Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Identity Politics, Bankrupt?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Remember that scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacka are trapped in the garbage compacter room and barely escape as it closes in ominously on all sides?

That's the perfect metaphor for Identity Politics 2008 -- all of us minorities trapped in a shrinking box of trash in which the crushing walls represent not just society, but community inquisitors demanding our qualifications. Are we gay enough, black enough, female enough to deserve liberation?

This week, the sacrificial queer was Mike Buse, chief of staff of Senator John McCain. Mike Rogers outed the guy on his blog, while encouraging a call-in campaign to the right-wing group Focus on the Family asking readers to "thank them for supporting John McCain even though he has gay Americans in high places on his staff, including his chief of staff."

You can imagine the outraged fundamentalists, the angry phone calls to the McCain campaign, all the homophobic hate generated against Mike Buse. Maybe next Rogers'll get a list of McCain staffers of color and encourage people to call the John Birch Society. Hell, why not call the Klan if it'll help bring down McCain?

Just a couple of weeks ago, a huge wave of so-called feminists unleashed their misogyny and hate against Sarah Palin, attacking not just her politics, but her very existence. Wendy Doniger's Washington Post article declared that despite her baby-producing womb, Palin's "greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman..."

The National Organization for Women's Kim Gandy actually issued a press release announcing that "as the chair of NOW's Political Action Committee, I am frequently asked whether NOW supports women candidates just because they are women. This gives me an opportunity to once again answer that question with an emphatic 'No.'"

Apparently it's the "National Organization for Only Those Women Who Agree with All Our Policies."

I'm not above bigotry-tinged sneering myself, dismissing the 2000 Republican National Convention packed with black faces, and Bush's "Cabinet of Color" as mere sideshows to attract black and Hispanic voters to the Republican Party. I nodded in agreement when I heard Colin Powell or Condi Rice get called Oreos and traitors by other people of color.

At the time, it didn't bother me when black Maryland conservative Michael S. Steele was pelted with Oreos, called an Uncle Tom, and portrayed as a black-faced minstrel during his 2005 bid for U.S. Senate. No problem, said black Baltimore Democrat, State Senator Lisa A. Gladden. "Party trumps race, especially on the national level." Except when, as earlier this year, it's Jesse Jackson accusing Obama of talking down to black people and "acting like he's white."

Stanley Crouch, an African American writer, thinks the greatest threat of identity politics is that it blinds participants to context and interconnectedness. We don't see the national debt, the dangers of selling out to corporations or unions, or the problems of competing with China and India in the global marketplace. "Though they live in the United States, those are not their problems. Identity politics is independent of our common fate as Americans."

Increasingly, I think the greatest problem in identity politics is that most of the focus these days is on the "politics," claiming territory, enforcing ideologies, and excluding anyone whom the gatekeepers determine don't meet the one or two acceptable ways to be gay or black or female.

We dispense with "identity" any time it's inconvenient. In fact, we are disturbingly comfortable using tools of bigotry against each other like when activists like Mike Rogers (and Michelangelo Signorile) incited homophobia against McCain's gay staffer or when black Democrats throw race-based insults at conservative politicians of color.

Feminists refusing to acknowledge Sarah Palin as a woman incite misogyny against all of us and create echoes of those times dykes (and poor women, and women of color) have been excluded from the women's club. Frankly, NOW still prefers we pass. Mouth the right platitudes. Never admit to having shot at squirrels with a BB gun. Pretend that our primary issue is abortion.

I'd dump the cesspool of identity politics if I could. The conundrum is, to end prejudice, and make change in society, there's no other choice but to suppress our individuality and organize around that artificial "identity," even if the color of our skin, our reproductive organs, or sexual orientation hide nearly irreconcilable differences.

