Van Jones, special advisor to the President's Council on Environmental Quality, has resigned from the administration. To be honest, he was forced out. Oh, perhaps not directly, but if not, then by the stunning silence of his employer. An employer more concerned about appeasing the right-wing bullies who sought to make Jones a liability for him, than about standing up for a brilliant thinker on both economics and ecological issues, and confronting the conservative talk-show hosts who have libeled and slandered Jones (literally) over the past month.
The right has shown no shame in their relentless pursuit of Jones's political scalp. They have fabricated from whole cloth details of his life, calling him a convicted felon and instigator of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. This, in spite of the fact that he has no criminal record whatsoever and wasn't even in Los Angeles when those riots were happening. His arrest at that time was part of a sweep of dozens of peaceful marchers in San Francisco, involved in a protest at the time of the riots. He was released, charges were dropped, and he was paid damages by the city. This is not what happens to criminals, but rather, innocent people who have done nothing wrong. Jones should sue the living shit out of Glenn Beck, his employers at Fox News, and every other prominent liar who has repeated the baseless allegations of his criminal record in recent weeks. He should wipe them out, take their money, leave them penniless and begging on the streets, without health care. They would deserve it. Perhaps Beck's AA sponsor or the Mormons who he credits with "saving" his wretched soul can then take care of him and his family. Since surely he wouldn't want the government to lend a hand.
They have twisted other aspects of Jones's past, suggesting his brief stint with a pseudo-Maoist group makes him a secret communist in the heart of government, this despite his more recent break with such groups and philosophies, in favor of a commitment to eco-friendly, sustainable capitalism. They have called him a black nationalist, which he admits to having been for a virtual political minute in his youth, and have suggested he's a "truther" (one who believes George W. Bush masterminded the 9/11 attacks as an "inside job"). As for this last charge, their evidence consists of Jones's signature on a petition, which originally called merely for more openness about the pre-9/11 intelligence available to the former administration, but which was later altered to reflect the conspiratorial lunacy of its creators. Jones, and many others who reject the truthers' nonsense, were tricked into signing and were appalled by the final product. But none of this matters to the right. Because after all, none of it was ever the point.
This is not about convicted felons. The right loves convicted felons, as long as their names are Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy. The former of these (whose convictions were eventually vacated on a technicality) helped direct an illegal war from the Reagan White House, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Nicaraguans. And the latter helped plan the Watergate break-in, advocated political assassination during his time in the Nixon White House, and even advised folks on how to kill federal agents several years ago, from his radio show perch ("head shots" he roared). But none of his friends on the right ever suggested that such talk put him beyond the pale, or should result in him being silenced.
This is not about having an arrest record. After all, there are many anti-abortion zealots with arrest records, hauled in and then ultimately released after blocking access to family planning clinics. But Glenn Beck doesn't make them public enemy number one. Nor would he, or any of his political soulmates, seek to prevent such persons from having roles in a future Presidential administration. Indeed, they would likely consider such a record a bonafide qualification for higher office.
This is not about believing in conspiracy theories. Surely not. Beck of all people can hardly condemn anyone for that--even if Jones did subscribe to such things, which he doesn't--for it is he who believes, among other things that Obama is planning on a mandatory civilian defense corps, which will be like Hitler's SS, that Obama "hates white people" and has a "deep seated hatred for white culture," that Obama is pushing health care merely as a way to get reparations for black people, and that he secretly wants to bankrupt the economy to force everyone to work for ACORN. It is Beck who is among the leading voices suggesting that the President's upcoming speech to schoolchildren--in which he will implore them to study hard--is really just an attempt to indoctrinate them into a new version of the Hitler Youth. No, these people love to push nonsensical conspiracy theories. It is their bread and butter. It is all they have, in fact.
Nor is this about Jones's remarks in a speech, given prior to becoming part of the administration, to the effect that the reason Republicans get things done is that they're willing to be "assholes," while many Democrats, including Obama, aren't. Conservatives don't mind that kind of talk. They loved it when Dick Cheney said go "fuck yourself" to Senator Patrick Leahy in 2004. Not to mention, right-wingers say far more offensive things than that, on a regular basis, but remain in good standing, and are surely never condemned by their fellow reactionaries. What's worse: Jones calling Republicans assholes, or Rush Limbaugh saying that most liberals should be killed, but that we should "leave enough so we can have two on every campus--living fossils--so we will never forget what these people stood for?"**
What's worse, Jones's asshole remark, or Anne Coulter saying, among the many venomous syllable strings that have toppled from her lips, that the only thing Tim McVeigh did wrong was choosing to blow up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, rather than the New York Times building?
