Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia

No more yarns from you, lady: State Security arrest Abla Fahita

No more yarns from you, lady: State Security arrest Abla Fahita

The Jews are everywhere; start with that. In fact, the fewer Jews there actually are in your vicinity, the more you have to deal with invisible Jews, who multiply in secret according to the quantity of people you dislike. (Adam Michnik put this very well in explaining how anti-Semitism sustains itself in Poland, absent Jews: “In other countries, they say, ‘That man is a Jew; he must be a scoundrel.’ Here they say, “That man is a scoundrel; he must be a Jew.’”) They particularly appreciate the modern airwaves, since it’s an ethereal medium where they can remain unseen, incorporeal as radiation; and there they carry on their characteristic Jewish activities, reading things and writing things and killing children. Then there are the Masons. On this subject I have no objectivity, since my great-grandfather was a Mason and I have the taint of Masonic blood. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up giving secret handshakes to various parts of my body. (Proof of corruption: it feels good.) The Jews and the Masons, I’m pretty sure, invented Islam, which combines two of their great devil passions, the Jewish lust for reading things and the Masonic lust for erecting pointless buildings. (The Swiss had the right idea: Take the Jews’ gold so they can no longer build minarets.) Out of the Muslims came monstrosities like the Shi’ites and the Baha’i, but the climax and ultimate tool of evil is the Muslim Brotherhood. They control the media, the Queen of England, and the President of the United States, and they are sexual perverts to boot. Their latest version of perversion is to stick their Jewish Masonic terrorist fingers up the anuses of cloth puppets, which, given that our brains are in our assholes these days, is a highly effective form of mind control.

It’s all true, even though different parts of it are true to different people. (In Egypt they probably won’t tell you the conspiracy invented all Islam – just the Muslim Brotherhood section. Oh, and the Shi’ites.) But the bit about the puppets? Gospel truth. To coin a phrase.

There are these two Egyptian dolls, which went viral on Youtube in recent years. Abla Fahita, a widow, spends all her time gossiping on the phone with her friends. (Loose lips sink ships!) She has a daughter, Karkoura, who’s always trying to make sense of the old lady’s babble. (Interpreter of the terrorists’ code!) Nobody quite knows who came up with them, they are pure fun, but they got so popular that this festive season Vodafone, the largest mobile company in Egypt, decided to use them in an online ad.

 I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMuslim: Abla Fahita’s star turn

Then all hell broke loose, starting with Ahmed Spider. Even the most arcane conspiracy theory seems inadequate to explain Ahmed Spider. I wrote about him once,  a long time ago; he’s a willowy, rather fey figure who materialized even before the Revolution, also foisted on the wider world by YouTube and Facebook, where he posted his own videos full of hapless attempts at music-making as inept as Florence Foster Jenkins. After Mubarak fell, he started interspersing the songs with talk: talk about secret plots, the evil revolutionaries, the Masons, the enemies of Egypt. He wouldn’t have been imaginable in Cairo or anywhere else twenty years ago. It’s not just that proliferating new media render him possible; they transform his dreams. They’ve set atop the pathetic longing for fame the sudden feeling that you can make your own mini-stage and be, among your fellow dreamers, famous.

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

He might have stopped there. But the previous military junta (the one that ruled from the Revolution till the June 2012 elections) and the felool the relicts of the old regime — took him up. He was convenient. He attacked the revolutionaries they feared. Spider was soon a fixture on the  Al-Fara’een channel run by talking head Tawfik Okasha, a purveyor of paranoia often called Egypt’s own Glenn Beck. He became that distinctive disease of our time, a Media Personality, as potent and pointless as a local votive spirit, endlessly quotable to the exact degree that he has nothing to say.

A commercial with two puppets should really expect to incite his analysis; particularly when it intrudes on YouTube, his jealously personalized preserve. No sooner had Vodafone released the video than Ahmed Spider sprang up on Tahrir TV (the security services’ chosen channel) to engage in a withering exegesis. It’s like The DaVinci Code. No symbol escapes him:

  • At the beginning of the commercial you see a cactus plant with Christmas decorations. That is a terrorist threat.
  • There is a Christmas ball on the cactus. That is a bomb.
  • The cactus has four arms, count them, clearly a form of the four-finger salute that’s been used by the Muslim Brotherhood since the July crackdown against them. (The military killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters staging a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square; Rabaa means “fourth” in Arabic. You see the cunning of the Brotherhood. They even corrupt cardinal numbers.)
  • There’s talk of using a sniffer dog to find an old, lost SIM card, and also something about cooking a Christmas turkey. This is all about terrorist attacks.
  • Abla Fahita has a friend named “Mama Tutu.” Obviously that means the Muslim Brotherhood. She even says that Mama Tutu’s false teeth are freezing from the cold. Just like the government froze the Muslim Brotherhood’s assets.

It’s amazing the Brotherhood used such a flimsy code in the attempt to conceal its schemings. It was instantly evident even to somebody like Spider, who has no brain.

 Ahmed Spider takes on the Puppet Plot

So many questions remain; for instance, who was the Brotherhood trying to address this way? Will the ad itself brainwash all Vodafone subscribers into suicide bombers? Or, if it’s a more recondite message meant to trigger participants in a specific plot, isn’t Spider actually helping the Brotherhood by publicizing it? The story just rolls on, though. Another channel hosted Abla Fahita herself to refute the allegations. Ahmed Spider called in to the show. A newspaper article reports that he “refused to directly address the puppet, saying, ‘This is an imaginary character and nobody knows who is behind it.’” Abla Fahita asked him, “Would it be fair to say that Ahmed Spider is a spy because there is the word ‘spy’ in ‘spider’?” But the state takes Spider seriously. Prosecutors summoned Vodafone representatives for an interrogation over the ad.

On Twitter and Facebook, a lot of Egyptians have been laughing themselves crazy over this. But there’s a grim hardness under the hilarity, a reminder of how little has changed in Egypt in three years. Only the fact that Abla Fahita is cloth and yarn makes it risible to think of her in official custody.

torture abla fahita copy

Yeah. Or:

Bc-NPbTIQAAFcr2

More seriously, Sarah Carr points out the basic horror of a state where puppets can be criminals while police have complete impunity:

Every country has its Glenn Beck type public figures, the difference in Egypt is that they are taken seriously where it suits the political ambitions of those at the reins and serves a useful purpose. Thus we have the Public Prosecutor accepting a complaint about a finger puppet while nobody has been charged for the deaths of nearly 1,000 people at Rab3a, because the current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated.

I have three small points to add.

a) Creeping conspiracies. Of course, paranoia — even about puppets — isn’t uniquely Egyptian; think Jerry Falwell accusing Tinky Winky. And while Sarah’s right that the Public Prosecutor’s eagerness to pursue this “crime” makes the whole mess distinctively awful, Cairo is not the only jurisdiction where conspiracy theories drive statecraft. In the US since 2009, more than two dozen states have considered legislation to ban “creeping shari’a” (why does only shari’a creep? Does canon law lope, or Halakha boldly ambulate?), on the theory that Islamic jurisprudence is on a quest for total global domination. Shari’a is a “threat to America,” says the Center for Security Policy, a wholly unmedicated neoconservative thinktank, in a report it calls “an exercise in competitive [sic] analysis.” These are rank fantasies bred of prejudice, delirium tremens, and a propensity for belief in burqa-wearing banshees that lurk under the bed; but in places like Oklahoma, where Holy Scripture and hangovers are both interpreted literally, such hallucinations become the stuff of law.

Apparently tyrannical shari'a law actually encourages women judges.

Apparently, tyrannical shari’a law actually encourages women judges.

Actually, as I wrote last week, a little-reported side of all this is that many of Egypt’s presently prevalent conspiracy theories come from the United States. Much as US evangelicals have exported their homophobia to places like Uganda, the Tea Party and its ilk have packaged their prejudices for the Egyptian market.

