Jukebox Hero

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The People Divided...

I was raised in a union household. Both my dad and my step-dad worked at the local Ford plant as electricians–they went through apprenticeship programs and earned journeyman’s cards, which I think is just about the coolest thing in the world. If I had been a boy in my family, I would have my card, now, too. Various aunts, uncles, and cousins also worked at Ford, as did my step-mother for a short while. My youngest brother worked there until drug addiction spun him out its doors. Though I failed the drug-test that would have led to my own job at Ford, I was, at one time, a Teamster, working at a factory that packaged service parts for Ford and GM. In addition to my own relationship with the Teamsters and to my familial link to the UAW, my great-grandpa was a miner in Tennessee, and he was one of the mountain-folk there who stood up to intimidation and violence in order to bring the union into the coal mines.

Though it’s been almost 10 years since I’ve worked in a factory myself, my connection to the auto industry, to factories, and to working-class issues remains strong. In the past several months I have seen both my dad and my step-dad forced into early retirement as the Ford/Visteon/ACH plant they had each worked at for more than 30 years closed its doors. They both believe that if they could have worked for just a few years more, retirement would have been a welcome respite from a long life of physical labor. Now, they’re each talking about getting new jobs—but where? They’re over 60-years-old. And they’re scared.

I am scared.

And I am angry.

I have studied labor history a bit, and I recognize that unions are often bastions of corruption, and I also understand that they have worked in conjunction with both government and industry to contract instead of expand workers’ rights. Still, as the talk of the nation, and even the world, centers on the Big Three Bailout, I am frequently hearing criticism of the union workers themselves—as if they are to blame for the crisis that government, industry, and union leaders have created with lack of regulation and oversight combined with perverse greed and shortsightedness.

Once again, when faced with incontrovertible evidence that corporate leaders are selfish, greedy, and incompetent, pundits, politicians, and citizens point their misguided fingers at the folks at the opposite end of where the true power—and, thus, responsibility—lies: the unionized workers. There’s a lot of talk right now about how Big Three laborers make $50, $60, $70 an hour, and people’s heads are exploding all over at the thought of it. While these figures may be close to the truth for the wage plus the full benefit package earned by a UAW worker, the average wage alone for Big Three workers is less than $30-an-hour. New workers earn half of that—about $15 an hour. But let’s say that factory workers did earn $70 an hour. How does this compare to the $10,000-an-hour that the CEO makes? How has this become an acceptable discrepancy—that some people’s labor is worth $5, $15, $30, or even (gasp!) $70 an hour, but other people can earn $10,000 an hour!?

I mean, we have people making $12 an hour who are angry at UAW workers who make twice as much as they do, but they accept that there are those who make 900 times more than they do! What is wrong with Americans—most of whom will never even make $20 an hour—that compels them to always place the blame for this country’s ills not on its leaders or on the people with wealth and power, but on the people who are shoulder-to-shoulder with them, struggling with them, bearing the heavy, crushing burden of the rich with them?

Here’s a novel idea: Slash executive salaries permanently, tie health care coverage to citizenship instead of employment, and invest in a new infrastructure for mass transit. I am obviously passionate about this issue, but I lack the command of knowledge and fact that folks like Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter of Labor Notes possess—do yourself a favor and check out their article here at Common Dreams.

Some of the highlights:

Every Big Three worker could work for free, and it would still only knock 5% off the sticker price

Even including their benefits, labor costs in the Big Three's plants account for less than 10% of the sticker price

General Motors alone provides health coverage to a million people -- workers, retirees and families. The annual price tag is about $5 billion.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Blood in the Machine

I have spent the past hour typing and deleting, typing and deleting, struggling like mad to find the right words to begin this entry.

We are lost, people. We are so very, very lost. We go further adrift with each passing day, and the ways to count how far we have strayed are countless.

Here is another:

In America, land of the free, home of the brave, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by rabid Black Friday shoppers.

Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old temporary employee at the store, was crushed underfoot as thousands of shoppers, chanting “push in the doors,” did just that—ripping the doors right off their hinges, these desperate-for-a-deal maniacs stampeded into the store, massacring Damour under their heavy, relentless feet, which I guess were so caught up in marching to the capitalistic tune of consumerism that they just couldn’t register the life they were squeezing out of the man beneath them.

There are no reports of any shopper attempting to help Damour. On the contrary, Damour’s co-workers, as well as paramedics and police officers at the scene, all tell of hostile shoppers who impeded assistance to Damour and who became angry when the announcement came over the PA that the store would be closing because of Damour’s death.

Since hearing about this horrific murder—and this is a murder—I have made myself nauseous imagining Damour terrified, gasping for air, the weight of all those shoppers grinding him into the floor. But, the truth is, I have also found myself unable to stop thinking about the connections between his murder, and capitalism, and consumerism. I cannot help but think that this horde’s behavior really isn’t all that far off from how consumers in a capitalistic society are programmed to behave. Think of this: if a corporation’s purpose is to maximize profit, isn’t a consumer’s purpose to minimize price-paid? That is, in order to be the very best consumer you can be, don’t you need to seek out the lowest-priced goods? Further, capitalism teaches us to celebrate those who achieve success and material wealth, even as we acknowledge that “getting to the top” often involves scrambling up over the backs of fellow human beings. Sure, driving your heel into the flesh of a man trapped beneath you is a bit more visceral than the sort of bloodless exploitation that corporate climbers employ, but the impulse—the drive for personal success or satisfaction; the ambition to meet one’s own needs at any cost—springs from the same notions of individualism that lay at the heart of a capitalistic system.

In the movie Dirty Pretty Things, a character, Okwe, makes a statement about the sorts of people with whom we share our world yet often do not acknowledge—he says:
“… we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your [hotel] rooms. And suck your cocks.”

I think about this whenever I think about one of this country’s most enduring mythologies: the American Dream. As the story goes, everyone is born equal in America, into a country with a level playing field, where, with hard work and perseverance, anyone can achieve economic stability and financial success. Integral to the idea of this American Dream is the notion that those who do not “make it” fail because they choose to fail. This is an important part of our mythology, and it is convenient for explaining the existence of the people Okwe mentions. How do we reconcile the poverty and desperation we see all around us? Or the knowledge that we share our world with people whose lives are miserable and hopeless and grim? By believing that they are responsible for their own wretched existences. Otherwise, we have to admit that the system is flawed. And if we admit that the system is flawed, then we will have to change it. For many people, this is not only a terrifying notion, but it also seems impossible. Further, tempering any impulse to demolish the capitalistic system is the fact that we are so seduced by the elusive promise of wealth and privilege that the falsehearted dogma of the American Dream is a stronger motivating force than is the reality that we see all around us.

We are complacent.

And gluttonous.

And divided.

And, in the words of the late poet Reetika Vazirani, from her poem "It's a Young Country",

We say America you are
and we mean
We are heartbroken

I will admit that this tragedy at Wal-Mart is an extreme occurrence and that my parallels are stretched. Still, I really do believe that within a capitalistic society, especially one that is teetering, seething, and grasping as desperately as ours is, this sort of brutal, every-man-for-himself mentality is likely to manifest in more and more every-day occurrences. Capitalism can behave in no other way—it exists for only as long as there is a class of people to exploit. As Ezra, the prophet of the documentary Zero Degrees of Separation, says: Without the cogs, there would be no machine.

We are all cogs in this plutocracy we call “America”. And we chew each other up to bloody bits while we keep this brutal machine running.

Jdimytai Damour, I am sorry beyond words. Sorry for your brutal, inexcusable murder and sorry that I used your tragedy as a springboard to other issues.

