Free Expression, Patriotism & Zoe Strauss at the White House
I do not know photographer Zoe Strauss though I have posted here - more or less without comment - on her work.* Strauss, it seems, has created a bit of a fracas by posting this photo of herself on Facebook. In the snapshot she is attending a White House reception for LGBT activists last week. And Strauss is expressing her, to my mind wholly justified, estimation of Ronald Reagan whose portrait hangs behind her.
Two things are important here. First, let's not re-write history. While he was president, Reagan was, simply put, a reactionary bigot regarding the AIDS epidemic which, we should recall, erupted with full force during his administration. There is no need to retell the sordid tale, but if you are interested start here and here and here. There is no reason whatsoever to "respect" a president, former or current, for ignorance and inaction in the face of a lethal epidemic. Even if, as some on the right would like to do, one wanted to rationalize Reagan's long silence in the face of the epidemic, it is difficult to excuse the repressive, ineffective policies he advocated once he did open his mouth. This 1987 graphic from the ACT UP archives suggests how activists at the time viewed 'the gipper.' I see no reason to revise their estimation.
Second, gay Republicans - to say nothing of the mouthpieces in the right wing media - are getting their knickers in a knot about Strauss's action. Here is Christian Berle, a pooh-bah of sorts among the Log Cabin Republicans:
"It is unfortunate that the image conservative America is seeing today of LGBT people is of gay leftists misbehaving at the White House, rather than the millions of patriotic, decent LGBT citizens, many of whom, like Log Cabin Republicans, hold President Ronald Reagan in high esteem. . . . These photographs have hurt our community and make advocating for inclusion and equality more difficult. The participants should be ashamed."It is really difficult to know where to start with this bit of nonsense. One obvious problem is that gays and lesbians have not attained such equality as they have to date by being polite. Another problem, of course, is that there is nothing unpatriotic about criticizing a president or, for that matter, the presidency more generally. Nothing whatsoever. So let us not be hypocritical. I wonder what Mr. Berle (and his Foxy friends) might say about this image, made by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei.
Is it OK for dissidents from repressive Communist regimes to express their discontent - the bird in this image is the photographer's own middle digit - with human rights policies emanating from the White House? If not, why not? If so, do we only support dissent by foreigners urging some president or other to be tough on communists?
Zoe Strauss exercised her right to free speech. Good for her.
* Strauss's work is largely beside the point in the current context. That said, I do like it!