Netroots, America, and Progressivism

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.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

11 thoughts on “Netroots, America, and Progressivism

  1. From a theoretical perspective, the issue about the extent to which sociocultural practices are progressive or reproductive can be traced back to Boas and before. Boas began to refashion evolutionary models of culture (singular) into a relative model of cultureS (plural) (see Stocking’s review in American Anthropologist). In the evolutionary model, culture was something progressive–one could be more or less cultured, and societies could be more or less cultured, largely through efforts in the sciences and humanities. I am definitely one of these anthropologists Adam mentions that want to focus on tools for activating agency (specifically verbal art). But I think one item deserves our attention: that, as anthropologists, the notion of progress potentially places us close to theorists of the 19th century who saw humans on an evolutionary scale progressing from savagery to barbarism and then to the pinnacle of civilization (represented by Europe).

  2. Steve, could it be that we anthropologists need to be a bit less anthropology-centric. Both Adam and Chris Kelty are, as I see it, writing from perspectives in which evoking the parochial paranoia that worries that “progress” is a mask for Whig history, a.k.a., unilineal evolutionism, is a sign of minds as narrow as, albeit with different blinkers, jihadists or Tea Party members. Should we care to look beyond the tired conventions that our training imposes on us, there are rich traditions to be explored in, for example, American Transcendentalism (see, for example, Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism) or American Pragmatism (see, for example, Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope.

  3. John, I’m sorry that my statement hit a such a reactionary nerve. My stance is not that one should not be looking for new directions. I myself am doing so in my own research. Indeed, American Pragmatism is high on my own list. But I also prefer not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think that scholars before our time have much to offer us. I also think that delving into the history of the discipline is a great way to prepare oneself to move forward and a sign of deep scholarship rather than parochialism.

  4. @Steve, certainly you are right, any idea of ‘progress’ needs to be problematized for its onerous history and fascist applications. My bad, in any future iterations I will briefly touch on the implication of the ideology and get down to the subject’s statements not my imported fear about the academic semiotics of their chosen moniker. The towing of the party line regarding the evils of linear evolution might be necessary with undergraduates but in these more informal, experimental sessions on the internets it isn’t advancing anthropological theory but silencing it. We need someplace where we can revisit these time-honored ideals. Welcome to one.

    So if anthropologists generally agree that culture changes but can’t agree on anything else regarding the movement of such change then it seems that the question remains grounded in apprehension regarding the directionality of that cultural change. The subjects I describe above seek to harness change and direction and push society into their vision of utopia that is future focused. Conservatives are backwards leaning. I doubt anybody has an idea about what a Democrat is anymore so I won’t try a guess… This progressive directionality could be worrisome if it wasn’t for the actual content of their values, practices, and mission. Hence the ethnographic method!

    Yes, this reminds us of eugenics in the worse but what in the best? Your Boas worked tirelessly against racism and eugenics along with WEB De Bois. So even your much ballyhooed founder of multivariant culturalism engaged in directing cultural change. The point being, we all are subjectively engaged in micro-modifying our surroundings, the remaining theoretical question is: to what degree? And the remaining pragmatic question is: what utopia do you want?

    The reason it is easy to ignore the idea that ‘progress’ might mean neo-Darwinian social engineering is the ethnographic reality of the subjects I just described. There is nowhere a more multicultural, open, and liberated political ideology. What was Jones saying–we progressives have room for all of you and we will expand our notion of us to include you in our future. A little more attention to the data I presented might have quelled your fear that I forget my 101.

    One caveat is necessary and that Kelty was dragged into this I’ll continue it. Chris and I both encounter lots of transhumanists in our research, these technoutopian immortalists. These folks, now they are scary when we are talking about Darwinian ‘progress’ as they do see science and technology leading to all sorts of classless, workless, genderless, timeless, spaceless worlds. Heads of many major tech firms, these transhumanists really believe in progress that is exclusive and elite. And most terrifying, they fail to recognize it. These social liberal activists above, generally without Congressional representation, without major media outlets are not to worry about. If anything they are naively fans of internet communitas and we are naive about these Singularity worshippers.

  5. Steve, delving into the history of the discipline is a great idea—if the project is approached as a serious project in history should be. By that I mean that we examine the ancestors’ ideas in the context in which they were formulated, asking what problems seemed pressing to them and where they found ideas to address them. To illustrate the approach I prefer I offer here a few paragraphs from the chapter on Japan that Ruth McCreery and I wrote for Ray Scupin’s Peoples and Cultures of Asia.

    “Part 2 explores a suite of common ideas about Japan, what it is to be Japanese, and the nature of Japanese society. We will look at where those ideas came from, the issues being addressed when these ideas were formulated, and what has become of them since. Our approach will be highly selective, focused on the research of three remarkable anthropologists, who all happen to be women. One is an American forced to study Japan from a distance, one a Japanese who studied anthropology in Britain, did fieldwork in India, then brought her comparative perspective home, and one is a Japanese-American whose fieldwork in Japan tests her understanding of her own, partly Japanese, identity.

