Building a Social Change Corps

Sheryl WuDunn

One way the US -- by way of the White House -- can retake a leadership role in promoting international family planning and women's health is to build a small army of Social Change Volunteers who would be a modern version of Peace Corp volunteers.

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I think one way the US — by way of the White House — can retake a leadership role in promoting international family planning and women’s health during this time of global economic crisis is to build a small army of Social Change Volunteers who would be a modern version of Peace Corp volunteers. And one possible market for volunteers are students, those who want to take a semester abroad, those who aren’t finding work in this economy and may consider taking time abroad or even mid-career workers who want to be involved in social change.

Sponsored by the White House, it could be implemented by the UN, but have the signature of the President or the First Lady, much the way JFK kicked off the Peace Corps. The work would focus on fighting poverty by raising the status of women, empowering with training or funds or organization to help them manage their families, the way numerous very good on-the-ground programs are operating.

This post is part of the After the Gag Rule salon hosted by Rewire and UN Dispatch.

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Commentary Politics

Yes, Progressives, There Is a ‘BernieBro’ Problem

Katherine Cross

Despite the testimonies of many who have been personally targeted by these individuals, a number of white leftist men have queued up to say that the whole situation is an exaggerated ploy manufactured by journalists in the pocket of Hillary Clinton.

For the past few months, would-be supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign have been systematically harassing feminist and anti-racist activists who are even remotely critical of Sanders. These “BernieBros”—as they were originally dubbed, according to the Atlantic, by its associate editor Robinson Meyer—generally rely on two primary arguments. They claim that feminist concerns are a distraction from the work of “real” political change, and that voters and activists of color who raise questions about Sanders’ platform don’t know what’s good for them because Sanders represents the change they actually need. Eventually, Sanders himself responded to condemn the “bros,” saying “We don’t want that crap” in a CNN interview earlier this month.

And yet people still deny their existence, suggesting that Sanders was browbeaten into his declaration by a press corps running with a made-up story.

Despite the testimonies of many who have been personally targeted by these individuals, a number of white leftist men have queued up to say that the whole situation is an exaggerated ploy manufactured by journalists in the pocket of Hillary Clinton. The net effect of this, besides fomenting mistrust of harassment victims, is to absolve the left from any responsibility for its failings, and to pretend that our ideologies inoculate us from engaging in harm.

Recently, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald doubled down on these ideas in an op-ed for the Intercept, arguing that the entire idea of “BernieBros” was constructed by Clinton supporters to scupper the Sanders campaign.

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Greenwald focused on trying to debunk the individual claims of harassment by writers like the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, claiming that they were either exaggerating about the extent of it or misattributing abusive comments to Sanders’ supporters. He went on to suggest that “pro-Clinton” journalists cited each other’s thinly sourced claims about BernieBro harassment rather than verifying its existence.

Completely absent from Greenwald’s truculent analysis is any real discussion of the leftward critiques of the campaign from those who have found Sanders’ positions on racial and gender politics lacking for someone claiming to head a “revolution.” If he had included it, his article would’ve been impossible to write in its current form. He would have had to contend with a long history of anti-racist and feminist activists being antagonized by overly aggressive, mostly white Sanders supporters, going back far longer than Greenwald supposes—and the targets were not generally white women with press platforms, as he suggests, but often young activists of color.

No mention is made, for example, of the Black Lives Matter protests at Netroots Nation ‘15, which were aimed at Sanders, Gov. Martin O’Malley, and other presidential candidates for their lack of acknowledgement of police violence and mass incarceration; nor of the fact that Ta Nehisi-Coates, a radically minded writer and critic if ever there was one, criticized Sanders for not supporting reparations for slavery—and was inundated with BernieBros for his trouble, several of which he retweeted onto his Twitter timeline as evidence of a structural problem. One wrote: “Your credibility gone, you’ll forever be known as a #Clintonista/just another Village Idiot,” never mind Coates’ scathing critiques of Clinton’s support of carceral policies. Coates later told Democracy Now! that he is planning to vote for Sanders.

