Monday, October 12, 2009

White House Puts Progressive Bloggers in Their Place: Pajama-Clad Internet-Left Fringe

If John Harwood of NBC is correct, the White House followed up on President Obama’s speech about his administration’s stance on gay rights at a Human Rights Campaign banquet Saturday evening by slamming pajama-clad “internet left fringe” bloggers who naïvely expect him to do what is right when it comes to gay rights (and see Pam Spaulding on the same story). The article to which my first link points is Glenn Greenwald’s outstanding discussion of Harwood’s report and its implications at Salon this morning.

As Greenwald notes, certain aspects of this story are becoming wearily predictable. Repeatedly, this administration has issued statements—always through unnamed officials close to the White House—characterizing its progressive base as “left of the left,” naïve, unrealistic and childish in its expectations that a popular mandate for change should actually translate into change here and now, etc. In this now familiar meme, mainstream journalists who claim entrée to the center act as mouthpieces for unnamed sources who purport to have the President’s ear, in what appears to be a joint effort of the mainstream media and the President’s centrist advisors (and Mr. Obama himself?) to put progressives in their place—to discredit them.

Assuming that Harwood’s report is correct, it’s not easy to understand why the administration would want to follow up on its mild statements of support (emphasis on statements: none has been put into action) for gay rights, with a slam against the pajama-clad “internet left fringe” the following day. It’s possible that the observation is a way of handling the considerable criticism of the president’s HRC statements that emerged immediately in the gay blogging community as well as among progressive and even mainstream bloggers, following his Saturday-night speech.

Influential bloggers and journalists including Pam Spaulding, Mike Signorile, Dan Savage, Joe Sudbay, and Andrew Sullivan all issued statements damning the president’s HRC speech with faint praise.

John Cloud at Time has also now published a piece echoing all of these commentators. And that’s an interesting indicator that a critique originating with “left of the left” bloggers is now going mainstream in popular culture and its media. When your 81-year old aunt mentions casually to you that she saw the president speaking about gay rights on CNN, and you yourself didn’t even listen to the speech because you knew what you were going to hear (yet again), you know gay rights are mainstreaming.

As most of the bloggers and journalists listed above are noting, while it’s to Mr. Obama’s credit that he made an appearance at the HRC banquet (in marked contrast to Mr. Bush), and that he keeps promising to end DADT, we’ve heard the rhetoric and promises before.

And the words appear to mean nothing. As the deadline for action keeps being pushed back (read Glenn Greenwald’s brilliant analysis of this phenomenon) from 2006 to 2010 to 2012 and now 2014, it becomes increasingly evident that this administration intends to do nothing—not anything effective, that is—to make good on its promises to combat discrimination against LGBT citizens.

Arguments so full of holes that even average citizens now recognize their fatuousness keep being advanced to account for the inaction: we feel your pain, but fighting for rights is your business, not ours; people of color have fought for and waited for their rights, rather than expecting the government to assist them in the struggle; it’s too politically risky to touch anything gay; the country is bitterly divided and we want to bring it together; we have too much on our plate right now; your needs are way down the list, and you’re being petulant, immature, and self-indulgent to expect us to attend to them when there are more important issues confronting us. The litany goes on and on, and becomes increasingly tireder as any of its chants is dragged out yet again.

What it really means—what this administration really wanst to say to LGBT Americans and those who stand in solidarity with us—is that it does not intend to lift a finger to assist us. Because it doesn’t have to do so. We represent a minority community, and our votes are expendable in the eyes of those who play the power games that set political agendas in the beltway, and who care far more about having and wielding power than they care about human rights.

As Greenwald notes, it’s important to be clear about who’s sitting on the gay rights agenda and refusing to move it forward—and why they’re doing this. It’s not the discredited fringe right that’s standing in the door holding it shut. It’s the power-brokers at the center of the Democratic party who are refusing to budge.

Because these centrist power brokers are infatuated with power, and because their calculations suggest to them that moving forward on gay rights issues might well involve them in a fight they do not want to fight (and since they do not identify with the small, and to their eyes relatively powerless, minority of citizens denied rights), they intend to keep characterizing their critics as naïve leftists. They intend to delegitimize discourse that they wish to tag as left of center, because of its potential to engage the real majority outside the center who want a public option in heath care, who find the economic bailout of and handouts to Wall Street and banks obscene, and who think DADT is completely contradictory to core American values.


It's often forgotten or obscured, but the central political fact now is that the Democratic Party controls everything in Washington -- from the branches of government to favors doled out to lobbyists to the policies that Congress and the President enact. Wars that are fought and bills that are or are not passed and policies that are maintained are, by definition, Democratic actions. The dreaded Right can't dictate or stop anything. That's the burden of having massive majorities in all areas -- everything that happens is the result of what the Democratic Party does, and that's why the divisions and conflicts that truly matter are ones with the party itself. The "right v. left" and even "Democrat v. GOP" drama dominates most of our discourse, yet at this point it is a distracting and largely irrelevant food fight. It's the Democrats who have won the last two elections by large margins and wield all the power, and increasingly the defining conflict is between those whose overarching allegiance is to Obama and the Party as ends in themselves, and those who see those things as mere means to more important ends.

