A Politics Forever Changed

Uploaded by BrooklynMuseum on 28.04.2010

Good afternoon. Hi. I'm Elizabeth Sacker and I would like to welcome you the Elizabeth
A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. We opened in 2007 and our mission is to raise awareness
of the impact of feminist thinking, of feminist art on the larger culture and on the art world.
In addition to that, we have this wonderful space, the forum, so we can have dialogs and
panel discussions about issues that relate either to art or to the social agenda or political
landscape that we're facing.
Last September 28, Courtney Martin accepted by invitation to come and moderate a panel
at that time, which she did. It focused on political events. It was called the "American
Hero" and I said She-ro and she agreed with the change. "The American She-ro and American
Dream: Reflections on Our Contemporary Political Narrative."
It addressed the dominate narratives of this past election perpetuated by both the presidential
candidates and the media and the ways in which the two candidates and their vice presidents
were marketed by the media. There was much discussion about the questions of race, gender
and class. I also brought up from my point of view that we were looking at business as
usual in politics.
At the close of that panel discussion, I asked Courtney if she would come back after the
election, after the inauguration so we could have a post-election and post-inaugural debriefer.
Courtney said, "Yes" and I'm delighted that she's here. As far as I'm concerned, one of
the high points of the whole thing in addition to all the other high points was Aretha Franklin
singing, "My Country 'Tis of Thee." I thought that was just the best.
This Sunday's panel is titled "A Politics Changed Forever". It will be interesting actually,
now since we're a few weeks into this new administration whether or not you would put
a colon to that and add something or whether or not... Well, I'm interested, wonderfully,
to hear your discussions. June Cross has joined us. Andrew Golis and Daniel May, and of course
Courtney will be introducing them to you.
Courtney is an award-winning freelance journalist and author, senior correspondent for the American
Prospect Online. She's editor at Feministing.com. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post,
Newsweek, and the Christian Science Monitor amongst others. Courtney is author of the
critically-acclaimed book, "Perfect Girls Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection
is Harming Young Women". She's co-writer of the life story of aids activist Marvelyn Brown
called "The Naked Truth: Young, Brave and HIV Positive." Currently, she's working on
a book for Beacon Press. She has essays and anthologies of 21st Century Ethical Toolbox
which was published by Oxford Press and "Declare Yourself 50 American..." I have here "50 American".
It must be "Americans". Yes? "50 Americans Talk About Why Voting Matters" and that's
Harper Collins.
She's a recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics. She's a Woodhull fellow, Director
of Undergraduate Programs at Op-Ed Project, Alum of Progressive Women's Voice's Project
at the Women's Media Center. She speaks on air, on college's campuses and the like. I
always say, if you feel like you've done a lot in your life, after you've heard that
we can all think again.
I don't know how many of you might be aware that in addition to having been before on
the Today Show and the O'Reilly Factor, that after President Obama's first news conference
and the fallout over O'Reilly's abuse of the journalist Telling Thomas, the Women's Media
Center put up on their site a request for people to object and to go right into the
link to O'Reilly. And as a result of that, O'Reilly got riled and Courtney got chosen.
You'll have to tell me by whom, Courtney, because I don't really have that happened.
But in any event, I got an email from Women's media center that Courtney was going to be
on the O'Reilly Factor. She had, as I wrote here, fabulous calm in the face of sputtering
ass, lucid in the response to hot air and, I'm hoping, has the ammunition to get to net
an apology out of the man which she does have and he hasn't given.
So please join me in welcoming Courtney Martin and today's panel. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. I think I was chosen because they thought it would be pretty cool
to have a younger women defending an older woman. That it would be kind of an inter-generational
play and
that maybe it would disarm Mr. O'Reilly just a little bit. So I think that we were pretty
successful on those accounts.
Thanks everyone for being here. Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for the opportunity. This
is just such a cool space and a lot of the panelists here have connections to Brooklyn
and I know a lot of you do and it's so awesome to have a place within walking distance of
my house where I can have these kind of interactions with art and politics and all these questions
of the day. So thank you for creating this really vibrant, incredible center for all
of us.
So as Elizabeth Sacker referenced, I wrote the title of the panel pre, sort of, the last...
I think it was probably three months ago in order for it to be in the program. So I thought
that I could safely say that I thought that politics would be forever changed, and now
I stand beside the title. We'll see if my fellow panelists fell comfortable standing
beside the title. But I do fell like that I'd like to add sort of a parenthetical paragraph
or two about the ways in which it possibly had not been changed as much we hoped it might
have been.
I did want to sort of revisit some of the really important things that have undeniably
been changed. We had the longest, and some could argue, most followed presidential primary
season in American history, right? The gross number of ballots cast in 2008 was the highest
ever. We had unprecedented conversations about race and gender, some of which it felt like
it was opposite day like we used to say in third grade. Conservative pundits were suddenly
calling sexism with regards to Sarah Palin and the right was suddenly scared of religion
when it came in the form of Jeremiah Wright.
We had a totally new coordination of the Internet, grassroots organizing and old-fashioned electoral
politics in the form of Obama's campaign and we have some great insight on the panel about
some of those things. Young people voted at three, four and sometimes five times the rate
of previous years in the primaries, and got involved in record numbers in canvassing and
other political activity.
Excuse me if you are already aware of this, but we have a bi-racial President, a black
First Lady, cabinet full of people of color and women. So some things have changed. Let's
just admit that. OK?
Now, there are lots of things that obviously haven't. Now we have this really undeniable
and always present backdrop of an economic crisis on our hands. We have enduring violence
in Iraq and Afghanistan. The party's over, right? We know that bi-partisanship raging
with the stimulus package. There are all these reasons not to be particularly hopeful at
this moment.
In addition to which, I have to make the point because it's so important to me, that Obama's
campaign alone cost over one billion dollars, and the election as a whole totaled an unprecedented
5.3 billion. So in terms of campaign finance reform, this is not a politics forever changed.
Right? Hope came at a very, very steep price which is important for us to keep in mind.
Today is not so much about debating the nitty-gritty of the stimulus package or getting weighted
down in all of the very specific things that are going on or even specifically what Obama
has done in the last month, but it's more to take a big picture view, to look back and
take that bird's eye view and say, what has changed and what hasn't, and what is the work
ahead and what are things that we can actually really feel good about and celebrate.
I've convinced to that point these three brilliant human beings, all of which- you know, I've
had these conversations with offline and out of the public eye and so I know how much insight
they have and what a fresh perspective they bring to come and start that conversation
that I really hope it will be a discussion for all of us.
So without further or do, who wants to go first? Anyone? We didn't even talk about order.
All right, Andrew.
All right.
Let me introduce Andrew to you. He is a deputy publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com and all
the TPM Media blogs. TPM blogs are widely regarded as among the most innovative and
influential political blogs in the country. He's worked in Democratic politics as a staff
organizer for Howard Dean's campaign for the presidency and as the assistant training director
for the Democratic National Committee. He also played an advisory role in designing
and launching the Causes Application for facebook.com.
studied Social Theory in American Political History at Harvard College, where he ran a
variety of campus campaigns and founded the Harvard Progressive Advocacy Group and the
campus progressive political blog cambridgecommons.com. He was born and raised in Santa Rosa, California.
He lives in Astoria, Queens, with his wife-to-be and their cat and dog. Andrew's going to explain
the way...
We moved to Sunnyside but...
Oh, old...
It's still the Queens. Still the Queens.
They have a very nice house in Sunnyside. I've actually played ping pong there before.
So Andrew's going to talk specifically about new media, that whole blog world, and how
Obama used that to influence major mainstream narratives and mobilize constituents. Andrew,
take it away.
Thank you. So yeah, I'm going to talk about- I'm specifically going to focus on the way
in which the '08 election kind of was the conclusion of what I think is completely new
media ecosystem's birth. And TPM is one node of this ecosystem and just to give people
background who don't know anything about it. It's a combination of news and reporting.
We have about two or three million readers a month and it's focused on national political.
So that's a short story of what we do.
Tons and tons of people have already talked about the ways in which the Internet radically
drove Obama's run. And a couple of the things that Courtney mentioned in her introduction
were a part of that. The two things that
I think are most often focused on and rightly so, are his ability to use the Internet to
organize, which means his ability to bring people together, allow them to find each other,
turn people out to events, and empower them to go and knock on their neighbor's door and
really move people; and his ability to fundraise.
