Tomasky’s Liberal Education

The “Occupy” movement is only beginning and already the liberals are giving it instructions for how to make its way through traffic. On average, the people in this movement are young, but they’re also very smart and politically sophisticated, which means they’re probably already quite clear they have little or nothing to learn from liberals, much less from the Tea Party. Nevertheless, people like Michael Tomasky, a Nation liberal and blogger at The Daily Beast, insists on giving the new generation his version of a “liberal” education – with lessons from the Tea Party.

For those who don’t know Tomasky, suffice to say he seems to think that the Tea Party is a real “social movement” and not just some front group for the Koch brothers et al. A liberal of “The Nation” variety, he loves the liberal Democrats, and when he needs to demonstrate “tough love” with them, he does so with kid gloves. Last week in his blog at The Daily Beast, for example, Tomasky considered the Obama administration’s extrajudicial murders of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan the “dirty work of foreign policy” as the “sad but unavoidable burden that history had placed on America’s shoulders.” The good thing about liberals like Obama, says Tomasky, is that when they do the “dirty work” they don’t “thump their chests” as conservatives do. Tomasky concludes, “We should go get these people, but we should be humble about it.”

The “dirty work of foreign policy,” it should be pointed out, has long been the same “dirty work” of domestic policy, especially when we recall the state-sponsored murders in the 1960s of the Black Panthers, Native Americans of the American Indian Movement and others. What distinguishes those murders from the ones now being perpetrated by Obama and praised, with all due humility, of course, by the likes of Tomasky, is that previous to this administration, such crimes were really and truly considered “crimes” rather than simply “dirty work” akin to cleaning a toilet or scrubbing the kitchen floor.

We should keep all this in mind as we weigh Tomasky’s advice to the Occupiers of Wall Street in his October 4th column published at The Daily Beast and reposted all over the net (the Net does seem to LOVE liberals). Here he tells us that the OWS movement needs to “embrace some crucial lessons of the Tea Party Movement” and “outgrow” “certain impulses from 1968 that continue to loom large in the left’s imagination.”

He goes on to insist “up front that I am firmly on OWS’s side” and, after establishing this to his own satisfaction, he offers some friendly advice, telling the OWS movement that “to succeed, it would have to model itself on 1963, not 1968.” He then proceeds with an obligatory jab at his real nemesis, the Left, stating that he’s not at all “confident that any left-wing protest movement today can understand” his advice, which, presumably, is why he looks with such gusto to the Tea Party for inspiration.

For clarification, in a hope against hope to educate the “left-wing protest movement” of today, he writes this passage, worth quoting in its entirety:

In 1963 we had the March on Washington. No one threw anything. There were no drum circles. The protestors of 1963 said to America, ‘We are like you; in fact, we are you.” There’s very little arguing that it worked. The protestors of 1968 said to America, ‘We are not like you; in fact, we hate you’.

Certainly it’s true that there was a dramatic difference between 1963 and 1968, but Tomasky either doesn’t understand what that was — apart from people who “threw things” and held “drum circles” – or he can’t tell us. He has identified the movement of 1963 by the March on Washington, though he hasn’t done so by name: the Civil Rights Movement. But the movement of “1968”? Those of us who lived through that time know there were many movements in “The Movement” and many tendencies, and only a few of those tendencies “threw anything,” and did that only in response to the vicious brutality of the state’s response to peaceful protests.  As for “drum circles” one can only imagine that Tomasky is referring to the participation of Native Americans, who I don’t remember having thrown anything, nor having told anyone “we hate you.” Tomasky’s characterization of 1968 is taken, apparently, straight from the official history which, as anyone who lived through that time knows, bears very little resemblance to the actual events of that time.

Tomasky goes on to lament that the movement in 1968 “accomplished little except” destroy the presidential aspirations of the anti-communist Democrat and accomplice to genocide, Hubert Humphrey, vice president of the Johnson administration. The Johnson administration, like Obama’s, was characterized, perhaps accurately, as “liberal” but neither did it have any qualms about doing the “dirty work” (with all humility, of course) of assassinations, extrajudicial killings and mass murder in Vietnam and elsewhere. There was, for example, the little issue of the Phoenix program, and… but the list would be endless, wouldn’t it? It is this Hubert Humphrey who Tomasky calls “one of the most decent human beings and progressive-minded mainstream politicians America had produced in 50 years…” That’s not saying a lot.

We needn’t explore in depth the “lessons” from the Tea Party movement which Tomasky calls “genius,” since there’s no there there. To sum up his argument, he suggests that we should build a movement like the Tea Party, congenial to the likes of the “mainstream media” and avoid having public faces like Van Jones, mentioned by name, who could be viewed as “left-wing and elitist”(???). “The way to win middle America is to be middle America.”

What he fails to recognize is that the demonstrators are occupying public spaces across the country precisely because they don’t WANT to be “middle America.” It’s not that they aren’t inviting “middle America” to join their ranks. Indeed, they have an even greater clarity than Tomasky of the need to bring “middle America” into a movement for social transformation. In that sense, he’s lecturing from the rearguard.  But they know very well from their more accurate reading of the history of “The Movement” of 1968 that you don’t transform the system by adopting its values, entering it, and playing by its rules, but rather by building up your movement and maintaining your integrity as an alternative to that system. The OWS and occupy movements, if I may be so presumptuous in the face of Tomasky’s presumption, are quite clear that the values of “middle America” are a considerable part of the problem; they are, in fact, rapidly destroying the planet itself. And even much of “middle America” is now coming to that conclusion as it increasingly recognizes that consumer society is now consuming the very fabric of life.

