BOOK REVIEW: Moving Politics

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In Moving Politics, Deborah B. Gould analyzes the emergence of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the direct action advocacy group that fought for medical research and healthcare for people living with AIDS. ACT UP emerged in New York City in 1987 and waned in influence by 1995. The strength of the book rests on her ability to analyze the emotions at the center of ACT UP which in turn opens a new framework for understanding social moments. She argues against an existing paradigm that only considers the logical or rational base of people’s interest in social movements by positing that emotion is key to understanding the “multifaceted picture of human beingness” (18) that shapes social movements and political activism.

Gould first documents the emergence of AIDS from 1981 to 1986, and second, explains why ACT UP emerged in 1987 and not sooner. She uses a wealth of primary sources including major media outlets as well as local gay and lesbian publications to get at the gay community’s practical and emotional response at the onset of AIDS. She found that during the years 1981 to 1986 the gay and lesbian community expressed feelings of pride in themselves for their ability to care for one another, expressed love towards gay brothers and sisters and compassion for the dying. Political action during these years involved candlelit vigils. Gould argues that throughout these years the gay community expressed an ambivalent pride that masked a deep shame about their homosexuality, a shame that led them to accept AIDS as a just punishment. Men living with AIDS did not feel that they deserved better treatment from the non-gay community or the government, so people with AIDS feared asking “too much” of a society that had rejected them because of their homosexuality.

Gould argues that the emotion in the gay community shifted from private shame to anger in 1986 and eventually to action by early 1987. The Supreme Court ruled on June 30, 1986 in the case Bowers v Hardwick that homosexuals did not have the right to engage is consensual sex in the privacy of their homes. Gould explains how a court case that had nothing to do with AIDS, galvanized the gay community to assert demands and medical treatment for people with AIDS. The case felt like a “declaration of war” (122) and rhetoric within the gay community quickly turned militant, even among gays and lesbians whose lives had not been affected by the disease. Nationwide the gay and lesbian community responded to the ruling with anger and a call to take to the streets. For the first time since the outbreak of AIDS, gay men and women rallied to protest decisions at the highest levels of government. This intermediate step of protest soon led to staged sit-ins, traffic disruptions, and marches to demand that the government finally acknowledge the heath crisis, develop medication, and provide financial support for health care and education. Men and women formed ACT UP once the emotion within the gay community changed. Gould asserts that this emotional shift, not simply logic and reason, played a key role in how the gay community responded to AIDS.

Gould acknowledges the class and racial elements at play during the years of ACT UP. White, middle class men predominantly made up the membership of ACT UP, which in turn shaped the priorities of the organization. Gould shows how these men felt a sense of entitlement to health care and insurance and felt indignation when for the first time in their lives the government would not listen to them or respond to their grievances. When white men did gain access to medical treatment, women and people of color within ACT UP accused them of not doing enough to help others in the group who were not white males. Gould argues that the various emotions surrounding class and race within the leadership of the organization led to internal conflicts and “fracturing solidarity” (268). As the death toll of people with AIDS continued to rise and as the fault lines of class and race made clearer distinctions among people within ACT UP, Gould argues that the emotions shifted once again. Anger gave way to despair, the emotion that she claims was the movement’s undoing (395).

Moving Politics uses a powerful theoretical framework to study the history and effectiveness of a social movement by arguing that emotions and not solely rationality change the course of social movements. By paying close attention to the importance of emotions in how humans make choices, Gould complicates the narrative surrounding social movements that posits reason and rational thinking as the driving forces behind their organization. Instead she argues that complicated emotions play a central role in human action or inaction. She opens up important avenues for understanding how social movements begin and change over time. The book also helps frame questions that can be applied to other social movements today. For example, what emotions have influenced the gay community’s attitude in the national debate over marriage equality? Are the emotions at play in complimentary social movements the same? How have emotions within anti-gay movements shifted and what caused that shift? Using Gould’s theory these questions can be asked and answered.

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