Friday, June 10, 2005

The left dreams of unity: The SF Peoples' Convention

There's been a lot of hot air leading up to the founding convention of the San Francisco Peoples' Organization. If abstract nouns were bikes, the city's homeless could ride. 

The new organization seems like a rather pathetic attempt by progressives to unify an intrinsically fragmented political community.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi: 

This is an attempt to draw people together from various progressive causes and issues throughout the city to examine what issues matter most to folks and to figure out how we can continue to work together on a consistent platform...(Left Pulls Together to Get on Right Track, Rachel Gordon, SF Chronicle, June 10, 2005). 

Adachi tells Gordon that one of the purposes of the convention is to determine exactly "what are the defining issues that bring us together." A good question with no ready answer.

Gordon provides a quote from the nascent organization's mission statement: The Peoples' Organization wants "to transform San Francisco into a city that places human needs and the common good above everything else." Who can disagree with that? This of course is too abstract to be particularly helpful---or even meaningful---since uniting everyone rhetorically is in effect uniting no one.

Where progressive unity inevitably breaks down is on the always-thorny specifics of particular issues. Gordon takes a half-hearted stab at defining the issues: "The issues now on the front burner are housing, funding priorities at City Hall, and homelessness and housing policies, to name just a few." Even allowing for the fact that Gordon names housing twice, these abstractions aren't specific issues; they are broad issue categories.

Casey Mills in BeyondChron doesn't do any better: "It also requires that as many campaigns chosen by SF People as possible involve general progressive issues such as racial and sexual discrimination, social equity, and environmental justice." 

This is also unhelpful, since there's no such thing as a "general" issue. You can categorize issues once they have arisen, but the thing about actual issues is that they are always very specific.

BeyondChron's editor, Randy Shaw, seems to think the lack of progressive unity in the city is in large part Jake McGoldrick's fault. Progressives like Shaw and Chris Daly don't allow progressives like McGoldrick to simply disagree with them on an issue. Instead, McGoldrick has to be stigmatized as having sold out to shadowy, malign "downtown interests."

This highlights one of the problems with city progressivism: Their involvement in city issues is often marred by self-righteousness, hyperbolic rhetoric, and a failure to do their homework:

The homeless issue: This is the greatest progressive failure in San Francisco in a generation. Progressives misguidedly persisted in defending the "right" of the homeless to live and die on our streets until Gavin Newsom recognized that mass homelessness in the city is a disgrace and, while he was at it, used the issue to get himself elected mayor. Progressive leaders like Daly, Ammiano, and Gonzalez were so tone-deaf on homelessness they didn't notice the growing discontent among city voters about the squalor on city streets. 

Mayor Newsom's and Angela Alioto's Care Not Cash, Ten Year Plan approach to homelessness is already showing signs of success, even as progressives continue to snipe at Newsom and question his motives. It's hard not to think that if Matt Gonzalez had proposed a serious progressive alternative to Care Not Cash, he would be mayor today.

The widening of Martin Luther King Blvd. in Golden Gate Park: Progressives have been at their worst on this issue, ramping up the rhetoric about a "highway" through the park, "saving" the park from a Concourse Authority allegedly determined to destroy it, and the advent of "homicidal" drivers on a widened MLK. They didn't do their homework by reading the basic documents on the MLK issue, especially Proposition J, Judge Warren's Statement of Decision of August, 2004, and the Concourse Authority's Staff Report on the widening issue. 

Hence, they were peddling outright misinformation long after there was any possible excuse for doing so. They managed to stampede the leadership of a number of neighborhood and city organizations into supporting their misguided, dishonest campaign against the Concourse Authority. And if progressives are looking for one reason for Jake McGoldrick's straying from the party line, they should consider this: The "save the park" progressives want all the traffic to the new underground garage in the park to use the Tenth and Fulton entrance, which is in McGoldrick's district. Of course that's a dumb idea, and it isn't going to happen. But it shows how little consideration they have for McGoldrick's political interests.

The We Need Housing movement: Many progressives support waiving height limits, density rules, and parking requirements for developers of new housing in the neighborhoods, because "we need housing." The assumption is that if enough new units are built in the city, housing costs will go down. But the more likely effect will be to degrade the quality of life for the whole city. 

And the occupants of nearly all these new units will be people of means, in spite of the inevitable token number of "affordable" units. Chris Daly supports the Rincon Towers residential highrises, and some progressives in the Market/Octavia neighborhood support residential highrises featured in the Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan. The Planning Dept. is acting as facilitator and cheerleader for this misguided movement that threatens every neighborhood in the city anywhere near a "transit corridor."

The Bicycle Plan: Even though the Planning Dept. has a backlog of 1000 building permits, it managed to push the Bicycle Plan through both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. Actually, "push" isn't the right word to describe the process, since little pushing was required by the bike zealots in Planning. All they had to do was introduce the plan, and those two compliant bodies unanimously waved it through with no debate or discussion. City progressives may be utterly at sea on the homeless issue, but they have a Bicycle Plan! 

Bikes will never be a major means of transportation in the city, since it's intrinsically dangerous to ride a bike in a city that has 464,903 motor vehicles. Painting bike lanes on the streets doesn't make it any safer for cyclists, and taking traffic lanes away from cars to pander to this minority only snarls traffic. Then there's Critical Mass, which a lot of progressives like, since it provides a PC patina to juvenile misbehavior on a monthly basis. You never see any criticism of the bicycle fanatics by progressives in the city--- or, oddly, even in the mainstream media, for that matter.

The graffiti/tagging issue: Matt Gonzalez thinks tagging/graffiti is an art form, as does the SF Bay Guardian, even though the city spends $5 million a year to deal with this form of vandalism. D5 Supervisor Mirkarimi thus far has failed to even take a stand against graffiti/tagging.

The ongoing failure of the SF Bay Guardian and the SF Weekly: The city weeklies ideally should be a forum for all, whether progressive or not, to debate local issues in depth. But the Guardian is predictably PC on every issue and allows no debate in its pages, except for an occasional letter to the editor. In fact, the Guardian's letters page itself is a disgrace, since it typically has only three or four short letters every week. 

What we need is two or three full pages of letters and dialogue every week. The SF Weekly, for its part, doesn't take much interest in local issues, except for Matt Smith's often misinformed tirades. In short, the city's left doesn't do self-criticism very well, partly because they have nowhere to do it. All the online stuff is fine, but it's no substitute for a good, hard-copy forum with a wide circulation.

This is not a definitive list of city issues, just a few I know something about. What we have in San Francisco is a progressive political movement unified in thoughtlessness and self-righteousness. If Ross Mirkarimi's statement to the group on Saturday is any indication, the San Francisco Peoples' Organization is unlikely to change that: 

You look at change throughout history, from civil rights to environmental justice...and it wasn't politicians who got it done. It was the activists. Today is about more than just policies and agendas---it's about the beginning of a revolution. (SF People's Convention Shows Thirst for Unity Among Progressives, Casey Mills, Beyond Chron, June 13, 2005).

Okay, Ross got carried away rhetorically, but it's particularly delusional for city progressives to talk about revolution when they can't even formulate a sensible approach to graffiti.

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