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The progressive movement must push for the “leftmost side of the possible”

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Navasky on Obama, pt. 5

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. Once again we’re joined by Victor Navasky, who was the editor and publisher of The Nation Magazine, now the emeritus publisher, and now teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism and is chair of The Journalism Review there, and is author of Mission Accomplished!, how George Bush won the war in Iraq, which, obviously, is a little humorous. So we’re talking about Obama, the challenges, and now the left and the progressive movement. The Nation for decades has been one of the leading magazines that articulated a liberal-left position, progressive position. So you’re talking about how the work now is how to push or pressure the Obama administration. So what’s your conception of how that happens?

VICTOR NAVASKY, PUBLISHER EMERITUS, THE NATION: Well, first of all, it has to do with supporting and aiming at the Congress and getting them to support legislation that we believe is desirable, and helping to punish those who resist that, regardless of party. And, secondly, it’s reminding the administration of its highest obligations and ideals. How you do that is an interesting question in an era when you have an administration that’s come into power using this new form of communication to raise money, but also to communicate. So, for example, on the week of inauguration day, Obama put forth a request from his people that they do an act of service, and he symbolically went and put blue paint on a shelter for kids. And on the block where I live, West 67th Street, a woman, Sarah [“KOB-nur”], who was on his email list, got a thing, “Will you be of service?” And she saw that the food kitchens, some of the soup kitchens on the west side, were down on food. So she called my wife and said, “Would you be the captain of your building?” She’s calling someone in every building on the block to provide food for soup kitchens on the west side. So, she told my wife, five to ten minutes after she said to the Obama people that she would take responsibility for the west side of Manhattan, she got a half-dozen emails from people who live near her, saying: “I want to help.” Now, there’s only so much you can do bottom-up, but he comes with a network of folks out there that has instant communication. And what seems to me one of the opportunities and more of the necessities is not to let that become in the wrong hands: that’s a fascist network, and it’s you press a button, and the word goes forth, and then people follow. It’s to use that to pressure from the bottom up internally in addition to the normal ways that media and political activists pressure externally through protests and through articles and through dialog. So that’s one part of it. To me, the best thing about Obama was his race speech. And when he was up against the wall ’cause of charges about Reverend Wright and all of that, and instead of speaking defensively, he got up above it and used it as a teaching moment. And that, to me—I want a president who can do that, and spoke to whites and blacks, and embrace the whole tone of the thing, and beat that problem, which a lot of people thought would do him in. And so you have a person who, however lacking he may be in giving us his overarching vision in advance, which is what you were asking me about, is supremely good at reacting in a non-defensive [inaudible]

JAY: I wind up in the position of having to fight all these people I love and respect, like you, ’cause I’m going to fight with you now. Okay?

NAVASKY: Go ahead.

JAY: In that race speech, it wasn’t mostly about race. That race speech was mostly about Reverend Wright’s “blowback” comments. And everyone focuses on the part of the speech which was about race, which I agree was mostly quite eloquent, although even there I thought he kind of tried way too hard to say the problem’s not systemic. But on the blowback comments, he went after Wright and said the real problem is the evildoers, and he once again—.

NAVASKY: Well, no. But on the “blowback” comments, he said the problem with Reverend Wright’s formulation, “and I owe him everything” and all of that, the reason he couldn’t cite that speech later on in the campaign was because, he said, “I could no more turn my back on Reverend Wright than I could on my white grandmother,” and then he turned his back on Reverend Wright, which Wright invited and made it necessary for him to do.

JAY: Wright pushed him over the edge, yeah.

NAVASKY: Yeah. But his basic answer to that, as I remember it, was that he said the problem with the reverend’s analysis was he assumes a static situation, and it’s not static; it’s dynamic, it changes, and you can change it, and we can change it. And this was [inaudible]

JAY: That was on the race side. But on the blowback side—. On the race side, he said it’s not static; but on the blowback side, he gave a very conventional foreign policy position that the problem is the terrorists, the problem is the bad guys, and Israel is not to blame. He essentially refuted the whole idea of blowback.

