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April 14, 2008

Two different groups of media activists met this year to discuss strategy, with exact opposite results. At a Common Cause forum, blogger Brad Friedman collected applause when he marginalized gender and racial equality: “I don’t think we have the luxury to concern ourselves with these things. We’re talking about the furniture while the house is burning down.” At a feminist forum, the strategy was to build bridges with the oppressed.

Based on the composition of those groups, two very different strategies were raised.

At a March Common Cause forum, blogger Brad Friedman collected applause when he marginalized gender and racial equality:

“I don’t think we have the luxury to concern ourselves with these things. We’re talking about remodeling the furniture in the house while the house is burning down.”  

Because these ideas were met with applause, I am compelled to illuminate the danger of internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.  My hope is to remind those applauding-progressives of some very basic values we all share.


 During the Q&A portion of a panel discussion, “Have the Media Undermined Our Democracy,” Brad laid out his white male vision of how we should proceed: 

There have been some questions about diversity — gender diversity, racial diversity and so on and so forth … I don’t think we have the luxury to concern ourselves, in a certain sense, with these things, as important as they are.

We’re talking about remodeling the furniture in the house while the house is burning down [Applause]….

We’ve, we’re in a war without end. I don’t know how we get out of it. I blame the media. Everybody in this room is being listened to and has their internet read every day. I blame the media. We have torture. We have thrown out the Constitution and called it ‘quaint.’ I blame the media. These are the things that I think we need to figure out how to deal with instead of enjoying the luxury of concerning ourselves at the margins…for now.

Clueless speeches like these fragment the social justice movement and strengthen the dominant hierarchy. Our common enemy wants us fighting with each other, elbowing each other for a seat at the agenda-setting table. What better way to enable in-fighting than by unitarily removing oppression from the agenda?  It certainly piqued me, and several women I know.

Marginalizing gender and race equality (“and so on and so forth”) reveals an inherent inability to recognize the root causes of war. The “burning house” in Brad’s analogy is not the Magna Carta, Geneva Conventions or US Constitution, as he would have it, but goes much deeper.  What’s behind these Agreements is the idea of justice and liberty for all. In the struggle for gender and race equality in a democratic world, these ideals are not the furniture, but the house itself.   

This presbyopic worldview destroys unity in the democracy movement and serves to consolidate white male dominance.  These ideas reveal an inherent and utter incomprehension of egalitarian principles embodied in democratic ideals. These comments relegate women and people of color (“and so on and so forth”) to secondary status.  

“Your cause is weakened by your prejudice,” cautioned Rita Mae Brown in 1974 when the National Organization for Women ejected lesbians from membership.  The same applies to those who would remove oppression from an agenda for peace, humane treatment of prisoners, or media reform.  Speaking of media reform, how Orwellian is that? 

It is shortsightedness not to see past one’s own privileged race and gender, blinding oneself from recognizing the source of human conflict since time memorial: hierarchical privilege based on race, gender, religion, bloodline, polydactyly, or some other construct.   

Later, Dude

Historically, those in the dominant caste often characterize the needs of the oppressed as marginal to some overall goal being pursued. They conveniently ignore that a hierarchical, patriarchal global structure IS the root of war (led by men), torture (led by men), and media consolidation into the hands of a few white males.  We ignore this at our peril.  

It’s an old trick of the dominant hierarchy to ask for our support now, while removing our oppression from their agenda.   

From the American Revolution:

Oh no! We can’t abolish slavery now – we have to fight the British Empire.  Oh, no! We can’t Remember the Ladies now! We have to consolidate the colonies. 

To after the Civil War

Oh, no! We still can’t Remember the Ladies! We have to reconstruct the South and finally fulfill our Manifest Destiny.

To the 1960s:

Oh, no we can’t fight for gender equality now! We’re fighting corporatism and never-ending war.

 To post 9/11:

Oh, no!  The Magna Carta, Geneva Conventions, or US Constitution can’t apply now! We have to catch some terrorists. 

Later, sisters and brothers.  Later is the promise to be broken in the future.  Later is the lie on the lips of the enemy within. Abigail Adams recognized this in 1776, when she wrote her famous “Remember the Ladies” letter: 

[T]he passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs…. 

Because the Founders refused suffrage to women at the birth of this nation, we waited another 150 years to be granted the franchise, after being beaten, jailed, and killed for demanding full citizenship status – our “unalienable” rights.

Because the Founders refused to allow economic parity, millions died under institutionalized slavery.  And, because the Founders refused to recognize “unalienable” rights of indigenous cultures, millions more died under the genocidal domestic policy known as Manifest Destiny.  

Today we see the Sins of our Fathers being visited upon us.  They had the rare chance to create an egalitarian society and they balked. Instead, they devised a system which reinforced a hierarchy based on sex, race and wealth, and thus sowed the seeds of the destructive evil empire we have become. The very ills the Founders decried (when they were the object of oppression), are the same ills created by their privilege-blinded vision of equality.

These are not marginal issues.  Oppression is the cause of all conflict, and it is driven by lust for wealth and power.  Oppression is what the democracy movement seeks to end. It cannot be relegated to “later.” 

The founder and president of The White House Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership and fostering the entry of women into all positions of leadership, including the presidency, Marie C. Wilson, related:

I often hear people say that the lack of women in positions of political leadership is an issue that pales next to world crises-global terrorism, fragile economies, inadequate health care, troubled schools, corporate greed.

