Point Austin: Reading the Roots

They came, they saw, they blogged

Point Austin: Reading the Roots
Photo by Jana Birchum

If you retained any lingering doubts whether the "netroots" are necessary, a glance at Sunday morning's Statesman would have alleviated them. The front page featured a Netroots Nation convention wrap-up ("Netroots gets a lift from unexpected visit by Gore") by Patrick Beach so inane it appeared to be compiled from a cartoon manual of smear-the-liberals clichés: Insert condescendingly and at random terms like "intellectuals," "Birkenstocks," "no fun," and so on. The worst of these witless jabs was a lead sneer at U.S. House speaker and convention speaker Nancy Pelosi, to whom Beach applied this pathetic zinger: "[Pelosi] is arguably so left-leaning that her parenthetical should be D-Beijing."

Even setting aside the employment of a form of red-baiting so antique it recalls the Eisenhower administration, the man who wrote that feckless sentence simply doesn't know the actual, contemporary meanings of "left," "Beijing," or even "Nancy Pelosi," none of which belongs in the same punch line. Why he would be assigned to cover a convention of left/liberal political activists at all is a question that seems not to have occurred to his Statesman editors.

Or at least not until the story appeared and went viral via DailyKos, where Editor & Publisher editor (and convention speaker) Greg Mitchell wrote about it, less annoyed than puzzled by Beach's dreary compilation of warmed-over Sixties stereotypes. The Kos site and then the Statesman site soon began to catch serious flame from readers both outraged and astounded by the daily's ineptness, but by Monday morning, both the reader comments and Beach's story had been scrubbed from the Statesman site. That was followed (online Monday, in print Tuesday) by Editor Fred Zipp's semi-apology: "In trying for a humorous take on the Netroots phenomenon without labeling it something other than a straightforward news story, we compromised our standards." Keep trying, Fred. (And he did: On Tuesday afternoon, Beach's story – now labeled "Commentary" – suddenly reappeared under Zipp's apology. Watch that space.) As for "standards" – the first home-page-posted Statesman story from the convention was a video "interview" with "Obama Girl" Amber Lee Ettinger, in which the spokesmodel came off more intelligent and more courteous than her interrogator.*

The Statesman can clean up its own mess – suppressing the Beach story and comments only compounded the initial silliness – but it's worth noting that without the quick reaction and buzzing response from those pesky netroots, Beach's lame caricature would have quietly become the local mainstream "perspective" on Netroots. Mitchell's contemporaneous mockery, amplified by the blogosphere, quickly highlighted the story's superficiality ... and impertinently burst its bubble of hot air.

Solve This

On to more substantive matters. Although comfortably Dem blue in sentiment, the convention was no ideological monolith, and Pelosi was treated to sharp questions from the Web and the floor about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, impeachment, the endless Iraq war, and the failure of congressional Dems to do much about any of them. She dodged most of these (a Q&A with 2,000 people is not terribly productive), specifically blaming the FISA surrender on 17 Democratic senators ("This was the best bill we could get") and punting the simmering question of administrative accountability for high crimes and misdemeanors to Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers. Despite some intermittent grumbling and a listless Code Pink Superheroes chorus line (don't ask) at the back of the hall, it was largely a Pelosi-friendly crowd. And when special guest Al Gore appeared, to promote the aggressively bipartisan WeCanSolveIt.org, the session suddenly became a multiple-ovation enviro rock concert.

Inspiring, but not terribly newsworthy. Gore issued his challenge that the U.S. move to a completely renewable-energy electric grid in 10 years (see the website for details), a beaming Pelosi didn't quite sign on, and there were a couple more ovations. Gore closed, "I want your grandchildren to know that you were there at the beginning of the effort to reclaim American democracy."

Waiting for Obama

That remained very much an open question. As at most conventions, the grittier action was in the workshops and panels, where speakers and activists mulled the war, the constitutional crisis (make that crises), the still undefined promise of an Obama administration, the narrow possibilities of a real "change" election, and the rather more likely continuity of current federal policies, domestic and international, in the absence of an effective democratic opposition. Keynoter Lawrence Lessig addressed the broader problems on that score in his engaging Saturday presentation of "Change Congress" – the latest and cheerfully quixotic attempt at serious, bipartisan campaign finance reform (see "Bloggers and Pamphleteers," July 11).

And the overall tone of the convention was undeniably upbeat, although several speakers cautioned that the only thing that can keep the feds honest – Republican or Democrat – is widespread, persistent public pressure, a notoriously fickle weapon. Mark Danner, in a discussion of "War Pundits," contemplated the broad swings of public support for and against the Iraq war – largely determined by the evanescent scent of "victory" – and cautioned his audience against presuming that public sentiment is always admirable or reliable.

The dourest panel on matters of public responsibility, taking place on Saturday afternoon, included Jen Nessel and Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, ACLU staff attorney Jameel Jaffer, and reporters Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater) and Dahlia Lithwick of Slate. The grim atmosphere on the dais was entirely earned: The CCR folks have been defending Guantánamo prisoners for years, with mostly symbolic success; Jaffer had just sued the feds again to block FISA (see "Point Austin," July 18); and their respective beats (Iraq for Scahill, the Supreme Court for Lithwick) have not exactly given the reporters a rose-colored view of the U.S. government. Much of the discussion concerned how an Obama administration (if willing) could pursue accountability for war crimes, constitutional violations, and other widespread lawbreaking under the Bush administration – if not for punishment, then at least for a true historical accounting.

The prospects appear slim. Scahill declared bluntly, "[Accountability] would only happen if the Democrats weren't the Democrats, and the Democrats are the Democrats." It was difficult to disagree, since the highest profile Dems on the weekend's program – notably Obama legal adviser Cass Sunstein and Pelosi herself, among several others – were visibly skittish at any mention of prospective accountability, not wanting (in Sunstein's defensive phrasing) to "criminalize policy differences."

The Long March

Admittedly, the wry skepticism of this panel (Scahill: "I'm not asking you to divorce Obama, just to cheat on him with a little bit of conscience"+) was on the whole a convention exception. The prospect of "Turning Texas (and everywhere else) Blue" suffused the weekend with a heady Democratic optimism, an implacable conviction that yet another "long national nightmare" is nearing an end. Speakers kept counting down the days to the November election or the end of the Bush administration or pondering the "first 100 days" of the Glorious Era of Obama. There's nothing wrong with any of that – elections aren't won by the disillusioned, as Republican campaigners are bitterly learning. But it's worth keeping in mind that an election is only the beginning, not the end, of a very long campaign for peace and justice.

*The Statesman's Omar Gallaga called to inform me that his interview with Ettinger was not the first Netroots story posted, just the first video. Indeed, that morning's editorial sternly informed the bloggers that they should not presume to try to influence the policies of the presidential nominee. +This quotation originally read, "cheat on him with the Constitution," but thanks to Rachel Farris of Mean Rachel, and a check of our video clip, I discovered my almost legible notes had deceived me.

VIDEO SIDEBAR: Jeremy Scahill on Iraq and Democratic Timidity

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