Nor is there acknowledgment of how tech journalist and legal analyst Sarah Jeong found herself swarmed by violently angry Sanders supporters after she tweeted criticism of Sanders’ record on race. Despite her position as a confirmed Sanders voter, the abuse—which included rape and death threats—became so noxious and torrential that Jeong had to lock her Twitter account. In his article Greenwald even cites Carl Beijer, a columnist for the Baltimore Post Examiner and one of the prominent leftist men ginning up and justifying harassment against her.

Jeong noted to Quartz that the elevated abuse she faced “is a foreseeable consequence” of people like Beijer “framing my harassment as a moral good.” One of Beijer’s comments on Twitter, posted in defense of a friend he claimed Jeong labeled a “shitposter,” read “you’re an unfunny bougie laughingstock & you failed the bar b/c you’re dumb.” His reply to Jeong’s general critiques of Sanders supporters (of which, I must remind you, she is one): “delete your account you bougie oaf.” I honestly didn’t think anyone used “bougie” as an un-ironic insult anymore.

The same genre of nonsense befell Jamil Smith, former editor at the New Republic, whose critical essay on Sanders was met with a flood of abusive derision that became outright racist. The now-deleted Twitter account of Portland4Bernie accused Smith of “race-baiting.”

Meanwhile, Elon James White, CEO of This Week in Blackness (TWiB!) Media, told the BBC: “I’ve gotten everything from ‘shill’, ‘paid infiltrator’, to flat out having somebody actually call me a N***** in the midst of this.” Imani Gandy, White’s co-host for the TWiB! Prime podcast and senior legal analyst for Rewire, has been facing an ongoing torrent of vitriol from Sanders’ supporters convinced she’s all but a paid-up Clinton staffer.

Even so, Greenwald maintains, “The reason pro-Clinton journalists are targeted with vile abuse online has nothing specifically to do with the Sanders campaign or its supporters. It has everything to do with the internet.”

First and foremost, this ignores the fact that most of the targets I’ve mentioned thus far are not pro-Clinton; they’re either undecided or equally critical of Clinton as they are of Sanders. But secondly, and even more importantly, if we think harassment is the inevitable consequence of online social interaction, it absolves us as individuals from doing anything about it. Even while admitting the abuse exists, Greenwald chalks it up to the inevitable actions of random trolls with no connection to any larger force in the world: the unavoidable waste product of online discussion. In a major article about abuse being faced primarily by women and people of color, Greenwald indulges in one of the most tired forms of apologia for harassment.

All this, in service of concocting a vision of a conspiracy against Sen. Sanders by plugged-in writers and journos who are secretly in the tank for Clinton. Apparently, it’s not harassment, it’s actually about ethics in journalism. Now where have we heard that before?

This rhetoric is by no means limited to Greenwald, however. An activist who spoke to Rewire on the condition that her name not be used described a sustained campaign of harassment and abuse by individuals in the progressive movement that began after Black Lives Matter activists protested at Netroots Nation last summer. Their actions shook up a presidential forum featuring Sanders and Martin O’Malley, provoking dismissive and bewildered reactions from the mostly white crowd, some of whom saw the Black Lives Matter protesters as “ungrateful” for Sanders’ putative radicalism. This was the immaculate conception of the toxic Sanders supporter, who continued to resurface through tweets and social media personas for months.

“Even raising questions is seen as a ‘coordinated attack’ on Sanders’ candidacy or all Sanders supporters,” the anonymous activist said. “These are not just Twitter eggs being annoying on public social media. These include prominent figures who are doing and saying abusive things elsewhere.”

Responses like Greenwald’s, she said, are “infuriating and galling. The victim-blaming is off the charts. Why is it so hard for them to accept that there are problematic people in their tribe?”

“If they care about the progressive movement, this is a terrible move,” she said. “Denying the existence of BernieBros is not helpful to the campaign. It’s shitting on victims. How dare they accuse victims of faking the harassment, being oversensitive, or confusing Republican fakers with Sanders supporters?”

“To their credit, Sanders campaign people are finally acknowledging the problem,” she said. “BernieBro ‘truthers’ aren’t helping them, and that’s also a disservice to all the Sanders supporters who are wonderful and thoughtful.”

