Monday, March 24, 2008

Screw Unity, Save America!

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I'm definitely a freak. There's a drum beating out there and I'm no where near in step. In fact, I don't even hear it. Just a dripping in the kitchen sink that calls for a plumber rather than some political savior like Obama.

I finally managed to have a look at his recent speech on race after reading glowing reports from both sides of the aisle. Expecting to bask in the warm glow of his great vision for America, I felt my skin crawl at his insistence on unity, unity, unity.

In my experience, unity usually translates as "Shut your trap, Bitch," or more nicely, "We'll get to your issue when we've solved the really important ones. It's just not the right time." Funny, the right time never does come.

After all, isn't unity what we've had under Bush? The minority Democrats voted in lockstep with Republicans for an Iraq War which is now costing us $5000 per second, burdening a family of four with about $330 per month, a failed economy, not to mention dead American relations, whole cemeteries of Iraqis, and a Middle East that may well be destabilized for generations to come.

Then there're the boatload of democratic perversions in the name of Homeland Security like wire-tapping, racial profiling, oh, and Guantanamo, that have continued even with a Democratic majority in Congress, all because we have to be unified to fight that endless War on Terror that has as many definitions as that soporific word, "nice."

Obama, above all, seems like a nice man. His heart is in the right place wanting to welcome everybody into his big tent, though I still balk at his campaigning down South with the same black preachers that Bush used for their popular rabble-rousing and money-raising capability. You just have to ignore their hellfire and brimstone conviction that all us queers are going to burn eternally. Come on in.

I get the idea he just can't abide anger. Not that he doesn't understand it. In this speech, Obama gives one of the more passionate defenses of anger in black and working class communities that I've seen, citing its deep roots, the damage it can do, how it can embitter, paralyze and blind. All true, including the fact we have to see past our anger to find solutions.

The problem is that he'd be happier if we put our anger entirely aside. It "... is exploited by politicians." "It distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition..." "Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits..."

He's forgotten, or never knew, that anger is one of the few things, maybe the only thing, that gets us into the street. Fury about injustice was what sent Jesus on a rampage in the temple knocking over the tents of moneylenders. Anger freed Malcolm X, ACT-UP, the Lesbian Avengers. It is an essential engine for change.

I am afraid we Americans are not angry enough, and that insistence on unity will lead to a white-washing of the past eight years, skipping the justice stage for reconciliation, and leaving Bush's damage intact.

No one except the grunts will be responsible for the men and women we've tortured in American prisons. No one will be responsible for lying about the imaginary Weapons of Mass Destruction that got us into Iraq, or for deregulating the banks that are self-destructing, preaching the hate that translates into dead queers, refusing jobs and basic respect to people because of their accents or skin.

I find rage coordinates nicely with the Timberlands I wear to demos, though I understand the exigencies of politics. You can't only work from the margins, though it's the best place to be an activist. Politicians have other needs. To them I say, "Forge alliances if you must, hold hands, sing Kumbaya, but keep your eyes on justice."

For that reason, I'm wary of Obama. I'm troubled by how easily unity translates into silence and amnesia, and hope into absolution. I'm afraid of his Christian rhetoric that makes it seem like his victory is sanctified by Jesus, a manifestation of divine will, and genetics. "...Seared into my genetic makeup [is] the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one."

In Obama's America, what will happen to those of us that are part of the devil named Multitude, and insist on dissent? How will we be labeled? Will the censorship that was imposed by Bush and the Republicans in the name of patriotism and fear, be replaced by that other American fascism of Niceness, Unity, and Hope? Will anybody have the guts to speak the truth?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Defense of Prostitution

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Spitzer got caught with his pants down and right away the Times' editorial page was lambasting our former governor for considering buying sex a private matter. Worse, when a prostitute tried to defend her work to a journalist, the writer dismissed her as too damaged to speak for herself, no doubt abused as a child. Prostitution is anything but a victimless crime, the article said.

What arrogance. The only real crime in prostitution is our indifference to its problems which are pretty much the same as any other job. Are we supposed to be horrified because it's purely physical? Until recently, most labor was about selling the sweat of our brow. What's farming after all? Or assembling cars on the line? Modeling? Or acting? All of which have been denounced at one time or another as degrading, "low-class" activities.

Maybe it's the danger. Prostitutes are obviously at high risk for sexually transmitted disease. And alone in a room, in a car, in a back alley with a strange man, anything can happen. But every time a big storm blows up suddenly on the Atlantic, a couple of fishermen are drowned. My grandmother worked in a factory for a while and used to show me her mangled finger where the needle from a machine had gone straight through. She considered herself lucky. People lose entire limbs, not to mention their lives, all to pay the rent.

Neither is the humiliation of women unique to prostitution. Depending on the venue, it's not much better to work as a maid, an aide in a hospital wiping dirty asses, or for that matter a secretary. There are hundreds of ways to be profoundly humiliated. Ask any mother. If things have changed, it's because society has, thanks in part to unions and anti-discrimination laws, none of which protect prostitutes.

