An Open Letter to Paul Wellstone: When The Safe Lives Aren’t Safe Anymore
By Max S. Gordon
(This essay was originally published on September 10, 2004 as
“An Open Letter to Paul Wellstone”. It was written in response to the arrests made during the Republican National Convention in
New York City)
Senator Wellstone: I will not go on about the curious timing of your death. People are very impatient with conspiracy theories these days, even when past theories have revealed conspiracies. Still, I read with weary cynicism that you spoke to a meeting of war veterans in Willmar, Minnesota in October 2002 and told them that Dick Cheney said to you, “If you vote against the war in Iraq, the Bush Administration will do whatever is necessary to get you. There will be ramifications for you and the state of Minnesota.” Days later, you were dead.
You voted against Bush’s unilateral attack on Iraq, against Bush’s Homeland Security Department and in favor of an independent 9–11 investigation over Bush’s and Cheney’s objections. Your wife, who shared your courage and persuasiveness and would have continued your legacy, was dead also, preventing a repeat of John Ashcroft’s defeat by the wife of deceased air-crash victim Mel Carnahan. I am still working through my anger at you and your wife. (It’s always easier to be angry at the dead ones.) Why didn’t you understand the danger you were in? After a threat like that, couldn’t you two have flown economy class on the biggest commercial airline you could find?
Senator, you were not a whore and you did not have a price. Feeling disillusioned after the election of 2000, I desperately needed a politician to have faith in; and as a powerful voice of dissent against the war, you were asking serious questions about America, obviously deadly ones. After you died, I waited for you to become a martyr. Instead, the media said, “Oh well, shit happens,” and I never heard your name mentioned on television again.
I am writing this to you because I am hoping it will help me to understand what is happening to us. I feel the country is falling apart. Our democracy and constitution are threatened, our civil liberties may soon disappear, and I don’t know what the hell to do about it.
I isolate in my apartment and watch the news compulsively, calling it “staying informed.” An ex-mayor and our current governor pimp our national tragedy, and a senator who is also an ex-presidential candidate joins the two of them and turns the Republican convention into a televised job interview. I question the Republican presence in New York. For the first time in one hundred and fifty years, they choose our city, a Gomorrah to many of them. I couldn’t feel more violated if they were holding the convention in my living room. You don’t belong here, I shout at their cheers and chants, their exuberant flag-waving and “patriotism.” You think we are liberal and sinful, and you hate us (except for a few who work on Wall Street). Republicans, what are you doing here?
I watch the black faces in the crowd with bewilderment and fascination, trying to comprehend what attracts them to what is so obviously a platform of white supremacy (I am still nursing an acorn of heartbreak that they used Colin Powell, whom many trusted and believed in, to further their corrupt agenda; more painfully, that he allowed himself to be used). As the black Republicans genuflect before the altar of patriarchy, I find myself feeling outrage, contempt, and a little jealousy. Occasionally, but only in private, I have indulged a fantasy of myself as a black Republican — strident, mercenary, up at 5 a.m, and arriving everywhere on time for once in my life. I feel instantaneous relief as I am finally released from the psychological burden of believing the world should be fair for everyone, that I have to devote my life to making that happen. With the amount of time it takes to say, “I got mine, get yours,” I can, at last, be selfish without guilt, instead of what I am now, occasionally selfish, constantly guilty. Finally reconciled are the irreconcilable polarities of my life — a radical vision of world equality matched by a desire to be absolutely filthy rich. It occurs to me, with more than a little irony, that I’m not the only American to feel this way and that perhaps my great political ideas and judgmental postures can all be summed up in two words: sour grapes. I’m pissed off at the Republican party because I am failing at capitalism.
On the A train, I try to make a decision whether to protest or not. Regardless of the skeletons of greed that rattle in my peace-activist closet, one thing is absolutely clear about the convention and the Republicans: I want their asses out of here.
