Voters lining up in Long Beach, NY
By Joseph M. Schwartz
Democratic Socialists of America
Throughout modern history, the property-less, women, people of color, and undocumented immigrants have fought and died for the right to vote. People understand that those who hold state power shape everyone’s lives through legislation and the administration of the law.
Democratic social movements, however, have never solely relied upon their electoral numbers to bring about social reform; they have also protested against and disrupted the dominant rules of the game in order to redistribute power and resources. Social change has come most rapidly when people believed the state may be responsive to their needs; the militancy of the 1930s and 1960s arose when, first, trade unionists and, later, civil rights militants protested because the nominally liberal governments they helped elect were not fully responsive.
A 40-year corporate offensive against the gains of the 1960s has rolled back some of these gains, particularly in regards to reproductive justice – such as abortion access — and income support for single mothers with infants. But even this offensive needed democratic numbers; the corporate-funded, think-tank propaganda of Tea Party politicians worked to deflect the anger of white middle and working-class voters away from the oligarchs and towards people of color, feminists, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and the poor.
On the other hand, the gains in human rights experienced by the LGBTQ community illustrates how social mobilization can lead to democratic change even in a conservative era. Thus, the complex interaction between social movements and electoral politics is a permanent fixture of capitalist democracies.
Why State and Local Electoral Politics Matters
The provision of public goods (from roads to schools to Medicaid, to welfare–now called TANF–and unemployment benefits) are differentially determined by 50 separate state governments and thousands of county and municipal governments. The outcome of the 2014 state and congressional elections will, in part, determine who gets or does not get food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, or increased funding for public education. Thus, non-presidential “off year” elections impact the lives of working and poor people as profoundly as do more visible presidential races. If progressives could turn out their base in off-year elections as well as they do in presidential years, local and state legislatures and Congress would be far more progressive.
The failure of the Obama administration to challenge Republican control of Congress over the past two years means it has few progressive themes to deploy to mobilize its black, Latino, and trade union base, although unyielding Republican attacks on reproductive rights may energize the Democrats’ strong base among single women. On the other hand, Democrats may have particular problems mobilizing the Latino community, as the administration recently postponed executive action to expand the rights of “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors) out of fear of alienating swing white voters.
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Black Power Meets the Solidarity Economy
By Michael Siegel
A new political and economic model is emerging, and it is not appearing where we might suspect it would. In the heart of the South, in a city named after one of the most racist presidents in United States history, in a landscape that resembles parts of Detroit and other decaying industrial centers, an impressive intergenerational collection of community organizers and activists have launched a bold program to empower a black working-class community that 21st -century capitalism has left behind.
In the last two months, I have traveled twice to Jackson, Miss., first for the memorial of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, and most recently, between May 2 and 4, for the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference held at Jackson State University. On both occasions, I have been struck by the amazing individuals and families who have dedicated themselves to developing economic democracy in Jackson.
A Black Revolutionary Mayor in the Heart of the South
Jackson Rising is the brainchild of a coalition of local and national political forces, including the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), the Jackson People’s Assembly and Lumumba’s office. Part of the initial vision was for the conference to catalyze some of the mayor’s economic initiatives, including the goal of helping local workers win government contracts. Unfortunately Lumumba, who won election by an overwhelming majority in June, held office for only a brief period before dying Feb. 25 of unexplained causes.
That Lumumba won the election at all is a testament to his sustained radical human rights work and to the group of community organizers he worked with over many years. Even during his campaign for mayor, Lumumba made no apologies for his revolutionary background, including his commitment to the New Afrikan Peoples Organization (NAPO) and its claim to a homeland in the predominantly black regions of the South (described as the “Kush”), including broad swaths of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Lumumba’s history also included decades of experience as a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, with past clients including freedom fighters and political prisoners such as Mutulu Shakur, Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur.
Despite his radical background, Lumumba was embraced by the people of Jackson, where he had long been an active community advocate and youth mentor. Lumumba and MXGM also utilized innovative organizing tactics to activate the local population. They went door to door to recruit participants for the Jackson People’s Assembly, an independent formation that began as a response to Hurricane Katrina. The Assembly now meets quarterly to discuss community concerns and debate issues including participation in the U.S. Census and the curriculum in the Jackson Public Schools. Hundreds of residents have participated in the Assembly, and locals who are unaffiliated with Lumumba or MXGM lead working committees on topics such as economic development, education and public safety.
