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The American Prospect
Culture Before Politics
In freeing creativity, progressives can once again capture and carry
forward our national imagination.
Jeff Chang and Brian Komar | December 9, 2010
On Nov. 3, progressives awoke to find that they had returned to 2004. Despite important
legislative victories, Democrats had been outflanked. Republicans had successfully sold
themselves as the party of economic growth, the party of the angry out-of-work American, and,
most dissonantly, the party of change. They owned the
narrative and won big.
It wasn‟t supposed to be like this. In the dark days following
George W. Bush‟s re-election, frustrated progressives set out
to build an enduring movement that would effectively
advance and communicate their ideas, policies, and values.
Funders and strategists created new institutions and scaled
up existing ones, including think tanks, civic-engagement
organizations, and media-watchdog groups. These
institutions played a key role in the 2006 Democratic
takeover of Congress, the 2008 election of President Barack
Obama, and the passage of parts of the Obama platform in
2009 and 2010.
Yet as progressives watched Democrats suffer the worst
election loss since the Republican collapse of 1948, they
seemed to be back where they started. Just as in 2004, many have blamed the losses on
ineffective Democratic campaign messaging. The problem, however, runs much deeper.
Electoral and Beltway politics are episodic, short-term, and transactional. Movements, however,
are long-term. “Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln once said. “With public
sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public
sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes
and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” In other words, movements must change
hearts and minds in an enduring way. They must change the culture.
Culture is the space in our national consciousness filled by music, books, sports, movies, theater,
visual arts, and media. It is the realm of ideas, images, and stories—the narrative in which we are
immersed every day. It is where people make sense of the world, where ideas are introduced,
values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change. Cultural change is often the
dress rehearsal for political change. Or put in another way, political change is the final
manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred. Jackie Robinson‟s 1947 Major
League Baseball debut preceded Brown v. Board of Education by seven years. Ellen DeGeneres‟
coming-out on her TV sitcom preceded the first favorable court ruling on same-sex marriage by
eight years. Until progressives make culture an integral and intentional part of their theory of
change, they will not be able to compete effectively against conservatives.
Conservatives have long recognized the role that culture plays in shaping public sentiment and
building movements. Created in 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities first
aimed to discredit the arts program of Franklin D. Roosevelt‟s Works Progress Administration,
then went on to blacklist hundreds of writers, public intellectuals, musicians, directors,
producers, and actors. Glenn Beck‟s and Andrew Breitbart‟s attacks on progressives in the arts,
the media, and the federal agencies that impact those areas are a 21st-century echo.
The modern conservative movement built an infrastructure to deploy its own cultural strategy. In
a famous 1971 memo, corporate lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Lewis Powell argued
that the time when a policy elite—the political leaders, wonks, and the chattering class—could
advance ideas and shape debate was ending. Instead of catering to this elite, conservatives
formed alternative media networks that bypassed mainstream-media gatekeepers and allowed
them to communicate their stories to the American public directly. Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and
Bill O‟Reilly are the products of this four-decade investment. Now conservatives dominate both
the top-10 cable-news programs and the top-10 AM talk-radio shows. The trinity of Limbaugh,
Beck, and Sean Hannity commands 40 million radio listeners alone—an audience that eclipses
CNN and MSNBC‟s combined prime-time viewership.
Conservatives have used these outlets and media figures to mobilize their supporters, promote
“traditional values,” and neutralize progressive ideas and thinkers with stories that are divisive.
Think of Gov. Jan Brewer evoking fictional headless victims of the Mexican drug war in the
Arizona desert, or the army of right-wing pundits decrying the “insensitivity” of “the groundzero mosque” and “Obamacare‟s” supposed “death panels.” These stories catalyze fears and pull
people toward conservative values and a right-wing worldview. Shortly after September 11,
Bush adviser Karl Rove met with more than 40 Hollywood leaders, including heads from
Paramount, Viacom, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the Motion Picture
Association of America to discuss seven administration-approved themes. Rove avoided the
word “propaganda.” “The word I like is „advocacy,‟” one attendee said.
Far too many progressives still focus on speaking to a consensus-seeking policy elite—one that
privileges objectivity, data, and argument—instead of pushing their ideas out to a divided public
that responds to values, images, and stories. Andrew Rich of the progressive Roosevelt Institute
has found that 77 percent of conservative think-tank leaders place a high priority on shaping
public opinion, compared to 58 percent of liberal think-tank leaders. Rich concluded that leftleaning think tanks remain badly positioned to fight a war of ideas.
More than that, progressives cede the cultural terrain, allowing conservatives to shape the
narrative. When election season rolls around, they spend huge amounts of money trying to
change it. Progressives correctly lament that conservative stories—like outlandish speculations
about Obama‟s citizenship—often have no basis in facts. But facts are useless without a story.
