On August 11th, 1999, the Dalai Lama brought thousands of New Yorkers to Central Park to hear him preach the gospel of nothingness. About 20 years later, a tech start-up called OZY Media updated His Holiness’ concept as a bipartisan bacchanal of surrender complete with false prophets, matching accessories and the pacifying sense that everything will be fine – if only we embrace our fate as steerage passengers on the SpaceX™ Titanic.
Fueled by Silicon Valley venture capital, the third annual OZY Fest brought together the brightest minds of neoliberalism for an extended sermon on the importance of staying the course. It was sponsored by Volvo, and combined TED talk-like panels during the day with bland indie music into the night. CNBC called it “New York’s answer to SXSW.” Featured names included Chelsea Handler, Malcolm Gladwell, Common and Grouplove. The undisputed headliner: Hillary Clinton. As a critical chronicler of Hillary in particular and late capitalist decline in general, I had to see it for myself.
The whole thing seemed like a joke cooked up by Chapo Trap House, so it was fitting that I went with Matt Christman and Will Menaker of that podcast. Often held up as the prime example of “the dirtbag left” (a term originally coined by CTH’s Amber A’Lee Frost), the show combines leftist political commentary with irreverent humor. It devotes quite a bit of time to dragging on the centrist liberals who make up the establishment wing of the Democratic Party – or, as the Chapos are fond of calling them, “lanyards.” We dosed ourselves with LSD before embarking on this pilgrimage Saturday afternoon so as to better absorb the event’s energy.
On entering Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield, we were gifted bottles of Aqua Hydrate electrolyte water, as well as festooned with wrist-lanyards and bright orange, OZY Fest-branded bandanas. “What sex act are these code for?” wondered Menaker. “Are we piss pigs?” A one-day general admission pass set me back $112 with fees. Over by the Porta Potties, an adult-sized playground of toys with spinning blocks listed seemingly unrelated factoids, like how Lenin started the October Revolution and what year the first issue of Playboy came out and who was on the cover (1953, Marilyn Monroe), under the mysterious heading “The Thread.” Was it our job to find the thread, or was whoever made this simply balls-deep in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism? “The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history,” wrote Fisher. “One effect of its system of equivalence which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value,” flattening them all into decontextualized “artifacts.” Lenin. Marilyn. All that was missing was the Pope.
We arrived to a gaggle of wilting professional types in motivational T-shirts (clear winner: “Dance like Russia isn’t watching”) sitting cross-legged on the ground while Alex Rodriguez and some likeminded folks testified from the main stage (or as the fest calls it, “the platform”) as to how each became an entrepreneur in terms Christman likened to a religious conversion. “It’s like being a born-again Christian,” he observed. “‘When did you become an entrepreneur?’” If A-Rod mentioned the entrepreneurial benefits of being a rich and famous baseball player, he did so only in passing.
I doubted anyone would recognize the Chapos, which was probably for the best, but a lone fan – or “greywolf,” as they are called – came up to them and asked if they were the podcasters themselves. They said yes. “Do you mind taking a picture with me?” he asked. “I love your show.” They said of course, and I took a few photos of them with the guy’s phone. We didn’t manage to ask why he was there, but figured he was probably someone’s plus one – it seemed like a pretty steep ticket price for anyone who wasn’t getting paid to be attending ironically. The Chapos expressed annoyance that their press pass request had been turned down and we weren’t allowed to sit. “You’re lucky they let you in at all,” I replied.
We next headed down to the Central Park bandshell for a panel called “The Future of Everything,” featuring Silicon Valley financier Mike Moe; Cyndi Mi, CEO of education startup VIPKid; and Steven Pinker, who’s made a career of packaging old ideas about hierarchy in a shiny veneer of Enlightenment philosophy and evolutionary-psych pseudoscience. As Pinker bounded out onto the stage like a majestically graying golden-doodle, I felt lucky the acid had yet to kick in, although the panicked looks on my companions’ faces made me worry what might be to come. “Let’s just stand over here,” Menaker advised Christman – who was already starting to yell – as he steered us away from the chairs.
Much of the panel focused on education. “Educational entrepreneur” Mi spoke about children in the language of the market: parents must “invest” in them. She spun her business model of contracting down-on-their luck Americans to instruct Chinese students in English via webcam for $14-$18/hour, plus incentives, as a positive for everyone involved. When she used the phrase “curriculum product,” I thought Christman might have an aneurysm. (The current wave of strikes by teachers fighting – and often, winning – against that very casualization and privatization of their profession, went unmentioned.)
When questioned on economic inequality and the gig economy, the panelists rushed both to naturalize the shift toward neoliberalism and demonize those who would oppose it. “The biggest causes of inequality,” said Pinker, perhaps worried the guillotine would soon come for him, “are revolutions, wars and plagues.” “It’s like gravity, you can’t fight it,” said Moe, noting cheerfully that the average person will soon have at least 15 different careers before they retire – “if they retire.”
“There’s nothing you can do about any of this, so all you can do is stay hydrated,” summarized Christman, taking a sip of electrolyte water. Give in, children. Let the cleansing waters of techno-vation pull you under as they hydrate your fucking lungs.
Feeling somewhat depressed, we trudged back up to the platform in time to watch Eureka of RuPaul’s Drag Race (centrism: now cool with the gays!), who was getting the crowd hyped for a panel on “the future of the conservative movement under Trump” with austerity crusader Grover Norquist and outgoing Representative/celebrated adulterer Mark Sanford (R-SC), who was recently defeated in his primary by Trump loyalist Katie Arrington. My brain shut off around the time moderator Ana Kasparian claimed Norquist as a liberal because he goes to Burning Man. Sanford got major applause from the presumably liberal audience for promising to stand against Trump’s “autocratic style.”
