Old hippie, new hippie, red yippie, blue yippie

Bernie Sanders is discovering that it’s a big old world out there, now that he’s ventured far beyond the friendly borders of Vermont. The more he’s taken seriously as a candidate, the more scrutiny he’s starting to receive. Much of it, to this point, from the left; the right and the mainstream media don’t yet see him as a serious contender worthy of scrutiny.

The leftist critique includes a very close examination of his feminist credentials in a four-part blogpost on Shakesville, a progressive feminist blog.

Then there was his appearance at the Netroots Nation conference last Saturday, when he was confronted by activists protesting police violence against black people. And honestly, he handled it with all the grace you’d expect from an old guy who’s been talking from the same script for years.

Before he took the stage, fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley’s own appearance had been disrupted by the protesters. (O’M handled it worse than Bernie did, but he’s gotten less attention because he’s doing so badly in the polls.) And then:

When Sanders approached the stage a moment later, the demonstrators continued. The candidate, a favorite of Netroots Nation, threatened to leave if they continued to interrupt him.

“Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” he said. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”

Sanders proceeded to deliver his usual presidential stump speech over sporadic shouting from below.

“Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!”

Good old Bernie has run into a couple of hard realities:

— What was progressive in 1969 does not necessarily qualify in 2015.

— If there’s one thing the left is good at, it’s circular firing squads.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to interview Allen Ginsberg, poet/activist/shitkicker/publicist for the Beat Generation. He was supremely gifted as a publicist for his literary movement. That’s not a bad thing; many artists are also salespeople for what they create. (Ask me about Robert Fripp.) There was a lot to like about Ginsberg, his thoughtfulness, his energy, his insight. But one negative stuck with me: he tried to claim that the Beats inspired everything that followed, including the feminist movement.

Which is pure hogwash. The Beats were deeply misogynist, as were many of the Sixties’ most prominent figures. Bernie Sanders is a creature of his time; he sees social inequality first and foremost as an economic problem. Those who’ve been on the short end of sexism, racism, and gender identity discrimination know better, and Bernie’s words rang hollow.

And it took him a good couple of days to recalibrate. After which he sent out a burst of Tweets about Sandra Bland. Righteous, but also kind of overcompensating.

If Bernie’s going to survive the rough and tumble of this endless campaign, he’ll have to become much more nimble in public forums, be they debates, Q&A’s, or speeches interrupted by protesters. It’s likely that he will face more confrontations from left-wing groups who are quick to form Purity Patrols whenever one of their own doesn’t seem quite radical enough.

The Shakesville piece, a longform essay in four substantial parts, explores Sanders’ rather checkered past with regard to gender issues. No more checkered than anyone of his generation, I suspect, but there’s some uncomfortable stuff. The essayist, writing under the pen name Aphra Behn, explores Sanders’ writings from the 1970s. We’ve heard more than enough about that one infamous piece, but she reads further and finds a pattern:

The essays certainly touch on gender issues, but most often as related to broader themes of liberation, including sexual. Sometimes, yes, they are downright creepy. In every case, they seem to reflect a Sanders who cares about equality generally, but hadn’t engaged with feminism, or considered his male privilege, at all.

Want some o’ that creepy? Try this:

“The revolution comes when two strangers smile at each other. …when a commune is started and people start to trust one another, when a young man refuses to go to war and when a girl pushes aside all that her mother has ‘taught’ her and accepts her boyfriends [sic] love.”

Eeeeww. Behn has plenty of excerpts like that, but I’ll let you click on over if you want more.

She also unearths an instructive bit from Sanders’ own campaign diary from 1972, which could go a long way toward explaining his current difficulties in broadening his appeal beyond the affluent, college-educated precincts of liberalism:

—Went through a factory in Bennington with endless rows of middle-aged to elderly women sitting behind sewing machines. Horrible. “Excuse me, I’m Bernard Sanders, Liberty Union candidate for governor. Have you heard of Liberty Union? Well, if you get a chance I’d appreciate it if you read this.” And out goes the leaflet. A very deadly place. Barely made it through. As I left I heard a few women making snickering comments about Dr. Spock running for president. [ed: Spock ran on the Progressive Party ticked and was supported by Liberty Union in Vermont.] And I thought everybody liked Dr. Spock. I knew I wouldn’t get one vote from that place.

