Thursday, August 4, 2016

Slandering Sanders

I was a kid during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis. I have some pretty vivid memories of it.

Most are images of the Ayatollah Khomeini, looking somewhat like Christopher Lee's portrayal of Saruman in the Lord of the Rings films. But I also remember another ayatollah that most probably don't. This Shiite cleric, speaking in exile, condemned the hostage-taking as being against Islam. I do not recall his name, but I remember him looking like a turbaned version of Allen Ginsberg. He was rotund with thick glasses and a jet black beard. I picked up that he and Khomeini were not friends.

My memory is pretty visual, but in this instance the condemnation of the act struck my imagination most. America was rife with Islamophobia at that moment and this picture of internal conflict was a hiccup in the otherwise steady pulse of prejudice in the popular culture. Was this other ayatollah ... a "good guy"? I was confused. I was just a kid and I did not know what to think.

I remember this moment whenever Fox News rhetorically wonders why most Muslims "don't condemn terrorism," which of course they do. In fact, I've been sensitive to these awkward moments of uncertainly ever since. In his famous essay, "Notes on Nationalism," George Orwell wrote "The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them." My childhood memory made realize that it applied to good things as well as bad.

I recently realized that this applies to petty party primaries as well. A little over a week ago, a friend of mine claimed that Bernie Sanders had done nothing to call out the misogyny of Bernie Bros. Sanders actually had done so on two major networks. When asked about it on CNN, he bluntly responded:
I have heard about it. It’s disgusting, Look, we don’t want that crap. We will do everything we can and I think we have tried. Look, anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things is - we don’t want them. I don’t want them. That is not what this campaign is about.
After another interview on MSNBC, the interviewer acknowledged that Sanders had condemned sexist rhetoric by his supporters several times before. Unfortunately, a lot of bloggers do not watch interviews.

Journalists like Glenn Greenwald and bloggers like myself had debunked the idea that Bernie Bros define the Sanders movement. Every political organization has its incongruous subgroups, whether they are formal or informal. Do Log Cabin Republicans accurately represent the GOP? Of course not. And every activist group gets unwanted problem members. It's hard enough to police small groups in person, let alone millions online.(1) Alas, our efforts to dispel the myth have been to small avail. The two Democratic primary camps had become almost as partisan and insular as the GOP's "elephant echo chamber." Almost.

Slandering Sanders had been something of a cottage industry this primary season. My previous posts looked at allegations of sexism that were arguable - or poorly phrased but ultimately true. They contained valid arguments and raised issues that should not be ignored. This post looks at those that don't.

Take Charles Clymer's cornucopia of bogus claims. It is easy to believe this is the work of some pro-Trump troll trying to stoke acrimony among Democrats. After all, the political landscape is now populated with wee little Lee Atwaters and Karl Roves, so some James O'Keefe-like stunts are to be expected. In fact, O'Keefe has been doing exactly that - posing as a Clinton supporter at Sanders rallies. Clymer's prose reads like a conservative's parody of political correctness. Painful earnestness is difficult to fake on video, but text is a different animal. Still, my friends shared this rhetorical train wreck and it is pretty representative of the genre. Consider these paragraphs your one-stop-shop for such thought:
That insecurity  -  invariably referred to as masculine fragility or white fragility -  has been on ugly display since Bernie Sanders announced his presidential campaign last year. What was meant to be a challenge to the status quo has long devolved into harassing behavior by white male progressives (called “Bernie Bros”) that is sexist, racist, and disgusting.
The candidate himself, once a voice of reason and much-needed passion (if, perhaps, unrealistic), has become a parody of the supporters his campaign has struggled to keep in line throughout the primary season. The finger-wagging, the speaking over women, the assertion that Hillary Clinton isn’t qualified, the bizarre declaration that struggling pro-choice groups are part of “The Establishment”, all of it is symptomatic of a man who clearly respects women less than their male counterparts.
Okay, for openers, what racism specifically? Has Bernie Sanders been whitesplaining the infamous 1994 Crime Bill to Black Lives Matters protesters as Bill Clinton has? It was reminiscent of his finger wagging at Sister Souljah in 1992. Hillary Clinton has been pretty testy and condescending with them as well. Interestingly, the protesters that the Clintons are patronizing seem to be young women as well as black. But Hillary Clinton had never performed particularly well with young women - not even in 2008.

