Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

The Intelligence Community: Our Retarded Giant

Posted in activism, civil rights, police state by allisonkilkenny on August 4, 2008

A word of advice for anyone who is planning on videotaping footage at the Democratic or Republican National Convention this year: hide your camera.

Despite living in the age of information over-saturation, citizens, and protesters especially, face unprecedented levels of intimidation and censorship from an ever-expanding police and intelligence community. But we’re still totally free. I know this because the president keeps telling me this.

The “intelligence-gathering” umbrella was formerly comprised solely of CIA agents, men in crisp, black suits and narrow black ties below their Joe Friday haircuts and garden-variety features. Now, it is a beast of a bureaucracy, a massive fusion network of federal and local agents working together toward the purpose of…well…collecting intelligence. Except, the parameters of what they’re striving toward are unclear these days.

What is pertinent information? What’s being nosy? What constitutes a violation of the Constitution? No one knows. Or rather, no one cares to stop and ask the question except the very people now at the mercy of this gargantuan mistake of a Big Brother. Whenever I imagine the intelligence community these days, I think of The Abominable Snowman crushing Bugs Bunny in his massive paw as he happily sings, “Oh boy! A little bunny rabbit! Just what I always wanted! I will name him George, and I will hug him…”

Well, our private conversations, information, and freedom to protest are George, and George is very much in the grasp of the giant, inbred, possibly retarded monster that is The Intelligence Community.

Later this month, protesters will gather (and by “gather,” I mean, “sit in their designated pens”) at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. When they arrive, they can expect to encounter a new, sophisticated fusion center at the heart of the American intelligence matrix.

It won’t be your grandmother’s protest, where police haphazardly sprinted after hippies, but the game ends when the protest is over. This time around, the police presence will be huge, suspicious activity will be loosely defined and cataloged in a huge national database. Furthermore, because so little is known about this huge database, there’s no way to know if someone erroneously charged with “suspicious activity” will be permanently exonerated for their crime, or if they will forever remain on “The List.” In a turn of fate that would make Kafka shudder, simply being accused of guilt could forever brand one guilty.

And unlike your grandmother’s protest, this won’t just involve the local police. The big boys — the national guard — will be called out for this one. They’re not going to get poked in the eyes by damn dreadlocks-wearing hippies AGAIN, by God! The Colorado Independent reports that the military will also be sharing intelligence information and providing support through US Northern Command, a creation of the 2002 homeland defense measure. Many fear the fusion center will result in unwarranted spying on protesters exercising their First Amendment rights at the convention.

In an interview with Democracy Now, Erin Rosa, a reporter for the Colorado Independent, explained that Denver seems to be seriously bracing for a stand-off between the police and protesters, to the point where the Colorado Army National Guard is constructing makeshift barracks in the far east region of the city:

They’re not saying what the purpose is for nearly 400 people to be stationed in this private university. They’re actually going to be stationed at Johnson & Wales University in the eastern region of the city, you know, more than 400 troops in that one area. They rented more than 500 rooms across the city. And they’re not saying what the purpose will be for, but they have confirmed that it will be all Colorado National Guard personnel.

So while Denver is immersed in a total police state, what sort of behavior can individuals expect from their new intelligence and censorship overlords? In the same interview, Mike German, National Security Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, warned protesters that new guidelines for what constitutes suspicious terrorist-like activity may include some pretty basic elements of protesting:

The Los Angeles Police Department issued an order compelling their officers to report criminal and non-criminal suspicious behavior that can be indicative of terrorism, and they listed sixty-five behaviorsOne of the precursor behaviors to terrorism that’s identified in the order is taking video. And we put in our report a couple of instances where people taking video were stopped by police officers simply for taking pictures or video. And in some cases, particularly where they’re taking photographs or video of police, it actually resulted in arrests.

This would put quite a damper on many grassroots responses to this kind of intelligence/police state bullying, particularly I-Witness, a group created to protect citizens from the attacks of overzealous police authorities. Eileen Clancy, the founder of I-Witness Video, explains that it’s important to keep a video log of every protest (complete with date and time displayed clearly on the camera) should the footage be needed as evidence in later court hearings.

Of course, having your camera taken by the police puts an end to all of that. Activists will be left totally defenseless in court, at the mercy of every whim and accusation from the police. And there will be tons of accusations and court hearings, particularly because there are an ever-growing number of activist watchdog groups posting their footage online. The most recent example is the Critical Mass bicyclist, who was body checked by an NYPD police officer.

It bears repeating that these watchdog groups are a good and important presence. They need to be able to function free from fear of being labeled terrorists for simply documenting protests especially because the media so rarely walks the extra 200 yards over to their protest cages to interview them. Activists need to remain free to document their own presence for their own safety, and for the benefit of the community at large. In a democracy, it’s essential that all voices be permitted to speak at an even volume so citizens can educate themselves and come closer to understanding the objective truth.

But maybe you think I’m being too paranoid. After all, it’s only temporary, you say! It’s only for the convention, and we do have to protect Obama and his giant brain from the unkind intentions of a handful of mean people, right? If it only it were true. This Denver police and intelligence presence will be an abiding change in Colorado’s social landscape.

Eileen Clancy explains that the Deputy Chief of Operations in Denver testified before the House subcommittee that they see the DNC fusion center as an opportunity to make permanent a “super fusion center.” So, Clancy says, the Denver crew is going to take their government allocated $50 million and “play with their new toys,” and they are going to build a permanent and more powerful surveillance apparatus for Colorado.

These changes are here to stay, and Denver is only the first string in the intelligence community’s new Super Spying Web. Happy protesting, Colorado! The only hope activists have is to join together in watchdog networks. When I interviewed Eileen Clancy, she offered this advice to DNC protesters:

“The federal government is trying to criminalize video because it has tremendous power to expose bad acts by the police and federal agents. The best way for people to document police misconduct is to band together in video activist groups such as I-Witness Video, work in pairs or affinity groups, protect their footage by making back-up copies, publish their work in the media or on the Internet, and vigorously challenge any arrests, detentions and police orders to erase photos or videotapes. The First Amendment offers tremendous protection to people videotaping the police at work, but we must fight to maintain our right to shoot.”

In this world of sophisticated spying, the underdogs will need to care for their own, and the protesters at the Denver DNC are no exception.

Apathy Doesn’t Live in the Bronx

Posted in activism by allisonkilkenny on May 24, 2008

Last Wednesday more than 160 students in six different classes at Intermediate School 318 in the South Bronx refused to take another standardized test. The students boycotted the test not out of laziness or fears of failing, but because they are sick of being dragged out of their classrooms to be treated as lab rats in the No Child Left Behind rotten matrix.

These tests don’t affect their grades, nor are they always actual tests. You see, sometimes the students are issued “practice tests” that have no real meaning. The companies are merely experimenting on the children with their shiny, new tests and if they fill in the right bubbles, the test companies ship off their crates to white schools in the suburbs.

The Bronx kids are sharp, determined pupils so they didn’t just sit around, bitching and moaning. Instead, they created a petition complete with specific grievances. The students declared themselves to be aggravated with the “constant, excessive and stressful testing” that causes them to “lose valuable instructional time with our teachers.”

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Some might say criticizing the broken No Child Left Behind act is a tired, cheap shot. I disagree for the simple fact that teachers are still guilty of teaching to test instead of teaching to engage. They teach with narrow, shallow focus because the No Child Left Behind act demands that sort of curriculum. The act completely robs teachers of their ambitions, desires, and instincts. Teachers are left with no other option than teaching students to regurgitate the appropriate answers for the appropriately numbered questions, which is the opposite of critical thinking and complex problem-solving.

No Child Left Behind is still rotting our schools from the inside because we’ve left it to politicians to fix the educational system. Big mistake. It is going to take the will of the students to get real, permanent policy changes.

The Bronx strike is a significant victory because it represents students rejecting a corrupt institutional policy from inside the institution. Victims of corrupt policies are the strongest voices of dissent because without their participation, the entire parade of corruption and deception comes to a halt.

For the same reason, veterans are the most prolific voices of peace. It’s difficult for even the most staunch conservative politician to look a veteran in the eyes and say, “Look, buddy, I know more about this whole war thing than you.”

Though it is smaller by comparison, the Bronx strike brings to mind the historical 1968 strikes in France that led to the collapse of the De Gaulle government and forever changed the country. The French students wanted certain grievances addressed, namely issues involving class struggle and school funding. Above all else, the students wanted to be treated like adults. They wanted a place at the negotiation table and they wanted dignity in the negotiation process. Quite rightly, they believed they should have a say in the outcome of the institution that would play a part in shaping their minds.

At the time, the French students were dismissed as petulant children out of their league in the world of politics. As Gandhi famously said: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” The French students won and the 1968 strikes are now seen as a critical time in France’s history when the old order of nationalism and conservatism gave way to a more liberal, enlightened period.

