Bankrolling Tea Party radio

In the expansive and fragmented media universe, each of us can find the news and entertainment we want.  And, if you have the money, you can make sure others have access to your favorite news, views, and entertainment as well.  Conservatives have been more aggressive on this front than liberals, particularly on the radio.

At Politico, Kenneth P. Vogel and Mackenzie Weinger file a fascinating report on the millions spent by organized conservative groups on radio commercials.  Such groups, including FreedomWorks, the Heritage Foundation, and Americans for Prosperity have invested heavily buying ads on the programs of popular conservative hosts, including Glenn Beck (at right!), Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and (of course) Rush Limbaugh.  There is nothing particularly new about this, or really very shocking.  The radio business is, after all, a business, and broadcasters make money by playing–and reading–advertising copy.  For hyper-popular hosts, it’s even more than this: syndication deals for the stars allow them to sell some of their advertising slots themselves.

We should not think that any of these hosts would read ads for causes and groups they dislike any more than we should doubt their commitments to the discount furniture and mattress stores they also promote.  Minimally, the groups get the ad space to promote themselves and their causes, and these promotions may induce some listeners to contribute or buy memberships.  (Whether this is advertising money well spent is a matter of dispute within these groups; apparently, it was one of many issues that led to Dick Armey’s armed and paid separation from FreedomWorks.)

What else do they get?  The hosts make money on ads and, at least sometimes, display their agreement with–or gratitude to–their sponsors by showing up at events.  I don’t mean to suggest that these radio personalities put their politics up for sale; it’s hard to imagine Planned Parenthood, say, advertising on Glenn Beck’s show, or having Beck show up at one of their fundraisers.  But the ideological alignment between the popular host and FreedomWorks is polished with large checks.  (Politico reports that at least some times, hosts alter their political judgments as they lose some sponsors and take on new others.)

Does any of this matter?  It makes sense for advocacy groups to invest in promoting themselves, their preferred view of the world–maybe even their version of the facts, and more generally, in changing the culture.  The right (right!) radio show provides access to an audience that is likely to be congenial and a host who has every incentive to be friendly.  It’s a lot of money, much more than many activist groups could consider spending, but not compared to television advertising.  And it may be a more direct pay-off than investing in lobbying or grassroots mobilization.  (Of course, all of these groups spend large sums on those efforts as well.)

Does it matter?  It’s hard for me to imagine any of these hosts taking issue with the Koch Brothers, for example, spending big money to promote their political ideals–even if they weren’t buying ads that directly lined the pockets of the hosts.  That they do buy such ads makes it even less likely.  What the advertising does is stroke media allies of conservative groups while stoking their audiences.

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Tax Day protests

April 15 is a great day to stage an anti-tax protest.  Federal taxes are due, forms are complicated, and many people procrastinate.  Few of even the strongest supporters of a strong well-funded government are enthusiastic about filling out forms and writing checks.  Noticing and amplifying the resentment to filing and paying, anti-taxers often exploit the moment of attention that Tax Day provides.  Indeed, the Tea Party first visibly emerged through a series of demonstrations on April 15, 2009.  The Tax Day protests were a chance to protest against not only taxes, but debt, and all kinds of government spending.  But not this year.

Subsequent Tax Day protests never matched the numbers, energy, and visibility of 2009.  This year, Tea Party groups aren’t even trying.  A quick search of the major national Tea Party groups shows no planned protest activities.  These groups have found other ways to represent their concerns, including pouring money into the elections coming in seven months.

But opportunities aren’t always one-sided.  Groups with very different concerns are using 2014′s Tax Day to try to make their own splash.

In Winston-Salem, North Carolina a lesbian couple (legally married in New York) brought cameras to the post office to file a joint return that the state government has no interest in accepting.  This is part of a national campaign.

In New Jersey, protesters are using Tax Day to challenge what they describe of Governor Chris Christie’s use of state funds to build his own national reputation.  They’re talking about bridges and traffic as well.

In San Francisco, tenants rights activists are campaigning against evictions.

Retired public employees in West Virginia are turning out to protest the size of their pensions.  They want a tax exemption on their pensions which, they say, haven’t increased in decades.

Others are trying to use the day to draw attention to military spending and tax justice, and even war more generally.

I’d be surprised if any of these efforts match the feeling of a national wave that accompanied the Tea Party five years ago.  The larger point, however, is that people with a cause prospect for opportunities to press their claims–and April 15 often seems like the right time.


