"You elected this president. You reelected this president. . . . Stop being chumps!" --Van Jones
Going in, I was of mixed views regarding Sunday's rally in Washington, D.C., to save the earth's climate from the tar sands pipeline. I still am.
Why on a Sunday when there's no government around to protest, shut down, or interfere with?
And why all the pro-Obama rhetoric? Robert Kennedy, Jr., was among the celebrities getting arrested at the White House in the days leading up, and his comment to the media was typical. Obama won't allow the tar sands pipeline, he said, because Obama has "a strong moral core" and doesn't do really evil things.
As a belief, that's of course delusional. This is the same president who sorts through a list of men, women, and children to have executed every other Tuesday, and who jokes about it. This is the guy who's derailed international climate protection efforts for years. This is the guy who refused the demand to oppose the tar sands pipeline before last year's election. If he had been compelled to take a stand as a candidate there would be no need for this effort to bring him around as a lame duck.
As a tactic, rather than a belief, the approach of the organizers of Sunday's rally is at least worth questioning. For one thing, people are going to hear such comments and take them for beliefs. People are going to believe that the president would never do anything really evil. In which case, why bother to turn out and rally in protest of what he's doing? Or if we do turn out, why communicate any serious threat of inconvenience to the president? On the contrary, why not make the protest into a campaign rally for the president through which we try, post-election, to alter the platform on which the actual candidate campaigned?
The advantage to the expect-the-best-and-the-facts-be-damned approach is clear. Lots of people like it. You can't have a mass rally without lots of people. The organizers of this event are not primarily to blame for how the U.S. public thinks and behaves. But, then again, if you're trying to maximize your crowd at all costs, hadn't you better really truly maximize it? Sunday's rally probably suffered from being held on a bitterly cold day, but I suspect that most people who planned to come did come; and I've seen more people on the Mall in the summer for no reason at all, and many times more people on the Mall in the winter for an inauguration (which, in terms of policy based activism, is also nothing at all).
What if the celebrities generating the news with arrests at the White House were to speak the truth? What if they committed to nonviolently interfering with the operations of a government destroying the climate? What if they committed to opposing the Democratic and Republican parties as long as this is their agenda? What if they said honestly and accurately that the personality of a president matters less than the pressures applied to him, that this president can do good or evil, and that it is our job to compel him to do good?
Sunday's rally, MC'd by former anti-Republican-war activist Lennox Yearwood, looked like an Obama rally. The posters and banners displayed a modified Obama campaign logo, modified to read "Forward on Climate." One of the speakers on the stage, Van Jones, declared, "I had the honor of working for this president." He addressed his remarks to the president and appealed to his morality and supposed good works: "President Obama, all the good that you have done . . . will be wiped out" if you allow the tar sands pipeline.
The pretense in these speeches, including one by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, was consistently that Obama has not already approved part of the pipeline, that he is guilty of inaction, that the government is failing to act, that what's needed is action -- as if our government were not actively promoting the use of, and using vast quantities of fossil fuels, not to mention fighting wars to control the stuff.
Van Jones ended his remarks by addressing himself to "the next generation." And this is what he had to say: "Stop being chumps! You elected this president. You reelected this president. You gave him the chance to make history. He needs to give you the chance to have a future. Stop being chumps! Stop being chumps and fight for your future, thank you very much."
Reading these words, one would imagine that the obvious meaning they carry is "Stop electing people like this who work for parties like this and serve financial interests like these." What could be a more obvious interpretation? You elected this guy twice. He's a lame duck now. You've lost your leverage. Stop being such chumps!
Nothing could be further, I think, from what Van Jones meant or what that crowd on Sunday believed he meant. This was a speaker who had, just moments before, expressed his pride in having worked in Obama's White House. The fact that this crowd of Obama-branded "activists" had elected him twice was not mentioned in relation to their chumpiness but as grounds for establishing their right to insist that he not destroy the planet's atmosphere. They would be chumps if they didn't hold more rallies like this one.
Wait, you might ask, doesn't everyone have the right to insist that powerful governments not destroy the earth's atmosphere?
Well, maybe, but in Van Jones' thinking, those who committed to voting for Obama twice, no matter what he did, and who have committed to voting for another Democrat no matter what he or she will do, deserve particular attention when they make demands. Paradoxically, those who can be counted on regardless, who demand nothing and therefore offer nothing, should be the ones who especially get to make demands and have them heard and honored.
Needless to say, it doesn't actually work that way.
Our celebrity emperors attract a great deal of personal affection or hatred, so when I suggest an alternative to packaging a rally for the climate as a belated campaign event, it may be heard as a suggestion to burn Obama in effigy. What if there were a third option, namely that of simply demanding the protection of our climate?
We might lose some of those who enjoyed burning Bush in effigy and some of those who enjoy depicting themselves as friends of the Obama family. But would we really lose that many? If the celebrities and organizers took such an honest policy-based approach, if the organizations put in the same money and hired the same busses, etc., how much smaller would Sunday's unimpressive rally have really been?
(And couldn't such a crowd be enlarged enough to more than compensate for any loss, by the simple tactic of promising ahead of time to keep the speeches to a half-hour total and to begin the march on time? I'd pay money to go to that rally.)
The problem, of course, is that the celebrities and organizers themselves tend to think like Obama campaign workers. It's not an act. It's not a tactic aimed at maximizing turnout. And it's not their fault that they, and so many others, think that way.
But imagine a realistic, policy-based approach that began to build an independent movement around principled demands. It would have the potential to grow. It would have the potential to threaten massive non-cooperation with evil. It would have the energy of Occupy. It would have the potential to make a glorious declaration out of what now appears to be self-mockery when oversmall crowds of hungover campaign workers shout "This is what democracy looks like!" as they plod along a permitted parade route.
No. It really isn't.