Tuesday, January 05, 2010

That Democratizing Decade

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I remember it well, December 31, 1999, and the collective fear that as the clock ticked over into a new millennium all our circuits would be melted, our data destroyed, and chaos unleashed upon an unprepared world. If only that had been the extent of it.

My girlfriend and I did what we could, backing up our old computers on now obsolete floppies, while others backed up public utilities and stockpiled water, guns, and gasoline for their generators tucked away in backyard bunkers they are renovating again for Obama's Socialist revolution.

Nothing happened, of course, except that I stayed home instead of going to a party, pulling the bubble wrap off of a bulbous pink monstrosity of an iMac that changed my life even without the Y2K disaster. Connect power plug to computer, computer to jack. Hold tight.

In a matter of minutes, I was released from the constraints of time, space, and the price of long distance landline telephone calls, into a universe that held instant communication, self-expression, information from any country, any language, any time, and the seeds of mad ravings. I hallucinated as my temperature rose to 104, and entered the decade with a fever and shakes, incoherent dreams, and the flu's racking, hacking cough that left me gasping for air.

A couple weeks later, my girlfriend and I started The Gully online magazine. Pre-WordPress, I coded the pages myself, and for six long years we weighed in on everything from World Cup soccer to same-sex marriage, election 2000, then 9/11. We covered queers in Jamaica, Taiwan, Guatemala, and Iran, and wrote a lot about Cuba, democracy, and that little rafter boy Elian.

We built a pretty good readership, but the blend of international news and gay issues wasn't exactly a hit, maybe because Cuba led us to talk a lot about democracy everywhere when the American left prefers to talk about rights. Much too soon, that word was ceded to George W. Bush who invaded Iraq under democracy's banner, ruining essential phrases, like "rule of law," or even "free speech" -- which Americans have more of than ever.

In the last ten years, online media has exploded, but not activism or political alternatives. It's not that we can't smell the stink. A ton of people complained online when the Supreme Court awarded Bush the election in 2000, but almost nobody took to the streets.

Big demonstrations against an Iraq War petered out once bombs started falling in 2003. In 2004, photos of Americans torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib circulated widely on the Internet to a certain amount of horror, but in the end the knowledge we were tyrants and despots, destroying our own democratic ideals, didn't move anybody to action except the ACLU.

Now, there's nothing but silence for a Democratic administration which ostensibly denounces torture, but fights all attempts to expose or prosecute it, and is again eroding due process with Executive Order 12425 which seems to give British police the right to arrest U.S. citizens on American soil without access to lawyers, or any troublesome thing like that.

In 2008, the Internet was a force in the Obama campaign, and briefly was useful when angry queers used Facebook and Twitter to organize demos when the anti-gay Prop 8 passed in California. But the "Join the Impact" calendar is sadly short of events, and what happened to the Obama machine when it came to winning health care votes or demanding accountability for the bail-out?

The most active people are the Tea Partiers who only know they hate everything. We of the left stomp on little fires as the house burns down. We'll work on campaigns, but nothing truly long-term. Neither the left nor right can be bothered to turn the around the tapestry and see how everything is connected on the other side.

When homo-obsessed American fundamentalists stick their dirty little fingers in Uganda, American queers give money, send emails and write letters, put pressure on foreign funding. Equally dangerous, though, in Uganda, is a shaky democracy punishing dissent and human rights activism. If we really want to save gay lives, aren't we going to have to push for basic conditions that allow for social change in general?

For me, it comes down to democracy and figuring out some way to reclaim the idea from twisted politicians like Bush. In our own country, in our own movement, I wish we'd talk less about rights and more about how we fit into this thing we call democracy. We're either equal or we're not. Under the Constitution, or not. Fuck customs. Fuck religion. In this melting pot of a country, all we have in common is our status under the law.

Here's hoping that this last decade fades away like a fever dream. I still can't breathe.

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