Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Method, the Madness, the Message (we cannot lose.)

Political elites want you to believe that in order to effect change, you have to understand the ins and outs of every bill, every policy, and every issue. In other words, you have to be a politician or a lobbyist. But that’s a problem. Do I expect anyone – let alone people that are young and in school or working one, two, and three full time jobs or are single parents– to read through Obama’s 150 page budget? Absolutely not. But if the political elites are right, the rest of us everyday folk would have nothing valuable to add to the discourse and could only make our voices heard on election day once every couple of years.

I fundamentally disagree.

There is another, equally important part of the political process that has the potential to engage and involve every single person in my generation: Knowledge may be power, but message is powerful. A message is the set of words that articulate a feeling, a desire, a need, a principle, and a demand. A good message is one that spreads. A great message is the one that millions of people, all across the country, are saying at the same time. The best message is the one that becomes a part of our culture, and makes things happen. Message, not just policy, is the key to politics.

Don’t get it twisted – civic education is an important part of my day to day job. Its absolutely necessary that we understand the system in which we live, especially since EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL – where we live, what we eat, what we get paid,
even our music. But the average person has such limited time to be engaged at a high level in the political process that they stay silent, thinking that they’d rather not talk about something they know so little about. And if they’re not comfortable enough to talk about the process, do you think they’ll actually get out and do the hardcore work (signing petitions, lobbying their elected officials, organizing at alocal level) to impact the process? Probably not, because message inspires action.

So message is the first, most important step in getting folks involved AND representing people and their interests to the government and mainstream media in a true, honest, and effective way. Talk may be cheap, but an effective message, is priceless and ultimately, message makes the world go round. Here are a few recent examples:

  • Messages elect governments. Barack Obama didn’t sell us policy. He sold us the idea that America needed “change” and that young people were an important voting block. And not only did that message get him elected (and a record turnout from our generation), it got many other people at lower levels of government elected as well.
  • Messages start wars. All the Bush Administration had to do was tell us that we should be afraid, that we were unprotected targets, and that force is the best way to combat “evil”. We bought the message that saidnational security was our most important concern (despite crippling domestic poverty, a crumbling health care system, children who are getting shot and killed in our neighborhoods), and the rest is Iraq war history.
  • Messages hurt communities. Do you think that the people who support the so-called war on drugs have ever themselves had a loved one struggling with addiction? Or lived in a community where drugs was a primary economy as a result of a failing education system and bottomed out job market? Probably not. But they bought the message that the way to solve our drug crisis is to lock up poor black and Latino kids for life. We know how that turned out.
  • Messages make policy. Once the Bush Administration got us to believe their message of fear and protection, they used our “support” to tap phone lines, take our troops into an ill conceived war, spend billions of dollars and all other sorts of criminal acts. President Obama is counting on the same thing. Because we bought his message of dramatic change during the election, he was able to close Guantanamo, sign an equal pay for women act, and pass the biggest recovery package in American history, all before most of us knew what was going on. He didn’t need us to take action and make noise about every single decision – he (and Congress) simply made the priorities match the message.
Messages also uplift, transform, revolutionize…you get the picture. Messages to us and from us are what dictate the direction of this country. So we don’t just need to make sure that we take good messages from the top. We need to make sure that we’re giving out our own messages – ones that define who we are, what we stand for, what our country should look like, and how valuable we are as immigrants, people of color, young people, formerly incarcerated persons, and everyone else in between. The top needs to be using our talking points. But that means we need to actually have some.

Unfortunately, as communities underrepresented in the political process, we’re losing the battle. Our generation, able to text, tweet, and spit verses so lyrical it makes your head spin, has the potential to be the king- and queen- pins of messaging and unify our voices. But no one’s stepping up to do that work and start the national conversation. There are no PR firms and communications directors for the average American. But I can do my part.

Remember the 150 page budget I talked about earlier? You don’t need you to read it word for word, but you can’t be silent on it either. We need you be calling your senators, and talking to your city council, and sending emails to your school board, and calling into your radio stations, and blogging, and chatting in the barbershop repeating the messages that represent us: “The money needs to get directed to the communities that need it the most “ and “Its time to finally invest in education, health care, and the things that will impact our future, no matter what the cost” and “Big companies got a bailout. Where’s mine?” and “We’re not in this mess because poor people bought houses they couldn’t afford. We’re in this mess because the economic policies of this country protected the interests of greedy rich people.” and so on.

