In Rebuild the Dream (Nation Books, 2012) Van Jones explains exactly how story trumps facts. He should know.
In the fall of 2009 I was overwhelmed with dread and sadness. How could I tell my son about events I could not face myself? I finally explained that Van, his mentor and role model, was about to lose his job at the White House in a spectacularly hurtful way thanks to Glenn Beck. Van, the brilliant visionary who took on social injustice and the withering planet had been bested by a bipolar carny barker that Chayefsky could not have invented. The best of us brought down by the worst of us. WTF.
This story was part of a larger strategy designed to drive the left insane by refashioning political discourse into a verbal tick at the level of trying to order a deli sandwich from a deaf man with Tourette’s Syndrome. Political success is bound to a good story, not solving hard problems and therefore does not require intelligence, facts or civility. Knowing this well, the right flooded the conversation with oppressively dumbed down, wickedly untrue zombie-memes that could never be killed so people like me, lefty intellectuals with resources, would be forced to spend our time explaining the shape of the Earth and defending gravity. We were robbed, very effectively, of our core strength: inclusive, intelligent analysis of the facts. FML.
The strategy worked. My Obama-inspired hope peaked the day he hired Van. That hope was vanquished the day Van was run out of town by a torch and pitchfork lynch mob (deliberate word usage) unfettered by a cowering, silent left. After 40 years of following politics and 10 years of activism, I unplugged, unfriended, unfollowed, unsubscribed, turned off Maddow and Stewart and closed my checkbook. FTW.
Turns out I wasn’t alone.
In Van’s telling of the road to the “post hope era,” every progressive micro-cause was buoyed by the siren calls of Hope and Change that were equal parts loud and vague. As each of those micro-causes were compromised or ignored by post-election reality “frustration, disappointment, and bitterness sidelined millions of once-enthusiastic Obama voters.”
I’ve known Van for 10 years and I laid low throughout all this, but when I heard he was starting to come back into the public scene I looked him up. Exactly a year ago, we had a glorious conversation and when he referred to me and mine as “part of the family” I was touched to the core.
A few weeks later I saw him speak in Seattle. In a room packed with thousands of Seattle’s meanest, baddest, hard-core lefty-mcLeftists he dared them to embrace Tea Party members and to accept their grievances as legitimate. He squelched the room’s eager bloodlust to skewer and warned against any form of hate in their hearts. I took a friend to that speech who had never heard of Van before that evening. “No wonder the right is scared shitless of him.” Nailed it.
I do not understand how Van walked away from his White House experiences without a hint of bitterness. I don’t get how, today, he has more hope and is more inspiring of hope than ever.
What I do understand after reading Rebuild the Dream is what every storyteller since Aristotle will tell you about the structure of a good story: in Act 1 we get to know the hero and his quest. In the beginning of Act 2, that quest seems attainable but is then blocked by obstacles. At first it looks like the hero has a choice between giving up or moving forward risking destruction to achieve his desire, but then there comes a time when even the choice is gone and the hero is facing certain demise — the true cost of simply dreaming. Now, at the brink of extinction, our hero’s lowest point of decimation and humiliation is the highest point of the drama. And that’s how you know you’re at the end of Act 2.
Still buzzing from the Seattle speech, I was slowly re-engaging in tiny ways just as Occupy was gaining steam. I went to Zuccotti Park, walked up to the “Info booth” and asked how I could help. Young dude with big hair said “Folding tables.” I said “Er, no. What else?” Sensing he should aim a little higher he said “Hard disks.” I said “Be right back!” Later, I stood at my son’s side at Ogawa Plaza for the heartbreaking candlelight vigil for Scott Olsen’s recovery.
But Occupy (thank god) was never a political solution. Van’s prescription includes a call to combine the energy and inspiration of Occupy with bottom up reforms and pivots into politics. We have a lot of work to do. If you’re feeling disparaged or disillusioned because your pet cause was neglected, consider this: nobody earned their bitterness more than Van Jones but he declined to indulge in it. He’s choosing a different narrative.
Rebuild the Dream is an invitation to write the third act together. Let’s do it. Let’s do it with a great story because that’s how we succeed in politics, let’s do it with the facts because that’s how we succeed in solving the big problems and let’s do it with our hearts open because that’s how we succeed as humans.