Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Health Care, Black Holes and Baby Dykes

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The world might be coming to an end. Not just because the Large Hadron Collider is back in action, or was, accelerating particles in 17 miles of track and potentially generating teensy-weensy black holes capable of swallowing up the earth in a single gulp, but because Obama actually got that health care reform bill passed.

I'd jump up and down and throw a party except I'm still a little miffed at whoever's bright idea it was to get fence-sitting Democrats on board by promising an Executive Order banning federal funding of abortion health care services. Keep the pompoms in the closet when poor women are getting screwed again.

Then there's the ongoing stranglehold of insurance companies brought in to lobby from the very start behind closed White House doors. I haven't forgotten that either. But as they say, better something than nothing in terms of health reform. It's a start. Things can be improved later. Though this Pablum would be considerably more believable if the Democrats had a backbone made of steel, rather than Silly Putty.

If I'm satisfied at all it's because a defeat would have given the Tea Party folks a whomping burst of momentum and shoved the Obama administration even further into the quicksand of caution and bipartisanship (cowardice, endless concessions) pretty much dooming to failure all his promises of change. I never really believed them, but what the heck? I can hope with the best of them.

What has impressed me lately is how in the midst of the hoo-ha about health care reform, the rest of the Obama administration managed to function at all. There were two wars to think about, Israel to chide, and they actually negotiated a treaty with Russia to reduce nukes. Obama will probably face much bigger hurdles than the ex-commies when it comes to getting the treaty approved. Right-wing Democrats and Republican politicians will no doubt continue to say No to everything like a bunch of terrible two-year-olds with a load in their pants.

I was also surprised to see Obama make a foray to Afghanistan to twist Hamid Karzai's arm in person. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Clinton visited Mexico with half the U.S. government in tow to show a commitment to a state that's been brought practically to its knees by the drug wars. So yes, I'm glad health care reform passed, giving a little oomph to Obama instead of the hateful Tea Party mob, and showing folks his administration can take care of business. If they want to. Or if they're forced into a corner where they have to bare their little rat teeth.

Which raises the question of just what exactly queers would have to do to see some progress on any federal front like Don't Ask Don't Tell or the Defense of Marriage Act. Have a cappuccino or maybe Molotov cocktail party? Stage demonstrations where we foam from the mouth and all behave badly?

Our national organizations don't seem to cut it, especially compared to individual baby dykes in southern states. In Alabama in 2009, Tharptown High School student Cynthia Stewart successfully fought to bring her girlfriend to prom. The school initially decided to cancel its event, but reversed their decision after Stewart's case made headlines.

Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi followed suit, canceling its prom rather than allowing Constance McMillen to wear a tuxedo and arrive with her girlfriend, Ashli Pass, who also goes to Itawamba. Just afterwards McMillen told the Clarion-Ledger: "That's really messed up because the message they are sending is that if they have to let gay people go to prom that they are not going to have one." If only they would do that with marriage.

McMillen was tempted not to return to school because she was afraid everyone was going to hate her, but her family came through. "My daddy told me that I needed to show them that I am still proud of who I am. I want other kids to know that it's not right for schools to do that."

She went to court backed by the ACLU, and last week federal Judge Glen H. Davidson ruled that McMillen’s constitutional rights had been violated. He didn't force the school to hold a prom because parents are organizing one everyone can attend.

While she probably would have preferred a quicker resolution, it's been great seeing McMillen appear in photos with her family and girlfriend. The new faces of lesbian visibility are mighty cute. And if proms are what spur change in the South, I say more power to them.

It's not abstractions like equal rights that get under the skin of most people and force them to act. It's wanting to be like everybody else. Go to proms, get married. There's room for a more radical agenda, but interesting things often start small. With random collisions. Then big bangs.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dump Jefferson, That'll Show 'Em

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Americans never let a good fact get in the way of imagining a glorious past and even brighter future. I expect a remake of "Annie" any day now announcing that the sun will come out tomorrow, with the next chairman of the Fed telling Americans to bet their bottom dollar on it, buy a nice new car and drive off into the sunset.

France, by comparison, seems increasingly caught in a gloomy web of truth and sorrow that even a cheerful tune won't chase away. When study after study confirms an overheating planet, and weirding weather is embodied in a flooded Brittany coast and snowy southwest, the French tend to bend under the weight of science, and acknowledge something must be done -- as long as it doesn't cut too deeply into corporate profit margins or increase government debt.

The legacies of colonialism and religious wars are likewise dissected at length, along with tyrants from Torquemada to Hitler that can not be erased from history, at least not any time soon. In Paris, you can find plaques on elementary schools testifying "Thirteen Jewish students from this school died in concentration camps." "In this school, twenty-nine children were sent to the camps." Every month there's another made-for-TV movie set in occupied France.

Instead of imaging themselves created in the image of God, the French continue to cast a skeptical eye at human behavior and accept that homo not so sapiens evolved from apes. When Alexandre Dumas, the mixed-race writer of the Three Musketeers (1844) had to respond to racist taunts, he replied, "My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends."

This doesn't mean Europe is perfect. You pretty much get the picture when you know that a French director recently gave the extremely white GĂ©rard Depardieu a curly wig and brown make-up so he could play Dumas in a movie. Still, that's film.

In Texas, the State Board of Education has decided that reality itself is fluid, and above all as word-based as the fundamentalist religion that its stalwarts practice. Control the textbooks, get something down in paper and ink, or scratched into stone on a deserted mountaintop and there's a magical transformation of history. Darwin really is a liar and idiot, the British were the architects of American slavery, and white Americans were the driving forces of the African American civil rights movement.

