Progressives Need To Network

At a recent local event to raise awareness about women’s reproductive rights, I introduced myself to Oklahoma political lobbyist, Keith Smith. I receive organizational emails from Smith, who is associated with Oklahoma’s chapter of the Sierra Club, and he and I share the same basic political views. I respect and admire the work he does for local progressive causes. I thought I would shake his hands and thank him and maybe let him know about Okie Funk. It was no big deal.

So, needless to say, I was somewhat surprised when Smith immediately admonished me to get more involved in progressive issues. He said this in a pleasant way, of course, but it struck a sensitive nerve with me. This is because he does not know me. I am pretty sure he knows nothing about this blog, for example, or about the Progressive Coalition at my university, or about my progressive pieces in The Oklahoma Observer, or about my work with other progressive organizations and publications, or . . . I could go on and on. I guess this is Smith’s shtick. I mumbled something back to him about how I was there contributing money at this particular function he supported and so what more did he want, really, and then I left his table feeling lectured and, frankly, a little bit patronized. My thoughts went something like this: Why doesn’t Smith lecture all those people who DID NOT show up at the event? What is the point, really, about political participation in Oklahoma unless you are an extreme conservative?

And so Oklahoma progressives lose and the conservatives and right-wing extremists win.

I think this trivial incident—and it is extremely trivial—illustrates perfectly the need for all the growing progressive organizations and people in Oklahoma to start working closely together. Obviously, I support Smith’s work, and I will continue to do so. But we do not know each other, and we probably never will. Why would he automatically assume I am an apathetic political novice just becoming enlightened and activated by his emails? In addition, just because people like Smith send out a lot of emails does not necessarily mean they are actually doing anything but sending out emails. A listserv is easy, folks, and there is so much email clutter these days that it is becoming somewhat pointless as well. I do not think we can win back this country through emails. I do not think we can take Oklahoma back to its progressive roots through emails. No, and I seriously mean this, everyone has to actually show up in person. (Methinks, I hear a collective liberal gasp from Elk City to Oklahoma City to Tulsa.)

Right now, the progressive movement in Oklahoma is fragmented and splintered. We do not know each other. That is my argument, anyway. Take it or leave it. Maybe it will always be that way because, overall, we are a small group marginalized by the state’s right-wing power structure. Maybe it is useless, and we should just shut up and get drunk or move to New York or Los Angeles like so many other former Oklahoma liberals. Maybe the quasi-fascists have won already and what we are doing here is just the last gasp of democracy before the coming theocracy. (Certainly, Oklahoma could be one of the first theocratic states in the union, right?) Soon, we could be sipping our Orwellian Victory gin in our tiny New York apartments waiting for the next religious edict to come down from the White House. Sometimes, that seems even better than living here in the red-state sea of “W” supporters.

Yet. And there is a very significant “yet.” Yet, and I speak with all my heart here, I have never seen this level of liberal and progressive activism in the state before. Never. Some of us are making connections, some of us are setting aside differences, some of us are not making generalized assumptions about people or exuding that tired leftist hubris. But there is much work to be done. The battle is going to be a long one, too. We will not win this on the cheap. There will probably be no single magic moment when it all comes together, just hard work and more hard work in the face of one disappointment after another as the Bush administration and the Oklahoma right-wing flaunt their power and rub it in our faces day after day.

Here are five pre-2006 election arguments I want you to consider:

(1) The Party. The Oklahoma Democratic Party needs to reach out to all progressives, even those it might deem too leftist for this particular state at this particular time. Please. I do not care if you are a leftist, semi-anarchist at heart or a centrist, right-leaning Democrat in the Joe Lieberman tradition. We all share many of the same beliefs. Everyone can play their part in the drama. Let’s set aside our differences to ensure Brad Henry is re-elected, the Republicans do not get control of the state senate, and the Democrats win back the house.

(2) Young People. Let’s go out of our way to applaud the efforts of our young people when they take an active role in promoting progressive causes. For example, a group of UCO students recently published The Progressive Voice, a publication dealing with liberal issues and concerns. This publication and those who work on it deserve our support. But there are surely other state university groups working on progressives causes as well. Find them, recognize them, and encourage them. I think it was James Carville who said, “Democrats eat their young.” I agree with that. It is time to change.

