Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reinventing America

You want a symbol for America try Guantanamo -- an island of dirty, self-righteous laundry surrounded by an ocean of sneers.

When Condi was lecturing the Russians about abuses of human rights, Putin invoked Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and laughed, "You have nothing to teach us."

That was last month. The problem now is that ordinary Americans aren't credible either. In 2003, New Yorkers got out almost 200,000 people, from labor unions to queer Jews, to protest the invasion of Iraq.

Last weekend, for the big antiwar protest, we got what? Two thousand, three? The other 197,000 were afraid to melt in the rain. Who's gonna listen to a scraggly sodden crowd barely filling the three blocks of Broadway north of Union Square. There were more shoppers at the Green Market than protesters.

San Fran and Chicago did better, but the most effective action last week may have actually been held in Paris where four human rights groups filed suit against Rumsfeld, and demanded that he be detained as a torturer when he turned up for a conference.

They didn't expect (or have) the same kind of success activists got a couple of years ago when Pinochet was held in Spain. Still, Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told reporters, "We know that we can't get him into prison right now, but it would be great to make sure that he couldn't safely leave the U.S. anymore."

That's what I want to see, consequences, even small ones. I just wish we could pull it off here. A few thousand marchers in the street won't stop this war, or the one in the works against Iran. We can't even rely on Democrats to stop torture.

Despite a majority in Congress, they're largely silent about the nomination of the morally challenged Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general. Like everybody, he comes out against torture, but he refuses to define it as acts including waterboarding, a Bush & Rummy favorite.

Arlen Spector, a Republican, actually has a stronger stance, demanding answers both about Mukasey's nebulous responses to questions about torture, and his advocacy of the growing powers of the presidency, a question that should have both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in an uproar. Perhaps they should pack it in, and commission a little crown.

Where's all of our outrage? Why do we all tolerate network "news" that will lament the horrible death of one child from a mysterious infection, and ignore the war, the deaths of hundreds and thousands of Americans and Iraqis that were almost entirely preventable? Why do they never mention torture? Why are the streets empty? Who are we, anyway?

Maybe I've gotten it all wrong from the beginning. Maybe that ancient opposition to the Viet Nam War wasn't a response to the atrocities we were committing there, and all the deaths, but just a selfish desire by idiotic flower children not to get drafted and derail their comfortable, intoxicated path into middle-class adulthood.

ACT-UP's fight against AIDS was all about a bunch of fags who didn't want to die, not a movement of a community. The Lesbian Avengers were just a social network and dating service, OUT for a good time more than lesbian visibility. The founding fathers really did mean all "men" were created equal, screw the women.

Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me most Americans are basically decent and do earnestly believe in democracy.

It's true things have changed. Since 9/11 the world seems to have shrunk and expanded at the same time. Globalization ties us more closely together, but at the same time squeezes so many new faces into the tent that it seems impossible to breathe, much less move.

The Internet doesn't help as much as we'd imagined. You can get a boatload of information there, but it's almost too easy to find a community of like-minded peers. Activists always mistake hot air for action, but in the age of toilet paper emails, we've forgotten that one phone call is worth its weight in gold. A visit, geez, what's that?

We've buried everything we've learned. Including the fact that zeal is great for meetings or chatrooms, but it doesn't get ordinary people past the hangover, past the bad hair day and into the street. Typing alone in a room doesn't build a bridge from everyman's island to the mainland.

To leave the comfort of our houses, most of us have to have a personal stake. We have to know that if we skip the demo we're not only letting down the cause, but all our friends that will look us in the eye and want to know where we were.

That's what's missing. To change things we have to reinvent community, that delicious cocktail of love and shame, that moves us beyond good intentions and into the world.

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