A couple nights ago I watched the documentary How to Survive a Plague. Immediately it moved on to my top ten list of the year's movies. It's that good.
The movie documents the organization ACT UP, which emerged in the 1980s as a response to the AIDS crisis. It was an act of self defense by the gay community, who felt the government, pharmaceutical companies and religious organizations were actively contributing to the spread of the disease. They protested, harangued, shamed and committed acts of performance art at anyone who stood in the way of stopping this epidemic.
Right off the bat, they had me. I love a good protest. I even enjoy bad protests. Anytime a group of people is so moved by something that they take to the streets and engage in civil disobedience to try and force change, I love it. Even if I don't agree with them. In the case of ACT UP, I whole heartedly endorse their actions. This was protest as an art form and it was a thrill to watch. But that makes it sounds like I'm trivializing what they were doing. Not at all. These were people who felt this was a matter of life and death. Protesting was a way to try and save lives. It's tough not to respect that.
I won't go into details but the movie is beautifully constructed. It isn't maudlin and it isn't an endless stream of talking head interviews. No, the ACT UP folks were so media savvy that they videotaped everything they did. Usually from multiple angles. This gives the documentary an almost electric energy because those cameras captured the raw anger and frustration of the protesters. It also captured their genuine fear. It is riveting.
I won't go into much detail on this because I don't want to ruin the film for you, but the construction of it is exquisite. For the last couple years, in service of my screenwriting, I've become obsessed with structure. The way How to Survive a Plague is put together makes it somehow better than the sum of its parts. What it chooses to show you and what it chooses to hold back make for an even better story. It is brutally honest, not just in thrashing horrendous people like Senator Jesse Helms, but in admitting the movement's mistakes. This gives the story a lot more weight by causing the tension to rise and fall as victories turn out to be failures and seeming follies turn into victories. I could go on forever but that would just take away your joy of discovery. The movie is on Netflix Watch Instant right now. See it. You won't regret it.
On a personal level, it made me reflect on the way I've evolved over the years on gay matters. The doc picks up in the mid 80s, when I was a dumb teenager. I know, that's redundant. I'm from upstate New York, growing up in a lily-white, largely conservative community. It's a bit less so today, but not radically different. It was a time when racist jokes were thrown around with glee. And it would be a lie to say I wasn't involved. My upbringing was pretty liberal, so there wasn't any hate in my telling of such jokes, I just never gave any thought to who they might hurt. And why would I? The people smeared by the jokes didn't seem to be amongst us.
The first time I can recall meeting an openly gay person was in college. In high school, this would have been considered supremely icky. In truth, apart from the openly gay part, this meeting wasn't notably different from any other I'd have in college. He was just this guy, you know?
College for me was an education in economics. This tilted my personal politics to the libertarian. As Penn Jillette likes to say, "Take a hard right on money, a hard left on sex and then it's straight on to paradise." It would take me the next couple decades to get an intellectual grip on this but the most important concept here was a deep love of liberty. Pretty much everything I care about gets filtered through that.
The other good thing about college was it led me to meet my wife. And she's an important part of this evolution because not long before I met her, she had lost an important member of her family to AIDS. This is where my feelings on gay people shifted from one of discomfort to some level of understanding and empathy. This was no longer an abstract idea that I hadn't had to deal with. It was now a real person, a warm loving human being cut down in his prime. Later, after we were married, we took a trip to Washington D.C. where the AIDS quilt was being displayed on the lawn of the national mall. That moment rattled me rather hard. First off, the sheer scale of the thing was deeply unnerving. But then on a smaller scale, seeing friends and family locating the square belonging to their loved one and being overcome, that was heartbreaking. And yes, when we located the square we were looking for, it was a profoundly sad moment.
In the last decade, as the fight over gay marriage became more public and heated, I took the last step. A small part of that step was going to see Brokeback Mountain. When Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal have their first sex scene, I felt a flash of that ickiness from the high school days. By the end of the movie I was crying. That was the end of that childish response. It never returned. Now I'll cheerfully watch movies about gay characters and never give it a second thought. I'm just embarrassed that it took me that long to get over it. Amusingly, I now roll my eyes at people who can't believe I went to see that movie. No, I have no reason to feel smug about that and my penance is to admit all this here.
