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Progressives, We Have A PR Problem

On Tuesday, ESPN announced that it would be pulling one of the members of its broadcasting crew for an upcoming University of Virginia football game. Ordinarily, this kind of announcement–aside from not typically making much, if any, news–is accompanied by some announcement of a termination, some sort of scheduling conflict, or it happens in the context of a proximate controversy that makes the move feel inevitable and justified.

This time, not so much. This time, the announcer, Robert Lee–an Asian-American, part-time broadcaster for ESPN, who typically calls basketball games for the network–was the unfortunate victim of an increasingly over-the-top politically correct culture as well as parents who gave their kid one of the most common first names for an American male to preface one of the most common last names among folks whose family origins are in East Asia. ESPN, in an apparent attempt to be as “woke” as the athletes they cover, looked at the looming confluence of events–a football game in Charlottesville, in the wake of the race-related violence perpetuated by white nationalists protesting the removal of Confederate statues, and a sports broadcaster who unfortunately (and coincidentally) shared the name of arguably the most famous Confederate figure–and decided to offer a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

NOTE: Ironically enough, to punish someone for something bestowed upon them at birth that they had no say in determining is actually the foundational building block for the same kind of bigotry and discrimination ESPN is counterproductively trying to “oppose” in their pulling of Mr. Lee from the upcoming game.

But let’s be clear here: ESPN is not some bastion of progressive values and it most certainly is not a network that enjoys wading into political waters. Sports, ideally, is agnostic to political ideology which means sports networks try as hard as they possibly can to be a neutral harbinger of sports. When they wade, they’re wading out of fear of alienating existing viewers. That’s an important element here; ESPN isn’t steeped in the civil rights movement, they rarely take principled stances on social issues, and they have had a history of flubbing issues related to race in the past. So when they axed Robert Lee from the upcoming UVA game, it felt hastily done because it was hastily done. ESPN didn’t consult with any civil rights groups about the decision, they didn’t buckle under public pressure to remove Mr. Lee from the broadcast booth; they essentially made a wildly extreme assumption about civil rights activists and took a hatchet to an issue that–if it warranted any attention at all–should have called for a scalpel.

As a black man, as a direct descendant of slaves, as the grandson of a civil rights warrior, as a learned & actively informed gentleman, I think I have the capacity to know the difference between an Asian-American guy named Robert Lee and the use of tax dollars to construct and/or maintain memorials to the actual Robert E. Lee. As a true college football fan who prides myself in only watching quality, competitive games, I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t going to tune into that game anyways, whether General Lee was providing color commentary or not.

The point is: this was not another example of progressives gone wild. But while I have generally treated the ESPN snafu as an eyeroll-inducing, over-the-top display of how not to handle social controversies, this incident did, however, bring to mind an important point I’ve increasingly tried to make to my fellow progressives as of late: We need to chill out a bit.

Fair or not, when progressives do, in fact, react aggressively (or disproportionately, some might say) to violations of perceived political correctness, it gives jet fuel to the other side. Understand what their narrative of progressives is: they think we’re the political correctness police, the race-baiting, identity politics-using elitists who ignore culture, tradition, and, by extension, traditional values and patriotism. They think of us as the people who care more about saying the right things and not hurting peoples’ feelings rather than people of conviction and principle. From their perspective, we’re disingenuous and self-righteous. They think that if we had to walk a day in their shoes, we might not be so judgmental of them. And, in truth, they may be on to something.

Before you give me a litany of reasons why that profile is untrue, unfair, or unhinged; before you tell me that, because of perceptions like that, you’re likely to care even less what the other side thinks of you.. just press pause for a second.

We live in a democracy. Which means that no matter what you say or do, every American citizen of voting age goes into that voting booth alone and casts a vote based on what’s important to them. You can shame them ahead of Election Day, you can tell them how stupid you’d think they were if they voted the “wrong” way, but at the end of the day, you can’t stop them from voting based on their own interests and their own priorities. You can tell them that the planet is warming and oceans are rising, but for many of them, why would they sacrifice now for something they won’t live to see the true consequences of? Why would a 50-year old coal miner vote for someone who said they were going to put coal miners out of work? We understand why–the future of our planet is far more important than any one job or any single industry–but just think for a second about that coal miner? Why would he intentionally vote against his own immediate interests? Why would he jeopardize his job and, by extension, the means by which he provides for his family? Of course he’s going to vote for the guy who says he “digs coal.” I get that. I also vehemently disagree with his decision.

People vote based on priorities. The more well-off you are, the more likely you are to have priorities that are not nearly as urgent and not nearly as tied to survival. As a result, your “voting values” may very well be different from–and even compromise–your immortal ones.

