Saturday, January 14, 2012

Confusing celebrity with leadership

In a truly inane exercise to begin with, the New Statesman profiled their idea of "The top 20 US progressives." Here's their list:

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert
Van Jones
Paul Krugman
David Graeber
Elizabeth Warren
Rachel Maddow
Matt Damon
Congressman Keith Ellison
Sonia Sotomayor
Noam Chomsky
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Markos Moulitsas
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley
Cecile Richards
Danny Glover
Angela Davis
Glenn Greenwald
Tim Robbins
Michael Moore
Bernie Sanders

While I might not take exception to EVERY name on that list, I wonder if you have the same reaction I did to seeing it...its about the top 20 celebrity progressives in the US. To put it bluntly, these are mostly the Kim Kardashian's of the left.

When I think of progressive leaders, I think about people who actually get something done...those who, ripple by ripple, change the world. They identify a problem (or problems), roll up their sleeves, and do the dirty work of making things better. AND they do it in the spirit of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called "service."

Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Another way of making the distinction between celebrity and leadership comes from Al Giodano when he talks about activism vs organizing.

Activism is the practice of preaching to the choir, rallying the already converted, and trying to convince other "activists" to do your work for you (say, call your Congressman, or write your Senator for or against a piece of legislation)...

Activism seeks media attention through protests and other means, errantly thinking it will draw others to its cause by doing so. This dominant tendency in "activism" becomes a circular, self-reinforcing, self-marginalizing, chest-thumping, bureaucratic and anally-retentive activity and a big waste of time with little impact on the issues or policies it seeks to change or defend.

Organizing is something completely different: It is based on attainable and quantifiable goals (be they small, as in, "put a stop sign in the neighborhood," or be they large, as occurred last year: elect an underdog as president of the United States). Here's a simple yardstick by which to measure: If it doesn't involve knocking on doors, making phone calls or otherwise proactively communicating with people demographically different than you, it's not organizing. If it doesn't involve face-to-face building of relationships, teams, chains of command, and, day-by-day, clear goals to measure its progress and effectiveness, it's not organizing. If it happens only on the Internet, that's not organizing either.

Its also what Tim Wise was talking about when he said this:

Meanwhile, at what point do you stop being so concerned about whether a presidential candidate is pushing the issues Paul raises (so many of which do need raising and attention), and realize what every actual leftist in history has realized, but which apparently some liberals and progressives don’t: namely, that the real battles are in the streets, and in the neighborhoods, and in movement activism? It isn’t a president, whether his name is Ron Paul or Barack Obama who gets good things done. It is us, demanding change and threatening to literally shut the system down (whether we mean Wall Street, the Port of Oakland, the Wisconsin state capitol, Columbia University, a Woolworth’s lunch counter, or the Montgomery, Alabama bus system) who force presidents and lawmakers to bend to the public will.

In short, if you’re still disappointed in Barack Obama, it’s only because you never understood whose job it was to produce change in the first place.

Or Van Jones (one of those on the list that I consider a real leader) when he said this:

And as the years went on, I learned that angry rhetoric might feel good to people like me, but it didn't make a difference in the neighborhoods I was trying to move forward. I learned that education and real opportunity is what makes a real difference. Protest signs are important - they can't stop a bullet. Nothing stops a bullet like a job. That's what I learned working in the toughest communities in our country.

Teddy Roosavelt talked about it this way years ago:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

And just the other day, BooMan suggested that until progressives grapple with this, we'll continue in our defeatism.

...progressives need to act like they are the natural leaders of this country again. But we can't do that because we have too much distrust of power. We're so busy standing on the outside critiquing the Establishment that no one is going to hand us the keys to become the Establishment. And too many liberals don't want that responsibility because it would tarnish their purity.

Rather than simply critique power, leadership is about stepping up to own some. That means understanding the difference between the power of dominance and the power of partnership. It also means having to give up your position of purity to get your hands dirty in the work of the world as it is - not simply as you want it to be.

The trouble with lists like the one in the New Statesman is that those kind of leaders don't generally gain celebrity...they're too busy out there getting things done.


  1. Nice job SP!
    I love the TR quote! I actually can visualize PBO in that visualization. How battered must he be to convince the so-called liberals that he is doing all he can possible do for America?

    Why is his judgement challenged on every front by liberals and fellow democratic elected representatives?

    I am tired of concentrating on them and have turn my attention completely to working for him. I feel so much better AND my daughters have caught the bug too. How wonderful for them and me!

    Thanks so much for all of the important work you do as you offer up your soul. I will always grateful.

  2. I look at that list and, in many ways I want to cry. It's for the most part a list of "ooh, look, they're on teevee!" When you look at what they're actually accomplishing when it comes to organizing or just getting things done, that lists shrinks drastically.

    1. I think we should be insulted by that list - those of us with common sense. As you know, I'm an expat living in the UK, so I'm well familiar with The New Statesman, which is a lefty mag here in the UK. If they did a list of their own top Progressives, you would see that most of them would come from the world of activist politics. This list is a nudge-nudge-wink-wink-see-I-told-you-those-damned-Yanks-are-so-shallow dig at our expense. Some of the names are viable. A couple used to be big Republicans. And Bernie Sanders hasn't accomplished anything of note in the US Senate, except he did vote against the closing of Gitmo. We should be ashamed.

    2. I think you make a great point.

      I used to hang out at The Guardian and felt the same kind of patronizing there.

  3. The fact that Al Giordano's name is *not* on that list speaks volumes. Great read, Smartypants.

  4. That list is funny to me. Angela Davis lost years of her life. She's for real. If her name makes it, there are many names that shouldn't be up there. Michael Moore shouldn't be allowed in the same room as Dr. Davis. They might want to rethink that list.


  5. At least Lady Jane of Hamsher didn't make the list.

    I'm not familiar with the New Statesman, but some of the entries were obviously include in an attempt to suck up to the progressive cool kids.

  6. The 24/7 news media, fused with the entertainment industry to morph infotainment is the cause of this, which has added to our infatuation with all kinds of celebrity. I live in the UK. I am spoiled by the BBC's political coverage. Their commentary involves commentators who have either followed the political news media for years (starting locally), are ex-political strategists or ex-politicians, themselves. In short, you get no radical chic socialites who've bought their credentials (vanden Heuvel), no social climbers (Huffington), no soccer moms (Walsh), no failed lawyers (Cenk, Greenwald), no sportscasters (Olbermann, Schultz) and no comedians (Maher). Above all, you get no one who changes party stripes trying to convince you that they're of the opposite political hue.

    The people at the Beeb who report politics and government know politics and government. Our media do not. People find it astounding that when the BBC has to call on expert American political commentary in its coverage of the US political scene, they refer to David Gergen, Jamie Rubin and (yes) Pat Buchanan. The others listed above, they conseider to be jokes. And that. unfortunately, includes Jon Stewart.

    1. I agree, most of the "commentators" I see have no real understanding of politics. The sad part is, that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert actually have a much better understanding of politics and the political process than most of the "serious" pundits.

      If I'm looking for informed commentary, for example, I look at people like Dana Houle (Rooted Cosmopolitan). Why him? Well, for one thing he's managed campaigns, and still does. So anything he says about campaign tactics is something I take as an expert's opinion. Lawrence O'Donnell was a congressional staffer. Al Giordano has huge amounts of "on the ground" organizing experience.

  7. The only leaders among the lot are Van Jones, Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison. The others are just commentators or observers.

    Even Bernie Sanders is not a leader because although he is a Senator he seems to spend most of his time making speeches and introducing bills that have no chance of passing.

    John Stewart and Greenwald aren't even progressives!