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Smileypalooza: Right Message, Wrong Messenger…

March 19, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

( Tavis Smiley’s summit will talk the talk, but where’s the grassroots follow-up?

Tavis Smiley’s summit will talk the talk, but where’s the grassroots follow-up?

I’ve never been much of a fan of Tavis Smiley’s annual State of Black America confab, which struck me as an extravaganza of excessive Negro bloviation. And I’m not planning to watch the really big show he is putting on C-SPAN on Saturday, the “We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda” conference, which I fear will be more of the same.

But just because Smiley and his posse of activists, public intellectuals and wannabe and has-been leaders are self-regarding, totally predictable loudmouths doesn’t mean they are wrong about the issue he is raising.

It’s self-evident, as Smiley contends, that African Americans should continue to have an agenda that makes clear what they want from the government, especially when blacks are buried in the rubble of the economic earthquake and its continuing aftershocks.

Of course, he is right that blacks should pressure Barack Obama, or whoever happens to be president, to address the special needs of their group.

And he’s right that Obama, or whoever happens to be president, should respond to blacks’ specific complaints, just as his administration has responded to the special needs of the banking sector, small businesses and troubled homeowners.

And he’s correct that the retort from Rev. Al Sharpton and others, that Obama can’t “ballyhoo” a specific response to the specific problems of blacks because he is trying to be president of all the people, is nonsense.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with focusing special attention on the plight of the worst-off segments of society.

Divvying up the pie is, after all, the time-tested American way. Beyond that, the problems blacks want to address are not different than those facing many other Americans. You can’t fix our catastrophic jobless rate without reviving the entire economy or extending health care coverage to our uninsured without extending it to everybody.

The big problem here is not the issue that Smiley is raising. It’s the fact that he and his cohort of publicity hounds are the ones raising it. The only reason Smiley and his crew are able to get so much attention is because of a leadership vacuum in black and progressive America. Instead of a gaggle of high-profile speechifiers shrieking on cable, we could use a well-organized progressive mass movement, like the one led by Martin Luther King Jr.-or, dare I say it, the Tea Party.

Hillary Clinton was right when she argued, during her battle against Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, that true changes in social policy occur when there is both a mass social movement making demands and a president willing to respond. It takes both to make leaps ahead.

And as we are learning, there is a big and very significant difference between a true mass movement for social change and the kind of electoral coalition that swept Obama into the White House. The latter is designed to serve the needs of a politician. The former, as an astute former community organizer like Obama knows, reflects the needs of the people.

Sadly, though, all the passion right now is on the wrong side.

The Tea Party’s leaders are soaking up the wisdom of Saul Alinsky’s classic rabble-rousing manual, Rules For Radicals, as a blueprint for their right-wing populist crusade. Using those and other tactics co-opted from progressive social movements of the past, they have managed to shift the debate on health care reform and prop up the Republicans’ resistance to Obama’s agenda.

Their success is proof that the views of a minority, if it is well-organized, creative and determined enough, can still sway the political priorities of the nation. They have resurrected a truth that progressives seem to have forgotten: No politician does more than he or she has to. That, as the current scandals whirling around New York Gov. David Paterson and Congressman Charles Rangel rather vividly remind us, is the nature of things.

That is also why, in the end, despite the correctness of its theme, Saturday’s Smileypalooza will turn out to be nothing more than an eloquent blast of hot air. Rhetoric, especially televised rhetoric, can never take the place of grass-roots organizing that builds mass movements for social change.

The Tea Party is putting the principle into action. It’s long-past time for progressives to do the same.

Written By Jack White

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