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Van Jones: Good riddance

September 6, 2009

This weekend, Van Jones, the “green jobs adviser” for the Obama administration, resigned as a result of the controversy surrounding his past.

Jones previously referred to all Republicans as “assholes”, which is hardly the sort of bipartisan spirit Obama promised. We’re also never going to convince people that our side is right by insulting them. However, while irritating, this isn’t the big deal with Van Jones.

One of the major issues that critics had with Jones was his affiliation with the 9/11 Truth Movement. I refuse to link to their website, but for those of you who haven’t heard of them, the 9/11 Truth Movement is a group of nutjobs who believe that the September 11th attacks were carried out not by Al Qaeda terrorists, but by members of our own government. There are some who believe that Dick Cheney not only was peripherally involved in planning the attacks, but also was actually running  the operation as it happened.  Little things like “evidence” don’t mean much to these people- indeed, a lack of any kind of evidence is seen not as proof but they’re wrong, but proof that they’re onto a vast conspiracy.

Though Van Jones claims he doesn’t agree with the ridiculous, offensive, and outlandish claims of the 9/11 Truth Movement, this didn’t stop him from signing one of their petitions. I don’t know about y’all, but I personally don’t sign petitions unless I agree with everything in them (see the petition surrounding the “Shark Week” controversy- I didn’t sign their petition even though I wish that Shark Week had more of a conservation focus). His claim that he didn’t read the petition carefully seems more than a little silly, it’s not like the 9/11 Truth Movement isn’t well publicized.

The environmental movement is better off without this clown. The 9/11 Truthers represent everything that scientists should be against- they focus on preconceived beliefs and ignore evidence. This would be bad enough without the extra controversy associated with discussing a recent national tragedy in such a crazy way.

In a world where many people don’t “believe in” global warming, we need our public messengers of this important science to be beyond rebuke. It is so easy for Obama’s political opponents to “shoot the messenger” instead of arguing the message- they could just say “this guy that you have saying that global warming is a problem also believes that Dick Cheney was involved with 9/11, how can we trust anything that he says?”.  This argument, right or wrong, will reach people.

Maybe the messenger shouldn’t matter if the message is important enough, but it DOES. This is the same reason why so many conservationists dislike Sea Shepherd even though we’re against whaling of endangered species and shark finning- the messenger MATTERS. If people begin to associate the message with crazy people, be they fanatical zealots like Sea Shepherd or just plain crazy people like 9/11 Truthers, then the message won’t reach people.

Conservation and environmentalism MATTER. We owe it to ourselves as a movement, as well as to all the people that would benefit from adopting our viewpoints, to make sure that we are presenting the best information in the best way possible. We won’t do that by insulting people who disagree with us, and we won’t do it by affiliating ourselves with controversial lunatics.

As if Van Jones couldn’t get any more ridiculous, he is claiming that he was “brought down” by opponents of health care reform. This argument would make sense if health care reform composed ANY PART WHATSOEVER of his job description in the Obama administration, but it didn’t. He was the green jobs adviser on the Council on Environmental Quality. You screwed up and you screwed up HUGE, stop blaming it on other people. If you had never affiliated with whackos, then political opponents couldn’t point out that you had affiliated with whackos.

I’d like to think that Southern Fried Science’s readership includes some current (and future) leaders of the environmental movement. Please pay attention to what happened here. Who you affiliate with, even if you affiliate with them only a little bit, even if you haven’t affiliated with them in YEARS before you apply for a position of leadership, MATTERS. Please, please, please take care to make sure that you don’t harm your own career, or the environmental movement as a whole, by pulling a Van Jones.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.


19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2009 8:37 pm

    David – you have good points about the importance of keeping a clean nose and watching the plain clothes if you want to get your message across to a skeptical audience and effect environmental change. But I think you come down on Jones more than a little too hard. There is way more to this guy than a “truther” petition, a proclamation that Republicans are assholes, and a few past associations with more radical activists. The New Yorker ran a profile of him back in January, which is worth reading if you haven’t seen it.

    Honestly, dumb as signing the internet petition may have been, Van Jones has run afoul of a pretty glaring double standard in this controversy. Other stripes of radicalism, and other bad decisions, are tolerated much more in American politics than, well, virtually anything coming from a black guy. Glenn Beck, who led the charge against Jones, just recently said President Obama is a racist who hates white people (in those words). Sarah Palin had a similar level of association with the Alaska Independence Party (which advocates secession from the US [!]) to what Jones had with the truthers, and though it was a minor issue last fall it never got traction. Hell, my beloved former senator, Ted Kennedy (peace be upon him), killed a lady, and he got to keep his office. Charges of black radicalism/foreignness/America-hating have been running just under the surface in a lot of right-wing attacks on Obama, and this fits that mold (see Rev. Wright, ACORN, birthers, Gates gate, etc.). The right-wing noise machine amplifies these minor or non-existent issues into major ones, and even if Obama doesn’t have to address them directly, a certain kind of person will add them to his or her list of reasons to distrust the president. Jones’s claim that he was brought down by health care opponents is not totally unreasonable. His job may not have anything to do with health care, but his resignation is a huge distraction and helps cement this kind of distrust at a critical point in the health care debate.

