Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Echoes of a Past Life - Different Paths to Liberation

This year I committed to posting something at The Cahokian every day. I think the first day I missed all year was over this past labor day weekend when I found myself away from the computer for a whole day with no post-dated entries lined up. The world did not end! But I've enjoyed how keeping up this blog has forced me not only to respond thoughtfully to current events but to reassess my own point of view as it has evolved over the course of my life. The "Echoes of a Past Life" series has been great for fishing out things I've written at other times that still contain relevant ideas even if their subject matter is occasionally dated. But in truth as I go over past writings for consideration here, I often find things that I no longer agree with. Especially in my most political period, I certainly had a knack for black-and-white absolutes that boxed some of my arguments in curious little k-holes of sectarian dogma. Of course I blame my youth. And bad company. Many of my old pontifications will not see the light of day here.

There is a developing consistency to much of my old writing, though, and as I moved away from political activism along a spiritual journey and then to what I hope is a more holistic and balanced middle age, I think I identified some important issues, and evolved a kind of personal belief system based on integrating my socialist idealism, spiritual yearnings, and the practicalities of 21st-century realities.

Over the past two years I've been wrestling with discomfort over the state of American politics. I enthusiastically voted for Obama, and I believe that was the correct thing to do; I am without buyer's remorse despite some deepening criticism. I have watched the gay and progressive communities become adversarial with Obama in a way that strikes me as unproductive; and I've struggled to refine an argument over why this is so. I really hate most of Obama's foreign policy; but I also hate what I see as knee-jerk stupidity behind a lot of criticism of Obama. All Presidents, it might be said, have in their job description the need uphold American imperialism; I'm not sure how anyone expected that to be different. I'm really not much of a Democrat to begin with but I defend my frequent voting for them. In reading left-wing blogs I find myself reminded of the obvious: voting solves little, and in many ways the Democrats are tweedle-dum to the Republicans' tweedle-dee. And yet there is my vote, which I spent without regret. In reading gay blogs, I find myself reminded of something else obvious: third parties in U.S. elections are largely for suckers. They're not a real solution right now. Not until something gives, though I'm not exactly sure what that something is.

"The gays" are all outraged about Obama failing to make good on his many campaign promises. I liked the campaign promises, yet I am not outraged about the pace of their realization; actually I see some evidence of progress. And the lesson so many of the outraged gays are drawing about Obama is to look for somebody else in whom to place some kind of touching blind faith, be it Hillary Clinton, Rachel Maddow, Alan Grayson, or some other loud individual talking an attractive game. I find myself wondering about all these contradictions. And I think what I've come to is the sense that the struggle for social justice is something influenced by electoral politics but largely outside it. Real, actual liberation just isn't going to come from legislation, or be handed down from a presidential savior. Right now I'd rather a Democrat was appointing people to the Supreme Court rather than a crazy old war criminal or a deranged narcissistic teabagger from Alaska. Right now I'd rather a Democratic congress is passing tepid reforms beholden to lobbyists and corporations rather than a Republican one stocking henhouses with foxes. Which is not to say that being beholden to various profit-making exploitation machines is a excusable, it's not. But it's the way it is right now. And I find completely repugnant the avowed leftists who gaze admiringly at the teabaggers, jealous over their ability to "do something."

There is a prize out there, and we do well to keep our eyes upon it. But to reach out for that prize requires living in the world as it actually is.

The electoral political game is gonna go on with or without "us," and there's no equivalent of the Bolshevik Party with a perfect program and actually winning support in the professional political leagues of this game. There's only people like you and me, some of us arguing for a point of view, for a set of values, setting forth ideas that might take root. Or might not.

This is all by way of introducing a letter I found in my files that I wrote to the editor of a gay magazine in New York City in 1990. I don't really remember the original article that provoked this letter (though its title makes me smile), but I'm finding that this letter, written long after I'd broken from the dogmas of Leninism, gets to something that I still think is exactly the point: there are many lanes leading to liberation, but not all of them will get there; indeed not all of us will get there together. This is slightly edited, and there's that transitional pseudonym that only pissed off my grandmother. I do not believe that Outweek printed this response.

(Photo probably from The Village Voice showing me, center, sitting at a Lesbian and Gays for Jackson campaign table in 1988).


