Wednesday, December 22, 2004

If You Must

The other night there was an event at ?!'s, and I got to thinking what a deeply sheltered East Coast liberal I would be if not for that particular group of friends, dnamely the ones from my house in college. My friends from there are predominantly Midwestern, with occasional from the eastern and western American South, and through them I have my only real connections to the war in Iraq (one friend has a brother who recently finished his tour in the Army, another an ex-boyfriend who was mortared [he's home now, with a Purple Heart and some shrapnel under his skin, but fundamentally fine]) and many of my sparse few connections to conservatives/Republicans/whatever (and to the KKK and overt racism--my line of work being as it is, I ain't such a fool as to call 'em my only connections to racism, but it is my only connection to the kind of racism that people admit to and talk about). It lends a lot more street cred than I'd like to admit to the notion that the Democratic Party is a party of an intellectual elite that doesn't understand the thoughts and needs of most Americans.

I was raised in a liberal family, and most of the people who surrounded me growing up at my progressive school and in my liberal home were liberals. All my friends are liberal now; while my Mathews House friends are liberal, a lot of them come from conservative families, due to traditional Catholicism and/or otherwise, and therefore they're a lot less willing, at this point in their lives, to demonize conservatism. T, whose parents are also conservative, was talking about this yesterday. Especially in the face of Bush--or Giuliani when I was in high school; in the face of someone who polarizes a community and can serve as a demonization, as the face of what's wrong--we often reach the point where we imagine the best move is not to talk to people whose views diverge from ours, they wouldn't understand anyway. But T's finding it a lot more comfortable to actually get into political discussions with her parents, these days; something she says she's found is that they have the same goals, just totally different views about what the best means are to this end.

Is that always true? My mom says capitalism, the fundamental philosophy of acquisition, is inherent in human nature and that's why other systems haven't worked. These days, I'm feeling like most problems stem from capitalism--unsustainable development, the widening gap between the elite and the non-elite financially (I'd like to think the educational gap may be narrowing, that college is becoming more available, but I'm judging by my students, who are at a magnet school, still a magnet no matter how underresourced it may be compared to other magnets in the city, so I don't know), health care, etcetera--and that the reasons other systems don't work is because not everybody else did 'em too, but it may be a moot point. I think sometimes, if we're vehement enough, we may think the goals are different, and sometimes we may be right; there are a decent number of both liberals and conservatives who are insincere about their goals, who are fundamentally out for personal gain or for a certain level of personal demonstration, but can we be optimistic enough to say most people want the best for the human race? That doesn't matter that much to me either, honestly; it's too vague. If that is the case, I'd still think that what's more important is our disagreement on what's best for the human race and how to go about achieving that. You could also get into something about what's best for the human race versus what's best for all Americans, and what the U.S. government's proportional responsibilities are regarding those two aspects, but I don't know how far to take that. Lawrence, in an earlier comment, said it was the government's responsibilities to protect its citizens and otherwise to stay out of its lives as much as possible. That makes it all even thornier. I don't think I agree, which is again my anti-capitalist predisposition--I think it's just a fact that we don't all start out equal, that given the current system there's no possible way (was there ever? I don't know), and since that's the truth it is the government's responsibility to level the playing field. But why should it be, if our goal is an ownership society?

And here, my friends, is why I need more conservatives in my life. Conservatives who are willing to concede certain aspects, certain differences, as I hope I am or at least am becoming. And I really do wonder about why my only connections to the military, the KKK, to various institutions that I don't understand and/or that frighten me, for various reasons, are through friends, liberal friends, from particular parts of the country, parts of the country I didn't manage to have much contact with before I went to college. (And while I often miss the contacts with high school friends that my sister is far more able to have than I am or was, it makes me really, really glad I did not go to school in the Northeast; while there are probably a decent number of people of conservative parentage at all the other schools I might have attended, I think the atmosphere would be different.) I need to know *why* people think an ownership society is the most reasonable goal, why that's the best way to go for the human race.