As Courtney mentioned, he raised more money than anyone in the history of anything to
get elected. And was able to do that because of the fact that he was able to get tons of
small dollar donations from tons of people and that is simply impossible without the
But I guess I'm going to argue today that those were necessary but not sufficient changes
to getting him elected. He could have been as well funded and his people could have been
as well mobilized as possible, but without dramatic changes in the way in which Americans
consume and share information.
We still would have been trying to get a men named, Barrack Hussein Obama, who is black,
elected president. And that, in the face of a media infrastructure that had previously
taken down 40 year established senatorial, John Kerry, and people much less offensive
to preconceived notions of what a president should and would be than Barrack Hussein Obama.
So what I'm going to argue is that without these changes, we would have seen all of these
different conservative archetypes take hold. So what are the different things that people
said about Obama on the Conservative side?
Well, there was Obama, the Manchurian candidate for Al Qaeda. There was Obama, the socialist,
sharing the wealth and hanging out with Bill Ayres in Chicago. There was Obama, the corrupt
Chicago City pol, hanging out with Tony Rezko.
There were all of these early opportunities to swift boat him, in the traditional sense.
There was good reason that the Clinton people really were saying, during the primaries,
"This man is simply unelectable."
I mean, in the traditional paradigm, he really was. I mean, there was many, many reasons
to think that the conservative machine could do to him what it had done to much easier
targets, in the past. And so, what was required was pretty dramatic shifts in the way in which
we consumed information.
Now, the first thing was that, Obama, himself, was able to build a media organization in
his own campaign that was as big as many outlets we could discuss. He had a YouTube channel
that put up videos that had millions and millions of views. His famous speech on race was viewed
eight million times on YouTube. That's a forty minute speech, and the view only counts, if
it goes all the way to the end. Right? That means more people watched it on YouTube than
combined watched it live on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.
And, it also means that, as opposed to that clip being a 20 or 30 second package, thrown
onto ABC's nightly news, as opposed to that clip being condensed and sound-bitten, that
nuanced and kind of profound speech was viewed that many times, by that many people and kind
of existed permanently.
So, Obama was able to build his own media operation. Now, the YouTube channel was part
that. He had an email list of 12 million people, and that email list they'd hit multiple times
a week. And, they would tell a story of where the campaign was and where it was going.
Now, that's not really a media outlet, in a traditional sense, but you're telling people
a story, over a course of a period of time and keeping them motivated and activated.
And, the last piece of that is the Obama campaign rolled out a series of micro-sites. They had
a site called Fightthesmears.com, and they very directly engaged all of these different
critiques and were able to fact check and put to rest, at least in the eyes of anyone
with any sort of good faith, who would have been the arbiters of what gets talked about,
in any of these rumors.
So, the first thing then is that Obama was able to build this massive media machine in
his own campaign, as opposed to waging a campaign based on thirty second advertisements and
speeches that are kind of chopped and not consumed by any mass media, he was able to
build that.
And, secondarily, you had the kind of conclusion (I would say) of the rise of the liberal blogosphere.
Now, we existed in 2004, but we really didn't have the audience or the capabilities that
we had in 2008. I think you have to look back at the history of media, starting with the
kind of Walter Cronkite, mainstream, kind of trusted newsman, starting with the advent
of television.
You first had these kind of corporate national broadcast media that dominated the narratives,
and they decided what the story was. They decided what was important and what was not
important. And, that was sometimes good, when Cronkite turns against the Vietnam War and
LBJ famously says, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." But, a lot of times,
that's not good, for a whole variety of reasons we can talk about.
In the 80s, with the rise of conservative media, with the rise of Rush Limbaugh, we're
talking about 15 to 20 million people, every week, listening to Rush Limbaugh. And, this
kind of undercurrent of conservative narrative, pressuring mainstream media and mobilizing
their own, had no counterpoint on the left, much less in any other broader sense.
The result of that is Willie Horton, White Water, swift boat, because there was nothing
to defeat that, and the pressure, on the mainstream, and the ability to kind of make trouble in
the media, continued. So, on the left, the biggest outlets are talking about are maybe
The Nation, before 2004. They're at 150/200 thousand subscribers a week.
That's to Rush Limbaugh's 15 to 20 million. So the rise of Huffington Post, Talking Points
Memo to some extent, Daily Kos, and outlets like Think Progress that are doing active
fact checking, have a huge counter weight pressure.
Now, directly the result of that was that they were able to do a couple of things. One,
they were able to call out, and surface in the national conversation, the explicit racism
that was floating around in conservative media.
My friend Matt Corley, who is like this scruffy guy who just sits there and listens to Rush
Limbaugh everyday, takes the audio clip, puts it online, and sends it to every reporter
in America. Limbaugh does not get to getaway with doing the things he was able to getaway
with doing, and he is called out and taken to task.
Two, they are able to directly attack conservative politicians, and create mainstream narratives
that hurt them. I would argue that without a lot of these publications, Sarah Palin would
not have become the joke she became.
On TPM's YouTube channel, which has got like 60 million views up to date, I think eight
of our top 10 most watched videos are Sarah Palin, because we were able to clip her most
ridiculous things, and say, "How can you seriously tell me that this woman should be president
of the United States? She has no idea what she's doing." And people got fascinated, and
they went viral.
The last thing they would do, similar to Obama himself, being able to tell his supporters
on his email list. This was a community that was able to calm and keep mobilized the general
There's a famous Flickr photo that floated around, that's just Obama talking, and it
just says, "Everyone chill the fuck out, I got this." And that floated around, and in
a moment, in the media sphere where everyone is saying, "Oh, Obama is losing it." So there
is a calming and mobilizing effect that that community has.
And so I think, because of that infrastructure, you have pretty dramatic changes that are
able to push back on other things.
So three points to conclude. What I think this means is three things. First, I think
it's the end of Nixonian politics. By which I mean that, starting in 1968 with Nixon's
appeal to the silent majority, and his ability to play on subtle race, resentment politics,
of saying these lawless black people in urban America rioting, or these crazy radicals,
they don't represent us.
That went underground to some extent but has always been the major political thrust of
the conservative movement. I don't think that that has been able to stand up when surfaced
into the national conversation. I think that Obama dramatically ended that paradigm. Maybe
it will fight back. But that's my hope and my belief.
The second thing is, I think there is some real concerns about this. Obama, because of
the fact that I basically agree with his campaign, wasn't that dangerous of a person to be able
to put together the massive propaganda machine he was able to put together. But the filter
of the media is valuable.
And having politicians and people who are not concerned primarily with truth, have as
much access to as much audience as they do, is dangerous. So it's going to be incumbent
on journalists to very actively make the argument for why, what you're hearing from me is filtered
and true, in a way that you are not getting from these other people. So there could be
a really dramatic rise in propaganda that we have to be aware of.
And the third thing I would say is that the end of a lot of these niche conversations,
the kind of surfacing of not just the Limbaugh's conversation, but the Jeremiah Wright thing
was very largely about a conversation that had been going on in the black church for
a long time, getting surfaced into national conversation, and people saying, "What the
hell is this?"
There is going to have to be a lot more cultural translation as people see each others underlying
conversations for the first time, or we might see a lot of culture clash, unless we have
Obama to give that big race speech, and explain white people to black people, and vice-versa.
I think those are the three things that I'm both concerned and hopeful about. It's obviously
valuable to end Nixonian politics. But there's a big moment of upheaval that we have to start
to make sense of.
Awesome. Thank you very much Andrew. June, are you up for going next?
I could. I was sort of hoping to go after Daniel.
You can go after Daniel. That's fine. We'll save the lady until the end. So Daniel May,
to my left, began organizing in 2000 in the South Bronx with Acorn, where he directed
the organizing of tenant organizations and block clubs in Mt. Haven, one of the poorest
congressional districts in America. Those neighborhood associations wanted improvements
of plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and building wide renovations, as well as increased police
In 2003, Daniel moved to Los Angeles to work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF),
the nation's oldest community organizing network.
