A man stands chained to a fence, his face carefully composed in a look that can only be described as telegenic martyrdom. He is wearing a camouflage military uniform, and a black beret. The fence, it turns out, is the one around the White House. The man’s name is Dan Choi, it is March 2010 and he is set to become a symbol of all the contradictions of the new political rage in the United States.
What was Dan Choi so angry about in March—and again in April—of 2010? My leftist, anti-war heart beats more quickly at such a sight because I always imagine that the soldier in question is about to launch into a critique of the U.S war machine: “With this act, I declare the end of my allegiance to the project of death and destruction carried out by our country.” Or some such thing. You get the point.
So it was a disappointment to me to learn that Choi was protesting the fact that he, a gay soldier discharged under the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, was protesting his ouster and demanding to be let back in. Wait. “What was that again?” you ask? A man enters an institution, a man is unfairly ejected after it is discovered that he is gay, thus revealing, we must assume, said institution to be deeply flawed and even dangerous. And then the man demands to be let back in. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again…is Dan Choi insane?
No, to the best of my knowledge, but he is has frequently taken on the mantle of martyrdom, often comparing himself to historical figures like Martin Luther King and Mahatman Gandhi, as in an interview with Newsweek shortly after his first protest. In the same interview, he spoke grandly against the stereotype of West Point graduates like him as a privileged people: “We are tired of being stereotyped as privileged, bourgeois elites. Is someone willing to give up their career, their relationships with powerful people, their Rolodex, or their parents’ love to stand up for who they are? I’m giving up my military rank, my unit—which to me is a family—my veterans’ benefits, my health care, so what are you willing to sacrifice?”
One might be excused for being stunned into (temporary) silence at the sheer audacity of this statement. To date, over 50 million in the U.S are without health insurance. Millions work without benefits or have seen a sizable cut in them. Medical costs constitute the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country. According to one report, citing a Harvard study, “62% of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. in 2007 were caused by health problems—and 78% of those filers had insurance.” Given all this, it is hard to be admonished by a member of the ever-shrinking elite with benefits when one has none to sacrifice. As for his question about whether or not the rest of us are willing to give up “relationships with powerful people”: he has, I think, a great many of us—who don’t have such relationships in the first place—stumped.
As if his statement about who has privilege and who does not was not startling enough, Choi went on to speak of his experience in Iraq, when the reporter asked him what it was like to be in jail: “I’ve detained people in Iraq, I’ve read them their rights, and I’ve applied handcuffs and zip ties. I’ve talked with people in Arabic who’ve just been arrested. I know what it means to arrest someone for my country’s mission. But I’ve never been incarcerated, and for something that I thought was not my country’s mission. I know my country’s mission is not to make an entire group of people into second-class citizens.”
This last sentence should give pause to anyone who knows anything of what goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan, or has even heard of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs.
As expected, much of the gay press and community have held up Choi as their martyr. If there is dissension around him, it comes not from an examination of what his politics might mean but what they look like. While GetEqual, the group behind Choi, proclaims that it is “radical” for supposedly daring to engage in tactics like those used by Choi, the more conservative Human Rights Campaign (HRC), with a 35 million dollar budget, focuses on expensive fundraisers and lobbying politicians in D.C where the campaign is based. Broadly speaking, the mainstream LGBT community in the U.S. advances an agenda whose ideology ranges from the right to the centre of right. Issues like marriage, DADT, and hate crimes legislation take up the economic and political capital of the “community” while matters like the homelessness of queer youth or the drop in AIDS funding are routinely set aside with the explanation that the first three will take care of the rest. GetEqual, HRC, and GOPProud simply want the status quo—in the form of marriage and the rest—to be expanded to gays and lesbians. None of their activism, in any form, challenges the hierarchy established by marriage, for instance.
Which is to say: conservative issues like marriage, DADT, and hate crimes legislation are the emphasis in the mainstream gay community, and the only differences between such groups lie in the styles of the advocacy they engage in, not the content. Yet, a recent Washington Post article about the gay rights movement declared that HRC was on the left of the gay community and GOPProud, the gay Republican group, was on the right. The fact that both groups are fighting for exactly the same thing did not seem to have occurred to the reporter.
But therein lies the fundamental problem with the Left in the U.S: its utter inability to separate itself from conservatives and liberals who, after all, merely want more of the same. When it comes to defining who is left and who is right, the distinctions come down to style, not ideology. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that Choi should emerge as the brave and angry martyr who has had enough and will risk such things as “relationships to important people.” And he is regarded as such even by those on the left, like Amy Goodman, the popular host of the progressive television and radio show Democracy Now, who should know better.
Amy Goodman is as popular as she is among lefties and liberals because she is often one of the few anti-war voices of reason on the radio. But Goodman has had Dan Choi on Democracy Now a few times and has never once criticised his fervent pro-war and pro-U.S imperialist rhetoric. Not only that, she has gone so far as to pen not one but two op-eds, one of them titled “Lt. Choi Won’t Lie for His Country,” in which she repeated some of what he said to during a 2009 interview: “Choi got a message from an Iraqi doctor whose hospital Choi helped to rebuild while he was there. He said the doctor is ‘in South Baghdad right now. And he’s seen some of the Internet, YouTube and CNN interviews and other appearances, and he said: ‘Brother, I know that you’re gay, but you’re still my brother, and you’re my friend. And if your country, that sent you to my country, if America, that sent you to Iraq, will discharge you such that you can’t get medical benefits, you can come to my hospital any day. You can come in, and I will give you treatment.’” More recently, Choi was on Democracy Now, in a debate with the queer radical anti-war activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, and said, “…war is a force that gives us meaning. War is a force that teaches us lessons of humanity and allows us to realize something about our society and teaches us the lessons that we probably should have learned before we went to war.” Neither Goodman nor Juan Gonzalez, her co-host, blinked an eye. Goodman has not simply featured Choi’s views on her show, she has explicitly endorsed them in her op-eds outside her role as show co-host.
