Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Seven Habits of Highly Subversive People

As the corruption of the Bush administration unfolds for all to see, I find myself wondering why people are so complacent? Why are we not abuzz with discussion about the outrages committed by this administration? Apparently we are too fractured in thought to really put it all together. People, as my mother would say, can't think their way out of a paper bag. And the powers that be like it that way which makes thinking a subversive act that everyone can participate in.

Habit #1. THINKING

Here are some paper bags that I have attempted to think my way out of.

The New Age Paper Bag

Much that was revolutionary in the human potential movement of the '60s spurred us to great strides in personal development and self-actualization, especially here in California. We took workshops to liberate ourselves from destructive cultural messages and parental tapes; we were offered books to empower ourselves to reach our full potential; we quit smoking, embraced low-fat diets and took up yoga; we "worked on ourselves" and learned negotiation techniques to improve our couples relationships. A whole industry of self-help books and page-a-day calendars with daily affirmations was spawned.

Within the scope of the New Age movement we were able to create a parallel universe of good in our own lives, separate from the degradation going on in the world at large, especially if we were in business for ourselves. How America loves the self-employed. Do what you love and the money will come. Think positively and you will attract what you want into your life. The cosmic shopping channel is open 24/7 for you to visualize your dream of success down to the car you drive and the clothes you will wear.

How convenient for the agenda of globalization that this message negates our ability to criticize capitalism. It has laid us wide open for the cheerleading of trickle down economics and self-congratulatory, post-Soviet collapse rhetoric. Okay, so we have to leverage our own health care and pension plan, pay for disability insurance and liability insurance, then pay even more steeply for our self-actualizing workshops, certifications testing and business networking associations. We must market ourselves constantly, take only unpaid vacations, compromise our values when necessary, risk projecting conflicting messages of political or religious affiliation to our client base and manage our fears when the work isn't there. That's the price we gladly pay for this glorious opportunity to be our own boss. Meanwhile what's all this fuss about globalization and free trade? Isn't it all good? Shouldn't trade barriers be brought down so we can continue this wonderfully business-friendly atmosphere?

The New Age Paper Bag separates us from historical perspective and context. This parallel universe narration has clipped our ties to the consequences brought on by the nation that represents us in the world. We are, after all, not supposed to dwell on the negative unless there is a solution immediately at hand. Which brings me to the next habit of highly subversive people.


One of the few popular filmmakers attempting to help viewers understand a bigger picture is Michael Moore. His film "Sicko" manages to throw in many of my pet issues regarding corporate buyout of our government, the fear mongering of government propaganda, the repression of alternatives by profit driven corporations and the plain disregard of decent people by our national policies. He embodies in his script, subversive acts of civil disobedience by going to Cuba to raise awareness of these issues.

The Techno-fix Paper Bag

Speaking of solutions, we love the potential offered by technology. Somewhere, somehow, someone will come up with a brilliant gadget that will solve everything, make our lives easier and slip seamlessly into our current lifestyle with no effort on our part. That is the supposed saving grace of the "free market." The US currently positions itself as the brains at the top of the food chain of production. Americans, the lucky educated ones, are offered the plum high paying jobs of innovation that are not as yet outsourced offshore. To stay competitive we are urged to funnel all the smarts and creativity of our human potential into this gadget-designing piece of the action.

The Techno Paper Bag is bottom line about enabling the disposable economy. Capitalism thrives on disposability. Throw it away and buy the next big thing. Got e-waste? Well then make it go away magically through better high tech recycling. Create more efficient, more recyclable wonderstuff, or at least something way cooler than last year, then make the whole world want it with slick soothing advertising. (I just Fed-Exed an iPhone to my publisher in Bangkok so he wouldn't have to wait until 2008 when it will be released there.)