They see no connection between the frightening situations we’re in and the fact that few women sit at the table to determine the solutions. No wonder we’re where we are today.

This fundamental imbalance, with men running the world and women mostly spectators (or victims), is not a trivial detail. 

It is the problem.

A Transformative Paradigm 

I have no doubt a matriarchal culture is more creative and less destructive; more nurturing and less competitive; more willing to work out differences than fight over them.  Science shows that men generally react to stress with fight-or-flight while women generally react with tend-or-befriend.  Abigail Adams recognized this truth as well, in that same 1776 letter:

 That Your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute….

Riane Eisler’s study of human cultures that spans 30,000 years shows that male dominated societies lead exactly to war and a celebration of them; while egalitarian cultures celebrate creation, fertility and not only peaceful but joyful union of society.

It’s probably the genetic wiring; but whatever the cause, the current state of affairs which Brad bemoans is precisely why men need to be brought back to their true place in society – as equal partners, not dominant leaders. 

The inanity of marginalizing oppression in pursuit of peace exemplifies why some can never lead a successful movement for democracy; they just don’t get it.

We will recognize authentic progress in the national (and global) democracy movement when we see it is predominantly led by women and people of color. Robin Morgan said it this way:

[A] legitimate revolution must be led by – made by – those who have been the most oppressed: black, brown, yellow, red and white women – with men relating as best they can.

The past five millennia under androcracy patently reveals another path is needed. If Brad (and those who applauded him) honestly believe that issues of gender and race (“and so on and so forth”) are not at the core of war, they have not been paying attention. Fortunately, others have.


A completely different discussion transpired at a February forum of media activists comprised of feminists.  Instead of excluding oppression from the agenda, we find bridges being built.

Women’s Media Center co-founder Gloria Steinem and president Carol Jenkins participated in a recent meeting of feminists which included:

Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College; Johnnetta Cole, chair of the board of the JBC Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute; British-born radio journalist Laura Flanders; Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia and UCLA; Farah Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia; Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority; author Mab Segrest; Kenyan anthropologist Achola Pala Okeyo; management consultant and policy strategist Janet Dewart Bell; and Patricia Williams, Columbia law professor and columnist.

We were there to hash out a split that threatened our friendship and the various movements with which we are affiliated…. 

[W]e thought about how to redirect attention to those coalitions that form the bedrock of feminist concern: that wide range of civil rights groups dedicated to fighting discrimination, domestic violence, the disruptions of war, international sex and labor trafficking, child poverty and a tattered economy that threatens to increase the number of homeless families significantly.

We thought of all that has happened in just seven short but disastrous years of the Bush Administration, and we asked: how might we position ourselves so we’re not fighting one another? …. We all know that there is simply too much at stake.

We agreed that everyone needs to refocus on the big picture. 

How, therefore, to reclaim a common purpose, a truly democratic “we”: we women of all races, we blacks of all genders, we Americans of all languages, we immigrants of all classes, we Latinas of all colors, we Southerners of all regions, we families of all ages, we parents working three jobs without healthcare, we poor who sleep on the streets, we single mothers whose homes are being repossessed, we displaced New Orleanians whose neo-Arcadian epic of displacement has yet to be resolved.

(emphasis added)

Real leaders get the big picture – that it requires all of us to be at the table, at the same time; that evil triumphs when good people are divided. Democracy’s leaders recognize the inherent meaning of the term.

Sheila Parks, an election integrity activist who for years has demanded hand-counted paper ballots, has often called people to task for sexism “and so on and so forth.”  In her Netiquette piece, she writes:

Although our major goal (perhaps our only one) is open, fair, honest elections – we ignore racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ageism at our own peril.  These isms weaken any of the work we do on elections and must always be considered even as we work toward our major goal.  

These isms are about how the system is set up to disadvantage people – based on the color of our skin, our gender, our class, our sexual orientation, our age…  We are all part of the system and we need to make a commitment to be aware of our own racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism/homophobia, ageism and to move against these isms in ourselves and others in everything we do.   

Cynthia McKinney welcomes “a real discussion of race in this country” especially now with a black candidate for president – one that reaches into the life and death impact of racial disparity.  Owning a car during Katrina meant the difference between life and death for thousands.  How is poverty not a life-and-death struggle as important as ending war?

With all the good work that Brad Friedman has done – especially his work on election integrity, an issue near and dear to my heart – has he not connected what happened to McKinney as portrayed in American Blackout? Ain’t she a woman, and a leader for gender and racial equality who resists war and speaks truth to power?  McKinney gets it.

Instead of marginalizing the struggle for equality among the oppressed classes – the very heart and soul of every democratic movement, the “house” in Brad’s analogy – those who marginalize race and gender equality marginalize themselves.  They are befuddled by the same “isms” from which our Founders suffered, and must be relegated to supporting the work of those who lack that sinful affliction. 

You don’t use a truck to cross a lake; you don’t use a hammer on glass. We need leaders who get the big picture.

Fortunately, the democracy movement is so much bigger and so much more profound than a single blogger, a racist or sexist worldview, and even bigger than any government or empire.  As it rightly should be, the movement for peace and justice is vastly comprised of women and people of color.  It is these to whom we must turn for ideas on strategy.Inclusivity, not exclusivity, will get the job done.