To take just one example, the Obama administration created the Recovery.gov website to
showcase the success of the stimulus. Featuring lots of maps, charts, and dollar amounts—but no
stories—the site quickly became just another data-heavy government website.
It doesn‟t have to be this way. Progressives actually hold a natural advantage on the culture front.
The latest neuroscience research suggests that progressives are more open to new information,
ideas, and cultures. That may be why they are overrepresented in the loose, diffuse networks of
creative professionals who drive music, arts, comedy, literature, and media. To flip a famous hiphop lyric, it‟s bigger than the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and The New York
Yet progressives have been slow to claim their history of cultural strategy. Roosevelt‟s Works
Progress Administration was not just the cornerstone of a successful jobs program; it produced
the art—by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston—that
defined the themes of struggle and triumph that the world now associates with “the American
Century.” In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy used cultural strategy to solidify Cold War liberalism.
“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full
recognition of the place of the artist,” he said. Under Lyndon B. Johnson, the National
Endowment for the Arts and the CPB were created.
Conservatives frame change as restoration. Progressives see change as possibility. In 2008,
Obama‟s success depended on conveying this message—and letting the culture do the rest. At a
University of California, Los Angeles, rally for Obama, the appearance of 4,000 Shepard Fairey
posters sparked a nationwide creative operation that directly involved hundreds of artists. By the
fall, millions of T-shirts, prints, murals, and ephemera, unauthorized by the Obama campaign,
heralded a new face of progress and change.
This lesson has been lost on the left. Liberals tend to call on creative types—especially famous
ones—only around election time to raise money or reach a crucial demographic. In the campaign
off-season, the left has depended upon a deep reservoir of goodwill from artists and patrons and
the ample gumption of arts organizers to take up the fight.
Creatives may be the most underutilized asset in the progressive movement. But they are not
tools of propaganda, either. Artists don‟t think like wonks or organizers. That‟s a good thing.
Cultural strategy is not about agitprop, benefit concerts, and lapel buttons; those are tactics,
sometimes useful, sometimes terrible. When artists tell new stories, they can shift the culture and
make new politics possible—cultural strategy is about understanding that fact and empowering
artists to do what they do best.
Take Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project‟s play, The Laramie Project. The play
helped organize support nationally for the introduction and final passage of the Matthew Shepard
and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It tied emotion to a tangible vehicle for change.
Al Gore‟s film, An Inconvenient Truth, did more to spark broad and deep action on climate
change than Gore did as vice president. The movie framed the facts in cascading images that
illustrated the stakes of political failure, reaching through the histrionic media environment to
win new audiences. These projects also highlighted values—inclusion, sustainability, the right to
live free of violence, the common global good—that point to a progressive agenda. When such
values are promoted in the culture, they are normalized. They become core American values.
A new cultural majority—an emerging American public that is the most demographically diverse
ever and predisposed to support a progressive agenda, a public that elected Obama in 2008 but
mostly stayed home in 2010—is still out there. But it is not being reached by progressives‟
formal infrastructure. Meanwhile, the right is constantly working in the culture to fragment it.
During periods of economic and social upheaval, people seek a way of making sense of the
chaos that surrounds them. Caught in the storm, they desire comfort and strength. Conservatives
address this by pulling people backward to an imagined past. Progressives prepare people to
come together to face the coming world. Culture is where they can instill faith.
In freeing creativity—that most renewable, sustainable, and boundless of resources—
progressives can once again capture and carry forward our national imagination.
Jeff Chang is the author of the forthcoming Who We Be: The Colorization of America.
Brian Komar is the director of strategic outreach at the Center for American Progress.
May 17, 2010
A Generation Gap Over Immigration
By DAMIEN CAVE
MIAMI — Meaghan Patrick, a junior at New College of Florida, a tiny liberal arts college in
Sarasota, says discussing immigration with her older relatives is like “hitting your head against a
Cathleen McCarthy, a senior at the University of Arizona, says immigration is the rare,
radioactive topic that sparks arguments with her liberal mother and her grandmother.
“Many older Americans feel threatened by the change that immigration presents,” Ms. McCarthy
said. “Young people today have simply been exposed to a more accepting worldview.”
Forget sex, drugs and rock ‟n‟ roll; immigration is a new generational fault line.
In the wake of the new Arizona law allowing the police to detain people they suspect of entering
the country illegally, young people are largely displaying vehement opposition — leading
protests on Monday at Senator John McCain‟s offices in Tucson, and at the game here between
the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Meanwhile, baby boomers, despite a youth of “live and let live,” are siding with older Americans
and supporting the Arizona law.