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Goldman Turns Tables on Obama Campaign
By LIZ RAPPAPORT and BRODY MULLINS
Wall Street Journal
Oct 9, 2012 – When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, no major U.S. corporation did more to finance his campaign than Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
This election, none has done more to help defeat him.
Prompted by what they call regulatory attacks on their business and personal attacks on their character, executives and employees of Goldman Sachs have largely abandoned Mr. Obama and are now the top sources of money to presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the Republican Party.
In the four decades since Congress created the campaign-finance system, no company’s employees have switched sides so abruptly, moving from top supporters of one camp to the top of its rival, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of campaign-finance data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Employees at Goldman donated more than $1 million to Mr. Obama when he first ran for president. This election, they have given the president’s campaign $136,000—less than Mr. Obama has collected from employees of the State Department. The employees have contributed nothing to the leading Democratic super PAC supporting his re-election.
By contrast, Goldman employees have given Mr. Romney’s campaign $900,000, plus another $900,000 to the super PAC founded to help him.
Underscoring the magnitude of the reversal, Goldman has been the No. 1 source of campaign cash to Democrats among companies during the 23 years the Center for Responsive Politics has been collecting such data.
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By Ethan Young
Left Labor Project
More than 100 NYC-area trade union activists and supporters heard Bill Fletcher, Jr’s analysis of the election on September 24. The event was organized by Left Labor Project, a local socialist group focused on moving the labor movement in a more consciously progressive direction.
Fletcher’s speech and q&a discussion were chaired by Muata Green, a DC 37 retiree and member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO/OSCL). Anne Mitchell of CCDS kept time to ensure broad participation. The crowd was a healthy mix – multiracial, old, young and in-between. Sisters and brothers from at least a dozen unions took part.
Fletcher recently co-authored a widely circulated op-ed, “The 2012 Elections Have Little To Do With Obama’s Record … Which Is Why We Are Voting For Him” (http://www.progressivesforobama.net/?p=263). He came prepared to respond to the criticism it prompted from left opponents of the Obama campaign. In his speech he raised strong points of opposition to Obama’s moderate response to the insurgent right, which he compared to the Allies at Anzio in World War II. “They could have taken Rome,” he said, “but they stayed put, playing it by the book until they were surrounded.” Obama, he stressed, “is not us. He’s the President of an empire. We have to remember that.” But Fletcher spoke to the need to unite with the President’s supporters to head off the challenge of the Far Right, which he described as revanchist (“As in revenge”) and irrational (“Government hands off Medicare”). He noted the changing racial demographic of the country, and the xenophobic panic that is driving the Romney campaign.
Moving to long range strategy, Fletcher said the Left today needs “a modern Tecumseh.” He recalled Gramsci’s work The Modern Prince, which updated Machiavelli’s views on political leadership for the 20th century. In Gramsci’s words:
“The modern prince … cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. It can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will which has already been recognised and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form. History has already provided this organism, and it is the political party – the first cell in which there come together germs of a collective will tending to become universal and total.”
In contrast to Machiavelli, for the US Left Fletcher pointed to the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, who built a confederation of tribes to resist European settler encroachment and genocide starting in the 1780s. Tecumseh, Fletcher noted, counseled unity, solidarity and shared sacrifice, and warned against uncoordinated, poorly considered action. The experience of unifying Indian tribes has lessons for today – in particular, the need for broad political organization to meet present-day challenges.
Fletcher spoke of neoliberal, pro-austerity policies likely to continue after the election. In response, he advocated bringing social movements together in January 2013 at the Presidential inauguration. He declared that, unlike 2008, this time there should be a strong stand in Washington, demanding jobs. “We gave our all to get him elected, but then we gave him a pass,” he said. “That can’t happen again.”
The expected debate in the q&a session didn’t happen – questions were serious, but generally coming from a supportive point of view. Fletcher sold out his supply of his newly released book, “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions, which he signed for the attendees.
Fletcher was introduced by Arthur Cheliotes, President of Communication Workers of America Local 1180. The meeting room was donated by 1180, which represents a range of public and private sector workers in NYC. -30-
The Mass Movement in 2012
CCDS members are and should continue to be involved in the mass democratic activity to defeat the far right that will likely grow over the coming months. Elections and electoral campaigns will largely frame the national discourse at the national, state and local level in the following ways:
Labor-community-religious coalitions will be key forms for the electoral struggle at the working class base. United Wisconsin and other state based coalitions in defense of collective bargaining, PDA, WFP and similar organizations or parties will play significant roles in independent electoral and progressive activity.
