Politicon 2018: Socialism without socialists, free speech for the few?
Politicon 2018

LOS ANGELES—Politicon is to politics what San Diego’s annual Comic-Con is to comic books and superheroes—a convention geared for news junkies, avid followers of current affairs, talking points and of the talking heads who spew them in the rarefied realm of cable TV, talk radio, ripped-from-the-headlines books, newspapers, magazines, the Internet and beyond.

This fourth annual confab has provided Angelenos with another encounter, live and in person, with pundits, commentators, spinmeisters, speechwriters, journalists of the chattering class, etc., who are mostly based in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan. There weren’t any current candidates or officeholders per se in the various forums, panels, etc., but rather those who comment upon and cover politicians and politics.

This year’s talkfest was held Oct. 20-21 in downtown’s capacious Los Angeles Convention Center, which was large enough to allow the “Baby Trump” hot air balloon to be moored and soar in the so-called “Democracy Village,” where various vendors of a variety of ideologies ranging from Muslims for Progressive Values (staffed by comic Mona Shaikh, among others) to Christian Democrats of America, to Friends of Intelligent Democracy, to competing candidates for office, had booths. There were also stages and platforms featuring MSNBC and Washington Post pontificators. Last year’s Politicon was held at the Pasadena Convention Center. The common consensus among attendees of both the 2017 and 2018 events is that last year’s drew bigger crowds (although according to a convention press release, 2018’s had “record-breaking weekend attendance”).

Sam Seder, Moderator of the “Should We Be Socialists?” panel which excluded socialists. | Ed Rampell

Now let me get this out of the way, near the top: I had a lot of fun at both Politicons I covered, and highly recommend it for anyone interested in U.S. politics and what passes for the public discourse.

According to its organizers, “Politicon is the annual, non-partisan ‘Unconventional Political Convention’ that brings Republicans, Democrats, and people of all political stripes together to banter and spar over the most topical issues in smart and entertaining ways that often poke fun at both sides of the aisle” (italics added).

To be sure, these are lofty intentions. However, I’m not sure that Politicon lives up to its own hype and standards, and believe there’s lots of room for improvement in 2019.

“Socialism” without socialists?

A case in point was the 3:30 pm, Sat., Oct. 20 panel in so-called “Independence Hall” entitled: “Should We Be Socialists?” The well attended event was moderated by talk show host and podcaster extraordinaire Sam Seder, who co-hosted The Majority Report Air America radio program with Janeane Garofalo and currently hosts it solo in another incarnation. Other participants included The Young Turks’s Ana Kasparian; former South Carolina State Legislator Bakari Sellers; David Pakman, host of the nationally syndicated radio/TV The David Pakman Show; Kyle Kulinski, co-founder of Justice Democrats and host and producer of the YouTube show Secular Talk, an affiliate of The Young Turks network; and Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of Daily Kos, and co-founder of Vox Media and polling/data operation Civiqs.

Now, Politicon should be congratulated for noting that with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s potent primary challenge during the 2016 presidential primary race and 2018 Democratic Party primary winners, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who are both card-carrying members of Democratic Socialists of America, socialism is making a comeback. Membership in DSA has risen from 7000 to 37,000 dues-paying supporters. Various polls and op-eds, like Michelle Goldberg’s “The Millennial Socialists are Coming,” published June 30 in the New York Times and Harold Meyerson’s “Socialism is Back,” appearing July 22 in the Los Angeles Times, indicate mainstream interest. Goldberg wrote that a “recent survey shows that 61 percent of Democrats between 18 and 34 view socialism positively.”

Politicon’s presenters couldn’t fail to notice that “socialism” is no longer a dirty word exiled from the political lexicon and has returned as a phenomenon that has to be dealt with in order to provide the talkfest with a veneer of legitimacy, timeliness and edginess. So with its eye presumably on appearing to be topical and cutting edge, to its credit Politicon added for probably the first time a panel supposedly centering on socialism.

However, practically the very first words uttered by Seder, who hosted the curiously named “Should We Be Socialists?” forum were: “Nobody on the panel is a socialist.” This was quickly followed by this assertion from the first panelist to speak, Moulitsas, who declared: “I’m a capitalist.” (Among other things, this proud capitalist’s Vox Media is involved with advertising, which is generally about marketing capitalists and their products and services.)

