Dennis Kucinich: “Activist in Chief”

Congressman Dennis Kucinich is a good guy. There, I said it.

I was reminded of this fact Wednesday evening while watching what might have been his one great shining moment in his 2008 race for the presidency, his appearance at Soldier Field in Chicago at the AFL-CIO Democratic presidential forum.

Labor loves Dennis. He’s passionate, he’s articulate, and he’s right on almost all the issues. He’s right on the war; he’s right on healthcare; he’s right on the environment; he’s right on immigration; he’s right on education; he’s right on Fair Trade; he’s right on almost everything. In fact, a pretty good case can be made that Kucinich, more than any other Democratic candidate, is guiding the Democrat’s path on policies and issues throughout the campaign, probably toward a Democratic victory in ‘08. He’s so “right”.

So why does he go “so wrong” every time he runs for president?

My theory, based on my predilection to see the world in terms of community organizing, is that Kucinich fails because, for all his passion, integrity and intelligence, he consistently, almost organically, violates two of the most important and most accepted and most inviolable rules in all the world of community and political organizing:

Rule #1- Relationships- Every real organizer knows that everything, that’s spelled “EVERYTHING”, is based on relationships. Contrary to popular myth, great movements aren’t built on great ideas; they are built from the ground up by personal relationships. You can have the greatest, most noble, most virtuous, and most intelligent ideas and platforms and plans for the future, but if you can’t enter into meaningful relationships with your fellow travelers you will fail. Dr. King knew this. In Montgomery and in Birmingham and in Selma the movements were built on the relationships of trust and accountability among both Leaders and foot soldiers. Everyone was connected by their particular relationships, and motivated by their enlightened self-interest.

Power is built on relationships. Campaigns and movements are waged and won from the ground up based on relationships.

For some reason, Dennis seems to be almost constitutionally incapable of creating any personal relationship with the vast majority of citizens. There is little indication that his closest managers are working to foster relationships, and little indication that the necessary cohesion is being built from the bottom up. And for some reason, and I hate to have to bring this up, people don’t seem to like Dennis; he doesn’t “connect”. He seems robotic, like a nerdy gnome; like the little kid you knew in school who you wanted to beat up. Harsh words, my friends, but unfortunately true, as proven by the polls year after year.

Rule #2- “An Activist”-
Kucinich is what organizers refer to as “An Activist”. In organizing terms this is not a good thing. In organizing terms, “An Activist” is a well-intentioned, often passionate, but ultimately powerless and often counterproductive individual to have in your organization. They like to be heard, they have a lot of very well-rehearsed opinions on every topic imaginable, and they want you to know about them all. They lack discipline; they are rigid, sometimes self-righteous, and have a hard time operating as a member of a team. They are “solo operators”, often surrounded by other “solo operators” singing their personal arias “canto comunitario”, down a lonely hallway…

Aaron Schutz, associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and the author of Community Organizing and Urban Education: The Series, characterizes activists like this:

“Activists like to “do things.” They get up in the morning and they go down to a main street and hold up some signs against the war. Or they march around in a picket line in front of a school. (Activists love rallies and picket lines.) Activists feel very good about how they are “fighting the power.” But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don’t accomplish much. People in power love activists, because they burn off energy for social action without really threatening anyone. (Emphasis mine).

That last sentence is a killer, the kiss of death.

In organizing terminology, “An Activist” is not a “Leader”, because the real definition of a “Leader” is simply “someone who has followers”. “An Activist” is not an “Organizer” because an organizer works behind the scenes, not in front of the microphone, to help develop and create relationships and Leaders. Activists don’t produce the power in numbers created by the Leader and they don’t create the power from tactics and strategies created by the Organizer. So they have no real role to play, at least no real role that they are willing to play. So they become what they are; “Activists”.

Kucinich, God bless him, when you look up “Activist” in the dictionary you find a picture of Dennis. He’s loud, he’s bright, and he’s on fire. He knows his stuff and he wants you to hear all of it. He seems to believe that if he keeps saying these things we will all be finally swept up in the undeniable truths he champions. Hallelullia ‼ But, alas, the Activist’s house is built on sand. The mortar of relationships is missing. And it is populated only by other activists, all singing their righteous tunes, to each other.

So as we witness good Dennis Kucinich wage his quixotic battle for the presidency once more, we should support him and encourage him and urge him to keep fighting the good fight. America needs more idealistic, progressive, and courageous people running for office. We will hope and we will pray and we will support is “rightness” on so many issues that are vital to our country and our world. But we will also understand that he is fatally flawed as a candidate and as a leader, and we will vote another way….

Bully for Dennis! You ‘da man! Vote for Kucinich for the office of “Activist of the United States”.



