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The Momentum Conference in SF: Sharing What's Working

07/22/2008 05:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm sitting here at Momentum watching Alex Gibney, director of Taxi to the Dark Side, talking about waterboarding, Gitmo, and how America descended into a country willing to torture and even kill people, even if they're innocent (as many Gitmo and Abu Ghraib internees have turned out to be). And he's doing so in a calm, rational voice, certain that his audience is sane, too. Just the sound of it is a good thing.

There's a reason people attend church even when their religion doesn't demand it. The converted need to be preached to sometimes, just to remain invested. So if nothing else, meetings like this are always inherently useful, even necessary.

Unfortunately, that's sometimes all that results from these things. I've been to a few conclaves where a pep rally would have gotten just as much done.

So are we learning anything here? Yep. Partly because of the quality of speakers and the convention's unusual structure: 18 minutes per speech (make your point, show what works, and get off), and no formal Q&A periods but plenty of roaming face time, made possible by a strictly limited head count (300 people here, total).

You could call the format elitist, but it would be a strange description for a bunch of people fighting for immigrant and labor and women's rights. Call Tanya Harris, an ACORN activist who has devoted herself to rebuilding the devastated Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, elitist, and I think she'd just laugh gently in your face and get back to work.

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It's an eclectic mix — microloan lenders, health care experts, environmental activists, you name it. The main thing the speakers seem to have in common: they've actually succeeded at something, and they're sharing their knowledge about what works. That's refreshing.

Right this minute, psychology professor Drew Weston is discussing how to communicate progressive values (which the majority of the public shares on an overwhelming number of issues) by "shaping and activiating neural networks" in voters. It's sound science married to basic neurology — which is to say, really just good basic marketing — but it's also something the left is still learning.

Here: look at these six words:

Ocean moon glasses chair faith floor.

Now, name a laundry detergent at random. What's the first detergent that comes to mind?

Tide, probably, simply because of the preset association with "ocean and moon," etc. (Readers of Prisoner of Trebekistan will recognize this from the memory techniques I learned for Jeopardy.)

Simple, powerful, and (sadly for us all) poorly understood by lefties. Weston is now illustrating how the GOP has brilliantly done this for years, turning the positive word "liberal" into "latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, anti-American," etc. (Also probably the root of the impulse to call 300 activists meeting privately "elitist.")

And now Weston is now moving into how concise conservative messaging is, contrasting it with the muddled, unfocused messaging of progressives. (Using the word "progressive" now because the word "liberal" has been soiled in such an Orwellian fashion.) If you've read George Lakoff, this is nothing new, but it's stuff that every successful activist absolutely needs to understand.

And now he's demonstrating some specific reframes. On national security, for example, the proper frame isn't specific policy arguments, since they can't address either the underlying emotions or principles. The proper frame: "if we detain people without hearings, wiretap our own citizens, and torture people on mere suspicions, the terrorists have won, because we have given up everything our country has stood for."

Let's all say that together now.

So this really is a useful gathering. That's nice to say and mean. Even when a few of the presentations have felt a little gee-whiz, remapping history with a Steve Jobs shine, they've still been provocative.

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Granted, we're still a bunch of primates in here, so there's a serious amount of networking going on. One gathering last night felt much like many Hollywood parties I've been to, with people talking about their projects and sniffing out who could help whom mostest. But that's unavoidable. Hell, Gandhi's people probably used to elbow each other for position. It's a human thing.

And at least here, unlike Hollywood, the people desperately trying to save the world aren't fictional and carrying machine guns.

But even here, there are still disturbing glimmers of our own quiet despair to overcome. One speaker last night quoted Obama's inspirational refrain "we are the ones we've been waiting for," itself a quote of Maria Shriver quoting Alice Walker quoting June Jordan and singers Sweet Honey in the Rock, all of whom were quoting a traditional Hopi saying.

Believe it or not, a few feminists actually got visibly pissed — hearing the uplifting phrase not as inspirational, but as a misogynist slam against women, I guess because the speaker didn't verbalize a string of footnotes while trying to move people at the climax of an 18-minute speech.

Yes, misogyny sucks, anytime it actually occurs — but so does self-disabling instant-on anger at your own allies. Getting from there to what works seems to be part of what this conference is supposed to be about.

And even here, where everyone is already Involved to the hilt, we primates still seem to need an alpha male to get the troops truly psyched.

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Last night, Sen. John Edwards swung in, chatting for an hour about hunger and poverty with a depth I wish had been possible during the campaign.

Not a bad way to start, even if it's an accidental reminder of just how broken our electoral/media system truly is.

Speaking of one's own quiet despair... ahem.

Onward...