MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
When news broke that USDA employee Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign over comments she made, Van Jones felt a pang of recognition. Van Jones was a special adviser to the White House for environmental jobs. And last fall, he too was targeted by conservative commentators. Jones was blasted for using crude language to describe Republicans and for signing a petition that accused the Bush administration of allowing the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as a pretext to war, a petition that he says he did not sign.
Jones too was forced to resign. But unlike Sherrod, the administration did not cycle back with an apology or an offer of a new job. Jones says both his and the Sherrod case say something essential about the nature of politics in these times. And he joins us now to talk about that. Welcome to the program.
NORRIS: Thank you, glad to be here.
MARTIN: Now, to your mind, what do these two cases reveal?
NORRIS: Well, first I just want to be clear. I voluntarily resigned because of the kind of media firestorm that had gotten kicked up and, you know, I had a much more colorful background than did Ms. Sherrod. Ms. Sherrod is sort of like Rosa Parks. I mean, I was actually, you know, had a pretty colorful background as a young activist.
So, but I think what is happening now is that we are in a stage where people can absolutely engineer false stories and inject them into the media blood system in a way that we just don't know how to deal with very well.
NORRIS: Now, you argue that politics is now like a combination of speed chess and mortal combat. That was the language that you used in an editorial that ran yesterday in The New York Times. And you say that one false move can mean political death. This is your lament, and I understand that, but is there another way of looking at this? I mean, some would argue that that's just the way it is. If you can't stand the heat, step out of the kitchen.
NORRIS: Well, I think that may be the conclusion that people are forced to come to in the short term. I mean one of the things that I think we've got to be clear about is that these kinds of attacks are not just attacks on individuals. They're attacks on the democratic system. We have the most free and democratic society in the history of the world. And it works because it relies upon a well-informed citizenry.
So if you begin to do your politics in a way that creates a misinformed citizenry on purpose, that's not just an attack on the individual, that's an attack on the democratic process itself.
NORRIS: Now your case is interesting because you're accused of signing a petition that you say you never signed. And you're also accused of using unsavory language that you did admit to.
NORRIS: I just want to pose a hypothetical to you. If Democrats found that a Republican had said or done something in the past that was questionable or embarrassing or potentially offensive, would you argue against using that information to political advantage? Should Democrats call for a detente or sharpen their own mortal combat skills?
NORRIS: Well, you know, I think this is a big debate right now among Democrats. You know, should we be fighting fire with fire or should we be fighting fire with water? I think for me, the most important thing is to be on a quest for the truth. For instance, you know, one of the things that, you know, happened, that was, I think, a good thing, that nobody talked about in this whole firestorm around Shirley Sherrod, Glenn Beck did not jump on the bandwagon.
He actually early on said, hey, I don't think this right. Well, I would think that progressives would then applaud him and say, well done. But you hear silence from progressives on that. So we're in a situation where there's a moral challenge in this age. You know, are you about the truth, no matter what the truth is? Or are you about this sort of, you know, the partisan food fight?
I don't want to try to win a food fight. I want to end the food fight and get us back to a place where being on opposite sides politically should not mean that all bets are off, anything I do to you is fair play. I think that in the long term that disserves both parties 'cause it turns off people from participating.
NORRIS: Van Jones, did I just hear you give Glenn Beck an 'atta-boy'?
NORRIS: And a well deserved one. And that's what we've got to be able to get back to in American politics. It's not - it shouldn't be about the personalities. It shouldn't be about the politics of personal destruction. It should be about a quest for truth to make sure that Americans can have a free choice based on real information, not based on distraction and division.
So, you know, when, you know, somebody does something honorable, in this case, like a Glenn Beck and says, hold on a second, progressives and conservatives should applaud that.
NORRIS: Van Jones, thanks so much for talking to us.
NORRIS: Thanks for having me.
NORRIS: Van Jones was a special adviser to the White House for environmental jobs. He's also a visiting fellow at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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