The President is the offspring of an American citizen and a loosely-woven cotton fabric of inferior quality: courtesy of Wonkette.com

The President is the offspring of an American citizen and a loosely-woven cotton fabric of inferior quality: courtesy of Wonkette.com

For instance, after July’s coup, pro-military media replayed over and over claims by the absurd Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert that the Obama Administration had been giving financial aid to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Gohmert accompanied fellow delusionist Michele Bachmann on a junket to Egypt in September, to disseminate their myths about the Brotherhood among the leadership directly. It’s not for nothing that Tawfik Okasha, a key local vehicle for these fantasies, is nicknamed the Egyptian Glenn Beck. The explosive mix of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — the belief that all-powerful Jews promote Islamism — seems to ooze from the preverbal id of the Tea Party, free to express in Egypt some of the inarticulate hatreds that respectability in the US forbids. It’s interesting, then, that a pseudo-expert like Jeffrey Goldberg points repeatedly to anti-Semitism in Egypt, though it’s unlikely to claim any direct victims now (there’s only a infinitesimal minority of Jews in the country, and the prospect of conflict with Israel is extremely remote) but stays mum about its links to Islamophobic paranoia (which has already helped kill more than a thousand people since the coup). But what happens to Muslims doesn’t interest Goldberg. Neither does context.

b) Neoliberal narratives. For myself, I can spin conspiracies with the best of them, and I don’t think it accidental that the regime is dredging up this ludicrousness on Vodafone now.  Vodafone is the giant among the country’s three mobile providers (ahead of Mobinil and Etisalat). The military government, however, is finalizing a long-disputed license for Telecom Egypt to enter the field as a fourth provider. No one really can comprehend why, since the market is saturated — almost anybody who can afford a mobile phone has one. Telecom Egypt, though, is the powerful, monopoly fixed-line telephone company. It’s 80% state-owned; presumably the government wants a cut of the profitable mobile business, which has been one of the few growth areas in an economy dominated by remittances and real-estate speculation. The other 20% of Telecom Egypt was privatized back in 2005, in the first major sell-off carried out by neoliberals under the direction of Mubarak’s son and would-be successor Gamal. It was the biggest IPO in the whole Middle East up to that time. Most of the shares almost certainly went to rich regime cronies, the felool who are now back full force under General Sisi. So both its own interests and those of its friends motivate the government to look with tender concern on Telecom Egypt’s success.

All together now, and you on the left, PUT DOWN THAT CACTUS NOW: Ramadan ad frm Telecom Egypt, 2013

All together now, and you on the left, PUT DOWN THAT CACTUS NOW: Ramadan ad from Telecom Egypt, 2013

Vodafone can hardly be happy about this. (Telecom Egypt also owns 44% of Vodafone, making the competition extra intricate; presumably they want either to expand that share, or sell it back to their competitor at a hefty profit.) Could the whole contretemps be a small way for the state to remind Vodafone that there is no limit to the petty harassment they can inflict if the company causes problems?

c) Information overload. Back when blogs started multiplying like mushrooms, and even more when Facebook and Twitter first reared their heads, you heard a lot about “citizen journalism” and communications activism, about how this stuff was going to democratize the media and put information in everybody’s hands for free. Didn’t Twitter almost bring Ahmadinejad down? Wasn’t Facebook Mubarak’s fatal bane?

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Well, no. Twitter and Facebook actually did nothing of the kind. And the new media haven’t quite worked as planned. Mainly they’ve just succeeded in driving the old media, particularly newspapers, out of business. Of course, media giants under the sway of capital aren’t going to investigate or expose all things impartially; but you need some capital — which blogs don’t have — to hire reporters and do any investigative journalism at all. Investigative reporting, drained of resources, is going the way of the Brontosaurus, the typewriter, and the LP. Meanwhile, any blog or new-style news source that does show a capacity to make some money gets bought up by the powers that be: like Egypt’s Tahrir TV, which started as a vehicle for scraggly revolutionaries and, purchased and repurchased, morphed into a megaphone for regime propaganda. So we know less and less about what goes on beneath the surface of things, while we know more and more about cats from Buzzfeed, 26 amazing celebrity nosejobs from Gawker, who Chris Brown beat up from Twitter, and photoshopped porn pics of your neighbor from Tumblr. Information proliferates, illumination fades.

Where the ether and the clouds are full of messages, life becomes largely a matter of decoding them, however meaningless they may seem. This is a ripe atmosphere for breeding paranoias. But it’s also an environment where one spends much more time worrying about images than realities, representations than facts. The media erase the message, the vessel is the only content you’ve got.

The Abla Fahita brouhaha reminded me unpleasantly of the end-of-year US tempest over Phil Robertson: the Biblically bearded patriarch of a clan on a redneck reality show, who offended millions by mouthing what he thought were Scriptural strictures about homosexuality in an interview. Of course, there was no possibility of hidden meanings in Robertson’s diatribe, and he didn’t need Ahmed Spider to decode him; he said what he said. Still, an ocean away, what struck me about his comments was their sheer unimportance: the misguided ramblings of a flash-in-the-frying-pan TV star were trivial compared to harsh new anti-LGBT laws readying in Nigeria or Uganda. (His patronizing plantation-style comments on race – “they were happy; no one was singing the blues” before that civil rights stuff started — caused much less outrage. There are probably many reasons, but this Tweet may at least suggest one:

robertson kids copyYou know, priorities.)

The standard reason given for the excess furor against Robertson, when anybody felt the need to provide one, was the children, the children. LGBT youth in the US face acute levels of depression and suicide. But is that fact caused by Robertson’s representations? “I’m terrified for young, powerless gay people growing up in less enlightened places than New York City”– a little patronizing there yourself, Knickerbocker. “In these places, when people calling themselves Christians use fear and loathing of gays as an anti-sin tool, gays and lesbians become collateral damage. Sometimes they’re driven to suicide.” Or:

robertson kids 1 copyCan you? Really? I’d like to see that line before signing on. In my own experience, when kids leave their homes or their lives, it’s because of what’s happening in their homes or their lives: concrete brutality or lovelessness or abuse, not abstract comments on TV.  And if an LGBT child has a parent who thinks like Phil Robertson, she has a bigger problem than can be solved simply by worrying about Phil Robertson.

The rage over the redneck is mostly in the realm of metaphor; he stands in for a host of tangible injustices and harms — family violence, ingrained prejudice, fundamentalism, patriarchal power — that he didn’t cause and can’t do much to alleviate, but tackling him provides a convenient alternative to thinking about those crises, which are fucking hard. It’s much easier to object to symbols than to realities, much easier to argue against a flat-screen representation than an intractable and material fact. This is not wholly different from Ahmed Spider’s almost innocent faith that the murderous unravelling of a country can somehow be understood and answered by deciphering a TV commercial. Both fight the wrong fight — too simple in the Robertson case, too stupid in Spider’s. Both put medium before message, the world we watch before the world we live in. The appeal of this is very much a disorder of our days, so saturated with chattery things said and seen that we can’t remember the actualities we were talking about. I’m not sorry for Phil Robertson, who probably does deserve the anger, even if it could be turned to better use. I’m sorry for Abla Fahita. But it seems a symptom of the syndrome that I’m sorrier for the one who isn’t real.

A husband for Abla Fahita at last: Phil Robertson finger puppet, from www.thistledownpuppets.com

A husband for Abla Fahita at last: Phil Robertson finger puppet, from http://www.thistledownpuppets.com

Thanks to Tarek Mostafa and Ahmad Awadalla for illuminating discussions of Ahmed Spider in days past.

The warped reality therapy of Jeffrey Goldberg

Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Boots, and sandals, on the ground: Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Jeffrey Goldberg is one of those Beltway experts whose main area of expertise is his audience. For a while he was actually The Atlantic’s advice columnist. However brusque his manner (“What’s your problem?”, his column was called) he grasped the essence of Dear Abbyism: people want to be told to do what they already want to do. On the geopolitical scale, his famously arcane influence with high reaches of the American and Israeli governments (New York magazine described him as the “official therapist” of that fraught relationship, half Oedipal, half Albee) stems, similarly, from a talent for feeding each exactly what it longs to hear. He’s also an expert on the greater Middle East, meaning on what other people think about it. When so ostentatious a quest for insight comes back only with the carcass of a cliché or two, it feels a bit as though the Royal Hunt set off to shoot down chickens in a barnyard. But who wouldn’t prefer a safe Kentucky-fried dinner to a confrontation in a mapless thicket with the uncategorized, the indeterminate, the unknown?

This week, Goldberg is teaching us about Egypt. His column for Bloomberg analyses an interview on Egyptian TV:

And the winner of the annual “Most Convoluted Conspiracy Theory to Emerge from the Egyptian Fever Swamp” prize is the writer Amr Ammar, who alleged earlier this month on Tahrir TV that talk-show host Jon Stewart, working in tandem with former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, is asserting dominion over Egypt on behalf of the Jews. …

The gist is that, earlier this year, Stewart appeared as a gesture of support on the TV show of now-censored satirist Bassem Youssef, and made a joke about being a homeless Jew wandering the sands.  Goldberg goes on:

Look into my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Look in my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Ammar … in the course of arguing that Youssef is undermining Egypt (a common charge among revanchists), alleged that Youssef has learned theories of mass social control from Brzezinski, who is the source of Jon Stewart’s “ideology.”

Never much on the rails to begin with, Ammar then goes decisively off: “If you recall, when Jon Stewart visited here in Egypt, he was a guest on Bassem Youssef’s show. Note what Jon Stewart said as a joke. He said: ‘I am sorry I am late. I wandered in the desert, but now I’ve found my homeland.’ That’s what he said word for word — a Jew who wandered in the desert, but, thank God, found his homeland. This man says, in the heart of Egypt and on an Egyptian media outlet, that Egypt belongs to them, that it is his homeland.”

It requires no surplus of reason to agree that this is disgustingly looney. But Goldberg has an Important Point to make, not about a particular exemplar of lunacy but about the whole land of Egypt:

The proclivity of so many Egyptians to embrace conspiracy theories — anti-Semitic or otherwise — suggests an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is. An inability to grapple with the world as it actually is an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.