Concluding, Tomasky acknowledges that “Maybe in 1968 in Grant Park, the cops were pigs” (for those who recall the scenes from the protests against Humphrey outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago when the rioting police mercilessly attacked demonstrators, this seems like an understatement). However, he asks us to forget the lesson we learned in that moment, and to return to an earlier consciousness, since somehow, and inexplicably, that has all changed: “Today, the cops aren’t pigs. They aren’t the man. They’re working stiffs, and they’re part of the 99 percent… Don’t make them arrest you. Make them part of the 99 percent.” And in a non sequitur that further obfuscates the lesson he’s offering to today’s youth, he admonishes the youngsters of OWS to not “mess with traffic. That just pisses people off.”

Here we can agree with at least an incidental point: the police are, indeed, “working stiffs;” but they are also paid enforcers of the system, men hired to beat and even kill, to enforce the legal code of the system OWS is protesting. Surely we can distinguish between an off duty cop who may sympathize and demonstrate with us from the “working stiffs” in uniform under orders to protect… the 1%. If there is any ambiguity about whose interests the police are protecting (and I recognize this will be a hard concept for a liberal like Tomasky to swallow) then we only need to consider this: The day before Tomasky’s article “Tea Party Lessons for the Left” appeared, Democracy Now! reported that JP Morgan/Chase had just donated $4.6 million to the New York Police Foundation for new cars and surveillance equipment. And in the face of all this Tomasky suggests that this budding movement should invite the police to join our ranks?

There is so much confusion in Tomasky’s article that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but the central problem is his confusion about social movements themselves: why they begin and how they develop. For Tomasky the movement in 1963 was “undertaken for the purpose of winning” — although he isn’t at all clear what that movement hoped to win — before it degenerated, according to Tomasky, into “a carnival of self-expression” in 1968. This, and other disdainful, elitist and frankly ignorant statements are perhaps all too common in our culture, and we’d do well to avoid any counsel or advice from such “firm supporters.” In fact, if Tomasky writes, as he claims, as a “firm” supporter of the OWS, then he clarifies the fact that with friends like Tomasky, we already have enemies.

Scholars, and participants in the movement of the 1960s alike have a different perspective on how and why the movement changed tactics in the course of five years, and it brings us back to the basic questions we need to ask ourselves at the beginning of our own movement, if indeed we are, as we seem to be, in the beginnings of building a new social movement.  Charles Tilly and Leslie Wood, in their book, “Social Movements 1768-2008,” point out that “we will never explain social movements’ variation and change without paying close attention to political actors other than the central claimants, for example the police with whom demonstrators struggled… and codeveloped their strategies.” They explain that as a result of “interactions between demonstrators and police… change occurs incrementally as a consequence of constant innovation, negotiation and conflict.” In other words, the change from a peaceful march in 1963 to more militant tactics used by the movement in 1968 are inexplicable unless we take into account the other actors in that dynamic, that is, the police who attacked movement activists with water cannons, police dogs, billy clubs and even guns. Those who in 1968 “mess[ed] with traffic” in fact “codeveloped their strategies” with a police force that by 1968 was beginning to murder the most outspoken movement leaders like Fred Hampton and others in what Tomasky would perhaps consider the “necessary dirty work” of keeping an even more murderous system intact.

Returning to our original question, it’s obvious that we need to better clarify the meaning of the statement, “We are the 99%.” Tomasky, the liberal, suggests that we “become middle America,” that is, he seems to be telling us, as liberals are wont to do, that we need to “work within the system to change it.” This was a familiar line in the 1960s, and many adopted it and today are “upstanding members of middle America,” from the “working stiff” cops who have replaced the “pigs” of Grant Park to the bankers and heads of corporations who are “working from within to change the system.”

On the other hand, there are the radicals, those of us who have remained outside with an agenda for profound transformation; those of us who have even advocated for the abolition of this system and the constitution of an entirely new system; those of us who never said to “middle America” that “we are not you and we hate you,” but rather “we oppose you because we love you and we are fighting for the values you advocate, but in practice reject.” We are those who love “middle America” enough to oppose it when betrays its own stated values and the values of life. And we know we can’t overturn this system from within, this system of robbery, oppression, greed and war. Only by standing outside of the system, and inviting others to join us, can we make any sort of radical change, and there is no question that radical change is required in these critical times.

So our young comrades might want to look elsewhere for advice on how to proceed from here, and under what assumptions. They needn’t look far. On the same day that Tomasky published his liberal blather, an interview with a more serious thinker was published at RT News and posted at the Common Dreams website. Here is a quote from that interview with Immanuel Wallerstein:

Modern capitalism has reached the end of its rope. It cannot survive as a system, And what we are seeing is the structural crisis of the system. The structural crisis goes on for a long time. It really started more or less in the 1970s and will go on for another 20, 30, 40 years. It is not a crisis of a year or of a short moment, it is the major structural unfolding of a system.  And we are in transition to another system and, in fact, the real political struggle that is going on in the world that most people refuse to recognize is not about capitalism – should we have or should we not have it – but about what should replace it.

Clifton Ross is a writer and videographer. His book, Translations from Silence won the 2010 Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from Oakland PEN and has just been published in Spanish by Editorial Perro y Rana, Venezuela. His film, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out was published in 2008 by PM Press. He can be contacted at clifross1(at)yahoo.com. Read other articles by Clifton.