There’s nothing sexy about starving for your art

By Martin Bosworth

Writing at the Huffington Post, blogger Susan Madrak does an excellent job of eviscerating a pet peeve of mine–that the progressive community substitutes psychic income for good wages:

I don’t know what it is about liberal groups whose leaders assume you should live on air while you give your life to the cause. Has it even occurred to them how much harder it is to get a “regular” job when you’re publicly and politically active? I guess not. After all, they’re already employed.

Absolutely, and particularly when Democratic campaigns expect people to work insane hours for low or no pay while forking over millions to consultants who do nothing but lose elections. Why should anyone be motivated to donate time and effort to the cause when they see their efforts squandered by idiots like Bob Shrum–and yet he walks away with the paycheck to write a crappy book?

Chris Bowers at OpenLeft picks up the conversation and expands it into discussing how the conservative welfare state ensures that even untalented hacks can find cushy jobs as consultants, lobbyists, and advisors–and how there is nothing similar on the progressive side:

For the conservative movement, the harsh economic realities their policies have created for most Americans have had a nice side benefit of drying up activist recruitment in the progressive ecosystem. Right-wing economic policies have made it increasingly difficult for would-be progressive activists to literally make a living in politics and social justice.

The system crushes you by saddling you with enormous debt just to get a college diploma, limiting you to career choices that will enable you to make enough money to pay the debt–so you go the law degree or MBA track, and pretty soon you’re working 12-13 hour days, drowning in corporatespeak, looking to buy a home for your family and pay for your kids’ education, and any thought of devoting time to causes is reduced to an afterthought at best.

The progressive community needs to realign its priorities and build support networks for those people who are out there fighting for our rights and our liberties everyday. Major organizations need to stop wasting money on direct mail campaigns and put those dollars towards paying their employees better, getting health insurance, etc. All the “feel good” liberalism in Hollywood would matter more if movie stars ponied up some money to fund the organizations out making real change–and some do, to be fair, but it’s not nearly enough.

Most of all, I fully support building unions, cooperatives, and associations that can get health insurance, medical benefits, retirement plans, etc.–anything that can enable bloggers and activists to keep out there with the work that they’re doing. I’ve given money to many causes over the years and seen it squandered in numerous ways. I do a lot and help out where I can, and when I can’t, I want the money I give to support those who CAN fight the battles I’m not fighting.

Poverty is not innately ennobling. Psychic income doesn’t pay your rent. And as wonderful as it is to feel good about yourself for doing a noble task, it doesn’t suck to have food on the table when you do it.

8 replies »

  1. The academic term is “cultural capital,” and no, most landlords will not accept it in lieu of a check.

    I think this is why themes like education and poverty and opportunity are so important for the Dems. As long as the metanarrative is locked in a frame that sees GOPpers as the party of money and Dems as the party of no money, not much is going to change. But if the frame is shifted so that the GOP is the party that stifles opportunity while progressives stand for creating wealth and opportunities for wealth, then there’s a new dynamism – if you don’t have but you want to have, the path is clear.

    But it has to be backed by policy, and it has to start with education. Great schools, with a dominant narrative that learning leads to affluence. And a massive revision of the student loan system, which currently drives a REALITY that education leads to lifelong debt.

    This needs to be formalized….

  2. Absolutely. I’d be in favor of subsidies for career tracks that focus on education, social justice, environmental protection, etc. Perhaps like the G.I. Bill for domestic civil service, where the gov’t will fund your college education if you put in four years working for an NGO, nonprofit, or government agency.

    I think the frame you describe is already taking effect to some extent, but even the Dems are sabotaging it. Witness Ben Nelson’s attempt to gut the student loan cut bill in favor of retaining corporate subsidies:

    Instead of the money going to the kids, it’s going to the lenders. And this is a DEMOCRAT doing this. Is it any wonder people see no value in progressivism in general and Dems in particular?

