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Interview: Sarah Leonard on socialism in America

August 12, 2017

Sarah Leonard is a senior editor at The Nation and an active member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in New York City. The following interview was conducted at the 2017 People's Summit in Chicago.

Kevin Taghabon: Are there neighbourhoods in New York that you wouldn't have expected a warm reception to the DSA where that has actually happened?

Sarah Leonard: I think when DSA gets involved in useful things, like [anti-] gentrification work in Crown Heights people welcome that support. I actually think that right now socially speaking, in America, there's not a lot of anxiety and antagonism around the idea of socialism among most people. I think people feel very antagonistic toward Wall Street. I don't think that people are freaked out post-Bernie Sanders about things called “socialism” unless that thing proves itself to be something scary, which it obviously hasn't [laughs].

We have a very similar struggle [in Canada]. Like the anti-gentrification work. We don't walk around waving red flags. You just go to where the struggle is and insert yourself. Considering you work in the media I wanted to ask you about that. The New York Times' of the world, CNN, Jim Acosta, Keith Olbermann, they're sort of branding themselves as “The Resistance”. The last bastions of a vulnerable democracy. What's your take on that? Is that who they are?

I don't care who they are. I care if they're useful. I suppose what's frustrating sometimes is when pundits – who are not very engaged with the social movements that are doing organizing work – claim to have solutions for things that are not new crises but long-term problems. People's wages have been falling off since the 70s, and people have been working on that. Neoliberalism has meant falling wages and a slashing of the social safety net, which makes women shock absorbers of neoliberalism. There are movements that have been working on that.

If these folks want to go and write about what's wrong with all of those problems, that's great. But they should be lifting up the voices of the people that work on the issues. Not just because that's ethical, but because that's how you know, that's how you learn about what's happening. Everyone is welcome to oppose things that are bad. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. You should pay attention to the people that have been doing the work.

One of the things that really struck me during the Sanders campaign is that he has a Eugene V. Debs) placard on his wall. [Debs] is someone that most of the American [people] isn't really familiar with. But most people know who Martin Luther King Jr. is. How has the media and education system been able to erase the history of radicalism in the United States the past 100 years? And specifically, socialism.

It's a common phenomenon in the US that people who are deemed national heroes for having eradicated something we all agree is bad, in order to lift them up, the education system, public officials say simply, “drop the socialism part.” And that's very frustrating, of course. On the other hand it gives us an opportunity because American society lifts these people up on pedestals, and we can say, “they were socialists too, by the way.” That's actually a bit of a platform for us, to be able to point to the radical history of someone who most Americans agree is a hero of our history. So, that's fine [laughs]. I would add that something valuable for socialists right now is actually to talk about America's particular socialist history. We have a pretty rich history of American radicalism that aligns with our values, and often that is more relatable for American's than citing [Antonio] Gramsci. For obvious reasons.

We saw Obama prosecuting record numbers of whistleblowers, pushing through the National Defense Authorization Act which the FBI [, Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Pentagon, and the attorney general] said they didn't need. Somebody as retrograde as [former FBI Director] James Comey not being acceptable a year ago, fighting Apple on encryption, now he's the hero of liberals all of a sudden because he's on the other side of Trump. What do you think we can expect from this administration considering that so many people are willing to put their bodies on the line, or their dollars, or their time, engaging in activism that is going to be diametrically opposed to this administration? What kind of operational security should they be taking?

We're already experiencing the administration's threat to even journalists. I would point to the case of Aaron Cantú who's been indicted now merely for reporting on the protests during the inauguration.

I think he's facing something like a lifetime sentence when it's all added up?

Yes, effectively 70 years. That's the maximum. We don't know what's going to happen obviously. That's outrageous. And that's something that the prosecutors in DC do not usually pursue. There are protests in DC all the time. There are journalists covering those protests all the time. This is really vindictive.

I think we have to be looking out for people and really raising a huge ruckus every time someone is subject to that sort of persecution. I would add that in that same case there are many activists and protesters who are also facing huge sentences. Felony rioting. They'll have a felony on their record. That's awful, and we need to defend their rights.

In terms of operation security it completely depends on what you're working on. But everyone – every American, never mind just activists – should take common sense steps to keep their information private, because that allows you a degree of freedom as a citizen to express yourself to other people. Things like using Signal on your phone is great because you know that your communication is between you and the person you intended it to be with [laughs].

Even post-CIA leaks of last month

Yeah. Be really careful if you know someone is undocumented. Don't tweet about it. Every organization has to develop its own framework. They want people to be safe, but it's absolutely something people should be savvy about. And there are organizations like the Freedom of the Press Foundation or other smaller collectives that are engaged in helping lefties to have good digital security.

We have groups in Canada that criticize [movement-embedded socialists]. So they say things like, “involving yourself in Standing Rock is not building our organization. Involving yourself in the Fight for 15, in Black Lives Matter, is not growing our organization. All of our efforts, time, and resources should be invested in growing our organization, and anything that's tangential to that is counterproductive, and will never lead to our revolution.” What do you make of that?

That's a very good way to stay small. Have fun by yourself.

That's essentially what Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor said after the Women's March, a lot of people were criticizing it as white liberal women marching.

That is a very good essay.

Yeah, and she said if you want to fight the revolution with your six friends who are just as woke as you, do it alone.

I assigned that essay to the people in my reading group because she's exactly right. In a country where the common sense is very different in a way from what we're suggesting – we have a creed of economic individualism – we're saying, “no, we should behave in a way that benefits people collectively.” It's not fair to put all the risk of society on individuals. It's our burden to articulate that in a way that resonates with people's experiences. And in order to do that we also have to be always learning. We have to be open, that we might have gotten something wrong, or the analysis is insufficient, or it's not being expressed adequately. If you think that all that needs to be done is keep saying the same thing over and over again then either you don't care about being alone, or maybe you're a god and you so clearly know the right answer that you will never need to be. It's ridiculous.

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