Sunday Late Night: “You Gotta Give ‘Em Hope”
Imagine Harvey Milk at 81. Today would be Harvey’s eighty-first birthday, and it is the second annual Harvey Milk Day in California and elsewhere, where like-minded people gather.
Tom Ammiano, now a California Assemblyman and long ago Harvey’s comrade-in-arms against the Briggs Initiative to ban gay schoolteachers throughout California, reflected one year ago in front of Harvey’s camera shop how his old pal might have reacted to today’s political players, specifically Sarah Palin: “Hate your politics, love your shoes.”
On a much more serious note, though, Tom also points out that Harvey Milk and George Moscone were brutally murdered amidst an American culture of violence and gunplay that was this year recalled by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after January’s Phoenix, AZ, deaths and woundings.
Only days before the two City Hall assassinations, San Francisco had been rocked, first, by the faraway assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan on a runway in Guyana (as well as the wounding of his aide, future Congresswoman Jackie Speier) and then horrified by the mass deaths of more than 900 followers of Jim Jones, the charismatic cult leader and local SF preacher who had lured City residents to Guyana and eventually to their deaths.
Hope was in short supply.
But Hope springs eternal. Or is at least repackaged and sold as New & Improved.
While Harvey Milk has been commodified into a major motion picture starring Sean Penn, and commercialized on mugs and T-shirts for sale at the HRC store on the corner of 18th and Castro, and co-opted by President Hope&Change in a Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, it’s important to remember who Harvey Milk really was: an active and persistent change agent, a worrisome trouble-maker who ran against the establishment, a precious and promiscuous gay man who was generous with his charms and liberal in his politics. He fought to ensure teachers’ sexual orientation was irrelevant — when that was no easy fight.
Harvey was no one’s establishment figure, despite the suits and dress shoes he learned to wear in City Hall. He used those suits to get the respect of people who respected only suited politicians, and then campaigned for the second law he introduced, wearing them and stepping in dog poop in Duboce Park to win attention to his ‘pooper scoop’ cause. Attention that went national on that issue alone, by the way.
Harvey was a rebel, a thorn in the side of those defending the status quo. He knew how to use the tools respected by the powerful — a wingtip brougham, for instance — to get the attention he needed for his proposals. No one in office, or in power, or on the side of the moneyed interests was ever happy with Harvey Milk. He believed with all his heart that the young people far from our sophisticated urban centers deserved the inspiration he knew firsthand they drew from reading about the flamboyant gay Supervisor from San Francisco.
Harvey Milk had plenty of comfort to spare for the afflicted, but he damn sure afflicted the comfortable as best he could. Wouldn’t Harvey be horrified at the oligarchy, the plutocracy that sets — and benefits from — almost all American policy today?
I don’t presume to speak for him — others have done and deserve to do so — but I was reminded of Harvey when Bill Moyers wrote yesterday:
Again, it’s the Net where I base my hope. In the l840s we had a highly contentious “media” based on a thousand or more little papers around the country started by individuals who could print their pamphlets and spread them hand-to-hand; they were feisty, defiant, sometimes garish and nativist worse, but they kept people talking; that’s an early metaphor, I think, of what the Net is. There are things to do — like supporting Firedoglake and other sites with a sufficient subscriber base to enable Jane to expand staff and technology and especially reporting. Just as PBS stations used to support themselves by really serving their publics who responded with pledges for serious programming, sites like this one have to count on their constituencies to do the same.
When I read that on Harvey Milk Eve, I was suddenly struck: Harvey embodies the values of a Firedog. He would be poking and prodding at the surveillance state; chewing out our friends for their missteps and missed chances on iENDA, UAFA, EFCA, and DOMA; spotlighting the broken promises of this Democratic President; asking ‘why not?’ in a world consumed with ‘how much?’ And he would know how to leverage political muscle by using the symbols and tokens of power to illustrate the wrongs of our American establishment.
Just like Firedoglake does. So, in Harvey Milk’s name, in his memory and to enhance his legacy of sticking it to the man (heh) I ask you: