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Flanders fields, Aronowitz strikes out

By Michael J. Smith on Wednesday June 20, 2007 05:44 PM

Stanley Aronowitz has never been a particular hero of mine, but I warmed to him a bit last night, as he administered a gila-monster gnawing to the well-turned fetlock of Laura Flanders, shown above, a niece of Alex Cockburn and, I regret to say, something of a white sheep in that fine family of very, very black ones.

Now any guy who could brave the seas of matrimony in a boat with the late (and by me, unlamented) Ellen Willis has got to have more than enough dura-ilia to take on a young person from Air America. And he had the advantage of being, so to speak, of the devil's party. But still, unequal as the combat was, it was fun to watch, in a mean-spirited, sadistic way – up to a point.

The occasion was a debate in New York, sponsored by Left Forum and The Nation, on that great, evergreen question, “Can progressives move the Democratic Party to the left?”

Flanders has recently written a cheerful book with the slightly unappetizing title “Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics From the Politicians.” The burden of her song is, as she said in a recent interview,
“... [G]rit, that’s the stuff that gets you through, the mettle that enables you that take on tough stuff. It's also the stuff that gets in your shoe and blisters your toe. Blue Gritters, the folks I’m talking about, do both of those things for the Democratic Party: they discomfort the establishment, and I think they bring the passion to the issues that won the election last year.... I think the fact that the Democratic leadership is talking about timetables at all is a victory for the Blue Grit Democrats out there.”
So naturally, she took the affirmative – sorta, kinda, half-heartedly. To be sure, she didn't have a good word to say for the Democratic Party. A good thing, too, since the crowd, a half-and-half mix of grizzled old stagers and fresh-faced millennials, was clearly and overwhelmingly negative about the Party Of Clinton & Clinton, LLP. (Usually, a Left crowd in New York is full of people more dependent on the Democrats than a crackhead on his drug of choice, so the prevailing bummed-out atmosphere was intensely refreshing.)

But among all her caveats about the general rottenness of the party, Flanders' essential theme was that her bluegritters shouldn't be discouraged from working in the Democratic Party. As she phrased it, with well-placed caution, “some sort-of reformists in the sort of liberal-lefty part [of the party] are having some kind of success.” And alas, Aronowitz wasn't quite willing to take the last essential step and disagree with her decisively.

The debate was “moderated” by Gary Younge of The Nation, whose squishy-soft and prolix questioning took on something vaguely like an edge only once, when he asked Aronowitz whether he would advise activists to “pack their bags” and abandon the Democratic Party altogether.

Aronowitz, surprisingly, responded “of course not!” -- surprisingly, because everything else he had to say suggested that bag-packing would be very much in order, and the sooner the better.

He began by citing some of his left credentials, which included helping found the Reform Democratic movement in New York City – whose greatest success, as he drily noted, was “the election of Ed Koch as Mayor.” He warned activists that “You'll be taken over by the Democratic Party before you'll take it over.... I don't think another New Deal is possible. Yeah, Roosevelt was pushed from below but there was some agreement from the top. Now there's not. They'd rather bash people on the head. They've embraced repression now, not legitimation.... The peace movement is wimpy because they're tied hand and foot to the Democrats.... Bill Clinton was the best Republican president of the century!”

Against this rehearsal of indicative-mood history, Flanders took refuge, as defense of the Democrats always does, in the subjunctive: “We wouldn't have had the criminalization of pregnancy under a Democratic president – the Labor Department wouldn't be used as a weapon against the labor movement.” Aronowitz replied by quoting Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor, Bobby Reich, questioning whether labor unions were “still necessary.”

Asked by moderator Younge, in another rare moment of directness, whether he wouldn't prefer to see a Democratic president in 2008, Aronowitz got quite a laugh by replying, “Of course – because he won't do anything! I'm all for gridlock!” Flanders rather hotly replied that she wasn't for gridlock -- “I want troops out of Iraq, I want universal health care.” Unfortunately, Younge did not ask her what connection there might be between these good things and a Democratic president. Perhaps that would have been immoderate.

Maybe that was the problem: the moderation quotient was way too high. Flanders was ready to agree with any bad thing anybody might say about the Democratic Party, except that activists ought to be working night and day to destroy it -- and Aronowitz was unwilling to say that. He didn't say that working within the Democratic Party is a deadly, damning error. He didn't call it the graveyard of activists, though no doubt he's heard that old truism before. He didn't say that the Democratic party absorbs the energies of left-wing activists and turns those energies against the activists' own purposes – though I bet he would agree with the proposition. He should have been like the sepulchral voice in The Amityville Horror, hollowly booming “Get oooout!” -- but alas, he wasn't.

Flanders took the 'pro,' moderately, but Aronowitz moderately didn't quite take the 'con'. So though it was fun for a while, and a great deal of well-deserved and enjoyable abuse was poured on the dear old donkeys' heads, there was a slight feeling of coitus-interruptus at the end of the evening. Perhaps we should blame the Upas-tree influence of The Nation magazine, breathing its long-brewed suffocating vapors into the already mephitic Manhattan air.

I wonder how many of those disgruntled old veterans and peppery youths in the audience will trudge reluctantly into the shambles of '08 behind some Judas-goat from the Democratic Party. Oh Laura, so fresh, so fair, why must you be among them? And oh Stanley -- you might have saved a few!

