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Responding to the Nation


Michael Albert

The

Nation’s (Sept 3) unsigned editorial treats Pacifica’s management as if they

have “worthy” aims but indulge in a bit too much coffee each morning. Yet

Pacifica’s management has routinely lied, employed pink slips as a bludgeon,

hired thugs, issued threats, and actually used force to stifle differences,

quell dissent, and even physically intimidate and exile work that’s too radical

for their taste, as with Democracy Now. Pacifica should not be run by a board of

corporate-aligned folks even if those folks had worthy aims, which they don’t.

The task isn’t to convince Pacifica’s board and its management to be a bit more

forthcoming. The task is to force them to resign.

The

Nation editorial treats Pacifica’s dissidents as if they may have some

grievances but also lack “a willingness to be open to change” and have lost

touch with reality in adopting a funding boycott tactic. Yet these dissidents

have steadfastly defended workplace democracy and progressive content against

corporatization for a decade, and are finally winning, in part because of that

boycott.

The

Nation tells the dissidents to drop their boycott, as effective as it has been,

but offers no means by which other pressure might be generated. If The Nation

doesn’t like the funding boycott, do they advocate the direct tactic of making

life miserable for board members where they work? Do they favor pickets? Do they

propose withdrawal of content? Or are they implicitly advocating that dissidents

rely only on the moral largesse or political principles of board members and

managers who have for years now displayed literally none of either?

To

the rulers of Pacifica The Nation urges  “a commitment to respecting its

employees and a restructuring of the organization to grant more legal power to

the staff and listeners.” That’s a nice aim, depending on how much power is

transferred, but why would anyone anticipate this transformation other than due

to pressures brought to bear to force it?

To

its readers, The Nation reports that Pacifica’s managers have a worthy aim – to

increase audience. But when Pacifica’s management says they want to increase

audience, do they seek to do so to advance social change, or is it to build

their own stature, incomes, and credibility within the mainstream? If they were

offering news, analysis, and commentary that increasingly serves oppressed

constituencies and progressive movements we could deduce that they have the

former motive in mind. But since they instead have been systematically firing

progressive broadcasters and dumping progressive listeners in order to attract a

mainstream audience and mainstream respectability, we can deduce the latter

motive.

What

begs for explanation about The Nation’s continued ties to Pacifica’s management,

is why they persist at all. How can The Nation refuse to aggressively support

those trying to democratize and restore Pacifica to its progressive roots? How

can they ally with overtly thuggish corporatists? How can The Nation editorially

waffle about behavior they would dismiss as horrific if it were displayed at the

New York Times?

One

prevalent answer that I don’t buy says the division at Pacifica is between

favoring progressive and radical politics as compared to favoring liberal

politics, and that The Nation prefers the latter. First, I don’t think

corporatization began at Pacifica in order to water down Pacifica’s politics. I

think instead watered-down politics has arisen naturally out of corporatization,

and that corporatization was pursued because the board is composed of corporate

types and the management of management types, and they were acting on their own

interests. But second, regardless of that, I don’t believe that The Nation would

prefer a WBAI that plays music all day ala Pacifica Houston to one that has lots

of progressive content, more than in the past, even. They don’t dislike

Democracy Now. They don’t dislike Amy Goodman. If Goodman went to a White House

briefing and got treated as she has been treated at WBAI, The Nation would have

apoplexy about it, and rightly so. Sure, they might differ with the most radical

content that appears on Democracy Now, but mostly they love the show and

Goodman, I bet, and they would like to have more shows like it available, not

less. No, The Nation’s at best tepid support for the Pacifica dissidents and its

continuing respect for Pacifica management, does not occur because they welcome

Pacifica management’s likelihood of getting rid of Democracy Now and other

serious progressive and left content, but, on the contrary, despite that

likelihood. That’s why it needs further explanation. And this holds for many

other institutions that have been on the sidelines of this struggle, as well.

Some

argue that the Nation’s decision makers have a tally sheet and feel that

currying favor with Pacifica’s bosses will yield benefits in terms of more

Nation-originated Pacifica shows which will in turn offset any hostile reactions

to their opportunism. So when some of The Nation’s readers write in letters that

condemn The Nation’s actions on this issue and cancel their subscriptions, it

hurts a bit, sure, but not nearly enough in their accounting to outweigh the

gain that would derive from getting a new show on the Pacifica network.  