(3) Blogs.We need to recognize and support the many progressive and liberal blogs that are now online in the state. More and more people are getting their information online, and blogs are shaking up the conservative media landscape in valuable ways for progressives. This is a major opportunity for us.

(4) Progressive Experience. There are new progressive organizations in the state, and some of them are doing a great job, from the Red River Democracy Project to the Oklahoma Independent Media Center to the local spin off organization of the Howard Dean meet-ups, but we should not forget those progressives who have toiled away in Oklahoma City for years. These people have validity and connections and pull and followers. I am thinking of people like Frosty Troy, editor of The Oklahoma Observer, the Rev. Robin Meyers, pastor of Mayflower Congregational UCC Church, and Nathaniel Batchelder, director of Oklahoma City’s Peace House. Obviously, there are others, but my point is we should draw on our experience just as we support our young people.

(5) Find Your Niche. I tell every progressive I know to find what they can do to contribute no matter how small or how specific. If you can write, then write. If you have some extra money, then donate to a progressive organization. If you have the time to walk the halls of the state Capitol, then do it. Maybe you can respond to a Oklahoma populist blog, or maybe your role is simply to argue with conservative friends and family members about your beliefs. Choose your role and be consistent. Make yourself aware about the issues, and then explain these issues to those people in your life who only get their news from right-wing cable television.

Obviously, this in not an inclusive list, and I am sure I have left out some important local organization or person or some particularly important issue.

These are grave times. That is not hyperbole or overstatement. We need to come together now. I do not care if the next significant election will be the first time you have ever voted in your life or if you are a long-time Oklahoma political activist in favor of liberal causes and issues or if you are the centrist Governor Brad Henry himself. Everyone should be welcome at the progressive table in this state.

And, please, before we admonish progressives to do more, let’s pat people on the back for what they have already accomplished.

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Oklahoma Needs Full-Day Kindergarten

Following the Oklahoma Legislature has always been a sometimes frustrating but always humor-producing activity as you read beneath (or “view, listen” beneath) the various agendas of the conservative state media to discover the multitudes of contradictions, rhetorical deceits, and pure right-wing propaganda that emits from our new domed Capitol building nowadays.

It is like making a mental journey to a traveling carnival filled with hucksters and tricksters. You know they are going to try to rip you off before you go in, and so you steel yourself against the coming sales pitches, lies, distortions, and omissions. Still, you can enjoy the lights, the cheap rides, the greasy food, the political spectacle. It is some of the best entertainment in Oklahoma City if you have a decent sense of irony and a strong stomach.

The big deal this legislation season, of course, was that for the first time in decades, the Republicans gained control of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. This was supposed to be a dawning of a new day in the state, something big and important, and, of course, in Republican terms, wonderful and extra wonderful with special extra wonderful sauce.

But what has happened is that our Democrat Governor Brad Henry has coolly, moderately, and deliberately taken away the Republican momentum and ensured himself a second term. Even the right-wing monsterThe Daily Oklahoman has found little to gripe about when it comes to Henry. The governor has truly emerged as a bi-partisan politician, a leader who simply wants to get something done here in the state, even if it can only be on a small scale. Henry is doing what he can. He is getting the lottery going, for example, to improve education funding, helping colleges get new classroom space, and now he wants to provide full-day kindergarten for the state’s residents.

This has left House Speaker Todd Hiett (R-Kellyville), who leads the new Republican majority, sounding like a typical carnival ring-toss huckster in news accounts. It has also put him in awkward positions, such as defending his reason for not necessarily supporting the funding of full-day kindergarten in the state.

Whenever you have been backed into a position that means you will not support Oklahoma kindergarteners, I think you have lost the political high-ground in some serious ways.

I know I’m on the left here in the belly of the right-wing beast, but I’ve traveled throughout this state for decades now, and I can tell you this: Oklahomans, generally speaking, support kindergarteners. In fact, here’s a secret, Mr. Hiett: we downright love them. I stake my record as a famous state political expert and former little league soccer and baseball coach on this statement.

Hiett’s claim, according to various news accounts, is that the $24 million kindergarten money is not appropriate because the state should have a “standstill” budget. In essence, if you proposed a new state program, you need to cut somewhere else in the budget to fund it. (Republican ideology: Give some money to kindergarteners, but take it away from sixth-graders or, better yet, nursing home residents.)

