Whenever I think it can’t get any weirder in US politics and social progress, things always get weirder. Is it me? Am I over-dramatizing, or is this how some Germans felt as the Nazis began to garner popular support in the 1930s? Upton Sinclair, writer, muckraker and author of the novel “The Jungle,” which exposed the horrific conditions of the meat-packing industry, said, “When fascism comes to America, it’ll be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Sure enough, Christine O’Donnell — the winner of the Republican primary in Delaware — has her flag-and-cross street credentials. What’s a progressive to do in these upside-down, surreal times when Sarah Palin and Tea Bag Party support can get a flag-flapping, cross-carrying, Bible-thumper like O’Donnell on the national stage?
One thing we can do immediately is read Jamie Court’s latest book, “The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell.” (Jamie is the president of Consumer Watchdog.) The book’s subtitle is meaty: “How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws and Get the Change We Voted For,” and for good measure the subtitle has a subtitle, “a direct democracy toolkit.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been on the board of Consumer Watchdog since the insurance-rate rollback Proposition 103 days, when our nonprofit was called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. Thank goodness we changed our name, because the name FTCR was the total opposite of social commentator Malcolm Gladwell’s term “sticky.” The name FTCR was so slippery I could barely remember it … and I sat on the board. “Consumer Watchdog” is not only sticky, it’s got teeth and we’ll bite you if you’re bad! Anyway, Jamie is a friend, colleague and committed activist.
Regardless of my association with the author, I would urge anyone who is serious about social change to read “Raising Hell” because we need all the help we can get to stop the Tea Bag Party from gutting the social progress we’ve considered to be in place since not only the New Deal but even from Upton Sinclair’s era: the robber baron days. It’s just mind-boggling to me how often well-meaning, patriotic people who proudly call themselves Tea Baggers can’t see or feel the big corporate puppeteers pulling their strings.
“Raising Hell” will give you not only historical perspective on the initiative or referendum process, but also empower you to see how important California is for the other 24 states (and District of Columbia) that also have initiative processes. As much of a pain in the butt all of our propositions can be — and I have occasionally cursed the process myself — it truly is one of the fastest, most direct ways to make an impact on important issues that legislators are either too timid or corrupt to tackle.
For example, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that Big Oil is going to fight tooth and nail to keep us addicted to oil and profits. (Read Alaine Lowell’s “Going Dutch” in the PW to understand why Big Oil wants to keep marijuana illegal. Hint: Hemp provides a sustainable fuel source.) Transforming an oil-based economy can’t be done by desire alone. We have to alter EVERYTHING, and Big Oil is going to make us afraid that we will suffer if we go green, as if we’re not already suffering, right?
Consumer Watchdog and Jamie Court come from the point of view that all of the Davids and Davitas together can take down the Goliaths, especially in an era of social media. That said, it’s no accident Consumer Watchdog and Court have their attention focused on Internet giants like Google and Yahoo, behemoths that are key in making communications more democratic but also have a giant potential for abuse.
Possibly one of the most important fights looming on the horizon — one that will directly impact our democracy — is the idea of dumping net neutrality for a “tiered Internet.” If you’re not familiar with these terms, if we lose net neutrality it would mean there’ll be different levels of Internet access based on pricing; the folks with the big bucks and big corporate Web sites will be able to offer faster access speeds to users, while those with less money — bloggers, activists, basically the rest of us — will be left on the side of the Internet superhighway with their messages slowed to a crawl and possibly side-tracked by having to fix digital flats and overheated engines. Then, the Web becomes another tool of the corporate elite, rather than the more level playing ground that it currently is.
One of the aspects of “Raising Hell” that is most moving to me is Court’s heart and humor. Indeed, he is a micro example of what social movements need for macro change; never give up and keep laughing and dancing until the others hear you. Consumer Watchdog has stayed as pure as it has because of my friend, Harvey Rosenfield, who is the “father” of Proposition 103 and also the friend and mentor of Jamie Court. Harvey is a mensch and his selection of board members reflects that. Harvey once said during a speech at a Consumer Watchdog Rage for Justice dinner that he wakes up every morning wondering how he can “get the bastards today.”
We can help get the bastards by reading Court’s book and helping it go viral. (Go to Robert Greenwald’s take on Jamie’s book: http://bit.ly/cLZ5RB.)
Ellen Snortland teaches writing and hell-raising in Altadena. http://www.snortland.com.