Monday, February 29, 2016

The Terror of Terroir

By Kelly Cogswell

While Americans duke it out over the White House, the French are lining up to get into the annual Agricultural Fair in Paris where you can see in the flesh how tough it is to maintain symbols of tradition in the face of a society grappling with how to integrate immigrants, and prod the recalcitrant economy to produce more jobs.

When President Hollande turned up for the usual opening day cow-kissing, crowds of farmers heckled and screamed, "You're killing us." Instead of calling them pathetic assholes like Sarkozy once did, Hollande just said that he'd come to listen, "Yes, even to screams. People are in pain."

It's true small farmers can barely make ends meet, though they aren't exactly getting gunned down in the street. Still, I marvel at what a loud voice they have considering that they are a tiny minority in a country where agribusiness is enormous. In the U.S., they would have gone under long ago. But in secular France where so much of the national identity is now tied to the land, their role in national pageantry is essential.

At the fair, they hawk everything under the French sun, seeming to prove that we are all different, the literal product of separate geographies, yet also the same. We see a gazillion different prize-winning cheeses, jams, juices, wines, honeys all shaped by what the French call terroir (soil or land). When it comes to determining the best, each category is rigorously judged, though on different criteria. Ground red pepper from Espelette competes against itself. Champagne produced only in that particular region should aspire to different qualities than a bubbly wine from Alsace. And certainly than a rum from Guadeloupe.

Check out the food halls, there are also cod fritters from the French Caribbean, curries from West Africa, and you remark that diversity in France is most readily accepted at the level of cuisine. But it still doesn't mean that the exercise of the fair is useless. In fact, thinking about the tools we use to preserve our national myths is essential. We reshape society by changing our stories, opening them up one by one.

We Americans have our own myths that need busting. I remember going with my grandmother to the Kentucky State Fair and getting dragged to see the quilts and prize-winning jam when I only wanted to go to the midway with its Ferris Wheel and cotton candy. But she'd been off the farm a long time, had her own roots to acknowledge and explore.

Not that she was nostalgic about the back-breaking work, or the incessant pressure to breed that created families of ten or twelve kids and left a lot of women dead. Once, when we were looking at a pair of wooden knitting needles her father had whittled for her, she said how happy she was when she got her tubes tied and didn't have to do what other women did.

We also had a conversation once about organic food when she interrupted a lecture on my newly acquired knowledge about vegetarianism and the environment to declare that was how they all ate back in the day, because they were too poor for fertilizer. And couldn't afford meat. And man, she was grateful to be able to run to the store for a package of hotdogs and some cheese whiz.

I think about her now when I hear about all those white Trump supporters who long for the days of Jim Crow and even actual slavery, in which white people would apparently all be happy and rich. They're not only evil to think enslaving other people is a viable option, but totally delusional.

The rainbow of the left is not immune to nostalgia either. So many are looking to the past for a future, not just via the old white guy running for president, but by embracing a kind of stale Marxist rhetoric reconfigured as that buzzword Intersectionality which sounds good on the face, (Of course oppressions are related and we must be allies!) (Of course class effects everyone!) But in which The Revolution still enforces the same old pecking order that leaves queers and women in the bottom tiers.

So faggots in Nigeria even working on their own behalf are slammed as agents of colonialism. Feminists fighting misogyny in Algeria are regularly called bigoted Islamophobes by Europeans and Americans of all races because they are just not convincingly authentic unless they are in headscarves. You see, we do not really believe in equality--that human beings are more or less the same, or that the rights appreciated by people in the U.S. or France or England might be welcome elsewhere. No, we exoticize and judge by different standards, reducing humans to horses and cows. Handing out everything except respect.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Election 2016: Misogyny and the Audacity of Plans

By Kelly Cogswell

I haven't written anything about the election yet. Hillary Clinton is running again and there's so much misogyny involved I can't stand it. And the sheer idiocy. My God, whole crowds willing to swallow any crazy thing their candidates promises whether it's Trump vowing he'll throw out immigrants or end gay marriage. Or Bernie guaranteeing a revolution featuring single-payer healthcare and free college, and pie, and the sky.

