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Taking Back America | The Nation

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Peter Rothberg

Peter Rothberg

Opposing war, racism, sexism, climate change, economic injustice and high-stakes testing.

Taking Back America

I'm just back from Washington, DC, where the Campaign for America's Future staged its fourth annual Take Back America conference at the Hilton hotel near DuPont Circle. Bringing together close to 2,000 of the country's most dedicated progressive activists and strategists for a series of speeches, conversations, panels, workshops and parties, TBA showcased a raft of innovative policy proposals, initiatives and projects. Also on hand to make speeches was much of the Democratic Party leadership, including Senators Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Russell Feingold and House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

Unfortunately, the story out of the conference, according to most media accounts, was the division in the progressive community, demonstrated by the booing Senator Clinton received as she defended her opposition to a timetable for withdrawing US troops from Iraq. I was at the speech. Though she did get static on Iraq, the general response to her talk was overwhelmingly positive. She garnered five enthusiastic ovations by my count, and by the end of her speech--mere minutes after she supposedly alienated the crowd--she left to a standing ovation much, much, much louder than the earlier booing.

Now I'm not saying that the positive reaction was necessarily a good thing. My feeling was that she was able to win a legitimately progressive crowd over far too easily with hollow progressive rhetoric. (And this isn't a call for heckling either. I think it's worth listening to people with whom you disagree. You just don't have to cheer them madly!) But people's reactions are complicated. My only point is that I didn't leave the conference feeling the story was "the widespread disagreement among left Democrats," as a particularly egregious piece in the New York Sun reported yesterday, and as the Washington Post and New York Times have echoed in dispatches this week.

I thought the story was the remarkable set of new ideas being passionately detailed by a klatch of determined activists of varied political stripes. The energetic and intelligent remarks of Robert Biko Baker in the opening plenary had me checking my laptop for info on his organization, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. Baker's group is working to develop a political agenda and an organizational infrastructure for the hip-hop generation. The NHHPC's broad goal is to increase civic and community involvement among young adults between the ages of 16 and 35. Its national convention takes place in Chicago from July 20 to 23.

Led by the dynamic Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the DC-based Hip Hop Caucus is working with a similar constituency. Yearwood spoke at a panel I saw on Tuesday morning about the failed federal response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign, which is basically about trying to force the government to address the plight of the hundreds of thousands of American citizens stranded without jobs, housing or hope by a government that is somehow blind to their fate. (Full disclosure: We're pleased to say that Rev. Yearwood will be joining the next Nation cruise as a guest speaker.)

Because I spent much of the session in the Katrina panel, I missed most of the concurrent blog discussion. But I did catch a little of the hyper-articulate blogger Glenn Greenwald, who is also a constitutional attorney with a New York Times best-seller out. The book, How Would A Patriot Act?, published by Working Assets, has shot to the best-seller lists through internet word-of-mouth and the power of the blogs. It's essentially one man's story of being galvanized into action to defend America's founding principles against an extremist administration run amok, and its success offers an instructive model for how a book can become a huge success while bypassing traditional means of distribution and promotion. Every other single blogger on the panel -- Chris Raab, Jerome Armstrong, Matt Stoller, Louis Pagan and Christy Hardin Smith -- is a master of the craft. If you're investing time in reading blogs, you should definitely be reading them.

The last panel I saw before leaving the conference a half-day early was smart and serious and the ideas put forth, if adopted, could help save America, and probably the world. Speaking generally about energy independence and more specifically about the Apollo Alliance, a broad coalition within the labor, environmental, business, and faith communities in support of good jobs and energy independence, the panel made a highly intelligible case for a radically revamped energy policy which would cut our addiction to oil, improve our national security, and, most importantly, give us a chance to stave off the terrors of global warming.

As people like Joel Rogers, Billy Parish and Jennifer Ito explained, the answers to our energy crisis are out there -- in fuel cells, in solar power, in wind technology, in hybrid synergy, in biofuels, in "green" buildings and in areas we don't yet know about. The popular will is out there too, as demonstrated partly by the great success of Parish's Campus Climate Challenge. The question, starting with this November's elections, is who will lead us there.

Finally, on my way out to catch a train, I was lucky to meet the talented Annabelle Gurwitch, an actress and author of a hilarious new book. Fired has deservedly received great press since its release last month. If you haven't heard about it, it's a collection of stories by people--including Felicity Huffman, Andy Borowitz, Morgan Spurlock, Harry Shearer, Anne Meara, Bill Maher and Jeff Garlin--recounting times in their lives that they've been fired. It's very cathartic really. And funny! Gurwitch's essay is one of the best and her experience of being fired from an off-Broadway play by Woody Allen is the wrenching, hilarious catalyst for the book. She nicely gave me a copy and I finished it before the Amtrak arrived in New York.

There's also a new film version--a first-person documentary written and directed by Gurwitch featuring stories from many of those in the book as well as an amazing rant from Ben Stein and some interesting observations from Robert Reich (who also contributes to the book.) But more than anything, the film takes the project a step further by trying to understand the increasing insecurity of the American worker in the global economy. Gurwitch attended job fairs, career retraining classes, met with human resource directors, took outplacement workshops and spent time with recently laid-off UAW workers. It's grim stuff but our guide never loses her sense of humor, her empathy or her grace.

The doc is available on DVD and will be broadcast on the Sundance cable channel. Check out the Fired website for info on how you can watch this highly creative project, and click here to tell Gurwitch your own story of being fired.

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