Letter to Gabriel Rotello, editor in chief of Outweek Magazine
June 28, 1990
by Ian Daniels Horst

I'm writing to reply to your recent Commentary column in the July 4, 1990 issue ("Mao Zedong, Gay Leaders and Me") because I was frankly touched by what you had to say. Having paid some dues over the years in the lesbian and gay movement I thought I'd pass on a few of the lessons I've drawn from both participating in and observing the progress of our movement.

I was very active in the late '70s and early '80s in the left and in the left-wing of the gay movement in Chicago and New York. I was a member of everything from Trotskyist sects to left gay groups like Lavender Left and CRASH (that's Lesbian and Gay Coalition against Racism, Ant-Semitism, Sexism and Heterosexism in case you're no archivist...). I've been active in a zillion single-issue coalitions, including helping to spearhead a left/progressive intervention into the Heritage of Pride's predecessor, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, in 1982. I was one of the four people who barely pulled off the best-forgotten International March on the United Nations for Lesbian and Gay Freedom in 1984. The only thing I've really worked in since 1986 was Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. I like ACT-UP and Queer Nation but don't participate other than going to the marches and demonstrations.

So much of your Commentary seemed familiar to me. I wished you had been freer in your identification of these self-proclaimed leaders of the lesbian and gay community. Are they the same ones I've known over the years? Are they the same who like to turn gay politics into an exercise in self-aggrandizement? The ones who grandstand at conference after conference, never to be seen at marches or demonstrations on the street?

I believe the lesbian and gay movement has come a long way. But I believe we owe this progress not to those same old tired individuals and cliches, but to those who fight because their lives depend on it: that portion of our community that has created the groundswell known as ACT-UP and its offshoots.

The problem is this: Political thought and the ability to analyze ideas and formulate a series of responses and actions based on these ideas is anathema to our passive, TV-dominated culture. The result of this is leaders who know what to say (rather than do) to make people follow them, and followers who respond not to different strategies for change, but to people who present the right personality and rhetorical stance. It means people of diverse and sometimes divergent agendas are wrongly assumed to be all part of the same happy movement family. The end result of all this is not progress.

Let me give a non-gay example I think might better explain my point. When Nelson Mandela visited New York City, anyone with a head on his shoulders was jubilant over his visit, and offered Mandela a hero's welcome.

When I was waiting in the crowd for Mandela to arrive at his tickertape parade, I noticed something fascinating about the souvenirs being hawked to my fellow onlookers. All the souvenirs were designed to reflect people's respect for the man and to suggest agreement with his goal of liberation. But some of the souvenirs were black, green and gold; some red, black and green; and some red, yellow and green. Now most people might think these colors all stand for the same anti-racist and black-empowering ideals, and all were equally accepted by the crowd as such. But in fact, in Africa, home to these different sets of symbolic colors, each set of colors stands for competing strategies -- and in some cases violenting conflicting ones -- for change and liberation. The black, green and gold are the colors of Mandela's African National Congress, of course. The red, black and green are the colors of the Pan African Congress, an organization at odds with the ANC. The final set of colors derive from Ethiopia, the colors of the corrupt and oppresssive Emperor Haile Selassie, and by extension the colors of the Rastafarian religious movement. And if Selassie was a freedom fighter back in the 1930s, by the time of his overthrow he was putting people with ideas similar to those of the ANC and the PAC in jail.

The point here is not a lesson in obscure African politics, but rather its reflection in how Americans have been disarmed politically. Mandela is a hero, there is no doubt. But did the masses of people honoring him at that tickertape parade stop to question whether his road to freedom was the best one? Are we capable of understanding that among equally anti-racist forces there might be democrats, communists and monarchists? The answer is not important here, but the failure to ask that question is why New York black community politics are so full of people who are able to cast Korean grocery-store owners as the main enemy, rather than the fundamentally racist economic and political system. It's the same reason why working-class people can be rallied around anti-Semitism and, to bring this back around to your experience of the gay leadership retreat, the same reason these "leaders" can spend their time savaging each other over the "politically correct" while utterly failing to challenge the real problems faced by lesbians and gays of all races.