Through his time in Los Angeles, Daniel worked with immigrant congregations in order to build
political power for non-voting undocumented immigrants. His organizing led to the transfer
of 600 elementary schools students off a site term toxic, the termination of predatory police
profiling of undocumented immigrants, and a near doubling of voter turnout in the municipal
elections of Maywood, California, leading to an entirely new city council.
Isn't it nice to hear a bio that has actual real accomplishments in it? I love this.
Over the past several years, Daniel has worked to engage Jewish synagogues and community
organizing efforts, as well as to bring congregations into alliance with organized labor. He has
written on organizing for the Nation, Conservative Judaism and Reform, the magazine of the Jewish Reform Movement.
And he is currently a candidate for a Master's at Harvard Divinity School, where he is studying
religion and public life. Probably not to your surprise, he will be talking about the
grassroots organizing, and community organizing ethic of the Obama campaign.
All right. Thanks. And thank you all for being here. So, this election was, as we've been
talking about, an election of many firsts. But it was also the election of our first
organizer president. So the question I want to explore a little bit over the next 10 minutes
is to what extent does Obama's background as an organizer shape his politics? And then,
to what extent is that shaping our politics together?
Obama's three years, from the age of 24 to 27, in the course of a lifetime, he was at
law school longer than he was an organizer. He was a state senator for many, many, more
years than he was an organizer. He was a U.S. senator for longer than he was an organizer.
But his time organizing is a central transformative event in
the creation story that he told throughout the campaign.
And for those that have read his first book, it's 150 pages of the book. He talked about
organizing as the best education he ever received, better than what he got from professors at
Many of the main people, central characters of his life, were relationships that began
in organizing. He of course, moved to Chicago because of an organizing job. So I don't think
you can think about Obama without understanding the way in which organizing shaped him. But
this is tricky because organizing is sort of a slippery term. It can be used to describe
organizing for the NRA. The City Council members in Los Angeles have organizers on staff.
But Obama comes from a very particular organizing tradition. And it was founded by this guy
Saul Alinsky in the 1940s, who founded an organization called Industrial Areas Foundation.
That then spun off a number of different groups including a network called Gamaliel, which
is the group that Obama worked for.
And there are some very explicit principles to this kind of organizing. As far as I know,
the first published article that Obama ever wrote, he wrote when he was in law school,
aside from the stuff that he wrote for the Columbia paper when he was an undergrad, but
we all know now from Gawker, thankfully.
So he wrote this article called "Why Organize?" when he was like 28. I am just going to read
the intro. So he says, "Over the past five years, I often have had a difficult time explaining
my profession to folks.
A typical loser remark a public school administrative aid made to me one bleak January morning while
I waited to deliver some flyers to a group of confused and angry parents who had discovered
the presence of asbestos in their school.
'Listen Obama,' she began. 'You're a bright young man. You went to college didn't you?'
I nodded. 'I just can't understand why a bright young man like you would go to college, get
that degree, and become a community organizer.'"
Sounds like Sarah Palin, right? "'Why's that? Because the pay is low, the hours is long,
and don't nobody appreciate you.' I've thought back on that conversation more than once during
the time I've organized with the developing communities project."
That was the name of the group that Obama worked for that was part of The Gamaliel project,
based in Chicago's far south side. "Unfortunately the answers that come to mind haven't been
as simple as their question. Probably the shortest one is this: It needs to be done
and not enough folks are doing it."
So what is it that Obama thought needed to be done? The sort of central aspect... There's
a couple really key principles to the way the IF thinks about organizing. And the first
is that you don't organize around an issue, you organize for power.
So this is sort of the central radicalism of the kind of organizing that shaped Obama.
So, this is what makes it different than the Civil Rights tradition, for example. Or what
makes it different from the labor organizing tradition. Although its closer to that which
I'll talk about in a little bit.
For those who have read "Dreams from My Father" the process of organizing begins with a series
of conversations where he, Obama, goes out and does these interviews with people to find
out what is in their self interest. And then through those conversations he begins to figure
out what is the agenda that we're going to work on. But he doesn't start with the issue.
So he comes to figuring out we're going to work on asbestos by a series of conversations
he does in these churches in the south side. He comes to think about job training because
the conversations he's had with people who are not employed. So the work did not start
because he was going to do job training.
So this is from "Dreams from My Father" how he describes it. Marty is sort of this inventive
figure whose an amalgam of two different organizers that Obama worked with. But in "Dreams from
My Father" the character he created is called Marty.
"So, Marty decided it was time for me to do some real work, and he handed me a long list
of people to interview. Find out their self-interest, he said. That's why people get involved in
organizing. Because, they think they'll get something out of it. Once he found an issue
people cared enough about I could take them into action. With enough actions I could start
to build power. Issues, action, power, self-interest.
I like these concepts that spoke a certain hard headedness, a worldly lack of sentiment-
politics not religion."
So, I think that there is this idea that because Obama was an organizer there's this sort of
prophetic radicalism that's part of his politics. And there is that aspect to organizing, but
the particular kind of organizing that Obama comes out of is radically non-ideological.
Its not about justice. I mean it is about justice, but you know its not like the training
that the IF does and he did wasn't training around, "What does justice mean? What does
equality mean?" It was training around, "What is power and how do we build it?" And the
issues that emerged were concrete, very specific, sort of bread-and-butter issues. How do we
get a job training center in our neighborhood? How do we get asbestos cleaned out of our
I think you can see this in the campaign and certainly over the past few weeks in his election.
The focus on individual stories as being the center of the engine of the organizing process
is something that Obama used all through the campaign. Now other folks have done this,
but I don't think in the same way that Obama did.
So at the convention, for those whose you know saw before he spoke, he had these four
people give these seven or eight minute speeches. And they were just folks who had stories to
tell about what was going on in their lives.
And the infomercial. Did folks see this infomercial? Its half an hour. I mean, the majority of
the infomercial isn't even Obama talking. Its these everyday folks who are telling their
stories. Last week in Indiana, he has this guy give a seven, eight minute introduction
and the guy says can you believe that I'm introducing the President of the United States?
I think that all of that stuff is very much sort of part of the practices that were ingrained
in him as a young organizer.
So, OK. A little bit more on just this question of sort of ideology of organizing. So as I
said organizing is a... the kind that Obama was trained in was founded by this guy Alinsky.
So I just want read a quote from Alinsky from his second book called "Rules for Radicals."
And he says, "An organizer is in an ideological dilemma. Truth to him is relative and changing.
Everything to him is relative and changing. He is the political relativist. He accepts
the mark of a freeman and is ever-gnawing inner uncertainty as to whether or not he
is right. In the end he is one conviction. A belief that if people have the power to
act, in the long run they will, most of the time, and reach the right decision."
So, I think that there is an aspect of Obama's post-partisan politics that is very much connected
to the organizing tradition that he comes out of. Which is you know Alinsky has all
this writing about curiosity and that you know not settling through easy answers. And
Obama sort of talks about this.
And talks this language in figuring out- what is the agenda going to be? Who is it that
we're going to get ideas from? I'm not just going to get ideas from my own party. We're
seeing the limitations from this obviously over the last few weeks. But none the less
its there.
And so the other place that I think you could really see the influence of organizing was
in the particular slogans that became the centerpiece of the campaign. And I just want
to point out one which is, "Yes we can".
So "Yes we can" was based on the, "Si, se puede". So si, se puede was the mantra of
the farmworkers. Caesar Chavez spent ten years before the United Farmworkers working for
Saul Alinsky and the CSO. And Obama you know he knows this history. He knows this tradition.
But the interesting thing about "Yes we can" is that it sort of embodies that idea that
what we're going to do is build power that can then act on all sorts of issues.
Right? Its not like yes we can do blank. Right? Yes we can implies there is all these things
we can do. But the particular irony in the way that Obama used it was that it had a very
specific sort of unstated conclusion to the phrase. Yes, we can elect a black man whose
name Barack Hussein Obama. And that is a very almost sort of blasphemous- could be read
by people sort of schooled in the rigidity of Alinsky styled politics as an almost blasphemous
use of the phrase.
Because Alinsky had this idea. This is where his labor training- Alinsky's great hero is
this guy John L. Lewis. And he's a labor the head of the CIO And so Alinsky thought about
organizing the way that Lewis thought about organizing, which is that you organize people
in a workplace to get power so that you can get concessions from management.
