Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Showtime! The Theater of Politics

SAN FRANCISCO — Thursday, July 12, 7 a.m. Arrived from Newark three hours ago. I should be thinking about politics as theater. Again? Is it three hours earlier or 15 years ago? Did I ever believe the medium was the message? Consider spectacle (authoritarian, hierar­chical, scripted) versus spontaneous show (free spirited, multifocus, improvisatory). Consider Nuremburg rallies and fascist total theater. May Day rallies and Stalin­ist total theater? Jet lag is turning me into a Sontagite: aesthetically correct but no good. Yippies casting dollar bills into the Stock Exchange? Still no good, that was for the media. Everything is for the media? Back to sleep and troubled dreams of Wagner and Abbie Hoffman, Reagan and Jane Fonda.

My press credentials neatly clarified matters: for the “perimeter” only. The fringe, the outside, the spectator’s seat. The front-of-the-book men ferret out and analyze issues; Munk watches demos and parades. Base and superstructure, slight­ly muddled by the fact that the serious stuff is a performance, and the sideshows are serious.

At noon the National March for Lesbi­an and Gay Rights held a press confer­ence in City Hall directed at Jerry Fal­well’s descent on the city with his two-day training conference for the Moral Majority leadership. It was pious, proper, and moving. Harry Britt, the gay socialist member of the Board of Super­visors, denounced Falwell as a man whose words are spiritual but whose content is hate and divisiveness; the other speak­ers — Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyteri­an religious, city officials, a gay father, the president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — talk about hospital­ity, tolerance, St. Francis, God’s family, the Family, and the-values-that-made-­this-country-great. The scripts were tac­tically sound, maybe a bit obvious, yet right and true. One speaker, Miriam Ben-­Shalom, hit another note, demanding to talk to Falwell, outraged, using impolite words.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726415″ /]

I wondered what tone the Sunday pa­rade would stress, made an appointment to talk with Britt, walked back down Market Street past a raucous picket line in front of Macy’s, another in front of the Emporium. Union Square was filled with gaggles of people yelling at each other, sectarians selling newspapers, a couple of punk types telling the sectarians that Hitler was your typical socialist, delegates and tourists walking purposefully looking, so to speak, neither left nor right.

A Falwell man said, “We will lose cer­tain freedoms by allowing homosexuality. If I have total freedom I can do anything to anybody. Roman society fell apart …” That’s their public style. A gay man proclaimed to the air, “Why, he’s Jerry Falwell’s husband!” An amoe­ba-faced suited man shouted, “Make it a felony,” but the Falwell fellow came back right away with “I don’t believe in that.” No one believed him.

I got press credentials at the Falwell conference and moseyed around the “New Traditional Woman” panel. Chil­dren sleeping on laps, on the floor. Speaker believes men should be true heads of household, women should have jobs if they must, but not careers they love. Everything was low-key, slow, bor­ing. Down in the lobby everyone peered out at a little demo and debated whether to go watch it. “I was on the other side in the ’60s, man, I don’t have to go see them.” “I hate confrontation, I’m a paci­fist at heart.” “I know a fellow who makes little bumper stickers saying ‘kill the gays’ and sells them. I mean, if you start talking like that …”

When I got back to Union Square, it was filled. No arguing. The crowd looked orderly, but then I could hardly see it through the masses of cops lined up like Rockettes, gripping their nightsticks, maneuvering skittishly on horseback.

The slogans moved from “women unite to fight the right” to “the only good pig is a dead pig.” Time warp. The cops moved from their rigid, fixed-face lineups, push­ing the horses right into the crowd on the sidewalk. Piles of garbage covered an in­tersection: looked like debris from a car­rot-juice maker, squeezed-out half or­anges, vegetable matter from a health food store. “It’s Chicago!” “It’s Buffalo, ’63, stupid.” I wanted to know what on earth happened in Buffalo, ’63, but some­one started setting off earsplitting fire­crackers. “What’s happening?” said a lady tourist to a lady cop. “It’s the moral majority versus the unmoral majority.” Of the latter, seven were arrested, at least one beaten, and the nurse who tried to help her was clubbed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726423″ /]

I walked through Chinatown to North Beach, where I lived more than 20 years ago, and stood for a while in front of the old house on Powell. It looked the same. The rest of the neighborhood has gone neon tacky or genteel. Back near Union Square a circle of candles had been set up on a sidewalk by religious gays, men and women, singing Christian and Jewish hymns. One woman quarreled politely with me because my colleague Nat Hen­toff was going to address the Falwell con­vention tomorrow. When I walked back to my hotel, the cops were quietly trot­ting their horses toward their stables.