    I know your criticisms of Jones have nothing to do with all this ugly shit, and I don’t want to even imply that you are part of the right-wing noise machine or secretly racist or anything like that. But Van Jones is a really great environmental advocate, and one who really and truly rose up from the grass roots. He has taken a huge fall here for something that on the scale of political faux-pas is relatively minor.

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      September 6, 2009 8:45 pm

      I don’t think anyone’s criticisms of Jones have to do with him being black. Any person in this country who hears “9/11 was an inside job” and thinks “hey, maybe I’ll associate myself with these people” is a moron.

      I don’t care what good he has done (but the good is relatively minor). He has a ton of baggage and he needs to be gone.

      • September 6, 2009 11:54 pm

        I guess my points are just these:

        1) As important as it is to keep your record clean if you want to be a good advocate, no one is going to be perfect, especially not to the median voter (though public figures never stop trying…). Some imperfections bring down the wrath of the body politic harder than others, and not necessarily because they are intrinsically more serious.

        2) Van Jones signed an online conspiracy-theory petition. He didn’t write a book and go on a national publicity tour promoting it. In fact, it seems like he forgot about it until an opposition researcher dug it up.

        3) Van Jones is really smart, and has done a ton for the environmental movement. He can claim a lot of credit for the idea of “green jobs” in the public mind, and is particularly good at making the connection between environmental problems people should care about and the day-to-day economics they have no choice but to care about.

    • John Weeks permalink
      September 16, 2009 9:38 am

      On a side note:

      “Charges of black radicalism/foreignness/America-hating have been running just under the surface in a lot of right-wing attacks on Obama, and this fits that mold (see Rev. Wright, ACORN, birthers, Gates gate, etc.).”

      I think we would be well advised to not even mention ACORN in any substantive debate on Obama’s decisions.
      It is clear that ACORN issues are neither minor nor non-existent issues.

      Thanks a lot ACORN……

  2. Ian permalink
    September 7, 2009 8:51 am

    I like this blog, but I’ll read it with a more skeptical eye from now on. Your rant against Van Jones seems unnecessarily hostile. Saying politically unsavvy things, like calling republican’s assholes, probably doesn’t help one’s cause cause. But you say nothing of the extremist conservative witch-hunt that much prefers character assassination over debating an issue or moving the country forward. It’s a witch-hunt that allow’s signing a petition to be the basis of character assassination. (And please consider that President Obama and his black appointees are being held to a higher standard regarding their character and past).

    I hope you’re right that the environmental movement will be better off. But the conservative extremists’ won the day. It is naive to condemn Jones but not the people that would rather tear someone down than have to actually debate an issue. Why aren’t you more concerned about that?

  3. September 7, 2009 9:07 am

    I don’t claim to know anything about this issue, or even who this guy is, but I know that “His claim[ing] that he didn’t read the petition carefully” is never a happy thing to hear from a politician.

  4. September 7, 2009 9:47 am

    Wait a minute…you mean Dick C did NOT plan the 9/11 plan crashes?

  5. Jeanie Kilgour permalink
    September 7, 2009 10:43 am

    I’ve given your blog a great deal of thought; my first reaction was to agree with you, but when I examine the issue with more critical eyes, I think you are dead wrong. This was a victory for Glen Beck and the extreme right wing; it will only embolden them to attack more experts with whom they disagree for being human. Calling all Republicans assholes was not very astute, but the frustration of trying to deal with most of the elected Republicans in Washington must be unbelievable. The “Party of No” seems to have no leaders other than the extremists, maybe they should look inward instead of attacking those who use much less obnoxious language. This is a victory of those who encourage assassination of the President and the Speaker of the house — and assassination of any progress in the fight against Climate Change. I’m sure if you search the history of outstanding scientists, you will find that many of the great ones have not been perfectly civil at all times. No, David, I think you have missed the boat on this one!

  6. whysharksmatter permalink*
    September 7, 2009 11:07 am

    Just because Glenn Beck says something doesn’t automatically mean that it is incorrect (though it is usually a good clue).

  7. whysharksmatter permalink*
    September 7, 2009 11:15 am

    Also, the “Republican smear machine” that Jones mentions could not possibly have used his association with whackos against him HAD HE NEVER ASSOCIATED WITH WHACKOS. The “smear machine” is nothing new and it is possible to plan around it.

  8. whysharksmatter permalink*
    September 7, 2009 11:16 am

    And also, Ian and Jeannie, I hope that you ALWAYS read the blog with a critical eye. I have no interest in surrounding myself with people who always agree with me. I hope that you’ll contribute to the discussion more in the future.

