Monday, August 6, 2007

Kos It Was There

To say I was wary about attending YearlyKos is a tad understated. I'm not part of that blogworld; I don't play first-name footsie with all the lib faves; I'm not looking to belong to or redeem the Democratic Party. If Juan Cole wasn't my link to the convention, I would be suspicious, if not worried that somehow I was slipping. But it was Juan who invited me to be on his panel, and despite our many disagreements (don't get us started on Clinton's bombing of Serbia), Juan accepts me for who I am -- such as I am, that is.

I hadn't been to Chicago in 16 years. It's not one of my favorite cities, for various reasons, but mostly because it always felt provincial to me. I've been told by friends who've lived there that I'm full of shit, that my years in New York corrupted me. Maybe so. But in my eyes, Chicago could never match NYC for energy, creativity, and attitude. If I'm going to live in a big city, I want it to be like nothing else. New York, for all of its mall-ification and tourist pandering over the past few years, is that kind of city. Compared to that, Chicago is an oversized Columbus, Ohio.

Still, when I got off the train in the middle of town, I happily plugged into Chicago's vibe. I suppose living in a small campus town has made me hungry for any city energy, or perhaps I'm just older and less judgmental about these things. But I liked walking those wide Chicago streets; my city mind clicked on, and I was back in my preferred element, even though I had no idea where I was going. It didn't matter. There are plenty of sights to see, and I had some time to kill before I could check into the hotel.

Eventually, I hailed a cab, though it took me about twenty minutes to find one. I thought it would be a short ride, since I assumed that the Hyatt McCormick was somewhere in the cluster of midtown. Turns out the place is down by Lake Michigan, amid a bunch of new construction and nearly-finished high rises and office buildings. The Hyatt is an obscenely large space, resembling Bruce McCall's sprawling portraits. It's also very bland and impersonal; cold, remote. Whoever designed it was not thinking in intimate terms. And judging from the newer buildings rising nearby, that area of Chicago will soon become a flat stretch of uninspired architecture that would make Tom Wolfe rightly gag.

Oh, 21st century -- have you no character?

The friendly, robotic clerk at the front desk informed me that my room wouldn't be ready for another hour. So I followed some of the Kossacks, immediately identifiable by the large plastic badges hanging around their necks, to the convention area. As I strolled along, more and more bloggers appeared, many of whom were sitting on the floor, tap tap tapping away at their laptops. Then, as if on cue, Kos himself emerged from the crowd, elfin grin on his small face. When we crossed paths, Kos looked directly at me and smiled, nodding hello. I'm certain he had no idea who I was, for if he did, I doubt he'd be as jovial. In any event, Kos looked pleased, and why not? His little political empire is expanding, and the bustle of bloggers tapping and chatting under his name must be sweet music to his ears. The guy has certainly arrived, I'll give him that.

After walking for what seemed like carpeted miles, I found the registration area and went to formalize my arrival. The woman at the counter confirmed my place on the afternoon panel, gave me my personal plastic badge, along with a YearlyKos tote bag filled with all kinds of crap. Now I was part of the scene, though I immediately noticed a blue ribbon adorning my badge that read "Speaker." Looking around, I saw different colored ribbons on various badges. Orange was for attendees, bloggers who were not on panels. Green was for the media. And, naturally, blue was for we "experts" who would shed light and wisdom from our various perches.

From the jump, I was pissed off and dismayed. Why the fuck was there color-coded distinctions at a supposedly "democratic" convention? I thought the whole point to blogging was to democratize political expression, to allow people who didn't attend an Ivy League school or had friends in the corporate media to reach a wide audience with their views and concerns. But at YearlyKos, we were immediately categorized. A hierarchy of sorts was established, and this was reinforced when I dropped in on the "Blogs and the MSM: From Clash to Civilization" panel taking place in the big ballroom.

On stage sat Jay Carney of Time, Jill Filipovic of Feministe, Mike Allen of Politico (and formerly of Time), and liblog demi-god Glenn Greenwald of Salon. The Nation's Ari Melber moderated. In order to enhance the panel's importance, their images were magnified to Oz-like proportions on large screens flanking their table. When I walked in, Greenwald was droning on about responsible media, the duty of journalists in a democracy, or some such shit. It was the same tired, clichéd pap I've heard at practically every mainstream media panel I've ever attended. And here it was again, only presented in "cutting edge" wrapping. Nothing about the corporate structure of "news" and how that limits and distorts actual journalism, unless they tackled this before I showed up. But given the remarks made in my presence, I seriously doubt that topic was ever broached.

There were two lines of questioners at microphones in the audience, and it was clear that Melber wanted to move things along at a swift pace. Now, I understand that as a moderator, you don't want a questioner to give a speech. It takes up time and limits the access of others. I get that, having been in the same position myself. But there appeared to be some hostility to those bloggers on the floor who had critical things to say. After all, if their opinions mattered, they'd be on the panel, right? Of course, if one praised the panel for its insight and journalistic courage, no question was required for speaking rights. Hail the experts, and you can talk away.

I'd seen enough, and went to check into my room to prepare for my panel.

The Kos people set me up nicely. It was a large room on the 31st floor with two beds, which was more than I needed, but hey, they were picking up the tab, so what did I care? The view of Lake Michigan was stunning, especially that sunny afternoon. Dozens of boats cut through the water, and off in the distance behind them sailed a large tanker. This vista calmed me a bit, though given my acrophobia, I had to stand away from the window. Looking directly down to the courtyard was out of the question.

I rifled through the tote bag given to me downstairs. It was filled mostly with Dem party hand-outs, the latest issue of The Nation, and a few knick-knacks like a One bracelet that promoted an anti-poverty organization. I slipped that on in the spirit of camaraderie, then read some of the hand-outs. The bigger bloggers and various Dem congresspeople attending the convention were referred to as "our netroots heroes," once again reinforcing the We and You concept. Far from breaking down elitist walls, YearlyKos was adding a large wing to their media mansion. Bow down, you simple bloggers from wherever, and celebrate your online superiors. It's the "progressive" thing to do.

I gathered my notes, then went downstairs a little early to tour more of the convention. Of course, I wore my blue ribbon badge, more to see if anyone knew who the hell I was than to establish my speaking primacy. I admit, I was curious. I felt out of place, and wondered if any of these bloggers read my stuff. I received a few nods and smiles from those who noticed my ribbon, but I think that had more to do with me being an "expert" than from any knowledge of who I am and what I write. Indeed, a couple of people I briefly talked to knew nothing about my blog; but when I said I was on a panel with Juan Cole, their eyes lit up. "Juan Cole is awesome! You know him?!"

Not long after this, Juan himself appeared, alongside his wife, Shahin. We greeted each other and began to make our way to our panel, when we came upon Sidney and Max Blumenthal, who were walking in the opposite direction with Sidney's sister and I believe his wife, though I wasn't really sure since we weren't formally introduced. Max made a beeline for Juan, shaking his hand and telling him how much he loved Juan's work. Juan then introduced me to Max, who shook my hand with a brief, "Oh, hi" before turning his full attention to Juan. Max's aunt introduced herself, and she noticed that I was staring at her large Hillary sticker.

"Do you like Hillary? she asked.

"No, not really."

"Why not?"

"It's probably best not to go into it here." I didn't want to start a conversation about how much I dislike the Dems with someone from the Blumenthal clan, especially right before I was due to speak.

"Well, who do you like?"

"Actually, I'd like to see another system, to be honest."

"Well, that's not gonna happen."

Not with people like you in the way, I thought to myself.

"Give me one name. Just one."

"If you insist, I'll go with Kucinich."

"Ewww." Her face scrunched. "He does have a beautiful wife, however."

Marrying Elizabeth was perhaps the best move Dennis Kucinich ever made. "You may think I'm insane, but look who I snagged!"

