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Yosi Sergant And The Art Of Right Wing Hysteria

Hillel Aron |
February 6, 2010 | 2:47 p.m. PST

Senior Editor

Photo by Darius Twin
It was late September 2009, and Yosi Sergant was sitting in Washington National Airport, waiting for his flight. His sister Shira was about to give birth to a baby girl, and he was flying home to Los Angeles to be there for it. He wore a turtleneck and a fedora. He looked nothing like a government employee, and in fact, he no longer was one. 
He noticed that people were looking at him. And then looking up, behind him, and then back at him.
Yosi turned around, and there, on all the television screens, was Lou Dobbs, and in a box, was a photo of Yosi. Underneath the photo were the words, "Left-Wing Propagandist."
All Yosi could do was marvel at what a strange year it had been. He'd gone from working as a publicist and living in Echo Park, to working in the White House, to working as director of communications for the National Endowment of the Arts, to being unemployed. His tenure at the NEA was cut short by a seemingly mundane conference call that somehow became a national scandal stirred up by Andrew Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and one of his old bosses. It was a lesson that in politics, being right is no substitute for looking like you're right.
I had lunch with Yosi, a close friend of mine, last Saturday at Flore, a cramped Vegan restaurant in Silver Lake where there's always some shrieking blender going off. I'd been trying to interview him for months, and he had finally agreed, albeit a bit reluctantly. He hasn't given an on-the-record interview since his resignation from the National Endowment of the Arts. The fact that we're friends doesn't ease his fear.
"Don't get me in trouble," he kept saying.
Yosi can be forgiven for being suspicious of the media. He's seen how they can take what you say, disassemble it, throw most of it away, and reassemble it into something completely different. He's not paranoid. Just a little shell-shocked.
The Hope Poster
A couple months before Barack Obama launched his campaign for president, Yosi got a call from his friend, David Washington.
"Obama's gonna run for president," said Washington, "Are you in?"
"Yes," replied Yosi.
And with that, Washington hung up.

Yosi, David, and about six others formed O08, an independent organization that was in essence a hip, LA PR firm for Obama.

"We were bringing the toolset of marketing and advertising that we knew to the table," said Yosi.
Obama came to Los Angeles 10 days after he announced his candidacy. There wasn't yet a campaign team in Los Angeles. So O08 helped out, co-producing an event in Inglewood where Obama spoke. They provided the entertainment, got some celebrities to show up, and handed out buttons that Yosi had comissioned. The group was an early example of grassroots activists operating outside the campaign. 
In October 2007, Yosi, who was working as a publicist for Evolutionary Media Group, produced an Adidas event with the artist Shephard Fairey, and they got to talking. 
"You should make a poster for Obama," said Yosi.

"I was thinking about that," replied Shephard.
The next morning, Yosi got an email from him. Attached was what would become perhaps the most iconic and memorable advocacy art since the Uncle Sam poster. Below the drawing was the word 'progress.'
(It was later revealed that Fairey's illustration was copied from a photograph by Mannie Garcia.  The Associated Press claimed that it owned the rights to that photo, while Fairey argued that the poster was covered under the Fair Use provision in copyright law. Fairey and the AP are suing each other. Fairey is also under criminal investigation for lying about which photograph he used, and for deleting evidence relating to the lawsuit.)
Yosi knew right away that image would make an impact. He had two suggestions: remove the 'Obey' logo, and change 'Progress' to 'Hope.' 
"Progress is a weighted liberal word," he told me. "And hope has no party associated with it."
It was Yosi who masterminded the poster's spread. He identified young, politically active people in primary states, and made sure they got posters. Every Democratic college representative got a poster. Every local campaign office got a box of them. Anyone he knew in L.A. flying to an early primary state got a box. It was a lot of work. 
"Without fail, people put them underneath their bed as a collector's item, or on a wall in an apartment. So I'd tell them, here's what you need to do, take a certain number of them as bait, use a certain number of them and hand them to somebody that knows the local coffee shops. I would send them buttons, stickers, spoke cards."
Yosi gave the image the standard PR-treatment - he got it onto TV shows and into magazines. He got celebrities to wear the T-shirt. 
"It was a meme that was created. A lot of people just think that it magically spread. And it did, in many ways. But there was a lot of work that went underneath it."
It was the Thursday after inauguration weekend, and Yosi had just returned to Los Angeles. He had spent the last few months in Washington, D.C. putting on Manifest Hope, a three-day event during inauguration weekend showcasing Obama-themed art. It was the hippest place to be. Michael Stipe, Rosario Dawson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all made appearances. Santogold, Moby, and De La Soul played the closing night's party.
Back in Los Angeles, Yosi was thinking, "what now? Am I gonna go back to hawking Adidas products?"
He went to filmmaker Jesse Dylan's office for a meeting. Jesse had directed the Yes We Can video, and he and Yosi were talking about maybe collaborating on something, when Yosi's Blackberry rang.
He looked down at the phone. The display said only, "202." Which is what your phone says when it's the White House calling.