So now we know why Egypt is poor and miserable: they’re uniquely out of touch with reality. Let’s unpack this.

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We open our arms to welcome the conquering Israeli army to Cairo: Bassem Youssef (L) and Jon Stewart on the former’s show

1) You might think from Goldberg’s piece that Amr Ammar is some kind of important writer, and that like the greats – Dickens, Mahfouz, Dan Brown – he gives voice to dreams that well upward from the collective imagination. The truth is, no. No one I know had ever heard of him. It turns out he’s a retired army colonel, whose just-published book (Civilian Occupation: Secrets of January 25 and the American Marines) is a whole compendium of craziness, arguing that the 2011 revolution was a “complex international conspiracy against our country” by the Zionists and the CIA and everybody else. A review in the state newspaper al-Ahram lists some of the “thousands of agents and spies who tried to rape the honor of our country”:

We have been through that story with the names of its stars and its proceedings: Freedom House and Otpor [the Serbian resistance movement] and CANVAS [the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies] and the National Association for Change [a liberal group headed by Mohamed El Baradei] and April 6 [one of the main youth revolutionary groups] and Bernard Levy and Jared Cohen, and Wael Ghoneim and Ahmed Salah [prominent revolutionary spokespeople] and Mohamed El Baradei, Hamas and Pepsi and Esraa Abdel Fattah [an April 6 co-founder] and Huma Abedin [Hillary Clinton's aide, accused by Michele Bachmann of being a Muslim Brotherhood operative, and through her marriage to Anthony Wiener obviously serving as the main link between Zionists and radical Islam] and Brzezinski and George Soros and Amr Khaled [influential television preacher] and Hisham Kassem [newspaper publisher]

Don’t fuck with me, farbrekhers: In secret footage taken at a Pepsi board meeting, Joan Crawford addresses the Elders of Zion.

And so on. Pepsi is the crowning touch. Goldberg barely scratched the surface of the madness. In fact (and typically) Goldberg’s whole column lazily relies on a “transcript” of Amr Ammar’s interview by the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which always translates the worst stuff coming out of the region for Western consumption. But it’s not actually a transcript. As you can see by clicking the link, MEMRI offers up only five short passages from Ammar’s interview — basically, five Arabic sentences, about thirty seconds’ worth. The whole program, available on YouTube in two parcels, took an hour. I’d hate to inflict more of this stuff on anyone; but a real reporter, unlike Goldberg, might have wanted to go to the source and hear what else Ammar raved about, before devoting a whole column to it.

Amr Ammar interview, al-Tahrir TV, December 10, 2013, part 1

2) However little Goldberg listened to the interview, he’s right: it’s anti-Semitic and loathsome. But Goldberg has repeatedly reiterated his own theory of Egyptian anti-Semitism: that it’s a popular phenomenon deep-rooted in the country’s life and “deeply damaged culture.” “Egypt has never been notably philo-Semitic (just ask Moses),” he wrote in 2012. In the past, at least, he was intent on distinguishing this from Iran, where “the Iranian leadership is wildly anti-Semitic, but … I’ve never personally felt the hatred of Jews on the popular level.” In Egypt, though, “the virus has spread widely.”

Today it’s entirely acceptable among the educated and creative classes there to demonize Jews and voice the most despicable anti- Semitic conspiracy theories. Careerists know that even fleeting associations with Jews and Israelis could spell professional trouble. 

(Note the elision of any difference between Jews and Israeli citizens.) Goldberg has always been reluctant to saddle the Egyptian state, as opposed to Egyptian “culture,” with responsibility for anti-Semitism. It’s because he generally likes the Egyptian state, at least in its military-run incarnations. Even under the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, the state was pliable from his perspective — keeping its cold peace with Israel, and cooperating to police the fractious Sinai. As far back as 2001, he preferred blaming Egypt’s “press and the imams” for prejudice, to blaming friends.

Gleefully citing Amr Ammar, however, doesn’t actually back this up. An ex-officer, the guy comes out of the military establishment. His book’s been praised in al-Ahram, the state’s flagship paper and now a forum for junta propaganda. His interview was on Tahrir TV, founded in 2011 as a voice for revolutionaries but now, after several changes of ownership, “a mouthpiece for the intelligence and police” (in Ursula Lindsey’s words). The el-Sisi regime has been busily spinning horrifically inventive conspiracy theories almost from the moment it seized power, stories in which Zionists, Americans, Islamists, and Masons link up with human rights organizations and long-haired demonstrators to bring the state down. It might seem far-fetched to posit that Netanyahu and Hamas, Brzezinski and the Muslim Brotherhood, would join hands to demolish Egypt; but you’d be surprised. In fact, Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner married specifically in order to conquer Cairo for Mossad and al-Qaeda after the honeymoon. And vilifying Bassem Youssef as a tool of national enemies is not a hobby for “revanchists,” as Goldberg suggests. It’s Egyptian state policy.

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan's Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan’s Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Versions of this stuff have been going on for a long time. State-promoted anti-Semitism became a loud note of the Mubarak era’s waning years. I sat speechless in an Egyptian friend’s living room in November 2002 watching Horseman Without a Horse, a lavishly produced Ramadan soap opera that dramatized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A few months before that, the state-owned al-Akhbar, in an editorial, called the Holocaust a fraud; al-Ahram, which despite its propaganda uses still retained a claim to respectability, had repeated the blood libel (Christian children as ingredients in the matzah) two years earlier. These are only a few examples. Of course, Goldberg’s imams often spoke the language of anti-Semitism as well. But an individual preacher might reach only a few thousand souls; whereas a state production like Horseman infused tens of millions’ dreams. 

Egypt is fertile ground for lots of conspiracy theories, not just anti-Semitic ones. Last night 15 died in a bombing of the Security Directorate — secret police headquarters — in the Delta city of Mansoura; and plenty of my friends believe the state itself did it. The thing is, they might be right. Official paranoia breeds ersatz versions; and who’s to say that a secret state might not sacrifice its own secret-keepers to keep the panic brewing? These are feelings familiar to anyone who’s lived under authoritarianism; survivors of Communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa will recognize them. There really is a “deep state” in Egypt, a military-security establishment with vast economic and political power. The ostensible public sphere stands severed from the occult locations where decisions are made. The more constraints encircle knowledge of what’s going on, the fewer limits there are to speculation. 

Where the more hateful and virulent versions of conspiracy theory, like anti-Semitism, are concerned, one standard diagnosis finds them nebulously linked to “social change”; economic or cultural transition, if too accelerated, feeds irrational explanations. A more complex account might be: conspiracy theories breed amid uneven social change, where some structures freeze in rigidity while others shift and bend. In Imperial Germany the economy was swiftly transformed, but the political system remained fixed, dominated by an ossified and indifferent landed class. Turkey’s entrepreneurial makeover in the last three decades was slow to shake the authority of the old secular and military elites. Western investment, Western aid, satellite dishes and the Internet have rendered Egypt unrecognizable since Sadat; but the same ruling powers that were, still are. New classes — whether salaried clerks in Cologne or Islamist small businessmen in Cairo — look for reasons why their influence is less than their numbers or resources demand. If power and its persistence are neither accountable nor explicable, it’s tempting to seek not just causes, but cabalistic agents: scapegoats.

Raise your hand if you've tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Raise your hand if you’ve tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Egypt’s political immobility under Mubarak, then, helped make a conspiratorial mindset attractive. The Parkinsonian rigidity of the regime despite three years of revolution can only deepen its heuristic appeal. But the monumental resilience of the military-security complex doesn’t just draw on its own inner resources. It’s due to forty years of unstinting support from the US; and that support has been a payback for the regime’s détente with Israel. Even Egyptians who never switched on Horseman Without a Horse know that. Egypt’s politics have gone through plenty of vicissitudes, but the treaty with Israel has stayed intensely unpopular throughout. It’s hated not because of anti-Semitism, and not just for itself, but because it’s both symbol and (financial and military) enabler of a government that can ram through pretty much any policy without even a curtsey to democratic consent. (That the semi-peace coincided with Sadat’s equally despised, equally authoritarian pursuit of poverty-producing neoliberal economic policies only confirmed its unpopularity.) Some of the most important moments in democratic dissent in Egypt have focused on opposition to Israel, and to the government’s ties to it. Many activists who led the 2011 revolution got their start a decade earlier protesting Mubarak’s acquiescence in Operation Defensive Shield and his failure to support the Palestinians, as well as his tacit endorsement of the US invasion of Iraq. Even more infuriating to the dissidents, WikiLeaks revealed that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s sinister security consigliere and chief torturer, was also his liaison to Tel Aviv. The old monster consulted on a hotline with the Israelis daily. Contemplating “Egyptian succession scenarios,” an Israeli diplomat said, “there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.”