Sidney stepped forward to shake hands and introduce himself. He was pleasant but stiff, and his skin looks like it's polished. We chatted very briefly before Juan told everyone that we had a panel to attend. We said our so-longs and parted, but I couldn't help watching the Blumenthals as they walked regally away. They are political royalty within Dem circles, and I would later see Max constantly fawned over by young, white, male libs like himself. He clearly enjoyed their veneration.

In contrast, our panel seemed pushed to the side, an afterthought to the grander Kos netroots stages. The panel before us bled into our time, forcing us to start late. Then we discovered we had no moderator, so Juan assumed that role, and he and I essentially bussed the panel table, clearly away used water cups and coffee containers. There was no fresh water for us; we had to make do with what was left over from the previous panel. It was a disheveled start, but the audience quickly filed in and filled up the seats, with more standing in the back and to the side. Once things settled down, Juan welcomed everyone, and the panel kicked off, with us speaking in alphabetical order.

Manan Ahmed got the party started with a direct, detailed critique of Barack Obama's statements about bombing Pakistan. Manan gave a meticulous power point presentation illustrating just how craven and idiotic Obama's remarks were. Unlike the fantasy Pakistan that Obama depicted, where President Pervez Musharraf is dragging his heels on fighting extremism, and it might take US air strikes to focus his attention, the Pakistani army is currently battling extremists in the North Waziristan region, fighting that is comparable to what's happening in Iraq. Also, US has already hit Pakistan, on November 10, 2006, shelling a madrassa in Bajaur which resulted in zero al-Qaeda dead, but did manage to kill some of the seminary's children.

Manan's presentation made those wearing Obama buttons shift a bit in their seats and look down to the floor. I thought there might be some audible disagreement from them, given that we were on Dem party turf, and Obama love was all over the Kos convention. But they said nothing. Not a murmur that I could hear, anyway. Manan so thoroughly dismantled Obama's speech that his supporters had no real come back to it. I doubt they know much more about Pakistan than does their hero, but after Manan's talk, they should have a better idea now. Sometimes, learning can be a painful experience, but in the end, we're all winners.

Juan took the podium next, and gave a very animated, at times funny, talk about what possibly lies ahead in Iraq. Juan insists, and I largely disagree with him, that US troops will be withdrawn by '09 at the latest, leaving Iraq to whatever fate then befalls it. In Juan's view, the Sunnis, after a bloodbath, will once again control Baghdad, and that a new Ba'ath Party will most likely be created. The Shias will retreat to the south, and the Kurds will go about their business in the north, ready to fight should the Sunnis attempt any incursion on their turf. In other words, Iraq will roughly be what it more or less was after the first Gulf War, minus Saddam and his sons, of course. I don't think that a Hillary Clinton administration would oversee such a pull-out, given Hillary's past militarist posturing. She may now say that the war should end, but this, as the New York Times reported on Saturday, is a calculated rhetorical shift to pull in the more "liberal" members of the Dem party, many of whom were at YearlyKos. Should she be elected, I trust that a different, more "pragmatic" strategy will suddenly emerge. We'll see.

John Mearsheimer followed Juan, and his presentation, about the four possible roads Israel can take with regards to the Palestinians, was extremely sensible to the point of being predictable. John has received acres of abuse since his and Stephen Walt's paper on the Israeli lobby was released, but in person, John's a very polite, friendly, down-to-earth guy. You'd half expect to meet a fire-breathing Jew-hater given some of the attacks he's endured, but as is usually the case in this area, the sliming has little-to-nothing to do with the actual person. If anything, John's too cautious and conservative, for my taste. When he said that of the remaining options left to Israel, the most likely one would be some form of apartheid for the Palestinians, I wanted to interrupt him by saying that this pretty much already happened. But I'm a team player when it comes to panels, and besides, it might come up during Q&A.