Within today’s left, or what passes for the same, it is actually possible to have someone like Goodman, who has spent many hours among commentators critiquing the devastation caused to Iraq, listen to Choi talk about “rebuilding” a country that he is helping to bomb and destroy, without a single question about his politics. In this case, identity—and its efflorescence under a neoliberal war—becomes the excuse for war and it erases the possibility of a critique of Choi’s ideology. Even further, the war on Iraq becomes a staging ground for Chois’s personal dramas, a backdrop to the possibility of a doomed romance. As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore puts it, “How many Iraqis died in order for him to express the ‘truth of who I am?’ What about the truth of the war?…Did you hear that? He’s not worried about dying in an atrocious war, or killing innocent civilians, but about whether his boyfriend will be notified.”
Choi’s anger at having been expelled from the military and his on-the-surface radical tactics are symptomatic of the failure of the Left in the U.S to mobilise for the things that matter, like health care, leaving the political arena wide open for the likes of gay soldiers to angrily demand that they should be allowed to fight unjust wars. Modern times have rarely been worse in the United Sates, and yet, all over, there is anger about maintaining the status quo instead of meaningful change. Hence the growth of the Tea Party and its deployment of anger, much of it foolish and misplaced, as in the signs that read, “Keep the government out of my Medicare [the government’s form of health care for the elderly].”
In the wake of such struggles, what happens to the efforts of those who do fight for actual change?
Here in Chicago, I am a member of Gender JUST (GJ), a largely youth-led organisation that has, for nearly two years, successfully fought for a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to institute a grievance process that would make it easier for students to report harassment and bullying. The current CEO of CPS, Ron Huberman is an out gay man with a partner and an adopted infant. For nearly two years, Huberman stalled on meeting with GJ and acting upon his promise to help make schools safer for youth, particularly queer youth, despite public promises to do so. Finally, the group decided to enact the kind of tactics long employed by direct action groups: it showed up at Huberman’s public appearances and even went to his house with a basket of cookies and testimonials from youth who had been harassed and bullied. Eventually, after a series of such escalations, Huberman agreed to institute a grievance process.
In the wake of the protest outside his house, we were told by some that they were troubled or even offended by the fact that GJ would actually show up at the house—where his child was. It was as if GJ had shown up and threatened to take away the infant, or had thrown stones at it. As Sam Finkelstein, one of the lead organisers, put it to me, “Why is no one thinking of the children and youth who suffer daily harassment and agony simply for going to school?” Implicit in the criticism of the actions was the idea that Huberman’s private residence should be invulnerable and that GJ had committed a major social infraction by daring to go to his house. This kind of logic is typical of protests in the U.S where dissent and protest have been nearly squelched by endlessly minute and refined bureaucratic efforts, via the process of having to ask for permits for every action or the constant admonition, during protests, to keep moving and stay on the sidewalk, instead of taking over the streets.
The students of Chicago’s public schools study in the nation’s most militarised school district; its largely minority and often poor population is constantly targeted by the U.S army for recruitment. Over the years, there has been admirable resistance to such militarization from many local educators on the left and groups like Gender JUST who have consistently been critical of such developments. Those criticizing GJ for its tactics failed to make the connections between Huberman’s supposed imperviousness to protest while inside his home, and the extreme vulnerability of students within school walls.
Our rage, the productive sort which might actually demand change, is constantly being curtailed either by convenient distinctions between private and public or by a public discourse which fails to see the contradictions in a gay soldier who considers himself a second-class citizen of the U.S while handcuffing Iraqis. Rage appears in stylistic flourishes, as in the Tea Party protests where citizens rant and rave about policies about which they have little understanding or by soldiers demanding “fair” treatment in an institution that is fundamentally unfair to the rest of the world.
Rage has dissipated into conciliation and a call for the status quo.
 Choi was responding to criticisms that elite military personnel like him, who graduate from institutions like West Point and choose to enter the military with specialised skills, are different from the much poorer young Latino/a or African American youth aggressively recruited by the army with the explicit promise of social mobility. The U.S military still boasts of the G.I Bill of 1944 as the best example of how it provides college or vocational education for returning veterans, along with various loans for homes and businesses. But today, with military service being largely voluntary, the military must rely on aggressive and even duplicitous forms of recruitment. In its advertising, it shamelessly deploys narratives about troubled youth of colour within single-mother households who need the discipline, targeting them as ideal candidates for “discipline” on its visits to high schools (where it is allowed to enter for recruitment purposes); it even goes so far as to recruit undocumented youth with the false promise of eventual citizenship. Today, the military depends on a two-tier system for recruitment: elite soldiers like Choi, who enter voluntarily and the economically and politically disenfranchised who join out of desperation.
Yasmin Nair is a Chicago-based writer, academic, and activist. She is a member of Gender JUST and the Against Equality collective. Her work has appeared in publications like Bitch, Time Out Chicago, Maximum RockNRoll, makeshift, Discourse and the first AE book, Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage. Nair is currently at work on a book about affect and neoliberalism, and can be reached at nairyasmin[at]yahoo.com. Her website is http://www.yasminnair.net