Struggles for democracy and equality and against racism injected by the far right into the election campaign are at a new and virulent level. “Poor” is the new code word for Black and immigrant, even though most poor people are white. Coded in racism also are Republican attacks on food stamps and social benefits, their campaign for draconian laws against immigrants and glorification of executions and the death penalty.
Struggles against restrictive voting laws that disenfranchise the poor and people of color. Struggle for a new movement against the death penalty, the mass incarceration of Black, Latino and low income people, and the prison-industrial complex, which is the main instrument of the ruling class today in re-imposing Jim Crow racism and segregation on our society and splitting the working class.
Single issue organizations and coalitions of trade unions, peace, health care, civil rights, living wage coalitions, women’s rights, seniors, civil liberties, immigrant rights and others will organize to bring pressure on candidates and work in get-out-the-vote activity. The Rebuild the Dream, National People’s Action, the Occupy movement and many other local and state based efforts will rally to bring pressure to bear on issues and candidates.
Building new grass roots electoral forms and social movements based on a peace and economic justice agenda, opposing militarism and wars of intervention including in Afghanistan and sanctions against Iran, moving the money from military to programs for living wage jobs, a sustainable environment, Medicare for all health care, education without debt, affordable housing, and strengthening state budgets to preserve public services.
Role of CCDS
Work to unite sectors and movements through the above electoral and mass democratic forms. Consciously work to build unity of movements of African American, white, Latinos, Caribbean, Asians/Pacific Islander and Native Americans, youth and seniors, men and women, lesbian and gay, and immigrant peoples
Work to promote a peace and economic justice agenda as stated above
Issue a CCDS statement on importance of the Elections and the stake for working people and progressive, democratic forces
Work to promote ideological work and educational forms of CCDS to bring activists from the mass movement to CCDS through local study groups, discussion groups and forums utilizing the DVD “Fundamental Topics in Democracy and Socialism”, material from the “Long March for Democracy” material of the Democracy Charter committee, the On Line University of the Left, CCDS Links, Portside, etc.
In building left unity, CCDS should take concrete measures for common and coordinated efforts in the mass movement continuing efforts that began with the July 2009 symposium in San Francisco in conjunction with the CCDS 6th national convention. Local areas should reach out to socialist and communist parties/organizations that share a common perspective on the electoral struggle to discuss areas of common work in the mass movement for more effective organizing.
Resolution of the CCDS NCC Meeting, Sept 30, 2011
In discussing the urgency of the political moment and the economic crisis facing the working class and its allies, the NCC urges CCDS members to undertake all possible ways to help build broad coalition efforts in the fight for jobs, peace and against austerity and war. Particularly, we urge CCDS to:
1. Become fully engaged with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ direct actions and mass mobilizations expanding through hundreds of cities across the country. In addition to working directly with the young people initiating these events, we should work to bring wider allies, such as trade unions and grassroots organizations from communities of color, to add their voices and their strength to this common front aimed at finance capital.
2. Build support for the American Jobs Act put forward by President Obama as a first step to breaking the GOP’s resistance to any progressive change, as well as continuing support for other jobs legislation under considerations, such as then Schakowsky bill, and fuller measures such as the Conyers bill;
3. Build support and participate in the Rebuild the Dream coalition and its ongoing efforts, which has potential for building the left-center coalition of the progressive majority. In particular, we need to emphasize cutting the military budget and move the money to the needs of the country, and taxing the rich along with opposing any efforts to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
4. Prepare for working in labor-community coalitions and other grass roots efforts in the 2012 electoral campaigns
The NCC discussed a number of issues of the progressive movement in motion, including abolition of the death penalty in the wake of the execution of Troy Davis, mass mobilizations against home foreclosures and targeting the banks, the organizing in defense of justice for immigrants and the DREAM Act, opposition to the trade agreements coming before Congress, the organizing in support of Peace Action and UFPJ efforts to end the wars and mobilize opposition next May at the NATO/G8 Summit in Chicago, trade union organizing campaigns, and efforts to oppose right wing efforts to eliminate Black majority congressional districts and other discriminatory measures to restrict the right to vote. We urge attention to these as well.
By Rafael Pizarro
In the past, when I’d been politically active helping to elect Democrats and for social justice and equality, I used to take exception to the word “fascism” being thrown around, even with reference to the worst conservatives. I thought that people would stop listening to us in the movement if we sounded like alarmists. I also thought that in order to have an effective strategy, you needed to be precise in your understandings of the times and your opposition. I was sometimes ridiculed and called a “sell-out” because of this position, but I stood firm because the stakes were too high to waffle on this.
