the definition debate: what is a progressive?

Throughout history many banners have flown in the name of freedom, many different colors and styles spurred movements on to revolution and victory. From the Star Spangled Banner of the American Revolution to the red banners in the streets of China to the political banners of modern times. These streaming bits of cloth are more than physical symbols born by flag bearers. These banners are accompanied by boxes of thought and explicit doctrines of belief. We rally around banners, they lead us to freedom, they lead us to liberty, and they lead us to justice. But this what the banners of the past have lead us to today? We are now forced to rally behind one banner or another, we are forced to make a choice, we are forced to fight for freedom with conditions – yet freedom is unconditional.

Breaking over the horizon atop a mound of inequalities, injustices, and failed ideas rises a new banner, however this banner has no one flag bearer. It is a banner that waves and weaves between many people and multiple beliefs. This banner is a meshed quilt of the banners long since past and new lengths of fabric, innovately designed banners. This banner of sorts also bears a title: Progressive. However this title is unlike the titles from the banners of the past. This banner changes shape as it is held aloft to unite for a common cause.

The defining and constricting of this term, progressive, was a topic of great contention at the 4th Annual National Summit for Progressive Leaders of 2008 run by Young People For(YP4). I had many long discussion about what it means, the implications of the term, and the worries of a dogma growing within the progressive movement. To give a starting point:

From my “Hella Pone” workshop group representing Northern California, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin –

A progressive is: open minded, inclusive, compassionate, proactive and engaged in positive change, innovative, sustainable, optimistic, idealistic, for equality and justice, informed and conscious, evolving, and a leader challenging the status quo

The most important thing to remember is that the term progressive has a long historical and political connotation. Progressivism grew in the 1920s as a response to industrialization and traditional conservativism as well as to the more radical socialist and anarchist movements of the time. The American Progressive Party was born in the 1930s and advanced under Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson (?), and Franklin Roosevelt. Historically “progressives” advocated for worker’s rights and social justice. Early progressives were proponents of anti-trust laws and the regulation of large corporations and monopolies, as well as government-funded environmentalism and the creation of National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. The principles of Progressivism and the early Progressive Movement would lay the foundation for future progressive thought and politics. Even wikipedia notes that the precise criteria for what constitutes “progressivism” varies worldwide. Here are some of the common (historical) progressive tenets outlined:

Ballot initiatives where citizens approve proposed laws through a direct vote, initiatives where citizens could proposed laws for legislation, direct primary, direct election of US Senators, referendum where citizens could vote to rescind laws, and women’s suffrage. Early progressives also called for a centralization of government to reduce the number of officials and eliminate overlapping authority. At the start of the Progressive Movement government corruption was near an all time high. They sought to promote professional administrators to deal with this issue. Trust-busting, socialism (government working for the public good), laissez-faire market belief, and regulation of large corporations represented the economic tenets. Environmentally progressives called for increases in national parks. On the social justice side, early progressives supported the development of professional social workers, the creation of settlement housing (basically a community center operated by professional social workers to increase the standard of living in inner cities), enacting child labor laws (to end children in the workplace), promoting organized labor and the prohibition (alcohol was a deterrent to achieving success for the cause).

For our purposes I think we are, in a way, giving the term a boost. Where progressive used to represent a political party or economic theory, it now represents a set of basic values that seem very simple for everyone to agree upon. Young People For lists the issues that fall under the progressive title as: civil rights, constitutional liberty, immigrant rights, independent judiciary, LGBT rights, marriage equality, access to higher education, religious freedom, environmental protection, voting rights, civic participation, women’s rights, worker’s rights, human rights, international issues, environmental justice, equal rights, I think John Halpin, senior advisor on the staff of the Center for American Progress said it best, “Progressivism is an orientation towards politics, It’s not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept… that accepts the world as dynamic.” Progressives see it as an attitude towards the politics of today. It is a thought process that is broader than conservatism vs. liberalism, which attempts to break free from what they consider to be a false and divisive dichotomy of ideologies. There is an excellent article (click here) on what progressivism means today in WireTap magazine written by a young person.

For our purposes today I believe the term progressive is a way to develop a focused set of values while encompassing many issue bases. The progressive term allows people to live and work outside the boxes of society. You can be a republican, a democrat, liberal, economically conservative, socialist, black, white, red, blue – you are not forced to conform to a certain norm – you can fall under the progressive terminology if you share the same values and visions for our world. This is a dangerous area in any movement when we begin to confine our thought and set a type of dogma for ourselves to follow. If you are a republican you are no less progressive, if you are a socialist you are not too radically progressive, if you are not a vegetarian you are no less progressive, if you embody the full range of progressive thought that does not mean that you are not and cannot be a progressive. It is often difficult to allow for this openness of a term because we are stuck in an old way of thinking that limits our abilities to accept. We are trapped by our own postmodern love of labeling ourselves and creating the other.