So the way that Alinsky thought about organizing is you organize people to get concessions
from government. So its this very oppositional approach to organizing. Where you do not organize
to move the agenda of somebody in office. You organize to pressure that person whose
in office. So throughout "Dreams from My Father" you see Obama wrestling with these sort of
two models.
One being the organizing tradition that holds government accountable. And the other being
the sort of hope in the electoral process. And he kind of has this really interesting
relationship with Harold Washington who represents the sort of pinnacle to him of African American
electoral power.
So, he has this wonderful passage in Dreams from my Father that I wanted to, as a way
of wrapping up, where he says, "I wanted Harold to succeed. His achievements seemed to mark
out what is possible. His gifts his power measured by my own hopes. And yet in listening
to him speak, all I had been able to think about was the constraints on that power.
At the margins, Harold can make city services more equitable. Black professionals now got
a bigger share of city business. We had a black school superintendent, a black CHA director.
But beneath the radiance of Harold's victory, nothing seemed to change.
I wondered whether away from the spotlight Harold thought about those same constraints,
whether he felt as trapped as those he served- an inheritor of a sad history, part of a closed
system of few moving parts. I wondered whether he too felt a prisoner of fate."
I'm regretting using all this language of Obama makes me feel so profoundly inarticulate.
Its all so wonderful that we have a President who wrote that. So, obviously Obama chose
Harold Washington. I mean he talked about the fact that all organizing heroes were Robert
Moses, Ella Baker, these organizers of the Civil Rights movement.
But he ultimately decided that he wasn't going to be able to make the kind of changes that
he imagined through that model. He was going to make them through the model of Harold Washington.
And many folks said that when he went to law school his ambition was to be mayor of Chicago.
So, there is this tension I think in Obama and in his election.
And I think its a real mistake.. And some folks have pointed this out, but I think that
its a real mistake to see him as the conclusion and the pinnacle of the organizing tradition.
So when we think about Obama as in the narrative of Martin Luther King.
Glenn Loury, a professor at Brown, recently ranted about this on the New York Times site.
It both weakens the prophetic tradition that King represented and it passed something from
Obama that an elected official just we cannot do. And you see here in Obama's own writing,
his skepticism about that avenue, about the avenue of elected politics.
What's particularly interesting to me is how does his election change the tradition that
he came out of? Because I have no doubt that we are going to have thousands of 26 year
old Obama's as a result of the 48 year old Obama. There's going to be so many people
who are getting exposed to this profession that's been largely under the radar for the
last 40 to 50 years.
But the question is how does his elections challenge some of the skepticism that is necessary
for organizing? And the skepticism that you see in his own writing. I'm not all that worried
about it because I think that organizing sort of has its own transformative impact, that
people who do it can't help but begin to wrestle with some of the questions that he wrestles
And just to close, I'll close with the passage that he closes this article that he writes
when he's 28 in law school where he says, "Organizing teaches us nothing else the beauty
and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops
through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the south and finding any
job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children
to drugs and watching some earn degrees and landing jobs that parents could never aspire
It is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness
and strife, subtlety and laughter that organizers can shape a community not only for others
but for themselves."
I hope that that transformation for many, many, many people will be inspired by his
Awesome. Thank you. And last but not least, we have June Cross who is a professor at Columbia
University's Graduate school of Journalism and a broadcaster with over 30 years of experience.
She is executive producer for This Far by Faith in 2004- a multi-part PBS series on
the role that religious faith and conviction it played in the empowerment of African Americans.
From 1991 to '99 she served as the sole staff producer for Frontline creating numerous award
winning documentaries such as Secret Daughter, A Kid Kills and A Showdown in Haiti.
Cross has also worked as a producer for CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and the Neil
Lehrer News Hour. She has received research grants from the Ford Foundation, Kaiser Family
Foundation, National Black Programming Consortium, National Endowment for the Humanities, and
the Hartley Foundation. She is the recipient of two DuPont Columbia Journalism Awards,
two Emmy Awards, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
Her most recent Frontline documentary, The Old Man and the Storm, is about the failures
of public policy through the experiences of one extended family from New Orleans. If you
haven't seen it you can watch it online. It's totally incredible. I know so much good journalism
has been done on New Orleans but I really feel like this is one of the best, most impactful
pieces that I certainly have seen.
June will be our resident cynic. She is going to speak to the vigilance required to sustain
any movement. And her suspicion that some of these folks who are active, the 12 million
on the email list that Andrew was talking about might have the old American habit of
going back to sleep now that we've elected Obama. So take it away June.
I hate being introduced as the resident cynic, but I guess I'm the oldest person here so
I guess...
You did describe yourself that way. I didn't ...
I did define myself that way, in part because it's like every generation that does something
new experiences the breakthrough that Obama's election represented thinks of themselves
as the ones that, "We changed it, it's now going to be changed forever." And sort of
as the baby boomers who thought that we got the civil rights act passed and we got the
voting act passed, and we ended a war in Vietnam thought that the world was going to be changed
forever because we made those accomplishments. Then along came the 70's and 80's when we
all got lulled into dreams of economic prosperity, might be the best way to describe it given
what's going on now. We spent all the money, we smoked all the drugs and now we have like
AIDS and the recession.
Resident cynic. I told you.
I'm a journalist, it comes naturally. It goes with the thing. I'm as happy as anybody to
see a black president elected and I was crying from the moment Aretha came out with that
church hat on January 20th.
But I also see Obama as sort of part of a legacy that doesn't even begin with the baby
boomer generation but really goes back to... Well, if you wanted to go all the way back,
we could go all the way back to the 19th century. I won't go that far back. But let's say that
the dreams that come out of the group of World War II black men who tried to fight for this
country in World War II and came home and found themselves unable to participate in
society fully.
Of whom his dad really, even though his dad isn't a US citizen, his dad is part of that
generation of men who sort of see themselves as being able to offer much more than their
country can accept, either in Africa or here. And when I look at the sort of progression
of that generation, from '45 to the present, I also see like sort of my generation of reporters
and politicians.
I mean, I found it interesting that Daniel was citing Harold Washington, whose also the
sons of that generation. Harold is probably the first mainstream American black politician
that gets elected playing politics the way white Americans have always played them. And
it's really instructive.
There's a really good documentary on NPR. It's on This American Life, actually. It does
sort of Harold. And if you listen to it you'll hear a lot of resonance with the rules that
Obama played by both as a politician and as an organizer as he was working to get elected.
So I say this to say that Obama's not the first... He's the first black man to break
through. And I'll still think of him as black, even though you can call him biracial.
But, you know, I think everybody in the United States is multiracial, so I try not to get
caught in that thing.
He's not the first, he's the latest of a long line of people who have worked in this system
to try to figure out how to change. And then I'd like to dissect a little bit this idea
of change. He's a graduate of Harvard Law School, Columbia College, accidental. He went
for two years?
But basically, I mean, this is a guy who is forged in the mainstream of the American political
elite. So even though he looks different and he's brought in a lot of people who look different,
I want to make a distinction between looking different and being different. And even though
I'm hopeful that we're going to get change that we can believe in, so far what I've seen
in the last month hasn't been giving me a lot of hope around that question.
I'm watching the political elite that got us into this mess try to figure out how to
get us out of this mess. There aren't the sort of new ideas that I'd really like to
see happening. One of the things that I thought... I was sort of hopeful last week when he went
out, when he left Washington and went to Fort Myer that he might begin to activate this
group of 12 million on the email list. I had heard it was 30. Is it only 12?
I think it's only 12.
Is it only 12? OK.
It's still huge.
It's huge.
But I think there's a... You know, Axelrod has talked about the 12 million, send it out
to three other people so it gets multiplied, because each person who gets the list is supposed
to send it out. But what's happening is in this sort of new media world that Andy talked
about, we've now got a thing where you have niche groups and compartmentalized groups
who are all talking within their own little bubbles and nobody's talking across the lines.
And sort of what you saw in Washington the last couple of weeks has been demonstration
of how this happens, even just within the beltway of Washington. I mean, somebody in
DC never got the bipartisanship memo. And obviously the Republicans are trying to make
us draw a marginal line in the stand and say, "You're not coming over to our side and we
don't care how much you talk. All your lovely words are not going to change our minds. We're
going to..." This is about power.
