Jul 4, 2010

If you're a petition gatherer with white hair, listen up. First thing you need to know is, you're threatening to people. That's why you're not having a lot of success. Now don't get excited. Throttle back. This is not personal, but you need to get a hat.

I got this advice earlier today from Martin at the Fillmore St. Jazz festival while trying to sign up people in support of Wall Street financial reform. This was at the Organizing For America booth in front of the Junior League thrift shop. You couldn't miss it because there was a life-sized cardboard replica of the president, in a superman outfit.

Martin explained this to me. He's an old hand with petitions. First thing is you have to accept that you can be threatening just by the way you look. You could have the heart of a Golden Retriever, the animosity of a shag carpet, but the white hair throws people. It reminds them of the future. If you're 25, even 35, or God help you if you're 45, the last thing you want to think about is getting old. You want Comedy Central. You want cheery. You keep going back to, "There's something about Mary."

But I can hear you saying "yes, but I'm asking people to sign a petition for Wall Street reform and if you've read Paul Krugman we're in for the third great depression since 1873 and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it. The 'Repubicans' are going to block any policy they didn't intuit from watching Ronald Reagan doing 20 Mule Team Borax ads. The world is deserting us. This is serious. The whole culture is bankrupt. And bankers are the most bankrupt of us all, morally speaking."

All true but that's why it's so important to be calm and friendly. You want to think of 'Good morning, America' as you say to people, "Would you like to sign a petition in support of Wall Street financial reform?"

That's actually long winded, because by the time you've said, "would you like to sign a petition," the person or the couple are past you and they're saying over their shoulder, "No thanks." Or, "maybe when I come back." Or, "I did already." Or, "Nope, leave the banks alone and why don't you get a real job."

But isn't activism a real job? It's not what Mark Levin does but it seems like a real job.

Martin says not to go there. "Don't ever be sarcastic. Someone says that and you wish them a happy day with all the genuine good feeling you can. Pretend everyone is your grandmother."

Now by the same token you don't want to look like a smiling psychopath, but you want to look easy, you want to look like what people see when they look in the mirror: wisps and filaments of themselves, a flattering hologram, a fond memory of cheek, an abstraction of neck.

So, you buy a hat and the next thing you might want to do is put on a lot of stickers. Put 'em everywhere. All over your shirt, your hat, make a boa out of a sticker strip. Look a little disorganized. Practice dishevelment. Look harmless but not clownish. Have a couple of clipboards but be careful that the sign-up sheet has at least one signature. Nobody wants to be first. You're looking for the follower. Remember that the Willy Loman in you is always in search of the Willy Loman in someone else.

Now for example here's a man coming toward you but it's the couple behind him that you really want so you say to the man you know you won't get, "would you like a Vote 2010 sticker", so that the couple behind him is now put at ease, they think they're going to get something, and then when the man passes — and says under his breath, "get away from me, creep" — you say, "well have a great day, sir", and now the couple thinks that that man was rude and they've arrived at the IHOP and everything is cool. So then you say to them, "and would you like to support Wall Street reform, as though you were saying, "would you like to support motherhood?" "Would like to put in a good word for Jesus?"

Now there's a couple of other tricks. Don't bother to ask Asian-Americans to sign a petition. Don't approach white men over 50. If in doubt you want to kowtow a little more. You want to remember that every kid under three is the cutest you ever saw. You want to remind people that even on the Fourth of July it's okay to be conscious. It is a holiday, and this is a jazz festival, and you know people are busy and even though they call it Independence Day it's really just a holiday and you know you don't ever want to get heavy and talk politics. That's for Thanksgiving.

One last word of advice: be politically androgynous. This is San Francisco but remember there's a lot of closet conservatives. What they won't say to you, or even their good friends, is that they believe that anybody without a job is lazy and extending unemployment benefits is just playing to people's base instincts. So sound moderate.

And don't mention Obama unless you're talking to black people. Just say, "this is not about socialism. This is not about the end of free markets." which is true, but it sounds better, more neutral if you don't mention the president's name.

Above all, what you don't want to do is to defend the president. What you don't want to say is, "the president is not a socialist", or "Obama has no intention of ending free markets". Why? Because people just don't believe that and they won't believe YOU. They'll think you're just another spitting liberal.

Like the short Jewish man who got right up to my face. "Afghanistan?" he said. "Afghanistan? Do you have any idea how much money we've spent in Afghanistan? Do you even know who the Taliban are? Do you? Ok, then don't talk to me about Afghanistan."

But you wonder how it is the President has gotten such a bad rap. Well, it's the times, it's just so easy to fall in to line. people don't know where they even got it, or where they first heard all these bad things, somewhere they did, they heard that this effort to bring the banks to account, to make them take responsibility is not as simple as it seems because the banks have to lend money, they're just businesses, like the bakery down the street, and they're already regulated, taxed half to death, and it really is all Obama's fault we got in this mess. We knew he knew Lew Ayres but we didn't know the rest of the story and now we do.

The little Jewish man is back in your face. He's got his cell phone up to his ear. You can hear his wife saying, "I'm lost, I'm lost. Where are you?" He's going to clear that up in a minute but first he's got to tell you something. And you realize that even the old guard has turned. "You want people to sign up for financial reform? Are you kidding me? You think Obama is interested in financial reform? He's another Judas. Have you ever heard the names, Geithner and Summers? Have you? Well look them up and get out of my face."

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