"Are you ready to come serve your country?" asked David Washington.

"Uh... yeah..." said Yosi.
And David hung up.
Yosi called back.
"Are you serious?"

"Yeah. You start Monday. Pack your shit."
And so Yosi Sergant, who'd gotten kicked out of high school for spray painting graffiti on campus, shaved his beard, took out his earrings, packed his only suit, and flew to D.C. to work for the White House.
Hipster in Chief
The Office of Public Engagement is in the White House Executive Building. It's the first office after you go through security. In its previous incarnation, the Office of Public Liaison, it had four people working in it. The head had been Karl Rove.
"I don't know this for a fact," said Yosi, "but I believe it was one person who dealt with Christians, and one who dealt with Conservatives. In our office there were 28 people."
The new head was Valerie Jarrett. For a time, when a new administration takes office, it works off of the budget of the last administration. Which is why Yosi was working for free.
He slept on David Washington's couch. He wore the same suit pants every day, switching out ties and jackets. And he worked very hard. He would show up to work at 7 a.m., and sometimes wouldn't be in bed until 4 a.m. He was doing outreach to youth groups, art groups, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
One day, it was H1N1. The next day, credit card reform. The learning curve was steep. He had to learn when to deal with cabinet affairs and when to deal with legislative affairs. Who was important to various issues, not just in D.C. but all over the country.
It was also a lot of fun. He went bowling in the White House. He took walks in the rose garden, watched as Marine One took off. He even got a little press -- The Washington Post referred to Yosi as the White House's Hipster in Chief.
Still, Yosi couldn't shake that nagging feeling that he was in over his head. 
"I felt the same way I felt during high school. I felt like sooner or later they were gonna figure me out. Sooner or later they were going to realize that I don't know politics."
And in a way, he was right. 
The Conference Call
You can only work in the White House for free for four months, and Yosi's time was almost up. He was busy tying up loose ends, and training his successor, Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar fame. When he was called to the West Wing for a meeting, he thought it was to say goodbye.
At the meeting he was offered two jobs. One with the White House, and another that offered much more pay, much more responsibility, and much more prestige: Director of Communications for the National Endowment of the Arts. 
The NEA was created in 1965, and became a whipping boy for conservatives when Reagan took office in 1981. For the next 20 years, Republicans harped on the NEA. From Robert Mapplethorpe to a photograph known as Piss Christ, the NEA was the Bull Run of the culture war. It an easy target to pick on, one that few people saw the point in defending.
At the time, the NEA's biggest initiative was The Big Read, which promotes literacy. 
"Which I think is fantastic," said Yosi, adding, "as an education department program. If that's our primary investment as a nation in developing arts, we have a lot of growth to do. I came into a department that was funding opera on military bases."
Obama's pick to run the department was Rocco Landesman, a Broadway theater producer, but he had yet to be confirmed by the Senate. The idea was that Yosi would help pave the way for the new director's arrival. 
But that left Yosi without a boss. And without anyone to train him. The last director of communications was a Republican, and she had long since moved back to Arizona. 
"So I started working on things that I knew were happening, that I thought would be safe... and I was wrong."
To understand the conference call that got Yosi into so much trouble, you have to start with H.R. 1388, otherwise known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, a shockingly bipartisan piece of legislation (it passed 79-12 in the Senate) that was the largest expansion of government-backed service programs since the Kennedy Administration. It tripled the size of AmeriCorps, expanded Teach for America, and created Serve.gov. It specifically singled out five areas to expand volunteerism: veterans affairs, education, health, clean energy, and opportunity.
The initiative was about encouraging everyone to volunteer. Doctors, plumbers, and especially artists- art even has its own section on Serve.gov.
There were many conference calls set up, involving Yosi, the Office of Public Engagement, United We Serve, and a group of people the administration was trying to reach - artists, filmmakers, marketers, and journalists. Even some Republicans were invited.
The August 10 conference call was led by Mike Skolnik, Russell Simmons' political director. In his introduction, which sounds like some bureaucrat's interpretation of the The Tipping Point, he said, "All of us who are on this phone call were selected for a reason, and you are the ones that lead by example in your communities. You are the thought leaders. You are the ones that, if you create a piece of art or promote a piece of art or create a campaign for a company, and tell our country and our young people sort of what do and what to be in to; and what's cool and what's not cool."
Some of these "thought leaders" were Yosi's friends from LA, including Chris Holmes, a musician / DJ / club promoter; Bim Ayandele, a marketer who'd worked on O08; and a man named Patrick Courrielche, an old employer of Yosi's.
The call lasted almost an hour. After Skolnik's introduction, Buffy Wicks, from the Office of Public Engagement, spoke about trying to channel the excitement and involvement people had during the Obama campaign into volunteering throughout different communities.
It wasn't until a half hour into the call when Yosi spoke: "What we're asking is for you to take an action. What it looks like is completely up to you. We want you in the fight.... I would encourage you to something, whether it's health care, education, the environment, you know, there's four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service."
"There wasn't any one political agenda," Yosi told me. "When I referred to health care, it would be like, make a poster for a blood drive. I wasn't saying make a poster for the public option."
Anatomy of a Take-Down
Patrick Courrielche ran a PR firm called Inform Ventures. He had donated money to both Hillary Clinton and John McCain in early 2008. And he was recording the conference call from the very beginning. 
"I believe," Yosi said, "that what he believed I was doing, he was seeing the dark possibilities of what might have been."
On August 25, Andrew Breitbart's site, Big Hollyood, posted a 2000-word article by Courrielche about the call. Most of it is pretty benign, until the second-to-last paragraph, where he quotes Yosi directly, although he doesn't name him:

