The New Radicals: Academics and activists imagine the future of progressivism at the Experimental Station

Aside from the occasional political button or t-shirt, the people crowded into the high-ceilinged atrium of the Experimental Station showed no obvious signs of radicalism. They sat quietly before each panel of speakers, punctuating the dialogue with the occasional burst of applause. Even when “apparatchiks” were mentioned, it was as a means of condemnation rather than description.

The crowd, which was composed more of boomers than college students, had convened for a Festival of Democracy with the subtitle “Unleashing Radical Imagination.” From 1 to 9pm last Saturday, the event featured speakers including academics, journalists, and activists. It was sponsored by The Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council, an organization whose programs “promote participatory democracy by creating space for public conversations.”

Those conversations did occur, although the diversity of opinion ensured that few conclusions were reached. The attendees may have been overwhelmingly liberal–or, as they now prefer to be called, progressive–but they were also divided in their loyalties to the Democratic candidates and their party itself.

Before the discussion of these contentious issues, three spoken-word poets offered their respective spins on Chicago’s history, the year 2008, and the experience of being both black and homosexual. Adam Levin articulated the crowd’s mood best, saying, “I’ve got a good feeling about 2008,” even as he equated a future Democratic victory with one for the Cubs.

The first panel was devoted to presidential politics, with speakers Bill Fletcher, Quentin Young, and Laura Flanders each offering his or her take on the current political scene. After they answered the questions of moderator Alice Kim, the floor was opened to any audience member who wished to speak.

Several issues kept cropping up in the comments of both speakers and listeners. First was the fact that progressives have, as Fletcher put it, “had their asses kicked so many times that they’ve gotten used to it.” He argued that this has prevented them from developing a long-term strategy that would actually allow them to win, like that of the well-organized religious right.

Flanders mentioned that our country’s silent majority remains to be mobilized. This is made up of the sixty-five percent of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq, the sixty percent who support legal recognition for homosexual couples, and the voters who helped elect a Democratic majority last fall. If they put pressure on politicians, she reasoned, America would begin to see real progress.

Closely tied to the invisibility of this majority is the subject of media ownership. “The media exercises radical imagination,” said Flanders. “We just have to exercise reality.” That’s difficult at a time of increasing consolidation, when, as one audience member pointed out, Clear Channel owns all the major radio stations in Chicago that attract black audiences.

Another recurring theme in the discussion was the need for a universal, single-payer healthcare system. As a physician who helps organize doctors politically, Quentin Young is predictably concerned about healthcare, and he expounded on the enormous cost of our current system to all Americans. Later on, a man from the audience told how he had been unable to afford health care after experiencing kidney failure and losing his job. After receiving a transplant several years later, he attended a meeting of The Public Square and became politically active. His story seemed to support Young’s stance: “The healthcare struggle can move to become a clear-eyed, radical struggle.”

During the question-and-answer period, the inevitable debate over presidential candidates came to center on Barack Obama. None of the panelists was enamored of him, to say the least. Fletcher went so far as to compare him to an alien in Star Trek who could take the form of anything its viewer wished to see, while the others simply cited his lack of a progressive voting record or platform.

With its mix of social justice and socializing, the Festival of Democracy was typical of the events held at Woodlawn’s Experimental Station. The nonprofit strives to create a community of people whose paths cross at such functions, many of whom would never meet otherwise. “The food element brings people together,” explained co-founder Connie Spreen.

More than anything else, this interaction probably helped to fulfill the festival’s goal of “Unleashing Radical Imagination.” As people milled around, exchanged blog sites, and debated the merits of the Green Party, the greatest value of the panels seemed to be in getting the conversation started.