Jerry Brown's Strange New Friends in the Media

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:22

    When you're tired of Oakland, you're tired of life. Why are both Salon and Mother Jones saying such nice things about Jerry Brown? The admirable politician is six months into his tenure as the first white mayor of Oakland in 20 years, and he's already proven himself a bit of a heretic by welcoming free enterprise and challenging the city's black power structure. You'd think that Mother Jones, if not Salon, would by now be maligning Brown as a right-deviationist and a racist. Mother Jones' generosity toward Brown is the more surprising when you notice how much the magazine's willing to concede him. Consider the following passages from Dashka Slater's piece, which appears in the magazine's July/August issue:

    "'We have 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' Richard Riordan or Chicago's Richard Daley." Or: "He may have been preaching against the government's 'phony war on drugs' at the start of the campaign, but by his inauguration he was pledging to 'support every lawful action and utilize the criminal justice system to the maximum to rid out neighborhoods of criminals.'" The two positions, of course, aren't mutually exclusive, but so be it.

    Or: "Since then he has been single-minded in his attention to the crime issue, embracing a federal program that establishes a five-year prison sentence for illegal gun possession, and backing several policies that seem modeled in part on measures that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani adopted to clean up New York City."

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

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

    Walsh writes as follows in her penultimate paragraph; the speaker is Leo Bazile, a local black 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 will be left behind and become prison fodder. We want results, and the color of a person doesn't make any difference anymore.'"

    In the piece's last paragraph, Bazile calls Brown maybe "the perfect person for Oakland right now."

    What accounts for Mother Jones and Salon's generosity toward this uncategorizable politician? (The question of what's changed in American political culture that people like Leo Bazile can speak as he did in the preceding paragraph without fear of ostracism is fascinating, too.) It could just be that the magazines deserve more credit than I've been willing to give them.

    On the other hand, another article in Salon last week, this one by Anthony York and entitled "Is black politics dead in California?" might help answer that question. York writes: "In 1998, Latinos eclipsed African-Americans as political players in the state, surging from 7 percent of the total electorate in 1990 to 14 percent, while blacks stayed level at 7 percent. Californians elected the first Latino to statewide office this century, and the new legislative class had a record 26-member Latino caucus, while the black caucus was pared back to six."

    Later York writes: "There are as many explanations for the decline in black political power as there are examples of it. One is simply demographic: Blacks are no longer the largest minority in California, Latinos are, and their political power is being eclipsed as Latinos play catch-up."

    That information goes far toward expressing why traditional Berkeley Hills-type progressives aren'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 marginalized American blacks with waves of immigration and made them economically and politically irrelevant. The age has passed in which white liberals are going to let themselves get mau-maued; or rather, these days it's a lot more fun, more au courant, to get mau-maued by Mexicans and Cambodians.

    There're so many more interesting and more productive colored people in California now, the good liberal tells himself?and a lot of them aren't so inclined to break into my Subaru. Let Mayor Brown do whatever he wants. On to the next noble crusade.

    The July/August 

    Mother Jones is also a good place to find material that highlights why the American left is so handicapped and dispirited. Two articles in the issue offer two different visions of what left politics should be about, and not only is one vision a bit contrived and the other just plain repellent, they're also incompatible with each other.

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

    "It is a typical Wednesday at the Town of Johnsburg Library. John, a chimney sweep who sometimes sells cutlery door to door, is studying the classifieds. Joyce, who is retired, is shelving returns. Mitch, a pastor, is talking about fly-fishing with 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 rarely a '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...where people 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 in some progressive suburb or exurb or small town somewhere, you'll for better or worse be familiar with the scene Halpern's evoking. It's a quintessential scene of middle-class granola-bohemia: the local library as welcoming nondenominational Book Person space, in which, stimulated by the magic of middlebrow ideas, the chimney sweep fraternizes with the blue-haired old lady, even the pastor (he's probably one of those pro-choice pastors) appears human, lesbians and matrons sell banana loaf off bake-sale tables, the 14-year-olds actually appreciate books and volunteer for stuff instead of throwing rocks at cars and Zeke the Storyteller, with his avuncular beard and floppy hat, sets up in the main reading room to play the Jew's harp and spin ethnically correct enviro fairytales at multiracial groups of rainbow kiddies.

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

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

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

    "In many 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 station we can get here in the mountains, an NPR affiliate that was playing Sibelius."

    "The theme in my head, though, was local and vernacular."

