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The Temptations of Direct Action

BY KELLY COGSWELL | Right before it happened, I’d turn on the news and watch a black or brown woman interviewing the likes of Al Sharpton, or Margarita Lopez, who was the first out Latina dyke on the New York City Council. It didn’t seem remarkable then, seeing so many women, so many people of color on the tube. And queers, even.

But after September 11, suddenly the newscasters were all white straight men with a certain, forced gravitas, their interviewee the pale-faced Mayor Rudolph Giuliani available 24 hours a day complete with a NYFD or NYPD ball cap. Bush Jr. was there, too, surrounded by grimacing white congressmen.

In her book, “The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America,” Susan Faludi argued that those terrorist acts actually launched a new attack on feminism. Focusing on the post-attack media, politics, and popular culture, she showed how they were all committed to elevating “traditional” manhood and gender roles, celebrating cops and firemen, sidelining women from nearly every heroic narrative of September 11.

A DYKE ABROAD

I can feel it happening again. Not just because a pussy-grabber’s sitting in the White House. But because a large minority of the besieged left, apparently emasculated by Hillary Clinton’s successful primary campaign, is still going on about how Bernie “Big Dick” Sanders would have beaten Trump for sure. Our current problems are all Hillary’s fault and the Dems that anointed her. So much for all those votes she got, all the people she mobilized.

And now that the white nationalist kleptocracy is in full swing, that’s somehow the fault, too, of girly liberals like her for not destroying it while we had a chance. What we need are more broken windows. More burning cars. More radicalized radicals taking names and kicking ass. Down with the effete failure of liberal democracy. Up with a vaguely defined utopian working class state that will rise magically from the ashes of what we have now.

Just for the record, I’m all for holding demos and blocking airports and streets, along with Trump and his truly horrifying agenda. Direct action is perfect to voice a giant, “No!” And has always played an important role in social change, not just because it disrupts the steamrollers of power, but because a vibrant, visible left gives teeth to more modest, yet crucial measures like letter-writing, phone calls, voting, running for office — the things that take root. When politicians have to compromise, and they always do, crowds in the street mean they can bargain from a position of power and won’t have to give up so much.

Direct action as a tactic is also one of the few ways to make things visible that society wishes to remain hidden — an AIDS epidemic, for instance, lesbians, police brutality, the erosion of abortion rights. Activism can also transform those of us who have never tasted power before, never had a public voice. There’s something intoxicating about confronting your fear, stepping into the street, and feeling the adrenaline kick in with an amazing whoosh. You feel good, powerful for a change, as your voice is amplified by all the bodies around you.

The problem is that this power can also corrupt, especially those young straight men who were born to it. Who, after all, already dominates the street? Ride the subway after 10 p.m., it’s almost all men. Women are home taking care of the kids. Or they’re just scared to go out alone. Pretty soon young men aren’t satisfied with waving a sign and chanting, but take a brick and toss it through the nearest McDonald’s window in the name of the working class and a healthy environment.

You get a positively explosive formula when you mix this temptation to violence with the activist tendency to imagine that getting arrested for blocking traffic is somehow more noble than making a phone call. Or that a sympathizer in the Senate who knows how to compromise and wrangle votes is nothing more than a turncoat.

Like the alt-right, the alt-left is going beyond rejecting the conservative nature of our institutions, to rejecting the institutions themselves, despite the fact that they consolidate our gains and have the resources to protect them, if only we insist on it. They never see the change democracy permits, only its failures. They think stability is always bad. And demand bulldozers and steamrollers.

So even as I rejoice at the vast numbers on the streets blocking everything Trump conceives of, I remember that revolutions so many activists are calling for have always and only benefited men — particularly white men — in multiracial societies. Women are sidelined, along with disenfranchised people of color who were deluded to believe this was ever for them. As usual, the Puritans of the left will also purge queers, if not for our sex lives, then for out liberal alliances, not to mention the tasteless jokes we make when we despair of the world.


Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.

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