Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from

This essay is dedicated, in humble gratitude, to the memory of Dr. Robert Carr.

David Cameron is in Jamaica as I write. Undoubtedly the British prime minister was expecting difficult questions on his visit: from Jamaicans, about reparations for slavery, which their government demanded he discuss; from gay men back at home, about homophobic violence on the island, which they wanted him to combat. (Jamaican LGBT advocates themselves don’t necessarily want the leader of the former slave power doing a lot of shouting on their behalf; but that’s a preference of which Peter Tatchell and his comrades take no heed.) Plus there are the questions about sex with dead pigs. Yet Cameron, far more deft than his pink-cheeked Bertie Wooster mien suggests, had a distraction ready.

Once in Kingston, Cameron announced that the UK is taking £25 million (about US$ 38 million) from its foreign aid to Jamaica to finance a vital development need: a new prison. This puts Jamaica in a small, select class of nations: the UK can force prisoners to go there. It’s worth considering what this promise means. A commerce in prisoners is spreading round the world, sometimes following the almost-erased tracks of the old slave trade. Cameron’s offer reveals the hidden economics of the traffic in human bondage.

Prisoner transfer agreements — by which two countries stipulate that citizens of one who are convicted of a crime in the other can be sent back home to serve their sentence — have been around for a long time. Usually, though, they’re voluntary agreements; they require the prisoner’s consent. And many Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Albanians serving prison terms in the UK won’t consent to return to carceral systems that are overcrowded, underrresourced, and by reputation brutal. So Cameron’s administration has been trying to bully or cajol countries into agreeing to compulsory repatriation – to take their imprisoned citizens back whether they want to go or not. One difficulty has been the usual devil-in-the-details, human rights. Experts have condemned conditions in Jamaica’s prisons for failing international benchmarks: UK prisoners facing forced repatriation there could challenge it in British courts, pointing to the threat of inhuman treatment and abuse. The UK’s solution is to build Jamaica a prison that will seem up to snuff.

No sudden moves. I'm surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

No sudden moves. I’m surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

The government of Jamaica calls the deal a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding” (it still needs parliament’s ratification) and makes it sound extremely nice: the goal is “to improve the conditions under which prisoners are held in Jamaica, consistent with best practice and international human rights standards, through the construction of a maximum-security prison in Jamaica.”  It’s true that “international human rights standards” and “maximum-security prison” are phrases not always thought seamlessly compatible, but let that pass for now. The UK government’s statement drops the happy talk and non-binding bit, and stresses that it wants a 1500-bed facility, which will house 300-plus prisoners now serving long-term sentences in Britain, with more to come in future. “The prison is expected to be built by 2020 and from then returns will get underway,” says Downing Street. “The Prisoner Transfer Agreement is expected to save British taxpayers around £10 million a year.” Cameron added that

It is absolutely right that foreign criminals who break our laws are properly punished but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the hardworking British taxpayer. That’s why this agreement is so important. It will mean Jamaican criminals are sent back home to serve their sentences, saving the British taxpayer millions of pounds but still ensuring justice is done.

That the agreement will, in his words, “help Jamaica, by helping to provide a new prison – strengthening their criminal justice system,” seems a bit of an afterthought.

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009. By RasMarley from

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009: photo by RasMarley from

The announcement did not go down well in Jamaica. The leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wondered in parliament why this was coming out of development funds, saying that “building schools contributes much more to the growth agenda than building prisons.” The youth wing of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) also condemned the agreement, pointing out that the UK is only funding 40% of the cost, the rest to be covered by Kingston; and that once the prison is built, the burden of keeping and rehabilitating the prisoners — which they estimate at J$ 365 million (about US$ 3.1 million) per year –would also fall on Jamaica’s treasury. (In fact, the Jamaican government claims, but the UK doesn’t mention, that Britain would give “a further £5.5 million towards the reintegration and resettlement of prisoners.” Anyway, if true, that would presumably be a one-shot offer.) The real discomfort about the deal in Jamaica, though, seems far deeper: drawing on the anger that rose in the reparations dispute over a past of slavery and oppression, a persistent demand for justice that shadowed Cameron’s tour. Symbolically, what does it mean for the British government to buy from Jamaica the right to export its prisoners? Are servitude and its machinery still commodities for sale? Comments on Jamaican newspaper articles ran like this:

So the communist are suppose to be the evil people. The Chinese build highway, Cuba build colleges and high school, the (former) slave masters return to build prison.

And I saw the same spirit in threads on the Facebook pages of Jamaican friends:

We dont need a prison from England. We can get a prison from elsewhere. England owe us more than a prison.

Its a damn shame and height of disrespect to our people….after dem slave we already, all dem can com offer us is prison … fuck dem bloodcloth off!!!!!!

(“Bloodcloth” is a Jamaican obscenity that I wouldn’t translate even if I thought I could.)

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

There is truth in this; prisoners are commodities. We live — so the rich remind us — on a globe that has been globalized, where everything travels and is trafficked. People travel; they become prisoners; then they travel back, under state supervision. This process is now so common that the UN has proposed a “Model Agreement on the Transfer of Foreign Prisoners“; the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers a manual on the subject; there is a European treaty on prisoner transfers, and the EU has promulgated regulations for member states. One theme pervades these documents, that “rehabilitating” prisoners is a key motive behind transfers. The EU framework decision even phrases this as a “should” — a requirement of transfers:

Enforcement of the sentence in the executing State [that is, the country receiving the transfer] should enhance the possibility of social rehabilitation of the sentenced person. In the context of satisfying itself that the enforcement of the sentence by the executing State will serve the purpose of facilitating the social rehabilitation of the sentenced person, the competent authority of the issuing State [the one that passed the sentence] should take into account such elements as, for example, the person’s attachment to the executing State, whether he or she considers it the place of family, linguistic, cultural, social or economic and other links to the executing State.

That provision only applies to transfers among EU member countries, but it indicates a more general justification. Thus the Jamaican government promises that “The new facility will be designed and constructed with a focus on rehabilitation, which should reduce the high rates of recidivism that now occur.” Similarly, the UK prisons minister has said forced transfers “mean that these prisoners will be closer to family and friends.This helps to support prisoners’ social rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” It’s generally true that proximity to family can ease a prisoner’s re-entry after release. But of course, many Jamaican prisoners in Britain have closer family ties in Clapham than in Kingston, and are more culturally at ease in Brixton than Montego Bay. This is also “globalization”; yet the British government shows no disposition to ascertain where anybody’s “family, linguistic, cultural” and-so-on affiliations lie. The truth is, social benefits to the prisoners are the last thing on most governments’ minds in transfer policies. What matters is simple: politics and money.

And in the UK, politics means immigration. Mass mania over migration drives the whole UK political process.  A poll last month showed 56% of Britons named immigration as a major concern. For years, the percent of Britons calling it the most worrying concern has been three to four times the average in other countries.

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

Fears of criminality always seed anti-immigrant feeling. (Think Donald Trump and those Mexican rapists.) Though capitalism mandates mobility more and more sweepingly, mobility as spectacle and spectre rouses deep terrors about stability and safety. British newspapers thunder about “foreign prisoners” constantly. You might think them less of a menace, because they’re in prison; instead, they’re vital to immigration paranoia. They’re countable; they make dread specific.And the ones already imprisoned prove all foreigners are a threat. “The number of foreign prisoners is growing and attempts to remove them are often futile”! “Foreign inmates outnumber British nationals in a UK prison for the first time”! “Every time Britain manages to deport a foreign prisoner another one takes their place in jail”! They’re making “the UK a permanent safe haven for the world’s killers, rapists, drug-dealers and other assorted scum”! In fact, while the number of foreign prisoners doubled in twenty years, so did the number of prisoners in the UK overall. You can debate whether a crime wave, harsh sentencing, or more repressive policing caused this. But the proportion of foreign prisoners has barely risen at all.


Graph from

Facts don’t matter, of course. Within six months of taking office in 2010, Cameron’s coalition government tried to placate the panic, by vowing to deport the foreign prisoners: to “tear up agreements that mean convicts cannot be returned home without their consent.” It didn’t work. In fact, in Cameron’s first term the number of deportations actually fell.

foreign criminals chart

From the Daily Mirror, 2014

Cameron needed agreements, despite the talk of tearing them up; and few countries were willing to sign them. Moreover, even criminals who had finished their sentences (presumably easier to deport, because you didn’t need a foreign prison system to agree to take them) were fighting removal in the courts, successfully.The government was reduced to creating a team of pop-psych mavens, tasked with visiting prisoners to talk them into self-deporting. “The unit uses psychological techniques known as ‘nudge theory’ to help people make better choices for themselves.”

Expert: Would you like to leave the country?
Prisoner: No.
Expert: What if I give you money?
Prisoner: How much money?
Expert: It’s a hypothetical question.
Prisoner: No.

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

In 2014, Dominic Raab — a young, telegenic, misogynistic, Europe-hating, ultra-right Tory back-bencher (the son of a Czech Jewish refugee, the husband of a Brazilian bride) — led a rebellion against Cameron. He proposed to grease the ejection seats for “foreign criminals,” stripping power from the courts and giving the Home Secretary final say. He boasted that “only one case every five years” would qualify to stay in Britain. The government’s response “was a mess,” one conservative pundit wrote, “first giving him a wink of encouragement only to declare his idea unworkable at the last moment.” Raab invoked the ultimate terror and temptress of the Tory right: UKIP, the extremist UK Independence Party, which every Conservative dreaded could drain their votes if they didn’t stay hard-line enough. To block his measure, Raab warned, “would be a bow-wrapped gift for UKIP.” 85 MPs joined him in revolt; Cameron only beat back the proposal with Labour’s help.

UKIP, obsessive on the subject of immigrants and crime, press-ganged everyone rightward. They demanded immediate deportation for “foreign criminals,” and damn the law. Prison Watch UK graphed their monomania:

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

UKIP came in third in the 2015 election, winning one seat — but almost 13% of the vote. If the Tories could lure away enough UKIP voters, they could dream of a permanent majority. In his new government, Cameron named the onetime rebel Raab an undersecretary in the Justice Ministry, with the title of “minister for human rights.”

Where does the money part come in? In the story of how Cameron pursued expulsions — and here you need to burrow back a bit. One of the first model prisoner-transfer agreements the UK reached came in 2007 under Tony Blair, who set the pattern for the Conservatives in so many ways. It happened in Libya, and it happened because Muammar Qaddafi wanted one particular prisoner back: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, serving a life sentence in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Blair, meanwhile, wanted an oil contract for BP. In the “deal in the desert,” Tony flew to Tripoli and offered up al-Megrahi, concealing the gift under a comprehensive prisoner transfer accord — without consulting the Pan Am families, or his pet Scottish government. Qaddafi then gave the petroleum giant exclusive rights to drill in three vast blocs the size of Belgium and Kuwait together: trading territory worth billions for the inmate. Al-Megrahi was transported to Libya to live out his term; he had become the most expensive human being ever bought and sold, dearer than Diogenes or ElizabethTaylor. Petropounds lubricated the exchange. They also inaugurated Blair’s post-Downing Street career as dealmaker to dictators, a globe-trotting cross between Armand Hammer and Austin Powers.

BP batty bwoys: Blair and Qaddafi share secrets, 2007

Austin Powers (L) and Goldmember share their secrets, 2007

Subsequent prisoner transfer agreements have been similarly mercenary. But the cash has flowed the other way. Downing Street says that, in addition to Jamaica, “Compulsory transfer agreements are also in place with Albania, Nigeria, Somaliland, Rwanda, and Libya.” Except for Libya (where a once-respectable GDP has plummeted since the Royal Air Force’s little 2011 incursion) these are all poor countries. (Nigeria has oil but the per-capita GDP is barely one-fourth of what Libya’s was in 2007.) Cameron persuaded a paltry four impoverished nations to take their prisoners back, by paying them.

With some countries (particularly those where tiny prisoner contingents are involved) the effect can be achieved by dangling small amounts of apparently unrelated aid or benefits before the recipient government. With Nigeria, according to the Nigerian press, it involved a £3 million “annual fund to rehabilitate prisons.” This money wasn’t mentioned in the UK government’s announcement of the Nigerian deal (though the Daily Mail had indignantly warned of it long before); in fact, at least two years of payoffs, to facilitate Abuja’s acceptance of voluntary transfers, appear to have preceded the compulsory-transfer signing. The funding thus seems devoid of the monitoring mechanisms usual to bilateral aid programs. Given Nigeria’s high place on the global corruption index, it would be anybody’s guess where the cash wound up.

Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and Seychelles

Triangular trade: Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and (lower left) Seychelles

Somaliland stands out on that list, because it isn’t a nation. It’s a breakaway region claiming independence from fragmented Somalia. The formerly British part of a country stitched together from British and Italian colonies, Somaliland runs a competent PR machine in London, apparently with enough cash to rent some would-be politicians. (UKIP is a great supporter of Somaliland’s contested statehood, as is Peter Tatchell.) But clearly it could use more. Its place on the roster has a complex backstory that unveils the colonial essence of the prisoner-transfer enterprise.

The deal traces back to Britain’s concern over piracy off Somalia’s coasts. That piracy, made immortal by a Tom Hanks movie, affected plenty of developed economies moving goods through the Suez Canal — by early this decade annual losses exceeded US$ 6 billion. But it took place in international waters, and none of the surrounding states were eager to prosecute captured pirates. Britain helped prevail on the Seychelles — a tiny island nation that was a UK colony from 1810 till 1976 — to take on the job.

Seychelles mainly contributed its name and territory; in “a scheme funded by the Foreign Office and the United Nations,” to the tune of £9 million from Cameron’s government, Britain then controlled the trials and the jails. The UK sent its own prosecutors. One struck the proper colonial note in a BBC interview, describing Somali captives as a “cheerful and reasonably intelligent lot.” The UK also built a maximum security prison — a “paradise” behind “15-ft high razor wire” that housed 100 Somalis by 2013 — and contributed its own warden. There were too many Somali convicts coming out of the courts for the facility to hold, however. So Britain also brokered a compulsory transfer agreement between Seychelles and Somaliland for the latter to absorb the overflow.

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Somaliland thus opened a “pirate prison,” with £1 million from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (and presumably more from Britain); by 2012 it held 313 Somalis. Prisoners were shunted from shore to shore like backgammon counters. (A Brit working for UNODC in Seychelles joked to the BBC “that most Somalis are happy to be sent [to Somaliland] to escape the prison diet of rice and tuna.” In Somaliland, prisoners told the Guardian that “The food here is not good. We get rice, tomatoes and only a little bit of meat. In Seychelles the food was better.”)

Familiar colonial problems dogged the whole process. The British prosecutors knew no Somali nor Arabic; they couldn’t understand what the people they sent to prison were saying. “We didn’t have lawyers and we didn’t know the language,” a Somali inmate told the Guardian about his Seychelles trial, claiming he was merely fishing when gunboats arrested him. He got 10 years. A British barrister complained of “a marked inequality of resources between the prosecution and defence which was capable of producing injustice.” Moreover, flouting their basic rights, prisoners sent to Somaliland were stripped of any ability to appeal their convictions in Seychelles. But the point was, some pirates wound up behind bars, and piracy declined, and oil flowed through the Gulf of Aden. Seychelles was, of course, an old slave colony, familiar with involuntary transits. And Somaliland was desperate for official acknowledgement, and willing to sell itself as a prison camp to get it. (The head of Somaliland’s Anti-Piracy Taskforce “said the funding, and Somaliland’s increasing usefulness in the fight against piracy, would help the enclave’s bid for international recognition of its independence.”) Exploiting these two weak and dependent territories, Britain built a regional economy of prisoner transfers around its own needs. It was like a miniscule Indian Ocean version of the Atlantic triangular trade.

Inmates at the Hargeisa

Inmates at the Hargeisa “pirate’s prison” in Somaliland, 2012. Photo by Tony Karumba for AFP/Getty Images

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to infer that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One thing must be clear. Bilateral aid to improve developing countries’ prison systems should be a good, needed thing. People who claim aid must focus on “nice” projects like schools or hospitals ignore the fact that prisoners have needs and rights — rights that governments disdain and deny. Suggestions (by the PNP’s youth league, for instance) that foreign donors should leave prisons alone adumbrate a dangerous nationalist antagonism to human rights altogether.

But whom will Britain’s Jamaica project help? To begin with, you have to note that the UK’s attitudes toward foreign prisons are hopelessly discordant. When it’s a question of a British citizen incarcerated abroad, those places are primitive hells — “terrifyingly alien,” a barrister wrote of Jamaican jails; “the cells are the size of a  typical one-car garage.” When it’s a question of shipping a non-citizen back to his homeland’s prisons, those receptacles are fine, fine. Torture? What torture? As Dominic Raab said, it’s horribly wrong when “We have innocent British citizens being carted off … to face flawed justice systems or gruesome jails abroad. But we can’t send foreign gangsters back home.” In other words, surprise! — Britons worry about prisons abroad when it suits their interests.

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women's prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women’s prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

There are deep human rights problems in Jamaica’s prisons. The country has an incarceration rate about the same as England and Wales (a third of Russia’s, a quarter of the United States’); but the system is teeming and ill-maintained.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2012 that “Detention and prison conditions in Jamaica are generally very poor primarily due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of sufficient medical care.” A 2010 investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture determined the country’s two main prisons “are not suitable for modern correctional purposes, including rehabilitation and re-socialization.”

But here’s the problem. Every country wants a prison system because every country thinks it’s the answer: to crime, to excess population, to immorality or poverty. But nobody wants to pay for it it. It’s true in the US, in the UK, and in Jamaica. There is no constituency in Jamaica for spending tax money to improve prisons, or aid money for that matter. (The current government has dabbled with bringing in private, for-profit prison corporations, but couldn’t find a taker.) Part of popular mythology around prisons in Jamaica is that they’re too luxurious, not harsh or primitive enough, lenient leisure clubs that drain men of manhood and leave them batty bwoys. Real abuses like rape that make imprisonment unendurable instead become the spoor of pampering. Clovis, the notoriously homophobic cartoonist for the Jamaica Observer, rams home the point:

(L) A child sees his father's killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says

(L) A child sees his father’s killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says “Put convicts to work!” (M) Vybz Kartel, the dancehall artist convicted of murder– famous for his “effeminate” ointment-bleached skin — is dragged to prison. (R) A perpetrator of domestic violence gets his desserts.

(It’s sobering to compare this with the UN expert’s report: “Homosexuals detained at St. Catherine and Tower Street correctional centres were held in the ‘vulnerable persons unit’ as a protective measure. However, their separation led to a loss of privileges of a punitive character, such as work and recreation, including the use of the library and playing field. In the security section in the Tower Street centre, detainees were locked up in dark, solitary cells without a toilet or water, and had nobody to call for help.”)

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

Spanish Town Adult Correctional Facility, Kingston. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

St. Catherine Adult Correctional Facility, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

This is a story about commodities. It’s a very contemporary one. When people lose their freedom and their rights, they become objects; but under triumphant capitalism, an object can only be a commodity, must bear a price. These days, the unfree are destined to be bought and sold.

The UK is building a market in prisoners; it exports the problem of prison to other states, and pays them to take it. The idea of the price of individual prisoners permeates the discourse. “The average annual cost of a prison place in the UK is £25,900,” Downing Street declares. The Daily Mail envisions a more upscale product, like free-range chickens, and pegs them at “around £40,000 a year.” The aggregate numbers are what counts in interstate relations — the “£25 million a year to keep 850 foreign prisoners behind bars,” the “£35 million every year” spent “locking up Poles” who strayed our way — but the single prisoner remains the nominal unit of exchange, like the lone dollar or pound whose abstract value in its minute oscillations can set unimaginably vast capital flows in motion.

Fear of an actual planet

Fear of an actual planet

Yet this is the nativist language of an economy in recession. The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11. The United States now can kill its own nationals without trial. It can pry in their doings as if they all were foreign spies. Correspondingly, zones of statelessness are starting to spring up, like weeds in the cracks of a formerly seamless planet. Guantanamo was the first, but not the last. Somaliland “enjoys relative peace and stability,” writes Reuters, parroting its Cameronland informants, “and analysts hope it might be a good site for more incarcerations in the future.” There you go — “peace and stability” now simply mark out promising lands for prisons, the way a geologist looks at a glittering slope of schist and sees oil. But the analysts don’t come to Somaliland for the quiet. Its draw is that it’s not a state; human rights treaties and duties don’t apply. Because such places are, in a global sense, lawless, states can set up laboratories there to make their own law. It’s not so much the fact that such small, silent interstices are appearing, in a world that used to talk of legality and freedom. It’s the fear that in those interspersed crevices and ruptures, our terrifying future is being born.

