Featuring heavy hitters from the realms of cable news and punditry, Politicon - which is to Politics what Comic Con is to superheroes and comic books - took place July 29-30 at the Pasadena Convention Center. This “politi-palooza” attracted prominent speakers, performers and audiences from across the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum. Highlights of the chattering classes’ chitchat at Politicon included:
The first panel I attended at what was dubbed “Independence Hall” was entitled “Trump: Genius or Lunatic?” Sally Kohn, an openly gay reliably lefty commentator who has opinionated on Fox News and CNN, moderated the discussion with pro and anti Trump participants. Referring to the president and his state of mind (or lack of), Kohn set the stage for the weekend talkfest by paraphrasing the old Gershwin Brothers’ song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, quipping: “You say potato, I say ‘po-crazy’.”
Coulter Interruptus: Ersatz Nazis, Real Reds
Next up at Independence Hall was the “Censorship on Campus” panel, featuring author and professional provocateur Ann “Helter Skelter” Coulter. As soon as the venomous fräulein was introduced two activists costumed as brownshirts with swastika armbands disrupted the panel to “heil our Hitler!”, giving their furious “fuhrer” the stiff-armed fascist salute. To the consternation of what appeared to be a majority of the crowd composed of Coulter acolytes, who started shouting “USA! USA!”, and to the amusement of others, the ersatz Nazis shut the shrewish loudmouth up for about five minutes before they were finally peaceably ejected by security.
As soon as the venomous fräulein was introduced two activists costumed as brownshirts with swastika armbands disrupted the panel to “heil our Hitler!”, giving their furious “fuhrer” the stiff-armed fascist salute.
But as soon as Coulter started spewing her hate speech, “Refuse Fascism” leftists (presumably linked to the Revolutionary Communist Party) unfurled an anti-Trump red banner and shouted her down. After another five minute pause that aggravated the righties in the aud, the two real Reds were peacefully ejected and, as the old saying goes, “the show must go on.”
Coulter boohooed about how her right to freedom of speech was short circuited at Berkeley by far left militants. This was rich coming from someone who has made a career out of denouncing oppressed minorities for complaining about their “victimhood” - you know, little things like poverty, racism and other societal injustices Coulter has never had to confront in her existence. Now that she is being held accountable for her outrageous comments, Coulter’s playing the “victim card” herself - perhaps her Berkeley, etc., experiences have given the right’s very own Squeaky Fromme some insight into how being a member of an oppressed minority singled out for rough treatment feels. But I wouldn’t count on poor little orphan Annie having the power of reflection.
Fellow panelists, comedian Greg Proops and weblogger Xeni Jardin, begged to differ with Coulter. Jardin inconveniently reminded the rightwing ranter and raver that speakers were responsible for what they publicly say. Coulter pretending to be a First Amendment champion is rather hilarious, considering how she slimed anti-Iraq War notables as “unpatriotic” (BTW Annie-get-your-gun - where are them thar WMDs anyway?) and she wrote Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, lauding one of the most tyrannical U.S. politicians and tramplers of free speech rights of all time, Sen. Joe McCarthy, who to Coulter was just a poor misunderstood little boy. Boohoo!
Of course, now that it’s a rightwinger being charged with conspiring with Russia Coulter doesn’t have much to say about the Trump camp’s alleged Kremlin cavorting and colluding - but when that shoe was on the left foot during the 1940s/1950s, it was them gosh darn treasonous liberals! Coulter and the “Censorship on Campus” panel also had nothing to say about free speech attacks on campus critics of Israeli government and military policies and restrictions of the rights of professors, students, guest speakers, etc., who support Palestinians and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Any outrage over the infringement of their First Amendment rights on and off campus, Ann?
At the end of the panel Coulter was treated like a rock star by her fans as she dispensed autographs amidst Nuremberg-like adulation - but not everybody was buying it (or her books) or belonged to the Hitler-Jugend. Elizabeth Ortiz, who is studying journalism at California State University, Long Beach, expressed outrage at Coulter’s typically elitist, disparaging remarks about community college students.
Like a Rolling Roger Stoned
Day Two of Politicon was also great and very well attended, despite the fact that now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Trump mouthpiece The Mooch was, for some mysterious reason, a no-show for his scheduled “Anthony Scaramucci ’Splains” appearance. (The Mooch has some ’splaining to do about his disappearance. But I guess “loyal” Donald told him “Scooch, Mooch!” and the pooch hit the road.) However, another professional Donald Kool-Aid drinker (apparently accompanied by bodyguards) was in the house for a talk titled “Roger Stone Holds Court.” Former MSNBC host/author Toure tepidly interviewed Trump trickster extraordinaire Stone, who jokingly compared the outgoing “Mooch” to Andrew Dice Clay - interestingly, a comic who fell from grace, figures whom Stone seems drawn to.