So for the record, Hillary yes. Bernie no. And post-primaries, any Democrat will do.

Don't bother attacking. It's clear my opinion doesn't matter. I'm a woman after all. Judged for my voice: shrieky. My haircut: bad, needs washing. My record: smudged. I mean, I've been writing these columns for such a long time, anybody can find dozens (out of several hundred) that prove I've been a delusional fool. Nope, I'm not at all clean, but at least you know what you're getting.

Like with Hillary. Who is competent, careful, and has a reasonably progressive (though smudgy) track record of legislation and policy. When push comes to shove most of her stances are similar to Bernie's. Though when it comes to women, she's better.

She hasn't just cast votes, she has initiated a lot of programs and legislation on the national and international level. She has worked for us, horse-traded even, and gotten laws passed and policy implemented. She's an insider, and I'm okay with that in a world where women are second-class citizens at best, in the worst raped, enslaved, mutilated, hidden, and murdered, considered less than human.

So she doesn't make the same rousing speeches. I'm thrilled that she's a policy wonk, an egghead, an annoying Hermione Granger before she bonded with Harry Potter and Ron over that enormous troll. She's the Obama we got after the election. Thoughtful, capable and tough. And willing to go bi-partisan even if the Republicans aren't.

Campaign 2008, Obama gave great speeches sparkling with the audacity of hope. He encouraged us with his deep mellifluous voice, Yes, we can do anything, even end partisan rancor. Behold! The dawn of the most perfect union is near. Difficulties, like queers, were swept under the rug, as he effectively mobilized the enthusiastic Occupy Wall Street sympathizers that were often so fucking radical that they didn't need plans. Plans imply politics. Politics imply compromise, the establishment, and that nut-cracking bitch Hillary Clinton.

I thought he was going to be a total, bigoted, ineffectual asshole. I was wrong. Once he got elected, he governed as a realistic idealist, getting the job done in spite of the vicious Republican pummeling. He pulled the country back from economic meltdown, compromising his purity in ways that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren no doubt disapprove. He named Clinton Secretary of State and she helped him repair the international relations destroyed by Bush. He evolved on same-sex marriage.

And because you can't reform health care by signing, or refusing to sign, a few documents, Obama willingly dirtied his hands with a complicated project of law. Not just mobilizing enormous teams of lawyers to draft a bill that would stand up to a constitutional challenge. But persuading members of his own stodgy Democratic party to accept it, along with a few of the opposition.

All of that meant a great deal of politicking, and compromise, the insider stuff Bernie says he despises. And if his track record after 26 years in the House and Senate can be relied on, I think we can believe him. Only Senators Ted Cruz and Tim Scott have scores as awful as his on the bipartisan index (Georgetown University). And without political skills, Bernie's the same as every white leftie guy ever, waving his nice clean hands a lot and shouting about income inequality. And getting nothing at all done, because in fact, class doesn't trump everything, particularly race and gender. And blab doesn't get you very far.

Nope, I'd rather vote for an imperfect candidate with a wider vision and a pragmatic backbone. Someone who can work with others, and is unafraid to evolve. And who will have an unimaginable impact worldwide as the first female president of the enormously powerful United States of America.

Time for you to inappropriately invoke Thatcher; declare Bern a better feminist than Hillary, (try googling Dolezal, Rachel); and list Clinton's failures, which always include "flip-flopping" on same-sex marriage, even though you voted for Obama, proud to put the first black president in the White House, no matter that he was then against marriage equality, and even campaigned with the same anti-gay preachers as Bush. And no matter that even working the adoring crowds, Obama was no Malcolm X.

Nobody expected him to be. It's enough that with Hillary we'll get a good, maybe a great president. And she'll be more than a symbol of what women everywhere can do, but an actual advocate.

I was in France the day after the 2008 elections and I remember looking around the subway at the people of color, and remarking how most of them were grasping newspapers with Obama's smiling, victorious face. And how they were smiling too, and standing a little straighter. It was extraordinary.

