Book Review: Van Jones’ “Messy Truth”

BY ON November 14, 2017

Van Jones didn’t set out to write a parenting manual. But the lessons he tries to teach in his new book, Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, could prove very instructive for any mom trying to teach her kids how to navigate our current political landscape. They could help us as activists, too.

Van Jones with Moms Clean Air Force’s
Ronnie Citron-Fink and Dominique Browning
at the 2014 People’s Climate March.

Jones was once the green jobs “guru” in the Obama White House. Since then, he’s gone on to become a CNN political contributor and the founder of Dream Corps, a non-profit dedicated to creating “unlikely partnerships” to improve people’s lives. One of the group’s programs, Green For All, a Moms Clean Air Force partner, is dedicated to making sure “people of color have a place and a voice in the climate movement.” To that end, they strive to bring clean energy jobs to disadvantaged neighborhoods. They’re also mobilizing moms to fight federal budget cuts that would gut environmental laws and regulations.

It’s probably no coincidence that The Messy Truth lands almost exactly a year to the day after Donald Trump was elected president and when all of these concerns – federal environmental protection programs, green jobs, clean energy, racial and gender equality – are under extreme attack. Jones’ book tackles these issues head on, taking President Trump to task for fueling racism, rejecting climate change solutions, and undercutting our health system, among many other grievances.

But Jones didn’t write his book to flog Trump. He wrote it to try to explain how America managed to elect Trump. To do that, he returns to the night of the election when, on CNN, he was asked to react to Hillary Clinton’s loss.

“It’s hard to be a parent tonight. You tell your kids, “Don’t be a bully…don’t be a bigot…” And then you have this outcome. And you have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of how do I explain this to my children.”

Elections Matter

Three hundred and sixty-five days on, The Messy Truth is Jones’ explanation. He blames liberals as well as conservatives – liberals for having no empathy for the economic and cultural worries that turned mostly white, blue collar men and women into avid Trump voters, and conservatives for embracing a candidate who should have been anathema to their Christian values, who stands to profit massively and personally from his time in office, and who possibly collaborated with the Russians in undermining our elections.

Social media and cable news get their share of the blame, as well. Even if Facebook hadn’t been completely co-opted by Russian bots churning out thousands of fake news bytes in the last few months leading up to the election, Jones charges that voters’ decisions to use their own social media feeds and self-selected cable news outlets to isolate themselves from alternative view points created a Katrina-like vortex that replaced reason with fear and remains a barrier to restoring our democracy.

Messy Truth Solutions

For Jones, the solution is what many of us as parents try to teach our children every day. Don’t jump to conclusions. Listen to what the “other side” has to say. Learn how to debate important issues without resorting to lies, distortions, and personal insults. Be willing to concede that your opponents have some legitimate complaints. Start by finding solutions to the problems you agree on before you jump all over the issues that make you want to strangle each other before running out of the room.

One of the most useful parts of Jones’ book comes at the end, in an appendix titled “Bridge-Building Resources.”

“Many people find themselves asking: What can I do now? How can I make a positive difference for the world, for my family? How do I learn and grow?” 

He recommends we all start by getting a better understanding of one another.

“We need to recognize the lives, ideas, and frustrations of those who have completely different goals and values. We also have to get active, putting our minds and hearts to use in making America work again.”

To jumpstart that process, the author divides an appendix into two parts: books, podcasts, and movies to help readers understand red-state America; and a similar collection to help readers understand blue-state America.

To comprehend red-state America, he suggests books like Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, which recounts his family’s history in Appalachia and the economic and class struggles that paved the way for their transition to Trump supporters. To fathom blue-state America, “13th,” a documentary film by Ava DuVernay that offers a historical take on the criminalization of black people in the U.S., is on the list – not because Jones is African-American, which he is, but because he believes that the culture of white privilege so intensely affects the perspectives of liberals and conservatives alike.

In his prologue, Jones claims that he was “devastated, but not surprised” by Trump’s victory, as he’d seen “ordinary people getting left further and further behind.” But as he notes:

“The question now is: Which way forward? Since both parties are responsible, both parties need to look within. Trump’s agenda and behavior represent a challenge and opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans.”

Let’s hope they – and we – rise up to meet it.

TELL CONGRESS: NOBODY VOTED TO MAKE AMERICA DIRTY AGAIN

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TOPICS: Activism, African-American Community, Economics, Politics, Social Justice