Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Remaking the Republicans

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I think of Washington as that place where politicians spend their days waving around the feathers that create hurricanes on the other side of the world, or at least Louisiana. At swearing in ceremonies, they should all be required to take the Hippocratic oath. First do no harm.

You're not going to get that kind of modesty from the Democrats if the polls are right, and they take the country top to bottom with a solid majority. The main question for me, then, is whether the Republicans (if they lose) will manage to cast aside their eight war-mongering, scandal-ridden, pork-addicted, gay marriage-hating, Constitution-ripping, regulation-busting years to regroup and form an effective, and thoughtful opposition.

You may have heard rumors of that, the yin and the yang, as opposed to the boot and the Democratic doormat we got during the Bush era, or the opposition for the sake of it the Republicans offered during Bill Clinton's thwarted administration.

There used to be differences after all, and they often did some good. The Democrats were the party actively promoting civil liberties, kind of, as well as pushing for social safety nets. And if you can imagine it, Republicans were fiscal conservatives with an allergy to big government, and moderation in foreign affairs.

I admit being attracted to the GOP as a kid, mostly because the pork barrel Democrats had a strangle-hold on my home state of Kentucky, where somehow tax money never did reach the schools that floated near the bottom of our fifty states, or alleviate the need in rural areas.

Appalachia was altogether shameful with grinding poverty and environmental policies essentially set by outsiders from coal companies who weren't forced to live where the runoff from strip mining turned all the well water to such a disgusting sludge that you needn't bother adding coffee because it was already a thick, brown, toxic brew.

Why not vote for local Republicans in protest? Now, after eight Republican years nationally, why not vote Democratic to protest Bush's hasty wars, immoderate greed, and vicious authoritarianism?

Unfortunately, we need more than an anti-Bush. It troubles me that plenty of Democratic loyals would have Obama rush around like toddler on Coke, yanking the troops out of Iraq without strategic considerations, dishing out tax cuts, and rebates and economic incentives to Bush's middle-class and working class victims without a clear idea either where all that money's going to come from, or frankly where it's going in the end.

When Bush handed out cash this fall, Americans didn't go out and grease anybody's economic wheels. No, we stuck it under our mattresses. Now, I hear the banks that Mr. Paulson has given a big chunk of his 700 billion dollars to have likewise decided to sit on it like chickens in their nests. In Europe, at least, they've made it a provision of their bailouts that the banks must actually use the money for its intended purpose--giving loans. Why didn't we think of that?

That's the kind of idea an effective opposition should have come up with, accountability. Frankly, we could use plenty of ideas on all fronts, both inside and outside the Democratic party.

If maverick McCain's campaign is any sign of the GOP's near future, I doubt they'll be much of a gold mine. As brash as Unilateral Bush, McCain tosses out new solutions daily to every problem we face from the economy to Afghanistan. Every Palin campaign stop, the Republican lunatic fringe is once again rallying against that ever present menace of gay marriage, as well as insufficiently patriotic Americans, as if all Americans need for success is a red white and blue heart, and the queers biting the dust. Which is only slightly more unrealistic than Obama's virtuous mirage of ending war and uplifting the downtrodden poor with a combination of good thoughts and money, plenty of it.

Maybe all an effective opposition has to do, on either side, is respond to every speech from every party with the mantra, "It's more complicated than that. Have you thought it through?"

The new Republicans, if I had a say, would be a lot like my grandparent's generation. What government was supposed to do was get the roads built and make sure the schools worked. Its job was practical stuff, plus the bare extra to give everybody a shot at the American dream which they defined as enough prosperity to keep the wolves from the door, and the self-respect of having earned it.

