The 2008 film Milk is a docudrama about America’s first openly gay politician. He served in the city government of San Francisco. (Where else, right?) Harvey Milk’s reputation has grown over the years. The circumstances of his demise turned him into a martyr figure. This overshadows some of his less clever moves, such as his support of Jim Jones. He wasn’t the only liberal politician who looked very silly after the People’s Temple did their final act as a death cult, but still — really, dude?
The following illustrates what the Dissident Right can learn from this example of someone going against the grain. I’ll expand on that and throw in some interminable digressions. Note well, I do distrust Hollywood hagiographies, but I’ll resist the temptations to discuss propaganda agendas and quote from After The Ball. Moreover, I don’t recall that being gay in the 1970s was quite as scandalous as it’s made out to be in the film, though surely a lot had to do with one’s personal circumstances.
For some background on this, Harvey Milk’s successes were the result of much effort, but they didn’t occur in a vacuum. Obviously, this was part of a larger cause. Some of the groundwork already had been done by his time. It would be an interesting thought experiment to consider what gay advocacy would’ve been if it had developed from a Libertarian perspective. I do have my misgivings about them, but their talking points would’ve been quite suitable for the task. However, the beginnings were much different, which set another tone entirely. It didn’t start with the Stonewall riots, as is generally believed, but rather in 1950 with the Mattachine Society. One of Harvey Milk’s former boyfriends was a member; apparently, he got across the idea that organized activism was the way to go.
This organization put on a clean-cut image, yet had some secrets underneath. One of them was that the founders who became the leading figures were Communists, beginning with Harry Hay himself. The long-term effects of starting as a front group meant that the GLBT movement emerged as one of the layers rolled into the cultural Marxism burrito. Effectively, the possibility of independence as a single-issue cause was sacrificed in return for widespread solidarity from the rest of that burrito. Maybe drawing on mutual support got better results than going it alone would’ve done — just saying!
Another legacy of their Communist beginnings was a good grasp of operational security. Because of this, an FBI investigation about the Mattachine Society fizzled out. Presently, I fear that too many people on our side don’t take opsec as seriously as they should. Mistakes like careless talk or bringing cell phones to sensitive gatherings should be avoided. Not doing anything illegal or wrong doesn’t mean that there aren’t those in the opposition who would resort to dirty tricks, so basic due diligence is in order.
Wille zur Macht
The film opens with a montage of a vice squad bust on New Year’s Day of 1967. At a bar, six orderly and well-dressed partygoers are arrested and crammed into a paddy wagon. This much seems pretty harsh. The scene afterward opens with Harvey Milk making a tape to be played in case he’s killed. That’s serious business, of course — and so it came to pass.
The story itself opens with Harvey in a subway station in NYC. Through a successful gaydar ping, he scores a hookup on his birthday which becomes a long-term relationship. (I’ll add that the actor is convincing in the role, and his thespianism is good enough for me temporarily to overlook my profound lack of enthusiasm about Sean Penn as a person.) During the pillow talk scene, it turns out that he’s still in the closet at work. He says, “I’m 40 years old and I haven’t done a thing that I’m proud of.” There are many folks out there who can relate to that much!
They go on a long road trip to the other coast, showing what appears to be some real footage from the journey. The destination is San Francisco. It was rather iconic even then, partly thanks to Scott McKenzie’s famous song. I’ll add that the city certainly has its charms. For one thing, the Lady of the Sea — however one wishes to style Her — has a palpable presence there. The film otherwise is a good look at the city before it got overrun by small-souled bugmen and urban campers pooping in the street. Another good cinematic data point is Foul Play; silly moments notwithstanding, it certainly captures the spirit of 1978.
In any event, upon arrival, the Haight-Ashbury district turned out to be a little grubby. (One might ask, of course, what did they expect?) There are too many druggies and criminals. Soon after, the boyfriend is sucking on a joint — looks like they’re not helping the situation! They open a camera shop in the Castro, but get a frosty reception. However, they hold their ground, despite prevailing public opinion and the law.
They act as trendsetters and do their part to remake the neighborhood their way. If the movie is telling the story accurately, they singlehandedly initiated an entryist strategy, started changing the character of the Castro district, and their friends became the dominant force there. (Surely there’s a lesson to be had in this!) They stood their ground and peacefully took over a neighborhood right in the middle of a major city. They didn’t have to find a remote wilderness area to get away from it all, now did they? I’ll have to say that entryism is much better than what the CHAZ/CHOP nitwits did recently.
It was our area, our own neighborhood. The police hated us, and we hated them right back. They would come in and attack us and beat us just for fun, and that wouldn’t stop us. I made a list of the shops that were friendly to us and shops that weren’t. The shops that worked with us thrived, and those that didn’t went out of business; closed their doors.
