Quality control and the progressive opposition
BeyondChron's editorial yesterday taking city progressives to task for their knee-jerk opposition to Mayor Newsom's Care Not Cash program is the first crack in what, until now, has been monolithic leftist opinion on that issue ("Progressives Should Reassess Care Not Cash").
Last month BeyondChron celebrated its first anniversary by looking back at its accomplishments and reminding readers why it started doing what it does: "One year ago, Beyond Chron was launched to cover news either ignored or distorted by the San Francisco Chronicle." Not a bad place to start, since the Chronicle is the most important paper in town. But it's limiting to focus on the Chronicle when the problem of thinking and writing about local political issues is larger than that. What about issues that are "ignored or distorted" by the SF Bay Guardian? Maybe I should rename by blog "Beyond the Guardian," since one of my operating assumptions is that the city's left is also ignoring and distorting issues.
In his anniversary piece, Randy Shaw mentions a failure along the way: "It is not easy putting out new material every weekday, and sometimes our coverage falls short of our standards. We recently did an update on the controversy regarding the building of a highway in Golden Gate Park and due to time constraints relied too heavily on a single source." Presumably Shaw is referring to the issue-cluster involved in building an underground garage and remodeling the Concourse in Golden Gate Park. Of course no one is "building a highway in Golden Gate Park," though opponents of the widening of MLK have used that kind of hyperbole to build opposition to the project. What should be a sobering reality to progressives is this: Progressive opposition to the garage and the remodeling of the Concourse has been and continues to be shockingly uninformed and/or just plain dishonest.
Another example: the Muni proposals to raise fares and cut service to deal with its deficit. The "progressive" assumption seems to be that raising fares and cutting service is wrong because it's bad for working people and poor people. Well, yes, but saying that is meaningless since it implies that Muni is doing so gratuitously when, like every other city department, it's only trying to deal with its deficit. Do progressives really have anything interesting or useful to say about Muni? If so, I haven't seen it.
This is one of the inevitable problems Shaw has as editor of an online paper: spreading himself too thin on the issues. It's difficult for one person to know enough about a lot of issues to have anything meaningful to say about them. Shaw seems to have been operating on the assumption that there are enough reliable "progressive" sources on city issues to put out an alternative daily, which is not necessarily the case.
Another part of Shaw's problem is his apparent assumption that there is in fact something that can be called a credible progressive vision/agenda for San Francisco that is helpful in understanding a variety of issues. He sees BeyondChron's mission as one of "trying to build a more progressive San Francisco." The reality is that progressives have no coherent, agreed-on agenda; nor does their anti-corporate ideology provide useful insight into city problems and issues, like the garage-in-the-park issue. On the contrary, progressive ideology continues to be a hindrance as they grapple with local issues.
That problem is especially evident in dealing with homelessness. Many progressives hate it that Mayor Newsom is actually doing something about homelessness where they failed. But what is the progressive agenda on homelessness? Where was Matt Gonzalez's response to Care Not Cash? What does the Bay Guardian left propose as an alternative to Care Not Cash? There really isn't one, except for sniping at Mayor Newsom and an ugly sourness when confronted with the early success of Care Not Cash.
Shaw inadvertently gave an example of this in his anniversary essay:
Unless the Chronicle is reinventing history or throwing softballs at the Mayor, too few people are reading Chronicle stories to justify regular critiques. For example, we are regularly asked why we do not write stories refuting claims in Kevin Fagan's long-running "Shame of the City" series. As tempting as it is---and I regularly wanted to bash Fagan for claiming that the Tenderloin's Dalt Hotel was among the worst in the city during the 1990's when in truth it was one of the best---we found that even people working in homeless programs have stopped reading Fagan's pieces.
That isn't good enough. If you have specific information that Fagan got something wrong, you should send it to him and the Chronicle. The assumption seems to be that Fagan and the Chronicle don't really care about what's true or what's right. Like it or not, Fagan's series on homelessness is essential reading for anyone interested in the city's homeless problem. Encouraging people to not read the Chronicle and not engage intellectually on the issues is wrongheaded.
But this illustrates another problem with city progressives: They approach many issues with an unearned moral righteousness that is both obnoxious and counter-productive when trying to understand issues. This is true about both the Concourse/garage and the Muni issue, and, more significantly, homelessness.
My theory on what happened to city progressives on the homeless issue: They saw the homeless as another oppressed class of people whose "rights" needed defending. This put them in an essentially defensive crouch, which Mayor Brown reinforced by using the police to push the homeless around during his administration. "Leave 'em Alone" was the headline years ago in the Guardian when Mayor Brown had the police eject the homeless from Golden Gate Park. The implication is that allowing homeless people to live in the park was somehow acceptable to the left. Actually, that issue of the Guardian had a thoughtful piece inside with some specific ideas about homelessness, but evidently they didn't believe much in it themselves, since they didn't follow up on it.
In short, the left didn't seem to believe that the homeless problem could be solved. The implication was that homelessness is just something we have to live with under capitalism. This wasn't a political failure---a matter of trying something and failing---but an intellectual failure that led to a peculiar political passivity on the issue. And then Gavin Newsom, much to progressive annoyance, took possession of the issue and used it to get himself elected mayor. The sour response to Mayor Newsom's early Care Not Cash success suggests that the left doesn't want the city to succeed in its struggle with homelessness. How's that for a progressive agenda on homelessness?
It's a good sign for city politics that a smart progressive like Shaw is beginning to wise up on this important issue, since he does have some expertise on housing. Now he needs to apply this new-found skepticism to every other issue facing the city.