The underlying pitfall of the disposable/product-for-every-occasion mentality is that it robs us of our own individual inventiveness and creativity; the day-to-day practice of our imagination is co-opted into acts of shopping. The very thought that we could make do or make something for ourselves or find a local artisan to make it for us, threatens the growth of profit driven multi-national corporations. This prompts the third habit of the highly subversive person.



A close cousin to the Techno-Fix paper bag is:

The Freedom of Individual Choice Paper Bag

Here's another mega-platform for selling stuff through the illusion of choice. What turns you on? What will set you apart? What will make you happy?

Catherine likes to watch House Hunters, a cable TV reality show about people searching for their next dream home. I couldn't figure out the appeal of this show since we aren't looking for another house. The repetition of the plot, the cheesy low production values and the amateur actors expressing their rehearsed joy at the inevitable climax of closing the deal reminded me of something. Suddenly it came to me.

"I know what this is," I said gleefully, "it's porn—shelter porn." Catherine did not entirely appreciate the metaphor.

Shelter porn, food porn, makeover porn, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, the designer clothes on your sitcom stars. When I watch movies at home I call out "Product Placement" whenever I see a recognizable brand name item. Thus the fourth habit.


Advertising is now no longer restricted to just brand names and individual products. MasterCard will finance your trip to Europe, so that you can experience the "priceless" memorable moment of your life. We have Wells Fargo to tell us that our wants are inevitably material ones. "Someday a new couch" "Someday a spare bedroom." Don't you long to hold up a card that says "Someday world peace"?

Which brings me to the final and biggest paper bag of them all. It is so big it resembles an architectural monument, a sort of post-modern, Dwell magazine paper bag covering our national consciousness.

The Democracy Paper Bag

I've a colleague whose mother is from East Germany. When the Bush administration was yammering to go to war with Iraq, she was aghast at the instant patriotism of her neighbors.

"Don't you see? This is how Hitler happened?" she said to them in exasperation. I had to laugh in my empathy with her perspective. Yes, it takes a village to raise a Hitler. Let us not forget that Hitler was operating in a democracy. And I don't buy it that the Germans were somehow culturally flawed and therefore more vulnerable to Hitler. Disconnected as we are from political context, we have been just as easily fooled into allowing our civil rights and political power to be eroded, bit-by-bit, under the guise of national security.

We are so secure in our identity as a democracy that we forget to question if it is actually functioning. We believe steadfastly in our ability to make change by peaceful protest and the power of one vote.

"We'll vote for a styrofoam box," quipped my friend Martine, "just as long as it's a Democrat."

Arundhati Roy, author of the best-selling novel The God of Small Things, pointed out, in one of her essays on empire, that when the Ghandhian legacy of peaceful protest is dismissed, we are leaving the people with no choice, but to turn to other more violent means. It's the sort of sentiment one wants to bat away before it has a chance to take hold. Still there is a certain chilling logic to it?

The Bush administration is answering to nobody but themselves, care about nobody but themselves. They have changed laws to benefit the corporations from which they came and to which they will return. They care not for due process. Our justice system is not holding them accountable; nobody seems to be holding them accountable. The media is full of apologists (save for Keith Olbermann).

Our leaders count on our good behavior, our staying in our seats and acting on our democratic ideals—yelling occasionally at our TV. We know they are crooks and we know they are liars, yet we still won't think the worse of them. For to think the worse of them would be to threaten the very existence of our democracy and have to resort, instead, to marching on Washington as a lynch mob.

How else to explain the reluctance of people to entertain the complicity, on the part of these rogue leaders, in the attack on the twin towers? The subject is made taboo. It is just too scary to accept, but not the first time such a false flag strategy has been used. (The Nazis also staged a false flag operation called the Himmler Operation to justify the invasion of Poland.) To dislodge democracy demands severe techniques.

Having been raised in a country that often installed its prime minister with a military coup, I do not seem to have the same attachment to this identification with the sacred cow of democracy. My parents did not vote for our leaders (until we came here) thus my core identity is not threatened by the idea that I might not be living in a democratic country. Much as I value democracy, it is easier for me to question it when it seems to be broken. This brings me to habit #5.


