Golden Oldie: Essay: The value of constructive criticism in the LGBT movement

by: OpenLeft

Wed Dec 29, 2010 at 19:00

An Adam Bink Golden Oldie
From Feb 25, 2010. Original HERE.

Over the weekend at Rootscamp and generally over the past few weeks, I've been participating in a series of conversations concerning the relationship between traditional "legacy" LGBT organizations- such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)- and online communities. Discussions have centered around how there has been a lot of "infighting" over the past few months. Two prominent examples are the blogswarm last week aimed at the Human Rights Campaign around its strategy on Don't Ask, Don't Tell, along with Bil Browning's criticism of GLAAD around The Cleveland Show episode, but criticisms in general- including in my writing, as you may have noticed- have been growing louder across the LGBT blogosphere for some time now.

What is interesting to me is where healthy dialogue turns into "infighting", and why it is deemed critical that progressive movement actors- such as President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders- need a "left flank", but the same does not seem to apply to LGBT organizations.

More on this, along with an interview w/HRC President Joe Solmonese, in the extended entry.

OpenLeft :: Golden Oldie: Essay: The value of constructive criticism in the LGBT movement
Let's first take a look at relationships between Presidents and progressive activists in a broader sense. Mike Lux has written here extensively regarding Obama and "the left" (to the point that one of his posts is titled Obama and the Left, Part 432 and Counting). In that piece, he correctly notes that Obama needs a left flank:

It is a natural tendency of any White House to be dismissive of criticism, and to play hardball when people disagree with you. The Obama team should not hesitate to defend itself when being pushed from the left, but I would caution against playing too hard at hardball. The Obama team needs a vibrant and vocal left flank, because the stronger their left flank is, the more Obama seems solidly in the middle. The White House would be well-served to fully support and empower progressive groups, media, and bloggers- even when they sometimes disagree with Obama.

In Mike's book, The Progressive Revolution, he cites Franklin Roosevelt's "make me do it" moment in which Roosevelt told activists on his left, such as labor leaders, that they had to push him so he could appear to be getting pressure from the left. Mike also once told me a similar story from his time in the Clinton Administration, when President Clinton told then-Rep. Bernie Sanders at the signing ceremony for the 1993 economic stimulus package that Sanders and his allies should have pushed him from the left a lot harder on the stimulus package so he could have a reason to push back in negotiations, citing getting pounded on by his base.

I think the theory of using pressure from the left as a means to accomplishing progressive goals is a sound one, and I think this theory applies to relationships between legacy LGBT organizations and netroots activists. LGBT organizations don't have it any different when it comes to negotiations. If I'm leading an organization and I'm able to tell a high-ranking Congressional leader or member of the Administration that I'm getting my brains bashed in by my members/community, with donor boycotts, angry calls flooding the lines, protests outside headquarters, etc.- that is all just as useful as a President claiming the same from the left.

Let's next take a look at the merits of such dialogue. Even legacy organizational leaders themselves say they value this kind of dialogue. While I was in Maine, I sat down with HRC President Joe Solmonese to discuss a variety of topics. Below is an excerpt on the topic of criticism of HRC and engagement with external activists.

You should watch the entire except, but I'll pull out two points Joe makes, the first of which I want to highlight here: that individuals like Pam Spaulding from Pam's House Blend, a noted LGBT blog, often have useful points to add when making criticisms. Joe says:

"So when Pam Spaulding has a criticism of HRC or a criticism of me or a criticism of the movement, I pay attention. And I don't always agree, but I don't think she'd expect that I always agree. But sometimes, I do. And a lot of times I read what she has to say and I say, 'okay, fair enough.' So just like everybody gets to be in this space and put forward their ideas and do what you're talking about, I have the right to read it all and to consume it all but to decide, at least for my own point of view, who I think constructive criticism and a valid point of view and who doesn't. And so there are lots of people like Pam, who, you know, I bet she criticizes HRC more than she praises us. But that's okay, because the criticism is constructive. And oftentimes the criticism is, 'I wish they hadn't done this, I wish they would've done this.' And I read that part of it, and I think, 'okay, fair enough. You know, that's a good point."

Quite right, and good on Joe for listening. Yet Pam offered one method of criticism by participating in the blogswarm aimed at HRC last week, and I can't tell you how many colleagues and friends jumped on this as "infighting" and questioning why activists were spending time arguing amongst themselves instead of targeting legislators. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Action-oriented criticism is just as useful as writing a blog post- often more so. If organizations aren't listening, then perhaps it's time to step up with action. You can't tell me it's okay for activists to write criticisms, but when they ask others to take action around it when it's clear the criticism isn't being heard, suddenly that's wrong. The point is that it all falls under the banner of constructive criticism, and this is healthy for movement actors to engage in, because, as Joe points out, people learn good points from each other.

The second point Joe makes which I want to highlight is that is that legacy organizations are not always right, nor do they have a monopoly on the best ideas. He says:

"Everybody has a right to come in and everybody has a right to be involved, and nobody, not me or HRC or Rea Carey from the Task Force, owns the agenda and owns the road forward."