The power hasn't... That message hasn't made its way inside the beltway yet. And the Republicans
are really drawing the line there and trying to see how far they can circumvent him.
And whether or not the 12 million can really stay motivated and stay activated. I mean,
I think this is the challenge of every good organizer, is once you've won that first major
battle folks get tired. They sort of wear out. They need some time to recharge. And
yet, we're at a moment in time where you need those people to come out of the woodwork and
you need them to keep applying the pressure. Now, even more than getting Obama elected.
Because, now they've got to figure out a way to get pressure on the Republicans, who really
don't want to share.
I was reading this website, fivethirtyeight.com, this morning, which was pointing out that
Arlen Specter who's one of the three Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote for this stimulus,
is actually looking at bad... He's getting backlash from his constituents in Pennsylvania.
Who, one would think, since Pennsylvania's going to be a beneficiary of the stimulus
bill, that he would be getting support. He's not. He's getting backlash, in part, according
to ... Oh, God I can't remember the guys name.
Nate Silver.
Nate Silver, who writes that website. Because, the Republicans have been ... The Democrats
aren't giving him credit for coming over to their side and the Republicans are sort of
lashing out at him because he did go over. Obama is one guy in the middle of a very entrenched
and ossified political culture in Washington. There's a lot of people in Washington who
can give a good speech. And, the question is, how do you change? What's the transformational
thing that you can do, once you're inside there? And get inside that echo chamber where
it's this feedback loop that begins with the Sunday morning talk shows, which I actually
didn't hear this morning. So, maybe you guys can enlighten me what happened. But, it sort
of begins with the Sunday morning talk shows and then it's like this drum beat. It's like
all week. And, it's like every time I look on the TV, I'm looking at another Republican.
I'm like, where are the Democrats?
You know, I'm not hearing. The Democrats still aren't making their case. Obama's making a
case, but it's not being reinforced by the rest of the folks.
So, I'm really worried. And, in the lack of a sort of unified message by the Democrats,
in the same way that we're getting a unified message from the Republicans who have basically
decided that they're willing to all go down together in order to stop this spending. As
if the last 100 billion dollars is going to stop after we already gave the banks a trillion
dollars. I'm not quite sure where that thinking comes from, but whatever.
In the absence of a cohesive message, if they keep putting all the weight on Obama, what
I'm fearful of is that all of the fault lines that began to emerge and much more demonstrated
through the campaign, the sort of different ways that Obama can be dissected, can begin
to become a liability. Unless, he figures out some way to sort of mainstream his message
in a much broader way.
There's just this differentiation and compartmentalization of everybody's opinion into little silos on
the Internet. And, we just read the ones that we agree with and we all get reinforced. And,
we think, "Oh, yeah. We're winning, we're winning, we're winning." Well, go read some
of the red state newspapers one day if you want to check back into reality. I mean I
check in with the Times Picayune and Louisiana was a red state. The Times Picayune is a supposedly
a liberal newspaper, in a red state. It's scary. They have a totally different take
on everything that's going on here.
And, those people are all talking to themselves. So, if we have all these silos talking to
themselves where's the place where we all begin to talk to each other? And, actually
try to figure out how to reach this bipartisan agreement. In the absence of a ... There needs
to be more leaders in Washington than just Obama, I think is what I'm saying. Somehow,
Cantor and Pelosi need to figure out how to get in the room and talk to each other.
That said. What I guess what I'm trying to say is that it takes more than one guy. When
Jesse Jackson first ran for president in 1984 and, arguably Jesse Jackson proved that a
black man good win a white state before Obama won Ohio, Iowa rather. Jesse came in second
in Iowa, won Wisconsin, won West Virginia when he ran in 1984. And, one of Jesse's lines
used to be, "It's not the man, it's the plan. It's not the rap, it's the map."
So, I don't know where I am on the ten minutes but I'm going to stop here.
Yeah, you're good.
And, you can all comment.
Great. Thank you so much, June. Also, a little known fact. June Cross is Daniel May's aunt,
so you can imagine the kind of family conversations that go on. I was basically trying to recreate
the holiday dinner table here for all of you.
I feel left out of the family... adopt me.
Yeah, exactly. And that's not even counting Elaine Tyler May, Daniel's mother, who's a
feminist historian. So it's like, it's pretty awesome. So I have some questions, but I'd
actually love to open it up to the audience immediately, because I think we heard some
pretty amazing...and all sorts of great intersections among with what the three folks are saying.
I think clearly one of the things that's rising to the top for everybody is this notion of
power. And I'm thinking about is there a way for Obama to use his community organizing
background to organize congresspeople and create some sort of bipartisanship? Figure
out how to align the interests of people of different sides of the political spectrum.
Is there something that community organizing can do in the halls of power to create more
I'm also thinking a lot about this difference between...you were talking about, June, the
elite political grooming that went on with Obama, and kind of the rest of America, and
wondering if the 12 million people on that email list are actually more informed about
politics, or just got really excited about a particularly charismatic man?
Because the stimulus package has put into great contrast the difference between being
excited about Obama and actually understanding what the hell is in the stimulus package and
who's interests are being met, and how to even as a regular citizen kind of untangle
So I think there is this tendency to just read the blogs that you think agree with your
position, because it's so hard to understand all of it, even for those of us who had the
elite educational grooming.
So those are some of the things that are swimming around in my head, but I'm sure you all have
a lot of things swimming, so I wanted to open it up to the audience and then I'll jump in
with more questions, or if you three have questions for each other...
Can I just talk about the stimulus package, because both of you guys were extremely skeptical
or disappointed. If a Democrat proposed two years ago that the federal government is going
to spend $800 billion, the Democrats would have laughed him out of the room as a socialist.
Obviously, Democrats are upset that they didn't get a bigger package. But Obama two months
ago, people were talking about $300 billion. And Obama said, I want $775 billion, and I
want it to be about 33% tax cuts. We ended up with a package that's about $779 billion
dollars and about 36% tax cuts.
So we can talk about "Maybe it's not a big enough plan," from a kind of purely economic
standpoint. Maybe it's not. Certainly liberals were hoping that they could lay a lot more
groundwork for good government to come.
But Obama got what he asked for, and it's a huge, it's literally it's the biggest federal
spending bill in the history of the United States. So, I guess just to kind of step back
and put in that perspective.
That's a totally important perspective for us to have. I guess I was talking more about
the lack of bipartisan collaboration, that it such a clear example of, "Wow, even Obama's
not going to be able to..."
But there's no incentives for the Republicans to get on board. If they get on board and
it works, then Obama gets the credit. If they get on board and it doesn't work, then they
can't say anything about how they were right that it wouldn't work. Obviously, it's deeply
cynical of them, but this is politics and they're deeply cynical people.
Did anyone watch Saturday Night Live last night? Does anyone still watch Saturday Night
Live? No, it's only Nick and I. There was a great intro skit that was a bunch of Republican
politicians sitting in a room talking about how they weren't going to be involved at all,
like they weren't going to touch it because they knew that the second it was a disaster
they could say they had no part in it. Which was exactly your point.
They also don't believe in government. That's actually just their ideology, so...
The ideology is small government, is non-government. I guess what I would have liked to have seen
was a bolder vision from the outset. So yes, Obama got what he asked for, but...
You would have liked him to ask for more.
It was a small vision, not a big dream.
I think that there's two sort of process questions that I find really interesting. One is, does
all this in the first few weeks to sort of reach out to Republicans, so there's all these
stories about the cocktail hours, and "Oh, Obama came and he just listened to me. The
President just listened to me."
And so we're seeing in just the rigidity of lines around the vote, the limitations of
that kind of, whether you call that organizing principles, or whether you call that just
Obama's natural gifts- sort of trying to do what Regan did with Tip O'Neil.
But we're in a different climate. This is more from an organizing perspective. The real
question is what Obama's trying to do is invent a new, a new style of organizing which is
a massive organizing project that is connected to an elected official that can pressure other
elected officials. And that's never been done.