Friday, July 13. Called Britt’s office at nine to confirm interview. When I told him I wanted to discuss the class, gender, and race issues that are left in the gay community after gross discrimination had been eliminated by power in local politics, he said he’d give me half an hour. Ten minutes later, just as I was leaving, the phone rang. “I’m not willing to be part of a story on the splits and divisions in the gay community when you guys aren’t doing the job about us. Sorry about that.” Slam.

I walked off, muttering gloomily about the end of dialogue, to the Falwell confer­ence, to see what Nat was telling them about medical ethics. He was being intro­duced: “Nat Hentoff, who fancies himself an atheist …” Nat recapitulated his ar­guments (you’ve read them in the Voice) about infanticide and euthanasia. He had some good digs at Reagan and at profes­sional omertá, some friendly self-deprecation (“I’m the handy, ubiquitous athe­ist in this matter”), and an argument, which would have been fine had the seamlessness started a few months far­ther along the way.

Midspeech, two young women, neatly dressed like Moral Majoritarians, stood up in the audience and embraced each other. First like friends meeting after a long absence, then sexily. The spectators were appalled, in a repressed kind of way, murmuring and shifting. After a minute or so, the pair was quietly escorted out, chanting, “We are everywhere. We are your daughters and your sisters. Our daughters will be here and our daughter’s daughters.” Nat waxed sarcastic, “Today?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”719221″ /]

Maybe the women should have been more to the point and brought a poor, single mother with a severely handicapped child. Still, Nat wooed the audi­ence back to himself at the women’s expense. I was too angry to concentrate on the rest of the talk; my mind was on the company he keeps. So I left this confer­ence on “Being My Brother’s Keeper,” and went back to Union Square.

Where the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — six men in giddily S/M nun drag — were exorcising Jerry Falwell. Sis­ter Boom-Boom (who, as Jack Fertig, ran for supervisor in 1982 and got 23,000 votes), sang “Your son will come out tomorrow,” and made terrible jokes. “The Moral Majority is here with Hell n’ Damnation! Hi Helen!” Falwell was stripped down to a black merry widow and stockings, and got it on with Jesus, in a Counter-Reformation loin cloth. There was something odd about an anti-Fein­stein song which seemed to say that her problem was female machismo, and something odder about a purification rite for Phyllis Schlafly by holding her down and tearing a rubber snake from under her dress. But what the hell.

A couple of hours later I went to Glide Churches’ “Celebrating the Poor” festi­val. Here the only question was whether the Reverend Cecil Williams was just putting on a show or doing good works and putting on a show. The church is a short walk and a different world from Union Square. An enormous line — 3000 people in the course of the evening­ — waited for food. I talked to a young woman out of work who said the food’s not just for the convention-time cameras; there’s a special meal once a week, and all the food’s better than the other soup kitchens. Williams gave the press lots of rhetoric while people with trays of food jostled around. At one point he stopped for a minute and yelled, “I wanna ask you, everybody, is anything better than Reagan?” And everyone shouted, “Yes.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724444″ /]

Upstairs in the church proper, a multi­colored disco wheel turned among the stained glass windows, while the Glide Memorial Gospel Singers sat on the altar steps. The press milled around, waiting for a senator, a supervisor, a delegate, a Lefty, Godot (sorry). Vietnam vet Ron Kovick and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown came, Harold Washington and Dianne Feinstein didn’t show. I had to go see some theater. On a stage.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater was doing a “convention special” — apparent­ly the only topical work among the estab­lished theater groups. They promised it would be biting satire, sharp, strong, political. Maybe a Dying Pet Sale — “the misfortunes of my pets mean a bargain for you” — or the Piece and Pizza Coali­tion, or “Shop Without Guilt, Vote Without Fear,” are funny. They are as funny as it got. I left plunged in gloom, striding again through the wreck of my old haunts.

