A Turn Right at the Left Forum

Kelley B. Vlahos's picture
By Kelley B. Vlahos, on Mar 19, 2012

“It’s like the CPAC of the Left.”

Someone told me that as I was making my way to the Left Forum at Pace University in lower Manhattan Saturday morning. Since I’ve been a virtual connoisseur of the legendary Conservative Political Action Conference, that annual running of right-wing Republican leaders and lemmings, this didn’t seem to bode well for my participation on a panel entitled “Prospects for a Left-Right Alliance in the Fight Against Empire.”

But let’s be frank, this wasn’t like CPAC. First off, there would never be a panel at CPAC called “Prospects for a Right-Left Alliance in the Fight Against Empire,” mostly because anyone who wants to host a panel and/or booth at CPAC has to pay upwards of $5,000 for the privilege,, I am told. The only organizations that have the kind of dough to consistently participate and steer the agenda are true believers and flush with cash. They are also completely intolerant when it comes to embracing counter-ideological ideas, like say, including gay Republicans or conservationists into the platform, or criticizing war, much less making common cause with the Left on any issue.

Antiwar vigil staged outside the Left Forum in NYC on Saturday.

On the contrary, the vast majority of the hard-Left types represented at Pace Saturday didn’t seem to have that kind of money hanging around, nor they did they necessarily need it. The several hundred panel slots were free — anyone who wanted to pull together a session needed only submit an application for approval.

Apparently the powers that be at the Left Forum this year did not think a panel exploring the common ground between the Right and Left an imminent threat to the progressives’ survival as a movement, so they gave our host, Evan Siegel, a mathematics professor and self-described liberal but reader of publications such as Antiwar.com and The American Conservative, a Saturday slot and a classroom.

What I found overall was pretty heartening, if not heartwarming, and I daresay, fellow panelist Jacob Hornberger, president and founder of the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation (who like me, eschews labels but was asked to represent “the Right”), felt the positive vibe too.

“I thought the panel went great,” he told me afterwards.

“By focusing on the particular theme of the panel — war, empire, and civil liberties — and staying away from differences that the panelists have in other areas, I think the dynamics were entirely positive and that everyone — panelists and audience — were able to bring a lot of light to these burning issues of our time.”

Hornberger even passed out a couple boxes full of FFF’s white paper on economic liberty to the attendees moving in and out of the exhibit halls (though he half-joked they might all come after him once they got around to reading it).

Maybe it was a case of exceeding low expectations, but something happened, like a tiny break in the clouds. Mostly it was the audience, they were not hostile, but rather receptive and perhaps a little more than exhausted with the current political climate, one that demanded we all choose sides, all the time. Far from caricatured, they were all ages, men and women, hippies and squares. Even a Right-leaning New Yorker turned out after I mentioned the session on a recent American Conservative blog post.

“I think it’s very clear, beyond the caricatures, that there is a lot of natural common ground,” said one audience member who did not want to be named because of his work in the news media. “Between all this categorizing — as right wing or libertarians or what you call “crunchy cons,” and then on the Left, which has it’s own baggage … I wish we could all get beyond that.”

At first of course, it seemed all that baggage might indeed smother the panel. What did Erykah Badu sing — “One day, all them bags, gone get in your way”?

There was a tense few seconds in which the baggage threatened to derail the whole thing. Panelist Chip Berlet, a dedicated right-wing hunter and certainly no friend of Antiwar.com, suggested he was all for a coalition with the Right but was unsure how to keep its fringe out. What to do when they start showing up at rallies with their xenophobic, racist signs? He said Republican candidate Ron Paul suffered from this baggage most of all.

At that, co-panelist John Walsh, a self-described liberal who has been volunteering for Paul’s campaign in several states (he’s also been writing for Antiwar.com since 2006 and is involved in the trans-ideological Come Home America movement), hit back saying that Paul has long disavowed the things said or written in his name that would suggest he sympathized with racist or anti-Semitic fringe elements. “What else do you want him to do, go out and hang himself?” Walsh demanded.

A pause, a deep breath, and then Hornberger put things into perspective: of any of them there that day, he should have been the most ostracized and the most uncomfortable, given the wave of pro-communist literature stacked up in the exhibit halls downstairs — tomes he hadn’t seen since the early 1970s.

Sharing a stage with these acolytes was at best, a scary prospect, at worst, a car wreck, but Hornberger said their differences meant little to him right now. What matters most was defeating the thrust of empire — the rampant Executive Authority of the White House, the ballooning defense contracting industry, the ruinous Global War on Terror that spawned the Patriot Act and more recently, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“The root of the problem is the U.S. government’s imperialist, interventionist foreign policy,” he said.

“It engenders the anger and hatred among foreigners, which then manifests itself in retaliatory terrorist strikes, which are then used as the excuse to clamp down on civil liberties in the name of ‘keeping us safe,’” he added. “That’s why it’s vitally necessary to abandon that foreign policy and restore a constitutional republic to our land.”

We need to band together to resolve this first, and then, only then, could they tackle the other issues that divide them.