  3. You want to know why Ben Nelson did that? Because some of the biggest student loan lenders are based in Nebraska, Nelson’s home state.

    If you look at his financing by sector, the finance/real estate/insurance sector has given the most to Sen. Nelson by far – $2.5 million since 2000, more than double the next sector – lawyers and lobbyists (at $1.1 million). If you instead look at Sen. Nelson’s donors by industry, the insurance industry is #1 ($1.1M), followed by lawyers and law firms ($806k), health professionals ($367k), securities and investment ($353k), real estate ($349k), and commercial banks ($326k).

    If you look into Sen. Nelson’s to 20 individual donors and compare that to this list of the largest student lenders, you find two interesting correlations – Nelnet is Sen. Nelson’s 7th largest individual donor and is 16th on the list of student lenders, and Citigroup is #9 on Nelson’s list and #2 (behind Sallie Mae, which, as a federally-chartered corporation is legally prohibited from giving these kinds of donations to candidates) on the list of student lenders.

  4. Two quick notes:

    I wrote about the student loan problem a while back here:

    Strangling the careers and lives of people who want an education is one of the greatest crimes our country currently commits.

    Second, I’d add to the list of jobs that would gain one access to the domestic civil service G.I. Bill, teaching in the public schools. If young people knew they’d be able to further their educations by investing, say, 5 years in teaching for the public schools, both they and the schools would benefit.

  5. This theme has been hot lately, with the publishing of “The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America” by Daniel Brook. I’m surprised that Ms. Madrak didn’t mention it.

    Here’s an excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle review by Alexander Zaitchik (okay, a friend):

    “Pam is just one of the book’s examples of people who have ‘sold out to stay afloat’ in post-Reagan America. ‘The Trap’ practically bursts with sympathetic portraits of such ‘sellouts’ — from an aspiring civil rights lawyer who joins a union-busting corporate law firm, to an aspiring queer documentary filmmaker (Yale ’03) who takes a job at Google before running back into the relative security of a doctoral program.”

    Another valuable book on the subject is “The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet” by Michael Zezima.

    Aside to Sam: Don’t know if you thought of it, but “if the frame is shifted so that the GOP is the party that stifles opportunity while progressives stand for creating wealth and opportunities for wealth, then there

  6. It is not without cause that the term “Republicrat” came into being. Only the absolutely gullible (if not totally stupid) think that the leadership of either political party gives a tinker’s damn about anyone with a flat wallet. Political parties are run by very ambitious individuals willing to walk over anyone to get ahead.

    Despite his profound eccentricities, Gore Vidal has pretty much got it right when he claims that the Democratic Party and Republican Party are little more that slightly different wings of the Property Party. In such a society, greed becomes a god to be worshiped rather than a devil to be feared. Regardless of collateral damage, schemes to get ahead are overlooked so long as they don’t become an embarrassment to the status quo.

    For thousand of years, the world has only known two classes of people – masters and slaves. Societies crumble when those with more money than brains become the masters. Those at the top of the current social scheme know this. That is why all the concern about what to do with George W. Bush.

  7. Russ: About that frame. This is a case where I have a lot of stuff buzzing around and it’s not quite taken shape. But I have written elsewhere about “progressive capitalism” and as an entrepreneur myself I believe that there are ways we can and ought to be creating ways into the system for people who, like me, grew up well outside of it and have had to hack and claw our way in (and somedays it feels like I’m still very much on the outside).

    So yeah, it needs articulating – it’s time that the GOP stopped being the party of wealth and became the party of hording. It’s time the Dems stopped being seen as the party that serves the have-nots and started being the party that transforms have-nots into haves.

  8. Brian,

    Yep, knew about that, but thank you for the depressing summation of Nelson’s perfidy.


    Susan may not have mentioned it, but Bowers quotes from “The Trap” extensively in his post discussing Susan’s own work. It looks like a helluva book, and it’s on my reading list. 😉 And Sam IS good, isn’t he? 🙂