Saturday, July 14. Every community organization, union local, sect, countersect, and groupuscle was huddled in doors planning for the big parades tomor­row, so I walked around Golden Gate Park. A sign pointed me to Peacequake ’84: a rock band was playing in a dell for a smallish, friendly, stoned crowd that seemed frozen in time. Who’s Afraid of Thomas Woolf?

The San Francisco Mime Thoupe was doing their new show, based on A Christ­mas Carole, and propagandizing for voter registration. I don’t recall the SFMT ever taking a stand for the Democratic party before. I’ve seen a lot of Revolutionary Commmunist posters around town urging the People not to vote, and perhaps they represent a chunk of the radical commu­nity, but it was hard to believe that this nice young audience, mostly white and not particularly militant looking, was dis­affected from the electoral process.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721487″ /]

The plot concerns Ebeneezer Jones, an extremely upwardly mobile black lawyer in his thirties who’s too cynical to vote. Nixon appears, untwining tapes from his bulging pockets and shows Ebeneezer’s past (college radicalism), the present (Marcos, Pinochet), and the future — not a nuclear one, but the Supreme Court, convicting Jessie Jackson of terrorism and proclaiming that “Freedom Is Security.”

Some of this was funny, but it seemed a little flat and heavy-handed and with­out much physical pizzazz, though the music was good. I hope the Mime Thoupe hasn’t lost it’s dramaturgical verve by adopting sensible politics.

Spent the evening at a spectacularly catered party on a spectacular hill, a fundraiser for the Lesbian and Gay Pa­rade given by Lia Belli, who’s running for state senate. It was full of rich homosex­uals, which meant, of course, that there were three times as many men as women. I ate my fresh lichees wrapped in raw snow peas, and paté and brie and nectar­ines. I talked to a black lesbian activist mother, who’s running for the board of supervisors, and was tending bar. I was bemused. I went to a lot of other parties. They were not theater.

And nobody talked about anything. The spectacle was still to come; so was the substance. ■

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Geraldine Ferraro: Her Brilliant Career

Last Thursday night I realized the Re­publicans were nervous for the first time in this election. I saw Pat Buchanan on Nightline sneer that Gerry Ferraro had “no experience” to be vice-president of the United States. Buchanan is the fellow who thought Spiro Agnew was a splendid choice for veep in 1968, when his only experience was in stealing. I also saw Phyllis Schlafly on television Thursday night; she was at the national convention of the Moral Majority, and she was say­ing that Gerry Ferraro is part of the “rad­ical-feminist wing.”

Caricature is the first refuge of nervous politicians. Gerry Ferraro scares the right wing because she is so mainstream Amer­ica. She is the mother of three, a former, prosecutor, a regular organization club­house Democrat from Archie Bunker’s district in Queens which went for Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Her reelection slogan in 1982 was “One Tough Democrat.” Yes, Gerry Ferraro is for the ERA and against the MX missile, and she has a decent liberal voting record. But she also got where she is because Tip O’Neill, Donald Manes, and a lot of very tradi­tional political animals understand that she is exactly the right woman to be the Jackie Robinson of politics.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726415″ /]

Her close friend Jimmy Breslin told me on the day she was picked: “This broad is just eight years out of the kitchen. She’s just starting to grow. She’s gonna be president.”

The first time I heard of Gerry Ferraro was in October 1978. She was running for Congress and Carmine Parisi called me up to ask if the Voice would consider endorsing her. At 2 a.m. that morning Parisi rang my doorbell and delivered a stack of information about his candidate. A few weeks later, the Voice published a brief editorial that said: “Geraldine Fer­raro is probably the best this district can possibly elect. She is a reliable vote for pro-labor, pro-consumer legislation. Her opponent, Republican Alfred Delli Bovi, is a little Nixon — ruthless, right-wing, and well-financed.”

As soon as Ferraro arrived in Congress, I began to hear how extraordinary she really was, how her learning curve kept going up, how she was the bridge between feminists and the white male club that rules the House. Last year Barney Frank, Democratic congressman of Massachu­setts, told me: “Gerry is the most effec­tive member of the New York delegation.”