These Bronx students will be ridiculed, too. They’ll be called lazy and petulant among other things. Already, the school’s Principal, Maria Lopez, has wowed the public with her spectacularly wrong decision to fire Douglas Avella. Avella is the students’ Social Studies teacher, and he was fired even though the students insist they are entirely responsible for the petition and the strike, and Mr. Avella had nothing to do with their walk-out.

Despite the unfortunate consequence of Avella getting scapegoated, the strike is an encouraging rebellion within a corrupt, failed institution. Hopefully, other students will reject the No Child Left Behind doctrine, just as a steady trickle of war veterans will continue to join the anti-war movement. Until then, our country will be unable to right the wrongs of the past without these essential players, those victims of the very institutions we wish to heal.

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Sharpton and others arrested in N.Y. shooting protest

Posted in activism, civil rights, politics by allisonkilkenny on May 7, 2008

Source: Edith Honan, Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and dozens of others were arrested on Wednesday for stopping traffic to protest the acquittal of policemen who killed an unarmed black man with 50 shots on his wedding day.

Hundreds of protesters snarled rush-hour traffic at bridges and tunnels around New York City in a civil disobedience campaign called by Sharpton, who has been close to the slain man’s family since the November 2006 shooting.

A police spokesman said “a couple dozen” people were arrested. A spokeswoman for Sharpton put the number at 190.

Last month, a state judge cleared two detectives of manslaughter and a third of reckless endangerment in the death of Sean Bell, 23, in a case that outraged New York’s black community.

Bell’s fiancee and two of his friends who survived the shooting were arrested along with Sharpton, who called on federal prosecutors to bring civil rights charges.

In the main protest, about 30 people knelt and prayed outside City Hall, blocking one of the streets that leads to the Brooklyn Bridge.

“We are holding you all under arrest for disorderly conduct,” police announced before handcuffing Sharpton and at least 30 other people. They put up little or no resistance as they were led to police vans, cuffed by plastic strips.

“We are all Sean Bell” the demonstrators shouted.

Some people signed up to be arrested, including Lexine Odom, 47, a mother of three sons, one of whom recently returned from military service in Iraq.

“I have three sons and Sean Bell could have been one of them,” Odom said. “To say not guilty is unfair, it was unfair to everyone unfair to the family.”

The Justice Department, federal prosecutors and the FBI are reviewing the case and could take legal action if investigators suspect a violation of federal civil rights laws.

A decade ago, Sharpton organized similar demonstrations after four police officers who fired 41 shots were acquitted in the death of an unarmed West African man, Amadou Diallo. Dozens were arrested then, including Sharpton.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta)

Did Burger King Target and Spy on Tomato Pickers Rights Groups?

Posted in activism, corporations by allisonkilkenny on April 15, 2008

A follow-up to the Mother Jones story, transcript from Democracy Now

In Florida, groups organizing for tomato pickers’ rights say they might have been spied on and vilified online by the fast-food conglomerate Burger King. The Fort Myers News-Press traced threatening emails directed at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student/Farmworker Alliance to Burger King’s corporate headquarters in Miami, Florida. We speak with the reporter who broke the story and with the coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance who says he received a call from the owner of a private security company posing as a student.

Amy Bennett Williams
, Writer for News-Press, a daily newspaper in Fort Myers, Florida.

Marc Rodrigues
, Co-Coordinator of Student/Farmworker Alliance, a national network of students in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

AMY GOODMAN: As you [James Ridgeway] talk about tacos and talk about private investigations, we’re going to turn now to Florida groups organizing for tomato pickers, saying they might have been spied on and vilified online by the fast-food conglomerate Burger King. This is according to a report published Saturday in the Fort Myers News-Press just ahead of Tuesday’s Senate hearing on the conditions faced by tomato pickers. The newspaper report traced threatening emails directed at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student/Farmworker Alliance to Burger King’s corporate headquarters in Miami, Florida.

Last November, Burger King refused to pay tomato pickers an additional penny per pound of tomatoes purchased. As a result, the growers in Florida canceled previous agreements won by the workers with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

In response, the Coalition organized a petition campaign that included a possible boycott of Burger King. Since then, they noticed an increase in hostile online posts and at least two attempts by outsiders posing as student activists to infiltrate their group. One of them turned out to be the owner of a private security company that advertises its ability to place “operatives” in the ranks of target groups.

Amy Bennett Williams is the reporter who broke the story, joining us on the line from Fort Myers, Florida. We’re also joined on the phone from Immokalee, Florida by Marc Rodrigues, the co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. He received the call from the owner of the private security firm posing as a student.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Marc, let’s begin with you. Describe what happened. When did you receive the call? What did the person say?

MARC RODRIGUES: Thanks for having us on, Amy. And before I describe those particular calls, to give your listeners a little bit of a background, we were contacted on March 8th by someone using the email address “stopcorporategreed,” the email address moniker, and this struck us as kind of interesting, because a couple of months before, it had been the same exact email address which had leaked an internal Burger King memo to the Associated Press, in which Burger King threatened to stop tomato purchases, quote-unquote, “from the Immokalee, Florida area.” And the person—when this person contacted us, he told us his name was Kevin and that he was a student at the University of West Virginia. And when we pressed him a little bit more, because he contacted us, you know, under the guise of wanting to get more involved and wanting to get on a conference call that we had mentioned on our website for the upcoming Student Labor Week of Action, we pressed him a little bit more for a little bit more information about himself, and we never heard from him again. And it turns out that this email actually came from Davie, Florida, a few miles outside of Miami, where Burger King has its corporate headquarters, and not in fact West Virginia.

So, exactly three days after we got the email from this “stopcorporategreed” person, we get a call at the office from Cara Schaffer, who turns out to be, as you said, the head of this firm called Diplomatic Tactical Services. She poses as a student from Broward Community College up in Broward County, just north of Miami. It turns out that they have no record of her enrollment. And it turns out that we find out, you know, within a matter of moments after hanging up the phone with her that she is actually the president of Diplomatic Tactical Services. And the reason why we even looked into it or thought that her call was strange was the way that she was very insistent towards the end of her call about getting on the Student/Farmworker Alliance conference call and kind of echoed some of the same language and—you know, attempted to get on this call that this “stopcorporategreed” or Kevin person had done just three days before.

And so, I think it’s important for your listeners to realize what kind of an outfit DTS is, that she is the president of, which, as you said, you know, tries to put covert undercover operatives into organizations and has a former employee that is actually implicated in a murder of four people in a really bizarre incident that happened out on a boat off the shores of Miami.

So we eventually gave Cara call-in info for a couple of our conference calls. And through the process of elimination, after getting a list of phone numbers of people who were on those calls, confirmed that she was on both of those calls but did not say anything or identify herself on either call, even after numerous attempts on our part to—you know, inviting everybody on the call to identify themselves. And I mean, really, the only thing that she found out by being on both of these calls is that we have, you know, an extensive network of students around the country who were taking actions, nonviolent, peaceful actions in support of farm workers.

So this is really, quite frankly, scary and intimidating step that Burger King is taking, by trying to put people of this ilk to infiltrate our organization. And Burger King said in Amy’s article that they don’t know anything about this. But what I’m wondering is, why would a private investigation/intelligence firm, which just happens to be based in the Miami area, suddenly one day out of its own volition decide to try to infiltrate the Student/Farmworker Alliance?

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Bennett Williams, you wrote this story for the Fort Myers News-Press. Can you talk about your conversation with Burger King and what else you found in this story of infiltration of the Immokalee Workers?

AMY BENNETT WILLIAMS: Well, I spoke with Burger King’s official spokesman, a man named Keva Silversmith, and he was very careful to say that he had no knowledge of or information about Diplomatic Tactical Services, always careful to use the first-person pronoun. And as for the online postings and an email that I received that we traced back to Burger King corporate headquarters, he said, “Hey, this is a corporation in which our employees are allowed to use our internet for personal purposes, and this was a personal email. And, you know, is it official communication? No. But are our employees are entitled to their opinions? Yes.” And he has been very accessible and also very quick to deny any Burger King involvement in this at all. But as I was researching the story, I found that this is, as your previous guest said, this is a very common set of tactics in the world, and I spoke with folks from the Center for Media and Democracy who pointed out that this follows a very classic pattern of discovery and denial.

AMY GOODMAN: Marc Rodrigues, how will you protect yourself that this point? And can you talk about your demands right now around the whole issue of Burger King refusing to pay the extra penny, what the story is about, why this is such a threat to Burger King, the organizing you’re doing?

