Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reassessing Bush as America Falls

by Kelly Jean Cogswell

I was relieved to hear in Bush's State of the Union address that we had Al Qaeda on the run in Iraq, the economy was fine, even if, just a little teensy bit, for the moment, uncertain. And above all that, "From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we have made good progress."

The speech was almost pure fantasy for a president with a 29 percent approval rating, and 81 percent of an electorate thinking the country is on the wrong track. But to be fair, I suspect that next president, faced with having made minimal progress on the same intractable fronts, will deliver the same kind of pie-in-the-sky pronouncements.

Even stiff-upper-lip Britain rarely produces a Churchill who started off one famous speech with the simple declaration, "The news from France is very bad." And it was. France had just fallen to the Germans and the Brits were left alone in Europe.

America, the land of the most gung-ho people in the world is never going to warm to a president from any party admitting we face an uphill battle managing a tanking economy, a Middle East quagmire, and faltering super powers. No, what we demand from our leaders is hope. A shining new Kennedy or Reagan.

We should remember that this trafficking in perpetual optimism that characterizes America, especially post-Baby Boom, is largely why Bush was elected in the first place. He had a charismatic sense of destiny and wore the greatness of this country in his heroic Texas swagger. Along with a few lies about WMDs, our willing wardrobe of rose-colored glasses was why he could so easily drag us into Iraq with feeble promises of a quick victory.

That same degenerate optimism is also at the root of the banking crisis. The hubris of Bush deregulating everything with the convenient credo that the market always takes care of itself was matched only by all those delusional borrowers who now want to be absolved for grabbing every dollar on offer instead of leaving a little cautious cushion for disasters, job loss, a downturn in investments.

It was a symbiosis -- the guys running the shell game, and the marks that hand over their hard-earned money hoping to make a quick buck. They're feeling lucky.

When did modesty become a dirty word? And, in that light, should we immodestly blame all our messes on George W. Bush? I'm starting to reconsider.

Even George Soros, who's no Bush-lover, wrote recently in the Financial Times that while the administration played its part, "The current crisis is the culmination of a super-boom that has lasted for more than 60 years."

Likewise, our diminishing role in the world is not only the result of Bush's tendency for preemptive and unilateral action plus nose-thumbing at the international community, but the consolidation and growth of the European Union and the rise of China as a third pole analyzed in depth by Parg Khanna in the New York Times last week.

As we get a peek behind the curtain, what we're beginning to see is that in many ways Bush merely pushed some of the dominoes that were already aligned to fall. Just not so far so fast.

Which means the news from France is very bad. Because if seven years of Bush is not largely responsible for America's current crisis, it's not enough for a president of either party just to be a hopeful anti-Bush. The situation is much more profound, and it would be great if we had a politician willing to break the news. If they've noticed at all.

Americans aren't known for their interest in international affairs, the big picture. Or even big maps. (Just where is Uzbekistan?) And much of the current slump in American confidence is due to good old dollars and cents, plus a little intuition.

We leave historical trends for academics. Even though the latest ones affect us beyond our identity as a super power with X-ray vision.

I'm not sure the downward slide is all bad. What is America anyway? Are we the land of the free? Or only the land of the super-sized fries, lending empires and international conglomerates all on their way out?

Freedom is something we do have control over. And while Bush can't be blamed for everything, the erosion of civil liberties in the States can certainly be laid at his feet, along with the Congresses that aided and abetted him. Even now, our newly Democratic congress is anything but democratic.

And then there are all the times that we Americans could have taken to the streets and didn't, preferring to sit on our metaphorical front porches and complain. Forget baseball and football. The blame game is the real American pastime. Our favorite recourse when false hope fails.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Remembering Things Change

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

One thing you have to have as an activist, or even a voter, is the bottom-line belief that change is possible, and not just for the worse. I base my own belief on observations of nature. I guess you could call me a Darwinist.

Putting aside the evolution of our species, it's inarguable that water carves its way through rock even drip by drip. Rivers change course. Unexpected things and people emerge. There are Ghandi's sometimes. Sometimes two-headed calves. I'd been on the verge of forgetting until last week when I suddenly saw a boar in the Fountainebleau forest.

My girlfriend heard something moving, caught sight of the tusks and shouted for me to look, which made it run faster. What I saw was actually a piggish blur, charcoal black, and light on its feet. Before that we'd seen little bits of rumpled up soil all over the trails where some creature had been rooting, and here and there strange hoof prints that seemed to come from a small horse with toes.

It was sheer luck we saw one in the afternoon. Most of the spottings are at dawn or dusk, and we wouldn't have been in that part of the woods at all if I hadn't gotten us lost. Maybe I should do that more often. Don't look, but leap. So often what we see with our eyes is paralyzing. Like the news on TV.

Lately, it's Kenya at the top of the hour, where in a matter of weeks a contested election has degenerated into a bloody mess. The TV shows corpses lying in the road, currently the end sum of political scores. I wonder how soon it will be before the news breaks of masses of women getting raped, and queers lynched. Those old depressing wartime favorites.

