Jerry Brown's Strange New Friends in the Media

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:21

    Whenyou're tired of Oakland, you're tired of life. Why are both Salonand Mother Jones saying such nice things about Jerry Brown? The admirablepolitician is six months into his tenure as the first white mayor ofOakland in 20 years, and he's already proven himself a bit of a heretic by welcomingfree enterprise and challenging the city's black power structure. You'd thinkthat Mother Jones, if not Salon, would by now be maligning Brownas a right-deviationist and a racist. MotherJones' generosity toward Brown is the more surprising when you notice howmuch the magazine's willing to concede him. Consider the following passagesfrom Dashka Slater's piece, which appears in the magazine's July/August issue: "'Wehave to stop thinking that Jerry Brown ever was a leftist-he's a populist,'says Eugene 'Gus' Newport, a former mayor of neighboring Berkeley." Or: "...[Brown]articulated a platform that could as easily have come from Los Angeles' RichardRiordan or Chicago's Richard Daley." Or: "Hemay have been preaching against the government's 'phony war on drugs' at thestart of the campaign, but by his inauguration he was pledging to 'support everylawful action and utilize the criminal justice system to the maximum to ridout neighborhoods of criminals.'" The two positions, of course, aren'tmutually exclusive, but so be it. Or: "Sincethen he has been single-minded in his attention to the crime issue, embracinga federal program that establishes a five-year prison sentence for illegal gunpossession, and backing several policies that seem modeled in part on measuresthat Mayor Rudolph Giuliani adopted to clean up New York City."

    After allthat, you're ready for Slater to call for Brown's resignation. And yet the storyaffirms Brown's good faith and importance: "That some are already worriedthat Jerry Brown's Oakland will be too white, too rich, or too sterile,"Slater writes near the end of the piece, "indicates just how profoundlythey believe that Brown has the power to overcome the multitude of forces thathave conspired against American cities."

    Then there'sSalon's positive article, which is by Joan Walsh and headed "JerryBrown shakes up Oakland's black political establishment."

    Walsh writesas follows in her penultimate paragraph; the speaker is Leo Bazile, a localblack power broker: "'I think black hegemony is not our concern anymore,'he says. 'We have talented individuals, and if they lose their job in Oakland,they'll find jobs elsewhere. The concern now has to be how many children willbe left behind and become prison fodder. We want results, and the color of aperson doesn't make any difference anymore.'"

    In the piece'slast paragraph, Bazile calls Brown maybe "the perfect person for Oaklandright now."

    What accountsfor Mother Jones and Salon's generosity toward this uncategorizablepolitician? (The question of what's changed in American political culture thatpeople like Leo Bazile can speak as he did in the preceding paragraph withoutfear of ostracism is fascinating, too.) It could just be that the magazinesdeserve more credit than I've been willing to give them.

    On the otherhand, another article in Salon last week, this one by Anthony York andentitled "Is black politics dead in California?" might help answerthat question. York writes: "In 1998, Latinos eclipsed African-Americansas political players in the state, surging from 7 percent of the total electoratein 1990 to 14 percent, while blacks stayed level at 7 percent. Californianselected the first Latino to statewide office this century, and the new legislativeclass had a record 26-member Latino caucus, while the black caucus was paredback to six."

    Later Yorkwrites: "There are as many explanations for the decline in black politicalpower as there are examples of it. One is simply demographic: Blacks are nolonger the largest minority in California, Latinos are, and their politicalpower is being eclipsed as Latinos play catch-up."

    That informationgoes far toward expressing why traditional Berkeley Hills-type progressivesaren't, in the name of local blacks, reflexively attacking Brown's reforms.They don't have to anymore. A generation's worth of "gorgeous mosaic"policies have achieved what such policies were bound to achieve: They've marginalizedAmerican blacks with waves of immigration and made them economically and politicallyirrelevant. The age has passed in which white liberals are going to let themselvesget mau-maued; or rather, these days it's a lot more fun, more au courant, toget mau-maued by Mexicans and Cambodians.

    There'reso many more interesting and more productive colored people inCalifornia now, the good liberal tells himself-and a lot of them aren't so inclinedto break into my Subaru. Let Mayor Brown do whatever he wants. On to the nextnoble crusade.