“This should be irrelevant, but I’m not even backing either candidate yet,” she continued. “I’m ambivalent about both, although like most Dem voters, I would be happy with either candidate as the nominee. And no, I’m not on the payroll of any campaign or related organization. I just want the abuse to stop.”

Feminist writer Sady Doyle, who is an open and proud Clinton supporter, has also received a great deal of abuse for her trouble. Last week, she wrote with characteristic insight about progressivism’s longstanding inability to tolerate women who speak forthrightly on gender politics. She links the “BernieBro” phenomenon to the fact that progressive men prefer to focus on political struggles that do not personally implicate them, like class issues:

I don’t need to look to Bernie Sanders himself for the question of whether feminism is part of progress. I can get the answer when a young man who calls himself a “secular progressive, against bigotry of all kinds,” with a picture of Bernie Sanders as his banner image, Tweets to call me a “regressive feminazi,” and an example of “sheer female ignorance.” I can get the answer when Shane Ryan angrily asserts that sexism has no influence on this election, that any attempt to address or analyze sexism aimed at Hillary Clinton or her supporters is just an attempt to “turn the discussion away from the political, and toward the personal,” and that sexism, in fact, is not political at all: “Talk about sexism, and at the very least you aren’t talking about politics,” he writes.

This is the crux of the issue, I’d say, and why this is much bigger than Sen. Sanders or the 2016 election. For progressive and leftist men, class politics (and, occasionally, the politics of Western imperialism) often trumps all else, rendering them unwilling to see an intersectional approach as anything other than a narrow-minded distraction. To them, class politics are the fulcrum upon which all oppression is balanced. As they see it, if one were to knock out that fulcrum, all else will come tumbling down—never mind what happened in the Soviet Union.

As long as they pursue this political aim, nothing else matters to the same degree: not rape, not sexual assault or harassment, not the devaluing of women’s work, not online harassment’s unequal impact on women or people of color, not police violence, not de facto segregation or the erosion of voting rights legislation, not abortion, not forced sterilization.

There are a few things that must be said, however. First and foremost: “BernieBro” is a terrible term. For one thing, it obscures a dynamic where white women who support Sanders harass Black critics of all genders. Its jokey tone is also unequal to the seriousness of what it describes. There can be no doubt that the term creates confusion, and it has been deployed in ways that suggest it refers to all Sanders voters, which is both counterproductive and does violence to any empirical understanding of what’s happening here. Remember, this often involves Sanders supporters attacking their own.

Furthermore, it is equally true that Hillary Clinton and her more prominent backers have come to use a very reductive view of feminism in a toxic fashion, one that overwhelmingly centers the experiences of white women. We’ve just come off of a week where former Secretary of State Madeline Albright suggested that women who didn’t support Clinton were among those “going to hell” for not helping other women, and veteran activist Gloria Steinem argued that young women broke strongly for Sanders because “that’s where the boys are” (she followed this up by sharing a few transphobic chuckles with Bill Maher). To say this fell flat with young women—myself included—is an understatement.

Analyzing the origins of this nonsense merits a fuller discussion, some of which is thankfully being had elsewhere. Writer and activist Mikki Kendall, for instance, sees a correspondence between the racist rhetoric that mushroomed around Clinton’s campaign in 2008 and the millennial-baiting that’s now occurring. There is an unwillingness to admit the fact that young women are making genuine arguments against both the implications of such gaffes and the compromises Clinton herself has made throughout her career—supporting war, drone strikes, tough-on-crime policies, accepting the donations of America’s super-rich, and so on.

Clearly, Sanders supporters are not the only ones being reductive, nor are they the only ones refusing to prioritize issues in their support that affect people of color.

But it is important to point out that this does not cancel out or justify the ongoing problem with toxic Sanders supporters and the longstanding leftist faultline it reveals. Leftism harbors many an anti-feminist, and more than a few people who see movements like Black Lives Matter as an anti-revolutionary distraction. These individuals sneer at people for “voting against their interests,” a line used against Black critics of Sanders so frequently that New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently inveighed against the phenomenon, which he amusingly dubbed “Bernie-splaining.” Even I have had Sanders supporters tweet “but did you know he marched with MLK?” at me in earnest, after I suggested that the senator should keep improving his racial politics.

