"There is a way that panel discussions like this are useless. Whatever we do is totally ineffectual," said n+1 editor Mark Grief about halfway through last night's Live From The New York Public Library event. Finally, someone had said it! The evening was meant to be an examination of "the politics of fear." Instead of packing their creased crib sheets into their backpacks and shuffling out of the auditorium, the four panelists—n+1 contributors Alex Gourevitch and Meghan Falvey and Mark and his fellow n+1 editor Chad Harbach, moderated by n+1 poster boy Ben Kunkel—remained onstage for another solid hour and a half, including a tortured 45 minute Q&A. It was all worth it, though, because eventually the question the event was supposed to resolve—whether "the threats we face—including global warming and energy scarcity—[are] so ominous that a politics of fear is the only credible kind left" was definitively answered once and for all. Not! It was barely asked.
One problem was that the debaters didn't seem to have agreed beforehand about what, exactly, they would be talking about. Alex Gourevitch, cast in the role of radical contrarian, was meant to defend his essay about "the politics of fear," which will appear in the next issue of n+1. (Which is not yet available, so we weren't able to, you know, read it.) His contention was that environmentalism is "a politics of fear," using the "borrowed authority of science" to legitimize policy that mirrors some elements of what Mark later called "the deceitful war on terror." That's an interesting point!
It got kind of lost after Alex launched into street-corner loony ramblings like "at the very moment that we have the ability to control nature, we're concerned that nature will control us."
He said, and seemed to genuinely believe, that because we have the technology to create air conditioning, heat waves, for all practical purposes, "don't exist." And: "We should spend the money we spend on reducing Co2 emissions on rectifying underdevelopment and inequality" in poor regions, so that inevitable natural disasters don't hit them as hard, he told his fellow panelists.
He had a thrift-store leather coat and a goatee which he had a nervous habit of fondling. Had the n+1sters found him at, like, wild-eyed Socialist central casting?
The panelists went around in turn and said what they could to contradict Alex. It shouldn't have been that hard! But their rhetorical skills—hey, it's been a while since high school!—proved inadequate to the task. They were all doing that schoolish thing of breaking down an argument into its smallest parts and then dissecting those still further, resisting anything like conclusions, until the only thing anyone can agree on impossibility of using language to communicate.
Chad Harbach stammered through a recitation of global warming facts and figures and quotes from "experts." Mark Grief spoke, entertainingly, about his yearning for the "prophetic, truth-telling" presidency of a "fat, depressed" Al Gore.
Meghan Falvey, who is in grad school, started off strong by stating straightforwardly that "we don't have to imagine a catastrophic future. We've already accepted the ascendancy of markets over governments." She was the best of the bunch—but then she circled around a definition of neoliberalism and ended up weakly expressing a desire that her arguments might "lead us back towards the issues that all of us on stage might be more interested in." It never became clear exactly which issues those were.
The audience—pink-cheeked girls with wisps of hair falling out of their messy buns, boys with glasses and scuffed leather shoes—was getting "restive," Ben noticed. The smattering of well-meaning older couples who attend every Live From The NYPL like it's church began to filter out slowly; then their exodus picked up momentum. Still, the Q&A microphones continued to make their way through the audience.
"I feel like there's been an enormous amount of miscommunication," one audience member told the panelists. "There hasn't been a consensus on what 'a politics of fear' even could be said to mean."
"That was a very clarifying remark," Ben said, then moved on to the next question.