Finally, it was me. As I grabbed the podium mike, I said that following three distinguished academics with my more showbiz background left me with only one way to greet the crowd -- "Yo yo yo, YearlyKos, whazzzz upppp!" This got a nice laugh, which I built on by quoting Condi Rice's statement from Ramallah as reported by one of my favorite comedy sources, the New York Times:

"'We believe strongly in the right of people to express themselves and their desires in elections.' But, [Rice] added, once elected, 'you have the obligation to govern responsibly.'"

An even bigger laugh. In comedy, found humor is oftentimes your best friend.

I then delivered the crux of my talk, which I truncated a bit due to time constraints. Essentially, I made two points: 1) Unlike the Vietnam era, where there was an abundance of antiwar satire and comedy, from the National Lampoon to The Committee to The Smothers Brothers (among others), the Iraq era has been satirically deficient, save for a few exceptions like "The Daily Show", which isn't all that cutting, given the horror that surrounds us; and 2) You cannot find mainstream American comics and comedy shows that skewer Israelis and Zionists with the same nasty, at times openly racist, routines that are commonly employed against Arabs and Muslims. Judaism and Jewish culture have been sent up by Jewish comics since vaudeville. But where, I asked the audience, do you see satirical assaults on Israeli Zionists?

No one answered, for the simple reason that this kind of comedy scarcely exists. The Onion has done a few funny bits about Israeli aggression, but try getting that on "The Daily Show", much less "SNL", Leno, Letterman, or Conan.

About halfway through my talk, my throat suddenly went dry. I could not form saliva, and this strained my voice. Juan poured me a glass of water, but after each sentence, I was bone-dry again. I drank so much water, I should have had a ventriloquist dummy on my lap. I had no idea why this was happening. I wasn't nervous, since the crowd was with me from the start. Maybe it was the hotel's air. Later, thinking about this alone, I realized what occurred: the subject matter I was dealing with got to me. I choked up. It was reminiscent of my recent bout with depression, which was connected to all of the crazy shit I'm regularly exposed to. And here it was again, in front of a large audience. This briefly rattled me. But I managed to finish my talk without looking too foolish, then sat down and drank more water.

The Q&A focused mostly on Israel/Palestine, with some bantering about the future of Iraq. Pakistan and Obama did not come up, for obvious reasons, and after a while, Juan specifically asked the crowd for a Pakistan question so Manan could be part of the discussion. One was asked, Manan thoughtfully responded, then it was back to the war and the Israelis and Palestinians.

At one point, both Juan and John agreed that there is no significant counterweight in American politics to that of groups like AIPAC. An older woman from the back began yelling, "That's not true! That's not true!" Since our panel was not afforded mike stands in the audience, Juan invited the woman to take the podium and explain herself. She ran down the aisle like it was "The Price Is Right" as the rest of the crowd applauded her. She gave an impassioned speech about how being Jewish, what Israel is ostensibly doing in her name appalled and saddened her. She said she was part of a Jewish peace group, if memory serves is Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and that they were doing all they could to counter the effects of AIPAC. Another member in the audience added to this, but said that the main problem was money. No one on the panel wanted to rub in the obvious fact that this group realistically has no shot to diminish AIPAC's political influence, at least not now, and the woman, who engaged a few more people in the audience, eventually went back to her seat.

I thought Juan's invitation to the woman was very democratic, much unlike the rest of YearlyKos, at least when it came to "expert" panels. Our audience was very opinionated and energetic, but before long, Juan shut the whole thing down, noting that we were going overtime. I felt that since we were the last panel, we should've kept going, for at least another half hour. But once Juan made his announcement, the majority of people left. So that was that.

I told Juan that I felt like my talk went off the rails. His eyes widened as he replied, "What? You killed! You had them eating out of your hand." John Mearsheimer seconded this. They saw nothing wrong, so I suppose it went okay. Besides, I'm usually my own worst critic.

There are more stories to tell about YearlyKos, and I will get to some of them tomorrow. For now, my stiff fingers need a break.