To succeed at all, we need to start from scratch, reject politics, reject hate, find our few inches of common ground, plant respect there.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Saturday, my girlfriend and I took a tour of the Palais Royal in central Paris. Usually closed to outsiders, it houses the Ministry of Culture and Communication, the Constitutional Council, and the Council of State. Flat computer screens and fax machines were integrated into spacious rooms with gilded ceilings that since 1622 have seen a parade of cardinals and kings and duchesses, along with plenty of revolutionary fires and lootings.

The visit was part of the weekend celebration of cultural and historical heritage in France. Places like the Sorbonne University, and the Hotel Matignon, where the Prime Minister lives, threw open their doors to us barbarians and we traipsed through, gawping and snapping pictures with our cell phones.

Via the long lines and overheard conversations, I got the idea that celebration did what it was supposed to do. It reinforced among the French population, including those who are not white, a real feeling of family, of ownership of their heritage from the Sun King to the guillotine, and the modern French republic.

In the interests of full disclosure, the story of the French nation could have been told in other ways, but this is the shared story established little by little, with a process that involved banning regional languages like Breton or Occitan (until the 1960's), while local customs, except perhaps for the culinary, were suppressed. Besides language, that glue that held France together was this hugely successful national narrative embodied in the revolutionary tag line, liberty, equality, fraternity.

It's carved on every state house. And nearly every town has a statue of "La Republique." In Paris, one of the first actions of the feminist group La Barbe was to put an enormous beard on the statue of the female "Republique" in a kind of tongue in cheek statement about who was really running things. Later on, during the 14th of July celebrations, La Barbe arranged a nationwide outbreak of beards.

That kind of campaign would be impossible in the United States where we're more diverse than we admit, and almost the only symbols we share in common are the flag which can mean almost anything, and the golden arches of McDonald's.

Once, trying to explain myself to my New York-Cuban girlfriend, I drug her down to Kentucky where I grew up. We went to all the places of interest: the church where I got baptized and had my first revelations of hypocrisy, the high school that looked like a prison, the field where I played field hockey, the creek I waded in, the Ohio river.

We also drove a couple hundred miles to Sinking Springs, Kentucky where Lincoln was born and took my picture on the steps. Later, I regretted not being barefoot because I could have used it to mythologize myself (born destitute in a log cabin...). We also went to Mammoth Cave and wound our way up in the mountains where we almost got knocked off the narrow road by a succession of coal trucks on the switchbacks. We passed through Leitchfield, near what they call the Western Coal Field region of the state, where I had an uncle once who grew tobacco and shot, or so he said, across the fields at an annoying neighbor.

On the way down to Kentucky we stopped in Pennsylvania, went to Gettysburg and stared at the empty fields where more than 50,000 men were massacred in 1863. If we had stopped in Philadelphia and looked at the cracked Liberty Bell the trip might have summed up my conception of my country as kid. Pilgrims and Paul Revere, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Mark Twain after which came my church and school and grandmother, the mall and cinema, and the natural world of urban creeks and fields.

As adults, it wasn't satisfactory for either us. My symbols didn't really communicate. They still don't. There are just too many narrative threads. We've gone in different directions. The standard white English of the national newscasts, and the homogenized or demonizing movies of Hollywood are pure delusion.

After the 2004 election, when East Coast liberal Democrats were busy blaming Kerry's defeat on ignorant, inbred southern crackers that should all be drowned at birth, I felt like a Martian, or maybe a child molester. Now, because of Sarah Palin, the entire population of Alaska is getting the same treatment.

Nothing has changed. Real discussions of class and regionalism are practically unheard of in the marketplace of bigotry where they are forced to compete along with misogyny and racism and homophobia and all the rest. If only it would crash, too. America's a mess. To move forward, beyond this election, beyond the disastrous legacy of Bush, we need to find shared values. Even one. Liberty? Equality? Justice? Maybe we could start with mutual respect.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Voting My Conscience

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The Democratic tradition in New York City is to hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils. So, up against George W. Bush, I voted first for Gore, then for Kerry, despite my discomfort with their relatively conservative social stances (literally posed in front of stained glass windows).