Whenever a loved one dies, there are words I say, and I say them now, softly, for you:

May the stars welcome you home.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Queers on Film, Part Two

With Zero Degrees of Separation, filmmaker Elle Flanders offers a vision of the Palestinian Occupation that manages to be both devastating and dreamy. Flanders, whose grandparents were instrumental in the creation of Israel and who spent part of her childhood there, grew interested in returning after coming across her grandparents’ home movie archive. In Zero Degrees, footage of Flanders’s return to Israel and her interactions with two mixed (Israeli/Palestinian) queer couples is interspersed with footage from these home movies. To see these sepia-toned images of the first hopeful steps toward Jewish statehood juxtaposed against contemporary images of the devastating fallout of that march is both enthralling and unsettling, like the deepest, darkest fairy tale, where all has gone awry.

In addition to mixing old footage of an infant Israel with contemporary footage of the Occupied Territories, Flanders also peppers her film with numerous captioned facts—from population statistics and geography and history lessons to figures about the various sorts of barriers used to corral the Palestinians and to separate them from their land and resources. I guess it goes without saying that these barriers also work to keep Palestinians alienated from one another, and, thus, isolated, powerless, and fragmented. While this may be the optimum moment to talk of suicide bombings and other atrocities, my focus here is not on the response of an oppressed people to the violence done them, no matter how appaling I may find that behavior. I focus, instead, on a thoughtful, well-made film and its intimate depiction of four people who daily navigate a world that I only know through media.

Flanders’s subjects are a gay male couple, Ezra and Selim, an Israeli and a Palestinian who live together in West Jerusalem despite Selim’s constant harassment and numerous arrests, and a lesbian couple, Edit, an Israeli, and Samira, a Palestinian, who live together in Tel Aviv where, despite similar political temperaments, they struggle to navigate the psychic distance that divides them. Through
the eyes of these four people we see the grim realities of the Occupation, and as they each negotiate their relationships with their lovers, their selves, their ethnic compatriots, and their ethnic enemies, the complex workings of power, ethnicity, humanity, nationalism, and identity politics are illuminated.

As I was watching this film, I began to think about how the checkpoints and other barriers that are intended to disrupt the natural flow of life while creating tangible, geographical borders and margins begin to inscribe metaphorical borders around bodies themselves, so that it becomes impossible to imagine Israeli and Palestinian as anything other than mutually exclusive categories with impassable boundaries. Flanders deftly handles this notion of impenetrable borders by focusing on four individuals whose daily existence flies in the face of it: these four are, indeed, border-crossers, and while their sexuality is never in question, that they are queer is almost incidental. That they are human, however, is everything. I think that’s really refreshing.

Still, it is one thing for me to spend time thinking of nice sentences to describe the ways that these particular four people forge relationships with their lovers—that is, it is one thing to note, in an attempt to be clever, that their relationships with one another “cross boundaries,” with this kind of casual nod to the geographical and tangible boundaries that the Israelis build throughout the Occupied Territories. It is quite another thing to see the Israelis’ handiwork—the trenches and earth mounds, the concrete barriers and armed checkpoints, the fences, the walls, the razor wire … I carry this image with me, now, of ragged Palestinians moving through a disintegrating world, and, in particular, of an older Palestinian woman scaling concrete rubble, navigating hazardous ruins, stumbling forward into her ever-shrinking existence.

I understand that the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories cannot be summed up in a clumsy review of a documentary, or, even, in the documentary itself. Still, I believe that there are certain truths that are self-evident, and this documentary presents them in a clear and unvarnished light. In her focus on four individuals negotiating various volatile landscapes—physical, emotional, political—Flanders shows us a dream of statehood buried deep under the wreckage of a dystopic reality.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Queers on Film, Part One

So, the other night I watched the documentary Gender Rebel, and the following evening I watched Zero Degrees of Separation, which is also a documentary. Yes, yes, big fun here in the D. Both of these films are queer-focused, and though the issues covered in Gender Rebel are more familiar to me, Zero Degrees of Separation, which examines the Middle Eastern conflict through the eyes of two mixed queer couples (mixed = Arab + Jew), was by far the superior film. As I write that judgment, I feel a bit guilty—there really is no reason to compare these films beyond the fact that there is some overlap in their subject-matter, which crosses queer bodies, whether gender-rebellious, Israeli, or Palestinian. It seems fairly evident that Zero Degrees had a bigger budget and a more coherent vision for the story the filmmaker wanted to tell than did the lower-budgeted Gender Rebel, which stayed on the very surface of its subject instead of reaching for the depths plunged to in Zero Degrees.

