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Trip Report: Netroots Nation (part II)

Part I of this post considered Being, Doing, and Writing. In each section, the theme of Agency was important, but in two senses: 1. The power to act on behalf of a principal, and 2. The power to act, as such. In Doing, especially, we see many agent/principal issues, if we view citizens as the principals ("We the people do ordain and establish"), and elected officials, union leaders, political operatives, etc., as their agents. (Or not. See at "pitch.") But Writing, or at least blogging, is for me agency in sense two: The power to write in one's own voice, and to find a public. Finally, Being shows the interplay between the two senses: Trade shows, because of travel, the buzz, the foraging, and the caffeine, always seem to reinforce one's power to act; but one attends a trade show on behalf of a principal. More centrally, the alienation I felt came from the sense that many around me must have given trust and loyalty to principals whose actions and policies are inimical to me; yet I was present as an independent agent with the capacity to reflect on my experience. (As before, I'll paraphrase and patch all the panel discussions from my notes.)

IV. Fucking

"I deserve good things. I am entitled to my share of happiness. I refuse to beat myself up. I am an attractive person. I am fun to be with." -- Sen. Al Franken (D) as Stuart Smalley

So, leaving the blogging panel early (Writing) I moved on to the sex panel. Because I came in late, I missed the introductions, and was present only for the discussion and Q&A. So I'll keep it general, and fill in the blanks that I didn't see in the discussion, but I'll have a lot more questions than answers. We seem to be turning to the touchstones of Greek classics lately, so I'll start by quoting Sappho as translated by Guy Davenport:

Eros makes me shiver again
Eros gall and honey,
Snake-sly, invincible.
Strengthless in the knees.

(Compare Barnard. I prefer Davenport's live metaphor, "gall and honey" to Barnard's "bittersweet," and snake-sly, invincible is way more snaky than strikes.)

The panelists seemed to share a common desire for "sex positive" discourse; at least two compared themselves to the "cool sister," the one who explains, from personal experience, what "good sex" can be, and that it's OK, more than OK, to have it. (It may be that they saw the Democratic Party as the cool sister for the country, or at least its youth. I'm not so sure.) I'm of at least three minds here.

To begin, "sex positive" discourse (expressing "the full dignity of sexual agency," as one panelist put it) strikes me as banal. "Snake-sly, invincible," sex can be a gift from the Gods, an affliction, a joy, a poison; sex is pitiable, enviable, elastic, ecstatic; comic, tragic; dull; a duty. Is it truly possible to talk honestly of "gall and honey" and be "positive"? Isn't that spectrum a little compressed? Can sex, like slow food, be "good, clean, and fair"? (If so, would sex stay that way?) I understand ("think of the teenagers!") the pragmatic reasoning here, but "sex positive" strikes me as very much like the progressive version of a Noble Lie.

Then again, "sex negative" is banal and immoral; one panelist pointed out that abstinence programs delay the "strengthless in the knees" onset of sex just by a year, and that by fostering ignorance such programs foster disease and unwanted pregnancies into the bad bargain, thus neatly creating a self-licking ice cream cone of negative sex outcomes and the need for funded programs to reinforce expectations of negative outcomes ("Many people trying to fix the problem in a way that makes it worse").

And then again... "Coming out," which many on this panel have done. Whatever else "coming out" may mean, it makes a positive statement about whom one wishes to have sex with. I'm old enough to remember when the phrase did not exist, and that it now does, and that the coming out process is approaching normalcy as a rite of passage, is a triumph of courage, persistence, principle, and organizing skill -- of agency -- that we would to well to emulate in other spheres. The panel, with many on it who were out, could not have existed so easily, thirty or even twenty years ago.

There is not too much love in the world.

* * *

There was a lively and funny question and answer session, but I'll fast forward to what I see as the flash point for "sex positive" discourse and for progressive/left/prefigurative thinking about sex generally:

Sex work, possibly so-called (I'm probably missing nuance here on first, second, and third waves, and the "sluts" discourse, but here goes.) One comment from the floor: "Many sex workers don't identify as feminists, because they don't see themselves as victims and don't want to be rescued." Another: "Can't we all get along? Feminism doesn't welcome sexual agency. But we're all fighting for bodily autonomy." A third: "If a woman possesses more than three condoms [why three?] that can be used as evidence that she's a prostitute." ("So go to CVS, buy a box, and turn yourself in!")

