Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nonprofits Exist in a Culture of Co-Optation

My last post provoked a heated response from a reader who argued that 501(c)(4)s don't necessarily accept huge donations from billionaires just because they can.

That is of course true, but it's also true that since such organizations are under no legal obligation to disclose the donations they receive, the only way for ordinary people to know how much of their funding comes from special interest groups is through voluntary disclosures.

Unsurprisingly, however, even 501(c)(4)s that claim to be dedicated to transparency are reluctant to disclose that data. OurRevolution became a notorious example of this problem when eight of fifteen staffers resigned en masse because "the group can draw from the pool of 'dark money' that [Bernie] Sanders condemned for lacking transparency."

Jeff Weaver defended the 501(c)(4) structure of OurRevolution on the basis of the organization's intention to campaign for specific political candidates who seemed sympathetic to Sanders' agenda.

Within the perverse taxonomy of 501(c) organizations, Weaver's explanation makes sense. Ordinary charities tend to organize as 501(c)(3)s--but are prohibited from attempting to influence election outcomes. Unions can organize as 501(c)(5)s and pursue certain political objectives, but they face stringent membership requirements that a nationwide political nonprofit could not satisfy. In Weaver's defense, a nonprofit that intends to support (or oppose) specific political candidates is in many ways compelled to organize as a 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(6). As Lee Fang explains:
Like 501(c)(4) issue advocacy organizations, 501(c)(6) trade groups may take unlimited donations and engage in unrestricted partisan or election activity. Trade groups are often formed industry associations or politician coalitions of like-minded businesses. One of the largest of the new Koch groups, called Freedom Partners, is a 501(c)(6) trade association.
If Weaver had intended to receive support from Chambers of Commerce, then OurRevolution would be a 501(c)(6). Instead, he intends to recruit impassioned Berners, so OurRevolution is a 501(c)(4). These are essentially his choices if he wants to run a politically partisan nonprofit--and either way he can take unlimited money from undisclosed donors. That's simply one of the corrupt rules governing nonprofit organizations in the U.S.

In other words, our 501(c)s are set up such that a nonprofit that seeks to be politically active will be vulnerable to the influence of dark money as an organizational principle. This doesn't mean that every 501(c)(4) is influenced by dark money, but it does mean that every 501(c)(4) can legally accept as much money as it wants from an undisclosed source without having to tell anyone about the donation.

Of course, organizations can always choose to be transparent about the sources of their funding even if the law doesn't require them to do so. But Weaver has been talking about voluntary disclosures from OurRevolution since September without volunteering any information. Had he been serious about clearing this transparency hurdle from the outset, he would presumably have found a way to clear it before his staff mutinied. Instead, as the LA Times reports, the board of OurRevolution continues to talk about half-measures of transparency:
Responding to earlier controversy over the group being founded as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which critics said ran counter to Sanders’ opposition against allowing unlimited money in politics, its board has promised to disclose all donors giving more than $250. It also plans to create a political action committee that would allow more direct coordination with down-ticket candidates.
So if your neighbor Brenda Gates scrapes together $300 to send to OurRevolution, the board can satisfy this promise by listing her alphabetically right after Bill Gates, who might have given $300,000--without indicating any disparity between the donations. By doing so, the 501(c)(4) would indeed be going above and beyond what the law requires. But such a gesture would fall well short of transparency.

Since I don't mean to pick on OurRevolution or any other 501(c)(4), allow me to illustrate the vulnerability of all 501(c)(4)s to dark money by focusing on a hypothetical organization dedicated to combating the problem of predatory lenders. Let's call it the People's Bank.

The People's Bank decides to establish itself as a 501(c)(4) not because it expects to receive a huge infusion of dark money, but because it intends to become involved in partisan politics. The People's Bank opposes Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a longtime cheerleader for the predatory lending industry. One mission of the People's Bank is to get Tim Canova elected in a 2018 rematch against Wasserman-Schultz.

But that's only a minor part of the agenda of the People's Bank. It's primarily focused on opening small offices in economically distressed communities throughout the country to provide low-interest loans to people who have spent their entire lives at the mercy of the local Payday Loan branch.

Small donations from concerned and compassionate citizens allow the People's Bank to open offices in three major cities. Since the people who receive these loans have never borrowed money at anything less than usurious rates, far more of them are able to pay back their loans ahead of schedule than anyone anticipated.

With this new infusion of cash, the People's Bank decides to open offices in a dozen more cities.

This is bad news for the predatory lending industry, so it acts quickly--before the new offices can be opened.

The People's Bank suddenly receives an offer of $2 million from a donor who claims to be very supportive of everything the 501(c)(4) has been doing--but the donor has an idea concerning even more important work the People's Bank can do by educating consumers about how to manage their money more effectively.

To be clear, there is roughly a zero percent chance that this donor will approach the folks in charge of the People's Bank by saying, "I would like to bribe you into abandoning your current mission because it threatens the industry I represent."

Instead, he will praise them before acquainting them with the research of a think tank secretly sponsored by predatory lenders. The research will make a strong (but bogus) case that the lending centers already established by the People's Bank would do more good for people by offering free tutorials on how to balance their checkbooks and file their taxes than by actually lending them money at low interest rates.

The CFO and CEO of the People's Bank will be deeply skeptical of this information, of course. But they will also be thinking about the $2 million donation and how much good they can achieve with it. Let's say that at this point in their development, they've never received a single donation of more than $10,000. The People's Bank has struggled financially since its inception. The CEO and CFO haven't even been reimbursed for the mileage they put on their cars or the hotel stays they covered at their own expense to meet with various legislators and functionaries. They've stretched themselves to the limit just to achieve what little success they've enjoyed thus far. And this posh donor is now talking about setting up a foundation from which they will both draw an annual salary--as long as they focus less on lending money and more on educating people about checkbook management.

Might that have any influence on the way they scrutinize the data from the bogus think tank? Is it possible that the posh donor could wine and dine them, over the course of months, into giving his proposal ever more serious consideration?

The obvious answer is that different people would react in different ways, and there's no way we can know how the CEO and CFO of the People's Bank would respond in this scenario.