Habit #5 is the manifestation of Habit #1: THINKING. It opens up the arena for all kinds of creative story telling and story embodying art. Habit #5 has inspired my most creative work. My favorite being the creation of my alter ego, the Caterpillar of Perpetual Consumption.

I've met passionate radical activists on street corners who don't seem to be getting their message across because the culture they are addressing has not yet been nurtured into receptivity to their ideas. Thus they are easily dismissed. I start small and find out what matters to the company I keep, which brings me to:


At our last business networking meeting, our speaker was an image consultant. I cannot seem to take this career choice seriously so I was surprised at how passionate my carpool mates were about her flaws. It struck me that that if my colleagues were paying this much attention to the clothes people were wearing, then I could easily get my message across by accessorizing my "image" with a symbol of my pet campaigns. Thus my Spork Manifesto. (The spork is a combination spoon and fork.)

Because of my feelings about the role of disposability in our journey to planetary hell, I started carrying with me a midnight blue spork (along with my pocket knife), to ward off those horrid plastic utensils that pop up. The spork led to a portable fold flat cup (of a cerulean blue) to avoid those styrofoam and paper cups that appear at meetings. Having gone that far, I threw in a plate as well (of deep speckled blue enamel). It didn't really take up that much more room.

Thus equipped with my color-coordinated kit, I was ready for the next business event involving food served on disposable plates. As I visually walked my talk, the picnic set in my hand became a classic ice breaker for people to talk to me about being green and recycling, and for me in turn to lead them beyond the incomplete thinking of recycling to my theory on the evils of the disposable consumer paradigm as described above.

I, now, leave you with my final subversive habit.

Or in my case, I bite the hand that reads me.


Many of the ideas in this piece were informed and inspired by the following book

The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think For Themselves, by Curtis White.

I was also adversely informed by the shallow, unabashedly pro-capitalist and muddled thinking of The World Is Flat, by Thomas Friedman

And the intriguing, but ultimately shallow thinking of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I was properly informed by the following exhaustively researched books:

The Bu$h Agenda: Invading The World One Economy At A Time, by Antonia Juhasz

Against Empire: A Brilliant Expose of the Brutal Realities of US Global Domination, by Michael Parenti

The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11, by David Griffin

Crossing The Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire At the End of the Age of Oil, by Michael C. Ruppert

Shoveling Fuel For A Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders And A Plan To Stop Them All, by Brian Czech.

And I was sustained by

Confessions of an Economic Hitman, by John Perkins

An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, and War Talk, by Arundhati Roy

How To Succeed At Globalization: A Primer For The Roadside Vendor, a narrative cartoon by Mexican national, El Fisgon

And JK Rowling for reminding me that children innately understand totalitarianism, thus the subversive and imaginative nature of the Harry Potter series in the grand tradition of child empowering childrens books.

Also posted at the energy bulletin

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Family Entertainment

"May I speak to the lady of the house?" the caller requested.

As I tried to come up with a witty comeback like "Sorry, there are no ladies here" or "I'm the housedyke will that suffice?", she repeated the question.

"Can I help you?" I said cheerfully, suddenly curious as to what campy consumer item or concern a telemarketer might want to communicate to the "lady of the house".

She asked if I would take a survey about the entertainment industry. This was a subject dear to my heart, given my five-year stint as a projectionist at local movie theatres of the independent art film variety.

"Do you feel that there are sufficient numbers of family movies today?"

"Sure," I said.

"Do you feel that there are television shows appropriate for family entertainment?" Hmm. That was different. Television was the heart and hearth of American discourse. I smelled a rat and it wasn't Ratatouille.

"By family entertainment do you mean shows that exclude family members who are gay?" I asked nonchalantly.

