Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University delivered a speech at Occupy DC last week where he argued that the Occupy Movement should seek alliance with the Tea Party. At Occupy Chicago, last Saturday, I called that idea "horseshit,” a statement that made it onto Twitter. Lessig was unamused. By Tuesday, the Professor wrote a 1000 word response at the Huffington Post called "Something More Than Polarization" on both the need for liberals to ally with the Tea Party and the counterproductive nature of my potty mouth. I strongly recommend for people to wade past Huff Po’s breathless coverage of Jennifer Lopez and read Lessig’s piece. It’s a beautifully written bizarro blueprint of exactly what we don’t want to be doing if we want to see this movement grow.
To be clear, there is nothing novel about Lessig’s call to link arms with the radical right for progressive ends. When he writes, "the movement needs to find the common ground between the populists on the Right and the populists on the Left" he is attempting to resuscitate an idea best left in history’s tomb. From the Socialist Party in the US opening their arms to southern segregationists and anti-immigrant bigots to the Populist movement’s embrace of Jim Crow to broaden their ranks to the Nation of Islam seeking common ground with the White Citizen Councils, these alliances are toxic recipes for how powerful movements become disoriented and die.
But Lessig ignores this history entirely. Instead he begins his piece by chest-thumping about a Harvard conference he built with the Tea Party Patriots which, as he writes, "was designed to explore the possibility, and to demonstrate that people from the Left (my friends) and that people from the Right (the Tea Party Patriots, and some of my friends) could discuss these issues like decent souls do. At the opening session, Tea Party Patriot co-founder Mark Meckler gave by far the most impressive speech of the event." The idea that he would brag about working with a group that was reported by CNN to have spat and hurled racist and homophobic epithets at members of Congress is frankly bizarre. The idea that Lessig would have such fulsome praise for Meckler who has written about “the NAACP’s long history of liberalism and racism" is nauseating.
But Lessig will happily use his considerable stature to legitimize the Tea Party Patriots because his greater concern is not a confident, resurgent right wing but that word: "polarization." He writes, "That is the question I care most about right now: finding common ground. It may not be there, but I believe it is. I’ve built organizations, mobilized thousands of volunteers, given hundreds of lectures, and now written a book to argue that it is. But regardless of whether there is, when I or others try to find it, or motivate people to find it, or to talk about it, or to dream for it, we’re doing something different from what we do when we wear the ‘Working for my side’ hat. Something different. And IMHO, right now, something critical and important." [the "h", by the way, in IMHO stands for "humble." Seriously.]
Unlike Lessig, I don’t think we should live in fear of whether we are producing "polarization". Polarization isn’t created out of thin air by, as he writes, "The National Review, the Nation", or "Fox and MSNBC.” It’s a byproduct of a brutally unequal society where a top 1% lives in obscene luxury while the rest of us fight over the scraps. It’s what happens when one quarter of this nation’s children go to bed hungry, when 2.4 million people are behind bars, when sexism and homophobia run rampant, and when our lives are built around paying off debt.
This isn’t an America Lessig acknowledges as existing. Instead he writes, "I get the need to rally souls, as Zirin did, to address the important ‘issues of race, sexism, LGBT.’ But it can’t be ‘horseshit,’ can it?, to also ask us to practice another great liberal value—tolerance—at least enough to talk about an alliance with those with whom we disagree.
I don’t know what part of that sentence to disagree with first. Suffice it to say, our movement will never be of the 99% unless we are absolutely intolerant of those who would demean and dehumanize the true American Majority. The true American Majority means immigrants, documented and not. It means LGBTQ people. It means our sisters making 74 cents on the dollar. It means African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and all people of color. It means working class white kids crushed by debt who are flocking to the encampments in droves, proud of being part of something the right wing, not to mention the Tea Party, abhors. To dust off an old chestnut that actually has a track record of victory, solidarity is the only way to win. It’s not easy to build this solidarity, as new people are drawn into struggle, carrying with them all the prejudices of our society. But by going to Occupy sites and arguing for a Tea Party alliance, Professor Lessig, to put it mildly, isn’t helping.
Lessig ends his piece with an impassioned plea against the kind of polarizing rhetoric I just put to paper, impugning it’s sincerity, writing that learning to love the Tea Party "might not pay, it might not drive ad revenues, it might not rally members: but sometimes those goals are just not the most important." Well, I agree with that last part. The most important goal is actually winning change. Lessig’s argument to repel our allies and cozy up to Tea Party Patriots who consider us "evil" isn’t political strategy. It’s masochism. As Howard Zinn said, "You can’t be neutral on a moving train." I fear that Professor Lessig is still on the platform and the train has long left the station.
Click here to read Lawrence Lessig’s response to this post.