What matters in our endorsement debate

November 21, 2018

Jen Roesch adds her views to the discussion of a withdrawn endorsement in New York.

I WANT to thank Howie Hawkins (“A missed chance to support a real alternative”) for responding to the discussion in Socialist Worker about the New York City International Socialist Organization’s decision to withdraw our endorsement of his campaign (“The independent left must oppose Islamophobia”).

Howie has been a principled and tireless fighter for independent socialist politics, often in conditions less favorable than now, and we have much to learn from him and gain from our work together. There is much he writes with which I agree, but I also have some significant disagreements — ones that I think shed light on how this debate unfolded in New York City.

I am the organizer for the ISO in NYC, and in that capacity, I was responsible for bringing the initial proposal for endorsement, and I also engaged in some of the discussions with Howie and his campaign.

Howie speaks compellingly to the reasons why it was important to have a genuinely independent alternative on the ballot against Cuomo. I agree with this, and it is why I argued strongly against rescinding our endorsement, and voted against doing so.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

However, I also agree with points made by Danny Katch (“Looking back on an endorsement debate”) and Sofia Arias (“Questions about endorsing we needed to ask”) in their contributions, in which they identify problems with our endorsement process and also explain why the debate over Assadism and Islamophobia was an important one to take up.

It is in relationship to this last point that I find Howie’s letter most disappointing. Howie describes our request that he distance himself from the Jimmy Dore endorsement as a playground grudge, in which we asked him to fight another unknown kid we have a beef with.

The ISO does not “have a beef” with Dore. We have an analysis that he is a conspiracy theorist who deflects legitimate anger against the system and the U.S. government into support for a dictator abroad and Islamophobia at home.

In a context of a developing left and a stronger right that is growing out of anti-establishment politics, it is crucial that our side present a clear alternative. Moreover, since 9/11, Islamophobia has been the “acceptable racism” that has helped create the conditions for a resurgent white supremacist right. Dore’s mix of left-wing, anti-establishment politics with right-wing and racist positions is toxic.

I know Howie understands this very well, and he writes that he is committed to challenging the growing influence of Assadism in the Green Party. But that makes it all the more puzzling that he would dismiss our concerns as some kind of playground fight.

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We can legitimately disagree about the tactics of how, on what terrain and on what timeline to conduct this fight. But the arguments raised by our members — particularly our Arab and Muslim members who are closest to this issue — deserve to be taken more seriously.

The majority of our members do not share the long experience of collaboration that we have had with Howie and our understanding of his commitment to socialism from below and the fight against racism in all its forms. Those of us who do have this experience were put in the position of asking our comrades to trust us on this.

This is made more challenging by the attitude that Howie takes here, and it is unlikely to be convincing to anyone who voted to rescind.

THAT SAID, I also think that Howie’s argument is wrong on a strategic level. He writes that it would have been a mistake to pick a fight with Dore because it would only invite attacks from Assadists, and that it would be better to focus on “the pressing problems” facing the people of New York.

First of all, Howie is quite capable of defending himself and turning such attacks into an opportunity to communicate his vision of socialism, anti-imperialism and anti-racism. His response to the attack that did come at the end of the campaign is a perfect demonstration of this: “There is no socialism without democracy and no real democracy without socialism.”

The left needs more people with a platform making these arguments simply and powerfully. Rather than a distraction, this was an opportunity for Howie to champion the ideas he’s fought for over decades.

I also think Howie is wrong to counterpose the issues raised by our comrades to the pressing problems of New Yorkers or to judge their importance by how many people might know of the controversy.

They mattered especially to our members involved in BDS and Palestine solidarity work and struggles against Islamophobia. It seems reasonable to conclude that had the campaign reached deeper into these networks, we would not have been the only one raising these issues.

And regardless of the numbers, there is no doubt that Islamophobia, the “war on terror” and solidarity with refugees have been central concerns for the left in New York City. After all, John F. Kennedy International Airport, here in NYC, was one of the first to be flooded by protesters against the proposed Muslim travel ban.

Had Howie responded to our request that he issue a simple statement opposing racism and Islamophobia, he would have won the confidence of comrades who are rightly indignant at imperialism, racism and dictatorship, and committed to building independent politics.

If ISO members had felt a stake in shaping this campaign and believed it was responsive to their concerns and willing to take a hard stand like this, they would have been more prepared to argue with those around them to support it, too. This would have made the campaign stronger, not weaker.

WHEN WE approached the campaign about this issue for a final time, we were asked to submit an example of the kind of statement we would want Howie to issue. This is what we submitted:

Last month I did a radio show with Randy Credico in which I was asked to interview Jimmy Dore. At that time, I was not familiar with Dore or his politics. Following this appearance, Dore endorsed me, and my campaign e-mailed out our appreciation for this endorsement.

Since that time, some of my supporters have approached me with concerns about this association with Dore. It has come to my attention that Dore’s YouTube show, with its 400,000 subscribers, is one of the most important platforms in the U.S. for conspiratorial arguments about Syria, including the claim that the outcry against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is a “false flag” operation. In this context, Dore has repeatedly made Islamophobic comments, including accusing a BDS activist of being an al-Qaeda apologist. This Islamophobia is a form of racism that I wholly reject.

I take the concerns of these supporters very seriously. As a result of this type of racism, Arabs and Muslims in NY have suffered from state repression, hate crimes and other political attacks. I stand with Arabs and Muslims in this state against this racism and repression. I do not want my campaign to be associated, however loosely, with figures who help to create political cover for such attacks.

Because of this, I would like to take this opportunity to distance myself from Dore and to clarify that I do not welcome his endorsement of my campaign.

I still struggle to understand why Howie would refuse to issue such a statement — especially as he knew that the ISO had voted to rescind our endorsement if he didn’t. That he was willing to lose the support of an organization of 150 revolutionaries in New York City over this is deeply unfortunate.

I am very sympathetic to the dilemma Howie faced. At this stage in the campaign, he was — in the words of his campaign manager — carrying the state Green Party on his back. He was fighting to retain the ballot line in the context of a liberal left that had backed Cynthia Nixon as a challenger to Andrew Cuomo, only to fold and (yet again!) endorse Cuomo.

I appreciate that it was a difficult decision in a tough situation, but I do think it was a mistake.

To be absolutely clear, this is not a debate over principles. Howie has proven his commitment to anti-racism and anti-imperialism many times over the course of 40 years of struggle. And the ISO is committed to independent politics and building an alternative to the two-party system.

But I do believe this debate has touched on questions of strategy about how we approach electoral work to build an independent alternative in this period that deserve further exploration.

I agree with Howie that the left needs to figure out how to work together better. I also believe this will mean asking questions about the state of our movements and figuring out what it means to build independent left politics in the context of a new socialist movement that is changing the terrain. It will mean working patiently to win over a new generation.

In that process, people like Howie and many other allies we’ve worked with in these campaigns will be both an indispensable link to struggles of the past and leaders who can help, by their example, to bring the left together around independent socialist politics.

Further Reading

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