But times have changed. If you read the American Heritage dictionary definition of fascism, you’ll see that it was a movement created by Mussolini whose ideology was ultra-nationalist, and anti-socialist. That definition almost perfectly describes the Tea Party. I say almost because it’s even worse. Now that socialism has been killed as a legitimate vision in this country, it’s progressivism, liberalism and often democracy itself that’s in the sights of extreme right-wingers. Yet, so far, the Tea Party and its fellow travelers have been effective politically and have managed to disarm their critics by capturing the media.
I say it’s time to stop this dangerous trend in American politics. Those who seek to limit voting rights to the poor, students and any group that would counter them at the ballot box (both through legislation and trickery); those who insist that the problem with our economy is that the poorest portion of it doesn’t pay taxes (which just isn’t true); those who strenuously fight even modest increases in the taxes paid by the richest 2% of our country – despite the fact that their taxes have declined steadily for the past fifty years; those who believe that our system of government must be based on the precepts of one particular religious view; those who brand anyone who opposes their policies traitors who have no right to a voice in democratic debates; those who continue to support the policy of handing over all functions of government – even the basic function of national security – to private businesses that have no public oversight; those who blame our problems on immigrants – just as earlier fascist movements scapegoated Jews, Gypsies, gays and other “outsiders; those who say that the answer is to hand over any remaining government functions to local and state control – just as the South did over the issue of slavery; those who steadily chop away at the rights of Americans to seek union representation; those who brand gay and transgender citizens as sub-human and those who’ve made racism and sexism acceptable – these people undermine our nation’s greatest principles of equality, democracy, tolerance and compassion. When will we do something about that? And what must we do?
There are very smart and well-meaning leaders who would have us focus on the ballot box and legislative processes to stop these dangerous people. But they have been ineffective. They complain that the Tea Party and other groupings of ultra-conservatives capture the public debate and influence government not in spite of their positions, but by making their positions so outrageous, their actions in support of these so provocative that the media can’t ignore them and, in fact, give them greater exposure than their opponents. But these smart and well-meaning leaders do little to counter that.
So what do I propose? Not armed revolution. Not thugs who attack those they disagree with. Not a secret, underground movement. I simply propose that we use the weapons ultra-conservatives have used so effectively.
I’d like to see a coalition of the left and of the sensible. I believe it’s time to create an Anti-Fascist Front. What would such a coalition do? Move past the positions and grand visions of government that divide us and use our collective strength to return our sensible political positions – i.e. expanded, not limited voting rights, progressive taxation, the right to collective bargaining, religious tolerance and compassion, to name but a few we can all agree on – to the public discourse. We don’t do that enough to be effective. When progressives and trade unionists call for a civil rights rally in Washington, liberals don’t come. When liberals call for a political stunt to highlight their opposition to current trends in politics, trade unionists don’t come. We need to work together.
This has been said before and the obstacles have always overtaken our goals. But the crisis is more urgent that usual. We have to insert our broad and sensible positions into the public discourse, i.e., the media, before the ultra-right capture more and more of it.
The Tea Party uses stunts and outrageous statements to get its message across, why can’t we? Certainly we can think of ways to capture the media’s attention just as they can. I won’t discuss particular tactics here as they will immediately be ridiculed. I’ll just say that it’s possible to use social media, flash-mobs, rallies at legislator’s offices, etc. as effectively as ultra-conservatives do. Michael Moore is an excellent example of someone who knows how to do this effectively. But he’s only one person and we’ve allowed him to be marginalized as part of the “loony left.”
The first step is to start talking about it, to agree to work together to get our voices heard – by (almost) any means necessary. We won’t concede the moral high ground; we won’t intimidate the way they do. But we’ll insist that our voices be heard by using the most effective tactics to do so, even if they may appear silly or even outrageous to some onlookers. We won’t run screaming into the arms of the opposition when they label something “socialist” or “communist” or “one-world.” In fact, by publicly embracing the rights of citizens to have these ideas, just as the ultra-right has a right, so essential to democracy, to espouse their ideas, we’ll certainly get the media attention we deserve. The Tea Party does silly and outrageous things in support of their reactionary politics. People laugh or look down their noses at them – just as they did at Hitler and the Nazis before it was too late – but they do it anyway, knowing that they will, in any event, get their voices heard and their positions out there. It’s time we turn their own weapons against them.