MARC RODRIGUES: Yeah, I mean, just to kind of build on what Amy was saying, in terms of this whole Astroturf campaign of really libelous comments against the CIW after any article or even YouTube video that mentioned the CIW, this person with the moniker “activist2008” would go on and post just these really ridiculous comments, saying things like the Taco Bell and McDonald’s agreements just happened so that the CIW could line its own pockets, that it’s making millions off of duped supporters, and things like that that could really be considered libelous. And we just think it’s very unfortunate and disappointing that Burger King has chosen this path to go down. And it’s very disappointing that they’re trying, along with more conservative sectors of the Florida tomato industry, to block the McDonald’s and Taco Bell agreements.

But in response to that, I mean, we’re not going to get, you know, overly paranoid or cautious, even though this is an attempt on their part to intimidate and to stifle our voices. We know that what we’re doing is just. We know that the workers’ demands are just and are fair and can be implemented and were being implemented until Burger King took these steps. And we know that what we’re doing is nonviolent and legal. And we’re going keep on doing what we’re doing, until Burger King comes to the table and dialogues and negotiates with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. And, you know, consumers across this country and all of your listeners today can play a huge role in that by signing onto the CIW’s national petition campaign against sweatshops and slavery in the fields.

Just this past November, the seventh case of modern-day slavery in the past ten years in the agricultural industry in the United States came to light when three workers had to punch their way out of the ventilation hatch of the back of a U-haul truck that they were locked in, part of a group of about fifteen workers being held against their will and being forced to pick tomatoes. And Burger King and other large purchasers of Florida tomatoes have the ability and the responsibility to make sure that these types of abuses are ended and are ended today. So folks can find out more about this petition campaign and add their name and add their voice to that today by going to our website, which is or directly to the online petition itself at, that’s

AMY GOODMAN: Marc Rodrigues, I want to thank you for joining us, co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, the national network of students in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, joining us from Fort Myers, Florida, and also Amy Bennett Williams, who wrote the piece, broke the story in the Fort Myers News-Press. We will link to that story at

What We Can Learn From Conservatives About Winning in Politics: Parts 2 & 3

Posted in activism, Conservatism, politics by allisonkilkenny on March 16, 2008

Part 1

Part II: Learning from How Conservatives Push Their Cultural Worldview

As we saw in the previous post, the entire conservative movement was organized around the single goal of changing the country’s dominant worldview, weaning it away from liberal assumptions about how the world works, and teaching Americans to assign meaning to the world using conservative values instead. They firmly (and rightly) believed that that once the rest of the country evaluated and prioritized reality the same way they did, the rest of the conservative political, economic, and social agenda could be implemented with strong popular support, and no meaningful resistance.

But the early architects of this plan, including Paul Weyrich, also realized that having strong ideas wasn’t enough. To succeed, they would also have to master the arts of persuasion.

“Ideas do not immediately have consequences,” wrote Eric Huebeck in his 2001 update of Weyrich’s long-followed plan. “They do not have an impact in direct proportion to the truth they contain. They have an impact only insofar as adherents of those ideas are willing to take measures to propagate those ideas.”

Or, as a more cynical conservative once put it: You gotta catapult the propaganda.

This may seem like heresy to liberals. We like to believe that the progressive worldview is so patently superior that intelligent people will readily see the logic of it, and then sensibly adopt it as the best way to think and live. If people resist it, it’s only because they don’t completely understand it (yet). Fixing that is simply a matter of education: we just need explain our vision more clearly. Our own resolute faith in the power of reason convinces us that reasonable people will be reasonably persuaded by reasonable discussion of reasonable ideas.

It’s time to consider the reasonable possibility that we may be wrong.

To our enduring detriment, movement conservatives never bought into that idea. They understood from the start that their ideas (which, frankly, don’t stand up nearly as well in the face of clear rationality) would need to be aggressively promoted and sold, using emotional appeals that went to the heart of human beings’ deepest desires and motivations. People don’t commit their time, energy, and fortunes to a movement because it’s all so logical and sensible. They join up because they’ve taken the movement’s worldview deep into their hindbrains as their basic model of reality, and made an emotional connection to the ineffable feelings the movement deliberately stimulated — in this case, fear, hate, and xenophobia as well as solidarity, reverence, hope, and security. In this model, the ideas only exist to provide a way to rationalize and express the deeper feelings the movement has already activated through other appeals.

Liberals operate from a position of strength on the battlefield of ideas — and this may be why we consistently overvalue reason and undervalue emotional appeals. Our ideas do have a strong intellectual appeal. But we tend to forget that they also have a far healthier emotional appeal, since we don’t have to resort to stimulating fear and hate to get people to buy into them. Still, we’ve been notoriously terrible at stirring people’s more positive and hopeful emotions, and getting them to resonate on a soul-deep level with the values that define our worldview. Clearly, we could stand to learn a thing or two from the conservatives about how they did this.

In this second part, we’ll look at some of the essential communications rules Huebeck gleaned from Weyrich’s original plans — and see how these rules might be adapted to make us more effective at winning people’s hearts and souls as well as their minds.

Don’t be afraid to set ’em on fire

The hard, cold fact is that words and logic will never get us down to the deep, pre-rational places where people’s foundational worldviews are shaped. If we want to create change at that foundational level, we need to engage them emotionally, in the pre-verbal places where images, poetry, myths, and ritual reside.

The first thing we need to do is lighten way up on the long recitations of facts and figures and programs and policies. Most non-wonks don’t care about this stuff — the details just make them yawn. They’re bored by promises of new programs: most Americans are pretty well convinced by now that whatever the program is or how well-funded it may be, they probably won’t see any personal benefit from it, so it comes across as an empty promise. Yet Democratic candidates all the way back to Walter Mondale have been running and losing on just this kind of dispassionate, uninspiring wonk-talk. And then we wonder why the conservatives keep whipping our asses.

You’ll seldom catch conservatives talking wonky. They’re told from their very first candidate trainings to steer clear of anything that dwells on abstract facts or figures. People want viscerally engaging stories — emotional stories about people like them, inspiring mythic tales taken from history that express their highest ideals, vivid invocations outlining the shining details of a better future to come. They want clear-cut portrayals of good guys and bad guys that reverberate with the promise that justice will be done, and that they will be honored in the end as agents for good. We may grow up, but we never lose our childhood taste for an illustrative tale well-told. The conservatives knew this from the beginning, and turned this knowledge into a potent political strategy.

Mitt was singularly bad at it, which explains much of his failure. (McCain’s not much of an inspirational speaker, either.) On the other hand, Obama is singularly good at it, which is why he’s doing so well — even though the emotional outpouring he inspired by hitting these buttons makes a lot of more reason-based liberals squirm and reach for words like “cult” and “mass hysteria.” It’s potent proof of just how very uncomfortable we are with this — and also that we need to get serious about getting ourselves over it. Because Obama is doing exactly what every great progressive icon of the past did — and every modern progressive needs to learn to do — if we’re going to inspire the nation and get people to commit themselves, body and soul, to our worldview.

We’ve got a different message; but we’ve also got a long tradition of progressive speakers (Jefferson, TR, FDR, JFK, MLK) who knew how to tell our story in ways that grabbed people’s imaginations and set them on fire. It’s a proud liberal tradition that we are way past due to reclaim — and the conservatives are going to keep beating us until we do.

Talk in tangibles, not abstractions

Offer clear examples wherever possible. Use real people in real situations. Tie values statements to everyday experiences. Listeners need to understand how your message ties directly into the way they live their daily lives, so bring it down to ground level.

When we do use numbers, it should be in ways that are direct and personal. This war is costing your family $XXXX per year. Cancer rates in your neighborhood are up X% due to lax oversight of the plant. This program will enable XXX more kids from this county to afford college. If it can’t be expressed in terms of direct, concrete benefits to the individual listeners, it’s probably a waste of breath.

Live out loud

Weyrich declared that the cardinal premise of the conservative movement is that “the power of example is far greater than the power of exhortation.” They actively sought out and promoted people who were living their worldview, and held them up as examples to others of the success that awaited anyone who joined up. They understood that the best salesmen for the cause were the people who weren’t afraid to live their conservatism right out loud.

Liberals tend to break out in a rash if you suggest that we should allow ourselves to be held up as role models for anyone. Who are we to be telling anyone else how to live? And besides: who needs all that scrutiny and judgment? But I’d argue that we might want to reconsider this. Like it or not, when we step up as leaders, people are watching — and many would-be progressives will be judging our movement and modeling their own lives after our example. Being a leader means accepting that burden with some grace, and recognizing example-setting as a central part of the job.

It’s an act of courage to step up, tell the world, “This is what a progressive looks like,” and then commit yourself to living up to the movement’s highest ideals. But it would only take a few million of us openly living out our values that way — not full of self-righteousness and judgment (people have had a bellyful of that), but modestly and graciously and without apology — to change the way our movement is perceived throughout the country. We’re offering the world an alternative. We need to commit our lives — literally — to showing them through our actions what that alternative looks like.