    “The first two attempted the impossible, to summarize the essential Japan in one short book. Their work has been frequently criticized, not least because any attempt to summarize ‘the essence’ of a thoroughly modern, rapidly changing nation with a history thousands of years long and a population approaching 127 million is doomed to failure. But the books that they wrote were so powerful that, despite being frequently criticized, they have shaped discussions of Japan ever since they were published. The ideas they offer cannot be avoided; their value and their limitations must both be understood. The third illustrates a newer, more modest approach to the study of Japanese lives.

    “Our first author conceives of her research as the study of patterns of culture, habits of thought, behavior, and feeling. The second sees Japanese society through the lens of social structure, how groups and individuals relate to each other. The third focuses on stories and how stories are used to construct different kinds of Japanese selves. This newer, more modest approach to the study of Japanese lives has much to recommend it.”

    The first author we consider is Ruth Benedict, whose situation as she did the research on which she based The Chrysanthemum and the Sword directly challenges many currently popular ideals. My point is not that we should embrace her approach; but to properly understand what she wrote, we need to understand how and why she did what she did.

    “Here we begin with Ruth Benedict, the American anthropologist whose book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, remains, while first published in 1946, perhaps the single most famous attempt to answer this question, at least among works by non-Japanese authors. (Today, it is more widely read in Japan than in the United States: if you travel to Japan, you will find it in hotel bookstores, and the Japanese you meet may remember reading parts of the Japanese translation, Kiku to Katana, in high school.)

    The Most Alien Enemy
    “When Benedict did her research, America was at war with Japan. World War II was still underway. She begins The Chrysanthemum and the Sword with the words “The Japanese were most alien enemy that the United States had ever fought in an all-out struggle.”

    “Critics writing long after the war see Benedict’s conclusions as stereotypes—they are not wrong to do so. But Benedict’s job was not to produce propaganda. Her job was to offer insights to soldiers fighting a new kind of war. She and her colleagues in the Office of Strategic Planning had to discover not only the aims and motives of Japanese leaders, but ‘what their government could count on from the people . . . habits of thought and emotion and the patterns into which these habits fell.’ To achieve this aim, they had, Benedict argued, ‘to put aside for the moment the premises on which we act as Americans and to keep ourselves as far as possible from leaping to the easy conclusion that what we would do in a given situation was what they would do.’

    “When Benedict called the Japanese ‘the most alien enemy,’ the difference to which she pointed was no mere prejudice. In the Japanese, the Allies found an enemy for whom, ‘Conventions of war, which Western nations had come to accept as facts of human nature obviously did not exist.’ European and American generals, for example, were used to assuming that an army could be forced to surrender by killing one-fourth to one-third of its troops. The ratio of soldiers surrendering to those who died would be about 4:1. But even late in the war, when the first substantial number of Japanese surrendered, that ratio was 1:5, five times as many troops dying as surrendering, and that was seen as a huge improvement. In earlier battles the ratio had been as low as 1:250.

    “Why was it that Japanese soldiers would go on fighting to the death, even in situations where they could not win? And then, when captured, why did these fight-to-the-death warriors become model prisoners, meekly doing whatever they were told and not trying to escape as POWs from Europe or America would? And why was the emperor never included in criticisms of their government, their officers, and their comrades?

    “Unfortunately, Benedict writes, a fieldtrip was out of the question. She ‘could not go to Japan and live in their homes and watch the strains and stresses of daily life.’ She wasn’t able ‘to watch them in the complicated business of arriving at a decision’ or to observe how they brought up their children. She would have to make do with what she could learn at a distance, by reading books, watching movies, and interviewing Japanese-Americans interned during the war.”

    Whatever you make of our selection of authors to focus on or our treatment of them, our approach is considerably more nuanced than conventional pieties based on “critique” that is little more than a black-and-white inversion of the ideas it purports to damn without taking them seriously. A curious thing that, given anthropology’s commitment to a more nuanced and nonjudgmental understanding of other cultures, customs and habits—even when they may be, from our perspective, appalling.

  6. @ Adam, I did not mean my comment as a critique, but rather as adding to a conversation in which it might be productive to consider these classic perspectives, above and beyond lecturing to undergraduates. I think that your response shows this to be the case. I also think, that it is ironic that in response to your fear of “silencing” productive dialogue you are in fact trying to tell me the sorts of things I can not or should not say on this website.

    It seems that what might be going on here is a disjuncture in terms of what sort of commentary is viewed as appropriate in this blog space, and how one can index their knowledge of a given topic without having to write it all out. Or, from a more cynical standpoint, who is authorized to index their knowledge without spelling it out (Adam) and who is not (Steve). For your part, Adam, you presented what he characterized as a “light ethnographic account,” which I enjoyed, and which I think indexed a number of philosophical and anthropological conversations. I responded with what I would characterize as a “light theoretical addition.” Then, it seems to me, things got a bit heavier, suddenly and unexpectedly, at least from my viewpoint.

    @ John, I agree with you completely.

