Behind the News with Doug Henwood, for December 13, 2012 - 12:00pm
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Normally, I am a big fan of 'Behind the News'. But I in the second part of the Dec 13 show, I just hear Yasmin Nair and Doug Henwood beat up on a straw man (the Nonprofit Industrial Complex), and do so on the basis of numerous other unexamined assumptions.
These unexamined notions include the idea that "disruptive actions" lead to radical, systemic change. The other types of actions which Henwood & Nairn implicitly and explicitly criticize include organizing grassroots advocacy work which does not grab headlines (and which many food charities actually engage in, as one can discover if one looks beyond the names of organizations and looks into the various programs and staff positions of these organizations). Other types of actions they criticize include lobbying (like, say, for legislation which institutes and enforces values beyond that of profit) and litigation (like, say, to ensure that such legislation makes a difference).
Without lobbying and litigation, by the way, the Pacific Northwest would have absolutely no ancient, old-growth forests outside of a few parks. True, there was a lot of disruptive direct action in the forests during the height of the fight over the forests, but the direct actions were mostly done in coordination with litigation -- for example, to try to prevent logging from accelerating before the next court ruling or before the judge's ruling takes effect.
Let's take another historical example. Without lobbying by large peace groups in the 1980s, the MX nuclear missile system would have been deployed on rails in the western United States, along with other provocative nuclear weapons which would have given the United States the ability to knock out Soviet nuclear forces. This capability might have led the USSR to put its nuclear forces on automatic, computerized Launch-On-Warning, at least in a crisis. At the same time, this capability might have caused the US to act even more belligerently, possibly provoking a crisis, in which the Soviets would feel compelled to launch first.
And what, exactly, does "lobbying" mean when it comes to progressive, nonprofit organizations? First, it means employing a very small number of paid lobbyists in D.C. As I recall, in the mid-1980s, the largest peace & nuclear disarmament group in the United States was SANE, with about 125,000 annual-dues-paying members -- one full-time lobbyist and one half-time lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
These lobbyists did not provide lawmakers with any perks or meals. They simply met with key lawmakers and their staff to ask for bills to be sponsored or voted upon. Aside from the facts they presented (as experts in the field), they relied on the organization's membership, and the organization's outreach program, to generate letters and calls to key lawmakers regarding the most important bills and votes. SANE had a Rapid Response Network for just this purpose. About 6-8 times/year, SANE volunteers came in to do phone banking, to reach out to the SANE members who agreed to contact lawmakers when requested. For many people, participating in this network -- as a phone bank volunteer and/or letter writer -- was their introduction to political activism. Naturally, some went on to do much more, including hosting neighborhood house parties to strengthen and expand the peace movement in the United States.
Today, lobbying is done in much the same way by large nonprofits advocating for progressive causes. Sometimes, this lobbying makes a crucial difference. And then, as mentioned above, litigation is pursued by these and other (often locally-based) nonprofits to actually implement and enforce the legislation on the ground.
Of course, many large nonprofits today have grown far too timid in D.C. And too many of these organizations outsource their grassroots outreach efforts. As a consequence of this outsourcing, the paid activists face dead-end jobs and have no direct connection with the exciting and educational day-to-day operations of an activist-based advocacy organization. This, in turn, means that canvassing has become nothing more than fundraising, and "brand" presentation. Letters to lawmakers are still important -- when relevant votes come up -- but such letters are now generated through online "organizing."
But, still, one must remember that large organizations are not monolithic. And the official stands of an organization does not necessarily reflect the politics of the paid staff, who are often far more radical than one might imagine. In some areas and issues, even the most radical staff know all too well that they are doing the most that can be done at this time. But at the same time, these staff donate to other, more openly radical groups, and write articles which push for changes beyond those currently advocated by their own organizations.
Of course, there is MUCH to criticize in the progressive nonprofit world. Most of all, I believe, in the large organizations of the environmental movement, which need to drop cap-n-trade for genuine mandates, and to supplement their legislative efforts with massive efforts in grassroots organizing and direct action around pipeline development, etc.
But Nair and Henwood do not seem to have the knowledge or experience (or the will to do the in-depth research) to accurately describe and criticize the major problems with large progressive advocacy organizations today.
Instead, we hear Henwood repeat his mantra about the need for disruptive actions, and we Nair complain and complain -- even about nonprofits encouraging dependency via private charity, and how this charity work (not her own rhetoric!) reinforces neoliberalism!
Apparently Nair subscribes to the old dictum that starvation leads to clear-eyed radical analysis and effective revolutionary action. Henwood should know better ...and I think he does. But he was silent on this matter.
Yair also complained about hate crime legislation. And there are valid critiques to be made in regard to hate crime legislation. I could be wrong, but I think Judith Butler may have written or spoken this issue years ago. However, Yair fails to describe the broader worldview, interests and dynamics which led to such legislation in the first place. Nor does she consider how hate crime convictions played a role in the lawsuits which effectively destroyed the KKK. Instead, she just launches into some standard leftist rhetoric about the criminal justice system -- rhetoric which is applicable in discussing drug laws, but not hate crimes. Indeed, she gets so carried away she even asserts that most people convicted of hate crimes are poor people of color. They might be poor. But they are not mostly people of color, as FBI statistics show.
I think I've written enough. Yasmin Nair should narrow her focus, and not condemn thousands of organizations she knows little or nothing about.
(And yes, with charities included, there are many thousands of staffed public-interest nonprofits in the U.S. If charities are excluded, there are still over one thousand nonprofit organizations with paid staff working on progressive causes -- and many of these organizations are radical by any radical leftist definition.)
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