Monday, March 13, 2017

The Temptations of Direct Action

By Kelly Cogswell

Right before it happened, I'd turn on the news and watch a black or brown woman interviewing the likes of Al Sharpton, or Margarita Lopez, who was the first out Latina dyke on the New York City Council. It didn't seem remarkable then, seeing so many women, so many people of color on the tube. And queers, even. But after September 11, suddenly the newscasters were all white straight men with a certain, forced gravitas, their interviewee the pale-faced mayor Rudolph Giuliani available twenty-four hours a day complete with a NYFD or NYPD ball cap. Bush Jr. was there, too, surrounded by grimacing white congressmen.

In her book, The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America, Susan Faludi argued that those terrorist acts actually launched a new attack on feminism. Focusing on the post-attack media, politics, and popular culture, she showed how they were all committed to elevating "traditional" manhood and gender roles, celebrating cops and firemen, sidelining women from nearly every heroic narrative of September 11.

I can feel it happening again. Not just because a pussy-grabber's sitting in the White House. But because a large minority of the besieged left, apparently emasculated by Clinton's successful primary campaign, is still going on about how Bernie "Big Dick" Sanders would have beaten Trump for sure. Our current problems are all Hillary's fault and the Dems that anointed her. So much for all those votes she got, all the people she mobilized. And now that the white nationalist kleptocracy is in full swing, that's somehow the fault, too, of girly liberals like her for not destroying it while we had a chance. What we need are more broken windows. More burning cars. More radicalized radicals taking names and kicking ass. Down with the effete failure of liberal democracy. Up with a vaguely defined utopian working class state that will rise magically from the ashes of what we have now.

Just for the record, I'm all for holding demos, and blocking airports and streets, along with Trump and his truly horrifying agenda. Direct action is perfect to voice a giant, "No!" And has always played an important role in social change, not just because it disrupts the steamrollers of power, but because a vibrant, visible left gives teeth to more modest, yet crucial measures like letter-writing, phone calls, voting, running for office -- the things that take root. When politicians have to compromise, and they always do, crowds in the street mean they can bargain from a position of power and won't have to give up so much.

Direct action as a tactic is also one of the few ways to make things visible that society wishes to remain hidden, an AIDS epidemic, for instance, lesbians, police brutality, the erosion of abortion rights. Activism can also transform those of us who have never tasted power before, never had a public voice. There's something intoxicating about confronting your fear, stepping into the street, and feeling the adrenaline kick in with an amazing whoosh. You feel good, powerful for a change, as your voice is amplified by all the bodies around you.

The problem is that this power can also corrupt, especially those young straight men that were born to it. Who, after all, already dominates the street? Ride the subway after 10 p.m. it's almost all men. Women are home taking care of the kids. Or they're just scared to go out alone. Pretty soon young men aren't satisfied with waving a sign and chanting, but take a brick and toss it through the nearest McDonald's window in the name of the working class and a healthy environment.

You get a positively explosive formula when you mix this temptation to violence with the activist tendency to imagine that getting arrested for blocking traffic is somehow more noble than making a phone call. Or that a sympathizer in the Senate who knows how to compromise and wrangle votes is nothing more than a turncoat.

Like the "alt-right," the “alt-left” is going beyond rejecting the conservative nature of our institutions, to rejecting the institutions themselves, despite the fact that they consolidate our gains, and have the resources to protect them, if only we insist on it. They never see the change democracy permits, only its failures. They think stability is always bad. And demand bulldozers and steamrollers.

So even as I rejoice at the vast numbers on the streets blocking everything Trump conceives of, I remember that revolutions so many activists are calling for have always and only benefited men—particularly white men-- in multiracial societies. Women are sidelined, along with disenfranchised people of color who were deluded to believe this was ever for them. As usual, the Puritans of the left will also purge queers, if not for our sex lives, then liberal alliances, not to mention the tasteless jokes we make when we despair of the world.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Baiting Trump

By Kelly Cogswell

I was so happy when I saw the SNL skit for the first time with the brilliant Melissa McCarthy decked out as Sean Spicer, guzzling gum, throwing tantrums, blasting the press for questioning Trump's Muslim ban, destroying language itself and offering an imaginary narrative, while accusing journalists of spreading fake news.