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

No one likes to talk about the links between slavery and prisons, but they are real. Both Michelle Alexander and Loïc Wacquant show how the modern prison in America grew in response to the formal abolition of involuntary servitude; the reality and constant threat of incarceration forged new psychological as well as legal shackles around an ostensibly liberated population. The prison shared — and shares — many features with the model case of human slavery in the 20th century, the Nazi concentration camp. Here’s something I read recently that chilled me.

In the American South after the Civil War black convict labourers, leased out for dangerous, back-breaking work and subject to summary punishment and execution, sometimes had a mortality rate as high as 50 per cent in certain states. … Mortality among the tiny minority of white prisoners was around 2 per cent.

A 50% mortality rate for the imprisoned is roughly the rate for Hitler’s work camps (as opposed to the pure death camps, like Sobibór or Treblinka). The Gulag’s death toll, for example, was only half that. The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

What we’re seeing now is twofold. Imprisonment is no longer a reserve away from the economy where the unproductive can be shunted; it’s completely economized. And the prison economy is going international. This traffic in chained bodies is growing. It resuscitates the authority structures of colonial slavery with new legal forms, purposes, and names. It’s frightening to see even a few of the old slave-trade routes revived like grass-grown oxen tracks, running from Britain to Jamaica or the Bight of Benin, from the Indian Ocean islands to the East African coast — though sometimes the shackled people are borne in directions opposite to the map’s faded arrows.

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland, in 2011. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Hilary Beckles, the chair of Caricom’s Reparations Committee (and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies) published an open letter before Cameron’s arrival in Jamaica. It cited how the prime minister’s own clan had profited from Britain’s slave economy; in the 19th century, Cameron’s distant relations owned 202 slaves in Jamaica. Beckles wrote:

You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire. We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.

Cameron rejected all such calls. Jamaica, he told its parliament, should “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

But how? It’s Cameron whose state policies summon the ghosts of the traffic in human lives. The only future that lies that way is inhuman.

Stereoscope slide marked

Stereoscope slide marked “Sugar Cane field hands, Montego bay, Jamaica, 1900,” from Although Jamaican slavery was abolished almost seven decades earlier, the conditions of plantation work were largely unchanged.

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Crowds celebrate the

Crowds celebrate the “no” vote in Athens’ Syntagma Square, July 5, 2015. Photo from @socialistworker

It’s important to remember that a lot of people will suffer because of the vote last night. They would have suffered if the vote had gone “yes,” and they will suffer now because the vote went “no.” To imagine otherwise, to think that from here on it gets easy, is to slight the rooted courage of their rejection. Greeks were ready for defiance because they had already suffered for seven years, in the kind of agony rarely inflicted on a developed economy outside a science-fiction movie; but they know that things can get worse, and in the short run, they will. Theirs is the courage of the indignados and the damnés de la terre, those with their backs against the wall, the heroism twined with the knowledge of relentless Fate that Homer might have described had Homer been an economist with tenure:

ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ: τί ἦ ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.

Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.

Brave and unflinching, Greeks have earned the right to celebrate for a while in Syntagma Square. But the suffering isn’t over. The vicarious victory party now sending the British, or American, or even Spanish left into ecstasy – these revels where you laud starving others for audaciously doing what you didn’t dare to — ought to be tempered by a smidgen of humility and sorrow. After all, these are people who, unlike Greeks, know their ATMs will give them cash in the morning.

The left prides itself on empathy, on getting in the skins of others. Often, though, this means making them your sacrificial victims, singled out by History to play in a Hegelian Hunger Games; stars of your show whose sufferings you can colonize, projecting your emotions onto their hearts and lives. Conservatives never face this problem, since their empathy stops with themselves. For years I’ve thought that the paradigmatic right-wing response to almost anything, elegant in its brisk foreclosure, came from the incomparable racist John Derbyshire, who used to disgrace the pages of the US journal National Review. Reading about what he first took for a cruise ship disaster in the Red Sea, he “learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.” By contrast, a leftist response would be to submerge your head in the bathwater, convince yourself you’d drowned, and then send a Tweet about it (#WeAreAllEgyptians). Neither answer helps.

“No” swept almost every regional unit of the country: Map of voting, by the Guardian

We’re not all Greeks. Only a select sodality of wounded societies have undergone what the Greeks did. The figures on Greece’s suffering don’t inform, they numb. Since 2008, the country’s gross domestic product withered by more than a quarter.  Incomes dropped by a third. Pensions were cut 40%, and often not paid at all. One in four Greeks is jobless, six of ten among youth. In Athens, 18,000 are estimated to be homeless – one-tenth of the city’s unemployed, 3% of its people.

Alex Andreou, who has been writing powerfully on the polity and the crisis, tells one story:

Last winter, I stood outside the Opera House in the centre of Athens looking at the posters in the window. I was approached by a well-dressed and immaculately groomed elderly lady. I moved to the side. I thought she wanted to pass. She didn’t. She asked me for a few euros because she was hungry. …

Her name was Magda and she was in her mid-seventies. She had worked as a teacher all her life. Her husband had been a college professor and died “mercifully long before we were reduced to this state,” as she put it. They paid their tax, national insurance and pension contributions straight out of the salary, like most people. They never cheated the state. They never took risks. They saved. …

In the first year of the crisis her widow’s pension top-up stopped. In the second and third her own pension was slashed in half. Downsizing was not an option – house prices had collapsed and there were no buyers. In the third year things got worse. “First, I sold my jewellery. Except this ring,” she said, stroking her wedding ring with her thumb. “Then, I sold the pictures and rugs. Then the good crockery and silver. Then most of the furniture. Now there is nothing left that anyone wants. Last month the super came and removed the radiators from my flat, because I hadn’t paid for communal fuel in so long. I feel so ashamed.”

“No” supporter in Syntagma Square on the night of July 5, 2015. Photo from @Stratosathens

Europe’s magnates say it’s simple: all about debts betrayed, bad faith. The Greeks didn’t keep their promises. But most Greeks did. They paid into the system; they believed the system would keep its promises to them. The system meant the government, their workplaces, even the oligarchs who profited from their labor. For most Greeks, it also meant Europe. From the start of Greece’s odyssey with the EU, even before membership in 1981, Europe had presented itself as guarantor of a level of prosperity that small nation-states could no longer secure on their own. Europe also promised to be the guardian of democracy. Greece’s entry into the EU, like Spain’s was a reward less for economic performance than for political change: for overthrowing, without violence and without vengeance, one of the most vicious dictatorships on the continent. Europe’s standards of governance would protect that freedom, won after a rending and sanguinary century.

And what did Greeks get for their faith? Betrayal. The EU, as the crisis cinched in, deliberately set out to bankrupt them: not just the state but the people, to take away their jobs, their winter fuel, their homes, even their gewgaws and their memories. Before the referendum, in a final indignity, the European Central Bank cut off Greek banks’ cash, to remind depositors of their abjection. As Andreou writes, it

acted to asphyxiate the Greek economy – the ultimate blackmail to force subordination. The money is there, in our accounts, but we cannot have access to it, because the overseers of our own banking system, the very people who some months ago issued guarantees of liquidity, have decided to deny liquidity. We have phantom money, but no real money. …

But Europe also showed its complete contempt for the democracy it promised to defend. “EU Institutions are now openly admitting that their aim is regime change. A coup d’état in everything but name, using banks instead of tanks and a corrupt media as the occupiers’ broadcaster.” The contempt continues tonight; that ballots were actually cast only makes the rulers angrier. Europe’s magnates spit in fury, red-faced on TV, their fat mouths taut with rage as if they’d swallowed tennis balls, chuffing and lobbing out names. They reduce everything to insults and personalities, because they’ve forgotten what it is like to deal with a people and not merely a person or two, to confront a collective will, to contend in a democracy. They think all decisions are made in small rooms by men in suits. “Tsipras and his government are leading the Greek people on a path of bitter abandonment and hopelessness,” said the vice-chancellor and economy minister of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel. He condemned the very act of Tsipras consulting the Greeks as a “rejection of the rules of the euro zone.” This man belongs to a party which still calls itself social democratic: much as Americans name their sports teams for the peoples they killed.

I  don't make the rules, but I can make you sorry: Sigmar Gabriel

I don’t make the rules, but I can make you sorry: Sigmar Gabriel

There are many lessons from the victory tonight. Three I take to heart.

The first is: nations matter. That might seem self-evident. But both in bureaucratic Europe and in the large swatches of the world where weak states prevail, it’s not. After the crisis struck in 2008, Greeks lost faith in the parties and leaders who had made the Republic in their image since 1975: they abandoned as illusive the nation they’d inherited. And they also lost their faith in the trans-national, overarching EU project that had said it would fix whatever the state got wrong. The disenchantment came the way Hemingway said you go bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Of course, the disenchantment was bankruptcy, pretty much.

When people lose faith that way in the arenas where they used to project their aspirations and play out their plans, it leaves you to ask: what kind of political space can function anymore? When both nation and trans-national institutions look like elaborate schemes to fuck you, what’s left? The anarchist movements so vital in Greece over the last seven years didn’t so much offer answers, as stark and inventive ways of posing the question. How can we act, and where? Are there places in society where we can actually accomplish change, gradual or disruptive, on any scale, maybe the more local and microscopic the better? And what is society anyway, in a catastrophe when it’s being torn apart? The testimonies of anarchists about the protest movements of 2008 and after, many collected by the editors of the excellent anthology Revolt and Crisis in Greece, suggest abysses of questioning that few of the Occupy movements elsewhere plumbed. There was a desire to disrupt the representations that made up existing, illusory political space; to use that rupture to constitute a new beginning; to challenge people to act – but how? Where?

Anarchist graffiti in Athens' Exarchia district depicts a history of state corruption. Photo by Alex Zaitchik at

Anarchist graffiti in Athens’ Exarchia district depicts a history of state corruption. Photo by Alex Zaitchik at

In one 2008 demo,

We interrupt a live state TV news broadcast and silently raise a banner to silence this representation of reality. We call on people to stop being viewers, to step out of their homes, to take to the streets, to resist. The black and white banner that some of us held for eighty seconds articulated no claim, no plan and no certainty. … Against the anxiousness to explain, against the guilt of failing to predict and foretell, to plan and rationalise and fit in, to summarise and nicely narrate violence, we opposed our living thrill of collective and direct action against an absurd but confident reality and said nothing, really.

As with many Situationist-inflected actions, it’s easy to make fun of this – particularly if your ATMs are working. But that’s wrong. The writer expresses exactly the moment when old political space has been sapped of meaning, and when the rupture required to break with it seems (because the exact shape of the new is unknown and unimagined) pointless, undirected, free from the chains of calculation. Novel political spaces were springing up like bubbles in the disruption and decay, but they were both too surprising and too ordinary to be described. The same writer says:

Before December [2008], each one of us lived in one place and worked in another and we were all divided into groups that formed clear networks of representation that ‘vov uld address themselves to other grmlps higher in the hierarchy that would decide when to vote, where to demonstrate, and how schools, workplaces, malls and bars, airports and supermarkets will be distributed around the country…. But once taking to the streets and feeling part of a living community of people, we couldn’t but occupy our cities in a different way. This experience of socialisation could not fit inside our offices and TV screens, coffee shops, shopping avenues, and secured square metres designed for us to live in. Our coming together violently spoiled the facades of all those urban places that actually cancel out our possibility of interaction and chain us to the role of a non-citizen …. [W]e did not transform the spaces given to us, but we created new ones where we could also let ourselves be created. …

Before December, we knew it already — no one was to be trusted, politics was corrupt, things were getting irreversibly worse all the time and there was nothing to do about it. But then we took to the streets, we found each other … Our relating to each other in an equal way and the spaces, words and actions we formed rejected common sense, because they were not just directed against the state; this was a politics of resistance and solidarity that was bluntly stateless.

That this inchoate Utopia culminated, years later, in the comparative banality of a referendum is from one perspective – the pure anarchist one — a story of spontaneity and subjectivity lost, corrupted by the demons of teleology and power. But from another vantage it’s the story of actions that were searching for their proper spaces, and eventually, piecemeal, found them. The loss of spontaneity was also its consummation. Those sudden solidarities stretched out over time and slowly built a new political sphere, a new space for acting.

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

The myriad small arenas of resistance and solidarity that the political collapse created were themselves creative. They came together. They became movements. The narrative of the last seven years – a history which, in its broadening scope and scale, its mounting urgency, truly has been epic – is how those forces have coalesced, negotiated, melded, expanded, till they speak in this crisis with the whole will of the people. And the people, the society, the nation – all those words returned, after all those years when they seemed to empty and befouled for people to use them. By capturing the nation-state, the movements were able to make it the redoubt for fighting back, battling the FührerBefehlen of the market and its enforcers. They repudiated the old, corrupt, discredited nation. But they recuperated the nation as a site of resistance.

How this growth happened in Greece over seven years should be something for coming generations of the left to study, the way our grandparents read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, or – the more humane among them – Victor Serge. But for now the point seems clear. We can still exalt those micro-spaces of anarchic, everyday resistance; or, alternatively, those big international solidarities wrapped like swaddling bands around the globe. But the nation, the people – those clunky, worn-down political imaginaries in between – have a privileged role, and can be regenerated. They serve a use. In their outcries alone lie the moral credibility and the practical power to check, even temporarily, the market’s encroachments.

The second lesson is: democracy matters.

A lot of people think it always matters, that no other kind of government is legitimate. In fact, though, it’s precisely the countries everybody calls democracies, in North America and Europe, that no longer rely on democratic process to give legitimacy to government decisions. Their laws and policies take their warrant from the market, not the deliberations of the governed. It’s the nasty dictatorships that keep pulling out the plebiscites and elections, the faked presidential ballots with the 98% wins, to lend the sheen of mandate and consent. They don’t know voting is irrelevant! They’re hicks stuck in the backwash of the trend. Democracies themselves, maturer and more orderly, have moved beyond democracy.

If you read one writer to help you understand Greece, make it Wolfgang Streeck. Streeck, a sociologist and political theorist, asks: Can democracy and capitalism still coexist? Contemporary capitalism poses this question itself, insisting it is above politics, that democratic decision-making is incompatible with its charm. “Mainstream economics has become obsessed with the ‘irresponsibility’ of opportunistic politicians who cater to an economically uneducated electorate by interfering with otherwise efficient markets, in pursuit of objectives—such as full employment and social justice—that truly free markets would in the long run deliver anyway, but must fail to deliver when distorted by politics.” But this perhaps understates the case, because the credo of capitalism today is that market logic will prevail even despite democratic interference. In Margaret Thatcher’s mantra, There Is No Alternative.

Maggie forecasts the future: Go vote for Hillary, or Bernie, or Carly Fiorina; I don't give a fuck. You'll still get TINA.

Maggie forecasts the future:
Yeah, vote for Bernie, Hillary, or Carly Fiorina:
I don’t give a bloody fuck. You’ll still get TINA.

The foreclosure of choice is self-fulfilling. States rig their systems to respond to markets, not citizens.

Increasingly capitalists say they can’t work without a framework of institutions completely insulated from the popular will: protection of markets and property rights constitutionally enshrined against discretionary political interference; independent regulatory authorities; central banks, firmly protected from electoral pressures; and international institutions, such as the European Commission or the European Court of Justice, that do not have to worry about popular re-election.

From this Fortress of Solitude, ‘‘the markets’ have begun to dictate in unprecedented ways what presumably sovereign and democratic states may still do for their citizens and what they must refuse them.”

Reification: Georg Lukacs in 1913

Not ready to be reified: Georg Lukács in 1913

Writers from Marx to Karl Polanyi saw a basic contradiction between two visions of justice and law: one in which societies can make shared decisions about goods and values, and one in which markets take over and distribute everything. Markets, their proponents say, should distribute everything because they’re “natural,” hence fair. In fact, they’re human artifacts. But they have the gift of becoming fetishes, of seeming eternal. They infiltrate the mind and don the sacred guise of givens, forces of nature. This ferocious permanence, this mythic immutability, has been constituent to capitalism, and the myth’s authority over imaginations expands as the markets do. Georg Lukács explored this just under a hundred years ago, the way that the seemingly 

“natural laws” of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that – for the first time in history – the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified laws. This rationalisation of the world appears to be complete, it seems to penetrate the very depths of man’s physical and psychic nature.

But the laws are irrational because they lie, pretending to be natural and not manmade. “This incoherence becomes particularly egregious in periods of crisis.”

On closer examination the structure of a crisis is seen to be no more than a heightening of the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society. In its unthinking, mundane reality that life seems firmly held together by “natural laws”; yet it can experience a sudden dislocation because the bonds uniting its various elements and partial systems are a chance affair even at their most normal. So that the pretence that society is regulated by “eternal, iron” laws … is finally revealed for what it is: a pretence.

Democratic capitalism, as it flourished for a few generations in Europe and North America, was an uneasy compromise between market distribution and social control. Its politics allowed people limited power to temper how the market worked. In return, their consent legitimated the market’s basic dominance over society. This held together when things were growing, during the trentes glorieuses of rising graphs and expanding possibility. But in economic crisis the compromise breaks down. Then the elites turn on democracy, demand things from governments that the people won’t give, and look for non-democratic means – new mythologies – to legitimate those expropriations. In the economic shambles of the 1920s and 1930s European leaders fled from democracy like scattered lemmings. In our time European states have a collective structure, so they can abandon democracy together.

In the Greek crisis, the elites redoubled their refrain that there was no alternative to austerity, that society must roll over prone before the jagged juggernaut of the market. Yet the crisis, “heightening the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society” -– unleashing desperation and cracking open spaces of dissent — was an unmasking. It let ordinary Greeks see behind the curtain, where market logic looked not like law but lunacy. No rational system could demand this. Out of the “sudden dislocation” came a democratic upwelling of autonomy and nay-saying, throughout daily life.

The anarchists of 2008 were quite clear that their first experiences of freedom were moments, impermanent, a “living thrill of collective and direct action” that wouldn’t last. The assertion of popular power in the referendum can’t just be a moment, though; it has to be ready for the long run if it’s going to change things. The democratic will has to ensure that state and society don’t lurch back into habits of apathy and submission, where the vote simply legitimates choices made elsewhere.  It needs to build new democratic institutions, immediate ones, close to and permeating daily life. Democracy has to return to workplaces, to schools, to NGOs. Decision-making needs to diffuse throughout society.

workplace-democracyThis is perhaps the third lesson. More is needed; you always need more. The referendum mobilized the nation to say no. But resting content in the space of the nation-state is not an option. The next move has to be both within — democratizing society more and more deeply, so that people have the experience of more and more choices about their lives — and beyond. 

Syriza and the left mobilized nationalism against the austerity hegemons. But while the nation is necessary to resistance, resistance must transcend it. Greek chauvinism is sordid, pervasive, and easy to exploit. (A Greek human rights activist once told me that “Greece has the most progressive policies on ethnic minorities in Europe” — a patent lie — “which is a great triumph because we have no ethnic minorities; everyone is Greek.”)  If the Greek moment collapses back into defending borders and demonizing outsiders, it will turn on itself. Already, as David Graeber points out, Greece ‘has the largest number of military per­sonnel per capita of any NATO country … and the second highest ratio of police (33 per 10,000, or 1 cop per every 303 people).” Police and army have massacred the people before; they can again.

The balance between local democracy, national action, and cosmopolitan vision is exacting to sustain. A few days before the balloting, the anarchist Antonis Vradis wrote that his “no” vote

will go out to the market, this ubiquitous force we have allowed to permeate even the most intimate of our spaces, even the innermost, the core foundations of our existence. It will go out to the parasite scum in suits and ties, the priests of the banking orthodoxy and their pompous, arrogant belief that they can keep running the show, for ever.

But he added:

It will go out to those fueling nationalism in Europe, it will go out against Syriza’s invocation of a Greek “people.” Is there such a thing as a “people”? Of course not; I am not sure what the idea even means. Where does any such commonality lie?

This is a fake question, though. There is a people. It’s constituted by the act of choosing, by saying Here we are; we decide. The Greek people today didn’t exist in the same form the day before the referendum. To keep their sense of their own commonality vivid, viable — to sustain the identity they achieved by choosing — is indispensable. It’s just not enough. 

