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Activism or Political Hackery? The Curious Case of Joan Walsh

Bernie Sanders’ collision with Black Lives Matter activists at last Saturday’s Netroots Nation Conference was nothing short of embarrassing for the populist hero. Rather than engaging the protesters, he attempted to literally talk over them and, following the adjournment of the conference, declined to engage them in an immediate dialogue.

On Twitter, an eruption soon followed. Black Lives Matter Activists rightly castigated Sanders. Sanders’ supporters, either out of ignorance of his remarks or their own tone deafness, attempted to defend him by citing his record on race or, more stupidly, by criticizing the protesters themselves.

Full disclosure, I am a tepid fan of Bernie Sanders. And, prior to my knowledge of his behavior at the Netroots Conference, I came to his defense on Twitter by citing just a small part of his relatively strong record on civil rights issues. I was wrong to do so in that context.

So, Sanders is not a perfect candidate. In this context, his lack of skill at speaking directly about race is one serious weakness. One that he must improve if he is to earn the vote of progressive Black Americans. With that being said, Sanders’ imperfections have been largely brought out to the light by activists. Those who interrupted Sanders on Saturday impressively and boldly spoke on the frontline of Democracy. And, in doing so, forced an old, white man to reconsider (ideally, let’s hope) how he addresses issues that primarily concern young people of color. In short, the lives and well-beings of millions of black and brown citizens should not be presented as an auxiliary issue; rather, racism demands singular and diligent attention.

Riding the coattails of legitimate activists, we find ardent Sanders critic and Salon Editor Joan Walsh. The difference, though, between Walsh and any serious activist is Walsh’s rhetorical refusal to apply the same standards of evaluation to politicians she likes. Namely, Hillary Clinton. In an impressive display of favoritism, Joan Walsh managed to write two think pieces in as many months on Bernie Sanders’ race problem (as well as one piece disparaging his political legitimacy) without providing even a sliver of criticism towards Clinton, whose record and rhetoric on race is highly problematic. Indeed, Walsh essentially endorses Clinton’s race resume, praising her as follows:

Hillary Clinton could be the unlikely beneficiary of white progressives’ stumbles on race. The woman who herself stumbled facing Barack Obama in 2008 [1] seems to have learned from her political mistakes.  She’s taken stands on mass incarceration and immigration reform [2] that put her nominally to the left of de Blasio’s Progressive Agenda on those issues, as well as the president’s. Clinton proves that these racial blind spots can be corrected. And American politics today requires that they be corrected: no Democrat can win the presidency without consolidating the Obama coalition, particularly the African American vote.

In a piece titled “Progressive’s Racial Myopia”, the irony of Walsh’s pronouncement that Clinton “has learned from her mistakes” because of two vague, unchallenged, and unexplained campaign proposals is as ludicrous as it is intellectually embarrassing. Moreover, Walsh asserts that Clinton has “corrected” her “blind spots” [3] on racial issues. This assertion only bears out if one believes Walsh’s claim that nebulous and perpetually unquestioned campaign promises can atone for decades of catastrophic policy and unimpressive racial rhetoric.
If that is what passes the Joan Walsh litmus test for seriously engaging Black Voters, then her bar is comically low.

Walsh’s second think piece is decidedly nastier. Employing her apparent powers of psychoanalysis and telepathy, Walsh—without any linking or citing of any sources [4]—calls Sanders an “old socialist inured to being told he’s wrong…who’s developed an ironclad hold on the conviction that he’s right.” Walsh saves her true ire for whom she calls “Sanders fans,” who “have learned to take refuge in the knowledge of their righteousness, which eases the sting of being perpetually in the political minority.” Sanders’ positions are of course widely popular with the general American public, which can only mean that Walsh is either surprisingly ignorant to the pulse of the American people, or is simply naïve to the undisputed fact that the American political system frequently disregards what the political majority actually wants.

Moreover, not only does Walsh fail to criticize Clinton’s own qualifications and record (not a hard task), but she refrains from even mentioning Clinton’s name once in her most recent piece. While she rightly excoriates Sanders’ disappointing response to the protesters, she glosses over the fact that Hillary Clinton did not even attend the conference. Such seemingly serial omission would be more excusable for someone who did not claim to be an authority on race and American politics. It is therefore inexcusable for Walsh.

Clinton’s absence from the conference, and her general tendency in this campaign to thus far avoid non-scripted public appearances speaks volumes. As the frontrunner, she can allow Sanders and others to campaign more openly and test the waters for her. A Sanders’ gaffe serves Clinton well. On the one hand, it allows the Clinton campaign to test talking points and focus group politics by observation rather than by the far more risky act of first hand engagement with real humans in a public space. On the other hand, as Sanders errs, it affords Clinton the opportunity to swoop in and make canned and predictably polished rebuttals.

It is difficult to interpret Walsh’s repeated disregard of Clinton’s convenient absence, problematic policy history concerning human rights, and tone deaf rhetoric as anything short of hackery. In this era of internet polemics, Walsh would better serve her readers by abandoning any veneer of a journalistic objectivity. As that is unlikely to occur, her readers would be well served to understand Walsh as an unwavering Clinton apologist, whose refusal to issue disapproval or reproach of Clinton borders on the absurd.

And yet, if Sanders is to become a truly viable candidate, he must address race and the concern of Black Lives Matter Activists head on and with humility, as Walsh suggests. At some point though, the undisputed front runner must entertain some limited impression of a democratic process. So, unfortunately for her most fervent supporters, Clinton cannot sit on the sidelines, or speak at staged events with total control, for the entire campaign. She will likely face similar challenges from activists that Sanders bumbled on Saturday. And, if history is much of an indicator, Clinton will either stumble in much the same way as Sanders, or entirely avoid an honest discussion of her past record. If so, activists will surely hold Clinton accountable. Tellingly, we cannot assume that Walsh will do the same.

Notes

[1] Walsh’s characterization of Clinton’s stumbling is basically restricted to Clinton’s marketing strategy not, say, her policy and statements.

[2] As has Sanders, Walsh omits. Walsh also omits Clinton’s integral role in creating the system of mass incarceration.

[3] Implying that Clinton is simply ignorant to racial issues, not stubbornly apathetic like Sanders.

[4] Either out of laziness or arrogance, Walsh feels entitled to engage in character assassination without providing any corroborating evidence.

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Timothy Clark is a teacher, writer, researcher, and student, working towards a PhD in Sociology at North Carolina State University. .

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