'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, June 07, 2012

firedoglake on Life Support (Part 1) 

Over the years, I have been preoccupied with how radicalized people can be effectively organized in this atomized society. Hence, my interest in the demise of labor unions and their self-absorbed leadership that considers any sincerely motivated rank and file social activism as a threat. Instead of challenging the neoliberal order, they have aligned themselves with it, policing the boundaries of acceptable, innocuous protest, as they did in Wisconsin, with disasterous results. I find myself experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance in regard to them, recognizing that they lost their historical agency decades ago, but incapable of identifying an alternative.

Similarly, I have looked to the Internet for places operated by people with a sufficiently independent turn of mind outside the progressive establishment. In 2006 or so, I discovered firedoglake, a progressive site operated by Jane Hamsher and Christy Hardin Smith, although Hardin Smith has not been involved with the site for several years, possibly for health reasons. firedoglake was interesting to me, as was the late Steve Gilliard's The News Blog, because anti-imperialists and leftists openly posted there without being moderated out of existence. Both were a marked contrast to mainstream progressive sites where the participants self-censored themselves in regard to challenging the Democratic Party and got rid of anyone who didn't do so. I posted comments on Gilliard's site frequently, he relished hard nosed political discussion, the more contentious, the better. I still remember going back and forth with him about whether US soldiers who enlisted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be held morally responsible for that decision. Conversely, I declined to post comments at firedoglake because I had an intuitive sense that I wasn't going to get along well with the kool kids who ran the site, epitomized by Hamsher herself, an intuition that was confirmed earlier this year. Even so, I was a lurker because I noticed that posters and commenters had a relatively ideologically free hand. Moreover, it was evident that the people forming the firedoglake community were going through a radicalized political evolution, the kind of evolution that many of us on the left hope, against all odds, to happen in this country. As with any such evolution, it was messy, erratic, abrasive and inconsistent.

But it was an evolution experienced by people who were trying to put into practice the old adage attributed to Lenin: Be as radical as reality. Accordingly, the initial approaches were reformist, with an emphasis upon more and better Democrats and an insistence upon subjecting the malefactors of the Bush administration to the rule of law. While I was indifferent to both approaches, ridiculing the expectation that US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald would accomplish anything of political significance through his investigation of Lewis Libby, I perceived that the people involved in these efforts were going through an important educational process. By 2008, after the bitter progressive disappointment with the 2007 Democratic Congress, a disappointment intensified by the betrayals of some newly elected representatives who had benefitted from firedoglake fundraising efforts, Hamsher had the good sense to stay out of the fight between Obama and Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, even though most of the people who posted and commented on the campaign were Obama supporters. firedoglake participants were not immune to the euphoria associated with Obama's candidacy. Perhaps, she perceived, in light of her experience with the 2007 Congress, that there was much worse to come.

If so, Hamsher was correct. To her credit, she put her personal resources to work through the site, exposing the mendacity of those involved in the Obama administration with the same rigor that she had done in regard to the Bush one. She hired journalists like Jon Walker and David Dayen to cover almost every aspect of Obama's capitulation to capital: the conscious refusal to provide sufficient stimulus for an economic recovery, the bank bailouts, the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the refusal to stem the tidal wave of foreclosures and, of course, health care reform. While she did not personally emphasize it, journalists and posters exposed the horrific violence of Obama's variation on the war on terror. For this, she was reviled by mainstream progressives aligned with the Democrats as they called people who identified with her site firebaggers. She even embraced the effort to defend Bradley Manning when everyone other than gays and lesbians and radical leftists considered him a pariah. Along with leftists like Louis Proyect, Pham Binh and Richard Seymour, she immediately recognized the importance of Occupy, and hired Kevin Gosztola to cover it, and raised money to provide supplies for occupations.

Unfortunately for firedoglake, however, Occupy has proven to be more polarizing than unifying, partially because it emerged just prior to the 2012 campaign. It emboldened those who had rejected the US electoral process to express themselves more aggressively, while those who remained aligned with Obama responded in kind. There have therefore been a number of nasty arguments on the site that have been poorly moderated by people who support Obama and the Democrats, a conflict that exploded, curiously enough, when someone was banned for posting an anti-Zionist article. If the number of comments are any indication, site traffic dropped significantly after this episode. Meanwhile, contemporaneous with this, Hamsher became paranoid about what she perceived as efforts to disrupt the site, as most embarrassingly revealed when she characterized me as either a Department of Homeland Security or K Street operative. Or, at least, she came across as paranoid, but it could have been an instance of crazy like a fox, hiding behind the absurdity of police and lobbyist infiltration to justify running off people like me from the site, people that she understands all too well. If so, she succeeded, as demonstrated by the melancholy tone of those who remain in the firedoglake community. One even comes across references to those who have been driven away, and elliptical statements to the effect that the damage is real and major.

Indeed it is. And while firedoglake is merely one website among many, it was, until recently, a popular one, and, more importantly, one that facilitated the social and political education of many sincere, highly motivated people. I doubt that it has the capacity to do so any longer, and, for those of us who understand that the radical transformation of this country is dependent upon spaces, however imperfect, it is a great loss. In this, it prefigures Occupy and efforts that will invariably emerge in the future. As with the struggles within Occupy Oakland, it is essential that we learn from them in order to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

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