town are violent.  Those crazy men who snap and shoot up schools and movie theaters are violent.  Those people in Third World countries that strap bombs to their chests are violent.  It’s that loud, flashy, gory violence on the evening news that’s easy to put on other people.

But there’s another kind of violence, a quiet violence.  It’s a careless disregard for human life and safety deeply woven into the fabric of our society, our laws, our economy.  Maybe it’s a curse from the ghosts of the thousands of imaginary people we killed in games as kids and watched die before our eyes on the TV screen gnawing away at the bottom of our conscience until we can’t feel it anymore.

We don’t have to physically harm another person with our own hands to participate in violence.  The cold inaction of lawmakers to reduce gun violence after countless mass shootings is far more violent than the action of Adam Lanza of Connecticut.  There is a quiet violence as members of Congress trip over themselves to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy while turning an apathetic shrug to the spread of assault weapons.  It is the cruel brutality of setting priorities.  It is the calm willingness to let young men of color die in America’s streets in every day because the gun lobby is too powerful.

The same day as the Connecticut shooting there was a nearly identical rampage of a man in China who stabbed 22 children.  The difference is that while the Chinese children were hurt, none of them died.  Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  But they’re much more effective with guns.  Individuals with serious mental illness and violent tendencies exist across the world, but the U.S. gun culture is unique.  Adam Lanza has blood on his hands, but so in a more subtle way do millions of us as American voters, consumers of popular culture, and funders of National Rifle Association lobbyists.

The loud violence of our tanks rolling through foreign deserts and drones whining overhead drowns out the much larger quiet violence: the slow sucking sound of those trillions of dollars that could prevent the deaths of millions of children from malaria and malnutrition.

And what about the quiet violence of the thousands of people every year in poor, polluted communities who die from diseases caused by our addiction to dirty energy?  What about the quiet violence as desperate unemployed men in shuttered factory towns turn to alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide because some consulting firm decided the plant wasn’t efficient enough?  What about the quiet violence inflicted on families who lose loved ones to the rising cost of overpriced pharmaceuticals?  What about the quiet violence of teenage boys repeating comedians’ jokes about rape with their friends until one day one of them meets a girl at a party and won’t take no for an answer?

These kinds of quiet violence never make the evening news.  They wouldn’t be played by Bruce Willis or Jason Statham in an action movie.  But in the true meaning of violence, the willingness to cause harm to another human being, they are far more violent than any shooting spree.

We know how to process incidents of violence like mass shootings where guilt is clear and isolated.  We want to point to individuals as violent, not societies, not laws, not institutions.  It’s uncomfortable to think that our lifestyles or our work or our political choices or even our words can cause violence.  We defensively reject the idea that the willful inaction of people with the power to prevent harm is as violent as the willful action of people who cause harm.  But our insistence on certain privileges, our reluctance to make change a priority, and our lack of courage to envision a better world are truly violent.