Wait, a panel about socialists without a single, solitary socialist on it to express a socialist point of view, but instead includes a self-avowed capitalist? What’s next? A summit on the #MeToo movement featuring all-male speakers, including a rapist? Or a conference on Black Lives Matter presenting solely all-white panelists, including a Klansman? Or a panel on Judaism composed just of Aryan Christians, including a neo-Nazi?

In terms (to borrow a term from capitalism) of the free marketplace of ideas, Politicon’s panel on socialists completely failed to live up to its own self-declared mission statement, to bring “people of all political stripes together to banter and spar over the most topical issues.” By not having at least one socialist on the stage to explain and argue from a socialist point of view, Politicon completely failed to live up to its own self-avowed values.

As such, the blabfest was largely a farce. I don’t blame the moderator or panelists per se for this blatant suppression of the First Amendment right of socialists to speak for themselves in a symposium about them and their ideas. The fault lies with those who organized such a one-sided panel, whoever they were. Inquiring minds want to know: I actually did inquire who organized this charade and never received the courtesy of an answer. (Although perhaps the panelists should not have agreed to be complicit in such an intellectually bankrupt travesty?)

Indeed, the discussion, as Seder himself repeatedly noticed and commented on, veered off topic. And this was precisely because the gabfest about socialism didn’t include any socialists. Much of it was more of the same old pretentious prattle by pundits on cable TV outlets that passes for “news” instead of actually reporting on events around the world, which is far more expensive to do.

Instead of essentially being a confab among liberal Democrats, if there was a socialist panelist, when the subject of healthcare was discussed, the following question could have been addressed: Universal coverage has been a major point in the public discourse at least since the early 1990s, when First Lady Hillary Clinton led a task force that never even led to so much as a vote in Congress during the Clinton presidency. Subsequently, Obamacare failed to provide affordable health insurance for every American, and healthcare remains a pressing campaign issue. So why is it that since the early 1960s, Cuba has provided healthcare for its population, as well as made impressive advances in medical science and even exported its homegrown doctors to Third World nations, such as to successfully combat outbreaks of the Ebola virus in Africa? Why has a much poorer nation made such formidable strides in healthcare compared to America, which has far more resources?

But there was no socialist on hand to make that argument. Kyle Kulinski, who self-identified as a “social democrat,” came the closest to making some salient points. Kulinski insightfully argued that leftists should argue that they stand for freedom, so that when some Ayn Rand laissez-faire type argues that the left will take our liberty away through “big government” takeovers, progressives should argue that big corporations limit our freedoms.

Yes, imagine how much more personal liberty average individuals would have if colleges were tuition free (as in Cuba) and student debt didn’t cripple newly graduated pupils; if healthcare were universally accessible to all; if infrastructure and public transportation were expanded so workers didn’t spend hours commuting on crumbling roads and bridges; if a handful of corporations didn’t control media conglomerates and we had more widespread free speech; and so on.

Kulinski’s insight was probably the most progressive the panel got. Now, perhaps Politicon and its apologists could contend that the reason why the “Should We Be Socialists?” panel had no, you know, socialists on it was because, gosh, none could be found. Well, that would be an outright lie because last August, socialists participated in a number of workshops at the Left Coast Forum also held in downtown L.A., including one I moderated called “What is Marxism? Is Marxism Still Relevant?” with four panelists who all regarded themselves as some form of socialist. Furthermore, the L.A. branch of DSA alone claims to have about 1000 members and I’d imagine that if asked, they or other leftist groups could provide at least one spokesperson to participate in a public discussion on socialism.

The question is: “Should there be socialists on a panel called ‘Should We Be Socialists?’” To not have advocates of socialism participate onstage in discourse about this is ideological and intellectual misappropriation and arguably a kind of fraudulent misappropriation. Socialists have as much of a constitutional right to freedom of speech as liberals and capitalists, etc., do, and in future Politicon should include speakers of the socialist “stripe” to participate in the “banter,” and to speak on their own behalf. After all, socialism is a complex philosophy and believers in it should be part of any public conversation about it. It’s only common sense and fair.

Free speech…but for the few?

