POLITICS

Joe Strummer, Matt Gonzalez & Whitney Leigh.

FOR THE HISTORICAL RECORD

MARCH 4, 2008

WRITING TRUTH TO POWER? HOW THE GUARDIAN LET PROGRESSIVES DOWN

by G. Whitney Leigh

As Matt Gonzalez’s law partner, I’ve had more time than most to consider the upsides and downsides of his decision to join Ralph Nader’s campaign for president. So I wasn’t entirely surprised that Barack Obama supporters like the Bay Guardian’s Steve Jones did not greet Gonzalez’s candidacy for Vice President warmly. After all, there are multiple good arguments by which to question the value and potentially negative impact of such an effort.

The trouble is, Jones doesn’t make any of these arguments.

Instead, in his blog – which runs under the stupendously ironic by-line “Writing Truth to Power,” Jones embarks on a heavily emotional, and utterly ineffective criticism of Gonzalez for doing just that – pointing out facts about Obama’s record that are both true and deserving of consideration by progressives weighing their votes for this fall.

As I explain below, in purporting to refute points raised by Gonzalez about Obama’s record in an article he posted in BeyondChron, Jones does little more than confirm that regardless of how one comes out on the election, the questions Gonzalez asks should be asked, and should be asked now, rather than after the election.

Gonzalez’ scrutiny of Obama’s record is not just fair, but critically important

In attacking Gonzalez’ article on Obama, Jones first complains that Gonzalez, “characterizes Obama’s campaign as ‘one of accommodation and concession to the very political powers that we need to reign in and oppose if we are to make truly lasting advances.’”

That might be an interesting observation if that is what he said. It isn’t.

In his article, Gonzalez does not criticize Obama’s campaign but, instead, the votes he cast as a United States Senator. Surely Jones knows the difference – we aren’t talking about parsing speeches, but instead examining decisions Obama made that had great effect on the people he would have elect him president.

Obama has premised his campaign largely on a comparison of positions he has taken and votes cast by his Democratic opponents (i.e., Iraq). And if Obama should not be judged by his votes in the Senate, then on what basis, pray tell, should voters judge him?

Obama’s votes to fund the war in Iraq, and the specifics of his plans for withdrawal are worthy of scrutiny

Many folks who support Obama might be surprised to find out that, as Gonzalez points out, Obama has on every occasion afforded him, voted to support funding the war in Iraq -unlike many other Democrats. Many folks that support Obama over Clinton because of Obama’s often-referenced pre-war opposition just don’t know this. So pointing out how Obama voted when he had the power to vote is not, as Jones suggests, mere “opshop” tactics (whatever “opshop” means). It is, for lack of a better phrase, “writing the truth.”

Rather than confront this troubling aspect of Obama’s record – for which reasonable explanations might be made – Jones declaims, “Obama and the other Democratic candidates have all clearly and unequivocally pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.”

This false and obtuse contention obscures important distinctions between the Democratic candidates themselves. Of the Democratic candidates, only Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson advocated complete withdrawal. Obama, Edwards and Clinton advocated – and advocate – varying plans of troop reduction and “strategic” redeployment.

Whether these latter approaches are necessitated by the circumstances presented is debatable. But to suggest, as Jones does, that all Democrats have unequivocally endorsed “withdrawal” is, at best, to engage in misleading sophistry (cloaking within the term “withdrawal” any reduction or movement of troops) or, worse, to place our heads in the sand.

The fact that Nader and Gonzalez force you to engage in these kinds of verbal gymnastics says a lot. There is a phrase about “protesting too much” that comes to mind.

Health Care – “No, We Can’t?”

Jones’ response to Gonzalez’s criticism of Obama’s health care plan is in some ways the most troubling element of his piece because he buries what could be a worthy point of discussion in a needless, messenger-blaming diatribe.

Few serious people are impressed with Obama’s (or anyone’s) promises to hold hearings on health care with unidentified “stakeholders,” as Jones professes to be. On the one hand, Jones appears to agree that a single-payer system is the best and only means of providing good health care to all. But Jones defends Obama’s refusal to pursue a single payer system based on the claim that Obama’s abandonment of this goal merely reflects a “stealth” effort to reach that goal – all that is needed is the right, “no-lobbyist” setting for the crafting of a national health plan. To wit:

“But here’s the brilliant part of Obama’s position: he has said over and over that he wants to have nationally devised hearings on health care, with all the stakeholder groups but no lobbyists, and to craft a national health plan in that setting. That, Matt, is how you educate the people and create a national consensus around single payer.”