    The July/August

    Mother Jones is also a good place to find material that highlightswhy the American left is so handicapped and dispirited. Two articles in theissue offer two different visions of what left politics should be about, andnot only is one vision a bit contrived and the other just plain repellent, they'realso incompatible with each other.

    Here'sthe magazine's Sue Halpern writing in her "The Commons: Neighbors &Places" column about the public library in her little Adirondack community:

    "Itis a typical Wednesday at the Town of Johnsburg Library. John, a chimney sweepwho sometimes sells cutlery door to door, is studying the classifieds. Joyce,who is retired, is shelving returns. Mitch, a pastor, is talking about fly-fishingwith one of his parishioners, a 14-year-old who is also a library volunteer.Voices rise and fall like breathing. Children's voices, adult voices, and rarelya 'shhh' among them. Somewhere in the minutes there is a policy about this:Johnsburg is not to be a quiet library. Other towns have other places...wherepeople come together and do the unconscious work of being neighbors. In Johnsburg,the remote and isolated township...where I live, that place is the library."

    If you're,say, under 35, and you grew up the child of "concerned" parents insome progressive suburb or exurb or small town somewhere, you'll for betteror worse be familiar with the scene Halpern's evoking. It's a quintessentialscene of middle-class granola-bohemia: the local library as welcoming nondenominationalBook Person space, in which, stimulated by the magic of middlebrow ideas, thechimney sweep fraternizes with the blue-haired old lady, even the pastor (he'sprobably one of those pro-choice pastors) appears human, lesbians andmatrons sell banana loaf off bake-sale tables, the 14-year-olds actually appreciatebooks and volunteer for stuff instead of throwing rocks at cars and Zeke theStoryteller, with his avuncular beard and floppy hat, sets up in the main readingroom to play the Jew's harp and spin ethnically correct enviro fairytales atmultiracial groups of rainbow kiddies.

    "'Takeyour time,' [librarian] Russell tells [a little girl,] but she's not listening,"Halpern writes. "Or she is listening, but to something else, to the voiceof abandon.

    "Thissense of abandon, of freedom, is the unspoken perk of getting a library card.Wander through fiction, picking novels like ripe apples..."

    But forgetHalpern's sentimentality. What's important to note about her piece is her commendableprovincialism, her belief not only in the importance of her local community,but, implicitly, that her own community is the political entity that shouldmost matter to her as a "progressive." One night, Halpern writes,she's driving home through the mountains and considering that she knows "almosteveryone inside" the houses she passes on the road:

    "Inmany cases, I knew what the occupants were reading. It is intimate knowledge,and one more way books bind us. The radio was on, tuned to the only stationwe can get here in the mountains, an NPR affiliate that was playing Sibelius."

    "Thetheme in my head, though, was local and vernacular."

    And shecontinues, later, in this way: "In the library, there are books about thissound, some of them very old. The Republic. The Politics. Leviathan.How are we going to live together? That is always the question..."

    Again, forgetfor the moment about the sentimentality and the earnestness and the fact thatHalpern's radio plays only NPR and look at her article charitably: At leastMother Jones is embracing a proud localism that's refreshingly inconsistentwith the dominant strain of global-corporate liberalism epitomized by the Clintonites.This, for the left, is a good move: rescuing "leftism" back from theghost of Ron Brown and giving it back to, say...I don't know...Wendell Berry?

    Unfortunately,the same issue of Mother Jones also contains William Saletan's piece"Humanitarian Hawks," which is subtitled "What wars can liberalssupport? The kind that conservatives hate." It's Saletan's thesis thatliberals should be overjoyed that the Serbian crisis offered them someone toslaughter in good conscience.

    "Ifonly you could subscribe to a case for military intervention defined by thevalues of the left, not the right," he writes. "Well, you're in luck."Saletan then explains why the liberals' support for the Kosovo action expressedtheir commitment to, among other things, "multilateralism," "globalresponsibility," "nation-building," "pluralism," "universalism"and "legalism."

    Wow, howbracingly post-American Saletan is. Yeah, sure: Abstractions like "legalism"are really what rural Americans who operate organic bakeries should be fightingfor. If the Saletans of the so-called "left" had their way, Halpern'sbeloved library would be administered from an office in the Hague.