But what we do know is that everything about this negotiation with the donor could happen under the veil of secrecy in a 501(c)(4). If the folks in charge of the People's Bank suddenly decide to focus on education instead of low-interest loans, there's no way for their supporters to know that a huge donation influenced that decision.

That's a problem.

It's not the kind of problem that will taint every single 501(c)(4), but it's a vulnerability that is woven into the DNA of any dark money-eligible nonprofit. In Fang's estimation, "most 501(c)(4) nonprofits are community groups that have little resources and exist to promote genuine nonpartisan advocacy," so there's no reason to assume that every 501(c)(4) is bankrolled by a billionaire. However, there is good reason to suppose that every 501(c)(4) that threatens the bottom line of a particular interest will receive money from that interest group that comes with strings attached. The money won't be disclosed. The strings won't be discussed. But the influence will have an impact. Otherwise how did an environmental advocacy group such as the Sierra Club (currently a 501(c)(4)--with "The Sierra Club Foundation" serving as its 501(c)(3) affiliate) end up supporting the earthquake-inducing and water-poisoning practice of fracking through 2012?

You can object (as Hillary Clinton supporters were fond of objecting) that the appearance of corruption isn't evidence of corruption.

For the sake of argument, let's grant that contention.

So what's your explanation for the fact that the current state of nonprofit-based activism in the US has failed to combat climate change, failed to prevent police brutality, failed to prevent the overturning of a key component of the Voting Rights Act, failed to achieve any semblance of transparency in our elections, failed to prevent our armed forces from invading any of the countries that General Wesley Clark warned us we were going to invade, and failed to provide clean water in Flint and other communities?

If activism in the US doesn't exist in a culture that steers activists towards systematic co-optation by the moneyed interests that benefit from pollution, war profiteering, and the repression of communities of color, then what's your explanation for all these failures?

Is it that concerned citizens need to do a better job of supporting dark money-eligible nonprofits?


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

When the Message Is Controlled Despite the Messenger

If you're convinced it's possible to win populist concessions with billionaire money, this post will be as much a waste of your time as all of your activism on behalf of 501(c)(4) organizations has been and will continue to be.

Overt brainwashing is done through advertising campaigns and distracting slogans. Covert brainwashing involves purchasing silence from some critics and co-opting the messages of others. We've all seen movies that depict these transactions as direct negotiations between the person who wants to expose corruption (e.g. Frank Serpico) and the people who want to keep the corruption concealed (e.g. the NYPD). Invariably, the reporter/private investigator/district attorney faces a moral crisis when s/he is bribed/threatened/blackmailed by the amoral powers that be. One purpose of such films is to give the audience faith in the integrity of individual human beings (from Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith to Julia Roberts' Erin Brockovich) who refuse to be persuaded/bullied/frustrated into silence.

But sometimes the integrity and dedication of the truth teller simply doesn't matter, as in the case of Phil Donahue.

In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Donahue was one of few media pundits who tried to explain why the pending war was unjustifiable. He was right, and he had the integrity to stick to his position. But that didn't matter because the network that aired his show (MSNBC) belonged to the RCA holding company, which was owned by General Electric, which stood to profit immensely from the war in Iraq and therefore wanted conflict regardless of whether Saddam Hussein posed a threat to US security.

When it was time for MSNBC to start pushing the pro-war propaganda GE wanted, memos drifted down from GE to RCA to MSNBC. As Jeffrey St. Clair explains:
Nothing sums up this unctuous approach more brazenly than MSNBC’s firing of liberal talk show host Phil Donahue on the eve of the war. The network replaced the Donahue Show with a running segment called Countdown: Iraq, featuring the usual nightly coterie of retired generals, security flacks, and other cheerleaders for invasion. The network’s executives blamed the cancellation on sagging ratings. In fact, during its run Donahue’s show attracted more viewers than any other program on the network. The real reason for the pre-emptive strike on Donahue was spelled out in an internal memo from anxious executives at NBC. Donahue, the memo said, offered “a difficult face for NBC in a time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”
The memo warned that Donahue’s show risked tarring MSNBC as an unpatriotic network, “a home for liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” So, with scarcely a second thought, the honchos at MSNBC gave Donahue the boot and hoisted the battle flag.
If Donahue's story can't affirm our faith in individual integrity, it's because the silence GE executives imposed on him was never his to sell. The war profiteers never had to offer him a briefcase full or cash or threaten to break his legs. Instead, they muted him by high-jacking the network upon which he relied for dissemination of his anti-war message.

If we learn nothing else from "The Day the News Died" (as Chris Hedges refers to Donahue's firing), it should be that in our mass media culture, individual integrity isn't enough to shield us from the depredations of corrupt, concentrated wealth.

Remaining committed to one's principles may be morally laudable, but it is often logistically meaningless. Certainly Donahue's resolute opposition to the war made no difference in the outcome for Iraqi citizens or GE shareholders.

Strangely, even those who are willing to accept this critique of the corruption inherent in the capitalist marketplace are often reluctant to see how it applies to non-profit 501(c)(4)s. "How is the lesson of Donahue in the for-profit world of television," such readers may wonder, "applicable to outfits such as OurRevolution or MPACT?"

For many of us, the integrity of people like Bernie Sanders and Nina Turner is something that we must be willing to count on in order to get anywhere. Such people are like Serpico--putting their necks on the line to make the world better for all of us. We have to trust them to do what's right--and if that means letting them accept dark money from billionaires in order to advance the agendas to which they are committed, then we just need to trust that their hearts are in the right place.

But how much carbon has been kept out of the atmosphere because activists have their hearts in the right place? How many black lives have been protected from police brutality because the hearts of Black Lives Matter activists are in the right place? How many casualties have been prevented because Code Pink activists have their hearts in the right place?

Let's say that in all three cases, the integrity of those involved is 100% beyond reproach.

What has that integrity achieved? And isn't it reasonable to suspect that it hasn't achieved more because the NGO/non-profit culture in which these organizations exist is funded and shaped by the very donors who profit from corruption?

It's reasonable to suspect that PBS doesn't cover climate change more aggressively because the Koch family contributes to PBS funding. And it's equally reasonable to suppose that when Soros family hedge funds will profit from the disruption of certain economies through war, particular purse strings for Code Pink get cut.