  9. September 7, 2009 6:32 pm

    Good post. Unfortunately, we live in a world where extreme elements can get attention and credibility from the media and those who seek a more reasoned, rational approach must also be forceful with their positions but avoid getting dragged into the mud. Van Jones may be both a casualty of his own indiscretions and the ire and venom of the opposition, but he is an example of the challenge facing the Obama administration: that of providing unquestionable leadership in the face of withering opposition.

  10. September 7, 2009 7:14 pm

    While I agree that Van Jones was stupid to associate himself with the 9/11 Truth Movement, I have to agree with Sam that there is still a very ugly undercurrent of xenophobia in this country. Unfortunately, that nasty part of America is making it increasingly difficult for Obama to effect positive change. Just look at how easy a time Fox News has had making people afraid of Obama for absolutely ridiculous reasons. You don’t have to look any further than the recent debacle over his speech to high school students. All he did was tell kids to stay in school, yet people around the country were whipped into a frenzy by Beck, O’Reilly, and company, believing that Obama was going to use his speech to indoctrinate American high schoolers into becoming an army of socialists who are going to… what, eat vegetables and clean up after themselves? The horror! The truth is that despite Obama being one of the most charismatic Presidents we’ve had since JFK, it’s still possible to paint him as some sort of boogeyman because he’s not a white Anglo-Saxon from upper-class suburbia. So while Van Jones is a good 95% responsible for bringing this on himself, the rampant xenophobia in this country can’t be ignored as a factor. How many members of the Bush administration were able to go on to happy retirements despite being involved in much sketchier stuff? We still have a lot of growing up to do as a country.

  11. September 8, 2009 12:12 am

    I’m a huge fan of Van Jones’ as well. I realize he has some controversy around him – and much of it he noted. And I’ll own my favoritism for him too – he’s a fellow West Tennesseean and a Black Social justice/environmental advocate. But his book – the Green Collar Economy was/is a very important thesis on the matters of environmentalism, inclusiveness of the green movement to urban, poor and minority communities, social justice, energy independence, and environmental conservation.
    Green for All is no flash in the pan organization and spearheads alot of important initiatives. With all of his controversy, he earned to the appointment as the Green Jobs czar. He is the bomb and one of the most important environmental leaders of our generation. I think he did get caught up in the rightwing madness. Glenn Beck has been especially harsh to him (and any other public/social justice/service organization – which by the way Green For All participates with).

    Van Jones, controversial yes. But good riddance – not in my book. I’m sad to see him go. Who would take his place? Maybe Majora Carter.

    • September 8, 2009 10:37 am

      I’m with you on this one. One political misstep should not undo a lifetime of good work.

  12. Philip permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:29 am

    I heard Jones interviewed on KPFA about a year ago, and thought he was a crackpot. He would start saying some sensible stuff, then go off on some megalomaniac rant, full of victimization theories and Hugo Chavez type rhetoric. Obama is well rid of this windbag.

  13. September 8, 2009 12:47 pm

    The big problem, IMO, with his involvement (at all) in the 9/11 business is that it shows his lack of a scientific attitude. Anybody familiar with the scientific method would have checked out some of the wild claims made around the whole thing before getting involved at all. Not just from a political standpoint, but scientific: when the generally accepted position makes sense, those pushing alternatives (especially as wild as this) should have to work harder to get their point across, or even get a hearing.

    Scientifically, nobody ever made even the beginning of a case for this nonsense, it was always hysterical yelling of things that didn’t really make sense technically. Jones’ involvement with this isn’t just a minor mistake, it is (almost certainly) representative of a politically manipulative attitude towards science that would have offended every real scientist (i.e. anybody who uses and honors the scientific method), and as “Green Jobs Czar” the offense would have spread from him to the entire administration.

    Of course, when we see Republicans making charges of unscientific behavior, one can’t avoid thinking of pots and kettles. In that respect, I suspect it wasn’t so much the “Republican smear machine’s” efforts to Bork Jones that was responsible for his resignation as the fact that this particular charge would produce a big reaction with a lot of Obama’s support in the scientific community. Some would probably hold their noses for the sake of “solidarity”, but IMO Obama needs them too much to make them do that, and I suspect he felt the same way.

    None of this detracts from the hypocrisy shown by Beck etc. in going after Jones for his association with 9/11 denialists while ignoring the similarities with climate change denialists, and even evolution denialists. That’s just how the game is played by both sides these days (cf. “Bork”).

  14. Paul T. permalink
    September 9, 2009 1:10 pm

    Isn’t signing a petition that calls for an investigation into whether any public officials had allowed attacks to occur, quite a different thing altogether than claiming that they did? That may be splitting hairs, but it’s quite possible that one would sign this petition without even thinking government involvement was most probable. I’m sure quite a few Americans that are not “truthers” had plenty of questions, and many unanswered.

    In any event, Van Jones is gone from his post. He doesn’t need to be in politics to make a difference, or to be a credible voice on job creation.


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    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


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