Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Netroots and New Orleans

I had a fun time in Pittsburgh and found the Netroots conference to be, as I did last year, a great opportunity and experience. Getting to speak on two separate panels was exciting from a personal standpoint and gave me two chances to talk about our efforts at local progressive political reform and the contributions of this community to local investigative news gathering efforts. I went to several trainings, speeches, and panels. I approached people who I wouldn't ordinarily have opportunities to meet.

The feedback I got from folks that attended one of my panels and from people who I spoke to in lobbies, elevators, bathrooms, and bars was extremely positive and encouraging. When you have the opportunity to do some retail politics about the importance of New Orleans, when you can pose direct questions gauging people's thoughts on what obligation the Left and/or the Netroots has to address New Orleans, they pay attention. They get it.


I blog about two things really.

I blog about my local environment and I blog about national/ international politics.

That's pretty similar to what most Netroots bloggers do. The difference is other people's local environments don't include New Orleans. Or the South at-large, for that matter.

And unfortunately, New Orleans doesn't fit in to the national political picture for most people anymore except for once or twice a year. That's unfortunate and unfair.

Add it to the pile.


Upon thinking about my conference experience for the last few days and after reading through a pretty resentful local email thread about the perceived reception for the New Orleans panel, Netroots organizers, or what is perceived as Netroots leadership, I think there are two very bad but easily reversible things going on.

First, I think that the Netroots conference specifically and the Netroots in general face a real crisis about what they want to be. I asked a question similar to this within the blurb I wrote for the New Orleans panel.

Are Netroots progressives chiefly concerned with affecting chance in American communities or more concerned about achieving more electoral victories for Democratic politicians?

A lot of times, those concerns align quite nicely. But a lot of other times, they don't.

It was really an honor to see Bill Clinton speak. I like the Big Dog. It was exciting.

But is it the right thing to do for Netroots to invite President Clinton to keynote but not answer questions or address challenges from the audience?

I will probably try to go to Las Vegas next year. I understand it is fun for a weekend and Netroots is a useful place to exchange ideas with like-minded people.

But is it the right thing to do for Netroots to go to Las Vegas for the second time in five years while overlooking the nation's most challenged communities? Does going to Las Vegas again reflect the progressive principles that drove the 50-state strategy and the overall growth of what could be a larger, more diverse, national progressive movement?

I'm not the only one asking. There are a lot of Netroots attendees vexed by the challenge of what Netroots is and what it should do.

Certainly, it feels to me to be way too much like the Democratic National Convention Lite.

We talk about this stuff.

I... I'm finding it bizarre to type.... twittered... my displeasure with the announcement of Las Vegas as the site for next year. A few hours later, the Chairman of the Board of Netroots specifically sought me out at the bar to talk to me about it. So too, separately, did another Netroots bigwig. I don't like their explanations very much but I see where they're coming from.

They have a tough job. Not inviting Bill Clinton or other big names means less tickets sold and less people attending. They try to go to places with robust local progressive communities. They try to go places that are cheap and accessible via air and road. They try to go places where hotels will offer generous deals. They try to go places that work on attracting them. They go where it is convenient.

Should they challenge themselves to take Netroots to places like New Orleans and Detroit, places where it would matter?

I made the case. They didn't disagree. They know they need to come down South.

I'm going to continue to engage them in a dialogue about it. That's what I'd like to think we progressives try to do.

And that brings me to the 2nd bad but easily reversible trend: our own tendency toward bitterness and isolation.

When the NCAA chooses somewhere else instead of New Orleans to hold March Madness, I don't boycott college hoops.

I don't think it helps us, not just in terms of attracting more attention from national progressives, the Left, and/or Netroots, but in terms of obtaining attention from anybody to immediately go all Sinn Fein anytime anybody does something we don't really like.

I like the idea of ourselves alone. I like it as a local organizing principle and a rallying cry for our work to clean up what's in our own backyard. I wish many more communities would adopt a similar approach to local change. But our problems are bigger than that and are beyond our backyard.

We have problems with the front porch and the roof.

We have problems next door, down the street, and on the next block.

It really matters what the rest of the country does.

I don't see how New Orleans achieves medium-term sustainability, a reasonable quality of life for its residents, or any whiff of justice for what has happened here without federal attention. I don't see how we obtain federal attention without engaging people around the country about what the situation here is.