This clearly flustered her as she read me the clause about how the survey taker was not expected to reveal their opinions about what constituted family entertainment. The name of the group began to ring a bell. Yes, it was one of those creepy Christian media watch foundations, intent on erasing gay characters from public view. I told her I knew what they were up to and wanted nothing to do with them. She seemed relieved to end the call while I felt a small triumph in having implied that her group was actually anti-family.

I had long understood the power of media images. My coming out years had not only been a wasteland of invisibility on many levels, but nothing could quite duplicate the twisted feeling of being heart-poundingly aroused by a rare glimpse of a kiss between two women, and then having one of them unceremoniously dispatched by a felled tree as the other was "rescued" by a man. This was the plot of The Fox, staring Sandy Dennis and Keir Dullea (who also played the lone astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, released the same year). I felt as though my own passions had been summarily choked off.

Equally damaging was my viewing of Lenny, as audience members audibly voiced their disgust saying "eeeww", as Valerie Perrine stroked the bare breast of another woman. I was sixteen at the time. I understood, in that moment, that it was my desires they were judging and was offended, but also forewarned. I saw The Fox after college, on the retro art house circuit; the two together were it for images of lesbian sexuality, until the '80s. Had it not been for a late night viewing of the 1966 movie The Group, during my senior year of high school, in which Candice Bergen wears a fetching bowler hat and is seen arriving at a party with a stern German woman in a suit, I would not have known how deliciously, subversive a lesbian identity could be.

Thus it is my generation and older who tend to be loyal to the annual gay film festival, as we make up for those damaging years with queer positive films. Were the Christian groups to evolve from their fetishizing of the gay community as the denizen of perverted flesh, they would be surprised at how family oriented "gay entertainment" has become.

How about a Bollywood inspired romantic comedy, complete with a closing dance number, involving the entire family, celebrating their lesbian daughter's coming out kiss? Nina's Heavenly Delights offered exactly that, plus a startling mix of Indian culture fused to a Scottish locale, from British director Pratibha Parmar. Indians in kilts with Scottish accents! This director had wowed us before and the Castro Theater, where her film was being screened, was sold out.

At the Q & A afterwards, one woman asked why there was no love scene after the kiss scene. (After all, we still wanted our pound of perverted flesh.) The director sighed.

"That's what we have The L Word for," she said. Then went on to explain that she had taken the film to India to show to a mixed audience and it had been very well received as it had been in England, too. Though she didn't spell it out, her intention had been to give us back our families by telling a story that would not alienate the family members she hoped would watch the film. While at the same time the supportive characters in the film, especially the mother reflected real life positive experiences.

Supportive mothers turned out to be an enduring thread in the 10 programs we saw over the eleven days of the festival. In the short My First Time Driving, a mother congratulates herself for guessing that her teen daughter is gay, then finally allows her to borrow the family car to take her girlfriend on a date. Equally satisfying was Kali Mama staring a folksy, sari clad Indian mother who sets out to seek justice when her gay son is beaten up by a much bigger Anglo classmate. Her ferocious physical response to the bully's mouthing back at her had us cheering.

Even Internet identities are interrupted by motherly figures, as grandma inadvertently shows her face on the porn site of a web cam girl in the Chinese/Taiwanese film Spider Lilies. The seemingly naive gamine carries on provocative relationships with unseen viewers, inciting them to pay for more, while offline, the object of her love, tattoos designs on the skin of those looking for identities. (This Friday night show was not sold out. "I guess tattooed Asian girls aren't in this year," I commented to Catherine.) It was a visually arresting film. I was particularly enamored of the tattoo artist with her long hair tied impatiently into a ponytail and her stylish jackets and pants.

Most poignant was the documentary Red Without Blue in which a pair of twins both turn out to be gay, but one twin decides to change sex as well. At first the mother (who also comes out as a lesbian) refuses to accept either of them as family, but then comes around. The remaining brother also has adjustments to make. The film captured emotional revelations about gender and family that stayed with me.