As my reward, the Democrats have swung more and more to the right. In Election 2008, the Democrats are almost more Republican than the Republicans I wouldn't vote for in '88 or '92, '96 or '00.

They are promising, for example, to dump way more money than Bush into faith-based programs which will not only erode the Church-State divide, but strengthen anti-choice, anti-gay forces. In a careful and deliberate campaign strategy to court conservatives, LGBT folk have already been shoved to the back of the bus in favor of highlighting homo-hating evangelicals. Positive statements about abortion have reportedly been withdrawn from the websites of many Democratic candidates.

Obama, the supposedly anti-establishment candidate flip-flopped from promising campaign finance reform to sticking his head in whatever trough presented itself leaving him beholden to a multitude of special interests. Under his leadership, Democrats are presenting bills to drill in protected land. And in another reversal, Mr. Obama, a lawyer specializing in constitutional issues, reneged on campaign promises, and voted for the FISA bill which further broadens the powers of "Homeland Security" and chews away at our civil liberties. Forget the misogyny surrounding his campaign.

Except for the considerable symbolic value of supporting the first African American nominee for president, the only reason any member of the left would vote for the Democrats is because they're up against the party of Abu Ghraib, the Iraq War, Pat Robertson, overt abortion bans, overt social control, and disastrous financial deregulation that McCain promises to introduce into health care, dismantling even the employer-based coverage most Americans rely on.

The Democrat's rightward acceleration may well be the fault of people like me, deluding ourselves into believing we weren't voting "for" one candidate, but "against" another. To politicians, a vote is a vote. A sign of approval, an implicit endorsement that's embedded in the language itself. You always vote "for" somebody. That seeming consent not only helps select a candidate, but shapes the trajectory of a party for years, win or lose.

After years of voting for increasingly right-wing knuckleheads, it's not surprising I'm stuck with a party that not only isn't in sync with my values, but in practice actually contradicts them. Winning will confirm Democratic tactics. Losing may send them even further right. Either way, I quit. As they say, "If all you ever do is all you've ever done, then all you'll ever get is all you ever got." And sometimes less.

I can't be blackmailed any more that a certain candidate will spell the actual end of the world. Admit it. The Bush administration wouldn't have been so destructive if not for the Congress members of both parties that were complicit at every step. And two years ago, when Democrats claimed the majority in both Houses, they could have brought the Bush administration to a complete standstill. The Republicans did it to Bill Clinton. But with the Democrats, it was pretty much business for Bush as usual.

We'll only get more of the same if we continue to vote for them, however reluctantly.

I spent a while this week trying to figure out my personal responsibility in this election. In purely statistical terms, my one vote is less than toilet paper. There has never been an election decided by a single vote. Even when Bush won Florida, and hence the 2000 election, political scientist James Fowler noted "the best a single voter could do would be to change the margin to 536 or to 538, neither of which would have changed the outcome."

On the other hand, Fowler pointed out that in reality people cluster together. There's a kind of "voter cascade" in which one person can literally bring several dozen like-minded people to the polls. This is a pretty good argument to persuade people to hold their nose and vote in a swing state. One person really can have an influence on an election. And that influence means you have actual leverage with the candidate and party.

The story's different in the solidly Democratic New York State. My vote could start a major cascade and still be ignored by national Democrats. If my vote doesn't count, withholding it won't have much of an impact either. The only votes that count in New York have dollar signs attached.

With nothing to lose or gain, I'm sadly free to disapprove any candidate from any party that courts evangelicals and conservatives at the expense of women and queers, the working class of all races, and especially and always our civil liberties, which are the basis of whatever freedoms we have left or hope to win.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Democrats Court Disaster with Sneer Campaign

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

In the distant presidential campaign of 2000, when the Democrats could have touted the flourishing economy and budget surplus of the Clinton administration, they preferred to focus instead on more important issues. Like how George W. Bush pronounced "nucular."