Demonstrators spell out

Demonstrators spell out “No” during an anti-austerity rally in Syntagma Square, July 3, 2015. Photo by Reuters

The next move has to be beyond the nation-state, because today the pressure on Greece starts up again in Brussels, Berlin, and Frankfurt. (Last night Syriza claimed its victory in the vote, but this morning the Troika claimed the scalp of Yanis Varoufakis.)  “This is when we start re-imagining our cross-border commonalities and interests,” Vradis writes, “this is when we bring down the facade of the market and national unity.” But imagining new common spaces requires the will of those people in London and Madrid, Berlin and Toronto, who were Tweeting exultantly last night but are going to forget about it by tomorrow. They mustn’t forget. They need to abjure their egos and figure out how to stand by Greece concretely, pressuring their own governments to respect another nation. If they don’t, the Greeks will be, again, betrayed.

Dignity” is a term much bandied about, in the headlines on Greece. As usual, it’s mainly rhetoric, more a worn coin than a word with with meaning. Yet in January, after Syriza’s election victory, Alex Andreou wrote about how he voted:

The only promise Tsipras made that truly mattered to me was to “give dignity back to the people.” Of course, he cannot deliver that. Only people can deliver that for themselves. But even mention of that word, “dignity,” in a political context, struck an important chord …

Dignity might be an abstract concept, but its absence is a very real and practical thing. … Spend a day with my mother, who worked two jobs for 45 years, paid every cent of tax and now finds herself diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, with no decent health or social provision and a monthly pension of €400 (£300), and she will explain it to you.

What would she explain? It’s still not clear. Certainly it has something to do with being treated with justice for years of labor and love. But it’s not just passive, not just being-done-to. Surely dignity also means the capacity to choose, to set as far as possible the terms of your life. This self-determination is what what the market stripped from individual Greeks as much as from the nation.

Writing about Hitler’s camps, Tzvetan Todorov identified “dignity” not just as a prisoner’s abstract determination to hold her head high, but as a very concrete possession that helped some to survive, and others to be remembered. It meant the ability to make choices about one’s life and to act on them, even at the risk of life itself. “The important thing is to act out the strength of one’s own will, to exert through one’s initiative some influence, however minimal, on one’s surroundings. … It is not enough simply to decide to acquire dignity: that decision must give rise to an act that is visible to others (even if they are not actually there to see it).” To have dignity in this sense meant to make your life your own.

That is how the Greeks asserted dignity, in their homes, on the streets, as a nation. Now others must affirm that dignity by acting also. I don’t know what will come of that choice; nobody does. But it isn’t just up to Brussels and Berlin anymore. It’s up to us; it’s up to you. Victory is not the same as success; it’s not judged by a vulgar triumph. What matters is not what’s chosen, but the act of choosing.

alexandreou_WzAVoBDNote: The lines in the first paragraph are from the Iliad, Book XXI, lines 106-107; Achilles is speaking to the Trojan Lycaon, who begged for mercy after he was overcome in battle. Achilles kills him. The translation is by Robert Fagles.

And another note: If you like Alex Andreou’s remarkable writing on Greece, read more of it here — and give a little something to support it! He’s crowdfunding his work. Go to the page and check out the right-hand column.

Bird, down to the wire

Lines from Leonard Cohen: Like a bird on the wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free

So you’ve stumbled back onto the Paper Bird website, and onto this page. Before you click off into the attractive distance, ask yourself: What are you doing here? Yep: It’s existential. I have some theories about what brought you here, or why you came back.

  1. You like good writing. You get it here.
  2. You like your sex mixed with radicalism, or your radicalism with sex. Good for you. And for your partner(s).
  3. You care enough about human rights to want a critical, not just congratulatory, viewpoint on how they’re used. And how they can be won. And made meaningful.
  4. You don’t just want to read a roster of abuses happening in the world. What you want to hear is why. 

I like to think that’s all part of this blog’s appeal. And if you’ve felt the same, consider pressing the PayPal button and giving what you can — $5, $20, $100.

Two days are left of our month-long fundraising appeal — it ends on June 5, my birthday. (Of course, you can give anytime; but you won’t be reading these requests all the time, thank God.) This blog is and will always be free as the wind, but your support will make it possible for us to grow: to bring in more diverse voices (and pay them), to do more research in more places.

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Indiana: It’s more than marriage

Indiana_Road_SignThe furor over Indiana’s on-and-off “religious freedom” law is a strange one. Left and right argue about not only the bill, but whether it even matters. If you’re against it, this is a historic battle, Selma all over again. If you’re for it, like Indiana’s hapless governor, it’s just a tiny little law, a trivial pointless bill that doesn’t actually have any effect at all, so insignificant it’s hard to see why they bothered to pass it.

Of course this isn’t Selma. March against Mike Pence all you want; you won’t get shot. If the one side is prone to over-dramatizing itself, though, the other flat-out lies. Trivializing the law is deeply mendacious, and even the right wing can’t stay committed to the fiction; for,behind the shoulders of the soothing temporizers waggle the true believers, screaming out dirty secrets like the madwoman in the attic: the Bryan Fischers, babbling that minus absolute license to discriminate, white Christian people will be slaves. Yet you still hear that the act’s only impact would be making it mildly harder to find a florist. This is exactly what’s most dangerous about the bill: the claim that it isn’t so dangerous at all.

Structural transformation of the public sphere:  A London coffee house, by William Holland, 1798

Structural transformation of the public sphere: a London coffee house, by William Holland, 1798

The Indiana law is dangerous because it chips away at core values of American law: how we define public life and public space, and rights within them. The word that counts is “public.” For Jürgen Habermas, whose theories comprise not quite a history but a coherent mythology about our era, the eighteenth century saw the creation, for the first time in modern Western societies, of publicsnetworks of (mostly) men who cultivated spaces outside both home and government to debate, discuss, and form solidarities around questions of mutual moment. This sociable Eden immediately suffered a Fall: on the one hand growing governments tried to constrict it, and on the other burgeoning capitalist forces demanded all concerns of the commons be economized and made private ones. Habermas’ myth is true enough to be useful. It encapsulates a sense that the bounds of what’s “public,” the realms of free communication and confrontation and elective solidarities, are increasingly endangered. The United States is the world’s first fully capitalist country; it’s also chafed for a century or more under an ever-more secretive government, hating transparency, hoarding information. And it has been ground zero for just these battles.

A long struggle pervades American history, to reclaim life from both “private” enterprise and the state like land won back from the sea, to expand and defend the “public” realm, the  possibilities for public decision. Edward Snowden’s revelations are consistent with this theme; but so was the whole civil rights movement. This history is varied and it’s violent. The attempted Indiana law was a small step back. But it was a dire precedent.

What’s at stake is not access to geraniums or wedding chapels. The debate is definitional; it’s about how rights and spaces will be allocated. It takes place, ominously, in a society that economic and cultural forces and the Supreme Court are all making more “private” once again. Too bad so many activists condemn the law without calling out its context, or clarifying what its corrosive evasions mean.

Back to Harvard, face to the future: Sumner's statue in the Square

Back to Harvard, face to the future: Sumner’s statue in the Square

1. Public accommodations

To talk about the public sphere in the US, you need to talk about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Signed five decades ago, when I was one year old, it shaped my life. It didn’t protect me, a white kid in the South, from discrimination; it protected me from myself. It did not end but it shook the terms of a former world where inequality was the normative form of existence as soon as you locked your front door behind you. It’s sometimes difficult to remember how much outrage it evoked at the time; for most of us, the law’s principles are now integral to American public life. But their prehistory goes back at least another hundred years, to the aftermath of the Civil War.

The prehistory was a battle for a new definition of what was “public” in American law and experience. That definition came in answer to American slavery, which had made human beings possessions, as private as any other legally protected property.

For years, I walked almost every day past a statue of Charles Sumner, morosely moored on a traffic island in Harvard Square, the site a symbol of his isolation in life, his oblivion after. Fierce abolitionist, Massachusetts Senator from 1851 till his death in 1874, Sumner was eloquent, contumacious, principled, perpetually enraged. In 1856, after he gave an anti-slavery speech, a South Carolina Congressman tried to beat him to death on the Senate floor. Sumner suffered from the wounds for the rest of his life.

Uncompromising and uncollegial, Sumner was given little role in the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which in 1868 put equality before the law in the Constitution. The Amendment left Congress to codify what it meant. In 1870, Sumner introduced sweeping legislation to do that. To him, repairing the effects of slavery required guaranteeing African-Americans open access to the public sphere in its widest definition. Legal equality was not just a right against the government, but a right across public life; or, to put it differently, the right of equality the Fourteenth Amendment affirmed was not just an obligation on how the government should treat people, but should shape all public services and places. `Even “private” businesses and associations, as long as they served the public, would have to be realms governed by rights.

Thomas Nast, "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner," Harper's Weekly, November 1869. An integrated if slightly awkward dinner party sits down to celebrate equality before the law and universal suffrage.

Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, November 1869. An integrated if slightly awkward dinner party sits down to celebrate equality before the law and universal suffrage.

Sumner’s bill mandated that “all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment” of all public accommodations, regardless of “race and color,” including  “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement”: and schools and — imagine this in the current controversy — churches. The scope remains astonishing. English common-law tradition had given government some powers to ensure that institutions calling themselves “public” (like inns or “public houses”) should actually be open to the public.  Few previous laws had ever used such powers so sweepingly, and with the specific end of preventing invidious discrimination. (See the endnote below.) It was an especially remarkable assertion in a laissez-faire era, in a country with laws largely designed to facilitate, not regulate, a capitalist economy. It involved defining an expanded public sphere ruled by rights rather than the market, of which “private” businesses formed a subordinated part. Sumner explained this in debate with a Georgia Senator:

The Senator may choose his associates as he pleases. They may be white or black, or between the two. That is simply a social question, and nobody would interfere with it. The taste which the Senator announces he will have free liberty to exercise … but when it comes to rights, there the Senator must obey the law and I insist that by the law of the land all persons without distinction of color shall be equal in rights. Show me, therefore, a legal institution, anything created or regulated by law, and I show you what must be opened equally to all without distinction of color. [emphasis added]

Contemporary engraving of "The Death of Charles Sumner," complete with weeping African-American seated by his foot

Contemporary engraving of “The Death of Charles Sumner,” complete with weeping African-American seated by his foot

Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Act in 1875, a year after Sumner’s death. (The dying Senator had begged a visitor: “Take care of the civil rights bill … don’t let it fail.”) It was the last civil rights law for 82 years. The final version omitted churches and schools —  and cemeteries. The bill’s enforcement provisions were weak. In any case, national Republicans — who owed their rule after the corrupt 1876 election to compromises with the South — soon lost interest in enforcing it at all.

In 1883, in an amalgamation of suits known as the Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court overturned the law. With only one dissent, it found the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the Federal government power to regulate private commerce in the name of equality. The Court thus semaphored its approval of racist segregation, affirmed thirteen years later in Plessy v FergusonMany at the time compared the decision to Dred Scott. African-Americans and their supporters held “indignation meetings” in city after city to protest, vainly. An new system of intensified oppression was settling across the country.

News report on an 1993 lynching. Exactly sixty days later, the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act.

News report on an 1883 lynching. Exactly sixty days later, the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act.

Eighty years later, pressed by a massive social movement, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its “public accommodations” provisions resurrected and expanded the terms of the 1875 Act; it added a ban on race- and sex-based discrimination in most employment. Proposed by Kennedy, passed under Johnson, this is probably the last half-century’s most significant US law. It has hugely influenced the torrent of equality laws passed worldwide since. Though many of them far transcend its protections, the vision of a public sphere including “private” enterprise remains essential.

President Johnson hands a pen to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., after signing the Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964

President Johnson hands a pen to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., after signing the Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964

Unlike the 1875 Act, the Supreme Court found the 1964 one constitutional. (A Georgia motel owner sued immediately on its passage, claiming Congress had no “power to take away the liberty of an individual to run his business as he sees fit in the selection and choice of his customers.” A unanimous Court held against him.) But this was because Congress grounded the law in its Constitutional powers to regulate interstate commerce, a basis for broadening federal authority at least since the New Deal — and not just in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court has never overturned its racist and restrictive 1883 decision in Civil Rights Cases. As Akhil Reed Amar observesCivil Rights Cases has never joined Dred Scott and Plessy v Ferguson in the American anti-canon of rejected judicial errors. This is troubling for two reasons. First, the Court has never acknowledged a Federal power to regulate the “private” sphere based on the Equal Protection Clause. (In fact, conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist approvingly cited the Civil Rights Cases in his 2000 majority opinion denying Federal protections to victims of gender-based violence.) Second, as the Court turns rightward, it has gradually chipped away at Congress’s powers to regulate business under the Interstate Commerce Clause as well. Corporations have been given free speech rights and now rights of religious conscience beyond the reach of Congress. (Rehnquist’s 2000 decision also denied that violence against women had a “substantial” enough effect on “commerce” to be a concern for Federal courts.)

Ensuring public equality should be a settled principle of US public life. There is just enough slight wobble in its foundations in US law for an unreconciled and unreconstructed right wing to sense an opportunity.

2. Religious freedom

Such a pretty little plant to cause so much trouble: Peyote cactus, domesticated

Such a pretty little plant to cause so much trouble: Peyote cactus, domesticated

Congress passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had held that a Native American tribe had no right to violate drug laws by using peyote in religious ceremonies. (Justice Scalia, for the majority, wrote: “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”) The bill partly rolled back that decision, requiring courts to apply strict scrutiny to apparently neutral laws in deciding how they should affect religious practices. Let them eat cactus, Congress said.

The bill’s drafters evidently didn’t envision it could permit actions harming others or restricting their rights — for instance, otherwise unlawful discrimination. The Act licensed actions indifferent in their effects on the rights of others. (In the context of the peyote case, the Act tacitly affirmed that “illegal” drug use had little impact on anyone except the user.) But they didn’t draft well. Constitutional lawyer Marci Hamilton writes, “Civil rights groups were blind (or deceived) … when the first RFRA was enacted.” Even Congress closed its eyes to what was coming.

In 1997, the Supreme Court decided the Act did not apply to the states. As a result, 20 states passed their own versions, effectively identical.

State versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, with dates of passage, as of 2014

State versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, with dates of passage, as of 2014

One defeat and one victory for the religious right set off the current furor.

Martyrs: Owners of the New Mexico photography shop make witness to the world

Martyrs: Owners of the New Mexico photography shop make witness to the world

a) The New Mexico case.  New Mexico has an RFRA (since 2000) but also a legal ban on sexual orientation- and gender identity- based discrimination (since 2003); it’s one of only 17 states to include “public accommodations” as well as employment in the latter. Nobody really thought these would come head to head; but in 2006, a same-sex couple planning a commitment ceremony filed suit when a wedding photographer refused their business. The photographer claimed religious freedom. In 2013, the state Supreme Court found the business liable. (The next year, the US Supreme Court refused to review the decision.) The New Mexico courts held the state RFRA didn’t apply, since it only limited government actions, not suits between private parties. Dissed but endowed with a new set of martyrs, the right started plotting to strengthen the RFRAs.

b) Hobby Lobby. In 2014, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down the Obama Administration’s requirement that employers cover certain contraceptives for female employees. Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores, had sued because it didn’t like birth control. The Court held the Federal RFRA protected the religious opinions not just of individuals, but of corporations — “closely held” ones, at least, where a few stockholders predominated. Like robots feeling the inward dawn of A.I. in a sci-fi movie, companies tingled to the neural thrill of personhood surging through their circuits: first free speech rights, now religious conscience. I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. A business has beliefs, and can claim they trump the law, no less than a church- or mosque-goer can.

AI: I am a $90 billion corporation, and I love you, Mommy

Artificial personhood: I am a $90 billion corporation, and I love you, Mommy

The Indiana law was framed to fix the first case, and take advantage of the second. Although the hypocritical governor lied that the law was no different from all the other RFRAs out there, its drafters made it stronger in precisely these two ways:

  • It allows religious freedom as a defense “regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding” — that is, in private lawsuits;
  • It explicitly lets for-profit businesses claim rights based on “the free exercise of religion.”

Fears over same-sex marriage gave the excuse for passing this law. But was the right wing sincerely worried about perverts forcing the hands of florists? Or is that a pretext, fig-leafing for some other motive?

Indiana has no statewide protections for sexual orientation or gender identity. 11 cities and counties do have local anti-discrimination ordinances, but those come almost without enforcement powers. Indiana’s new RFRA would make those laws even less enforceable; any attempt by victims to complain could be blunted by a religious-freedom claim. In the rest of the state, though, it would just confirm that LGBT people already have no recourse. It might encourage employers to discriminate more, knowing the law supports them; but you can’t take away rights that aren’t there.

Far less discussed are its possible effects on other discrimination claims. Indiana has its own civil rights laws covering the usual suspects — race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, age, disability — and its own Civil Rights Commission. So what if someone has a religious objection to equal treatment on these grounds?

Back off, Jews, out of my bakery: Icon of St. Gavriil Belokstoksky

Back off, Jews, out of my bakery: Icon of St. Gavriil Belostoksky

What if your faith forbids renting to interracial couples, or hiring the disabled? What if God doesn’t want you letting Muslims in your establishment? 2 Corinthians 6:14 is clear on the subject: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?” Meanwhile, one of the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church is the child Gavriil Belostoksky, canonized in 1820 after Jews ritually slaughtered him — so goes the pogrom-provoking story. If a Russian bakery in Evansville declines to serve Jews, lest they sprinkle their blinis with the holy blood of infants, who is to gainsay the sanctified exclusion?

Let’s be clear: probably none of these would succeed. Indiana’s RFRA wouldn’t “overrule any [and all] existing anti-discrimination laws,” as some shriek. But it would complicate them. It would confuse the cases, leaving legal fog behind it, giving a potential basis for the discriminators’ defense. It would shift the burden slightly toward the government (or someone pressing a private lawsuit), forcing them to show, over and over, why there’s a compelling interest in overriding these factitious claims of faith in this particular case of discrimination, and why there’s no less restrictive way to stop it. It would encourage people to come up with divine mandates for despicable behavior, and it might make a few people think twice about pressing discrimination claims, given the extra firewalking they could be compelled to do. It would chip away at existing protections in the law. If you hate the whole idea of equality in law, that’s a victory. This confusion, this incremental erosion, is the point of the new-style RFRAs.

Indiana, of course, is reeling from bad press and boycotts; now it’s passed a “fix” for the law, a weird sort of partial victory. The retreat leaves businesses as well as individuals their “enhanced” religious liberty claims, but only if they don’t discriminate in services, housing, or employment. And sexual orientation and gender identity are mentioned as reasons not to discriminate, for the first time in Indiana law. Except this doesn’t give LGBT people any rights. You can still discriminate; you just can’t claim religion as a pretext — but then, you don’t need to. What’s the point of mentioning LGBT people at all?

For other identities, a political ambiguity persists under the legal clarification. Discrimination was made easier for a few days, and even if the new language partly retracts that, the fact survives the furor. Somebody out there will feel freer to act on his prejudices, or make them quiet company policy. This very ambiguity is also the point of the new-style RFRAs.

Public accommodations II: "Sorry, but you have an incurable skin condition." Herblock cartoon, Washington Post, 1963

Public accommodations I: “Sorry, but you have an incurable skin condition.” Cartoon by Herblock, Washington Post, 1963

The Indiana outrage has shown that lots of Americans will stand up for LGBT rights, even as lots of others oppose them. It’s also shown, though, that there’s no broad coalition to defend the principle of equality. They attack it piecemeal — and we defend it the same way. The gays treat reproductive rights as irrelevant; they had little or nothing to say about Hobby Lobby. But the threats Indiana’s law posed to women also went unnoticed. The RFRA-makers use same-sex marriage as the thin end of the wedge. But they mean to carve out space for every kind of discrimination: to undermine every equality claim they can, including those confirmed in the national canon of civil rights protections.

And it still could work. As Marci Hamilton notes, fifteen years ago “it was widely assumed by the civil rights community that Title VII” — the gender-equality section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — “would be a bulwark” against attempts to use the Federal RFRA to roll back women’s rights. “Hobby Lobby proved that they were wrong.” The threat is serious, the defenses fragile, and that’s why the focus on florists is reductive. Even for gays, discrimination generally goes beyond geraniums. As Garrett Epps writes, “public accommodations are not usually about wedding photos—they are about pediatricians, about pharmacies, about daycares or private schools for your children. They are about being able to shop and eat in public without exclusion and humiliation.” That’s where the Indiana law gave scope for discrimination. And in fact, as these laws keep coming, the legal threats to queers in public space turn physically painful. Texas, for instance, is trying to write an “enhanced” RFRA into its constitution. But three bills before its legislature would also criminalize both trans people who enter the wrong” toilet, and business owners who fail to “verify the gender of individuals using their restrooms.” That’s a direct threat to trans folk’s ability to hold jobs, go outside, access the public world at all.

