Please take a moment to watch this end-of-the-year thank you message for you and all of PFAW's wonderful supporters around the world from PFAW founder Norman Lear:
Last week, People For the American Way Foundation hosted a gala at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate founder Norman Lear’s 90th birthday and the Young Elected Officials Network.
The event highlighted Lear’s legendary career as a television producer, and how in 1981, he turned to that medium to express his concern about the growing right-wing movement in America – and People For the American Way Foundation was born. 30 years later, PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network – consisting of nearly 700 progressive officeholders between 18 and 35 years of age – are at the forefront of change in their communities.
Members of Congress, celebrities, members of the board and community leaders were in attendance to celebrate Norman Lear, the YEO Network and the mission of People For the American Way Foundation.
From left: PFAW Foundation Founder Norman Lear, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, PFAW Foundation President Michael Keegan and board member Jane Lynch
From left: Board member Kathleen Turner and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison
From left: YEOs Kesha Ram, Melvin Carter and Angie Buhl
By Erik Lampmann
Norman Lear, more so than almost any other, understands the inspiration, joy, and revitalization to be had by bringing together a diverse and wide movement to share in moments of success -- large and small. This week, I was honored to attend Norman Lear’s 90th Birthday celebration and the kick-off to the Young Elected Officials Network’s national convening. An alum of the Young People For (YP4) millennial fellowship program, I was invited to the event to share my experience and represent young people active in the progressive movement. While being in the presence of celebrities, major donors, and political leaders would give any college student simultaneous sensations of absolute fear and overwhelming excitement, I think the most poignant emotion I felt during the night was a profound sense of purpose, of drive, of calling.
Of the activists and organizers I met Thursday, I was continually impressed not by their successes -- be they electoral, issue-based, or local -- but by their resounding human spirit. From Norman Lear’s keen ability to enrapture a crowd -- whisking them from applause line to somber reflection -- to the YEO members who not only envisioned change but came to embody it within themselves, I was humbled. From talking to students from different campuses about the wins and losses of their organizations this Spring semester to discussing the Presidential Medal Freedom with Dolores Huerta, to hearing Jane Lynch give an interview on the consequences of the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court case, I was astounded by the grace with which my peers in the movement campaigned for justice with compassion.
I will confess that I am, at times, disillusioned with the progressive movement, in general. As a campus organizer working on progressive public policy and LGBTQ justice in Richmond, VA, I am often disheartened at the gap between what we’ve currently achieved and the ideal that we continue to pursue. While everyday I see the stifling states’ rights conservatism of the former Capital of the Confederacy, local progressive wins seem much slower coming. For these reasons, the reinvigoration of the PFAW Foundation celebration of this past week could not have come at a better time. As I complete a summer research fellowship on political theory and strategize for next year’s mobilizations on-campus, I am reminded of the inclusive, accomplished, and intentional family of YP4 and the dedication of People For the American Way Foundation in the pursuit of justice, equality, and the American Way even despite the challenges ahead.
Indeed, our fight as a movement has never been more necessary or the challenges we face more dire. Most recently, conservative ad hominem attacks on Attorney General Eric Holder continue to distract Congress from meaningful action. Out-of-touch elected officials continue to hold hostage major pieces of policy legislation from confronting the student debt crisis to tackling the federal deficit. Voter suppression bills are -- this very minute -- actively disenfranchising the elderly, youth, and communities of color across the country. Reproductive justice continues to be vilified and erased from popular discourse by those who censure speeches in the Michigan State House, for example, or close all of the abortion clinics in Mississippi simply in order to devalue the personal autonomy of women. Racial profiling continues to make life for undocumented people in Arizona and Alabama that much more difficult. Queer folks continue to challenge a heterosexist culture that seeks to tokenize their experience while the elderly, young people, and the differently-abled are shunned to the margins of political discourse.
Reflecting on the significance of Thursday’s event as well as the struggles to come reminds me of a refrain within this piece, the need for solidarity and union within our movement family. I think my sentiment is expressed best by a quote I first heard at a YP4 training: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” -- Assata Shakur.
