An organizer explains a problem. She's doing a good job, but more is required.
The other day I had a conversation with a woman who'd been hired to mobilize neighbors to campaign to save a community hospital from a big nasty health profiteer. In this instance, she was mobilizing me. I was, naturally, wary. Being organized into a campaign means adding more responsibilities to an already over-full life. She was new in town and running into resistance. Having carried on her end of the conversation more than once, I was sympathetic.
Pretty soon, I got to hear her side of the story: coming from smaller places, some in the old rust belt, she found San Francisco incomprehensible. "I just don't know what gets people moving here...." she mourned.
"Yeah," says I. "They'll come out for what they feel as limits on their ability to be themselves, like feeling disrespected, having dogs, or not being allowed to dance late at night -- but not about the bedrock stuff: jobs, housing, healthcare."
"You got it," she replied.
I thought about this conversation this morning when while reading Paul Krugman's latest column [sub. wall, sorry]. He reported:
Krugman is hammering away at the right wing scam that has made conventional wisdom of the silly notion that you can't work to alleviate poverty unless you are poor. Go, Paul -- the idea can't stand the slightest examination. And I'm coming to believe that John Edwards deserves better.
My conversation with the organizer, in its way, is about another facet of the same issue. In this city, the truly poor are burdened with housing costs that often suck up fifty percent of their income, as well as an extremely costly general environment. They are hard to organize because they are working, and caring for children, and working, and caring for children, and working....
There are folks who can be organized who are a rung or two up the economic ladder -- not well off at all, but urban dwellers by choice who make the city their home because it offers them a chance to be themselves. Most of them need the same stuff the truly poor need: a living wage, affordable housing, access to health care. But having spent their whole lives deconstructing marketing pitches, often rejecting some facets of conventional expectations, and finding a place in which to express their sense of themselves, they are allergic to appeals that don't validate their cherished individuality. And in this city, a great many of these folks are gay, and for them (us), all that goes double.
This makes people here as demanding of a promise of "authenticity," on their terms, as the folks Krugman points to who are being conned by lobbyist/actor Fred Thompson with his rented used pick-up truck and jeans. Or as New Yorkers who aren't going to support a Red Sox fan!
Krugman is right, as far as he goes, with this suggestion:
No doubt about it, that would help. But campaigners usually recognize that for many, perhaps most of us, there's a step that comes first, before we'll even listen to the policy prescriptions.
That step: we all want to feel that this is a candidacy (or my organizer's case, this is a campaign) in which, if I get involved, I won't be dissed for who I am. For people of color, for gay folks, that's usually obvious -- even though lots of quite well meaning campaigns don't know how to send that signal. The phony "authenticity" Krugman is talking is the same phenomenon writ large.
- The internets are speeding fragmentation of cultural markers. This began with cable TV; we don't all look to the same cultural sources. More and more niche expressions of personal identity become possible all the time. This is both opportunity for smart candidates who can recruit authentic messengers to reach into these geographically dispersed pockets of personal identity -- and something of a threat, since dispersed messengers may get "off message." Get used to it.
- Smart campaigns listen to the folks they want to organize. Obvious of course, but how many of us feel listened to by politicians or campaigners? When we aren't listened to, we're on our guard -- and it become hard to pass the authenticity test.
- Faking it has limits. Bill Clinton could get away with playing the sax on TV because he really is that kind of ham. Most pols just make fools of themselves.