Monday, May 08, 2017

France at the Authoritarian Crossroads


By Kelly Cogswell

It's almost a miracle, how in just one year, centrist Emanuel Macron and his supporters launched the grassroots movement En Marche! (Forward!) that not only got him into the second round of the presidential vote, but helped him win. Much of the work was done by folks who hadn't been involved in politics before, including many women, and people of color. Victories in the upcoming legislative elections, when voters are not facing the threat of white nationalist Le Pen, will hopefully confirm that democracy still works in France, and people not tapped into traditional parties can still have a voice if they are willing to knock on enough doors.

Even if they win, France is still at a crossroads. In the first round, almost fifty percent of voters chose a populist from the extreme right or the extreme left. In the final round, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant right-wing Marine Le Pen won thirty-four percent of the vote, drawing in not just voters from the center right, but poaching some from the extreme left. Like Trump, she also benefited from the many leftists who chose to stay home or vote blank and take their chances with virulent white nationalists, rather than vote for a centrist.

At a recent political meeting, Daniel Cohen-Bendit, whose family literally had to hide from the Nazis, blamed the growing power of the racist, authoritarian National Front on the French failure to remember and transmit their knowledge of Nazi atrocities. That's absolutely true, but I also blame the left worldwide for ignoring their own totalitarian past, so that when their candidate gets knocked out, it's no stretch for them to abstain, or even to embrace an extreme right promising to support workers. After all, class trumps everything, from misogyny to racism and the abuse of human rights. And when they say class, make no mistake, it's a white male factory worker they're thinking of.

It started with Stalin, who in the name of that working class, executed a million or so, "enemies of the state" often identified by their ethnicity. He killed another million in the gulags, and deliberately engineered famines that killed another five million, including more than a million nomads of Soviet Kazakhstan, and 3.3 million in the Soviet Ukraine. Poles were targeted, too. According to historian Timothy Snyder, "it was Stalin, not Hitler, who initiated the first ethnic killing campaigns in interwar Europe."

Not that anyone cares. Part of the problem with the left is that they are just as willing to ignore facts as any Trump voter. When it comes to Cuba, for instance, every report about the long-term failure of the 1959 revolution -- the poverty, the corruption, human rights abuses, the racism, and homophobia--has been denounced as fake news. Every voice protesting the treatment of the opposition is dismissed as a CIA plant, or just dismissed.

When I told a dyke acquaintance I'd never vote for the extreme left French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon-- a re-packaged Communist-- because he was too fond of tyrants—like Russia's Putin, Syria’s Assad, and Venezuela’s Maduro--she first claimed the media made up those connections. And when I pointed out his recent, lengthy eulogy for Castro, she declared her own love for Fidel. And when I brought up the queers he threw in jail there-- "including my girlfriend," she sneered like I was pathetic for letting concentration camps stand in the way of embracing the Revolution.

Most recently, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela seduced the masses at home and abroad with his fancy Bolivarian speeches. But if you dare explain to someone that the country is now an economic and political disaster where dissidents are jailed, you can't buy an aspirin or a roll of toilet paper, hospitals are closed, people are dying of hunger and there are mass protests where demonstrators across the political spectrum are shot dead in the street… the typical leftist response is, "But they're from The Right, aren't they?"

Call me a right-wing reactionary, but I find this callousness as monstrous as the bloated rage of any Trump or Le Pen, and just as racist. Instead of the exploitation of natural resources and labor, these colonialist revolutionaries worldwide prop up dictators with alt-facts, alt-narratives so they can play out their utopian fantasies. That the ordinary people in places like Venezuela and Cuba might aspire to the same standard of living, the same freedom and human rights that we enjoy in the U.S. or France, is of no consequence whatsoever.