Who will join me? Who will stand up to the rise of fascism and its ideological fellow travelers and defenders? Who will simply acknowledge that we need an anti-fascist movement now if we’re to rescue our country and our citizens from a ruthless mob funded by the super-rich towards anti-democratic ends? At long last, who will stand up for decency, democracy, compassion and an economy that doesn’t impoverish the vast majority of Americans?
Rafael Pizarro, a New England based trade union organizer, was a founder and early co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism
Some Reports From CCDSers Attending The ‘Rebuild the Dream’ House Meetings on July 16-17 Initiated by Van Jones and MoveOn.org
Lincoln Park, Chicago: Ted Pearson.
The biggest problem was that it was almost all white and all senior citizens. I’m sure this does not reflect the racial and age composition of the MoveOn email list in my neighborhood, so I don’t know how to account for it. All of the people who were there except for me and one other person unaffiliated with any other group. All had worked for Obama in 2008.
There was great frustration but also a recognition that the right wing is the main enemy. The point on making Social Security solvent was debated a little – some (myself) do not accept the notion that it is insolvent, although I think we support the call for increasing or eliminating the cap on income subject to FICA.
There was also no discussion of the Dream conference Oct. 3-5 except that I raised it. Everyone agreed that it would be important but no one expressed interest in going.
I introduced myself as being from Lincoln Park Neighbors for Peace and Justice (there were two of us there), CAARPR, and CCDS. I brought copies of the Democracy Charter, only one of which was picked up. The format did not really allow for discussing it. I seemed to be the only “activist” at the meeting.
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The Struggle for Unity and the Debate on the 2012 Election
By Randy Shannon
May 17, 2011
In its April 21st issue the Black Commentator published an article “How Do We Respond to Obama?” by editorial board member Bill Fletcher, Jr. His article was subsequently published by CCDS in its weekly newsletter, CCDSLinks. Fletcher is an activist and leader of the African American community, the labor movement, and the left.
Fletcher argued that the political focus should be on the administration and not the man, that the administration is sensitive to pressure, and that “the left and progressives have failed to offer sustained pressure on the administration.” He outlined a strategy to build sustained mass pressure on the Obama Administration “to do not only what he has promised but to go beyond what he as promised.” A key point:
Forget running a candidate against Obama in 2012. That would be a sure way to alienate much of his black and Latin base. Instead, there needs to be a progressive strategy focused on Congressional races. That means identifying key races to run genuine progressive candidates against conservative Democrats and/or Republicans.
The other elements of the strategy are to build local electoral organizations that can run progressive candidates, to build a mass protest movement willing to engage in civil disobedience and to link with global social movements challenging US foreign policy.
Responses to Fletcher
Fletcher’s article set off a lively debate on the CCDS listserv (available to members) that generated numerous posts. Some of the listserv responses are published on the public CCDS Discussion Board. The debate focused on the political question of tactics and strategy of the progressive majority and the left for the 2012 election.
Tom Hayden’s response was also published by CCDSLinks April 29th edition:
Obama will have an impossible time mobilizing the same level of resources, organizers and energy of his grass-roots campaign of 2008. So he could lose in some of the dozen states where he won by 1-3 points in that historic year.
As things turned out, however, the big constituencies of the Democratic Party [like labor] have failed to come up with effective strategies to turn the economy around and end the wars.
I think we are at a historic turning point in our culture when so many white people are incapable of accepting the election of a black president…They pose a serious internal threat…of the rise of right wing violence due to the election of a black president and an economic recession.
Like Bill Fletcher, I hope we can return to the grass-roots agenda of trying to shift public opinion and building state and local power bases capable of creating blue-state models of social change and competing with the corporations to push Obama towards…making the presidency a progressive bastion.
In May, the Black Commentator published “We Need Radicals and not Reformists” by CCDS member Jonathan Nack. It was subsequently published in CCDSLinks. It was crafted as a critical response to Fletcher’s article.
Nack claims that Fletcher’s strategy “requires remaining within the political orbit of the Democratic Party” and that it “ignores the outside piece” of a “balanced electoral approach that operates both inside and outside the orbit of the Democrats.” He states:
I suggest that those progressives and socialists, who, for all kinds of reasons, good and not so good, work within the political orbit of the Democratic Party, should be doing their best to find a good candidate to challenge Pres. Obama in the primary.
