Monday, December 19, 2016

When Facts Don't Matter: Activism in the New America

By Kelly Cogswell

During the presidential debates, every time Republican candidate Donald Trump opened his mouth he lied, and Democrats had a field day presenting the screen captures of a tweet he'd claimed never to have written, videos of him saying things he'd denied, photos of him chatting with shady characters he said he didn't know.

What a delusional ignoramus, we thought, and wondered who would vote for such a buffoon who got caught in every fib like a three-year old child who denied eating chocolate even though her face was smeared with the stuff. Likewise, who would get hung-up on the false kerfluffle over Clinton's servers and emails when the story was debunked a dozen times a day?

As it turns out, the only delusional members of the American electorate were ones who believed that facts matter. Masha Gessen nailed the problem in her essay, "The Putin Paradigm," in The New York Review of Books, in which she explains why fact-checking doesn't work when dealing with tyrants like Trump, or his role model Putin, who repeatedly and enthusiastically lies in the face of hard evidence. Putin claimed, for instance, after invading Crimea and Ukraine, that no troops were on the ground despite plentiful proof. Then later announced, that of course there were. So what?

The thing to remember is that, "His subsequent shift to truthful statements were not admissions given under duress: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality."

Gessen goes on to assert, that when reality itself is under attack, the only solution for the opposition is to shift from fact-based arguments to finding "a way to tell the bigger story—the story about the lies rather than the story of the lies; and the story about power that the lies obscure." She herself admits that this is harder than it sounds, particularly for the American media which is all about reporting the facts, and doesn't even like to report those unless they have been confirmed a dozen times.

For anybody who cares about democracy, this new embrace of the blatant lie is even more disturbing than Pence's hatred of women and queers, Trump's obvious incompetence and greed, his surrealistic, nihilistic anti-appointments, his ties to white supremacists, and explosions of rage that will soon be able to express themselves with nuclear launch codes.

American social progress, after all, has been built on facts, and on reason. When Sojourner Truth cried out, "And ain't I a woman?" She wasn't just tapping the sympathy of white women, but appealing to their brains, and eyes, to consider just what disqualified her from that category. LGBT arguments for legal equality are likewise just that: arguments. With reasons and facts, and logic. Everything Trump rejects, and everything his presidency could unravel.

Post-fact, I feel twelve years old and confronted with an abusive mother who was never persuaded by them. Our arguments always sounded like dialogue from some absurdist play. I'd declare "The earth is round," and offer physics, math, proof, and she'd answer, "Cherry Jell-O."

Like with Trump, it didn't matter if she knew she was lying, or was psychotic and actually believed what she said. Either way, her stated, and changeable beliefs governed my world. Ever since, I've struggled with just how much weight to give words. Why bother calling a chair a chair when somebody could call it a dog and insist I put a leash on it? This is why I sometimes abandon writing for visual art, and why I became an activist in the first place.

When language itself is debased by lies, when "signs" are tampered with, and words don't persuade, we are left with the physical world, the act, the signified. Somebody, of course, has to concern themselves with the facts, and keep rebutting Trump's factory of lies, but resistance now, more than ever, requires images, and gestures, also our irrefutable flesh. Stories can be made about that, too, but we can at least attempt to shape our own narrative even if we have to do it with an audience of six, or twelve, or twenty passersby. And we can also try to control how our bodies appear in the media, continuing to release our own videos and press releases like the small Russian activist group, Pussy Riot, which really gets under Putin's skin.

And as far as words go, when it comes to telling the larger political stories, and finding ways to approach the truth, we can't just offer alternative narratives, we have to find ways to demolish false ones, unmask Trump's desire for total power, even go undercover to plant seeds of dissent in the echo chambers and chat rooms the fascistic and ascendant "alt-right" has constructed for itself. We must also identify the ordinary people around us who can be brought to reason one by one by one.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Finding Our Feet--Together

By Kelly Cogswell

Last Tuesday, or maybe a decade ago, I ventured out in the rain to an anti-Trump meeting at an enormous Episcopal church uptown, where water was leaking into the foyer from the small domed entry and pooling on the tile. Inside, the large sanctuary was respectably full. The crowd was about half first-time activists of all ages, the rest middle-aged veterans of groups like ACT-UP, with stunned but determined faces.

The group agreed on a tactic-- direct action, with or without arrests -- then talked about issues for a while, before breaking into the usual sub-groups to introduce themselves and begin organizing. In the media committee we agreed it played a huge role in Trump's election, and would be an essential tool to fight back, shaping the meaning of our actions, creating our own--truthful--narrative of what Trump was up to. We still left without a name or an action. The biggest problem for anti-Trump activists isn't tools, but where on earth to start.

In some ways, the Trump-Pence regime is a crisis even broader and deeper than the early years of the AIDS epidemic when activists still had intersectional issues, but only a handful of targets: drug companies and researchers, homophobic evangelicals and the Catholic Church, CDC definitions that ignored women, government programs controlling health care access and information that betrayed queers, people of color and the poor.

This hydra has too many heads to count. And they're not just out to destroy the usual suspects, but the basic rules Americans have played by. Or aspired to, even when they failed us. I still want what I pledged my life to when I was six, Liberty and justice for all.

One person suggested holding a demo about free speech and assembly that would be as bold as possible, so that six months or a year from now we will have a yardstick to measure what we've lost when attacks on the Constitution and basic civil liberties take hold, and the once unthinkable becomes commonplace.

Pretty soon we'll believe we've always had a president-elect randomly creating policy tweet by unfettered, random, hateful tweet while his minions bring their calculated determination to stripping women and queers of their rights. And the other asylum inmates now in charge are perfectly justified in picking fights with China, or Iran. Stymying trade agreements. All agreements really, like terrifying three-year olds. Sometimes in the name of profit. Sometimes in the name of God.

Lately, I wonder whatever happened to reports of a new wave of evangelicals that were gay-neutral, pro-environment, less obsessed with abortion. Are they busy at home installing solar roofs, or did their fragile white egos catch fire with the politics of resentment? Is it them bashing the nearest queer, or Jew, or Muslim? Oh, poor white man lusting after more than a house and car and food. Oh poor white woman sleeping next to a disappointed spouse who dreams of a bare-chested Putin on a galloping horse.

Equality can't compare. Or the drudgery of democracy in which every vote counts, and must be counted.

I know what resentment is. I'm familiar with hate. I've put up with their bullshit dyke-baiting and woman-bashing for fifty years. And on bad days, I want what they do. To burn the whole thing down. I don't even care if I go with it. But then I see a little light somewhere. Hear a scrap of good news.

Like very early Monday morning when U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith ordered a recount to begin immediately in Michigan. "With the perceived integrity of the presidential election as it was conducted in Michigan at stake, concerns with cost pale in comparison." Just before that, the Obama administration halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

And for a moment I could see the point of the phone calls and emails, donations and demos. If there's a way forward, we have to draw the line beginning with the case of Standing Rock, where some very determined people were willing to put their bodies on the line over a period of weeks, and months, until the small encampment of Native Americans grew into an enormous movement. Because that's what change takes, time, patience, and activism in the flesh. It's the only way we have to remind politicians and business people that we exist beyond their policy reports and number crunching, and we won't be ignored.

The problem remains, though, that everybody can't be everywhere, can't do everything. And choosing a direction is especially difficult for those of us at the crossroads of identities. I'm beginning to believe it doesn't matter what you choose or how. Perhaps we should just leave it to chance. Like the woman passing a Planned Parenthood who saw protesters outside, and stopped, and went inside to volunteer. That's all any of us have to do. Pick one thing. Get plugged in. Make a stand.