Is there anyone here who ever swallowed hard and took a stand for something that you knew was unpopular? Has anybody in this room ever really, really screwed something up, and then tried again? Well, I would say if you answered yes to any of those questions, you are a social entrepreneur. — Van Jones
Who is Van Jones? He’s someone who has mastered the art of social entrepreneurship.
Jones has founded or co-founded an impressive list of progressive organizations: The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Green For All, and Color of Change. His background primed him as the perfect choice to serve as Special Adviser for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Although Jones entered the White House with a lot of promise and hope from the grassroots organizing community, he resigned on September 5th under a curtain of manufactured controversy over his political background. FOX News conservative commentator Glenn Beck used his platform to try to oust Van Jones. Assisted and encouraged by Phil Kerpen, policy director of the anti-green group Americans for Prosperity, Beck dug into Jones’s past to air his politically unpopular stances and remarks, distorting some facts to his taste and sensationalizing them with blatant McCarthyism.
On the weekday following Jones’s resignation, Beck aired a self-effacing review of his coverage of Jones, humbly refusing to take credit for Jones’s departure. It’s a good thing he isn’t taking credit because Jones didn’t leave because of him.
Officially, Jones cited his reason for resigning as strategic: he did not want opponents to green jobs and reform to distract and divide people with lies about his history. Unofficially, I think Jones resigned because the Obama administration refused to defend Jones because his viewpoints were too far left of center. The unofficial reason worries me more than the official one.
During a press conference the Friday before Jones’s resignation, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs refused to field questions about Van Jones and his political background. Gibbs did not even try to defend Van Jones in his capacity as an adviser to the President. When a reported asked how much more of Van Jones’s background had to emerge before the President lost confidence in Jones, Gibbs curtly replied, “A good question for next time.” You’d think that a president whose claim to political fame included working in community organizing would reach out to a fellow grassroots organizer on that level, at the least. During his presidential campaign, Obama stood up for Rev. Jeremiah Wright and even gave a keynote speech on the impact of race and America’s history. But Van Jones did not even merit a defense of progressively-minded political leadership – only disavowal.
The response from the political left to Jones’s resignation is as diverse and fractious as the groups and viewpoints that make up its constituency. Progressives, liberals, radicals, communists and socialists — commentators and politicians on the political right use each group’s disparate views to tear down the entire left-leaning political establishment. So do you think these groups could come together and resolutely say that under these circumstances, Van Jones’s resignation is a bad sign for anyone
left of center entering the White House?
Nope, not a chance. Or at least not cohesively. Some people are saying Jones being let go is a bad sign… amid others saying Jones should return to the grassroots because he belongs there, and still others saying he should have never been selected in the first place.
Hip-hop activist and journalist Davey D places the resignation of Van Jones against a backdrop of Obama’s disappointments as a whole in terms of progressive political appointments and fulfilling campaign promises:
Van Jones being in the White House gave many of the folks coming from that perspective some sort of hope that things would be alright. He was one voice, but it repped a lot of folks who were feeling left out. At the very least, one could say President Obama has ‘people of all sizes, shapes and political ideologies at the table. To allow Van Jones to go and not defend him spoke volumes about the character of the guy sitting in that office on Pennsylvania Ave.
Baratunde Thurston also laments the loss of someone like Jones, “[who] used his education and his passion to combat police brutality and the massive, wasteful incarceration of so many of this nation’s young, brown people.” AverageBro and Danielle Belton from The Black Snob feel the sting as well, as they joke about how most black activists on the left have a past that can draw Beck’s and conservatives’ ire. And Tim Wise brings that point home, not only dismantling distortions of Jones’s background, but also showing how conservatives and Republicans were banking on white America’s fears of black militancy in the White House to pressure the President and the left. And with some progressives clutching their pearls over Jones’s affiliation with Mumia Abu-Jamal, Wise appears to be right.
Princeton University professor and political commentator Melissa Harris-Lacewell frames Jones’s resignation as a “kick in the gut” to the environmental justice movement, whose initiatives include creating green jobs and advocating against improper land uses and health problems in poor and minority neighborhoods. Although Arianna Huffington claims stepping down was good for Jones’s so he could speak freely and continue building progressive bases, Harris-Lacewell points out that the grassroots arena of environmental justice is covered; there hadn’t been anyone in the White House to influence policy on behalf of environmental justice until Van Jones. However Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford disagrees, citing the idea of insider political change as a “historically misleading cliché.” Although Ford recognizes that Jones was edged out of his White House position, he thinks Jones is the type of leader to use “political instruments to exert pressure on the [Obama] administration from the Left.”
Then we have progressives viewing Jones’s departure through the lens of political strategy and public perception. On Newsweek’s The Gaggle, Daniel Stone compares Van Jones’s political background fracas to a few of Washington’s notorious sex scandals, arguing if politicians like Larry Craig and Mark Sanford can stay employed, so could Van Jones. It’s an interesting argument in theory, except for the fact a politician’s sex life and a witch hunt on an official’s political ideologies are judged on two completely different planes. David Corn invests his efforts in throwing stones at the 9/11 Truth campaign, one of the unpopular causes Beck linked to Jones (and the campaign defended itselfagainst attacks from the media).
Most damning are the silences from people who were fully aware of what was happening to Jones. Matt Yglesias of Think Progress tweeted his relief that Jones resigned before he had to opine about the attacks on his character. Atrios replied in agreement, saying he didn’t bother: “[he] knew how it would end.” Martin Luther King Jr. said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” For these two, it seems especially applicable.
The lesson from losing Van Jones is one that the entire left side of the political spectrum will learn the hard way: until the left cohesively stands up for its right of political association and defends its unpopular causes as righteously as its famous ones, stories like that of Van Jones will repeat until there’s no one left to speak for anyone’s job or political stances. If we do not defend social entrepreneurship and left-leaning politics, we will stifle our strongest voices for change on the ground and in our government.
The time has come to defend political conviction and the values of progressive and radical politics, community organizing, and the freedom to choose political allegiances based on belief and not popularity. The time has come for the left, as Van Jones infamously said, to get uppity.