If you're a community organization with a progressive-leaning mission, you better rent a bigger hall for your next meeting -- between undercover NYPD officers and conservative guerilla activists, it seems everyone is finding their way to your club.
Last week saw a new round of reports that tax-dollars had been sending city police officers to spy on liberal political organizations. These weren't quite revelations: years ago it was confirmed that the NYPD had been doing undercover surveillance of grassroots groups, and these activities spiked in the lead up to the 2004 Republican Convention. (Full disclosure: meetings I hosted were included in the reports.)
Fast on the heels of that news story came this morning's quick-and-dirty expose of a conservative activist who lied about his identity and work, raising red flags with his leading questions, at a community organizing meeting. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of his hero James O'Keefe, John Howting seemed to be looking for fuel to feed the fire of right-wing rhetoric against organizations that help the poor and disenfranchised.
It's funny because he got caught, but it's not funny that his efforts - like O'Keefe's and others - seem to be aimed at harming organizations that try to help others. Past targets of this gotcha activism have included Planned Parenthood which is a healthcare provider for many low-income women; NPR, one of the few antidotes to the corporate-powered media world; and ACORN, an organization that had, among other purposes, helped more low-income Americans vote…until it was undone in a sting operation.
Progressives are offering rewards to find whistle-blowers, but these conservative agents aren't seeking real evidence of malfeasance -- they are attempting to create illicit scenarios where none exist. They aren't journalists, as they call themselves, but entertainers perhaps, provocateurs certainly, and ultimately political operatives.
Their tactics are repugnant (O'Keefe's team was caught bugging a Senator's office), but it's their purpose that's even darker. The Yes Men will mimic and mock corporate communications and Daily Show correspondents will goad interviewees into looking foolish, but their actions tend to focus on upending the Big Guy. Howting, O'Keefe and others are more intent on crushing the little guy. If they were just giving us a laugh, that's one thing; we might chuckle or we might find it childish. But they are out to discredit organizations that provide essential services, and they treat it all like a game.
This presents a truly frustrating challenge to these non-profit groups. Many progressive organizations embrace openness as a core virtue. We want to welcome people with open arms. This type of infiltration threatens to poison these groups with distrust, and if they become closed or suspicious as a result, they will be less effective in their work.
So the only way to respond is to remain open, as threatening as that may be. Drinking Liberally, the national network of progressive social clubs I helped start, has always welcomed all -- including conservatives, both proud and secret, that have joined us at the bar. We have the luxury of simply being a social space, not a critical service -- so it's less costly when we waste our time with right-wing moles.
There is a place for political pranks, a place to laugh at your rivals, a place for true investigative journalism. It's unfortunate that these ambitious young conservatives have blurred those purposed for malicious intent and don't recognize the real costs of their efforts.
Instead, they should just come by Drinking Liberally. I promise them we'll say something foolish to them. And even if we know who they are, they'll still be welcome.