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Passover 2014; telling the story

It’s Passover; the first seder is tonight, and I thought it was worth writing something about story-telling and ritual.  I learned that I already had (pasted below).

The stories we tell about the past affect how we see the present and future, including who we think we are.  I suspect all religions display tensions between universal responsibilities and the particular interests of a distinct people.  You might think, for example, that advocates of religious freedom care also about people who don’t share that religion–sometimes that’s true; often it’s not.

And no matter how the story’s told, audiences–particularly around the family table–take the meanings they choose.  I’m reminded of the start of William Blake’s “The Everlasting Gospel”:

The Vision of Christ that thou dost see,
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a long, hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind,
Mine speaks in Parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy heaven-doors are my hell-gates.
Socrates taught what Melitus
Loathed as a nation’s bitterest curse.
And Caiaphas was, in his own mind,
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou readest black where I read white.



We’re two days into Passover, a major Jewish holiday.  The highlight is always two nights of services at the dinner table with families and friends, with varying shares of food, prayer, stories, and discussion.  This service, the seder, varies tremendously from home to home, as each household makes its way through a haggadah, with more and less conflict and warmth–as immortalized in Woody Allen films.

“Haggadah” means telling or narration, and the story that’s told is about the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.  Although key elements of the tale are basically consistent, the tone, length, and meanings of the story are all over the place.

On length: the longest service I’ve ever participated in, many years ago, featured commentary and discussion on absolutely everything, and we didn’t get to dinner until after midnight.  All the participants were in their twenties, and there were no hungry kids waiting for dinner.

On meaning: religion helps people make sense of their lives, and rituals reinforce a sense of one’s place in the world.  People take very different messages from the same sets of stories and religious dicta, and devout doesn’t mandate a certain kind of politics.  Radical pacifist Dorothy Day and proto-fascist Father Charles Coughlin both saw themselves as committed Catholics.  Contemporary Christian clerics finds ways to promote tax cuts or tax justice in the Gospels.

The haggadah is a site where we can see the outcomes of activist Jewish efforts.  The story of liberation from Egypt can be used to make many different points.  In one reading, it’s about how special the Hebrews are, and about their sacred tie to the land of Israel.  Another take is about a universal drive for social justice, with an explicit argument that the liberation from slavery should make seder participants particularly vigilant in fighting against the oppression of others.

Such contrasting visions play out in different haggadahs; it’s easy to find conservative, leftist, environmentalist, and feminist haggadahs in bookstores–and now, on line  (links).  All manner of causes have been represented by activists seizing the holiday and appropriating the story for their own purposes.  The rituals and symbols change in response to the concerns of the present: vegans, for example, hold their seders without a shankbone to represent the Passover sacrifice.

But recounting the experience of slavery, even many generations on, should leave a lasting impact on the way we think about the world and about justice.

The drama of the events commemorated–and the flexibility of the service–make it every politico’s favorite holiday.  President Obama–who is not Jewish or Muslim–has been hosting a seder each year  for a long time–well before he got to hold the ceremony in the White House.

You can make your own:

The Open Source Haggadah lists 16 key elements of the service and offers different texts for each, with politics ranging from “revolutionary” to Zionist, and religious orientations that range from orthodox to explicitly secular.  More–and newer–texts are available at

Contrasting intepretations of religious doctrines are hardly peculiar to Judaism.  What’s particularly interesting here is that you don’t need to read theological tracts to see the debates played out.

And to see how important movements of the past century have taken on the religious and cultural text of explaining themselves and their visions in the context of traditions that data back thousands of years.  One outcome of feminism, for example, are passages read aloud at dinner tables across the country that were recovered or written by activists a few decades ago.

And, somehow, I think these stories matter: our understanding of the past shapes our visions and actions for the future.



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Constructing an image through protest

Protest works by engaging others in your struggle.  The first step is getting attention, and an arresting image (sometimes including arrest) is a way to do that.  This morning’s LA Times featured two such images; it got me thinking about the constructing of an image that travels–sometimes even globally.

Hooligans–or anti-gentrification activists–have been tipping Smart Cars in San Francisco.  It strikes me as hostile, aggressive, arresting, and even a little funny–for the moment.  Scanning the web you can find similar statements in other expensive cities.  You can find images of the cars tipped on any edge; in Amsterdam, cars have ended up in the canals.

Thus far, no one has claimed responsibility for these acts of vandalism in San Francisco, and the tipping hasn’t been tied to a set of remedies for high rents or boutique restaurants.  Might an aversion to tipping lead new urbanites to stay out altogether?  or to buy heavier less environmentally friendly cars?