John Aravosis makes a similar point at America blog, in response to Harwood’s observation (ostensibly echoing his unnamed White House source) that America remains “closely divided” about the issues I’ve just enumerated. As Aravosis notes,

And another thing. The country is "closely divided"? Barack Obama won the election by 192 electoral votes, Democrats control both Houses of Congress, have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, and the opposition Republicans have been utterly decimated, and are floundering in the polls.
This is closely divided? This is an environment in which Democrats are going to have to recognize that the president is going to have to break his promises?
Maybe it's time for some White House advisers to get out of their pajamas and read a newspaper once in a while. They might find out that we actually won the election (and that the blogs - and the gay community - played a key role in that victory).

Personally, I tend to read these developments through the lens of the President’s reception of the Nobel peace prize. Let me explain. I’m happy, frankly, that Mr. Obama has received this award. Steve and I traveled several weeks this summer in Scotland, Germany, and France. We maintain ties with Steve’s relatives and our friends there.

We find as we travel and talk to friends, colleagues, and relatives in Europe, that a large majority of Europeans and Brits are delighted that Obama is president. They see his presidency as a chance for the United States to repair its badly damaged democratic foundations.

They’re also taken with what the president symbolizes globally—with his willingness to break with the saber-rattling anti-Islamic rhetoric of the previous administration, and his ability to engage leaders of nations we have written off for some years now as the enemy, simply because of their cultural differences from our own.

If the awarding of the Nobel prize to President Obama puts that organization’s stamp of approval on these developments, then I’m delighted that the president received this award. It’s a recognition of all of us in the U.S.—of what our democratic society has meant to the world at large, when it occasionally fulfills the promise of its founding ideals.

But I’m in completely agreement with those who note that the president has not yet earned the Nobel prize, and that this prize will become meaningful only when he does what he needs to do to earn it. To be specific: I see the Nobel prize as all about human rights. And I see the new president’s record in the area of human rights as shoddy at best, non-existent at worst.

Health care, the legacy of torture left by the previous administration, issues of economic justice: all center on human rights. And the conversation about human rights is a conversation that this administration simply does not intend to have.

Instead, it continues to legitimate a centrism that concedes everything to the neoconservative turn that took place in American politics and culture in the final decades of the 20th century, as if the center did not shift decisively in the last election—as if it did not shift decisively in the popular mandate handed to the president and the Democratic party to move to the left of where the center now lies, after decades of neocon dominance.

Glenn Greenwald is absolutely correct: the primary political challenge facing the U.S. right now is not the threat of the fringe right. It’s the refusal of centrist powerbrokers to respond honestly and effectively to a political mandate in the last election that moved the center beyond their control and comfort zones. These powerbrokers intend to continue playing the political game as if it’s 1993.

In doing so, they may well bring the nation back to 2000-2008. If the new administration can’t move forward to recognize and protect the human rights of gay citizens, it can’t move forward to assure that the human right to health care is finally recognized in this nation, or that the rights of citizens not to be preyed on by economic predators are defended. To say, as Mr. Obama did at the HRC banquet, that he recognizes that the rights of gay citizens are being trampled on, but he cannot and will not move against this discrimination now, is morally and intellectually repugnant.

The moment we see that the rights of others are being violated, the moment we recognize such violations of rights and their insupportability, we are implicated. What would we think of a a station manager who watches a train derail repeatedly at his station, and who sees that the problem is a broken rail, but does not fix the rail immediately? What would we think of someone in that position who shook his head and noted that it's deplorable that the rail is broken and trains continue being derailed and people killed, but he just can't get around to fixing the problem now?

If the new administration cannot deliver on its promises in the area of health care, economic reform, transparency in government, and, notably, gay rights—if it continues to refuse to discuss these political challenges as challenges that are all about human rights—it will make the president’s reception of the Nobel prize null and void. And as it does so, it will be admitting that neoconservative ideology, with its celebration of an unbridled free market and its elision of human rights discussions except when those discussions are convenient to promote the global expansion of the market, has written the final word for American political development, for Democrats and Republicans alike.

Stop the presses: Pam Spaulding is now reporting that the White House is disavowing the “internet left fringe” remark. Pam is suitably cynical about this denial. I am, too.

P.S. I want to go on the record and say that I most certainly do not write this blog in my pajamas. The very idea! Each morning, before I blog, I carefully remove the curlers from my hair and put on my best and brightest muumuu before I let a solitary finger touch the keyboard. Someone has to Keep Up Standards, or what would become of the world? I feel quite sure that I am not among those pajama-clad “internet left” fringe bloggers on whose words the White House, or anyone else, hangs. Even so, I want anyone who happens on this blog to be assured that your humble se’v’t. is writing it decently clad and keeping up propriety’s side.