Meanwhile, in a screwball comedy of unexpected outcomes, Out At The Wedding, turns our fears of family rejection on its head as the heroine dodges valiantly to avoid telling her family the truth. Comedy is hard to pull off and I feared that I would find the mix-ups endlessly annoying, so was pleasantly surprised by this fun romp filled with sassy one-liners and up-ended stereotypes.

A mother's acceptance of her teen daughter's identity is progressively integrated into the movie Itty Bitty Titty Committee, during preparations for a sibling's wedding, with the line "I've read the lesbian handbook from cover to cover and it says nothing about no make-up".

If anything the gay community was far more interested in the power of love to unite families than the Christian community could hope to compel by driving us out of their vision of family entertainment. And though a few shorts and docs were devoted to holding our own in the face of the Christian Right, we had largely moved on. Queer film makers were not only intent on telling stories of healing family relationships, but of love bridging far more challenging cultural divides as showcased by The Bubble in which a Palestinian and an Israeli are lovers.

The festival itself provided us with the village atmosphere to renew our queer family ties. The hours I spent waiting in line were not wasted as I people watched from my perch sitting on the footboard of my folding scooter. (To insure a place early in line, I commuted by express train up the Peninsula, scootered the five blocks to Market Street, hopped on the T Line of the Muni Metro and was in my spot an hour and a quarter before showtime, waiting for Catherine who would bring dinner on her way from work.)

On the final night, with the multiple lines wrapping around the block in both directions depending on what level of membership you could afford or not, a friend spotted me from the Gold line and shouted o out "Ben is here" as she followed her line into the theater. Ben was my recently discovered lesbian cousin from Thailand whom I had never met. Just then an Asian woman walked by in the opposite direction.

"Are you Ben," I asked.

"No," she said, giving me a friendly, scrutinizing look before hurrying off.

"You can't ask every Asian woman who walks by if they're Ben," Catherine commented. Why not, there were only a handful on the whole street, surely we were all related. After all, we had just celebrated Catherine's birthday at a nearby restaurant where another birthday party was being celebrated at the next table. Not only did one of our friends know people at that table, but one of their party was the ex-lover of another friend in our group.

As it turned out, the Asian dyke did indeed know Ben and when she got inside the theater, delivered the message that someone was looking for her. The first friend came to find me and took me to meet her. Ben happened to be visiting from Bangkok that week with her girlfriend. She was equally pleased to see me, having met my father just before returning to Thailand six years ago. We had time to get acquainted before the organist ended his repertoire with the traditional refrain of "San Francisco Open Your Golden Gate"....

The closing night film stepped right past the usual feel good queer identity films of year's past, with the message attempted by Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a story of 20 something, radical feminists who installed political art and defaced property with spray painted slogans. The audience seemed a tad confused by this criminal behavior.

During the Q & A, a man asked the director if she was aware that her film might prompt young people to blow things up. Another viewer objected to the numerous images of characters smoking cigarettes onscreen. My how parental we had become. There were also questions about the cheating in a long-term relationship.

No one asked about the motivations for the politics of the film. It was almost as if we had forgotten we ever had politics bigger than gay rights. The feminist sentiments expressed in the movie were right out of the '70s and included my own objections to marriage as a patriarchal construct. In the modern context of the film, it all seemed hopelessly outdated. We're they making fun of us? I wondered, or did young lesbians still dissect the patriarchy as part of their queer identification process?

The director was just a decade younger than me. These were the issues that had been part of her coming of age, she explained, but having become disillusioned by the whole scene, she decided to make a feminist fable. Thus the unlikely successful outcome of the climax and a happy ending for all.

One friend thought it entertaining, but ultimately pointless and stupid, while another agreed with me that the politics needed to include the degradation of the planet to update it. Still many of us saw a glimmer of a much-needed return to radical political thought. Not so much to blow things up, but to inspire a larger vision of change. It was good enough. Good enough to sustain me for the year.

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