New Shape of Culture

September 10, 2009

I’m very sad to say that the right wing hate machine has successfully targeted my good friend Yosi. Yosi just stepped down from his position at the National Endowment of the Arts. Yosi is a great guy who wants only to better the country and the world. A conference call he participated in asking artists to deal with issues they care about in their art was spun by Glenn Beck as some sort of propaganda campaign. It is despicable that Glenn Beck did what he did, but equally that it got traction and impacted Yosi in his positive efforts. Yosi worked selflessly and tirelessly as a grassroots activist for Obama and it is tragic that a human being of his calibre is being targeted for trying to do GOOD. When you think of the lies Republican members of congress are telling about health care reform, it is insane that their untruthful propaganda is tolerated and Yosi is losing his job. It is more clear than ever that the Republican party is about self interest and division, and is not interested in the collective good. The ART FOR OBAMA book is about to come out and it turned out great. Yosi played a huge roll in organizing the artists and the Manifest Hope shows. Check out the book and lament the loss of a dedicated creative force in Yosi. We really needed him. I feel very sad right now.


By Jeff Chang

The New Shape of the Culture War: Glenn Beck, Yosi Sergant, Van Jones, and Hip-Hop

Are you mad yet? You should be. Glenn Beck has now taken down Yosi Sergant, the second hip-hop activist to be forced to leave the Obama administration in a week.

Last night the 34-year old communications director at the National Endowment for the Arts was asked to resign. Why? Because he was trying to organize artists to support President Obama’s national service program, United We Serve. If your next question is: so what? That was ours, too. But Glenn Beck compared the effort to “Nazi propaganda”.

(Just sick–especially since Sergant, a Jewish American, has worked as an activist for peace in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.)

This was the same logic paleocons used to batter Obama’s school speech. If he does it, it’s indoctrination. If they do it, it’s “journalism.” But there’s much more to this story.

Coming For Hip-Hop Heads

Sergant was the key organizer in the historic arts effort to back the Obama campaign. In January 2008, Sergant teamed with Shepard Fairey to produce the now iconic HOPE posters. He began handing out the first 3,000 copies at a rally at UCLA and they stumbled into history.

He then went on to commission literally dozens of artists–and inspire hundreds more–to create Obama images–making the candidate the face of hope, progress, and change. By the end of the summer, Obama was riding the biggest creative surge for any presidential candidate ever.

Earlier this year, Sergant organized a White House meeting between grassroots artists and arts advocates–I was there–and has helped open the doors to artists like Saul Williams, Mayda Del Valle, and graffiti artists like Kofie to the White House. He was appointed to one of the country’s most influential positions in culture as the director of communications for the NEA, the nation’s largest funding agency and policy-setting body.

In an interview I did earlier this year with him, he told me he started out in Los Angeles, as the self-described “goofy kid trying to get down” in the cipher with the freestyle dancers and trying to get up in the train yards with the graffiti writers. “It’s who I am, ” he said. “Spray-paint brought me to the NEA and I won’t forget that.”

He added, “I think we can revolutionize the way that Americans think about art.” He wanted to do that in part by continuing to engage artists more directly in working in their communities. He was working to enlist high-profile artists for the United We Serve national service initiative when Beck started attacking him a couple of weeks ago.

Beck said, “Your government is trying to trick you, use your tax dollars to change your mind. It’s called propaganda.”

You can see all of Beck’s stupidity and hypocrisy compiled here.

Why Culture Always Matters

Why was Beck going after a communications director at an arts agency?

Beck’s agenda is unveiling itself–he means to go hard after the progressives in the Obama Administration whose work engages grassroots movements and reaches people and communities directly through media and the arts.

This is why he has also been attacking Mark Lloyd, Associate General Counsel and Chief Diversity Officer at the FCC, and others like him. Real diversity means that voices like Beck’s are in danger of being drowned by the roar of the masses.

Beck is not just trying to make progressives who are young and/or of color absolutely dispensable to the establishment. He is trying to take away their platform as well. To Beck, this is a fight not just over the individuals, but to block the ways change is actually made.

Van Jones did not just have great ideas, he used culture to make them viable. He brought inner-city youths to anti-prisons and environmental justice agendas using hip-hop. He also found a way to speak to wealthy environmentalists through speeches and books. Culture created new openings to forge new alliances between inner-city youths and wealthy environmentalists.

Yosi Sergant worked at what the Obama campaign thought were the margins: to use the creative power of artists to ignite the imagination of the people. When he got started, all of the money was raised through creative communities. And when the artists got rolling by the end of the summer, they didn’t need the campaign to do their thing. But they were arguably as important to shifting the public tide towards Obama’s victory as all the pollsters and precinct organizers on the campaign payroll.

Glenn Beck, like other conservatives, is deathly afraid of the colorized world we now live in. In the continuing battle between the ideas–monoculturalism vs. polyculturalism, domination vs. justice, repression vs. change, fear vs. hope–there is no doubt what side he is on.

But better than any other conservative, Beck understands the new role culture is playing in how change is made. When all avenues for change are blocked, organizers and artists find the holes to slip through and connect with their communities.

This is why he is using his own media perch to attack those who are young, idealistic, progressive, and have a strong understanding of the ways culture builds diversity, and diversity builds strength and longevity.

Put bluntly, this is the shape of the new culture war.

It can’t work. Not just because we have worked too long, too hard, and built too strong a foundation to be broken, but because culture can always find a way. But we will need to steel ourselves for the kind of attacks we have never seen before. That’s going to be our work now.