Tell Me Again—Why Is He at Princeton?

Van Jones, the Oakland, Calif.-based radical activist and author who was forced to resign his post as the Obama administration’s “green jobs czar” in September after it was revealed that he had signed a “truther” petition in 2004 calling for an investigation of President George W. Bush’s supposed collusion in the massacres of Sept. 11, 2001, now has a new post: on the faculty of Princeton University.
Jones will be a visiting fellow at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public International Affairs for the 2010-2011 academic year, where he will be teaching a graduate seminar on environmental politics—quite a coup for someone who put his name onto a “9/11 Truth Statement” that aired zany government cover-up conspiracy theories worthy of the UFO festival in Roswell, N.M,–if not of a Michael Moore movie. The statement declared that the Bush administration “may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war,” and included such queries as: “Why did the Secret Service allow Bush to complete his elementary school visit [on 9/11], apparently unconcerned about his safety or that of the schoolchildren?” “Why haven’t authorities in the U.S. and abroad published the results of multiple investigations into trading that strongly suggested foreknowledge of specific details of the 9/11 attacks, resulting in tens of millions of dollars of traceable gains?”
Jones’s fringe-left career, which began with his arrest in one of the riots over the 1992 acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers for beating Rodney King (the riots left 53 people dead and wreaked more than $1 billion in property damage after six days of looting, arson, and assaults) has led critics to blast Princeton for welcoming onto its faculty someone almost as “nutty” (in the words of an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily) as Ward Churchill, the former University of Colorado ethnic studies professor (since fired for plagiarizing from other scholars) who famously called the 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns.” Jones once boasted that the Rodney King riots had made a “communist” out of him. He says he has since repudiated his youthful Marxism—but not enough to prevent him from issuing a thundering call, in a speech given just two weeks before he started his White House job last March, for forced redistribution of capitalist profits to minorities and Native Americans: “Give them the wealth!…No justice on stolen land!”