By and large they backed away from social engineering and left questions like abortion and sexual identity to a person's own conscience. What mattered was what you gave to the family and community. How hard you worked. What you were made of. Thrift was valued, but so was generosity. And religion (like politics), never got talked about at the dinner table. It wasn't polite, and besides. Somebody might choke.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Torture: Doing The Dirty Work

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

On June 6th, the last day of the Hillary-Obama battle, fifty-six Democrats in the House of Representatives asked the Attorney General for an immediate investigation into whether Bush and Company were in violation of "the War Crimes Act ... and other U.S. and international laws."

Their letter charged new information had surfaced about top level meetings at the White House specifically approving the use of "enhanced techniques" like waterboarding. "President Bush was aware of and approved of the meetings taking place." "... the Bush administration may have systematically implemented, from the top down, detainee interrogation policies that constitute torture or otherwise violate the law."

As far as I know their request is dead in the water. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi didn't sign on. Their effort didn't make the front or even last page of the New York Times. I wouldn't have know about it all if I hadn't seen an old Nat Hentoff column in the Village Voice. He's like an anti-torture prophet crying in the wilderness, with a lot less effect. Abu Ghraib was swept under the rug with a few prosecutions of low level grunts, and Guantanamo only comes up when one more disgusted prosecutor resigns over unethical practices in the military tribunals.

Maybe Americans are blase because they've seen James Bond tortured too many times. He stands it easily, escapes, has a cocktail, and saves the world. Or maybe it's that we've tortured before with total impunity. The CIA was so good at it, they spent most of the 70's helping the right-wing governments of Latin America hold back the evil tide of Communism with a few nicely placed electrodes.

In Chile alone we helped Augusto Pinochet murder three thousand lefties, some pursued beyond their borders by death squads from the intelligence services. Thirty thousand or so were tortured with our help.

We Americans now indulge in our own kidnappings, our own disappearances and torture and murders, this time to keep America safe from terrorists. As I sit comfortably in front of my computer there's a man in a cell somewhere, battered and terrified. In fact, there are thousands of them whose excruciating physical pain is carefully redoubled with uncertainty, terror, and solitude. All in the name of my safety. We don't even know where half of them are. Our own security forces have spirited them away to Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, anywhere they can be tortured without the inconveniences of overstepping American law.

They remind me of those who died particularly horrible deaths on 9/11, trapped in the rubble, talking on cell phones until their batteries died, their voices gradually lost in the darkness, their bodies broken, suffering alone and finally in silence. They died powerless, dehumanized, terrified. For months, their lost faces covered every square inch of telephone pole and mailbox and billboard on First Avenue as relatives begged for information about people who didn't come home after the blast. People just snatched away one morning, a primary election day, under a clear blue sky. Killed by terrorists that never had to look them in the eye.

Torturers are even worse, consciously inflicting horrible suffering, not on faceless masses, but very real prisoners who cry out in real voices begging for pity. These torturers betray an ice-cold degeneration that my country now stands for. They should be locked up, and their criminal commanders tried for treason.

I don't see it happening. As Senator Schumer said, when he was asked about the possibility of bringing Bush to justice for war crimes, "People don't care about that." For getting a blow job in the oval office: national scandal, impeachment. Ditto for partisan spying a la Watergate. For killing and torturing: nada. In fact, shut up. Turn the page. It's a new era with a new President who'll want to start fresh.

For now, justice will require action from abroad. Impunity for Chilean Dictator Augosto Pinochet was only challenged by a judge in Spain, who was investigating the torture and murder of Spanish nationals in Chile. When the British police actually arrested Pinochet ten years ago during a trip to London for back surgery, it was an earthquake, a landmark, one of the first exercises of universal jurisdiction since that was included in the UN Convention on Genocide in 1948. The arrest helped propel The Hague's International Criminal Court into existence in 2002. And everywhere, it pointed the way to justice.

In 2005, an Italian court issued arrest warrants for twenty-five CIA agents responsible for snatching an Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan and flying him to Egypt where he was tortured during interrogation. In 2007, a Munich court issued warrants for similar reasons. Also that year, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld beat a quick retreat from France when his visit there inspired a torture suit against him.