This is not about socialism, as Jones is not a socialist. Oh sure, he's associated with some, and might still be friends with several to this day. And so what? Martin Luther King Jr. associated with socialists and communists because they supported the civil rights struggle and the black freedom movement at a time when the rabid anti-communists were at the forefront of attempts to maintain formal white supremacy. Which is to say that the socialists and the communists were on the right side, and the red-baiters were on the wrong one. Which was also true about the fight for the 40-hour work week, the 8-hour day, the end of child labor, the right of women to vote, and every other advance for freedom and justice in this nation in the past 100 years. But of course, Glenn Beck explained on the radio this past July 4th that he "hates the last 100 years of American history," so I guess we know what side he would have been on in all those battles.
Let's be clear, this is about one thing only: namely, the attempt by the right to exploit white reactionary fears about black militancy. It is the same tactic they tried with Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008. They did not confront Wright's narrative--the accuracy of which was far stronger than they would like to admit--nor do they actually grapple with Jones's ideas (it is doubtful that Beck has even read Jones's best-selling book, for instance). Rather, they present a caricature, a bogey man with black skin, an occasional scowl, and an attitude. Angry, confrontational, "uppity," and too close to the President. Which means that Wright=Obama=Jones=Malcolm X. It's a trope the right has banked on for years: using racial memes and symbols to scare Jim and Susie Suburb. Put the face of black anger out there and watch your devotees respond like Pavlov's dog.
It's something I first saw up close and personal in 1992. The woman I was dating at the time was an interior designer and had scored a contract to decorate the VIP lounges at the Houston Astrodome for the GOP National Convention. I viewed it as a great opportunity to do some enemy reconnaissance, so I lurked around the literature tables and took in the imagery beamed from the jumbotrons to the assembled conventioneers. One afternoon, we arrived before the main hall was opened to the delegates, and as I looked up at the screens above the floor, I saw the image that would be there to greet them as they entered a half-hour later: a massive, pixillated image of hip-hop artist Ice-T, whose speed metal band Bodycount had recently gotten in trouble for their song, "Cop Killer." The Republicans wanted their delegates to know who the enemy was. Not just Ice-T, but anyone who listened to his music, anyone who looked like him.
And that is what the attack on Van Jones is about: exploiting white fears and anxieties. Anxieties about a black President, anxieties about a basket-case economy (which they're trying to blame on the black President even though it was well in the crapper before he came along), anxieties about a changing demographic balance in the nation (which animates their fear and anger over immigration), anxieties about a popular culture whose icons look less and less like them as the years go by. And so they play up the militant black guy image, turning a low-level bureaucrat into a "Green Jobs Czar," (the latter of which term they have sought to spin into a communist thing, despite the fact that the Russian Czars were actually the royalist pigs who were thrown out by the Russian left, a small historical detail which doesn't matter to illiterate people of course), and making him the bad guy who's running the Obama administration from behind the scenes.
No, it's not only about race. But if you think it's merely a coincidence that the right has sought to make Jones such an issue--rather than some of the other administration officials they are now threatening to "expose" (two of whom are white)--then you haven't been paying attention to Republican and conservative politics for the past forty years. This is what they do. It's the only language they speak, at least fluently. Which is why when John McCain--to his credit--tried to move away from this method a bit, and refused to push the Jeremiah Wright theme during the general election campaign, so many on the hard-right criticized him. They didn't want him to talk about Bill Ayers: they wanted him to talk about Wright. Even though Ayers was the one with the criminal record and the links to political violence, while Wright was the military veteran and preacher with a storied history of community contributions. Why? Because they knew that Wright would be the better image. To link Obama to a white radical is one thing. But to link him to a black one? Oh, much, much better. This is why, in the instant case, they kept pushing Van Jones's non-existent connection with the Los Angeles riots, and his supposed felony record. Nothing better than a marauding criminal black man to get white fears into the stratosphere.
This is, it appears, the emerging political agenda of the Republican Party, and certainly its right-wing: a group that has decided, apparently, to go all in as a party of angry white people (and the few folks of color willing to look past their incessant race-baiting). They have circled the wagons, all but given up on reaching out to black and brown voters, and are putting all of their chips on white.
And everything they are saying about Van Jones was what people like them said about civil rights leaders in the 50s and 60s: about Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer. They were communists, and revolutionaries, and a danger to the republic. Make no mistake, had they been old enough in those days, Beck and every modern-day movement conservative would have stood with the segregationists, with the bigots, with the mobs who burned the buses carrying freedom riders. They would have stood with the police in Philadelphia, Mississippi, even as they orchestrated the killing of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner. They would have stood with Bull Connor in Birmingham. How do we know? Easy. Because not one prominent conservative spokesperson of that time did the opposite. Not one. That's who they are. And the minute you forget that, the minute you insist on treating them better than they would treat you, the minute you insist on playing by rules that they refuse to as much as acknowledge, all is lost. They do not believe in democracy. They believe in power. White power. They believe in the past. They are Afrikaners, and it's about time we started calling them that.
(**) This quote, which appears in David Neiwert's book The Eliminationists was reported originally in the Denver Post, December 29, 1995.
Tim Wise is the author of four books on race. His latest is Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama(City Lights: 2009).