No whining

Huebeck and Weyrich told conservatives to quit their bitching about “leftist double standards and hypocrisy.” They recognized whining and pity-parties as a huge time and energy sink that drags everybody down, and sucks resources away from the movement. The real question movement conservatives needed to confront, they said, is: “What are we going to do about it?” They offered two solutions for the swamping despair that comes with the never-ending gush of stupidity from the other side.

First, they suggested that conservatives regard their opponents’ excesses with the same kind of dispassionate detachment one uses to survey the ravenings of rabid dogs or the aftermath of natural disasters. Accept that they do what they do because that’s who they are. They can’t help themselves; and it’s a useless distraction to be angry or frustrated with them, let alone to think for a minute that we can change their essential nature. If liberals got that detached and gave up complaining, it would dramatically reduce the volume of bloggage coming from our side; but it would also enable us to conserve our energy, stay focused on what matters, and help us endure for the long haul.

Second, they told conservatives to take responsibility — not only for themselves, but for the country as well. “Leftists are never morally responsible for the evil they commit,” wrote Huebeck, “but we as conservatives are morally responsible for not having done more to prevent them from committing that evil.” (Take a minute and breathe. Laugh, if you must. I know — the stupendous projection in that statement is just too much to take in all at once.)

Voluntarily assuming personal responsibility for everything the conservatives do sounds preposterous at first. But if you think about it, it’s actually a neat piece of ontological Aikido, and we might consider borrowing it. The right-wing has savaged the country. We are morally responsible for not stopping them. No, it’s not quite true — but if we go ahead accept responsibility for the outcome anyway, it reframes the situation in a way that puts us back in control of events. We’re no longer helpless underdogs at the mercy of an overwhelming foe outgunning us on every front. Instead — in our own minds, and eventually that of the country — we become the rightful People In Charge, endowed with a clear duty to stand up and put a stop to it.

The conservatives adopted this “we accept responsibility for the mess, and are thus in charge of cleaning it up” stance early on. They believed they owed it to God, the country, and their grandchildren to seize the reins of power and call a halt to the liberal onslaught. This belief has been central to keeping their troops engaged through 30 years of hard fighting — and it also mentally prepared them to move briskly into leadership when they finally started winning.

Know your enemy

Huebeck advised conservatives to “know more about the history of the left than any leftist, and be ready to beat liberals in any debate” — preferably by knowing so much that you can easily make them look foolish.

This advice has been mostly honored in the breach, which isn’t surprising when you consider how few serious scholars there are in the conservative world. (Buckley’s gone; and David Brooks and Bill Kristol couldn’t fill his shoes with all four feet.) Most of us have run into smart conservatives who’ve read Marx and Mill and Bentham and can debate their ideas; but a ridiculous amount of their so-called scholarship has been more along the lines of Jonah Goldberg’s Through-The-Looking-Glass rantings in Liberal Fascism. And their rhetorical skills — which rely largely on being able to out-scream people on cable talk shows or simply deny the existence of contrary facts — aren’t up to left-wing standards of proof, either.

Which means that it’s not all that hard to beat them, especially with that big steaming pile of conservative failures to point to. And every time we can humiliate a conservative in public by exposing their worldview as a barrel of hateful, immoral bilge, we win another small battle.

Master the mass media

“The ideas of the masses never come from the masses,” wrote Huebeck. “The most important thing any movement can do is capture the imagination of the people. One must give them dreams and ideas that have been put in terms they understand, and touch their hearts as opposed to their rational minds. If we cannot capture the imaginations of our members, then we cannot expect our members to make great sacrifices for us.”

To this end, conservatives have tried (with varying degrees of success) to produce movies, songs, radio, TV, and other popular culture products promoting their worldview. The religious conservatives have been so stunningly successful at this that you can now live your entire life in America, cradle to grave, watching nothing but conservative Christian TV, reading Christian books, using Christian school curricula, and listening to Christian radio stations. Tens of millions of Americans now live inside this cozy media bubble, where everything that fills their eyes and ears affirms their religious worldview, and nothing ever interferes to disturb it with unsettling questions.

Fortunately for us, apart from that seamless Christian cocoon, the only truly mass media that conservatives really seemed to have a flair for were talk radio and war movies. They really wanted to take over Hollywood, and are actively looking to grow their own Michael Moore-type documentarians, but neither effort has gone very well.

That’s because most American media professionals — including the best creatives — almost all skew toward the progressive side. The conservatives fully understand what that means, and they openly envy us these talented treasures. We’d do well not to underestimate their value, and to keep pioneering new outlets through which they can put their skills to work telling the progressive story.

Don’t be afraid to be obnoxious

“The thing we have most to fear is that we will be ignored….Complacency only serves the interests of our opponents,” wrote Huebeck. “We must be willing to take measures that perhaps we would be unwilling to take under different, more ideal circumstances. We will have standards — we will never try to justify dishonesty, destruction of the personal reputation of our opponents, cheating, assault, etc…..however, we will not consider ourselves above appearing “unseemly” or surrendering some of our personal dignity…Which means being obnoxious if the situation requires it.”

This just explains so much, doesn’t it? From the get-go, the conservatives weren’t afraid of making total public asses of themselves (which is why they do it so often — and on such a grand scale). They figured out early that bad publicity was better than no publicity; and that at least some of the voters would soon realize that anyone willing to look like that much of an idiot must really have the strength of his or her convictions. Not only does being an obnoxious blowhard make you fearsome at school board meetings and garner stratsopheric ratings on talk radio; there’s also a certain martyrdom value in being harassed and ridiculed by the media for having the courage to stand on principle.

I don’t doubt that Weyrich borrowed this idea from the civil rights movement. Civil disobedience — which always involves making a public nuisance of yourself in the name of a higher good — is an old progressive idea. Old-style protests are a dying tactic; but the larger theme of boldly and fearlessly standing down conservatives, even when it might scuff up our dignity, is coming due to be resurrected and re-worked by a fresh generation.

Don’t be afraid to talk about morality

“‘Sensible’ people do not go to the barricades, do not make great sacrifices for a movement,” wrote Huebeck and Weyrich. “We need more people with fire in the belly, and we need a message that attracts those kinds of people. We must reframe this as a moral struggle, as a transcendent struggle, as a struggle between good and evil. And we must be prepared to explain why this is so. We must provide the evidence needed to prove this using images and simple terms.”

The way progressives talk about morality is one of the salient differences between the 2004 and 2008 elections. Somewhere in those four years, we’ve begun to find our moral voices — and are using them to tell stories that the country is strongly responding to.

Liberals are not, as the conservatives are wont to paint us, immoral. We believe in family, community, prudent budgets, and that America should be a force for good in the world. We think torture and pre-emptive war are wrong. We believe in equal justice and equal opportunity. And we believe that the planet’s ecosystems and the survival of humanity are more important than any amount of profit. Those are intensely moral stances that, taken boldly, draw the majority of Americans to our side.

Beyond that: America’s moral high ground rightfully belongs to progressives. It was progressive morality that formed the nation and fought the revolution. It freed the slaves, fought back the robber barons, unionized workers, ended the Depression, and won World War II. The conservatives have, on occasion, wrenched it out of our hands for couple decades here and there; and the results have invariably been a disasterous betrayal of our core values. This last time, they did it by promoting their own idea of “morality” — packaging it in a worldview that, ironically, opened the door to unprecedented amorality and lawlessness.

It’s time for us to seize back the moral high ground– but it won’t happen unless we overtly step up to fill the void and articulate a clear and specific moral vision to replace the decadent conservative worldview. Both Democratic candidates are doing a strong job of this — for now. But we can’t afford to stop talking this way when the campaign is over. The conservatives embedded their moral stance in every message they conveyed to Americans, regardless of the medium or the political cycle. Morality was central to every aspect of their communications strategy, and did much to cement their worldview in the public mind. We need to be equally scrupulous in expressing all of our ideas in the context of the larger progressive morality that drives them, without exception and without fail.

Don’t be afraid to use social intimidation as a weapon

“We must be feared, so that they will think twice before opening their mouths. They must understand that there is some sort of cost involved in taking a ‘controversial’ stand….we will be able to take some of the trendiness out of leftist cultural activism, because lukewarm advocates of leftist causes will be forced to actually get their hands dirty. Support of leftist causes will no longer be the path of least resistance.”

The conservative letter-writing campaigns really got rolling sometime in the mid-70s. Any time an article appeared in any paper — from the Sunday Suburban Shopper to the New York Times — that could be construed to disparage conservative values or conservative leaders, editors were deluged with cranky letters accusing them of bias, closed-mindedness, lack of professionalism, and worse. It was a blatant effort at operant conditioning, and it worked: within a few years, there wasn’t a newspaper editor in the country who didn’t develop a visible, involuntary twitch at the very thought of printing something that might reflect badly on conservatives.