Yet the LGBT fixation also ignores the breadth of the threats, the potential range of victims. Sure, you could find another florist. And an African-American whom some godly proprietor kicks out could find another lunch counter, or job, or home. It’s not that these stories are equivalent; they aren’t. But the principle is the same. It’s Sumner’s principle, again endangered: that the public sphere should be for everyone.

Public accommodations II: "The White traveller has no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different." The Negro Traveller's Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966, to help African-American tourists in the segregation age find places to stay, eat, shop, or use restrooms -- "without encountering embarrassing situations."

Public accommodations II: “The White traveller has no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different.” The Negro Traveller’s Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966, to help the small numbers of African-American tourists in the segregation age find places to stay, eat, shop, or use restrooms — “without encountering embarrassing situations.”

3. Equality

An uneasy coalition of libertarians, social conservatives, and open racists has been fighting this battle since well before 1964. Their goal isn’t to protect “religious freedom.” They want to change and chain up public space, close off access, put paid to the principles of American civil rights law. “Religious freedom” is just a way to make the effects of inequality seem minimal, its appeal seem broad.

If religious freedom doesn’t turn you on, that’s fine. Already they’re thinking way beyond it. They’ll defend unequal treatment as a First Amendment issue. When you refuse a Jew a room in your hotel, you’re really just saying, “I am unfavorably disposed toward Jews,” and that’s free speech. Or they’ll claim they actually defend difference in the public sphere, by letting some folks drive it out. “Civil society is where life happens; we want it to be as rich an ecosystem as it can be,” Jonah Goldberg writes in National Review, not previously known for defending either diversity or ecosystems. “All RFRA was intended to do was to give millions of Americans a little space to be and do what their religion tells them they must.” Or they’ll claim everybody should have the right to discriminate, not just the godly. If the non-religious can’t discriminate just like the religious do, that’s discrimination against them:

As vital as religious liberty is, what about the rights of the 25 percent of Americans who have no faith? The safe harbors that these laws attempt to dredge should not, themselves, discriminate against nonbelievers. … What if you are an atheist who really objects to gay marriage? Must you still bake cakes for gay weddings, or will pro-shariah Muslim bakers be the only ones who can walk into court and ask to be excused from doing so?

Cover of NAACP pamphlet explaining the Civil Rights Act

Cover of NAACP pamphlet explaining the Civil Rights Act

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat, the New York Times‘s resident rightist, warns that protections for LGBT people take the tools used against racial discrimination much too far. “In the annals of American history, both Jim Crow and the means we used to destroy it are, well, legally and culturally extraordinary.” If that’s true, public equality for women and the disabled is overreach too. The Supreme Court already gutted the Voting Rights Act. Should the Civil Rights Act of 1964 go next?

Not likely. Not yet. But that’s what they want. The battle is about what public space will look like, who’s empowered to appear. Reactionary partisans of the ancien régime dream of driving out everybody who’s occupied their territory in the last fifty years.

It’s similar to the struggles in eastern Europe over LGBT Pride marches, brutalized by skinheads and banned. Many of those countries decriminalized “sodomy” in the 1990s under EU pressure, grudgingly giving gays bedroom freedoms; but conservatives draw the line in public, at access to the streets. With the rule of law underdeveloped there, though, violence displaces legislation as the curb of choice. More salient as a parallel are the measures against Muslims in some western European nations. In France, there’s been the drive to ban the veil and other emblems of religious identity in public; in the UK, the constant intimidation and surveillance — by government and by “human rights” vigilantes — of Muslim communities, speakers, NGOs, mosques. Both reveal revulsion against an unfamiliar immigrant-borne identity, among older, whiter groups who thought they had sole tenure on citizenship: in particular, an insular and arrogant secularism that strives to stamp out any alternatives. Many gays and Muslims might might reject the analogy. But it suggests how this controversy too isn’t about freedom of religion, or freedom from religion. It’s about power. It’s about control.

Police arrest a woman under the new law against wearing the niqab in public, Paris, April 12, 2011. Photo: European Press Agency

Like being trans in Texas: Police arrest a woman under the new law against wearing the niqab in public, Paris, April 12, 2011. Photo: European Press Agency

From the purely queer perspective, you have to ask: how did Indiana happen to us? What makes these backlash-fed attempts at rollback possible is this: while same-sex marriage swept the country, most of us still have no defenses against discrimination. 36 states permit marriage now; less than half that many protect LGBT people in work, housing, public accommodations. The backlash against the former thus finds people’s material well-being easy prey. Would things be different if the priorities of American’s institutional gay movement had been different? If, instead of such a single-minded focus on weddings, they had fought hard for civil rights laws in employment and public accommodations — for tangible equality?

Why didn’t they? Equality is such a touchy term. It’s far easier to get it when it doesn’t cost anything. Marriage has the advantage of making few demands on either government or business, unlike anti-discrimination laws. (The alleged burdens it places on non-juring florists are so nugatory that nobody even imagined them before the right dreamed them up). But real equality always costs; its implications are economic. The language of civil rights protections often veers into abstract realms of legal formalisms, but few who fought for those standards forgot their tangible impact: not just offering discursive recognition to people, but redeeming livelihoods and lives. Lyndon Johnson, telling a gaggle of governors why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was needed, burst into a manic oath of uplift to all the country’s wretched and poor: “So that we can say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.” Clean up the language, take away the self-pity: what politician today would dare commit himself like that? Promises to the poor make the rich angry. To pass a civil rights bill now, you’d have to swear on the God of Genesis that it wouldn’t actually help anybody at all.

Compare Hillary Clinton. “Extreme inequality has corrupted other societies,” she warns. But:

Mrs. Clinton was vague when it came to solutions. …. Though she derided the Republican practice of cutting taxes on the wealthy, she made no mention of tax increases or more aggressive measures, like capping the pay of chief executives or modestly taxing stock market transactions.

Any nerve Clinton ever had is Novocained now by Wall Street money, which pulls the teeth of both her policies and prose. Speaking of inequality to a “well-heeled crowd,” she said: “We have to have a concerted effort to meet a consensus about how to deal with this.” What brave rhetoric! It’s George W. Bush on Quaaludes.

Inequality? Two of us are equal, and the third, she's trying. Hillary Clinton and billionaire Bill Gates, with billionaire Howard Buffett (Warren's son) between them

Inequality? Two of us are equal, and the third, she’s trying. Hillary Clinton and billionaire Bill Gates, with billionaire Howard Buffett (Warren’s son) between them

That’s the fix we’re in. We imagine equality as an invitation-only ceremony: let them eat wedding cake. But others are starving outside, and at any moment we could join them. The deeper implications even of a fiasco like Indiana’s evade us.

Why are the gays ecstatic when corporations side with us? True, their clout makes a difference when properly put to use: the ebb of investment forced Indiana’s governor into full retreat. But it’s opportunistic friendship they’re offering, not a marriage proposal. Apple and Walmart object to religious-discrimination laws because they know it’s good business to be open to all consumers. But none of them complained about the Hobby Lobby decision, which quashed a requirement to give workers benefits. Those cost money. Tim Cook wrote no op-eds defending women’s rights to birth control.

Corporations may sometimes use their power for human rights, but corporate power is still a problem. And when Tim Cook intones “we will never tolerate discrimination,” he’s making a sales pitch, not a promise. Apple benefits plenty from inequalities in the labor market. There’s a reason it subcontracts work to high-tech sweatshops in China, where the wages are risible, the exploitation rife. Meanwhile, in California, Cook’s corporation bars construction contractors from hiring workers with criminal backgrounds. Blanket employment bans based on criminal record can violate Federal law — according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mark Ames writes,

Discrimination against ex-offenders is a major ongoing problem that exacerbates poverty, inequality and racism; in an incarceration-mad state like California, Apple’s policy imposed on construction companies it hires means worsening inequality and cycles of poverty for a problem that disproportionately affects people of color.

For all his invocations of his Alabama childhood, if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 comes under attack, I doubt Tim Cook is going to defend it.

The decades after Civil Rights Cases and Plessy v Ferguson were the Barbarian Ages of American law — and not just for racial freedom. Courts refused to use the equal protection clause to make government protect the disenfranchised and the lynched. They used the due process clause to keep government from protecting anyone else. During the so-called “Lochner era” in the first forty years of the twentieth century (named for a Supreme Court decision overturning limits on the work week), judges rejected child labor laws, health and safety laws, almost any restriction on the all-mastering, untrammeled market. Racism dominated the political world, laissez-faire indifference the economic. Together they subjugated the public sphere, under the dual rule of prejudices and prices. The expansion of Congress’s interstate commerce powers that made the 1964 Civil Rights Act constitutionally possible grew as a tool to reverse the Supreme Court’s sacralization of private business.

No one thinks the dark era of counter-Reconstruction could return in full; but there are echoes. New laws chisel away at civil rights principles. States are stealing voting rights, while the Supreme Court lops the Federal government’s authority to intervene. Corporations assume personhood, then human rights, then oligarchic powers. The gay movement indulges gauzy wedding fantasies; in the real world, run by Walmart and Apple, inequality metastasizes. A qualified victory came out of Indiana. But meanwhile the freedom to access the common world recedes. A long American struggle strove to create a broad public sphere governed by rights. That sphere is shrinking. No temporary triumph will last unless we defend the principles of public life, as political beings, together.

Equality at bay: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks canes Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, 1856, from a contemporary engraving

Freedom at bay: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks canes Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, 1856, from a contemporary engraving

NOTE. English common law imposed duties on certain private entities that offered services to the public. Lord Chief Justice Holt’s 1701 dissent in Lane v Cotton definitively formulated the principle:

If on the road a shoe falls off my horse, and I come to a smith to have one put on, and the smith refuses to do it, an action will lie against him, because he has made profession of a trade which is for the public good ….If an innkeeper refuses to entertain guests where his house is not full, an action will lie against him and so against a carrier, if his horses are not loaded, and he refuses to take a packet proper to be sent by a carrier.

A certain idea of non-discrimination lies latent here. However, the American context of comprehensive racist restriction drew forth responses applying that governmental power specifically to inequality. In Massachusetts, Charles Sumner himself helped argue Roberts v Boston in 1849-50, a failed attempt to bring about school integration by litigation. The failure led, however, to Massachusetts enacting the first school integration law in the US, and — in 1865 — to the first statewide law prohibiting race discrimination in public accommodations. These in turn were models for Sumner’s national civil rights bill.

Most of these were measures expressly couched against property rights. They led to a conservative backlash expressly associating property rights with discrimination. Robert C. Post and Reva B. Siegel note

Although Anglo-American common law had imposed on at least some business owners the duty to serve customers on a nondiscriminatory basis, the linkage of property ownership with the liberty to discriminate found increasingly forceful expression in the decades after the Civil War as white Americans invoked racial notions of associational privacy to justify practices of racial segregation in both public and private spheres.

Post’s and Siegel’s analysis of the arc leading from Reconstruction to measures against gender-based violence amply repays reading. My thanks to Danish Sheikh, of the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, India, and Mindy Chateauvert for their guidance here.

Tim Cook’s coming out: Leaning in, trickling down

Poster - Coming Out Party_04I’ve lost interest in being gay. Not the sex; the slogans. This has been gathering over time — whose identity wouldn’t shudder under the dark suspicion it was shared with John Travolta?  — but something changed when coming out stopped being a matter of self-affirmation, with its secret thrill of hedonism, and became a moral obligation. What’s the fun of being yourself if you have to?

Everyone must be out now; and it’s not enough to be out, you have to be out enough to affirm the community, uplift the race. Thus Guy Branum (“writer and comedian”) has reprimanded Nate Silver, the numbers man, who announced he was gay a couple of years ago. Silver topped off his moment of candor, however, with a demurral: “I don’t want to be Nate Silver, gay statistician.” Wrong.

Silver’s refusal to fully participate in gay identity is the real problem … We can’t behave like Nate Silver’s choice to distance himself from gay culture is just another choice. … We need to make it safe for a statistician to be gay and have it affect their work, because some people are gay, some people are black, some people are women and all of those perspectives can enrich all fields. Nate Silver being a gay statistician will help that. [emphasis added]

Just as Philip Roth had to be a Jewish novelist, and Toni Morrison had to be a black writer, constrained in the gated communities of identity, so “yes, Nate Silver, you have to be a gay statistician.” Coming out isn’t just a public act because it’s addressed to a public, but because it’s owned by one.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, came out this week, and oh the humanity. People didn’t just congratulate him; they hailed him as Moses or Martin Luther King, as if he hadn’t just written an op-ed in Bloomberg Businessweek but had revised the Bible.

“Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives. He has always been a role model, but today millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life”

so said Chad Griffin of the Human RIghts Campaign. Apple is “a sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign” (“The work we do with these groups is meaningful and inspiring,” the company says). While it’s impossible to decipher how much money they ladle out, they give enough to make them an HRC “Platinum Partner.” HRC thus slobbers on the hand that feeds it. But some praise for Cook is unpaid. The unbribeable New York Times quoted the unbribeable Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs:  “He’s chief executive of the Fortune One. Something has consequences because of who does it, and this is Tim Cook and Apple. This will resonate powerfully.”

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

I love my Apple swag, and God forbid I should be cynical. Yet for days fulsome praise of Cook filled my Mac’s screen, and I resisted just enough to wonder where the enthusiasm came from. How will a rich executive’s painless revelation, offered at the apex of his career, change lives, even save them? What do you mean, it will “resonate” — where, with whom? What does it say about our ritual public confessionals? What does it say about us?

Start with this. The New York Times quotes “Richard L. Zweigenhaft, co-author of Diversity in the Power Elite: How It Happened, Why it Matters … who has closely tracked the progress of minorities in business.” For Zweigenhaft, Cook’s announcement inspired “the same feeling that I had back in 1998, when many were speculating about when the first African-American would be appointed a Fortune-level chief executive.”

It’s odd Zweigenhaft was speculating about that in 1998. The first African-American head of a Fortune firm dates back to 1987. (At least by some counts.) So much for “closely monitoring.” The man was Clifton Wharton, and he was CEO and chairman of the pension behemoth TIAA-CREF.*

Jet Magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White's elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Jet magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White’s elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Yet questions start. One is: How earthshaking is it for a minority to run an enormous corporation if you don’t even notice when it happens? Another is: Why didn’t African-Americans explode with joy? Thirteen black men and one black woman have headed Fortune 500 companies since then. The “African-American community” seems different from the “gay community” (and not just because the “gay community,” whenever you hear the term, seems to mean a klatsch of people who are exclusively Clorox white). African-Americans didn’t hold a vast potlatch of rejoicing back when Wharton got his job, nor when Franklin Raines took charge of Fannie Mae and Lloyd Ward took over Maytag in 1999. Nor are those successes lodged in some collective memory today. Wharton crops up, for instance, in a book called African American Firsts: Famous Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks. Perhaps that’s a warning to Tim Cook: you can go from resonator, life-saver to little-known, unsung in the time it takes to get a gold watch. Fame is a by-the-hour motel.

It’s not that those people’s strivings and stories aren’t important. But they haven’t fed the same hyperbole that Cook has among the gays. It’s’s presumptuous to generalize — yet African-Americans seem to have different priorities for celebration. Conservatives have, of course, a long history of condemning “black cultural pathology”: they cherish what Michael Eric Dyson calls “an updated version of beliefs about black moral deficiency as ancient as the black presence in the New World.” For the Right, this refusal to deify the capitalists in your community would be a prime case study. If ghetto kids only read Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, as infant gays do, then we wouldn’t have to gun them down! Lamenting the lack of a black John Galt is wrong in many ways. It neglects the obvious fact that capitalism has appeared in African-American history more as pathology than cure. John Galt himself, copper-haired and green-eyed, might have had a complicated relationship to private properties if his color made him one. There’s plenty of room for asking: How, if a system’s past is entwined with enslavement and exploitation, can it suddenly start strewing opportunity? Where’s the catch? 

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Cornel West has written how the “nihilism” he excoriates in black communities stems from “the saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life.” Yet Lloyd Hogan, the African-American economist and theorist of black empowerment, had a slightly different take. That negativity wasn’t just what the market left behind after scouring out all other values; “nihilism” abjured superficial hope, but could nourish a sustaining culture of resistance.

“Legally stolen African-American labor, transformed into non-Black material wealth,” long spelled “the physical death of the African-American population,” Hogan wrote. But there is also an “African-American internal labor to overcome the ravages of death.”

A significant component of that internal labor is indeed the development of a consciousness within the Black community to eradicate the social source of its exploitation.

Inherent in the internal labor of the African-American population is the  … creation of a surplus African-American population above and beyond the exploitative needs of capital. This is reflected in the growing absolute magnitude of unemployed African-Americans, who represent the “freeing-up” of African-Americans from the binding forces of the capitalist market mechanism. Unemployment among members of the African-American population could be part of a process that portends growing liberation of these people from direct capitalist exploitative mechanisms.

There’s a touch of the smugness of the Marxist longue durée here. The not-so-Marxist point is, though, that a liberatory consciousness doesn’t just arise through labor within the system. The working classes aren’t the only potential rebels. Being shut out from the system can emancipate you from its terms. The “internal labor” of developing that freed consciousness is a work of culture. A disparate range of cultural phenomena, seen in this context, start to make sense together. You can recognize the gangsta celebration of gain unredeemed by even the faintest hint of productive purpose, which reveals money for what Brecht and Proudhon said it was — a glint of bling decking the fact of theft; you can recall an exaltation of bodies driven by defiant needs, in dance or sport, no longer drilled and regimented by the factory ethic. These sensibilities deny the nostrums of triumphant capitalism; they form an ungoverned undercurrent in American culture, otherwise bound to the wheel of Work and Progress. To see them as freedom takes only a slight shift in vantage — though something enormous is required to shake white folks away from the heritage of Horatio Alger. Resistance isn’t just rejection; it’s the creation of visions of life alternative to what the prevailing economy has on offer. African-American experience has been rich enough in the legacy of these not to wallow abjectly in the rubbed-off pride of a few singular success stories.

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Didn’t homosexuality stand for something like that once? To claim the flesh is designed for desire and fun, not just assembly lines and breeding, was more subversion than self-indulgence. It formed a dissent and an alternative to the work-and-win compulsiveness of American life. It rebelled against the body’s subordination to morality and economy alike, its subjection to an imperative of production. Back in the Sixties, before Grindr or Lady Gaga, a lonely homo might spend a Saturday night reading Paul Goodman or Herbert Marcuse. For Marcuse, homosexuality “protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.” The “repressive organization of sexuality” by culture parallels the repressive organization of creativity by capital:

The sex instincts bear the brunt of the reality principle. Their organization culminates in the subjection of the partial sex instincts to the primacy of genitality, and in their subjugation under the function of procreation. … This organization results in a quantitative and qualitative restriction of sexuality…. it is turned into a specialized temporary function, into a means for an end.

Homosexuality portends a polymorphous sexuality liberating physical existence from the factory floor, fantasy unshackled from the demands of realism. Our future hinges “on the opportunity to activate repressed or arrested organic, biological needs: to make the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor. … The emergence of new, qualitatively different needs and faculties seemed to be the prerequisite, the content of liberation.” The great mythic figures who embodied that perversity, Orpheus and Narcissus, “reveal a new reality, with an order of its own, governed by different principles.”

Innocent in the garden: Marcuse

Innocent in the garden: Herbert Marcuse in the Sixties

Those were heady days, when through the thickets of even the densest prose flickered glimpses of an erotic Eden; naked in the undergrowth, Marx and Freud copulated under a fringe of green leaves. The gays were tutelary spirits of this verdant wood, dissidents by definition.

And now, no more. The gay movement put on its pants and wandered in a different direction. Nobody’s interested in liberation anymore; least of all those who praise placidly zipped-up, buttoned-down Tim Cook. Brittney Cooper wrote a few days ago about the gulf between black and white feminisms in the United States: “White women’s feminisms still center around equality …  Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference.  One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.” It’s tempting to say that here’s the distinction between the gay politics we practice now– the pursuit of belonging — and other movements that retained a tingle of radical aspiration, of transformational edge.