In contrast, Students for Educational Reform, a national group with ties to charter school providers and a movement for school choice, placed 375 desks on Beaudry Street on the eve of an LA School Board meeting. The empty desks represent the number of students who drop out of LA public schools each week (LA Weekly report).  It’s a disturbing image.  Once they have your attention, they can draw your gaze to their other activities and perhaps their remedies, which include expanded choice of school charters.

Crafting the image is a start.  The car tippers and SFER created striking and stationary images to draw attention their message, SFER much more deliberately.  Often the powerful images of social movement conflicts come in conflict, evocatively described.  You know about the four freshmen at a Greensboro lunch counter and Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her seat on a bus, and if you can’t evoke their images, you’ll find them on this blog.  You know about radical Catholics pouring their own blood on missile nosecones, and anti-whaling campaigners paddling surfboards out to confront whaling ships.  You know about Lech Walesa organizing strikes of Polish shipworkers at Gdansk and Gandhi leading a long march to make salt.  And so much else.

The image crystallizes the conflict, drawing not only attention but also sympathy or concern.  They may often seem spontaneous, but clever activists think about the images, as well as the messages, they mean to send.

Of course, it’s not all in activist control.

Antiwar activists at Kent State placed flowers in the rifle barrels of National Guardsmen policing their protests.  This was the image they meant to project in 1970.  Far easier to find, however, are depictions of chaos and grief when the Guardsmen shot and killed four students.

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Cesar Chavez Day, 2014

The parking lot is deserted at the University of California, Irvine today; it’s a holiday to commemorate Cesar Chavez, and really, the farmworkers movement and Latinos in California.  I’m reposting my Cesar Chavez blog below.

There’s one additional wrinkle this year, a new movie released today conveniently titled, Cesar Chavez.


You can watch the trailer yourself.  Condensing any life, but especially a life as consequential and complicated as that of Cesar Chavez, into two hours means a lot of editing.  Narrative conventions, and the necessity of crafting a compelling story, mean that Chavez is credited for doing even more for the farmworkers movement than he actually did, and that other heroes and villains get edited out, condensed, or flattened.  Of course, this is even more true of the political context.

But if the film–or the day–gives occasion to learn a little bit more about our own rich and complicated history, well, that’s a great thing.  We want to remember that the day or the movie is just a start:

On my campus, we commemorated Cesar Chavez Day early, yesterday, rather than March 31 (his birthday), by closing.  The state established the holiday in 2000, and six other states have followed suit.  In California, the legislature calls upon public schools to develop appropriate curricula to teach about the farm labor movement in the United States, and particularly Chavez’s role in it.

A campaign to establish a national holiday has stalled so far (The Cesar Chavez National holiday website seems to have last been updated in 2008), but last year President Obama issued a proclamation announcing a day of commemoration, and calling upon all Americans “to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Cesar Chavez’s enduring legacy.”

Political figures have many reasons for creating holidays, including remembering the past; identifying heroic models for the future; recognizing and cultivating a political constituency; and providing an occasion to appreciate a set of values.  Regardless of the original meaning, the holidays take on new meanings over time.  Columbus Day, for example, is celebrated as an occasion for pride in Italian Americans (e.g.), and commemorated and mourned as a symbol of genocide  and empire (e.g.).

Cesar Chavez’s life and work is well worth remembering and considering, particularly now.  His career as a crusader was far longer than that of Martin Luther King discussed (here and here) and he was far more of an organizer than Fred Korematsu (discussed here).  Chavez’s Medal of Freedom was awarded shortly after his death in 1993, by President Clinton, but many of his accomplishments were apparent well before then.

Dolores Huerta, 2009

As a young man, Chavez was an agricultural worker; by his mid-twenties, he became a civil rights organizer, working for the Community Service Organization in California.  With Dolores Huerta, in 1962 Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.  Focusing on poor, mostly Mexican-American workers, Chavez’s vision for activism was right at the cornerstone of racial and economic justice.  Establishing an organization, however, is a long way from winning recognition and bargaining rights as a union.

Chavez was a tactician, a public figure, a charismatic, and something of a mystic.  Modeling his efforts after Gandhi’s successful campaigns, Chavez was an emphatic practitioner of active nonviolence.  He employed boycotts, strikes, long fasts, demonstrations, long marches, and religious rhetoric in the service of his cause.  He also registered voters, lobbied, and worked in political campaigns.  He was a tireless and very effective organizer for most of his life.