Still, it would be better if we washed our own dirty laundry. There's plenty of evidence, just not the will to risk our delicate hands in that filth.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Losing Gay Marriage in California

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Apparently, there's some fixed amount of freedom in the world, like oil in the ground, or gold, and anybody in their right mind tries to hoard it. That's the idea I get, anyway, when somebody's explaining why you can't give more rights to women (or people of color or immigrants). It'll be coming right out of their pocket, and they can't afford it.

That seems to be the main argument in California, where proponents of Proposition 8 are claiming that same-sex marriage is somehow allowing queer opportunists to deprive them of their personal and religious freedom. If things go on as they are, advertisements say, god-fearing Christians won't be free to even say same-sex marriage is wrong because the thought police will be able to sue you. Churches won't be free to mount anti-gay campaigns and lobby for anti-gay politicians unless they want to lose their tax-exempt status, and teachers won't be free to ignore gay marriage, unless they want to lose their jobs.

Coupled with an enormous cash infusion, a cool $10 million more than queers, this campaign is working far better than old-style smear campaigns painting us as the usual monsters and child molesters. Instead, by making it seem like a question of lost rights, Californians can oppose gay marriage without feeling like bigots. In fact, they're the real victims here, with their civil liberties under attack from those clever gays. It's practically patriotic to vote for Proposition 8.

And what are embattled queer people countering that with? Ads with reassuring heterosexual faces explaining that we're not going to take over the world. That's right. The voice for same sex-marriage is embodied in smarmy hets like San Francisco Mayor Newsom. If you want straights, you should at least get them from Massachusetts where they can attest that after several years of gay marriage nobody's civil or religious freedoms have been abridged. The sky didn't fall. Just a few maple leaves.

If the Proposition passes, ending same-sex marriage, I'll blame national gay leadership, especially Democrats, that already agreed to be invisible in the Obama campaign. By banning us from the camera, they make us seem like a bunch of pervs. It's for our own good, of course. Always for our own good. Mesmerized by their homophobic voices, we've lost our pride, and the belief in our own American stories of loss and striving, like our fights to visit our partners in hospitals, share health insurance, make lives together, all the stories that could persuade a reluctant audience that does, essentially, value equality and civil rights.

Talking about lost rights is compelling on both sides. You've seen them, surely, gypped Americans standing on theirs? They're unstoppable. Which is why politicians play on issues of rights all the time. Sometimes for the force of good, like we could do in California to protect same-sex marriage. But usually it's a conservative tactic. Every law, every regulation is a constraint, a subtraction of your rights. It's why Bush was so successful deregulating the finance industry, and why he got pretty far promising to privatize social security. "Don't you want to control your future?"

Of course we do. Phrased that way, social security sounds more like a noose than a safety net. Who could support it but corrupt politicians? The problem of course is that nobody every says what we'd do with all those folks who seized control of their futures, decided to invest in the stock market and failed. I guess now they'd have the right to eat cat food and sleep in the street.

It's always effective to evoke imaginary lost rights when there are so many real losses, lost jobs, lost homes, lost income, lost sons and lost daughters. Especially now, when it feels like everything has slipped through our fingers under Bush. The Iraq War, prosperity, national pride, the Constitution. There's also quantifiable loss. Between military expenditures and the little matter of the 700 billion dollar bailout, we're so far in the hole we ran out of digits on the National Debt Clock in New York.

It is tempting to cling to the little we have, hoard our rights. Like with children, I suppose the only counter to miserly behavior is to explain the benefit of sharing. In the case of same-sex marriage, we could argue that it strengthens an institution plenty of heterosexuals are turning away from, and also guarantees that we queers take care of our partners so that they don't become burdens on "society."