Comments (12)


Bravo! What a great essay. Let them go the way of the Whigs. (The Republicans can fragment into a series of vicious little cult-like fascist cells, too!)

I sometimes read Obsidian Wings, and the Thanksralphing is breaking out over there, I notice.

Dr Paul Proteus:

I've always liked Laura Flanders... but I think it's time she went and had a sit-down with sage old Uncle Alex. I've heard her speak and have read some of her stuff. I think deep down she's smart enough to know better than this, but any political pundit knows that you can't make much of a living or be an AirAmerica darling by actively agitating for the demise of the Democratic Party...

at least not yet.

Dr Paul Proteus:

I've always liked Laura Flanders... but I think it's time she went and had a sit-down with sage old Uncle Alex. I've heard her speak and have read some of her stuff. I think deep down she's smart enough to know better than this, but any political pundit knows that you can't make much of a living or be an AirAmerica darling by actively agitating for the demise of the Democratic Party...

at least not yet.

Tim D:

Geez MJS, I don't know how you could have stomached it. I mean how was that even a debate? I mean had they gotten Cockburn or St. Clair to debate her, it might have been interesting. I don't know, I just can't stand the AirAmerica types. They are so tied to the Democrats that it's impossible for me to respect any of them (and really anyone of their intelligence supporting the Democrats at this point is a callaborator with mass murderers).

By the way, why is the left in this country so inept...I mean we have the greatest leftist writers in the WORLD. There are no Chomskys and Parentis out there in other countries, and yet we have no movement and no party and it's the same thing every election cycle: vote Democrat or the Republicans will win.


Tim D -- I have to admit, I was hoping for better. The only thing that kept me awake was Flanders' ankles. I have a photo on those on Flickr somewhere.


if that's
laura flanders

run her for president

on the daff-o-dill ticket

i'll contribute 5 dollars


Read your piece on CounterPunch and couldn't agree more.

Aronowitz to me seems like something of an academic bookish windbag who sometimes gets it right.

I'm going to put a link to your blog in mine. Keep up the good work, although I think the hunger for a left alternative to the Democrats won't peak until Hillary/Obama get their chance to shed American blood in Iraq after '08.

Tim D:

By the way, MJS, I noticed in the CP version of this essay the line about Flanders being Cockburn's niece and a white sheep in a family of very black ones was left out. Did you cut it out or did Cockburn?


Another niece of Alex Cockburn, former NY Times reporter and BBC tv economics correspondent Stephanie Flanders (Laura's younger sister), used to work in the Clinton Administration as Treasury Secretary Larry Summers (later the Harvard University president)'s speechwriter. Perhaps that's also another reason Mr. Cockburn was against impeaching Bill Clinton prior to the Democratic Administration's 1999 attack on Yugoslavia? There's part 1 of a 1991 interview with Laura posted on the www.bfeldman68.blogspot.com site, as well as links to the Leftgatekeepers and Toward Freedom sites that might contain some information that doesn't get much mention in The Nation magazine.


The Flanders/Cockburn connection was something I only found out about after I sent the piece to CP, so the family history line was added for the version here. The fact that CP took the piece suggests to me that Alex doesn't trim his sails much for the sake of his nieces' careers.

Is Stephanie as nice-looking as Laura, I wonder?


Possibly because your piece didn't make a reference to the $200,000 Ford Foundation grant that FAIR was given in the 1990s to help fund both the women's desk which Alex's older niece headed and her 1990s Real Majority, Media Minority book or to the $290,000 individual "genius grant" that the MacArthur Foundation (which also funded FAIR in the 1990s) gave to the domestic partner of Alex's older niece in 1997 (when the MacArthur "genius grant" program was headed by a member of both The Nation Institute board and the PBS board named Catharine Stimpson, who later become the NYU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean).

There's a photo of Stephanie Flanders on the BBC TV site at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/3094355.stm

It could be that "lookism on the left" plus the large sums of liberal foundation money that's been thrown the way of certain ngos and certain left journalists helped eventually create more of a Democratic Party-orientated political perspective within the Cockburn family than during the early 1990s. But my impression is that most U.S. left opponents of the Dem-Republican duopoly (including Nader) are still generally going to have a hard time winning a one-on-one political debate with Laura; since she's had over 10 years of heavy experience frequently debating with people over the radio,is very clever and glib, and knows a lot of rhetorical and debating tricks that most people in a left-liberal audience can't generally detect.

George S:

It's odd that you don't mention that Stanley Aronowitz has a track record as an Anti-Dem; He was the NY State Green Party's candidate for Governor in 2002, running against Carl McCall and Pataki.
As far as many of us veterans of that campaign were aware, he has not abandoned his commitment to the need for a progressive third party. But the Dubya years and the simmering residual Dem-Lib hatred for Nader have driven many Greens to just be sick to death of dealing with the earnest Nation Mag types; maybe Stanley just didn't want to go through the same old dance steps with that crowd, and wanted to avoid a too-nasty scene with the likes of Flanders and her fans.
As far as how Stanley fared as a duopoly-spoiler, he campaigned for the ex-Party Of Nader with as much enthusiasm as you could expect from a thoughtful leftie academic, but he failed to get the 50,000 Governor-votes threshold that allows a NY party to maintain an automatic ballot line. (It had been obtained - just barely, on recount-- four years earlier- by the late great Grandpa Al Lewis.)
Anyway, Malachy McCourt didn't do too much better for us four years later.

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