Sanders lovers are the first to laugh at the idea that billionaires donate to the Clinton Foundation out of the goodness of their hearts, but Jeff Weaver expects us to believe that it's important for OurRevolution to accept money on precisely that premise.

This post isn't meant to suggest that the fecklessness of activist culture in America is specifically attributable to 501(c)(4)s, but such non-profits are particularly vulnerable to corruption because they are set up in such a way as to conceal donors and donations from public scrutiny. Weaver was so heavily criticized for making OurRevolution a 501(c)(4) that in September he promised to formulate "a disclosure policy so that we disclose larger contributions that we receive" even though such disclosures aren't required by law. In December, the organization "promised to disclose all donors giving more than $250," but no disclosures have been made to date. Worse yet, it's not even clear how useful such information would be, since OurRevolution could honor this promise by releasing a list of names without distinguishing between Donor A (who gave $300) and Donor B (who gave $300 million).

Most Sanders supporters trust his team so much that they're willing to let Weaver and Turner and others associated with OurRevolution raise and spend money in whatever ways they deem most effective.

But trusting in the OurRevolution team to do the right thing with dark money is like trusting Donahue to use his show to prevent the invasion of Iraq. The big money in charge of MSNBC always had control of Donahue's platform. And the big money funders of OurRevolution will always have control over that outfit's ability to realize its agenda.

It doesn't matter how much integrity Weaver and Turner have if someone else is in charge of whether they can rent meeting spaces or buy airline tickets for staffers to coordinate activities. And in dark money organizations, it's impossible for supporters to know who's in charge of the purse strings (even if we get some lame list of everyone who donated over $250).

This is why I urge Turner to distance herself from organizations such as OurRevolution and MPACT and focus on grassroots groups that are completely transparent about their fundraising procedures.

I understand that in economically distressed times (such as ours), it seems suicidal for political figures to cut themselves off from billionaire angel investors.

But the times are so economically distressed precisely because those billionaires almost invariably prove to be devils in disguise. If your 501(c)(4) is opposed to big pharma and big oil and Wall Street, then it could be almost entirely dependent on big pharma and big oil and Wall Street for funding--without anyone in the general public having a clue about it.

To understand how bonkers that is, answer this question honestly: Would you trust Jordan Chariton's coverage of Energy Transfer Partners if Chariton's expenses were covered by a 501(c)(4) funded by Kelcy Warren? Does your faith in Chariton's integrity make you think such an arrangement would have no effect on his coverage? If not, then why is your faith in Sanders and Turner so strong that they get "integrity exemptions" for associating with non-profits whose doors remain open to precisely such arrangements?

We, the grassroots, need to form something like a non-party-based citizen's union with monthly dues--an organization in which everyone agrees to chip in the same amount on a regular basis so that operatives know they will be able to cover their expenses without having to worry about stepping on the toes of bigwig donors.

Even if Turner couldn't raise as much money through such an organization as she might through a dark money outfit like OurRevolution, the enthusiasm and volunteer support that she could count on would make it much more nimble and dare I say impactful than she could ever hope for OurRevolution and MPACT to be.

The failure of the Democratic Party to understand how and why it failed voters may be the most disappointing phenomenon of 2016.

But the second-most disappointing phenomenon is the failure of luminaries such as Turner and Weaver to recognize that people-powered movements (such as the Reddit-based phonebanking done by volunteers on behalf of the Sanders campaign) are more important assets for politicians than billionaire cash. Until that lesson sinks in, professional progressive operatives appear doomed to continue servicing the donor class instead of the voters they purport to care about.

Monday, December 12, 2016

When Justice Is Derided as "Purity"

Bernie Sanders' critics called him a "single-issue" candidate because he exposed the ever-widening wealth gap as the engine that drives social, racial, and environmental injustice. By the same logic, they could argue that Jesus became a single-issue messiah the moment he said, "love of money is the root of all evil."

For a single-issue candidate, Sanders advocated a wide variety of policy solutions. Sometimes those solutions highlighted the economic underpinnings of injustice, as when he called for equal pay for women in the workforce. Sometimes he found it more effective to propose responses than to offer diagnoses, as when he contended that we could best address the murderous repression of our racist police state via new standards of community policing--or when he suggested that a strong alliance with Israel need not hinge on support for apartheid policies that treat Palestinians as second class citizens. American cities obviously brutalize communities of color for the same reason that Israeli settlements expand illegally into Palestinian land: because such exploitation is profitable for over-privileged people at the expense of under-privileged people.

The reason Sanders' campaign resonated so powerfully with people from disparate backgrounds was that he insisted upon viewing economic matters through the lens of justice. We all know that the US government shouldn't have blown $6 trillion on the war in Iraq since the entire fiasco was predicated on lies about weapons of mass destruction and an unfounded connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. We know it's unjust that hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians are dead because of the cupidity of our war profiteers and the stupidity of our citizenry.

But the Sanders campaign made it plain to us that we are being punished for our crime. If we can't afford the systems of public healthcare and education that characterize other industrial nations, it's because we are too busy bankrupting ourselves on unjustifiable wars. Sanders' critique of our many flawed domestic and foreign policies is simple: When you do the wrong thing, other people suffer--and so do you.

If we don't let greed rob our women workers of the wages they deserve, we will all be better off. If we don't let greed rob our communities of color of safety and dignity, we will all be better off. If we don't let greed destroy the planet we inhabit, we will all be better off. In every case, the message resonates because it's true. 

If Sanders really was a single-issue candidate, his issue appears to have been the contention that justice and economics are intertwined and that fighting for a more just world amounts to fighting for a better world.

Anyone who watched or attended a Sanders rally saw this sense of justice become infectious for attendees from disparate backgrounds with disparate priorities. Men cheered for equal pay for women; soldiers cheered for non-interventionism; fossil fuel workers cheered for lower carbon emissions. Sanders' supporters intuitively grasped the implicit lesson that the obfuscation of economists and policy wonks cannot bewilder any of us as long as we refuse to lose sight of the basic notion of justice.