Intelligent Egyptians were eminently capable of concluding that Israel’s vested interest in Cairo’s “stability” meant complicity in repression. There was a conspiratorial element to this belief, but it wasn’t fantasy; it wasn’t Holocaust denial or the blood libel. It was perfectly consistent with the facts. The Egyptian regime’s ignition of anti-Semitism (which hit full throttle around the time Sharon took office) must be comprehended in this light. It was fantasy, but it distracted attention from the raw truth that the regime’s strength depended on its Israeli ties. It was a way of screaming, “Don’t look here: look over there!” The state knew how to cultivate conspiratorial thinking, and divert it to its own ends. The elaborate paranoias the generals promote today — the Jew-led US in league with the Masons and Qatar — serve the same purpose. The US isn’t about to give up on the Egyptian military; John Kerry has made it clear that he approves the coup, just not the methods. But a dash of rabid anti-Americanism spicing up the anti-Semitism keeps the Obamans on their toes. And it makes el-Sisi seem independent to his citizenry when, like his predecessors, he’s not.

I talk to chairs too, when I'm lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

I talk to chairs too, when I’m lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

Goldberg points anxiously to the “culture” of Egyptian anti-Semitism. He doesn’t want to talk about the politics of it. Talking politics would mean admitting that the regime spreads anti-Semitism, not just the “culture,” and it does so because it’s embarrassed by its own dependencies. Full democracy — including state transparency, accountability for past crimes, and smashing the military apparatus’ power — would be the remedy for Egypt’s inculcated political paranoias. A fully democratic state would almost certainly push for a different regional power structure. For that reason alone, Goldberg and the other “therapists” are unenthusiastic.

3) Goldberg is a reality therapist, all about pragmatism and responsibility and paying your doctor bills on time. His diagnosis of the Egyptian disease is “an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is,” this being “an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.” He elaborated in 2012:

The revolution that overthrew the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, held great promise, but it also exposed the enormous challenges facing Egyptian politics and culture. … As Walter Russell Mead [a Bard College professor] has written on his blog, countries “where vicious anti-Semitism is rife are almost always backward and poor.” They aren’t backward and poor because the Elders of Zion conspire against them. They’re backward and poor because, Mead argues, they lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” 

That anti-Semitism was the property of poor and backward countries would have surprised Jews in rich France during the Dreyfus affair, or in technologically advanced Germany in the 1930s; or even in thriving, skinhead-infested Russia today. Certainly anti-Semitism — conspiracy addiction in general — is a cognitive failure. But is the inability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect” distinctive to fetid Egypt and its “damaged culture”?

Goldberg lives in the US now, and as a commentator with political pretensions, maybe he should check the polls. It isn’t just that surveys repeatedly show nearly 80% of Americans believe in angels. It isn’t even that 4% of citizens affirm that “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies,” with another 7% “not sure.” Absent a militant movement to throw the reptiles out, those credos won’t do much. Probably.

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries "The Bible," 2012

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” 2012

But what can you say when 20% of Republicans say Obama is the Antichrist? (18% of Americans overall, of course, think he’s a Muslim.) What about the 34% of Republicans and 35% of independents who believe in a global conspiracy to install a totalitarian superstate called the New World Order? These aren’t innocent illusions; they’re predicates for how folks vote and agitate. And what intervening angel will prevent the 37% of Americans who think global warming is a hoax from incinerating the rest of us with their delusions?

Plenty of analysts have held paranoia to be a deep-rooted characteristic of America’s political “culture”: see Richard Hofstadter. Rich and forward the US may be, but that doesn’t keep it from being fearful. More cogently, from the anti-immigrant frenzies of the 1920s through McCarthyism to the anti-Obamism of the present, conspiracy theories seem connected to uneven social change, to classes and identities terrified of being left out by economic or political transformation. But like anti-Semitism in Egypt, they’re easily manipulated and bought up by entrenched, existing power. The Koch Brothers, after all, paid for the Tea Party: the former’s method used the latter’s madness. And there’s plenty of media to promote these stories. Pat Robertson has a whole TV network to spread his ideas about how Satan, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Council on Foreign Relations plot a one-world government through central banks. Broadcaster Glenn Beck, the Kanye of paranoia, beloved of the Tea Party, maps all kinds of conspiracies on his trademark chalkboard: University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein is planning genocide; Obama is an ally of Egypt’s blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Egypt, in fact, is something of a Glenn Beck fetish. One of his more intricate narratives had Obama, George Soros, and international Communism working together to launch the Egyptian revolution, in order to build a “Muslim caliphate” that for some reason would make them all happy.

 Egypt, your caliphate is coming: Glenn Beck connects the dots, which look suspiciously like small brain lesions.

It comes full circle. Egypt’s popular, insane TV presenter Tawfik Okasha plagiarizes the Tea Party, raging about how Obama brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, helped by Zionists and Masons. Not for nothing is he known as the Egyptian Glenn Beck. (If you don’t know Okasha, this brilliant parody Twitter account in English gives something of his mad flavor.)

In fact, there’s one key point Goldberg left out in his account of Amr Ammar, so hampered was he by MEMRI’s selective editing, so fixed on Egypt’s “damaged culture.” Many of Ammar’s conspiratorial fantasies didn’t spring from the “Egyptian fever swamp.” They come from the US. 

bachmann copy

Look in my eyes and, trust me, you will never get out alive: Michele Bachmann editorializes in Daily News Egypt, December 2013

The “fever swamp” is in DC, as much as the Nile Delta. It’s doubtful Ammar or anyone else in Sisi’s circles would even have heard of Huma Abedin if Michele Bachmann hadn’t been smearing her for years as a Muslim Brotherhood mole in the US government. The Islam-loathing Bachmann has become a serious and baleful influence on Egyptian politics, visiting the country twice since the coup to share her “witless ramblings” with the junta leaders; in Cairo, she even accused the Muslim Brotherhood of involvement in the September 11 attacks. George Soros as bête noire and fulcrum of the global conspiracy is an idea borrowed, of course, from plenty of Tea Party polemicists, Glenn Beck high among them. Ammar would hardly have thought to mention Zbigniew Brzezinski’s name — as hard to pronounce in Arabic as in English — but for the work of right-wing US paranoiacs, who have long fingered the dour Pole as an Illuminatus and inventor of the New World Order.

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, "Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt's Jews, is an obligation": via @ablasalma

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, “Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt’s Jews, is an obligation”: via @ablasalma

Indeed, much as right-wing evangelicals arguably exported their homophobia to Uganda, conspiratorial neocons and other conmen are shipping their Islamophobia to Egypt. What’s arising in Cairo is a peculiar blend of Islam(ist)-hatred and anti-Semitism, a weird worldview in which the Elders of Zion breach protocol to lend a hand to the Ikhwan. The key ideas come from outside. And the melding seems liberating for many Tea Party types like Bachmann. Egypt is a place where the latent anti-Semitism bred by Becks and Robertsons, by Christmas warriors and Confederate nostalgists — a sentiment confined to coded dog-whistles in the corseted US — can emerge and stretch its limbs and find its voice.

Goldberg is spot on that some people can’t “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” But they’re not all Egyptians. Some of them live right in his own town, and promote their paranoias in his neighborhood. One person, in fact, who has some trouble with cause and effect relations seems to be Goldberg. Therapy begins at home.

Privacy tips for sex subversives: Ways to protect your information and yourself

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.

– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” 1993

urlVladimir Putin’s not-so-secret police wiretapped a strategy meeting between Russian LGBT activists and Western NGOs in St. Petersburg last month — then played the tapes on TV, as proof of a conspiracy. That’s no surprise. What’s surprising is that the Western NGOs didn’t expect it. “Soviet-like surveillance” (to quote the indignant condemnations) is nothing new in Russia. The Soviet security establishment didn’t ever curl up and die. The only innovation is that recently, instead of using the recordings for blackmail or prosecution, the regime hands them over to pet media for a public smear campaign. But everyone knows that tactic already; during the 2011 anti-Putin protests, “grainy videos and audio recordings” were “leaked to Kremlin-friendly tabloids by security and law-enforcement agencies,” in “a concerted Kremlin effort to discredit and divide their opponents.” The organizers really should have seen this coming.

The truth is, those of us who work on sexual rights internationally don’t always take our own issues seriously. We assume evil politicians don’t truly fear us — that they’re merely manipulative or opportunistic, using homophobia, whorephobia, or misogyny as trumped-up distractions from “real” concerns. We don’t grasp our own power, or get that governments may see these issues as the real ones: that states could spend massive resources on repressing sexual dissidence with the same anxious fervor they devote to crushing separatism or stifling political dissent. Persuaded of our unimportance, we deprecate the actual dangers. But if that ever was justified, it isn’t today. The Obama administration’s broad and occasionally unhelpful ardor in playing tribune for LGBT groups worldwide, for instance, feeds fears that these minuscule movements are actually agents of alien geopolitics, hives of foreign subversion. And the US government’s own success in violating anybody’s and everybody’s privacy only encourages imitation, and revenge.

Everyone should worry about privacy. And you especially need to worry if either your work or your life contradicts society or law. You may run an NGO, or you may be an individual activist in a small town. You may be a queer checking Grindr in a country where gay sex is illegal; you may be a sex worker using Gmail to hook up with clients. You need to think about how you can protect your communications from prying ears and eyes — whether parents, roommates, or police.