The oppo research meister cut his political teeth by working on Tricky Dick’s creepy Committee to Re-Elect the President. Stoner showed himself to be a profane jumble of contradictions - he supports legalization of marijuana, opposes “Americans [being] surveilled for strictly political reasons” and ballyhoos Nixon as a great bastion of progressivism and peacemaker. Perhaps Stone was too stoned from imbibing all that wacky tobaccy to remember Nixon’s mass murder of millions in Indochina and Chile?
In any case, in a similar fact-denying way, spinning like an out of control dreidel at Hanukkah, Stone, the apprentice’s apologist, praised his pal Donald. But a young, female Muslim questioner would have none of it, confronting Stone about Trump’s Islamophobia. A short-haired young man immaculately groomed in a suit and tie (was he en route to a funeral?) expressed admiration for Stone’s sartorial splendor and viewpoints but asked him to please refrain from using obscenities. Not without a sense of humor, Stone wryly replied, “I’ll take that under advisement.”
It’s ironic that Stone, who wrote the book The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, is such a big Nixon booster. Stone is probably praying that when his buddy Trump makes his imminent departure from the White House before the end of his term, he’ll do so the way Milhous did - instead of how JFK did. Roger that!
Young Turks vs. Young Jerks
In a very spirited debate attended by hundreds, The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur debated reactionary provocateur Ben Shapiro in the capacious Civic Auditorium. Their respective supporters enthusiastically booed and applauded the champion of their respective sides, but nobody in the aud came to blows. In closing out the tête-à-tête the lack of violence amongst a crowd with strongly differing opinions prompted moderator Steven Olikara, founder of the nonpartisan Millennial Action Project, to comment, “that’s what Politicon is all about.” And in referring to the fervor expressed by those leaning left and right for Uygur and Shapiro, Olikara added, “now we know who the 2020 candidates should be” (assuming, of course, that the Republic survives long enough for another presidential election to be rigged).
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Something for Everyone - Comedy Two Nights!
Following the debate the Civic Auditorium was the site of Politicon’s grand finale, “Sunday Night Comedy” featuring part-Mexican, former Daily Show correspondent Al Madrigal (currently co-starring in Showtime's I’m Dying Up Here) and two current Daily Show correspondents, feminist Michelle Wolf and Roy Wood Jr., plus lefty Greg Proops, performing political standup that, among other things, excoriated el presidente. Pro-GOP comic Adam Yenser, a writer for NBC’s The Ellen DeGeneres Show, also delivered a funny set.
Politicon had a heady dose of comedy, ranging from the right to the left ends of the laugh-o-meter spectrum. In addition to performances there were also comedy-oriented panels, including Sunday’s GOP-tilting “Conservatively Unplugged! Presents ‘Right Wing Comedy in These Trumptastic Times’” in “Equality Hall.” Panelists included comic Evan Sayet (who wrote for Bill Maher until he saw the “right”), Al-Sonja Rice-Schmidt, Eric Golub and Yenser, a Republican who was not a Trump supporter and stressed that when it comes to comedy, humor should trump ideology.
This panel was moderated by Judd Dunning, co-host of “Conservatively Unplugged!”, a new righty weekly political entertainment news program that was screened prior to the “Saturday Night Comedy” program headlining Trae Crowder, the “Liberal Redneck.” I watch the 20-or-so minute “Conservatively Unplugged!” video projected on the Civic Auditorium’s big screens and found this wannabe righty counterpart to programs such as The Daily Show to be pretty droll. In it, Dunning comes across like a dunce and to tell the truth, I actually thought “Conservatively Unplugged!” was spoofing Republican-leaning comics. The following day, when Dunning moderated the “Right Wing Comedy in These Trumptastic Times” he actually called comedian Louis C.K. “C.K. Louis,” so maybe Dunning not only plays a doofus on TV but really is one offscreen, too.
Also on Sunday the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” Bassem Yousseff, Madrigal and other comics took part in the “Is It Funny or Offensive? Presents: ‘Humor, Satire & Speech in the Age of Trump’,” moderated by Norman Golightly, CEO and Founder of Is It Funny at “Liberty Hall.” (To see my similarly themed feature story in the current issue of The Progressive Magazine, which includes original comments by Yousseff, Trae Crowder, Stephanie Miller, Dean Obeidallah, etc., go to: Follow the Funny.)
