OPEN LETTER: A PRE-POST-MORTEM
by John Halle
As of this writing, the “Open Letter to the Left Establishment” is inching towards its goal of 5,000 signatures. It has not “gone viral” compared to certain dancing parrots and singing dogs, though it should be kept in mind that this response was achieved without very much exposure on the web from large “gatekeeper” sites.
In particular, while we did, of course, send it to them, none of the high traffic progressive sites, alternet, commondreams, or truthdig made any mention of it. Nor was it placed on high traffic blogs such as firedoglake or openleft, to say nothing of the so-called access blogs Daily Kos or Huffington Post.
Of those medium traffic left sites which did run it, Znet allowed it on its front page briefly and then removed it within less than a day-displacing it with a response by Bill Fletcher now front-paged on the site for three days. In comments attached to it, Znet editor Michael Albert claims to have signed the letter “by mistake”-failing to mention that he didn’t merely sign it but posted it on his own website.
Counterpunch ran it on its weekend edition-albeit far down on the page-just below a story about the unveiling of a new organ in Ithaca.
Truthout ran it on its front page, and it continues to maintain its place there four days after as the most read story on the site.
The mostly hands-off reaction might have come as a surprise given that the letter included the signatures of a cross section of left luminaries, many of whom are routinely featured in these same outlets- Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Cindy Sheehan, Cornel West among others. Novelist Russell Banks and non-fiction author Mark Kurlansky also signed on. Also coming in over the transom, as it were, were unsolicited signatures from Emmanuel Wallerstein, Frances Fox Piven, Jean Bricmont, Nell Painter, Steven Zunes, Paul Buehl and even Michael Lerner.
But for those with a sufficiently skeptical view of such matters the blackout from the great majority of the establishment left media was predictable.
For as a basic rule, no institution or individual takes kindly to its authority being challenged-and that includes those which claim, as many leftists do, to be anti-authoritarian.
I should stress that challenging the authority of left individuals and the media which provided outlets for them was not the main purpose of the letter, which was, as we make clear, to advocate for the support of the kinds of protest actions against the Obama administration which are now desperately necessary. Nor, speaking for myself, was it pleasant to do so given that some of these were key figures in my own intellectual and political development. Furthermore, in the main, I think these outlets, including those sites mentioned above, generally do a good job, and so it does not serve the interests of the left to have their authority undermined.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the Obama campaign and the first two years of his administration, a near complete collapse of objectivity raised serious questions with respect to the credibility of numerous high profile figures and media organs of the left. Challenging some of them therefore, became a regrettable necessity. More seriously, it has also been necessary due to the fact that many of these figures continue to refuse to do what the letter urges them to do: namely to actively support protests against the Obama administration”.
This has been demonstrated by the two responses to the letter which have been received since its posting by Bill Fletcher and Tom Hayden. For rather than refute the charge that both remain incapable of offering strong and unqualified support to demonstrations of the size and intensity required, they confirm it. Thus, Hayden describes the civil disobedience action at the White House scheduled for Dec. 16 as “somewhat justifiable” although questioning whether “it was a smart idea to begin with.” Nothing could better typify the kinds of half-hearted, tepid and qualified response which has played a major role in the demobilization of protest for all to many years. Fletcher’s response, however, goes one better: failing even to offer any endorsement or mention the protest at all! Furthermore, almost the entirety of the response is based on misreading, either careless or deliberate, in which the letter is claimed to “call(s) upon those named in the first paragraph to criticize the policies of the Obama administration.” It does nothing of the kind, of course. The first sentence of is “a call for active support of protest” not criticism of which there is always more than enough to go around.
Nothing could better demonstrate the necessity for challenging the authority of these two as leading voices of the left. It it s therefore convenient that when it comes to Fletcher and Hayden and the remainder of the recipients of the letter, this task was easily accomplished by simply noting some (though by no means all) of the most destructive aspects of the Obama presidency and addressing the recipients as “supporters”. That they were supporters is, of course, the undeniable fact of the matter though it should be kept in mind that their support was to a greater or lesser degree “critical” lying along a spectrum of which the following two quotations can be seen as indicating the two extremes.