This is playing out in France, too, where the left is determined to thwart Macron's incremental proposals for economic reform. They see only that the rich might benefit, never consider why so many people of color and immigrants who voted Socialist for decades and got nothing, might enthusiastically embrace the social mobility, jobs, and improved education that are largely the point of Macron's plans. I get the idea that they want black and brown people to stay poor and pure, untainted by the privilege or money they themselves inherit, which they often pretend appeared under their pillow, or grew on a tree.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Voting for Hope in France

By Kelly Cogswell

The first round of the presidential election is over, and it's down to the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the candidate of the extreme right, Marine Le Pen. I think he'll win. God, I hope so. In many ways, he was the most progressive in the pack, emphasizing education, human rights, social mobility, economic justice (achieved through reform rather than revolution), and the democratic process. It is to his credit that he was, and is, the candidate most hated by Putin, partly because nine of the other ten candidates wanted to leave Europe, not stay and push for reform.

My girlfriend’s been campaigning for Macron for weeks, going door to door in our modest Paris neighborhood, leafleting at metro stops, and in the outdoor food markets.

Here, in the 11th arrondissement, situated between Place de la Nation and Belleville, she saw a clear racial divide among voters. Young white lefties mostly stumped for the left-wing populist, Jean-Luc Melenchon, but almost everyone with roots in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, West Africa, happily took Macron's fliers and stopped to chat, even grabbing my girlfriend's arm, assuring her at length that God was on their side. "Don't worry, we'll win."

One was impressed that on a trip to Algeria, Macron acknowledged that French colonialism had included crimes against humanity. More importantly, he refused to recant, hedge, or soften his words, even though there was a total uproar afterwards that set back his campaign.

Another liked his plans to improve schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, but also offer retraining for the unemployed, and continued education for everyone in this new world where technology and information advances rapidly.

Others support his plans to modernize the fossilized economy and create jobs in this country with 9.6% unemployment, making it easier for them to start new businesses, from small law firms to nail salons. They are tired of being offered handouts instead of jobs, palliative care instead of access to social mobility, which begins quite literally with public transportation. Out in the Paris banlieues, the suburban ghettoes, it’s a lengthy and expensive process to get to jobs in the city, assuming you can find one. They applaud when Macron calls it “house arrest”.

Like him, they see plenty to criticize in Europe, but they also embrace it. They understand a Frexit would be an economic disaster for France, and probably the end of the European Union. They know that retreats into nationalism are never good for anyone, particularly for minorities. Immigrant bashing is Britain’s new pastime, like in Trump’s white nationalist U.S.

They are glad that Macron is young, and hopeful, but pragmatic. Many, like my girlfriend, have seen what happens when authoritarian populists come to power, and are quite certain that utopias of the left and of the right, like coalmines, and salvation by old-time manufacturing, are pipe dreams that belong to the last century.

Unlike the white French, few of them consider Macron tainted by the three and a half years he spent in an investment bank. One immigrant I know considers the experience a plus. If you want to reform an economy, it helps to have real world experience on how they operate, and to accept that globalization is as much of a fact as mechanization. It's how you handle it that counts.

Women's rights and gender parity in his movement En Marche are an important part of Macron’s platform. He's also recovered his footing on LGBT issues even though he stumbled trying to reach out to right-wing voters that had opposed marriage equality.

Last Monday, we went to a big public meeting, and Macron's supporters represented, as they claim, the face of France, including an enthusiastic range of ages, races, genders, ethnicities, accents. Big screens broadcast images of the crowd, and when it showed two dykes who were surprised to see themselves there, they suddenly smiled, turned to each other and kissed, and the crowd went wild with cheers and applause. A few minutes later, it was two men kissing, who also got applause.

When Macron finally spoke, I found myself agreeing with nearly everything he said, especially his insistence on complexity, and his use of the phrase, "en même temps," at the same time. He was comfortable expressing pride in the ideas of the Enlightenment, while at the same time acknowledging that France hadn’t achieved them. That France had to modernize the economy and create job growth, but at the same time continue to protect the vulnerable. That he had to engage with countries like Russia, but still denounce the abuse of human rights, including the concentration camps in Chechnya where they had been torturing gay men. When he mentioned those, the horror was visible on his face.

