Monday, July 4, 2011

Clowns Are OK for a Chidren's Party But You Don't Want Them to be The Face of the Left

Barbara Jordan was a great legislator, her brilliance at doing the most she could with what she had at hand is well summed up in her obituary by Molly Ivins (1). She wasn’t just that great voice and commanding presence, those were only the tools wielded by a master politician. She was more than a show. She never lost an opportunity “ to make government work”. Superficial people will remember the voice, less superficial ones what she said, serious people also remember what she accomplished when she took those opportunities.

Another point from the obituary hands us one of the keys to political success. Barbara Jordan never wasted a minute on a hopeless cause. To look at the situation from the viewpoint of the possible, to leave aside the impossible and to never, ever lose sight of the goals that are achievable. No matter what transient personal satisfaction, no matter what issue of lesser importance, no matter what goal dearly wished for or even worthy but not achievable, never waste time or resources on the futile. Certainly don’t waste them on pointless, self-destructive, self-indulgence.

Barbara Jordan’s serious and absolute dedication to the goal of progress led her in at least one instance to make an attack on people allegedly within the movement. She warned against people using “kamikaze” tactics(2). You don’t forget the word “kamikaze” as pronounced by Barbara Jordan. She warned about words and actions that looked flashy, gained their user abundant attention but which would damage the movement for progress. Listening to her in the context of the times, as soon as I heard those words I had little doubt who they might apply to. I thought “ Flo Kennedy."

Flo was at the crest of her own personal wave back then. A 60 Minutes spot, all over TV, her act was the predominant picture of a black, lesbian, feminist as the corporate media were targeting all three movements for irrelevance. A black woman who could be counted on to declare her love for insane dictator and mass murderer, Idi Amin, because he was a powerful black man who was “bad”(3). I used to watch her amazed that she couldn’t see the indulgent smirk on the faces of the media hit men who were egging her on to say the next outrageous thing.

I must have wondered what happened to Flo Kennedy in the past twenty-five years but not enough to go look her up. Maybe she had done what she so melodramatically said she was going to do back then and commit suicide as soon as life had stopped being “a ball”(4). She largely disappeared from the TV screen, at any rate. Perhaps she had served her purpose and needing her no more, the corporate media dumped her on the same scrap pile as other media figures of the left fallen into desuetude.

Flo did do some important work in her earlier career as a lawyer. I won’t deny that. She said some memorable things too. As late as the early seventies she was associated with serious people such as Shirley Chisholm and Gloria Steinem but by the late seventies her primary function was to become a set character in the cartoon of the left that the media was producing. She loved that role (5). Like a number of other camera hogs of the left, she had become a tool to damage it. If Barbara Jordan didn’t mean Flo Kennedy, she certainly filled the role.

The left doesn’t have resources to waste on indulging the attention seeking, superficial and self-promoting characters for whom the lime light is more seductive than actually achieving power and working to change laws. If they want to get attention, make them earn it by producing something. If they want to keep it they should keep producing. We can’t indulge those who did something decades ago but who, by their own actions, become destructive to progressive change. It doesn’t matter who has fond memories of them or enjoys their company. You can keep them as friends, just keep them off camera.

The media will chose people to call leaders for the left, they will chose those people who they can use as a tool against us. We should be suspicious of anyone who is regularly featured in the corporate media, they don’t ask people back unless they say what they want to hear.

Anyone who the media asks to appear should be suspicious of their motives and keep their eyes open for being used. Insist on seeing the final edit before it goes on air or into print.

The left doesn’t have time or resources to waste on the superficial. You can be funny, Barbara Jordan certainly could be. And there are few people who are funnier than Molly Ivins. But for the left only funny isn’t nearly enough anymore, being only outrageous is less. The merely funny might waste time, merely outrageous is a gun in the hands of irresponsible children and that gun is always pointed left. We don’t have time or resources to spend on flash in the pan junk, we need to have the best. The left fully deserves it and should accept no other.