But does the gay movement even believe in “equality”? This is what the Tim Cook carnival makes me wonder. How can you praise equality when your poster boy is worth $400 million?

That’s an undercount. In 2011, Apple paid Cook $378 million, and his price has surely gone up. Business Insider notes that, although “compensated handsomely,” Cook

chooses to live a modest lifestyle. Cook lives in a modest, 2,400-square-foot condo in Palo Alto, which he bought for $1.9 million in 2010. He’s quoted as saying in the book Inside Apple: “I like to be reminded of where I came from, and putting myself in modest surroundings helps me do that. Money is not a motivator for me.”

The threefold refrain of “modest” is sweet. It’s true that most Americans spend much more than 1/200th of their annual income on a house. It’s also true that most don’t spend two million dollars. Cook is too poor to show up on Forbes’ list of the country’s very richest. But that’s OK; he’s Number 25 in its rankings of the most powerful people on the planet, “our annual lineup of the politicians and financiers, entrepreneurs and CEOs, and billionaire philanthropists who rule the world.” That’s an interesting list. It’s not about opportunity; it’s certainly not about democracy. Among the first 25 only five — Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Narendra Modi, François Hollande — are political leaders elevated in reasonably fair elections (unless you count the Pope). The rest are dictators or businessmen. It’s their world. We just die in it.

Equal affection, trickling down

Equal affection, trickling down

The gay movement talks about equality all the time. LGBT groups across the country sport it in their names; you could play a lethal drinking game with it cropping up in speeches; and then there are those damn equality signs, and the profile pictures. But how equal is it when your role model — “trailblazer,” “hero,” “an American Dream story” — has power and money to which no American can aspire?  It means your idea of equality has gone off the rails. “He serves as a shining example that you can be who you are, you can be gay, and become the CEO of the most valuable company in the world.” No, he doesn’t. In this century of spreading poverty, in this country of oligarchy, in this economy of injusticeno sane gay kid can or should grow up with the delusion that the path to infinite acquisition lies open.

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we'll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, from right-wing group Focus on the Family's website

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we’ll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, in a photo from right-wing group Focus on the Family’s website

What underpins this is the American gay movement’s firm, longstanding belief in a trickle-down theory of culture. We’re not trying to change realities, just opinions. A few well-placed examples at the top of things, a few powerful promoters of tolerance, and enlightenment will leak and dribble down to the mind-starved masses. We don’t need to tinker with the system, we don’t need to ask what keeps patriarchy going, we never need to think about money, we don’t need to wonder how poverty shapes masculinity or limits women or deforms childhood, and remember: race and militarism and the Gulag of mass incarceration have zero to do with sex or gender. All it takes are role models. The obsession with role models makes gay politics seem like a nonstop casting call. Celebrities — LGBT and out, or non-LGBT and approving — are the movement’s moral leaders; it’s as if Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy were the whole March on Washington. It’s all justified by the children — the kids who don’t need child care, or recourses from domestic violence, or protective laws, or better schools and textbooks, or homes for that matter, and who are never black or Latino or poor or anything except gay; they just need a wealthy gay man or occasional lesbian to look up to, otherwise they will commit suicide. In fact, children don’t kill themselves because of the absence of Tim Cook (unless, of course, they are Tim Cook’s children). They kill themselves because their families or communities fuck them over, and it takes more than a Silicon Valley executive to fix that. Cook may be a decent man, but Chad Griffin only calls him a “lifesaver” because Chad Griffin is unable or unwilling to think about the structural changes that might actually save children’s lives.

Trickle-down culture is a retreat from both “equality” and “justice.” It lures the gay movement into a never-never land where images fix facts miraculously, and a magic charisma conveyed by gods through their chosen paparazzi withers all wrongs like blighted figs. Trickle-down politics is a politics of pure recognition, where persuading the powerful to acknowledge your existence with a gesture or a sign calls for an abased, degrading gratitude, and substitutes for getting anything that counts. Trickle-down culture is the perfect entryway to trickle-down economics, the belief that the rich, like the famous, bless us by their mere existence. Contagious success is a lie. “Leaning in” doesn’t help those whose backs are against the wall. But while we beatify Cook as gay gazillionaire, that old Horatio Alger horseshit becomes part of America’s new gay ideology.

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you're my hero?

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?

We are ruled less by ourselves than by the rich, and everybody knows this, and the organized gay movement isn’t fighting that, just trying to get the rich on our side. This isn’t a job for activists, but for courtiers. Most other social movements in the US have figured out this won’t work, and why. They know by heart what Brecht said: “When everyone’s pursuing happiness, happiness comes in last.” If any African-Americans ever needed a lesson in the failure to trickle down, they got it in Franklin Raines, who became the first black CEO of Fannie Mae. What kind of role model was he? Raines enthusiastically drew the lending giant into the subprime mortgage business. His motives aren’t clear; perhaps, like many others at the time, he genuinely wanted to get the very poor invested in the economic system by making them homeowners. Or perhaps he wanted to raise his corporation’s short-term earnings, because his pay was based on them. (His creative accounting ended up overstating the earnings by more than $6 billion anyway, possibly in a conspiracy to inflate his bonuses.) Plenty of African-Americans took out mortgages and invested in the system, and when the system collapsed in 2008 it left them destitute. The money went to Raines and the banks. It trickled up.

I’m reasonably sure Tim Cook is a good man, personally. I fear the possibility he’ll be the gay community’s Franklin Raines. Apple makes beautiful things that gays love; but amid the euphoria, isn’t it reasonable to ask just what else the corporation does for us? Cook has tried to lever up Apple’s philanthropy, including to the Human RIghts Campaign. (“Unlike cofounder Steve Jobs who thought his company should focus on maximizing shareholders’ value so they can donate their own wealth, the new boss is adamant that Apple must do more.”)  In 2011, the corporation gave away $150 million, against $100 billion it had in the bank. This generosity takes on a paltry cast when you realize that, though now valued at more than $118 billion, Apple pays only a pittance in taxes. Anywhere. It’s one of Earth’s biggest tax cheats. For instance, Apple may seem to you like a Silicon Valley firm; on paper, though, it’s settled itself in Ireland, a notorious tax haven. It routs its international sales — 60% of its profits — through dummy companies in Dublin. From 2009 to 2012 it attributed net income of $30 billion to another offshore subsidiary which “declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.” It’s as though Apple were a spaceship. A Congressional report estimates Apple evaded $9 billion in 2012 US taxes. Forbes, not usually a a Marxist rag, blasted the “vanity and contempt for government … amply displayed in Apple’s tax figures.”

Not giving at the office: Apple's profits vs. Apple's taxes, 2007-2011

Not giving at the office: Apple’s profits vs. Apple’s taxes, 2007-2011

Apple’s philanthropy redistributes to private causes what it robs from public coffers — a tiny mite of what it robs, anyway. Instead of paying its dues to democratic governments, where disposing the proceeds would be a shared decision (you vote on what to with tax money), Apple gives what and when it wants to whomever it chooses. That’s neoliberalism in action. Here it’s the gays who profit at the public’s expense. I don’t grudge them. But LGBT groups could get other donors to support their battle against bullying in education; whereas dwindling tax dollars are the only thing that supports the education. End school bullying. Don’t end the schools.

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

One area where Apple did something nice for the gays at last, after a string of mistakes, was privacy. True, it took long enough: years of bad publicity and stonewalling before the corporation showed it was truly serious about information safety. Data protection is vital to LGBT people for obvious reasons; not everyone is out, and cops and blackmailers in many jurisdictions would love to learn who isn’t. When Apple issued a new, sweeping privacy statement last month, promising not to share information with either marketers or governments, it was especially important to those customers. For sure, it’s part of the corporation’s branding:

Apple has always tried to build an emotional connection between its devices and customers. With its increasing focus on privacy, it’s clear that Apple not only sees privacy as important to maintaining this bond, but as a means of differentiating itself from the competition.

It’s also imperfect — cops can seize information even if it’s not handed over — and Apple needs to answer many more questions. (Why does the Mac operating system still send Apple keystroke-by-keystroke data on what you do?) Yet the protections will let vulnerable users rest a bit more easy.

EyePhone: BIg brother thinks different

EyePhone: Big brother thinks different

“Privacy” is an interesting idea, though. It was a key theme in Tim Cook’s coming-out op-ed, a month after Apple’s your-data’s-safe-with-us campaign started — suggesting he saw his honesty through the same lens, perhaps as part of the same PR. “Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy,” he intoned, but “my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important.” Could this be a way of saying, Listen, geeks, there are bigger things than your selfish insecurity about your silly secrets? What’s certain is: Cook is willing to forgo his personal obscurity and become a news story and symbol; but Apple, by contrast, protects its corporate privacy to the death. Literally.

On July 16, 2009, Sun Danyong, 25 a Chinese factory worker for Apple’s manufacturing supplier Foxconn Technology, killed himself by jumping from the window of his 12th-floor apartment. Three days earlier, he’d told the company he’d lost a prototype model for the next-generation IPhone. Foxconn security forces searched his home, interrogated him, and beat him. Two hours before he died, Sun texted his girlfriend:

“My dear, I’m sorry, go back home tomorrow, something has happened to me, please don’t tell my family, don’t contact me, this is the first time that I have ever begged you, please agree to that! I am so sorry!”

And he wrote to a friend: “Even at a police station, the law says force must never be used, much less in a corporate office. … Thinking that I won’t be bullied tomorrow, won’t have to be the scapegoat, I feel much better.”

Sun Dan YongSun’s death drew attention to the human consequences of Apple’s obsessive concern with secrecy. It also pulled back the veil on working conditions for those who make your IPhones and IPads. In 2010 alone, 18 Foxconn workers attempted suicide, and 14 died. describes Tian Yu, a17-year-old migrant from rural China:

Her managers made her work over 12 hours a day, often without a day off for up to two weeks, and attend unpaid work meetings on top of that. Tian Yu’s demanding work schedule in Foxconn’s sweatshop-like conditions forced her to skip meals and accept the manufacturer’s restricted toilet break policy.

The company finally sent her on a bureaucratic run-around to get the meager monthly wages of just over $200 it owed her. She bussed from office to office in a futile quest: “Why was it so hard to get what I’d earned? Why must they torture me like this?” she asked a reporter later. That day, she jumped from her dormitory window, and barely survived.

A Hong Kong-based watchdog investigated working conditions at Foxconn, and found its factories were more like military labor camps. A Hong Kong professor, Jack Qiu, made a powerful short film on Foxconn’s sweatshops:

A former Foxconn manager told the New York Times that “Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost. Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests.”

Apple promised audits and produced its own figures, but showed angry indignation that anyone dared impugn its motives or inspect its claims. Tim Cook said in a company-wide email that he was “outraged”: but by the abuses, or the reporting?

Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today … We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. …. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. … For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.

What stands out is Apple’s fierce concern not just for its customers’ privacy, but for its own. Corporations are people too, and they have their intimacies. If they enjoy the full rights of free speech, surely they’re entitled to keep the state out of their bedrooms. Would you fuck somebody — the workers, in this case — with a whistleblower watching?

Apple’s philanthropy is a good investment. By buying up shares in US civil society, they ensure noisy activists will side with them, and ignore the nameless foreign workers. Apple donates to HRC in part to give itself a, well, righteous gloss. How could a bigtime patron of the Human RIghts Campaign flout human rights?

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

But all this exposes still another scandal: The complicity of US social movements with corporate abuse.

There’s nothing new here, and it’s not unique to Apple. In 2012, Bil Browning revealed how “One day after several leaders from LGBT orgs met to talk about American Airlines’ anti-union activities and how it’s been affecting their LGBT employees, the Human Rights Campaign sent out an email urging their supporters to purchase airline tickets from the company.” American Airlines is another big donor to HRC; just like Apple, it’s a “Platinum Partner.” Effectively, these companies pay the gays to pinkwash them, to do their PR work. Purchasing social movements through philanthropy is remunerative traffic for the Fortune 500, and the gays come cheap. All I can say is: when onetime activists for liberated desire become hired flacks for the profiteers of sweatshop abuses, we’ve come a long, long way from Marcuse.

It's my party: Movie poster from 1934

It’s my party: Movie poster from 1934

Coming out is so complicated! I began by citing somebody’s demand that Nate Silver come out as a “gay statistician.” What is a “gay statistician?” Presumably it means you deal in gay statistics. And what are those? If you’re gay, or black, or Jewish and a novelist, I get how you may write gay, or black, or Jewish novels — a novel tells stories, and the teller’s identity is free to enter. But how professional is it to pass pure numbers through the sieve of self? Or maybe it’s all about the subjects you research. Should gay Nate Silver serve us up statistics about the gay community, then? Yet that might include statistics the gay community’s leaders wouldn’t like us to hear. You know — figures like:

  • How much does Apple pay the Human Rights Campaign to advertise for it?
  • How many praise-filled Tim Cook-related press releases were funded by Tim Cook-related money?
  • How much money do groups that rate corporations’ “gay-friendliness” take from corporations?
  • What percentage of the US LGBT movement’s funding comes from corporate donors, or donors high-placed in corporations? And on what terms?
  • What percentage of LGBT groups taking cash from corporations have ever criticized the human rights record of those corporations?

No, that won’t do. I’m sure the Human Rights Campaign prefers fewer, not more, gay statisticians.

I have nothing against Tim Cook. I wish him well. We spend too much time looking for individuals to blame for the horrors we dimly discern in the world; it diverts us from thinking about the system that dictates individuals’ acts, and constrains their desires. Cook’s coming out, I think, is an attempt to be a personality in a career that provided few chances for it: to claim a little corner of real, old-time personhood, not the corporate kind, inside a structure where selves subordinate themselves to shareholder value. (Even Steve Jobs, as quirky a figure as any leader in US life, tried with Zen obsessiveness to erase and efface himself down to desireless degree zero.) But if being gay can be bought and sold, it’s not a realm of self-expression anymore. Rebellious soul and body dwindle to a market niche. Cook at least has a distinctive prose style: “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick,” he wrote in his op-ed. “This is my brick.” But where is that stone cemented? Is it the yellow brick road? Or another brick in the wall?

* NOTE: TIAA-CREF has always been enormous, but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Fortune 500 list until 1998, I suspect because the magazine tweaked its rules then to include non-profit corporations. It’s been on there steadily ever since. So does Wharton’s 1987 accomplishment count? Was TIAA-CREF technically a Fortune company in 1987, since it was later? In any case, Wharton lists himself as the first African-American Fortune 500 CEO: here, for instance, and here. Either the Times didn’t acknowledge him as it should, or Wharton shows how CEOs — perhaps including Cook as well — are not to be trusted to measure their own importance.



Uganda, the World Bank, and LGBT rights: Winners and losers

Participants in a march demanding health-care funding to fight maternal mortality, Kampala, Uganda, May 22, 2012

Participants in a march demanding health-care funding to fight maternal mortality, Kampala, Uganda, May 22, 2012

Victory! .. isn’t it? On February 27, the World Bank announced it was “indefinitely” delaying a scheduled $90 million loan to Uganda to improve health care, in response to the passing of the comprehensively repressive “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” “We have postponed the project for further review to ensure that the development objectives would not be adversely affected by the enactment of this new law,” a Bank spokesman said.

In the circles where I move  — international (that is, North-based) activists working on LGBT rights — rejoicing burgeoned: finally the big funders are getting serious about queer people’s oppression! Politicians joined in. Nancy Pelosi, ex-speaker of the US House, tweeted joyfully:

pelosi wb copy

Jim Yong Kim, President Obama’s appointee to the lead the World Bank (an organization Washington still disproportionately funds and dominates) brought home the message with an op-ed the next day:

Institutionalized discrimination is bad for people and for societies. Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies … Legislation restricting sexual rights, for instance, can hurt a country’s competitiveness by discouraging multinational companies from investing or locating their activities in those nations.

Let’s pause to bask in the exhilarating effect of having a powerful institution intervene for LGBT people, with a leader in global development saying the “s” word — sex, as in “sexual rights.” Yes: it feels good.

Still, this is Africa. And this is the World Bank. For international activists to laud its actions so unreservedly involves a wretched show of amnesia.

We think that debt has to be seen from the standpoint of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who had colonized us before … Debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa, aiming at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave.

Probably few of my international colleagues will recognize those words– another leftist rant, right? But many Africans know them. It’s Thomas Sankara, then president of Burkina Faso, speaking to the African Union in 1987. Sankara had rejected the mandates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and launched on a development path that promoted economic equality, gender justice, education, and health care as basic rights. Three months after saying that, he was dead: murdered in a coup. France and other creditor nations tacitly endorsed his killing. He’s remembered and mourned across Africa today. His successor brought the country back under World Bank and IMF tutelage; as a result, as a South African analyst remarks, “Today Burkina Faso remains one of the least developed countries in the world.”


For twenty-five years, the World Bank has pushed essentially unvarying policies across the developing world: privatization, cutting the public sector, fostering an export-based economy (so that poor countries become suppliers of raw materials to the industrial North, and don’t grow their own industries and markets). It imposed these restrictions as conditions for loans; that debt, in addition to crippling Southern economies, then became a weapon to enforce more conditions. Poverty spread, not development. The Bank has been friendlier to civil society than its IMF sibling; but their ideologies and impacts have been the same. Praising a World Bank intervention for LGBT rights in Africa while forgetting this history is like praising Putin’s tender concern for Crimean Russians, while forgetting the Ukrainians next door.

You can use the power of international lenders for certain instrumental ends. That doesn’t mean you have to love them. We shouldn’t just hail what they do, we should scrutinize it. And please. You cannot condemn (as indeed you should) the neocolonialism of foreign evangelists exporting homophobia to Africa, and ignore the neocolonialism of foreign financial institutions that enforce neoliberal economics on an abject continent. Why is it wrong to import one devastating ideology, and OK to import another? Sorry. You need to be consistent.

So in the spirit of scrutiny, some questions arise about what the World Bank did.

First of all: why postpone this loan? Mainly, the $90 million was earmarked to combat maternal mortality: aimed at “maternal health, newborn care and family … through improving human resources for health, physical health infrastructure, and management, leadership and accountability for health service delivery.” It entailed funding to expand and train medical staff, to “professionalize and strengthen” management, for obstetric equipment and medicines including contraceptives, and for renovating hospitals. These goals are unlikely to be “adversely affected” by the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The real reason for the selection is that this loan was up for board approval on February 28. The Bank seized on the first loan that came along to postpone. It was a matter of convenience, not strategic targeting.

Progress, but not enough: Uganda maternal mortality rate, 1990-2013

Uganda maternal mortality rate, 1990-2013 (from

Second point: Maternal mortality is serious in Uganda — and a political issue.

The country’s rate of maternal mortality is extremely high. In the Millenium Development Goals — endorsed by nations at a UN summit back in 2000 — countries committed to reduce the level of maternal mortality by 75% by 2015. For Uganda, this would mean cutting a rate that hovered appallingly around 600 per 100,000 live births in the 1990s, to 150. A 2013 report found the rate had fallen to 310 per 100,000 live births — around a 3.2% reduction every year, the UN said, but still well above the goal. Fewer than half of mothers had adequate antenatal care, and only a third had sufficient postnatal care. Less than 60% had a skilled attendant at delivery. Despite the government’s loud promise of a National Minimum Health Care Package (UNMHCP) for all Ugandans, health services still fail to reach many poor and rural women.

Statistics on maternal health care in Uganda (from

Statistics on maternal health care in Uganda (from

By some estimates, between 6,500 and 13,500 women and girls in Uganda die each year due to “pregnancy-related complications.” That means at least sixteen women die every day.

In 2011, a coalition of NGOs petitioned Uganda’s courts to intervene. They argued 

that by not providing essential health services and commodities for pregnant women and their new-borns, Government was violating fundamental human rights guaranteed in the Constitution, including the right to health, the right to life, and the rights of women.

The case has stayed stalled in the legal system. At a September 2013 hearing, the government simply failed to show up, forcing an indefinite postponement. In May 2012, an emotional procession of women and health-care providers marched through Kampala’s streets to support the lawsuit. They got an apology from the judiciary for delays — too few judges, too little time — but the delays continued. They also met with Finance Ministry officials to demand increases in the health sector budget; those didn’t happen. Leonard Okello of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance Uganda told the press, “Dying mothers are not a priority in Uganda.”

