Sirota’s tour to nowhere

July 22, 2009

David Bliven explains why The Uprising is about anything but an uprising.

I HIGHLY anticipated David Sirota's book The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington. So highly that I went out and purchased a hardcover edition hot off the presses.

The book was billed as one exploring the history of social movements in the U.S. and their recent revival. I thought immediately of the contrast between Hillary Clinton's comments on the campaign trail (how the civil rights movement wouldn't have been successful, but for Lyndon Johnson) and Barack Obama's (that "change doesn't come from Washington--change comes to Washington").

With that in mind, I eagerly set about reading Sirota's book. I was greatly disappointed.

Sirota's book reminded me of a article by Todd Chretien, "The case for a socialist alternative," in which he contrasts, among other things, liberalism from above with liberalism from below. By contrast, Sirota makes the case throughout his book that liberalism from above (putting one's stock in the Democratic Party) is the way to go, and liberalism from below (grassroots social movements independent of electoral politics) is a waste of time.

Marching for immigrant rights in Los Angeles on May Day 2006
Instead of recognizing the importance of the immigrant rights mega-marches, Sirota interviews Lou Dobbs and a Minutemen vigilante

Sirota's lead chapter is emblematic of the book's approach. Instead of looking at a particular social movement, he details the exploits of a Democratic senator he happens to work for, Jon Tester of Montana.

His next chapter on the antiwar movement frankly made me sick. Sirota attends one antiwar demonstration (as if going to one event is enough to dissect and analyze an entire movement) and apparently sees only "freaks"--or as he puts it "twenty-somethings with Goth-style black T-shirts, lots of earrings, cheek rings and other assorted piercings. Interspersed in the crowd are people in various costumes. A guy on stilts is wandering around as a 15-foot-tall Abe Lincoln."

No doubt there are people like that at antiwar protests. But the questions that Sirota doesn't ask are: (1) Is there anything wrong with wearing "lots of earrings" or even dressing in costumes? and (2) Is walking on stilts characteristic of most people who attend them?

I suspect those who dress weird in Sirota's eyes are only distasteful to the people Sirota is trying to please--Democratic Party politicians.

But Sirota doesn't stop there. He turns his hostility on everyone else at antiwar protests (or at least the one he bothered to go to). He states that those who blame Dick Cheney for everything are "mildly mentally unstable"--and then writes, "which, frankly, is what I think of a lot of people at this march when I talk to them."

I was shocked when I first read this statement, since Sirota comes across as a progressive who at times has had sharp criticisms of establishment Democrats. But his clarification brings out his perspective. He doesn't think antiwar protesters are "mentally unstable" because they're antiwar, but because "this group doesn't look, dress or even talk like two-thirds of Americans who oppose the war."

If Sirota had checked his history, this tracks almost word for word a comment made by Nixon about antiwar demonstrators in the 1960s.

Sirota supports his case by claiming, "By the time the Vietnam War was really raging, the federal government stopped listening to marches based just on the size of the crowd," and "the establishment discovered it could basically ignore hundreds of thousands of people on the National Mall."

Any history of the Vietnam era--at least, any one that's remotely sympathetic to the opponents of the war--refutes such claims.

SIROTA ALSO goes on to make a number of other misstatements regarding social movements of the past. For example, he claims that only recent protests that "officialdom" reacted to were those at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization meeting.

Sirota caps off his tirade against protest with the comment, "At least half the folks who marched voted for Ralph Nader"--and therefore "bear some vague, indirect responsibility" for the war.

So there you have it! At the end of the day, Sirota turns to the tired, old and entirely false complaint that Ralph Nader--because he dared to stand up to both Republicans and Democrats--was responsible for Al Gore losing the 2000 election, and George Bush winning.

Never mind that in 2004, after Bush invaded Iraq, the Democratic candidate John Kerry was prowar, and greeted the Democratic National Convention with the words "John Kerry, reporting for duty"--while Nader made opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq a centerpiece of his independent campaign.

The International Socialist Organization even gets a mention in Sirota's book. He claims that one of the ISO's signs at the antiwar protest declares our desire for "the overthrow of the U.S. government in the name of 'regime change.'"

Sirota also spends time with one of the anti-immigrant Minutemen groups. It's another telling choice--instead of analyzing the rise of the immigrant rights movement, which put millions of people on the streets for the May Day marches in 2006 and after, Sirota devotes an entire chapter to a borderline-neo-Nazi group as further evidence of his "uprising."

The only illuminating portion of the chapter is a conversation he has with a Minuteman who admits that border-crossers are motivated by poverty, and that what should be done is to lobby Congress to support global antipoverty initiatives--but he doesn't "know how we'd do that."

In another thoroughly boring chapter, Sirota interviews Lou Dobbs as another representative of "the uprising." Dobbs' immigrant-bashing, right-wing populism is the polar opposite of a progressive agenda.

Finally, Sirota discusses so-called "shareholder activism," in which activists buy stock in companies like ExxonMobil in order to show up at meetings to protest. He gives no evidence for how widespread this tactic really is. But more importantly, these activists are investing their hard-earned money in corporate polluters rather than in building social movements.

But doesn't this just fit with Sirota's apparent philosophy--grassroots social movements are secondary (if that), and the inside-outside strategy comes first?

For a much better book on the history of revolt from below in the U.S. I'd recommend Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States--and for a good book outlining why the inside-outside strategy doesn't work, try Democrats: A Critical History.

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