1. You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You ISBN: 0679754873

2. Does anyone know of a transcript?

3. Said during that 60 Minuted interview. If this doesn’t suffice as self-immolation of someone’s seriousness what would? Idi Amin had already murdered thousands of Ugandans and he was still very much in power but that apparently was less important than making a splash on TV.

4. According to Wikipedia Flo Kennedy died in 2000. The account of her activities stops abruptly in the period I’m talking about here. I don’t know of any illness or health problem that would account for that, if so then none of the sources I checked mentions it.

5. They had tried to fill a similar slot with Bella Abzug ( I so well remember that rotten Time cover story) who certainly had a disposition and a way of her own, but, a serious person more resistant to the lure of the camera, she would have none of it.

Note: Originally, when I posted this in 2006 I didn't identify Flo Kennedy as the person I was and am certain Barbara Jordan was referring to. If she didn't mean her, specifically, she certainly fit the bill.

While We Were Just Talking About It

Kip Tiernan, founder of the first homeless shelter for women, one of my all time heroes, died of cancer yesterday, she was 85.

Rosie's Place was what she was most known for but she was involved in so many other things. The Boston Globe, this morning, gives this list:

Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Boston Food Bank, Community Works, Aid to Incarcerated Mothers, Finex House, Food for Free, John Leary House, My Sister’s Place, Transition House, the Greater Boston Union of the Homeless, and Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission.

Kip Tiernan was a living embodiment of how at odds with fashion being a worker for justice and equality is going to be. She was a successful member of Alcoholics Anonymous at a time that is unfashionable, an example of why it works for a number of the people who try it. She was an "angry daughter of Christ" who wore a cross around her neck while clearly taking up hers and following far better than most. Also from the Globe:

The cross she wore was more than a symbol.

“A rooted woman, Kip always wears that cross,’’ Globe op-ed columnist James Carroll wrote in 1996, “which marks her not for piety or for a religion of easy answers, but for being, in her words, ‘an angry daughter of Christ. . . . I find that the cross of Jesus is the radical condemnation of an unjust world. You have to stay with the one crucified or stand with the crucifiers.’ ’’

In that she drew inspiration from Dorothy Day, another unfashionable person who had more important things to do than the more well remembered and generally far less accomplished leftists she'd been associated with.

Kip Tiernan's work led her to be arrested in protests and to generally make the too comfortable uncomfortable. In every way she is an example of someone who did it while others, me included, just talked about it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Dangerous Founders Fetish

The automatic, programmed, resort to citing “The Founding Fathers” as if the words, real and invented, were infallible writ, is ubiquitous in political culture these days. In just about every case the citation of “The Founders” is supposed to be taken as the authoritative settler of arguments, sort of like the Guinness Book of World Records was intended to be in an only slightly different context. Questioning the wisdom of worshiping the “founders” will be met, mostly, with confused bewilderment, of the kind that you meet whenever you question a socially received bit of common consensus. If you press the point, you will eventually get an angry reaction, the emotion that is the most handy replacement for a rational argument.

Why a group of white, male, aristocrats of the late 18th century is supposed to govern our lives, in an entirely different world, more than two centuries later, is a question that isn’t raised nearly as often as it should be. Why should they govern us today? After all, the “founders” themselves, were revolutionaries, overturning established governments, cutting ties to previous foundations of government and law – as deemed desirable by themselves . Why that morality of that break with the past isn’t seen by today’s would-be Federalists as more potently instructive than the alleged teachings of those revolutionaries, is an issue that should be pressed. They changed things through violence, a war in which many people died, people were attacked and dispossessed. In contrast, just about every change to the, mostly mythic, Federalist order that has come about in the history of the United States, was done through non-violent change. The great exception was, of course, the Civil War, the origins of which were found in the glaring faults of the Constitution and the financial interests of the Founders, themselves.

