A Good Man Speaking… Adequately.

A number of people have commented on Bernie Sanders’ response to interruptions at the Netroots Nation conference last week. While recognizing Sanders’ history of support for civil rights activists and the reality that he is (despite running as a Democrat) a legitimately Left candidate, Sanders made no friends with his sulky response in Arizona.

As summarized by Electablog:

At times he [Sanders] plunged on, talking over the protesters as if they weren’t there. While he is largely a supporter of civil rights and is, in general, right on the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, he came across as a self-important know-it-all who has better things to do than to listen to uppity black kids who are disrupting HIS speech. In the end, he took off his microphone and left the stage without as much as a wave to the audience.

This response is entirely understandable. In watching video of the event, I found his petulance, turning to moderator Jose Antonio Vargas and asking “shall I continue or leave” particularly uncharismatic. It is certainly important to remember that the previous speaker, fellow candidate Democratic candidate,  Governor Martin O’Malley had been totally derailed by audience intervention. That Sanders wanted to establish he would not be put in a similar position is understandable and not at all inappropriate. Many (justifiably) read Sanders’ attitude as dismissive and patronizing. I think such readings are fair.

But what should we make of these assessments of Sanders?

My criticism of Sanders is situated primarily around his failures as an orator. IN particular, Sanders failed to allow his oratory to be guided by and adapted to his audience. When he took the stage, Vargas invited Sanders to engage the concerns that the audience had expressed to O’Malley:

Vargas: Did you hear from the back, what was happening here? I would love for you to talk about this in specifics. Not the usual political stuff–

Sanders, at this point, interrupted Vargas, waving him off.

Sanders: Whoa whoa whoa. Let me talk about… what I want to talk about first, for a moment.

Again, it is fair to read this dismissal of the moderator as putting Vargas in his place. Yet, given the circumstance, one might read Sanders’ response charitably and note that he claimed to want to read his prepared statement first and (presumably) address the audience’s concerns about white supremacy later. Critics who see this as a telling articulation of Sanders’ priorities or as an embodiment of white supremacist attitudes make good points.

Still, there was something honest in Sanders’ voice when he told the audience “Black lives of course matter and I spent fifty years of my life fighting for civil right and for dignity.” The “of course” is particularly compelling to me– he is not merely repeating the slogan but seems to consider it so natural as to be redundant. Not redundant in an AllLivesMatter kind of way but obvious in a way that he and the audience both understand. The “of course” is an artistic development of the ethos he deploys by invoking his fifty years of service. Lamentably, he squanders that ethos by refusing the exigence of this moment. In a sense, Sanders demonstrates that he views his fifty years of “fighting” as license of speak over (rather than to or for the rights of) the audience.

Compounding the damage done by avoiding the exigence of the moment is the fact that his next line was about wealth distribution. Why is that a problem? Because, to be honest, if anyone in that room had wanted to know Bernie Sanders’ thoughts on income/wealth inequality, they could go read about them in 1000 different places. Here we see Sanders’ “experience” actually working against him: since he has been pretty consistent about wealth disparity issues for nearly half a century, the nobody in that room needed to hear him talk about what percentage of people own what percentage of media outlets right then. They, and every other politically minded American knows what Bernie Sanders has to say about wealth disparity and could probably give his platform on redistribution for him.

On the other hand, some people in the audience did absolutely need to hear Sanders talk about 21st century white supremacy. They were compelled and driven to interrupt two presidential candidates whom, Tia Oso (among others) feared would not address this issue. To be fair, Sanders has done a fine job of addressing violence against black bodies and provided a very nuanced take on politicians parroting (or failing to parrot) racially progressive slogans without any teeth. So, it is easy for me to imagine that Sanders didn’t mean to dismiss the issue at Netroots Nation and yet his performance told another story. I don’t believe that he is a bad man and yet he is certainly a man in need of some oratorical refinement.


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