Anarchy is not activism. Take it from this geezer, I have seen both and the hard work of activism is taken on by those who want real change and are willing to work long and hard to make it happen. Change does not happen on the streets, but at the ballot box, by knocking on the doors of power, and by building allies. Teaching is part of activism and the demonstrations taking place here against the government are not teaching and participants have no plan for the future. And the language is charged, which is needed for activism, but must be truthful and accurate. We surely are not a fascist state or even this platform with various ideas would be shut down.
I want to share this story: In 1968 in the US, we threw around words like “fascism” willy-nilly. I remember sitting in a bar in NYC in 1970 (Corner Bistro in the West Village) and talking about the “fascist Nixon regime”. I was 22 or 23, just a wise ass kid. An old guy sitting next to me laughs and says something like “you wouldn’t know fascism if it bit you in the ass”. He had fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco, who was supported by Mussolini. This geezer knew true fascism. I knew that he was correct and stopped minimizing true fascism by using the word inappropriately (no, kids, Bibi is not a fascist). Over 200,000 people died in the Spanish Civil War fighting fascism. Freedom was gone in subsequent years under Franco (who is still dead). That was fascism.
By the time of the AIDS epidemic, I was in my 30s and had matured, but anger overrides reason sometimes when you feel hopeless. The old activism would not work. Causing chaos without an action plan was the last thing needed as people were dying and the government was blowing off the many issues that we wanted addressed. When your goal is to get better hospital care, better research, and a quicker route for new medicines to be approved, media grabbing demonstrations must be backed up with real activism. Which requires patience and providing knowledge to those with whom you are engaging. And a fine line in name calling; those you might call “bigots” or “homophobes” or “murderers” because of their inaction in AIDS, might end up being allies with a little teaching and patience. Now, putting a giant condom on a Senator’s home was fair game for political theater and we all loved it, but in the background serious work was being done to advocate with federal health officials to get medication approved more quickly and for more funding for research. Here is the link about the giant condom caper.
Larry Kramer, z”l, was the most effective activist in US history. Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. also created change, but looking at America today, the dream seems to have died. Kramer, on the other hand, used his anger to grow organizations, create plays of the highest caliber, write brilliant essays, and an unwavering commitment to always be truthful and to teach those who needed teaching. His thoughtful approach, that veered from outrageous to precise to pedantic taught an angry generation that anger is good, but if it does not produce thoughtful activism, then it is wasted. Yes, he called officials murderers (and made some of us uncomfortable), but he also sat with Anthony Fauci at NIH for discussions. He met with doctors and researchers and politicians. He spent hours in rooms speaking with young activists, teaching. He wrote plays that inspired people to take action. He wrote essays that caught fire from all quarters, but won hearts and minds. Kramer’s early warnings about sexual behavior and virus transmission were challenged by some, but he never backed down on saving lives. He lived long enough to see this new virus take hold and was writing a play about it when he died in May. When he said Silence=Death, we were inspired. ACT-UP was inspirational genius. When we lay down on the street on Connecticut Avenue in DC, we knew that a “die-in” would be a more effective protest than charging the fence of the White House. I cannot speak for a dead person, but going back and reading his cautionary writing about unsafe sex and (New York Native, now defunct) the danger of viral transmission, I think he might (as many of us are doing now) think that the massive demonstrations with shouting in tight quarters in Jerusalem are foolhardy in the middle of an infectious disease epidemic which spreads by droplet inhalation and saliva. And he would be right.
What we have here is a messy democracy. Far cry from Franco and Mussolini. What we do have in common with the past is the need to fight a virus. A killer virus about which little is still known. And we need to hold our dysfunctional government’s feet to the fire, for sure. Thoughtfully. With a plan. The use of the word fascism in the “black flag” demonstrations is hyperbole and a form of historic revisionism. The geezer in the bar was right. I was wrong. In a few years, maybe after actually reading the history of fascism, these activists without a plan, who are attempting to create anarchy, will look back and say “oops, wrong word.” And maybe they will think back to their participation in these chaotic demonstrations and wonder where the activism was among the anarchy. Two lessons for takeaway: 1) using hyperbole in political protest only shows the weakness of the mission creating and 2) chaos without defined action is anarchy. And anarchy is not activism.