Gender Rebel focuses on three biological females at odds with their feminine form and its built-in cultural expectations and limitations. They use various words to describe themselves, including genderqueer and gender fluid, but not transsexual, transgender, or lesbian. Like a lot of gender/sexuality documentaries I’ve seen, I found the film’s description to be more compelling than most of the movie itself: Director Elaine Epstein's captivating documentary explores the lives of three biological females who reject the conventional concepts of gender and see themselves not as female or male, but as something in between. The camera follows these individuals as they encounter challenges at every turn -- from the strain on their relationships to confrontations with communities intolerant of their way of life -- and find a way to cope with social alienation.

Sounds good, right? And it was, I guess; it just wasn't great.

I think part of my indifference also springs from the subjects’ young ages—the oldest, Kim/Ryan, is 25, and Jill and Lauren are both 22. Jill’s burden throughout the film is to come out as genderqueer to her mom; she is already out and accepted as a lesbian. She’s so earnest, talking about her mom’s “right to know” that she’s genderqueer, yet, she herself states that she doesn’t mind being female; she just wants to be perceived as a guy, and to that end, she wears only guys’ clothes and she binds her breasts. So, this “coming out” truly is kind of redundant—her mother sees how she dresses, sees how she presents herself to the world, you know? I like her, and I end up thinking she’s sweet, but this quest just reeks of privilege, all this pathos over naming what her mother already sees and accepts and loves.

Lauren comes off a little bit like those young, passionate, political dykes who recognize the folly of a dichotomous system of gender and sexuality and battle this by choosing an identity, much as someone chooses a uniform for a job, consciously turning the system on its head as a political statement. Kim, on the other hand, seems to be responding to something that emanates from within her more than a desire to challenge cultural norms. I find her journey the most compelling.

I think I’m also a little put off by how inarticulate the two younger subjects are, especially Lauren, when discussing their “genderqueerness” with other people. Lauren’s partner Liz, also genderqueer, has an aunt who identifies as lesbian. The three of them are sitting at the aunt’s small kitchen table talking about the wonder that is genderqueerness when Lauren and Liz each declare that they feel neither male nor female; the aunt says in exasperation, “Well you only got two choices!” And boom, right there, our young genderqueers have a chance to open this woman’s mind to the idea that there are not just “two choices,” and they could then enter into a dialogue about culturally-constructed notions of gender and …

Anyway, that isn’t what happens, and the aunt is left just completely perplexed and kind of defensive, too. Further, she seems concerned as she wonders if she, a lesbian, doesn’t get what these young genderqueers are up to, then how will the rest of the world? There are lots of moments like this, where I, too, am exasperated with the two young rebels—Lauren moreso than our earnest young confessor, Jill.

On the other hand, Kim/Ryan gets top surgery and starts T-therapy, and I have to say that even though I typically believe that such radical body modification is ill-considered, this young (wo)man truly flourished after his surgery. I saw him relax into his own body, and it was so beautiful. And he was articulate about his emotions and perspective—the other two gender rebels just repeated a lot of catch-phrases and never really seemed capable of participating in the sort of dialogue that would lead to their being understood. To a certain degree, Lauren and Liz seemed to use their poor communication skills as evidence of other people’s closed-mindedness.

Ryan’s story is absorbing, particularly in how his transformation affects his relationship with his girlfriend, Michelle, who struggles with questions of her identity—is she still a lesbian? She does not want to be perceived as straight, and she is concerned about being alienated from the lesbian community. Ryan is 5’9” and looked a lot like a goofy-looking guy before surgery and T-therapy. Now, the T is lowering his voice and changing his musculature and he’s working out a lot and… Michelle sees him as a man. And rightly so, huh?

Is perception everything? Whose? Our own? Or that of those with whom we interact? Of those who have power over us, those from who we wish to gain something, those who we are loathe to disappoint?

