300 Feet High

Checking my email today, after deleting a letter from Hillary asking me to help pay off her campaign debt, one from the ACLU of Texas asking me to yell at Governor Perry, and one from Sahar nagging me to write a blog post, I opened a message from Young People For altering me that I had been nominated for a fellowship. Young People For (or YP4) is a leadership program designed to motivate and empower the newest generation of progressive leaders to make change in their communities and further a progressive vision for America. To quote Bill Richardson, “I love change!” and to quote Mitt Romney, “Gosh I love America!” so I decided to click on the link and find out what exactly a YP4 fellowship would entail.

The program kicks off with a week-long summit in DC where I would get to connect with fellow progressive activists from across the country and talk strategy with some big-shot progressive leaders. Sounds good. So I clicked on the video of last years’ summit.  At first I thought I was watching one of those John McCain ads in which he tries to make fun of Barack Obama’s “hope and change” mantra. The video featured clips of speakers proclaiming to hundreds of students that this is their moment, they have the power, they are the ones they have been waiting for. It was completely over-the-top. One starry-eyed student took a microphone and gushed that what he had gotten out of the conference was “hope” and that he was going to “take that hope back home” and spread it. One girl screamed “democracy! justice! change! WEEEEW!” Another repeated the over-quoted-on-high school-graduation-day phrase “What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared with what lies within us” as if she had just come up with it herself. And on and on. Suddenly I realized a visceral feeling of disgust was taking over me. What the hell is wrong with you? I scolded myself. This is inspiring! This is people getting excited about improving their world, about helping others, about politics! You’re supposed to love stuff like that! But I couldn’t help it– I was completely turned off.

In 2004 I watched the Democratic National Convention at home in Fort Worth, Texas and was overjoyed when Howard Dean declared that “never again” would liberals be ashamed of their values. I literally cried when John Edwards said “hope is on the way.” I watched Barack Obama’s key-note address over and over and over. And when John Kerry proclaimed that “for America the hope is there, the sun is rising, our best days are still to come,”… well I think the fact that I can still quote that from memory speaks for itself. Had YP4 contacted me back then I would have jumped at the opportunity. What was different now? At first I thought I was agreeing with Goethe: “I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.” But that wasn’t really it. After all, the YP4 summit did seem to “invigorate activity” in its participants; they took what they learned in DC and brought it back to their campuses and communities, didn’t they? Then I remembered the student who said that what he would take from the conference and bring back was “hope.” “Hope”? Seriously?? And I put my finger on the element that I hated so much not just in the YP4 conference but in the modern progressive movement in general.

To quote Karl Marx (because its convenient but also perhaps to establish my credentials as a real left-wing believer in change despite my attacks on the progressive movement in this post), I believe the students at the YP4 conference and other events and organizations like it are just “theoretical bubble-blowers.” Speakers at the events preach to the choir, the participants try and out-do each other in self-congratulation about how great the movement is, they come up with intellectual progressive proposals for intellectual progressives to read, and any talk of strategy and action is theoretical and relies on the assumption that students will have an army of activists on their campuses just waiting to be organized as soon as the YP4 student returns from the Mountain with the Knowledge. And what are these progressives being trained to train other progressives for, anyway? To hold meetings of progressives where they can discuss the movement? To write policy proposals read by other progressives? To spread “hope”?

With this realization I became depressed. A certain question bothered me: For all my claims that I would have just loved to be alive during the excitement and activism of the 1960s would I really just have been as disgusted with the self-congratulation and futility of, say, Abbie Hoffman (with all due respect!) “levitating the Penon” as I am with the self-congratulation and “theoretical bubble-blowing” of today’s progressive youth movement?

Yes and no. I would have been thrilled with CORE and SNCC and sit-ins and boycotts and Freedom Riders and registering black voters and “the torch is passed” and “I have a dream.” These were actions that actually shook the world. And I would have cheered when Mario Savio jumped on the car and cried that “there comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you cant take part . . . You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels . . . And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!” That movement (the 1964 Free Speech Movement) over-turned a university decision to outlaw political activism on campus and set the percent for student movements across the country. And I would have been thrilled in 1971 when the Vietnam Veterans Against the War marched on Washington, flooded the halls of congress,testified before the Senate, and showed the nation that it was time to “bring their brothers home.” Now, Abbie Hoffman declaring that he would, through mind-power, levitate the Penon 300 ft. and that the “evil spirits” would rise out from under it– this I would have been disgusted with. Ridding the Penon of evil spirits couldn’t change American foreign policy anymore than “hope” or a bunch of progressives repeating inspirational quotations to each other can get us universal health care.