But that sense of justice has come under attack by analysts who make it their business to sneer at political "purity tests." The faulty assumption of such analysts is that the Sanders coalition would have been stronger, somehow, if only he had been willing to abandon one plank or another of his platform. Perhaps he should have embraced fracking as "clean energy" or hung the Palestinians out to dry in an appeal to Zionists or argued that what looks like systemic racism in our police culture is really just a "few bad apples."

Such cynical concessions, in the mind of the pundit class, are the essence of coalition building. If you're not willing to throw some group (women, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community) under the bus, how can you possibly expect to get everyone else on your side?

According to this argument, if I find Keith Ellison repugnant because he supports a no-fly zone in Syria and opposes the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement, then I've fallen into a purity trap. By daring to believe that a person who wants to provoke a war with Russia is not my ally, I have somehow allowed perfection to become the enemy of the good.

But how do I know that Ellison is good? I don't know any such thing, though Democratic spokespeople insist it must be so for three main reasons.

First, he's black--and since black people are underrepresented in American politics, I should be cheering for him. (Never mind that Clarence Thomas is also black and has consistently voted against civil rights initiatives.) Second, he's Muslim--and since Muslims are underrepresented in American politics, I should be cheering for him. (Never mind that Ellison's opposition to the BDS movement indicates his eagerness to appease moneyed interests, such as AIPAC, at the expense of voiceless Muslims.) Third, he was one of a handful of superdelegates who endorsed Sanders during the primary campaign. (Never mind that he later flipped to supporting the warmongering corporatist nominated by the Democrats--suggesting that his transient support for Sanders was, like Sanders' candidacy itself, a sheepdogging exercise meant to lend an air of progressive legitimacy to Clinton's candidacy.)

To suggest that Ellison is an otherwise great candidate who just barely fails a purity test is to overlook the glaringly obvious fact that he is a puppet of his donors rather than a champion of the people. When a politician claims to stand up for justice on four out of five issues, that doesn't mean he's 80% pure. It means that his donors only have a vested interest in injustice 20% of the time. They're happy to let him talk about justice for groups x, y, & z as long as they're not profiting from injustice against those specific communities.

But when a politician like Ellison advocates war with a nuclear-armed power, it's not because his perspective on justice is a tiny bit cloudy on that particular issue. It's because going to war with Russia is the particular injustice from which the major donors behind the curtain of the Democratic Party expect to profit.

The same goes for any so-called progressive on any issue of injustice. Alan Grayson claims to be a Democrat with a spine who will stand up for his constituents. But in the wake of June's Orlando nightclub shooting, Grayson championed the inane no-fly/no-buy bill advocated by Democrats (a bill that would not have prevented the Orlando massacre) over his own proposed reinstatement of the ban on assault weapons (a bill that would have prevented the massacre):

You can call this absurd position of Grayson's a lapse in judgment. It was no such thing. It was a calculated betrayal of justice. If Democrats like Grayson wanted to protect civilians from mass shootings, they would ban assault weapons. But donors don't profit from such bills. Donors profit from the expansion of the powers of the unaccountable surveillance state. Grayson served the interests of those donors--not the interests of his constituents. He didn't fail a purity test; he showed you who is pulling his strings.

Whenever political analysts concede that a politician fails this or that purity test, they are really just acknowledging which particular corrupt agenda pays the bills for the politician in question. Democrats love to say, "People are going to have honest disagreements about difficult questions," but they don't mean that there will be debates about the best mechanisms we can install to insure that police stop murdering black motorists. What they mean is that some Democrats will pay lip service to the idea of addressing police brutality while a handful of others controlled by donors with a vested interest in perpetuating that brutality ensure that it is perpetuated.

Justice is justice. You're committed to it or your aren't. The Sanders campaign proved that the broader your appeal to justice is, the more people you will draw into your coalition.

The purity test argument is an attempt to persuade people that coalition-building means excluding certain forms of justice from consideration. It's a lie. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Obama Passes Magic Baton of Oligarchy to Trump in Plain Sight

On Sunday, December 4th, volunteer veterans deployed to Standing Rock to serve as human shields for the water protectors in Standing Rock.

That same day, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) denied an easement to the Dakota Pipeline.

The ACE ruling was enough to prevent a clash between the DAPL forces and the veterans, but it wasn't enough to prevent the companies behind the pipeline (Sunoco Logistics Partners and Energy Transfer Partners) from responding defiantly:
As stated all along, ETP and SXL are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.
That defiance appears to have provoked a decision the ACE made (on December 9th) to raise the water level in Lake Oahe so as to make the ground surrounding the lake too "unstable" for drilling:
As Jordan Chariton mentions in his report, one wrinkle created by this solution is that protectors must evacuate the Oceti camp to make way for the incoming water. Those inclined to regard Obama as a moustache-twirling villain will presume that this is merely a feint designed to get protectors out of the way of the DAPL drilling equipment. They may be right. But we have good reason (after eight years) to believe that Obama's villainy is a bit more sophisticated than that.

If it takes the ACE an entire workweek to respond to DAPL's defiance, how long will it take to issue an evacuation order to the Oceti camp? How long to enforce that order? How long to clear the campground of debris in preparation for the influx of water? How long to deal with all the legal objections and logistical complications that are difficult to foresee at this point?

Long enough to get us past Donald Trump's inauguration?

And how will Donald Trump address Lake Oahe once he's in office? In all likelihood, he'll order the ACE to lower Oahe's water level to make the ground stable for drilling, and DAPL will proceed as planned.

Trump will contend (accurately) that he always advocated eliminating business-killing regulations. He will point to the toxic pipe underneath Lake Oahe as a triumph of his presidency. He might even bring in thousands of his minions to chant "Drain the Swamp" as he has the water pumped out at the behest of the bankers who are already filling his cabinet.

It will be fine and natural to hate him then.

But it will be terrible and unnatural to yearn for the days of Obama, whose chief donors are the business partners of Trump's cabinet.

Obama isn't using the baton of the presidency to smash DAPL; he's merely preparing to pass it to his successor in what will amount to a seamless transition of power for the oil companies, banks, and war profiteers that control the US government.

The bank bailout of 2008 was a bi-partisan hand-off of corruption from Republican George W. Bush to Democrat Obama. The DAPL bailout of 2017 will be a bi-partisan hand-off of corruption from Obama to Trump.

