kearns, aids-write, havvacc: cultural crisis — what better chains bind us (reprint) (0084)

cultural crisis: what better chains bind us?
by richard kearns

i am an aids shaman. i am an artist. i am a creator of culture. i am political. film in later installments.


i ran into a remarkable book early in 2004, right after i’d been released from cedars-sinai.

at the west hollywood public library, of all places.

inbetween the poems and pieces of fiction, the anthology of canadian native literature in english editors daniel david moses and terry goldie have pulled together some very engaging and articulate texts about art, culture and politics during the indigenous american cultural renaissance that is currently thriving in north america.

be a shaman/artist with me here for a sec. listen metaphorically.

“cultural development as a political strategy is a viable vehicle for change,” says poet, painter, first nations political activist and journalist duke redbird, in an essay titled “modern métis consciousness,” an excerpt from his interdisciplinary dissertation at york university, “we are métis.”

in it, redbird recalls “the fifth annual convention of the native council of canada. the spokesman for the british columbia delegation, disturbed by the inclusion of cultural activities at a convention whose theme was unity and aboriginal rights, stated: ‘our homes are going to be torn up by pipelines, hydro developments, and various other things, and we’re fiddle-farting around with jigging contests. i just don’t understand.’ another delegate from alberta responded immediately: ‘as for jigging and contests—i’m for that. i’m a jigger. i’m a fiddler, and i don’t want any sucker to tell me that i can’t do that any time, any place. that’s part of my culture and i’ll fight anybody that says it’s not part of my culture.’”

redbird argues the case for “those who believe that active political posturing can only make things difficult”:

“if you take the establishment head-on,” he says, “you are just indicating to them ways of making better chains for you. to meet them head-on is just suicide. what you have to do is approach the whole thing obliquely. you have to change people’s ideas, and the only way you can do that is through the media. you have to attack on a cultural, rather than political level.”

what did you hear?

i ran with what i heard.

the first thing i was reminded of was the anger, disbelief and frustration in the voices of the rationalists among us, when they called for the closing of bathhouses in the mid-80s. in particular, i recalled randy shiltz and larry kramer.

i thought of the silent response of the hedonists among us, who are nameless and legion.

together, we struggled with issues of cultural motive, principled behavior and self-determination. we behaved as a community sharing an indistinct but unrepressable cultural identity. a cultural ethos.

what is the character of our recent history? more ironic, i think, than tragic or paradoxical.

there was a time when i hoped for a cure. many of us agitated for a cure.act up—larry kramer, again—was recently rated by readers and ediors as one of the top ten most influential crusaders for social justice in the united states during the past thirty years. act up defined aids as a political issue, not merely a medical issue, not not somebody else’s quiet problem. act up used a strategy that martin luther king jr. once called “direct action” political confrontation to foment for accesssibility to medicines and agitate for a cure.

in what condition do we find ourselves now? what better chains bind us?

  • in the united states, among those wealthy enough to be able to afford insurance, hivers live (when they do live) in a suspended state of sickness, serviced by an industry whose own economic self-interests are more important to it than the saving of our lives.
  • outside the united states? you can’t buy, you die. and die. and die. and die. ownership of intellectual property is far more important than keeping third-world riff-raff alive. and they’ll all probably want to eat if they’re going to be alive anyway—one thing just leads to another.
  • a vaccine for all of us? we don’t care. we can’t be bothered. nobody cares.

to our great shame.

actually, i think of larry kramer a lot when i think of the creation of culture as a political strategy. i think of larry kramer when i think about shaman/artists mythologizing experience as part of a legitimate, powerful political response to injustice and foolhardiness.


thenormal heart.

just say no—a play about farce .

reports from the holocaust: the making of an aids activist.

we must love one another or die: the life and legacies of larry kramer.

i still want to read the tragedy of today’s gays. i read a transcript of kramer’s speech in november of last year, right after bush has been re-elected. i’m sure that speech forms the core of his new book. i just haven’t been able to afford a copy yet. maybe this weekend.

art creates culture. art is also inherently political. in both ways, art generates new ideas. it doesn’t simply educate us, or make our surroundings decoratively niftier. more on that later.

i cannot reconcile myself to dual citizenship in a gay community on the upscale west side of town, an aids community in the trashy east side of town, and a chasm for my heart inbetween. i am one person. i live in one place. a single spirit moves my heart and yours, and lends us strength.

as gay persons, how can we fail to be anything other than simultaneously proud and horrified at the rich, extraordinary and contradictory actions—deeds—of our brothers and sisters in infection? those qualities are in us every one, our grist and our pig-headedness, all at once. look upon their exploits and recognize yourself.

own your reality, there on the inside.

know the truth of it.

of course it’s painful.

it’s hard to know what hurts more, the greatness or the folly.

as a gay person, with or without aids, how can my home be elsewhere? is this not the city where i struggled to grow up all my life? the city that raised me? are you not my brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and neices and nephews and aunts and uncles and grandparents? if you are not my kith and kin, where are the people my heart remembers?

i have not fled. i have not become invisible or untouchable. you have. and you brought your pain with you when you ran—didn’t you?

come back to me.

i may be your weakness, but i am also your strength. i might be your fear, but i am also your courage. i am your death. i am your medicine. i am your cure. i am your journey. i am your life in life.

i believe in you. we are mutually empowered by our belief in one another. this is faith—belief in god has nothing to do with it.

save yourself. save us both. believe in me.

and let us welcome each other home.

are we a palpable cultural entity? are we a body politic? do we live in a common cultural territory? should we?

what is the relationship between identity, culture and political activism? is it possible to be a fully-realized gay person without political activism (as opposed to being a fully-realized homosexual)? do we believe it’s important to be engaged politically in order to define ourselves culturally? can you live a gay life and be unaffected by aids? can you live a human life and be unaffected by aids? can you catch aids by talking about it?

yes. yes. yes. yes. identity, culture and political activism are facets of the same gem. no. i do. no. no. i don’t know—maybe.

at least, like sash, that’s what i think right now.

how shall we be free?

another time.

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