But the real problem isn’t that Princeton hired a faculty member on the far left. That happens all too often in academia (Exhibit A: former Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers, now cushily ensconced at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s education school). It’s that Princeton hired someone whose academic credentials and other qualifications to teach at a prestigious Ivy League university—or, indeed, any university–are minimal to nonexistent, solely (as far as we know) because he is on the left.
Since graduating from Yale Law School in 1993, Jones has devoted his entire career to founding and talking up—and then, apparently, losing interest in–a string of radical advocacy groups, most of them focused on exploiting racial tension and liberal guilt about racism (Jones is black). His latest cause is “environmental justice,” which essentially means more government money for minority groups, on the theory that their impoverished neighborhoods have been hit harder by pollution than middle-class white zones. Jones’s 2008 book—his only book—titled The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems and appealing to the current liberal passion for all things related to global warming, called for massive infusions of federal funds to subsidize the hiring of unemployed minority youths to install solar panels and retrofit insulation in buildings. As the Manhattan Institute’s Max Schulz pointed out in a 2009 article in City Journal, Jones’s “green New Deal,” as he called it in his book, was “less about nature than about welfare—for inner-city residents without the skills or knowledge to compete in a twenty-first-century economy, and for the professional poverty organizations that collect the money for government job-training programs.”
Jones’s resume chronicles a series of lurches from one activist cause du jour to another. In 1993, right after he moved to San Francisco, he joined Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM). STORM devoted itself to “revolutionary democracy, revolutionary feminism, revolutionary internationalism, the central role of the working class, urban Marxism, and Third World Communism.” In 1994 he founded Bay Area PoliceWatch, a hotline that put claimed victims of police brutality in touch with lawyers. PoliceWatch morphed into the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in 1996, also with an anti-police agenda.
In 1999 Jones and the Ella Baker Center spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign against Proposition 21, a California ballot initiative that toughened penalties for juveniles found to have committed violent crimes. That same year Jones led a demonstration in Oakland, Calif., to protest an adverse court ruling in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther sentenced to death after his conviction for murdering a Philadelphia police officer. On Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the World Trade Center and Pentagon massacres, Jones led a vigil expressing solidarity with Muslims and other victims of “U.S. imperialism,” as he put it. STORM also denounced the United States as essentially responsible for 9/11.
The early 2000s saw the creation of two more Jones organizations, Books Not Bars, whose goal was the creation of a more offender-friendly juvenile-justice system, and Let’s Get Free, which sent speakers into high school classrooms to explain to students how to assert their constitutional rights if they got arrested. In 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina, Jones co-founded yet another organization, Color of Change. Color of Change’s first official act was a petition to censure President George W. Bush for supposedly letting 1,300 people die in the destructive flooding that followed the storm: “He knew about the levees, and he knew about the Superdome. But he did nothing.” Jones also wrote a blog entry for the Huffington Post asserting that the Katrina disaster had been exacerbated by Bush’s “deep contempt for African-Americans.”
By then, however, the environment had caught Jones’s attention, and “green jobs” had become his mantra. In 2005 he successfully pushed for a ”social equity” resolution, at a UN environmental summit held in San Francisco, that called for the world’s mayors to set up programs that would create “environmentally beneficial jobs in slums and/or low-income neighborhoods.” In 2007 he and his fellow Bay Area liberal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi secured the passage in the House of the House passage of the Green Jobs Act, which would have allotted $125 million in federal funds to train unemployed people to take up green-collar occupations. The Green Jobs Act got lost somewhere in the Senate and never become law. Nonetheless, in 2008 Jones and the Ella Barker Center persuaded the city of Oakland to set up the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, whose goal was to provide local Oakland residents with job training, support, and work experience so that they can independently pursue careers in the new energy economy.”
That same year Jones published The Green Collar Economy, and yet another Jones-founded organization saw the light of day: Green For All, which in turn spawned the Green-Collar Cities Program, the Green for All Academy (co-founded with Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection) to train grassroots environmental activists, and the Green For All Capital Access Program. The aim of the last organization was to set up a nationwide “Clean Energy Corps” that would employ 600,000 Americans to upgrade and retrofit more than 15 million buildings.
For his efforts Jones received kudos from Pelosi (who called him a “magnificent disrupter of the status quo”), the Rockefeller and George Lucas foundations (which have supplied him with awards and funding), Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and environmentalist-come-lately Thomas Friedman. The last three wrote glowing blurbs for Jones’s book, although others criticized it for thin economic analysis and too many pages devoted to rehashing the alleged derelictions of the Bush administration in handling the Katrina disaster. Nor did Jones suffer much when the negative publicity surrounding his signature on the 9/11 truther petition obliged him to resign from his White House post, which was expected to allow him to direct tens of millions of federal stimulus dollars toward implementing his ideas about green jobs and social equity. Within a few months of his stepping down as Obama’s environmental consigliore, Jones had secured a gig at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, received an NAACP President’s Award, been lauded as a martyr to right-wing extremism in a range of media outlets, and, of course, got hired by Princeton, to a joint appointment at the university’s Wilson School and its Center for African American Studies.
Obviously Jones lacks any academic credentials whatsoever for his Princeton appointment. Indeed, he has never even used his law degree to practice law. The California State Bar has no record of anyone with a name resembling “Van Jones” having been admitted to membership during the 1990s or thereafter. Now, it is not unusual for universities to hire faculty members on the basis of outstanding experience in the world outside academia. At Harvard, for example, those faculty members are called professors of practice. Unlike Jones, however, they typically have resumes that are as loaded with solid intellectual achievements as any Ph.D. teaching at Harvard. An example is Samantha Power, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a professor of practice of global leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the equivalent of Princeton’s Wilson School. Power is undoubtedly as politically liberal as any member of the Obama administration; she worked for Obama when he was an Illinois senator in 2005 and 2006. She also has a string of prize-winning books based on her decades of reporting for newspapers and magazines on human rights, suicide bombings, and genocidal conflict in Iraq, the Sudan, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. Another professor of practice at Harvard, Gregory N. Connolly at the School of Public Health, is, again, likely on the liberal side of the political spectrum (his work has focused on the tobacco industry and tobacco-related disease). Again, however, Connolly’s resume of published scholarly articles and ongoing research projects takes up three single-spaced pages.
In contrast to Power and Connolly, Van Jones will be bringing to Princeton…hot air and a genius for creating and exploiting favorable publicity about himself as he has flitted from leftist project to fashionable leftist project before anyone ever gets a chance to examine closely what exactly any of those numerous organizations of his has actually accomplished. Nor has Jones’s inflammatory rhetoric abated much since the days when he was demonstrating for Mumia and referring to terrorists as victims of U.S. imperialism. It was only in February 2009, at a conference that was supposed to be about energy policy, that he called Republicans as “a—holes” and taunted questioners with “How’s that capitalism working for ya this year?” It was only a year before, in February 2008, that Jones said, also in a public speech, “[T]he white polluters and the white environmentalists are essentially steering poison into the people-of-color communities, because they don’t have a racial justice frame.” Academia has a history of inviting radicals to join faculties. Van Jones is a radical, all right, but he’s worse than a radical. He’s not serious.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

5 thoughts on “Tell Me Again—Why Is He at Princeton?

  1. I think the older I get the more creative I get, I don’t have the distractions that I had when I was younger.

  2. TO Anonymous–
    Ms. Allen mentioned his “book” and his splenetic forays into dilettantism.
    Despite your anonymous protestations to the contrary.
    Moreover, you fail to adequately explain—just as a matter of course—why “Anthony” assigns himself new names as frequently as he takes up new causes.

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