Comment from the audience: "Sex work is work." If so, is sex work "sex positive"? Ever? Is sex work a case of exercising one's "bodily autonomy"? If so, is wage work? (And is sex work a subset of wage work? A superset? An intersection?) Is sex work something that you'd go to your "cool sister" for advice on? If you were that sister, what would you say? Does sex work partake of "the full dignity of human agency," and, if so, in which sense of agency? If dignity can't be achieved without agency, then why not take sex work out of System D, and make it legal? Then again, should selling kidneys be legal? Why or why not? During the discussion, I googled around to find out what the libertarians had to say, and found this panel at the 2012 NJ Libertarian Party Convention: "Kate D'Adamo - "Sex Worker Rights and the Path to Decriminalization." Can we imagine such a panel at Netroots Nation 2013? How about at the Democratic Party Convention? No? Is that a good thing? Then I looked for the Greens. A draft of the Green 2010 Platform treats the term "sex work" as problematic, and puts it under the heading of Violence and Oppression. The final 2010 version bypasses the sex work discussion, and calls for adopting the Swedish model, which criminalizes the principals who purchase services, instead of criminalizing the service providers (the agents). Is that a good compromise? Is it a compromise?

And lest it be thought that we wander too far from the subject matter of this blog, let's remember that sex scandals are a staple of discourse in official Washington, and not just when what happens in Cartagena doesn't stay in Cartagena. Finance-oriented client #9 -- well before nemesis overtook him -- was given a T-shirt that read: "Hubris is terminal." So Marcy Wheeler's tweeted snark -- "Last night, if I had the chance, I would have asked @AGSchneiderman if he was Client #13" -- had more than a little truth potential. Can there be a power structure that doesn't use sex and sex work as a tool for compliance? What would a power structure like that look like? What would sex look like?

As the moderator remarked: "Progressives don't have talking points on sex, and progressives don't have a shared vision around sex." Indeed. The Republicans do: "Sex negative" (except for gay, closeted sex, of course, or sex with sex workers when one of their own is the principal). The Libertarians seem to ("Liberty!"). And the Greens seem to have arrived at a considered policy position. But not the Democrats/progressives/left. And we're supposed to be the smart ones!

V. Spending

“But the dealers and usurers will cry out that what is written under hand and seal must be honoured. To this the jurists have given a prompt and sufficient answer. In malis promissis. Thus the theologians say that some people give the devil something under hand and seal signifies nothing, even if it is written and sealed in blood. For what is against God, Right and Nature is null and void. Therefore let a Prince who can do so, take action, tear up bond and seal, take no notice of it, etc. …"--Martin Luther

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute ran a panel on the Fed, with Karl Smith (once of Modeled Behavior, now of Forbes), Matt Yglesias (Slate), and Lisa Donner (Americans for Financial Reform). I want to move along to Schneiderman, and it's hard to see what value I could add for NC readership on the Fed anyhow, so I'll just point to one major disconnect:

The panel was agreed that, basically, the entire economic establishment had boarded the #FAILboat well before the financial crisis. Konzcal quoted Greenspan's famous except of course now forgotten "state of shocked disbelief." Smith noted the dilemma of the economics professariat: "Accepting they were wrong and created a massive global disaster is really hard." Matt Yglesias (and good for him) described the Fed's policy this way: "It's better to have millions of unemployed than have gas prices tick up. They're crucifying the country on the 2% inflation threat." And: "Mass unemployment is a crime." That's true, and all panelists agree that the Fed has the policy tools to alleviate unemployment. As Konczal pointed out in his opening remarks: "These are political choices."

Again, the Fed knows how to reduce unemployment. But, as the panelists also said, using almost identical language throughout the hour, "the Fed chooses not to." But doesn't it make more sense to use positive language, regard the Fed as fully empowered moral agents, and say "The Fed has chosen permanently high unemployment." And then ask why?

That's the sort of question I'd expect to be asked at a panel titled: "Why the Fed is the Most Important Economic Issue You Know Nothing About." But the question wasn't asked. On the one hand, mass unemployment, loss of dignity, loss of homes, loss of health, depression, suicides. On the other, letter writing campaigns about financial transation taxes. Dodd-Frank. I'd like to believe that there's help on the way. From this panel, there isn't. Problems and solutions are completely incommensurate.

Anyhow, near the hotspot where I'd caffeinated myself in the morning there was a mile-long glass display case of full of chocolates, so I blew my budget on a slab of toffee. It was pretty good, and lasted for about five minutes. Then it was gone.