That was a deliberate social intimidation campaign, and it played a large role in creating the right-wing media bias we’re working against today. And the intimidation was everywhere, to the point where many other Americans who didn’t really agree with the conservative agenda went along with it anyway because they didn’t want the trouble these people could dish out. A right-wing whispering campaign could tank a small business, ruin a reputation, put an end to a career. The Dirty Fucking Hippies slander was another social intimidation attempt, this one aimed at silencing an entire generation of liberal voices.

Two generations of Americans have internalized the “don’t-piss-off-the-wingers” lesson all the way down to their bones. They may not like the right-wingers — but they sure as hell don’t want to be on their bad side.

We are, quite frankly, not that mean — and it goes hard against our grain to intimidate people into doing our bidding. But we progressives could stand to get much, much more assertive about pushing back against this long siege by defending our own boundaries, standing up for our own dignity, and demanding that people present our ideas fairly and accurately. After all, nobody else is going to take us or our positions seriously until we learn to carry ourselves like powerful people worthy of their careful respect. We don’t have to be overtly intimidating; but it wouldn’t hurt for people to think twice before messing with us.

The good news on the media front is that our own letter-writing campaigns are now underway. Eric Boehlert at Media Matters points out that the AP got over 15,000 letters last week protesting the unprofessionalism of Nedra Pickler’s recent article parroting Republican talking points about Obama’s alleged lack of patriotism. Most of the letters were generated by Firedoglake’s brand-new tool that makes it easy to target local papers for e-mail complaint (and praise) campaigns.

But demanding respect from the media is just one step. We need to get not just good, but reliably great, at insisting on being treated with dignity and fairness on every front. The conservatives have had a good time for the past 30 years being the national political bully. It’s time to step up and give that bully the facedown he deserves.

We are Just Cooler Than That

One of the biggest problems the early conservatives faced is that they were the straight, hopelessly out-of-it dweebs in a decade that valued Cool above everything. Weyrich, in another brilliant stroke of memetic Aikido, found a way to take this disadvantage and turn it into an enormous asset.

As Huebeck explains it, conservatives remedied this by taking on an added veneer of sophistication. “We must make it clear that we are seceding from modern life not because we are unable to cope with modern life, but because we are superior to modern life. We understand popular culture — we get it — we simply find it empty and meaningless.”

The Young Republicans of the early ’80s declared that they were the New Coming Thing, a counter-counterculture that offered a stinging critique of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. They declared that they old rebels and their anything-goes value system were exhausted and bankrupt; and announced that they were the New Rebels come to supplant a tired old order. Their clean-cut morality and real-world pragmatism served as irrefutable proof that they were, quite simply, Cooler Than The Rest Of Us.

It was a ridiculous conceit, but it worked. A large swath of Gen X, annoyed by Boomer excess and looking for change, were more than ready to sign on the more “pragmatic” conservative agenda; and their votes helped fuel the Republican takeover. The whole definition of “cool” made a similar generational shift. “Cool” wasn’t Peter Fonda in Easy Rider any more. “Cool” was scheming Ferris Bueller, ambitious Alex P. Keaton, and Melanie Griffith’s spunky Working Girl. “Cool” was an Armani suit, a Hermes tie, and a Harvard MBA.

But “Cool” is also a sword that cuts two ways. Progressives can easily adopt this same skeptical, above-it-all stance to launch a scathing critique of corporate greed-is-good culture. Supply-side economics? Unregulated markets? CEOs as cultural heroes? Yeah, we understand corporate culture — we get it — but we are sooo over it. It’s just so 1988. It’s empty and meaningless, and we (and all the other cool kids) are heading out toward something better. If you’re really cool, you’ll ditch that tie, find a job in sustainability, and come along with us. Because we’re the ones who own the future now.

In the third and final piece in this series, we’ll look at the specific ways that the conservatives took their ideas and their messages out into streets, and made themselves into a truly mass movement.


Part III: How Did Conservatives Convince the Public to Think Differently About Government?

Part III of a series exploring how conservatives took their worldview to the streets, undermining long-held views about government and society.

The conservative worldview has succeeded so wildly — and is still holding such tenacious sway over the ways Americans approach their current stack of problems — because the conservatives started out 30 years ago with a focused plan that put promoting their model of reality at the center of every other action. Over the past two posts, I’ve been mining the specific strategies that early planners like Paul Weyrich used to advance the conservative worldview, in the hope that we might gain some insight that will help us engage them directly on this deepest, most important territory.

Progressives will not be able to implement their vision of the future until we’re able to supplant the conservative worldview with our own. We won’t win until we take control of the discourse, offer Americans new ways to make meaning and evaluate and prioritize events, and get them to abandon conservative assumptions about how reality works.

I’d like to thank Bruce Wilson at Talk2Action again for turning me onto Eric Huebeck’s 2001 document that summarized, updated, and refocused the original Weyrich strategies. In this final piece, we’ll look some of the specific ways the conservatives structured their campaign to take their worldview to the streets, and ultimately replaced long-held democratic assumptions about government, economics, and society with the deadly and wrong-headed assumptions that now drive the thinking of the entire nation.

Capture Cultural Institutions

Thanks to David Brock, Joe Conason, Chris Mooney, Michelle Goldberg, and many others, more and more of us are becoming aware of the ways that conservatives have quietly moved in to take over almost every public and private institution in America. From churches to university faculties to public broadcasting to the Boy Scouts, the vast network of institutions that once taught people how to live in a liberal democracy and reinforced those values across society has been shredded to the point where it no longer functions. In its place is a new network of institutions — some of them operating within the co-opted shells of the old ones, others brand new — that reinforce the conservative worldview at every turn.

This takeover of the very insitutional fabric of the nation was a central part of the conservative plan from the very beginning. Weyrich understood that to change the discourse, you had to capture and control the institutions that were most directly responsible for promoting and sustaining it. And the rising conservatives pursued that goal with a vengeance.

The basic strategy was to build parallel organizations that shadowed the official ones until they could legitimately assume power within their domains. In some cases these were national institutes, professional organizations, formal committees and expert policy groups; in others, they were simply ad hoc groups of conservative citizens who showed up at all the meetings, studied the domain, wrote letters, and eventually became expert in all the same topics and issues the official authorities dealt with. Either way, over the course of a decade or two, there was hardly an influential institution in America that wasn’t operating without a gaggle of conservatives standing by to criticize every decision and thwart every attempt at action.

In some cases, such as government agencies, these self-appointed shadow officials hung around long enough, and demonstrated enough interest and expertise, that they eventually eased themselves into official positions from which they began to enact the conservative agenda. They joined public boards, got themselves appointed to commissions, and inflitrated local offices. In cases where they couldn’t directly take over, they set themselves up as the determined and loyal opposition, acting as political leg weights that hobbled and slowed down every aspect of goverment business for decades on end as they looked for opportunities to press their issues and impose their will. The official policymakers still held sway, but the constant resistance made them far less effective. In time, people would get frustrated with the inaction, and look for other leaders to get the job done. Too often, the people who’d created the resistance in the first place were the first ones tapped to take over.

Massive funding put up by conservative foundations also gave the movement clout over the country’s great non-profits, from which they insinuated themselves into research, health care, social services, education, and the arts. Pressure from investors, advertisers, and avid letter-writers narrowed the range of acceptable narratives in every kind of media. Shadow “professional” groups were established to challenge the basic Enlightenment-era premises of law, medicine, banking, teaching, pharmacy, and other essential professions.

All of this effort was in the service of one goal — to take over these institutions and eventually use them to promote conservative values and worldview. They understood that when you control these institutions, you control the culture — and ultimately, you will also control the very discourse by which everyone inside the culture interprets reality. We’re coming up against the success of this strategy every time a Federalist Society judge comes up for confirmation, every time a hospital refuses to perform abortions, every time the police commission gets a brutality complaint and looks the other way, and every time we try to get a birth control prescription filled.

Huebeck was very clear that none of this about “reform.” He wrote: “We will not reform existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity.” The conservatives knew that of all the various fronts in the war for American hearts and minds, seizing control of the country’s institutional core was is the one that mattered most.

And, unfortunately, we liberals left them to it. Throughout the 1960s, the Boomers had been challenging the authority of the old institutions, which they (often rightly) found stultifying, socially confining, and too often downright criminal. But there was a serious downside to this. When they abandoned the field, they left foundational American institutions (which had been dominated by GI-era rationalists from both parties) wide open for right-wing takeover — and the result is our lives are now dominated by the authority emanating from a new establishment that is far more stultifying, restrictive, and criminal that the 1960s rebels could have ever imagined.

It’s becoming obvious to more and more of us that we will not win until we start taking these institutions back. We’ve made a good start at creating progressive media networks, organizing our own political infrastructure, and defending education at all levels from conservative incursions. We’re having our say in the marketplace, particularly when it comes to agriculture and low-emissions vehicles. Science is not going gently into the ideological good night.

