The answer came to me while watching “O Brother, Where Art Thou” for the zillionth time. At the end of the movie Everett (George Clooney) and his crew are saved from a lynching by a torrential flooding of the valley by a dam project. Surveying the wreckage from a floating desk he intones, “It’s the New South. Ignorance and superstition are being swept away by industry and progress.”
The question is not an obvious one, nor is the connection. I’ve been wondering for a long time how our politics became so twisted between the strange labels “conservative” and “progressive”. The last Depression became a forge for a new progressive vision that everyone has been more or less responding to since. The connection comes in an understanding of Earth Day and the conservation movement that swept the left.
Before I go any further, though, I have to warn everyone that I’m about to use words that are often rather loaded in very blank terms. I consider this my right as a Toaist.
The old alliance of New Deal Democrats that made our world more or less what it is included the Solid South. The region’s antebellum (“after the war”) system was being left further behind and grip of the last Depression was ravaging what was left. Progress, which is to say development and industry, was seen as the only salvation by many. Dams to provide electricity through the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Project were welcome government “interference” that swept away the old ways.
By 1970, “progress” itself started to be questioned not as much in the New South but in the coalition that started it all. By 1970 Earth Day solidified a movement among the left that questioned the old ideas of progress and, without a word to it, Progressivism itself. Environmentalism is inherently conservative, based on preservation and protection. The left became substantially less interested in the progress that once defined it.
Through the years this movement has consistently hardened into one that more or less aged with the Baby Boom generation. Al Gore, as a leader from the New South, traces the development well. Moving from “Earth in Balance”, an attempt to define a caretaker role for our planet that included some development and industry to the more harsh “An Inconvenient Truth” is a stark illustration. The old Progressive ideas have moved on to a deep desire to preserve what we have left.
It’s easy to wonder about so-called “conservatives” who march in the streets for change, but the way they have been met with demands for preservation of the system in the left, to the extent they have been met at all, is much more puzzling. The opening, however, comes from an understanding of how “progress” slowly drained from the Democratic Party to the point where it hardly registers at all.
Progressives now stand for preserving things as they are while Conservatives are for change. The language of our politics describes nothing important. Is there any wonder we cannot have a good conversation about our common goals and dreams?
That’s not to say there aren’t rumblings on the left, particularly from the new generation. Unemployment and despair ravage them much as they once did the old South. It is not hard to find people, particularly the young, who see little difference between the two political parties and their corporatist ways. That often seems like a recent phenomenon, but it has roots that go back 80 years or more. It is inherent in the system that others on the left feel compelled to preserve as a social safety net.
Those who are not intimately involved in either movement, probably a majority of the nation, are left to wonder.
For the moment, the feeling of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” will stay with me. A Depression is a time for change as everyone claws through their own journey back to a home they never knew. Everett, as Odysseus, is reaching out for the fundamentally conservative comfort of home almost in spite of his own adventurous nature. The movie doesn’t always make a lot of sense and lacks a clear moral, but it has some great music and a lot of funny stories along the way.
If that doesn’t sound like the start of a political movement, I understand. At least it’s a common frame that we can all talk about. That’s more than what usually happens in our politics these days.
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I like it when you ramble a bit! But this makes sense to me. I don’t know what it means to be a liberal or progressive or whatever these days. That is why we have no effective counter to the right. I think you’re on to something here but this is more of a feeling than a real platform. As long as we dont’ really stand for anything I think we will keep being run over.
Thanks, Anna. I guess this should be filed in the “history does matter” category. But language matters a lot, too, and the lack of good language is a real problem IMHO, especially as people throw labels around all over the place.
A platform? I guess I’ve taken a few stabs at that but it may be time to start working on one if we’re going to make a new movement out of all these loose feelings and historical tidbits, eh?
If I take this totally at face value I think I see what you mean. But it is hard to get past the meaning of the words you say describe nothing important. They do still have meaning although its hard for me to say exactly what they mean.
I agree that a new movement, platform, party, whatever you want to call it is probably what you are trying to get at. Maybe its best to just do that and go from there.
Jim, if you’re asking me to “Show, don’t tell” I think you’re right on here. Let’s get on that. I’ll need everyone’s help to put something together but we can do it.
I am getting at several things at once here so I’m trying to rely on more than words to paint the picture. One of the things I truly believe is that most people are intelligent and arrive at their opinions for what seem like very good reasons, at least to them. The problems arise from perspective, not intelligence. Some perspectives are damned narrow, silly, or even bizarre if people thought about those long enough. I want to get people to take a strong half-step back and think about where their opinions come from.
The other is something I do write about a lot, and it’s maybe the start of a platform. For the Democrats, I’ll always start where I did just after the last election:
Maybe I’m too practical about this at times, but this isn’t just about me. It’s about getting our act together as a nation/culture/people for once and cutting out all the selfish whining. That may take real leadership, as it usually does, but it also takes all of us.
2 recomendations (sp?) identity politics by Todd Gitlin. and Deer hunting with Jesus plus Rainbow Pie a redneck memoir.
Or, simply and more cheaply, you can get a lot of what is contained in “Deer Hunting with Jesus” by Joe Bageant at http://www.joebageant.com , plus many of his subsequent issues.
Sadly, Joe died a few weeks ago.
I’ve had the feeling that we are in the “Bread and circuses” phase of our society since high school. I’m amazed that things have gone on this long.
Now Erik you probably know similar things are happening up on the iron range with jobs, nature, types of recreation. Probably also in the agricultural rural areas with farmers, ethanol, the polluted Minnesota river an CRP (conservation reserve program). I think the rivers in SE Minnesota could still have a chance of being good rivers but ethanol is killing the Zumbro and the Root. On another note on cities v. burbs I think an educational institution like Augsburg in mpls should relocate to the NW burbs.
Same goes for the snake river and one more that feeds into the St. Croix.
Thanks everyone, Jo, good to see you again (if you’re the Jo I’m thinking of!). Been pretty busy, will check out the recs today.
Dan, I’m not surprised that the farce that is ethanol is killing things. We had a plant here in the West End and the stuff that came out of it was very toxic. A lot of sulfamines that act as antibiotics are made in the process and they are bad news. This nonsense just has to end. I should write about it, but I’ve been slow.
I also want to thank all of you for being so open to how I use the words “progressive” and “conservative”. The language of our “debate” is really getting to me and I do want to find out what went wrong there at the very heart of it all. Thanks!
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