"This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally... bare with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely..."

Is the hair on your arms standing up yet?

There were two problems with the piece. The first, as Ben Davis at artnet pointed out, was that what Courrielche had cut out with ellipsis was pretty important. After "legally," Yosi had said, "we're still trying to figure our the laws of putting government Web sites on Facebook and the use of Twitter." He was not, in fact, talking about starting a propaganda wing of the federal government. 
The second problem was that the legislation that created the NEA allows for the very thing that Courrielce objected to. Buried in the bill, a section reads, "The Chairperson shall correlate the programs of the National Endowment for the Arts insofar as practicable, with existing Federal programs and with those undertaken by other public agencies or private groups..."
Over the course of the next month, the media would consistently overlook these two holes in the case against Yosi. Even Mother Jones would concede, "Sargent may have crossed the line." (The media would also consistently misspell his last name.)
A week later Alex Beam, writing in the Boston Globe, took it a step further, writing, "The taxpayer-funded NEA is trying to recruit sympathetic artists to push the Obama agenda?" The brief mentions of health care and the environment were taken to mean the president's proposed legislation.
That night, Glenn Beck began a segment on his show, looking like he'd just witnessed the rape of a small child, by talking about Josph Goebbels. Beck then said, "I'm going to show you the beginning of something that should scare the living daylights out of you. It is propaganda in America. The National Endowment for the Arts is now holding conference calls."
It was Beck who turned Yosi into the central character of the story. He played the "brand-new conversation" clip not once, not twice, but three times. Courrielche came on, acting the brave hero, risking the ire of the art community by speaking truth to power. He admitted that the NEA wasn't actually paying for artwork about issues, but he let Beck imply a nefarious subtext. 
That same day, a reporter for the right-leaning Washington Times called Yosi and asked if the invitation to the conference call had come from the NEA. Yosi said that it hadn't. But Courrielche's invitation had been e-mailed to him from Yosi, who had simply copy / pasted the text from a United We Serve e-mail. The result was that Yosi looked like he was involved in a cover-up. The Washington Times called it "Official Dishonesty."
Yosi knew he'd made a mistake. The next day, he called the White House to ask if he should resign. He was told no.
"They did not think that what I did merited the response of the media."
Nevertheless, Yosi was reassigned. On September 10, the NEA released a statement, defending the conference call, and announcing that Yosi was still with the NEA, but was no longer the Communications Director. He continued to work on the website and newsletter, but was no longer a part of strategic decisions.
"Internally, I was frozen out."
More than anything, it was the optics that were bad. A guy who had spent a year helping to make and distribute advocacy art, which some would call propaganda, now stood accused of being a propagandist. When bloggers like Glenn Reynolds wrote about the story, they inevitably included a photo of Yosi standing in front of the Hope poster.  Like most stories the media gets wrong, it made a certain amount of sense if you only read the headline, or if you only caught a few minutes of Fox News in passing. 
Yosi's reassignment didn't make the "scandal" go away. George Will wrote about it in his Washington Post column on September 17, connecting all the quarter-truths and insinuations:

