In a Small Minority, Harness the Power of Honest Embarrassment
Last week I went to the National Equality March. I saw tens of thousands of people marching in the street for equal rights. I saw ONE man, Randall Terry, standing all alone, straddling a sandwich board with an image of an aborted fetus and shouting into a megaphone. The news cameras and the photographers had their backs to the well-behaved ten thousand. They were taking pictures of Randall Terry. He got disproportionate coverage that day. I don’t agree with his message, but his tactics were very smart.
On October 1 and October 8 of this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to mark up S. 1692, a bill that reauthorizes significant portions of the Patriot Act for four more years. In those meetings, significant majorities of both Republican and Democratic members of the Committee voted to weaken innocent Americans’ protection against being spied on by their own government without probable cause. Over two weeks surrounding these disappointing meetings, Get FISA Right waged a high-energy, committed campaign to raise awareness of the committee meetings and to get members of the Senate to vote in a manner that protected our civil liberties. The campaign was a bust.
It’s clear after the Senate Judiciary Committee debacle that many who we thought might be “friends” (such as Sheldon Whitehouse, Patrick Leahy, and again, sigh, Barack Obama) found constitutional and civil liberties concerns to be more of an annoyance than a legitimate concern. Senators Dick Durbin and Russell Feingold, on the other hand, spoke strongly and voted strongly in favor of civil liberties, but frankly would have done exactly what they did without any intervention.
It’s not Get FISA Right‘s fault that the campaign didn’t succeed; social networking technologies worked amazingly well for Get FISA Right in 2008. Why didn’t they spawn another wave of resistance in 2009? Facebook and Twitter and WetPaint and the like are great for informing and mobilizing a large mass of people who are sympathetic but unaware. There is certainly a large mass of people who are unaware. But what if there isn’t a large mass of people who are sympathetic? Up to and during the election, partisan dissatisfaction with anything Bush helped to provoke sympathy on the FISA Amendments Act and Patriot Act issues. But Bush is gone, and so is the partisan source of sympathy.
What about reaching out to the media? A year ago or two years ago, certain elements of the media on Team Donkey would have followed the Judiciary proceedings closely and rallied attention to the injustice of it all. Keith Olbermann would have gotten red in the face with a special comment. DailyKos would have provided editors’ articles with tracking of the issue, spawning a wave of additional diaries. ThinkProgress would have savored each piece of GOP hypocrisy regarding the constitution like some kind of bacon-chocolate bon bon. But now that Team Donkey is taking over ownership of the surveillance issue, we aren’t going to get a big wave of help from Team Donkey. Keith Olbermann and HuffPost and a number of the Big Blue Blogs are on Team Donkey, and they aren’t going to talk down the Donkey.
The problem isn’t activating a slumbering mass of people who care, and it isn’t that Team Donkey media is unaware of the proceedings. The problem is confronting the huge majority of people who either never cared about the issue (the apathetic and the authoritarians) or who only cared about the issue when it was Bush’s issue. We see that large majority in the public who shrug when the issue’s brought up. We see that large majority among the media who don’t even cover the issue any more. And we see that large majority in political bodies like the Senate Judiciary Committee.
After the 2008 election, people in the public, in the media and in government who care about the Patriot Act are a small minority. That’s what’s changed in the last year. I don’t like to say it, but it’s been shown to be true. And we need to recognize that we are a small minority in order to figure out what to do next. What does a small minority do best?
I think the answer to that question will be different for different members of the small minority. If you’re a lawyer with the EFF or ACLU and have a lot of institutional resources at your disposal, you keep on filing lawsuits and making Freedom of Information requests. These groups, no matter how small the minority they represent, have a consistent and positive impact. The rest of us are grateful, and we’re writing checks to you as often as we can.
I’ve never really had friends in high places, but I imagine that if you have friends in high places, you keep on working through the channels you’ve established. Maybe they’ll listen if you give them nice sweaters for Christmas.
But if you aren’t an endowed lawyer, you don’t have friends in high places, and you don’t have a majority of the population who agrees with you, recognize your powerlessness and your freedom. You’re not going to win a court case, so you don’t have to be courtly. You’re not going to have a beer with the President and work it all out, so you don’t have to worry that he won’t be your friend. And you aren’t going to have a crowd of a hundred thousand at your back, so you don’t have to do anything big and coordinated. We little people have the freedom to be blunt, to be honest, and yes, as emptywheel proposes, to EMBARRASS people.
When Senator Amy Klobuchar doesn’t even know what amendment she’s voting on before she casts her vote, let’s call her on it, vocally, by name.
When Senator Al Franken surfs into office on a wave of Air America broadcasts berating Bush surveillance and the Patriot Act, then votes against Patriot Act reform, let’s call him on it, vocally, by name.
When Senator Chuck Schumer can’t even be bothered to show up for his committee meetings and votes as he’s told to by proxy, let’s call him on it, vocally, by name.
When President Barack Obama gives the Republicans some anti-liberty amendments to pass in their name, not his, let’s call him on it, vocally, by name.
Confronting and embarrassing people in power isn’t nice. But our politicians are not being nice, and unless we live in DC and are part of the dinner party circuit they are not and will not be our friends. As long as blunt confrontation is honest, it has its place. If Get FISA Right and the EFF and the ACLU need to continue to play nice to follow their own strategies, I understand that. But in that case I think there need to be some other groups out there that free themselves from the constraint of being nice.