VI. Winning

“I tried to like you, boy, and I just couldn't work it out.” --John D. MacDonald, Bright Orange for the Shroud

In the evening, Eric Schneiderman gave the opening keynote after a long build-up, complete with comedian, which I'll skip, except to say that I had a nice little nap while Tammy Baldwin was speaking. I could see why funders might think Schneiderman's worth backing, especially as opposed to a communist like Elizabeth Warren. He's obviously smart, he can be funny -- "The conservatives act like there are some pages in Genesis the rest of us missed: Thou shalt not eat shrimp, and thou shalt not regulate derivatives" -- and he can put together a sustained, cogent argument in clear language. Of course, Schneiderman does look like the sort of undertaker who tries to upsell you to the $5000 casket when all you want for your "loved one" is cremation, followed by scattering the ashes, but presumably that can be fixed in time by the right "team."

We had some advance notice that there would be some direct action during his speech, and indeed there was. As Scheiderman began to speak, audience members at one table shouted "Jail the banksters!" and held up signs (I which I later saw were printed by PCCC, and good for them). Massocchio covers the same ground in a fine report, but I'm going to give more detail on the talking points, because I suspect this was a dry run, and we'll hear the rhetoric again. For all I know, there's a transcript somewhere, but take this as a record of the talking points that came through.

SCHNEIDERMAN: "Netroots you have helped me in every aspect of my work." "Movements create leaders, change consciousness, open possibilities for the future." Movements always emerge from grassroots activity." "I reject the great man theory of history." "Speaking candidly, our officials are inclined toward caution" [irony!] "They give us what we make them give us." "You lead, leaders will follow."

[Lambert here. Spoiler alert: This is a recapitulation of the "Make me do it" argument that Obama fans deployed in 2009-2010. The problem -- even if we don't consider "hope and change" and the subsequent sidelining of Obama for America as a gigantic bait and switch operation -- is that there's little evidence that mere voters can make Obama do anything. (Bundlers have better luck, and even they haven't done all that well.) Take health care reform -- please: The outside game that single payer advocates perforce played didn't affect ObamaCare at all. But the inside game played by public option advocates didn't affect ObamaCare either, though it did suck all the oxygen away from single payer; Obama had betrayed them for Big Pharma from the beginning. Surely there's more at work than "caution" here?]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "Give it up to the movement conservatives! This movement not Reagan is what has derailed our progress toward [shouts] -- Thank you. We were getting to them. I'm glad you pay attention to pushing elected officials." FDR: "I want to do it now make me do it." Norquist: "We know what direction to go. We just need a President to sign this stuff."

[This is an ingenious deflection. If elected officials are corrupt or malfeasant or non-responsive, it's the voters who are at fault for not pushing them! (Just as long as they don't run afoul of the NDAA, or an over-zealous bankster.) Come on. I can see how this would be true in marginal cases, but when Schneiderman signs onto a deal that puts a $2000 price on fraud, what pressure exactly would have caused him not to do that? It's as if I (the principal) hire a contractor (an agent) to paint the walls in one of the rooms of the house. We shake hands, I hand over a deposit. I show him the room, he lays down the dropcloths and starts doing prep. At the end of the day, I check back. There's a brush stroke on the wall the size of a postage stamp. "You need to make me paint the whole wall!"

SCHNEIDERMAN: "We are in a unique position to build a movement for economic justice." "A movement transforms the way people think." "Two kinds of politics: Transactional and transformational." "Transactional gets the best deal given the givens. Transformational gets a deal where tomorrow is better than today. Changes the narrative of assumptions people make about politics and human nature that prevent progressive policies."

[Schneiderman seems to forget that he is a rotating hero who has already rotated.]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "The greatest damage of conservatives is that they lead people to embrace policies that hurt them." [George Lakoff. Shopworn talking points from 2008.] "But give due repect for their transformational work. They convinced people that unions, the institutions that created the middle class, are bad for the middle class."

[Card check. Obama's no-show in WI.]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "The conservative movement blew up the economy."

[All the players and owners of both legacy parties since the neo-liberal ascendancy began in the mid-70s blew up the economy, every time there was a bubble. The conservative movement pitched in, but they didn't repeal Glass-Steagall, pass TARP, or pass HAMP. True, the conservative movement hasn't prosecuted a single bankster CEO for accounting control fraud, but then nobody has, unless Schneiderman got a memo I didn't get, or Obama had one of them secretly shot. And the conservative movement didn't retroactively legalize thousands of frauds on the court for robosigning, didn't give the destruction of the public land title system the seal of approval, or end the rule of law. That would be down to Obama, whose "mortage settlement" Schneiderman proudly supports. Say, does Schneiderman's Mortgage Task Force have an office and a phone yet? How the heck are we supposed to "make them do it" if they don't even have a phone? Should we take the Acela in hopes of running into him? Maybe in shifts? Adopt entartisme? Help me out, here, Eric. I'm dying.]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "Most Americans are asking for change." "People get that there's growing inequality, and want to get back to a tradition of reaching for greater equality." "As in the 30s we have opportunities." "The most important thing about the New Deal is that its architects did not view it as a list [of policy proposals]. "Americans embraced the idea that I do better when my neighbors do better." "Transformation of consciousness." "Crisis creates opportunity." "Caught up in the day-to-day, we miss the transformational battle."