I don't know that we can stop them. We never do. But I hope that we won't fall for the revisionist history according to which the Democrats will say that they fought for us when we can see right now, in real time, that they're simply stalling.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

When Activism Invariably Fails, Resistance Appears Futile

In the minds of many activists, the most impressive antiwar demonstration in history occurred on February 15, 2003, when 10 to 15 million protestors assembled in over 600 cities worldwide to oppose the invasion of Iraq. If the purpose of activism is to demonstrate the solidarity of massive numbers of human beings on particular policy points, then the protests were successful. But if the purpose of activism is to prevent the activity opposed by protestors, then the antiwar demonstrations of 2003 were plainly failures.

As Ishaan Tharoor commented in a retrospective written for Time:
We failed. Slightly more than a month later, the U.S. was shocking and awing its way through Iraqi cities and Saddam Hussein’s defenses and bedding in — though it didn’t know it yet — for a near decadelong occupation. The protests, which by any measure were a world historic event, were brushed aside with blithe nonchalance by the Bush Administration and a rubber-stamp Congress that approved the war. The U.N.’s Security Council was bypassed, and the largely feckless, acquiescent American mainstream media did little to muffle Washington’s drumbeats of war.

A decade later, it’s hard to understand why the display of people power on Feb. 15 proved so ineffectual. The gun-slinging righteousness of post-9/11 America has given way to a more humble West, burdened by unwinnable wars, financial crises and a semipermanent funk of political dysfunction. . . . Yet the mass antiausterity protests that have rocked Europe or even the largest actions of Occupy Wall Street have not been able to match the scale of what took place on Feb. 15, 2003.
Perhaps the most disappointing note in this excerpt from Tharoor is the final sentence, with its lamentation that we have been unable "to match the scale" of a protest that failed.

Why should we seek to replicate anything about a protest that couldn't prevent a war as unjustifiable as the one in Iraq? We knew the Bush administration was lying about weapons of mass destruction. We knew the media was exploiting outrage over the 9/11 attacks to manufacture consent for the invasion of a country that had nothing to do with those attacks. The American government's absurd plan for war was vocally opposed by its own citizenry and by people throughout the world--and yet the Iraq War proceeded on schedule.

So what if the Occupy Wall Street protests had been bigger and more spectacular than the antiwar protests of 2003? What difference would it have made? Why do so many activists measure the success of their movements by counting the dollars raised or the participants involved rather than the policy goals achieved?

Any reasonable answer probably has to address the phenomenon of "learned helplessness," the sense of powerlessness that can arise from repeated failures to escape undesirable situations. Those unfamiliar with this term should read about the eye-opening (and depressing) experiments of Martin Seligman. His conclusion is irrefutable: It is possible to convince sentient organisms (including human beings) that an undesired stimulus (from an electric shock to an unnecessary war) is inescapable even when escape is as simple as stepping away from wherever one happens to be.

Dogs will sit on an electric shock pad and whimper as shocks are applied to them once they're convinced that they will encounter electric shock pads no matter where they go. And US citizens will allow their broken healthcare system to bankrupt them once the media has convinced them that every alternative to that system is somehow worse.

Americans are so accustomed to the inefficacy of protests that we have come to think of failure as an essential component of any demonstration. We didn't protest the Iraq War to prevent it: We protested it to feel better about what we regarded as inevitable. We didn't sympathize with Occupy Wall Street because we expected any bankers to be jailed or any retirees robbed of their pensions to get their money back; we sympathized as an empty gesture of occupying the moral high ground.

We're seeing this psychology in play right now with the way people are talking about the easement "victory" of the Standing Rock Sioux over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). On December 4th, Naomi Klein published an article in The Nation entitled "The Lesson from Standing Rock: Organizing and Resistance Can Win."

The article is full of the emotional confusion that stems from learned helplessness:
 “I’ve never been so happy doing dishes,” Ivy Longie says, and then she starts laughing. Then crying. And then there is hugging. Then more hugging.
This emotionalism captures Klein herself later in the article:
The youngest person here is someone many people credit with starting this remarkable movement: 13-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes, a fiercely grounded yet playful water-warrior who joined with her friends to spread the word about the threat the pipeline posed to their water. When I asked her how she felt about the breaking news she replied, “Like I got my future back”—and then we both broke down in tears.  
There's nothing wrong with tears of joy when people have something to celebrate. But that isn't the case right now because NoDAPL hasn't won, as Klein acknowledges when she writes, "Everyone here is aware that the fight is not over. The company will challenge the decision." The idea that the Sioux will receive justice simply because the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) denied the DAPL easement is as ludicrous as the notion that Walter Scott received justice simply because the policeman who murdered him had to go through the ordeal of a mistrial to get away with his crime.

Shortly after the ACE denial was issued, the companies behind DAPL (Sunoco Logistics Partners and Energy Transfer Partners) released a statement indicating that they "fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way." Nevertheless, the protest movement in America is so starved for victories that readers lapped up articles with titles such as "#NoDAPL: Big Win at Standing Rock as Army Corps Denies Easement for Dakota Access Pipeline," "BREAKING: NoDAPL Prevails – Obama Administration Halts Pipeline," and "Standing Rock Victory Photos: Pictures of the Celebration." Instead of worrying about the plans of the pipeline builders to ignore the denial of the easement, we're supposed to be ecstatic that the denial was issued at all. 

Sadly, the circumstances surrounding the denial suggest that NoDAPL is worse off now than it was a week prior to this "victory." On November 29th, Sophia Tesfaye pointed out in an article for Slate that after months of ignoring NoDAPL, the US government and various news organizations were "finally" starting to pay attention to the problem. The protest received a huge spike in favorable publicity as Tulsi Gabbard and thousands of other veterans converged on Standing Rock to serve as human shields for the water protectors.

Security firms and law enforcement officers were in for a public relations nightmare if they continued their practice of blasting peaceful protestors with icy water, tear gas, and rubber bullets. So miraculously, almost as soon as the veterans showed up, the ACE issued its denial of the easement. The long-standing media blackout on the NoDAPL protests would have been unsustainable if security guards had attacked the veterans. But in the wake of the news concerning the easement, the blackout is likely to be stronger than ever, as mainstream media hacks can now say of NoDAPL, "That protest ended in early December, when the easement was denied."

