By Kelly Jean Cogswell
I’ve spent half my life as a lesbian activist. First taking to the streets with the Lesbian Avengers, then as a journalist trying to mobilize Americans for the sake of their own withering democracy. Like when the Supreme Court awarded Bush the presidency, making Florida votes toilet paper. Or when the U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advised the nation that torture isn’t torture when Americans do it.
So why, when the Occupy Wall Street movement finally emerges from grassroots America, do I find myself screaming, “Morons! Idiots!” What am I? A hypocrite? A newly minted neocon? An alien?
I’ve spent the last month tracking my flight pattern. If all my buttons got pushed, it’s not about the method. I still believe direct action is one of the only ways to deliver demands if you don’t have your own lobbyists. And that even without unifying goals, mass demonstrations themselves can be a useful message of popular discontent. They give a voice and body to people that until that moment had probably been reduced to abstractions in the minds of the reps we sent to Washington. Or for that matter, City Hall.
At the same time, street activism isn’t just for the audience. It can have a powerful effect on participants. For once, your voice is amplified. You exist. It can even empower us as citizens if we make that leap from airing grievances en masse to deciding to claim the whole country as a common project acknowledging shared goals and shared faults.
That’s the question, really. Will this moment of roused rabbles turn more people into citizens, or will it just be catharsis, leave them ideological consumers gobbling up the newest slogan, the quickest fix?
I have my doubts. Partly because I always do: humans as we know share far too much DNA with earthworms. But also because in the last twenty years only money worries have gotten Americans into the streets.
This historical moment of civic involvement is all about the bottom line. Even if we cloak it in the language of democracy and the American way of life, calling it patriotism when the Tea Partiers declare they’ve had enough of paying taxes and want to end the fed and shrink the government. Calling it a concern for democracy and inequality when the Occupiers, some of them, anyway, demand an end to taxation, and the end of the Fed, and a government corrupted by corporations.
The biggest difference is that the Tea Partiers want to cling to their cash because it might otherwise go to health care for the poor (especially immigrants), even if they themselves benefit from government projects like roads, and hospitals and public schools. And the Occupiers don’t want their money to go to the rich, even if they aren’t quite willing to give up their iPhones made by a company that profits from child labor, and subsidizes those bonuses to fat cat CEO’s and stockholders.
You could sum it up like this. All sides are freaked out by the tanking economy and don’t want to be poor. To save themselves, they’ve identified targets for their anger. Muslims, or people of color or queers are convenient enemies on the one side, and the ten percent on the other. Both hate big government.
Both sides also love to be victims. Of terrorists. Or immigrants. Or corporations. Which is why the Tea Party called itself the Tea Party, so that they can pretend they are poor oppressed colonists launching a movement for independence against the duly elected Obama, though they still seem to adore the appointed president Bush. And why the OWS folks tried to colonize the democracy movements of the “Arab Spring” declaring “We’re just like Egypt, just like Tunisia.” It was marketing. These are clear ways to establish tyrants and victims, gain instant legitimacy. And catchy names.
If I’ve moved past anything it’s simplicity, and seeing politics like a high school basketball game with two sides struggling over the same ball. I wonder if there’s a way out as long as we mask our real problems, our real natures with all these self-serving narratives. As long as we refuse to admit things are complicated, and that all of our hands our dirty, even if some are dirtier than others.
I include myself there, too. My TracFone is an embarrassment. If I suddenly came into some money I’d be awfully tempted to buy every Apple product on the market no matter how many employees commit suicide from the horrible conditions. But I’d have to shut up, then. Couldn’t hector, anybody. Not the racist right, the oblivious left.
Maybe I shouldn’t anyway. I don’t have the answers to anything from the Iraq War to the War on Terror to the incredible inequality of the U.S. economy. All I have is the intuition that the solution is complicated, painful and involves all Americans. That unpopular percentage, 100.