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Michael Oko’s Blog

Van Jones: Still A Hero

Michael Oko

Posted September 7, 2009

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This was a tough weekend for environmental advocates, as Van Jones, one of the newer heroes of the environmental community, was forced to resign from his post as the "green jobs" advisor in the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Jones burst on the environmental scene around 2007 backed by charismatic flare and the power of a strong idea-- that environmental policies could lift-up people across the economic spectrum largely through new clean energy jobs. The organization he founded, Green For All, and his best-selling book, the Green Collar Economy, are a reflection of this idea, which has become a driving force behind action on clean energy and global warming.

I happened to cross paths with Jones nearly 10 years ago, in my former career in documentary films. In 2000, I was working for Witness, a human rights organization (then headed by Gillian Caldwell, coincidentally another convert to the issue of climate change, who is now leading the environmental group 1Sky) on a juvenile justice project, called Books Not Bars. The project was the brainchild of Jones, who was then an influential advocate for human rights and poverty issues in Oakland, CA. The goal was to encourage the promotion of education to overcome our national epidemic of over-incarceration of young people. I remember meeting him once or twice, but, mostly, I remember seeing videos of him at rallies, where his confidence, strong ideas and passion fired-up the crowds. He is one of those charismatic speakers who is able to connect with youth, activists and policy-makers alike.

When I arrived at NRDC in 2008, I was not surprised to find that Jones was working in the environmental community-- redefining the connection between environmental action and poverty.

As I soon found out, Jones's ideas had already taken power-- he had influenced policymakers like Nancy Pelosi, written a best-seller, and was soon tapped to join the Obama administration. To me, it was an exciting choice that represented President Obama's commitment to bring-in fresh voices to advance his clean energy and climate agenda.

Now, just 6 months later, Jones's star has-- at least for the moment-- been dimmed.

In his words, Jones was taken down by a "vicious smear campaign" by those who are "using lies and distortions to distract and divide." These include far right-wingers, especially Glen Beck of Fox News, who launched a vicious campaign against him, labeling him as a socialist and worse. This is the type of nasty politics that the opponents of change have been using for years, tying together loose rhetoric, misinformation and fear to block change for America. This clearly goes beyond any one action or individual-- and speaks to the worst aspects of our current political culture.

There is a cautionary note here, especially since Jones has many similarities with Obama. He's a smart, driven, 21st Century, African-American leader. Both have a rare combination of intelligence, bold ideas and charismatic personalities. And, of course, Jones, like Obama, was a progressive "community organizer," who suddenly found himself in the center of the D.C. political scene.

This combination of qualities is extremely threatening to many on the far-right, where bold ideas and action stand in contrast with stasis and incrementalism that is commonplace inside and outside of beltway. Sadly, the Glen Beck-crowd used their own extremist, fiery rhetoric and big media platforms to take down Jones. 

If there's a silver lining, it's that, as the blogger Kate Shepperd has argued, Jones may now be liberated by working from the outside, where he can return to mobilizing and exciting young people and activists, who need his energy and strong voice. Interestingly, in August, I was at the Netroots Nation conference (where Jones was the keynote speaker in 2008) and at one roundtable discussion I attended, Jones was picked as the runaway favorite as most people's environmental hero. His heroic status should only grow greater now that he's been pushed to the outside.

This is an important moment. Congress is returning from a volatile August recess, and the Senate will soon take up energy and climate legislation. Now is the time for people who care about jobs, clean energy and the climate to come together and focus on these serious issues. We need leaders who are willing to present big ideas and take tough action for America's future. We know that the opposition will take their shots -- but our leaders cannot back down. The opposition is out of solutions and their only recourse is to try to block progress for our country.

As our elected officials come back to Washington this week, they will have one less champion. But, at this moment, we need even more leaders, like Van, to continue to push-- from inside and out-- for action that will move America in a new direction by shifting to clean energy that will create jobs and protect our planet.

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AlanSep 7 2009 10:37 PM

When facts and reasons are not on their side, what did they do? Painted the opponents red. It is like McCarthism all over again.

How could President Obama insist on "rising above" when the other side fight with any means necessary? It is like a boxing match, when one player keeps on biting, how could the other rise above? Why would we even bother "debating" when logic and reality is resented by the others?

President Obama should not comprise when he knows he is doing something right for the people. Voting and comprises won't cut it in every cases.

Other than personal beliefs and left and right, there is something called reality, which is the ultimate impartial judge. For instance, when some people do not believe in gravity and argue we should go over a cliff, would voting or comprises work? NO!

His miscalculation was to believe the nature of all humans is good, everyone is capable of being rational and thinking beyond personal interests.

For the sake of America and humanity, the administration should take a stand and start fight back. I'm not saying they should lower themselves to the same level and fight dirty, but rather throw people who do not follow rules out of the ring.

Frank DavisSep 8 2009 04:53 PM

You are kidding! Did he sign a truther petition? Yes. Did he call all Republicans assholes? Yes. Did he say that white polluters were polluting black neighborhoods? Yes. None of those are lies and distortions, all his statements were in context. The fact that you are defending this guy says a lot about your organization and it's (lack of) credibility.

ThomasSep 8 2009 05:03 PM

The "vicious smear campaign" against Jones consisted mostly of...people quoting him.

"Out of context" is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

D'ya think that if somebody in George W. Bush's administration had spent the nineties self-identifying as a Nazi, some people mighta had a problem with that? Or would that just have been "smearing" the poor goose-stepper?

A vicious smeary person.

TimmehSep 8 2009 05:09 PM

Van Jones was a communist. The ONLY smear campaign against him was the one he created. NOTHING was taken out of context and he was his worst advocate. I hate to break the news to you, Mikey, but the country is a center-right one and you and your ilk's socialist ideas aren't going to take hold. So keep making this sound like it was everyone else against this "Great" man - sheesh - and gloss over the fact that he IS a radical and a majority of the country doesn't ascribe to his or your views.

Steven WillisSep 8 2009 05:22 PM

How can I credibly push an environmental cause when my "fellow" environmentalists embrace this wacko? Considerate people who want to help the environment are turned off by the broad brush with wich we are painted by the Van Jones of the world.

Robert Coeur d'AleneSep 8 2009 08:03 PM

Two things stood out to me. First 'viscous smear campaign' is in quotes. Is that because to put it any other way would make it a lie. Meaning, so far I haven't heard anyone dispute what has been said about Van Jones. Maybe, that's because it's all based on his own words.

Which brings me to the second point. Namely, you claim that Beck labeled him a socialist and then add 'or worse' as if agreeing that socialists is a bad thing - and it is! But, isn't the socialist label really just another instance of my first point - namely he said it about himself!

What you can't seem to face is that when people found out about Van Jones true beliefs and activities they decided he was unfit for a job at the highest levels of our government... because he isn't!

billSep 8 2009 08:35 PM

Van Jones took Van Jones down.

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