If I could vote for him, I would, not just to thwart Marine Le Pen, but because I believe in his platform. Whether or not he can pull it off is another story. He'd have to get a majority in the legislature, and unify a fractured country. He may not even get past the final round vote on May 7th. One obstacle: a substantial minority of the extreme left prepared to sacrifice people of color and immigrants--among many, many others-- as they self-righteously proclaim, "Anybody, but Macron."

Monday, April 10, 2017

Don't Mention Gender or Race

By Kelly Cogswell

For the next four years our only strategy on the national level can be to persistently say, "no." And "no." And "no." No! to every single thing Trump does, or that the Republicans propose from Supreme Court candidates to financial reform, and next season's wars. Odds are we'll still lose. But as bad as things seem, they'll be worse if we sit at home with our mouths closed.

Of course, there are also proactive things we can do on the local level if we can just get out of bed. Many of the rights and privileges we've already seen stripped away can be restored or protected, at least in part, by the states. Let us then work in our hometowns for access to health care, and education, and jobs, for righteous police forces, immigrant rights, environmental protection, fair voting districts. Not to mention gender and racial inequalities.

Really, seriously, don't bother mentioning those at all. We've known since before the election that Trump voters actually had a higher income than Clinton voters. And now that it's over, studies confirm that having strongly bigoted ideas predicted Trump voters much more closely than income. But no, let's continue to dissect the Democratic campaign and its "failure" to reach white working class voters.

Especially don't contradict that large minority on the left still asserting that Sanders would have won, "If the Dems hadn't rigged, rigged, rigged the primary in favor of that horrible bitch." They still believe everything Sanders said in his speeches. Nothing that Clinton did. Believe none of the criticism about their white-haired masculine savior. Believe every single attack on that girly-bitted, establishment cunt who dared talk about race or gender when it's only class that matters. Especially the heart-breaking struggles of former factory workers and coal miners that just happened to be white. And male.

It's almost funny to watch the contortions of the white, masculinized left as they try to hide their scorn for the really, truly, actually poor. Like, for instance, immigrant women of color trying to survive in service jobs, turning up as home aides even if they can barely walk themselves after years of caring for heavy bodies, and no time off or decent insurance to fix that back, that knee.

The French are no better. I was out with a friend at a bar when he suddenly became monstrous in his hardline lefty manliness explaining that poor people shouldn't be polled on political issues because they weren't educated, didn't have time to be informed, or have the intellectual tools to think deeply about their conditions. And when I asked if he really meant that poor people couldn't be trusted to serve as experts even on their own lives, he actually said yes.

That's patriarchy. That's paternalism. That's my ticket to the nuthouse. All those men who won't let poor women stand in their way as saviors of the working class. They are all just victims themselves. Losing ground in politics, in business. Even the arts. Take that cute little animation film, "Alike", by Daniel Martínez Lara and Rafa Cano Méndez which has picked up zillions of prizes for its heartfelt observations about how society grounds out your creativity.

But in the midst of the sappy music and all the manipulated feels, nobody seems to have noticed that every single one of the hundreds of carefully universal figures whose creativity has been... let's say emasculated... by society were all male. For the entire seven minutes, females didn't exist at all. Weren't in the identical dead-end cubicles, weren't staggering down the streets to grey jobs. Weren't among the children learning how to be grey adults.

Perhaps the animators thought our bodies would have introduced a degree of difference that would have ruined their aesthetics of their metaphor which also carefully made the men all blue-grey, and "alike" in their white collars and ties, because race would also have distracted us from talking about what really matters: the freedom and happiness of those poor disappointed men of the ruling class who expected more out of life than all this horrible sameness (that they themselves willingly reproduce).