I weigh the options. I have a dog, I don’t have a lawyer. There is less than fifty dollars in my checking account at the moment. I have no savings. I work as a temporary secretary, and I didn’t get any calls this week for work — several companies closed their offices because of security concerns — so I’m broke. I am one of those people who came to New York to become an artist, but I don’t know what to call myself anymore. I refuse to admit that I am a secretary because that would betray my dream, but I haven’t made any real money from my art yet. So, in the city’s more cruel estimation I am, for lack of a better word, a loser. I can’t even afford to protest. I certainly can’t afford to get clubbed over the head by a police officer or inhale asbestos at pier 57 where they are detaining the ones they arrest. I don’t have any health insurance.
I should have taken “that job” — the one my mother always begged me to take, the one I thought would dry up my creativity and push me to the brink of suicide, but came with great benefits and a dental plan. I wouldn’t know how to tell her, if she were alive, that the last temp job I was assigned, the woman I worked for injured her foot badly in an accident and was told by her doctor that she needed surgery immediately. She spent an hour on the phone with the door closed (I could hear everything) screaming at her HMO because they would only pay for her surgery if she had a month of physical therapy first. As she hobbled home at the end of the day, barely able to walk and in tears, I thought, even the safe lives aren’t safe anymore.
A young woman gets on the train at Times Square and I decide that she is a Republican. I hate to admit it, but whether I like it or not they have arrived and some of them, the brave ones, are even riding the trains. She has that certain kind of sweater “they” wear, that looks like it’s made from ice cream, and she wears a small locket around her neck. She is white and pretty and looks rich.
Not that there aren’t plenty of pretty, rich, white people in this city, but there is something angry about them — New Yorkers wear an aura of anger. Our madness is like our dirt; no matter how much money we have, we are all just a little filthy, a bit smudged. It comes from living on top of one another, from competing for everything and from having our asses and armpits in each other’s faces all the time. Even the rich people who never ride the train want more air, more space, bigger apartments. It’s part of the fun of the city — the constant battle for distinction.
She’s not from here. Something about her suggests a life with plenty of room. I decide she’s from Michigan. Having grown up there, I know those sweaters and lockets, that comfort. Of tall glasses of fresh, cold milk after tennis practice, summer cottages on the lake, and guaranteed college tuition. Someone has paid a lot of money and chosen to live in a very particular place so she will never have to experience the type of black person she will meet on this train: funky, homeless, mentally ill, addicted. The undomesticated kind, not like the one who cleans her house.
At least she doesn’t have that look of entitlement on her face that some Republicans have as they edge you off the sidewalk, the one that says, “As long as I am walking, there will be a road.” But this is my city, goddamnit, and I’m mad because she will enjoy a safety this week that just isn’t possible here, one I ‘ll certainly never know. In an act of glorious chivalry to the GOP, the mayor has ensured she’ll have the illusion of absolute protection; in fact, he’s made it clear that he will arrest anybody who even looks at her cross-eyed. With sleight of hand, he’s turned the city into a magical kingdom where all the homeless people in Port Authority and Penn Station simply disappear. He hasn’t had to change much: Times Square long ago traded one kind of pornography for another, looking more and more like a Disney theme park. As the GOP snuggles under the covers for the mayor to read them a bedtime story, he tucks them in gently, then orders a police state for the rest of us.
The woman sitting across from me hasn’t traveled anywhere, but simply packed the Midwest in her suitcase. She’s in a New York, but not the one she thinks she’s in. It’s a New York devoid of pain, which is not New York at all.
Close to two thousand people are arrested for protesting the convention, some held for three days of processing that should have taken three hours. The mayor has betrayed us. In an effort to gain stature within the party, he has demonized protesters, denied them the use of Central Park, and made the experience of exercising the right to free speech a terrifying one. The wonderful “freedom” that is referenced over and over again inside the convention hall to roaring applause, that has placed us in the hearts and minds of cheering crowds of Iraqi and Afghan people on television, somehow doesn’t extend to the American protesters outside Madison Square Garden.
What the mayor would like to try and stop, and cannot, is the great creativity on the streets. All those qualities that make New Yorkers obnoxious fifty-one weeks out of the year are suddenly exhilarating when alchemized with moral outrage and talent. In Harlem, a white man dressed in a business suit walks against the oncoming crowd with fake blood covering his mouth and hands, and dollar bills spilling out of his pockets. He is a truly terrifying spectacle. “No need to protest,” he says, smiling. “Everything is taken care of. We’re keeping you safe. Just trust us.”
