Taking The Movement Out Of The Obama White House

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[National: On Van Jones]

My newspaper column this week was about the difference between a political party and a political movement - and I can't say I'm happy to see the lessons of that difference being highlighted so intensely and so negatively as they are with today's news that Van Jones was forced out of the Obama administration.

This is a serious tragedy for the progressive movement on three levels.

First and foremost, Jones was one of the only movement progressives in a policymaking position in the Obama White House. By that I mean, he was one of the only people in the White House who came out of grassroots movement work and not just political/partisan hack work, and one of the only movement progressives put in a policymaking job, and not ghettoized into a political/tactical job.

Whenever I got sick to my stomach at the thought of Obaam's Team of Corporate Zombies - people like Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Jim Messina - running the show, I was able to at least tell myself that hey, someone like Van Jones is at least in there somewhere fighting the good fight as he always has. No more - and that's a damn shame.

Second, Jones being forced out will not mollify the racists, crazies, tea baggers, Republican congresspeople and other assorted conservative freakshows - it will only embolden them. When lynch mobs in the Old South lynched someone, when a witchhunting band caught a target in Salem, when HUAC "proved" the supposed communism of its victims, that didn't calm them down - it only intensified their bloodlust because it made them believe they could be even more successful in the future. So if the White House's political "gurus" believe booting Jones was the safe and prudent way to mitigate right-wing hatred, then they are as short-sighted and stupid as they've proven themselves to be in mismanaging the summer's health care debate. Seriously, folks - if you think you can appease or mollify someone who takes to the public airwaves and does this, then you are as crazy as that screaming lunatic is.

Finally, the Jones announcement will inevitably create a chilling effect on the aspirations of other movement progressives. Van is a fantastic person who has done fantastic work. He's kept his advocacy real and didn't compromise his principles.

And so when he was appointed to a high-level White House job, it seemed to validate that you could, in fact, keep it real and also advance in American politics and government. That is to say, his story seemed to prove that an outsider could also succeed on the inside - and that outside advocacy doesn't automatically prohibit you from one day working on the inside.

Now, though, because of today's announcement, that lesson has been rewritten. Jones being tossed from the White House says that even in an administration headed by a former community organizer, progressive movement activists (as opposed to far-right conservative movement activists who are celebrated in D.C.'s halls of power) probably cannot hope to ever enter or rise in government. I'm not saying that's an ironclad rule - but that is the message of this particular event, and you better believe that all the movement activists who know Jones or looked to him as a hero will get that message loud and clear.

And that's a tragedy.

The obvious rejoinder to these points is that Jones supposedly brought this on himself by long ago making a mistake and signing a misguided petition about 9/11. Obviously, he made a mistake - and he admitted that. But even if you don't accept that apology or admission of fault, the idea that him signing that petition means he's worthy of removal is just a pathetic argument that highlights the most damning hypocrisies of all. For instance, are we really expected to believe that Jones signing one random petition is a bigger problem than, say, Geithner accepting free room and board for the industry he is supposed to be regulating? I could make a huge list of such contrasts - but you get the point: the entire brouhaha about Jones supposedly awful transgressions is manufactured, considering the genuinely problematic transgressions of so many other White House officials are treated as no problem at all.

Let me just end this post by saying I'm sincerely disappointed about Jones getting kicked out of the White House for all three reasons I've laid out above - and also because I've been personally inspired by the guy. I've seen him speak, read his work and met him at the Democratic convention here in Denver. Out of all the activists and leaders I've met in more than a decade in movement politics, he's really one of the best. And while I hope - and expect - Jones will be back in movement politics soon, losing him as a voice in an Obama administration that is so mobbed up with corporate sycophants and political hacks is a real bummer.



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