On July 8, 2009, the Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted their annual “Campus Progress National Conference” at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Headlining with such speakers as Obama Administration Green Job Czar Van Jones, Daily Show Correspondent John Oliver, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Former President Bill Clinton and featuring panels on subjects such as “Am I Hip Hop” and “Keeping the Faith: Moving Religious Communities From Tolerance to Advocacy on LGBT Issues,” the progressive gathering gave young activists the chance to bond with their elders. And while talk of central planning, subversion of traditional values and emotional expressions of hope were widespread, concrete political strategy was in short supply.
Despite the recent roadblocks which critics say the Obama administration has run into, the overall tenor was one of overwhelming triumphalism, as well as a drive to come up with further steps towards “change.” At one seminar on health care, participants were encouraged to write their ideas for how to sell health care reform on the tables in crayon before discussing these ideas with the help of “facilitators.” One participant, a self-proclaimed professional community organizer, continually stressed the importance of “personal stories” and “moral arguments” in promoting health care. Another activist, originally from Swarthmore College, argued that the government should adopt an approach of central planning for all scarce resources. “Government’s role is to decide resources when they’re limited,” she said.
After the morning panels, students returned to the central ballroom for lunch and a set of speakers which included spoken word poet Staceyann Chin, Good Charlotte band member Joel Madden and the aforementioned Van Jones. Ms. Chin’s performance, taken from her recent book The Other Side of Paradise, hit several controversial notes, as it included graphic depictions of female menstruation, childhood rape and profanity. “I think the most radical thing a woman can do is to love her vangingi [sic?],” Ms. Chin said. “A lot of men are sitting there going ‘Oh God, there’s so much blood and you’re not dying!’ That’s called strength, motherf—er.” The reception was generally positive, though some attendees found the timing of the speech to be imperfect. “I support her,” said one participant, “but we’re having lunch.”
Yet the highlight of the lunch period was Van Jones, who used his speech to scapegoat conservative critics of President Obama for opposing economic growth while extolling the President for his leadership. “There are people in this town who are afraid of the future, who are afraid to let the next wave of energy technologies come forward, who are afraid to let your generation have the tools, the technology and the training to make America the world leader in clean energy,” Jones said. There were also spots of humor in the speech, as Jones mocked the reaction which youth voters sometimes have to President Obama. “I go up and ask you ‘what did he just say,’ and you say ‘I don’t know, but I’m so inspired,” Jones said. “Well okay, you’re inspired by Barack Obama. But who do you think inspires him? You,” he added.
After lunch, students had the option of attending a further set of panels which included longer question and answer sessions designed to allow students to get more honest feedback from leaders in the progressive movement. Especially on the aforementioned “Keeping the Faith” panel, this honesty was on full display, as AIDS activist Craig Washington roundly dismissed the idea of “tolerance” for homosexuals. “Tolerance is such an arrogant word. You tolerate something unpleasant,” Washington said, before asking, “Why aren’t we queering the discussion?”
The panels being concluded, 45 minutes of “networking time” followed, during which students were permitted to go talk to various interest groups about their mission. Groups represented included PETA 2, the youth division of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), as well as the Human Rights Campaign and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Ryan Hueling, a representative of PETA 2, said that his organization’s support for oversight into factory farming was an outgrowth of “consumer choice,” despite raising prices for the products. “The consumers can really decide; consumers are being put to the ballot to decide,” Hueling said. Hueling later agreed that “ideally,” political decisions would mirror market decisions.
Finally, students returned to the central ballroom one last time to hear speeches by Daily Show Correspondent John Oliver, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Bill Clinton. Oliver, however, upstaged both subsequent speakers, amusing the crowd by mimicking a sign-language translator who had had to translate his use of the word “a—hole.” However, Oliver also had harsh words for the British healthcare system, which many Obama supporters hold up as a model for an American public option. “It’s the worst kind of socialism,” Oliver said. “Everyone’s equal, but only equal because we’re all miserable.”