Uninformed about information: Data from 2012 Pew survey on American's search engine use, www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Uninformed about information: Data from 2012 Pew survey on Americans’ search engine use, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Technologies are available. Yet most people don’t use them. There are three broad reasons for reluctance:

a) They’re slow. Secure browsers like Tor are a little lumbering; encrypting e-mails is a hassle. All I can say is, it’s less of a hassle than getting your group closed down, or winding up in jail.

b) Come on, why would they come after me? See above. They may already be after you. But even if the cops haven’t noticed you yet, there are plenty of accidental ways to attract attention. Suppose, earnest HIV activist, that your laptop’s stolen — and when the police recover it, they discover that illegal porn video you downloaded. Suppose, mild-mannered sex worker, that one of the clients you’ve been e-mailing works for Human Rights Watch — and is constantly watched and spied on in your country. There’s no lack of ways you can fall afoul of surveillance.

c) Transparency is a virtue. On principle, a lot of human rights activists don’t try to hide from state surveillance, because, they say, they have nothing to hide. This is noble, but not workable. You may not have secrets, but people who trust you do. Members of your organization, people who come to you for help, may expect confidentiality — and may feel betrayed if you don’t safeguard what they share. The landlord who rents to you, the guy who sleeps with you, the cleaning lady who scrubs the kitchen, could all get swept up in any scandal — smeared, shamed, or hauled into court. You have a responsibility to protect those around you and those who depend on you.

What follows are some steps to protect your electronic privacy, arranged roughly from the simplest to the most complex. I don’t claim to be an expert  – the resources are gleaned from my own reading and use. If you have suggestions, or if you see something that won’t work, tell me in the comments or through email.  Privacy is like safer sex. There’s no absolute safety, only relative protection. Everybody has to gauge their own levels of acceptable risk. Keeping abreast of changing technologies for both surveillance and safeguarding is vital. The best way to protect your information is to be informed.

Things you can do:

calmclearcache1.  Clear your browser’s history. Browsers store copies of the web pages you visit in an area called the cache. Moreover, many pages automatically deposit a little turd of information called a cookie on your computer, which lets them recognize you when you return. Both these allow anybody with access to your computer to reconstruct what you’ve been viewing. I know dozens of people whose families or bosses have uncovered their sexual orientation simply by checking the browser history.

If you use a computer that anybody else might share, whether at home, at work, or in an internet cafe, you should clear the browser history regularly, preferably after each use. It’s not perfect — ultra-skilled geeks could still figure out what you’re been doing — but it frustrates most intruders. Good guides to how to do this, for the most common browsers, can be found here, and here, and here. 

2.  Realize that Facebook is not your friend.  Facebook causes too many headaches to count. But this one is really serious.

Go to the search bar and just type in: “Gays in [your country]” — you know, as if you were looking for a group, or a page describing the local scene. What you’ll get will be quite different:

Philippines copy

It’s raining men interested in men, and women also

There’s a parable here about identity construction in the digital age. Facebook automatically takes the button that asks you what gender you’re interested in — one that a lot of people click in fun, or assume to refer to friendship rather than sex — and translates it into being “gay” or not. More ominously, though: The results you’ll get won’t be limited to friends, or friends of friends. You’ll get a list of every man who’s “interested in men” in [your country] and who didn’t bother to make that particular part of their profile private. It’s convenient if you’re gay, and looking for an alternative to Grindr. It’s also convenient if you’re a policeman, and homosexual sex is illegal in [your country], and you’re looking for a way to track down or entrap the guilty and throw them in jail.

This is all the upshot of Facebook’s new “Graph Search,” a terrifying new feature that puts security on a bonfire and lights a match. It allows you to mine the deep structure of the site — to pluck information out of profiles that, as profiles, are invisible to you. It’s a “semantic search” (unlike old-style Google); it doesn’t just take the words you enter literally, it tries to infer what you mean — hence the leap between “interested in men” and “gay.” It’s nasty and clever and it doesn’t give a fuck about your safety.

It’s called “Graph Search” because semantic search builds “a graph of information for the user that pulls insights from different formats to create an over-arching viewpoint related to the original query” … blah, blah. More simply: Facebook employs the little bits of data — “likes” and “interested ins” — from all those profiles to map out commonalities between its customers. But this isn’t really done “for the user,” though it’s sold to you as a way to share lovingly with your loved ones and learn lovely things about everyone. It’s done for Facebook and its advertiser-clients, to divvy up users by their desires and assemble a picture of diversified markets open for advertising and exploitation.

Apt pupil: I know what you did last summer, and with whom. © Dominic Lipinski/PA

Apt pupil: I know what you did last summer, and with whom. © Dominic Lipinski/PA

There’s a whole Tumblr blog highlighting the information, from eccentric to creepy, that Graph Search can turn up. You can look for “Employers of people who like racism”; you can root out “Mothers of Catholics from Italy who like Durex condoms.” But folks whose private lives put them in danger won’t laugh. “Graph Search” makes state repression easy. Human rights advocates ought to give Facebook hell. The search unearths, for instance, 258,285 results for “Men who are interested in men in Iran.” Somehow this has failed to elicit any objections from the usual obsessives over the Islamic Republic (they’re all on Facebook right now, busy searching for “Men in London who like men and like to read press releases”). But if an enterprising religious policeman in Tehran figures out how Graph Search can further the torture business, Facebook will have blood on its hands.

What can you do? The only way to remove yourself from Graph Search is to make sure that each item of information on your profile is marked “private.” To repeat: the universal privacy setting that could sequester your whole profile is gone now. You’ve got to do this step by step:

a) Go to each item in the “About” section of your profile, and if there’s anything you don’t want strangers to see, either delete or change it, or make sure the privacy setting is limited to “Friends.”

b) Check on every photo you’re tagged in. If you didn’t post the picture, its visibility depends solely on the privacy settings of the person it belongs to. If you don’t want it seen or searched, ever, you’ll have to remove the tag.

c) You can review all the comments you’ve made on Facebook by going to your Activity Log — sort it by Comments (look on the left side).  If you’ve commented on somebody else’s photos or timelines, you can’t change the privacy settings — but if you don’t want the comment seen, you can delete it.

d) You can still change the privacy settings globally for all the old posts on your timeline. Click the gear icon at the upper right of your screen; select Privacy Settings. Under “Who can see my stuff?” you’ll find the option to “Limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends of friends or Public.” That’ll let you make them private at one fell swoop. Another option there allows you to review all your past posts if you want to decide on them one-by-one. 

There’s a good overview of these methods here.

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3. Use Tor. Tor is a downloadable bundle of software that includes its own browser. When you use the browser to access the Internet, the information you receive or send bounces through a global network of thousands of relays — thousands of other computers — and is encrypted over and over. All the encryption makes it very hard to intercept the data in transit; the rerouting makes it almost impossible to find its origin. All this means that unfriendly eyes can’t detect your location, or trace your posts or visits or messages back to you.

The chart shows how. Ordinarily, if Alice up there sends someone an email or accesses a web page, those on the other end can find out the Internet address she’s using. However, if she uses Tor, the recipient (“Bob” down below, or any watchers on Bob’s end) can only see the address of that last relay, or proxy, in the extended network: not Alice’s own.

Edward Snowden in exile, with sticker on his computer supporting the Tor Project: from nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Edward Snowden in exile, with sticker on his computer supporting the Tor Project: from nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Tor (the name stands for The Onion Router, representing the layers of protection that an intruder would have to peel away) was developed by the US military, and the State Department still funds its nonprofit promoters as a way of supporting what America otherwise opposes, Internet freedom. But it’s so independent and impenetrable that (according to national security documents Edward Snowden leaked) even the US government is intimidated; they call it “the king of high-secure,” anonymous Internet access. It’s open-source, meaning a team of elves is always at work to fix any vulnerabilities. Like most open-source projects, it has a cooperative and collective spirit. In fact, you can volunteer your own computer to serve as one of the relay points — though I don’t recommend this, because if the system ever is cracked, you could conceivably be held liable for anything illegal other users might send through your terminal.

There are three main limitations:

a) Tor is not fast. All those relays slow things down. Moreover, Tor blocks plugins like Flash, Quicktime, and RealPlayer, because they can bug up the browser and reveal your real address. You need a special fix to get it to play YouTube videos.

b) Obviously, it won’t conceal your identity if you log into e-mail or any other service. It’ll just hide what Internet address you’re writing from.

c) If your government knows where you are to begin with, it could still find ways to get at your computer and any information you’re sending from it. Similarly, Tor can’t protect what’s on the computer or server at the other end, the one you’re communicating with. Only the transmissions in between are encrypted and secure. Look at that chart again: Tor doesn’t encrypt the last stage of traffic, between the “exit node” (the last relay point)  and the target server. If you want to be more secure, you need to use so-called “end to end” encryption such as PGP (below), which encodes your messages from the point you create them until the intended receiver reads them.

