During the closing plenary of the 2005 Left Forum — the conference formerly known as the Socialist Scholars — Bogdan Denitch of the Institute on Transitions to Democracy asserted, “Ninety-nine percent of the American people are to the right of us in this room.”
Granted, in context, the remark was to be taken as a wake-up call. Yet, there was something self-congratulatory about it as well, a sense of “we’re better than they.” It brought to mind those old Mensa buttons that bragged of the wearer’s IQ in relation to the rest of the population by simply stating, “2%.”
Denitch’s assessment was also debatable, so it was remarkable that no one else on the daïs challenged him on it.
The official theme of the conference, held April 15 – 17 at the City University of New York (CUNY), was “The U.S., the World, and the Next Four Years.” Unofficially, it was, in the rhetoric of the speakers and the musings of many audience members, “inside/outside.”
Of what? For the most part, the Democratic Party. But the inside/outside dichotomy surfaced in other instances — suggesting it is the left itself that is in trouble and out of touch.
Inside the CUNY center, the conference-goers were mostly middle-aged, middle-class, white, highly educated and dressed respectably, conservatively even, in natural fibers that ran the chromatic gamut from beige to brown, except for an occasional outraged or outrageous t‑shirt, some Green Party buttons and Medea Benjamin’s pink coat.
During the same closing plenary, Benjamin, of Global Exchange, asked how many people present were under 30 years old. A tenth of the audience raised their hands.
It was even worse at the opening plenary, where Michael Albert of Z‑Net observed that the average age was probably 54. “In the ’60s, we used to applaud when someone over 50 attended an event like this,” he said later. “Now it’s just the opposite.”
Outside, on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, the tourists and vendors who mingled on the sidewalk in front of the Empire State Building were more diverse culturally, chronologically, linguistically, ethnically and economically. And a heck of a lot more colorful.
And who’s to say what their politics were? Or could be?
Such demographics were not lost on all of the speakers. “The left is too white,” said New York City Councilman Bill Perkins during the panel “After the 2004 Elections: Progressive Responses.” “It is a great conceit bordering on arrogance for us not to be responding to what the people want,” he continued, accusing the left of being somewhat intentionally “disconnected.”
One reason for that disconnect might be that the left too frequently disregards the mainstream media, as Danny Schechter of Mediachannel.org observed during a panel on “Media in the Context of Globalization.” “We don’t watch it, we don’t see how flawed the coverage is, how superficial,” he said. “We don’t get exposed to the information sources of most Americans.”
Likewise, the poet Amiri Baraka, during the packed panel “Freedom Dreamin’: Imagining Socialism,” noted, “The bourgeoisie not only rule by carrot and gun but by making popular forms carry imperialist messages.”
“We have been too content merely to criticize imperialism,” Baraka said. “The majority [of Americans] already know this [political system] is bad. The question is, what kind of alternative have we, the intellectuals, created that they feel magnetized to?”
Also missing, as Denitch astutely noted, was the left religious community.
Denitch’s own presence at the podium raised more than a few eyebrows, however, considering the schism that had led to the establishment of the new conference in the first place.
The Left Forum was conceived as an alternative to the old Socialist Scholars Conference, which Denitch had headed for 19 of its 23 years. As one person “inside” the defecting team explained, about half the old conference board felt left out of the decision-making process and therefore left the organization. There were supposed to be two conferences this year, but the one that kept the name Socialist Scholars Conference didn’t happen, and Denitch was invited to speak at the new one, albeit as something of an outsider.
The final speaker at the closing plenary, Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights, was talking about the Democratic Party when he said, “The best way to influence the inside is to have a strong outside.”
But perhaps we need to step outside as well.