    I have focused my research in post-colonial South Africa on issues related to HIV/AIDS, activism and agency. My research is motivated by the idea that understanding the role of communication (what Adam called rhetorical tools) in HIV stigma can impact the pandemic in a positive way, providing insights into which cultural and linguistic patterns work–and how they work–to (re)produce AIDS support and activism. So I too am a “progressive” scholar. However, I am particularly sensitive to the question of progress, in part because the people with whom I work are still sensitive to the dangers that such a notion holds. These dangers became especially pronounced when notions of progress were attached to particular categories of people in South Africa. During apartheid it was of course white South Africans who were placed atop the ladder of progress. In fact, the association of scientific medicine with now-defunct notions of progress and its association with race have been an important factor in some South Africans living with HIV not seeking and/or not receiving adequate care for their illness.

    In this intellectual context in which I operate, I find it useful to remember where the term progress came from, and yes, to think about both Boas’s (varied) stance against evolutionary notions of progress and his simultaneous activism, and how these concerns have been developed throughout the past hundred years. I suppose I thought that, given that many of us have indeed already confronted these things in our work, and given the style in which the blog was originally written, the debates and history could be INDEXED without spelling them out completely. Still, I appreciate the cogent reviews.

    In any case, consider me “silenced.”

  7. @Steve. Why break off just as the conversation is getting serious? As I see it, we have just passed through the awkward moment in which our various knee-jerk reactions to certain phrases or concepts interrupts what could be a far more productive discussion. I, for one, would like to hear more about the Black or Colored reaction to the White (British? Boer?) interpretation of progress.

    In the Far East, the part of the world with which I am more familiar, the local reactions to the White Man’s self-serving notion of progress have been diverse but have typically involved attempts to distinguish between the elements of a local identity that must be preserved (a national or cultural essence) and accretions or corruptions that must be discarded and replaced. The debates over where these lines should be drawn are the core of the modern history of the region, including, for example, the Taiping Rebellion, “a widespread civil war in southern China from 1850 to 1864, led by heterodox Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, who having received visions, maintained that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ[1] against the ruling Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. About 20 million people died, mainly civilians, in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history” (Wikipedia); the Meiji oligarch’s calculated decision to embrace Napoleonic law, British naval and Germany army forms of military organization while propagating State Shinto and Emperor-worship in Japan; and, I only recently learned about this, South Korea’s celebration of itself as the preserver of a truer Confucianism, uncontaminated as it was in China by Manchu and, then, Maoist innovations.

    I wonder, then, about the range of opinion and related events that have appeared in South Africa. Please do tell us more.

  8. “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.”

    Discovery is a process and not a moment in time. As our eyes adjust over time we see more and more. Your first reaction is typical. Caveat Emptor!

  9. I think what troubles me about this online forum are the sorts of typification going on. The mere mention older theoretical debates led to being labeled as having a narrow mind, to be silencing anthropological theory, and to be generalized as someone at a novice stage in some process of mind-awakening. This sort of typification is an unproductive way to have a conversation. Undergraduates, tea party members and yes, even jihadists, are sometimes intelligent and sometimes take up nuanced perspectives on progress and values, just as progressive theorists can sometimes take up narrow perspectives. Unfortunately, I do not have a great deal of time and I wish we could have reached this stage of conversation earlier and skipped the typifications.

    In lieu of a detailed discussion of the issues involved in progress in South Africa, I think through previous progress-oriented movements and looking at the issues they encountered. For instance, take the feminist movement(s), about which much has been written from anthropological perspectives. On the most basic level, feminism has obviously been really great in a number of ways. As Abu-Lughod wrote about in some of her now-classic work, when feminists began to reach out beyond the narrow boundaries of white, middle-class concerns (and in a more contemporary instance, beyond the U.S./ Europe axis), they had to confront different concerns and different ideas about what would constitute progress in the feminist realm. The same has been true in South Africa, in which a number of diverse interests are represented in efforts towards progress in terms of economics, health, politics, and yes, culture. I’m sure the participants in this conversation have thought through many of these issues, and I’m preaching to the choir in a sense.

  10. @Steve sorry for coming across as excited, an imperative tone seems to be synonymous with internet authorship or at least my training in it. I hope you can’t be silenced quite that easily as I could really use understanding, at this nascent stage in my research, how you reconciled the political implications of your research with your personal politics and the distance encouraged by the discipline without recourse to that ghetto of ‘applied anthropology’.

  11. Typification is a problem of all political sloganeering and blogging and what tends to distinguish anthropological nuance from journalists stereotyping. It is more a problem with the form than its intention. So I agree my initial blog was typifying as it was written as an attempt to reconcile my subject’s political categories with my political as well as the disciplines in under 1000 words. Politicians and activists typify because they need to talk about large populations of citizens. Anthropologists try not to but can render their knowledge publicly with little utility because of the rendered complexity. Hence these issues get at the contradictions of public anthropology–blogging is reductive as I would say films are too but without these tools we are with little opportunities to translate our research into comprehensible, actionable, policy driving formulas. Without this, what is the point?

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