My

own explanation for The Nation’s behavior doesn’t reject the above insight, but

takes the logic somewhat further. I think The Nation’s managers probably don’t

like Pacifica management’s gross callousness and heavy-handedness and certainly

don’t welcome the de-politicization of the Pacifica network. But I also think

they have a shared interest with Pacifica’s management about organizational

principles.

Long-term Pacifica dissidents favor workplace democracy plus serious efforts to

incorporate audience desires. Why is this so much of a problem for The Nation

that its rulers would rather align with corporatists on the Pacifica board than

ally with Pacifica’s dissenters and run the risk that the dissenters might win

all they seek?

I

think the answer is that if the dissidents at Pacifica win their struggle it

sends a loud message that a few elite folks should not call the shots in

progressive institutions. The people doing the work and the people consuming the

product should call the shots. Worker and consumer preferences, not the dictates

of a few rulers who enjoy elite ownership rights, legal status, access to big

money, or positions of decision-making influence, should direct outcomes.

At

Pacifica this would mean restructuring each station and the whole network to

incorporate workplace democracy as well as effective means of communication with

affected constituencies and audiences. Why would The Nation not want to

strengthen and encourage movements seeking such ends? Well, if Pacifica changes

thusly, the question naturally arises, why shouldn’t The Nation change thusly as

well? And for that matter what about Mother Jones, and what about Greenpeace or

The Institute for Policy Studies, or any institution that wants to claim the

mantle of democracy and progressivism, much less leftism? If Pacifica changes as

the full logic of dissidence there dictates, what happens to the rates of pay,

to the allocation of job responsibilities, and especially to the mechanisms of

decision-making at Pacifica? And more, what happens to them at other

institutions? Do they come up for the same scrutiny and transformation elsewhere

as at a restructured Pacifica?

Let’s

face it. Pacifica’s managers and board members have become incredibly vile.

There just can’t be any remaining confusion about that. So why isn’t there

finally a united and really massive outcry about the decade-old Pacifica

struggle from decision-makers at all other progressive institutions?

Sure,

part of what limits an outcry is that folks are too busy and have their own work

to do. That’s reasonable, of course. But ten years of being too busy when so

much is at stake?

And

part of it is rank opportunism in thinking that by hedging bets or even outright

supporting management, one may gain more than by opposing them. It is not

pretty, but its likely part of the answer, at least in some cases.

But I

think the far more important and revealing answer is that many decision makers

at other progressive institutions aren’t taking a strong stand on behalf of the

Pacifica dissidents precisely because they are decision makers at other

progressive institutions. As such, they identify more strongly with even

thuggish decision-makers at Pacifica than they do with workers who advocate

serious participation and democracy at Pacifica. In essence, with rare

exceptions, the bottom line is that owners and managers will be owners and

managers. What is ultimately at stake in the Pacifica struggle is the economic

and political structure of our institutions and movements. And the fact is,

especially at the top of such institutions and movements, there are very serious

disagreements about what structures are desirable.

We

can put all this in a more strategic light.

Suppose a few of the interns or of the employees who clean the offices or who

typeset the copy at The Nation stood up in 1990 and started to complain about

their lack of say in the institution they work at. The difference from Pacifica

at that time wasn’t that at The Nation such folks would have gotten a more

serious and generous hearing after which sober and well conceptualized change

would have ensued. It is that at The Nation they would have had their asses

fired even faster than repression came at Pacifica, and the carnage would have

been quick and invisible so that there would have been no further struggle

keeping the matter in view for a decade. But now let’s suppose the Pacifica

dissidents win and Pacifica is dramatically restructured to facilitate real

workplace democracy and just distribution of rewards and tasks. And let’s say in

2002 some of those who work at but nonetheless have no say at The Nation, or at

sother progressive institution, begin to demand change. This will not be easy to

deflect if the dissidents have as a positive example and as a staunch ally the

workers and listeners and thus the airwaves of Pacifica.

The

ultimate problem with the struggle at Pacifica from the point of view of the

people who run other progressive institutions like The Nation, and who therefore

also determine the content of unsigned editorials like the one that provoked

this commentary, is that if the good guys at Pacifica win then their struggle

and its outcome can become a good example that can inspire and spread even into

other progressive institutions. Surprise: The owners and managers of those

institutions do not favor that outcome.

For years it has been obvious that the Pacifica battle, if it is to truly live

up to all the energy and courage that has gone into it, can’t only be about

removing folks who in a harsh conflict descend into thuggishness–but has to

instead also be about removing the structures that make thuggishness the

preferred final resort in such encounters, and that make such encounters

necessary at all.

 

 

 

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