“Barack Obama is clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples’ lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America.” (Katrina van den Heuvel)
“Putting Obama in the White House would not by any means ensure progressive change, but under his presidency the grassroots would have an opportunity to create it.” (Norman Solomon)
The first of these was typical of much that was written at the time. It is obviously absurd on its face, and the less said about it the better-though mention should probably be made that it gives the lie to the pretentious and corrosive claim that the left constitutes a “reality based community.”
The second encapsulates the positions of the more sober and rational Obama supporters, most notably those associated with the Progressive Democrats of America. Here the claim was at least superficially reasonable, but by now has shown by events to have been almost completely false. As should be obvious, protest is only now starting to develop, and compared to the peak of millions on the streets in March of 2003 remains virtually non-existent.
The reason for this vacuum has to do with a virtually unbreakable law of left organizing which operates roughly as follows: when a Democratic President enters office, those membership organizations which had been on the outside now see themselves as having a seat at the table. This is achieved through movement leadership being offered positions-albeit low to midlevel positions-in the administration. When they are not actually invited into the administration, elite levels of the left establishment see themselves as having “access” to some these figures, with the result that organizations, media outlets and high profile figures which would otherwise be organizing grassroots protests are now counseling patience, tolerance and, at the very least, “critical” support.
The Obama administration is, in fact, somewhat striking, no doubt to the displeasure of the left establishment, for the weakness with which it implemented this well-worn co-optation strategy. That said, there were at least some within it who could be pointed to as “our friends”. Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor remains a favorite of organized labor as does Jared Bernstein. Steven Chu was initially seen by environmentalists as likely to function as a strong advocate for a sane policy on Global Warming, as was Science Advisor Steven Holdren. Human rights icon Samantha Power, now signing off on predator drone attacks in Pakistan on the National Security Council, is another. These and others (even including the exiled Van Jones) continue an unending flow of apologetics for the administration, some fraction of which are still taken seriously by some of the recipients and which have been sufficient, it would seem, to maintain the illusions among labor, environmental, and human rights organizations of access to the administration.
All this is directly relevant to purpose of the letter in that the perception of access to “friends” on the inside ensures that the organizational infrastructure which is necessary to organize protest withers, leaving it to outside marginal groups the necessity to build this infrastructure from scratch.
As noted, all this should have been obvious to those who lived through, or at least read about, the Carter and Clinton administrations where the dynamic of co-optation was refined to something close to a science. So when we confronted it anew under Obama, we should have seen it, and the events which followed, for the inevitabilities which they were and be prepared to confront them. We did not because those who should have been warning us had an investment in the Obama campaign and Obama brand, and what they felt it represented, and were thereby unwilling or unable to do so. The legacy of false claims and unrealistic expectations lives on in the continuing failure of many of these figures to advocate for protest on the scale and intensity which is required.
An awareness of this fact, as indicated by the 4000 signatories, is slowly percolating through the rank and file left. But since the left establishment gatekeepers will not allow expressions of it to surface on those high traffic sites which they control, it will need to develop further before it reaches a breaking point. When this occurs institutional leadership personified by figures such as Hayden and Fletcher is correctly seen as a major obstacle to the progress of the protest movement. At this point the rank and file will begin to develop their own institutions independent of what have become, for all practical purposes, fatally compromised institutions and spokepersons.
Or, a more happy development, would be if those left establishment figures we address, and others we do not, were to do as signatory Doug Henwood does gracefully in his statement in support of our letter. They should own up to their past mistakes, and show by their words and actions that they are now committed not to support, critical or otherwise of the Obama administration, but to active and militant opposition to its policies.
There is no good reason, it seems to us, why they could, or should, not do precisely that.
And should they do so, we will welcome them with open arms.
John Halle is a former Green Party Alderman for the city of New Haven, Connecticut, and is on the faculty at Bard College in New York State where he teaches music theory and is active as a composer. His political writings can be found at his website johnhalle.com.