Solidarity brings some follow-on benefits. Allan Baird, a Teamsters labor leader, joins with Harvey Milk to organize a boycott of Coors. After merely a week of pressure, the Teamsters allow openly gay truck drivers. “We weren’t just a bunch of pansies anymore.” On that note, what would happen if all Dissident Rightists, and even anyone with a little bit of awareness, quit doing business with corporations that hate us? Maybe we could do business with each other instead.
The film shows that the police often were hostile. Harvey, after a particularly bad incident, doctors his injured boyfriend. He says that they need a sympathetic figure in the government who can look out for their interests, just as the black community has. “Politics is theater. It doesn’t matter so much about winning. You make a statement; you say ‘I’m here,’ get their attention.” I’d place a higher priority on winning (the Leftists certainly figured this out by now too), but one must walk before one can run.
The gays in the neighborhood start carrying whistles so that if there’s trouble, they could summon help quickly. It’s necessary, since the cops are indifferent at best. The lesson here is that within a planned community, an emergency response system can be quite helpful for anyone else who might anticipate hostiles among the public and spotty protection from the law at best. Reacting to the latest police bust, Harvey Milk announces his candidacy for city supervisor. We could be doing things like that too. Although our ambitions ultimately go much higher, there’s value in local politics, and one must start somewhere.
Kampfzeit in the Castro
Then it shows him pounding the pavement. (Surely that’s a lot of work, though this is what it takes to generate grassroots support, especially if a candidate isn’t backed by a political machine.) He’s not a single-issue candidate, but instead, he has a broad platform. Generally, it amounts to fiscal responsibility and fairly inoffensive liberalism.
He does run into nay-sayers. A couple of gay characters in the film have equivalents among certain areas of the Dissident Right. The young rent boy seems apathetic and black-pilled. He moved to San Francisco because he didn’t fit in back in Phoenix, but disbelieves that anything can be changed. The civil rights lawyer is what we’d call an optics cuck. He has money and owns a magazine, but he uses his influence sparingly and places his faith in mainstream candidates — specifically, the most charming Dianne Feinstein. He thinks an openly gay candidate can’t win. Harvey replies: “I am not a candidate. I am part of a movement. The movement is the candidate.” There are some of us who need a similar insight; we have to be in this for the common cause, rather than personal glory or other recognition.
Milk lost the election, coming in at tenth out of thirty candidates running for six seats. Still, at least he got some recognition from it. He tried again in the next election, this time making efforts to present a clean-cut image. He still lost, but by a narrower margin. Then he ran for the California state assembly. The night before the election, he meets the hustler from Phoenix again, who this time has enthusiasm. (Eventually, the civil rights lawyer comes around too.) They lose the election by a thin margin, but there’s hope for the future. There is a proposal to make city supervisor positions geographical, rather than at-large, and one of them will be favorably gerrymandered.
Even so, Harvey is discouraged. News coverage about Florida’s Anita Bryant weighs heavily on his mind; she led a successful effort to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. If things weren’t serious enough, he gets a call from a despondent kid in Minnesota who wants to end it all. His parents are about to institutionalize him, and he can’t walk away since he’s in a wheelchair. The Anita Bryant brouhaha quickly leads to a tense situation locally. His community looks to him, so he leads the crowd in a spontaneous demonstration. Outside of any ideological considerations, tenacity like that is admirable. His next election attempt is a success.
After Milk’s Machtergreifung
The beginning of his term seems rather charmed. Things are relatively uneventful at this point, or so it seems. Flip-flopping on a deal with Dan White is one of the things that led to him becoming a deadly enemy.
Then trouble arises on the horizon with a California ballot initiative to exclude gay teachers. Harvey argues that the only way to defeat it would be for gays to reveal their identity en masse. Some are reluctant to out themselves, but he reasons that it’s important to take this step so that the public sees that gays are people they know rather than an unseen “other”.
There’s an obvious parallel with the Dissident Right here. It’s hard to gauge how many among the public agree with us, be it fully or partially. The System’s posture is rather paradoxical. They consider normal white people possessing ethnic solidarity to be some kind of dreadful threat beyond anything else. Meanwhile, they say we’re a tiny fringe with no popular support. (Well, which is it?) Obviously, trying to gaslight us this way benefits them. Moreover, fear of ostracism or financial ruin causes most of their opposition to keep quiet — “go along to get along.” The problem is that not pushing back is part of what got us in this mess. However, if everyone stood up at once, then the intimidation tactics would stop working. The situation is similar to the ideological conformity in Warsaw Pact countries, where opposition was widespread but kept underground by tremendous official pressure. Morgoth’s discussion on “Havel’s Greengrocer And Conforming Individuals” provides further insights on this.