We also heard about W.'s cowboy hats, ridiculous big ears, terrible grades at Yale, drunkenness, and cheerleading activities, while Democratic and left-wing pundits sneered at the idea that running a baseball team, especially a losing one, could be considered "experience," and asserted that if George W. Bush wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he would have been lucky to be the bat boy. Likewise, he wouldn't have been governor of Texas if he weren't a member of the Bush royal family. Nobody'd be enough of an idiot to vote for a loser like him.

Having been so successful with their sneer tactics in 2000, Democrats repeated them in 2004. And having failed yet again, the Dems have sunk their 2008 energy into a similar campaign calling attention to McCain's white hair, internet illiteracy, and obviously senile fits of rage. His running mate, that crazy nobody, Sarah Palin, has been dismissed as a cosmetics saleswoman at Macy's, beauty queen, and white trash, fundamentalist baby-making machine that pauses just long enough between births to skin a moose alive.

The problem with sneer campaigns, is that while they're supposed to make the target look stupid and inept, what they actually do is reveal the values of the sneerer. And in this campaign, what the Democrats are revealing is that they think old people, poor and working class people, and women are too stupid and ridiculous to consider for any top job. Yeah, that'll win them the election.

My advice is to just drop the sneers. If the Democrats want to make the Republicans look ridiculous, they only have to stick to the issues. Like McCain's role in getting us into the mess in Iraq. McCain repeatedly insisted that Iraq played a major role in 9/11, even after the theory was totally disproved by U.S. intelligence services. He also insisted on the imaginary WMD's in Iraq, and even blamed Suddam Hussein for the anthrax attacks in the U.S. And it was the veteran warrior McCain, in his own sneering arrogance, who backed up the Bush administration in vastly underestimating how many soldiers would be needed to handle the whole invasion.

McCain has also supported Bush's economic policy, and his Republican cronies have repeatedly said that the economy is fine, and characterized suffering Americans as a bunch of whiners, even as the federal government has been forced to step in and essentially nationalize two gigantic loan programs to keep the economy from totally collapsing. Long live socialist Republicans!

To undercut Palin's effectiveness as a symbol of change, especially in the pork barrel area of Washington politics, all you have to do is point out Palin's pig dinners as Alaskan governor, where the subsidy per citizen is several times the national average. According to the Washington Post, Palin herself has apparently billed Alaskan taxpayers for travel expenses when she was sitting at home.

And when Palin sneers at Obama's foreign policy, "He's worried that someone won't read them their rights," it should be enough to point out that the top of her ticket was himself tortured during war and didn't much like it.

If they want to win, Democrats should forget the cheap shots about senior citizens, moose shoots, and beauty queens, and stick to the issues. Sure, the late days of a campaign are supposed to be all about character, but isn't that what the issues often reveal?

Which is why the attacks dismissing Sarah Palin as one more crazy evangelist only chosen as VP for her vagina and abortion stance, have been particularly disturbing. Not just because of their misogyny. But because they show just how much the left continues to underestimate American fundamentalists, especially the new wave. They're creationists, but no morons.

Sarah Palin is just the vanguard. As I said last week, yes, she wears go-go boots and has a bunch of kids. She didn't go to Harvard and get straight A's. But she's a formidable politician. She's intelligent, scrappy, and flexible with an extraordinary learning curve.

She was a town council member of Wasilla, Alaska in 1992 at 28. She took office as mayor at the ripe old age of 32, tried to bull-doze her way into establishing a fundamentalist Christian town including censoring books, but met so much opposition they tried to recall her. The difference between her and the old guard is that she then moderated her positions enough, at least publicly, to get re-elected by a fat margin.

Barely a decade later, she was governor of Alaska. Now, still anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-queer she's on the road to the White House. Sneer at your own risk.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

All Hail, McCain

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

McCain did what eighteen million women couldn't. By choosing Sarah Palin to run as VP, he got Obama and the Democrats to retrieve women from the shit heap where we'd been dumped. At least for the moment.