Today there is euphoria and electricity. Today there is nervous caricature. To­morrow the country will see what the vot­ers in her Queens district saw six years ago.

Ferraro will now come under intense scrutiny. So will her husband John, who is in the real-estate business. Already, three reporters from other papers have called me and asked if John Zaccaro is clean. He is.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725990″ /]

Gerry Ferraro is a competent, complete person. And she is an instinctive feminist who was one of two women in her law school class.

When she worked as a prosecutor, peo­ple claimed she got the job because her cousin, Nick Ferraro, was the Queens D.A. But she did an excellent job, espe­cially prosecuting rape cases. I never heard of an instance where one of her cases was reversed.

Gerry Ferraro can’t elect Mondale. She can only help the ticket. The ticket is clearly in trouble in the South, in the West, with younger yuppie voters, with Jewish voters. But overnight I think Fer­raro brought Mondale from 20 points down to eight or 10 points down.

And should the ticket lose, then Al D’ Amato will become the most nervous Republican in the Senate, because his seat is up in 1986, and Gerry Ferraro will come after him next, in her 10th year out of the kitchen, and her learning curve moving off the chart. ■

Categories
Equality THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

Let Us Now Praise the Radical Women of New York

It has been six weeks since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in the Democratic Primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ever since, the nation’s thinkpiece writers have been working overtime, spilling untold barrels of ink in the pursuit of explicating, denigrating, or emblematizing her. Just this week, a piece at CNN seemed to lay blame at her feet alone for the failure of several progressive candidates in Tuesday’s special and legislative elections. The extraordinary focus on a neophyte nominee is in part due to the unusual circumstance of an incumbent being dislodged at all in America’s top-heavy system, much less by a very young woman of color. But critics keep returning to just one way in which Ocasio-Cortez has distinguished herself from the multitude of Democratic candidates this cycle: She identifies as a socialist. 

The word has been tossed around for decades as a slur against even the most bloodless, corporate Democrat; it was used so liberally on Fox News in the Obama years as to render the term totally hollow. Seizing the chance to fill this vacuum of meaning, Ocasio-Cortez — along with Cynthia Nixon, candidate for New York’s governorship; Julia Salazar, a candidate for New York State Senate; and the man who popularized the term with his 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders — has reclaimed the label, affixing it to a slate of policies that make eminent sense to many Americans: socialized medicine, free college tuition, an end to cash bail.

Throughout her still-brief political career, Ocasio-Cortez has been dogged by a slate of tsk-ing pundits muttering about her policies being too far to the left — and potentially a liability for the entire Democratic party in the crucial November elections. But those who seek to paint a young woman drawing on the legacy of FDR’s social policies as a wild and dangerous radical ought to look just a bit further back. In all the multitudinous pieces seeking to understand the phenomenon of her candidacy, few have looked at the history of the city Ocasio-Cortez is from. New York has a long history of radical women who have stood at the helm of social movements, often in times of great social ferment. Is it such a surprise that again, on these steaming streets, in the second decade of a young century, women tired of a grift-raddled and regressive status quo have chosen again to take up the banner of progress?

A century ago, New York City was the primary residence of “the most dangerous woman in America”: a firebrand who preached a line far more volatile than free college. Behind her tiny wire-rimmed spectacles, her seething mind drew hordes into the streets. Down on the Lower East Side, at the turn of the last century, a woman came to this country and made an indelible mark on it. Her name was Emma Goldman, and exactly one hundred years ago, she was in prison for preaching anarchy in the streets of New York.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718960″ /]

In 1885, at the age of sixteen, Emma Goldman stepped off a boat in New York Harbor, fleeing a father in St. Petersburg who had told her she had little more to learn than how to make gefilte fish.

She departed the city not long after, for Rochester, where she worked in a factory; but after the Haymarket riots and the subsequent execution of four anarchists, she fled the factory and her then-husband and returned to the city. There, in a tenement house, she fell in love; defended gay rights; published the radical magazine Mother Earth; and advocated for every woman’s right “to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases.”

She possibly inspired the mad Leon Czolgosz to assassinate President William McKinley. She certainly did plot with her lover Alexander Berkman to shoot and wound Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick during a spate of brutally repressed steel strikes.

