Honestly, I did not know what a “progressive” really was until working the videocamera for Free Speech TV at the 2011 Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis lat month. I thought a progressive was just another name for a Democrat or a liberal. I was wrong.
It is corny to admit it but what I discovered was a worldview and mode of political action that aligned with my own belief system as a person and an anthropologist. The core concept of progressivism is progress–that culture changes through time because of the actions of vision-driven groups and individuals. Now, how much agency individuals actually have to enact cultural change is a hotly debated topic in both political and academic circles but few disagree that “a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” as it was that activist anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said that most famous of hummus container quotes.
Progressive philosophy is aligned with the base theory of cultural anthropology, that is: culture is not a static or conservative thing that we need to stabilize at some nostalgic and unrealistic moment but rather a dynamic process. Progressives want to direct that process towards a more inclusive future. Progressives are not hung-up on retaining or reverting to an antique sense of ethnic, gendered, or national purity. They don’t romanticize some false sense of the securities of 1950s Americana. However, as I will describe below, The American Dream as a concept was a focal point for progressives at Netroots Nation this year.
Although in the preceding years Netroots Nation events have attracted Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, and other stalwarts of the Democratic Party, the perspective one gets from Free Speech TV’s makeshift studio in the lobby of the conference is one in which the Democratic Party is centrist, more aligned with the corporate and Republican agenda, more beholden to Washington lobbyists, more entrenched in political melodrama than progressives who though technologically savvy, informed, and vocal are true outsiders. True there is the Congressional Progressive Caucus, with but one Senator, Bernie Sanders (VT), and 70 or so representatives, the impression of progressives from Netroots is something closer to the ground and grass than the overpasses of the Beltway. Here, real issues are addressed: economic justice, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the Patriot Act, resistance to corporate consolidation of the media, the elimination of all types of discrimination, the end of troop deployments to the Middle East, and healing the relationship between energy independence and ecology security. Progressives believe in labor unions and environmental justice over corporate profits; equality in free speech and education; and valuing the dignity of all human beings over corporations as human beings.
As progressives are rarely represented in Congress they are a grassroots movement, hence the “roots” of Netroots Nation. But what about the “Net”? The progressive brand “Netroots,” a conflation of internet and grassroots, describes a politically coordinated and technology-enabled public. It can be considered synonymous with the progressive blogosphere, the internet-activated public sphere. Netroots express the value of technoprogressivism—an idealization of the positive role of technology in achieving progressive political objectives that has its historic roots in 1960s computer and countercultural notions of techno-cultural change. Netroots activists believe in the power of networked technologies to bring together people in a space of reasoned, passionate public discourse that can lead to coordinated social change. Because of the element of disenfranchisement experienced by progressives, the internet and cable television outlets like Free Speech TV constitute the technological grounds for community and cultural change.
Despite progressive’s resistance to the neverlands of Americana and Manifest Destiny they were openly engaging in a rebranding exercise of that most debatable of notions from our history–the American Dream. In probably the most thrilling talk of the conference, Van Jones, Obama’s onetime green jobs czar who was hunted down by the right wing noise machine until he was forced to resign, re-introduced the slogan “Rebuild the Dream,” that is, the American Dream:
“I’m not talking about killing the American Fantasy, okay? The American Fantasy: everybody’s gonna be rich, you buy a lot of things, you’ll be happy? No, that’s an American Fantasy, which means it’s the American nightmare. That needs to go. We don’t believe in that at all. … I’m talking about something much, much deeper than that. Something that we had in this country until the commercializers turned it into something else.”
Bolding railing against the false happiness of consumer capitalism–a cornerstone of economic liberalism–otherwise known as the US global economy, Jones goes onto a working class definition of the American Dream he wants to rebuild, that you should be able to:
“walk out your front door, go to a dignified job, put in a good day’s work and come back home with a paycheck that you can feed your family with and give your children a better life.”
Jones finished his speech by accusing the “Dream killers…who have a wrecking ball agenda for our country. A wrecking ball for America. But they painted that wrecking ball red, white and blue.” The wrecking ball must certainly refer to the Tea Party ideology of rampant deregulation that is attempting to dismantle the governmental safety nets for poor, undereducated, unemployed, and uninsured citizens. On the grounds of the razed governmental buildings, “cheap patriots’” third and forth townhouses are being built.
He concludes by defining the “deep patriots” versus the “cheap patriots” which he aligns with the Dream Killers and their American Fantasy:
“It’s time for the deep patriots who love this country and who love everybody in this country, no matter what color you are or who you want to marry or what kind of piercing you got in your nose, we love everybody, we are the deep patriots.”
This big nondiscriminatory platform, furnished with the rhetorical weapons of progressive patriotism, and wielding the decentralized networking capacities of the internet gives me pause still coming down for the firework parties of Independence Day 2011. We could do worse, as anthropologists or activists, than thinking about what tools–both rhetorical and technical—are needed to activate agency in future world-building.
Following Rex’s and ckelty’s trend I present this light ethnographic account of progressive patriotism and liberty from a recent bit of fieldwork with freedom loving digital activists. This post will also appear in Free Speech TV’s monthly email to subscribers.