THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Thoughts on Van Jones
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, September 13, 2009
Sometimes it’s the little things that define a presidency. While there is no shortage of big issues confronting President Obama: war and peace, economic crisis, national health care and the crisis of education, it may be a very small decision that shifts the ground from under him.
This weekend, as many of us celebrated labor’s contributions to our communities, Van Jones, the Special Adviser to the Council for Environmental Quality, resigned his office. This came after weeks of being lambasted in the rightwing media. Jones said he did not want to be a distraction from the important issues facing the President. The White House immediately accepted the resignation.
No leading Democrats came to Jones’ defense and the White House seemed relieved that he is now history.
And what has Van Jones done to provoke such attacks? Long before joining the Obama team, he had signed a petition asking for an inquiry into 911 exploring the possibility that George Bush knew in advance of the attack. This is hardly a fringe idea, as 35% of all Democrats believed it. Jones also called Republicans “a**holes.” This is a term that many Americans have uttered from time to time in response to the actions of Bush and company. Jones also signed petitions in support of Mumia and was once arrested in a demonstration after Rodney King was beaten. It was a legal demonstration where he, like many others, was caught up in a sweep and all charges were subsequently dropped. In short, Van Jones has done what many of us who are progressive or liberal have done.
He has also done some other things. He founded the Ella Baker Center in Oakland that is one of the most effective community-based organizations in the country, raising issues of environmental justice and new, locally-based green economies as a strategy for development for our poorest communities. He has written an important book, The Green Collar Economy, that provides a thoughtful discussion of his ideas for developing sustainable ways of living.
So why did Fox News and Glenn Beck target Jones? In a brief essay defending Jones, Starhawk, one of the most thoughtful and courageous of activists in support of local development, wrote: “Van Jones’ real crime? He’s the triple threat: he’s black, he’s effective, and he is doing effective work to empower the people in this country who have the least resources.
“Make no mistake—the attack on Jones is racism rearing its ugly head. White folks in this country are allowed to carry guns into political meetings and call for the murder of the President on national TV. Black folks who might at some point in their life have expressed dissatisfaction with the going order are always at risk of being targeted.
“The racism and the bullying isn’t actually very subtle—but here’s one sort of subtle point: the rightwing is constructing a definition of ‘America’ that leaves out the perspective of most people of color, most poor people, most truly progressive people—and then vilifying anyone who disagrees or even questions. Come to think of it, they’ve been doing that for decades.”
The surprise is not that the rightwing attacked Jones. It is that Obama was so easily bullied by them. In the long run, this is not about Van Jones; it is about the inability of the President to take a stand supporting progressive ideas and opening the political dialogue beyond slogans.
By allowing the rightwing to smear Jones, Obama has made a dangerous concession to rightwing hatred and distortion. He is helping to restrict the very kind of conversation we need to have about our future.