Responding to the Nation
The Nation's (Sept 3) unsigned editorial treats Pacifica's management as if they have “worthy” aims but indulge in a bit too much coffee each morning. Yet Pacifica's management has routinely lied, employed pink slips as a bludgeon, hired thugs, issued threats, and actually used force to stifle differences, quell dissent, and even physically intimidate and exile work that's too radical for their taste, as with Democracy Now. Pacifica should not be run by a board of corporate-aligned folks even if those folks had worthy aims, which they don't. The task isn't to convince Pacifica's board and its management to be a bit more forthcoming. The task is to force them to resign.
The Nation editorial treats Pacifica's dissidents as if they may have some grievances but also lack “a willingness to be open to change” and have lost touch with reality in adopting a funding boycott tactic. Yet these dissidents have steadfastly defended workplace democracy and progressive content against corporatization for a decade, and are finally winning, in part because of that boycott.
The Nation tells the dissidents to drop their boycott, as effective as it has been, but offers no means by which other pressure might be generated. If The Nation doesn't like the funding boycott, do they advocate the direct tactic of making life miserable for board members where they work? Do they favor pickets? Do they propose withdrawal of content? Or are they implicitly advocating that dissidents rely only on the moral largesse or political principles of board members and managers who have for years now displayed literally none of either?
To the rulers of Pacifica The Nation urges “a commitment to respecting its employees and a restructuring of the organization to grant more legal power to the staff and listeners.” That's a nice aim, depending on how much power is transferred, but why would anyone anticipate this transformation other than due to pressures brought to bear to force it?
To its readers, The Nation reports that Pacifica's managers have a worthy aim – to increase audience. But when Pacifica's management says they want to increase audience, do they seek to do so to advance social change, or is it to build their own stature, incomes, and credibility within the mainstream? If they were offering news, analysis, and commentary that increasingly serves oppressed constituencies and progressive movements we could deduce that they have the former motive in mind. But since they instead have been systematically firing progressive broadcasters and dumping progressive listeners in order to attract a mainstream audience and mainstream respectability, we can deduce the latter motive.
What begs for explanation about The Nation's continued ties to Pacifica's management, is why they persist at all. How can The Nation refuse to aggressively support those trying to democratize and restore Pacifica to its progressive roots? How can they ally with overtly thuggish corporatists? How can The Nation editorially waffle about behavior they would dismiss as horrific if it were displayed at the New York Times?
One prevalent answer that I don't buy says the division at Pacifica is between favoring progressive and radical politics as compared to favoring liberal politics, and that The Nation prefers the latter. First, I don't think corporatization began at Pacifica in order to water down Pacifica's politics. I think instead watered-down politics has arisen naturally out of corporatization, and that corporatization was pursued because the board is composed of corporate types and the management of management types, and they were acting on their own interests. But second, regardless of that, I don't believe that The Nation would prefer a WBAI that plays music all day ala Pacifica Houston to one that has lots of progressive content, more than in the past, even. They don't dislike Democracy Now. They don't dislike Amy Goodman. If Goodman went to a White House briefing and got treated as she has been treated at WBAI, The Nation would have apoplexy about it, and rightly so. Sure, they might differ with the most radical content that appears on Democracy Now, but mostly they love the show and Goodman, I bet, and they would like to have more shows like it available, not less. No, The Nation's at best tepid support for the Pacifica dissidents and its continuing respect for Pacifica management, does not occur because they welcome Pacifica management's likelihood of getting rid of Democracy Now and other serious progressive and left content, but, on the contrary, despite that likelihood. That's why it needs further explanation. And this holds for many other institutions that have been on the sidelines of this struggle, as well.
Some argue that the Nation's decision makers have a tally sheet and feel that currying favor with Pacifica's bosses will yield benefits in terms of more Nation-originated Pacifica shows which will in turn offset any hostile reactions to their opportunism. So when some of The Nation's readers write in letters that condemn The Nation's actions on this issue and cancel their subscriptions, it hurts a bit, sure, but not nearly enough in their accounting to outweigh the gain that would derive from getting a new show on the Pacifica network.