Nonetheless, Tor remains a crucial tool if you want to browse the Internet anonymously. Download it free here. 

4. Encrypt your hard drive.  You should protect yourself on your own end by keeping all or part of your computer encrypted. Anybody unauthorized who tries to open it — a hacker, a policeman, a thief — won’t be able to read the information you store in encrypted files. The data can only be made readable with a “key” — that is, by entering a code that activates decryption. So the main thing is; never give away (or forget) your key.

Laptop locktup: Data in chains

Laptop lockup: Data in chains

No encryption system is perfect. Governments — particularly the resourced and intrusive ones, like the US, China, or Israel — are always looking for ways around the codes. The US National Security Agency spent billions on what it called “an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies.” This included $250 million a year bribing corporations — sorry; I mean “actively engag[ing] the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make them “exploitable.” Paying them, that is, to put holes in the stuff they sell. A quarter of a billion buys a lot of cooperation. Microsoft, for one, now has a policy of providing “intelligence agencies with information about bugs in its popular software before it publicly releases a fix.”

The lesson: Don’t waste money buying “proprietary,” corporate encryption systems. You have no way of knowing whether they’ve obligingly built a back door into their ramparts for US spies to pry. (And you don’t know whether the US has shared those Trojan portals with your government, if it’s an American ally. Or, if it’s not, perhaps your local spies have managed to copy US anti-cryptography shortcuts: Americans seem better at stealing others’ secrets than concealing their own.) Paradoxically, open-source software is safer precisely because its code is out there on the net for anyone to see. If a government tried to insert malware or sneak in a weakness, somebody probably would notice. And it “is in a constant state of development by experts all over the world” — meaning that a lot of beautiful minds are fixing and fine-tuning it all the time.

Here is a helpful list of five trusted file encryption tools. Many experts recommend TrueCrypt, which works with Windows, Mac, and Linux, and is free. (Reportedly, Edward Snowden used it to smuggle information on his hard drive.) It can encrypt files, folders, or whole drives. It can hide encrypted volumes for additional security. It does “real-time encryption,” meaning it decrypts and encrypts material as you work. This simplifies things for you; true, it can slow your computer’s speed somewhat, but not much — “the performance penalty is quite acceptable,” one independent review found. You can download TrueCrypt here. 

5. Encrypt your emails. Email encryption is like riding a bicycle. It’s difficult to explain it to those who haven’t tried it, without making the doer sound either superhumanly agile or insane. (“Mounted upon the high saddle, commence revolving your legs in circular and rhythmic motion, an agitation that simultaneously ensures the balance of the inch-wide wheels and propels the mechanism forward ….”)  Describing it is way harder than doing it. Bear with me, and try not to be too terrified, while I try.

Two keys needed: PGP

Two keys needed: PGP

First, background and basics. The standard form of email encryption is named “Pretty Good Privacy,” or PGP.  Phil Zimmermann invented it in the 1990s. Cryptography, he wrote, is “about the power relationship between a government and its people. It is about the right to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of political association, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom to be left alone.” The anti-war and anti-nuke movements were his particular passion, and he intended the tools for them. “PGP” has since been trademarked by a company selling a proprietary variant, but there’s a range of free, open-source versions; one, called GnuPG or GPG, is available here, and others are at the International PGP home page.

E-mail encryption relies on a sender and receiver sharing tools that let them both encrypt messages and decode them.

These tools are called “keys.” When you install the program, you’ll be asked to set up two keys — strings of characters that perform certain tasks. You will have a public key, and a secret key. Anybody can use the former, but the latter will carry a password so that only you can activate it. You must share the public key with your interlocutors — anyone who wants to send you an encrypted message needs to have your public key first, because that’s what will encrypt it for them. And you’ll need that person’s public key to write her in return. People who have PGP on their computers can communicate easily as long as they have each other’s public keys.

So let’s say Faisal wants to send you a note. Faisal will use your public key, which you’ve given him, to encrypt the message in a code that’s readable to you alone. Though your “public key” performed the coding, the message is far from public: that key is cyber-twinned with your secret key, so that only your secret key can decode what it says. You’ll reply using Faisal’s public key, in a message he can only decode with his secret key. You can also apply your secret key to “sign” that message digitally, so Faisal will know it’s authentically from you; it’s like a seal on an old-fashioned letter, showing that nothing’s been tampered with in transit.

Sealed letters: by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665.

Sealed letters: by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665.

Several things make all this extra cumbersome.

a) You can only communicate with people who have both the software and your public key. So you’re obviously not going to encrypt all your e-mail communications — just the sensitive ones with folks who share your line of work. Some commercial “key authorities” compile online directories of users’ public keys, like phone books.  Rather than relying on those, though, you’ll probably form circles of colleagues and co-conspirators who share each other’s public keys — “web of trust” is one term for this, a phrase that manages to combine Zen touchy-feeliness with faint paranoia.

b) You can only use PGP on the computers where you have it installed. If you get an encrypted message on your phone, you won’t be able to read it till you’re sitting at the computer that has your secret key. If you’re travelling and left your laptop behind, you’re screwed.

c) PGP encryption doesn’t function well with web-based mail services like Gmail or Yahoo. (Recently developers have come up with a JavaScript version of encryption that theoretically fits with your web browser, but it’s clunky at best.) Instead, you’ll want to use an e-mail client à la Outlook. The most popular one specifically designed for encryption users is called Thunderbird; it’s free, it works with Windows, Mac, or Linux, and you can set it up to receive your Gmail. A basic introduction to Thunderbird is here. 

Email encryption is complicated, though once you and your correspondents get used to it, things will seem more natural and routine. Its advantage is that it safeguards information through the whole process of transmission — end to end, unlike the partial protection Tor offers.  You can find more detailed descriptions of how to use it here and here.

6. Go off the record. Millions of people worldwide used to entrust Skype with their long-distance intimacies and secrets. We now know, though, that the corporation has routinely handed over recorded conversations to the US and Chinese governments.

Off the Record (OTR) is a safer alternative. It’s a system, somewhat similar to PGP, for encrypting instant messaging over most of the major chat networks. Yet it’s much less cumbersome than PGP, and lets you communicate quickly in real time. Do not confuse OTR with the “off the record” feature in Google’s own instant messaging service, which is only as secure as Google itself — that is, not very; US state security, after all, has figured out how to trawl data from the giant corporation’s communications links. OTR encryption is really off the record, and offers you important protections.

The revolution will not be recorded: LP confidential

The revolution will not be recorded: LP confidential

To use OTR, you’ll need to download and install an instant-messaging client: either Pidgin or Adium. Pidgin is a free program that lets you chat with friends over the Google, MSN, Yahoo!, Jabber, and AIM networks.  Adium is very similar, but specifically made for Mac. Adium has OTR built in. For Pidgin, you just have to add a special OTR encryption plugin.

From there on, it’s quite simple. All that’s required is that the person you want to chat with also have Pidgin or Adium, with OTR activated. OTR does two things for you: It encrypts the conversation, and it also lets you verify your messaging partner’s identity. (This verification formerly required exchanging a “fingerprint,” a trimmed-down version of PGP’s public keys, but recent versions of OTR simply let you use a previously-agreed-on secret word.) OTR encrypts your messages almost automatically: the two sets of software swap the necessary codes and mumbo-jumbo pretty much without either of you humans noticing.

Good luck, unless you have the software

Good luck, unless you have the software

OTR has one additional advantage that PGP e-mail doesn’t. For each chat session, the software creates a unique encryption key, then “forgets” it once the chat is over. This means that if your OTR account is compromised — if, for instance, somebody steals your computer with your chat program on it — nobody can recover and decrypt any past conversation. Effectively, those fleeting words are gone forever. This is called “forward secrecy,” and it bestows the peace of mind that forgetfulness fosters. (In PGP, by contrast, someone who obtains your private key could decode every single encrypted e-mail you’ve saved.)

OTR’s main drawback is that it’s only one-on-one, and still doesn’t allow group chat. For a basic overview, see the OTR website; more detail on the program can be found here and here.

In conclusion

We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.

– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” 1993

Big brothers doing their dance: Nicolae Ceaușescu and Kim Il-Sung

Big brothers doing their special dance: Nicolae Ceaușescu and Kim Il-Sung

In the early 1990s, I taught for two years in Romania. The apartment I lived in had been the American lecturer’s residence since the mid-1960s; microphones riddled it, so many that at night I thought I could hear the wiretaps faintly clicking like sickly crickets, and I got an electric shock when I touched one particularly wired stretch of wall. The last Fulbright professor who’d served before the Revolution told me how he and his wife decided, in the cold November of 1989, to host a Thanksgiving dinner for their Romanian colleagues. It took them days to find a starved excuse for a turkey; then they faced the dilemma of making stuffing, when no vegetables graced the market at all. They’d spent a day in the kitchen debating the difficulty, till someone knocked at the door. A little man hunched outside, bundled against the wind. Springing into speech, he hinted that some colleagues — well, cousins, who intimately attended to matters about the flat, had phoned him regarding a problem here that, perhaps for a fee, needed fixing. He gestured vaguely at a tall-antennaed car parked (as it was always parked) down the road. “I understand,” he said, “that you are discussing how to stuff a bird. I can help. I am a licensed taxidermist …”

It was funny, and not funny. When I lived there the city still roiled with ethnic hate and nationalist hysteria. As a gay man and a human rights activist, who visited prisons on most off days, I was an object of exceptional interest. The secret police called in a friend of mine, and interrogated him about every syllable of our conversation the night before in my living room. They warned him I would recruit him into “a spy ring of Hungarians, Jews, and homosexuals undermining the Romanian nation.” I went to the United States for a couple of months that summer. Showering in the cramped bathroom in my father’s house, I started talking idly to myself, then stopped in terror: Had I repeated a secret? What if they were listening? The surge of relief when I realized there were no ears around was as if a dam burst behind my tensed muscles. I realized the constant and intolerable pressure I’d lived under for a year, always watched, always overheard.

In the age of paper: Pre-revolution surveillance files at the National Center Studying the Securitate Archives, Bucharest, Romania (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters).

In the age of paper: Pre-revolution surveillance files preserved at the National Center for Studying the Securitate Archives, Bucharest, Romania (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters).

The same year I settled in Romania, 1992, a few radical computer geeks in San Francisco started a mailing list that eventually grew into the Cypherpunk movement. Loathing of state surveillance drew them together, and a belief that technology could forge tools to resist. Their ideology was a remarkable faith that code should be public and knowledge shared so that people could stay private and intimacy stay intact:

Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and since we can’t get privacy unless we all do, we’re going to write it. We publish our code so that our fellow Cypherpunks may practice and play with it. Our code is free for all to use, worldwide.  … We know that software can’t be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.

Cypherpunks deplore regulations on cryptography, for encryption is fundamentally a private act. The act of encryption, in fact, removes information from the public realm. Even laws against cryptography reach only so far as a nation’s border and the arm of its violence. Cryptography will ineluctably spread over the whole globe, and with it the anonymous transactions systems that it makes possible.

There’s a lot of our world in that manifesto.

Electronic technologies “allow for strong privacy.” But they also destroy it, at least when states and corporations wield them. I used to feel innocently sure in the US that the listening ears weren’t there; I wouldn’t feel it now. That watchfulness, inculcated in the bone, is the condition we inhabit; that no-man’s land is where we live.

The struggle between computer and computer, to see and not to be seen, is the new arms race and Cold War. Unless you want to drop out, turn Unabomber and settle in a cabin with the wires all cut, paranoiacally interrogating and torturing your carrier pigeons, you have to take a side. Choosing the technologies of privacy is about as close as you can come to choosing freedom. Yet it means living walled in by technology’s protections. The tension won’t go away.

I hear you: Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974)

I hear you: Gene Hackman listening, in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974)

Military manhood: More arrests for homosexual conduct in Egypt

Houses made of ticky-tacky: 6 October City scene

Houses made of ticky-tacky: 6 October City scene

It would be hard to say why you’d bother to put a checkpoint in 6 October City. Stranded in the rock and sand a dozen or so kilometers west of Cairo like a very dull mirage, with only four or five roads leading out of it to anywhere else, it’s an unlikely source of trouble. As with Las Vegas – which it resembles only in that it was drawn improbably from the desert by sheer will, not however by dreamy scoundrels like Moe Green or Bugsy Siegel but by a drably determined military state – what happens there stays there. Not that anything happens. It’s one of a slew of satellite “new towns” coaxed out of lunar landscapes from the 1980s on, artificial developments to relieve the capital’s choke and congestion. Originally meant as a worker’s city, it stalled when the industries failed to congregate. Private developers bribed their way to ownership of the unoccupied tracts, then sold them cheap to members of Cairo’s middle class desperate to escape: mostly not the rich middle class who live on speculation and connections, but the sad and salaried — government clerks, mid-level NGO minions, doctors and lawyers just starting underpaid careers. The place smells of expectations that started small and still shrank. Thirty years ago its planners envisioned a city of half a million. Maybe a third of that live there, house after house gapes empty, and streets give way abruptly to shimmering desert like a slide being changed.

Nonetheless, in these months of curfew and military rule, the armored personnel carriers stand guard athwart streetcorners in 6 October, like everywhere else. The soldiers sit on the steel humps and sweat and look prickly as porcupines in the sun.

Soldier and armed personnel carrier at Cairo checkpoint

Soldier and armed personnel carrier at Cairo checkpoint

It’s unusual when any news escapes the boredom vortex that is 6 October, but it started seeping out early in the morning of November 5. I heard from a friend at around 2 AM: 46 people had been arrested at a raid on a private party, or 80, or 70, no one was sure. The numbers swung round wildly in the next 24 hours. All anybody knew was, there’d been a gathering in a “villa” — a detached house — celebrating “Love Day,” an unofficial holiday that’s a kind of Egyptian Valentine’s Day. The police came in.

Since then one friend of mine has spoken to several people who were at the party but escaped. Anther friend and colleague went with a lawyer to the niyaba – the prosecutor’s office – in Giza for the victims’ hearing on the night of November 5. He interviewed some of those arrested. Here, so far as we know, is the story.

It was a large party, perhaps more than 200 people. At 1:00 or 1:30 AM a first group of police knocked on the door – wearing civilian clothes, but carrying handguns.  They demanded to know if the party was “for money” or not; the party organizer told them it was for free. Many guests panicked and fled.

Another phalanx of police charged in, demanding to see IDs. They focused on young people and so-called “ladyboys” (my friend who spoke to guests used the term in English; it has filtered into Egyptian slang), men who look “effeminate.” They zeroed in particularly on men wearing belly-dancing dress. Three police vans waited on the street outside – indicating both that the cops planned arrests even before “investigating,” and that they looked forward to a large haul. In the end, however, they only arrested 10 people. They seized the host, a female bartender, and a man who works as a belly-dancing teacher (his wife, also at the party, was taken in as a witness). Along with them went four other men who seemed unmanly in dress or manner, and three kids under 18.  Police slapped and beat all of them, and kicked and fingered some in the ass. At the same time, the officers seemed uncertain what the guests were guilty of; the presence of women at the party especially flustered them. They called the men “khawalat” and accused them of fujur (“debauchery,” the legal term for consensual sexual relations between men) but also threatened them with charges for adultery. (Consensual adultery is not a crime in Egyptian law,)

The vans took them all to a police station in 6 October City. More beatings followed. The officers forced the “effeminate” men to clean the station toilets as punishment. .

In the early evening of November 5, all were transferred to a police station in Giza (the vast district of Cairo proper west of the Nile) and brought before the niyaba. The scene was chaos, with relatives of the accused screaming and weeping. My colleague and the lawyer he brought monitored the interrogations as best they could. Two things were obvious:

a)     The police had absolutely no evidence anything illegal happened in the villa. The only allegedly incriminating items they confiscated were belly-dancing clothes and, they claimed, women’s makeup.

b)    Nor was there evidence any of the men had committed illegal acts — especially the homosexual acts on which the investigation concentrated – in the past.

After nearly six hours, the lawyers there expected all the arrestees to be freed for lack of cause. Reportedly, the wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) in charge of the case was ready to order their release. However, after a phone call, the chief prosecutor of the district overruled him.

Night passage: Cairo checkpoint

Night passage: Cairo checkpoint

The complaint against the party had come from the military itself. The villa stood near a checkpoint, and the soldiers there didn’t like the noise, or the way the guests looked and acted when they passed. Military police had phoned the 6 October cops to shut the party down. The soldiers wanted the egregious villa closed permanently; for this, a legal case would be necessary. To please the military, the Giza prosecutor ordered the case kept active, and sent the victims off for forensic anal exams.

Performed without consent, these tests are abusive and torturous, devoid of any medical value. Reportedly the results “cleared” the men. (A medical finding in favor of arrestees is never final. In my experience, most reports on anal exams contain an “escape clause” saying the defendants might still be guilty: for instance, “It is scientifically known in the case of adults that sexual contact from behind in sodomy with penetration can happen  –through full consent, taking the right position, and the use of lubricants – without leaving a sign.” If so, what is the tests’ point?)  It’s not yet certain whether or how the woman in the case was tested, or indeed what her place in any potential charges might be. But meanwhile, the prosecution has ordered them all detained for an additional 15 days.

