Noah T. Winer is a 27-year old Maine native, resident of Philadelphia and a Campaign Director for MoveOn, an Internet-based progressive political action committee (PAC).
Launched in 1998 by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, MoveOn played a major factor in the 2004 Presidential election, when, along with other “netroots” institutions like DailyKos, it helped foster a revolution in the Democratic Party by putting dark horse candidates out front and center, giving the old party machinery a run for its money. It presently boasts 3.2 million active constituents.
Recently, MoveOn has found itself at the center of controversy after a barrage of anonymous antisemitic messages began appearing on its website forum along with a simultaneous wave of accusations by Right-wing bloggers that MoveOn, an organization with many Jewish staff members and constituents, was willingly harboring antisemites and espousing an agenda hostile towards Jewish interests.
MoveOn smells a rat.
I caught up with Winer, who’s currently on the road in Seattle for the final push of the midterm election campaign, via instant messenger.
JEWSCHOOL: Why are you and George Soros trying to ruin America?
WINER: Heh, I guess we’re just self-hating.
Why do you think the Right is so interested in smearing MoveOn?
The Right’s politics need a villain. And the threat of many people working for a popular progressive agenda is a real threat to their strangehold on power.
MoveOn is something of a controversial organization on the Left as well. The establishment critique, mostly coming from the Party machinery, though also being perpetuated on the Right, is that MoveOn is representative of a so-called “Shadow Democratic Party” that is trying to hijack the Democratic Party to advance a radical Left wing agenda. The radical critique is that MoveOn is not truly representative of a broad base — rather, like most Internet-based communities, it tends to be white, male, and middle to upper class. How would you respond to those criticisms?
The establishment is right that the 3.2 million Americans who are members of MoveOn want the Democratic Party to represent a progressive, populist voice instead of the interests of a few wealthy corporations. MoveOn members want a Democratic Party that’s fighting for universal health care, solutions to climate change, and a restoration of democracy.
On the radical critique, MoveOn isn’t the whole progressive movement, just a part of it. It’s not quite as homogenous as most people assume — many of our most active volunteers are women and, while we don’t ask about income level, the average donation is about $45. We do lots of work with progressive organizations who explicitly represent people of color, women, and low-income people.
Turning to the recent antisemitism controversy: Who manages and maintains the MoveOn message forums — in-house staff or outside volunteers?
Both. The idea of the forum is anyone can post a comment and anyone else can rate it as useful or not. The best comments float to the top, and the entire staff reads the top comments each week.
Maintaining an open forum is like maintaining a democracy with free speech: it can be messy, people say offensive things, there’s open debate and disagreement. We believe in bottom-up politics, so we’re taking these risks and sometimes we get burned. We have a moderator who tries to catch really offensive comments, but we don’t approve everything that’s posted. The media and the public need to learn to distinguish content entered on an open forum or in a contest from content an organization actually endorses — otherwise, we’ll be left with a less free and open society.
Were you aware, before this scandal broke, that there were individuals using the cover of anti-Zionism to espouse antisemitic views in the MoveOn forums and that these posts were receiving disturbingly high ratings?
We discovered and removed the posts before the scandal broke. Almost all the comments were posted and rated highly by non-MoveOn members who joined the forum with multiple accounts to create trouble.
In other words, most of the comments aren’t the real views of anyone, just an effort to smear MoveOn and its members for political gain.
So it’s your belief that this incident was coordinated in order to provoke trouble for MoveOn?
It looks that way.
Did MoveOn erase the posts of individuals who raised concerns about these manifestations of antisemitism, as has been alleged by MoveOn’s detractors? Did you remove those posts acting under the belief that the complainants were also the offenders?
I don’t know for sure, but my guess is the whole thread was removed.
Do you believe that there is any specific group responsible for this smear campaign and do you have any solid evidence that it was a coordinated effort?
I don’t know if any specific group is responsible. It might just be the partisan interests of a bunch of individuals lining up. We’re actively responding, but we’re even more focused on winning this election and working toward a progressive future.
That’s what MoveOn members want and it’s what’s made MoveOn a target in the first place.
How would you describe your Jewish identity or your personal relationship with Judaism? Are you practicing? Unaffiliated? Zionist?
Judaism is a big part of my life, culturally and spiritually. I’m shomer Shabbat and active in a couple synagogues and minyanim in Philadelphia. My partner is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Judaism is also central to the work I do at MoveOn.
How do you feel as a Jewish person about this situation? Do you concur with the sentiments of Jewish Funds for Justice, for example, which believes this to be an attempt to manipulate Jewish fears in the advancement of political self-interest?
It’s very painful to see other Jews working to undermine an effort for greater social justice. All the more to see them undermine it with fabricated and manipulative charges. I try to remember what a tiny minority of the Jewish community this is — that the vast majority of the Jewish community sees social justice as central to being Jewish and actively supports MoveOn’s efforts for change.
What do you think are the most important issues facing progressive Jewish voters in the forthcoming election?
I’ve found progressive Jews are very motivated by a desire for a sane foreign policy that will make us safer through justice and by a desire for universal health care.
Obviously the most contentious issue facing the Jewish community is that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Democratic Party has traditionally been very pro-Israel and is adamant about protecting Israel’s security interests. However, for many on the Left, America’s support for Israel, in general, is misguided. They see Democratic Party support for Israel as just one more issue on which the Democrats are too centrist. The Democrats, for example, fiercely advanced the proposal to cut off all contact with the PA after Hamas came into power. They’re also pushing for more direct confrontation with Iran. Does MoveOn as an organization have any official position with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does it advocate or lobby on the issue at all? If not, why not?
MoveOn is member-driven. We work on issues that we hear from our members about when there seems to be a commonly held view. We don’t yet hear that from our members.
This issue is of course complicated by that which was used as the bait to stir up the current controversy surrounding MoveOn: Antisemitism has undoubtedly become a major issue on the Left these days, with criticism of Israeli military policies often lending itself to cooptation by more traditional antisemites. What do you make of this issue and do you think it would be wise or worthwhile for MoveOn to facilitate dialogue around this subject?
As U.S. progressives know well, criticizing the decisions of a government is often done because you care deeply about the well-being of the people it represents and your own well-being. So criticism shouldn’t be confused with hatred. These conversations are important, but I think MoveOn’s strength is using the Internet to organize, and these conversations need to happen in safer, more personal places where people can establish trust.
More on this issue at jspot.org.