I don't really post very often to DKos or TPM Cafe or anywhere else that might reach a national audience. Most of us don't. It would be helpful if I and we did that more often.

I'm excited by the conversations I had with other folks that blog about social, racial, and economic justice issues in other parts of the South and other urban areas. I look forward to continuing those discussions over the course of the year about how to better aggregate information on issues of mutual concern and how to organize around policies that might address those issues. I look forward to figuring out ways we can help each other.

And, as I said before, I plan on continuing to engage with conference organizers about coming to New Orleans in 2011 or 2012 or about a smaller, mid-year "salon session."

I'd like to think that they would be welcomed.

I'm curious to see people's thoughts.


Matthew said...

speaking of conferences, I want New Orleans to have a large contingent at next year's U.S. Social Forum in Detroit: http://ussf2010.org/

The first one in Atlanta in 2007 was an incredible experience for me and many many others.

Let's keep building and communicating and taking some action.

Leigh C. said...

E, I understand the planners and the folks making the arrangements for NN have a rough go ahead of them, as there is a big element of trying to please all of the left all of the time. A big step for NN to take is to truly figure out what they are all about. The leadership also needs to make DailyKos a much easier site to navigate and they need to quit lumping all the red states together in one big intolerant lump.

It's why I'm glad there are people such as yourself getting out into all of that and maneuvering your way onto one panel and hosting a second. The other one I would have liked to check out if I were up there would have been the feminism and blogging one in the morning - that description looked good.

At any rate, if/when they decide to come, we'll be here. The convention's masses are quite welcome to roam, to help rebuild a little, and to stay or head out and tell the rest of the world what is happening here. But hey, I'm not gonna be setting my watch by it right now.

E said...

"they need to quit lumping all the red states together in one big intolerant lump."

I totally agree. It punishes the 33-45% of red state residents that reliably vote the progressive ticket.

I wrote a post about that in which I corralled some really stupid beltway liberal snark reaction to Rick Perry's secession comment. Lots of "go ahead and leave" BS.

jeffrey said...

I think Leigh is onto something regarding Netroots needing to decide "what they are all about" Are they a progressive political organization built around new media or are they just the biggest new media organization in Democratic Party politics?

I find it difficult to reconcile the idea of Netroots representing a progressive insurgency in Democratic politics with its increasingly cautious electoral strategy and the appearance of Bill Clinton as its keynote speaker. If there is another political figure who has done more damage to progressive politics over the past 20 years than Bill Clinton I would not be able to name him or her.

But then Clinton may be an appropriate symbol for Kos' organization. It looks more and more to me like just another power brokerage unified only by the relative youth, ambition, and class snobbery common to its membership.

I know that sounds harsh so I want to be clear that I'm not aiming it at Eli. I think he's doing the right thing by getting involved in this quagmire, keeping the lines of communication open, and speaking up for New Orleans in particular. The guy has much more patience than I do, though.

E said...

jeffrey, i think that was a conversation a lot of us had in pittsburgh. a lot of people from a lot of places are similarly vexed by the crises of what netroots is and should become.

i find those conversations really interesting so it took no special patience on my part.

E said...

"I find it difficult to reconcile the idea of Netroots representing a progressive insurgency in Democratic politics with its increasingly cautious electoral strategy and the appearance of Bill Clinton as its keynote speaker. If there is another political figure who has done more damage to progressive politics over the past 20 years than Bill Clinton I would not be able to name him or her.

But then Clinton may be an appropriate symbol for Kos' organization. It looks more and more to me like just another power brokerage unified only by the relative youth, ambition, and class snobbery common to its membership."

I don't think I've ever had the same antipathy toward President Clinton as you but I think that the larger point is pretty much correct. But I want to make sure I point out that a lot of the 'membership' made similar points all weekend long. There are a lot of cool people involved in this thing even if the final product doesn't stand up to the ingredients.

jeffrey said...

Heh. "Membership" is a revoltingly poor word choice. Sorry about that.

suspect device said...

E, it's not just that NOLA wasn't chosen for NN that sparks much of my contempt for the Kos organization in particular. It's the short-sighted and small-minded contempt for NOLA, Louisiana, and the south at large that fuels it. You can see my responses in the DK thread, but many of the progressive voices have made clear their attitude toward Louisiana, and the loudest chorus came not even a full year after Katrina: why go there, intolerant Xtian rednecks, I won't spend my money, etc.

