Monday, January 02, 2017

Nightmare on Penn Street

By Kelly Cogswell

I've decided to consider the next four years as an existential opportunity to be liberated, not by hope, but by fear. I'm not joking. I'm waking up at night in a cold sweat I usually reserve for mice infestations. The election really did happen. And in about two weeks DT's sneery face really will be delivering rambling addresses in front of the presidential seal, as he distractedly tweets poisonous nonsense, and toys idly with the big red button that could nuke us all.

And with no further ado his host of actual Nazis, and climate change-deniers, and billionaire conmen, and anti-gay, anti-women vigilantes will be unleashed to chew up, shit on and destroy every aspect of the government from regulations shaping the entire U.S. economy to the federal Justice Department. Probably, the only thing left standing will be the military, which will be given bright and shiny new toys. Bye-bye Obamacare and my beloved migraine meds. Along with the liberty and justice I still don't regret pledging myself to.

Already the subways and streets are bubbling up with increased hostility thanks to the hateful tweets of the Bigot-in-Chief, and to a media that no longer distinguishes what is newsworthy from what get hits. And as the hate speech is amplified, and becomes normalized, so does violence. Anti-queer, anti-women, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, anti-black, anti-anything violence.

Not everybody on the Left seems sorry. I've read more than a few posts by a rainbow of activists smugly dismissing fifty years of social progress to announce that with the election of DT we're just uncovering America's true face of bigotry, war-mongering, and unbridled capitalism. The implication is nothing's ever changed, especially for social minorities. That the streets Zora Neale Hurston walked down a few years out from slavery are exactly the same as those of Claudia Rankine. My own life is no different than my grandmother's who was born into a world where she couldn't have her own credit card, file rape charges. Vote.

Why are we so incapable of saying that things have changed, but not enough? Not for everyone? It's like we believe having some kind of historical perspective is a betrayal of today's pain. Fire must be fire whether you're considering a candle or a burning house, the flaming towers of 9/11 or the melting mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nobody suffers more than me. The incremental progress of a democracy is never real, only its failures. Love never beats out hate.

It's a problem because I don't see how we can strategize effectively unless we face that DT is our backlash president. And that the reason we elected the whitest, straightest, most pussy-grabbingest mogul on earth was precisely because we'd had eight years of Obama, a ground-breaking bid by Hillary, and a decade of escalating progress for queers, and a visible racial justice movement. Sure there were a few election missteps, and Russian interference, and yes, the white working class is struggling to find a way forward, but the biggest predictors of a vote in this election wasn't income, but how much the individual hated women and blacks and queers.

How can we imagine the future, and seize the one we want, unless we admit that it is new, in fact, for modern America to install actual, overt Nazis? Embrace an administration hostile to civil government itself, which aspires to pure autocracy with a soup├žon of rabid nihilism that makes Heath Ledger's Joker look positively sane.

Everything follows from what comes before. Everything has roots, and unintended consequences. Perhaps some of them will even be good. Because the same brutes bashing Muslim women on the subway are harassing young Jewish girls and turning menorahs into swastikas, Muslims and Jews are now joining forces against bigotry.

Maybe our big mistake wasn't celebrating incremental progress, but shaping movements based on the belief that history is bent in an arc towards justice. We understand now that progress is not inevitable. Democracy is fragile. God is dead. If history resembles anything it is the mountain range of an EKG, bumping up and down. The only questions are, Is this downward dip the big one, or will it go back up in our lifetimes? Or even flatline entirely with one big boom? How can we shape it?

Believing in an arc made us too cautious, subservient. Now maybe queers can quit pretending that if we prove ourselves worthy, sanitize our movement, emphasize love and marriage, dress up chastely in suits and sweater sets, transition undetectably to the appropriate gender, use the right words in the right order, that we'll continue to collect our rights like Girl Scout merit badges. Now that we know things can turn around in an instant, we can refuse to cling to crumbs, become generous, open our arms, and our movement. Embrace each other. Why be careful when we can be free?

Monday, December 19, 2016

When Facts Don't Matter: Activism in the New America

By Kelly Cogswell

During the presidential debates, every time Republican candidate Donald Trump opened his mouth he lied, and Democrats had a field day presenting the screen captures of a tweet he'd claimed never to have written, videos of him saying things he'd denied, photos of him chatting with shady characters he said he didn't know.

What a delusional ignoramus, we thought, and wondered who would vote for such a buffoon who got caught in every fib like a three-year old child who denied eating chocolate even though her face was smeared with the stuff. Likewise, who would get hung-up on the false kerfluffle over Clinton's servers and emails when the story was debunked a dozen times a day?

As it turns out, the only delusional members of the American electorate were ones who believed that facts matter. Masha Gessen nailed the problem in her essay, "The Putin Paradigm," in The New York Review of Books, in which she explains why fact-checking doesn't work when dealing with tyrants like Trump, or his role model Putin, who repeatedly and enthusiastically lies in the face of hard evidence. Putin claimed, for instance, after invading Crimea and Ukraine, that no troops were on the ground despite plentiful proof. Then later announced, that of course there were. So what?

