Monthly Archives: September 2009

Where Does Innovation Come From?

Van Jones resigns his post in the White House.

Does innovation come from those of us who go with the grain – or against it? From going with the status quo – or standing up and asking the fundamental questions about who we are?

Yes, the brilliant (if fatally flawed) people that gave us the wonderful Constitution fell on many grand compromises to implement the final version – after they led a revolution.

In our society, it seems there is no room for the best ideas on the environment, the economy and social harmony to come along in 100 years because the man putting forth those ideas is a former radical revolutionary. You can’t handle an actual revolutionary, fine – but we just threw away a reformed reactionary activist because a paranoid, hysterical, petty part of our society wants, at any cost, to have their way – not for any moral purpose or calling – just, simply, to have their way.

The reasoning here is wrong and we all suffer for many reasons, on many levels. I reject this reasoning and tonight I made a donation to Green For All in honor of Van Jones.

Why Van Jones Matters

First, thanks to everybody who have been sending me consolation notes – but the deal here is not that Van is a friend, it’s that he’s a giant amongst us who is being taken down by buffoons. When I first saw Obama at the Democratic ’04 convention I thought “Oh, I get it: it’s Van-lite.” (I should also say that I hold out faint hope that my dour post of yesterday is wrong in its assumption that Van’s days are numbered at the WH – it would be nice if the Obama WH had an iota of the good-job-Brownie-over-the-top loyalty.)

I can’t remember exactly when, at least five years ago, Van told me, flat out, “I’m a communist.”

“Do me a favor,” I quickly replied, “just don’t say that in front of my Mom.”

I went on to explain to him that the reason I supported his efforts in taking the Oakland and San Francisco police depart to task (and court), the reason I would do anything to help him close the institutionalized torture chambers of the California Youth Authority was precisely because of the life my Mother described to me in post-war Stalinist Hungary. The detailed description of a life where oppression is policy and the police are enforcers of that oppression was eye-opening. (She escaped [on foot!] in October 1956 after the US stiffed the rebellion and left the counter-revolutionaries literally twisting in the wind from lamp-posts in downtown Budapest – but that’s another story.) It never occurred to me, a white, middle-class American suburban kid, that police were anything but the people’s friends and protectors. Yes, it was hippie-chic to call them “pigs” but when it came down it – if I needed help, I wouldn’t think twice about dialing ‘0’ and asking for the police dept. (Yes, I pre-date 911.) So to learn there were neighborhoods of poor, mainly minority, everyday Americans who are made less secure, not more, by police actions rang a familiar bell in my head. (Look, I’m not making a moral equivalency between driving-while-black and the Gulag, but I sympathize with those who do – oppression is oppression, using cops to keep the poor down and away from the gentrified because it’s bad for business is enough for me to take action.)

I understand that in the context leading up to the ’60’s civil rights movement, many in and out of SNCC, including Ella Baker, proclaimed themselves as “communists” for lots of reasons – some valid, some merely reactionary. I never got that far with Van, but considering he named his activist non-profit after Baker, I assume he took some inspiration there. But that word is loaded and it can no longer be, if it ever was, contained to an egalitarian doctrine — it has come to represent the very tyrannical day-to-day life he was trying to prevent. (We were driving to a political function when a third person in the car asked Van what he did for a living – “I sue cops.”)

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be poor and black in Oakland, but thanks to my Mother’s stories,” I told him, “I have a way to relate to their plight. I’ve heard what it’s like to live in fear of the very force that is supposed to ‘serve and protect’ you.”

And you know what? He got it.

After that conversation I never heard him use the “c” word again, publicly or privately. Now, I don’t begin to assume the hubris that I had anything to do with his evolution. Van Jones is smarter and more worldly than me and everybody reading this put together – I am 100% sure I told him nothing he didn’t know before. I doubt I am the first Eastern European immigrant or descendant he’s had a conversation with – Oakland is next to Berkeley after all. But what reaches Van, what makes him break down and cry during speeches are the individual, personal stories of struggle, the uphill battles with the weight of society holding you down. Van is a recipient of the Kennedy Honors Speak Truth to Power award and deservedly so – he feels that struggle in his bones.

All of this before you even get to the genius in connecting the issues of the environment and at-risk communities.

The environment, jobs, health care, racial equality and yes, justice, are moral issues. If the Obama retreats on health care or Van or justice for perceived political expedience then that should tell you something about Obama. Emphasis on perceived expedience because it’s clear, the shrill opposition is not interested in anything, anything at all, except personal, gotcha take-downs having no moral center as a guide. So it’s not an argument that Van’s past rhetoric gives them ammunition. Where did “death panels” come from? Where did “birther” come from? Attacking Van is equally vacuous.

Again, while I appreciate the gesture, don’t bother sending me consoling notes because a friend is having a rough time – in fact, I don’t fret over Van, the person, or his future or career. Fuck that – we’ll both be fine. This is an attempted take-down of a very important figure who was recognized by this administration as having a clue – someone with actual, financially practical and humanitarian solutions that leaves no one out. Sounds too good to be true? When you discover Van Jones you get used to that feeling.

OT: The Assault on Van Jones

I thought I have become inured to the debasement of dialog in American politics. In a brilliant analysis of these times , a Metafilter user said “the point is to flood the political discourse with stupidity” and indeed, there can be no doubt that American really is in the midst of a decades long culture war with itself where one side is continuously appealing to worst in us.

I’ve been working really hard and not sleeping well for the last few weeks so it’s possible I’m a little more vulnerable then when I’m taking better care of myself, but I’m surprised by how upset and disheartened I am today at the groundswell of attacks and calls for resignation of Van Jones – here’s a nicer article indicating the White House seems to be backing away from Van.

I consider it a huge privilege to be a friend of Van. He has been an invaluable inspiration to me and both my kids. We were honored when he mentored my younger son during the school application process. I don’t think I know a better person and it crushes me to think what’s about to happen to him – vilification, embarrassment, scape-goating – a media tar and feather circus. Fuck.

The White House is going to, if not already, pull him aside and point out that he is, or soon will be, a “political liability” – making it difficult to run smaller campaigns for House seats and governorships because the all-stupid-all-the-time side will wave some bullshit around about he thinks 911 was a Bush plot and Stalin is his hero and therefore Obama is going to ____ (fill the blank with stupid “evil” shit).

What a waste. This guy is so brilliant, his solutions for saving the Earth and inner cities at the same are so simple, so holistic, so correct and we’re going to throw him away because Glenn Beck has a bug up his butt. Yes, this is a Glenn Beck hack job. Why? Because a group Van founded, ColorOfChange has been calling for a Beck boycott.

So Beck wins, Jones and everybody you know loses. Congratulations everybody. Proud to be an American today.