The lesbian and gay movement has made the necessary and positive step of acknowledging the critical important of fighting racism and fighting sexism. It is and always be a constant struggle for us. But there are people who cloak themselves in those words we all want to hear, and turn around and commit our movement to a path that doesn't get at the fundamentals of why the oppression of lesbians and gays exists. It's an utterly stupid waste for a bunch of gay leaders -- all of whom profess commitment to issues of fighting racism, sexism and homophobia -- to go off into the woods and save each other to prove who's the most correct. The correctness of political ideas is shown not by one's ability to recite the right litanies without getting any of the words wrong, but by the test of political struggle against our enemies. The fact that these viciously self=hating individuals would rather engage in such a destructive, unproductive orgy of self righteousness rather than in a thoughtful discussion of how to win our freedom -- let alone go out into the streets -- shows a hell of a lot about their priorities. It suggests agendas that relegate our fight as gay people for a life of pride and freedom to something of lesser importance.

One left group I was in put out a leaflet in the '60s with my favorite headline ever. Direct at some striking workers or other it read, "Don't beg, take it, it's yours." AIDS has taught us a hard lesson. It has proved to us who are our friends and who are our enemies. Its awesome revelations have drawn a vibrant new generation of lesbians and gays to political struggle. From Burroughs Wellcome and the chemical companies and the subjugation of science to profit, to the hateful role of so much of organized religion, to the intertwining of racism, sexism and anti-gay bigotry, to the very failure fo what passes for democracy to protect us, now stunningly exposed are the connections of our oppression to the very essence of the (yes!) capitalist system. Do we face the truth, and take what is ours? Do we follow our hearts in the joy of our own empowerment? Do we rejoice in our diversity as black, white, yellow, brown, males and females sharing that special common burden and gift of queerness? Or do we walk that same tired old path of begging and respectability, watching our "leaders" get government jobs and our brothers and sisters slashed bloody in the street?

Gabriel, the reason why ACT-UP can fill you with pride and why gay leaders can drive you to drink is simple: it's the juxtaposition of two very real and very different programs for our future. It's the excitement of possibility versus authoritarianism and containment; the heartfelt desires of people uniting on common ground versus a bunch of hacks interested in maintaining their control over those people. What this community must welcome, as we welcome our own diversity, is the realization that there are different paths for our liberaton, and that some of them are dead ends.


  1. You interest me, ish. I tend to agree with what I think is your overall message: that it isn't so bad out there, but that we need to recognize room for improvement without crucifying people in the process, and to make those improvements.

    There are plenty of problems with many politicians, but I think Obama brings a humanness that we just haven't seen. A sense of humor, and a willingness to be silly, are good things. I don't think many politicians have such a side, or at least they don't show it. I think the political teeter-totter is always going to be balanced or close to it. Do people really think Obama would be able to create a socialist state with death panels, etc? Even if he wanted to, I doubt the political machinery in the US would allow it to happen. Just look at how LITTLE of GWB's overall crazyplan got done. I don't foresee the general politics and way of life in this country ever changing. What CAN and SHOULD change is tolerance, humanity, and fun. They can all increase without threatening or taxing or hurting anyone. It'll just be awhile, I'm afraid. But Obama is warm and willing to be fun, but tough when it matters. That's why I like him. Policies and track records to me are becoming no more than goofy bookkeeping.

    What do you think of that assessment?

  2. Well I have generally liked Obama, he's smart, interesting to listen to, and is culturally much more bearable than his predecessor. (I actually think that the real cultural divide in this country is reflected in whether people think Obama or Bush is personally genuine, real, decent, has something in common with them, or is completely repugnant, dishonest, and trying to put something over; it's kind of an undefinable vibe).

    It's not that I think there's anything wrong with wishing he would be more progressive, or more liberal, or less conciliatory to Republicans and bankers etc., (and I actually think we could do with a whole lot more socialism, as you can probably tell), I just think that's a sort of pointless exercise. The US is what it is, and his office is what it is. Why waste the energy being pissed off that the President of the U.S. turns out to be... President of the U.S.?

    I want socialized medicine just like in Europe or Canada or someplace. It sohuld be free. A absolute right. Am I pissed off that wasn't on the table? Sure why not. But does that have a snowball's chance in hell getting through congress the way it is now? hah! So what Obama did with healthcare, well, it's something.

    On the flip side, I don't mean to let him, or the system, off the hook for doing some terrible terrible things. But fixing those things, well, I don't see a national election in the near future that's gonna come anywhere near to being able to do that.

    As you say it requires a sense of long-term perspective. We knew how popular Bush was. Obama wins, and suddenly the country is a different place? Well maybe not.