July 11, 2008

I reported to registration to receive my official totebag, T shirt, and condoms. In the bustle, I was only able to grab three packs, but luckily, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and NARAL were handing out prophylactics in the display area (unfortunately labeled “€œScrew the Drug War”€). The Campus Progress National Conference had begun.

Campus Progress is the Left’s answer to conservative youth organizations like the Young America’s Foundation, but the clash could not have been greater between the hipster progressive activists at DC’s Omni Shoreham on Tuesday and the suit-and-tie-clad young politicos of CPAC that swarmed the hotel a few months ago. 

CPAC certainly didn’t feature acts like Yellow Rage, a spoken word duo that rose to prominence on Def Poetry Jam. Their show included enough tales of white oppression to earn them a place on the list of “€œStuff White People Like.” And in the process, they thoroughly discredited the stereotype that Asian women are classy and submissive. 

New Republic editor James Kirchick made an appearance during the panel on gay rights”€”his Barack Obama-style flag pin being the only American flag at the entire conference. At CP, Kirchick was the official representative of right-wing extremism in that he argued that gays should become “€œnormal”€ by gaining entry to bourgeoisie institutions such as marriage and the family and disowning terms like “€œqueer.”€ This prompted cries of disapproval.  Richard Kim of The Nation argued the queer agenda should be about pan-sexual liberation, including liberalizing divorce laws and pushing for acceptance of alternative family models beyond squares like Kirchick and his hypothetical partner. A matronly trans-queer named Mason rumbled in a deep baritone that before openly becoming “€œtrans,”€ he had “€œno identity.”€ 

Various groups displayed their wares in the hallway (besides condoms). The Young Democratic Socialists handed out a flyer featuring Martin Luther King stating, “€œWe are saying that something is wrong with capitalism, there must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism”€”€”which would shock my movement colleagues who tell me every January that MLK was a conservative Republican.

The fact that an organization that has hosted senators, presidents, and the current Democratic nominee shares space with racists, communists, and homosexual activists that consider gay marriage to be reactionary is newsworthy.  As Campus Progress also recruits and advertises at the even more radical National Conference on Organized Resistance, which openly promotes force against military recruitment centers, the links between Democratic Party leaders and violent extremists goes well beyond Obama living in the same neighborhood as Bill Ayers.  Campus Progress’s magazine’s feature on the “€œLessons of the Weather Underground”€ is no aberration.     

But then, let’s get beyond the usual guilt-by-association/point-and-stutter game.

It is to Campus Progress that U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison can speak, in his own words, “€œvanguard to vanguard.”€ The tendency of attendees to speak of overthrowing the “€œsystem”€ and in the next sentence talking about the upcoming Obama Administration is exactly how activists should think. While participating in Democratic campaigns, Campus Progress and the activists that work with it are building a force independent of partisan efforts”€”but not irrelevant to it. They understand that the role of activists is to push politicians towards an independently defined agenda rather than serving as cannon fodder.

Hence, a common concern of many activists was how to avoid being “€œco-opted”€ by the Democratic establishment”€”even if that establishment is headed by the most liberal candidate in American history. Similarly, a comment during the civil rights panel about how any movement needs a “€œmilitant resistance”€ was met not with nervous glances but agreement to what all perceived to be an obvious point. 

Building on this, the Campus Progress Action Campaign of the Year Award was given to “€œStudents for Environmental & Social Justice”€ at the University of Montana because of a direct action campaign which included occupying the university president’s office. The presenter gushed that group members “€œwere even arrested,”€ promoting a huge ovation. Even the spoken word pieces show awareness that culture is the pivot for political movements, not elections. 

In contrast, the majority of young CPAC attendees believed the purpose of political action was wearing a suit and preparing for a career. It is the difference between activists and politicos. Many Beltway conservatives are not activists and despise those who engage in protests or think of political alternatives beyond voting for Team Red. A mainstream conservative organization awarding young activists for direct action is simply unconceivable. Conservative organizations systematically funnel them into the dead end of Republican business as usual. Culture is largely ignored. The result is a youth “€œmovement”€ that is actually less committed and effective than the older conservative grassroots. Campus Progress is building activists and the campus Right is building politicians and politicos. 

There was plenty of stuff at this conference most Democrats would not want to be associated with, but it doesn”€™t matter. It will cost them nothing, because unlike those in what Sam Francis called “€œthe movement that doesn”€™t move,”€ establishment liberals will not go out of their way to disown their more radical supporters. 

The young Right has more to learn from the upstarts at Campus Progress than the other way around.  


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