We stream to the progressive banner seeking a doctrine, an ideology, or a mantra to rule the day. But the banner needs to be People. As one of my good philosophy friends explained to me, and I paraphrase, at the end of the day we are all just fictional characters living in a world that we have created for ourselves. Our identities are all constructed from what we choose to think or what history has developed We label and fit ourselves into methods The banner is not Progressivism, but it is People. If we lose sight of that idea, then the rebirth of the progressive movement has already failed. People are our end goal and focus. We are not here to advance our self-interest or force our ideology. Within the progressive movement our focus is People not Progressivism and we cannot forget. The banner needs to remain people or we as the progressive movement will just become another title, another dogma of boxed thought – we need to remain open and innovative and changing, we need ensure that we do not become more than an applied method of thinking. The banner is not Progressive, the banner is People.

From Associated Progress, the essential progressive news network.

Previously posted on the Young People For Blog.

do you already know what you are getting?

truth reflects reality
but what is reality
& what is then true?
knowledge implies truth
& who can claim to possess knowledge that
is purely true to reflect the real?
– Alex B. Hill (date written unknown)

Whether we all know it or not we are enslaved by a great system, a system that propagates discrimination based on race, division rooted in the ideas of economic class, military control bent on power, and a political will lacking the necessary passion to stand up for what can easily be perceived as right (as opposed to wrong). Right: equal rights for all people of the world, equal opportunity, fair wage and living standards, a smile from a stranger, an atypical helping hand when it may seem uncouth, truth spoken from the mouth of a fellow on the misdeeds of a few who would wield a vast power in the name of many, not denying people their basic needs. Wrong is spewed from the system in many ways, most are unrecognized and more unknown to the general populace than one might think.

I just went to the movies tonight and what was most striking was not the movie itself, but the previews. I nearly forgot that a movie was to follow. There was a new film on beating the US Treasury’s money shredder, one on the fictional assassination of a US presidential double and the preceding systematic cover-up, a film decrying US torture in wartime, the government extending a soldiers’ contracts: Stop Loss. The current climate of things is more than ready for a movement away from destruction and into progress. When I say progress I am not talking about reform, there is no place for reform in the current system. There needs to be change, as in complete, no holds barred flip of the system. People need to be the pinnacle of the equation – people in the sense that every man, woman, and child needs to be ensured that the reality they live with is not also the systematic structure that keeps them in poverty, at war, without proper clothing, or without the ability to pursue a higher dream. Here in the USA, we have the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – why must it only be a pursuit and not a right?

Before this day at the movies, I had another similar excursion. An exciting day to go see the new political thriller just in theaters. Lions for Lambs was one of the best political thriller for our time, now. During World War I, the Prussian troops used to call the English grunt workers, on the frontlines, Lions because of the ferocity with which they worked and fought, these men were Lions for Lambs. The Lambs were the politicians who sat in their plush offices and said to reporters, “we will do whatever it takes to win,” as their men die by the thousands, day by day pouring the fiery passions of their hearts into their work. These men were only to be forgotten by the Man, the politician on the pedestal, the system for which they had risked their very lives to preserve – a construct that had no place for them and never will.

This is the overtone of the most recent political thriller to come out of movie making land. Sadly much of the message was lost to the American public before they had even seen the movie. It has become very common that political thrillers are not appealing to the American public. They don’t like the harsh realities coming to life on the big screen, they don’t like the messages, they don’t like being called out in the theater where they came to enjoy a little bang-bang shoot’em up action. And so in the end Americans do not see these movies and political thrillers, which very well may be later called the greatest films of their times, fall in the box offices to popular whim. I recently read a very poor review of Lions for Lambs in which the student author claimed the film relied too much on political generalities and made the message too confusing. I would say that this was the prime example of the audience being lost to the message. As this student was the target and missed the mark completely.

Warning: Possible spoiler of Lions for Lambs

The film opens, in a hypothetical situation mirroring the present circumstances, with a ‘liberal’ journalist meeting with the new, young, up-and-coming republican political star. They are to spend an hours time getting the ‘truth’ to the American people. The Republican, played by Tom Cruise, tells of a new strategy in Afghanistan to win because “America needs a win.” The typical Republican rhetoric of today played out very well as a representation of the current political situation. As the Republican explains this plan in detail the story cuts to a team of Army Rangers beginning to initiate this new strategy to win in Afghanistan. They tear across the sky in their Chinook helicopter to land and take the high ground in the mountains. Suddenly they are hit by anti-aircraft fire, the gunner is hit and one of the soldiers falls out the back of the helicopter. Another soldier hesitates and then jumps after him. We then cut to a student visiting his political science professor, played by Robert Redford, to talk about how his class involvement and grades have fallen as well as his attendance.

The Republican dishes his empty rhetoric, soldiers fall in a new push in the war on terror, and a student discusses his grades. The professor asks the young man why he has stopped attending his class yet has continued to do so well on his exams. The student hesitates and replies that there are girls, and his frat house obligations, and college social stuff. The professor cries bullshit and asks ominously, “Why have you stopped caring?” when before the student used to spark debates and challenge ideas. The student responds that he is fed up. He is fed up with the shit that is the political system and he can no longer see the point. The professor begins to tell the story of two of his former students who used to give him as much hope as he had now in this fed up young man. They came from a tough area of LA where they grew up fighting just to live another day in the ghettos. Guns, drugs, gangs – when they made it to college on baseball scholarships they did not waste their time and jumped right into the political science course. As a class project they presented on how to solve America’s problems.