But holidays are best celebrated with an eye to the future, rather than the past.

On Cesar Chavez Day this year, we can think about the large and growing Latino community in the United States.  The 2010 Census reports that Latinos now comprise roughly 1/6 of the American population, and more than 1/3 of the population in California. This is the youngest and fastest-growing population in America today, and they are severely underrepresented in the top levels of politics, education, and the economy.   The civil rights map is at least as complicated as at any time in American history, but not less important or urgent.  (The struggle about the DREAM Act is reminiscent of the debate about Voting Rights 45 years ago.)  The future of American Latinos is very much the future of America.

And Chavez saw the civil rights struggle as a labor campaign.  When Chavez and Huerta started their campaign, nearly one third of Americans were represented by unions.  The percentage now is now just about 10 percent, and less in the private sector.

And public sector workers, even if represented by unions aren’t doing so well.  The ongoing conflict in Wisconsin is all about weakening unions that are already making very large concessions on wages and pensions.  The campaign in Wisconsin is part of a larger national effort, which is playing out in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere.  Even in states where anti-union forces are weaker, state employees face lay-offs, wage cuts, and increased health and pension costs.  Importantly, we need to remember that you can’t attack teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters without hurting the people they serve: us.

Or should I say, US?

Cesar Chavez’s birthday is an opportune time for thinking about Latinos, civil rights, and American labor, and not just the start of Spring.

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Politics of Protest, 2nd edition

I’m happy to announce that Oxford University Press has just published the second edition of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.

It’s really a new book, including discussion of things I’ve learned in the last seven years and the range of events that have taken place over that time.  The new edition includes a fuller discussion of media, including social media, which eluded me the first time through.  There’s also a recognition of some of the signal movements of recent years, including the gay and lesbian movements’ successful campaigns for open service and same sex marriage, the struggle between anti-immigrant and immigrant rights movements, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street.

I’m happy about it and ready to talk!  (I’m particularly eager to talk about the movie rights.)

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Korematsu Day, institutionalizing commemoration

Korematsu Day is celebrated today, and I repost the entry from the first Korematsu Day in 2011. The formal inclusion of commemoration in our calendar is a mixed blessing.  On one hand, it marks a terrible period in our nation’s history and recalls a destructive and explicitly racist policy of relocation.  It’s worth remembering.  On the other hand, it almost suggests that we’re beyond all of it today; we’re not.

Today Californians celebrate the first Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.  Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of relocating and interning Japanese Americans during World War II.  Three Supreme Court Justices agreed with him; six did not, finding that the emergency of a World War justified allowing Congress to put civil liberties on the back burner (Korematsu v. US, 1944).

Korematsu’s challenge exacerbated rifts within the Japanese American community; large organizations like the Japanese American Citizen’s League were eager to prove their patriotism by cooperating with internment.

Maybe the arc of history really does bend toward justice; it’s certainly long.  In 1980, President Jimmy Carter established a commission to investigate the internment of Japanese Americans during the war; in 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was vacated.   In 1988, Congress apologized to the Japanese Americans for the internment, and the government paid (modest) compensation to those interned.  In 1998, President Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  More than fifty years later, we recognized courage and heroism in what we first saw as a crime.

We should derive more benefit from the vindication of Fred Korematsu more than he did.  To do so, we need to draw lessons from the cause and the case that extend beyond Japanese Americans in World War II.  This means, I think, paying close attention to discrimination on the basis of race justified by appeals to national security.

We should tell Fred Korematsu’s story in New York City, where the construction of an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan draws opposition.  We should recall the history in Arizona, when the state passes a law mandating that police demand proof of citizenship from people who look like they might be undocumented.

And we should all think about how people learn.  California Attorney General Earl Warren pressed for interning Japanese Americans immediately after Pearl Harbor, arguing that their presence in California represented a threat to civilian defense.  Thirteen years later, as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Warren organized the Court to issue unanimous decisions prohibiting racial segregation in the public schools.  I want to think he learned from the past, including his own past.

Apparently, one of the justices Earl Warren had to persuade was Robert Jackson, one of the three dissenters in Korematsu.  In dissent, Jackson wrote:

But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.

Justice Jackson took a leave of absence from the Court to serve as as the chief US prosecutor during the Nuremberg war crimes trials, putting him in a very good position to think about a government’s use of race politics as a means of mobilization during moments of crisis.

Perhaps Korematsu Day will be an occasion for fireworks and picnics one day.  Today, it seems like a good time for reflection.

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