There was probably only one event in Washington, on the eve of President Barack Obama's second inauguration, where a 9/11 truther could show up and sing his lonely song without interruption.
"Praise and criticism on the issue of racism, especially Islamophobia," chanted David Schlesinger, proffering flyers to people waiting in line outside the Peace Ball, put on by Busboys and Poets, D.C.’s lefty restaurant empire. "The simple truth is the top of the building cannot crush the bottom without slowing down. That's 9th grade science. And we're being hypocrites. It's terrible."
Befitting the pacifist theme of the occasion, no one argued with Shlesinger, who didn't press his case too hard either. It's just part of the spectacle at Washington events with a radical bent.
And the sold-out Peace Ball at the Arena Stage—the swooping glass theater on Washington's waterfront, slightly removed from the rest of the inaugural craziness around the Mall—was nothing if not a spectacle. Run-of-the-mill ball garb mixed with traditional African traditional vestments and activist t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "CHOOSE KINDNESS." Code Pink's Medea Benjamin did Lady Gaga's zombie dance in a bubble gum pink sleeveless gown. When I entered the main dance hall, the sparkly, purple-haired mystic radio host Caroline Casey was giving some sort of invocation.
"In closing, I just want to introduce the word 'ashay,' which means, may the words become manifest, in a Chyros moment in time, let us collect ourselves, because when the desirable world incarnates into what we laughably call 'reality,' we're invoking the spirit of democracy," she cried. "May we see the ancestors of all the life on this planet placing a cloak of guiding earth wisdom around Obama's shoulders, and like that, you say 'Ashay!' One, two, three, Ashay!"
Still, the pageantry was less triumphal than that halcyon party four years ago, before a renewed effort in Afghanistan, before secret drone attacks became the new way of war. In fact, it seemed like the revelers were trying to avoid talking about Obama at all, except in the negative.
"We're supposed to be the home of the brave, land of the free. What's wrong with our political parties, what's wrong with our president?” grouched the hunched-over Ralph Nader, who trailed a crowd of old friends and admirers before taking the stage to rail against the stagnant minimum wage. "In two years in his term, he did nothing, because we were not presenting him with organized demands."
In his speech to the packed floor and balconies, Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal quietly acknowledged the disappointment that followed the euphoria of 2008.
"I called Howard Zinn, the late, great Howard Zinn. And I said, 'Howard, are you excited that we elected this president?' And he said, 'Of course I'm excited, who wouldn't be? But remember, you elect a president, not a prophet,'" Shallal recalled. "I said, 'But this guy is different. He's got so much.'"
"So after that night, things went on, and we were working on so many issues, and some of us decided to just kind of take a break, because we had elected this amazing man that's going to make a difference," Shallal continued, then paused. "I think it's a lesson to be learned, that it's not about one person, it's not about a president, it's about each and every one of you in this room. You are the activists, the agitators, the troublemakers, the peacemakers. You are the ones who can make a difference."
And then he had us all hug our neighbors. I embraced a flower child in a long flowing blue robe. It was not the best of times, they all seemed to recognize. But it was not the worst of times, either.