We've got plenty of similar men in the LGBT community. Some even think Trump's not such a big deal. And maybe he's not--for them. You're not really a fag if you're a white, straight-acting top, can put on a collar and tie. The one they'll come for is the guy who swishes a little. Giggles. Or snickers and snipes. Maybe even has a few curves. Or wears colors outside the golf course. Or is of color. Or erodes the assumption that there's something inherently, "universal" or "superior" about being born with a dick. In short, challenges the idea of just what a man is, or should be-- an endeavor that is as worthy as calling your senator or rep. And taking to the street one more time.

Monday, March 27, 2017

More Radical Than Hate

By Kelly Cogswell

A couple of decades ago, the Lesbian Avengers did a Valentine's Day action at Bryant Park reuniting the statue of Gertrude Stein with Alice B. Toklas. Veteran activist Maxine Wolfe launched the proceedings with a speech explaining that the purpose of the action was to make "visible the fact of lesbian existence and lesbian love in all its forms and expressions including (…) the love we have for ourselves and each other when we organize and take direct action together on our own behalf."

I don't think I really understood it at the time, but now it reinforces my idea that we're missing something essential in our resistance to Trump. We're certainly not lacking in organizing skills. If there's something queers know how to do, it's how to monitor politicians and throw a demo. We ACTed-up against AIDS. Avenged lesbian invisibility. STARred in the fight for trans rights. Even now, we're winning battles, stopping Muslim bans dead--but not anti-immigrant hate. Putting Trumpcare on pause --but not destroying our unlikely bedfellows in the extreme right.

The problem is that direct action is really only a tool, especially good as triage to keep the patient alive, while we try to find a path through this flaming shit storm, hopefully coming out somewhere different than where we went in.

But so far, the largest difference I see between my pre- and post-Trump community is the fullness of our demo calendars, and the amount of alcohol we're sucking down in anger and fear. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are still full of activists that are just as fact-challenged as voters who want to Make America Great Again. Do you hate that the Republicans took the White House? Let's bash a hillbilly. Are you enraged at trans murders and legal defeats? How 'bout we erase the many times trans people and lesbians have worked successfully together, and blame the dykes? Or let's slam Hillary. Why not? We're the Democrats. We're the queers. We're puritanical crabs in a barrel. That's just how we roll.

Since George W. Bush was elected in 2000, we've preferred to scape-goat whole regions rather than support the large groups of embattled activists of all races in the South that have been resisting Christian Zealots and White Nationalists for decades. More and more we chase our enemies from campuses instead of debating and debunking them. We attack our allies like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with the same zest as Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump, if they don't stick exactly to our scripts, our language.

We refuse nuance. Reflection. Doubt. Even generosity. Maybe because we are desperate to believe we are different from the monsters who so clearly want us powerless and afraid. Health care is the least of it, when they reject not just our identities, but our bodies, our pleasure, our love. When they want us dead.

But believing ourselves separate, believing ourselves different is a fundamental mistake. Audre Lorde wrote that, "the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us." We have more in common than we think. We’re equally governed by fear. Things like race and class, ability, and politics divide us, but only in the middle ground. When you get extremely close, our DNA is practically identical. Pull back as far as you can go, we are indistinguishable as ants. Countries and borders seem irrelevant. Our faces despising our enemies look the same as their faces despising us.

Everything in them is in us. We all embrace hate, usually under a different name, like uprightness. Justice. Self-defense. I'll admit naked hate is even good for some things, like getting a crowd on the street, but then what?

Love? It embarrasses me to talk about it, admit that Maxine's speech has begun to make sense. Love seems so soft. So retro. There's no street cred in it. And it took me so long to get Old Testament angry. I was raised female in the Southern Baptist Church. Turn the other cheek, they said, and I did. I was so fucking humble and mild and loving I was ready to kill myself to save them the trouble.

When I finally tried to get mad, I had to get past the fear of being that shrill, shrieking cunt of a woman. The angry, man-hating dyke. You don't know what it costs me even now to raise my voice. Send something back in a restaurant. And yet. And yet. I've been in the world long enough to know just how corrosive anger is. You can't build a movement, or a life, on it. If we want to endure beyond Trump, and we have to, only love, pure love, will be radical enough.