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Van Jones: Why Did We Abandoned a Great Progressive Victory?

The green jobs movements was wildly successful in its first year, but we let industry pressure scare us off.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “but it bends toward justice.” That famous line could also serve as an apt description for the comeback of Van Jones. In 2009 the veteran social justice and environmental activist was hounded out of his White House job by right wing loudmouth Glenn Beck. “A high tech lynching,” is how one commentator described the concocted controversy that led Jones to resign his post as special advisor for green jobs. Fast-forward four years, and Jones remains one of the most inspiring figures in the progressive movement. He has a new organization – Rebuild the Dream, dedicated to repairing the United States’ tattered social safety net – and is a paid pundit on CNN. And Glenn Beck? He’s off somewhere in the hinterlands of Internet television, peddling goldbug fantasies.

Looking back today, Jones doesn’t express much bitterness about the episode. “Your successes give you your confidence and your setbacks give you your character,” he told me in a recent interview. While he still promotes the hopeful, and heartfelt, vision of a green and fair economy, the experience of a public takedown seems to have spiked his optimism with a bit of political sobriety. “My failures are the things that tend to give me real insight about what works and what doesn’t work.”

If anything, his rollercoaster career seems to have given the preternaturally strategic Jones even more political savvy. Among other observations, Jones feels that environmentalists specifically, and progressives generally, do a poor job of celebrating their victories. “Depending on what you call a green job, there are as many as 3 million green jobs,” he told me. “I don’t know why people say, “Well, jeez, green jobs are such a failure.” … I’d like to have a few more failures like that.”

Me, too. It would help demonstrate, as Jones himself has proved, that the arc of the moral universe isn’t as long as we might fear.

Jason Mark: When we talked to you right before the Forward on Climate rally in Washington you had some pretty strong words for President Obama, saying that if he approves the Keystone XL pipeline, the first thing it will run over will be his credibility. If you were a betting man, where would you put your money on whether the president is going to approve the pipeline?

VJ: Well, I think if you look at the signals that [the administration] is sending, you would have to come to the conclusion that it’s more likely that they will approve this awful pipeline than that they will reject it. However, they did just receive a million online comments almost entirely opposing the project. The EPA just came out saying that the State Department’s environmental review was inadequate, which I think shows there are cracks inside the administration. And I don’t think this fight is over. I think you would be kidding yourself if you said that the environmentalists are in the lead – but I think you’d also be wrong to say that the race is over. I think that environmentalists – and not just environmentalists, but people who have the good sense to understand economics and math and have any intelligence at all – can still win. But it’s going to take more pressure. The other factor I would say is that never underestimate the power of a really good film. Al Gore showed that. He changed the entire global conversation with one really good film. Well,  Bill McKibben just put out in the online world arguably an equally powerful film,  Do the Math. Never underestimate the power of that to wind up on the screen of someone with power, or that person’s spouse or child or neighbor. So this fight is not over.

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