The third annual OZY Fest just ended. The event was held from July 21-22 in Central Park, it featured an appalling parade of the blessed and brightest … and is the best possible argument for piranha-fication of America’s waterways. Or for meteors to be less discriminating in where they strike.
In reality, OZY Fest is another lukewarm neoliberal think-festival. It featured luminaries of the modern brainflesh like Steven Pinker, Common, and the once-was-future President of these United States, Madam Secretary Hillary Clinton. Oh, and these people:
Some of you are making O-faces right now, like an obscenely prudish butler in a mid-Nineties Disney sitcom who is shocked by the new “hip-hop.” Some of you are shrugging your shoulders and saying “More grist for Madame Revolution.” Still others of you opened this feature by accident, and are not even reading these sentences, but are carrying through to watch the episodes of New Girl and The Good Wife and The Good Place sequentially until the sun burns out. But probably most of you are curious why this lineup is a Big Deal.
Here's why: this lineup reads like satire. I hadn't heard of OZY Fest until last week. I fully expected this festival to be a prank; I would've guessed that this sign was cooked up by some photoshop-savvy member of the left.
But no. Here we are.
It's uncanny, absolutely unnerving how close this veers to parody. It's as if the FBI decided to name its headquarters “Fred Hampton Plaza” or give out the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Medal for Moral Courage. It's so beyond parody, it lumbers into a hyper-parody at the margins.
I haven't even touched on how profoundly dumb this is, and I wonder if I'll be able to.
With one or two exceptions, this list consists of the very people I would expect to speak at a festival set up by corporate #Resistance types. These are people who make their bread co-opting living, grassroots movements. They take the temperature of the room. Then they yoke mildly rebellious personalities to profitable ventures. And they fundraise off of it. That's literally how the centrist wing of the Democratic Party works.
Take Michelle Wolf, who is a genuinely gifted, funny, insightful comedian. Wolf—through no fault of her own—is only there because she became a hero to the Resistance through performative bullshit. That's not a slam against Wolf, but a comment on the depth of the thought behind OZY Fest. Take Rose McGowan: a brave, passionate celebrity and fighter for truth. More power to whatever platform she stands on. But it's an odd fit, McGowan and OZY Fest. That fact was noted by Libby Torres in her Daily Beast review:
Attendees dutifully booed whenever Trump's name or policies were mentioned, but when McGowan accused the Democratic party of shielding her abuser Harvey Weinstein, you could have heard a pin drop. Progressivism only goes so far, it seems—even despite the best intentions of festival organizers to make it an inclusive, open-minded space.
May I be blunt? The OZY Fest is the best demonstration of how intellectually fragile the center is. This lineup of utterly-palatable celebrities? That's the best you can do? Steven Pinker, who writes shallow books in praise of the status quo? For God's sake, Alex Rodriguez, a steroid-binging narcissist, ran an entrepreneur panel. The man has the business acumen of your dorm-neighbor Adderall dealer. Tom Steyer, who is probably related in some way to whatever underworld demon has oversight over neoliberal capitalism, spoke.
I mean, Grover f***ing Norquist, the anti-tax crusader? Norquist is probably the shithead who's most responsible for our current be-doomed state of affairs. What is he doing there? What can we say about the spectacularly unfunny Chelsea Handler, the woefully anemic Jake Tapper, and famous assistant war criminal Karl Rove?
Of course, the pundit-and-TED-Talk world is nothing new. Davos happens every year, after all. Neoliberal capitalism is like any powerful system: it requires a class of intellectual and cultural defenders.
Places like OZY Fest, and Davos, and the Aspen Ideas Festival, are where the public relations arm of the Establishment sells its wares to marks and rubes. It’s one thing to receive press releases from the Gates Foundation; it’s quite another to sit in the presence of the man’s rude animal vitality.
The OZY Fest, and all the OZY Fests of our age, exist to impress the technicians and professionals of the ruling order. The owners of society can’t run the system without the cooperation of the professional classes: the lawyers, administrators, journalists, bureaucrats, smaller businessmen, and so on. The long alliance between rich people and technicians has been strained in recent years. These get-togethers exist to convince the activists, media types, and influencers that the Trump years are a trifling bump in the good and glorious road upwards. That the spineless, incremental center knows best. That they haven’t been handed their ass in every conceivable way over the past six or seven years.
Other writers have commented on the surreal, bloodless horror of OZY Fest. In an inspired piece, Jeva Lange noted that the festival was “described favorably as ‘TED meets Coachella.’” She elaborated:
[Carlos] Watson, the founder, told the New York Daily News in April that the goal of the festival, which is in its third year, is to bring “diverse voices to one stage, and expose people to unexpected perspectives. In years past, people who purchased a ticket to see Jason Derulo have been totally wowed by Jeb Bush.” Which is dubious; if you’re trying to wow people, you don’t invite Jeb Bush. But in reality, OZY Fest is a strange, well-funded mutation of the #Resistance, organized and attended by people who are so out of touch and smugly self-congratulatory that “highlights” of day one, which I attended, are limited to Hillary Clinton talking about Russia and DNC Chairman Tom Perez predicting the party will win “north of 23” House seats and “plus two” Senate seats come November.
There’s an important takeaway here, a point that goes beyond the un-satirizable guest list.
Humans are endlessly inventive. It’s what we do.
But mostly, we prefer to do the same twelve things over and over again. Whether you’re a deacon at Poughkeepsie’s most progressive church or a serial murderer, it’s the same song: human behavior is patterned. We do what we know. Don’t get me wrong: people change, and they change all the time. All I’m saying is that we have a predisposition to hoe the same row, and it takes a little effort to alter a course.
But change doesn’t require years, or money, or perfect willpower. It just takes a little courage. Not much.
Sometimes, necessity suffices.
And yet … the very successful and very powerful are loathe to change. You think it’d be natural for them, right? To survive is to adapt, and to adapt is to change. And if anyone understands the nature of survival, it’s the top brass. But no. When you’ve been protected by your power and authority, why alter course? That’s the value of privilege. It explains why the Clintons will never alter their course, why the Democratic Party is stuck in the mud, why white fragility is such a commonplace. And why the center’s response to existential political angst is …. TED Talks meets Coachella.
We do what works. Even when it doesn’t work for us anymore.
And this explains why the godforsaken OZY Fest exists, why it is beyond parody, and why, after the years of expensive lessons, the center-left Establishment hasn’t heard the music. How could anyone think this is a good idea? How could grownups take any of these people seriously? Why would you think this was a wise choice? Why hold a discussion salon, when you have nothing new to discuss?
The only thematically appropriate way to throw a neoliberal “ideas” festival in the Age of Trump would be to keep every stage empty, while the hungry, angry, impatient crowd was kept waiting. Just to get the point across: there’s nothing there we haven’t seen before.