The film shows Milk getting a local gay rights ordinance passed. He also debates John Briggs, a proponent of the statewide initiative. All throughout, the “Religious Right” figures are portrayed as shrill and rather inarticulate, and easily get owned by anyone who challenges them. (I’m tempted to add some further points, but I’m focusing mainly on tactics rather than politics and morality.) During that time, his new boyfriend hangs himself. Obviously that’s quite grim, but the show must go on. The only good news is that he hears from the kid from Minnesota, who decided to live and escaped to LA. Then, despite dire prognostications, the statewide referendum fails.
The increasingly embittered Dan White resigns from his position. Shortly after, he tries to take back the decision, but Mayor Moscone refuses after Harvey tells him that going along with it would cost him all his gay support. Dan goes postal and whacks both the mayor and Harvey. Milk became a martyr figure after the “Twinkie defense” trial delivered a relatively light sentence, resulting in five years served. (Still, that’s obviously more time than OJ Simpson got for double murder.) The assassination didn’t have anything to do with gay politics, but from their perspective, as the Germans might say, “Er marschiert in Geist in unsern Reihen mit.”
The Gleichschaltung is complete
Whatever one’s opinions are about the phenomenon, obviously Harvey Milk and his supporters were very tenacious and influential. They went from getting hassled by cops to achieving power at the local level, after which they could help defeat a state referendum. If he were still around, he’d say that the movement had exceeded his expectations.
By now, it’s hardly unfair to say that the GLBTs have become the 800-pound gorilla in San Francisco politics. On the national level, they can dictate terms to society, even despite opposition from evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives who outnumber them greatly. They went from being the love that dare not speak its name to the people who refuse to take “yes” for an answer. If they can do all that, what about us?
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Excellent review; Milk’s career give the Right much to ponder in terms of strategy.
It occurs to me that the problem with (or motive for) making Stonewall the start of “gay liberation” is that it insinuates that being violent and obnoxious is a winning strategy.
Imagine if Milk had followed the Far Right paradigm:
Create organization (make sure to collect as much info as possible on members) with a scary name and scary uniforms.
Mail threatening letters full of logos and slogans to random straight people. “We’re coming for you!”
Physically attack notably straight people “as examples.” Just do something!
Organize demonstrations to maximize opportunities to repeat the Stonewall rush.
After years of failure and “milking” the members, announce you are really straight, perhaps working for the FBI, and embark on new career as expert on “far gay extremism.”
Rinse and repeat.
Speaking of SF in movies, HTF did San Francisco go from Dirty Harry’s playground to today?
They eventually did go full speed ahead with the bad optics, just not in the beginning. (Assless chaps on parade are orders of magnitude more “out there” than Hugo Boss uniforms.) Even Harry Hay himself eventually revealed what he was really all about, and not just his radicalinski politics. Then there was that ACT-UP stunt around 1986 or 1987, and their reputation didn’t suffer. All that turned out to be just for starters.
Yeah, I was gonna say, they saved that stuff for later. OTOH, they had to shunt that stuff off to the sidelines with the whole AIDS thing. I recall the line in the 70s was all about “Homo is better because we can have all the sex we want and never bother with marriage or worry about pregnancy unlike you breeders,” to the extent that testing and closing bath houses were considered assaults on civil liberties (unlike today’s COVID hysteria). Ultimately they had to change the narrative (like the Communist Party went from non-intervention to pro-war after Hitler invaded Russia) to “We always wanted to get married and raise children” because what really mattered was being used as shock troops for the Left’s plan to destroy society with “civil rights!” demands, the content of the demand being irrelevant.
On my blog, I reviewed “And the Band Played On”. The early AIDS crisis was a colossal train wreck; it’s grim picture indeed. Shilts himself seems to have been one of the few sane voices. SFO’s gay community was being consumed by a horror, but many of them just didn’t want to listen or take some reasonable precautions to protect themselves. All this “libertinism full speed ahead” stuff unfolded not long after Harvey Milk’s quest for fair representation.
Anyway, the ACT-UP business I mentioned was when they threatened to send the infected to donate at blood banks unless they got their way. I remember the headlines from that one. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that threats like that are illegal. I don’t recall anyone coming forward to say “those guys don’t speak for me” but it would’ve been a nice touch.
Are/were you a San Franciscan? You seem to have a lot of familiarity with that city.
I’ve been there, but I don’t live there. (I’m not rich enough to rent a shoebox in California!) There are some aspects of SFO I really do like, and I’d be happy to stop by again some time.
Have you read Daniel Flynn’s book Cult City? Harvey Milk, another Jewish cultural subversive (this was not mentioned above), was a real POS:
I haven’t read the book. I figured that the movie sort of airbrushed his image to one degree or another. Hollywood historiography tends to do that.
When I think of “Milk”, I always think of “Milch”, general of the
Reich. Strange that they did not abandon him to extermination?
Jews have strangely funny names. Some are even called cow or calf, which is not far from milk.
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