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Don Hazen: The “Unfashionable” Matt Damon, Mensch of the Year

August 18, 2011

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Damon breaks out of Hollywood and into serious activism, earning the respect of hard-working activists and progressive leaders alike.

By **Don Hazen**

By arrangement with AlterNet.org.

It’s rare when a Hollywood superstar earns the respect of hard-working activists and progressives leaders alike. Usually stars dabble in activism for the publicity, and associate themselves with safe issues, so as not to rock the boat.

But not Matt Damon. Like many other progressives, Damon has grown weary of Democrats looking for phony centrism instead of standing up to a shockingly far-right Republican party. Against this backdrop, Damon’s principled and public stands do indeed make us sit up and pay attention.

Progressive star Michael Moore went so far as to suggest that Damon run for president in an online townhall with the blog, FireDogLake. Moore wants Damon because Moore is unhappy that President Obama has continually tracked to the right with conservative narratives about taxes, spending and the role of government, saying that debt is the “greatest threat” facing the United States today. That’s right, not military spending, the banks, corporate excess and corruption, poverty, and a few other pressing problems. Yes, Obama has a tough job dealing with the rigid, ransom-seeking right-wing. But seriously, Mr. President. Get on message. We need to be spending money, not cutting jobs.

So, it’s an entertaining thought, Matt Damon for president. We’ve had Reagan, Schwarzenegger, et al. Why not a progressive star this time? This presidential trial balloon idea even caught attention across the Atlantic where an article in the (UK) Guardian had an interesting take on Damon and celebrity politics.

The Guardian mentioned Damon as a defender of teachers and public education. As a misguided establishment consensus has emerged around standardized testing, privatization and charter schools, Damon has made a full-throated and deeply personal defense of public education, teachers, and even the much-maligned teachers’ unions. He gave a real barnburner speech at a recent pro-public education “Save Our Schools” rally.

Then the Guardian, perhaps showing its lack of savvy about progressives in the U.S., mentioned Damon’s support of the Working Families Party (WFP), an independent grassroots party active in five or six states. WFP’s goal is to hold both Democrats and Republicans accountable to the needs of working and middle-class families. I’ve been a fan of WFP for years, and couldn’t help but laugh out loud when the Guardian writer, Paul Harris, cited Damon’s support for the “obscure” and “distinctly unfashionable” WFP.

On the first point, he was plainly wrong. WFP is well known in New York and Connecticut politics, and its work has captured the attention and the imagination of organizers and activists in other states who admire its strength and independence.

So obviously the fancy goods are not what pundits mean when they call WFP or other progressive organizations “unfashionable,” … What they mean is, they have the gall to stand up and fight for ordinary people.

But on the second point, Harris gets it right. In American public discourse (or at least, what passes for public discourse on cable news and talk radio) it is “deeply unfashionable” to oppose the yawning income gap or wealth inequality; to question the wisdom of the markets; to defend a role for the public sector; or to try to reverse a race-to-the-bottom economy.

The Working Families Party is certainly guilty of all of those sins against fashion. Happily enough, so is Matt Damon. Last year, he stumped for WFP in New York in a web video, urging voters to make a proud progressive stand on Election Day 2010 by voting for Democrats on the Working Families Party line (that’s called “fusion” voting). In the video he points to the need for jobs, environmental protection and affordable mass transit as reasons to support the Working Families Party. (Didn’t Jason Bourne spend some time at the train station outwitting the bad guys? Clearly a message on the importance of public goods!)

SInce the Guardian mentioned it, and Damon has worked hard on its behalf, a few more words about WFP are deserved. Yes, the Working Families Party is not exactly a glamorous operation. WFP spends a lot of time knocking on doors in working-class and middle-class neighborhoods, talking at union halls and community forums, listening to and speaking with voters. Mostly, they hear things the character Damon created in Good Will Hunting surely would have understood, even if Fox News pundits do not. Families are worried about disappearing jobs and declining wages, about the cost of health care and higher education, about foreclosure and credit card debt.

But despite being a “third” party in what’s generally thought of as a two-party game, the Working Families Party has had some impressive successes in just the past year. In New York, WFP led the effort for a landmark Green Jobs initiative that will put tens of thousands of people to work retrofitting homes for energy efficiency—and saving homeowners on their utility bills in the process. In Connecticut, WFP won the nation’s first statewide law guaranteeing paid sick days for low-wage service workers. And in Oregon, WFP has put together an impressive coalition of small business, community bankers, family farmers, and homeowners to limit Wall Street’s power over the local economy and make credit more available to Oregonians. All sensible, creative initiatives

But all that takes work—and it’s hard to be fashionable doing the kind of shoe-leather neighbor-to-neighbor political organizing that WFP specializes in. You probably have to wear comfortable sneakers, not high-end dress shoes. And you probably want a solid coat in the winter, not the $9,000 Chanel sequined tweed coat the New York Times says luxury retailers are having trouble keeping on the shelves.

So obviously the fancy goods are not what pundits mean when they call WFP or other progressive organizations “unfashionable,” or by implication superstar Matt Damon, who is not spending his spare time at fancy parties. What they mean is, they have the gall to stand up and fight for ordinary people.

So it’s probably true that Michael Moore’s idea of Matt Damon running for president is a bit farfetched at this point. Maybe down the road, although some suggest that Damon’s “partner in crime,” fellow progressive Ben Affleck, is the more likely pol. Let’s just symbolically nominate Matt Damon for “Mensch of the Year,” and leave it at that.

We are all thankful for the work Damon has done for good causes, creatively fighting the worldwide water shortage, fighting for teachers and public education, and stumping for the “unfashionable” Working Families Party. My bet is he will win big.

________________________________________________________________________

This post originally appeared at AlterNet.org.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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