It was a blistering characterization that not only ridiculed the incompetent, know-nothing Spicer, but highlighted the undercurrent of violence in Trump's blustering, authoritarian administration which aims to rule through sheer domination, destabilizing tactics, and fear.

McCarthy seemed the perfect choice after her role as Detective Joyce Nelson in the movie The Heat with her potty-mouthed rage and extreme physical comedy. You want fury? She's a bundle of it. Want fearlessness? I can't think of a male actor in recent times who's thrown their body around as audaciously as McCarthy.

It seemed irrelevant that she was doing it drag. The script didn't mention women, and Alex Baldwin's fake blonde wig seemed more of a stretch than her thinning brown wig, and ill-fitting suit. She dominated the room, not with a dick, but the pure force of her personality. What did gender have to do with anything?

But then the news broke that what had Trump and Spicey going nuts was not so much the portrait of Spicer as an enraged, gum-chewing, shit-gibbon, but that he was played by a woman. Once we heard that, the game was on. Rosie O'Donnell replaced her Twitter profile with a convincing image of herself as Bannon.

Stephen Colbert declared "... If the president thinks a woman playing Sean Spicer makes him look weak, then he’s really not going to like this picture we made of a little girl pretending to be Donald Trump. And he’s especially not going to like it when you retweet at him with the hashtag #largerhands."

This statement, which came with the release of a photo of a little girl in a pink dress with a big Trump wig, was where I started to squirm. Because there's a big difference between a grown woman laying bare the rage of a toxic white masculinity, and a photo of a pretty little girl in a Trump wig designed to impugn his manhood, not critique it.

Apparently, the only thing worse than being a little girl, is throwing like one, crying like one. What could be worse, in fact, than being a man touched by femininity? A fucking fag? A trans woman who abdicated her rights in a man's world? Sorry, but we don't need more misogyny -- ever. So fuck you, Stephen Colbert. And everybody whose Trump-baiting humor doesn't go beyond jokes about Trump's small, feminine hands.

This is especially important with the Renaissance of White Nationalism where the subjugation of women by men is the model for every other domination, Christians over Muslims, White over Blacks, Straights over Queers, good old American English over every other language, every nation in the world. Yeah, let's grab 'em all by the pussy. Who's the bitch, now?

The control of female bodies, forcing us to remain pregnant and have children whether we want to or not, is not a separate issue from the control of black and brown bodies in the street, and workplace, and school. The defense, even encouragement, of domestic violence against women, is the same as the bullying of certain young white males to insure they remain in their place. On top. And know what to do once they get there.

Using a little girl to attack Trump actually reminded me of Lynndie England--the U.S. Army Reserve private serving in Iraq who got her 15 minutes of fame for agreeing to pose for a photo holding the leash of a naked detainee cowering on the ground at Abu Ghraib prison. In another, she gave a thumbs-up behind a pyramid of naked prisoners. In another, she smiled as a guy was forced to whack off.

She was one of the few who went to jail for abuse of prisoners, but women soldiers under Bush were regularly used to humiliate men who were compelled to crawl on the floor, wear women's underwear, pose naked. Men were also forced to engage in homosexual acts. Let's humiliate those Muslim bastards any way we can.

While Colbert didn't torture anybody, the image of the little girl was used in the same way, to pollute, to provoke disgust and ridicule. Like the SNL jokes about Trump's attraction for a bare-chested Putin.

Nothing good will come of it. It never has. The Abu Ghraib photos boosted anti-U.S. sentiment worldwide, became big recruiting tools for Al Qaeda, were cited for the execution of American Nicholas Berg, and set back progress for women and queers.