Erase a few names here and there, and Texas can be changed from story of Native Americans and Spanish colonists into the single-handed creation of Anglo-Americans like Sam Austin, in which the Indians were mere transients and the Spanish didn't contribute so much as one pinky finger until their descendants saw how good the whites had it and immigrated from Mexico bringing fajitas, instant taco mix, and Salma Hayek.

Get out your Wite-Out, and the deist founders of the United States become bible-thumping Christians. Change a bit more and the nefarious Thomas Jefferson who wrote extensively about the Enlightenment and the "separation between church and state" no longer can be considered a real influence on revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, though he lived in France for years as ambassador of the young United States.

Texans have begun to revolt under this tyranny of idiocy. They've refused to re-elect some of the school board members, and protested appointments. Unfortunately, committee replacements can be almost as bad. One of their additions last spring was Peter Marshall, a Yankee preacher who likes to explain natural disasters from California wildfires to Hurricane Katrina as God's punishment for tolerating queers.

Delete, erase, proclaim.

It's not the first time Thomas Jefferson has been given the boot. I went to Transylvania University in Kentucky and was lucky enough to be among the twenty or so students that were awarded Thomas Jefferson scholarships. Before I left, the grant named for this former president, architect, philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, yes, and slaveholder, was renamed for William T. Young, the famous (and rich) horse breeder and peanut butter manufacturer.

I couldn't help feeling diminished. There was a brief revolt of "TJ" scholars, but apparently the name was changed in gratitude for continuing gifts. It was sold, in other words, and the dough was more important than the name. Now, young scholars, instead of aspiring, however imperfectly, to equality, liberty and happiness, and an enlightened world guided by reason, can aspire to... what? Sandwich fillings and the inbreeding Kentuckians are already accused of, whether man or beast?

I shouldn't worry. After all, The sun'll come out tomorrow. Ya just gotta hang on come what may. Tomorrow! Tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Be Stupid

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I missed the lesbian and gay kiss-in on Valentine's Day here in Paris, and the March 1st pro-immigrant demos, but last month I did put in a little community service at Place de l'Odeon ripping down signs announcing, "Smart may have the brains, but Stupid has the balls. Be Stupid."

The posters were supposed to advertise jeans, but because they were in English, the real message seemed to be, "Humorless dykes and girly men urging restraint and careful consideration of things are totally lame; stupid assholes bombing Iraq, eating freedom fries, and ramming planes into buildings are so cool!"

It was a kind of Rorschach Test after eight years of Bush, a couple of all balls, no brains wars, and the new upsurge of flag-waving Tea Partiers. Still, as repulsed as I was by anti-intelligence and pro-risk posturing, I decided to rip down the signs myself with tourists staring and a guy screaming at me to get my "stupid hands off those signs." "Screw you. You wanted me to get stupid so I did."

Okay, so I couldn't hear exactly what the sign guy was yelling because he was across the street, but it could have been that. And I did mutter "Screw you." In two languages.

Destruction wasn't my first impulse. I'd actually seen the posters the day before and considered creating a dialogue with them by adding some graffiti pointing out the implications of the "Be Stupid" ideology, maybe a snarky "Bring Back Bush" penciled in, or "Evolution is a myth" or "Bomb Iran." But really, what was the point? I wondered. "Stupid" doesn't get sarcasm or subtlety. For Stupid, a pie in the face gets a laugh, but to get their attention better stick to brute force and bulldozers.

Responsible even in anger, I put the ripped up "Be Stupid" posters in the trash cans. They weren't replaced, though the motto had been spray-painted several times on the sidewalks. That, I left as a kind of memento mori. And every time I take the subway at l'Odeon I wonder what to do about the movement in the U.S. which is currently celebrating balls over brains with a kind of revivalist fervor.

When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma federal building in 1995, endorsements of this brand of violently narcissistic patriotism were as marginal as snake-handlers in Kentucky hills. Survivalists hid in their enclaves which only came to our attention after disasters like the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992.

A few weeks after Andrew Joseph Stack III attacked an IRS building in Texas, it's clear the balls are outdistancing the brains. In his recent New York Times article, The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged, Frank Rich describes how Stack has a huge posthumous fan base. The entire press avoids the word terrorist. And every ambitious Republican from Scott Brown to Steve King is claiming they find it understandable, if perhaps lamentable, a tax-protester like Stack would be frustrated enough to get violent.

It's an actual former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, who boldly capped off her address to the National Tea Party Convention, promising the dramatic and violent, "I will live, I will die for the people of America, whatever I can do to help."

In Texas, meanwhile, the Tea Party favorite for governor, Debra Medina, didn't actually offer to die herself, but did declare that "the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots."

Radio personality Glenn Beck, who has labeled progressivism a cancer that "must be cut out of the system" only seems willing to risk the death of his enemies, not even his minions. Proof, perhaps, that the cynical Beck doesn't really have the balls?

Nowhere in the rapidly expanding Tea Party movement are any "smart" solutions requiring the drudgery of actually governing, like passing legislation that cannot be summarized in the balloon over a cartoon figure or balancing budgets that require functions not available on your ordinary calculator. And god knows you can't hold a dialogue.

What we have on our hands is a movement based on the heart-thumping thrill of a good tent meeting. The leaders of militias, and birthers, survivalists and conspiracy theorists work up their fire and brimstone pitch like a bunch of preachers performing for congregations writhing enjoyably in the delicious fear of sin, and joy of a dramatic sobbing repentance. And when the last hymn is sung, they won't forget to pass the hat.

And while the show goes on what are the consequences? A paralyzed government. And an increasingly virulent culture of balls over brains, a kind of virtual high school in which the football players and cheerleaders exercise their god-given right to torture the smart kids, fat girls, outsiders, and queers.