Deadline Approaches for “Make It Your Own Awards”

A quick reminder for those organizations who are applying for the “Make It Your Own Awards”, sponsored by the Case Foundation. The deadline is August 8. Quoting from the Case Foundation website, “We’re looking for inspired individuals and passionate teams who are connecting people to discuss what matters, find smart solutions, and take action. And we’re awarding grants up to $35,000 to help make it happen. If you’re ready to work with others to achieve lasting change, we want to hear from you”
If you need final information, go to:
The Make It Your Own Awards

This is also a good time to re-read the excellent “Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement”, written by Dr. Cynthia Gibson and commissioned by the Case Foundation. This paper formed the basis to the “Make It Your Own Awards” initiative. Dr. Gibson’s paper can be downloaded from:
Citizens at the Center



Bloviation vs. the Fairness Doctrine

The July 21 issue of The Economist includes a widely-reprinted article entitled “Let the Blowhards Blow”, published as a column in the “Lexington” section, the weekly commentary on US politics named after a town where the British and Americans, in The Economist’s words, had “a fairly colourful exchange of views during the American War of Independence.” I like that…. So British….

The article attacks the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC federal rule, in place from 1949-87, that guaranteed “ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views” on the public airwaves. Reinstatement of TFD is being supported by Senators Richard Durbin, John Kerry, Dianne Feinstein, and, remarkably, Trent Lott, among others. A phalanx of opponents, including the President, other Republican-led politicians, broadcasters, and many free-speech advocates (other than me) are against it.

Calling The Fairness Doctrine “a hangover from a prehistoric technological era” and “an assault on free speech”, “Lexington” makes an entertaining case for leaving TFD in the deep-freeze, claiming that today’s broadcast environment is more conducive to free speech than a return to the requirements of TFD.

“Fair” enough. I’ve heard this same line of argument from many other opponents of TFD whose opinions I respect. But, in the interest of fairness (pun intended) I respectfully beg to differ.

I remember the exact moment in 1988 when I first heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I was driving down a country road connecting Herndon and Vienna, Virginia at about 10 in the morning, breezily listening to WMAL AM-630, the venerable, middle-of-the road Washington news and entertainment station. At one point I heard the announcer, whom I had never heard before and turned out to be Limbaugh, make a statement excoriating “liberals” and promoting, by name, a “Republican solution”. I was apoplectic.

Having been raised during the era of the Fairness Doctrine, I knew that what I had just heard was illegal. I was amazed and confused that WMAL, a bastion of the Washington establishment, would make such an obvious blunder. But I was mistaken. TFD was repealed by the Reagan-era FCC in 1987. This was 1988. I would need to spend the next nineteen years coming to terms with this brave, new, nasty world of broadcast radio.

By today’s standards, Limbaugh’s words in 1988 sound remarkably tame, don’t they? Why would I be offended? The radio’s full of this type of thing now, right? But that’s exactly my point; the radio wasn’t full of this type of thing before 1987.

I invite you to go back in your mind to the days before 1988. Before 1988, stations licensed on the publicly-owned airwaves, emphasis on “publicly-owned”, were required to give “equal time” to other points of view. This requirement provided incentive for the broadcasters to be “fair”. It emphasized their responsibility as a public trust in their community. It allowed for divergent points of view, but it didn’t allow stations to become one-sided and extremist.

As public policy it was imperfect; it tended to support a two-party approach and often excluded creative ideas. But it was based on common sense, and it caused our public discourse to be characterized by common respect and civility.

Is that idea so scary? Having lived during the era of the Fairness Doctrine I know that free-speech didn’t suffer greatly. Divergent viewpoints were aired. The public was generally well-served by their stations on the public airwaves.

Wanna know what is scary? The specter of extremist, one-sided broadcasters who use the public’s airwaves to advance their own partisan agendas, combined with the rise of media conglomerates, creating centralized broadcast behemoths that block out diverse voices and don’t answer to their local communities. Now that’s scary.

So what do we do? Do you prefer Durbin’s poison or Dubya’s?

I doubt that we can fashion an FCC regulation that provides for both the market-driven media environment of the current-day and the requirements of the Fairness Doctrine. But given a choice between the food-fight corporatization that is present-day broadcasting and the notion of a Fairness Doctrine, properly updated, I choose the latter.

“Let the Blowhards Blow” indeed, but let’s make sure there’s room at everyone’s table for all the blowhards, and let’s treat each other like human beings.