It would be gratifying to share Jared Beck's excitement about the deployment of veterans in protest movements as a newly discovered game-changer:
But we won't know that this strategy works until it actually works--which it hasn't yet. The NoDAPL veterans are already talking about capitalizing on their success by deploying to Flint, Michigan. That sounds like a great idea as soon as we have conclusive evidence that their efforts in Standing Rock have defeated DAPL once and for all. Until then, maybe they should call upon other conscientious veterans--those who couldn't make it to Standing Rock, for whatever reason--to assemble in Flint.

If they leave for Michigan before the battle of the Dakotas has been won, they run the risk of turning into one more roving band of failed activists (much like Code Pink and and other outfits that make a lot of noise about their concerns without actually changing the way the US government does business).

We Americans are stunningly silent about our failure to address systemic economic, racial, and environmental injustice in any meaningful way in the last fifty years. Think of all the documented cases of police brutality we've had since Michael Brown's killing. What have we learned from Ferguson except that the proper response to the latest murder of a black citizen is to chant "Black Lives Matter" while waiting for the next one?

Cue the defensive activist who says, "Jeesh, well it's easy to throw stones, but at least Medea Benjamin and Bill McKibben are doing something! Bloggers like you just want to be negative." But that's just the problem. I'm trying to be positive by insisting upon positive change. And the first step to making positive change involves recognizing that what we are doing isn't working. Maybe it will work out with the veterans in Standing Rock. It seems like it should, and I hope it does. If so, let's build on that. If not, let's not keep relying on strategies that fail.

The problem with our learned helplessness is that it is symptomatic of highly conventionalized thinking. We say, "There's no reason to re-invent the wheel. Some of these people have been at this activism business for decades. It would be arrogant not to listen to what they have to say."

But what they have to say often takes the form of micro-concessions, as when one ATXEJ volunteer at an Austin NoDAPL protest took me aside to say, "If you're trying to save the world from climate change, you're in for a disappointment. Instead, try to set local, manageable, attainable goals--like helping us clean up our local parks." One minor problem with that argument is that I didn't show up at the NoDAPL protest because I'm worried about sandwich wrappers blemishing otherwise pleasant scenery. I showed up because I'm concerned about climate change.

But the major problem with talking people out of saving the world is that it's likely to leave the world unsaved.

Activists don't just learn helplessness from the failure of their causes. They actively teach it to each other through such micro-concessions. All activists say they want change. That's what activates them. But it's easy to lose sight of what changes are most important in a culture that says, "We can't possibly impact carbon emissions on a global scale, so let's circulate a petition to raise the fine for littering!"

If you want to recognize your limitations within the current system and settle for doing whatever you can do in that framework, have at it. But that's a recipe for failing before you even try. If you prove to me that I can't achieve a semblance of justice within the current system, then my response shouldn't be to redefine justice, but to overhaul the system.

The difference between activism that does fail and activism that might succeed is the difference between evolution (which involves settling for change that occurs naturally) and revolution (which involves changing the way change happens). 

Instead of hoping that activism will evolve into something that works, we need to get busy re-inventing it until it does. This blog will feature more commentary on what form that experimentation might take approximately five posts from now. Those with comments to make before then are welcome to use the space below.

Friday, December 2, 2016

When the Big Tent Collapses

Hillary Clinton's loss to Donald Trump has triggered the collapse of the "party of the big tent," and the only two poles left standing for the Democrats are plainly labeled "Wall Street" and "war profiteering."

If you're concerned about potable water in Flint, Michigan, the Democrats don't have a solution for you. But they'll happily promise to pay lip service to the problem in exchange for your vote. "That's more than the Republicans will do," they'll chide. And if you object that paying lip service doesn't amount to doing more, but merely to saying more, they'll shrug and say, "Take it or leave it."

The negotiation will follow the same lines on any other issue that matters--from climate change to the school-to-prison pipeline to election integrity to toxic trade deals.

In every case, if you want the Democrats to pretend to care about the issue that matters to you, you must first support their death- and usury-based profit models. That is the only deal on the table. To reject it is to be branded a right wing nutjob or a white nationalist.

2016 has already been disastrous for the U.S. and the planet. The only way it can become more disastrous is if we, the members of the voting public, fail to learn anything meaningful and actionable from the experience of our most recent presidential election.

Sadly, each time I hear a Democratic supporter of the NoDAPL movement imply that the Sioux of Standing Rock are somehow getting Trumped (when they are in fact getting Obamaed), it seems that the most obvious lesson of 2016 has failed to register with many of my fellow citizens.

That lesson is simple: The Democratic Party is not the party of opposition to the GOP; it is the party of controlled opposition. Instead of resisting the economic, racial, and environmental injustices advocated by Republicans, the Democrats enable and advance those injustices by mounting phony and feckless opposition to them. That is their job, their only role in our society. And it's killing us

An examination of four prominent surrogates for Hillary Clinton (each representing a distinct aspect of the Democratic Party's putative commitment of justice) should make this case plain to anyone who doesn't insist on viewing the matter through cobalt-tinted glasses.

After all, it should be weird that Josh Fox (who opposes fracking), Nomiki Konst (who opposes election rigging), Michael Moore (who opposes job-killing trade deals), and Jay Z (who opposes the prison-for-profit industry) all ended up supporting the presidential candidate whose political career has been dedicated to championing everything they oppose. But it isn't weird. It's how the Democratic Party works.

The Curious Case of Josh Fox

Josh Fox is an independent filmmaker best known for Gasland, which exposes the environmental dangers of fracking.

So how did he end up supporting the "queen of fracking" for president?

The explanation seems to get back to the Republican Party's denial of climate change. Like Bill McKibben and other climate change activists loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party, Fox appears to believe there's an important difference between denying climate change and ignoring it.

