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.