Ted Pearson, a leader of CCDS from Chicago, responded to Nack’s article:
The heart of Nack’s criticism of Fletcher revolves around what Nack sees as a winning strategy in 2012: running a progressive candidate for President against Barack Obama, something that Fletcher explicitly rejects…
Nack just tosses aside (perhaps he feels it’s irrelevant) what Fletcher observes regarding Black and Latino masses. He doesn’t challenge it, he just ignores it…the objective content of willfully ignoring “[Obama’s] black and Latin base”…speaks for itself, whether the author intended that or not. To offer Cynthia McKinney, who polled virtually none of the Black and Latino vote in the 2008 election, as a candidate against Obama in 2012 is, in my opinion, at best condescending and perhaps much worse.
I would submit that this debate is not about reform v. revolution or radical v. reformist. It is about whether we see the working class as a whole and African Americans and Latinos in particular as the decisive forces…that must be energized for progressive change in the next 17 months. I’m not going to call Jonathan Nack a racist or an anti-working class person. I don’t believe he is, certainly not in his own mind. But what he is advocating plays into the hands of those who are.
The Medium is the Message
Nack’s article is remarkable for its opening three paragraphs:
It’s nice to see Bill Fletcher start to wake up. Unfortunately, he’s (sic) still has a long way to go. Maybe he’s still groggy.
Fletcher’s main problem is that he’s no longer a radical, but a reformist. He demonstrates this by his rejection of more radical strategies without even considering them – the true hallmark of all reformists.
As has often been said, insanity is continuing to do the same thing, while expecting different results. Put another way, if progressives don’t think outside of the box, we will stay trapped in the box.
There was some discussion on the CCDS listserv of what was called the “tone” of Nack’s article which was variously described as “ad hominem” containing “personal attack on the author,” “condescension” and “arrogant tone.” A number of discussants including Nack rejected this complaint; some warned against a “discussion of personalities and not substance.”
Mark Solomon, an emeritus co-chairman of CCDS, discussed the political issues and commented on “the issue of tone:”
Finally it is understandable that in the discussion…most respondents desired to get beyond the issue of tone and allegations of personal attack. However, as others have noted, utterances that mock and insult are political questions that impact the content of relationships and thus undermine the strength and integrity of the socialist and progressive left…Those who view the characterizations in the article as sharp but not vindictive are asked to reread them. Any fair reading will, I believe, confirm its unjustly supercilious and mocking tone…
Perhaps a more detailed deconstruction of Nack’s opening paragraph can aide the reader to engage in the “fair reading” that Solomon urges. Nack’s choice of words to open and to frame his article reflects a social and cultural experience unique to Americans. The particular words that we choose to transmit our political ideas also transmit a social relationship and cultural heritage.
The words are the medium, to borrow a concept from McLuhan. This summary of his concept is instructional to an effort to deconstruct Nack’s opening paragraph:
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.
“It’s nice to see Bill Fletcher start to wake up” means that the author is awake and observes Bill Fletcher, who is asleep, begin to awaken. Those who are awake are enlightened and those who are asleep are in the dark. Those asleep are unable to consider “more radical strategies” or to “think outside the box.”
Thus Nack’s choice of words places himself as intellectually superior to the object of his criticism. He extends the metaphor of sleepiness by maintaining that Fletcher is still “groggy,” or drunken with sleep.
McLuhan says that we often miss the social implications of the medium in focusing on the obvious content. In our society racism is central to the dominant culture of the capitalist class. The social implications of how we frame our arguments are determined by the social history of certain concepts. It is often precisely when one reaches for phrases to express superiority that the legacy of racism in our culture serves that purpose.
Nack’s construction of his superiority over Fletcher, who is characterized as groggily awakening from political sleep, employs a stereotype that is deeply rooted in the racist culture developed in the era of slavery. American popular culture and media have preserved and transmitted this “sleepy Negro” stereotype.
Alternatively, the framing or tone of the political debate itself can serve the critical need for unity of the progressive majority. There is no subject matter so pressing that the social construct of the argument can be disregarded. It may be difficult and at times unpleasant, but the greater good is served by developing consciousness of the social constructs upon which we base our ideas, either consciously or unconsciously.
The “Sleepy Negro” Stereotype
In his 2009 article “Black and White TV – African Americans in Televisions Since 1948” Fred MacDonald points out that the most employed early black actor was Willie Best, whose nickname was “Sleep ‘n’ Eat.”
If Eddie Anderson failed to enhance the image of blacks in television, Willie Best was absolutely detrimental to that image. Ironically, Best was also the most prolifically employed black actor in early TV. Best entered movies in the 1930s where, as a younger version of Stepin Fetchit, he was nicknamed “Sleep ‘n’ Eat.”
