Thursday, April 10, 2008


Boulder Day Two (Torture, Reunions & Jazz)

(Technical problems prevented this from being posted earlier.)

This was the day I was dreading. The early panel was fine. Titled "Loyalties or Issues: What Counts In The Voting Booth," a rather polite topic that touched on questions of race, gender, "gut feelings" in voting decisions, etc. I did a spot survey of people in the audience -- just women -- as to whom they were supporting, Hillary or Barack. Given that this was Boulder, I wasn't surprised to find that most supported Obama. I asked the Hillary supporters if they were supporting her because of gender or where she was on the issues. Nearly all said because of the issues. I then said, "I was also going to ask the same question of all African-Americans in the room. But, since that would only be the young lady in the front row, I'll ask her which way she is leaning." She says, "Actually, I'm a Republican!" The entire place cracked up. The moment couldn't have been better had it been planned.

The afternoon panel though was something else -- "Torture: When the Unthinkable Becomes Acceptable." It featured actor-activist Mike Farrell (yes, the M*A*S*H* guy), Mother Jones publisher Jay Harris (who was also on the earlier panel) and Texas writer Lou Dubose who has worked with the late Molly Ivins (and shares her politics). As I expressed in my opening remarks, given those resumes, I was there to deliver the, ahem, "minority perspective." Well, I didn't give a full-throated "defense" of torture. However, I did pose the question as to whether there couldn't be circumstances where it might be justifiable. That got some grumbles. Later, a woman (psychologist, I believe) asked about the "strategic" reason behind torture -- i.e., if it doesn't "work," why do operatives engage in it? I said, well, perhaps that suggests that the broad consensus that "torture doesn't work" isn't universally shared. Obviously, some people feel that it does work. Otherwise, why bother using a tactic that isn't effective?

That observation didn't go too well. Grumbles became outright boos. The moderator (the head of the local ACLU) requested quiet and said that boos weren't acceptable. Someone yelled out, "We applaud when we like something; we can boo when we don't." The moderator said, no, please...

I said, no, let them go ahead if they want. I reiterated the point that I wasn't making a moral justification, but responding to the audience member's question about the perceived strategic benefit of torture. They may not like it, but I wasn't going to back down from it.

Anyway, I feel like I'd finally arrived: I'd been booed at a CWA panel! (On the other hand, a number of people came up to say that, though they don't agree with me on everything -- or anything -- they are glad that the conference has some panels that have clear differences of opinion.)

The upside of the torture panel, however, was that I was pleasantly surprised to find an old friend who now a CU professor. Someone came up to the participant table as the event was breaking up and, said something like, "Didn't I know you at St. John's College once upon a time?" I looked up and there was Leland Giovanelli, a former SJC tutor, who I hadn't seen in several years. Leland also came to my rescue: One audience member didn't want to let me go (perpetual torture?), insisting on telling me that there was no proof to an observation I made that one of the individuals the government admitted to waterboarding may actually have produced intelligence that prevented several terrorist incidents. After I politely responded to him for several minutes, Leland stepped in and adopted an authoritative voice and said, "Robert, I'm sorry, but we're running late. We've got to go."

After getting out of there, Leland and I caught up. She invited me out to dinner with her and her husband. We dined at Turley's, a Boulder version of TGIFridays. Go for the buffalo burgers -- avoid the scrambled tofu. They then dropped me back at campus where a fantastic jazz concert was held, featuring musicians from around the world -- including regular CWA participants such as Don and Dave Grusin, saxophonist Derek Nash, percussionist Rony Barrak, New Orleans vocalist Lillian Boute, guitarist Frank Quintero and the remarkable Shodekeh, a hip-hopper who channels all sorts of sounds and instrument tonations through his voice.

After the concert, many of us decamped to the Red Fish for the afterparty, where many of the musicians jammed with the in-house band. I also had a rather nice chat with Air America's Rachel Maddow, who's here for the entire week.

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