Its like a Move-On... This is sort of what all the folks who, you know, came out of the
campaign trying to figure out how do to with Organizing for America. And its just a real,
its a real open ended question as to whether that is possible. And, I think the way in
which the story of Specter and just all of the stuff around the stimulus package. The
number of calls opposed versus the number of calls for.
I mean the grassroots on the right were just so much more mobilized. So that's a real question
as to what... Is it possible to take this sort of new idea and have some real muscle
and strength and maybe its just fatigue after the election and people sort of want a break.
Or maybe... What he is trying to do is just brand new.
Yeah. And Andrew on that point the grassroots of the right. Can you talk about the netroots
of the right? I mean can you give us a little bit of the landscape of what's going on?
Yeah. There's a whole... The Republican base is kind of in upheaval and struggling to kind
of... It was comical watching them elect the new Chairman of the Party, because each of
them would get up and say we need to use YouTube and Twitter.
And it was not clear what they were going to say on YouTube. But they knew...
The world wide web! Yeah.
So there's a lot of... The medium is not sufficient. They have to have something to say. And their
politics doesn't exist anymore and their answers don't make sense for where we live. So, they
can embrace these tools, but unless they have something to do with them... Obama's team
could have been incredibly good at a technical abilities. But without Obama's ability to
draw people in to use those tools its kind of, what's the point? So they're still struggling
to come up with something to mobilize or organize around. The stimulus helped them a little
bit and they have some energy there, but they don't have the votes. It doesn't matter how
activated the Republican base is. They simply don't have the votes.
Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter and the other very moderate Republicans don't need the Republican
base to get elected. So they're happy to sign on to a bill and be a part of the governing
coalition. I'm sorry, the last point on this- its true that Obama attempts at bipartisanship
failed. But by virtue of the fact that he nominally tried and made a big kind of song
and dance out of it.
It made it so that you know basically this is a bill that would pass without any Republican
votes in the House, without any real Republican support in the Senate- three votes in the
Senate. If he'd done that without doing the song and dance about bipartisanship it would
have been the chattering class would have been taking him to task.
They would have been, "Oh the Democrats have been elected and they're doing exactly what
Bush did. They're ramming it down everyone's throats and they're completely ignoring the
Republican Party. And so we've just traded one partisan tyrant for another." And so I
think there's tactical value in seeming to attempt bipartisanship.
OK. I really am going to open it up to you now. Any questions? For anyone in particular
or generally. Yeah.
This is for Andrew.
Hi Al. Al and I worked together.
Oh-oh. This might get personal.
You talk a lot about how Obama basically started this whole alternate media stream, nd how
he was able to kind of bypass the traditional media talk-radio supporters. I guess I wanted
to ask I guess- what you felt about the future of this kind of alternate channel and what
Obama... Do you think he's going to keep using it? How he is going to engage with traditional
press now? Also, what significance is of the media ecology in an era where Sam Stein from
the Huffington Post can be one of 10 people called on at a Presidential press conference,
with CNN and NBC.
I have to say I know a lot of the people who did his new media stuff, and not very many
of them went to the White House. Which I take to mean that Obama draws a bright line between
the way he will behave in governing and the way he behaves in running for office. I basically
think that Obama thinks he has gained a ton of political capital and is going to spend
it inside the Beltway. And I think he thinks that's where the game is now. He's doing the
Presidential weekly radio things; he's now doing them on YouTube. I know that they're
doing a lot of different things to kind of open up government and put things online,
but I don't think that any of it is that radical. I mean I guess In the context of what's existed
before its pretty amazing, but its not that dramatic in terms of the kind of new media
ambition of it.
Beyond that I'm not sure. Did I...?
...this can be taken antagonistic, you know...
Sure. I mean...
Antagonistic tone in the briefings and the fact that Obama seems to say, "This is a big
event. We're going to do something big and if you guys don't all show at our prime-time
then you're missing out."
Yeah. I guess it doesn't suppress me at all. That's just being President. And I guess that
I think that there's sometimes too hopeful to expect Presidents to do things that are
in the general interest . Like their job is to govern and get things done that they think
need to be done.
I actually think the Internet bloggers and the new media presence is going to increase.
The newspapers are dying and local news is tanking. So, you know, so I really don't see...
I think that's going to trend up not trend down.
But Obama's people themselves may not be as active in participating in it as they have
been, I guess my thinking.
Well maybe not. But you know there are so many folks that are working in that campaign
that are still outside the campaign that are still outside of DC. And I don't see a shutout.
I don't see that shutout happening. There are too many economic forces that make new
media outlets more than just spokes through this, in a way that it sort has out done Republicans.
The only thing they can't say is small government. They sound like an echo chamber from 1980.
Its just sort of sad on one level.
That they've got enough numbers that sort of make things difficult.
Yeah. I fell like this hits what you were talking about Daniel, that he's building this
new model which would include those people inside and outside. Creating this like...
Yeah, I mean I think that the... Part of the question is- I mean I think Andrew touched
on this- the way that the House districts are set up. I'm not sure, like you're always
going to have a very active mobilized base on the extremes that carry an inordinate amount
of power or influence. And they sort of create this chattering. If they don't represent the
majority of folks. It sort of just pushes.. I think this is what you've seen over the
last couple of years I mean... It pushes the Republican Party so far out of the mainstream.
I mean I remember watching the Republican convention this year and I was like these...
Where did they get these people?
Well just like they... There's no way these guys are going to win because you look out
at the delegates and they don't look like the country. And I think that that's part
of the phenomenon that you're describing.
90% of the country isn't white male?
Well as the resident feminist, and we are at the Feminist Art Center, I want to bring
in this question of gender. I find one of the most interesting, ongoing, how much has
politics changed sort of figures, is Michelle Obama.
And these questions about what she's going to do with the power she has, and the way
that she is framing herself in the media. I was wondering if anyone on the panel wants
to address thoughts about Michelle Obama and how she's altering perceptions of gender and
power in politics?
Well she's certainly altering perceptions of black women, that's for sure. To that degree,
I actually think she is a more revolutionary figure than even Obama. The whole idea that
nobody that looks like Michelle Obama was ever on the cover of Vogue until Michelle
Obama became the First Lady. When Oprah made the cover of Vogue, she was like a size eight.
Michelle Obama is not a size eight. And she's smart. This whole thing she that did during
the campaign as selling herself as first mom, sort of like the anti-first mom actually.
She's been a very, I don't want to say power hungry, but certainly power driven woman who
runs the Community Services department in Chicago.
It is going to be interesting to see how she takes that and figures out how to do what
Hillary began to do, but never quite got. The country wasn't quite there yet.
I think that the door that Hillary and Sarah Palin frankly both opened during the campaign
has also created a huge archway through which she can walk, and really define who she is,
because nobody has ever seen a black woman like that in that job before. She can mold
it however she wants as long as she doesn't screw up.
That's mostly just keeping the lip buttoned a little bit, and becoming a little more diplomatic.
But haven't the early signs been that she... Her sheer presence is obviously kind of dramatic.
But haven't the early signs been that she's not going to be, and that she's actively trying
to move against the Hillary Clinton model? That she keeps talking about, that she's going
to host cultural events at the White House, and that she's not going to do any policy
work. It seems to me that maybe because there's so many other things that are already radical
just about her sheer presence, that she's not going to push it too far in terms of being
who she actually is.
And that she's trying to set herself up as I'm on the cover of Vogue, I'm kind of glamorous
Jackie O. character.
I think she's using that as a... What is it? There's a line from Invisible Mind. Override
them with the S's and undermine them with grids. I sort of feel like that's what...
It's just sort of setting. Frankly what's been going on with her husband in the last
six weeks has been so intense, I don't think anybody's really, none of us really know what's
she's going to do.
I'm not quite sure when you said she was the anti-Hillary. I was thinking of Hillary during
the first two years of Clinton 1, rather than probably the last of it. And certainly more
so as Hillary as the candidate, than Hillary as First Lady. Anyway, that's just my two
Daniel, did you have something on that?
Well just that I think they're really smart. I think they know that the first narrative
has to be a very, very, traditional story. But I will be shocked if four years from now
all she's doing, and all we know her for, is hosting the library on the lawn or whatever,
what Barbara Bush has been doing for the last eight years.
Gonna be a Saturday night fish fry on that day.