Their solution made a lot of sense. They noted how good we are with deployment abroad with US troops stationed across the world, but in America there is very little ‘deployment.’ They proposed that the Junior year of High School not involve the formal classroom setting at all. Juniors would be placed in either a Peace Corps type program, AmeriCorps program, or an ROTC program. They followed up this plan by noting the great and terrible disparities in America in literacy, access to opportunity, and potential in life. Drawing from their tough experiences as young people from the ghettos they saw this as an incredible way to get people involved. I have to admit that when they talked about this program in the film I could not help but think how amazing it would be if this were an actual program. Another student asks them, “You both talk a big game, but how serious are you?” They then place their military enrollment dispatches on the overhead. They are headed for the Army. They figured what good is it to talk and not be involved in something if you want to make change.

Cut back to Afghanistan. The soldier who fell out of the helicopter is unconscious and the other has a broken leg trapped in the snow. These soldiers are the two students that the professor talked so highly. Alone, trapped on the top of an enemy infested mountain the two former students, now soldiers, await their fate as the enemy closes in on their position. At the same time the Army is sending in rescue missions to help them, the Republican is getting the bad news that this new plan is failing, and the student meeting with his professor is wondering what he is supposed to do. Airstrikes to drive back the Taliban fighters fails and the two soldiers are shot dead just as help is on the way, the reporter refuses to write the politically charged article on the Afghanistan plan to boost the Republican party presidential hopeful, and the professor says to his student, “What if I give you a straight B, no plus no minus for the rest of the semester. If you don’t show up, don’t do your reading, and don’t turn anything in. A straight B.” The student doesn’t know what to say, but time is up and it is another person’s turn to have a meeting.

Back at his frat house the student is asked by another frat brother what the meeting was for. He responds that it was a meeting about class and grades. He is then asked, “do you already know what you are getting?” End of movie. The high schoolers behind me couldn’t believe it as many who have reviewed this film couldn’t. “A terrible end to a terrible movie,” said one. “I don’t even get it,” said another. That is the point! The film is much deeper than the usual hollywood hit. There is more to it than typical partisan political arguments and explosions with soldiers. This is a call for involvement, political action, doing something! We can no longer just sit by and watch things happen and complain about them later. Do we already know what we are getting? More importantly are you fine with that, are you satisfied? The end of the film noted how politicians bank on the apathy of the general public. They count on our ignorance of the situation. Great minds die in unnecessary combat, others get fed-up studying politics, and still others refuse to be manipulated by politics to give them good press – but for some reason that has become their job. All I can ask is “where are we going?”

All this has made me think and this post has been sitting in my draft box for a long while. “Why have I stopped caring?” Why should I care when everything is so arbitrary and falsely constructed in a terribly flawed system! Why should I waste my time and effort “playing the game” when all it does is mislead and fulfill my thirst with the nothingness. A higher education, while it is a great privilege, is wrought with discrepencies and lies. I needed the opportunities and intellectual challenges (outside of class), but in the end it will mean nothing if I do nothing. I hate the system and the system hates me. I will be judged as a failure by the system and doors will be closed. I am already judged as a failure – my grade point, my dislike of the institution, and my perhaps ‘radical’ and challenging ideas. I know that a degree can be seen as a way to be judged as less of a failure, but what is the point anymore? (Don’t worry, I am not a nihilist) I know that in many regards I have been very successful, but those are all discounted (no matter how great) by my performance in school, by my calls against the current system, by my lack of respect for those ensnared by the system. I am called a “naive” white boy ‘saving’ the African continent. I am called a “naive” radical – speaking that my professors are full of unthought (in the sense that they regurgitate ideas rooted in the terrible foundations of the system). I am called a failure lacking purpose and knowledge of how things work in reality, but it is a false, constructed reality actualized by the few. I have learned so much from my friends, personal quests for understanding, and engagements with student organizations in thoughtful discussions. I am here, at college, because of societal structure and expectations. I am here because this is what I am supposed to be doing.

Back again to Lions for Lambs. Do you already know what you are getting? Do you understand what you are already getting and are you satisfied? Is it enough to be able to say that I at least tried? For me that is not good enough. To be able to say I changed it, I destroyed it, I made it right is good enough. I am told that, “sometimes you have to play the game.” In no way, shape, or form will I play this game. I do not care to be recognized in this game. I will not don the jersey of this system to sit on the bench to watch the game from the sidelines. The system counts on our collective apathy, but that can easily be changed. Apathy is what fuels this game. An apathy that leads to a game of destruction, discrimination, and death. I already know what I will get if I continue to follow this system without thinking and acting for myself. I know the planned structural violence that plays out day to day – and I am not satisfied. Are you? What will you do?

Now playing: J-Live – Satisfied
via FoxyTunes