When Hell Froze Over…

In his 1989 book, When Hell Froze Over: The Untold Story of Doug Wilder: A Black Politician’s Rise to Power in the South, Dwayne Yancey tells the story of Douglas Wilder’s improbable, upstart, grassroots campaign for Virginia Lieutenant Governor in the 1980’s, which Wilder, astonishingly, won. Wilder became the first black politician elected to statewide office in the South since Reconstruction, and later became the nation’s first elected black governor. His victories in both these races astounded observers, fueled by the phrase “Doug Wilder will win election in Virginia when Hell freezes over”. Well, Hell did, indeed, freeze over.

As the only child of a black US Army officer and a Thai mother, Eldrick Woods began playing golf at the amazing age of two. Having been given the nickname “Tiger” by a Vietnamese friend of his father, Woods is an amalgam of races and nationalities, considering himself to be a “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, Black, American-Indian, and Asian), a term he coined himself. Against considerable odds, and against conventional wisdom and societal norms, Woods combined his unique athletic ability, an unrelenting work ethic, and a mental discipline honed by his practice of Buddhism to rise and become the world’s greatest golfer and an international phenomenon.

Wilder and Woods, for all their personal triumphs, are also symbolically significant for all of us. Their victories rise above racial, historical, social, and economic stereotypes. Their victories challenge powerful and historic institutions that are designed to defeat them, to “keep them in their place”. Like Muhammad Ali, they told us they would win, we didn’t believe them, and they won anyway.

As a proud Irish-American who has dedicated much of his life to the cause of civil rights, I couldn’t help but think of Doug Wilder and Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali this past weekend. Padraig Harrington, the proud, gregarious and steely-eyed Irish Catholic golfer from Ballyroan, son of an Irish police officer, carried the weight of his people and history on his back as he captured the august British Open. I couldn’t help but think, at the moment of Harrington’s victory putt, of the elderly Irish patriot, watching the event on television in a pub, seeing the putt fall and raising his glass to Padraig, while singin’ a rebel song in reply.

As the Masters is to African-Americans and to Tiger Woods, the British Open is to the Irish and Padraig Harrington. The Masters and the British Open– bastions of Old World power and stuffy elitism, emblematic of historic oppression and the oppressors, forced to accept the unacceptable because of their ability and strength. The historic ironies of Woods’ victories in the Masters and Harrington’s victory in The Open edify us all, and affirm the better angels of our nature. They show that, in the best of worlds, right makes might and justice prevails.

Douglas Wilder, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Padraig Harrington. I’m damn glad I was there when Hell froze over.



Circuit City Lets us Down

For years I’ve been an avid fan of the electronics retailer Circuit City, considering it to be the alternative to big-box behemoths Best Buy and Wal-Mart. But no more.

Circuit City has joined the list of “worker abusers” with its recent announcement that it would layoff 3,500 experienced employees whose only sin was being too good at their jobs. Because they were so proficient they earned too much money. So CC, taking a page out of “Retailing for the 21st Century” fired them. As a final insult, CC declared that they are eligible to re-apply for their old jobs, if they are willing to work for less money.

Obviously, this is the kind of abuse that results from workers being powerless. Employers can pull this kind of thing because they know they won’t be punished. In fact, Wall Street rewarded CC by immediately jacking up their stock! Any questions about who the decision-makers at Circuit City pay attention to?



“State Farm squeezes, the legislature freezes, and Floridians flee(zes)…”

After much wailing and gnashing of teeth the Florida Legislature has responded heroically to the clamor for middle-class relief. They have forced local governments to slash property taxes. And of course that means we will all see slashed services as well. General Patton would be proud of them for their bravery. Or he might slap them in the face for being yellow.

So how many actual dollars will we be putting back in our pockets? As it turns out, probably none. In fact, the legislature, in its frenzy to enact a miniscule property tax reform and its cowardice in avoiding real insurance reform, has all but guaranteed that almost all of us will end up poorer this year.

How is that, you ask? Well let me answer by using myself as an example:

According to estimates provided by the legislature, the average Florida homeowner will see a reduction of, drumroll please, $175 in property taxes over the next year. At the same time, this average Florida homeowner (that would be me) will see his property insurance premium go up by $1,400! So I’m $1,225 poorer this year. And I’m listening to similar stories from everyone I know.

For the privilege of paying out more money this year we get to enjoy the following:

– reduced insurance benefits

– reduced public services

– the sight of our neighbors laid off due to budget tightening

– the assurance of paying a greater percentage of the tax burden in years to come as more and more desperate Floridians flee to saner locales.

But there is one bright spot; we can all feel generous and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that we are contributing to the profitability of the insurance gangsters and their shareholders, who all get to take our money to the bank. I’m glad somebody does…



The Justice Factory website supports community organizing to promote interfaith reconciliation, peace, and justice