The phrase “participant-observer” comes from social science literature to mean someone who writes about an event or process while having participated in it. I’m going to have to do a little of that to make the following remarks.
Bob Herbert is one of my favorite columnists. Writing twice a week in the New York Times op-ed page, he regularly expresses factually based indignation about widespread poverty in America, about its criminal injustice system, about human rights violations, about the failed war on drugs, about the other failed war-occupation in Iraq. He is one of the few major media columnists who goes after corporate crooks and their craven and crummy politicians.
Last year, Herbert asked again and again why the Presidential candidates did not take positions or speak out on these matters. After the November elections he continued his forceful outcries. On January 17th, he asked: “Where are today’s voices of moral outrage? Where is the leadership willing to stand up and say: Enough! We’ve sullied ourselves enough.”
Bob, this is what I and veteran human rights advocate, Peter Camejo, thought we were doing throughout 2004 in all fifty states with our campaigns for social and economic justice, for peace, for clean politics and a strengthened democratic society. You never mentioned our efforts once. Nor did you mention initiatives by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark who reflects your views on the illegal Iraq war.
You write that “effective leadership can come from anywhere at any time.” Then why not give it a little visibility? If Nader/Camejo’s decades of standing tall and speaking out is too outside your Democratic Party to mention, give some print space to other national and regional big picture advocates who daily have to work anonymously due to their being shut out by the commercial media. You’re much better at publicizing victims of criminal injustice than adding to their proper recognition by writing about those civic activists or small party/independent political candidates trying to change the system.
In your recent column, you end with these words: There was a time when no one had heard of Dr. King. Or Oscar Arias Sanchez. Or Martin O’Brien who founded the foremost human rights organization in Northern Ireland, and who tells us: “The worst thing is apathy — to sit idly by in the face of injustice and to do nothing about it.”
There is another kind of abdication. That is when a progressive columnist, who reaches millions of readers, sits idly by and watches the Democratic Party spend millions of dollars with corporate law firms to file phony lawsuits to push Nader/Camejo off one state ballot after another, and unleash torrents of lies about this candidacy. Denying candidates’ right to freedom of speech and assembly, which is what running for elective office comprises, might have been seen by a consistent Bob Herbert as an important violation of civil liberties — if not for the candidates, at least for the voters who were denied their choice of candidates.
When progressive writers turn progressive candidates into non-persons because the former have signed on to the “Anybody but Bush, Leave Kerry alone, Make no demands on him” Club, they are undermining their own scripted desires. The widespread reporting of corporate power, crime, fraud and abuse in the independent and mass media is hitting two stone walls blocking their disclosures from moving into the political arena for attention and reform. Those two stone walls are the Republican and Democratic Parties, (subject to a very few exceptions among Democratic incumbents).
Herbert is not alone among progressive writers. The Nation and Progressive magazines, and the Washington Monthly, proceeded to demonstrate their policies of non-personhood, once they came out against the Nader/Camejo or other progressive candidacies. Almost all other liberal/progressive syndicated columnists were like Herbert.
Back in the 19th century, when the two party duopoly began to congeal, progressive or reform publications did not come out against slavery, women’s suffrage, the industrial workers’ rights to form trade unions, the farmers need for federal regulation of banks and railroads and then decline to support or even write about candidates and small parties who were championing vigorously these same issues inside the electoral arena.
Those early journalists knew that positions of justice had to be moved into election contests, no matter how uphill was the struggle. They believed in small starts rather than least worst. And guess what, eventually measured by decades, the small starts continued to lose elections but their agendas took hold.
The current crop of progressives need to rethink their imprisonment by a two centuries old, two party monopolized winner take all electoral college system. Do they want to break out of jail? Or do they want to continue sliding into the political pits with their least-worse corporatized Party that takes them for granted because it knows they have put out the “nowhere to go” sign?
Duke historian Larry Goodwyn, author of books on American political populism, wrote in the Texas Observer last December that “To corral the minions of entrenched corporate power, one needed to possess the rhetorical power to be clear; and one additionally needed to be a long-distance runner.” Guess who Larry Goodwyn did not support?