Something else to think about, regarding disagreement and immediacy, is the war in Iraq. T said her father thought it was just too soon to know what was important about it, even as he can concede that there's been substantial mismanagement in the process. To which I, and probably most of my readers, have a part that wants to scream (that was *so* not grammatical), "Mismanagement? People DIED!" And that's a weird one, because there it's my conservative connections, the people whose family members and friends--I know one of these friends, to be fair, but I wouldn't have if not for A, a dorm Midwestern friend--that make that argument hold a lot more water. If I pull back here, if I try to take the more historical view that I think is sometimes necessary when politics get so visceral, and say that's what happens with the Army, that's what people are signing up for, they know it, this is part of defending the larger entity that is your country--I'm ignoring, or at least overlooking, those particular individuals who are intimately connected to people that I love. Should someone's brother, friend, ex-boyfriend be injured or maimed or killed in Iraq (and I'm so relieved that nothing worse than what I already mentioned has happened to the loved ones of my friends), I wouldn't say that and I wouldn't mean it, it would stop really mattering.

And historically, it is too soon to know, that's right. We can look with distaste or dislike or venom-spitting vehemence at the deceptiveness with which it's been handled, but none of us, no matter how smart, is really (are really?) capable of knowing what the war will mean, what impact it will have on the progression of America. We can infer, postulate, make it up, but we don't know. And yet we have to do something anyway, have to take some kind of stance in order to vote, in order to truly function as citizens of America. (I am going to insult political apathy, because I feel it's appropriate these days. I respect even Nader voters more than non-voters; at least they understand that fact that politics matters to daily life.)

So I think we'd be better off talking to liberals and conservatives, whichever one we are not, thankyouverymuchAnnCoulter. (To be fair again, I've never actually read her work, but I feel decently willing to judge that particular book by its cover. Or at least its title. I'll probably read it someday, when I get over my embarrassment at picking it up in a bookstore.) I think our decisions, our doing of something, will be more informed. At least we'll actually know what we're not doing. That was a deeply facile conclusion, but really it's a pretty facile discussion. Something I mentioned to T, though, is that some of it is a question of identity. You can't get into a good discussion with someone of an opposing political persuasion until you know your opinions well enough to know them not to simply be "not theirs." That is something valuable to think about. How have we gotten--well, how have I gotten my opinions to the point where they've become mine, without ever really discussing with conservatives what makes my opinions what they are? (Okay, I once dated someone who voted for Bush in 2000, but in 2000 I thought I could get away from that simply by avoiding the topic.) Maybe it does come from listening to people who have to listen to their families and their families' conservative opinions with some respect, even if, like Layna (non-house, not even college, but originally of the non-Northeast), they are listening only in order to enter into violent, vehement argument with a little more fuel.

So if any conservatives stumble across my blog, talk to me.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Activists in America, Part the Third: About Issues

So, when we last left our hero, not that we really have one, we were wondering if some issues are actually more important than others. I recall a conversation I had with MB from high school when he and I were puppeteering for a show together, the summer after my first year of college. He said that he felt all activists had to acknowledge that some issues were just more important than others--that at this point in time, gay rights had nothing on the environment, for example. Basically, issues that ostensibly have an effect on everyone, rather than issues that effect only a select group, should obviously be the priority of all activists. Thus spake MB.

This may also go back to what L was saying about abortion being such a non-issue compared with environmental concerns, the latter of which were given just this side of no voice in the recent election. (Inauguration fast approacheth . . . gah.) I'll admit that my understanding of environmental activism is somewhat limited/unsophisticated in comparison to my understanding of "women's issues" (I really kind of loathe that as a subcategory), civil rights issues, etc. It's true that environmental issues have a wider, and in some ways larger, direct impact on all of humanity than has the issue of abortion. A much smaller percentage of humanity directly wants and needs to have abortions or gay rights than the percentage of humanity directly effected by, say, the polar ice caps melting, or higher mercury levels in fresh water. But to call that direct is assuming that *how* we live is less important than *that* we live, I think. And to be crude, direct and extraordinarily annoying, if we all die we won't know the difference. It will be horrible, certainly, it already is horrible, that we have treated our environment like that, but it's not fair to say it's any more or less horrible than people being denied their basic human rights because of what they look like or who they love. (And let's state here, for the record, that I don't think marriage is a human right, contrary to popular postering. Whether it's on the Universal Declaration o' Human Rights or not, I think the notion is absurd, Eurocentric [which word itself is questionable, since "Euro-" there refers only to dominant Western European cultures, oy] and belittling of things that are actually human rights. A civil right, yes, and civil rights are their own battle and I think can be and are being fought for and about appropriately. But the idea that a lack of marriage means a lack of basic human sustenance or dignity is silly.) The proportions amount to the same--as in, if you were to distribute the sufferings of a select population from denials of human rights in the same way that environmental damage is distributed (and yes, I do know that environmental damage is often inflicted way more strongly on certain groups, carcinogenic factories in poor black neighborhoods and so forth, which I might get to later, but let's just say I'm talking about the ozone layer for now) to the entire population of the world, it probably works out to the same.