Erik Lampmann is a junior studying political theory and French at the University of Richmond (VA) and a 2011-2012 YP4 Fellow.
If you watched TV in the 1980s, you surely remember this:
The TV show Diff’rent Strokes – which featured the iconic tagline “What you talkin’ bout, Willis”? – was produced by PFAW’s founder Norman Lear.
And when Norman heard that Mitt Romney – whose first name is actually Willard – was running for president, it rang a bell.
In a piece in Variety this week, Norman asks Willard Mitt Romney exactly what he is talking about:
"What You Talkin' Bout, Willard?"
By Norman Lear
I don't have to explain that line to Americans who grew up watching one of our production company's sitcoms, "Diff'rent Strokes", which ran for eight seasons between 1978 and 1986 and for years after in syndication. Any one who knows the show will recall this signature phrase repeated by the young Gary Coleman to his older brother when stupefied and maddened by something his brother just said, "What you talkin' bout, Willis?"
I know some people think Willard Mitt Romney is the only responsible adult i n that implausible field of presidential hopefuls, but often he will say something so surprising and disingenuous in this seemingly endless campaign, I find myself thinking, 'What you talkin' bout, Willard?
Absent a profanity, I don't know a better reaction to Romney's declaration that "corporations are people." Of course he'd be correct if the people he's referring to are the billionaire Koch brothers. Or if they are the people who are setting up phony corporations for the purpose of supporting Willard Mitt Romney's candidacy with million dollar gifts, and they could of course include the Kochs.
"What you talkin' bout, Willard?" leaps to mind at the thought of the natty Harvard-educated Wall Street executive and former Massachusetts governor railing against "eastern elites" at the last Republican National Convention. And it aches to be shouted out when I am reminded that Willard Mitt Romney, seeking someone to head his legal team, chose a man whose reactionary views about the U.S. Constitution led to a bi-partisan Senate vote to keep him off the Supreme Court, Robert Bork.
Willard's embrace of Bork, despite his angry rants since then, such as those calling for active government censorship of popular culture, is clearly meant to signal far-right activists that they can count on more Supreme Court Justices in the mold of Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, who are all energetically working to make Romney's assertion that "corporations are people" a legal reality.
What are you talkin' bout, Willard?
On Tuesday night, I sat in on the first session of the Smithsonian’s two-day forum on what it called “Flashpoints and Faultlines: Museum Curation and Controversy.” The forum, despite its somewhat vague title, centered on the particular controversy of curation that it was organized to respond to: the decision by Smithsonian top brass to remove a work of art from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit after the exhibit came under fire from right-wing culture warriors.
Tuesday night’s panels didn’t do much to reconcile those who opposed the Smithsonian’s decision to cut David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibit and those who thought it was a necessary step to tamp down a damaging controversy. But it did provide an outlet those who had been caught up in the controversy to air their grievances – albeit too late to change any decisions.
The most passionate and interesting remarks came from the two co-curators of the Hide/Seek show, whose close-up view of the mechanics of a right-wing smear was fascinating, and led them to be unapologetically clear about what had happened to lead to the Smithsonian’s censorship of its own groundbreaking exhibit.
David Ward and Jeff Katz started working on the Hide/Seek exhibit in 2006, when Ward, as part of an exhibit on Walt Whitman, posted a photo of Whitman and his lover of eight years, labeling it as such. Katz approached ward and told him that his was the first major museum exhibit to mention Whitman’s long-term relationship with a man. Ward said he was “gobsmacked” by this revelation, and the two curators started working on an exhibition that would bring together the themes of sexual difference that had been “hiding in plain sight” in American art.
Both emphasized how remarkable it that their exhibit had been accepted by the Smithsonian at. “The rich museums with extraordinarily powerful boards were scared to take this exhibit,” Katz said, “That it was a national museum with the most to lose that took the exhibit should not be forgotten.”