Despite my initial misgivings, there are moments that do remind me of the ways that I am connected to each of these gender rebels. During Jill’s long-dreaded trip home to come out to her loving and adoring mother, photo albums come out, and the mother suggests, supposedly jokingly (though those of us who are bio females who present as masculine know better), that her daughter go put on the prom dress that the mother has held onto for six years, and as the camera cuts to Jill’s face, I saw it—and I really don’t know if I have ever seen it before—but I saw it: the anguished look of “I cannot believe you see me as something so completely foreign to how I actually am” coupled with the agony of “I cannot believe I am so alien.”

Still, my absolute favorite part of the film comes during this same trip home, as Jill struggles to confess her genderqueerness and decides to bring up the subject when talk of her discomfort and avoidance of going to the gynecologist comes up:

“It’s just … I look like a boy.”

“Noooo, you dooon’t. I don’t think so,” the mom answers, sweetly, as a mom will.

“Kind of,” Jill sort of passively insists.

“Not really,” the mom responds.

“Yeah, but I dress and act like a boy. That’s kind of the look I’m going for.”

“Oh, you’re going for a little boy look?”, the mom asks, gently puzzled.

Jill nods and says, softly, “Little boy charm…”

“Little boy charm,” the mom says, looking at her daughter, thinking it over. “Well, you still need a pap test, little boy. I don’t really see the thing that you’re uncomfortable about.”

“Does it bother you that I dress like a boy?”

“Does it bother me that you dress like a boy?,” the Mom ponders for just a moment, “Well, I just never thought of it as boyish,” she continus, “I just thought of it as bad fashion.”

Fucking awesome.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

From Homohate to Homohop

While writing this blog, I spent some time looking (1)here (2) here(3) here(4)and here. I’ve also been paying attention to the SOLGA (Society for Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists) listserv discussion regarding this issue.

As you can imagine, I have many thoughts regarding the passage of Proposition 8 and the demographics of that vote. While I am disappointed with any and every citizen who cast a vote for injustice, I certainly do not place the responsibility for this hateful deed squarely on the shoulders of black voters—and how could I? Contrary to the shrill, racist accusations of reactionary queers, I recognize that even the sturdy, slavery-toned backs of our fellow black citizens are not broad enough to carry this (black man's) burden. As soon as I became aware of the notion that black voters were somehow to blame for Proposition 8's success, I was immediately confused—"How many black voters are there in California?", I wondered. Followed pretty quickly by, "How on earth could any thinking person believe that black voters have enough political mass to have pushed this proposal through?"

I mean, these figures being thrown around about voter demographics are based on exit polls—talk about voodoo fucking science: folks positioned outside voting locations counting exiting voters and then surveying, say, every third or fifth or ninth one. The CNN poll that gave birth to the ridiculous 70% figure was based on just such “rigorous” polling of 224 black voters.

Did you catch that? No? Then allow me to shout it at the top of my fucking lungs:

This 70% figure that has everyone foaming at the mouth is based on the responses of 224 black voters.

Still, this contentious figure has gained intense national attention, and queers are spewing vitriolic accusations in response. Gay white men are especially bitchy, yo. Dan Savage declared that he’d eat his shorts if anyone could prove that queers voted for McCain in greater numbers than blacks voted against Proposition 8. I won’t even begin to dissect what a tortured parallel he draws with his ludicrous challenge (comparing a national election to a state-wide ballot measure?), but I’m happy to do some research on his query.

In California, where blacks are just over 6% of the population, the total number of eligible black voters is about 1,400,000. Assuming insanely high registration and turnout rates of 80% and assuming that each and every black voter voted in favor of Proposition 8 (both of these suppositions are absolutely ludicrous and patently untrue) this still means that blacks could have cast a maximum of 1.1 million votes that day. And guess what? About 1.3 million queers voted for McCain.

So, not only were blacks not the deciding factor in Proposition 8's passage, but more queers did, indeed, vote for McCain than did blacks for Proposition 8.