I can't watch anymore, those high and low tech wars, the slaughters and assassinations. There's the U.S. election where the candidates remind us of the inherently dirty nature of politics where compromise, ambition, and power leave their own ugly marks. I shouldn't blame them when it's really too many years of Bush-watching that has instilled in me a perpetual and numbed self-loathing.

I'm an American after all, and America these days is synonymous with the Iraq War that destabilized the whole Middle East, and Bush's "War on Terror" which was really a war on civil liberties that gave free reign to pretenders like Putin. Now, the stock markets everywhere are collapsing thanks to the receding American economy. In short, we have a President whose inverted Midas touch turns everything to shit.

So, I was surprised to be surprised by the boar fleeing through the woods. And on Saturday I saw something even more astounding, the report that in Morocco one hundred intellectuals had published an open "Appeal for the Defense of Individual Rights" in a dozen journals, calling on the state to react to the "climate of intellectual terrorism" and denouncing the trial and conviction of six men "without proof" that only took place at the instigation of a rampaging mob.

In November, when a rumor of a gay wedding hit the streets of Ksar El Kebir, so did thousands of Islamists who demonstrated and clashed with police until civic forces caved in to the pressure and several men were arrested. They were summarily convicted, and the sentence upheld on appeal last week, though some of the sentences were slightly reduced.

The vitriol even among the usually more balanced press matched the hysteria we've seen in Egypt and Namibia. What a hate campaign. The sermons from the imams would curl your hair along with the violence of the demonstrators who have been primed for years to act on behalf of the "moral" and the "pure."

In Morocco, it's not just queers under attack. The letter stated, that for the last few years, there's been an increasing campaign against anybody, who "because of their taste, beliefs, opinions, or personal choices, are accused of 'offending Muslim sensibilities' and 'menacing traditional values of Moroccans.'" The offenders, mostly journalists, writers, artists, and fighters for human rights, are excommunicated, and crowds are encouraged towards physical violence, "In other words, to threaten lives."

Intellectuals had to do something. Queers are the canary in the coal mine for human rights. If they sacrifice us to the mob, even worse will follow. What surprised me, here, was that in the accompanying explanation of this open letter for personal liberties, the community of mostly heterosexual intellectuals admitted that one of the last straws for them had been, "the scandalous 'homo hunt' at Ksar El Kebir," bringing us openly into the room, and declaring solidarity. "You aren't alone." For a change.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Election 2008: What Divides Us

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's not enough to worry about race and class and sexual identity this election. In New York there's also sheer and unmitigated stupidity -- the poll workers who resent it when you interrupt their early morning donuts and force them to wipe the sugar from their hands, open their ledgers and let you sign. Then there is the outdated and misleading information at voting websites and phone banks.

Last week, I called the General Election Board and asked if I could vote there because I'd be out of town. The woman said yes, so I hopped on the subway, and turned up at the office where a row of flabbergasted men told me I was nuts. "For that you have to go to the borough office. They're closing any minute. How long are you here?"

When I finally got to the next place on Varick Street, where you had to have serious ID before you could even go upstairs, there was a woman trying to change her party affiliation to Democrat. "I'm either Independent or nothing. They told me I could do it until the 15th."

The guy argued with her for ten minutes, but it became a moot point when he went back to check and she was already registered Democrat. From 2003. "I don't know why they couldn't have told me that on the phone when I asked," she complained.

I had an easy time voting, but we commiserated going down in the elevator. "It's discouraging," she said. "It's like they don't want people to vote. What if you were a new citizen? An immigrant? This would all be so off-putting."

Not for her. She spoke standard white English, was dressed to the nines, with café au lait skin. I wondered what her background was. When it comes to voting, there's a world of difference between African Americans and Latinos. I guessed first generation Dominican but couldn't bring myself to ask.

The atmosphere surrounding race is changing again in the country, and not for the better. It's a little like after the Diallo shooting when there was mutual defensiveness and hair-trigger tempers among New Yorkers. It was justified then. But the recent exchanges between the Obama and Clinton camps are almost as bad, and any truce they may have come up with doesn't hold with the rest of us.

It's not easy to deal with race in America. And I'm still worried when I hear Obama insist that skin is something more than a temporary bridge, or his campaign imply it's some kind of guarantee against racism. Which is what they must have thought when they briefly attempted to cast South Asians as economic bogeymen this summer, demonizing Indian contributors to Clinton, and invoke robber barons who "laid off American workers to hire Indian techies."

Obama apologized of course and washed his hands. That's politics. All the dirty tricks in the book. And the press is just as happy as anybody else to jump in, managing to insult almost everyone by explaining Hillary's sudden surge in New Hampshire with the fact that she cried and got the female pity vote, especially from uneducated whites with lower incomes -- in other words, all those who were too ignorant and racist and stupidly feminist anyway to vote for Obama. Another bridge burnt there like a candle to the joys of America.