“You’re all a bunch of marks!” yelled Christman, “What the fuck is wrong with you people?!” at which point his friend and colleague Menaker beseeched him for the first of many times to calm down. “Be quiet,” he said, grinning and looking into the throngs of cops and secret service. “We’re gonna get kicked out.”
As the acid took its position at our mind-podiums, we were treated to the unique pleasure of watching newly-appointed DNC Chair-bot 3000, a.k.a. Tom Perez, run through his litany of pre-programmed phrases until the well was so dry he had to repeat some of them: “Distracting Donald,” “Putin’s poodle,” “hope vs. fear” and, of course, “alternative facts.” When CNN’s Dana Bash asked him about the growing left-right split within the Democratic Party, he responded, “I see enthusiasm everywhere” before attempting to co-opt the New York Congressional primary victory of insurgent left-populist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with whom he’s apparently on a first name basis.
On regaining the trust of Millennials, an increasingly aggressive Bash got him to admit he sees it as a problem of “perception” rather than any deeper issues with the Party’s structure or message. Perez paid lip service to the organized labor movement that “built the greatest middle class in history” while holding it at a careful remove from his prescriptions for future progress: “Democracy can’t be a spectator sport…you’ve gotta get out there and vote!” (Suddenly, historian Alan Dawley’s provocative statement “the ballot box is the coffin of class consciousness” seemed more fact than hyperbole.) At one point, I swore I could see smoke emanating from his orifices – even this mild performance was more than his internal cooling unit could handle.
Even such a friendly crowd as this could muster but lukewarm enthusiasm for most of it, although they did cheer for Perez’s proclamation that Queen Hillary would have won the 2016 primary with or without the superdelegates’ help. With each non-answer or hollow platitude, a jolt of lysergic dread shot up my spine, increasing in intensity every time, like I was hooked into the electrodes of some sick government experiment. “We’re in lockstep about values.” Bzzt. “[Doug Jones] won on the backs of African-American voters.” Bzzzt. “It’s time to put hope on the ballot.” Bzzzzt. “Everyone deserves equal access to healthcare.” Bzzzzzt. When Bash asked how insurgent primary candidates’ “extreme” proposals like Medicare-for-all, tuition-free college and abolishing ICE would play with middle America in general elections, he replied, “we’re for abolishing Donald Trump.” Bzzzzzt. By the time he got to “America is great because America is good,” I was actively trying to leave my body, but my compulsion to tell on those fuckers crammed me back in. “Trump is gonna fucking win again!” I exclaimed, as sure in this as I’ve ever been in anything. Then, a stifled scream. THIS [clap emoji] IS [clap emoji] VIOLENCE [clap emoji]. Now I was the one turning heads in the quiet crowd, but my companions were too wrapped up in similar – if more internal – lamentations to care.
After taking a time out in the advertorial screening room/safe space presented by Volvo, I caught some of Rose McGowan’s talk on #MeToo. What her analysis of sexual harassment and assault was lacking in materialism, she more than made up for in purity of hate. I like to think she was throwing some subtle shade on the queen when she referred to the Weinsteins of the world as “superpredators.” Maybe it’s just my love of Jawbreaker talking, but Comrade McGowan might join the revolution yet.
And then, just like that, we were ready for Chillary, queen diva, lover of hot sauce, OG abuelita, the screen onto which so many foot soldiers of #theresistance project their hopes and fears to this day. “I’m with her! I’m with her!” chanted an excited group of women from the stands. Dressed in the flowing robes of a cult leader newly beatified by a year-long silent retreat, she appeared from on high to deliver her underwhelming gospel – in conversation, of course, with OZY investor Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve.
The theme of the sermon was Russia. Specifically: How Russia staged a coup against our rightful Queen in favor of a crude (and legitimately worse) interloper. “It was a very broad and a very successful cyber attack on our electoral system,” Clinton said. “The attack goes to the heart of our democracy. The great mystery is why the president has not spoken up for our country.”
“There are some tech experts in Silicon Valley whom I have met who say that maybe what they will do this time is really disrupt the actual election,” she continued. “We are still very vulnerable.” Her repeating leitmotif of a solution: “The best way to deal with them is to vote in November.” Perhaps starting to wrap their minds around the catch-22 presented, the cheering women began to slouch.
Folks perked up again when the sermon culminated in a dramatic cutaway to an inspirational video montage of grassroots resistance by activists around the nation: Charlottesville, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, the ICE airport protests. “It’s exhausting, but we cannot stop,” Clinton proclaimed, her blue robes growing to engulf the world. Holy Abuelita, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. Guess this is what those crazy commies are on about when they say the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. Capital and its faithful administrators have never met a movement they can’t absorb.
As the spectacle drew to a dour close, a man who I thought for sure was the Chapo fan we’d met earlier yelled “Run again! Hillary 2020! Hillary’s a real progressive!” Irony bros, amirite? Then I spotted the actual greywolf and realized they looked nothing alike. The cheering man was serious. This moment broke me.
In a cosmic representation of blue balls, storm clouds gathered overhead but would not bust. “The hogs are begging for it, but she won’t give it to them!” screeched Christman. “God has forgotten us!” Shantih. Shantih. Shantih. The Democratic Party had made ball-gagged submissives of us all. Maybe that was what the bandanas signified. “Let’s get a cab back to Brooklyn,” sighed Menaker. “I’m done.” None of us felt the need to stay for Young the Giant.
As we hoofed it to the relative safety of Fifth Avenue and a taxi, we caught sight of a panhandler brandishing a sign that read, “North Korea has thrown nukes in the ocean. It will hit the U.S. shores in two weeks, so make sure you don’t eat fish or you will die.” It was the most inspiring message of the day.