Marchers in Kampala, May 22, 2012

Marchers in Kampala, May 22, 2012

Corruption and cronyism are undoubtedly at issue (top government officials waste a small fortune traveling for health care abroad), but the basic question is budgeting. Museveni has successfully battled back the political pressure to reorder his priorities. In 2001, African Union countries signed the Abuja Declaration, committing them to raise health spending to at least 15% of budget. (The development field seems particularly prone to these lofty professions of faith, which multiply like theological credos in the early Church.) Despite all its challenges, including one of the world’s best-known AIDS crises, Uganda has rarely made it much more than halfway to this target. The figures for recent years show a large decrease in the health sector’s budget share — from just over 10% in 2010 to under 8%:

On the right: health care as a percent of overall budget (from "Citizen’s Budget: The Civl Society Alternative Budget Proposals FY 2013/14 - 2017/18), at

On the right: health care as a percent of overall budget (from “Citizen’s Budget: The Civil Society Alternative Budget Proposals FY 2013/14 – 2017/18”, at

Who gets the money instead?

Interesting question. Here are the allocations by sector from Uganda’s budgets for the last two fiscal years.

Uganda budget by sector, FY 2013/14 (from "National Budget Framework Paper," Ministry of Finance, at

Uganda budget by sector (from “The Background to the Budget, Fiscal Year 2013/14,” Ministry of Finance, p. 104, at

(Note the percentage figures on the right, and ignore the numbers in shillings, which are made irrelevant by inflation.) Health’s share goes down again, to less than half the Abuja Declaration goal. Other losers are education, agriculture, water and the environment. Huge shares of the budget are taken up by “Energy and Mineral Development” and “Works and Transport.” These partly reflect the growing exploitation of Uganda’s oil reserves. They also reflect the priorities neoliberal lenders like the World Bank have always urged on developing countries: go produce raw materials for export to the industrialized North! and go build the infrastructure to get them there! One commentator says the country is “focusing on physical capital at the expense of human capital.” That’s an understatement.

But the other big factor is the security sector.

Security doesn’t look so massive: only 8.2% of the latest budget. That’s only the tip of the AK-47, though. Many defense expenditures remain hidden. Uganda’s Independent newspaper noted that the “the budget for Defence in the BFP [Budget Framework Paper] has always been smaller” than the reality:

[I]n real terms that figure excludes monies accrued to Defence from external sources. The figure also does not include classified expenditure that is usually Defence’s biggest component. Because of national security, the army does not reveal certain expenditures.

The 2013/14 budget featured “about ten new taxes… introduced partly to finance the Ministry of Defence.” These included a value-added tax (VAT) on water and on wheat and flour, regressive imposts designed to squeeze money from the poor. Security is Museveni’s “topmost priority,” the Independent says, and it’s the great enemy of health. In 2012, rebel parliamentarians proposed cutting the military’s largesse by 15 billion shillings (about US$6 million) and boosting health spending by 39 billion (US$15.5 million). Museveni quashed the move in fury. He snarled that he “couldn’t sacrifice the defense budget for anything.”

The President prizes his troops: “a large military war-chest increases Museveni’s regional and international leverage, and helps cow opposition to him at home.” But the US loves the Ugandan military as well. America wants to see plenty of money spent on it.

David Hogg, Commander of US Army Africa, inspects Ugandan troops in April 2011. Photo: U.S. Army. .

David Hogg, Commander of US Army Africa, inspects Ugandan troops in April 2011. Photo: U.S. Army. .

I wrote two years ago about the US’s aims for strategic hegemony in Africa, driven by the promise of buried resources and the threat of China. Uganda, as ally and partner, is key to this design. Obama actually sent US troops to Uganda in 2011, to join its army in chasing the warlord Joseph Kony, loathed by well-meaning white people everywhere. This was a small reward for Museveni’s larger services in bringing a desolate stability to Somalia. In 2012, the Pentagon “poured more than $82 million into counterterrorism assistance for six African countries, with more than half of that going to Uganda.” Money and equipment keep flowing to Museveni’s forces. Obama showers Uganda with “lethal military assistance,” writes the pundit Andrew Mwenda, because “America’s geostrategic interests in our region, and Museveni’s pivotal role in them, demand that the American president pampers his Ugandan counterpart.” 

And here is where we can start to understand some ambiguities in the World Bank’s actions.

The $90 million loan for “Uganda Health Systems Strengthening” that the Bank was on the verge of giving drew on two earlier Bank analyses of Uganda’s health crises. There’s a 2009 paper, Uganda: A Public Expenditure Review 2008, With a Focus on Affordability of Pay Reform and Health Sector. A longer 2010 working paper, Fiscal Space for Health in Uganda, elaborated on this. (Peter Okwero, task team leader for the loan, helped compose both.) They’re fascinating documents that reveal much about Uganda and much more about the Bank. It’s an honest institution in many ways, frank with figures and often good at diagnosing what’s wrong. But its prescriptions seem to come from a different place from its diagnoses — one permeated with politics and ideology. Its medicines rarely match the disease.

The findings are unsurprising. Aside from considerable waste (caused by theft of drugs but also poor procurement and storage practices) the main problems in health care stem from lack of funds. Capital spending in hospitals has shrunk; many hospitals are old and decaying. Medical costs are rising: “Growing resistance to the existing treatment for malaria (and more recently for TB), is forcing Uganda to adopt more expensive treatments.” Meanwhile, “Uganda faces a serious shortage of health personnel in the workforce,” with only 8 doctors per 100,000 population. Staff are underpaid (even drug stealing, a major component of waste, is surely related to salaries, though the reports don’t draw the connection). And many sick people need resources just to use the system: 

65 percent of women reported lack of money to pay for treatment as a constraint to seeking treatment. Other problems included travel distance (55 percent), the necessity of taking public transportation (49 percent), concern over unavailability of medications (46 percent) …

“Preliminary health sector modeling work carried out under this study suggests that Uganda clearly needs to increase public health spending for non-salary cost at clinics and hospitals.”

Student nurses in the caesarean section ward of Rukungiri hospital, 2007: ©  Patricia Hopkins, ABC news (Australia)

Student nurses in the caesarean section ward of Rukungiri
hospital, 2007: © Patricia Hopkins, ABC news (Australia)

Except the conclusion is, weirdly, Uganda can’t. Here’s where the medicine stops fitting the diagnosis. “[Only] limited opportunities for additional public funding seem to exist,” the 2009 report says. The reports adduce this from looking at the national budget, and finding there’s just no flexibility there.

Can Uganda increase the share of its Government budget devoted to health? Reprioritizing health spending at the expense of other sectors seems unlikely. It is not clear which other sector budgets can feasibly be cut in order to increase allocations to health. Government policy has emphasized fiscal consolidation, whilst agriculture, energy, roads and USE [universal secondary education] are each identified as priorities in the coming years. … The best option for generating more health outputs in Uganda would seem to be through improved efficiency of Government spending rather than increasing Government spending. [Emphasis added]

So much for those lawsuits based on human rights! Instead … blah, blah. “Uganda’s health policymakers must identify a combination of efficiency savings and re-prioritization to sustain progress towards health targets … Efficiency gains will be needed and can be found …  The most pressing priority is to utilize the existing funding for health more efficiently.” (Italics added.) The reports show that Uganda needs increased health spending. But they end with “Recommendations to reduce the growing pressure to increase health spending.” They remind you mothers are dying, and then offer Museveni advice: how to tell those irritating women who march about dying mothers to get lost.

And it’s very interesting what budget sectors the World Bank looked at. They examine “agriculture, energy, roads” and education and find there’s nothing there to give to health care (even though Uganda’s most recent budgets managed to cut the first and last items). What the Bank doesn’t mention — not once — are defense and security, the military and police. Shifting money out of those sectors isn’t even under consideration. For the Bank, Museveni’s guns are sacrosanct. It’s the butter that needs trimming.

It’s tempting to say the Bank is showing a delicate sensitivity to Museveni’s feelings here. Why antagonize the old dictator by menacing his pet Praetorians?  But the World Bank has never hesitated to tell governments to cut their favorite projects. Instead, we need to recall the Bank’s political situation. The US is its largest shareholder; the American President appoints its head; the Yankee-led Bank put the Washington in the Washington Consensus, balancing off the European-dominated IMF. The Bank’s approach to Ugandan budgeting reflects the US’s priorities. The US gives its share of support to health care in Uganda, through PEPFAR and other programs; but its main interest is Museveni’s military, and it has no desire to see money for soldiers shifted to obstetricians. The Bank, likewise, is not going to threaten the defense sector. If that’s the choice — and they don’t even dare to suggest it — health care has to fend for itself.

The Washington Consensus: Street art from Argentina

The Washington Consensus: Street art from Argentina

The $90 million loan was meant as a way out of this dilemma, giving the Ugandan health system a bit more breathing room. It’s interesting, then, how the Bank moved so quickly to suspend it. According to BuzzFeed, the Democratic leader of the House herself called the Bank:

“Yesterday, Leader Pelosi [a curiously North Korean locution] spoke with President Kim to express the concerns of Members of Congress about the legislation enacted in Uganda,” Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, told BuzzFeed in an email. “While we appreciate the difficult decisions President Kim has to make and their impact on the lives of many in the developing world, many Members believe that such a blatant act of discrimination should not go unnoticed.”

How odd that Pelosi phoned the Bank about its aid package before dialing her own government’s agencies. Yet it makes a certain sense; for Obama was under pressure to do something about Uganda, and some were pointing to that sacred military aid as a tempting target. Just one day earlier, Stars and Stripes — the US Army’s own newspaper — suggested as much.

[D]owngrading cooperation with Uganda’s military would be a way to send a signal to the leadership in the country, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. … 

“Military assistance is the one area where the U.S. has options,” Pham said. “[T]he Ugandan People’s Defence Force remains one of the few bastions of professionalism in the country, and its leadership is about the only check on Museveni and his ambitions to impose his son as a successor; hence, a shot across the UPDF’s bow might get some attention from those best positioned to get the president’s attention.”

The paper quickly backtracked: “Some experts, however, say that military ties are unlikely to be cut. Given the role the Ugandan military plays in promoting regional stability, dramatic cuts in aid should be avoided.” Lovely stability! You can see how the World Bank’s loan postponement was a happy distraction. It ended any pressure on the US government to trim its military commitments to Kampala. Uganda was already suffering, and Obama no longer needed to pile on. Pelosi’s call served its purpose.

This is stability: Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu, 2007

This is stability: Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu, 2007

The gesture is more a symbolic than a real one. The World Bank is unlikely actually to cut the loan, with four years of planning behind it. Sheila Gashishiri, the Bank’s spokesperson in Kampala, told the AP on February 28 that “the project run by Uganda’s Health Ministry will continue despite the postponement.” That probably means the funds will come through after a suitable interval.

In fact, Museveni’s regime will benefit. The whole brouhaha gives him wonderful room for rhetorical posturing. “The West can keep their ‘aid’ to Uganda over homos,” the ruling party’s press man Ofwono Opondo said, adding both that “Africa must stand up to Western domination” and that “Western ‘aid’ to Africa is lucrative and profitable trade they cannot cut off completely.” The politicos can have their cake of indignation — and ultimately eat their cake of $90 million credits too. Their rage, their language, pits LGBT people against pregnant women — a terrible side-effect of the Bank’s action. Surely that can only help brutal violence against the former spread.

Moreover, even a brief interruption in the health care loan gives Museveni ammunition. He can stand up to NGOs, Parliament, and even the courts if they demand more funding for the health sector to fight maternal mortality. “What money? The World Bank money? Where is it? There is no cash.” Those marching women can just go away. His security budget is even safer now from niggling jealousies.

And yet all this aid-cutting and health-care gutting is, we’re told, a blow for equality, against discrimination. We talk so much about “equality,” in the Western LGBT movement! The word is our fetish; we raise up those rosy equal signs as if they were the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.  But maybe we need to think more deeply about equality’s meaning.

Here is the logo for the State Department’s Global Equality Fund, which supports LGBT organizing around the world.


You have to love that rainbow circle: it’s seductive as the One Ring. So, too, is the call for dialogue. But what if that sphere dialogued with this one – a chart of global inequality, prepared by no less impeccable a capitalist center than a famous Swiss bank:


It’s a bit more … detailed. As are these circles:

Top: Wealth shares by country, 2000 (from Wikipedia; data from; Bottom: Wealth shares by region, 2010

Top: Wealth shares by country, 2000 (from Wikipedia; data from; Bottom: Wealth shares by region, 2010

You’ll notice that Africa, with one-sixth of the world’s population, has one percent of its wealth. Uganda is a tiny, tiny sliver within that. I want the rainbow ring, but there’s something missing. How do these visions of equality connect?

The US-based Human Rights Campaign, which gave those iconic equality symbols to the world, also weighed in on the World Bank’s statement, inveighing at recalcitrant countries that

you will pay a high price for discriminatory practices. Whether viewed through a moral or economic lense [sic], discrimination does not pay. … HRC applauds Secretary Kerry and World Bank President Kim for taking a stand on LGBT equality. But the work is far from done.

HRC’s international work, of course, is mainly supported by the profits of vulture funds, exploiters who traffic in Third World debt and immiseration. Equality can mean so many things.

VULTURE 9So who won, and who lost? The World Bank won. They’ve sent the US a message that they are pliable to its political requirements. They’ve sent Uganda a message that there will be Consequences, but the Consequences won’t affect the programs Museveni most loves — the ones with guns. Then, messages mailed, the World Bank can finally produce the loan, which will take it off the hook (except to collect the interest). Uganda’s government is also a winner. They get to stand up theatrically to the blackmail of perversion; in the end, they probably get the cash. They also get an excellent argument against shifting money from the security establishment, or ending the deaths of pregnant women.

To these you can add the US government, which can rest confident that its military aid to Museveni has again evaded question. And you can add Western gay movements — especially those in the United States, allied not-quite-knowingly but easily with the administration’s interests. They’ve flexed their macho muscles and proven that they have some power, power to make the poor pay for what other people have done. I mean, it’s true that LGBT communities in Uganda are still laboring under oppression, and we haven’t done so much about that; but at least we get to oppress someone too. Isn’t that a consolation?

The losers are all in Uganda. They’re folks whose voices, though sometimes ventriloquized, are too faint or peripheral to be heard: mothers, children, LGBT people. Here’s to the victors! Great job.


On not being well

Michael Ancher, "The Sick Girl," 1882

Michael Ancher, “The Sick Girl,” 1882

My mother died when she was 51 and I was 17. Here is how it happened. She had gone to Ohio — we lived in Virginia — to see her own mother, a solitary and sometimes bitter woman; an argument had broken out; my mother was struck by chest pains, and an ambulance took her to the hospital with angina. She’d never had heart problems before. That was on the Fourth of July, 1980. The next day, my father and I drove the hundreds of miles across monotonous mountains to her. Prone in the metal bed, she was pale and distracted. She asked me to rub her back. As I did so a small volcanic spike erupted on the monitor behind her, connected to her chest by wires. We left her, seeming a bit better we imagined, and my father and I went to a Howard Johnson’s somewhere nearby to eat silently. When we returned, the outer hall of the intensive care ward looked strange, congealed, like light glancing off obsidian. Nurses were gathered, and my mother’s beloved aunt was there. A band of bright fluorescent light showed under the door to my mother’s room, and I started toward it, and someone stopped me and told me rapidly what had happened. A massive heart attack, nothing anyone could do …. My great aunt held me. After a while they asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said no. I couldn’t have stood it. Many of these memories are blurred now — I don’t recall exactly who stopped me, or who told me. I remember those jagged peaks on the monitor, and I remember the color of that band of light as clearly as if it were shining in the next room now. It was only some years later, in graduate school, when I read The Duchess of Malfithat I found words to match in some degree what I must have felt. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young. 

The ensuing years involved the usual inept evasions of guilt and sorrow. An event like that, especially when you are 17, does not enforce lessons, even if it should. Now I am 50. Ten days ago, I woke up in Cairo with a straining pain in my left leg: the kind of pain that suggests a bad soprano trapped inside there, trying to sing something from ToscaI knew what it was, but for 24 hours I persisted in hoping I had simply pulled a muscle. The next day I took a taxi downtown, and discovered I couldn’t walk at all. A familiar cafe near Bab el-Luk had just opened after Friday prayers, and the waiter propped me there and I started calling friends for help. The pain now indicated that the soprano and the orchestra were working from different scores in different keys. After a while my friends Tarek and Fady arrived with a car, and took me to a hospital in Giza. My leg had swollen to the size of one of those limbs of cattle that hang in butcher’s shops here, and was as red, but with a necrotic blue noli me tangere tinge of rot. As I lay in the emergency room, a doctor told me I had a “massive” deep vein thrombosisWhy massive? Why do they always call them massive? I asked myself. The caterwauling in my leg and in my head had reached a point where the orchestra was trying its hand at a Mahler symphony while the soprano, drunk and flu-ridden, was howling out Pierrot Lunaire.

What it felt like, generally: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

What it felt like: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

I spent five days in the hospital, laid flat and depressively eating flavorless soups, while the musicians gradually sobered up and wound down. I am home now, but the clot is still there, diminished but undefeated. I can’t walk much: even staggering to the corner pharmacy to pick up medicines makes the leg swell up again. I inject myself with something in the stomach daily, intrigued by how this doesn’t hurt. Kind friends are staying with me, to cook and run errands and clean. There’s no travel, no boarding an airplane till this is over, and I’m not sure when it will be over.

This isn’t the first time for me. Modernity has done wonders, for those of us in rich countries, to expand the life-span; specimens of homo sapiens in the European Middle Ages were lucky to grasp the goalpost of 35. But the payback is the onslaught of technologically demanding ills that start in the forties, as a reminder that what lies ahead of you is a stretch of undeserved and unnatural existence endowed by civilization’s artifices, that you owe this borrowed time to the bank.

Warfarin way back when

Warfarin way back when

My mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure in her forties. Almost four years ago, I had my first thrombosis. That one started in my leg too, but showed no traces there; it climbed — they’re natural mountaineers — unnoticed to my chest and nested there as if in a Himalayan cave, and I still felt nothing till one night, running to catch a bus on a New York street, things went white and I collapsed. There were massive blood clots (there you go again) in both lungsMy heart almost failed.

After that came two years of staying on blood thinners. The most popular one, Warfarin, was invented by the Wisconsin Agricultural Research Foundation (WARF) decades ago, in search of a humane way to kill rats by bleeding them to death internally. I went to sleek offices to have blood drawn all the time — little pipettes and big bleeping machines became my neighbors, like the vampires civilisés of True Blood — to test my “international normalized ratios,” (INRs) which determine the “extrinsic pathway of coagulation.” You get used to the jargon. Then 18 months ago my doctors took me off the drugs experimentally, since I seemed to be doing reasonably well. Bad call. 

Warfarin now

Warfarin now

In a condition like my current one, you lie in bed all day and think. The first fact about not being well — it should be obvious, but isn’t to the young and healthy — is how boring it is. The second, related, is that your horizon shrinks: all reality concentrates in the point or body part where you hurt or fear, and neither action nor emotion can happen without reference to the fundamental given of what’s wrong with you. How’s my clot today? That question obliterates the sunrise and the revolving world.  Auden wrote a poem about the sick:

They are and suffer; that is all they do:
A bandage hides the place where each is living,
His knowledge of the world restricted to
The treatment metal instruments are giving.

They lie apart like epochs from each other
(Truth in their sense is how much they can bear;
It is not talk like ours but groans they smother),
From us remote as plants: we stand elsewhere.

This is why visiting the hospital-bound or the very old is so horribly dull for everybody else, to be avoided like (literally) the plague, or turned into a quick drop-off of chocolates or floral arrangements, surgical as a Special Forces raid. What have they got to talk about? Their skin is the absolute limit of their interests. I don’t know how my friends, who have been generous with their time, can stand it.

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

At the same time, in high Western modernity, we’re obsessed with disease. With the idea of disease. This is understandable, since we are, as I say, living on borrowed time. Stolen, really: every year we eke out beyond our fourth decade is not just the gift of our technological civilization, but a robbery from other people whom we deny the diet, the drugs, the requisite machines.