Our Man Bernie meets with some resistance.

Our Man Bernie meets with some resistance.

He couldn’t understand that women working their fingers to the bone would be less than enthusiastic about reading a political leaflet. Nor could he see that Dr. Spock was a polarizing figure at the time — and not necessarily a hero to women for his child-rearing ideas, which haven’t aged all that well.

Behn also cites dismissive remarks made by Sanders about female politicians, who were fighting against very strong headwinds in the 70s and 80s. He saw no relevance to their gender — as a game-changing fact in a male-dominated world, as a symbol to all women, and as bearers of firsthand insight into the challenges of being a woman at the time. In mounting an independent candidacy for Governor in 1986, he called incumbent Democrat Madeleine Kunin and Republican Peter Smith “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” in spite of Kunin’s accomplishments and her status as a political pioneer.

And he claimed he was better on women’s issues than Kunin. Of course, he framed women’s issues in predominantly economic terms, as if women’s struggles were no different than those of any disadvantaged male.

All this could be dismissed as water under the bridge, happened long ago, Bernie’s learned a lot, except…

— There’s so damn much of it. A lot more than that one essay that’s gotten a lot of play in the media.

— There are strong echoes of his past in that Netroots performance: the self-contained, rather entitled smart guy mansplaining to a crowd of women and minorities.

Which is not to say that Bernie Sanders is a phony or a turncoat. Nobody’s perfect, and Behn acknowledges that overall, he’s got a very strong progressive record. But this is the kind of thorough scrutiny he’ll face from the left. And he’ll have to have better answers than he did at Netroots.

At the same time, he can’t abandon the message that’s won him so much support and enthusiasm. If anything, he’ll have to find ways to connect with voters who haven’t already Felt The Bern, even as eagle-eyed lefties are on the lookout for any signs of compromise.

Trouble is, Bernie Sanders has many fine qualities, but being light on his feet is not one of them. We’re in the early stages of a long, long, Oh Lord Please Deliver Us looooong campaign. Will we see more Berniementum, or will we get to a point of Bernout?

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16 thoughts on “Old hippie, new hippie, red yippie, blue yippie

  1. sue prent

    If you’re looking for the quick political pivot from message that sleekly adjusts to every disruption, you won’t get that from Bernie.

    Thank goodness.

    Some of his personal power lies in his refusal to take the bait…from any corner.

    It’s relatively easy to respond with remarks that everyone wants to hear in the moment. This is the career politician’s stock in trade, but rarely carries any commitment to principle.

    I strongly suspect that Bernie will not sacrifice his focus in order to dodge criticism.

    If forty-year old freshman fiction is the most potent offense that can be summoned against Bernie, the press deserves the crown of triviality they have accepted. This and Trump-fever are in large part why we keep getting the government that we deserve rather than the one we want.

    Reply
  2. odumodum

    The problem he’s having – and I’m afraid will continue to have, unless somebody really close to him can lay it out – is one of respect. Traditionally disempowered, disenfranchised, and oppressed people and groups expect first and foremost to be listened to. To be respected. To have, not simply their struggles validated, but to be acknowledged clearly and unambiguously as the experts on their own struggles.

    Again, this is basic respect I’m referring to, but it’s so often hard to come by. Members of the majority are always so defensive about granting such groups and individuals even this most fundamental dignity because they feel it diminishes themselves somehow. Hell, maybe it does – but who cares? Humility is supposed to be a virtue. It’s in such short supply, though, that “mansplaining” and “whitesplaining” are more the rule than the exception, and learning to accept the fact that a person’s or persons’ reaction to oppression is not subject to their personal approval is the hobgoblin of straight-white-dude lefties… and the further to the left they are, the harder time they often have.

    Reply
    1. odum

      Okay, so first it didn’t post, then it posted as “odumodum?” Weird.

      But what I’m reading in the comments from otherwise intelligent folk has me nervous; too much covering the eyes and ears and “nanana NOT LISTENING nanana.” We can do that all the way to greater racial conflicts and more circular firing squads. I sure don’t see how showing deference and respect to appropriately and understandably angry members of the African American community (without lecturing and chastising them) should in any way equate to him “sacrific(ing)his focus” or “taking the bait.” It’s simple respect. It’s also simple reality. Whitesplaining will not get him far in the primary, period, no matter how parochial we may feel about him. And frankly, that’s the way it should be.