Hillary's victory will mean as much worldwide to women. Maybe more.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Queer Ally, Defender of Justice, Resigns in France

Christiane Taubira ready to zoom off, but not into the sunset.

By Kelly Cogswell

I love Christiane Taubira. If she appeared before me like Yemaya, or the Virgin Mary, I'd fall at her feet. The French Republic has rarely had such a staunch and principled defender. As an elected deputy of the French parliament, she was the driving force behind a 2001 law recognizing slavery and the Atlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity. François Hollande's French Minister of Justice since 2012, she spent months introducing and defending the 2013 law that would give lesbians and gay men marriage equality, and establish her as one of the most hated targets of the extreme right.

She didn't care. Every day during the battle I'd wake up and check out YouTube to catch her latest impassioned speech, or snippy response, or even extended fit of giggles. She took the fight personally as a black woman. And said so. Equality was equality to her. And she'd been fighting for it her entire life. In France as a young black student newly arrived from her birthplace of Cayenne in French Guiana. In Guiana fighting for the cause of independence.

Now, faced with having to defend proposed legislation which actually attacks equality, she's walked away from her post, denouncing the antiterrorism measure that would strip convicted terrorists of French citizenship if they are dual nationals, even if they are born in France.

While it may seem like a small, symbolic gesture, that would almost never be applied, it is part of a Constitutional reform that will institutionalize inequality, officially creating two classes of French citizens. There are those who have citizenship permanently and irrevocably--mostly white French people born in France into white French families. And those whose citizenship is theoretically vulnerable--mostly immigrants and the children of immigrants who also have citizenship in another country.

This act can only exacerbate existing racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration sentiment at a moment when all of Europe is grappling with a huge swell of refugees. And citizens of color in France, including North African Jews, are already considered not quite French.

Most importantly, here, where Equality and Fraternity are two of the three pillars of the French Nation, along with Liberty, it also undermines what it means to be French. Like the U.S., France has never quite lived up to its ideals. But the average French person still believes in them, at least in the abstract. And when social and legal change does happen, some aspect of liberty or equality or fraternity will be the underlying argument. I can't imagine France without them. Will it be converted into a U.S. post-9/11, cynical or indifferent to vanishing civil liberties, secret prisons, a parallel justice system with its own Guantanamos, endless surveillance?

I saw the Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies during the holidays, and especially liked that scene between a Cold War spook and Tom Hanks who plays Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan defending an accused Russian spy. The CIA guy wants him to share confidential information, and tactics. And Donovan goes all Constitutional on him defending the right to a fair trial for everyone, and asking just what it is Americans have in common, anyway? Especially Americans like them, Donovan, the child of Irish parents? The spy guy with a German name?

Donovan answers his own rhetorical question by saying that nothing at all unites Americans. Just a few abstract ideas, a few principles. Like Equality. Especially equality under the law, a competent defense. For everyone.

It was eerie to watch the movie here in Paris just a few weeks after the November 13 attacks when people were still lighting candles and laying mountains of flowers in front of the cafes and restaurants and clubs where hundreds of men and women were slaughtered and maimed by ISIS terrorists. People were still afraid. The streets were half empty. Tourists had cancelled their reservations and many Parisians were avoiding cafes, especially the terraces. You could get a seat anywhere.

Also, Hollande had just made his big speech to the parliament with his ministers there in the front row. I saw Taubira listening as he tried to counter fear and grief with strength and anger, condemning the attacks. And of course, laying out his anti-terrorism measures, which included declaring a state of emergency, possible Constitutional reforms, and this provision to strip nationality.

When he said that, I thought I saw Taubira's face close in on itself. And afterwards, when she joined the whole room singing the Marseilleise, I wondered what that call to battle meant to her.

Now I know. A portion of her parting tweet was, "Parfois résister c'est rester, parfois résister c'est partir..." "Sometimes resisting means staying, sometimes resisting means walking away…" She'd stayed for months trying to fight the provision. But having failed, she couldn’t stay, and offer her seeming approval. Already, she's published a book-length essay against the legislation. She may have left the government, but she's still fighting for France.