Incidentally, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, it turns out that Hillary supporters are only slightly less racist than Trump ones. I suppose that 2008 PUMA thing was not an isolated moment. This is pretty predictable considering that much of Clinton's support comes from older voters. Of course, most of her support is not racist, but a worrisome - if unrepresentative - chunk is. That sort of puts the whole "Bernie Bro" narrative into perspective, doesn't it? Imagine a year of similarly dishonest think pieces on "Clinton Bigots." What impact might that have had on the primary? And if you were wondering how Bernie Sanders supporters answered, they were the least racist voters in the American electorate. Indeed, the Reuters/Ipsos poll confirmed a previous poll by Vox. It sort of makes you wonder if there were any polls taken on sexist attitudes. Well there was one that I know of, but I'll get to that later.

The point is, if you are going to allege racism, you should probably supply evidence. The evidence of sexism is ridiculously twisted, but at least it is presented. So, let's get to that now.

We can start with the aforementioned finger-pointing and speaking over others. People point when they are making a point. Indeed, it may very well be where the idiom comes from. Off hand, the only politician I can think of who never pointed was Franklin Delano Roosevelt and that was because he was using both his hands to hold himself up at the podium because polio had paralyzed his legs. But both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton pointed and spoke over each other in the Flint, Michigan debates. Check the video.

Don't get me wrong: Obviously, there are contexts in which pointing and talking over others would be sexist (see my first footnote) or racist (see above). But often it is difficult to tell for sure. For example, we do not know the context behind that famous photo of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer getting pointy with President Barack Obama. Given his non-confrontational style, I am guessing it was unprovoked disrespect served up to pander to her Tea-bagger base. However, I cannot say for absolute certain because there is no audio of their conversation on the tarmac. But a televised debate is a different animal entirely and what we saw in Flint was clearly a heated, equal exchange with both parties pointing and talking over each other.

As for claiming Hillary Clinton isn’t qualified to be president, Charles Clymer ignores the fact that Bernie Sanders reasonably believed he was returning her serve - specifically a Washington Post headline that read "Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president." Clymer is very likely lying by omission because Sanders explicitly and repeatedly referenced this in his reply. In the link's video, Sanders quotes the headline in question, voices his disappointment in how ugly the campaign had turned, and finally summarized, "If I'm going to be attacked for being 'unqualified,' I will respond in kind.'" Really, it is impossible to miss. Clymer's only possible excuse is that he got his dishonest distillation second hand.

Speaking of ignoring, let's move on to Bernie Sanders's Planned Parenthood comments. Sanders promptly walked them back as poorly-worded, yet Clymer failed to mention that four months after-the-fact. To quote the absent-minded professor in Real Genius, "Always ... NEVER forget to check your references."

Moreover, the situation was a little bit complicated and Bernie Sanders had a partial point. Previously, some top-down organizations had endorsed Hillary Clinton over the wishes of their rank and file. The frustration must have stung. For example, the leadership of the nation's largest teacher's union, the National Education Association, had controversially made an early endorsement without first getting membership consensus. Otherwise, many believe, they would have likely done as the nation's largest nurse's union, National Nurses United, and strongly endorsed Sanders.(2) For many teachers, this bitterly reemphasized their need for a more democratic union. Things like this clarify what Bernie Sanders likely meant by "the Establishment" in the Rachel Maddow interview. Incidentally, watch the video in the link. It is obvious that he is in total solidarity with both the missions and the memberships of these organizations.

And there were additional considerations. Before Sanders walked back his comments, the feminist website Jezebel posted their immediate response. It was critical, but even-handed, providing context:
We can acknowledge here what Sanders probably meant: Both Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Human Rights Campaign have super PACs, which exercise political influence through campaign donations. Sanders isn’t a fan of that system. Both give virtual drops in the bucket each election cycle compared to, say, any oil and gas company ever, but yeah, those are super PACs. There are more substantive critiques to be made too, like Human Rights Campaign’s decision 2012 to honor Goldman Sachs for “workplace equality” while quietly ignoring the vast societal wreckage the company wrought at home and around the world. 
Fun Fact: Many in the LGBT community see the Human Rights Campaign as fairly, well, establishment. Indeed, the group is so cozy with Republicans that they actually endorse GOP candidates even when the Democratic candidate has a better record on LBGT issues. [EDIT: I thought one of these articles mentioned The Human Right's Campaign's infamous endorsement of incumbent Republican Al D'Amato over Democratic challenger Chuck Schumer in 1998. They don't, so here's the WaPo story on it.] And the Campaign has been alienating other LBGT rights activists for years. In fact, in her comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," Alison Bechdel had often mocked the organization as "The Champagne Fund."

I do not want to misrepresent the Jezebel article. It was definitely critical of Sanders and I encourage everyone to read it. It's a good example of a reasonable critique. I would certainly encourage Clymer to read it because I get the definite impression that he does not finish reading the articles he starts.