Chelsea Handles the Prez
On Saturday Chelsea Handler merrily made mincemeat of The Donald in a hilarious interview with Jake Tapper at “Democracy Village”, wherein the CNN reporter asked her about humor being less balanced since the Jay Leno era of late night comedy. The Netflix talk show host forthrightly replied: “Now if you don’t speak up you’re going to regret it later. We have to be held responsible. Trump scares the shit out of me. I’m authentic… [If I’m considered] ‘divisive’ I don’t care. I’m more informed and responsible - I have the Trump family to thank.”
As for Trump’s tweet against transgender people being allowed to serve in the military, Handler snapped, “Please shut the fuck up. Take more Viagra.” When Tapper avowed that he didn’t “take Viagra jokes personally,” Handler quipped, “You will,” adding: “Trump should worry more about transfats than transgender. He’s unstable, he has late stage syphilis.” Handler proceeded to list symptoms of the venereal disease she attributed to Trump, claiming “I’m an M.D. so I know.” When Tapper reminded Handler that she’d admitted to never completing college she laughed off being caught in her white lie (and could there be any other kind when referring to the white-supremacist-in-chief?). Chelsea also advocated in favor of allowing Syrian refugees into America, even offering to let them stay at her house - although humorously admitting she’d move out if they did.
The President’s Show of Shows
For me, the highlight of Politicon was Trump impersonator Anthony Atamanuik of Comedy Central’s The President Show, wherein “The 45th and final president” did an hour-long riff bluer than Lenny Bruce or George Carlin on Trump, Bannon, Mooch, Priebus, et al, culminating with him being interviewed by Bassem Yousseff. The in-costume Atamanuik’s impersonation of The Donald gives Alec Baldwin a run for his SNL money. Indeed, Atamanuik’s wickedly insightful lampooning and harpooning of the great white whale of comedy is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s spoofing of Hitler in the 1940 satirical masterpiece The Great Dictator and also of Hawaii comedian Frank De Lima’s mocking of Imelda Marcos in full drag during his Waikiki nightclub act after the Filipino tyrants fled to Oahu.
In person, Atamanuik’s no holds barred sarcasm is more risqué than on his Comedy Central Thursday night laugh riot. At the Civic Auditorium, dressed as Trump, he daringly joked about The Donald “trying to finger my daughter” (Ivanka, not Tiffany), then turning to the audience, dementedly saying: “I’m not sick, right? I’m the guy with the nuke codes. Me!... Can you believe it?” At one point Atamanuik’s character falls into a sort of trance, wherein he lays out a very, clear concise, sophisticated analysis of contemporary capitalism setting the stage for Trump’s rise. Then he snapped out of his momentary lapse into lucidity and seriousness and in a Q&A with Yousseff, under the Egyptian’s questioning, Trump reached the conclusion “I’m a secret Muslim!”
A Splendid Time Was Had By All
Politicon’s panoply of politics for political and news junkies featured much more during its Pasadena weekend. Many others notables participated, including Daily Show writer Lizz Winstead, America “Ugly Betty” Ferrera, Grace Parrara of Larry Wilmore’s Comedy Central The Nightly Show, actor/director Rob Reiner, MSNBC’s Joy Reid, etc. There was a cavernous exhibition hall with ACLU, Muslims for Progressive Values (which was supported by Pakistani-American comedienne Mona Shaikh), MSNBC, Young Americans for Freedom, medicinal marijuana, et al, booths.
If I have one “complaint” about Politicon it’s that in future, the gathering should also include panels, speakers and booths of the far left to present a socialist perspective and alternative to liberalism and the Democratic Party. After all, one could argue that libertarians, who are to the right of the Republican Party, participated - so why not Marxists, anarchists, Antifas and other far leftists?
In any case, despite the presence of thousands of liberal and conservative activists, while interactions were passionate, Politicon remained civil, with peaceful coexistence prevailing. Living in Los Angeles, I never saw so many Trump supporters, although the left-leaning auds may have outnumbered the righties. Yet, in the spirit of free speech and democracy, comity and tolerance won the day, bridging the partisan divide by allowing freedom of expression for all. In doing so, Politicon may be a model for our divided nation.
Because while you may say “potato” and I say “potahto”, hearing all viewpoints in the free marketplace of ideas is a quintessentially American ideal. And if one side deprives the other side’s freedom of speech, we may find, in the words of the Gershwins:
“But oh, if we call the whole thing off
Then we must part
And oh, if we ever part
Then that might break my heart.”
As part of the “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the Russian Revolution’s centennial film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s revolutionary poetic classic Earth on Friday, 7:30 p.m., August 25, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. For info: firstname.lastname@example.org.