Interview: St. Louis activist Adam Shriver shares his philosophy

Adam Shriver is a next-generation leader among St. Louis-area progressive activists. His blog, St. Louis Activist Hub, plays a major role in alerting activists to issues and events, and he is an outspoken critic of tea-party leaders. He was named Political Gadfly of the year [2010] by the Riverfront Times, and he is a co-founder of the recently launched Forward STL blog, a one-stop source for left-of-center news for the area’s progressive community. In an interview with Occasional Planet [OP], Shriver [AS] shared some of his ideas on progressivism, activism and the local political scene.

OP: How did you get started as an activist?

AS: When I was five years old, I asked my mother why she didn’t eat meat. She said, “Because it hurts the animals.” According to her version of the story, that was all I needed to hear, and I immediately became a vegetarian. So, you could say that the idea of animal welfare is where I got my start. My first official act of activism was in Iowa in 2001, when I joined a group of environmental activists who protested as George W. Bush came through town.  But I didn’t really understand the full power of activism until I became a campus organizer through an AmeriCorps program after college.

OP: You’re a Ph.D. candidate in the  Philosophy/Neuroscience/Psychology program at Washington U. How does that academic pursuit fit in with being a progressive activist?

AS: In the PNP program, we look at philosophical issues as they relate to the brain. My main interest in philosophy is in ethics. There’s a fairly new field in philosophy that tries to examine the constraints put on ethical theorizing that result from understanding how the brain works. Thinking about ethics provides the motivation to be an activist, and my political activities are, at least in that way, an extension of my studies in philosophy.

OP: How do you define progressivism?

AS: My definition probably doesn’t fit the historical meaning of the word “progressive.” I see progressivism as standing in opposition to the view that there are some people who are bad or in unfortunate circumstances for no reason. Progressivism takes a scientific perspective of looking for the reasons why some people are in difficult situations in their lives. Progressivism acknowledges that there are causes behind bad behaviors and disadvantaged circumstances, and that we can address inequality by understanding its causes.

Progressivism is an inherently optimistic viewpoint. Instead of saying, “There will always be poverty, unemployment and bad people, so just live with it,” as a progressive, you’ll look at the reasons behind those conditions. You want to address the problems. You’re motivated to hope and work for a world with less suffering that functions in a better way.

OP: Is there anyone you’d name as your progressive role model?

AS: One person I’ve admired is John Lewis, who was a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights movement. He embodies the kind of organization and commitment to a better world I think we, as activists, should strive for. Discussions of the movement nowadays focus quite a bit on Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I like Lewis because he was more low-key and involved in the day-to-day training and activities. He kept people involved. He’s emblematic of someone who works behind the scenes. The Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have been successful without Martin Luther King as its orator and figurehead, but it also wouldn’t have been as successful without the ground troops like John Lewis.

OP: What are the biggest misconceptions about progressives?

AS: The political right has been very successful in its PR campaign to portray liberal activists as knee-jerk reactionaries who haven’t thought a lot about the issues, or who are just hippies who do it because it’s cool. That perception has seeped into the general consciousness and the press, and as a result, liberal activism is often treated dismissively. An example is the Iraq War: No one presented a strong case for the existence of weapons of mass destruction, but when liberals protested, they were marginalized by the media.

OP: What’s the state of progressive activism in St. Louis?

AS: We’re very fragmented. What holds us back is too much focus on differences among groups and disagreements about minor things. There’s not enough emphasis on the values that we share. For example, there’s a huge number of people in environmental groups who don’t understand the point of labor issues, and an equal number in the labor movement who don’t “get” environmental causes. People don’t see themselves as part of a larger, progressive movement, and that compartmentalization holds back activism. We don’t present a unified set of values and we haven’t defined a core set of beliefs.

OP: How would you remedy that “silo-ization?”

AS: I think we need a large student/youth movement in St. Louis. Right now, there are a lot of old grudges among groups, which I think could be swept away if we had a newer, younger movement of people who don’t remember the old hurts. If we could get students from different campuses to successfully join together, it could demonstrate that working together is effective. And if leaders from student groups got together and met regularly, they could make a change.

OP: What are the biggest obstacles to effective activism by progressives?

AS: Unfortunately, a lot of liberal/progressive people don’t feel a need to participate. Too many people settle for an attitude of “I’ve got progressive ideas and I vote correctly.” To bring people together, we need a stronger level of commitment from the average person. Also, being an activist is hard work, and it’s frustrating. Plus, the right has successfully made a lot of people think that there’s something wrong with being a liberal activist.

OP: How do you maintain your own enthusiasm and energy for activism?

AS: I’m basically an optimist. I know that, looking at the situation right now, it’s bleak: The power of corporations to get people to act against their own self-interest is mind-boggling. But I’m optimistic that, while selfishness is part of human nature, it’s also in humanity to care about each other. I may be diverging from reason on this, but I think that the empathetic part of human nature will be an incentive for progressives to come together. There’s something in people that makes us hope.