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'Organizing for America' Means Fighting for Human Rights Worldwide

So now we know the fate of Team Obama's thirteen-million strong e-mail list, that unprecedented netroots force that used social networking and new media technologies to put a one-time community organizer in the White House. President Obama is banking on the continuing support of his online constituency through the creation of "Organizing for America."

This initiative is essentially a lobby, intended to "build grassroots support for the administration's agenda," according to Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who heads the Democratic National Committee where Organizing for America will be housed.

You can't blame President Obama for wanting to harness the power of that giant email list and maintain the momentum of his campaign. But is the new flagship of "Obama 2.0" the best tool for moving a progressive agenda?

So far, most of the President's initiatives seem designed to get us through this economic crisis and then back to business as usual. Yet, this moment holds the potential for so much more. In fact, 2009 is shaping up to be what historians call a transformational moment. At home, the election was a referendum on the economic policies long-favored by the super-rich. They lost. Abroad, acceptance of the United States' stint as the world's only superpower is evaporating. A critical mass of people in the US agree that the country needs a new game-plan. All of this makes 2009 a year when big changes can happen in a short time.

Those of us who have been working to advance women's human rights around the world are optimistic about winning progressive changes in 2009 and beyond. But doing so will depend on progressives being able to mobilize effectively. "Organizing for America" may be enough to move the president's agenda; but it won't be enough to move ours. 

After all, think of what we're up against: on the foreign policy front alone, we're looking at a Secretary of State who believes that the president has the right to invade any country he views as a threat; a Vice President who rolled out the single scariest solution for Iraq (partition); and a Defense Secretary pre-approved by George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Even so, progressives have got at least three good reasons for optimism. First of all, let's not forget that this new bunch-most of all Barack Obama himself-is a vast improvement over Bush and his team. Second, and more importantly, the two strongest political forces that have obstructed women's human rights over the past eight years-namely religious fundamentalism and market fundamentalism-are both in crisis right now.

Under Bush, the religious right dominated US representation at international conferences and used US family planning and HIV/AIDS policies to pursue their reactionary social agenda. With the change of administrations, those people are out. It may have been maddening to have to listen to Rick Warren at the inauguration, but he won't be making policy.  

We can't say the same for the corporate surrogates in government, but their biggest claim-that unregulated markets are the solution to everything from poverty to climate change-is now badly discredited. It's plain to people all over the world that the ideology of the free market, pushed to its logical extreme, has brought on a massive global recession. To paraphrase FDR, we always knew that unrestrained capitalism was bad morals. Now, everyone knows it's bad economics.  

Cultivating Critical Cooperation

This second reason for optimism is worth exploring because it brings us to the question of political strategy.  That both religious and free market fundamentalism are loosening their stranglehold at the same time is an enormous opportunity to advance women's human rights, and maybe even lock in progress for the long-term.  Pushing Congress to finally ratify CEDAW (the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) would be a good start. To be effective, we'll have to figure out how to relate to an administration that is our ally on some issues, but not on others. Historically, US progressives haven't had to grapple much with this question, but it has just become paramount.

Progressives can't continue to act as though the White House is the enemy of all things feminist and human-rights oriented just because they don't support our whole agenda.  If we do that, we forfeit a tremendous chance to engage and push for real change. And we will disconnect ourselves from a groundswell of people who recognize that this is, in fact, a moment of opportunity for progressives.

But we also can't simply be cheerleaders for the new administration. Uncritical participation in initiatives such as "Organizing for America" can become an exercise in cooptation. It would be a big mistake for us to allow that to happen. So let's dump the "Obama's Army" metaphor, with its implied obedience and passivity. It might have worked for getting our candidate to the White House. It won't work for getting him to do what we need once he's there.

Instead, we can cultivate an approach of critical cooperation. That means supporting every positive move that the administration makes while demanding improvements to any US policy that doesn't uphold human rights. Our opposition, when it's warranted, will be essential to Obama if he is to keep the promises that originally gained our support-and if we're going to expand that list of priorities. Let's not back-peddle on what we know is right just because there's someone in the White House who may meet us partway.

And the Top Reason for Optimism in 2009...

The number one reason to be optimistic about advancing human rights under President Obama has little to do with what the president wants or who he appoints to his cabinet. That's because the most important thing about the 2008 election was not Barack Obama's victory. It was the emergence of millions of newly-engaged and re-engaged people in communities across the US. The possibility of those people staying engaged is our number one reason for optimism.  

It's time now for all of us who put Barack Obama in the White House to evolve from serving in his "Army" to building a pro-democracy movement; one that can transform free-floating calls for "change" into the concrete policies we need. Progressives in Latin America are way ahead of us on this and can offer some useful lessons on what to do when your candidate actually wins.  

The challenge is to move effectively between participation and protest. If 2009 is to be a truly transformational year, it will depend on whether progressives can jump on the opportunity not seen in our lifetimes to advance our vision of a world where human rights are a reality for all people.

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Yifat Susskind

Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization. She has worked with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women's health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice and peace building. She has also written extensively on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and her critical analysis has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus and elsewehere.

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