The problem isn't simple rejection. It's "progressives" treating us the same way (and ignoring us for the same resons) that the powerful right always have: too poor, too black, too southern.

Adam said...

As the aforementioned chairman, let me try to answer a few more questions:

1. We traditionally don't have q&a for the Thursday night keynote speaker -- they tend to lower the temperature of the room when the intent is to energize folks for the rest of the conference.

2. Take a look at the day-long event we did in Denver and start thinking about what you'd want to see in New Orleans.

3. I don't think of choosing Pittsburgh as making an easy or popular choice; we got a lot of puzzled reactions to that last year. I hope that (especially Thursday) we were able to tell the story of why we were there and place it within a broader progressive narrative.

4. We are absolutely looking at the Southeast for 2011. Detroit's also on the short list.

5. But for 2010, Nevada was the right choice -- it's at the center of immigration reform, of labor issues and the 2010 elections. In this economy, too, the matrix of airfare costs, hotel costs ($65-$85/night) and convention site costs was irresistible -- we have to host these events in places where activists can afford to come, and at host hotels and convention centers which are union-friendly. It's a process we put a lot of thought into.

Am happy to keep this conversation going. Ask away.

ActsofFaithBlog said...

This is a cross-section of issues because we all have different priorities. I look at the whole Kos thing as a means of one person trying to become a dominant political beneficiary by aligning himself with certain people as long as it's advantageous.

I went to NetRoots last year and decided I could spend my time, energy and money elsewhere, involving initiatives that address issues most important that have the biggest impact.

This conference may have many uses but it's not the only means for networking and meeting like-minded individuals. I don't think an event that has the heavy-hitters will address these matters of importance to the non-wealthy donors, non-politically connected and non-famous.

That's not its purpose really so I won't fault them either. Neither will I waste my time. If I have excess money and time perhaps I will participate but I'd rather spend that time building my own networks with less razzle dazzle and more effectiveness even if it falls under the radar of this "rock star" moment.

ActsofFaithBlog said...

Also as you know E, any organization head that tells a group of people they are not necessary and "diversity" is a waste with a straight face and feigning ignorance of the ramifications of that, who claims they'll look into that foolishness and ignore ALL suggestions is NOT OPERATING WITH ANY HONESTY. I don't care how many "black friends" they have or the two on their board.

Anonymous said...

Another thing I would like to mention is that the panelist are not compensated in any way other than registration. You are expected to pay your airfare and hotel.

This model is just another way of bloggers creating content for free.

I understand that it may be expensive to produce such an event but wonder if the keynotes like Bill Clinton are compensated.

Adam said...

Bill Clinton did not receive a speaking fee.

We are a nonprofit; we can only do what we can afford to do. In the past we could afford stipends for speaker travel and for hotel in addition to comped registration; the money simply wasn't there for that this year. Hopefully, it will be again.

E said...

This is some serious engagement right here. Really appreciate you coming by Adam.

Kevin said...

Suspect Device put it better than I could.

Eli, this is no knock on you; quite the opposite. I'm sure you represented the city and yourself very well, and I'm sure James and Melissa did too. I find it telling (and sad) that out of thousands of "progressive" bloggers in attendance, there was so little written about the New Orleans panel (and, believe me, I've looked); it even had celebrity-bait in the form of a frequent MSNBC contributor. But the attendees' lack of enthusiasm says nothing about Eli et al. and volumes about what many of us perceive as the priority of the group.

As for the location, I have no doubt that it's an advanced form of calculus to come up with a place that meets such a variety of needs. And you're never gonna please everyone.

But to insist on a unionized hotel and then end up in Austin, which doesn't even have one; to insist on an amenable climate and "walkability" and then end up in Las Vegas TWICE when it has neither, tells me that the organizers can be pretty darn elastic when it suits their needs.

So you're going to what is perhaps the least sustainable city in the US, for the SECOND time, and pouring your food and bev money into the pockets of large chains. That's fine if that's your goal. But believe me: activists can come here too and do so affordably. They have been, by the thousands, ever since the storm -- coming here to work, that is, not to cyberkaffeeklatsch.

As for looking at your Drinking Liberally event in Denver and deciding what we might like to see in New Orleans -- we already have our own event. It's called Rising Tide. This Saturday will mark its fourth year. We do it ourselves and we use the chance to support local businesses, not Hard Rock Cafes.