But it’s all just drops in the bottom of a large and leaking bucket. There are vast sectors in which the takeover proceeds unchallenged — and will remain so until we come back with the same pervasive intensity they brought to the job. We need thousands of those same small cadres of dedicated people who make it their business to target one institution, study it, become expert in it, and eventually mount a public challenge to its authority or move in and take it over. We need local MoveOn groups providing those scoutmasters, and local progressive churches taking strong stands against religious right school boards, and teams of local letter-writers who keep our issues on the op-ed pages of the weekly paper. We need professional organizations in every field that stand up to the ideologues and restore the rule of reason. We need to be as pervasive a presence in the life of conservative institutions as they have been in liberal ones.

It took them over 20 years to effect this takeover, so we also need to expect to be in this one for the long haul.

Don’t Trust the Democratic Party

Huebeck noted ruefully that movement conservatives “shot ourselves in the foot by expecting too much from the Republican Party.” It’s a feeling that’s becoming all too familiar to progressives assessing their relationship with the Democrats.

We’re tempted to forget that Progressives are not necessarily Democrats, any more than movement conservatives were necessarily Republicans. In each case, they are a separate movement that often finds its interests in consonance with those of a certain political party. But in both cases, they stand to lose tremendous amounts of power if they allow themselves to become co-opted and turned into an appendage of that party.

In the end, many conservatives — especially the religious right — lost track of that boundary, and forgot to consider their interests apart from the party. Without enough daylight between the two entities, it was easy for the GOP to start taking their Evangelical base for granted. With every passing election, it seemed, the party relied more and more on the religious conservatives for organization, money, and votes — and gave them less and less in return. This year, the conservative churches are in full fury over this betrayal. If the GOP loses, Evangelical disappointment will be at the heart of their defeat.

This is a special problem during election season, while progressives and the party work especially closely together to take back the White House and ensure a Democratic Congress. But, even as we fight the good fight together, progressives need to remember they are not us; and we are not them. Our movement must never forget that its an an entity apart from the Democratic party, with different interests and expectations of a different future. If we allow ourselves to be co-opted by the party, and are diverted into channeling all of our actions into activities that further the Democrats instead of our own progressive agenda, we’ll very quickly end up in the same place Evangelical conservatives are in right now — used, abused, and tossed aside.

It’s basic physics: Holding ourselves at a little more distance gives us extra leverage, forces them to work a little harder for our votes, and ultimately gives us more power to create the changes we seek.

Invest in our own members; grow our own leaders

Political leaders of all stripes like to expand their territory and hoard their power. Weyrich understood that personal empire-building is a selfish indulgence no successful movement can afford — first, because it leads people to put their own interests ahead of the movement, which should never be tolerated; and second, because it stunts the growth of new leaders and inhibits the transmission of leadership skills.

That’s why the early conservatives insisted that leadership should actively seek out leadership talent, nurture it, and groom it to assume power on its own. The more well-trained leaders the movement has, the bigger it can get, the more it can get done, and the faster its agenda will be adopted. Success depends on building a culture in which leaders are evaluated not by how much territory they control, but by the number and quality of new leaders emerging from underneath their wings.

Furthermore, giving people the chance to learn new skills and offering them new opportunities for personal growth is the most powerful way to bond them emotionally, socially, and even economically to the movement. In a time when people aren’t often given the chance to grow to their potential on the job, political work can provide a far more engaging and satisfying outlet for their ambitions. “Every member [must] be given the support to reach his maximum potential,” wrote Huebeck, who also observed that when we raise each others’ personal confidence and skill, it increases the confidence and skill of the movement as a whole.

This was the clause in the plan that launched a thousand wingnut welfare programs, stocked a hundred think tanks, and catapulted countless Young Republicans to positions of real power. But this lesson is far older than that. Earlier progressives understood the role that unions, churches, and civic organizations played in bringing along people who could become local, regional, and eventually national leaders. This isn’t something that happens just inside the Beltway. Finding and grooming emergent talent everybody’s job; and those who do it well have earned their place among our most esteemed leaders.

Ask people to invest in return

Changing the world is not a spectator sport. The early conservatives weren’t afraid to ask their members for incredible investments of time, energy, and money — investments that were essential if their perceived life-or-death struggle for the hearts and minds of America was to be won.

The money, in particular, matters. The conservatives realized that they would need to fund the the early years of their movement themselves until they racked up enough wins to attract foundation support. We progressives are short on corporate white knights; instead, we’ve built our movement on small donations from millions of Americans. Those people are making investments in us — and with every PayPal transfer they send, they are deepening their emotional bonds to our cause.

However, the problem with a lot of progressive fundraising is that it’s too often aimed at winning short-term battles. Pass or defeat this legislation. Win this election. Fund this organization for another year or two. Once that milestone has passed, groups have to conjure a new reason to get people to pony up. Donors figure that the battle’s won, and they can slack off now. Or it wasn’t won, and there’s no point in continuing to give. Either way, it doesn’t take long for donor fatigue to set in.

The conservatives largely avoided that problem by setting out one huge long-range goal that provided the all-in-one justification for an entire lifetime of generous giving. They were in it for nothing less than a total cultural transformation. Every smaller battle was just another step in the long war, which they expected to outlast their lifetimes. The leaders kept up their high expectations that their members would make enormous sacrifices — not just in the early years, but for decades on end until that transformation was complete. Nobody was allowed to slack off — and few wanted to. As the victories racked up and the stakes grew higher, the atmosphere got positively giddy — and the money pile kept getting bigger as people got more and more excited about the movement’s momentum.

We need to remind the progressive donor base that they play the deciding role in a battle that we, too, can expect to be fighting for the rest of our lives — and which will probably be the most important work of all of our lives. As such, we will continue to expect their full support until the job is done. And the more we win, the more we’ll prove that we deserve it.

Think nationally. Organize locally.

The original progressive movements drew on (and helped build up) a vast network of local political gathering places. By the 1920s, there wasn’t a county or town in the nation that didn’t have a permanent progressive hangout — a place where people came together for news, education, organizing, good times, and help when they needed it. Most of these places were union and grange halls; some were civic clubs, Democratic party offices, lodges, churches, pubs, or just some old place the local folks bought and fixed up for their own use.

The collapse of this physical infrastructure is one of the biggest losses we’ve sustained in the conservative attack on American institutions. Even as the country’s last union and grange halls were being emptied out by Republican labor and farm policies, the rising conservative movement was busy building a shadow network of its own. The religious right’s biggest contribution to the cause may have been the ready-made national chain of conservative meeting halls it provided in every small hamlet and burg. Every Evangelical church in the country was a potential nucleus around which a revolutionary cell could form. (Using churches is dicey business, but ministers were taught where the lines were, and the IRS often enough looked the other way. Besides, the broad “cultural transformation” frame meant that a lot of the most important work wasn’t political at all, but rather social and cultural, and therefore entirely appropriate to a church setting.) The GOP money guys still met (as always) at the exclusive downtown and country clubs; but the churches provided a place where conservatives of all classes could gather for social support, education, training, and coordinated local action in service of their revolution.

We’ve suffered mightily by not having that same ubiquitous network of public outposts from which to run our ground game. has been our biggest boon in re-creating this: it took the lead in using the Internet to help local progressives find each other, and helped them begin to form permanent organizations in remote parts of the country. (Until MoveOn and the Dean meetups brought them together, many rural liberals had spent years believing they were the only ones in town.) The 50-State Strategy is also seeking to correct this, by opening Democratic party offices in as many towns and counties as possible across the country. But, though these are two good starts, we need to stay focused on the task of making sure there isn’t a village in America that doesn’t have a permanent space that progressives can call home. Once we restore our place as an integral part of the country’s physical landscape, becoming a natural and accepted part of its cultural landscape will follow on naturally.

Don’t just talk. ACT.

Huebeck’s definition of political action is pointed and narrow. Action is “1) the subversion of leftist-controlled institutions, or 2) the creation of our own institutions of civil society, whose sole purpose is outreach to, and the conversion of, non-traditionalists.” All action needs to have direct results, and should also deepen the skills of the members who engage in it. And it’s an important way of bonding people to the movement: “Action in the world encourages the identification of the member with, and dedication to the group.”

“For example, we will go to public lectures given by leftists and ask them ‘impolite’ and highly critical questions. We must, of course, be fully prepared beforehand for these sorts of excursions, and we must also be prepared to embarrass ourselves, especially at first,” wrote Huebeck. He also advises local groups to do charity work that will both build esprit de corps and generate good PR. “Bonding with others in one’s generation or society is the means by which values are strengthened and perpetuated. It is vitally important that we bond in such a way that the values perpetuated are our own.”

In other words: Our actions need to be good for the movement’s long-term goal of cultural change; good for the community; good for our group’s reputation; good for our own internal cohesion; and good for us as individuals. It’s an excellent set of criteria, and one that we might want to borrow as a sturdy yardstick for the essential worthiness of every activity we plan.