[So where does putting a $2000 price on fraud fit in with transforming consciousness? And how does that help my neighbor?]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "My office is investigating the bubble and and the crash in the mortgage market." [No mention of fraud]. "The goals: 1. Accountability, 2. Help for homeowners, and 3. Everything out in the open so the other side [sic] can't rewrite history."

[Let me know how that works out. Putting on my tinfoil hat, I suspect Obama has some mid-level bankster trussed up in the trunk of his limousine for possible use as an October Surprise, when in case of emergency he (I assume he) will be handed over to Schneiderman's Task Force for prosecution. There doesn't need to be any investigation because the investigation necessary for such a purpose has already been done. Hence no phone. FWIW!]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "Teachers and firefighters didn't blow up American economy."

[Of course not. That's why we saw Obama helping out with SB5 in Ohio and the Wisconsin recall. Oh, wait...]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "In some cases [do they have names? Like with "vs." in them?] illegal conduct [by whom, exactly?] caused [how?] the bubble and the crash." "The worst for me was in 2004 when the Feds refused to regulate predatory lending but preempted the states from regulating." "Each victory is a transaction made possible by transformational work." "I became Attorney General after the crash, and began to understand the path of destruction." "Then I heard of the mortgage settlement and the deal was not adequate. What the banks wanted was a broad release." "So I refused to go along, and was isolated with a few AGs like Beau Biden [applause] and we won."

[You won? By what metric? If everything's out in the open, where can I find it? And if homeowners are getting any real help, you'd have mentioned it, right? And who, exactly, has been held accountable? Oh, wait, I know the answer to that. It's us, because we haven't made you do it.]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "Then OWS exploded onto the scene and gave voice for demanding accountability." "'We want accountability, and we want equal justice' all say, even though they might not think go to Zucotti Park." "This is transformational work and not transactional, that accountability and inequality are back on the national agenda." "Your work, I am confident, led to Obama's SOTU statement, "there has to be one set of rules for everyone." "Second New Deal." "Are you in?"

[Of course I'm not in. Why would I be in? Here's the baseline: Bankster CEOs in orange jump suits doing the perp walk on national TV for accounting control fraud. Not small fry. And not fall guys. When that's done, maybe we can get to work on solving real problems.]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "Thank you for pushing for every greater equity."

[You're welcome.]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "I assure you that people are ahead of the politicians."

[They're not even on the same race track, which cuts both ways.]

SCHNEIDERMAN: "Communication, investigation, exposure."

Let me know how it works out. netroots.php?ref=fpb">Schneiderman to the press after the speech:

“Nothing’s off the table now. Nothing’s off the table.”

Except what the statute of limitations is taking off the table, of course. And Massochio says Schneiderman's been running the transactional vs. transformational riff for some time. Ah well.


I started out by saying that Democrats subtract value from the political work that ordinary citizens do; what the Democrats did to the people who stood in the snow in the Wisconsin recall is a clear example. An even more clear example is the betrayal of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of first- and second-time voters with the "hope and change" con in 2008 (though fortunately not all of them are disillusioned, and some of them moved on to Occupy). In both cases, the apparatus of the Democratic Party turned into a roach motel for progressive energy; a "process decoy" as some would say. In Ohio, SB5 worked exactly because the election was not personalized in the form of a party candidate, and the message stayed crisp because the Democrats were not there to blur it.

If I sound dispirited, that's because I'm dispirited about Democrats and about NN. When I think about the work that people are doing on the ground, outside the party structure, or using the parties for their own ends, I'm encouraged and awed. That's agency.

I should end by mentioning something NN did that was really, really good. They started the keynote evening by inviting union workers from the Westin, the Biltmore, and the RI Convention Center up on the stage. The workers had been fighting to regain their benefits, pay, and jobs, and NN used its market clout to help them. That too is agency, though of course the workers are the principals. And again, I'm grateful to Yves for sending me, to NN for letting me in, and for your patience, readers, as I slowly worked my way through this report.

Travel tip: airbnb worked great. It's the only good reason I've ever found to have a Faceborg account, other than giving the Stasi advance notice of my every move, of course. Kidding!

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