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A Concert for Unity

The “Netroots Music Project & Unity Concert” is a new Indiegogo campaign raising money to promote an annual concert featuring protest artists from around the country. When I first heard about it, I was pretty excited. As a protest artist myself, I knew how difficult it was to find a platform for your message. A project dedicated to creating that kind of a platform would be valuable.

I went to Indiegogo, pulled up the project page and began reading with interest. The project description started off promisingly enough:

No significant social or political change has ever occurred without the support and involvement of pop culture. Artists are the voice of a generation…

Truth. That’s exactly why I decided to use my music for activism. I was cautiously hopeful. The page continued:

…and now, Netroots Nation wants to amplify those voices in the name of progress. It’s time to bring pop culture and politics together again.

Hmm… my spidey senses were tingling. What exactly do they mean by “in the name of progress”? This was about the music, right? I read on:

… music brings people together. It unites us across all divisive lines. It’s a range of emotion that you always come back to, it’s lyrics that stay with you and melodies you hum for the rest of your life.

Okay, back on track. I kept reading:

Combine the impact of music with the power of political engagement and you have an unstoppable force of progress in the hands of the people.

There it was again. What did they mean by the phrase “force for progress”? I kept going:

Our own history shows what protest songs were capable of doing in the Vietnam era, during the fight for Civil Rights.

Agreed. Some of the best songs ever written came from that era. Then they dropped it:

Conservatives have become adept at using musicians like Ted Nugent to galvanize their movement, and for good reason. Music energizes movements!

Damn. I had hoped this was about organizing protest artists from across the political spectrum in order to create a dialogue through music. How awesome would that have been? Unfortunately, the unity concert was turning out to be just another political rally.

Protest vs Propaganda

The thing that separates a performer from an artist is not skill. Not talent. Not success. It is personal truth. If you don’t have it, then no matter how successful you become, no matter how wonderfully you play, you’re just a performer.

Truth is what gives music its power.

Look at Ted Nugent. He’s no Moazart. And yet this is the guy “galvanizing” the conservative movement and inspiring the progressive movement to copy him? If that’s true, it’s only because what he says resonates with people and they respond to it.

An even better example is Bob Dylan. Horrible singer. Sounds like Kermit the Frog on weed. And yet, amazingly influential. He wrote some of the most lasting and defining songs of his generation. Through his music, Dylan was able:

…to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public—to give that inchoate sentiment an anthem and give its clamour an outlet.

It wasn’t accomplished through snazzy production or fancy campaigns. It happened because his personal beliefs struck a chord with people around the country. That’s how music becomes a soundtrack for change.

But this concert isn’t about what artists believe. It’s not even about what people believe. It’s about what the progressive political movement believes. And it’s about using artists to get other people to believe it too.

What Do Progressives Believe?

So what exactly do progressives believe? It was easy enough to find out. They have a book called Progressive Thinking which outlines the entire movement. It was created by the American Values Project. I’d never heard of it, but apparently it is a project that tells you which values are American, and which are not. They describe progressivism as an approach in which:

everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. As progressives, we believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at a decent, fulfilling, and economically secure life.  We believe that everyone should do his or her fair share to build this life through education and hard work and through active participation in public life.

So, progressivism is about fairness. That’s not very helpful. The definition is so broad that it seemingly accomplishes nothing. And yet, it’s not completely innocuous. If you accept the frame that progressivism is about fairness, then it becomes easy to paint things that aren’t progressive as unfair. Useful.

But who is being unfair? According to progressives, the unfair people are “the well-connected” and “the wealthy”:

And we believe that everyone should play by the same set of rules with no special privileges for the well-connected or wealthy.

If they had just ended the sentence with “the same set of rules with no special privileges for ANYONE” I might have been on board. I don’t want rich people to have special privileges. But I don’t want poor people to have them either.  I don’t think anyone should have them. And yet, if you are rich enough, or poor enough, in this country you get special treatment. The rich get bailouts. The poor get free cash. And the people in between? We get the bill.

This bothers me because it violates personal responsibility. Progressivism claims personal responsibility as one of its core tenets. But, it is only one of three types of responsibility described:

  1. Personal responsibility
  2. Responsibility to each other
  3. Responsibility to the common good.

The progressive idea of personal responsibility is interesting.

A standard definition of personal responsibility describes it as “the idea that human beings choose, instigate, or otherwise cause their own actions” and “because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.” It doesn’t say anything about how to live your life or what values you should have. It just says you are responsible for your actions.

The progressive definition of personal responsibility comes with a set of character traits and values:

Personal responsibility requires each of us to do our part to improve our own lives through hard work, education, and by acting with honesty and integrity.

I don’t believe any of that. In my version of personal responsibility, you wouldn’t have to work hard. You could be lazy. You could be stupid. You could lie, cheat and steal. But you would have to live with the consequences. The difference between telling someone how to behave and holding them accountable for their behavior is huge.

Even more concerning are the repeated references to the “public interest” and the “common good”:

Responsibility to others and to the common good requires a commitment to putting the public interest above the interests of a few and an understanding that strong families and communities are the foundation of a good society.

If we use that info to rank the progressive responsibilities in order of importance, we get:

  1. Common Good (Most Important)
  2. Other People
  3. Ourselves

But how do we agree on what the common good is? What do my responsibilities require me to do for other people? And worst of all, what do their responsibilities allow them to do to me? From a wannabe grassroots movement, suddenly we’re deep into Marx territory.

Netroots is not a Movement

But before we proceed, let’s make it clear that the Netroots Music Project is not a movement. It’s an initiative by the Netroots Foundation. Movements aren’t created by foundations. They don’t start as Indiegogo campaigns. They don’t tell artists what to say. And they don’t copy Ted Nugent.

Using the word “roots” to make the initiative sound organic is clever. But there is nothing organic about any of this.

Their unity concert is not even about unity. You can only participate if you are a progressive and share progressive beliefs. I found that out when I looked up how to sign up for their online artist community, which is run using a software platform called

Action Network describes itself as:

a nonprofit with a mission to help progressives succeed in their campaigns. The Action Network is only open for “progressive” individuals, organizations, and candidates. We’re not interested in helping your opponents win.

Does that sound like unity, or do those sound like fighting words?

It’s so disappointing.

The worst part is that the project isn’t about creating a platform to promote artists at all. It’s about using artists to promote the progressive platform. It’s not about making music to express public sentiment. It’s about using music to promote “progressive” sentiments to the public.

The nail in the coffin is the fact that artists don’t even get to choose what they will talk about. Each year, organizers select the topic for them. This year, they picked immigration reform:

By using music as a medium for change, we can unite people across the country, in the name of immigration reform, immigrant rights and all the other issues that affect us and our nation.

Next year, the artists will discuss… whatever they are told to. The Indiegogo page might as well have read “Preacher Seeking Choir.”

Whatever this is, it’s not protest music.

At best, it’s an ad campaign. At worst, it’s propaganda.

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