Anybody'll say anything. Sometime or other a Clinton staffer actually called Obama "uppity". Clinton's remark this week that MLK needed LBJ to solidify social gains, though somewhat true, was about as graceless as what inspired it -- Obama climbing onto the pedestal and declaring himself the next Martin Luther King. What a bunch of buffoons.

A truce may help them out of the election, but the scuffle is a sign that America's still in the same old mess. And once again putting black and white folks at the center of the debate about race to the exclusion of everybody else. So much for Hispanics representing one in eight residents in 2000, and slated to be one of four by 2050.

No wonder Hispanic voters don't see Obama as a bridge to anything, partly because they don't recognize his name but also because a dark skin doesn't mean much when they're consistently left out of the equation. Clinton gets points because of her husband, but she shouldn't count her chickens either.

In general almost half see themselves as independent and vote that way. Last time it was for the family values of Bush. This time, Latino indies are leaning more toward the Democratic side, especially after the Republicans' recent immigration laws, and the Iraq War fiasco. There's no perfect choice.

Voting may be a hassle, but nothing is more off-putting in politics than politicians.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Iraq, What's That?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I'm a victim of serial amnesia. I'd almost managed to forget all those roadside bombs, the blank grinning faces of GI's hovering over naked Iraqis in Abu Ghraib until I got stuck on a plane and the only interesting thing to watch on video was "In the Valley of Elah" with Tommy Lee Jones.

A guy in my Laundromat had recommended it a couple months ago when he heard my accent and I admitted to being from the U.S. "Great movie. Really nice," he said. "A shame about the war. Lot of people dead. Lot of people." He turned to be North African, from Morocco, but a Jew. "There aren't so many there anymore. All immigrated, many to the last state," he said.

I didn't understand.

"You know, U.S. foreign policy. U.S. and Israel like that." He twisted two fingers together, and forced a small, bitter smile to his lips. "The 51st American state. You should see the movie."

So I did finally. It wasn't a masterpiece, but an antidote to amnesia. How can we still be in Iraq? Why did we ever go? How many decades will it take to stabilize the region? And what are we going to do with all the young monsters we unleashed there? Because what else are the soldiers who have been taught to kill and torture with the expectation of perfect immunity to everything but their own deaths?

Some of my cousins are among them. I've quit asking my sisters how they are. They're alive, I guess, or I'd have heard, but who are they now, those little blonde boys that used to tumble all over me and tug at my hair? I don't want to know.

Totaling up all the dead Iraqis and Americans, all the lost souls, the lost cities, the lost time isn't enough to convey the extent of that disaster. For that we need commentary, or art, aesthetics nicely mixed with fury. Or better yet, a multitude of histories.

Politicians are always talking about what they can take away from history, but somehow all the lessons end up like the takeaway Kung Pao chicken in the back of the fridge, half-eaten and reeking.

The lesson we're avoiding once again is how easy it is to go from oppressed to oppressor. That's what my friend from the Laundromat was alluding to. How the wandering Jew found a home at last and with the encouragement of the U.S. used it as a station to bully Palestine. How the U.S., which got hit so hard in 9/11 turned around and began to destroy not just the Middle East, but themselves.

Domination is a suicidal impulse history is full of. (Note all the Caesars that overreached, the inquisitions that ended up burning themselves at the stake.)

The curious thing about historical amnesia, is that the good stuff, too, fades away, especially if it were accomplished by women, or lesbians, people of color, the working class.

The Lesbian Avengers, for example, was a moment of real flight that nudged forward the queer community, and America at large, but even as an eyewitness, I have to make an effort to remember those years, drag out photos and videos of lesbians demonstrating on the street, eating fire, challenging passersby in Grand Central to join us in a lesbian waltz.

The lesson of history then was that ordinary people could act, we could change things, if not the world, at least increments of it. Without that knowledge, there's no liberation for queers, no possibility of democracy itself. We're stuck with the Bushes of the world, stuck with segregation and invisibility.

Memory is everything. And there's a battle on how to define it, the objective article privileged over the memoir and first person history, Reuters over the op-ed.

I ran across an entry about gay history in Wikipedia last week, that had a banner spread across the front declaring SOUNDS LIKE ADVERTISING, STYLE NOT RIGHT FOR US, REVISE, DELETE?, DESTROY, or something very like it. All because it had the word "groundbreaking" and a couple of laudatory quotes. The rest was all footnoted to within an inch of its interpretive life.

Who owns "groundbreaking" anyway when it's a certainty that holding hands with your lover in the streets of Newark is still worth a front page announcement in the New York Times? Who owns the word accomplishment? And are the facts enough when anybody can shape them?

We need more writers like Sarah Schulman, who may not always get her dates right as a historian, but as a writer captures the spirit. She dredges up, and hoards and remembers what she sees. It's not so easy staying awake with a media that devotes more time to Britney Spears than the Iraq War.

It's not so easy to care.