Anyone who has been a witness to the past fifty years, the years when the cult of the Founders has flourished in all its dishonest, hypocritical and inconsistent vigor, might well consider it to be an emotional campaign waged by those who want to overturn civil rights progress, first and foremost, but also to reassert the control of an aristocratic oligarchy, such as the one which wrote the constitution and which was only gradually, and unfortunately, temporarily suppressed by those favoring egalitarian democracy. The slogans, icons and catechism of the Founders cult, are not the tools of reasoned consideration, they are more George M. Cohan who said, "Many a bum show has been saved by the flag."

Racism and other forms of bigotry are inseparable from the Founders Fetish, the contemporary assertion of “states rights” and a host of other Federalist bromides having gained their most ardent advocates among the neo-confederates. Another line feeding into it is the opposition to the Income Tax and regulatory agencies. As seen in a large number of instances, such as DOMA, when it is in their interest for the federal government to usurp powers granted to states, they’ve, mostly, not had any problem with violating the sacred writ of the Founders. It’s telling that the instances in which they are opposed to this have included the federal protection of individual liberties and their endorsement of federal encroachment has usually been in favor of quashing state protection of rights and liberties.* And it’s the rarest of right wingers who opposes taxes when it’s for the military or other things they support.

The malignant, irrational and dangerous right has taken the Founders Fetish into ever more bizarre territory, connected to neither history nor reality, in ever more dangerous ways. The tea party cult, with its viciously bigoted and racist verbal eruptions is followed by ever descending, more bigoted, more violent manifestations of militias and the “sovereigns”. Much if not just about all of the armed right, with a history of murder and maiming, will make some appeal to “The founders” for their motivation and their justification.

One of the more dangerous conglomeration of this are the “soverigns”, an al Qaeda type, loosely constituted bunch which are armed and murderous.

At its core, the current sovereign belief system is relatively simple and is based on a decades-old conspiracy theory. At some point in history, sovereigns believe, the American government set up by the founding fathers - with a legal system the sovereigns refer to as "common law" - was secretly replaced by a new government system based on admiralty law, the law of the sea and international commerce. Some sovereigns believe this perfidious change occurred during the Civil War, while others blame the events of 1933, when America abandoned the gold standard. Either way, they stake their lives and livelihood on the idea that judges around the country know all about this hidden government takeover but are denying the sovereigns' motions and filings out of treasonous loyalty to hidden and malevolent government forces. Under common law, or so they believe, the sovereigns would be free men. Under admiralty law, they are slaves, and secret government forces have a vested interest in keeping them that way.

As the piece by J.J. MacNab, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows, it’s far from innocuous. It is an irony that the victims of much of this kind of right wing violence are police officers, forest and park rangers, and others, the nurturing of the paranoia that fuels the far right by the side pretending to be for law and order is even more so. Why police unions and organizations aren’t more vocal in their opposition to the Federalist establishment which, through numerous campaigns and court rulings, have put them at even more risk, is something that their members should press.

The history of the United States, the gradual expansion of rights for women and minorities, workers --hard fought and at great sacrifice, the construction of public education, public institutions, and a huge range of other events and thinking, has taught us things that the late 18th century never knew. Those have led to a far more democratic and just society than they seem to have imagined. But Americans are taught to ignore that history which has produced enormous good for the majority of people in this country. I don’t think that campaign of collective amnesia is unintended but if it is, it should be resisted.

History is taught in the wrong direction, it should be taught from today back, the most relevant lessons for us to learn from being those which are closest to us, the events of recent history still being the ones with potency in our lives. But that recent history is the most dangerous to the status quo, the least likely to lead to quaint, distracting, antiquarianism. “The Founders” in the imagination of those most devoted to that cult seem to be about as real as celluloid cowboys are, the results share the dangerous fascination of macho violence. It’s time to take history out of the hands of the mass media and the federalist hacks.

* I do not trust Ted Olsen’s motives in the case to overturn Prop 8. I don’t trust him but will be glad to acknowledge if there isn’t another shoe to drop in his case.

First posted August 8, 2010