Review – Schulman, “Let the Record Show”

Sarah Schulman, “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993” (2021) (read aloud by Rosalyn Coleman Williams) – Behind on reviews again! What to say about this? I haven’t read any of her novels, but it looks like Sarah Schulman leads the pack in terms of being a bona fide person of letters, a novelist, playwright, political organizing strategy writer, and historian. She writes the history of ACT UP New York as a participant, just one of numerous interesting things she’s done in her life. She’s no navel-gazer (not to say she doesn’t write about herself and her life sometimes), no ponderer of boredom and fecklessness like a lot of our writers, and she isn’t the (supposed) opposite side of the coin, either, a reductive popularizer. She just writes, clearly and forcefully, about what matters to her.

ACT UP is legendary in contemporary leftist organizing circles, and a fair few practices pioneered in the organization remain with us today. Especially coming when it did, when it looked like not only was militant organizing dead, but unmourned, it’s like this wild bolt from the blue. It wasn’t that, of course, as Schulman shows. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power- it’s something of a backronym, apparently) was the product not just of spontaneous rage and grief but of seeds planted by generations of patient organizing in the feminist, pro-choice, and gay rights movements. Older organizers, who thought they had been bypassed by the Reaganite quietist zeitgeist, and completely new participants radicalized by the crisis, combined to make ACT UP what it was.

ACT UP leveraged what it had — angry, dedicated people willing to try anything — against some of the biggest targets conceivable: the federal government, the Catholic Church, the pharmaceutical giants. They did this by throwing themselves bodily against these institutions through nonviolent direct action. The phrase “street theater” makes people — I’m one of them — roll their eyes these days. But despite the theatricality of ACT UP direct actions (and let’s face it, the people who might make us derisive towards street theater are neither good at theater or at home on streets, any street, unlike the ACT UP people), there was always a direct goal, even if there was also an eye cast towards media attention- the disruption of business as usual. If our worlds end, then your world doesn’t get to go on business as usual, either. 

They didn’t do direct actions — not just protests, but disruptions, occupations, die-ins, etc — just to make statements, or against just anyone. ACT UP calculated for strategic effect. Much of the book is taken up with ACT UP’s most concrete achievements, largely accomplished through direct action targeted at the Food and Drug Administration, and at the pharmaceutical companies. They essentially forced those groups to take treating AIDS as a serious matter and an urgent one. They got testing protocols changed so doctors weren’t giving placebos to people dying of AIDS and desperate for any kind of treatment, even experimental ones. They forced the medical profession to take AIDS in women seriously enough to expand the definition to include them- for years of the AIDS crisis, women with AIDS were brushed off basically as incidental, which is wild to me. Along with these groups, ACT UP targeted politicians and institutions who instantiated homophobia and stood in the way of teaching safe sex and other necessary measures. This led to one of their most controversial and memorable actions, disrupting a mass said by the Cardinal Archbishop of New York at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

As a former member, Sarah Schulman had substantial access to ACT UP’s membership, and so a lot of the book is made up of direct testimony from members. None of the stories she tells through these testimonies are undisputed. This was an important element of ACT UP’s culture, and one that carries through into leftist organizing to this day- a great deal of disputation occurred within the organization, and there was an emphasis on independent action. If you wanted to take an action under the ACT UP umbrella, and you were willing to organize it and get informed consent from everyone involved, then you did it- the flip side of which was, everyone would have an opinion about it, and be less than reticent about sharing. Some of the people Schulman interviewed still felt bitter about arguments within ACT UP, even thirty years on. People fighting a plague tend to have less time for niceties.

It’s impossible to tell all the stories Schulman tells here, or give all of her analysis, of things like the experience of different groups — women, people of color, drug users, artists, etc — within ACT UP, of fault lines in the group, influences on its organizing and style, and so on. The stories are thrilling but with an undertone of sadness. These were people dealing with their own deaths, and the deaths of numerous friends, lovers, family, and comrades, horrifying deaths that sapped the lives from vital people with a lot to give. They did this in a context of ignorance and bigotry, the backwash of generations homophobia swirling in the currents of the me-first ethos of ascendant neoliberal late capitalism. People didn’t want to give a fuck. Say what you want about actions like the one at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral — personally, I would have been up for giving that lousy god-bothering politician in red a pink belly, but ACT UP didn’t do violence — but they made the needs, deaths, and lives of people with AIDS impossible to ignore of dismiss, even more than the FDA stuff.

Along with just the sorrow of the dead, there are the ways in which ACT UP fell victim to, in part, the success of its model. Ideologically, it was impossible to see the AIDS fight as done in 1993, when the group split apart- it’s wrong to see it that way now, pace Schulman’s new-gay-conservative bugbear Andrew Sullivan. But between the decentralization and the concrete/tactical orientation of the group and the many personal and ideological conflicts within it exacerbated by most of a decade of intense struggle, it was impossible to keep the group together. There was enough success that a critical mass of the movement —

most notably white gay men who worked in professions that allowed them access to good health insurance — would not take the fight further. Many ACT UP organizers assumed the next step would be single payer. Their goal was to save the lives of people with AIDS, and if they were going to do that, everyone with AIDS needed health insurance, otherwise many would die from lack of treatment. What a what-if! That would have taken more than die-ins, more than ACT UP could have brought to the table on their own, but if they could have held together a little longer… but it wasn’t to be. 

Well. I don’t think it was ideological, necessarily, but organizational. ACT UP was dedicated to the principle of militant self-organization led by the most affected- in their case, by people with AIDS. There are many good reasons for this. But when you run up against things that aren’t just “systemic,” to use the increasingly vague and overused word, but fundamental, the way that capitalist control of the healthcare system is fundamental to how our society operates, there’s a question of mass. It might not be enough to be dedicated, brave, to have the right answers. Quantity has a quality all its own. ACT UP wasn’t bad at working in coalition, but that really wasn’t it was built for, certainly not the kind of disciplined mass campaign socialized medicine would have taken…

The point here isn’t to slam ACT UP, though Schulman and the people she talks to say plenty more inflammatory things about the organization than that. The point is that the experience of ACT UP, and its legacy on the contemporary organizing scene, is complex. It’s not a simple story, the sort in which Hollywood loves to put handsome white heroes in leading roles (Schulman, one of whose novels probably got ripped off by mega-hit “Rent,” has a lot to say about media representations of the AIDS crisis). To my mind, it’s something both sadder and better than that. It’s a human story, of human weakness but also of incredible dedication, courage, and the love we call solidarity. We can’t just formulaically copy ACT UP, and I tend to doubt those ACT UP veterans still with us — and there is a heart-rending roll call of beloved dead movement veterans throughout the book — would want us to. But we can learn- and we’d better. *****

Review – Schulman, “Let the Record Show”

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