Berlet looked skeptical, but nodded several times in agreement with what his fellow panelists had to say over the course of the nearly two-hour discussion, not the least of which was a point that Walsh made, that only Paul has been talking about ending the Drug War and mandatory drug sentences that in part keep African Americans incarcerated at higher rates than anyone else in the U.S. These are two issues high on the list of Liberal causes today. Not even Barack Obama has bothered to make this a priority since taking office.

Conservative writer Mark Brennan was probably the unlikeliest of attendees on Saturday. But Brennan said he is antiwar, and often finds himself at odds with his right-wing friends over the issue of foreign policy and civil liberties.

We have to stop the war, he charged after the panel was over, “and if these are the guys who I’m going to do it with, then so be it,” he said, pointing to the other departing Left Forum participants, who were leaving to make way for another battery of panels with names like “Overcoming Climate Change: The EcoSocialist Path,” and “Occupy Malcolm-X- By Any Means Necessary.”

“If you took this entire conference and locked them all in a room for a month they couldn’t come up with a sign that offended me enough to keep me from attending a rally together,” he said. “Let’s be serious. The whole taxonomy of labels and names is not working anymore. We’re coming together to stop the murder.”

Noah, a self-described Occupy Wall Street activist, said, “I loved this forum,” because it allowed for a frank discussion on where the progressive antiwar movement fell down on the job during the Bush Administration. “The whole Left, so much of it got sucked up into the (Democrat John) Kerry campaign” in 2008, and lost its way yet again, supporting Obama and ignoring the signs that he, too, would fail them on the war.

Noah said the Occupy movement also led him to believe that “that maybe it’s time to open up people’s minds to libertarian and anarchist thought.”

Now that’s not something one hears every day at the Left Forum. But it’s clear that while it’s a small victory, it feels good to clear the air with people like Noah and some of the other folks I had the pleasure of talking candidly with on Saturday, who probably thought there was no light between me and Jacob Hornberger and Rush Limbaugh when they saw our names and affiliations in the program. In fact they were probably shocked when Hornberger, dressed in a suit that made him appear more fitted for a banker’s conference than an anti-banker rally, declared at one point that he felt more comfortable there than at CPAC.

Walsh and our host Siegel had similar, yet varyingly positive impressions.

“I do not know whether the forum was useful to those who were there,” Walsh told me, however, “the very fact that it was held speaks volumes about the breakdown of the Left/Right divide on the issues of war and Empire. There is an open-mindedness developing on this question among progressives – and that is largely due to Ron Paul and his campaign.”

While that might be a little bit of wishful thinking (there still seems to be whole lot of suspicion of Paul among the Left), it is worth noting that the Ron Paul types were the only members of the so-called Right who did not rush to mock the Occupy protesters when they attempted to take over public squares in cities and towns all over the country last year. They tend to see Billy clubs and pepper spray and know it could be any American, including themselves, on the receiving end some day.

One couldn’t say the same for people like right-wing R. Stacy McCain and the commentariat on his website, “The Other McCain.” He came up with this winner of a blog post as dozens of protesters were arrested, many of them Left Forum participants, marching to re-occupy Zuccotti Park on Saturday night:

That’s the way to do it, NYPD! Give ‘em a sweet taste of the nightstick!

But doesn’t NYPD have Tasers? Jack ‘em up with some high voltage!

Billy clubs, Tasers, pepper spray, whatever it takes to keep Marxist scum off the streets of New York, do it. These whiny deadbeats are a menace to public safety — scabies! tuberculosis! rape! — and if they refuse to disperse peacefully, they have thereby declared war on the law-abiding citizens of New York, whom the NYPD are sworn to protect and serve.

There are reports that a handful of Occupy protesters were hospitalized with injuries. Unfortunately, it was only a handful, and none of those injuries were wounds from 9mm pistols or 12-gauge riot guns.

Of course McCain insisted this was mere “hyperbole,” or “hypothetical atrocity rhetoric,” justified by his justifiable hatred for Communism and the Occupy movement, which he calls an “iteration of that (Red) menace.” Even if McCain were seeking some sort of cathartic release, he seems blind to the fact that his general reaction to the police crackdown — not to mention the comments from his readers, which ranged from ham-fisted to horrifying — is more Stalinist than any of these tree-hugging, anti-capitalist Marxists would ever endeavor to be.

The fact is, our little session was not only about convincing liberals that we are not R. Stacy McCain, but finding one another, and agreeing on some common language. We were all on the same page already; we just had to get past the labels.

That’s exactly what Hornberger had suggested, that “the fun is in finding people … I think our quest is finding people” who believe in the same principles, “rather than changing anyone’s minds.”

In building this broader consensus, he suggested, we might someday reach a saturation point of public opinion that could tip the scales in our favor.

“Everyone nodded and smiled or laughed when I commented on how tired I was of going to rallies with nothing but the usual left-wing participants,” said Siegel.

“This panel was a huge breath of fresh air. Wish we had ten times as many people there,” he added.

Maybe next time.

I don’t think all this makes me a “Red,” but I think for one day, at least, one session, we were truly colorblind, and for that it was worth it.