This emerging divide has appeared in a handful of surveys taken since the measure was signed
into law, including a New York Times/CBS News poll this month that found that Americans 45
and older were more likely than the young to say the Arizona law was “about right” (as opposed
to “going too far” or “not far enough”). Boomers were also more likely to say that “no
newcomers” should be allowed to enter the country while more young people favored a
“welcome all” approach.
The generational conflict could complicate chances of a federal immigration overhaul any time
soon. “The hardening of this divide spells further stalemate,” said Roberto Suro, the former head
of the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.
And the causes are partly linked to experience. Demographically, younger and older Americans
grew up in vastly different worlds. Those born after the civil rights era lived in a country of high
rates of legal and illegal immigration. In their neighborhoods and schools, the presence of
immigrants was as hard to miss as a Starbucks today.
In contrast, baby boomers and older Americans — even those who fought for integration —
came of age in one of the most homogenous moments in the country‟s history.
Immigration, which census figures show declined sharply from the Depression through the
1960s, reached a historic low point the year after Woodstock. From 1860 through 1920, 13
percent to 15 percent of the country was foreign born — a rate similar to today‟s, when
immigrants make up about 12.5 percent of the country.
But in 1970, only 4.7 percent of the country was foreign born, and most of those immigrants
were older Europeans, often unnoticed by the boomer generation born from 1946 to 1964.
Boomers and their parents also spent their formative years away from the cities, where newer
immigrants tended to gather — unlike today‟s young people who have become more involved
with immigrants, through college, or by moving to urban areas.
“It‟s hard for them to share each others‟ views on what‟s going on,” said William H. Frey, a
demographer with the Brookings Institution. “These older people grew up in largely white
suburbs or largely segregated neighborhoods. Young people have grown up in an interracial
The generation gap is especially pronounced in formerly fast-growing states like Arizona and
Florida, where retirees and new immigrants have flocked — one group for sun, the other for
In a new report based on census figures titled “The State of Metropolitan America,” Mr. Frey
found that Arizona has the largest “cultural generation gap,” as he calls it, between older
Americans who are largely white (83 percent in Arizona‟s case) and children under 18 who are
increasingly members of minorities (57 percent in Arizona‟s case).
Florida ranks sixth on Mr. Frey‟s cultural generation gap list, with a 29 percentage point
difference between the percentage of white people among its older residents and the percentage
that whites make up of its children.
That very different makeup of the young and the old can lead t0 tensions. Demographers say it
has the potential to produce public policy that alienates the young because older people are more
likely to vote and less likely to be connected to the perspectives of youth — especially the
perspectives of young people of different races and national origins.
“Short term, politically, the age divide heightens polarization,” Mr. Suro said “Long term,” he
added, “there‟s the challenge of whether older citizens will pay for the education of the children
Some older Americans acknowledge that how they grew up has shaped their opinions. Mike
Lombardi, 56, of Litchfield, Ariz. — one of 1,079 respondents in the Times/CBS poll conducted
from April 28 to May 2 — said his support for his state‟s new law stemmed partly from the
shock of seeing gaggles of immigrants outside Home Depot, who he assumed were illegal.
Comparing the situation to his youth in Torrance, Calif., in a follow-up interview, he said, “You
didn‟t see anything like what you see now.”
Maggie Aspillaga, 62, a Cuban immigrant in Miami, had more specific concerns: a risk of crime
from illegal immigrants and the costs in health care and other services. “They‟re taking
resources,” she said.
Some young people agree, of course, just as many baby boomers support more open immigration
policies. In the poll, a majority of Americans in all age groups described illegal immigration as a
“very serious” problem.
Still, divisions were pronounced by age: for instance, while 41 percent of Americans ages 45 to
64 and 36 percent of older Americans said immigration levels should be decreased, only 24
percent of those younger than 45 said so.
Ms. Patrick, 22, said the gap reflected what each group saw as normal. In her view, current
immigration levels — legal and illegal — represent “the natural course of history.”
As children, after all, her generation watched “Sesame Street” with Hispanic characters, many of
them sat in classrooms that were a virtual United Nations, and now they marry across ethnic
lines in record numbers. Their children are even adopting mixed monikers like “Mexipino,”
(Mexican and Filipino) and “Blaxican” (black and Mexican).
That “multiculti” (short for multicultural) United States is not without challenges. Aparna
Malladi, 31, a graduate student at Florida International University originally from India, said that
when she first entered laboratories in Miami, it took a while for her to learn the customs.
“I didn‟t know that when I enter a room, I have to greet everyone and say goodbye when I
leave,” Ms. Malladi said. “People thought I was being rude.”
Still, in interviews across the nation, young people emphasized the benefits of immigrants.
Andrea Bonvecchio, 17, the daughter of a naturalized citizen from Venezuela, said going to a
high school that is “like 98 percent Hispanic” meant she could find friends who enjoyed both
Latin music and her favorite movie, “The Parent Trap.”