In fact, Katz added, the very existence of the Hide/Seek exhibit broke a decades-long pattern of prominent museums refusing to take on exhibits dealing with gay and lesbian themes. The Robert Mapplethorpe scandals of the 1980’s and 90’s, Katz said, “set a pattern of blacklisting gay and lesbian themes in art exhibitions, which with the exception of Hide/Seek continues in the museum world today.” The Smithsonian’s censorship was remarkable in part because the museum had an exhibition to censor in the first place, Katz said, while “The passive acts of censorship have been the norm in the museum world for 24 years.”
While the curators praised the Smithsonian’s decision to take the Hide/Seek exhibit, they were unswerving in their criticism of Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough’s decision to remove the work that had become a lightning rod for right-wing critics. Katz said, “This scandal was ostensibly about religion. It was not. It was about politics.”
The Smithsonian, Katz said, had by giving in to the Catholic League-manufactured controversy about Hide/Seek had confirmed the legitimacy of anti-gay critics. Removing the Wojnarowicz work from the exhibit, he said, “didn’t extricate the museum from [the culture war attacks], it implicated it.” Katz spoke of the hate mail he received after the Catholic League had distributed his personal contact information. He said he at first tried to respond personally to each of thousands of emails, but was invariably met with more hate. “I realized this is not a discussion, this is not a conversation,” he said.
Secretary Clough had opened the forum with a speech on explaining his decision to censor one work from Hide/Seek because, he said, “Above all, I wanted to keep the exhibition open.” I asked Katz and his co-panelists – a museum director and a Smithsonian curator– if it was ever appropriate or effective to remove one work of art from a show in order to save an exhibit or a museum or an entire institution. All answered “no.”
Thom Collins, a museum director who spoke of the numerous funding threats he had received in his work at publicly funded museums, said “As in any situation when you want to negotiate effectively, you have to be willing to walk away from the table.”
Katz added that removing a work from an exhibit in response to criticism “inherently aligns you with the censorious voices, and that’s a position a museum should never be in.” He added that in reacting so quickly to congressional Republicans’ threats of withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars of Smithsonian funding, the Smithsonian was “selling itself short” – that if our national museums were stripped of their funding “the American people would not stand for it.”
Earlier this month, PFAW held a panel discussion in New York to discuss censorship of the Smithsonian's Hide/Seek exhibit, featuring President Michael Keegan, artist AA Bronson, PFAW founder Norman Lear, critic Blake Gopnik, journalist Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and art museum director Dennis Barrie.
Michael Keegan's suggestions of ten questions for the Smithsonian panelists can be viewed here.
Earlier this month, PFAW held a panel discussion in New York to discuss the censorship of the Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek exhibit. PFAW founder Norman Lear, art critic Blake Gopnik, artist AA Bronson, PFAW president Michael Keegan, art museum director Dennis Barrie and journalist Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed the Smithsonian scandal and the return of the Right’s “culture wars.” You can watch videos of the discussion here:
Every February, People For the American Way, along with the rest of the country, celebrates Black History Month. And this year, more than ever, it's humbling to see just how far our nation has moved. And how far we still have to go.
I'm proud that People For the American Way can point to its own history to demonstrate why Black History Month is relevant to people of all backgrounds. Barbara Jordan was the first African American woman to serve in the Texas State Senate, the first African American woman to represent a southern state in Congress, and one of the founders of People For the American Way.
In 1981, when U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan joined Norman Lear to form People For the American Way, they understood that the promise of our nation, that all men (and women) are created equal, was not just unrealized, but was under active attack. But instead of focusing on what was wrong with our country, they used their powerful, utterly unique voices to speak for America's highest ideals and to push forward towards a better America.
Rep. Jordan was an energetic advocate of our Constitution's core values of fairness and equality under law. She continues to be an inspiration in our work, and it's not an exaggeration to say that it's because of leaders like Barbara Jordan that we were all able to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama last month.