The people who throw around “bourgeois” and “liberal” as an insult to any political ethic or idea they dislike; who clamor for a violent revolution that never takes into account the needs of the actual working class or, say, people with disabilities; the folks who think that classism is the one oppression to rule them all; who think sneering at Walmart shoppers is radical praxis? They are an issue that will remain with us long after 2016 has come and gone. In the meantime, however, allowing the narrative of “rich white Clintonista journalists are inventing BernieBros” to go unchallenged merely contributes to a culture of disbelief and silencing around both the issue of online harassment and white, male hegemony in leftist spaces.

It has not escaped my notice, after all, that the people getting hit hardest by these waves of abuse aren’t white men. That means something we should be paying attention to.

Commentary Abortion

Abortion Is a Social Good—So Let’s Start Treating It Like One

Verónica Bayetti Flores

Beyond a claim to the moral upper hand, framing safe and legal access to abortion as a social good can help us win. One example of this was the Respect ABQ Women campaign in November 2013, in which Albuquerque, New Mexico, voters defeated an attempt to ban abortion access after 20 weeks.

Forty-three years ago today, the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade changed the course of women’s lives in the United States. Since then, there has hardly been a moment since Roe in which supporters have been able to let our guard down, and the last few years have been particularly trying.

The onslaught of attacks on reproductive health care, abortion in particular, have often left us on the defensive. As a result, reproductive autonomy advocates often shift away from talking about abortion whenever possible, or frame abortion as a necessary evil when forced to address it at all. Instead of claiming the moral upper ground for supporting the availability of a common procedure that saves lives, we are often meek and self-effacing instead. This strategy, as evidenced by the continuous and unrelenting push to make reproductive care inaccessible, is not working.

Take, for example, the response to the consistent attacks on Planned Parenthood.

One of the right’s most highly publicized strategies to eliminate access to reproductive health care has been to target Planned Parenthood for defunding. Defenders of the organization are often quick to point out that only 3 percent of its services are abortion-related. What’s more, pro-choice advocates frequently add—to pander to those who obsess over taxpayer dollars—that the Hyde Amendment prohibits any federal funds going toward abortion care, as if that status quo is not worth challenging.

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And how could we forget the longtime Clintonian slogan of referring to abortion as “safe, legal, and rare”? Though Hillary Clinton herself appears to have retired it for her most recent presidential campaign, it has pivotally shaped the ways we talk about abortion as a political issue.

These reactive frameworks contribute to the deep stigma around abortion, making it harder in turn for folks to access care.

At least by today’s standards, if all those who seek an abortion were able to overcome obstacles and get the care they needed, we would almost certainly see a rise in the number of procedures done. But this increase in the number of abortions would be an overall positive: The data suggest that women who are denied an abortion are more likely to end up below the poverty line and suffer worse health outcomes than those who were able to procure the care they needed.

And while the Clintonian turn of phrase likely refers to a world in which women’s education about and access to contraception is not compromised in the same ways in which it is today, the truth is that no birth control method is 100 percent effective, not all people are able to use the most effective contraceptive methods for a variety of reasons unrelated to health care, and quite simply, circumstances are always liable to change.

Even in a society in which health-care access is no longer much of a problem, abortion may still not be rare. And yet, for those who seek it—may the numbers be large or small—the ability to access this procedure legally and safely literally saves lives.

Tens of thousands of women die every year due to clandestine abortions, the majority of whom are located where safe and legal abortion access is severely limited. Among those who do not die, unsafe abortion is a significant cause of ill health, with nearly seven million women being treated worldwide for complications in 2012. Women pay for these restrictions with their lives, with their health, and with the financial stability of their families, not to mention with their bodily autonomy and personal freedom.

But we don’t have to go as far the Global South to see what happens when safe abortion isn’t accessible or legal. All over the country, state legislatures have targeted abortion access, and are working at chipping it away by any means necessary.