Of course, hatchet jobs from sloppy bloggers are par for the course. But it is a little more distressing when the "Gray Lady" gets into the game. The New York Times published an opinion piece claiming a study proved that Sanders supporters were more conservative than Clinton ones on issues of sex and race. Well, not quite. You see, as the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog explained, the study was structured to allow Republicans to weigh-in on Democratic candidates. It turns out that, when you weed out all the Hillary-hating Republicans, the study actually tells a very different story. For example, Sanders supporters are more likely to demand that insurance cover birth control. As the socialist journal Jacobin outlined:
And for all the online chatter about sexist “Bernie Bros,” the ANES data offer little evidence that Sanders voters embrace him out of a desire to buttress their male identity. Sanders backers, for instance, were more likely to strongly endorse requiring employers to pay men and women equally for the same work. They were also much more assertive in their support for mandatory paid parental leave. Nor do the ANES data furnish much evidence that Sanders voters have been motivated by white racial resentment. Among Democrats and non-Republican-leaning independents, in fact, white Clinton supporters were more inclined than white Sanders supporters to say that blacks are “lazy” or “violent,” and that black people should work their way up “without special favors.”
Of course, we already knew that last part; so let's get back to sexism, shall we?

I don't doubt you doubt these results. After all, they sound profoundly counter-intuitive. Bernie Sanders' supporters favor equal pay for equal work more than Hillary Clinton's supporters? How can that be?

But it makes perfect sense once you stop and think about it. Favoring such proposals requires two components: 1) Being a feminist and 2) Believing that government has a legitimate role in promoting greater racial, sexual, and economic equality. Centrist Clinton Democrats are more skeptical of the role of government and they are not above family values rhetoric either. Thus, Clinton supporters may or may not be more feminist, but Sanders supporters are definitely more likely to favor feminist legislation. And what do we elect representatives to do? Not to practice "thoughts and prayers"-style feminism.(3)

I'm not saying Hillary Clinton will do less for women or that her candidacy is entirely symbolic. But what this poll shows about Bernie Sanders supporters does not sound like misogyny to me. It sounds more like Sanders and his movement have been systematically slandered.

Throughout this primary, Bernie Sanders was not only called a sexist, but a petty, egoistic spoiler to boot. But nothing in his words or deeds supported this narrative. From the first debate forward, Sanders had refused to exploit the email scandal exclaiming that America was "sick and tired" of hearing about the "damn emails." He never wavered on this. Indeed, he had even shamed reporters who tried to rope him into criticizing Clinton on it. And Sanders repeatedly said "[O]n her worst day, Hillary Clinton will be an infinitely better candidate and President than the Republican candidate on his best day" - alternating "infinitely" with "a hundred times." And he has always stressed the importance of stopping Trump above all else. Of course, he also argued that he would be more likely to beat Trump - and, alas, this close race between Clinton and Trump is proving him right - but that does not make Sanders a spoiler for Trump.(4)

Sanders stayed in the race to move the party back toward its New Deal glory days and that is exactly what he has achieved. (And I do not recall anyone saying that Hillary Clinton was trying to elect John McCain in 2008 when she stayed in the race against Barack Obama. Was she trying to impact the platform?) Having gotten the most progressive platform in the party's history, Sanders endorsed Clinton and fully cooperated with her campaign in building unity during the Democratic Convention and beyond. And for his efforts, he endured boos from some die-hard fans who felt betrayed.(5) So much for the Clintonista narrative that Sanders cultivated "cult of personality." Throw it in the rubbish bin with all the others.

I followed my friends' reactions to Bernie Sanders' convention speech on Facebook. Some of them had been pretty angry at him and circulated scurrilous articles like the ones above. I could virtually watch them soften in real time as they saw Sanders be Sanders. He personified gracious, principled, and inspiring righteous indignation. Grudging respect crept into their comments as they acknowledged qualities that Sanders had displayed throughout the primary. It was like they were finally seeing him for the first time.

They probably were.

EDIT: It seems the slander never ends. I think I know why.


(1) I've been a pretty inactive activist in recent years, but I remember what it was like. There is always some dude (and, yes, it is usually a dude) who shows up at your meetings who clearly doesn't belong. Let's call him "Larry." Nobody likes Larry. I'm not talking about trolls or infiltrators, but some guy who really thinks he supports your cause but has a host of horrible opinions. Maybe Larry wears them as a badge of being a "sane moderate" or an "independent thinker." Or perhaps there is nothing overtly wrong with his politics but he is a sexist creep who speaks over women or to their breasts. Whatever his damage, Larry wastes a lot of the group's time. In the time spent trying to fix Larry, he has driven off maybe ten good people that you want to keep. If you have ever been an activist, you have seen this. I'm for calling out his shit, politely at first; but I am also for showing him the door sooner rather than later if he doesn't shape up. (SPOILER ALERT: He doesn't.) The point is Larry does not represent your group. If it's a closed online discussion group, the moderator can ban him; but the rest of the Internet is impossible to police. Yes, there is certainly sexism on the left, but the left grapples with it - and far better than society as a whole.

