Review: 3 Activism Books to Get You Excited on Progressive Politics, Racism, Labor Justice

“The Activist’s Media Handbook: Lessons from Fifty Years as a Progressive Agitator”, by David Fenton. Photo: Earth Conscious Publishing

While insider tales of Trump administration incompetence are reliable bestsellers, they don’t often come with a roadmap to stave off future election disasters. In contrast, books on political activism are by definition future-oriented — they can change the way we think about and solve difficult problems. The three activism-focused books discussed here vary in methodology and quality, but each champions the need and the steps to bring about change.

David Fenton’s new book, “The Activist’s Media Handbook: Lessons From Fifty Years as a Progressive Agitator,” is filled with leftist luminaries. The Berkeley-based public relations executive takes duly pride in championing progressive causes alongside Nelson Mandela, Al Gore and death penalty opponent Bryan Stevenson. Although mostly memoirs, the book offers pragmatic ideas for correcting often ineffective political messages from the left.

David Fenton is the author of “The Activist’s Media Handbook”. Photo: Earth Conscious Publishing

In the 1960s and 1970s, Fenton learned activist strategies for gaining attention from his “mentor” Abbie Hoffman, photographed the trial of the Chicago Seven, and helped organize Musicians United for Safe Energy’s famous No Nukes concert. . Since starting Fenton Communications in 1982, Fenton writes, he has worked with leaders of the aforementioned groups and helped design ad campaigns for Greenpeace and MoveOn; “personally guided” journalists in a Central American war zone; and developed media strategies aimed at stopping the US invasion of Iraq after 9/11 and securing the pardon of Edward Snowden.

Leftists and Democrats have the facts on their side in debates on foreign policy, the environment and other issues, he writes. But too often they have hurt their own cause with confusing messages — like when Gore, with his “repeated, flat explanation of tax policy,” lost to George W. Bush — and “rigid ideology.” An example of the latter is “the horribly misguided slogan ‘Defund the police,’ which alienates many voters, he says.

So how can the left recruit allies and win more elections? Fenton has a lot of ideas. Some are costly: “Building new, more contemporary institutions” to take control of media narratives. Others are free but delicate: “Beware of ultra-left bullying, of the assertion that one should listen to a ‘vanguard’ group above all others. Perhaps most importantly, the left must simplify its message. Instead of striving “to reach net zero by 2050” in greenhouse gas emissions, he writes, climate activists should move forward: “Our children deserve a future, we must therefore act against the polluters”. Fenton adds, “We may not like ‘Make America Great Again,’ but it worked.”

“White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Racism and How to Do Better,” by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao. Photo: Penguin

Regina Jackson and Saira Rao also favor unambiguous language. In “White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Racism and How to Do Better,” they urge millions of their fellow citizens to admit “what you are: white supremacists.” All white women? “YES. ALL. WHITE. WOMEN.”

Regina Jackson is the co-author of “White Women”. Photo: Denver Pictures

Jackson, who is black, and Rao, who is Native American, run Race2Dinner, a Denver-based company. For $5,000, a group of eight can dine with them and spend extra time with someone they describe as the company’s resident white woman. Here is how they describe their work: “we will explain to you why you are racist. Although we’re sure you already know that. Since countless Twitter users will do the same for free, you might consider Race2Dinner too expensive. If so, “you’re steeped in white supremacist culture.”

“White Women” presents the reader with a choice. You can agree with the authors’ massive censorship of white women – “ALL YOU”. Or you can question their lack of subtlety and reductive characterizations, thus conceding that “[y]You are nothing if not constantly WHITE.

Saira Rao is co-author of “White Women”. Photo: Ali Bibbo

In any case, white reader, Jackson and Rao have already diagnosed your sectarian pathologies. After all, “people of color know white people better than you know yourselves.”

Jackson and Rao focus on white women in part because white women “chose racial solidarity over gender solidarity” when they helped elect Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. When white women dodge uncomfortable conversations about race or flaunt their ‘toxic positivity’ by tweeting seemingly benign slogans — ‘LOVE everyone,’ let’s say — they’re polishing the racist ‘throne’ that white men sit on, write the authors.

The authors offer tangible advice – confront racist friends and relatives, for example, and ditch social media. Instead, talk to “real-life women of color.” You’re not going to dismantle white supremacy on Facebook or Twitter. Their advice to embrace depth and avoid social media is of the “do as I say not as I do” variety. In “one of our Facebook posts” they “asked people to comment with an adjective that best describes white women.”

Jackson and Rao are surely hoping that “White Women” will find a large and enthusiastic audience. But if not, they will know who to blame.

“Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Workers’ Justice,” by Jamie K. McCallum. Photo: Core Books

Jamie K. McCallum, too, is seeking a big shift in America’s collective mindset. “The way our society is organized is dangerous and absurd” – and COVID has demonstrably made it worse, he writes in “Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice”.

Jamie K. McCallum is the author of “Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice”. Photo: Michelle Leftheris

A labor historian who writes frequently about labor issues in the Bay Area, McCallum wants to replace capitalism with socialism. It’s not imminent, he concedes. But his analysis of recent public opinion polls and union-building efforts shows how progressives could “build a viable alternative to the status quo.”

McCallum’s interviews with essential workers and their families – among them a striking health care worker who won safety and wage concessions from her employer, and the daughter of a Walmart employee who died of COVID – form the empathetic core of the book. Employers often treated these workers, many of whom are people of color, “like sacrificial lambs.”

Meanwhile, he meticulously explains how we got here. After World War II, financial interests tied health insurance to employment, locking people into punitive workplaces. Since then, rising insurance premiums, cuts in public health spending and laws decimating unions have made life increasingly perilous for the “third of American workers” deemed “essential”.

Polls since the pandemic show growing support for organized labor — and a corresponding decline for corporations. Meanwhile, flight attendants, nurses, and Amazon workers have had relative success with “pandemic-era strikes, walkouts, and protests,” McCallum writes. Now is the time, he said, for workers to redouble their efforts for meaningful health care reform and a Green New Deal that would protect workers and the environment while creating many new jobs. For that to happen, it will likely take “militant labor-led movements” that “create a crisis for” corporations and banks.

Furthermore, “we need a strong anti-work policy framework” aimed at “shortening the workday, the workweek, and the workyear,” writes McCallum. It’s an interesting idea that needs a better name. “Antiwork” is almost as deaf as “defund the police”.

The Activist’s Media Handbook: Lessons from Fifty Years as a Progressive Agitator
By David Fenton
(Earth Aware; 248 pages; $35)

White women: everything you already know about your own racism and how to do better
By Regina Jackson and Saira Rao
(Penguin; 224 pages; $16)

Essential: How the pandemic transformed the long fight for workers’ justice
By Jamie K. McCallum
(Basic books; 320 pages; $30)

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