Sarah Schulman: An American Witness
Part 2: Occupy Student Debt, and the Beauty of Being Uncomfortable

For many activists Sarah Schulman is an important source of meaningful and effective lessons in social change. For more than ten years, her and her long time collaborator Jim Hubbard have been interviewing members of ACT UP, for their ACT UP Oral History Project, ensuring the experience of the seminal AIDS activist group are lost in history. Earlier this year, The New York Times published Schulman’s deftly researched op-ed, “Pinkwashing” and Israel’s Use of Gays as a Messaging Tool to frenzied response. Later this year a slate of films, books and creative projects about the early days of AIDS, including United in Anger, a film produced by Schulman, and directed by Hubbard, will be released. Schulman’s influence cannot be understated. 

In the last part of this two part interview Schulman discusses the Occupy movement, what makes a good social movement and shares her thoughts on the narcissism of some writers, and the importance of being uncomfortable.  


12th Street: You and Jim have spent more than 10 years collecting hours of interviews for the ACT UP ORAL HISTORY PROJECT, now you are starting it see footage show up in culture. While you see this as progress in your book you talk about what is missing from the PROJECT so far…

Sarah:  …the suffering. Yeah, our film addresses that. One of the things we did in the film is that every time someone speaks who died of AIDS, their death dates come up underneath them. The viewer starts to calculate the person’s age. At a certain point, the viewer realizes most people died at 26. Once they take that in they start to understand these people are being interviewed during the last year of life, they are spending to their dying day fighting the AIDS epidemic.

We have shown it to friends who have gone through similar experiences, people who have spent the last 20 years saying all of my friends died, and finally others begin to understand what that means.

Certain things that were not conveyable become conveyable.

12th Street: Yeah, my 33rd birthday is coming up and I realized I am not allowed to complain about getting older because if I was born 20 years earlier I would be closeted, dead, or burying all my friends. I think about this because I am seeing people my age and younger discover ACT UP. It’s exciting, but also upsetting because it the times gets reduced to images…

Sarah: Look this can never be fixed, okay. I will always walk into a room and see all the people that are not there. Younger people will not see who is not there. That is always going to be the case. And it is the same with any mass death experience.

I will show you a photo of my ancestors. Have I shown you this already?  (Sarah walks to her bedroom, turns around comes back with a framed black and white photo. We stand in the doorway between her bedroom and the living room). This is my great grandfather, my beloved Grandmother who raised me, and her two sisters, who were exterminated in the holocaust, and her brother who was exterminated, and her niece who went to Auschwitz and survived. I was raised on this, I look in a room and I know who was not there. (Sarah turns around and puts the picture down, and comes back.) All my life they have not been there. So I know how to do it. There are plenty of people who don’t know how to do that, and they are never going to know.

When Florentine Stettheimer died she was one of the last Surrealists. She died at like 88 and I think about how she lived to see her entire art movement historicized. She lived to see who was in the canon and who wasn’t and all the distortions. I have also lived to see that. I have watched and seen the AIDS cannon be identified and it is very weird. Except it is very truncated. Everyone died in their 20s and 30s. I saw it 50 years earlier than I should have seen it.

12th Street: Do you have any thoughts on the Occupy Movement?

Sarah: I am very happy they are there. It is very exciting. I agree with Noam Chomsky, I wish they would have at least one concrete demand. If it were up to me I would pick eliminating student debt. This is a strategic choice. The 99% is really a false construction, as soon as you get into any privilege at all it breaks down, but I would say almost all of them have student debt. And I think we could have cultural agreement that student debt is very undermining to the entire advancement of the nation. It is the kind of demand that could actually be won and would require enormous transformation to be won, similar to domestic violence laws, and the status of people with AIDS. It would be huge and I think it would be winnable.

12th Street: That’s an ACT UP strategy right – winnable goals?

Sarah: It predates ACT UP. Successful, popular movements have winnable goals.

On the other hand, there is also a whole American tradition of utopian movements, utopian socialists and anarchists and hippies – Occupy could be part of that. And those movements tend to be most effective when they are in coalition with agenda oriented movements. But on their own, I am not sure what they produce.

I think about the hippie movement. It produced yoga, Pilates, yogurt and green consciousness but even green conscious has not produced social change. There is a subculture of people who recycle and eat organic food but we don’t have systemic social transformation around those issues in the United States. So I am concerned that if Occupy does not come up with something they will face so much police violence they will dissipate.

12th Street: Do you see a relationship between ACT UP and Occupy?

Sarah: They are strategically opposite movements. What they have in common is disenfranchised people objecting, but their tactics are completely opposed. Everything ACT UP did was towards a stated goal that was winnable and doable. Occupy is the opposite and they are insisting on that as their way, and their right. I am willing to wait and see what happens I just hope that they don’t get crushed.