Oddly, the Spitzer coverage repeatedly invoked the international traffic in women as if it always applies to ordinary prostitutes, managing somehow to imply that the horror of slavery -- based on race, or sex -- is somehow related to the labor itself, even if after the Civil War, plenty of former slaves had to go back into the fields.

I persist in thinking that the real nightmare of slavery is that people are uprooted, transplanted, humiliated, abused, raped, tortured, and stolen from themselves. They are controlled mentally and physically. Choice is not a word in their vocabulary. They are not free, even to leave one horrible, dangerous job for another. Which means most prostitutes as free as any of us.

Likewise, the horror of children in the sex trade is only marginally worse than the kids locked in factories for days on end, chained literally to their machines, so their little fingers can do the delicate work of stitching American shirts. Slavery is slavery.

So what makes prostitution different, the sex acts themselves? Even though most of us perform them on a regular basis?

Last week, I saw an exhibit of a couple centuries of dirty books that used to be housed in the national library's basement, known as "L'Enfer".

I expected the books to be, well, more pornographic. Maybe because most dated from a different era, many of the engravings were absolutely delightful, portraying the pleasure of the artist in the female body. Naked thighs had the most luscious flesh. Asses were so round they begged to be touched.

The men weren't as much to look at. At least in the early images, they always had their clothes on with their dicks sticking out like hooks you could hang a hat on, though there were some amazing dick-based designs. One artist assembled them into a wreath with a bloom in the center that was not a flower at all.

The beauty of men didn't really emerge until Cocteau did his drawings for Jean Genet and homoerotic eyes saw the splendor of the male flesh whose necks and hips and hands had as much to recommend them as their dicks. That's art, I think. Even I wanted to touch them.

Like pornography, prostitution need not mean images of women being put through meat grinders, shrieking as their breasts are mangled, images that confuses hate and destruction with lust. Those aside, why not joyfully portray the objects of our desires? Why not fulfill them?

The problem with Spitzer wasn't that he bought sex, but that he broke a string of laws he was supposed to uphold. No matter that they're bad ones. It's time we allow love of all kinds to speak its name. And more importantly, show its face. We should integrate our lives and our laws. Prostitution IS a job like any other. The difference is we don't consider the workers human enough to have rights.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Image in the Mirror

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Everything boils down to image, especially in an election year. Paying consultants millions of dollars to shape theirs, Hillary has become efficiency and experience embodied, Obama the poster boy for carefully crafted authenticity and boundless hope, and McCain the straight-shooting Vet that will defend the nation in these troubled times.

Queers know something about image, too. Fags are still fighting the ones that label them hairdressers and pedophiles. Dykes are ugly, humorless, man-hating monsters. At first we tried the suit and tie and pearls and dress approach to show we deserved to exist, but then moved on to denim cutoffs and combat boots for ACT-UP and the Lesbian Avengers to reclaim the power of queerness. As we gain ground politically, it's too bad we're creeping back into gender appropriate dresses and suits.

Images and reality aren't always in sync. A black actor in the White House foreshadowed Obama's run before he was even elected to the Senate. But while there's a black female running a division of detectives on Law and Order, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting to see a woman of color become a common sight at the head of anything in the NYPD.

Women are still hookers and harpies on the one side, and saints and myths on the other. While I've always been partial to the Statue of Liberty raising her torch, and in France, the elegant, shapely, and scantily clad woman symbolizing Liberty leading the people to freedom, it's a little annoying when you crunch the numbers and realize just how far behind you really are in job equity and political power.

When she ran for President of France last year, Segolene Royal got ripped to shreds by her own party, some even daring to say she belonged back in the kitchen. Now it's Hillary getting literally portrayed as the HRC nutcracker with metal spikes between splayed thighs. There are T-shirts reading, "If only Hillary had married O.J. instead!" The South Park comedy team put a bomb in her vagina. That's not satire, it's pure hate.

I'm so demoralized I couldn't even face the Women's Day demo this weekend here in Paris, and went to see a movie instead. I should've aimed for something more escapist. As it turns out, Antonioni's 1966 film Blowup, which uses the plot of a thriller to meditate on the nature of reality and media and the imagination, is also a biting critique about women in the fashion industry.

There's not a scene of greater mutual loathing anywhere than the one between the models and the photographer, Thomas, who, sick of the beautiful women he only sees skindeep, longs to do something really worthwhile to prove his artistic mettle, like shoot undercover in a flop house. His photos expose the skinny arms and the swollen bellies of homeless men, along with his own indifference.

Meanwhile, the women he was condemned to photograph quickly had enough of the domineering photographer shouting at them to move their arms up and down and sideways, and smile on command. The rage behind the emptiness of their unlined faces reduces the superficial suffering of the girls in America's Next Top Model to the sugarcoated entertainment it is.