On the other hand, if our fellow citizens refuse to share the wealth with same-sex couples, maybe we should shift our focus altogether, and demand they quit awarding any special rights to heterosexual marriages. Then we can all share the loss.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Economics 101

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I spent half of yesterday in front of MSNBC watching the market crash in slow motion, first dipping below 10,000 then sinking bit by bit until something like 800 points had been lost.

An hour before the closing bell, there was a small rally as traders dove in reflecting optimism about a global interest rate cut, or maybe they just snatched up some bargains because even blue chip stocks like Coke had lost a good chunk of their value. Hell, what do I know?

I've been haunting economic sites since the disaster interrupted our Palin feeding frenzy. It's like visiting a foreign country with its own language and rules, or deep sea diving where you can apparently get so turned around in the murky depths there's no way to know which direction is up except by watching the bubbles of your exhaled breath.

What I knew before about the workings of the market could fit in a teaspoon. Now, I think I could fill a whole Grande Caffe Latte cup from Starbucks, which by the way is not riding out this storm too well. They've closed a ton of stores, especially in Australia.

Nobody agrees on anything. Experts say 1) the big bailout (rescue) was not perfect but better than doing nothing, or 2) it will have no effect whatsoever, and it was a big mistake when we are going to need the money for a social safety net.

Likewise, they say that 1) the disastrous economy is going to last several months before gradually improving, or 2) life as we know it is completely over and pretty soon there'll be people selling apples by the side of the road, and not just the Greenmarket.

Everybody agrees we're in trouble in the short term. Except, maybe, for the Masters of the Universe ensconced in their Greenwich, Connecticut homes, people are going to be sliding from the upper class down to the middle where there will be plenty of room, because the middle class is sliding right down the coal chute straight to hell.

The upside is, Russia is too broke to start more wars, and maybe now it will finally be time for that nationwide dialogue about class I've been waiting for since 2000 when Ralph Nader nattered on about it in his failed presidential bid, and the anarchists were busy busting up the WTO in Seattle. Remember that?

These days, you only hear about class when the Republicans accuses Democrats of trying to start a class or culture war, though the Dems themselves only dare refer to it couched in the euphemistic language of "income disparity" or "economic interests." As in, "why don't those red state morons vote their economic interests?" Perhaps your snotty tone explains why.

The current Democrats, like Nader's Greens, have about as much understanding of working people as the Salvation Army types in Brecht's play, "Saint Joan of the Stockyards" (1931), who didn't understand why their offer of free soup, nice music, and haranguing calls for salvation didn't have a long-lasting appeal to the desperate.

I caught the play last Tuesday. It seemed contemporary, all the masked greed, manipulated economies. Especially, the character of Pierpont Mauler, speculator and meatpacking plant owner riding high, higher, highest until he sinks like a stone only to be welcomed back into the market by his friends and victims; things wouldn't be the same without his bright ideas. No such redemption for the poor people of the play like Joan Dark, who ends up dead of illness and hunger in the middle of a snowy Chicago street.

While we're not quite there yet, the play reminded me of the elephant in the room, that even now, in the midst of the current mortgage crisis and total economic crash we're still limiting our vocabulary to "Wall Street" versus "Main Street." There may be questions of greed, vengeance, loss, but nowhere do you find words related to "class" unless it's paired to Middle.

It's like trying to analyze the impact of hurricane Katrina, or police brutality or profiling without the words "race" or "racism." Though maybe the word "class" is irrelevant or outdated. The cognoscenti say we're post-race, and post-gay, even if queers are still blamed for everything, from the Trade Center attacks, Hurricane Katrina, to this current mess, which Barney Frank apparently caused having a homo affair a decade ago with one person associated with Fannie Mae mortgages.

On the other hand, maybe "class" analysis won't work because almost everybody in the U.S. sees themselves in the same middle one, from rich, multiple home-owners to the poor who are always just one job, one university degree, one generation away from the illustrious Middle both ends are played against.

Maybe, in fact, there is no poor, no rich at all. In America 2008, there are just "differently leveraged," all hedging their bets.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com.