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

    Again, forget for the moment about the sentimentality and the earnestness and the fact that Halpern's radio plays only NPR and look at her article charitably: At least Mother Jones is embracing a proud localism that's refreshingly inconsistent with the dominant strain of global-corporate liberalism epitomized by the Clintonites. This, for the left, is a good move: rescuing "leftism" back from the ghost 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 liberals support? The kind that conservatives hate." It's Saletan's thesis that liberals should be overjoyed that the Serbian crisis offered them someone to slaughter in good conscience.

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

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

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

    Any other ideas?

    The Liberator of Kosovo.

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

    Broder quotes University of New Orleans Prof. Douglas Brinkley (Brinkley, a smart guy, is everywhere in the media these days), who observes that "it's impossible to have Bill Clinton as a sustainable hero" and claims that "Ever since 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 have always been deep-seated suspicions about his motives."

    True, Broder obediently gives White House spokesman Joe Lockhart the last word, allowing him to huff that the criticism of Clinton has become "comical." But still?that's some uncommonly strong anti-presidential medicine.

    Which is probably why the Times buried the article on page A24.

    The next day's Times front page featured an heroic photo of Clinton wading?shades of Churchill?through an adoring crowd of Kosovar refugees.

    The AAN beat. 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 Hartford Courant, was most emphatically not thrown out of the Association of Alternative Newspapers at that equivocating organization's convention in May?even though the Advocate's continued membership in the organization violates every principle that the alternative press claims to hold dear. I described how Advocate publisher Francis Zankowski's emotional speech to the AAN assembly?the peroration came complete with overcome flutters, flushed cheeks, piously clasped hands and other physical affectations less appropriate to a professional newspaper publisher than to a dying balletic swan?was apparently crucial in convincing the group not to eject the Advocate.

    Now comes an article in last Tuesday's Courant about Zankowski. The piece offers more proof that daily newspapers know little about the weekly "alternative" newspapers that they've begun to acquire. "The lunch date," writes reporter Patricia Seremet in the lede, "is with Fran Zankowski, publisher for five years of the alternative newsweekly The Hartford Advocate. So we're looking for a Haight-Ashbury 'Summer of Love' refugee. You know: shoulder-length hair, blue granny glasses, fringed jacket, peace sign belt buckle, headband."

    Seremet's trying to be droll, but if she knew enough about alternative newspapers?which haven't had anything to do with peace signs or grannie glasses for at least 20 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. Talk about synergy. Listen to what Seremet, whether out of ignorance or a spirit of 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 wonder what newspaper the Courant thinks it bought. Get back its edge? People familiar with alternative newspapers know that the workmanlike Advocate never had much of an edge to begin with.


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



    "An underground lunch seemed appropriate for the publisher, sharpening his 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 earthy downtown, with many personalities in pleasant disorder. 'It's real lunch,' Zankowski said. 'Not pretend.'

    "It's a 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 the struggle, and Zankowski is no stranger to a battle."


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


    At next year's AAN convention in Phoenix, a motion to expel the Hartford Advocate from the organization will once again hit the floor. AAN members should vote in favor of the motion.

    The Voice (beat). Cynthia Cotts' "Press Clips" column last week offers another view, if you're interested, into the Village Voice's corporate culture. It's interesting to be reminded that in the media environment of June 1999?even as webzine IPOs are becoming stale news and you can't pick up a magazine without reading an article about the old media's increasing irrelevance?the super-bureaucratized Voice still hasn't even fully adjusted to flexible capitalism.

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

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

    "The union is determined to make progress on the Voice's affirmative action policy," writes Cotts. "According to senior editor Andrew Hsiao, spokesperson for the union's negotiating committee, minorities currently comprise 28.8 percent of 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 goal for minority hiring..."

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

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

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

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

    Now, amazingly, the irrepressible San Francisco Bay Guardian?the bellowing publisher of which, Bruce Brugmann, considers himself a guardian and arbiter of journalistic integrity, and who presumably never met a civic development against which he didn't reflexively protest?is attacking Mecklin for his irresponsibility and presumption. Does Brugmann never rest? After dismissing the hoax as a "classic publicity stunt" and calling Mecklin "an annoying braggart," an unsigned Bay Guardian article pontificates thus: "...there's a lot of anger and hostility surrounding the issue of gentrification in the city, and especially in the Mission."

    Yeah, man. Lay off.

    Gentrification is certainly an issue to which attention should be paid, but what is this all about? Brugmann, always a singular personality to begin with, is clearly on the edge. You imagine him barricaded in his San Francisco bunker, screaming imprecations over the phone at anyone who doesn't agree with him, and taking his staff?including whoever wrote this humorless bit?down with him into the sanctimonious gloom.

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