Antonioni wasn't criticizing the objectification of women. After all, turning women into images is part of his business as filmmaker, and we aestheticize things and people all the time. And with regards to fashion, there's nothing inherently the matter with longing for the beautiful.

For Antonioni, the problem was image-making itself, how it can drain the beauty from the beautiful, and reduce even the reality and humanity of the homeless men to just another image. Beautiful women aren't just beautiful. Miserable men are more than their visible misery. There's a difference between image and reality, even if there's a dialog between them especially in the areas of advertising and politics.

I'd like to sneer at image making myself, but for queers, image is how lawmakers are persuaded to legislate, and even how bullies identify their targets. We're engaged in a war of media, a war of language. In other words, image.

To that end, on Saturday, (while I was at the movies) a new feminist direct action group called La Barbe, celebrated the International Day of the Rights of Women by going to the center of Paris, scaling the statue of the Republique, putting a beard on the woman symbolizing Liberty, then denouncing the rise of women in French politics. "France is a country of men, led by men, that has little place for feminine ambitions," the spokeswoman said with a wink. "Render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar's."

The women, of course, all wore fake beards. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Maybe Hillary should give it a try.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Elite Makes a Comeback with Obama

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The Democratic Party is changing, and God knows it needed to, leaning more towards women, Latinos, and African Americans. But apparently the biggest up-and-coming constituency is that overlooked minority of young, well-educated white people that earn over a hundred grand a year and identify as liberal, so liberal they'll vote for the guy that campaigns with the same hateful antigay preachers that campaigned for Bush.

I'd been worried about them. Up until now they hadn't been represented at all, and I'd wept to see them reassuring themselves by shopping at Whole Foods and buying apartments on the Lower East Side in their search for the authentic, the nitty-gritty, the colorful mixing of races and classes that used to rub elbows there.

Poor misguided things stuffing their organic groceries in their gas-guzzling SUV's as long-time renters get priced out of the neighborhood and the place gets whiter and whiter, cheating them out of the local color they slapped down millions for. The only thing that remains are the rats swarming over the streets at night. If they ever get exterminated, you can bet real estate agents will lobby to have them reintroduced like bears in the Pyrenees.

Unsurprisingly, Paris is as full of New Democrats as the East Village. They had an after-voting party on Super Tuesday, and I planned to go because something like ninety nine point nine percent of them are voting for Obama and I wanted to take a gander. Except that when I googled the party's location it was in a nightclub where you had to dress to the nines or at least the eights, and I was too intimidated to go. What would I wear? Could I afford a drink? I suspected they'd sneer at me, one of the few upper lower class Americans in Paris, and a Clinton supporter to boot.

Instead of whining, I should hop on the Obama gravy train, go back and get a grad school degree -- first plucking out my three grey hairs and shoplifting better clothes. He's got all that money pouring in, all that snake oil pouring out. It's a new and promising industry. Maybe I can get a job on the assembly line slapping labels on the bottles. Maybe even work my way up to foreman. It's my last chance for a decent job.

Americans rarely manufacture anything anymore and the small farms like my mother grew up on have been dead and gone for decades except for the ones producing boutique vegetables I can't afford to eat. The un- or moderately educated, if they have jobs, work for WalMart or wipe your grandmother's butt in the nursing home. It's why unions and the working class are quickly disappearing from the Democratic landscape unless we're also categorized as evangelicals.

So why not go into snake oil? Why not follow a Martin Luther King that has never really been in the street, and a Kennedy that hasn't finished his one and only term in the Senate, a Mother Teresa that hasn't touched a single leper? Oh, why not in this brave new world in which men are the best feminists, and the affluent young are the newest treasured minority in the party that at least used to give some support to the poor.

Why not join up? I could get grants to start a new anti-poverty movement, follow the party line and just tell everyone to think good thoughts, and in the meantime watch their characters grow, because as we all know suffering builds character and you won't even have to take out a second mortgage to live in the resulting house.

That's hope. That's faith. Like how a vote for Obama absolves young white people of racism even more than having one black friend. Electing a black president means we can put the centuries of misery, guilt, and recrimination behind us without lifting a finger.

It's not an attitude I understand. More and more I feel like a Martian stuck between the Democratic rock and the Republican hard place. In both parties, it seems optimism is enough, especially if you have a trust fund. The party politics are different, sure, but lately they wear the same young white rich face, speaking generally, and I don't feel at home. Especially when they both open their arms to evangelicals.

I'm considering starting my own party, Atheists For Nothing. (I'm actually more on the agnostic side, but Agnostics Considering Something doesn't have the same ring.) We'll promise Nothing, and instead of burning books with pornographic passages like religious fundamentalists, we'll burn them all. Huck Finn and Lolita in a big bonfire with the Bible and the Koran. We will likewise toss in all the political pamphlets promising a quick end to the war, a boost to the economy, world peace, happiness, and tranquility. Ashes speak louder than words.