Whoa! That would be a politics forever changed. One thing that you remind me though, Elaine,
that I wanted to talk about with the panel is, did that beautiful story you just told,
for example of Michelle's grandfather father, and that trajectory.
I'm really worried about the way that that story is going to be used, both in mainstream
media, but also in funding circles and just in the way people think about poverty, and
race, and intersections in the American dream story that we always hear over and over.
Are the panelists worried about this post-racial America, that there will be this backlash,
that we have a black president, so things are better now, and it will give that reinforcement
to all those people who have so long touted this unrealistic American dream idea and defund
some of the great work that's going on the ground in terms of anti-racism and poverty
elimination stuff? Any worries there?
I don't know. I guess I don't have enough direct experience with people who are doing
the grassroots work to want to speak to it. I think I'm sure some people will say racism
doesn't exist anymore. But I do think the campaign may have simultaneously given fodder
to people who think racism doesn't exist, and given tons of fodder to people who want
to talk about it.
I mean there was very obvious explicit racism constantly throughout the campaign to talk
about. So to me it's like, just became he overcame it doesn't mean it wasn't there and
we didn't all see it. I am sure some people will make that argument, but I think that
it's easy to counteract.
Any other thoughts?
Yeah, I get really cynical about those post racial. I was listening to Tupac Shakur's
Letter to the President, on the train on the way over here.
Prep work, right? Prep work.
Good prep. Yeah, I like that.
Nothing has changed. I mean he can sing that now, it's the same issues. I mean, we are
still dealing with all of those issues of racism and classism on the grassroots level.
I mean, yeah, it certainly means something. It means a lot that a black man or a man who
is at least not as white or not as white as all the rest of them, have managed to get
up there to the big house. But there's a lot that he needs to address. And it's huge for...symbolically
it's huge. Symbolically it's huge. But you just need to make a distinction between...
There's limits to how much symbolism will get you.
Yeah. Very well put.
You have a thought. I see your mouth moving.
I have a thought. I think that Obama's written the in past very eloquently about one of the
challenges of being an African-American politician around how much anger to express. He does
this great little exchange where somebody asks him, he's on the floor of the state senate,
"Why aren't you getting more fired up about this?" It was another African-American politician.
And he's like, "Well you have your style and I have mine," Obama says in response. I think
that I guess part of the question for me... It's hard to read something like "Dreams for
My Father" and not see how incredibly tied Obama sees himself to a particular historical
tradition around organizing for poor people.
And that that's what his political identity is about and connected to. I guess that's
my hope for the stuff like Organizing for America. I mean, is there going to be the
political space, and ideally, is there going to be a movement that is going to allow him
to be a president who really talks about those issues?
This is where, I think June's point is so important, that one person on their own can't
do it. Because he's not going to do it unless there is the political space to do it. Because
he's not going to be labeled as an African-American politician in that prophetic tradition that
I think Jessie Jackson embodies.
I think that what is going to prevent some of that, well we've overcome this stuff, is
if there is the space for him to really shine a light and a mirror to the incredible inequality,
and all the institutional racism that I think he's very much committed to addressing. The
question is can we create the space for him to be able to do it?
Other questions?
Sorry. Can I jump in?
Yeah. Go for it.
I think OFA can be a really powerful. Organizing for America, which is basically the people
who work in the DNC, they're funded by the Democratic Party who have taken over his email
list and that infrastructure, and they are going to try and use it as a tool for him
to get things passed. So, Obama wants health care. They're going to say, "I have 14 organizers
in your neighborhood, so, Congressman, if you don't vote for this, we'll turn on you,
" kind of a tool.
I think that that will probably be an effective tool for doing those kinds of things, but
I also think that those social networks- not in the technical sense, but in the literal
sense of the social capital that was built around those, need to be activated for a lot
more than just supporting Obama's legislative agenda.
The age of the New Deal was also the age of the CIO. There is not the Internet. And Obama's
infrastructure aside, there is not an organized mass left in America. There are attempts and
fragments, and new tools that are extremely promising. But we have to, we're in the position
of now having to simply come up with a new way to organize the American economy.
We have a $2 trillion dollar hole in our economy. And the major thing that's driven GDP growth
in the last 20 years, the financial institutions, just don't exist anymore. They've collapsed.
So, where we have to be, we have to be; we're structurally about to undertake a massive
thing that Obama will not be able to do from the top. He will not be able to say provocative
enough things through OFA from the bottom.
People need to activate, and go out and build what enabled Roosevelt to do the things that
he did in the '30s and early '40s.
Yeah. I was looking at the front page of the Times today. They had the article about the
unemployment and the strikes all over Europe. What's it going to take for Americans, for
grassroots Americans, to begin to do this, to actually exert? That would be the pressure
that is...
Well, the problem is that the right has just been so successful over the last 40 years
at killing the labor movement. That's what moved Roosevelt. That's what made the New
Deal possible. So, figuring out how do we create, is it possible to create that kind
of a massive, mobilized infrastructure? That's not the labor movement; that's a serious project.
And also, in the New Deal, if you didn't get organized, you didn't have food on the table.
We don't live in a mass scarcity situation anymore, so we have to come up with new tools
to mobilize people beyond... I was talking to a friend of mine who said that when people
went to the White House to strike and say, "We need you to pay back our veterans benefits
promises," if they didn't get those, they didn't eat, period. And we don't really exist
with that amount of scarcity like we did then, so we have to come up with new tools to mobilize
people. And we have to come up with new tools to communicate how dramatic the situation
I also think that we've established, we've trained ourselves to be entitled to be free
of discrimination. Around identity politics issues, I think we've generally brought up
this next generation to feel entitled to protest against Jena Six. But the idea of actually
being entitled to economic security is something that I think, because of all the fear around
socialist and communism, all these claims, that we haven't raised this generation to
think that they're actually entitled to economic security.
So, the idea that they would get outraged about not having it is hard to even imagine,
in the way that they know that they can get outraged if a racist or sexist comment is
The political elite that got us into this mess has now been charged with figuring out
a way to get us out of it, and it's not possible. It needs some kind of outside force. It needs
to lever something. There needs to be some external something. I don't know whether it's
foreclosures just going crazy, or when people figure out that the banks get... It already
is true that the banks have gotten all the help and homeowners are left out here in the
cold. Will enough homeowners get upset about it to go marching down the streets, which
would be the alternative to the union thing?
We marched to try to stop the war in Iraq. Why couldn't people get out and march on that
issue? I don't know.
Do we have...? I don't, certainly, feel capable of explaining how I want to organize the kind
of post financial bubble American economy. I don't think we have a lot of people who
do. I don't think we have a movement to sustain them. I agree with what you said completely.
I just don't have the... I mean, does anyone have answer?
Just no infrastructure.
Yeah, there's not an infrastructure or an answer. I think, to a large degree, the reason
that we have to bail out the banks is because of the last 30 years. We've built an economy
in which literary the banks are too big to fail. I understand that there's populist anger
about it, and I understand it, but it's a structural problem. If we don't put money
back into financial system, no one will able to get money back out to lend and borrow and
do all the things that everyone needs to do.
And we need to figure out how to build a new system that is not reliant on people who are
essentially profiting not with that from the top. And, I don't know how to do that. Maybe
someone... I am sure there are some economists who have some answers.
I didn't ask any economist to be on the panel, so pass the buck on that one.
I mean maybe we talk to Jamie Galbraith or we talk to Dean Baker or Joseph Stiglitz.
But, I don't know.
Yeah. One thing I heard someone say that I thought was so wise, and I hope this can be
embodied somehow in Obama's presidency once he has, again, the room to do it, once we
all like create that space for him, is his speech on race. Imagine if he had done a speech
on gender?
What would it look it for Obama to really take responsibility for bringing forth what
he actually embodies in a lot ways, which is a non-traditional sort of gender norm?
You know, in certain ways, their marriage is very traditional, and they clearly very
conscientiously present it that way to the media. But in a lot of ways his leadership
has been described even as feminized, in my opinion in a positive way but, of course,
in a negative way by a lot of the right.
So I don't think sexism is over, of course- all right, be it out a job, a lot of jobs.