      Just because we may identify with Bernie personally, doesn’t mean we have to take all and any criticism personally. That way lies madness, and a whole lot of social inertia. It’s not too much to ask that we listen.

      And it’s certainly not too much to ask that somebody applying for the position of the most powerful person in the world learn to listen, either.

      Reply
      1. sue prent

        I am not sure what you are referring to as not “showing deference and respect.” All I saw was a speaker offering to leave the stage if the people yelling at him weren’t interested in what he had to say. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

        Putting on an “outrage hat” and making political hay isn’t showing respect. It’s pandering, and rarely translates to actual policy.

        Bernie isn’t himself black, and it would be disingenuous to represent himself as individually able to channel black anger into patent solutions for a societal blight that has so far resisted eradication for the entire history of this country.

        He can, however, offer some actual policy solutions for social inequities that affect all low-income and poor Americans. That is what, as a candidate, he brings to the table.

        Social justice for ALL is his brand and always has been.

        His message might not be as flashy and ‘seize-the-moment’ as that of other candidates, but it is consistent and focussed on igniting a move toward genuine change, not just window-dressing.

  3. Nate Freeman

    Walt, this piece doesn’t reflect the skills of political journalism. The primary source deserves some reflection. I’ve never heard of Shakesville but it appears to have spun off a number of anti-Shakesville blogs by its own users (Shakesfail, STFU Shakesville and Drink the Kool-Aid come up when googling” Shakesville”).

    My immediate response to today’s post is that it’s basically a rebroadcast of the views of someone on the Internet.

    If the day’s topic is Bernie Sanders, why not cover yesterday’s Politico op-ed by Barnie Frank?

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      “The day’s topic” was multifaceted, and if I didn’t pull it off to your satisfaction, my apologies. The Shakesville post was only one part of the thing. To me, it reflected a broader trend, and a problem for Bernie going forward.

      Reply
  4. terry j allen

    Very smart, well argued piece, but one quibble: It’s a cute title, but Bernie was never a hippie (or hip). He was always–and that is the accurate point you make within the text–an old fashioned, old-style lefty, a socialist, a radical, with a Marxist analysis of capitalism. Over the decades, his views on feminism, the environment, and race have, as pols like to say, “evolved,” along with the times. But Bernie does not appear to give independent weight to these oppressions, outside of the realm of the economic. That is his strength: It makes his analysis simple and powerful; it points to politically feasible fixes. But it is also his weakness–and the source of his tendency to mansplain: Sexism and racism exist independently of economic/class issues, altho they often intertwine and reinforce each other. Keep up the excellent reporting.

    Reply
  5. jlpen

    Actually, Dr. Spock’s child-rearing ideas have aged pretty well. He gave parents permission to love their children instead of seeing affection as “spoiling” and encouraged them to rely on their own common sense instead of the popular psychology and medical authorities of the time, whose feed-them-and-toilet-them-by-the-clock, spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child mentalities had more in common with training puppies not to pee on the rug than with raising emotionally healthy individuals.

    We are all products of our times, but as a longtime radial feminist closer to Bernie’s age than I’d like to be, I really find this purity policing and snarky blogging at best a waste of time, and at worst, very dangerous. Corporate capitalist economics is at the heart of the racism and sexism. People struggling to eat, or choosing between eating and refilling prescriptions, are in no position to advance their social and cultural agendas.And a dying planet is a pretty big threat to our equality too.

    Incidentally, any feminist could tell you that “Aphra Behn” is a pen name borrowed from a real 17th century British poet and playwright, considered the first professional female writer, but in her time viewed as a “scarlet woman.” I will be interested to see what the phony Aphra has to say, but judging anyone who is over 70 by what they wrote in their 20s is a cheap shot. The question is whether Bernie has grown beyond his youthful hormones — as it would appear he has.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I know who Aphra Behn is, thank you very much. And corporate capitalism is a huge factor, but there’s also the human element: people face discrimination because it’s damn hard to change hearts and minds. Working-class folks brandishing Confederate flags and hating Jane Fonda has nothing to do with capitalism. A purely economic critique misses that point.