Let’s look at the highly publicized case of Texas, where over the course of two legislative sessions in 2011 and 2013, the state cut family-planning funding by two-thirds and enacted one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws. These policies resulted in catastrophic closures of facilities providing affordable reproductive health services, including the shuttering of more than half of the state’s abortion clinics. Those that are left are all in East Texas, meaning that residents of West Texas may in fact be closer to clinics in neighboring states. For months, there was no clinic in the border region, meaning that undocumented women living there and seeking abortion care were stuck between the 100-mile immigration enforcement checkpoints and a border they couldn’t cross if they expected to get back to their families and lives.

In the first six months since HB 2 was enforced in Texas, the abortion rate went down 13 percent—contributing, then, to making abortion “rare”—but by all measures that take account public health and economic equity, this decline was devastating for Texans.

The Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) has been evaluating the effects of these policies. It has found wait times at abortion clinics of up to 20 days. This wait could push a woman seeking abortion care into a more complicated and more expensive procedure, or could bar her entirely from obtaining the care she seeks. In the face of such staggering barriers, the data suggest that Texas women may be likelier to consider self-inducing an abortion on their own without medical assistance. A TxPEP study of women’s experiences with self-induction found that most of the women asked would have preferred a procedure in a clinic, but felt that it was out of reach.

For too long, abortion has been framed as a necessary evil not by our enemies, but by those who make up our movements and the politicians who work to defend our access.

But what is clear from the experiences of those living in contexts in which safe and legal access to abortion care is severely limited is that safe abortion is not just necessary; it’s a social good. By giving in to defensiveness, we give the right the moral upper hand when in fact the moral position—the position that safeguards the lives and material conditions of those seeking abortion care—belongs to us.

Beyond a claim to the moral upper hand, framing safe and legal access to abortion as a social good can help us win. One example of this was the Respect ABQ Women campaign in November 2013, in which Albuquerque, New Mexico, voters defeated an attempt to ban abortion access after 20 weeks.

“We struggled as a coalition on messaging, for sure,” said Tannia Esparza, executive director of Young Women United, one of the organizations who coordinated on the campaign, in an interview with Rewire.

There were partners who wanted to talk about exceptions [to the law] for rape and incest,” Esparza said, referring to messaging that reinforces notions of “good abortions” versus “bad abortions.” “We knew that was the short-term solution. We were really looking at the long term.”

Voters decisively rejected the measure in a groundbreaking and historic victory, in no small part because of the proactive messaging created by women of color—messaging that acknowledged the complexities of New Mexicans’ feelings about abortion up front, and focused on respect and strength-based perspectives.

“I have to say that it was women of color that made our messaging strong and proactive,” said Esparza. “The mainstream movement really held on to some of those defensive messages. We had to say to our partners: ‘That’s not gonna work.’”

What is clear is that defensive messaging has not been working in general. Around the country, we have seen state legislatures increasingly propose and enact a variety of restrictions meant to chip away at abortion access: 20-week bans, waiting periods, punitive and medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, and targeted regulation of abortion providers that make cumbersome and unnecessary requirements of clinics and practitioners have all been proposed, and sometimes passed, across state legislatures. The movement, it seems, is ready for a change.

“I’m definitely heartened to see the landscape start to move more toward proactive messaging about how important and ethical abortion is,” said Lindsay Rodriguez, communications manager at the National Network of Abortion Funds, in an interview with Rewire.

Thanks to the hard work of reproductive justice activists, politicians may be moving in this direction as well. This campaign season, instead of touting an ideal state of abortion as “safe, legal, and rare,” Hillary Clinton has instead taken a decisive and groundbreaking stance against the Hyde Amendment, a political game-changer the likes of which this movement has not seen in decades. Could this be the year that we start framing abortion as a social good?

“Our economic freedom is tied to our ability to decide if, when, and how to start or add to a family,” said Rodriguez. “Our families and communities are stronger when that’s possible.”

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the Texas Policy Evaluation Project is a separate research organization at the University of Texas.