    On the onehand, then, Mother Jones offers Halpern's vision of local community thatwould be appealing if it weren't so precious (the day Halpern realizes thatmost 14-year-olds would realistically rather die than volunteer at the publiclibrary is the day she makes a real breakthrough). On the other hand, the magazineoffers Saletan's chilly technocratic internationalism, which is helpfully enforced-thankGod there's a so-called left in this country!-by American missiles.

    Any otherideas?

    The Liberatorof Kosovo.

    It was an enormously satisfying article: a 6/22 piece in TheNew York Times by John Broder headed "Laurels Elude President As PublicJudges a War" and articulating why fewer than half of Americans agree withBill Clinton that our Kosovo action was a "success." Broder also discussedwhy Clinton's poll numbers haven't received the "victory bounce" thata commander-in-chief's numbers always experience after a manly military action.Broder writes damningly that "the survey results demonstrate skepticismabout the claims of a President who acknowledged misleading the country aboutan affair with a former White House intern and who escaped Senate convictionon impeachment charges just four months ago."

    Broder quotesUniversity of New Orleans Prof. Douglas Brinkley (Brinkley, a smart guy, iseverywhere in the media these days), who observes that "it's impossibleto have Bill Clinton as a sustainable hero" and claims that "Eversince 1992, when he was perceived as a waffler at best and a liar at worst,he has never represented the best of the Presidential tradition... [T]here havealways been deep-seated suspicions about his motives."

    True, Broderobediently gives White House spokesman Joe Lockhart the last word, allowinghim to huff that the criticism of Clinton has become "comical." Butstill-that's some uncommonly strong anti-presidential medicine.

    Which isprobably why the Times buried the article on page A24.

    The nextday's Times front page featured an heroic photo of Clinton wading-shadesof Churchill-through an adoring crowd of Kosovar refugees.

    The AANbeat. The Hartford Advocate saga lurches along toward its denouement.Several weeks ago I reported that the weekly "alternative" Advocate,which this spring was purchased by its local daily competition the HartfordCourant, was most emphatically not thrown out of the Associationof Alternative Newspapers at that equivocating organization's convention inMay-even though the Advocate's continued membership in the organizationviolates every principle that the alternative press claims to hold dear. I describedhow Advocate publisher Francis Zankowski's emotional speech to the AANassembly-the peroration came complete with overcome flutters, flushed cheeks,piously clasped hands and other physical affectations less appropriate to aprofessional newspaper publisher than to a dying balletic swan-was apparentlycrucial in convincing the group not to eject the Advocate.

    Now comesan article in last Tuesday's Courant about Zankowski. The piece offersmore proof that daily newspapers know little about the weekly "alternative"newspapers that they've begun to acquire. "The lunch date," writesreporter Patricia Seremet in the lede, "is with Fran Zankowski, publisherfor five years of the alternative newsweekly The Hartford Advocate. So we'relooking for a Haight-Ashbury 'Summer of Love' refugee. You know: shoulder-lengthhair, blue granny glasses, fringed jacket, peace sign belt buckle, headband."

    Seremet'strying to be droll, but if she knew enough about alternative newspapers-whichhaven't had anything to do with peace signs or grannie glasses for at least20 years, if ever-she'd know that she sounds silly even joking that way.

    More interesting,though, is that the Courant now shills for the Advocate. Talkabout synergy. Listen to what Seremet, whether out of ignorance or a spiritof collusion, lets Zankowski get away with:

    "[Zankowski]intends that The Advocate get back its edge and be 'more attention-getting,not sensationalized, but more popping.'"

    You wonderwhat newspaper the Courant thinks it bought. Get back its edge?People familiar with alternative newspapers know that the workmanlike Advocatenever had much of an edge to begin with.


    "'It's in the tone of the paper,' [Zankowski] said about where the changewill occur. 'Make headlines more exciting.' For example, last week, The Advocatewas preparing to run a cover story with the headline 'Bisexuals: Swinging BothWays.' Zankowski thought it was too boring, and suggested changing it to 'HavingYour Kate & Eating Bill, Too.' And that's the headline that ran."



    "An underground lunch seemed appropriate for the publisher, sharpeninghis edge. We went to the subterranean food court of The Richardson Building...It's pulsating with people and redolent with aromas of Jamaican beef patties,pizza and curried goat that emanate from grills of different vendors. It's earthydowntown, with many personalities in pleasant disorder. 'It's real lunch,' Zankowskisaid. 'Not pretend.'