When asked about Pier 57 and the oil on the ground that burns protesters when they sit or lie down, the potential asbestos poisoning, and the inability to contact family or friends for sometimes a day or more after arrest, the mayor replies, “Well, it’s not supposed to be Club Med.” For the people who are guilty not of the “crime” of protesting, but window-shopping, finding themselves gathered in the police’s orange nets and also detained for days, he says, “You can’t arrest 1,800 people without having somebody in the middle who shouldn’t have been arrested. That’s what the courts are there for..to find out afterwards.”
I am shocked and appalled by the mayor’s indifference, but then again, I’m shocked and appalled by something every day now. I feel impatient with myself for having any expectations of justice at all anymore. When are you going to get it? I ask myself. The constitution is out, passé, so “last century.” Not that we don’t all love it, we just love it as an abstraction; stapled to the wall in 3rd grade classrooms, lit behind glass counters at museums or referenced from politicians’ campaign podiums. The meaning of the arrests is profoundly clear: Shut up and do exactly as we tell you, and if you disagree, we will lock you up until we are ready to release you.
I watch the news of the protesters’ being detained with the condescension and disdain I was taught in school to reserve for Third World countries in turmoil. Here they go again. Another military coup and illegal election, another despotic ruler and police state. Citizens disappeared and held without due process for protesting. Who will ever save them? Usually the U.S., or so I was told in history class, only this time the Third World country that needs saving is Manhattan.
I’m too young for this much cynicism. I know I want peace, but am I really a pacifist? I believe in democracy, but I don’t always trust the democrats, either. I want people to be free, yes, but I want the old-fashioned kind of freedom, not this new kind, where in order to free someone, you have to blow his head off first. Somehow liberal is now a dirtier word than warmonger. I’m in a constant state of anxiety while reading the paper, watching the news. “Then don’t watch,” a friend of mine says. “I refuse to watch anymore. It only depresses me.” I feel that what he is really telling me is “don’t look.” But I have to look, I have to watch, if only for the desperate consolation of saying “I told you so” to friends who keep telling me not to worry, that the end of the separation of church and state will never happen, the Constitution cannot be amended by the religious belief of one citizen just because he also happens to be the president of the United States.
When I walk into the apartment, Zell Miller is speaking to the convention. It’s all closing in — somehow, he is the soundtrack for the police tactics that I just witnessed on the street, the gross intolerance and ridicule. On his face I see the perverse delight of someone who enjoys watching something squirm that is trapped and defenseless. Of little boys who like to tear the wings off things.
Four hours of protesting and I feel absolutely powerless against the rabid hatred of this man. He is speaking in a voice that I thought America was ashamed to present on the world stage anymore, a voice suppressed in our collective unconscious along with separate drinking fountains and white-only lunch counters. It’s the Southern segregationist voice from the crypt, and the living room goes cold. I’m not used to hearing that voice except embalmed on the history channel where I am reassured with black and white images that racist boogiemen don’t exist anymore. Now he is proffered by the GOP front and center with rolled back eyes, a savage grin and no apology. Frothing at the mouth and aching to be provoked into climbing over the chain-link fence, Zell Miller is his own beware-of-the-dog sign.
He’s working the convention in that particularly frenzied way that is meant to whip a crowd into hysteria and get them out on the streets, the way that only good Southern preachers know how to do, and Grand Dragons of the Ku Klux Klan. If John Kerry were speaking a mile away from here, he’d be facing a lynch mob. I turn down the sound and undress for bed, but on the screen it’s still there: the toxicity and viciousness, that menacing smile. If I were a small child, I might think those grabby hands could reach right through the screen and get me.
I am a girlie-man, i.e. a homosexual. Despite gay people existing on prime time, dressing straight men on reality television, and getting married on the evening news, for the governor of California a homosexual is still a shameful thing to be. I have my moments. As the camera pans the conventioneers the final night, I see who America is: straight, white, male, rich. As they chant, “Four More Years”, I am in awe; one has to be impressed by the sheer will that must be applied to stay in their constant impenetrable trance. They are high on war, shooting up on it, in fact, and orgasming on my TV screen. I feel the familiar envy. How can they all be so sure? None of that democratic ambivalence and self-hate here; Republicans clearly love themselves and each other. I watch with wonder the absolute delight with which this group absorbs its jingoistic, empty rhetoric and its deep self-righteous incuriosity about everything except America. Read a book or not, travel the world or not, but remember what matters most: love your country, love your God, and most important above all, agree with your president, whatever he says or does. Their devotion would be truly inspiring if they weren’t dead wrong.
