This year's Left Forum was, in many ways, identical to last year's forum. It was held at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice again, the panels and tables were peopled by all the same liberal and sectarian groups, and the array of issues covered were the same as always. For example, there were panels on single payer healthcare, Cointelpro, Animal Liberation, Imperialism, Syriza, Education, Independent media, Feminism, Black Revolution, and so on...
What marked this year's forum as perhaps different was the already nostalgic focus on Bernie Sanders as well as an unstated and free floating sense of depression.
Due to the success of Trump and the failure of Sanders the US left has been, for the moment, rendered irrelevant. We've been reduced to hoping that the establishment as we've known it will be able to eke out a victory in November.
There is talk of harnessing the remnants of Sanders' political campaign in order to launch a new "movement," but the truth is that this election has already demoralized the US left. Instead of reexamining the assumptions, aims, and tactics that have led us to this most recent failure, we've pushed on with the same fragmented agendas.
And the best evidence of the poverty of the US left, the most obvious symptom of the impasse, was this year's reaction to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
"Žižek relies on shock value taken from inverting common good/bad dichotomies. For example, he puts The Thinker on a toilet to say, 'The thoughts from my head are the same as the shit from my body, but here you are listening to me." - taken from a leaflet distributed before the event
In November of last year Žižek penned a controversial essay on the Syrian refugee crisis, one that was both ill conceived and largely misread. At the time Zero Books responded to this essay with a blog post entitled "Where Žižek goes wrong." Since then, however, the emotional reaction to Žižek's essay has become more significant than what Žižek actually said. And even before Sunday's plenary it was clear that, this year, Žižek would not get the kind of warm reception that he, as "the Elvis of political theory," might possibly have come to expect.
At the final plenary an small group of anti-Žižek audience members distributed leaflets denouncing the philosopher. One of the two fliers featured a picture of Slavoj sitting with his legs crossed. He was shown staring at some interlocutor outside the frame, obviously listening to a question that he didn't like. The photo was covered over by various supposedly racist or sexist quotes taken from his lectures or essays, quotes either stripped of context or misinterpreted, and by the time Amy Goodman took the stage everyone was focused on this anti-Žižek contingent. We were all eager to hear what Žižek would say and how he would handle a crowd that had, at least in part, been turned against him. But before that we had to listen to an insufferably pious Amy Goodman.
After Goodman finally stopped, after she shouted Democracy Now!, Žižek took the stage and the heckling began. There was a chorus of boos that competed with the applause, and then, from the back of the auditorium, someone yelled "You're full of shit!"
Žižek responded, "If we are going to start off by trading insults I should warn you that I can be very brutal."
After that exchange Žižek proceeded with his usual performance. He repeated his standard critiques of "political correctness" and "multiculturalism," but as he went along the crowd grew restless and some people began to trickle out.
"I can't understand a word he's saying," the former publisher to my right told me.
"Leaving now will be read as a political statement," I said.
"His politics aren't that good anyhow."
If I were a journalist I'd fill in more details. I would note how Žižek's detractors wandered through the crowd and whispered complaints and slurs. I might mention that their leader was a youngish woman who carried a red canvas bag over her shoulder and a cellphone in her hands. She was unable to stop texting or tweeting even as she denounced the man on stage. This woman told me that she was concerned that Žižek would refuse to answer questions from the audience and she ridiculously suggested that Žižek was talking so long, taking so long to answer the questions put to him in the "fake interview" after his talk, because he was afraid to face her questions.
Nobody who knows anything about Žižek would say this. Anyone who knows his work or had seen him speak before would know that Zizek is simply incapable of talking for less than five minutes at a stretch or of giving a single answer to any question.
But, these details don't matter. What does matter is the character of the critique, the reasons Žižek's new detractors gave for heckling him, and finally what is behind the call to no platform him.
Those who attacked Žižek, those who sought to keep him from speaking, didn't have a positive politics or even a critique. All they had was a posture. For these leftists the act of calling someone out, the denunciation, is an end in itself. Those who heckled Žižek, those who demanded to know why the Left Forum had allowed him to speak, they weren't attempting to change anything. They were instead only seeking to exercise their collective power in this one instance.
This is a dangerous moment in the US. With right-wing populism on the rise we can ill afford to indulge childish charades or allow moralistic condemnation to replace serious engagement. And even if the way forward isn't obvious, even if we feel stymied and trapped, we must not fall into this trap of viciousness
If we are to no platform anyone, let us, in the future, refuse to give a platform to those who want only to disrupt. Let's reject all those who offer nothing but smug performances of pseudo-politics.
We at Zero Books, despite our disagreements with some of his ideas and arguments, stand with Žižek.