A friend and sometime rival blogger forwarded me an academic article that covers the role of bloggers (including myself) in a local Brooklyn election in 2006. As a scientist I am used to being an author on academic papers...but I think it is the first time I've been a subject!
Blogging the Unspeakable: Racial Politics, Bakhtin, and the CarnivalesqueMy comments below.
International Journal of Communication 7 (2013), 1518–1537
POLLY BUGROS MCLEAN
University of Colorado at Boulder
University of South Carolina Upstate
The 2006 Democratic primary in New York’s 11th Congressional District saw opposition
from the blogosphere to David Yassky, a White legislator running for election in a district created under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin’s account of carnival, this study uses a qualitative approach to examine how the racial discourse was constructed on two political blogs within a carnivalesque framework. At the same time, this study notes the uniqueness of the discourse between the White bloggers as well as between the Trinidad-born bloggers and their White counterparts. While the bloggers injected themselves into the spectacle of the campaign hoping to impact the election, there were inherent limitations in this new medium.
Keywords: Mikhail Bakhtin, Voting Rights Act, race, whiteness, picong, blogs, spectacle,
political blogging, carnivalesque, politics
I leave it to people to go to the International Journal of Communication for the whole article. I should note that the article oversimplifies some of the give and take among bloggers and I don't agree with all their conclusions, but it is a very interesting analysis and something of a maturation for political blogging: placing our blog exchanges over months in a Democratic primary under a careful academic microscope and putting it in the context of a wider sociological context.
First thing I want to note is almost all the bloggers have become close friends. And although we often emphasize our differences on local politics, we actually agree far more often than we disagree. I also want to note that the article only focuses on our online efforts. Pretty much all participants mentioned actually do a great deal of boots on the ground efforts: petitioning, voting in endorsement meetings, meeting and challenging candidates, running for office, etc.
The 2006 NY-11 Democratic Primary was largely my first major entry into political blogging. Sadly the site I blogged for then, and which is one of two sites the article focuses on, has pretty much died.
The district was a Voting Rights Act district set up to expand the representation of blacks in Congress. It was originally Shirley Chisholm's district. When she retired Major Owens won the seat. I moved in during Major Owens' tenure. Redistricting has been slowly eroding the black majority and linking it to a very wealth, somewhat annoyingly self-entitled white community. My City Councilman at the time was one David Yassky. My wife and I got to know him and he struck us as a good solid progressive.
The main situation in the district was a conflict between the dominant and very corrupt Democratic machine and the disorganized reformers. When I first moved into the district the machine was run by Clarence Norman...who was eventually convicted of corruption and spent a number of years in prison. His replacement was Vito Lopez, who was equally corrupt but less venal about it...Norman showed off his fine watches and cars while Lopez dressed like a schlump. Vito Lopez got away with a rather vengeful, nasty and contentious tenure as head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. I know for a fact that several law enforcement agencies were actively investigating him but not getting very far. In the end he was brought down by sexual harassment charges and there is now a rather tentative but seemingly real cooperation between the new machine and the reformers.
But in 2006 it was still corrupt machine vs. progressive reformers and that was how I approached the NY-11 Democratic Primary, at the time not really aware of the racial undertones in the district.
I already knew David Yassky and liked him. Had had several good discussions with him. So by default I was leaning towards voting for him when I heard he was running when Major Owens announced his retirement.
When Major Owens retired, his son, Chris Owens, also ran to replace him. This did not endear me to him. It seemed too dynastic. But he came to a Democracy for NYC meeting in my neighborhood and he basically won over my wife and me as well as most of our political allies at the time. Basically he was liberal, smart and a reformer. So I was feeling a bit torn between Yassky and the younger Owens. What didn't really strike me initially was Yassky's cynical political calculus.
Chris Owens is pretty much considered black in our society...his father, Major, is black. But his mother is an old-school New York Jewish liberal. My wife and I had a wonderful discussion at a party with his mother and she is one of those people you can basically listen to for hours as she recounts her long and very activist life.
Also running were three other black candidates. Carl Andrews was a major ally of Clarence Norman and hence was the obvious candidate of at least a big chunk of the corrupt machine. Nick Perry was a fairly lackluster candidate...in a statement I blogged that became well repeated, I pointed out that in the NY-11 district the Democrats could run a sponge cake and still beat the Republicans, and that Nick Perry might just be that sponge cake. Perhaps harsher than I intended, but it at least was picked up by the Republican candidate (which only I seemed to recognize was running and he referred to himself as the non-sponge cake candidate) and the authors of the article I cite above. Finishing off the ballot was Yvette Clarke. Her mother, Una Clarke, was a big name in the Haitian community and had a rivalry going with the Owens family. One of my early articles (the sponge cake article) basically gave thumbnail sketches of each candidate, was largely positive on Owens and Yassky, neutral on Clarke, and negative on Andrews and Perry. As one of my first major articles as a local political blogger, I was at first horrified about how many other bloggers (mainly on the site Room 8, the other site covered by the article) absolutely slammed me in very unflattering terms.
