Obama is Wrong about Social Movements and Activists

 “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with young people in London. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with young people in London. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

New Orleans   President Obama is on his farewell tour. Speaking to a young, university audience in London while trying to drum up some support for Britain to stay in the European Union, he offered what has to be seen as totally gratuitous advice to them – and of course all of the rest of us – about what he sees as the proper, underline “proper,” role for social movements and activists. And, not surprisingly, he is totally wrong, but here was what he had to offer:

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment.”

In the New York Times story about his remarks, they predictably added that something that they felt, equally gratuitously, would help give an extra dose of credibility or street cred to the President of the United States, arguably – and temporarily – one of the powerful people in the world. They offered that,

Mr. Obama began his career as a community organizer working on local initiatives in poor neighborhoods in Chicago. Sometimes, he said, solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions.

Now, certainly if you are a big whoop, or the biggest whoop of them all you, want the rowdies out there to get the message that if you lean down from your perch and deign to listen to them for a hot minute, they are supposed to understand that they are supposed to behave, thank you, and then go and shut the heck up. But, as Obama surely must really know, regardless of the claptrap he’s selling right now, the role of social movements, and many activists, is exactly the opposite. The role of social movements in fact is to speak “truth to power,” not to make the deals and settle for the incremental changes, but to chant, “more, more, more,” keep the heat on that continues to create the pressure and push to create the space for the deal-makers to do their thing to get closer and closer to the mark, and not stop until the job is done.

Obama knows from his time in Chicago that an organization has to accept “half a loaf” frequently to deliver to its members. Good organizations get more, and weaker organizations get less, but it’s a social movement’s job to continue to raise the banner for truth, justice, and the whole loaf. There’s a different between seeking power and putting on the pressure. The Alinsky tradition, that Obama shared, was always uncomfortable with social movements because they were too easily appeased by applause, rather than being thankful that social movements enlarged the space to allow organizations to win even greater victories. Sadly, but once again not surprisingly, Obama knew this seven years ago when he challenged activists to push him – and the country – if they wanted more change, but now that he’s more worried about his past legacy, than his future accomplishments, he sitting too comfortably on the throne.

It’s worth respecting his position, but for the sake of all of us working for change, when it comes to social movements, we need to adamantly decline to follow his advice.

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Bernie’s Brother is EVERYWHERE in England

Larry Sanders. Source: telegraph.co.uk

Larry Sanders. Source: telegraph.co.uk

London   If anyone thinks that they can escape the US-election battles on the 24-hour news circuit, don’t come to England!

Eating lunch with a seasoned political operator often in and out of Labor governments and the institutions that surround them, he asked about the Clinton-Sanders campaign, but even before we got our orders out, he told a funny story about winning a bet with his partner. He had told her that Bernie Sanders’ brother had been leading the news on all media ever since New Hampshire, and he had just about had enough of it. She looked at him with bemused disbelief, and, voila, he turned on the radio, and there was Bernie’s brother bringing a bit of the Bronx to the BBC!

I laughed as well, asking naively if Bernie’s brother lived in England, and nodding and laughing along as he told the story. Less than an hour later, I picked up a free copy of the Evening Standard on the tube in London, and darned if there wasn’t an interview with the Bernie brother smack dab in the middle of the paper.

In the USA we are used to brothers running towards the political flame like moths. We had Roger Clinton and his show during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and of course Jimmy Carter’s brother couldn’t stay out of the news either, and too often it looked like hands were stretched out wide and trouble was a coming. The Bush sons and then brothers populated another world. Certainly stories of Jeb trying to “represent” while the old man was President have been widely reported in various wheeler-dealer moves at the time.

But, a candidate’s brother? Usually, the handlers keep them under wraps for as long as possible. Don’t they?

Larry Sanders, yes, that’s the Bernie brother’s name, just like the old HBO comedy show some years back, either didn’t get the memo or hadn’t hear of this internet thing or the globalization of the news cycle which can take a quote and twist it across mountains and oceans. Or, the Bernie brother has a bit of Trump in him and just lets it sail.

I saw what my friend meant quickly. The interview was “we,”“we, “we,” on one position after another. For example, the newish and controversial leader of the Labor Party Jeremy Corbyn is also old, white, and progressive. Bernie brother assures us that, “There are comparisons with Corbyn and if Bernard wins we will have a special relationship with him.” We? He takes credit for Bernie’s political views. “I used to babysit him and talk about the political books I was reading, so it’s my fault.” Ol’ Larry takes slaps at Hillary for supporting the Iraq war and welfare cutbacks. He claims Bernie didn’t want to run, but did so by default when Senator Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t make the jump.

War, peace, the Clintons, youth, and Bernie’s personal life are all fair game for Brother Sanders in his 15-seconds of fame in Oxford where he was a social worker and former city councilor. He says he’ll vote in the US elections for the first time since 1968. And until then, for better or for worse he’ll give his opinions about his brother and his political positions in England anytime someone sticks a microphone anywhere near his face on this side of the Atlantic.

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