On Thursday evening, I got worried. Friday I put in a call to ask Van Jones how to help. Saturday I started writing a blog post, which would have appeared this morning. (I've attached it below because it goes into more detail on the history of the "Bush as addict" meme.) But on Saturday night, Van resigned, and this morning I was sick at heart. Collectively we -- the environmental community, progressives, and the Obama administration -- blew this, and we let our cause, our president, and Van Jones down.
This was a lynch mob and, when it started forming a month ago, we didn't take it seriously enough. When I saw the first Glenn Beck piece on Van Jones and the Apollo Alliance as the new vast left-wing conspiracy, I could not take it seriously. Silence enabled Fox to keep pushing. The statements for which Jones apologized -- the reference to the right as "assholes" and saying that Bush was talking "like a crack-head" were such ordinary political discourse -- think Rahm Emmanuel, think Dick Cheney saying "fuck yourself" to Senator Leahy, think Tom Friedman dubbing Bush "the addict-in-chief" -- that I didn't understand why an apology was necessary; I assumed it would blow over.
Well, that was a mistake. So was the decision by the White House to treat the initial attacks not as part of an assault on the president but, instead, to allow them to be viewed as being about Van Jones. What we underestimated was the power of the fact that both Jones and the Barack Obama are black. Yes, the hysteria was about politics -- I don't think Fox News really cares about Jones's ethnicity -- but it was enabled by race. Calling Bush a "crack-head" is seen by a large part of America as worse than calling him "addict-in-chief" because crack is not just a drug -- it is a drug used largely by black people. It reminds those Americans who are still uncomfortable with Barack Obama that we have a black president.
What was the reactionary right up to on Friday? They sent operatives out to San Quentin prison to obtain videotapes of workshops that Van Jones conducted there while he was working to help prisoners transition back to society. (The inmates wouldn't let them get their hands on them -- they knew, before I did, how serious this was.) They were cueing up video clips from teenagers that Jones taught in the Oakland ghetto in 2000. If you watch the infamous "assholes" video carefully, it's clear that what Jones was saying was that Republicans play hardball better than Democrats, and that we need to start playing by their rules. He said it, though, in the language of his own community -- and that, at the end of the day, was his crime. He spoke to and was of a part of an America that Fox and the reactionary right would like to put back on the plantation or pretend is not part of our nation.
Anyone who has been an effective advocate for these communities has said things that will sound shocking to people in some other parts of America -- just as anyone who genuinely represents certain evangelical communities will have beliefs about morality that more-secular Americans might have a hard time with.
So lynch mobs can form up from all perspectives. This one, though, was clearly not spontaneous. It was organized by the Republicans as part of a conscious strategy, and it is only the first. We should be critical of ourselves for having blown this one. But we shouldn't forgive either ourselves or the administration if the next time we sense this happening we don't fight back harder, faster, and in a way that calls a mob a mob, racism racism, and an attack on the president an attack on America.
Here's the post I started yesterday:
Breaking News: "George W. Bush Says Americans Are Crack-Heads"
Well, of course, that quote is not breaking, and it's not news. It's a slight paraphrase from the ex-president's 2006 State of the Union message. The full quote was, "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." Of course, for two more years Bush presided over a "drill baby, drill" energy policy.
Even so, presidential candidate John McCain sort of went along for a while with the addiction idea, saying our dependence had been thirty years in the making. And later, when McCain, too, jumped on the "drill baby, drill" bandwagon, California Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told the country: "America is so addicted to oil it will take us years to wean ourselves from it, and to look for new ways to feed our addiction is not the answer." By June 2008, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman was calling Bush "our addict in chief."
So, somehow, describing former President Bush as being an oil addict shouldn't really be breaking news.
So why is the reactionary right in a complete frothing tizzy this summer that, more than year ago, Van Jones, one of the key rising clean-energy advocates in the country, acerbically described Bush's "drill baby, drill" rhetoric as sounding like "a crack-head"?
(Full disclosure: I once called Mike Curb, the lieutenant governor of California, "an uninformed turkey" for wanting to increase the amount of lead in gasoline. Fuller disclosure, I am a friend of Van Jones, I have been featured with him in a video dialogue on our political upbringings, and I served with him on the board of the Apollo Alliance.)
And why did Fox News go after Jones but not Friedman, not Schwarzenegger, not even Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren, who in July of '06 criticized the president for failing to follow through and help us kick our "oil addiction"?
There are three possible reasons. They are connected, and it is their connection that is important.
1) Van Jones, unlike everyone else I have quoted on the topic of our oil addiction and George Bush's complicity with it, is African-American.
2) By specifying that Bush's addiction was "crack-head"-like, Jones linked Bush to a drug largely used in the black community.
3) Van Jones works for the first black man to be elected president.
This is about politics, but it is empowered by race. If you doubt that, consider that Fox and Glenn Beck have been after Jones for a month -- but only since Beck began losing advertisers over his accusations that Obama was a racist.
The campaign to get advertisers to cancel their sponsorship of Beck's program was launched by Color of Change, a grassroots organization that Van Jones helped found.
This trumped-up controversy has been bounced back and forth for the last month in the right-wing echo chamber -- from one Fox show to another, off to the reactionary blogs, but dangerously it broke out into CBS this week.
How did the reactionaries get CBS to pick this up? In part by screaming "coverup" when the mainstream media ignored this non-news as, well, non-news.
Jones is an extraordinarily important leader. He cares, passionately, about helping young men and women find their way in the world, even if they had the misfortune to grow up in bad neighborhoods or make bad choices -- and he sees in a new green economy a powerful instrument to heal their lives. But that kind of hope is profoundly threatening to Glenn Beck and people like him. When it comes from a black man, they reach back to an old and ugly instinct.
This is a lynch mob in the making.