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Michael Kieschnick

Michael Kieschnick

Posted: September 9, 2009 11:07 AM

Who Is Next After Van Jones?


The wonderful Holly Near song of solidarity -- "it could have been me, instead it was you" captures my feeling about the resignation of Van Jones in the middle of the night after a month long smear campaign that was not countered in any way by the White House.

When someone as fine as Van Jones does not inspire a White House defense, one can be sure that others are next. Indeed, rabid television personality Glenn Beck promised as much in attacking "Van Jones and others".

Presidential advisor Axelrod and chief spokesperson Gibbs each issued desultory comments thanking Jones for his decision to resign. It is hard to imagine a more fundamental miscalculation. The country has lost a powerful advocate, but the White House has revealed itself as a weakling, and easily intimidated by a mere television pundit.

It is important for progressives to understand the Van Jones episode, for it speaks volumes about how the right wing media echo machine works.

Jones had been under attack since April by the far right website World Net Daily for putting a green face on a red -- that is socialist or communist -- agenda. This attack got no traction -- or pushback. Glenn Beck used his platform at Fox to bring this fringe wingnut attack into the nation's mainstream news.

Soon thereafter, Beck pronounced that President Obama hates white people, and is a racist. He has not backed down on this claim.

The fine group Color of Change (full disclosure, I am on the email list of Color of Change and my company provides funding to Color of Change, along with many other nonprofit organizations), which was co-founded by Jones, launched a campaign to alert Beck's advertisers to each hateful rhetoric and ask if they wished to associate their brands with the bile. Most, upon reflection, pulled their ads.

Beck accelerated his attacks on Jones, devoting parts of 23 shows to attacking Van Jones, and bits and pieces of Jones's activist past would emerge.

Van Jones spent the last decade as an advocate and organizer. He fought on behalf of those without power, including unarmed African Americans gunned down by police, school children without books, and the urban underclass looking for a way out. He created organizations, spoke at countless rallies, taught classes in prisons, and wrote a best selling book.

Van Jones did not play the game of Washington politics. He did not become advocate with one business card, and lobby for corporations with another. He shared the anger of those he sought to support. He did not trade away the best interests of those behind bars or in need of jobs to be polite. He used strong language in tough times. Like every single person I know, he made mistakes.

I was surprised when Van accepted a position in the Obama administration. The administration was noteworthy for how few progressives it recruited. For all practical purposes, the foreign policy team had endorsed the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Most of the economic team had supported the disastrous prohibition of regulation of credit default swaps in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. Most appointees were respectable by Washington standards in how they had opposed the worst abuses of the Bush administration.

We may never know who told Van he had to go, or who made the repeated choice never to defend him during the weeks of vicious smears. Why would a Van Jones have to apologize for calling Republicans, prior to his appointment, a colorful barnyard epithet when the Obama Chief of Staff considers the F word half of the English language? And why might Van's mistakes be worse than those of say, Timothy Geithner, who took tax free income from the IMF and did not report it? And why is Van Jones more troublesome than say, Joe Lieberman, who constantly slandered candidate Obama, and was rewarded by a clear direction from President Obama that Lieberman was to be welcomed back to the fold?

Joshua Micah Marshall has written eloquently elsewhere of the horribly named "bitch slap theory of politics", in which the Right and their Republican friends repeatedly attack progressives and Democrats with demonstrably false and outrageous claims, but can count on those attacked to ignore the attacks, as if it is somehow beneath them. The press, like moths to a flame, reports the conflict while failing to report the facts.

In Marshall's theory, this simply demonstrates to the public that progressives and Democrats are weak. If they won't defend themselves, how could they be expected to defend the country or, say, the interests of those watching?

With this in mind, what are the consequences of failing to defend Van Jones, and no doubt, of stabbing him in the back and pushing him out the door?

Someone will be next. Beck has already mentioned presidential buddy Cass Sunstein, nominated to head a regulatory office in the White House, but blocked from even a vote for eight months by cowardly senators.

Increased reluctance on the part of progressives to trust President Obama. If a known star with a huge progressive following like Van Jones won't be defended at all, what progressive would be? Most movement progressives spent the last eight years fighting against the Bush Administration, and Glen Beck and friends, by their low standards, will have plenty of fodder.

Members of Congress facing tough votes. Though the White House characterized the Van Jones situation as a distraction from weightier matters, who can trust the White House? Does anyone really think that someone who might have supported the White House on health care or global warming would have changed their vote if Jones had not left the scene?

Green jobs. Who will speak for bringing together the needs of the urban poor with fighting our looming environmental disaster? Traditional environmental groups have never quite pulled it off, though some have tried mightily, like the Sierra Club and the Apollo Alliance.

Van Jones, freed of the constraints of the White House, will no doubt resume his efforts as a movement progressive. He is much needed.

But the Obama administration has lost more than a brilliant advocate. By failing to stand up and to call out Glenn Beck for his smears, it has lost power at a time when it needs every ounce of power. It misunderstood, as have so many before it, the fundamental tactics of the right wing media machine. Bullies never are appeased by victory. We will all pay the price.

Michael Kieschnick is the president of CREDO Mobile. He has known Van Jones for a decade and has served together on the advisory board of The Beatitudes Society. CREDO Mobile has supported the Ella Baker Center, Color of Change, and Green for All, each founded or co-founded by Van Jones.