Rising Tide is enlightening, entertaining, and the so-called progressives from some other cities could probably learn a bit from us, rather than the other way around.

If they ever came to it, that is.

E said...


The difference is that Rising Tide accommodates bloggers of all stripes and pursues no political goals. That's fine. I like Rising Tide.

But I do have political goals. And I know I'm not the only one that would like to see some things change around here.

I would love to see Netroots do a Salon here so long as it gives New Orleanians an opportunity to connect to tools to inform local progressive reform efforts and so that New Orleanians have an audience of national progressives receptive to truly learning about just what's been going on here since the Katrina ran its course as a stylish bludgeon against the Republicans.

Adam said...

Kevin, I wasn't involved in the organization when Austin was chosen, and the response we received from our allies in labor strongly suggests we won't be making such a choice like that again. New Orleans is really the only city for which we can even try to make the case for bringing the conference to a non-unionized facility.

The argument regarding who's receiving our outside food & beverage money is an important one. All I can say in response is that in this economy, affordability played a larger role in guiding our decisions than it might have otherwise. While cities like New York and San Francisco are always going to be off-limits to us for cost reasons, this year pushed us even further towards the other end of the scale.

One other previously unspoken advantage of Las Vegas? For the first time, everyone will be able to stay in the same hotel. This helps the social life of the conference tremendously, as well as on accessibility/walkability front for the conference. It also -- because of the modernity of the construction -- means that accessibility issues we had with some of the sponsor's off-site social venues (converted old churches, etc.) are alleviated here.

Editilla the Pun said...

E, I really appreciate your coverage and participation with this year's Netroots. Based on past Netroots I probably would not have followed it but for your open take on things in general and your political focus in particular.
Leigh nailed a problem with the Kos site that absolutely drove me away in that, its very unwieldiness seemed to reflect a sort of lock-out of progressives in favor of Democrat Key Peoples. I don't even begin to pretend any such of political savvy. That's a field in which you sow well.

However, I am and have always been a Hard Working SOB and the choice of Vegas twice disgusts me to no end. Indeed, Vegas showed me the eye-opening difference between "to labor as a worker" and "to labor, as a gang member". After several trade shows I finally got out of the business that took me there and I swore to never drop another dime on those worthless layabout political factions ever again.
I mean, Adam speaks of his "Labor Allies" and I know he speaks of "Labor Muscle". These folks don't care about anyone who doesn't play their game.
Much of the reason Southerners don't see anything "progressive" about the US Labor movement is because said "Labor Movement" never comes down South with anything. How will we ever see any potential for "Labor" in the south if they never come down here?
I think Netroots should never repeat a Host City for a whole decade, and focus on moving around the country. I'd certainly get a better chance to attend that way, and it would develop stronger (HA!) Net Roots.
To just go for "Union" cities can just go to Hell. What is that shit?

Vegas is a more Media Friendly city, thus a better Marketing/Branding Machinery, for the same reasons Adam mentions they want to go there to accommodate.
But you know their motto: "Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas"
Whereas, whatever happens in New Orleans happens only in New Orleans.
Vegas is the ultimate in the Professionally Made Up Story.
New Orleans is The Story.
Vegas is about Deformation.
New Orleans, Reformation.

But I'm biased, and again, must confess my own Bourgeois Nievete as I often confuse balls-out party politics with progressive social evolution.

I do appreciate Adam coming on here though. That alone bespeaks a certain sense of the possible.

Thank you again, E.

dsb said...

Nice post, E, especially this: "And that brings me to the 2nd bad but easily reversible trend: our own tendency toward bitterness and isolation."

Agreed. Many folks here seem to be in a race to see who can be the first to go on record as being offended/aggrieved. I get the impulse, and I even appreciate the loyalty to our community, but it's a dead end.

E said...

I think we've all been guilty of it from time to time. I know I have a "how dare you" post or two or three in my archives that seem pretty immature in hindsight.

Editilla the Pun said...

Hey, I did thank Adam for showing.
Look, I just can't grok the idea of "Net" "Roots" and organized Labor Politics.

Hanging a Movement to such a coercive yet unmovable anchor just doesn't seem very progressive in the face of any rising tide.

For that matter, how can any "Netroots" ever make it past a flash in the pan if they always go where the going is easiest?

Anyone thinks I have some mean streaks online should see my bathroom mirror.

Your word verification thingy today is: "cravies".
Yep. Sure is.

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