But still, there are those who are intent on dragging us backwards. While the inauguration was still fresh in our minds, People For was forced to lead an aggressive campaign to help confirm President Obama's Attorney General nominee, Eric Holder -- the first African American to hold the position. After eight years spent undermining the crucial work of the Department of Justice, the Right is fighting hard to prevent the new administration from truly restoring justice at the DOJ. This is why Attorney General Holder's comments about the racism in America ring true to so many of us in this constant battle against those who would turn back the clock on civil rights. And just last week we all got an ugly reminder of this pervasive racism and racial insensitivity in America when the New York Post published an offensive cartoon depicting President Obama as a chimp getting shot by two white police officers. The cartoon literally included several layers of tastelessness: the comparison of our first African American president to an ape, what could be construed as an invitation for violence against the president AND the stirring up of racial issues with law enforcement in a city that has particularly sensitive recent history in that area.
Many have pointed out that the lack of diversity in senior management and on the editorial staff of the Post was a major contributing factor to how a cartoon like that could get published in the first place. That's why I'm proud that People For and our affiliate foundation have taken so seriously our mission to help promote diversity. It can be seen very clearly in People For the American Way Foundation's leadership development programs, the Young Elected Officials Network and Young People For, which are among the most diverse programs of their kind -- ever. And it can be seen in our groundbreaking efforts to promote equality for all, like with People For Foundation's work with African American ministers to combat homophobia in the Black Church.
We're working hard to make sure that civil rights remain a top priority for this administration, and fighting against those who are intent on erecting barriers to the ballot, not to mention advocating for a more just Supreme Court, organizing for marriage equality for all and defending religious liberty by maintaining the separation between church and state.
Barbara Jordan made clear that there are certain principles that are not negotiable, values she called "indigenous to the American idea." Opportunity. Fairness. Equality under law. Those are still the values that bind our community together, and every day we're moving closer to that nation that she envisioned.
It's been quite a time here in Washington DC. Lots of excitement in the air about he new administration. People we know and love are taking new jobs with the Obama administration (how good does that sound!) and helping to plan for one of the truly historic changes we've seen in recent years. Staff here at People For are excited about all the opportunities we will have to push some new creative ideas forward, both at the federal level and in the states. And to top that off, I got the news that the National Journal has rated People For the American Way the number one most effective advocacy organization at "winning the ground game" and helping to expand Democratic power this year.
Earlier this week I had another opportunity to celebrate. People For founder Norman Lear and his good friend, poet Maya Angelou, came to my hometown of Philadelphia to be honored with the Marian Anderson Award, which is given to honor people who use art and culture to further social justice.
Norman, of course, broke new ground and social taboos with television programs that provoked countless conversations in American homes, founded People For the American Way, bought and shared with the American public a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, and created Declare Yourself, which got more than 2 million young voters signed up this year. He never stops!
The awards event, as you'd expect, included great music and art, from the Philadelphia Orchestra to hip hop poets and gospel music. I was especially touched by director Jonathan Demme talking about his belief in People For the American Way, the work we do and the television ads he created for us many years ago.
If this wasn't enough activity for one week, I also spent a rainy Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia protesting the passage of Proposition 8 in California. One of the best parts of the demonstration (about 500 people outside Philadelphia City Hall) was that the event was only one of many demonstrations held across the country on that Saturday. Back in D.C., People For staff and activists joined the local march and many of you were kind enough to share notes and pictures from marches you attended in your communities. Thanks so much. You truly understand how much is at stake if we allow the Right to chip away at the constitutional values that lie at the heart of America.
All in all, this week has been incredibly inspiring. It was truly great to see how appreciated we are at the Marian Anderson event, to see how committed so many of you are to the cause of equality, and knowing that I lead an organization so uniquely qualified to help bring about the positive change this country needs.
We're already seeing a newly energized Radical Right. Although their unpopular president is leaving office, they are already taking aim at the incoming Obama administration. They're digging in their heels to do all they can to keep this country from moving forward. And that's where we come in. As long as the Right is willing to sustain their attacks on constitutional values, we'll need your help to protect them -- it's the American Way.