Disregarding Jones’ assertion that “stakeholders” and “lobbyists” is a meaningful distinction (it isn’t), this contention does strike at the heart of Obama’s appeal for many progressives nonplussed by the generalities of Barack’s appeals for undirected Hope and unspecified Change. These progressives (among whom I count myself) hold out the hope that Obama’s candidacy presents an opportunity to reengage the body politic in a discussion about key policies – health care being a principle but by no means the only one – and a chance to create an environment where more progressive goals – the goals we all know make sense – can be achieved.

They hold out the hope, to put it simply, for a better, saner and more humane future.

But before we attack those who espouse the principles we support and believe to be right – because we perceive them to be too strident for the moment – we should stop for a moment and consider whether our pique and indignation actually stems from our discomfort with being confronted with compromises we are making.

Indeed, one of the most compelling themes of Obama’s campaign, at least for me, is the maxim “Yes, we can.” But for many people, Dennis Kucinich for example, “yes, we can” is the correct answer to the question of whether universal, single payer health care is a prudent and achievable objective.

At least make the apologetics credible

Jones’ omnibus rap-up of Gonzalez’s additional criticisms is equally lacking in substance. Yes, legislation often can be analogized to sausage making. But if the Guardian has adopted the “everybody does it” approach to evaluating bad votes on important issues, then we might just as well read the Chronicle, or Salon. The Patriot Act is not just a “contentious issue” among a “thousand votes”.

If how Obama voted on the Patriot Act is now irrelevant, then we all are in trouble. Instead, why not consider the amendments Obama offered, what procedural situations obtained, and whether consideration of Obama’s votes on the Patriot Act make more sense when placed in context.

That would be useful. “Everybody does it” arguments are not.

And with his defense of Obama’s explanation for opposing a 30 percent credit card interest cap (”Obama has said repeatedly and credibly that he thought that cap was too high”), Jones falls off the logic cliff. This claim isn’t credible for the simple reason that Obama never proposed a lower percentage interest cap.

Under Jones’ analysis, an official can oppose a 30 percent cap by supporting no cap at all. Are we really supposed to swallow that?

It doesn’t make sense to attack Gonzalez for espousing the same positions the Guardian has long embraced

Notably, in his broad-brush dismissal of Gonzalez critique of Obama, Jones glosses over the very positions he himself has taken. For example, one of the key differences between Nader/Gonzalez and the leading Democrats is on the issue of impeachment of President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, for their acts in leading the country to war on false pretenses, authorizing torture in violation of U.S. laws and international treaties, and authorizing illegal surveillance of Americans in flagrant violation of federal law.

But as Gonzalez points out, Obama – a former civil rights lawyer and constitutional law professor – distinguished himself in his vociferous opposition to the efforts by other Democrats (moderates and progressives like Robert Byrd, John Conyers, John Lewis, Russ Feingold, Robert Wexler and Dennis Kucinich) and even some Republicans (i.e. Chuck Hagel) and to even open discussion of impeachment.

As it happens, one of the most cogent and persuasive cases for impeachment was made by – you guessed it, Steve Jones. I guess that’s how Jones felt in January 2006. Now, impeachment is merely “op-shop” stuff, or whatever.

There are multiple reasons to support and be excited for Obama. In my view, Obama has taken many truly courageous and important positions, not the least of which is his willingness to engage adverse governments in countries like Cuba. And for my money, the election of an African American president would have immeasurable societal effects that cannot be ignored. Moreover, scrutiny of Obama’s past shows that progressives’ hopes for an Obama presidency could be well placed.

But we don’t need the Guardian to tell us that legitimate questions about Obama’s record should be swept under the rug. We can get that from Joan Walsh.

It’s far better to remember that “writing truth to power,” while often inconvenient and rarely easy, is nevertheless an essential endeavor.

–G. Whitney Leigh is a graduate of Hope College in Holland, Michigan and Stanford Law School. He practices law with Matt Gonzalez at the law firm of Gonzalez & Leigh LLP in San Francisco.

This piece was first published in Fog City Journal on March 4, 2008.

Steve Jones’ original piece Gonzalez joins Nader’s pursuit of infamy was published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian Online on February 28, 2008.


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2 Responses to POLITICS

  1. Kathleen says:

    “Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom, but I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control and it didn’t have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realised that you either became a power or you were crushed”

    — Joe Strummer

  2. Paul Platt says:

    Nicely done Whit. It seems like The Guardian creates whatever propaganda they can to try to win their argument of the day. As I’ve gone from a faithful weekly reader of all of their news/opinions to one who reads part of their paper a couple times a year, I’ve realized they have their cliques and friends and enjoy feeling important more than they want to stand by any core values or integrity.

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