When in doubt about how to channel the movement forward, I suggest asking someone standing in the way of change. Do the opposite of what they advise.
Fortunately, we have unsolicited advise from William McGurn, a corporate Vice President of News Corporation, the giant media conglomerate that, under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, brings the world the right-wing, pro-corporate, anti-democratic slant through familiar vehicles like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. McGurn is an especially important voice since he writes the speeches for CEO Murdoch and, before that, he was the chief speechwriter for George W. Bush.
He regularly writes the folksy WSJ column called “Main Street,” though it is doubtful that McGurn often visits “Main Street,” except when he mistakes it for “Wall Street.”
Most recently, McGurn penned a column entitled “Rules for Wisconsin Radicals”, offering “…ten rules for Wisconsin protesters…” (Wall Street Journal, 3-15-2011) Undoubtedly, he didn’t write these rules to seriously direct those fighting to preserve the wages, benefits, and rights of Wisconsin public sector workers, but rather to provide a moment of jocularity for his Wall Street pals and other moguls. (We used to call them “fat cats,” but they’ve joined the fitness craze; they still smoke fat cigars and belong to private clubs, though.)
McGurn begins with a rule that, should anyone take it seriously, guarantees a tame and ineffective movement: No more Jesse Jackson. Apart from its embedded racism, this rule is a recipe for dissipating the energy that street action generates. Lurking behind this advice is a fear that a movement can grow and develop into a real threat to corporate power and elite politics. Jackson’s rhetorical powers and ability to unite seemingly varied interests might “suggest to people... that the protesters may be more radical than they claim,” quoting McGurn.
And it is exactly the fire and brimstone and ability to link causes brought by people like Jesse Jackson that promise to mold a particular struggle into a national movement attracting millions. Mainstream McGurn’s rule reveals his own thinly concealed image of the average US citizen as dumbly sitting in front of the TV watching the demonstrations on Fox News and frowning at the sight of Jesse Jackson. Sure, that may be true of many Fox News viewers, but millions of people – certainly most African Americans – remember the picket lines, voter registration projects, protests and demonstrations that Jesse Jackson has enlivened.
Rule Two proscribes other figures associated with the left: Ditto for Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, and Tony Shaloub. While they and other activists may get under the skin of those trawling Fox News for wisdom, they bring together others who will recognize the connections between many and varied movements: health care, women’s issues, repression of Arab Americans, and immigrant rights. It is through these connections that recognition of a common foe creates the conditions for a united movement, something that Mainstream McGurn profoundly fears.
Sadly, many on the left have fallen into McGurn’s trap by narrowing the focus of struggles in order to court the illusory mainstream. Elements of the anti-war movement have excluded “controversial” leaders and issues so as not to alienate fair-weather friends in the Democratic Party or those they imagine too dumb to gauge their own stakes in various issues. Implicit in this tactic is contempt for people’s ability to learn and grow. Implicit in this approach is a lack of the ability to imagine a unified, diverse movement emerging. Cynically, this is often presented as an attempt for “broad unity.” Instead, as we have seen, this results in vague, tepid and uninspiring demands.
Lose the peace signs, McGurn admonishes, that would suggest “a hankering for the anti-middle class 1960’s.” This third rule is an odd twist on history. The movements of the sixties produced an end to legal segregation in the South, civil rights legislation, anti-poverty programs, Medicare, the collapse of a President’s re-election bid, and enormous pressure to end an unjust war. While the peace sign was just one of the symbols of the time, it is hard to envision how these gains were achieved while offending the “middle class.”
The simple truth is that McGurn fears a repeat of the movements that swept the sixties; he fears that the peace sign and its broad appeal might unify those seeking peace with those promoting other causes for social justice.
Put out more flags and sing “a few verses of ‘God Bless America.’” Sure, flags, like peace symbols, are welcome, but turning the Wisconsin struggle into an orgy of patriotism and chest-pounding loyalty is a sure-fire way to divert a movement that shows a glimmer of recognition of class oppression into a celebration of common destiny and the mirage of shared sacrifice. Whenever the moguls sense a stirring of resentment among their vassals, they bring out the flag and patriotic songs to remind the downtrodden of how they are all part of “…one nation, invisible…” I doubt if McGurn would invite a band of workers carrying flags into the corporate board room to remind the directors that we are “…one nation, indivisible…” and entitled to jobs and fair and equitable treatment. Maybe that’s where we most need more flags and patriotic songs.