We can all, as progressives, kick, scream, yell, shout, complain, etc., all day long about how foolish, ridiculous, idiotic you think “the other side” is, but at some point, the only way we get what we believe in from a policy standpoint is by convincing them to believe in it and want it as well. One of the reasons the Democratic Party (currently the only realistic governing vessel for progressives) is in such dire straits across the country (and particularly at the municipal and state levels) is because it is viewed, as a brand, as culturally tone-deaf. That brand issue is directly tied to a culture among progressives that starts with the premise: We are right, therefore anything opposed to what we believe is fundamentally wrong. And if you want to have a conversation with us, it starts by accepting that premise. Hell, even I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty hurtful progressive rhetorical knuckle-raps; a month ago, I was telling a story to a co-worker and unremarkably said something along the lines of “Well, hopefully the next guy that…” when another co-worker of mine cut me off rather sharply and said, “You mean, guy or woman.” A bit irritated, I nevertheless corrected myself only to be angrily cutoff a sentence later when I said “girl” instead of “woman.” Bear in mind that I have dedicated my life to the cause of fighting for equality and liberty for all; for someone who knows that to treat me as if every sentence I utter could be a revelatory moment where I prove that my whole life’s work has been a charade is beyond insulting. It’s counterproductive to the movement. I’m committed to it because I’m personally convicted by the underlying principles. So while moments like that piss me off, they aren’t going to push me away from the movement. But what about the other side, the folks who aren’t here yet? The folks who need a message beyond what brought us to the cause? Do you really think being the E.B. White of political correctness is going to convince someone to join our cause?

Do you think we’re really going to solve racism by starting the conversation off with “OK, so first of all, I need everyone in here to acknowledge your white privilege?” I know it makes us feel good and that’s largely why in the last 50 years we’ve moved to places where people think like we do and vote like we do, but that’s also what’s brought us to this place (ahem, 45). We don’t believe we have to convince anyone of anything anymore because we know we’re right. We don’t think we have to recalibrate our message to fit the audience that needs convincing because anything short of a raw, truth-to-power barn-burner is perceived to be an equivocation of our values. When we do go outside of our “bubbles,” its often to antagonize or, worse, test the hypothesis of how convincing is a message of equality when it comes in the form of castigation. So, we organize, mobilize, and activate within our own communities, among people who already agree with us, so that when we deliver these impassioned pleas for political support, it’s met with rapturous applause and agreement, further reaffirming our belief that “Hey, see, we’re still right. Just look at the reaction from the room.”

It’s political crack. It’s a cheap, temporary high that doesn’t actually solve any problems and, in fact, the more we use it, the worse the problems become. It also explains why we keep losing elections. We stopped wanting to convince people, we moved into our own echo chambers, we watch news that only reaffirms our own beliefs, and as a result, we don’t even know how to speak to people with differing perspectives and experiences, let alone how to relate to them. Of course you’re going to be surprised on Election Day if the actual result is the complete opposite of the results of your informal polling of your bubble.

There is a public relations/marketing/political strategy element to every movement. I know how that sounds to some–particularly my fellow progressives–but if we truly believe in our causes, then we can’t continue to settle for meaning well but losing in the end. We need to approach our work with the same clear-eyed pragmatism and agnosticism to our own personal feelings that you would to any other strategic project. That means after we’ve finished our routine catharsis after the heartburn of hearing things like “you’re trying to take away my history and culture” or “climate change is a hoax” or “all lives matter” or “why does everyone have to be a hyphenated American?” we need to roll up our sleeves and get real. These folks need to be convinced and they are no more likely to be convinced through chastisement than you would be. So how do we convince them?

First, it starts with understanding them. If I’m being honest, I have been called a nigger by folks who, as counterintuitive as it sounds, would have given me the clothes off their back if I’d needed it and I have been offered assistance and even shelter by people who proudly displayed the Confederate flag. I have also stayed at the homes of some Obama supporters back when I worked on the campaign who wiped down every piece of furniture I touched after I left. I have been robbed three times in my life, twice by fellow black folks. People are complicated, people are complex.

I have witness self-proclaimed progressives act in ways that are almost explicitly against the interests of equality and social equity (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel) and I have seen some conservatives show real courage when given a choice between right and wrong (former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley). People are complicated, people are complex.

I spent almost 2 hours talking football… then family… then women… then politics… with a Ron Paul-voting, Breitbart-reading, InfoWars-subscribed, ponytail-rocking gentleman from Tunica County, Mississippi a few weeks ago. A week ago, a gentleman working in Biloxi, Mississippi Sprint store gave me his best friend’s phone charger when I told him I just didn’t want to pay $30 for a replacement for my lost one. In both cases, I know we probably don’t agree on much politically. We probably wouldn’t hang out in the same social circles either. But we were able to co-exist, to communicate, to relate, to share, to laugh, to exchange words and acts of kindness. While I doubt I realigned their political compass in any significant way, I do believe that both of those gentlemen saw a little bit more of themselves in me than they had beforehand, as I did them. People are complicated and complex; most folks don’t want to hate, so that’s the premise I start with. I know there’s some commonality here somewhere and I’m going to find it.

I am not saying that we, as progressives, should weaken our resolve or compromise on our core values. But I am saying that at a certain point, we’re going to get tired of hitting a wall and we’re going to get tired of losing. If we truly want to win, then we need to be strategic about it. There’s only so far laws can take us before the rest of our journey to perfecting our Union relies on a hearts and minds campaign. I get the frustration–we absolutely are on the right side of these issues. And we shouldn’t have to convince someone that black lives matter, but… we do. We shouldn’t have to convince someone that there should be equal pay for equal work, but… we do. We shouldn’t have to come up with a “better” argument for decisive action on climate change than the simple fact that inaction will destroy the entire planet, but… we do. And if we know that, then what are we waiting for?

We’ve preached to the choir long enough. It’s time to recalibrate our message for its intended audience.

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