(2) Teachers and nurses had strongly supported Sanders' campaign and it is easy to see why: They were logical constituencies. These professions work with our most vulnerable populations and they are also overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated themselves, which further magnifies their empathy. In the school room and the emergency room, they are the glue that holds our country together and they see everything that needs fixing. They recognize the complexities: They deal with the ripple effects. As Rose Ann DeMoro, Executive Director of National Nurses United, said in her union's press release endorsing Sanders, "Nurses take the pulse of America, and have to care for the fallout of every social and economic problem.” The press release stressed that Sanders shares their understanding and priorities. And nurses are, incidentally, pissed at Hillary Clinton's dismissing single-payer, which they see as an urgent necessity. America would be a lot better off if we listened more to teachers and nurses.

(3) Indeed, I can see other, related reasons why Sanders supporters would make better feminists. As I noted in the previous footnote, teachers and nurses were natural Sanders supporters because they are on society's front lines and see how issues interact. Consequently, they do not look at gender in isolation. They see, for example, that poverty is a feminist issue since it affects women worse than men and that Sanders' policies attack poverty more vigorously than Clinton's. Since the vast majority of public assistance recipients are women, they felt the brunt of Bill Clinton's draconian 1996 Welfare Reform bill in a variety of ways. (Historically, having an intact safety net helps economically-dependent women leave abusive relationships.) Recently, Scotland had discovered the same thing - that reactionary-pandering austerity measures hurt women most. Who knew? Well, anyone and everyone who thinks about these issues. If you had a pulse and the topic crossed your mind, you really should have predicted it. And if you still didn't, you should have at least listened to those who did because they made a noise.

(4) EDIT 08/07/16: Of course, shortly after I posted this, the polls changed and Hillary Clinton has pulled ahead. Hopefully, that holds and it is not just a temporary post-convention bounce. However, Democrats have a knack for losing elections when they are ahead. UPDATE 09/15/16: Clinton's numbers have fallen and Trump is within the "margin of terror," as Samantha Bee calls it. Currently, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are campaigning hard in Ohio to save Clinton from herself. Appreciation aside, Clinton needs to realize that progressive politics is where the votes are today. The cynical centrist triangulations of the 1990s will not work anymore - assuming they ever did.

(5) And I should emphasize that these die-hard fans do not even remotely represent Sanders' movement. Hand-wringing aside, 90% of Sanders supporters already say they intend to vote for Clinton. That's pretty stunning considering that these numbers typically climb. Shortly after the 2008 Democratic Convention, only 47% of Clinton supporters were decided on voting for Obama. Her PUMA supporters were pretty vocal about voting for McCain. And voting for the opposition is twice as bad as voting for a third party candidate because you are not just denying your vote to the Democrats, but giving it to the Republicans thus doubling the effect. Had McCain won, we would likely be in four wars in the Middle East, plus another in North Korea. And if some magnifying calamity had made Sarah Palin president ... well, Palin is basically Trump with a side of word salad. Eventually, 83% of former Clinton supporters voted for Obama, but before there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Seriously, it is impossible to not see 2008 all over again in this election cycle, except that then was much worse than now.

And one last thing I feel compelled to mention: Every time I see video of Sanders events, about half the participants are women and I see plenty of people of color.

Check the booing video again and shelve, for a second, your opinion of their passion, tactics, or decorum. It's pretty typical of the Sanders campaign's demographic makeup. Think the video is zeroing-in on minorities? Consider the source: Do you really think The New York Times is in the tank for a socialist anti-establishment candidate? For a heretic critic of Thomas Friedman's free trade gospel? And do you see all those brown arms and hands in the air? This is America. The evidence is in. You cannot honestly equate Sanders supporters with Trump ones anymore, no matter how obnoxious they are.

Also, revisit the convention footage shot during Sanders' speech and watch the crowd. Ignore the Bernie signs unless their holders are particularly passionate because the signs were distributed by the convention prior to the speech as a goodwill gesture to foster unity. Instead, notice who is choked-up or, well, verklempt. See who is wearing Bernie shirts or anti-TPP buttons. They are key. What you see are a LOT of young women. This is the future. These sure-as-shit ain't Bernie Bros.

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