This is just a deceitful way to apply the Republican TABOR (Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights) mentality to our state. This ideology effectively means you can never offer new, progressive programs to our budget. All the studies and common sense shows that full-day kindergarten helps get kids ready for school, especially “at-risk’ kids who might not come from such great homes. Our state desperately needs such a program. It will save the state millions of dollars in the long run. This is obvious and forward thinking.

So this year, maybe we need to help out the kindergartners. Next year, maybe we might have to do something about fuel efficiency because of skyrocketing fuel costs. The year after that, it may mean improving the state’s technology so we can compete for business. It is just plain common sense. This does not mean, of course, you do not operate the state without good business practices, always looking for ways to cut waste or to streamline. This does not mean you cannot refund tax dollars. It just means you are pragmatic and real.

As I see it, this is the third time Hiett’s views have seemed really out of whack with Oklahomans.

Initially, for example, Hiett allowed his party’s school consolidators and closers to announce a program which was sure to shut down many rural schools. This seemed odd given that Hiett describes himself as a rancher in Kellyville. “Rancher” seems like a rural occupation to me. “Kellyville” seems like a rural place to me. The plan was later withdrawn after a public outcry.

Then, Hiett threw a fit over the higher education bond package. Even though Henry and the college presidents, and everyone else in the universe had a done deal, Hiett went and threw a fit so he could put some Republican “stamp” on the whole thing. But no one was fooled. The higher education bond package was about reasonable people of all political views coming together for the good of Oklahoma. Hiett just sounded mean and angry. Meanwhile, Henry was pure Okie Funk, folks, a cool (in every sense of the word), bi-partisan leader putting aside ideology for the state’s good.

The headline describing the speaker’s third political faux pas should read: Hiett To Oklahoma Kindergartners: Drop Dead!

I’m sure Hiett, the owners of The Daily Oklahoman, the people over at the archconservative Oklahoma Public Affairs Council, and many of the state’s Republicans cannot wait until virtually of the state’s income and wealth is in the hands of a few rich Oklahomans. If they got to take this money out of the mouths of kindergarteners, then so be it. But that might have to wait until the conservative juggernaut takes over all the branches of state government here like it has on the federal level.

Meanwhile, Brad Henry and Oklahoma’s people might have something to say about that. I get the sense something progressive and populist is brewing in the heartland.

But let us go back to the carnival, shall we? (Picture yourself with corndog in hand as the Ferris wheel turns and the fortune tellers turn over the cards predicting good times ahead for Okie progressives.) The Daily Oklahoman continues to scream out on its biased editorial pages that we need to improve and better fund education at all levels in the state, with which I and any other rational, thinking person can agree. (In fact, I have been amazed at how adamant the newspaper has been about increasing higher education funding which has been shrinking as a percentage of the budget over the years.) But then they also, at least in principal, support obstructionist Republican politicians like Hiett, too. So which side are they on here? Again, think of a carnival huckster trying to get you roped into playing a rigged game of darts and balloons. The newspaper’s principal owners and publisher do not care about regular Oklahomans. Just like a traveling carnival huckster, they want your money, and then they laugh behind your back all the way to their next town.

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Oil Oligarchy Rules Oklahoma

In recent blogs, I have discussed how President George Bush’s fiscal policies and priorities continue to hurt red states such as Oklahoma. My argument is that Bush manipulated emotional issues such as American nationalism and religious “wedge” beliefs to get Oklahomans and other red-staters to vote against their economic interests. Now that the election is over, Oklahomans can expect a continuing stagnant job market, higher living costs, higher health costs, cuts in federal funding for education, Medicare, and Medicaid, cuts in farm subsidies, and a “let-them-die” attitude towards rural, Oklahoma towns.

But, of course, there is one small group of Oklahomans making out like bandits on the backs of the majority of hard-working Oklahomans in George Bush’s America. That would be the top stockholders and chief executives of the local oil and gas companies such as Kerr McGee, Chesapeake, and Devon. As gasoline prices reach record levels, one has to wonder if Oklahomans and all Americans will allow this massive shift of wealth into the hands of a few oil company executives and owners to continue without any oversight and regulation.