My own explanation for The Nation's behavior doesn't reject the above insight, but takes the logic somewhat further. I think The Nation's managers probably don't like Pacifica management's gross callousness and heavy-handedness and certainly don't welcome the de-politicization of the Pacifica network. But I also think they have a shared interest with Pacifica's management about organizational principles.
Long-term Pacifica dissidents favor workplace democracy plus serious efforts to incorporate audience desires. Why is this so much of a problem for The Nation that its rulers would rather align with corporatists on the Pacifica board than ally with Pacifica's dissenters and run the risk that the dissenters might win all they seek?
I think the answer is that if the dissidents at Pacifica win their struggle it sends a loud message that a few elite folks should not call the shots in progressive institutions. The people doing the work and the people consuming the product should call the shots. Worker and consumer preferences, not the dictates of a few rulers who enjoy elite ownership rights, legal status, access to big money, or positions of decision-making influence, should direct outcomes.
At Pacifica this would mean restructuring each station and the whole network to incorporate workplace democracy as well as effective means of communication with affected constituencies and audiences. Why would The Nation not want to strengthen and encourage movements seeking such ends? Well, if Pacifica changes thusly, the question naturally arises, why shouldn't The Nation change thusly as well? And for that matter what about Mother Jones, and what about Greenpeace or The Institute for Policy Studies, or any institution that wants to claim the mantle of democracy and progressivism, much less leftism? If Pacifica changes as the full logic of dissidence there dictates, what happens to the rates of pay, to the allocation of job responsibilities, and especially to the mechanisms of decision-making at Pacifica? And more, what happens to them at other institutions? Do they come up for the same scrutiny and transformation elsewhere as at a restructured Pacifica?
Let's face it. Pacifica's managers and board members have become incredibly vile. There just can't be any remaining confusion about that. So why isn't there finally a united and really massive outcry about the decade-old Pacifica struggle from decision-makers at all other progressive institutions?
Sure, part of what limits an outcry is that folks are too busy and have their own work to do. That's reasonable, of course. But ten years of being too busy when so much is at stake?
And part of it is rank opportunism in thinking that by hedging bets or even outright supporting management, one may gain more than by opposing them. It is not pretty, but its likely part of the answer, at least in some cases.
But I think the far more important and revealing answer is that many decision makers at other progressive institutions aren't taking a strong stand on behalf of the Pacifica dissidents precisely because they are decision makers at other progressive institutions. As such, they identify more strongly with even thuggish decision-makers at Pacifica than they do with workers who advocate serious participation and democracy at Pacifica. In essence, with rare exceptions, the bottom line is that owners and managers will be owners and managers. What is ultimately at stake in the Pacifica struggle is the economic and political structure of our institutions and movements. And the fact is, especially at the top of such institutions and movements, there are very serious disagreements about what structures are desirable.
We can put all this in a more strategic light.
Suppose a few of the interns or of the employees who clean the offices or who typeset the copy at The Nation stood up in 1990 and started to complain about their lack of say in the institution they work at. The difference from Pacifica at that time wasn't that at The Nation such folks would have gotten a more serious and generous hearing after which sober and well conceptualized change would have ensued. It is that at The Nation they would have had their asses fired even faster than repression came at Pacifica, and the carnage would have been quick and invisible so that there would have been no further struggle keeping the matter in view for a decade. But now let's suppose the Pacifica dissidents win and Pacifica is dramatically restructured to facilitate real workplace democracy and just distribution of rewards and tasks. And let's say in 2002 some of those who work at but nonetheless have no say at The Nation, or at sother progressive institution, begin to demand change. This will not be easy to deflect if the dissidents have as a positive example and as a staunch ally the workers and listeners and thus the airwaves of Pacifica.
The ultimate problem with the struggle at Pacifica from the point of view of the people who run other progressive institutions like The Nation, and who therefore also determine the content of unsigned editorials like the one that provoked this commentary, is that if the good guys at Pacifica win then their struggle and its outcome can become a good example that can inspire and spread even into other progressive institutions. Surprise: The owners and managers of those institutions do not favor that outcome.
For years it has been obvious that the Pacifica battle, if it is to truly live up to all the energy and courage that has gone into it, can't only be about removing folks who in a harsh conflict descend into thuggishness--but has to instead also be about removing the structures that make thuggishness the preferred final resort in such encounters, and that make such encounters necessary at all.