In a 1999 student essay Can Gramsci’s theory of hegemony help us to understand the representation of ethnic minorities in western television and cinema?, Reena Mistry notes:
Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is of particular salience to the exploration of racial representations in the media because of its focus on culture and ideology…The fact that television and cinema are central to popular culture is crucial because Gramsci says particular attention should be given to ‘everyday’ routine structures and ‘common sense’ values in trying to locate mechanisms of domination (Gitlin, 1994:517).
Many of the clearly racist images of past television and cinema that are now fading from western screens can, in hindsight, be easily explained in hegemonic terms – particularly in relation to colonialism and white supremacy. The use of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony does not expire here, however; it can be used to identify both elements of the old racist stereotypes and new, but destructive, representations of racial minorities in the current media of a seemingly liberal society. Thus, it is unsurprising that racism, though perhaps more covertly, still pervades our society…racism is inferred and reinforced in ‘the routine structures of everyday thought’ (Gitlin, 1994:517)
The May 1944 issue of The Crisis, the NAACP publication, carries the article “So Philadelphia Is Sleepy Eh?” by Ralph H. Jones that elaborates the connotation of “sleepy” in this context:
About ninety miles southeast of the town that could be called an empire is a sleepy little village of two million souls. New Yorkers condescendingly pronounce its Quaker name, Philadelphia. Within its metropolitan environs live approximately 300,000 Negroes. New Yorkers have said they are sleepy, backward, don’t know the angles or the time of day and in most respects measure up to the “hick” reputation tabbed them by the rest of the east.
The September 1939 Time Magazine article “Fisheries: Blue Crabs” contains:
Its factory at Port Royal, S. C. buys the crabs during the day from sleepy Negro fishermen, packs them before the next dawn—150 cases a night.
In the article “Race in Film: Stormy Weather” Kartina Richardson refers to a depiction of the stereotype in the 1935 film:
The sleepy negro in the corner agrees with a ridiculous “Awwm tyyred too!” and Bill falls fast asleep.
The 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe uses the stereotype:
A sleepy Negro employed at the Manor Hotel clambered heavily up and slumped into one of the seats reserved for his race at the back.
A 1920 short story published by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Jelly Bean” perpetuates the stereotype:
The room was deserted except for a sleepy negro dozing behind the counter and two boys lazily fingering a pair of dice at one of the tables.
In 1919 Marcus Garvey pointed out the centrality of this stereotype in a public letter “Negroes of the World, The Eternal Has Happened.”
Five years ago the Negro Universal was sleeping upon his bale of cotton in the South of America…
Charles W. Chesnutt, a post-Reconstruction author and early member of the NAACP wrote in the 1920’s about social conflict in the South. In Uncle Wellington’s Wives he employs the “sleepy Negro” stereotype:
He went around to the dark side of the train, and climbed into a second-class car, where he shrank into the darkest corner and turned his face away from the dim light of the single dirty lamp. There were no passengers in the car except one or two sleepy negroes, who had got on at some other station, and a white man who had gone into the car to smoke, accompanied by a gigantic bloodhound.
Herman Melville in his 1856 novella “Benito Cereno,” which was published serially in a magazine employs the motif in variation:
He advanced to an old Barcelona tar, in ragged red breeches and dirty night-cap, cheeks trenched and bronzed, whiskers dense as thorn hedges. Seated between two sleepy-looking Africans, this mariner, like his younger shipmate, was employed upon some rigging- splicing a cable- the sleepy-looking blacks performing the inferior function of holding the outer parts of the ropes for him.
An 1839 narrative called The Adventures of Isaac Knight employs a descriptive use of the stereotype that was reinforced by the assertion of a true story:
Isaac tumbled in with him but not to sleep. His fate, as yet, was too uncertain. By the side of the sleepy-headed negro he laid and watched for the day to dawn. Seeing, as he did, the first appearance of light in the morning, with much difficulty, he awoke the little negro.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia published in 1784 Thomas Jefferson’s observations of his slaves helped to construct the panoply of racist stereotypes that were used to justify slavery:
To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour.
Jefferson’s writings were used by the slave power in the South to establish a culture imbued throughout with racism and prejudice.
The Southern abolitionist Hinton Helper cited Jefferson. He criticized the effects of slavery on the white population in the South, but was himself a virulent racist. In 1868 he published a vicious attack on Black Reconstruction entitled “The Negroes in Negroland” that included “His Inertia and Sleepy-headedness” as one of a list of attributes of the former slaves.