Already her Democratic handlers had forced the accomplished Mrs. Obama to put on her metaphorical apron and play mom and wife at the DNC. Hillary even interrupted the roll-call detailing the success of her own historic candidacy to ask that Obama be named the nominee by acclamation.

John Dickerson in Slate, who had predicted that women would immediately roll over for Obama after the primary dust settled, was busy considering whether or not Obama could win without the votes of persistently disgruntled Hillary supporters. And his conclusion before Palin was yes. There were plenty of new voters, and while, he wrote, Hillary supporters aren't "all crazy harridans or racists" they are "snippy, irritating, and impervious to reason (Obama is lucky not to have them)."

Obama couldn't have agreed more. Pre-Palin, when Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee dared ask Obama to reach out to the millions of women that supported Hillary, he reportedly said nope. That would take too much time and he had to focus on McCain. Obama also sniped, "If women take a moment to realize that on every issue important to women, John McCain is not in their corner, that would help them get over it."

Thank you, Mr. McCain, for your unintentional service to America, and challenge to Democratic Party misogynists. Without your nomination of Sarah Palin as VP, advocating abortion and progressive Supreme Court nominations would once again be women's only visible roles. Fall in line, the Dems blackmail us, or you'll lose the little you've got. The only real issue for women, half the American population, is apparently reproduction.

That's like reducing questions of racism and the role of people of color in America to affirmative action. Or reducing queer issues to gay marriage, and ignoring that at the root of our fight for legal rights and equality is the desire to end homophobia and discrimination, in short, to win liberation.

Since McCain nominated Palin, it's been every so slightly harder for Obama's attack dogs to continue to dismiss disgruntled Hillary supporters as divas, McCain plants, or simply nuts. ie. Go back in the attic where you belong, madwomen. Suddenly our votes count, and attacking us endlessly means risking that women like me will either vote for McCain and Palin, or just stay home.

The problem all along has been that Democrats imagine women are too stupid or irrational to understand the stakes of this election. We're somehow oblivious to the Iraq War, the mortgage crisis and the disastrous economy, the schools that are falling apart, and struggling families. As if we aren't usually the ones picking up the pieces.

Who after all gets stuck pinching pennies while working the worst-paying jobs? Who still ends up with the kids when families fall apart? Women. And women comprise a significant part of the hardcore anti-war activists, the widows, grieving mothers, even vets. Surely it's not women that have long been recognized as the key to successful economies.

Every misogynistic sneer, every suggestion we females stick to questions of female plumbing tells us Democrats don't give a crap about what we think, and that we're not a valuable part of the economic and social recovery of the United States.

If Democrats are stupid and arrogant enough to believe that, why should we trust them and reward them with our votes? Why should we think they're fit to lead? Leaders build bridges, they don't burn them. And the Democrats have burnt plenty in the name of unity. Trying to force Hillary out of the race when it had just begun. Making us fight for a roll call to register the votes she won. Resorting to nomination by acclamation.

That's not unity. It's a tyrannical attempt to erase dissent, and above all, erase women. Women of all races. It was a black woman, Sheila Jackson Lee, that Obama told to get over it. Party Unity My Ass. What Democrats were aiming for was victory, sheer domination over Hillary. Like when one wrestler has the other down on the mat with their arm twisted out of their socket and their legs broken in several places.

Confronted with that, Sarah Palin is a better role model for young women (and queers) despite her conservative social views, than the likes of the retooled Michelle Obama. Palin took on the corrupt Republican establishment in her own state. She defeated oil companies. She may wear go-go boots and drop litters of babies, but she's a fighter.

Remember what that is? Queers don't. In this election, the Log Cabin Republicans have been totally invisible. And queer Dems have been reduced to jumping for joy because Mrs. Obama turned up at an LGBT delegates luncheon. You can take my uterus and shove it.