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Dispatches from the Boston Social Forum | The Nation

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Dispatches from the Boston Social Forum

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Boston, July 25, 2004

About the Author

Jennifer C. Berkshire
Jennifer C. Berkshire is a writer who lives in Boston.

Also by the Author

When organizers were planning the Boston Social Forum, they envisioned a gathering that would counter the Democratic National Convention in every way.

When immigrant janitors in Boston went on strike this fall, they
attracted some unlikely allies.

Social Forums from Brazil to India and now Boston are often accused of failing to generate anything more concrete than a brief up-tick in Fair Trade coffee sales, but that's not exactly fair.

Despite what critics of the movement say--that opponents of neoliberalism are more proficient in puppetry than in articulating solutions to global economic ills--those who do believe in the possibility of another world have been quite effective at summing up that vision. It's clear, for example, that the Forum crowd opposes the privatization of water; that they support economic models that put the globe's people above profit; and that, when given a choice, they'd pick peace over war any day.

But aside from these big-ticket items, much of the "another world is possible" view remains murky. For example, what will we do for amusement in this other world? Will there be a dress code? Will papers still be sold at our events? While a weekend at the Boston Social Forum wasn't able to provide answers to all of these questions, it did put some of them to rest.

We Are Party People

BSF attendees rocked into the wee hours Saturday night to the sounds of Billy Bragg, local rap-consciousness boys the Foundation and the Reagan Babies at the "Another World is Possible" benefit party in Cambridge. But the late-night affair was far from the only party at the BSF. Plenty of the political variety were on the scene as well, from the International Socialist Organization to the recently expanded Committees of Correspondence (now the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism). The heavy presence of sectarians lent a fevered air to even innocuous sounding workshops on topics like labor rights, or challenging corporate power. ("I don't have a question, I have an answer," said one such party member, taking the floor at Friday's opening convocation.) Said one attendee, who appeared visibly shaken after having run the left party gauntlet: "They all want me to buy their newspaper, but what am I supposed to do with all of them?" Then an idea came: "I could use them to line my bird cage."

New Docs

If the Boston Social Forum introduced Beantown to a laid-back Forum vibe, more common in Brazil than in this uptight burg, it also marked something of a cultural coming of age on the left. Documentary films including Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation and Outfoxed are only the most visible of a flourishing, left-of-center, documentary film movement. The BSF screened more than forty largely well-done independent documentaries, ranging from professional jobs to low-budget, "guerilla" productions. One to watch: Julie Rosenberg, co-producer of the disturbing portrait of Colombian trade unionist Hector Giraldo.

I'll Trade You for a T-Shirt

It's a regular Social Forum conundrum: that on the one hand, most Forum-goers decry consumer capitalism as the root of all evil, yet there is so much cool stuff to buy. Boston was no exception. In addition to the marketplace of ideas, vendors here peddled tempting Fair Trade candy bars, the latest in anti-Bush garb and a library's worth of new left titles. Meanwhile, some panelists thought they'd settled on the solution: barter. It sounded appealing to me, but would it fly? My attempt to engage a member of the UMass concession staff in a nonmonetary transaction met with a distinctly dubious look, but I hit pay dirt (barter dirt?) at the Asses of Evil table. Jethro Heiko was selling buttons imprinted with the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded threat scale, and the words "Do you feel safer?" I had to have one, and Heiko pronounced himself ready to barter. "I'll trade you anything but a haircut," he said, pointing out that he cuts his own air. "I probably wouldn't accept underwear either." (Click www.assesofevil.org here to make your own deal with Heiko and the other members of the Asses of Evil collective.)

Hemp, Hemp, Hooray!

I must confess that I wasn't entirely convinced of the miracle properties of hemp before attending the Boston Social Forum. At least I didn't realize that hemp had quite so many miraculous qualities. But that was before I caught wind of "The Hemposium," a tribute to the ecological, cultural and medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant presented in three parts: "Let's Release the Miracle of Hemp: I, II and III." Don't laugh. In the new world, sustainable hemp will no longer be the province of a few wild-eyed crusaders. We'll wear hemp outfits and feast on hempseed snacks. And we won't be the only ones enjoying hemp treats. Mark Lathrop, owner/proprietor of the Monadnock Hemporium in New Hampshire, hopes that before too long, even livestock will be munching on hemp feed, which he argues is far more ecological than fattening cattle with feed.

Ushering in a New Period

While growers of hemp stand to score big in the new world, drugstores--especially those parts of them that cater to women--may not fare quite as well. The BSF hosted some half dozen workshops warning women of the consequences of using deodorant, face cream, even tampons. Eager to get to an 8:30 am Saturday workshop provocatively titled, "The Truth About Tampons: What Your Mother Never Told You," I skipped my usual date with the mirror and rushed to the BSF--only to find that everyone else seemed to have skipped the session. "Where are the tampon people?" someone had scrawled on the blackboard of the classroom. Good question. Perhaps they were collaborating with the hemp crowd on an idea for "hempons."

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