      Reply
  6. jlpen

    Update: Just read the “feminist” critique on Shakesville, and I do not find it has any merit. For just one example of “Aphra’s” pettiness, oh pardon me political purity, she finds fault with Bernie’s support for abortion rights in 1972 because he said it was a “civil liberty” for a woman to control her own body. What should he have said? What moral authority is higher than a civil liberty, a civil right, in a civil (not theocratic) society? I was there in 1972 — fighting for abortion rights– and yes, indeed, we radical feminists saw it as a civil liberty, which is just another way of saying it is a human right. If he got that back in 1972, regardless of his extremely mainstream sex fantasies (offensive to women then, offensive still, and still pervasive today…), I see no cause for criticism. Especially given the draconian alternatives on the other side.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      The Shakesville piece is hypercritical, and Behn frequently employs the worst possible interpretation of Bernie’s words and actions. But there were plenty of Bernie’s own words in the piece, and I think his past words reflect on the difficulties he will face on the campaign trail.

      Reply
      1. jlpen

        Remarks made 40 years ago–that’s really stretching it. Nor do I think he needs to reach out to appeal to the “hypercritical.” Of course he needs to show white workers all over the country, who want to take out their frustration on blacks, or women, or Mexicans, who the enemy really is. Which is exactly what he is trying to do, so far it seems with success. He’ll never get the Confederate flag wavers, but of course he needs to reach out to black and Hispanic voters and speak to the racism that fuels our corporate economy.

        That point isn’t really made in your piece — dismissing him as a hippie, which it doesn’t seem that he ever was (nor was he a person of privilege 40 years ago, beyond being born white and male); and resting most of you argument on the distorted judgment of a so-called feminist extremist (the kind that gives real feminists a bad name, and they were around in the 70s too, making it so easy to dismiss the rest of us). Look for some evidence of what is happening here and now to make your case.

  7. Lee Russ

    ” It’s likely that he will face more confrontations from left-wing groups who are quick to form Purity Patrols whenever one of their own doesn’t seem quite radical enough.” I couldn’t agree more. Members of the “I believe in 32 principles and if you only believe in 30 of them, you’re my mortal enemy” brigade are already drawing their weapons from the armory. Maybe some day they/we will get tired of “left” and “left out” being synonyms.

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  8. Dave Katz

    Let’s not get too carried away by the artifactual cult of personality being erected around Senator Sanders, either by skeptics and detractors, or over-eager fanbois and gurls. What say you devote some time, ink and air to look instead at the what and and why of his popularity, eh, mediaisti?

    Is it perhaps his “Ram-them-and-damn-them” message that pulls the crowds? He’s had years of national exposure on Thom Hartmann’s program, a nationally syndicated radio/TV show; he’s a devotee of Eugene Debs, a charismatic anti-capitalist who won a million Presidential votes from inside a Federal cell; Senator Sanders has not revealed himself to be a freak, corporate clone, or sellout, though I wonder if some local bloggers, cough cough, might be more comfortable with Sanders actually displaying any of those debatable virtues and thereby making himself more easily recognizable to the inside-baseball crowd…

    Read up on Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California in 1934, “Campaign Of The Century”, by Gregg Mitchell, if you want to get a glimpse of, and maybe a real feel for, the Bern. We’ve been here before, see, and you don’t need a program to quickly discover how many of the same castes are arrayed against a highly visible purveyor of popular democracy, and employ the same tactics now as then.

    Reply
  9. jlpen

    John, I take offense that a challenge to sloppy journalism is dismissed as “really, really touchy,.” and that you presume from it what my position might be. I say this as a former journalist who is generally of your political persuasion: I am opposed to snark and cheap shots from “my side” as well as from Fox News. Instead of relying on what you admit is a “hypercritical” analysis of ancient history, which looks rather like one of those “purity patrols” you were so critical of, to make a “broader” point, why not draw upon what is happening here and now to make your point — where’s the “touchy” in that?

    And actually, Confederate flag-wavers have a lot to do with capitalism; just look at the NRA.

    Reply

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