Concentrate on students and young adults

Conservatives capitalized handsomely on the energy of their youngest members. Weyrich and the rest of the early planners carefully nurtured the small handful of disaffected conservative students remaining on the nation’s campuses. They gave them enormous roles at very young ages, while they still had high enough energy and few enough encumbrances to work crazy hours under insane conditions. They also richly funded conservative college newspapers and journals; granted scholarships to promising students with a conservative bent in law, politics, media, and business; and opened their social and business networks to graduates looking for high-paying work. In a very real sense, they found these kids in their cradles, and promised to look after them to their graves.

They made this investment because they realized that if you get them while they’re young, they’ll stay with you for life. Thirty years later, looking at Washington’s middle-aged conservative True Believers, it’s obvious that this investment in nurturing the party’s most promising young sprouts paid off for them many times over.

We have our moment now, with the vast numbers of young voters who are rushing to the Democrats this election. But the conservative success with an earlier generation of young voters tells us that we need to be very proactive about bringing these kids into the process, giving them some real power and some serious training, and returning their loyalty by attending well to their individual futures using every means available to us. If we want to build a progressive nation that will stand for the next 50 years, it’s not too early to start cultivating solid careers for those who will take over for us when we’re gone.

Be there for each other — especially when the pressure builds

Many of the above strategies — from creating permanent physical structures and solid career paths to establishing reliable internal funding flows — reflects the conservative battlefield mentality. They were determined to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, beholden to no one in the liberal world. Another piece of this was social independence: Weyrich knew that conservatives had to learn to rely on each other, not the larger culture, for their social and emotional validation.

People creating change take a lot of flak from those profiting handsomely from the status quo. The more you start to win, the stronger and uglier this resistance gets. Movements often crack under this pressure — often when they’re right on the cusp of winning all the marbles, and the opposition is at its most intense.

But the founders of movement conservatism knew that people can withstand almost anything if they have the firm support and acceptance of their peers. They strengthened their followers against this pressure by teaching them not to give two hoots about what the rest of us think. To them, the only people who matter are the ones who believe as they do — the ones they trust to actually have their backs, look after their kids, and throw their bail when the opposition takes out after them with ugly intent.

The changes we seek now will eventually create equally tectonic shifts as we set the country back to right. The money and power is all lined up behind the conservatives; and they’ve already demonstrated their willingness to use it to viciously punish progressives who dare to challenge it.

We will only survive this if we learn to be equally self-sufficient. We cannot care what they think, do, or say about us. We need to make a point of being there for each other when the heat is on, and the cons come after one or another of us, hoping to pick us off. And that kind of defiance comes a lot easier when we make a point of looking to each other for validation, and building bonds of trust that will hold us tightly together when trouble comes.

Don’t Ever Give Up. We’re In This for The Long Haul.

Movement conservatism first started chipping away at the dominant liberal culture in the early 1970s. The strategies in these three articles were largely formulated in the decade that followed; and they’ve been the basic principles governing conservative behavior ever since.

From the very beginning, they realistically viewed their goal of cultural domination as a multi-generational fight. Those who started it didn’t expect to live to see the end of it — and they were right. The people who first plotted strategy and tactics 30 years ago are now passing into death and retirement; their movement is now in the hands of a carefully-nurtured second generation, and a third is already coming of age. The humiliations of the Bush era are sending them back to their local gathering spots to take stock and regroup; but just because they vanish from the scene for a few years, we mustn’t ever delude ourselves that they’ve finally gone away. They will be back — and, no doubt, their comeback will be largely constructed out of these same strategies.

Weyrich and Huebeck warned the faithful about just these kinds of setbacks. “We will not hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over. Our strategy will be to bleed this corrupt culture dry.” They told conservatives that good efforts and good intentions count for nothing, because losing is not an option for them. “The real question is: if the fight is winnable, why have we not won it? If it is not, why are we diverting our efforts elsewhere?”

It’s one last thing to bear in mind, a final challenge from the conservative movement’s master strategists. If the fight is winnable, why have we not won it? If it is not, then why are we diverting our efforts elsewhere? This struggle for America’s heart and soul and mind has gone on from the beginning, and it will never end. Being progressive means committing our entire lives to the work of promoting America’s founding Enlightenment worldview, building a thriving movement that will outlast us, and raising up people who will carry on when we’re gone. As long as conservative culture warriors are out there trying to undermine the very model of reality that defines American democracy, we’re going to need to be out there resisting their incursions and reminding the country why that foundation matters. We, too, are in this for the long haul.

Your Insignificance Will Be Televised

Posted in activism, Barack Obama, media by allisonkilkenny on March 10, 2008

By Allison Kilkenny at Huffington Post

The national media is quick to remind the American citizenry that their opinions don’t matter.

Meanwhile, moments of democratic triumph go largely unreported. Take, for example, residents of California voting out all five members of a local planning group that had backed plans to allow Blackwater Worldwide to open a training camp in their area. Blackwater claims they hightailed it because of noise regulations and not the angry battle cries of the California residents, which is a lie. If the California residents had warmly embraced plans for the mercenary training facility, Blackwater’s merry engineers would have rushed in overnight to start building. It was only the will of the people that prevented this from happening.

Despite this awesome moment of democracy trumping corporatism and the military-industrial complex, the national media largely ignored the story. Why? Because media deals in tragedy, not inspiration. The media portrays American citizens as perpetual victims – pawns in a big, scary game where their votes are stolen, their jobs are shipped overseas, and their children are left to die in understaffed emergency rooms, while they scramble to take out a second mortgage from predatory lenders just so they can pay the hospital bills.

It’s true that Americans are consistently exploited by uncaring government and corporate elites, but the amazing thing is that they have not surrendered under the pressure of such merciless onslaught.

The media injected Americans with their latest dose of morphine with their coverage of Super Delegates. What might have been a rallying investigative breakthrough became the latest groan of “Can you believe THIS shit?!” heard throughout the country. Your opinions don’t matter, the American people were reminded yet again. You’re helpless, pathetic, and weak.

Few media outlets proposed a way to change this highly undemocratic system. Almost no one suggested rushing the offices of Congress representatives with collected signatures and demands to scrap unconstitutionally appointed representatives that ultimately decide the democratic nominee. No, there was none of that. Instead, the media patted Americans on their heads and tried to look sincere when they murmured, “Sorry, little guys. Looks like you got disenfranchised…again.”

The story became that Americans are victims, not vehicles for change. Though, that may be because optimism and politics are strange bed partners. Just ask Obama’s supporters, who are constantly accused of cult-like behavior because they have dared to invest in these weird things called “Hope” and “Change.” But they can’t, like…change stuff! They’re Americans, for Christ’s sake!

Why aren’t they rolling over and taking it like they’re supposed to?
Why aren’t they still bitching about Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, and Ralph Nader, and all those really bad things that turned Americans into perpetual victims rather than empowered citizens?!
Why are they smiling?! OH GOD! WHY ARE THEY SMILING?!

I have heard many young voters say they’re not going to vote in the national election if Super Delegates, and not the American people, decide who will be the Democratic nominee. This is the saddest kind of testament to how disenfranchised and victimized American citizens have become. Instead of organizing and rebelling like the citizens of California did with Blackwater, they’re already bracing themselves for getting dicked over, yet again.

Americans have been conditioned to believe protest is a silly waste of time, that being a fringe candidate like Ralph Nader is annoying and bothersome, and that they are weak, helpless creatures that will forever be exploited by our big, evil government. They must accept, says the media, that their votes will not be counted, that their children will receive a poor education and poorer health care, and they will either die beneath a mountain of debt or from the retaliation of rebels reacting to our government’s retarded foreign policies. Any way you spin it, the message is clear: You are all fucked. Stop trying.

Except, that’s not true, and Americans know it. That’s why Democratic turn-out for the primaries has been so high. Americans are protecting themselves by rejecting their status as helpless cogs in a corrupt machine. In order to change course, they must turn off the television and switch off the computer. They must politically organize in their own communities and take back their democracy.

The Headless Donkey

Posted in activism, Barack Obama, class divide by allisonkilkenny on January 25, 2008

“I think we’re not looking sufficiently at what is happening at the grassroots in the country. We have not emphasized sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves in order to force the government to do differently. Things do not start with governments.”

-Grace Lee Boggs

When something horrifically awful happens, our first instinct as human beings is to create a narrative of what happened. Great disasters and sudden death beg a framework: what happened, who did it involve, when did it occur? How do we fix it? After September 11th, people were desperate for a story, which is probably why most of us bought a shoddy tale of WMDs, Saddam, and a little place called Iraq.

Now, liberals are trying to create a story for the death of the Democratic party. We’re standing in front of the rubble, slack-jawed and eying each other as we sporadically sputter, “W-what happened?” And there are lots of theories about spoiled youth, special interest groups, and the apathetic attitude that resonates from people who will always have enough bread in their bellies and clean water pouring from their faucets.