Nicole Vespia, 18, of Selden, N.Y., said older people who were worried about immigrants
stealing jobs were giving up on an American ideal: capitalist meritocracy.
“If someone works better than I do, they deserve to get the job,” Ms. Vespia said. “I work in a
stockroom, and my best workers are people who don‟t really speak English. It‟s cool to get to
Her parents‟ generation, she added, just needs to adapt.
“My stepdad says, „Why do I have to press 1 for English?‟ I think that‟s ridiculous,” Ms. Vespia
said, referring to the common instruction on customer-service lines. “It‟s not that big of a deal.
Quit crying about it. Press the button.”
The Atlantic: March 2010
How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America
The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning.
Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults.
It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an
institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not
seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our
society for years to come.
By Don Peck
HOW SHOULD WE characterize the economic period
we have now entered? After nearly two brutal years, the
Great Recession appears to be over, at least technically.
Yet a return to normalcy seems far off. By some
measures, each recession since the 1980s has retreated
more slowly than the one before it. In one sense, we
never fully recovered from the last one, in 2001: the
share of the civilian population with a job never
returned to its previous peak before this downturn
began, and incomes were stagnant throughout the
decade. Still, the weakness that lingered through much
of the 2000s shouldn‘t be confused with the trauma of
the past two years, a trauma that will remain heavy for
quite some time.
The unemployment rate hit 10 percent in October, and
there are good reasons to believe that by 2011, 2012,
even 2014, it will have declined only a little. Late last
year, the average duration of unemployment surpassed IMAGE CREDIT: FREDRIK BRODEN
six months, the first time that has happened since 1948,
when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking that number. As of this writing, for every
open job in the U.S., six people are actively looking for work.
All of these figures understate the magnitude of the jobs crisis. The broadest measure of
unemployment and underemployment (which includes people who want to work but have
stopped actively searching for a job, along with those who want full-time jobs but can find only
part-time work) reached 17.4 percent in October, which appears to be the highest figure since the
1930s. And for large swaths of society—young adults, men, minorities—that figure was much
higher (among teenagers, for instance, even the narrowest measure of unemployment stood at
roughly 27 percent). One recent survey showed that 44 percent of families had experienced a job
loss, a reduction in hours, or a pay cut in the past year.
There is unemployment, a brief and relatively routine transitional state that results from the rise
and fall of companies in any economy, and there is unemployment—chronic, all-consuming. The
former is a necessary lubricant in any engine of economic growth. The latter is a pestilence that
slowly eats away at people, families, and, if it spreads widely enough, the fabric of society.
Indeed, history suggests that it is perhaps society‘s most noxious ill.
The worst effects of pervasive joblessness—on family, politics, society—take time to incubate,
and they show themselves only slowly. But ultimately, they leave deep marks that endure long
after boom times have returned. Some of these marks are just now becoming visible, and even if
the economy magically and fully recovers tomorrow, new ones will continue to appear. The
longer our economic slump lasts, the deeper they‘ll be.
If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and
character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them
as well. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men—and on white culture.
It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in
many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and
dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the
character of our society for years.
The Long Road Ahead
SINCE LAST SPRING, when fears of economic apocalypse began to ebb, we‘ve been treated to
an alphabet soup of predictions about the recovery. Various economists have suggested that it
might look like a V (a strong and rapid rebound), a U (slower), a W (reflecting the possibility of a
double-dip recession), or, most alarming, an L (no recovery in demand or jobs for years: a lost
decade). This summer, with all the good letters already taken, the former labor secretary Robert
Reich wrote on his blog that the recovery might actually be shaped like an X (the imagery is
elusive, but Reich‘s argument was that there can be no recovery until we find an entirely new
model of economic growth).
No one knows what shape the recovery will take. The economy grew at an annual rate of 2.2
percent in the third quarter of last year, the first increase since the second quarter of 2008. If
economic growth continues to pick up, substantial job growth will eventually follow. But there
are many reasons to doubt the durability of the economic turnaround, and the speed with which
jobs will return.
Historically, financial crises have spawned long periods of economic malaise, and this crisis, so
far, has been true to form. Despite the bailouts, many banks‘ balance sheets remain weak; more
than 140 banks failed in 2009. As a result, banks have kept lending standards tight, frustrating
the efforts of small businesses—which have accounted for almost half of all job losses—to invest
or rehire. Exports seem unlikely to provide much of a boost; although China, India, Brazil, and
some other emerging markets are growing quickly again, Europe and Japan—both major markets
for U.S. exports—remain weak. And in any case, exports make up only about 13 percent of total
U.S. production; even if they were to grow quickly, the impact would be muted.
Most recessions end when people start spending again, but for the foreseeable future, U.S.
consumer demand is unlikely to propel strong economic growth. As of November, one in seven