So, Dan Savage, get munching, ya sanctimonious prick.

As it turns out, though, queers do love them some McCain, who garnered a larger portion of the queer vote than any Republican candidate in history—27%, as compared to the 19% who supported Bush four years ago. Of course, and again, these numbers are based on CNN exit polling, though in this instance about 17,800 voters were polled, with 4% (about 700) being queer. So, if anything, this poll is a bit more robust than the one being used to scapegoat black voters. As I write this part, I am realizing, though, that Savage probably meant percentages, and not raw numbers, when he made his delightful reference to shorts-eating, in which case, relying on CNN science, anyway, blacks are more homophobic than queers are … Republican?

I don’t know.

I think Dan still needs to take a few nibbles of his shorts, anyway, even if he doesn’t consume them in their entirety. Shame on him for falling into the easy, predictable trap of scapegoating, when a nuanced analysis of race, sexuality, politics, and culture would reveal much richer, more useful results than simply declaring blacks a monolithic, homophobic, uppity mass of bigots.

The simplest truth is that homophobia is expressed with varying degrees of intensity, depending on a whole flood of factors, including, yes, race. I believe that beneath easy generalizations and ugly accusations there lurks a challenging and uncomfortable dialogue that, once undertaken, could ultimately be meaningful and unifying. I am much more interested in that sort of conversation than I am in the shallow, crude, brainless yowlings of thick-headed racists.

And, as I guess I previously mentioned, securing gay marriage is not as high on my list of sociopolitical necessities as are a score of other issues requiring immediate attention: poverty and homelessness; rampant imperialism and warmongering; the annihilation of the poor, middle-, and working- classes by the wealthy; healthcare and housing crises; prison and prisoner proliferation; a failing education system; loss of manufacturing jobs; loss of an agricultural base…

Racism. Homophobia. Misogyny. Classism. Xenophobia.

In the face of the profound distrust and loathing with which disparate groups of Americans have been taught to view one another and the rest of the world, and while millions struggle—to find work, to attend school, to eat, to stay warm, to live—fighting for the right to get married seems pathetically small-minded.

And yeah, it’s totally fucked up—queers pay full taxes and are denied full citizenship. It is completely unfair, and, as I have said for years, I really do not understand why every argument for queer civil rights does not go back to this simple fact: we are tax-payers, which earns us full access to all rights and privileges enjoyed by other Americans.

I think it’s a worthy fight—queer equality—but I am more interested in the bigger battle: unification of all poor-, working-, and middle-class Americans—queer or otherwise, black or otherwise; and if some would point to the success of Proposition 8 and similar measures as proof that this unification will never happen, I will argue that the battle has thus far been poorly fought.

And here, because I am exhausting even myself, I will end by briefly discussing some folks who I think are fighting the good fight—those crazy, wacky purveyors of homohop, which is the delightful moniker given to hip-hop made by queers. Awesome!

Watching the documentary “Pick Up the Mic” the other night, I got lost in the world of homohop, populated by rappers, DJs, and other hip hop artists who are challenging not just hip hop’s deeply entrenched homophobia, but also broader cultural notions of heteronormativity, sexuality, and gender. Homohop cuts across categories of race and class and gender, and in interviews with some of the main players—Dutchboy, Qboy, Katastrophe, Juba Kalamka, Tori Fixx—it became apparent that queer issues were important to these artists, but as part of a larger struggle to express and expose a common humanity. In interviews with these homohoppers, themes of class, identity, privilege, and alienation frequently surface, which I, too, believe are some of the issues at the root of our disconnection from one another.

It just isn't enough to fight for gay rights, or black rights, or women’s rights. We are hopelessly fragmented, we are brutal and single-minded. We spend countless millions to stop others from having the same rights that we do or to gain the right to do something that all the other kids are doing, and meanwhile, the space between us hardens; meanwhile, the world is afire.

If we ever learn to move beyond the particularities that we allow to divide us, if we ever learn to recognize each other as kith and kin, we will recoil from the blasphemies we have done one another.