Van’s Rx: Tough Love for Progressives

Tuesday evening, I went to see Van Jones.  The topic, one that’s long been waiting for address in our collective mind, was Beyond Green Jobs: the next American Economy.

I found the White Stag Building, part of the U of O campus, in Old Town.  Following the steady stream of smart looking pedestrians, I made my way down a short hallway to the entrance of the presentation area… and who did I see?!  It was none other than my new buddy, Arnold Strong, the handsome bear from last week!

Then, in a crowded room of several hundred people, I managed to find one seat that had been placed apart from the rest, in front, near the podium.

“It’s all yours,” said the woman who seemed to be running the show.  I accepted the seat gratefully, taking out my notebook and a fresh pen.

The audience was buzzing.  They came in every age, shape, color and size, filling the room with conversation.  One little boy, not more than three years old, clutched the hand of his slightly disheveled dad.  He had silky, butter-colored curls.  On his tiny chest, he had his very own political message.

The friendly woman I’d spoken to stepped to the microphone and thanked us for attending.  She explained, the Oregon Humanities Center went to great lengths to bring this particular guest of honor to Portland.

“It’s a bit like booking a rockstar,” she said, voice slightly quaking.  After a brief history of his career as an environmental advocate, civil rights activist and (a controversial) member of the Obama administration, she introduced Van Jones.

He was quite cheerful, and maybe a bit overwhelmed.  It seemed almost like he was surprised we actually showed up.  After all, the State of the Union was on…

I thought to myself, “Isn’t that charming?  He’s pretending he doesn’t know that we know he’s that cool.”  He captured the room.

Directly, to an audience of progressives, he spoke to us.  “You have low self-esteem,” he said.  “Lemme tell you how I know.  When you hit the other side, the other side gets mad…  But when the other side hits you?!  You get sad.”

He went on.

“You get…reflective,” he said (complete with dramatic pause and back of the wrist to his forehead).  What a stage presence this guy has!

But he wasn’t here to tell jokes and have fun.  He came to talk about the epidemic of political cynicism that has swept across the country: a toxic waste of energy.

The progressive movement has lost it’s steam.  We can point fingers all day about who’s fault it is, but the fact remains.  People haven’t seen the changes they were dreaming about.  After a tough year or two for the Democrats, the People are frustrated.

Van Jones asked us to think back to November of 2008.  “Y’all were cryin’… huggin’… slingin’ snot on each other…  It was disgusting… especially in Portland!”  He pointed at us, “I saw you.  Portland was ridiculous!”

Ah yes, we remembered it fondly, with a few chuckles, lots of nodding and smiles across the room.

Then, together we recalled how only 30 months ago, most of us thought this was impossible.  For the first time in history, we have a female Speaker of the House AND a black family in the White House.

When Obama won, we were ecstatic, overjoyed.  Confident.  We had Hope.

What’s changed?

Well, only so much.  Many on the left would say not even close to enough.  Van understands the dissatisfaction.  The shrill pitch and frequency of whining in the world is almost enough to convince even the most determined individuals that they might as well give up and tune out.

Let’s not get lost in that cycle of despair.

Van called on us to remember, “progress doesn’t happen without difficulty.”

Imagine, you are in a grocery store, he said, at the checkout stand.  You see  the magazines, noticing one in particular…  It’s a fitness magazine with the gorgeous model boasting a sexy six pack and biceps like boulders.

You think to yourself, “I could be like that.”

That’s hope.

Now imagine the kind of work it would take to transform yourself into that beacon of health and fitness.  Trust me, it doesn’t come easy.  There are ups and downs, good days and bad…  But it is possible.  You just have to stick with the program.

That’s change.

“This is a character testing moment for the progressive movement,” said Van.  “With success, we build confidence.  With setbacks, we build character.”  It’s time to get up, shake it off, and get this movement rolling.

Van then drew another example, to which many of us can relate.  He said proudly, “My son is a great soccer player.  I know – I know you people have kids too and you think your kids are great soccer players, but my kid is an amazing soccer player.  He’s so good, we don’t worry about him winning…  We worry about him losing.  That’s when the parenting comes in.”

Now, staggering off the field after some painful battles, the progressive movement needs leadership…because, it turns out, “hope is a lot easier than change.”

“Lets not forget,”” said Van, “Obama volunteered to be the captain of the Titanic… after it hit the iceberg.”

We need all hands on deck!  Van Jones summarized his theme of the night:  “The campaign slogan wasn’t Yes He Can.  It was Yes We Can.”

Van, giving us a mild scolding, let his voice rise.  “The stakes are too high for us to be indulging ourselves in a pity party!”