Rule Five: Respect the law. Paraphrasing Marx, agents for change shouldn’t interpret the law, but force the legal system to embrace social justice – to change it. This is rarely possible without defiance of the law. All the successful movements that have made the US a better nation have challenged the law when it was a barrier to advancing the struggle. From the slavery abolitionists to anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, principled fighters for justice have energized movements with their determination to go beyond the constraints of polite discourse and even the laws. One of our great democratic achievements – the elimination of legal segregation – would have failed if the civil rights movement abided by the laws of the time.
Mainstream McGurn scolds the Wisconsin teachers with his sixth rule: If you are teachers, don’t call in sick as a group so you can all protest. McGurn’s concerns about cancelled classes and student welfare would be touching if he showed the same concern for teachers’ unions and their welfare. Once again, he shows scorn for the intelligence and integrity of the “mainstream” students and parents who value the well being of teachers and identify with their needs. (In every opinion poll, teachers are among the most respected segments of society—well above corporate bigwigs, politicians, and even pundits!)
McGurn is especially appalled by the incivility of the demonstrators. No more Hitler moustaches on Governor Walker, he exclaims. “…Hitler analogies are tired.” Or do they touch a raw nerve? In any case, my own survey of the multitude of homemade signs suggests that McGurn’s imagination is even greater than his indignation. But in any case, policing the signs and images is merely a distraction from the work of nurturing a dramatic fight back against his friend, Governor Walker. Where McGurn sees a public relations spectacle, others see the kindling of class struggle, a fire that McGurn deeply dreads.
Rule Eight: Make local workers your public face: real teachers, real cops, real firemen. “… [T]hey make a much more sympathetic case than the professional union leaders.” While “professional union leaders” are struggling to shed the rust of class collaboration, dividing them from the rank-and-file is a sure way to derail a movement. When masses are in motion, even the most cautious, backward union leaders will jog to keep up. They pose a real danger, however, when their fears of worker militancy threaten to clear the streets in favor of political maneuvers and back-room deals. But the spotlight is large enough for everyone to stand in it.
If you want to cripple a movement, take McGurn’s Rule Nine to heart: Don’t call for grand actions only likely to confirm your weakness. Certainly modest, polite and limited requests will hearten the moguls and elites who are only too happy to dismiss them. This brand of pre-destined defeatism limits the horizon of victory before the battle is waged. Surely, the decades-long, one-sided class war waged by corporations and their minions must be met with more than the threat of minor, tentative skirmishes. Unquestionably, great victories require thorough and thoughtful preparation, but they are foregone if couched in timidity. Lenin said it well: “Only struggle discloses to it [the masses] the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.” For Lenin and other peoples’ leaders, weaknesses are not to be heeded, but to be overcome through action.
The “business unionism” practice of offering concessions before confrontation has proven to be bankrupt. The prospect of “grand actions” should be on the agenda.
Lastly, McGurn admonishes protesters to [s]how some sympathy for the tax payers. In McGurn’s world, public sector workers are merely burdens on taxpayers and not the essential elements of a functioning and hospitable society. It never crossed his mind that they may be more socially useful than stock brokers, Wall Street managers or CEOs. Workers’ struggles to maintain and advance a modest standard of living is seen by him and those like him as a personal burden rather than compensation for the education, protection and services that they provide for the vast majority. In his world of gated communities, mansions, private jets and limousines, private schools, private clubs and the other privileges of wealth, the public services that sustain the work, security and private lives of most of us is of little consequence.
Of course we are all taxpayers and most of us are grateful for the social benefits that public workers provide. We wish that less of our tax burden were wasted on destructive wars, subsidies for giant corporations and fixing the messes left in the wake of corporate irresponsibility and crime. For McGurn and his friends, these are tolerable uses of taxpayers’ dollars; for the rest of us, they are not.
Thanks, but no thanks, William McGurn. As the battle for justice for public sector workers grows in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and most other states, we’ll find our own way.