Life expectancy in the rich US is 78.62 years these days. (Almost thirty years to go, Scott –voice shrinking to a whisper — insh’allah.)  That’s lower than Monaco, which has hit an amazing 89.63 (insert joke about a good gamble, please) but well above Egypt, where I am now. A cheap, efficient medical system, the legacy of Arab socialism, can’t overcome radical poverty to raise the allotted time above 73.19. In Sudan, just south, the expectancy falls to 63 years; from there on, as you follow the paths of slave caravans and colonial explorers across the continent, it keeps plummeting, to 54 years in Uganda, 53.86 in Zimbabwe, 52.78 in Malawi. Finally, in South Africa, it reaches 49.48 years, one of the worst in the world (in 2013 only Chad was lower), the aftereffect of forty years of apartheid and twenty more of equality deferred. Democracy does not heal; it does not cure history. These figures don’t just map out disease or poverty. They are a geography of power, because who has power has life. (It’s no coincidence that I’m getting the numbers from the CIA.) As a bedridden American in Cairo, on the broad Northern shelf of Africa, I’m sitting atop an inverted pyramid of injustice.

Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From

Do click on this chart. Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From

There’s always some symbolic sickness in the West, a disease representing how we think about these powers and inequities: a condition that stands in for what we know about our place in the world, or what we’d rather forget. Cancer used to be the great symbol. Its origins were obligingly inexact; either there were Enemies Within (anonymous little Communists in the liver or the lungs) or Enemies Without, chemical or biological opponents like Third-World dictators making the whole known environment unstable. (Todd Haynes’ Safeabout a woman rendered sick by almost everything in the plastic life around her, is still one of the scariest American films.) Thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS displaced cancer as an imaginative malady. We figured out what caused it fast enough — that retrovirus — but it was easily attributable less to a microscopic invader than to lifesize Others whom we disliked. There were a lot of them. Haitians, homosexuals, and heroin users for US paranoiacs were quickly joined by fearsome cousins around the world: Bulgarian nurses, Zimbabwean migrants, sex workers, black men on the down low, black women who slept with them, Africans in general, foreign tourists, foreign truck drivers, that ethnic minority who stink, the whole sick crew. It’s a truism that HIV prevalence provides a chart of inequality. But HIV mythology provides something almost as valuable: a chart of hate. The political power and the ideological convenience of HIV have always lain in its double gesture: simultaneously exposing injustice, and giving hate a justification.

I’ve watched relatives die of cancer, and friends live and die with HIV/AIDS. The kind of thing I’ve got is different: not worse, certainly, just different. There’s a reason heart disease and its associated syndromes have never become such symbols, such subjects of imaginings. They’re just there. Their ultimate cause is generally in the genes or in some combination of accidents; that multiplication of factors doesn’t lend itself to mythology. In my case, the blood just clots the wrong way, much like my mother’s did. I will have to take modified rat poison for the rest of my life to thin it. This is not intolerable. (The rats are happy.) The problem is, of course, that as a condition it’s controllable but not excisable; it doesn’t go away, and there is always that low basso ostinato uncertainty about whether or when you’ll wake up with a strange pain in the leg that gets more insistent, or keel over in the street. It’s impossible to interpret something like that in any meaningful or order-instilling way. It’s an existential insecurity insusceptible to the consolations of metaphor. It teaches nothing except that the body is frail, unreliable. In no sense can that be made reassuring, not in the way that it’s always comforting to identify some chemicals to eschew, some culprits to loathe, some immigrants to expel.

Jean Bourdichon, The Four Conditions of Society : Poverty, ca. 1500

Jean Bourdichon, “The Four Conditions of Society: Poverty,” ca. 1500

Nobody likes these uncertainties, from which there’s nothing to be gained or learned. Nobody likes knowing the body is weak and prone to betrayal.  All that money, all our accumulations of political power, all those drugs we hoard behind patent laws, all the debt we extract from others to fund our happiness, all the food we store up while others starve, all our drones and armies and the authority our societies claim, can’t contend against our physical random flaws, doesn’t alter the aleatic vulnerability of the individual body. It’s an old cliché:

Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade. …
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair.

But do we ever hate hearing that.

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, Cardinal Mazarin's Last Sickness, 1830

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, “Cardinal Mazarin’s Last Sickness,” 1830

You would think that Western gays, after years of confronting HIV, would have come to terms with the body’s unreliability. But no. In fact gays particularly hate the idea. Maybe it’s because their identities are so tied to a set of physical acts that to admit bodily weakness would undermine their selfhood in a particularly drastic way. Maybe it’s because one common reaction to AIDS has been an extreme compulsion to look and act healthy. Back when I came out, in the 80s, you were required to be buff and butch and the picture of wellness (odd that the Marlboro Man, a pitchman for killer cigarettes, served as icon of this vital manhood). The slightest sag into infirmity or unaccountable cough, and no one would touch you for fear of infection. We queers measure triumph or disaster by our bodies. We can’t afford to let them be mistrusted.

I learned this in a curious way, the last time I got seriously sick; I learned it from a bunch of people who don’t like me. When I resigned from Human Rights Watch, I discussed the blood clots in my lungs that triggered my departure, in a letter that made its way around the Internet. What struck me about the many responses was that people who disliked me for political reasons felt compelled to turn that into medical mistrust; they simply didn’t believe I could get sick. This took nasty forms. The ever-love-filled and litigious Peter Tatchell repeatedly circulated e-mails to thousands, saying that “Scott Long left Human Rights Watch. He claims it was because of ill-health. Others suspect he was sacked.” Peter’s friend Michael Petrelis, the crank-slash-stalker in San Francisco, developed this theme, blogging that “Long developed a severe case of a Soviet-style case of the flu … His official explanation for moving on would have delighted the editors of Pravda in Brezhnev’s day, it was so full of obfuscation and self-pity.” Melanie Nathan, a peculiar West Coast blogger, just three months ago sent me an series of messages saying — among many other things — that “We all know that your ’embolism’ was a convenient excuse” (not clear for what). She also called me a “vile bucket of anal slime,” which I think is a quote from some website. There were more. I would have to be superhuman not to be angry at these creeps; I felt like sending them my medical charts as proof, or maybe my medical bills. Some of these folks were crazy, some permanently enraged, and some simply hadn’t a clue what they were saying. But — trying to stand back slightly — I hear in all this vituperation a very human fear. Your foes are always supposed to be there, even more so than your friends; they’re an identity and linchpin, a pole against which you define yourself. They’re spectres and ideas, not frail and physical people. God forbid they should have bodies; God forbid their bodies should do them wrong. I’m sorry I got sick, and I’m sorry that unsettled Tatchell and Petrelis so much. Perhaps I can understand, though, why the news of somebody else’s sickness roused them to so much anger. “Rage against the dying of the light” translates quickly into a rage against those who remind us of the dying.

So here I sit in Cairo, thinking about my body.

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child," 1885-86

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child,” 1885-86

My mother died when she was a year older than I am now: much too young. I can’t remember her without seeing, almost like a light beneath her skin, the banked fires of things undone. The memories don’t grow easier. I cannot read Paul Celan‘s poems about his lost mother without breaking into uncontrollable tears:

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Celan’s mother died in the Holocaust, in Transnistria. It’s presumptuous to compare personal loss to historical catastrophe. But loss is what it is, always different in its circumstances and in other ways always the same. My mother died because her body failed her. It was part of a world in which she’d suffered, and also where she had a relative degree of safety: a world where she had tried to compensate for both by a constant, wearing labor of compassion. It didn’t matter. My mother died because her body was part of the world, and the world is perishing.

It’s strange that I’ve spent so much of the years since then working on things like “sexual rights” and “bodily autonomy.” Bodily autonomy is a beautiful ideal. Like so much in human rights, it gestures toward a vision of a perfect cosmos, lit by Platonic concepts that burn in the corridors like inexhaustible candles. Yet our bodies are not autonomous. Our bodies are part of the world. They are subject to its vicissitudes, implicated in its weakness, its injustices, its power, its deaths. They live with the world’s joys and fail with its wrongs. This is a fact, not a lesson. It can be said; it can’t be learned. I will only learn it by dying.

HRC and the vulture fund: Making Third World poverty pay for LGBT rights

marriage-equality-red blood copyThe Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest US gay organization, is going international. It’s just been given at least $3 million to spread the word of marriage equality to benighted countries that treat gays badly. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Its chief partner and donor in this project wants the people in those countries, LGBT folk included, to starve – their economies wrecked, their incomes shipped abroad, their resources squeezed and stolen to pay off odious debt. HRC is receiving its money for gay rights in the Third World from the man who “virtually invented vulture funds”: a form of speculation that’s one of the worst contributors to Third World poverty ever.

But if you’re poor and getting poorer, look on the bright side (as long as river blindness hasn’t got you, that is). You can still have a nice white wedding; and you’ll save on the food bill if your nation has no food.

HRC is understandably happy about the sunny prospects opening up. It says,

The need to support LGBT advocates and call out U.S.-based anti-equality organizations abroad has never been greater. … At the same time, opportunities exist for a global equality movement as a growing number of countries are passing pro-equality legislation and recognizing marriage equality.  Seventeen countries around the world afford, or will soon afford, committed and loving gay and lesbian couples the legal right to marry.

One of the two big donors to this project is a little more explicit about how the enterprise relates to the projection of US power:

“Every day around the world, LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are,” said Paul Singer. “Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe. [Emphasis added] As an organization that has been at the forefront of the equality movement for over three decades, the Human Rights Campaign is uniquely positioned to work in tandem with NGOs to empower LGBT and human rights advocates abroad and help stop these abuses.”

Well, yes, except … this doesn’t quite sound like “human rights” envisioned from the high vantage of universality and internationalism. It sounds like LGBT rights uneasily painted into a picture of US interests.

Paul Singer (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Paul Singer (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

On the other hand, it’s natural to couch the project in terms of what the US will get out of it. After all, its two deep-pocketed benefactors are Singer, who runs a hedge fund called Elliott Management, and Daniel S. Loeb, who runs another called Third Point LLC. They’re both conservatives and huge donors to the Republican Party. Singer underwrote last year’s GOP National Convention with $1 million of largesse. One operative called himthe big power broker in the Republican financial world.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that 

He has given more to the GOP and its candidates—$2.3 million this election season—than anyone else on Wall Street, helping make his hedge fund … one of the nation’s biggest sources of political donations, the vast majority to the GOP.

My little man: Singer, with full-sized Mitt in front of him, for Fortune magazine

My little man: Singer, with full-sized Mitt in front of him, for Fortune magazine

The New York Times writes that Singer “believes in the doctrine of American exceptionalism and is wary about United States involvement in ‘international organizations and alliances.’” (Apparently HRC won’t be supporting the hundreds of LGBT activists and groups who fight for their rights at the vile, collectivist UN.) Singer is a nexus of con and neocon ties and tendrils; he chairs the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and has served on the board of Commentary magazine, the national journal of Podhoretzstan. He’s ladled at least $3.6 million to the self-styled Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawksh outfit which Glenn Greenwald called “basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” Dan Senor — the glib apologist who served as authorized liar and TV personality for the Coalition Provisional Authority while the Bush Administration devastated Iraq — is one of Singer’s foreign policy advisors.

Na na, na na, na na, come on, come on, sticks and stones may break my bones: Loeb

Na na, na na, na na, come on, come on, sticks and stones may break my bones: Rihanna Loeb

Loeb, meanwhile, supported Barack Obama in 2008, but turned on him when the President ungratefully demanded that Wall Street let itself be regulated a little. In a celebrated email announcing his desertion he cast the President as abusive husband, with a bunch of submissive bankers as his bruised brides: “When he beats us, he doesn’t mean it … he usually doesn’t hit me in the face [so] it doesn’t show except for that one time … he’s not that bad really, unless he gets drunk (from power) …” Probably this was irony; I mean, a sheltered guy worth billions wouldn’t seriously compare himself to a poor woman living in a shelter, would he? By April 2011, Loeb had given almost $500,000 to the GOP, and he kept giving. In mid-2012, he co-hosted a $25,000-a-plate fundraiser for Mitt Romney in the Hamptons. Mocked for extravagance, the proceedings seem to have furnished Romney with the intellectual foundations for his later comments about the wrongly franchised 47%. A guest lumbering up in a Range Rover told the media that

“I don’t think the common person is getting it. … We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

But all this GOP-ness isn’t the most interesting part. What matters isn’t where these guys give their money. It’s where they get it.

Curious how no one asks this. In gratitude for their generosity, HRC arranged for the two donors to feature in a puff piece yesterday by Frank Bruni, the New York Times’ designated homosexual.  “Elliott Management’s lofty offices in Midtown Manhattan look north, south, east and west across the borough’s thicket of skyscrapers …” The view was terribly distracting for Bruni, who probably lives, like most Times writers, in a windowless Bronx tenement where he makes matchsticks to pay the bills.

I sat in a 30th-floor library with the hedge fund’s founder and chief executive, Paul Singer, a billionaire who was one of the most important donors to Mitt Romney in 2012 … He’s wary of speaking with journalists, so much so that I’ve seen the adjective “reclusive” attached to his name.

The piece is all about Singer’s lavish giving for gay marriage, and it exhibits, if beneath the surface, the historical function of philanthropy: to silence annoying questions about where you got your fortune. “The battlefield” for gay rights “isn’t what it used to be,” Bruni wrote gauzily. “From the 30th floor, I could see that most clearly of all.” But there are other battlefields Bruni chose not to see.

Paul Singer runs a vulture fund. He makes his profits from the debt incurred by Third World countries — I won’t use the PC term “developing” countries, because the point of the debt is to prevent them from developing — and from the misery it causes their citizens. Of all the parasites in the global economy, of all the profiteers of poverty, vulture funds may be the worst.

Vulture funds operate by buying up a country’s distressed debt just as the original lenders are about to write it off  — usually, as the Guardian describes it, when the country “is in a state of chaos. When the country has stabilised, vulture funds return to demand millions of dollars in interest repayments and fees on the original debt.” In other words, you purchase the right to be a hardassed debt collector, and to harass and impoverish whole populations till you get your cash. Singer, says the BBC, “virtually invented vulture funds.”   A University of Pennsylvania expert on emerging-market debt told Bloomberg that Singer’s “actions are amoral,” adding that he puts the squeeze on “without worrying about the potential consequences for the country involved.”

That’s an understatement. Three examples of Singer’s work:

Peru. In 1996, just as Peru embarked on restructuring its massive debts, Singer’s hedge fund bought $20.7 million worth of old loans to the country — paying only $11.4 million, a huge discount. They immediately rejected the restructuring and sued Peru in a New York court, for the original value of the loans plus interest.  As the USA Jubilee Network explains, they “won a $58 million settlement and made a $47 million profit — a 400% return.”

Peru, however, couldn’t pay the sum. Instead, it put priority on paying back its other debtors, who had participated in the restructuring. Singer actually took out an injunction to keep Peru from repaying anyone else, thus shoving the entire country back toward default in the name of his own profits. Jubilee writes that “Elliott pioneered this litigate-into-submission strategy that allows these vultures to collect astronomical profits on countries in economic stress.”

Investigative journalist Greg Palast claims that Singer finally got his money when authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori had to flee the country in 2000.  Singer and his repo men, he says, put a lien on the Presidential plane before Fujimori could reach it — then demanded the full sum from the desperate dictator before giving it back. Singer piously defends his work as promoting “transparency” among foreign governments. Getting a corrupt leader to ransom away his country’s resources to save his skin hardly fits that description.

Vulture funds in Africa

Vulture funds in Africa

Congo-Brazzaville.  In the late 1990s, Singer’s Elliott Associates used a Cayman Islands-based subsidiary called Kensington International to buy, at a discount, over $30 million worth of defaulted debt issued by the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) — by some reports, paying only $1.8 million. It then sued the government for almost $120 million in repayments plus interest. That’s a 10,000% profit.

A UK court handed Singer victory in a succession of judgements in 2002 and 2003. The Congolese government couldn’t pay up, though: interest continued to accrue at a rate of $22,008.23 per day. Congo-Brazzaville’s GDP per person at the time averaged around $800. More than a quarter of deaths of children under 5 were from malnutrition. The country had, according to the Financial Times, “one of the highest foreign debts per capita of any developing country, estimated at $9 billion for a population of fewer than 4 million people” — and, following Singer’s model, private vulture funds hurriedly bought up about a tenth of that.

Singer and Kensington relentlessly chased Congolese assets in courts around the world. In 2005, another UK judge gave them partial satisfaction. He let Singer intercept and expropriate $39 million in Congolese oil sales to a Swiss firm. That’s still more than a 2000% profit, not bad when your only productive work is pushing paper. Other firms that have speculated in Congolese debts, though, continue hounding the impoverished country’s resources from court to court.

December 2001: Riot police and tear gas used against protesters in Buenos Aires

December 2001: Riot police and tear gas unleashed against protesters in Buenos Aires

Argentina. In 2001, Argentina had a revolution: citizens banging pots and pans in the public squares threw out a neoliberal regime that had driven the country into depression and stolen almost everybody’s savings. A new government of economic nationalists defied the Washington Consensus by defaulting on more than $80 billion in foreign debt and devaluing the currency. It worked: reasserting domestic control gradually revived the moribund economy.

That was the good news. Meanwhile, though, one of Singer’s companies called NML Capital Ltd. sniffed future profit. It bought over $180 million of the defaulted debt at between 15 and 30 cents on the dollar.

Impounded: Argentine warship Libertad, seized by Singer in Ghana, 2012 (Leo La Valle/EPA)

Unenduring freedom: Argentine flagship Libertad, seized by Singer in Ghana, 2012 (Leo La Valle/EPA)

In 2005, Argentina’s President, Nestor Kirchner, offered lenders 30 cents on the dollar to forgive its debts. The vast majority of bondholders accepted the offer; Singer rejected it and demanded full repayment. Argentina’s legislature passed a law that barred the government from raising the offer — a sign, if one were needed, that Singer’s demands flouted the democratic will of a nation of 40 million. Singer refused to budge. He took Argentina to court in the US and elsewhere. In 2012, he actually managed to impound an Argentinian naval vessel while it rested in an African port, demanding an extortionary sum to release it until the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ordered it freed.

European judges have found against Singer, but in 2006 he won a judgment for $284 million in the U.S. (That would be at least a 500% profit.) The case is still in court. Singer’s pursued the same strategy he did with Peru, demanding that Argentina be barred from paying any creditors who joined the restructuring unless he‘s repaid in full. Either Argentina will be semi-bankrupted by his greed, or it will suspend its obligations indefinitely; in either case, that’s too much uncertainty for most lenders. Singer has pretty much singlehandedly kept Argentina an unsafe investment. The US judiciary’s willingness to buy his arguments has shaken Latin American financial markets, doubled the cost of Argentina’s borrowing, and pushed the country toward a new, disastrous default. Paul Singer is like honey badger. He don’t care.

Protestor outside the London offices of Elliott Management, Febuary 2013

Protestor at a Jubilee Debt Campaign demo outside the London offices of Elliott Management, February 2013

The World Bank has called on developed countries to put an end to profiteering like SInger’s. “Vulture funds are a threat to debt relief efforts,” its Vice-President for Poverty Reduction said.  “Their increasing litigation against countries receiving debt relief will penalize some of the world’s poorest countries.” George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary told Congress in 2007 that “I deplore what the vulture funds are doing.” Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, accused them of “perversity” and called them “morally outrageous.” I could go on and on — but so do Singer and his proteges. They don’t stop. The World Bank estimates that vulture funds have sued a third of countries receiving debt relief. Jubilee USA notes that

As of late 2011, 16 of 40 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) surveyed by the International Monetary Fund were facing litigation in 78 individual cases brought by commercial creditors. Of these, 36 cases have resulted in court judgments against HIPCs amounting to approximately $1 billion on original claims worth roughly $500 million.

Red sky at morning

Red sky at morning

And no wonder Singer buys up political influence so assiduously. Hector Timerman, Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote in 2012:

Vulture funds abuse the system, acquiring distressed debt in secondary markets to multiply profits at the expense of the poor and weak. As these activities are ethically repellent, well-prepared propaganda machinery keeps their lucrative business alive.

It’s not just propaganda. Singer needs his paid politicians to fend off scrutiny and guard the “lucrative business” from disruption. A bill to curtail vulture funds’ profiteering was introduced in the US Congress in 2009. The next year, Singer told his heavily funded Manhattan Institute they had to combat “indiscriminate attacks by political leaders against anything that moves in the world of finance.” Will HRC flex its legislative muscle to fight the Stop Vulture Funds Act as well?