The thing to remember is that, "His subsequent shift to truthful statements were not admissions given under duress: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality."

Gessen goes on to assert, that when reality itself is under attack, the only solution for the opposition is to shift from fact-based arguments to finding "a way to tell the bigger story—the story about the lies rather than the story of the lies; and the story about power that the lies obscure." She herself admits that this is harder than it sounds, particularly for the American media which is all about reporting the facts, and doesn't even like to report those unless they have been confirmed a dozen times.

For anybody who cares about democracy, this new embrace of the blatant lie is even more disturbing than Pence's hatred of women and queers, Trump's obvious incompetence and greed, his surrealistic, nihilistic anti-appointments, his ties to white supremacists, and explosions of rage that will soon be able to express themselves with nuclear launch codes.

American social progress, after all, has been built on facts, and on reason. When Sojourner Truth cried out, "And ain't I a woman?" She wasn't just tapping the sympathy of white women, but appealing to their brains, and eyes, to consider just what disqualified her from that category. LGBT arguments for legal equality are likewise just that: arguments. With reasons and facts, and logic. Everything Trump rejects, and everything his presidency could unravel.

Post-fact, I feel twelve years old and confronted with an abusive mother who was never persuaded by them. Our arguments always sounded like dialogue from some absurdist play. I'd declare "The earth is round," and offer physics, math, proof, and she'd answer, "Cherry Jell-O."

Like with Trump, it didn't matter if she knew she was lying, or was psychotic and actually believed what she said. Either way, her stated, and changeable beliefs governed my world. Ever since, I've struggled with just how much weight to give words. Why bother calling a chair a chair when somebody could call it a dog and insist I put a leash on it? This is why I sometimes abandon writing for visual art, and why I became an activist in the first place.

When language itself is debased by lies, when "signs" are tampered with, and words don't persuade, we are left with the physical world, the act, the signified. Somebody, of course, has to concern themselves with the facts, and keep rebutting Trump's factory of lies, but resistance now, more than ever, requires images, and gestures, also our irrefutable flesh. Stories can be made about that, too, but we can at least attempt to shape our own narrative even if we have to do it with an audience of six, or twelve, or twenty passersby. And we can also try to control how our bodies appear in the media, continuing to release our own videos and press releases like the small Russian activist group, Pussy Riot, which really gets under Putin's skin.

And as far as words go, when it comes to telling the larger political stories, and finding ways to approach the truth, we can't just offer alternative narratives, we have to find ways to demolish false ones, unmask Trump's desire for total power, even go undercover to plant seeds of dissent in the echo chambers and chat rooms the fascistic and ascendant "alt-right" has constructed for itself. We must also identify the ordinary people around us who can be brought to reason one by one by one.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Finding Our Feet--Together

By Kelly Cogswell

Last Tuesday, or maybe a decade ago, I ventured out in the rain to an anti-Trump meeting at an enormous Episcopal church uptown, where water was leaking into the foyer from the small domed entry and pooling on the tile. Inside, the large sanctuary was respectably full. The crowd was about half first-time activists of all ages, the rest middle-aged veterans of groups like ACT-UP, with stunned but determined faces.

The group agreed on a tactic-- direct action, with or without arrests -- then talked about issues for a while, before breaking into the usual sub-groups to introduce themselves and begin organizing. In the media committee we agreed it played a huge role in Trump's election, and would be an essential tool to fight back, shaping the meaning of our actions, creating our own--truthful--narrative of what Trump was up to. We still left without a name or an action. The biggest problem for anti-Trump activists isn't tools, but where on earth to start.

In some ways, the Trump-Pence regime is a crisis even broader and deeper than the early years of the AIDS epidemic when activists still had intersectional issues, but only a handful of targets: drug companies and researchers, homophobic evangelicals and the Catholic Church, CDC definitions that ignored women, government programs controlling health care access and information that betrayed queers, people of color and the poor.

This hydra has too many heads to count. And they're not just out to destroy the usual suspects, but the basic rules Americans have played by. Or aspired to, even when they failed us. I still want what I pledged my life to when I was six, Liberty and justice for all.

One person suggested holding a demo about free speech and assembly that would be as bold as possible, so that six months or a year from now we will have a yardstick to measure what we've lost when attacks on the Constitution and basic civil liberties take hold, and the once unthinkable becomes commonplace.

Pretty soon we'll believe we've always had a president-elect randomly creating policy tweet by unfettered, random, hateful tweet while his minions bring their calculated determination to stripping women and queers of their rights. And the other asylum inmates now in charge are perfectly justified in picking fights with China, or Iran. Stymying trade agreements. All agreements really, like terrifying three-year olds. Sometimes in the name of profit. Sometimes in the name of God.

Lately, I wonder whatever happened to reports of a new wave of evangelicals that were gay-neutral, pro-environment, less obsessed with abortion. Are they busy at home installing solar roofs, or did their fragile white egos catch fire with the politics of resentment? Is it them bashing the nearest queer, or Jew, or Muslim? Oh, poor white man lusting after more than a house and car and food. Oh poor white woman sleeping next to a disappointed spouse who dreams of a bare-chested Putin on a galloping horse.