In that sense, it's really, really hard to prioritize issues that involve humans leading a decent life. Which abortion, whatever your stance on it, definitely involves. And environmental issues, and human rights and civil rights, and warfare. I'm willing to say that legalizing marijuana, for example, may fall in a slightly lower-priority category, although I suppose there's a roundabout argument to be made that punishing recreational marijuana use, which really does no one besides the individual user any harm, often ends up with unjustly severe penalties inflicted on the user which could be seen as a civil rights issue, but then we also get into drug trafficking from third-world countries and I don't even want to start because I really don't know enough. But I think issues that involve the macrocosm of human life are as important as issues which only pertain *directly* (yes, I did emphasize that) to certain microcosms.

So, if all the issues, or a substantial percentage of The Issues, are equally important, then what's the problem with activists talking about all of them at once? Or being active about them all at once? First of all, I guess, is the fact that very very few and far between in the world are people who can know enough about every single issue to be a really good, effective activist. Until and unless that person comes along, the issues might be better off having their own experts, who can and should collaborate sometimes, of course, but overall there is something to be said for a specialized base of knowledge. Which is not to say limited, because all these issues do feed into one another (some would say in Christ, but I ain't one of them), but you know more about some things than others and might as well accept that.

Also, there's form. We've gotten used to certain formats for political action, often left over from the '60s and not necessarily having the same impact they did then, because a lot of said impact was due to the novelty. Form should be related to content--a march to legalize marijuana, for example, may not be the most effective way of spreading your message, because the presence of a million pot smokers is not necessarily what's going to change a lot of minds, whereas the presence of, say, a million black men or a million mothers could. Form is related to content. Too few people deal with that, in both art and politics.

I think there's a third, but I don't remember what it is. That seems awfully reductivist. Any thoughts to help me avoid reducing so much?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Activists in America, Part the Second

So the truth is, I'm making a lot of this up because I wasn't so alive in the '60s as all that. What I know about it, I've deduced, some of it from parents, some of it from Bread & Puppet, some of it from reading and research (I did my eighth-grade term paper on the Merry Pranksters, thankyouverymuch), and some of it how the hell would I know. So my older readers (that'd be my parents, basically), please feel free to correct.

What I think is that in the '60s, the tidal wave of activism that swept America, or at least was perceived to have swept America--there were obviously numerous activist movements before then, cf. the union movements, the American Revolution, the Civil War, bla bla bla etcetera--was actually for the most part about what it said it was about. If you went to an anti-war rally, you wouldn't expect to find random legalize marijuana booths sprinkled around the way you do at any rally today, because the activist community today is about being just that, an activist community.

So what's wrong with that? To some degree it has probably always been this way, that espousing certain views on specific political and social issues made everyone think, sometimes reasonably, that you espoused certain other views on certain other sociopolitical issues. The greatest division we see on these today is "fiscally conservative" (or liberal) v. "socially conservative" (or liberal), which I think I kind of addressed in the emanating penumbrae post. But the trouble with having activism as a lifestyle is that if you're not always protesting something, you've lost your identity.

Is there always something to protest? (I'm going to talk about liberal activists here, because I know them way better, although I'm sure I'll throw a conservative bit in here and there.) Yes, there is. In global capitalism, and particularly living in the United States, somebody is always treating somebody else like shit and it would be great if everybody else knew about it. Something horrible is always going on. In that way, the notion of "I want to be an activist" (something a friend in high school once said to me; it being my senior year, post-Bread & Puppet, I accepted that notion without question until about a year later) doesn't seem nearly as offensive as I've often felt it is. I want to be someone who consistently warns people of what I consider to be the evil in the world and attempts to fight it. What's the matter with that?