This is just the beginning," Yosi Sergant told participants in an Aug. 10 conference call that seems to have been organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and certainly was joined by a functionary from the White House Office of Public Engagement. The call was the beginning of the end of Sergant's short tenure as NEA flack -- he has been reassigned. The call also was the beginning of a small scandal that illuminates something gargantuan -- the Obama administration's incontinent lust to politicize everything.

By now, Yosi was almost starting to believe what people were saying about him.
"I was ashamed and embarrassed," said Yosi. "I felt that I had let down the people who had faith enough in me to give me the responsibility to do my job. My job was to present the chairman in a positive light."
Chairman Rocco Landseman was confirmed by the Senate on August 7. He'd been on the job for less than three weeks when Fox News started saying Yosi's name.
"He did not want to be tied to the scandal," Yosi told me, "It was a mess I made. Why would he speak up on my behalf?"
On September 22, the chairman issued a statement, organized into six "facts," saying that the Director of Communications (eerily unnamed, as if he was some sort of non-person) acted "unilaterally and without approval," even though it defends the conference call: "This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false."
It went on to say, "Some of the language used by the former NEA Director of Communications was, unfortunately, not appropriate and did not reflect the position of the NEA. This employee has been relieved of his duties as director of communications."

In other words, Yosi hadn't done anything wrong, but had used some wrong words, and for that he was being demoted.
Two days later, the NEA released another short statement: "This afternoon Yosi Sergant submitted his resignation from the National Endowment for the Arts. His resignation has been accepted and is effective immediately."
The Next Big Thing
After his niece was born, Yosi returned to D.C. Winter had set in, and the city was covered in snow.
"I went through this kind of mourning period, where I ate a lot of pasta in bed. Nursing my wounds. I went from the one netlix plan to the five netflix plan."
Once again, he was faced with the question, what am I gonna do now?
One of Yosi's lasting regrets from 2008 was not doing enough for Proposition 8, the measure in California that banned Gay Marriage. So he got together with his friend Apple Via and his old employer at Evolutionary Media Group Jennifer Gross, who had worked with him on Manifest Hope. Together, they cooked up Manifest Equality, an art show that will promote Gay and Lesbian equality. The show will take place in Los Angeles in early March.
Yosi has done as much as anyone to show that art can make an impact, that it can be a powerful tool in the activist's arsenal. 
"I did this work from the outside before, I'll do it again."
"Didn't it piss you off that no one spoke up for you?" I asked Yosi.
"No, I got it," he said.

"Really?" I asked incredulously, "cause you spent two years of your life helping this guy become president, and no one came to your defense. I'm pissed. Why aren't you pissed?"
"I wasn't worth defending."
"I don't believe that what I did was wrong," he said, "I believe that what I did came at a time when all the focus was on health care reform, and that that's where they needed to put their time and energy... could they have stood up for me if they wanted to? Sure. Am I worth the political capital? They had just lost Van Jones."

"You must have thought, there's got to be a chance that someone's gonna stick up for me."
"You must have been hoping for that, right?"
"I knew they wouldn't."
"People here [in LA] were pissed that they didn't stick up for you."
"I know that. I know that."

He paused, lost in thought. "I think they made a bad decision to put me in a job without giving me any kind of guidance, not providing me with any kind of mentorship. That was a bad decision. I'd never worked in government before. Where's the handbook? Maybe they made assumptions that at this level, you'd better be that good."

"It does seem like a very honest mistake."

"My big disappointment is that I know I could have done an amazing job at that agency."
Hearing how little spite Yosi had for the administration, I had two thoughts. My first was, he's still thinking like a government employee, afraid to badmouth Obama. My second thought was, maybe he's just happy to be back home.
Yosi missed LA. He missed the sunshine, the vegan restaurants, the way people here dress.
"In D.C., if you go somewhere with more than four people, everyone wears a tie. Even the democrats wear suits and ties all day long."
He missed his family, and he missed his friends. And he didn't tell me this, but I'd bet that he missed being able to say whatever the hell he wanted to. 



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