The rest of the story wasn't a changing of my attitude but strongly asserting another one. As the debate over gay marriage began to rage, so did I. Without that stupid icky thinking clogging up my brain I saw the issue on a very simple but powerful level. Telling one group of people it was okay to get married while telling another group no was an offensive violation of liberty. Everyone in this country should have the exact same level of liberty. I've listened to all manner of arguments against gay marriage and not one of them holds any water for me. Giving a right to some people and denying to others is just wrong. Try and explain it away any way you like but it still comes down to favoring one group over another. Liberty doesn't work that way. Either everyone has the right or no one does. And if you try to argue otherwise, I promise to look down on you for it.
Probably my proudest moment politically was harassing my state senator, Steve Salland, to vote in favor of a law allowing gay marriage in New York. He had voted against such measures in the past and I let him have it for it. But that last time, he ended up casting the deciding vote in favor of gay marriage. I remember reading his comments in the newspaper the next day. They sounded eerily similar to what I kept writing to him. In no way do I think I was the one to convince him, but hearing him change his mind that way warmed my heart and gave me the only moment in my life when I felt the political process had worked properly.
That was pretty similar to the way How to Survive a Plague ends. Important changes have been made that make the world a better, safer place. They are by no means the end of the fight but it marks a big step in the right direction. Hopefully we can all keep going.
Hi. I'm John and I'm a politics junkie. It's been six days since I last talked about politics and I'm feeling pretty good.
Yeah, I quit. It was a painful decision to make. My family was way into politics when I was growing up. Mom was a fierce feminist and a loyal Democrat and Dad used to say that Republicans ate their own young. I pretty much adopted their politics, or at least until I left the house. In college I studied economics. It was a topic I took to like a politician to a greased palm. And it pretty much made it impossible to keep my parents' politics as is. Not that I didn't try. Something I found very difficult in life was separating my opinions from those of my parents. They raise you and teach you much of what you know in life and that made it hard to accept that maybe I thought they were wrong about things.
The political break point was the 2000 presidential election. I remember staring at the voting machine. Bush vs Gore. For the life of me, I couldn't decide which one bothered me more. It wasn't a case of which was the better choice. They were both lousy choices. It was choosing between the lesser of two evils. And if you weren't paying attention, that means you're still voting for evil. Ick. What was the third choice? Ralph Nader? Fuck me. Next? Buchanan? Is this some sort of sick joke? I cast my vote that day and I still feel dirty about it to this day.
Mom's champion was the Democrat and he filled me with revulsion. No longer could I assume that her politics were ideas I could accept without debate. And eight years of the other guy proved that jumping to the other camp was a stupid idea. So there it was. I was an independent. You know, the voting block that determines every single election these days but can't be counted on by anyone.
I've spent years trying to pull people out of the Crips and the Bloods (aka Republicans and Democrats). And I have failed. I've tried showing people what economics tells us the government should do about things and been ignored, scorned or laughed at. I've written politicians and told them what they were doing wrong. That got me form letter responses. And with each passing year I've become more frantic about where the country is heading. The binary battle between the parties has gotten more intense and less concerned with logic. It's not what is best for the country but what is best for the party.
A week ago, it felt like my head was going to explode. Political battles were all over the news and none of it was within shouting distance of reality. And so I quit. One person can change the world. But it's a pretty time consuming process. And I've got shit to do. So I just let it all go. I stopped watching The Daily Show, stopped reading Reason magazine and confined my reading of newspapers to the sports section. When a friend goes on a political rant on Facebook, I skip over it.
And I've never felt better. My tension is dropping and I have more free time since I'm not actively sucking up all of that bile anymore. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made. Sure, part of me still worries about the hell on earth those politicians are going to bring about eventually. But since I'm not willing to wade into the sewer with them, I might as well enjoy the rest of life. Good riddance to them.