She stumped so proudly against the First World War that a young J. Edgar Hoover had her deported to the Soviet Union. There she confronted Lenin about his censorship of the press; she left the Soviet Union brokenhearted, and traveled about the world for the rest of her life, never finding a settling-place. She returned just once to New York, in 1934, on a speaking tour. On the umber brick of the narrow building on East 13th Street where she once lived hangs a placard lauding her as an “anarchist and orator.” New York, after all, was the city in which she stood before a jury at her trial and said: “The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside of the law.”  

In the century since Goldman’s deportation, New York — with its welter of cultures, its bright slashes of art amid gray avenues, its ability to encompass great wealth and abject poverty — has played host to innumerable radical women. Anita Block, editor of the women’s page of the socialist New York Call, was the first editor in America to print Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of birth control, in 1911. Block was a theater critic at a time when, her instructors said, “no nice girl would dream of reading Ibsen.” It was Theresa Malkiel’s chronicle of her experience working in textile sweatshops, 1910’s Diary of a Shirtwaist Maker, that helped fuel public support for workplace reforms; she later became the first female factory worker to ascend to leadership in the U.S. Socialist Party, where she bristled at the sexist myopia of male socialists. After fleeing the Holocaust, the Yiddish socialist poet Sophia Dubnow-Ehrlich made her name in the United States as an aggressive agitator against the Vietnam War.

In 2018, amazingly, there are still female firsts to be had. The recently elected socialist Rashida Tlaib may be the first Muslim woman in Congress. Sharice Davids, squaring off against Kansas’ Kevin Yoder in the fall, may be the first Native American woman in the national legislature — a lesbian, former MMA fighter, and radical departure from the Kansas norm by any measure, if not a socialist. But a trailblazer that preceded them by decades was born and bred in Brooklyn — the remarkable, indomitable Shirley Chisholm.

[related_posts post_id_1=”600555″ /]

Chisholm, whose parents were immigrants from the Caribbean, began her career as an early-childhood educator, then ran — and won — as the second-ever African American elected to the New York State legislature.  She was the first black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, while the country was convulsed with heated protest against racism. Conducting her primary against a male state senator, William Thompson, Chisholm made inroads not just in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a majority-black neighborhood deeply desirous of a black representative. Thanks to a recent redrawing of the Congressional district, she had to conquer the hearts and minds of the white and Puerto Rican residents of Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Her slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” signaled her independence from the formidable — and sclerotic — Brooklyn political machine. She conducted swathes of her Bushwick campaign in Spanish, distinguishing herself from predecessors, who hadn’t bothered.   

In the end, it was that grassroots organizing — and the support of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s black women — that allowed her to triumph over Thompson and make history. “She can pick up the phone and call 200 women and they’ll be here in an hour,” her husband, Conrad Chisholm, said of her electoral army.

“I went out on the trucks, told the people we could all be liberated from the machine,” Chisholm said, describing her hard-fought primary campaign. She went on to serve seven terms in office.

Half a century later, Ocasio-Cortez faced a similar circumstance: a long-shot campaign against an establishmentarian with an iron-clad lock on the local Democratic Party and a full-throated endorsement from the Democratic machine. Crowley declined to debate her, instead racking up reams of endorsements from some two dozen labor unions and women’s organizations.

After her stunning upset, Ocasio-Cortez told off critics who dismissed the painstaking electoral effort she had mounted. “Some folks are saying I won for ‘demographic’ reasons,” she tweeted, affixing photos of a pair of ruined sneakers. “Here’s my first pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles. Respect the hustle.”

For New Yorkers, living in a city of corruption and patronage, idealism and protest, activism and regression, hustle might just be the only thing we all respect. One hundred years ago, Emma Goldman hustled across states and counties and cities across America to spread her message of labor and love; Shirley Chisholm hit the pavement to sell herself as the pioneer she was. Ocasio-Cortez, despite the sweeping scale of her platform, draws from a rich and variegated history of women who dared to dream big in this city — and who walked the long rough walk, in brogues and heels and sneakers and boots, on streets and avenues, in every borough — to make it work.

Categories
NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Yes We Can: Obama Pride, Through Kicks

The brand new blog A little Honey has come across some awesome customized Obama Air Force One low-top sneakers. “Oh wow” is really all that can be said.