In the interviews, the delegates have an analysis of the war that could fit inside a fortune cookie, but their enthusiasm for their Commander-in-Chief knows no bounds. They repeat their hackneyed catch-phrases ad infinitum, but with a fresh look of revelation every time. Saddam. They hate us because we are free. He wanted to build weapons. Four More Years. Winning the War on Terror. Freeing the Iraqi people. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom.
If I hear that fucking word one more time! Freedom is starting to sound like something you can buy on sale at Wal-mart, like extra-strength toilet-paper, dishtowels, or king-size Milky Way bars. As they excoriate Kerry and shout flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop, I finally get it. I am watching the national convention of the Ugly American. I’d thought he existed only in exaggerated international folklore, but here he is — empowered, inspired, and unashamed. It’s his coming-out party! As he is freed from the national closet where he stands next to his buddy, the Southern Segregationist, the Ugly American no longer just demands better air-conditioning in Lisbon, the right to take flash photographs at the Uffizi, or to drop his Big Mac trash into the river Seine: he has graduated from being a pushy, entitled tourist to being the leader of the free world. It is his phantasmagoric reasoning behind calling french toast and french fries Freedom Toast and Freedom Fries (a decision that a friend of mine met with raucous laughter until she realized I wasn’t kidding, and immediately became glum and depressed). We are screwed for the simple fact that there will never be enough money, enough power, enough war or enough death for him because at his core, the Ugly American is an addict (it takes one to know one), and an addict is leading us. Which means that unless he gets help or someone stops him, none of this will end until something truly devastating and irrevocable happens. It also means that no matter how hopeless I feel, I can’t go to a bar and get drunk over this shit.
Studying the Holocaust in high school, I remember the reverence we had for the survivors and murdered, and the girl that elicited empathy because she was our age: Anne Frank. After our reports were returned and we got good grades for telling the teachers what they wanted to hear, we met in the hall for a different conversation. I would have fought Hitler, a friend of mine announces on his way to his next class. He wouldn’t have gotten me, that’s for sure. Another friend asks, annoyed, Why did those Jews just stand there? Why didn’t they fight back? Couldn’t they see what was coming?
It’s like the man at the march with blood on his hands, Senator. They are telling us to go shopping, that with more than a thousand soldiers dead at the time of this writing, and between ten and thirty thousand Iraqis murdered, we are winning the War on Terror, that they’ll protect us from terrorists and that everything is fine.
Still, I can’t help but wonder. Will there be a classroom of kids studying us forty years from now, telling their teachers what they want to hear and privately asking themselves: Why didn’t they fight back? Couldn’t they see what was coming?
What is coming?
Sometimes gay men have intuition like women: I guess that is why we are girlie-men, and why, like women, we can also be dismissed as hysterical. Maybe I am a girlie-man because I still have a tiny corner in my heart that believes that everyone can be fed on this planet, that no child need live below the poverty level with all the money in the world and the billions we spend on war, that nations really can live peacefully and that there will be a world community one day. It’s the part of my heart that was lifted by the international support following 9/11, and was smashed again soon after when we went to war. The part of my soul that knows it is wrong to attack people who are defenseless, as it is wrong that a child is considered precious when its name is John or Susan and not as precious when it’s Abdullah or Onike; wrong to assume that a mother in the “Third World” who weeps over her son, dead from hunger, grieves less, because, we imagine, she is used to watching her children die, than the woman on the East Side of Manhattan whose daughter suddenly dies of crib-death. Maybe these women will never know one another, maybe one picks coffee or oranges or makes baby-clothes with bleeding hands for the other, but I have to believe there is a place in the sky where the cries for their babies meet.
September 10, 2004
New York City
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”, “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’” and “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”.