In the U.S., sneering only at his masculinity might piss off Trump, but it won't help us, won't do anything to undercut his desire to be a “real man”, and dominate America by violence, instability, and hate.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Lessons from Egypt on How to Organize the Resistance

By Kelly Cogswell

Six years ago last week, on January 25, 2011, mass demonstrations began in Egypt that would topple the corrupt, brutal regime of Hosni Mubarak. Following the lead of Tunisia, demos were at first just inspired by, and reported on, by social media. After a couple days, they became so big even Egypt's official radio and TV was forced to acknowledge them.

Inspired by hearing about the huge crowds, even more protesters joined in, demanding "Bread, Freedom and Social Justice" and the end of the regime. A few weeks later, protesters had taken to the streets in such vast numbers, everything ground to a halt, and Mubarak stepped down.

The lesson here, if we hadn't learned it before, from the Tea baggers or the black civil rights movement, or a host of others, is that resistance doesn't require political savvy or pollsters, just large numbers of pig-headed participants willing to face down the state again and again. Already, after two days of mass protests in airports all over the country, and some brave judicial rulings, Trump was forced to reverse at least part of his executive order banning Muslim immigrants.

This gives me hope that we may actually be able to fend off the worst under Trump and Pence if we're on the streets every day for two years, for four, for eight, saying no to everything. Making nuisances of ourselves. Trampling Trump even if he miraculously promises to undo trade deals we don't like, suddenly reverses himself on walls, makes the trains run on time. We have to stand in the way, literally.

But we also have to start thinking of the future. Because if Egypt teaches us about the effectiveness of protest and direct action, it also warns us to be prepared not just for disaster, but victory. There, where it came so quickly, demonstrators were taken by surprise. Young activists and bloggers didn't have either the skills or desire to become parliamentarians. No central unifying figures emerged, and the military quickly moved into the power vacuum and seized control.

While the U.S. doesn't necessarily face a military dictatorship, we do face a profound crisis of leadership among both conservatives and progressives. Neither seems able or willing to stand up to Trump. And if we don't have a plan, and participants, to repair our damaged country, another radically far right win is not just possible but inevitable in the long run, with even more disastrous results.

This time, even a moderate Democrat as POTUS won't be enough. Obama's election did end eight years of a torture apologist, Constitution-eroding Bush, but did little to restore our civil liberties taken away under the guise of security, little to reverse the gerrymandering of election districts. Neither did it end dirty votes in places like Florida, which was what put Bush in the White House to begin with.

Queers were as bad as anybody. We breathed a quick sigh of relief then pushed successfully for our legal rights like marriage. We did too little of that grassroots organizing which is essential in building broad movements and giving social change deep roots. The faces of our organizations remained far too white, far too cis male. We understood "inclusive" as an advertising concept, not something that ties us to other communities and makes us strong.

Activists, too, sometimes seem to misunderstand "intersectional," as the obligation to make laundry lists that just produce new pecking orders. To survive this time, we have to truly understand—-beyond emotions and ideology-- how we're in this together, how we’re all relying on the health of democratic institutions for the basic tools of social change, like free speech and assembly, votes, the judiciary. No more asking what's the difference between Hillary and Trump? What are a few Supreme Court nominees?

As a result of our short-sightedness (and a lot of help from Putin and Assange), we find ourselves facing a total breakdown of democracy, from attacks on an independent press to the dismantling of our procedural safeguards, with no real opposition in sight. For the moment, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand is the only Senator to vote against all of Trump's nihilistic appointees, whose mission is not to administer departments, but to dismantle them.

If we want to save our country, we have to quickly identify candidates that don't need to register a certain number of phone calls to know that bans on Muslim immigration are moral, legal, and security disasters. That the head of the Justice Department should care about justice. That the head of the Department of Ed should know something about education. Or that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency should accept scientific fact and consensus just like Mike Pence accepts Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

Any congressperson willing to collaborate with these anti-immigrant, anti-queer, anti-education, anti-science, white Christian nationalist monsters needs to be sent home on the next bus. And if we can't find enough candidates, we have to be willing to run ourselves.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women Rising?