Equality can't compare. Or the drudgery of democracy in which every vote counts, and must be counted.

I know what resentment is. I'm familiar with hate. I've put up with their bullshit dyke-baiting and woman-bashing for fifty years. And on bad days, I want what they do. To burn the whole thing down. I don't even care if I go with it. But then I see a little light somewhere. Hear a scrap of good news.

Like very early Monday morning when U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith ordered a recount to begin immediately in Michigan. "With the perceived integrity of the presidential election as it was conducted in Michigan at stake, concerns with cost pale in comparison." Just before that, the Obama administration halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

And for a moment I could see the point of the phone calls and emails, donations and demos. If there's a way forward, we have to draw the line beginning with the case of Standing Rock, where some very determined people were willing to put their bodies on the line over a period of weeks, and months, until the small encampment of Native Americans grew into an enormous movement. Because that's what change takes, time, patience, and activism in the flesh. It's the only way we have to remind politicians and business people that we exist beyond their policy reports and number crunching, and we won't be ignored.

The problem remains, though, that everybody can't be everywhere, can't do everything. And choosing a direction is especially difficult for those of us at the crossroads of identities. I'm beginning to believe it doesn't matter what you choose or how. Perhaps we should just leave it to chance. Like the woman passing a Planned Parenthood who saw protesters outside, and stopped, and went inside to volunteer. That's all any of us have to do. Pick one thing. Get plugged in. Make a stand.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Resisting Trump

By Kelly Cogswell

I take good news where I can find it in Trump's woman-hating, neo-Nazi, gay-bashing, Muslim-registering, anti-Semitic America. Last week, it arrived from a climate change conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, where delegates from 197 countries united to approve a statement urging immediate action in the face of Donald Trump's promise to pull out of the Paris Agreement and defund international efforts.

In one of his last appearances as Secretary of State, John Kerry delivered an emotional speech declaring that despite Trump's election, the U.S. fight against climate change wasn't over. Market forces would ensure a transition to a low carbon world even if policy didn't, because investments in renewable energy were absolutely exploding. And the vast majority of Americans supported action even if a powerful minority didn't.

I hope so. I really do. But the real reason this news cheered me a little was that I also learned that California was exploring how to join the climate talks as a subnational party if, or when, Trump makes good on his threat. In short, California is looking for ways to resist.

There's a good chance they can. The UN Convention on climate change declares "Any body or agency, whether national or international, governmental or non-governmental, which is qualified in matters covered by the Convention, and which has informed the secretariat of its wish to be represented at a session of the Conference of the Parties as an observer, may be so admitted unless at least one third of the Parties present object."

Even if they get thwarted by the Trump admin or Russian ally, nothing stops California, or New York or Oregon, from passing more stringent regulations. Now, at least, American states can still find ways to resist on an international level every time the official representatives of our country act against our interests. They can also guarantee abortion rights and minimum wages. For once, the tradition of respecting state's rights in the U.S. may work in the favor of progressives.

In other good news, individual cities like New York and San Francisco have declared that they won't participate in mass deportations and other unconscionable, bigoted acts, like any efforts to register Muslims. On Sunday, some New York politicians from the local, state, and federal level even jointly marched against hate and condemned Trump's administrative appointments. While press conferences aren't enough for the long run, they show that our daily protests have paid off. For now. Because no politician ever opens their mouths unless they think it will win them votes.

In the long run, we'll have to do both. Lay down in front of bulldozers and, like California, look for back doors not just to resist, but progress. Which means we activists have to commit ourselves to unraveling how our various levels of government actually work, understanding for instance the relationship between the beat cop and the Justice Department. The State Department and a queer film festival in Ankara.

Too many of us have seen our LGBT rights as a simple Christmas list of important issues, not as intertwined civil rights dependent on the health of our democracy and things like free speech and assembly. Clean votes. From now on, queer issues must include not just marriage equality or gender recognition, but the gerrymandering of voter districts, the suppression of voter rights, an independent judiciary actually committed to administering justice equally regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or race.

Not to say we should ignore specifically queer issues, but that we should see them in context. If you thought trans women of color had it tough before, imagine trying to work for their safety under a Justice Department led by a neo-Nazi. Every anti-bullying law everywhere will be under attack as well, along with hate crime ordinances. Those queers who couldn't access marriage in anti-gay regions, will face even worse obstacles. AIDS, in this new anti-gay, anti-Obamacare era, will probably hit us hard along with an epidemic of despair and self-loathing.

The worse things get, the more important it will be to demonstrate and put our queer, our brown, our black flesh out there, reminding politicians that we are not abstractions. And reminding ourselves of the power we have acting with, and for, each other.

It's not easy to take to the streets right now. Even experienced activists are still shell-shocked, and frightened. And we should be. It's easier to throw protesters in jail. And many of us are older, and already concerned about the vulnerabilities of our bodies. Getting hit by a cop or a bystander may not just put us out of commission for a few months, it may kill us.

And yet. And yet... "When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." Audre Lorde.