This, too, is right. Too often there is a sense that legacy organizations- both LGBT and non-LGBT- are the "adults" in the room. Trust them, everyone's told. They have the access, the experience, the personal relationships. Give them space, and they'll deliver.

Except that's not always the case. Hell, one big reason many progressive bloggers started writing in the first place is because of the war in Iraq- Democratic Congressional leaders were seen as pushovers in 2002, and the strategy to get a quick vote on the war and then pivot to pro-Democratic issues in order to win the midterms was a misguided failure. And, to a great extent, intra-movement dialogues on strategy and tactics is healthy. There is historical precedent for this. Dr. King started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because he believed African-American churches were not aggressive enough on civil rights. Larry Kramer resigned from the board of Gay Men's Health Crisis and formed ACT UP because he believed GMHC was not doing enough political work- and in fact, he became extremely vocally negative in his criticisms of GMHC.

In both cases, activists had ideas about how to do it better. Both had different strategies than what was being pursued by traditional organizations. Both diverted resources. Both could be considered "infighting", especially Kramer's open criticisms. Yet both proved to be successful and useful in advancing their causes. The lesson that should be taken from this is that what some would call "infighting" sometimes result in even better organizations, strategies and tactics. I don't see a difference in what could come out of a healthy dialogue between legacy LGBT organizations and external activists.

So to answer the questions of friends who ask me why activism is being trained on HRC rather than Congress or the White House, the answer is simple: online activists occasionally have a different strategy, and that's not always a bad thing. What's important is that it's all open for dialogue. John Aravosis wrote up his theory of change in his blogswarm call to action: HRC has the ear of the White House, so they are the pressure point. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, but if you think his theory of change is wrong, then instead of lamenting all the infighting, make an argument for why it's a poor strategy. Another example: in my own writing, I have disagreed with the timidity of legacy organizations to criticize the Obama Administration when they've screwed up over the past year, such as in my interview with NGLTF Executive Director Rea Carey. I've also criticized (here, here, here and here) the lack of media pushback around issues like conventional wisdom in the 2010 elections, the Pentagon pushback on repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the White House demurring over that issue. My theory of change is that refusal to call out the Administration when necessary, and to engage in shaping the narrative in the media, has not worked, and those tactics are essential to getting movement on our issues. The point: I have a different strategy, so I'm going to make a case for it. Colleagues privately lament that while I'm spending time writing up such pieces, I could be spending time asking people to call Congress or whatever. Maybe. But I see sharper media pushback from legacy organizations and prominent advocates, who have the ear of Congress and the Administration when they write op-eds and go on TV/radio, as no less a valuable tool to pressure Congress as constituent pressure. If you disagree, make a case for it, rather than castigating those who advocate a different strategy than what's being pursued. And it's a two-way street: legacy organizations have the right to push back, and Pam, John and I should listen to that as well.

The bottom line here is that intra-movement dialogue is useful. No one has a monopoly on good strategies and tactics. They come from insiders at legacy organizations, they come from outsiders on blogs, and everywhere in between. As Mike wrote:

Change and progress never happened in this country without both insiders and outside agitators playing a strong role. The administration needs to respect the role of those outsiders, and those working for progress from the inside and the outside need to respect each other. There is no other way this is all going to work for the good.

This means that dismissing suggestions of how to do things better as "infighting" and lamenting "why can't we all just get along" isn't always the healthiest thing for an issue movement. Of course, it's often better if activists can work out differences privately first (and sometimes I wish folks would pick up the phone before launching a broadside), but if they can't, history has shown public disagreement and different courses of action taken aren't always the worst thing. And folks on both sides should try to engage and bring people in- in other words, help folks piss outside the tent, rather than in. Engage, rather than moan, lament, and dismiss. Like the Obama Administration and outside progressives, the LGBT movement needs the best ideas and effort from both the insiders and outsiders in order to succeed.

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As someone who fits quite nicely into the LGBT community I have a stake in this fight.  HRC has collected a lot of money and spent a lot of money on itself with minuscule results.  

ENDA ended in a fight because HRC Solmonese and Rep. Frank tossed the transgender community over the side.  The LGBT community rose up and in unity said "inclusive ENDA".

DADT repeal was dead until good people fought back and reintroduced it. The good people were not those who collect money to "represent" the LGBT community.  Good people embarrassed the collect money factions by chaining themselves to the WH fence.  We can thank Pelosi and the handful of senators to say it is time to get something passed - even if it in reality does not truly repeal DADT; Obama did not want a bill that actually repeals DADT so the current bill allows him to sign it and wait until the president and the Pentagon decide it is time to integrate open gay men and women into the military.  That is not repeal. Obama can sit on this until he is out of office.  

No matter the quantity of "news" articles there are about the LGBT community, the fact is we are a cohort of less than ten percent of the population. We are a tiny minority in numbers.  Why are we so important? Damned if I know.  I know we contribute money, but almost all communities do.

We are one of the last communities to be legally discriminated against. We have fewer equality rights than non-LGBT people.  We cannot have equality in marriage, Social Security or taxes.  Those battles could have taken place during the last two years.  But have not because we originally relied on HRC to be the leader on issues. It turns out there was no lead, just a lot of hot air and requests for more money.  The gAyTM is still closed.


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