Let’s call them the energy oligarchy in Oklahoma, the rich elites. It is a small, diminishing cabal (more and more large energy companies are moving from the state), and it is supported by the state’s entrenched, right-wing power structure such as The Daily Oklahoman, the state Chamber of Commerce types, and a lot of Republican politicians—U.S. Senator Tom Coburn is one of them—who get their campaigns funded with the money you pay at the pump. Their mantra has always been that what is good for local oil companies is good for the state because these companies produce jobs, pay taxes, and do charitable work.

I think this prevailing, conservative philosophy about oil companies is incredibly shortsighted, and it ultimately prevents the Oklahoma economy from diversifying and growing. It is bad for the vast majority of the state’s residents, even those ordinary hard-working people who are employed at state oil companies.

Here’s why this Oklahoma support-the-oil-companies-at-any cost ideology is wrong.

The world’s overuse of fossil fuels will ultimately be a short blip in world history. I can see future historians remembering the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as “The Oil Age,” which created a ripe environment for war, corporate greed, and the enormous neglect of the Third World countries by the oil-rich countries. Simply put, we are running out of oil and natural gas. No matter how you look at it, the world’s fossil fuel resources are finite. Now some oil experts contend the world has vast quantities of untapped oil and gas resources if we only drill deep enough, but drilling costs make that prohibitive now and in the future. Are we really ready for a reality in which we spend a half or more of our household income on energy costs, essentially to drive to work and heat our homes? Of course not. That’s why some companies are now starting to develop viable alternative forms of energy. Look at all the new hybrid cars on the market today. That is our future. This development of alternative energy sources will only increase in the years to come. Oklahoma will eventually be abandoned by the oil companies once they have sucked out the last drop of profit-producing oil from the state’s red dirt. We may all be dead by then, true, but what a terrible legacy to leave for those who come after us in Oklahoma.

This prevailing oil-companies-are-great ideology means the state will remain mired in regressive politics, which is bad for our economy. Only archconservative Republicans are going to support a national and state energy policy that supports oil monopolies and does not allow for competition by alternative energy companies. They will do so because their campaigns are funded by corporate America, including all the major oil companies. These conservatives, then, bring to the state this stagnant, status-quo politics which benefits only the richest citizens of Oklahoma. Can you imagine how much the price of oil would drop if the federal government announced a major plan to study renewable energy resources, or if it called on the automobile manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency? In addition, regressive politics do not allow for diversity in business or “thinking” or people. That, in turns, drives away some of the state’s brightest residents who must leave for the coasts to expend their intellectual energy. We get left with a handful of rich oil executives who live in modern-day fortresses (gated communities) and who could care less about the state. They, in turn, influence the state politic through campaign contributions.

The oil-companies-are-great philosophy, along with one-party Republican rule in the country, means there is an increased likelihood that oil companies will price gouge. Pundits and oil company executives are arguing that recent spikes in gasoline costs are because of increased oil demand in Indian and China, along with a diminishing oil supply. Throw in the American “summer driving season” and we are paying $2.25 a gallon for gasoline easy, and it is only going to get higher. But the Catch-22 here is that oil companies are announcing record profits, too. (This happened in the 1970s energy crisis, too.) This cannot be explained away by outside factors. Are oil companies colluding? Do they use perceived shortages and increased demand to price gouge Americans? Do not count on the Bush government to even touch this issue. When you fill up your SUV and it costs $100 or so (and soon maybe $125, $150, $200, $300, etc.), do you ever think about those large campaign contributions that helped Coburn get elected? Do you really think Coburn or U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe care about your personal gasoline costs?

Ultimately, this state has been sold an historical lie by the right-wing power structure about how oil companies help Oklahoma. It has been a form of brainwashing since Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Oil companies benefit a few Oklahoma rich elites who then ensure their financial positions by contributing to morally-challenged politicians. This is not a political and economic system that will make the state thrive in the future and give our children a decent future here. This is the old story of power and greed, and it is immoral.

Meanwhile, the cost of all consumer goods is going up as gasoline prices shoot through the roof. You can say “thank you” to Oklahoma’s oil company executives who try to brainwash us with their sanctimonious propaganda about how wonderful they are for the state’s economy.

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