Part of the matter with that is that The Evil In The World is way too massive for any one individual or collective. Ergo, anyone who approaches activism with the notion that what he/she is going to do is Fight The Evil In The World fails miserably and looks silly. And since there are far too many of those people, in most cases well-intentioned (though my distrust of kneejerk activists often runs deeper than it needs to), there's an entire collective, particularly of liberal activists, that often fail miserably and look silly and as a result in the intervening three decades 'twixt the '60s and now have become laughable. Enhancing said laughability (man, I write funny) is the fact that if you're fighting Evil In The World and are sensitive or pseudosensitive enough to see it everywhere, you'll have to protest it everywhere you see it, which a) leaves you little time to delve deeply into one issue and b) means somebody is always protesting something, so it's hard for the non-protesting people to think that one issue means more than another.

Next question: does one issue mean more than another? Is it fair to prioritize them? I don't know. Tune in next time for Part the Third. (These short posts work well when I'm tired.)

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Activists in America, Part the First

Things have changed since the '60s.

I think we try to deny that a lot.

There was an interesting article in the Times today about how an important distinction between the Cold War and the war on terrorism, which Bush wishes was a cold war, is that the rest of the world doesn't see the war on terror as a global priority, not even our allies. I'm not sure how that connects to the rest of what I want to write about, but I think I'll get to it eventually, as I often do.

The summer after eleventh grade, when I had just been ditched by my clique of girls and was feeling tremendously low about a lot of things, I spent three weeks at Bread & Puppet Theater. I decided to go there because I was and am a puppeteer, but I knew next to nothing about their history and prominence as a political theater. I had a lot of contempt for the concept of political theater at the time, subscribed to the quote from I think George S. Kaufman, "Theater should entertain. You got a message, use Western Union." Which I think still has something to it, and goes back to the question/answer debate. But either way, Bread & Puppet, run by a man named Peter Schumann, radical left-winger and truly astounding puppetmaker, totally changed the way I thought about politics and art. Many of you have heard this story, and I actually wrote my personal statement for colleges about it, but I'm going to tell it in brief again. This was 1999, when the civil unions bill was first going before the Vermont legislature (B & P is in northern Vermont), and the Westboro Baptist Church ( think they require no further explanation, although they are featured in the Laramie Project) was coming to demonstrate against it. Bread & Puppet was asked to do a counterdemonstration; having been to that website before, I wanted to go along. When we arrived, the protest, as many protests, was simply a mass of screaming people; you could not discern who was for what except by attaching the occasional sign to the occasional individual. (To give you a couple of ideas, the signs included "Thank God for AIDS" and "AIDS Cures Fags," in addition the pro-gay-marriage repertoire with which I've always been more familiar.) Bread & Puppet set up about 50 feet from this madding crowd--we had one giant woman puppet, two giant white birds, one large sign that said "Please Take Your Hate Out of Our State," a small brass band and a lot of flags with beautiful prints on them--and began to sing. Our first song stopped the entire protest, everyone watching us, until a woman with a sign that read "Fucking Girls is Fun!" said, "Come on, guys, don't watch Bread & Puppet. We have work to do." They continued picketing violently, and we continued moving and singing, until somewhere around our third or fourth song, everyone on our side put down their signs and formed an enormous circle, with the Westboro Baptist Church group in the middle. It was clear, for the first time, that there were approximately 70 people there in favor of the civil unions bill, and approximately 13 from the Westboro Baptist Church. At which point, the latter group decided to leave, half an hour earlier than it had claimed it would, and we paraded out of town behind them to "Down by the Riverside."

According to one seasoned protestor there (this was my first protest, though not my last), "Wow. That's the first protest I've ever been to where we actually accomplished something." I remained deeply proud of that accomplishment for years--heck, it even makes me proud just writing about it now, six years later. But I'm aware of its being anomalous, and I find that activism in America suffers in this day and age by having become predominantly a lifestyle choice that in many ways can overshadow the actual political convictions.

To be continued. My posts are too damn long anyway. I'll do this in installments.

Friday, December 03, 2004

f (stereotypes) =

This weekend we're taking our students to see TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND. This actually is political, which is why I'm writing about it. It's a risky decision for several reasons, not least of which is homosexuality. TML is full of openly homosexual people and plays that are openly about homosexuality; my class is, to say the least, not. And yet, I think it's a little bit more than it would have been three or four years ago.

The school where I teach--the high school, that is--is an inner-city (in Chicago, that's technically outer city, but what're you gonna do) magnet school in a terrible neighborhood with an entirely black student body. The urban black community in Chicago is not where you go for tolerance of homosexuality. Part of it's that Pentecostal churches are so often the centers of communities, but a former boss of mine, who is black and I believe in the closet (many reasons, longer story--I think he was only in the closet at work, and I think he deliberately dropped hints to me), said something very interesting about it: basically, black men in America have had to work so hard to be recognized as men in the first place that many black communities are reluctant to acknowledge anything that could put that status at risk.

So here are my high-school students, trying to prove themselves as young, intelligent, black men and women. One girl--one of my favorite people, for all her difficulties--has written a play in which there is a gay character, but he appears in a sequence about the negative results of a broken home, i.e. the daughter gets into trouble at school, one son is in therapy, one son started dealing drugs, one son is gay. At one point, one of the girls in our class--a deeply smart ninth-grader--was reading that role, and she made it extremely swishy, mocking, etc. The boys who have read it actually take it seriously, and yet my favorite male student, a wonderful wonderful guy (who wants to be a brain surgeon, but joined our acting and playwriting class because he needs to have a backup career), has recently been seen doing the "swishy" character when he's just messing around. Not the swishy character in the play, just recreationally swishy. I'm confident that he isn't gay, but what I feel like picking apart here is the function of the "swishy" stereotype, and, by extension, of stereotypes in general.

In this day and age, The Gay Man is white, extremely well-off, has a heart of gold and an excellent sense of style. The runaway success of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY can't really be entirely urban--I find it hard to believe that its audience is composed only of people who already know guys like that. I went to a high school more tolerant than most--we actually had the occasional openly gay student, one of whom is now an inordinately famous fashion designer--but while I was in high school it was relatively rare for the homosexuality of actual people we knew, rather than homosexuality in the abstract, to be discussed up front. Not that it didn't happen (a tenth-grade teacher came out to us, among other things), but it didn't spend the same amount of time on the table even as it does in the urban, black, basically homophobic community where I teach now. From the first scenes our kids wrote, gay was mentioned--not supported or explored necessarily, but in most cases not mocked either. The success of openly gay celebrities and pop-cultural phenomenons (openly as opposed either to closeted or to undiscussed, as it so often was in the '50s or '60s) may have finally done what it has to do.

I'm not really getting to my point here, I just keep getting distracted. Back to QUEER EYE, which, while a guilty pleasure, for some time offended me--while people laud its bearing homosexuality into the mainstream, didn't they *realize* that it's perpetuating all this bullshit about homosexuals, you can only be properly gay with a certain level of disposable income how ridiculous is THAT, bla bla bla etcetera. You've heard it all before, probably from me. But now I'm wondering . . . what were the suburbanites who watch it religiously, enojying Karson even if they're kind of making fun of him, going to get *any* information about the fact that homosexuals live and function in a social world, if not from seeing a few stereotypical flaming people? Might it be preferable for my students, living in communities that in some cases will ignore homosexuality with incredible willpower, to be able to use stereotypes as a way of bringing the concept into their lives, one way or another?

Maybe homophobic people *need* to keep gay people in a form that's safe for them to talk about. Which is where QUEER EYE and other stereotypes come in. You have to forge one path through the forest, 'cause otherwise nobody's ever going to see the trees a-tall. Even if on this path they see limited and relatively uniform trees, and there are a massive shitpile of other trees in the forest that they've yet to see, at least they can understand some basics about what trees, you know, look like. And maybe then they'll choose to explore off the path, make a few new paths, and maybe they won't. But ultimately, I might sooner have had 'em see a tree at all.

Then, of course, there's the part where they come in with axes. But that can't actually said to be caused by their exposure to a certain kind of tree. This metaphor gets a little silly here, and I can't take this one any further tonight. I 'unno. Thinking about it.