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.]