    "It'sa challenging lunch, wrestling a chicken that's jammed into a styrofoam container,and we're armed only with plastic cutlery. That's OK. The meal is worth thestruggle, and Zankowski is no stranger to a battle."


    Or this: "Where Zankowski is counter-culture is that he always questions authority,he said."


    At nextyear's AAN convention in Phoenix, a motion to expel the Hartford Advocatefrom the organization will once again hit the floor. AAN members should votein favor of the motion.

    The Voice(beat). Cynthia Cotts' "Press Clips" column last week offersanother view, if you're interested, into the Village Voice's corporateculture. It's interesting to be reminded that in the media environment of June1999-even as webzine IPOs are becoming stale news and you can't pick up a magazinewithout reading an article about the old media's increasing irrelevance-thesuper-bureaucratized Voice still hasn't even fully adjusted to flexible capitalism.

    "Theunion is also presenting a package of 'health and safety' demands," Cottsreports of the Voice's union contract negotiations. "While someof these may sound frivolous to an outsider ('There shall be twenty [20] cubicfeet per minute [CFM] per person of fresh air in all parts of The VillageVoice offices at all times'), it seems like a no-brainer that the Voice should automatically provide adjustable keyboard trays to everyone, given thelong-standing high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among its staff."

    You needa union initiative to get yourself the right sort of keyboard tray at the Voice?

    "Theunion is determined to make progress on the Voice's affirmative actionpolicy," writes Cotts. "According to senior editor Andrew Hsiao, spokespersonfor the union's negotiating committee, minorities currently comprise 28.8 percentof the total staff, and a mere 9.7 percent of senior editors and staff writers.This is the first time the union has asked management to set a concrete goalfor minority hiring..."

    This promisesto be interesting. So the Voice is going to hire editors and writersaccording to racial quotas? To us, that sounds like a great policy for the Voiceto pursue. We hope they implement it immediately and aggressively.

    But perhapsI misunderstand. "[Hsiao] points out that the union is proposing a goal,not a quota," Cotts informs us, "and that 'if we increased minorityrepresentation by 3.5 percent every year, we might reach some measure of racialparity in about 10 years.'"

    Given thatthe Voice has got a corporate ideology like the one Cotts evokes, we'llsee if the Voice is even around in 10 years.

    Bay,Guardian! Two weeks ago I mentioned the hoax that the New Times chain'sSF Weekly recently orchestrated-publicizing in its pages a phony marchagainst anti-yuppie hate crimes in San Francisco's rapidly gentrifying MissionDistrict, a sort of East Village with longer sightlines, fewer Poles, more Hispanicsand drier air. The phony event attracted more than 200 participants and, gloriously,even stimulated a leftist counterdemonstration. SF Weekly editor JohnMecklin's subsequent essay about the motivation behind and methodology of thehoax was a sneering dismissal of San Francisco's advocacy community, whom hehad intended to embarrass.

    Now, amazingly,the irrepressible San Francisco Bay Guardian-the bellowing publisherof which, Bruce Brugmann, considers himself a guardian and arbiter of journalisticintegrity, and who presumably never met a civic development against which hedidn't reflexively protest-is attacking Mecklin for his irresponsibility andpresumption. Does Brugmann never rest? After dismissing the hoax as a "classicpublicity stunt" and calling Mecklin "an annoying braggart,"an unsigned Bay Guardian article pontificates thus: "...there'sa lot of anger and hostility surrounding the issue of gentrification in thecity, and especially in the Mission."

    Yeah, man.Lay off.

    Gentrificationis certainly an issue to which attention should be paid, but what is this allabout? Brugmann, always a singular personality to begin with, is clearly onthe edge. You imagine him barricaded in his San Francisco bunker, screamingimprecations over the phone at anyone who doesn't agree with him, and takinghis staff-including whoever wrote this humorless bit-down with him into thesanctimonious gloom.

    It's possiblethat the anti-SF Weekly bit is deliberate self-parody. But then deliberateself-parody's probably beside the point at a "leftist" newspaper thatin its June 9 issue published a "Nude Beaches '99" feature. ThankGod someone out there is standing up for responsible, hard-hitting journalism.