But the cause may be as simple as basic biology: without the head, the body dies.

The liberal movements of the 1960s brought us some of the brightest and most charismatic leaders of the 20th century: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy were all men, who inspired a movement wherever they went. All of them were gunned down in their prime, and whether or not we agree with their particular breed of politics, their influence on ideologies and ability to persuade and masterfully cajole are undeniable.

However, once the head was severed, the body died, and where it did not completely die (as was the case in the Civil Rights department,) it morphed into a monochromatic movement. Whites abandoned unions and causes for economic equality and moved into the suburbs. They started to see MLK’s legacy as a black legacy rather than a victory for humankind.

The bridge between Kennedy and King was a shaky, precarious link, one built with the purpose of increasing black voter loyalty to the Democratic party. However, when the men were alive and connected, there was magical potential in the Democratic party.

Bogg sees promising spirit in Barack Obama’s campaign. Unlike the movements of the 1960s, she sees Barack as the body, and his supporters as the head. If he was gone tomorrow, the movement around him would continue, which speaks to its power. An essential limb to Barack’s momentum is, which came to power during Howard Dean’s run for the presidency.

Joan Blades and Wes Boyd started in 1998 after they gathered signatures for a Congressional petition. It was the apex of a time when we cared about our president getting a blow job, and Blades and Boyd wanted Congress to “censure President Clinton and move on”.

Well, Congress didn’t listen, and Dean screamed, but is still around. Indeed, it’s bigger and more organized and focused than ever. As opposed to the customary clot of disheveled, disorganized liberals, is extremely efficient in getting things done, unlike the Democratically controlled Congress.

Ever since Reagan stampeded through the country like some kind of folksy Godzilla, Democrats have been scattered and cowering like scared Japanese. We were divided into so many subsets of special interest groups that it was hard to imagine a time when blue-collar, white workers from rural Alabama sort of had A LOT in common with poor black folk.

In the 1990s, we stood before the rubble of the Democratic movement, whimpering. That is, until, and other grassroots movements rose from the ashes. Rather than assuming liberals are apathetic, Blades and Boyd understood how to use new technology to reach a party that still cares, but had felt increasingly powerless and isolated.

Barack Obama makes progressives feel powerful and connected to each other. He is a surge that actually works, and he has propelled into a new sphere of influence. But this is key: doesn’t need Barack Obama to live.

With or without Obama, will continue to push the Democratic party left, which is what we so desperately need. Clintonism cost us everything. Through the sin of triangulation, Democrats sacrificed and compromised until we didn’t know up from down, and couldn’t tell the difference between a donkey and an elephant.

In 2006, helped secure the wins of many candidates they saw as “progressive” rather than just “Democratic.” Their candidates’ decisive wins shook up the Democratic party that realized it wasn’t enough just to wear the color blue. They had to fight for the votes of the progressives.

Any time Hillary or John, or even Barack talk about Universal Health coverage or the class divide, they’re not parroting some greater Democratic dogma that lays chiseled in stone somewhere in the Smithsonian. They’ve been carefully watching the polls, and grassroots groups like as a kind of collective weather vane. They watch which way the wind blows, and then they respond.

This year’s message is Populist. People want to feel healed and empowered, and there’s no movement capturing that spirit more than the progressives at Truly, when a movement reaches the level where each agent feels like he, or she, could potentially become its next leader, then Martin Luther King’s vision has surely come to life.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

-MLK, 1968

Our strength is our ability to move on, with or without a head.

Those Crazy Liberals!

Posted in activism, censorship by allisonkilkenny on January 21, 2008

Those Crazy Liberals!

Last night, two Dennis Kucinich supporters screamed during Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. They rudely interrupted Jay’s Bill Maher interview. The audience seemed confused, Bill and Jay seemed pissed.

In Bill’s defense, the Loose Change crazies have been hounding him for years now, and periodically infiltrate his Real Time sound studio to shout their poorly synchronized slogans. So Bill’s not that keen on people shouting crap at him, and he might have thought it was 9/11 conspiratorial nonsense. I’m assuming this because Bill Maher should know more than anyone the importance of free speech, and surely he doesn’t believe the only people allowed to express their opinions are individuals with HBO talk shows.

The Kucinich supporters yelled two slogans: “Let Dennis debate! Stop censorship! Help save democracy!” and “GE, NBC, Put Impeachment on TV!”

Jay asked the audience if anyone could understand what they said, the crowd murmured, a few smatterings of “no,” and the show moved on.

The entire interaction was about a minute long. It was awkward. I cringed through the whole thing.

Why do crazy liberals do things like that? I say liberals because you rarely see a suit-wearing Conservative hold up a sad, limp piece of cardboard during the Republican debates with a psychotically lettered message of: “MORE PRIVATIZATION!!!” scrawled across its face.


This is uncommon because random acts of desperate protest are reserved for a repressed, voiceless minority. Except, in America, the silenced minority is actually the majority. Most of us are poor, can’t afford health insurance, think the Iraq war is pointless, and would like to mend our country’s world image.

With all that being said, why are people continually shocked by these random outbreaks? I’m shocked there’s not MORE of them.

Maybe it’s because the protests of the sixties, and all the hippy girls placing flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ guns, are considered cliché because liberals are way too cool to protest now. To protest you have to be — like, you know — angry and shit. It’s very uncool to scream passionately about something. It’s disruptive and rude. It doesn’t accomplish anything. We’ve heard all these reasons to shut up and sit down before.

And yet, people keep protesting. Their numbers are fewer now, but you still see them. They’re the annoying hippies that get in the way of your daily routines. They’re the 80 activists in Washington, who wore orange jumpsuits and black hoods outside the Supreme Court, protesting Guantanamo. Sometimes, they lay down in streets to block traffic, or they walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral and lay down in the aisles to symbolize the causalities of the AIDS epidemic as the ACT-UP members did in 1989. Sometimes they ride bikes, or paint their faces, or wear crazy outfits.

The point is: they keep resisting. They keep resisting even when most citizens give them the stink-eye when they cause traffic jams and make a lot of noise.

Why would any sane person publicly humiliate themselves like that? What force drives people to stand up and start screaming like they’re on fire?

Sane people only scream when they feel they have no other outlet for their voices. Bill Maher and Jay Leno have a public stage from which they can voice their political views. Jay uses his stage for comedy (I’m using the loose definition of comedy,) and Bill uses his stage for comedy (real definition), political discussion, and to show off his balls of steel when he dismisses the existence of God.

Whoever these Dennis Kucinich supporters are, they clearly felt enough desperation to risk embarrassment and jail time in order to reach a mainstream audience about what they perceived as social injustice. That’s not crazy. That’s brave. That’s braver than most of us will ever be during our measly little lives.

I propose this: those protesters didn’t interrupt a late night talk show. That late night talk show interrupted what should be our collective outrage. We should all be so furious and outspoken. Instead, we all slowly blinked and stared glassy-eyed at the television and computer screens, our mouths opening and closing like grazing cows’.

Protesting is a healthy part of any democracy, and yet it is increasingly marginalized as a form of communication. Instead of carefully regulating media activity, the FCC and its soulless Harry Potter king, Kevin Martin, have opened the door to all kinds of insane mergers of already monstrously large corporations. Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp recently absorbed The Wall Street Journal and the latest word from Wall Street is that the Sirius and XM merger is back on the table. All the while, more fringe voices are forced out or silenced by new uber-management at the helm of these giant corporations.

So as the public airwaves are bought and sold to huge conglomerates, the networks’ voices become narrower and simultaneously louder as more mergers occur. They pump into the public one truth — their truth — and silence any form of protest.

This brings us back to little Dennis Kucinich. NBC is a major network owned by a multinational conglomerate, GE. When the higher-ups (several of who include contributors to other presidential candidates) decided Kucinich’s voice was not essential to the debate, they nixed him several days AFTER telling Kucinich’s people he met the requirements to debate.

Using insane doublespeak that would make Orwell vomit blood, NBC claimed Dennis Kucinich was violating THEIR first amendment rights by fighting, biting, and clawing his way onto their precious, pure network, and sullying everything with his liberal propaganda. To be fair, though, I hear Dennis is terrifying in real life. Brian Williams says his eyes glow red in the dark.

And so we arrive back at forms of protest. Forced off NBC’s airwaves, Dennis appeared on DemocracyNow!, a daily independent news program hosted by Amy Goodman. Goodman showed footage of the NBC debate, and then periodically cut back to Kucinich so he had time to give his answers.

How sad is that? That’s what Democracy is becoming in America…a fake debate. Goodman and Kucinich should be applauded for their form of stubborn protest, but everyone else: GE, NBC, and all participants of the fake Nevada debate, should feel ashamed and embarrassed for our supposed democracy.