Friday, June 17, 2005

Investing in Ideas

For over thirty years conservative and right-wing foundations and funders have invested in ideas. They have poured over $2 billion into creating a right-wing network and infrastructure, and used that to build a large political machine and a huge populist mass base.

These funds have been spread across a range of ideologies and identities. Business conservatives, Christian evangelicals, libertarians, neoconservatives, military interventionists, anti-union activists, moral traditionalists, and others have been funded to pursue the ideas that facilitate action in the political and social arenas.

Most liberal and progressive foundations refuse to fund basic research, think tanks, alternative media, publishing, and conferences. That's exactly what conservative and right-wing funders have targeted in a strategic way. And by funding a range of conservative ideas, it is now possible to hear a radio debate on some policy issue where there are three views from the political right, one liberal, and no progressives. That's balance.

There is nothing new in this complaint. In the mid 1990s activist leader Suzanne Pharr asked Loretta Ross and me to help pull together some progressive strategy sessions at the Blue Mountain conference center in upstate New York. After one meeting we sent a delegation down to New York City to meet with representatives of over one dozen foundations and funders to explain how the political right had invested in the struggle over ideas. We talked about Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, and the importance of being able to field-test slogans, frames, and different ways of explaining ideas and telling stories.

We explained how right-wing funders had shifted away from short-term project grants toward unrestricted grants over many years to guarantee and enhance the survival rate of right-wing think tanks and alternative media. We explained how an echo chamber had been created for conservative and right-wing arguments to challenge progressive and liberal theories and goals. We explained how we were being outmaneuvered. We explained that we were losing. We explained what would happen if we continued to lose in terms of the attack on gay rights, women’s rights, and immigrant rights. We explained that racism and xenophobia would continue to be rebuilt as acceptable public positions. To be fair, a few funders shifted their focus. Most did not.

The Institute for First Amendment Studies, which monitored boycotts by the Christian Right among other things, went under. The reproductive rights magazine Body Politic stopped publishing. The human rights group Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity (itself a merger of two groups) ceased operations.

In the mid 1990s groups such as People for the American Way shifted focus to monitoring legislative and political maneuvers by conservatives in the nation’s capital. This is an important task, but groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, and Political Research Associates (where I work) could not raise the funds to hire more research staff to monitor and analyze the slew of right-wing campaigns being generated by the well-funded right-wing infrastructure.

In the early 1990s there were three progressive researchers who produced books and articles about the rise of the political right and the ascendancy of conservative Christian evangelicals into the political system: Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, and Fred Clarkson. Not one of them could make a living writing about the rise of the right. Compare them to Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and the swarm of right-wing ideologues financed with stipends, grants, and fellowships to do research and write about the political scene.

A real democracy requires the type of informed consent that emerges as many competing ideas struggle for acceptance in the public square. In the culture war, one side has been disarmed.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Skepticism or Cynicism?

This past weekend my wife and I traveled to Williams College to attend the graduation of our niece, Abby. The main commencement speaker was Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for the New York Times. The speech was an impressive display of public speaking that matches Friedman’s reputation as a top notch writer. Williams College Commencement 2005

I say this, despite the fact that what Friedman writes in his columns generally drives me crazy. I could provide a big list of my complaints as a journalist on the political left, but instead let me quote from Friedman on what is the heart of real journalism:

"Always remember, there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Too many journalists, and too many of our politicians, have lost sight of that boundary line....there [is] a big difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible, but always being open to being persuaded of a new fact or angle. Cynicism is about already having the answers -- or thinking you do -- answers about a person or an event. The skeptic says, 'I don't think that's true; I'm going to check it out.' The cynic says: 'I know that's not true. It couldn't be. I'm going to slam him....' Always remember, real journalists are not those loud mouth talking heads you see on cable television."

On this matter Friedman and I are in total agreement. I know journalists across the political spectrum who see journalism as a craft that demands adherence to a set of principles. Fairness and accuracy for starters.

For over ten years I have been teaching a summer course on "Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting" at Z Magazine’s summer institute; a course developed and taught over the years along with progressive journalists Holly Sklar, & Abby Scher. This coming weekend I head down to Wood’s Hole on Cape Cod to teach another session. Here’s how we traditionally open the class:

"Progressives have a long and proud tradition of muckraking, and there are plenty of role models such as Ida M. Tarbell, Nellie Bly, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, I.F. Stone, Rachel Carson, Alan Nairn, Deborah Nelson, Laura Washington, Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, Frederick Clarkson, Trudy Lieberman and many more. If you haven't heard of one or more of these journalists, get acquainted with their lives and work by doing your own research."

We assume many of these names are unfamiliar to the mostly young audience, and hope they poke around and learn about their predecessors. All of these investigative journalists were skeptics, not cynics. Some could be acerbic or even harsh, but underneath the bravado was a clear sense that the point of their work was to make society a better place to live.

Skepticism helps us fix what is wrong with our society. Cynicism leads us to question if it is worth the effort. As we embrace skepticism, we need to reject--and criticize--cynicism.