It’s a sick irony that the money HRC takes to fund its new work in the Third World is made off the backs of Third World suffering. It’s even worse when HRC’s PR machine colludes with the New York Times to whitewash — pinkwash — Singer’s record of destruction. It’s politically disastrous for an LGBT group to operate this way. They’re sending a message to governments in the developing world that the US really does see LGBT people as a privileged class, and is willing to promote their rights while condoning the immiseration of whole populations. But it’s self-defeating also. LGBT people don’t want this kind of “help.” LGBT people are citizens, workers, children, parents too. HRC should know that they are as affected as anybody when a parasite like Singer enforces endless debt service on states, devastates the necessary services that governments provide, litigates countries into permanent submission.  What does HRC think it can give the victims, after Singer has stripped their assets and sold off their national resources? Is same-sex marriage supposed to be a consolation? I’m afraid HRC is acting like old honey badger, too. It just don’t care.

Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani

Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani

Since Argentina has been one of Singer’s targets, I went to an old colleague of mine, the great Argentinian feminist and sexual rights activist Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani. Alejandra has fought for the rights of LGBT people throughout Latin America for more than 20 years. She was sad but not shocked at the assembled ironies. She told me:

“International work” done “for” LGBTs (or women, development, girls, you name it) from the USA is, first of all, a great industry giving jobs to a vast majority [within the organizations] of USA citizens and also to a few privileged ones from the Global South (I was once among the latter, so I know what I am talking about). There are always a few good souls thrown in the mix, who normally can’t resist too many years. For too long our misfortunes (patriarchal social norms, authoritarian governments, condoned forms of violence, subordinated economies) have made the North rich, sometimes through jobs “saving us” and other times more directly, like in the case of the profits made by the vulture funds or the arms dealers. And they also serve to hide the existence of quite similar phenomena in the Global North itself and to keep the fragile national pride and self-esteem of our “saviours” intact.

“Another thing that does not surprise me,” she writes,

is that a USA based “LGBT” organization accepts money from such a source … [P]articularly in the USA many/most LGBT activists have a hard time linking their issues to broader social, economic and political realities, as they are too self-absorbed in all their identity politics. I hope that not many people in the Global South will agree to do work funded with this extremely dirty money — if they know where it is coming from. But sometimes, people are facing such difficult circumstances that they can’t afford to be so principled.

She adds that “in some Global South countries, activists belong to social and economic elites (this happens particularly in the early stages of movements, as these are the ones that can afford to be out) and they are as ignorant or unconcerned about broader social issues as their USA colleagues, so anything can happen.”

Vultures and their masters: Argentinian cartoon

Vultures and their masters: Argentinian cartoon

Maybe she’s right, but here I’m inclined to differ. Most LGBT movements in the larger world aren’t in their early stages any more. They’re mature and politically sophisticated. They don’t need HRC; try telling someone in South Africa (where LGBT rights are in the Constitution) that they should “learn” from the US. Far more valuable to them are their connections with local civil societies and social movements that fight for people’s real rights and freedoms. They ally with groups that combat maternal mortality, defend the rights to health care and education, press the State to keep the social welfare system functioning, ensure that votes count and that people can decide their collective economic as well as civic future. That’s not what Singer stands for, and outsiders paid from his dirty money may get an unexpectedly cold welcome.

I forgot about Daniel Loeb. He too has a history of bold international interventions, it turns out. If you want to read about him, Vanity Fair has a long piece coming out in its December issue, less puffy than Frank Bruni’s by far. There’s a nugget about how, on a 2002 vacation in Cuba with the heir to the von Furstenberg money, Loeb ran down a child with his car. Cuban authorities held him in the country until — well, whatever. Perhaps he made some investments. A friend recalled,

“I truly felt so sorry for him when he told me he had found himself unable to leave the country, curled up in a ball on the floor of his room crying, promising God that he’d do anything if the Almighty got him out of his predicament. It wasn’t as if Dan had done it on purpose, and who really knows what ended up happening to the kid?”

A benighted country that’s not the United States, a rich guy, a poor child with tire marks on his back, and — who knows. Isn’t that what the new landscape of LGBT organizing is all about?

Forward to freedom, and fresh meat

Forward to freedom, and fresh meat

Boycott politics: Breaking out of the spaghetto mentality same people who have been pushing to boycott a whole country turned on a dime last week, and switched all their eager energies to boycotting bigoted spaghetti. It’s getting hard to keep track. 72 hours ago it was still Boycott Stoli, or Stop the Sochi Olympics, because, they thrummed, there’s a genocide in Russia and we have to stop it! Then everything changed to Boycott Barilla pasta, because, uh.

To be precise, the head of the Italian food conglomerate said his company “would never do [a commercial] with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don’t agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role.” He added that if gays don’t like Barilla and its marketing strategy, “then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand.” One confusing aspect is that while this is an awful thing to say, it’s awful in a very different way from what’s happening in Russia. Yet the rhetoric devoted to its awfulness was the same. Comparing the Russian situation to the Holocaust or apartheid makes me uneasy. But how am I supposed to feel when identical moral importance is slapped, one size fits all, onto a repressive government that restricts basic rights for millions, and the unrepresentative TV ads of a corporate tycoon? Even El Pais, usually a sensible newspaper, went analogy-mad over the Barilla contretemps, and

was powerfully reminded of the defenders of apartheid in South Africa, when they said they had nothing against blacks and just wanted to live apart from them. Or worse [sic], of those who demonstrate against equal marriage or adoption but then say they are not homophobic …

And what cause doesn’t come with a mini-Mandela attached these days? Here’s John Aravosis, who helped get the Barilla boycott going, explaining the campaign’s moral stature to kibitzers yesterday:

aravosis birmingham 2I don’t mind if people find a cause that makes them feel good about themselves while sitting and Tweeting, and even superior to others who sit and Tweet about other things. Good for them. And in fact, every time somebody launches a boycott call, there’s always a critic to belittle it, to ask: There are more important things. Why choose this one? This caviling goes on endlessly about the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli occupation right now — a campaign from which the anti-Russian activism is tacitly taking pointers, including the idea of cultural politics and carrying protest to the arts. Why are these people concerned about Israel when NorthKoreaSyriaSaudiArabiaChina is so much worse? You go after Israel because you’re a bunch of anti-Semites!

In truth, that relativism is the least relevant objection to any boycott. There’s always something worse in some way, somewhere in the world, always some other injustice crying for attention. To take the comparisons game too seriously is to condemn oneself to paralysis. The useful criteria are not so much what’s worst, but: On what issue can you move a critical mass of people to some kind of action? And can you achieve change this way – are the offenders susceptible to public and economic pressure? (That Israel feels the heat, that the boycott calls are working, is revealed most clearly by the noisy anti-boycott rhetoric, including the incessant claim that people should concentrate on something else.) In this sense — while there really isn’t a lot of North Korean kimchi on the shelves to bypass, and few countries have yet figured how to abjure Saudi oil — the Barilla boycott was a natural. You have a large constituency of gay men who oppose discrimination and are discriminating shoppers, while most international corporations now worry obsessively about their public image in different markets. It was child’s play to make Barilla capitulate and videotape an apology, almost within hours.

This raises a different question for boycotters, though. Is the goal (here, apparently, an apology) worth the effort: does it justify the expense of spirit, is it a waste of time? Take Aravosis’ second comparison. He means, I’m sure, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955-1956, which helped launch the civil rights movement and the career of Martin Luther King. (A later bus boycott in nearby Birmingham was less famous, dramatic, and successful.) It’s true it was directed against another obstreperous private company (National City Lines, which operated the bus system on contract with the city). But come on. The analogy is grating. Those marches didn’t aim at some CEO’s offensive but non-binding comments, but at a policy of segregation, one that didn’t just symbolize but was intrinsic to racism and rightslessness enforced across the whole South. Women and men hitched or hiked for miles to get to work, gave up public transportation for 381 days to assert their dignity. This is a different order of politics from just extracting an overnight apology from some executive. It was change. What did changing Barilla’s mind change?

Men and women walking in the rain during the Montgomery bus boycott, 1956

Men and women walking in the rain during the Montgomery bus boycott, 1956

I’m old enough, at least, to remember some of the international campaigns whose memory is taken lightly these days – not Montgomery, indeed, but divestment from South Africa in the ‘80s, as well as getting Romania’s sodomy law repealed in the ‘90s and many more. And I have some reservations.

FIRST,  a boycott is just one tool. When it works, it’s almost always part of a broader, more difficult campaign. The campaign against apartheid could not have been carried out in Tweets. It would have used Twitter, if that were around, but it wasn’t just about getting some anomic individuals to press buttons on their iPhones: it meant mobilizing institutions, communities, movements.  This was partly because nobody succumbed to wild presumptions that South Africa would surrender overnight. It was essential to put pressure on them for the long haul, and that would entail action by as many partners and allies as possible.

A contrast with the various anti-Russia boycott actions roaming the West is instructive. These pretty much all focus either one event (the Olympics) or one product (vodka). At first, there was a tacit, prevailing illusion that punishing the good name of either entity would quickly bring Putin to his knees. “It ’s time to put a stop to it, with the means available. And for starters, that means hitting Russia where it hurts. And you can’t start with a better target than Stolichnaya vodka.” Perhaps the belief that the omnipotent United States was finally on the gays’ side encouraged these fantasies of immediate gratification and power. Well, it’s apparent Putin’s posture is more resilient than previously imagined. Even Obama, after saying all sorts of encouraging things on Jay Leno, dropped the issue – along with the rest of his human rights agenda in Russia – when the administration found it needed Moscow‘s help in Syria. Now we hear, from none other than racist intellectual Michael Lucas, that the boycott actually had other ambitions all along: “This is not about hurting Russia economically. We understand very well that we can’t do that. This is about telling the story over and over again and making sure that our Russian LGBT friends are not forgotten.” But if the Russian regime has shown anything in ten years, it’s that bad publicity doesn’t bruise it much. So what other weapons are in the arsenal? What’s Plan B? What’s next?

Gran Fury poster, 1988

Gran Fury poster, 1988

Many people propelling this work are ACT UP veterans and survivors. They remember, I think, a particular version of ACT UP, one canonized by the recent film How to Survive a Plague: that the queers, despised and rejected by everybody, went out and changed medicine, public health, and history pretty much on their own, with some vibrant messaging and a shared defiance of death. Aside from the defiance, this isn’t entirely true; alliance-building makes neither for dramatic memories nor enthralling documentaries. But even if it were, it was an exception to how causes succeed.  If you want to get things done, particularly in the long run, you need more than courage and catchy memes (and the anti-Russia visuals circulating on the Internet, by the way, are pathetic compared to the somber majesty of Gran Fury). You need a movement that can enlist co-combatants and partners. I’ve asked this before: where, in the US-Russia protesting, are the unions and the students? Both were basic to the anti-apartheid activism that everybody keeps citing without remembering. Nobody, though, seems to feel a pressing need for a much different, broader base of participants, or for reaching out through political networks rather than social ones.

SECOND, successful boycott campaigns keep an eye on the bigger picture. They’re not just asking for apologies or lip service, they want real change, because only social change, not small change, keeps an activist movement mobilized and committed. The Montgomery boycott was a beginning, not an end, because Southern segregation was the target, not the city government. A demand that Harvard divest from South Africa wasn’t just a request that Harvard students be able to keep their hands clean of dirty investments. It was intended to (and did) put pressure on Pretoria, with the ultimate aim of demolishing the apartheid system. This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating.

end-apartheid-nowBack to Barilla for a moment. An article in Slate by an Italian academic pointed out accurately that, for Italian LGBT people, this really is a big deal. The visible community of queer activists in Italy is small by European standards. I’d call them embattled; the author merely says there’s  “a general feeling of exasperation”:

Just a few days ago, the Parliament decided to respond to a rise in homophobic violence in the last years with an anti-homophobia law, but LGBT activists called it “useless” since it protects anti-gay speech within political, cultural and religious groups. The debate accompanying the law has been characterized by homophobic remarks from members of various political parties who continually spoke of a “right not to like gays” in terms of freedom of speech. So, when Guido Barilla shared his bigoted opinions, his comments became a casus belli to talk about how far the normalization of public homophobia can go.

I look up to you, ragazzo: Guido Barilla (L) and small, admiring bunga-bunga man

I look up to you, ragazzo: Guido Barilla (L) and small, admiring bunga-bunga man

The issues go even deeper, though. Guido Barilla himself is almost a consigliere to Italy’s corrupt heterosexual-in-chief, Silvio Berlusconi. This spring, celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of Barilla’s father, Berlusconi lovingly recounted the advice that founding paterfamilias gave him when he first contemplated becoming Duce (“You want to get your hands dirty in politics? They’ll paint you all colors.”) And the younger Barilla is recurrently rumored as a possible new leader of Berlusconi’s right-wing party if legal troubles ever pry the old man’s cold, dead fingers away from the steering wheel. The Barilla Group is not a huge satrapy as Italy’s feudal capitalism goes. Global revenues in 2012 were just under €4 billion, a pittance next to the €110 billion earned by petro-conglomerate ENI. But all these firms manage to sit at the heart of things. They all profit from the marriage of economic conglomerates and political power in Italy, wedded to advance a neoliberal agenda. It’s a very traditional union, but revamped for the 21st century, as Berlusconi’s electoral immortality suggests. According to the Wikileaks cables, for example, the obliging Silvio may have got millions in kickbacks for helping ENI arrange a gas deal with Vladimir Putin – all as yet unprosecuted.  As for the pasta firm, even the previous center-ish prime minister, dour banker Mario Monti, was given to quoting the elder Barilla’s bromides at various opportunities. “Go ahead, go ahead with all courage!” said the genius — words to live by.

Meanwhile, Barilla Inc. promotes old-time values as selling points the way its right-wing allies promote them as social norms. One blogger writes,

One of Barilla’s biggest brands is “Mulino Bianco” (White Mill). While the brand’s biscuits and snacks are obviously produced industrially in enormous factories, in the fantasy world of Barilla advertising they are made in the waterpowered White Mill, located in a landscape somewhere between Tuscany and Kansas, where Antonio Banderas, accompanied only by a hen called Rosita, makes all the goodies. These delicious, wholesome snacks (as long as you don’t read the list of additives on the packets) are eaten exclusively by perfect families with two children who live in charming country villas and enjoy leisurely breakfasts together every morning. So unrealistic is the image of family life that “very Mulino Bianco” is actually an expression for an idealized form of domestic bliss.

Everything is happy here, we love bread and the opposite sex and we especially love the Duce: From a Barilla commercial for Mulino Bianco

Everything is happy here, we love bread and the opposite sex and we especially love the Duce: From a Barilla commercial for Mulino Bianco

There is, of course, a long history of capitalism using nostalgia for pre-capitalist social relations, however repressive, to sell its products. Think of the way the black provider-servant was an icon in US ad campaigns for more than a century. You’re not buying pancakes, you’re buying a Hegelian master-slave dialectic that will affirm your higher Being and clean your house! The Barilla firm is as shameless as Aunt Jemima’s slavery-loving makers  in using antique miseries as modern marketing ploys. But the corroding effects of capitalism, its actual acid attacks upon traditional connections, also require the balm of practical, not mythical, conservatism to enforce belonging and keep people in their places. “Classic family” commercials morph into “pro-family” policies, the two-child fantasy translates to the slow roll-back of abortion. Image becomes ideology. White mill becomes white power.

Ad for Aunt Jemima pancakes, 1950

Ad for Aunt Jemima flour mix, 1950

All I mean by this long digression is that there’s more to Barilla than just the symbolic value of getting them to retract a stupid statement. There’s a bigger picture. They have a longstanding role in the corrupt copulation of business and politics in Italy, and the way that the resulting right-wing juggernaut sells conservative social as well as economic policy. That won’t change just because they’ve apologized for alienating one market sector.

OK, you’re not going to shift that overnight. But my problem with the Barilla boycott is that its US promoters think they’ve accomplished a big victory over Barilla, and they haven’t. In fact, if anything, they’ve reinforced two intertwined and dangerous ideas. First, that corporations can be “good citizens” if they just do formal obeisance to a vapid, verbal ideal of equality, while carrying on with the business of getting rich, exploiting people, and making inequality worse. Second, that the rest of us mainly exercise our “citizenship” as concerned consumers, or non-consumers, of what those corporations sell.

As far as the first goes, here’s a prefab recommendation to Barilla that went mildly viral over the weekend:


This is a classic call to good corporate citizenship. But if the pasta kings say “we’re sorry!” to Illinois Unites for Marriage (a campaign for same-sex marriage in the state) — which in practice would mean giving a tidy sum of money — how does that help LGBT Italians? Does it change Barilla’s support for Italy’s right wing, or its coziness with Berlusconi, or the heterosexual agitprop it broadcasts hourly during the breaks on Italian TV? This kind of appeal to philanthropy to solve everything is the polar opposite of politics. It’s an escape from politics. It lets Barilla off the hook unexamined, the system it feeds on still uninterrogated. It lets the campaigning stop before it’s even started getting at the serious questions. Maybe that’s all the gays have energy for in the busy US, but to compare this to the struggle against South Africa’s racist state is insulting.

This food is HOMOPHOBIC, and no one should ever eat it

This food is HOMOPHOBIC, and no one should ever eat it

But if the campaign is apolitical, it’s because the gays are apolitical. And if the gays stay apolitical, it’s because campaigns like this encourage them to think of their beliefs, values, and political actions as consumer choices. The idealistic myth that you can “hit Russia where it hurts” solely by switching to a different brand of vodka, without a lot of longer work being done, is of a piece with the myth that you can do something tremendous for equality if you chuck your lasagna boxes in the trash. Photos like this, of pasta in the garbage can, started circulating Friday from folks who wanted to show the world they’d done something good — rather offensive, given that if you’ve already bought the stuff, you might at least tear yourself from the computer and cart it to the food bank so that somebody hungry could eat it. That won’t happen, though: indolence, indifference, and privilege lurk not far beneath the surface of easy boycott activism. It’s a caring that stops when you’ve clicked “Like,” and doesn’t take trips to the soup kitchen. But what about your own kitchen? No sooner did Barilla become a pariah pasta than gays started explaining you could still get good fettucine, even better fettucine, if your care and energy went to the consuming cause. A comment from Dan Savage’s blog launched itself into a sort of anguished gustatory moral debate; you can’t just switch to American pasta, because

there are differences … Italian pasta is popular because their semolina wheat simply develops differently. Even when you grow the same variety in America, it’s not the same. (It’s also why Indian basmati rice is much better than American.) Of course, the way wheat is ground into flour makes subtle differences, as does the actual pasta recipe, as well as the final cut of the pasta. Try a few different brands of the same pasta (anything you like, as long as it’s the same noodle and prepared the same way – e.g., boil it for the same time regardless of how long the label instructs you) and you’ll note some very real differences.

Anyway, Barilla is far from the only good Italian brand that’s readily available in America. I go for De Cecco myself, although the last time I needed lasagne noodles, Barilla was the only decent brand I could find. I’ll have to cast a wider grocery net the next time, or hope my preferred store wises up and carries more brands.

Is this kind of boycott politics really politics? Or is it a boycott of politics, evading the responsibilities and demands that politics impose on us for an easy cyber-way out? Does our consumer power — that $800 billion gays spend annually at being gay — really make us stronger, more potent citizens? Or does it makes us less citizens, shut us into ghettos where we become what we do or do not purchase with our power? Does it foreclose more generous identities, more onerous but meaningful commitments, larger and more human solidarities?

Sometimes these militant calls to action, with their military metaphors (“fight back! to arms!”) up front, sound as if they come from deep insecurity that our consumer lives are making us decadent, less virile, weak with surfeit. Man up, people, unless you want to turn into Chelsea Manning or Johnny Weir! A century ago, William James feared that pacifism would fail unless it found some other animating purpose that could inspire and mobilize a citizenry, some “moral equivalent of war” to provide “war’s disciplinary function” amid the “pleasure-economy” and its “unmanly ease.”

But of course, mini-boycotts and web petitions that die down when enough clicks have been collected aren’t even that. There’s not enough stick-to-itiveness in them for a proper war. They’re the moral equivalent of a Mongol raid, a cattle-rustling foray that brings back just sufficient booty to keep you morally sated for a day or two: a useless apology from some powerful straight guy, a corporate donation to some gay board of directors or to HRC. They remind me of Thomas Love Peacock‘s wonderful “War Song of Dinas Vawr,” a poem which, he said, contained “the quintessence of all the war-songs that ever were written, and the sum and substance of all the appetencies, tendencies, and consequences of military glory”:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them.
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.


© Not Gran Fury