Van Jones in an exclusive C&L interview: How to reclaim the American Dream, despite the right's lies and smears
I had a chance yesterday to catch up with Van Jones, who is out on the stump these days working on the effort to build the "American Dream movement" -- the kickoff for which we witnessed the week before in Van's rousing speech at Netroots Nation.
We talked for a good twenty minutes. Since so much of what we do here at C&L is focused on dealing with the the Right's inevitable attacks on progressive initiatives -- and particularly the lies and smears that are part and parcel of those attacks -- and Van is one of the foremost victims of their lie-and-smear campaigns, I wondered if he had some thoughts on how we confront them.
Van was talking about how a wealthy fringe is financing the effort to destroy the American Dream for the nation's working-class people:
C&L: They're spending a lot of money to promote that, too. They have their media machine, and they're able to propagandize largely at will. And we know that, you know, a lot of what they do, they're gonna do this time around just as they've done it in the past, is they're gonna lie and they're gonna smear us. Any ideas? I mean, you've had to deal with that pretty up close and personal. Any ideas how we deal with that?
JONES: Well, I think we have to have some courage. I mean, one of the things -- I mean, I went through it, and you would like to be -- I think one of the reasons liberals and progressives are so vulnerable psychologically and emotionally to these smear campaigns is because we have some unacknowledged desire to be liked and seen as good people. And so that becomes a soft underbelly when you're dealing with people who don't care about the facts, and who are willing to say anything.
And so there's a crucible that every movement has to go through where it comes under heavy, unfair attacks and criticism. And you have to be willing and able to push back as best you can, but also not to get absorbed into the food fight.
In other words, I think there are three mistakes you can make. One is to say that it's just too tough out there, it's a contact sport, I don't like it, I'm not gonna do anything. Let the bad guys win without a fight. In other words, they so discourage and demoralize people that people will just defeat themselves and they won't even try to make the country better. That's the main mistake that people make, and I think you break through that just by having examples of people picking up and fighting on.
The second mistake that people do is they get so kind of above the fray that they just don't respond to nonsense and to foolishness. I've been accused of having made that mistake, of kind of ignoring these people too long, and people have accused John Kerry of making that mistake. So that's another mistake that you can make, of just ignoring these people too long and not be forceful about setting the record straight and demanding some fairness.
C&L: You were were trying to turn the other cheek in a lot of ways, though, right?
JONES: Yeah. Exactly, and eventually, you know, I figured out that the human body only has four cheeks on it and I think all four ran out. So at some point you've had enough.
But the other mistake you can make -- and you know, Shirley Sherrod, to her credit, she just went and sued right away. But you know, different people take different approaches.
The other mistake, the third mistake that people can make, I think, is to get so consumed with the lies and the nonsense from the other side that all they want to do is to fight back. Well, that's also a trap, because, you know, we're trying to run a race here -- we're trying to get the country from A to B, and people from the sideline, they'll start trying to throw banana peels, you know, bricks and marbles on the pavement. And if all we do is stop and get into a fistfight with them, we still don't win our race.
C&L: We don't inspire anybody with our vision.
JONES: We don't inspire anybody, but we also don't achieve our own goals. Our goal is not just to be a fight-back movement against the right wing, or against the worst of the right wing, our goal is to actually get people jobs and housing and clear air and clean water and good education. That's our job.
And so then the fact that the other side will do anything to keep us from succeeding means we have to have a response. But you can also get consumed by that response, and that's all to your point about not inspiring, but it's also a good way to fail as a movement. These people will be happy to trade punches with you until the last dog barks, because as long as you're more concerned about who you're fighting against, you can sometimes forget about who you're fighting for. And that is a big problem.
A little more context for the uninitiated: We covered the lies and smears against Jones in some detail in our book Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane, and they were extensive (it occupied about five pages' worth of detail, and we only scratched the surface). Suffice to say that any other private citizen would have a pretty clear case of libel to pursue here -- especially given that it took five months for Glenn Beck to stop claiming that Jones was a convicted felon and to issue a hastily mumbled correction -- not to mention the outrageous McCarthyite dynamic at work as well.
This past month, after Glenn Beck kept resurrecting these smears, Jones' attorneys fired off a letter of warning to Beck and Fox News, warning that Beck's running description of Jones as a "dedicated Marxist and Communist" is demonstrably and unequivocally false,” adding:
"Mr. Jones is not a member of any Communist Party or Marxist organization whatsoever, and has not expressed any support for any form of Communist or Marxist ideology for many years. In the same 2005 article in which he Mr. Jones discussed having had such notions as a young man, he also talked about his growth away from those views. ... Clearly these statements were calculated to, and do, injure Mr. Jones in his professional and community standing and lower him in the estimation of the American public. They are actionable as a matter of law.”
While his attorneys do the necessary work, Jones himself is focusing his energies on going full-bore with the progressive movement's answer to the Tea Party: Reclaiming our role as the defenders of the American Dream. Everyone knows the middle class in America is under attack -- the massive presence of working-class people at this year's Netroots was ample testimony to how widespread the recognition is becoming. Jones is intent on focusing that energy in a progressive direction, and he has the organizational pull to make it happen.
Not to mention the charisma:
Be sure to check out the website for the campaign: Rebuild The Dream
The Root has more:
The Huffington Post's Lucas Kavner reports that Jones stood before a packed house at New York City's performance venue Town Hall, delivering an hourlong speech complete with charts, diagrams, videos and graphics. The American people have been "robbed," he said, and we must restore the American dream to this country.
"We are being lied to," Jones repeated throughout the evening. "We are not broke. We're the richest country in the history of the world."
If the country were actually broke, he said, how come only some of us are truly suffering? Jones delivered the fact that 83 percent of U.S. stocks belong to the top 1 percent of Americans, while 21 percent of American children are living below the poverty line.
"There used to be an iron link between pay and productivity," he said, adding a challenge to the rich: "If you do well in America, you should do well by America."
We'll be following the movement's progress closely.