Elevate Difference

Left Forum 2009 (4/17-4/19/2009)

New York, New York

Left Forum is an annual meeting of liberal intellectuals, academics, activists and students hosted by a New York City college or university. The conference is divided up into panels that take place in classrooms scattered across the campus. As I sat listening and astutely taking notes at the first panel I attended, a sudden feeling of nostalgia washed over me. I couldn’t help but feel transported back to my years as an undergraduate. Choosing panels was like choosing between courses. There was everything from “Long Term Strategies for the Left," to the more specific “The Challenge of Right-Wing Populism in Northern Core Capitalist Countries.” Like everything seemed in college, the choices were abundant.

Of the many panels I had the chance to attend, two in particular stood out. The first, “The Iraq War in Perspective” offered a dynamic spattering of writers, activists, and journalists who had been in and out of Iraq since the beginning of the U.S. occupation. Initially I was struck by the lack of an Iraqi presence on the panel: every one of the speakers was an American male, and with the exception of one, they were all white. This is something that Left Forum seems to struggle with: balancing elite academic ideologies with the actual people implicated in the theories. Despite this, the speakers offered what they experienced on the ground in Iraq, much of which is not reported through the U.S. media. Eight years after the launch of the invasion of Iraq, we are no closer to withdrawal than we were when we began; from the failure of the anti-war movement in America, to the foreshadowing of Obama’s foreign policies, the panelists painted a bleak portrait of the situation in Iraq, which is a picture you will not find on the front page of the New York Times.

The second panel, “The Culture Wars & Sexuality” grappled with the social and political restrictions on sexuality and identity politics. Betty Dodson—who is widely known as a sex educator, author, and artist—was effervescent. A witty woman in her eighties, she dominated much of the conversation with talk of the need for self-pleasure in sexual fulfillment. The panelists also spoke about Proposition 8 and raised serious questions about whether it should be a flagship cause in the gay rights movement. One of the most informative panelists, Bianca I. Laureano, worked with the sex-positive website Latino Sexuality, and was the first in the group to directly address the issue of race in the context of sexuality. It was refreshing to have a young, female panelist of color, and her experiences added exponentially to the dialogue.

Ultimately, the nostalgia I initially experienced persisted throughout the conference. This feeling was not just a result of physically being transported to a university; rather, it was the cocoon-like nature of Left Forum. From the communist publications being distributed at the front door to the inside leftist jokes about the implications of Obama’s foreign interactions, I felt as though I were in an intricately constructed liberal bubble. The attendees at the conference largely represented the fringes of political norms, but for a few days, surrounded by peers, they were in the center of a liberal terrarium.

Despite the institutionalized nature of such an academic gathering where certain voices go unheard, there was much to be gained. Having the opportunity to engage in dialogues with an array of highly respected academics, activists, intellectuals, and students is immeasurable. Many times those sitting in the audience next to me had just as much to offer as the panelists themselves and questions from the audience blossomed into beautiful diversions that would never exist outside of the surreal world of Left Forum.

Written by: Lizzy Shramko, April 26th 2009