My purpose is to speak those messages of political empowerment to my people (and no I’m not going to define “my people” – ya’ll know who you are) and speak the messages about my people that make everyone else listen, take notice, and give respect.

There’s a battle going on in this nation over our present and our future that we cannot afford to lose. So let’s get the message right.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bursting the Conservative Bubble

A dear friend of mine, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, was on Bill Maher several days ago crushing the conservative, newly libertarian Andrew Breitbart.

Was it a rhetorical and, dare I say, intellectual mismatch? Obviously. And frankly, it amazes me that there are people still surprised by statements about the disparities between low-income, urban schools and well resourced suburban schools, or the realities that school teachers in those environments face, or the idea that there is such a thing as coded racism. But buried within the usual progressive vs. conservative arguments about science, racism, and education was a nugget of observation from Dr. Dyson that I found to be the most subtly profound statement of the entire show:

You live in a bubble…collectively, a right wing worldview that disallows interaction with other people.

There is something frightening and saddening maddening about a political ideology whose modern day practice stands on a foundation of utter rejection of truth and an isolation from not only “the least of these” but from anyone with functioning eyes. It is the denial of the Lower Ninth Ward before Katrina; the denial of police brutality before Rodney King; and while ignorance – the state of not knowing – is in and of itself a shame, the outrage is the denial of Lower Ninth Ward-like poverty after Katrina; the denial of police brutality after Rodney King. It is the denial of America’s glaring inequities and broken structures after generations of examples highlighting these truths that makes modern day conservatism baffling. Breitbart demonstrated (and thus exposed) not only an isolation from people that live the realities of the dark, hypocritical underbelly of the American Dream, but from people that speak of these realities and therefore, from any philosophy or ideology meant to transform them.

A difference in opinion about how to solve problems (big government vs. little government, religion vs. politics, etc.) is not only understandable; it’s a valuable part of what makes multiplicity of thought central and unique to our national conversation. In fact, arguing about how to solve problems inevitably creates the best solutions. But an argument about reality? Using Bill Maher’s definition of science as something unequivocal and indisputable in its existence (“evolution isn’t a belief,” he says. “It’s a process that happens” whether or not we choose to acknowledge it), a discussion of poverty, classism, racism, and any of America’s flawed systems is in essence the science of inequality. It just is. Operating under a logic that denies this currrent and historical science and purports to hold in its party a political philosophy for governing a nation without an understanding of its people is beyond stupid...its dangerous. (for reference see THE LAST EIGHT YEARS)

For progressives, particularly those with a mission of social justice, having to first jump the hurdle of acknowledging the existence of a problem (i.e. racism still exists, black children on average receive an inferior education, education policy is inherently tied to housing policy, etc.) before figuring out how to solve it – makes the road to progress long and hard.

Many thanks to Dr. Dyson and the other sharp needles who take on the added task every day of speaking truth, bursting bubbles and telling it like it t-i-is.

(Relevant reading: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas )

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Michael Steele's Impotence

Let me preface my disparaging rant about Michael Steele by doing the required disclaimer that comes if you actually know someone personally : After meeting Mr. Steele at an event this past weekend, I have tremendous respect for the man. His charm, affability, and determination to debunk the myth that African Americans are a politically monolithic group is impressive.

Now, let’s get on with the business of unabashed criticism.

For those not familiar with the recent kafuffle between Steele and conservative, shock jock radio host Rush Limbaugh, here’s a quick summary:

During an interview over the weekend with CNN’s D.L. Hughley, Michael Steele was quoted as saying that “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh—his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly." When Hughley referred to the radio host as "the de facto leader of the Republican party." Steele replied decisively, "No he's not. I'm the de facto leader of the Republican party,"

Bravo, Mr. Steele for taking to task the biggest blemish on your party’s new and improving reputation. It was, I hoped, a forecast of other house cleaning to come.

But my excitement was short-lived.

Limbaugh promptly responded as most imbeciles do to the truth: with anger and incredulity. Within hours, Mr. Steele retracted his honest and courageous statements so quickly and completely, I had to google the story to make sure that it hadn’t all been a figment of my imagination.

“I looked back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking,” Steele said. "It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently. What I was trying to say was a lot of people … want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he’s not. I’m not going to engage these guys and sit back and provide them the popcorn for a fight between me and Rush Limbaugh. No such thing is going to happen. … I wasn’t trying to slam him or anything.”

Seriously? Because the last time I checked, Rush Limbaugh was, actually, the boogeyman.