Then we got personal.  Van gave us a taste of his day-to-day life, since being catapulted to stardom from the White House:

“Wherever I go, people recognize me…the  mall, the farmers’ market, the public restroom…minding my very own business.  And one of you well-intended progressives will be like, “Excuse me, aren’t you the green guy?”

With astonishment they proceed, gushing with sorrow about how he was bullied out of his position as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

He explained to us the humor of the situation, “Suddenly I’m the one telling them it’s going to be okay.”

Then, turning to his (slightly) more serious side, Van said sincerely, “Look, I got to serve for six months in the White House…  That’s six months longer than you.  Don’t cry me too many tears – it was the honor of my life.  I mean, we all love our country, but… hold it  in your arms for six months…  You begin to see the level of peril we’re in.  Read the reports.  Write some of them.  When day-to-day decisions can determine the course of an entire country…it changes you.”

Just as each human is shaped by their environment, so was he.  From where he stands, one thing is clear about progressives:

“We’ve misunderstood our role.  We have the wrong operating theory of the presidency.  This is how the movement got off track.”  It’s our job to build a case, the President breaks the tie.  Van Jones listed several examples:  During the Civil War, President Johnson broke the tie, siding against segregationists.  FDR broke a tie between labor and Big Business, in favor or working families.  President Lincoln didn’t lead the Abolition Movement – he broke the tie, putting a formal end to slavery in America.

It’s up to the People to create a tie that the President can break.

Van lambasted, “The progressive movement became a movie…with everyone eating popcorn and watching whatever happens on TV.”

Finally, Van Jones brought out the big guns:

“You thought November 08 was the finish line, when in it was actually a starting line…for YOU.  Your leadership.  Your commitment.  You thought we elected Martin Luther King President!  You wanted a dream…Here comes a nightmare.”

Jokes aside, the movement didn’t start with Obama.  Some would say it started in 2003 with the beginning of an illegal invasion of a country that never attacked us, when millions mobilized.  Others would say it started long before that.

“New York Times called you (world public opinion) the world’s second superpower…  This is a movement started by ordinary people, who only had each other, their principles…and dignity… Those are the people who made the impossible possible.”

That was us!

Van Jones wasn’t done yet.  He told us, look, our President is one heck of an inspiring man.  He’s as smart as it gets.  When he, as a first term senator, went on his book tour in 2005, he wasn’t aiming for the White House.  That’s when he came face to face with a movement, strong enough to convince him that the seas of change were upon us.

“As inspiring as he is…you inspired him first.”

Van continued, “Tell me why the people driving a movement that powerful…should give up.”

Referring to the relatively few people in the audience under 30, he pointed out, that our generation is the biggest, most diverse, most tech savvy generation EVER…  “There isn’t a problem we can’t solve together!”

Did we think getting Obama into the White House would mean America’s complex set of challenges would somehow find solutions without a fight?!  Not quite.

No matter where you focus the scope, there are improvements to be made.  It extends far beyond the capabilities of even the  most powerful government.  Each person has an opportunity, a responsibility, to participate, making good-faith efforts towards better health and fairness in their own personal lives and communities.

President Obama can’t transform the nation without us.

“We are lucky we have a man who’s as smart as anybody,” said Van Jones, to some full-bellied laughs in the audience.  (Remember the last guy?!)  “We can hardly expect even the smartest man to be as smart as everybody.”

We start by working with what we have.

He asked us, “How many people in this room have a laptop?  A smart phone?  An iPad?”  One way or another, most of us are more than adequately plugged in.  “The average person in America carries more technological power on their person than we used to land on the moon.”  We should understand, “each and every one of [us] is a walking technological superpower…but people use these things as toys, not tools.”

What are we going to do with this unwielded superpower?

Take a stand…or sit and get stepped on.

“The people who made the miracle happen didn’t go anywhere.  They didn’t join the hot beverage movement,” said Van, never losing his sense of humor.

I looked around the room, at my peers and fellow activists, seeing  lightbulbs pop on over each and every head.  Van Jones was right.  The people who made the impossible, possible…are still here.

“If a dictatorship fails, it’s a failure of domination.  If a democracy fails, it’s a failure of imagination.  It’s when the beautiful people stop dreaming… much worse, but much easier to remedy.”

Let’s inspire the dreamers.  With his final words, Van hit home:

“Stand for the politics of love…even though, sometimes, it’s harder…  Do it for the planet, the country, the movement, and children of all species.”  It is in these moments of trial and adversity that we must push through…for the sake of the better world that follows.

“When it gets harder to love,” Van urged us, “love harder.”

Amen, my friend.

Lets hear it for Van Jones!

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