It was tough choosing between "Ecofeminist Ecosocialism in Action: Perspective on Contemporary Movements for a Planet Beyond Capitalism" and "Sarte Re-visited in a Time of Crisis," two of the highlights of the 2013 Left Forum. But somehow I managed.
The Left Forum is the preeminent socialist confab in the United States, bringing together leftists of all stripes since 1981 for three days of panels, lectures, and more panels. So many panels.
I arrived at Pace University in lower Manhattan on Saturday morning, June 7, and, after convincing the coordinator that I was a Very Serious Reporter, was given a press pass and set free to roam.
Inside the university, I saw all of the familiar stereotypes: grey-haired baby boomers still fighting The Man; college radicals with "legalize it" patches on their canvas field jackets; young girls with tattoos and combat boots.
The radical left as an organized, visible force in America has all but disappeared during Barack Obama’s presidency. Obama having secured a second term, Democrats have little need for the noisemakers. Occupy Wall Street briefly raised the prospect of a reinvigorated left, but that, too, faded away.
Down in the press area, I ran into Medea Benjamin, the Code Pink activist who made the news recently for interrupting President Obama’s speech on closing GITMO. Short, blond, 60-years-old and dressed in a pink shirt, she didn’t look like a powerhouse protester. As we talked, people walked up to congratulate her.
"It was easier to mobilize people under Bush," Benjamin said. "It was really hard in Obama’s first term to mobilize, to move in a more radical direction."
Obama’s critics painted him as a socialist, effectively making the president the left goalpost of the political spectrum, she complained. What’s a real socialist to do?
In the Pace student union, vendors hawked Ché and Trotsky t-shirts. Not to mention magnets, posters, and all sorts of other revolutionary kitsch.
The Workers World Party handed out literature at a nearby table. The group is notable for its full-throated support of "anti-imperialist" leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il. It also called the Tiananmen Square massacre "a myth."
Overwhelmed by the cognitive dissonance, I decided to start attending the numerous panels.
There were dozens to choose from at any given moment; managing time at the Left Forum was an exercise fraught with opportunity cost calculations. For example, if I attended the talk on "ecocide" and smashing capitalism, I would miss "Pussy Riot: The Ongoing Struggle."
In the end, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see Michael Moore, who was participating in a panel discussion titled "Harnessing Humor to Turbo Charge Engagement."
"Yes, Michael Moore!" a woman in front of me said as we caught sight of a sign directing us to the classroom where the panel discussion was to take place.
We took our seats in a medium-sized lecture hall on one of the upper floors of Pace. Julianna Forlano, host of a YouTube show called Absurdity Today, led the panel.
John Hlinko, the head of Left Action, was also there. Hlinko said he used humorous Facebook pages to recruit liberals into his activist network. Some examples of his Facebook work: "Republicans are morons" and "Can this horse’s ass get more fans than Mitch McConnell?"
John Fugelsang, the host of a political talk show on Al Jazeera-owned Current TV, was another panelist.
And of course, Michael Moore, director of Canadian Bacon, wearing his signature baseball cap.
The panelists said humor is an effective tool for making a point, as opposed to the grating seriousness that pervades much of the left.
It was by far the most entertaining event I saw at the Left Forum, but the one thing the panelists were totally serious about is how unfunny conservatives are.
Moore said the reason "we don't have conservative comedians generally" is because conservatives are behind the times on social issues.
"They have a hard time with this," Moore said. "They're dinosaurs."
"Conservatives can’t do comedy for two reasons," Fugelsang declared. "One, they’re usually defending the status quo in some way. You’re defending the upper two percent."
"And also, if there’s no element of truth in the point you making, it won’t be funny," Fugelsang continued.
Fugelsang may be an expert on humor after all. There was something funny about a liberal comedian who is so self-serious he believes his political tribe has a monopoly on truth.
Outside Pace, the standby line stretched around the corner with people waiting to see leftist intellectual and Gilmore Girls guest star Noam Chomsky.
Activists took advantage of the captive audience, handing out flyers in support of Bolivian miners, flyers opposing the Koch Brothers, flyers for every conceivable liberal cause.
"Well, I'd like to say a couple things about tendencies in American society and what they portend for us and the world in the light of U.S. power," Chomsky began. "It’s diminishing as it has been since 1945, but it’s still incomparable in its danger."
Chomsky stood on stage in blue jeans and a cable-knit sweater, speaking in a soft, gravelly voice so constant in its temperament, tempo, and volume that the words melted into one soothing stream of sound punctuated by his stock phrases.
"Violent neoliberal assault on the population … lethal grip of imperial domination … lockstep service to the rich and corporate sector."
The thrust of Chomsky’s speech was to counter what he called the "received doctrine about American society" with the truth of "Really Existing Capitalist Democracy," or RECD, as he called it.
"Kennedy was carrying out a huge terror campaign against Cuba," Chomsky said. Coupled with the U.S. military advantage, it’s no wonder the poor Russians put missiles there.