But I do think there's room, or I hope we'll create room for him to take sexism and sort
of these traditional gender roles on as a man, and that, in itself, will have a really
interesting power or could. I don't know if he'll have the space to do it, again, but
that's one of my thoughts. Anyone else have thoughts on that?
Yeah. Well, it's interesting because it's a paradox in some ways. It's totally traditional
in a certain sense, but because you add sort of the racial intersection to it, all of a
sudden it's totally radical. And it's also radical in a sense that I think Obama claims
a fatherhood role in a very complex way. Right?
Its not a "father knows best father". This is a father who like knows that his daughters
have a crush on the Jonas Brothers and like can talk about it and, obviously, like has
a real complex relationship with his daughters. So in that sense I think it's pretty radical.
I don't if anyone wants to...
Isn't there something kind of- I am trying to figure out a good way to put this- racially
condensing about how much they have to perform their normalness? I find there to be something
just so infuriating about the fact that everyone's constantly like, "Oh, look at them, they are
like normal people, taking their children to school." I mean it's like...
How abnormal it is to be African American in the United States.
Well, right. Exactly, exactly. And also it's funny. A blogger in Tennessee Quotes, who
writes for the Atlantic, wrote a really funny post recently. Everyone's talking about Obama
and their normal family. And, the only people who they come up to compare them to is the
Cosby Family, a fictional family that is 20 years old. There is simply no other image
of normal black family life in America, despite the fact that a vast majority of black people
in this country are middle class. Obviously there's all kinds of other things to talk
about here. But I just that find like their needs to perform their normalness really obnoxious.
I don't think it's their fault, but...
But do think it's authentic?
No, not at all.
You're just saying... Because I don't think they are performing.
Oh, they are performing in the sense that, you know, they are photo-op in the school.
They are calling the media. They are telling them to go.
Yeah, I think he's very image conscious.
Yeah, on the cover of Us Magazine- "I am a cool dad."
Right. But I guess I am...
My girlfriends and I were talking about how the two little girls always seem so...like
they never had a meltdown in public. They are just like totally perfect. And, I was
like: "Yeah, they remind of me when I was about that age. Its like, 'Shut up. Look perfect
in your little dress, and don't you dare say anything or else I am going to have you skinned
when you come off of the stage.'" Then I got to be a teenager and I totally went with hog
He has eight years, so we will see....
...eight years. They're too young to know any better.
Right. We'll take one more question.
What would an organizer's politics look like as President and how would that sort of thing...?
How would be possible to make that feel as the President of the United States?
Great question.
Well I think under the surface of what I was trying to say is that I'm not sure that it
is possible. I think the tradition he comes out of is distinctly oppositional in its relation
to government. He's going to do something that will be shaped by that tradition. But
I don't think that makes sense to ask of the President to be an organizer.
I do think that there... I think that one of the big things is the way that he talks.
When I was thinking about what to say today, I went back and I read the speech that he
gave in New Hampshire.
There's this beautiful piece at the end about- this was the Yes We Can speech after the New
Hampshire loss. He does this beautiful weaving together. When we see that the stories of
the kid in South Central Los Angeles is the same as the story of a child in Nebraska whose
father just got laid off. When we see the story of in New York is the same.
He picks all these different stories and weaves them together to talk about what he's trying
to create. I think to the extent that just his rhetoric and his language is shaped by
this idea of trying to figure out how to bring together these disparate realities, these
disparate stories.
I think that's the mark that his organizing is going to make on the country. Because what
we're going to talk about in 40 years is maybe the policies. But we're going to talk about
the stuff that he said in the same way we talk about the stuff that Kennedy said and
the stuff that Lincoln said. So, I think that's where his mark in terms of his legacy and
history as an organizer is going to be made.
I think the more concrete answers are just to be written. I think they are trying to
figure out what does that look like? What does it look like to take this focus on individual
stories and bring it to the national stage?
Take these practices of house meetings and individual conversations that are the building
blocks of organizing and do that nationally. What's in my inbox? Come to a house meeting
and talk about your economic crisis story. That's them just trying to figure out, "Can
we organize on a national scale?" And I'm skeptical about it. So, I don't know. That's
a half answer.
I don't have an answer for it as a organizer; I don't begin to have Daniel's experience
as an organizer. But the one thing I know about being biracial is that you learn to
compartmentalize and become fluent in cultural languages in ways that most Americans aren't.
And Obama's had a really unique... We talked about his experiences as an organizer and
as a politician. He's also lived outside of the United States.
He brings a remarkable set, probably more than any other man that's held the office,
a remarkable set of life experiences to this job. And it might just be, giving the fact
that he's hanging on to the Blackberry so he can still communicate with the outside
world, he's beginning to leave the White House.
A lot is going to depend on his ability to keep leaving Washington, either virtually
or literally, and engage with those different communities that he's got an understanding
of. So, in large part is going to depend on his being able to retain that chameleon like
persona that he perfected during the campaign.
Yeah, I agree with Daniel. I don't think that its possible. I think Daniel's exactly right,
that the narrative, that his ability to weave narratives come directly from organizing.
The rest of it, as soon as you get to the position of elected office, is not really
useful. I think paradoxically, just like Daniel was explaining in his talk, Obama's narrative,
even though he uses community organizing in his creation story. His career is actually
paradoxically a rejection of that as a real tool for progress. He basically became a very
savvy, cynical politician because he understood the other stuff didn't work.
I know a lot of people don't like hearing that Obama is a cynical politician, but this
is a man who redistricted his own state senate district in Chicago so that it would have
on the one hand rich white people and on the other hand poor black people. Because he knew
that the black people could be his voting base and the white people could be his funding
base. He specifically redistricted his district because he understood that he had an appeal
to upper class educated white people like us who would buy into his shtick.
And so I think in an interesting way we have to look at his story as rejection of organizing.
Now, he's going to create a lot of organizers and they are going to do something. So someone's
got to get out there and talk about what they should be doing and have some answers. I don't
know what that looks like yet.
I think we have to move away from thinking Obama in the context of Obama's machine and
start thinking about what do states do? What do cities do? How are we organizing...?
What do regions do?
How are we organizing against local governments? Because the Federal Government has had its
say now when it comes to the economic crisis. For the next year the stimulus package is
going be its say. Maybe they will come back and do more. But the real organizing in terms
of saving jobs, in terms of recreating economies has to be done on the local level. And Barrack
Obama to some extent won't have much power over that.
And I would bring that even more local. Again as the resident feminist, the person is the
political. Right? That its not about what should Obama do. What should the nation do?
What should the state do? What should the region do? But what are we each doing? How
did this election forever change you, or not?
And how is that going to be continually contextualized into your life and made real and daily actions.
Whether it is in a really formal community organizing sense or whether its this approach
to people stories in telling your own and gathering others. For me, really reaching
across class boundaries and reaching across race boundaries. Which is what we still in
this country live in these totally segregated worlds in so many ways.
So, I guess I'll leave by encouraging you to really think about what is your politics
forever changed through this transformative experience? What is that going to mean in
your daily life and the way your operating? And how you can support some of these larger
levels. But really the piece we have control over is what we do in our own lives. So think
about that.
Thank you so much for coming. Thank you to my panelists. A bit round of applause.
Thank you very much Courtney. Thank you June, Andrew, Daniel. And I'd like to remind you
that we have panel discussions and lectures here every weekend. And that March is not
only Women's History Month but its also going to be the second anniversary of the opening
of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Arts.
So we're going to have a lot of interesting and wonderful programming. In particularly
on March 21 we're going to have a speak out which is going to be in the auditorium on
the third floor. And its been put together by a group of us. There are 12 of us called
Unfinished Business.
Its going to be a "Women's Vision for the Nation: What's It Going to Take?" And Laura
Flanders, the host of GRITtv is going to be the moderator and C. Nicole Mason whose the
Executive Director of the Women of Color Policy Network is going to be giving the keynote
address. Its going to be very interesting.
I think it will be very enjoyable because its going to open up, its going to be a complete
audience active participation.
For those of us who are, and I don't see that many who look like they might be, who remember
Hair, originally. Actually as of yesterday the Moon is in the seventh house.
And, Jupiter has, in fact, aligned with Mars.
So hopefully peace will rule our planet.
And love will steer the starts.
Thank you for coming. Bye-bye.