NAVASKY: Yeah, we can go down the positions that he espoused in the course of the campaign and check off where we agree and disagree, and I don’t disagree with you on his statements on Israel and the Middle East, and I don’t disagree with you on statements about Afghanistan and all that. On the other hand, what you call “the race part” of his race speech, which I saw as the center of his race speech and was the issue that was in the headlines for the week before and the week after, it seemed to me he showed that he has an intellect and a character and a personality that’s going to serve us well in this [inaudible]

JAY: On the level of intellect and caliber, I haven’t seen anything close to him in that level of politics in a long time. So talk a little bit more [about] the issue of the progressive movement. At what point do you get into the fight? And by that I mean—like, right now there’s a big debate: Stimulus package? No stimulus package? How big should it be? But the teeth in the—.

NAVASKY: I think you get in the fight from day one. You push forward. You regard as the—it’s not a utopian program, but you push for, you know, what Michael Harrington used to call “the leftmost side of the possible.” And you do it with all your energy and your forces, and you do it through protest, and you do it through literature, and you do it through debate. However, you don’t necessarily assume that because he’s made this appointment or that appointment that he is either—that he’s evil or that he’s beyond redemption or that—. So it’s how you do it and the spirit in which you do it. But I think you do it from day one, and that you become a force that he has to contend with to win your allegiance, your energy, your support, etcetera, and a force that is going to make it easier for him to make international accommodations and other things that have not been part of the American possibility in the last four or eight years.

JAY: To what extent do you think that the progressive movement, liberal movement, left movement has to identify where they differ and where they agree with Obama, but start staking out a more independent position from Obama? Because right now everything is seen as sort of an ancillary to him.

NAVASKY: Well, there is no movement, progressive movement. There are a lot of different movements out there. And I think that it has to be an independent, they have to be independent movements, that our job is not to support Obama and at all costs, no matter what he says, etcetera. And you pick and choose the issues. But if he’s got a piece of legislation you basically agree with [inaudible]

JAY: So what will be the key issues for you? Just quickly, what’s the litmus test issues? What do you think the big battles are going to be and what you’ll judge him by?

NAVASKY: Yeah. Okay. Well, I had a long conversation with Joe Stiglitz on what are the markers to judge his economic policy by, and he’s got the ones we talked about before a little bit: the initial investment has to be larger than we’re talking about, and it’s got to be sequential. He’s got a way of talking about TARP which is more technical than I can do, but how you deal with that, he can lay it out for you. And to me the nationalization question is important, that he’s got to be unafraid to nationalize these banks. Now, the way you do it doesn’t mean you go in, you take ’em over, and the government runs ’em from here to eternity; it means, nevertheless, that you take them over, and you don’t just give the money and say [inaudible]

JAY: Now, is there any suggestion that’s on the agenda?

NAVASKY: There is no suggestion; no one is talking of nationalization. But there are conversations that are going, “This sounds very much like nationalization.” And it becomes one of these things when what’s capitalism and what’s socialism, it doesn’t matter what you call it, the government has to take responsibility for these financial institutions. That’s the second thing, and I want to see if that happens. And then the global economy. I look to leadership from people like Stiglitz and Greider, though, to help us define what those markers are. Internationally, I think it’s a big mistake to increase the militarization of foreign policy, starting in Afghanistan, but across the board. So I look for that across the board, and I look for international initiatives to build up international institutions. Investing in peace in the Middle East is a very good investment for the world community and for the Middle East itself. So those are the areas that I start out with.

JAY: Alright. So in maybe two or three months we’ll come back and we’ll ask you how do you think he’s doing.

NAVASKY: Okay. Good.

JAY: And we’ll do these periodic check-up reports.

NAVASKY: Okay. It’s a date.

JAY: Good. Thanks very much. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Victor Saul Navasky (born July 5, 1932) is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was editor of The Nation from 1978 until 1995, and its publisher and editorial director 1995 to 2005. In November 2005 he became the publisher emeritus. Before coming to The Nation he was an editor at The New York Times Magazine and wrote a monthly column about the publishing business ("In Cold Print") for the Times Book Review.