April 23, 2008 — Attacks from aggressive conservatives and trenchant criticism from the multicultural left have rendered American 20th-century liberalism — the commitment to an active, democratic, rational government that balances competing interests for the common good — a shell of a political movement and a label that liberal candidates tend to shun. But is all this changing? A University of Virginia panel discussion, to take place April 30, from noon to 1:30 p.m., in the Harrison Auditorium of the Special Collections Library, will ponder the issue.
"For almost 30 years, we have heard about the impending death of liberalism and the irrelevance of liberals," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, organizer of the panel and an associate professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. "Our liberal politicians have run from the label and shied away from classic liberal solutions to problems. But now some major writers and thinkers are actively recovering the spirit of the New Deal and Great Society and pushing for a return to pragmatic liberalism.
"We have invited three of the most important voices in American intellectual and political life to consider the promises and challenges of liberalism in the 21st century. This is a major event for the University because it will invoke the spirit of important Virginians such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Robert Kennedy [a 1951 graduate of U.Va.'s School of Law] and former U.Va. faculty member Richard Rorty, who passed away last year," Vaidhyanathan said. "It is also the first high-profile event sponsored by the new Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia," established last fall.
"And it's no accident that it will occur on the same day that that great American liberal, Bruce Springsteen, plays at the John Paul Jones Arena," Vaidhyanathan said. "Springsteen's work expresses all the optimism, dynamism and complexity of America. American liberalism tries to make sense of all of that as well."
The panel discussion, which is free and open to the public, will broach questions such as, "What aspects of 20th-century American liberalism are inappropriate for the 21st century?," "Is the United States a fundamentally conservative nation?," "Can our fractured and hyperactive media environment foster a sense of common purpose or tolerate the deliberate temperament of liberalism?," and "Can liberalism thrive in an increasingly diverse United States — i.e., can it contain multitudes?"
Speakers at this event are:
• Eric Alterman, professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the media columnist for The Nation and the author of seven books, most recently "Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America" (Viking, 2008).
• Angela Dillard, associate professor of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan and author of "Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit" (University of Michigan Press, 2007) and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now?: Multicultural Conservatism in America" (NYU Press, 2001).
• Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chairman of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. A sociologist, cultural analyst and award-winning novelist, he is the author of 12 books, most recently "The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals" (John Wiley and Sons, 2007).
• Bruce A. Williams, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and co-author (with Michael X. Delli Carpini) of the forthcoming book, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Eroding Boundaries Between News and Entertainment and What They Mean for Mediated Politics in The 21st Century."
The event, made possible by a gift from Discovery Communications LLC, will be followed by a book signing.