My first thought was, "My god, did I just fuck this whole article up?" I went back through it, slightly regretted my sponge cake comment, then decided I stood by it all. It was the beginning of the rather thick skin I developed as a blogger and has served me well.
The election started to turn nasty as one might expect. But the whole Voting Rights District aspect came to the forefront. What basically came out was that Yassky had fished around for a race to run in to suit his very considerable ego and ambition. And he chose NY-11 because quite simply he figured the slew of black candidates would split the black vote leaving him to clean up the wealth white vote and the Orthodox Jewish vote. It was a cynical approach to politics that led to some very hot tempers. And it is a part of why I decided to side with Owens. Chris was the most liberal and Yassky, who I had liked by has started to not trust his liberal credentials (correctly, I now see him as a Bloomberg Democrat like Quinn and Squadron) and I didn't like his cynical political calculus.
Ultimately the campaign did not center much around machine vs. reform issues, though it was an issue I brought up often. Underneath things was a developer (developers favored Clarke and Yassky with TONS of money and developer ally Bill de Blasio went seriously to bat for Clarke over more direct rival Yassky) vs. a community that was trying to stand up to some seriously corrupt development projects and who mostly supported Chris Owens. That was the main issue I focused on particularly initially.
But there was a three way racial/ethnic/cultural divide.
The self-entitled wealth white community strongly favored Yassky and disliked the idea of a Voting Rights District, suggesting that race should not be an issue in the campaign.
The Caribbean black community favored Yvette Clarke. There is a strong rivalry between the so-called "Southern" blacks in Brooklyn and the more recent Caribbean immigrant community that I grew to know during the 2006 campaign. Nick Perry was never much of a contender and dropped out eventually, giving Clarke the bulk of the Caribbean community vote.
The "Southern" black community favored either Carl Andrews or Chris Owens.
In the end Yvette turned the tables on Yassky. She started with fairly solid Caribbean community support and with the help of strong support from developers and Bill de Blasio, managed to make sufficient inroads into the white vote to win pretty solidly. She had an excellent strategy and was able to overcome such huge fumbles like not being able to accurately be able to say if she graduated from college. Furthermore she was able to let Chris Owens confront Yassky on the racial issues that mattered so much to black voters in the district, letting him take some of the wind out of Yassky's sails without gaining much momentum of his own (this was a role I think Chris knew he might be taking on).
Yassky came in second, his cynical calculus failing him partly because Chris played something of a bad cop role to Clarke's good cop role on the racial issue.
The fallout in the district was powerful. Yassky was, as was predicted in a statement by blogger Gatemouth quoted in the article, basically labeled for the rest of his political career as the guy who tried to split the black vote in a black majority VRA district. He has not been popular in his old district since.
Chris and the progressive reformers have had a strong alliance ever since.
Yvette Clarke played her cards wonderfully. She is my Congresswoman to this day. She remains the tool of developers and though she votes liberal on most national issues, she is also recognized as one of the more do-nothing Congress critters. But she is entrenched and from a national point of view is good, though we wish we had better here in the district.
At the end of the campaign my step-daughter (who was also a Chris Owens supporter though not yet a voter) was called a racist because she was a white supporting a black candidate against a white candidate. It was rather astonishing and this and similar incidents woke my wife and I up to some of the self-entitlement within the white community we were a part of.
Most of the bloggers involved in the exchanges published in the International Journal of Communication remain good friends. My wife and I remain good friends with Chris Owens. David Yassky tried to make nice with me as his ambitions aimed for mayor through the Comptroller's office but I supported John Liu instead (thankfully since he has been excellent as Comptroller) and, after I called Yassky "Mike Bloomberg's Trained Surrender Monkey" I think Yassky chose to stop trying.
And so far no one has challenged Yvette Clarke for the NY-11 seat. In the range of national politics the whole thing means little...it will be a largely liberal Democratic seat whichever candidate won. I think we could have had an Alan Grayson-like firebrand in Chris Owens, but Yvette's votes are good enough in a Congress that is dominated by conservatives from both parties and reactionary extremist Republicans. But locally, this election created alliances within the reform movement that have helped us win several key judicial elections and eventually win ourselves something of a seat at the table within the local Democratic Party machine, bringing more transparence to local politics.
And it got "mole333" into an academic journal as a subject of study in journalism.
For those who want to read that analysis (which covers a lot different ground than I do here) please go to the International Journal of Communications.