Until Labor Day weekend, Van Jones wasn’t exactly a household name. Readers of this magazine knew him for the piece he published in these pages almost a year ago laying out his vision for a “Green New Deal” and for his work as an activist, organizer, visionary and charismatic leader of the environmental justice movement. So it is bizarre and more than a little infuriating to watch Jones, a caring and eloquent champion of social justice, be run out of his job as a midlevel staffer in the president’s Council on Environmental Quality by vile, clownish demagogue Glenn Beck.
Beck, of course, is the Fox News host who said that President Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people,” a statement that earned him an effective advertiser boycott from the online civil rights group Color of Change.
Jones, as it happens, was a co-founder of Color of Change, so Beck’s animus was likely born of vendetta. But Beck surely also saw an opportunity to make Van Jones the latest right-wing bogeyman–a living, breathing death panel. And in fact, Beck’s crusade against Jones was abetted by some of the same people who fanned the town-hall healthcare hysteria this summer: the astroturf group Americans for Prosperity, whose director, Phil Kerpen, recently boasted that when he first went on TV on July 10 to redbait Jones, “I was glad to do it, because exposing the green jobs scam is critical to fight cap-and-trade, my top legislative priority for the year.” Kerpen described his glee in finding confirmation, in Jones’s past associations, of the crudely racist “hypothesis” formed by Beck and himself: that the cap-and-trade bill is a “‘watermelon,’ green on the outside but communist red to the core.” Of course, the idea that Van Jones, in his current incarnation, was some kind of crypto-radical bent on subverting American capitalist democracy from the inside has as much relationship to the truth as the notion that Obama is hatching a plan for mandatory euthanasia of America’s seniors. Jones’s brand of green progressivism has been explicitly business-friendly, emphasizing public-private partnerships as key to confronting the climate crisis.
What finally felled Jones was a right-wing blogger turning up his name on a 911truth.org petition from 2004. Jones has repudiated his signature and said the petition’s wording didn’t then and doesn’t now represent his views. In a more sane political environment, that would have been the end of it. It was stupid and wrong to sign the petition, but let’s put this in perspective, shall we? By far the most deadly conspiracy theory of recent times was the insidious contention that Saddam Hussein gave material aid and support to the 9/11 hijackers. And yet Stephen Hayes, the main propagandist for this baseless and deadly view, is currently employed by CNN.
It’s always hard to tell which transgressions of incompetence or ideology will get one ejected from the Washington establishment. But a general rule is that anything smacking of left-wing ideology is beyond the pale. That, of course, is why Jones was targeted. And, oh yeah, he’s black–the kind of man who can be caricatured and placed on the screen next to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright while Glenn Beck mugs for his audience.
Beck’s paranoid theories notwithstanding, Jones didn’t have a ton of power or influence in the White House, and he can carry on with his activism on the outside. Still, the loss of his platform in the administration is significant, a “kick in the gut to the [environmental justice] movement,” which has perfected outsider strategies and needed Jones on the inside, as Melissa Harris-Lacewell lamented on TheNation.com.
Jones joins a long line of would-be public servants, stretching from Lani Guinier and Joycelyn Elders all the way back to those hunted by Joe McCarthy, deprived of public office because right-wing demagogues have targeted them and distorted their views. And each time one of them goes down, the center of American political discourse is dragged to the right. That’s why we’re angry and saddened at the result of this fabricated controversy: somehow a man working to help Americans invest in an alternative energy future ends up branded an untouchable radical while a hysterical extremist’s delusions are validated.