My favorite event at Politicon was scheduled to start 6:00 pm, Sat., Oct. 20, in the huge so-called “Civic Hall,” entitled: “How To Beat Trump.” It featured comedienne Kathy Griffin and attorney Michael Avenatti in a conversation moderated by Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post. Griffin was in high spirits—hilarious, full of moxie. Avenatti was also absolutely sensational, taking off the gloves as the bare-knuckled barrister took on The Donald.

It’s true that know-nothings on the right like to denigrate Avenatti, such as Lisa Marie Boothe did on Fox News’ program The Five during the week of Oct. 30. She tried to dismiss the battling solicitor as a complete nonentity and do-nothing nobody. But apparently this so-called “journalist” hasn’t heard that largely due to porn star Stormy Daniels’s legal actions, vigorously pursued by Avenatti, Michael Cohen’s office, home and hotel room were raided by the FBI. Blythe Boothe also doesn’t seem to know that Cohen went on to “flip” from being Trump’s “fixer” who’d “take a bullet for” him to pleading guilty to campaign finance violations on Aug. 21 and fingering Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator. Boothe also seems unaware that Trump’s longtime lawyer has been singing like a birdie to Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his probe into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 election. And just days before the midterms, Cohen exposed Trump’s blatant racism.

More than anyone, Avenatti seems to be responsible for turning Trump’s fixer into a flipper. While I know Boothe made her apparently propagandistic slurs after the “How To Beat Trump” panel per se, her disinformation regarding Avenatti is a perfect example as to how the right views Avenatti as their bête noire. I’m cognizant of the fact that Avenatii, as well as Griffin (who was investigated by the Secret Service and put on the No Fly List after she posed in 2017 with a faux bloody decapitated effigy of the head of Trump, who can dish it out but can’t take it, and clearly has no sense of humor) have received many death threats from rightwing zealots. The security was very heavy at their Politicon appearance.

Jonathan Capehart moderates the “How To Beat Trump” talk with attorney Michael Avenatti and comedienne Kathy Griffin, Politicon’s best panel. | Ed Rampell

But I was dismayed that after Avenatti and Griffin were late by more than 20 minutes, the first speaker was a sort of bouncer firmly informing the crowd of hundreds of attendees that hecklers would be removed by the guards. Now, I understand that controversial figures such as Avenatti and Griffin do have to be protected when they make public appearances (the recent spate of pipe bombs intended for prominent Trump critics and other recent violent episodes that occurred after Politicon underscore these hazards). But I’m not sure that individuals in an audience shouldn’t have the right to vocally express their concerns, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink being exhibit A. This isn’t necessarily disruption per se, although it certainly could escalate to that level. However, spectators just responding to what people onstage say shouldn’t ipso facto result in their exclusion—after all, they have First Amendment rights too. Freedom of speech isn’t solely for the few, for the elite “speakers.” Public discourse should not be limited to “We talk, you shut up and listen.”

Especially given that I was informed that after I left the panel early, questions were not taken from the audience before this panel ended. I don’t know whose decision that was, but the witty Kathy and the sharp tongued Avenatti can certainly more than hold their own answering queries from hostile questioners, verbally jousting with those on the other side of the aisle and so on. Of course, I reiterate that speakers must be physically protected from harm, and people who have paid good money to hear them shouldn’t be prevented from doing so by disruptions. (Although last year’s interruption of Ann “Helter Skelter” Coulter by ersatz Nazis and then by real Reds was a highpoint of Politicon 2017.)

Freedom of speech isn’t for the few, just for the rich and powerful and the gliberati. It’s for everybody. I love Politicon and had a ball last year and again this year, but this talkathon needs to somehow find a way to open up so that audience members can participate without getting thrown out by guards, and real socialists can speak on their own behalf at next year’s gathering. The “‘Unconventional Political Convention” must do so in order to remain credible and live up to its credo—for “people of all political stripes together to banter and spar over the most topical issues….”

Otherwise, if it doesn’t in 2019, in terms of genuine free speech, Politicon is a con.

Former CBS News President Fred Friendly called Ed Rampell “the only journalist in America named after Edward R. Murrow,” the legendary broadcaster. In 1989 Rampell set a First American precedent in federal court that journalists have the right to report allegations regarding public figures as long as they don’t say they’re true.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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