More insightful than that finer point, is this: To have the official, appointed head of the Party cow-towing to a hot-headed radio personality either dramatically inflates Limbaugh’s importance or actually confirms and exposes the reality that Michael Steele tried to disguise in his original statement: Steele is but a figurehead, beholden to the same old guard leadership, rhetoric, and one can assume, divisive and separatist strategies of the Republican party.

I have, up until now, given Mr. Steele the benefit of the doubt. I cringed when progressives and African Americans called him Unlce Tom and Sambo for daring to be a black Republican.

Perhaps my willingness to forgive him his place within an overwhelmingly racist and classist political party comes from my own religious experiences. Indulge me if you will this dissimilar but analogous comparison:

I have been a member of my non-denominational but Baptist/Pentecostal-leaning church since I was 9 months old. My parents, its founding pastors, started the church in our basement and since then have grown it, beyond my father’s untimely death in the pulpit nine years ago, into a small but thriving community. Throughout the course of the past 25 years however, and in particular during my academic and professional awakening, I have developed decidedly liberal political and thus theological views as compared to the rest of my congregation and its clergy (still led by our fearless pastor, my mother). Despite these differences of theory, and sometimes practice, I hold several leadership positions within the ministry due in part to my love for the people and the fundamental (not fundamentalist) principles which provided a foundation for my growth, spiritual maturity and wellbeing.

The justification for my staying despite some pretty significant differences in theological interpretation is that without me, I fear that the church I so desperately love might become more conservative on issues of choice and sexuality, and thus farther and farther away from where I believe they are actually called to be. In short, I love them too much to not believe in their eventual enlightenment.

It is with this background and context that I, perhaps foolishly, identified with Michael Steele. I believed his pleas that there could be open-minded, balanced, people – people of color, for that matter - within the Republican party just as I hope many believe my cries that there can be open-minded, politically progressive people within a largely evangelical religious institution.

So against my better judgement, I turned the other cheek during his 2006 Senate race when it was discovered that someone paid homeless people to distribute inaccurate fliers in my home county, an overwhelmingly Democratic precinct. The materials blatantly lied and said that the Ehrlich-Steele ticket was a Democratic ticket.

Maybe he wasn’t capitalizing on the ignorance of low-information voters and in particular voters of color in my neighborhood. Maybe the voter suppression ploy had nothing to do with him, and he was just a victim of the type of dirty politics that his colleagues played, just as well-meaning Hillary supporters were often victims of the guilty-by-association racism that was instigated by other anti-Obama Democrats.

I tried to turn the other cheek…again against my better judgement… several weeks ago when he began throwing around phrases like “bling bling” and talking about “off the hook” strategies to recruit young people to the Party. Maybe he wasn’t tokenizing young people and in particular, young people of color, and in particular, young people of color who identify with hip hop culture. Maybe he’s just an old guy trying to understand the MTV generation?

But I’ve now run out of cheeks to turn (or at least any that I’d like to include in this metaphor).

Michael Steele’s apology as the head of the party to Rush Limbaugh could be compared to me ascending to senior pastor, arguably the penultimate position of leadership within my church, and still espousing, allowing or supporting beliefs that wholly represent the congregation that are contrary to my own. Even worse, it would be like me as the senior pastor, cowering under the reprimand of a loud-mouthed usher who happens to have the meanest, ugliest church members behind her .

Why backtrack on the three kernels of truth said during the interview? 1. Rush Limbaugh is entertainment. 2. He says ugly things. 3. Steele is the confirmed leader of the party.

To say that this was a misstatement all but shouts that 1. Rush Limbaugh is more than entertainment – he is certified, significant leadership and the things that he says on his shock jock radio show are to be taken as serious, substantive views that represent your party. 2. What he says is not ugly, and even his most incendiary remarks are not worthy of reprimand. 3. Even you must answer to him, because you are an impotent RNC chairman.

How disappointing.

Mr. Steele, if you are going to continue to do your traveling road show, attempting to convince everyone, and in particular communities of color, that you are the breath of fresh air that the Party so desperately needs, we’re going to need some proof. (Or has us hip hoppers like to say – We don’t believe you. You need more people.) Start bringing to the forefront some fresh leaders – the ones who you swear up and down have been biding time during the Bush years feeling as if the rhetoric and policies of hatred, oppression and fear don’t represent them as loving, positive, open-minded Republicans. Because until I see you practicing what you preach and unveiling at least a solid contingency of your party that values diversity, equality, and civility as much as you say you do, you’re going to have a difficult time changing the party from inside Rush Limbaugh’s shadow.