In the minds of pro-Hillary eviros, Republicans like George W. Bush are bad because they refuse to acknowledge climate change, but Democrats like Barack Obama are good because they sign unenforceable international climate treaties while expanding pipeline networks throughout the US and turning the Gulf of Mexico into a dumpsite for fracking chemicals. For Democrats, the solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions has less to do with reducing those emissions than with saying loudly and clearly, after every oil spill and pipeline explosion, "There there, atmosphere. We feel your pain."

You might expect a climate activist like Fox to gravitate to the Green Party, but Fox's contempt for the Greens is unbounded. He asserts that he "never saw Greens" when he participated in environmental protests, which is a page straight from the DNC playbook. Supporters of Bernie Sanders will recall that John Lewis used the same rhetorical tactic in a failed attempt to undermine Sanders' involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

Fox doesn't simply loathe Greens in general. He has a specific grievance against Jill Stein because her investment portfolio (like the investment portfolios of most Americans with 401k accounts) includes holdings in the fossil fuel industry through index funds. From Fox's perspective, Stein's hypocrisy for owning these stocks is unforgivable, but his own hypocrisy in supporting the candidate who spent her time as Secretary of State peddling fracking technology to the rest of the world is a justifiable form of political expedience.

That's an absurd double standard if Fox is truly committed to preventing fracking. But he isn't. Instead, he's committed to convincing you that if someone as opposed to fracking as he used to be can get behind the pro-fracking Democrats, you should too.

That's the way things work in the big tent.

The Curious Case of Nomiki Konst

Nomiki Konst is a political analyst best known for The Accountability Project, which exposes corruption in politics.

So how did she end up supporting the deeply corrupt Clinton campaign?

She followed the time-honored Democratic formula of supporting the candidate who spoke out against corruption in the primaries (Sanders) en route to supporting his establishment rival (Clinton) in the general election.

Democrats have relied on this formula for decades. It's how Jesse Jackson's backers in 1992 ended up supporting corporatist Bill Clinton; how Lyndon LaRouche's backers in 2000 ended up supporting corporatist Al Gore; how Howard Dean's backers in 2004 ended up supporting corporatist John Kerry; and how Dennis Kucinich's backers in 2008 ended up supporting corporatist Barack Obama.

As a vocal and committed Democrat, Konst spent her adult life developing the political muscle memory necessary for an effortless transition from Sanders to Clinton. As with Stockholm Syndrome, the victims of the Democratic Party become adept at self-abnegation in support of their abusers even when the abuse is physical, as Konst revealed in this video:

Konst wasn't merely present when a Clinton supporter struck a Sanders supporter with a cane for daring to stand up for her rights at a New York delegation. To her credit, she took pains to speak out against the injustice of the incident on the spot and to publicize it online.

But having observed the violence inherent in the Democratic establishment's oppression of insurgent voices--having documented and commented on many incidents of intimidation and voter suppression that Democrats used against their own voters and delegates in the primary process--Konst would later come to support Clinton.

That seems like an absurd position for Konst to take if she is truly committed to the elimination of corruption. But she isn't. Instead, she's committed to convincing you that if someone as opposed to corruption as she used to be can get behind the deeply corrupt DNC, you should too.

That's the way things work in the big tent. 

The Curious Case of Michael Moore

Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker best known for chronicling the urban blight that besets industrial towns after massive job losses (as in his hometown of Flint).

So why would he support a candidate who championed NAFTA and helped push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

Part of the explanation seems to be the willingness of Democrats like Moore to focus entirely on what people say in public rather than what they do in private. Even though the Podesta emails from WikiLeaks confirm what most voters already knew about the TPP (i.e. that Hillary Clinton's public opposition to the international trade deal was a ruse), Moore was able to pretend that Clinton's phony opposition to the TPP was the political equivalent of Donald Trump's genuine opposition to it.

Democrats like to point out that words matter. For Democrats like Moore, it turns out that words are, in fact, the only things that matter.

While Clinton was in Flint, she spoke publicly and passionately about how the water crisis there needed to be seen as "a national priority." She outspent Trump by over $100M on campaign advertising (nearly double the amount needed to solve the water crisis in Flint)--even though any political advisor worth his salt could have told Clinton that one meaningful political action on her part--one gesture to people who couldn't pay her for making it--would have resonated with voters more profoundly than ten thousand political advertisements.

But of course, as Moore knows very well, Clinton's mission was never to help the people of Flint--not with their water problems or their job loss problems. The fact that they're broke because their jobs are gone is precisely why politicians like Clinton couldn't care less about the people of Flint. If they wanted nontoxic water, they never should have become too poor to bribe a politician into helping them in the first place. So even though corporate Democrats like the Clintons have done more to create cities like Flint throughout the country than any other kind of politician, Moore tells us we must support precisely such candidates--apparently to teach the communities they've blighted a lesson!

That seems like an absurd position for Moore to take if he is truly committed to opposing toxic trade deals such as the TPP. But he isn't. Instead, he's committed to convincing you that if someone as opposed to toxic trade deals as he used to be can get behind the pro-TPP Democrats, you should too.

That's the way things work in the big tent.

The Curious Case of Jay Z
Jay Z is a rapper best known in political activist circles for his opposition to the school-to-prison pipeline.

So how did he end up supporting a candidate who helped build that pipeline with her support for the 1994 Crime Bill, her advocacy for gutting welfare, and her characterization of urban youth as "superpredators" who must be brought "to heel"?

I suspect that the answer has something to do with the integral role played by the black misleadership class in the Clinton media machine. The Clintons have always understood the advantage of using people of color as their loudest cheerleaders just when they are imposing their most exploitative policies on the communities those spokespeople are presumed (usually by ignorant television viewers) to represent. By speaking out against the prison-for-profit industry while championing one of its chief stakeholders, Jay Z merely performed the same role as other professional black misleaders (such as Al Sharpton, Joy Reid, and John Lewis) who make the Clinton agenda look as if it has the support of the black community. 

Anyone familiar with Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow understands that the true superpredators who walk among us are the Joe Bidens and the Bill and Hillary Clintons of the world--the politicians whose donors figured out how to use a criminality clause in the Thirteenth Amendment (along with racially biased enforcement of anti-marijuana laws and a purposely arbitrary distinction between cocaine and crack) to create a new slave-based economy in America within the prison-industrial complex.