In Slavery in the West Indies in the 18th Century the 1823 “Planters Guide” by the slave owner Richard Roughley is cited:
The Barbadoes hospital, in 1762, was crowded with sick soldiers who were attended by Negro nurses. “But being a sleepy indolent sort of people,” frequently neglected their charges, and always slept soundly when placed on night duty.
The reality that slaves were literally worked to death until the slave trade was banned, and then subsequently worked to the point of exhaustion was irrelevant to the creators of the stereotype. Racist culture distorted consciousness and impaired the ability of many whites to recognize black reality.
To the degree that corporations continue to profit from racial discrimination, racist stereotypes are perpetuated through literature, film, television and other media. Stereotypes perpetuate the ability of whites to accept and/or implement economic and social discrimination against African Americans and other minorities. Racism weakens solidarity, which reduces the numbers that can be mobilized. This can undermine the will to fight the austerity and cutbacks that affect all working people.
While African Americans are suffering enormous blows from the austerity campaign, leaders such as Bill Fletcher struggle to unite the progressive majority around a common strategy that opposes the austerity policies of the Obama administration. Nack’s article raises the deeper question of whether left electoral groups and other left organizations that are predominantly white, can respond to the reality of the political moment that Fletcher describes and avoid splitting the movement over the question of who is President.
Socialist and Green Party activists have stated that their parties will run candidates for President and at the same time acknowledge that the focus on local politics is key. Limited resources mean they can’t have it both ways. Nack’s inadvertent grasping of a long standing racial stereotype while arguing for an alternate presidential candidate illustrates the power dynamic in play. Will they answer the question posed by Fletcher; that a candidate against Obama in 2012 would be a sure way to alienate much of his black and Latin base, or, as in Nack’s article, ignore it?
Mark Solomon’s post points out that:
The present moment holds within it a potential seismic shift in the country’s political dynamic…the socialist and progressive left can have a measurable impact on helping to give coherence, clarity and organizing force to the fight back – many aspects which to this point have had little or no contact with the left.
With the 2012 elections looming, a strong public demand for an emergency jobs program led by an alliance of labor and community forces can have significant impact.
Such efforts will inevitably flow into the 2012 elections where the primary focus upon the crisis and the fight back will be the basis for finding the best…tactics based on local circumstances.
In his May 2011 report to CCDS, (as yet unpublished) co-chair Carl Bloice stated that the challenge to the left is to join the fight back against the austerity measures, which is already underway. He says that a key question for the movement is how to link the locally developing resistance movement to the fight against austerity in Congress.
This moment is pregnant with the possibility of progressive forces aligning into a more cohesive movement capable of challenging war and austerity. This new stage can only be ushered in by a purposeful and creative struggle for unity of purpose and action. Central to this struggle for unity is the understanding that African Americans and other oppressed nationalities are core constituents of the progressive majority. The struggle to overcome divisions and insensitivity that flow from the influences of racist ideology is necessary to build that unity.
The struggle against racism always takes place against concrete conditions that shape its manifestations. Today, we have an African American president that is reviled by the right and stonewalled by the majority in Congress. His public support is uncertain, yet his support among the most oppressed sectors of the population remains strong even while they oppose many of his policies.
Successful politics is the understanding of who our allies are and how to work in solidarity to realize our common goals. That is more important now than ever.
Debating Bill Fletcher’s
‘How Do We Respond to Obama?’
And Others Matters on the 2012 Election
The following article by Jonathan Nack, replying to Bill Fletcher on Black Commentator, inspired a thread of debate on the CCDS list server. It is between reposted here for further discussion. If you want to make a comment, just register on the site. Flectcher’s original article follows Nack’s below.
We Need Radicals Not Reformists
By Jonathan Nack
May 5, 2011 – It’s nice to see Bill Fletcher start to wake up (see below). Unfortunately, IMHO, he’s still has a long way to go. Maybe he’s still groggy.
Fletcher’s main problem is, IMHO, that he’s no longer a radical, but a reformist. He demonstrates this by his rejection of more radical strategies without even considering them – the true hallmark of all reformists.
As has often been said, insanity is continuing to do the same thing, while expecting different results. Put another way, if progressives don’t think outside of the box, we will stay trapped in the box.
Fletcher’s strategy requires remaining within the political orbit of the Democratic Party. He ignores the alternative left parties, such as the Green Party, Socialist Party, and the California Peace & Freedom Party. In my view, it’s a strategy that is akin to trying to walk a great distance on only one leg and with no crutch. You might hop around a while, you might make a little progress, then again you might not, and eventually you will fail to get to where you want to go.
My argument is not that all progressives should jump to a left third party. …
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