12th Street: Do you see Occupy’s strategy as queer?

Sarah: No. I think that having winnable doable goals backed up by direct action is a strategy of profoundly repressed people in crisis. Gandhi used it, Martin Luther King used it, and the Labor movement used it. People who have to have change or they will die use it.

12th Street: I agree. I was hoping Occupy would be queerer but it isn’t. Occupy could be crushed because those leading, their lives are not on the line. Come springtime I am not sure what it will be like.

Sarah: Yeah I am not sure, when I look at my students; they’re in terrible shape. They cannot get jobs at all.

12th Street: Are they part of Occupy?

Sarah: No they have not even heard of it.

12th Street: I think that is a failure of the Occupy movement.

Sarah: If their issue was student debt then students would be attracted to it. That is what constituency politics is all about. You invite a constituency to make their own lives better by participating in a movement that offers them a concrete advantage.

12th Street: There is that line in your book after you outline what is wrong with the MFA structure where you state that one hundred radical students could have real impact. It made me curious about your thoughts on the role of writing in creating change. Do you think writers have a different responsibility than others in creating change?

Sarah: They have the same responsibility as others, which many writers don’t want. They want special dispensation. They have the responsibility. If you are an artist you have an individual voice, you have a responsibility to act individually, but as a person you have a responsibility to act with others. And many artists don’t want to but they have to. Artists are the only ones who conceptualize doing exactly the thing they want to do as somehow enough. You know what I mean; there is a little narcissism there.

12th Street: Seems like a good time to discuss your ideas around ‘The Pleasure of Uncomfortability’.

Sarah: I am not very responsive to New Age ideologies, the idea that everything is the way it should be, we must be grateful, things will be what they are suppose to be. It’s all crap, and it is a multi billion-dollar industry. This is an ideology, rooted in pretending everything is neutral and as it should be, that all of our supremacy ideology is constructed naturally and that we should just embrace it. And if you are a person outside of that and you try to change it you are inherently negative. It is a false construction.

So if you are ACT UP and you’re sitting in at the pharmaceutical company headquarters, you are the bad person because you are ruining their day, whereas what they are doing is just business as usual – so they are (thought of as) good. It is a flipped value system. The gesture towards justice is stigmatized and the maintenance of injustice is considered normative. All of new age culture is based on these ideas.

And I was thinking why does this appeal to people. Simultaneously I was thinking of my life; me saying that’s something is wrong is always constructed as the problem, not the fact that it is wrong.  Saying homophobia in the family should be eradicated is creating a problem, not homophobia. This is the same construction. It is false stigmatization. Behind all of this is a very gentrified idea that we should all be totally comfortable all the time and if we are ever ill at ease or question ourselves, or not have the answer to something, then that is negative feeling and that is something to be avoided at all costs. That is why we sanitize, homogenize, have a police state, have television the way it is. It is why the entertainment industry is based on the repetition of the bland. It is all profound efforts to keep us from questioning ourselves in a way that is uncomfortable – which is of course what we should all be doing.

Lets enjoy being uncomfortable. Lets enjoy figuring out there are things we can ask ourselves, that there are contradictions, there are ways to change and alter, that others have different points of view. These are beautiful things, this is what it is to be an intellectual, and an artist and a citizen, and a live person. So lets value being uncomfortable. And lets devalue this banalizing anesthetizing that is now falsely considered desirable.

12th Street: It seems like a through line in your work.

Sarah:  Yeah, well the work I have been doing with Palestine, believe me I have had to face some things that are not pleasant about how I was indoctrinated by my family. They told me things that were not true that they thought were true. So I was raised and taught that there was no one in Israel when the Jews came, that the desert was empty, that the Palestinians left of their own free will. All these lies I was raised with have taken me my whole life to undo. I am confronting a false hero paradigm that my whole family was invested in because, as you know, I come from a family where four of my grandmother’s sisters and brothers as well as my grandfather’s sister were exterminated in the Holocaust. Because I am going though it now and I understand what it is like. I really know that anyone can do it.

12th Street: Because you have been through it with your family in terms of the Israeli issue and homophobia?

Sarah: …but with homophobia I am the disadvantaged person, when it comes to Israel I am the advantaged person. Not only am I Jewish, I am Ashkenazi, the privileged group that has most benefitted from Zionism and its construction, and yet even then I can do this. I can face that these things are not true. I can face I am not superior. I don’t deserve these privileges, other people are my equals. I have responsibilities to them. So if I can face that, anyone can.

12th Street: What is the best way to share the pleasure of being uncomfortable?

Sarah: By example.