Jay Z understands the injustices of this system well enough to have made calls for "more schools, less prisons" a part of his onstage persona. He helped publicize the outrageous ordeal of Kalief Browder (who was confined to Riker's Island for three years simply for refusing to take a plea deal on a crime he didn't commit). And yet he supported a candidate who believes that marijuana should remain illegal (even though blacks are almost four times more likely than whites to be convicted for marijuana use) and that the death penalty is a necessary component of our criminal justice system (even though it is inflicted disproportionately on black convicts).

That seems like an absurd position for Jay Z to take if he is truly committed to opposing our racist incarceration state. But he isn't. Instead, he's committed to convincing you that if someone as opposed to mass incarceration as he used to be can get behind the prison-pushing Democrats, you should too.

That's the way things work in the big tent.

The Lunacy of the Reform-from-within Strategy

The Democratic Party isn't built to help you realize your objectives as a voter. It's built to appropriate your strength at the ballot box and to co-opt your sense of injustice.

When you join the Democrats, you can fall in line behind the people who want to stop climate change and corruption and job-killing trade deals and institutional racism and any other objectionable thing you can think of. The only satisfaction you will take from allying with Democrats is that your issue (unless it happens to be pro-Wall Street or pro-war) will be just as thoroughly ignored as everyone else's.

Eventually, you may become frustrated enough to say, "I'm tired of donating my time, energy, and money to a party that never does anything ordinary people want because it's too busy doing what the donors want."

You'll be scolded for your impatience and reminded that the Democrats are the party of the big tent, where everybody has a seat at the table--which is more than the Republicans can offer.

But here's the thing: It doesn't even matter whether they're right about the Republicans. The seat you're given might as well have a "Kick me!" sign taped to the back of it. If you choose to remain seated in that pointless chair at that pointless table inside that pointless tent, don't you dare blame the Republicans for how pointless the exercise is. That's the trap that keeps on trapping.

You can blame the Democrats a little bit for being treacherous and manipulative.

But you should mainly blame yourself for remaining seated.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Democrats Have a Donor Problem that Even Bernie Sanders Can't Solve

Like a lot of people, I'm woke because of Bernie Sanders.

And like a growing number of people, I'm too woke for the post-election DNC propaganda Sanders is peddling to have its intended effect.

Correct-the-Record operatives on Twitter harass me non-stop about how my antipathy for Hillary Clinton helped elect Trump. That doesn't bother me. I believe we're better off with Trump than we would have been with Clinton because—asJimmy Dore has long argued—Trump puts an ugly face on the ugly policies at the center of American life.

Progressivism would have remained asleep under Clinton the same way it's slumbered under Barack Obama for eight years. Although I don't expect Trump's Department of Justice to protect children like Tamir Rice from homicidal cops any better than Obama's did, I do expect people to pay closer attention to such injustices under Trump.

But there's a different form of Brockbot harassment that does bother me because I see it working on some people. It takes the form of tweets like this:

The purpose of Lockett's tweet is 1) to remind people that a Trump presidency is a horrifying prospect (which it certainly is); and 2) to drive those horrified people back into the arms of the Democrats as their only protection (which the Democrats certainly aren't, as their neoliberal corruption is precisely what led to Trump's rise in the first place).

Instead of acknowledging the glaring flaws of Clinton's candidacy (FBI investigations are no big deal) and platform (even though the generals know that a no-fly zone in Syria will lead to war with Russia, that doesn't really count as long as CNN finds something else to talk about), Brock's minions continue to focus on fearmongering about the GOP:
If Brock had not just met behind closed doors with George Soros, Neera Tanden, Keith Ellison, and the other neolib masterminds who brought us the Trump presidency, this hillbot nonsense would be easy to ignore.

But it's difficult to ignore when Sanders himself participates, as he does in this speech:

It's great to see Sanders calling out the failure of the Democratic Party, but chilling to see him transition immediately to cheering for a Soros puppet like Ellison, who is simply a male embodiment of Clinton's warhawkishness. (The fact that Ellison also happens to be black and a Muslim is simply part of the identity politics screen behind which the DNC loves to hide its most destructive and oppressive policy priorities. Just as Obama's pigmentation was an effective diversion from the racist incarceration state over which he presided, Ellison's religion deflects attention from his eagerness to bomb Muslim children in Libya and Syria and anywhere else Soros desires.)

I don't deny that Ellison supports some genuinely progressive policies. The problem is that the Democratic Party funnels all progressives to the same group of donors, and the insidious influence of those donors invariably compromises the progressive instincts of these candidates. Ellison's progressivism is the window dressing that makes him palatable enough for voters to support him. But the end result is that the donors always get what they want from these candidates--while the voters who put them into office never do.

That's too grand a claim for me to prove in one blog post, but I hope to make the case watertight with additional entries in the coming weeks.

For the time being, I want to make my overarching thesis as clear as possible:

Since the Democratic Party is, as Kshama Sawant observes, a "graveyard" for progressives, the most important step the woke community can take towards defeating Trumpism is to move away from the Democrats as quickly as possible. I'm not saying we automatically have to get behind the Greens. I'm not saying we automatically have to form a new national third party. But I am saying that any progressive energy expended on behalf of the Democratic Party will be systematically opposed and dissipated by that party--even if the great Sanders says otherwise.

This truth is as painful for me as it is for anyone else who simply wants to fall back in line behind Sanders, but I have reached this conclusion based on evidence that I look forward to examining publicly (via this blog) as systematically as time permits.

The upshot is that when a hillbot asks me what I'm doing to stop Trump, my answer is that I'm trying to persuade Nina Turner to leave the Democratic model of fundraising-via-bribery. Accepting such a challenge will require bravery on her part, as she would have to cut her ties to the dark money (almost certainly from Soros and other prominent DNC donors) that taints 501c4 outfits such as Our Revolution.

I look forward to donating my time, energy, and money to the first political leader with nationwide recognition who has the courage to stand up to Trump by recognizing that we must first stand up to the Democratic machine that created him. In the meantime, the hillbots harassing me are wasting their time (except that I guess they aren't, since they're getting paid by Brock, who's getting paid by Soros, who's also paying Ellison).

For now, I'll just let this tweet from Smithee sink in: