Monday, January 30, 2017

Lessons from Egypt on How to Organize the Resistance

By Kelly Cogswell

Six years ago last week, on January 25, 2011, mass demonstrations began in Egypt that would topple the corrupt, brutal regime of Hosni Mubarak. Following the lead of Tunisia, demos were at first just inspired by, and reported on, by social media. After a couple days, they became so big even Egypt's official radio and TV was forced to acknowledge them.

Inspired by hearing about the huge crowds, even more protesters joined in, demanding "Bread, Freedom and Social Justice" and the end of the regime. A few weeks later, protesters had taken to the streets in such vast numbers, everything ground to a halt, and Mubarak stepped down.

The lesson here, if we hadn't learned it before, from the Tea baggers or the black civil rights movement, or a host of others, is that resistance doesn't require political savvy or pollsters, just large numbers of pig-headed participants willing to face down the state again and again. Already, after two days of mass protests in airports all over the country, and some brave judicial rulings, Trump was forced to reverse at least part of his executive order banning Muslim immigrants.

This gives me hope that we may actually be able to fend off the worst under Trump and Pence if we're on the streets every day for two years, for four, for eight, saying no to everything. Making nuisances of ourselves. Trampling Trump even if he miraculously promises to undo trade deals we don't like, suddenly reverses himself on walls, makes the trains run on time. We have to stand in the way, literally.

But we also have to start thinking of the future. Because if Egypt teaches us about the effectiveness of protest and direct action, it also warns us to be prepared not just for disaster, but victory. There, where it came so quickly, demonstrators were taken by surprise. Young activists and bloggers didn't have either the skills or desire to become parliamentarians. No central unifying figures emerged, and the military quickly moved into the power vacuum and seized control.

While the U.S. doesn't necessarily face a military dictatorship, we do face a profound crisis of leadership among both conservatives and progressives. Neither seems able or willing to stand up to Trump. And if we don't have a plan, and participants, to repair our damaged country, another radically far right win is not just possible but inevitable in the long run, with even more disastrous results.

This time, even a moderate Democrat as POTUS won't be enough. Obama's election did end eight years of a torture apologist, Constitution-eroding Bush, but did little to restore our civil liberties taken away under the guise of security, little to reverse the gerrymandering of election districts. Neither did it end dirty votes in places like Florida, which was what put Bush in the White House to begin with.

Queers were as bad as anybody. We breathed a quick sigh of relief then pushed successfully for our legal rights like marriage. We did too little of that grassroots organizing which is essential in building broad movements and giving social change deep roots. The faces of our organizations remained far too white, far too cis male. We understood "inclusive" as an advertising concept, not something that ties us to other communities and makes us strong.

Activists, too, sometimes seem to misunderstand "intersectional," as the obligation to make laundry lists that just produce new pecking orders. To survive this time, we have to truly understand—-beyond emotions and ideology-- how we're in this together, how we’re all relying on the health of democratic institutions for the basic tools of social change, like free speech and assembly, votes, the judiciary. No more asking what's the difference between Hillary and Trump? What are a few Supreme Court nominees?

As a result of our short-sightedness (and a lot of help from Putin and Assange), we find ourselves facing a total breakdown of democracy, from attacks on an independent press to the dismantling of our procedural safeguards, with no real opposition in sight. For the moment, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand is the only Senator to vote against all of Trump's nihilistic appointees, whose mission is not to administer departments, but to dismantle them.

If we want to save our country, we have to quickly identify candidates that don't need to register a certain number of phone calls to know that bans on Muslim immigration are moral, legal, and security disasters. That the head of the Justice Department should care about justice. That the head of the Department of Ed should know something about education. Or that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency should accept scientific fact and consensus just like Mike Pence accepts Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

Any congressperson willing to collaborate with these anti-immigrant, anti-queer, anti-education, anti-science, white Christian nationalist monsters needs to be sent home on the next bus. And if we can't find enough candidates, we have to be willing to run ourselves.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women Rising?

By Kelly Cogswell

I'm back in France, and about the time that Donald Trump was taking the oath of office in the rain, I was trapped on a bus in the dark going around and around and around in circles. That's what it felt like anyway, going round and round traffic roundabouts in the dark countryside after being bottlenecked for hours.

I was afraid it was a metaphor. I've been afraid for months. Of losing my insurance. Getting hassled, beaten, attacked by newly emboldened bigots. Targeted for being a dyke, or using the women's bathroom while slightly butch, or maybe for speaking a foreign language out in public with my partner, or friends. It's happened before. I didn't know a few syllables of Spanish could turn a white guy's face so red.

But then Saturday, Saturday. I turned on the TV in the afternoon, and saw women, thousands of women. All those pink and red and magenta pussy hats. And signs, funny, furious, witty, obscene and glorious messages of hope and resistance. I was taken aback, not just by the protesters, but the fact that the misogynist French mainstream media was actually covering the Paris Women's March. They were even interviewing a range of women, an old white one. A young brown one, and that was just the beginning. All night long they followed marches in the U.S. The BBC meanwhile, had reported on the tens of thousands of protesters that filled Trafalgar Square. I couldn't believe the images from the U.S., all those gazillions of people, mostly women, pouring into the streets in Chicago, and Detroit, and even mustering several thousand in Lexington, Kentucky.

I got kind of teary, but with joy for a change. At the marchers. But also at a new opening in the media that might just pay attention this time because democracy itself is in danger. And I tuned in occasionally to the Washington March, and listened to the speakers who were a righteously diverse bunch. Even the longwinded mansplainer Michael Moore offered Ashley Judd the opportunity to school other women in how to deal with that kind of masculine gasbaggery. You pull the plug, totally step on their ass. I was also impressed at how comfortable she was performing that poem that had her talking about racism, and queers, and trans people. That gave me hope, too.

I admit, I didn't expect such a high turnout for the Women's March, especially in the U.S. where most Americans have never been on the Street. Even the black marchers of BLM are only a small percentage of their communities. And seasoned activists are often snobs. Before we go to a march, we want to know who's organizing the thing, what their pedigree is. Is it up to snuff? Are they? Who else is going? Are they radical enough? Inclusive enough?

There's a reason for our skepticism. We often see LGBTQ describing an organization or event even though it's dominated by gay white men. The women's movement in the U.S., and many other places, has a history of indifference, if not outright hostility towards dykes, poor women, minorities, trans people.

On the other --left--hand, the last time I went to a march in Paris for International Women's Day, I thought I was in the wrong place. All the signs were about Palestine or the Iraq War or the environment, and didn't even include the word, "Femme". The bodies in the crowd didn't give a hint either. Most of the women were there with men so no one would think they were dykes. It seemed like women needed some kind of modifier to be valued, were expected to embody an inclusiveness that other groups, like #BLM are entitled to push back from. Don't come here with that #alllivesmatter nonsense that stinks of racism and privilege.

And yet, and yet. Women are half the population of the earth. Half of every racial and ethnic and religious group. All social and political issues everywhere affect the lives of women in some profound way. Don't expect me to leave my dykeness at home. The place I came from. Our experience of race is entangled with everything. The challenge for the new women's movement is to acknowledge these threads without erasing fundamental truths about the identity that arbitrarily unites us -- how our lives are marked by a toxic masculinity that systematically attacks and diminishes those of us with female bodies, or touched by femininity in any way at all.

After a rocky start, the March organizers did a good job of pulling all the issues, all the people together. If Trump and his minions have performed one service, it is to make visible the deep connections between our country's hardcore misogyny, and anti-queer, white supremacist hate. All us social minorities are in the same boat. And if we don't rise and resist together, we're sunk.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trump Redux in France?

By Kelly Cogswell

In France, we're gearing up for a presidential election where the likely victor, François Fillon, is as friendly with Putin as Trump, and has policies as disastrously conservative as Pence.

There will be no saviors from the floundering left. The incumbent Socialist president, Francois Hollande, is so unpopular he isn't even going to run. The half-dozen men who want to take his place promise change without change. The impossible return of factory jobs. A retreat from a Europe demonized by the populists of the right and the left.

Their frontrunner: old globalization foe, and Chávez admirer Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon's sudden fondness for the environment is getting him an unusual bump in the polls, but he has little chance of winning the Presidency. More likely he'd play Ralph Nader, fatally splitting the left vote on the first round of the general elections (only the 2 top vote-getters will go on to the 2nd and final round.)

Right now, the likely final round contenders are expected to be the extremely conservative, Putin pal François Fillon, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, populist-nationalist National Front.

Fillon’s base is a surging hardline Catholic movement that was built opposing same-sex marriage. They despise queers, feminists, trans people, and anything that smacks of multiculturalism and gender equality. They want back French society pre-student revolution of 1968 if not earlier, and Fillon promises to give it to them -- along with a slash and burn of the state health care system, just like Donald Trump.

Worse than Fillon, but only in some ways, there's the smiling Marine Le Pen, another Putin admirer--and lately, a vocal Trump fan-- who's spent the last decade or so normalizing the National Front, the nearly neo-Nazi party founded by her charismatic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Softening the rough edges of overt racism and anti-semitism, and masking the hatred of immigrants, people of color, and queers, she's successfully courted former Commie and anti-globalization voters, dug up gay apologists, and even found supporters in communities of color, who don't want to find themselves vying for crappy jobs with new waves of refugees.

Le Pen's base is the disenfranchised white working class in former industrial areas that used to vote for the Communist Party. Like Trump, she presents herself as their champion, but unlike him, or Fillon, she swears to protect Social Security, secularism and abortion rights. She'd pull France out of the European Union, NATO and the euro-zone, immediately. People who used to scoff at her viability are having nightmares since Trump made everything seem possible.

Then there's Emmanuel Macron who was the Minister of the Economy for a while under the current Socialist President François Hollande, before he left to begin an independent grassroots movement, En Marche. He's the only one who really stands a chance against Fillon, and might knock out Le Pen, but he still faces long odds with most lefty voters because he used to be a banker and wants to liberalize the economy. Like in the U.S., many on the left would rather cast their votes for a pure, but unelectable candidate, than even give Macron’s platform a look.

I actually like him. He's had the nerve to tell French voters that the world has changed, and they have to as well. Automation is a fact, like globalization. And they are never getting their old jobs back. I even agree with his solution, which is not to reject globalization, but figure out how to make it equitable, harness it so that it can benefit modest people for a change.

As for women, queers, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities, he's far more progressive than most on the traditional left, even calling into question these labels of “left” and “right,” when the real chasm is between “conservatives” and “progressives” who can be found in either category. Recently, he actually had the audacity to tell a crowd deep in Le Pen's white working class territory, "Never accept those who promote exclusion, hatred or closing in on ourselves!"

The problem is that time is running out. The first round of the French presidential election is April 23, only three months away. And although Macron himself is getting big crowds all over the country and campaigning vigorously, he still has not hired a campaign manager. And his young, one-year old "participatory-democracy" movement, En Marche, is still in progress. It now has more than 3,000 neighborhood committees and an army of volunteers, but no public funding.

They're also still processing last year's findings when those grassroots volunteers went door-to-door asking citizens about their problems and concerns. Now, they’re crowdsourcing ways to address the problems--creating a political program and policies, with help from sympathetic experts. Or, as they say, creating “a contract with France” which, if elected, Macron and En Marche promise to fulfill.

Which is exciting. But I wonder what all this networking and movement building will translate to if En Marche itself doesn't concentrate more on getting out the vote. And Macron fades in the first round.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Nightmare on Penn Street

By Kelly Cogswell

I've decided to consider the next four years as an existential opportunity to be liberated, not by hope, but by fear. I'm not joking. I'm waking up at night in a cold sweat I usually reserve for mice infestations. The election really did happen. And in about two weeks DT's sneery face really will be delivering rambling addresses in front of the presidential seal, as he distractedly tweets poisonous nonsense, and toys idly with the big red button that could nuke us all.

And with no further ado his host of actual Nazis, and climate change-deniers, and billionaire conmen, and anti-gay, anti-women vigilantes will be unleashed to chew up, shit on and destroy every aspect of the government from regulations shaping the entire U.S. economy to the federal Justice Department. Probably, the only thing left standing will be the military, which will be given bright and shiny new toys. Bye-bye Obamacare and my beloved migraine meds. Along with the liberty and justice I still don't regret pledging myself to.

Already the subways and streets are bubbling up with increased hostility thanks to the hateful tweets of the Bigot-in-Chief, and to a media that no longer distinguishes what is newsworthy from what get hits. And as the hate speech is amplified, and becomes normalized, so does violence. Anti-queer, anti-women, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, anti-black, anti-anything violence.

Not everybody on the Left seems sorry. I've read more than a few posts by a rainbow of activists smugly dismissing fifty years of social progress to announce that with the election of DT we're just uncovering America's true face of bigotry, war-mongering, and unbridled capitalism. The implication is nothing's ever changed, especially for social minorities. That the streets Zora Neale Hurston walked down a few years out from slavery are exactly the same as those of Claudia Rankine. My own life is no different than my grandmother's who was born into a world where she couldn't have her own credit card, file rape charges. Vote.

Why are we so incapable of saying that things have changed, but not enough? Not for everyone? It's like we believe having some kind of historical perspective is a betrayal of today's pain. Fire must be fire whether you're considering a candle or a burning house, the flaming towers of 9/11 or the melting mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nobody suffers more than me. The incremental progress of a democracy is never real, only its failures. Love never beats out hate.

It's a problem because I don't see how we can strategize effectively unless we face that DT is our backlash president. And that the reason we elected the whitest, straightest, most pussy-grabbingest mogul on earth was precisely because we'd had eight years of Obama, a ground-breaking bid by Hillary, and a decade of escalating progress for queers, and a visible racial justice movement. Sure there were a few election missteps, and Russian interference, and yes, the white working class is struggling to find a way forward, but the biggest predictors of a vote in this election wasn't income, but how much the individual hated women and blacks and queers.

How can we imagine the future, and seize the one we want, unless we admit that it is new, in fact, for modern America to install actual, overt Nazis? Embrace an administration hostile to civil government itself, which aspires to pure autocracy with a soupçon of rabid nihilism that makes Heath Ledger's Joker look positively sane.

Everything follows from what comes before. Everything has roots, and unintended consequences. Perhaps some of them will even be good. Because the same brutes bashing Muslim women on the subway are harassing young Jewish girls and turning menorahs into swastikas, Muslims and Jews are now joining forces against bigotry.

Maybe our big mistake wasn't celebrating incremental progress, but shaping movements based on the belief that history is bent in an arc towards justice. We understand now that progress is not inevitable. Democracy is fragile. God is dead. If history resembles anything it is the mountain range of an EKG, bumping up and down. The only questions are, Is this downward dip the big one, or will it go back up in our lifetimes? Or even flatline entirely with one big boom? How can we shape it?

Believing in an arc made us too cautious, subservient. Now maybe queers can quit pretending that if we prove ourselves worthy, sanitize our movement, emphasize love and marriage, dress up chastely in suits and sweater sets, transition undetectably to the appropriate gender, use the right words in the right order, that we'll continue to collect our rights like Girl Scout merit badges. Now that we know things can turn around in an instant, we can refuse to cling to crumbs, become generous, open our arms, and our movement. Embrace each other. Why be careful when we can be free?