So, is our modern YP4 hope-and-change fest Abbie’s levitation of the penon? This obviously stretched but not completely unfair analogy got me thinking: the people levitating the Penon wanted to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” But today’s students don’t seem to want that. What do they want? They want jobs. They want connections and resumes. Look at the YP4 summit– its completely centered around the promise of networking. The students connect with other student activists and potential employers. And I’m sure it doesn’t escape the thoughts of the YP4 fellows that their participation in such a program will look nice on their resumes.

In this way, the YP4 program and others like it are actually very smart; they play to what students today want. We are wasting our time if we focus all our efforts trying to get students to show up to an event modeled after the New Left of the 1960s. But the problem is not entirely that the same enthusiasm isn’t there– its just directed in a different way. Like the YP4 summit, if we can just harness what students want (networking, resume building, internships, jobs. . . in addition to having fun and making a difference) we can have a better shot at almost recreating the energy of the 1960s, even if the events have to be a little less creative and “far out.”

To those who say that this job-centered idea is just perpetuating “the system,” think about this: the New Left failed when its participants wanted back in the system anyway. You cant put “tuned in, turned on, and dropped out” on a resume and you cant get a job in Levitation of Important Government Buildings. So the students of the New Left dismissed their beliefs and actions as a “youthful fling” and became doctors and accountants just like their parents. However, today’s progressive movement is sustainable because it opens career paths. You can put your participation in progressive conferences and student think-tanks on your resume, and get a job in community organizing or with an organization like YP4 or People for the American Way. This makes our movement more boring than the movements of the 1960s, but at least it holds the potential to be more sustainable.

So let some other kid take my place as a YP4 fellow. I’ve outgrown my need for gimmicky inspirational and self-congratulatory “bubble-blowing.” But it certainly has a place somewhere. There might be a 16 year old girl stuck in Fort Worth, Texas (or some other red state) desperately needing to meet other people who share her excitement for progressive ideas. For my part, I will try and convert the bubble-blowing that I scoff at so much in to deeds that have an impact on the right people. But from now on I’ll go forward with this new idea about what students today want and “hope” that this will be more successful!

Apply for a Young People For fellowship:

1967 Penon levitation button!:

Mario Savio on “the machine”:


3 thoughts on “300 Feet High”

  1. just out of curiosity, can you tell me where the abbie hoffman levitation quote came from?

  2. Thanks for your perspective on the Summit video.

    I want to assure you that the YP4 fellowship is not all about “hope” and “bubble blowing” — it’s about making a clear-eyed assessment about how to create systemic change. As part of that, we’ve seen that students (especially those from rural and conservative communities, where progressives often feel more isolated) need the ideas, resources, and, yes, social support that comes from meeting likeminded activists face to face. When we say “networking,” we’re talking about building a culture of intentional resource-sharing and connection-building. Collaboration isn’t always only about getting jobs.

    At YP4, success isn’t measured by how good people feel about the Summit or the program, but by how much our fellows are able to accomplish in real terms. It’s about sustainable long-term change, not an inspirational weekend.

    To see some of the work that our fellows have accomplished, I invite you to check out the other videos on our YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/YoungPeopleFor) or browse the work that’s going on right now (http://www.youngpeoplefor.org/fellows/blueprints/summaries). That second link, the current Blueprint for Social Justice projects, gets into the nitty-gritty goals, deliverables, tactics and so on that our fellows employ.

    Again, thanks for the feedback, and congratulations on being nominated.

  3. Brilliant. You lost me at the end, though. I still think progressive organizations like these ones you speak about are a waste of time, energy, money, and attention that would be better directed elsewhere. If people need to pour that much into getting “inspired,” their bedazzlement probably won’t last a week past the conference.

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