By Kelly Cogswell

I'm back in France, and about the time that Donald Trump was taking the oath of office in the rain, I was trapped on a bus in the dark going around and around and around in circles. That's what it felt like anyway, going round and round traffic roundabouts in the dark countryside after being bottlenecked for hours.

I was afraid it was a metaphor. I've been afraid for months. Of losing my insurance. Getting hassled, beaten, attacked by newly emboldened bigots. Targeted for being a dyke, or using the women's bathroom while slightly butch, or maybe for speaking a foreign language out in public with my partner, or friends. It's happened before. I didn't know a few syllables of Spanish could turn a white guy's face so red.

But then Saturday, Saturday. I turned on the TV in the afternoon, and saw women, thousands of women. All those pink and red and magenta pussy hats. And signs, funny, furious, witty, obscene and glorious messages of hope and resistance. I was taken aback, not just by the protesters, but the fact that the misogynist French mainstream media was actually covering the Paris Women's March. They were even interviewing a range of women, an old white one. A young brown one, and that was just the beginning. All night long they followed marches in the U.S. The BBC meanwhile, had reported on the tens of thousands of protesters that filled Trafalgar Square. I couldn't believe the images from the U.S., all those gazillions of people, mostly women, pouring into the streets in Chicago, and Detroit, and even mustering several thousand in Lexington, Kentucky.

I got kind of teary, but with joy for a change. At the marchers. But also at a new opening in the media that might just pay attention this time because democracy itself is in danger. And I tuned in occasionally to the Washington March, and listened to the speakers who were a righteously diverse bunch. Even the longwinded mansplainer Michael Moore offered Ashley Judd the opportunity to school other women in how to deal with that kind of masculine gasbaggery. You pull the plug, totally step on their ass. I was also impressed at how comfortable she was performing that poem that had her talking about racism, and queers, and trans people. That gave me hope, too.

I admit, I didn't expect such a high turnout for the Women's March, especially in the U.S. where most Americans have never been on the Street. Even the black marchers of BLM are only a small percentage of their communities. And seasoned activists are often snobs. Before we go to a march, we want to know who's organizing the thing, what their pedigree is. Is it up to snuff? Are they? Who else is going? Are they radical enough? Inclusive enough?

There's a reason for our skepticism. We often see LGBTQ describing an organization or event even though it's dominated by gay white men. The women's movement in the U.S., and many other places, has a history of indifference, if not outright hostility towards dykes, poor women, minorities, trans people.

On the other --left--hand, the last time I went to a march in Paris for International Women's Day, I thought I was in the wrong place. All the signs were about Palestine or the Iraq War or the environment, and didn't even include the word, "Femme". The bodies in the crowd didn't give a hint either. Most of the women were there with men so no one would think they were dykes. It seemed like women needed some kind of modifier to be valued, were expected to embody an inclusiveness that other groups, like #BLM are entitled to push back from. Don't come here with that #alllivesmatter nonsense that stinks of racism and privilege.

And yet, and yet. Women are half the population of the earth. Half of every racial and ethnic and religious group. All social and political issues everywhere affect the lives of women in some profound way. Don't expect me to leave my dykeness at home. The place I came from. Our experience of race is entangled with everything. The challenge for the new women's movement is to acknowledge these threads without erasing fundamental truths about the identity that arbitrarily unites us -- how our lives are marked by a toxic masculinity that systematically attacks and diminishes those of us with female bodies, or touched by femininity in any way at all.

After a rocky start, the March organizers did a good job of pulling all the issues, all the people together. If Trump and his minions have performed one service, it is to make visible the deep connections between our country's hardcore misogyny, and anti-queer, white supremacist hate. All us social minorities are in the same boat. And if we don't rise and resist together, we're sunk.