"We'll soon be celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta," Chomsky said. "More like interring it after Bush and Obama have torn off all the flesh."
Iran’s nuclear program is "a Western obsession, primarily the United States'."
The Federalist Papers? Mostly propaganda.
"The late Weimar Republic comes to mind."
Many, many more things came to Chomsky’s mind, as well. After about a hour, he finished with a paraphrase of Martin Luther King Jr.’s "moral arc of the universe" quote, and the audience broke into rapturous applause.
"And this is what happens when you try and present Bolshevik politics at the Left Forum," the Marxist said bitterly as the crowd shouted him down.
The panel, "Occupy and the Future of the Left," had proceeded just fine until the moderator opened up the floor to questions.
Panelists from radical magazines like Jacobin and Dissent had opined on what Occupy meant and where it was going. They talked in the occu-language prevalent among the movement’s organizers—a mix of academic "isms" and metaphysical poetics about the infinite possibilities of the Occupy experiment.
"When we say Occupy theory we do not mean the theory of something called Occupy," said Yates McKee, one of the editors of Tidal, a journal of "Occupy theory." "We mean Occupy as a body of action, Occupy as a space, where people discover their common power of refusal and invention."
Once the mic was open, though, the Marxists discovered their common power of refusal and invention to slam those democratic socialist sellouts.
Shortly after the first Marxist approached the mic, a woman arrived and began yelling at McKee for excluding non-"horizontalist" (don't ask) opinions from his magazine.
After that, another Marxist began berating the panelists for their subservience to the running dogs of capitalism.
"When the police cleaned out the parks, those were YOUR police!" the man shouted with all the venom he could muster, leaning into the mic and pointing an accusatory Leninist finger at the panelists.
"Please, stop," the moderator interrupted. "No. You’re being rude."
"Excuse me, why isn't this movement working?" someone in the audience asked sarcastically. "That's my question."
The park that became the heart of a national protest movement is small and unremarkable—a sloped, concrete plaza dotted with young trees. There were no signs of the original Occupy Wall Street encampment left at Zucotti Park.
I was hoping to catch a march in support of the public protests in Turkey led by Occupy elements, but the marchers had already left. Instead, I found Bill Johnson, a member of OccuEvolve.
OccuEvolve sprung up as an umbrella group for Occupy elements after the general dissolution of the movement.
Johnson, a middle-aged man in a button-down shirt and slacks, said he walks every day through the parts of Staten Island hit worst by Hurricane Sandy wearing a sandwich board that reads, "Seven months later, no acceptance, no justice."
"We haven’t reached out to the poor neighborhoods, the powerless, outside this little park," Johnson said. "That’s where the voice of Occupy needs to grow. The Left Forum is not going to reach out to them, brilliant as Chomsky is. They talk for three days and don’t produce anything that gets us to the root of our problem."
My interview with Johnson was interrupted by another member of OccuEvolve, a lady who wanted to tell me about the health dangers of electromagnetic radiation, such as the kind emitted by WiFi.
"She’s one of the few people talking about this issue," Johnson told me.
"America has always had a strong fascist lean," Oscar winner Oliver Stone said to nods of approval from the audience.
As with Chomsky, the auditorium was filled to capacity for an interview with Stone and a screening of his 10-part documentary series, "The Untold History of the United States."
Stone said he wanted to make the documentary to counter the lies his children were taught about American history in school.
He recruited his friend, American University history professor Peter Kuznick, to help, and the two banged out a 10-hour documentary and 700-page tome.
The film was financed, Stone said, through private sources in South America. Stone said his film about George W. Bush was backed by Hong Kong money. Clearly globalization is working for somebody.
There is nothing really "untold" about the whole production. Michael C. Moynihan called the series "ideological drivel" and "a marvel of historical illiteracy" in a Daily Beast review. A Princeton historian in the New York Review of Books said the documentary’s accompanying book was "less a work of history than a skewed political document."
The folks at the Left Forum ate it up.
When Henry Kissinger or the Koch brothers appeared on screen, the audience hissed. They clapped and cheered when Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and imprisoned leaker Bradley Manning were shown.
It was somewhat weird and refreshing, though, to see Kuznick, Stone, and the audience shower invective on Democratic liberals such as Harry Truman, Madeleine Albright, and Hillary Clinton.
"These are the people that are creating the United Stasi of America," Kuznick said.
I was at a gauche Irish pub later that night when I heard the familiar patter of revolutionary flapdoodle.
The two girls sitting next to me were talking revolutionary strategy and boys.
An old Occupy friend spotted them, and they began talking about every occupiers favorite subject: drama.
"Oh, I saw you guys making out on May Day and thought you were together."
They recalled a mutual acquaintance who had a penchant for oversharing his poetry about ejaculation.
"I mean, poetry has its place, and sex has a place in poetry and the revolution, but jeez!"
There were dozens more sessions the next morning, but I couldn’t imagine anyone had much left to say.