Armored personnel carriers sealing off a  Cairo road

Armored personnel carriers sealing off a Cairo road

The story has already made it to the Egyptian press, most notably in a longish article in Al- Watan al-Arabi on Sunday: “Homosexuals [mithliyeen] arrested in Egypt during the celebration of the ‘Feast of Love.’” Oddly, it alternates between using the PC, recently-invented term al-mithliyeen (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”) and an older language of “sexual perversion.” But it conflates both with sex work:

Security services received information that  a number of homosexuals [mithliyeen] organized ceremonies in a villa on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, to practice sexual perversion on Valentine’s Day. Police raided the villa where they found, according to the official record, young people dancing with each other near the pool, and others, including minors and a dance teacher, putting makeup on their faces and their skins, with women’s underwear and wigs for dancing in their possession. …

The public prosecutor ordered the detention of suspects for 15 days pending investigation on charges of “organizing the collective exercise of acts contrary to morality [adab], and practicing sexual perversion, and  [forming] the headquarters of a business contrary to morality” …

Egyptian law criminalizes the practice of sexual perversion, and society rejects those habits and treats them with disdain, but there are places, including cafes and nightclubs in Cairo, known to be frequented by sexual perverts.

There is a “homosexuals in Egypt” page on the social networking site Facebook titled [in English] “Gays in Egypt” that has won likes from more than 11,000 people. Page members are known to be “youth of tender age, many of them still minors, roaming some streets and parks and major cities to offer sexual services to adults and the elderly for a fee. Some of the dating sites are a way to find clients.”

The article warns about mithliyeen “using social media sites to network and promote their ideas rejected by society.” It relays a question:

What drives these young people to this behavior you may deem perverted? Is it poverty? Is it a desire to earn money the easy way? Or is it more complex, associated with a sense of inferiority and the desire to get paid as a kind of compensation for a homosexual role considered insulting?

L: Good Facebook (placard from Midan Tahrir during the 2011 Revolution); R: Bad Facebook ("Facebook, Friend or Foe," book by Dr. Gamal Mokhtar on the danger of social media to Arab and Egyptian youth)

L: Good Facebook (placard from Midan Tahrir during the 2011 Revolution); R: Bad Facebook (“Facebook, Friend or Foe,” book by Dr. Gamal Mokhtar on the danger of foreign social media to Arab and Egyptian youth)

So what is happening? In El-Marg, on Cairo’s eastern verges, 14 men still languish in jail, facing charges of fujur, arrested in early October in a raid on a local gym. Do these cases presage a new crackdown, a return of horrors ten years gone, when police slunk into chatrooms and raided private homes, arresting and torturing hundreds or thousands of men to root out “sexual perversion”?

Nobody can say yet. But the talk of perverted social media, of foreign influence creeping in, of technology mating with immorality, of hangouts and watering holes that are “known” and watched, is ominous. It suggests that the relative visibility of a small LGBT community, mostly in Cairo’s downtown, is wakening anxieties.

Yet this case, like the El-Marg one, also suggests how much of this is about manhood: a complex of fears and fantasies that military rule, with its overt adulation of power and muscle, only intensifies. Why hone in on “ladyboys”? Why the prurient questions about perverts who dare to “act like men?” The same friend who went to the Giza niyaba also managed, bravely, to make his way into the El-Marg police station last month, trying to find out more about the victims detained there. It was harrowing. The El-Marg officers praised themselves for striving, during the feast of Eid el-Adha when the arrests happened, “to protect moralities of the State.” But some slight default of ideal masculinity in my friend set their alarms off — and they started menacing him:

Before answering my questions the uncertain police officer looked at me and said “Do you know that I am the one who received the complaint of the neighbors, the one that guided us to arrest the group of 14 men? …. They said the place had drug addicts and immoral acts, so we sent a task force and surprisingly they didn’t take much time till they arrested the 14 men” …

I asked the police officer to describe the club for me, so he said “It’s an ordinary health club with gymnastics equipment, steam rooms and closed massage room.” He looked at me and asked in a humiliating and sarcastic tone “Come on  … you’ve never been in one of those rooms with any one before?” …

[H]e insisted on harassing and insulting me once more by saying “You know that those who were fucked in that place used to pay, while those who used to fuck wouldn’t pay a penny, so would you like to pay or go for free?”…

I understood he didn’t want me to know if they forced the arrested men to go through anal examinations or not … “Well this whole medical test comes later after a permission from the prosecution office, but we don’t wait, we have our own vision.” The comment made me ask “What do you mean by your own vision?”, so he answered saying in a very confident tone “Like when you find someone, and sorry for my language, who only has two balls but no penis, do you think he was fucking or getting fucked? Aren’t you a man? You definitely understand.”

Being a man: Egyptian police assault protester, May 2006

Being a man: Egyptian police assault protester, May 2006

He adds, “the police officers were mocking the families of the 14 men, especially that some of the old[er] men among the 14 arrested men are married and have sons or daughters who would go to ask about them.” When they did, they were “made fun of by the police officers.” During his foray into the beast’s belly, he watched one cop take a call from another police station: the brother of one of the men had gone there, unsure where to turn, asking desperately about his arrested relative. “Fuck, so his brother is being fucked and he shows up there acting like a man … I’ll fuck him up.”

The tone’s consistent with what Khaled el-Haitamy, the El-Marg police chief, told the Egypt Independent about the gym: “The owner of the place is a son of bitch and a khawal … He fled the scene. These gays are sick!”

Black and white: Egyptian police officers joke, with Central Security anti-riot forces in the background: Reuters, 2012

Black and white: Egyptian police officers joke, with Central Security anti-riot forces in the background: Reuters, 2012

This morning, Alaa al-Aswany, Egypt’s bestselling novelist, has his debut column in the New York Times. It’s a barely-qualified defense of military rule, with all the usual cliches: in a showdown with the evil Morsi, “the army sided with the will of the Egyptian people.” (No mention of how the army massacred Egyptian people at Mohamed Mahmoud, or Rabaa). Al-Aswany’s magnum opus, The Yacoubian Building, famously called State-sponsored masculinity into public question: not only through a sympathetic gay character, but through another protagonist, Taha el-Shazli, a desperately poor boy who joins an Islamist rebel group in shame and rage, after policemen brutally rape him in a station cell. These days, Al-Aswany sides with the police.

It’s to be expected, maybe. That official, militarized manhood is inescapable. 6 October City, with its stunted mediocrity, still bears its imprint. It’s named (like other sites around the country) for the one great triumph of Egypt’s armed forces, the stunning crossing of the Suez Canal on the first day of the 1973 war. It was wrested from the desert by the the military-ruled State: indeed, its 1981 foundation — and the decision to push Cairo’s margins into the encircling sand — came along with new laws on the ownership of desert land. These formalized government control over empty spaces, and ensured that developing any of the patrimony would require buying influence with the security bureaucracy. The laws helped set in literal concrete many of the crony networks that rule the State today. The powers that be built the artificial city; no coincidence, then, that their values insinuate themselves into its interstices. They’re enforced at its checkpoints, just as they were forced onto Taha el-Shazli’s body.

The idea of November 4 as “Love Day,” by the way, comes from the late Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin – who also promoted Mother’s Day in the country. Once, some forty years ago, he watched a desolate funeral trundle down the street with no one attending or walking behind. He wondered about the silence of loveless lives, and the moldlike spread of solitude, and suddenly he had the notion of a day to celebrate human connection. The problem with official masculinity is how many people it shuts out: the inadequate, superfluous, unloved. The more the checkpoints multiply, the more unwanted there are.

Soldiers set up barbed wire at a Cairo checkpoint

Soldiers set up barbed wire at a Cairo checkpoint

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

Where’s Scott? Is his family ashamed of him?

Scott Lively at St. Basil's: My European vacation

Scott Lively at St. Basil’s: Silent partner

No one cares where I am. My family gave up hope years ago. Lost soul that I am, this isn’t about me.

No, a much bigger family just shoved its black sheep in the closet. The World Congress of Families, brave defender of the ever-vulnerable Vladimir Putin, has put out a press release about its latest activities in Russia.

Pro-family leaders from ten countries met in Moscow (October 15-16) to plan World Congress of Families VIII, a celebration of the natural family, which will take place in Moscow, September 10-12, 2014. Members of the International Planning Committee for WCF VIII that attended the Moscow meeting included: Ignacio Arsuaga (HazteOir, Spain), Brian Brown (National Organization for Marriage, U.S.), Benjamin Bull (Alliance Defending Freedom, U.S.), Allan Carlson, Lawrence Jacobs and Don Feder (The Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society and World Congress of Families, U.S.), Silvio Dalla Valle (Association for the Defense of Christian Values, Italy), Shelly Locke (Power of Mothers, U.S.), Bob McKoskrie (Family First, New Zealand), Tom Minnery (Focus on The Family, U.S.) Justin Murff (Christian Broadcasting Network, U.S.), Austin Ruse (Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, U.S.), Steven Smoot (Family First Foundation, U.S.), Christopher Carmouche (GrassTopsUSA), Christine Vollmer (Latin American Alliance for the Family, Venezuela), Peter Westmore (Australian Family Association), Srdjan Nogo (Dveri, Serbia), Vincente Segu (Incluyendo Mexico), Fabrice Sorlin (France) and Jack Hanick (formerly with FOX News, U.S.). [I've added links for the convenience of anyone wondering who these people are.]

But one name is missing. Scott Lively, the Holocaust-rewriting, murder-promoting pastor who helped foist Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” upon the world, said on his own blog that he was in Russia for the same meeting. He even had pictures.

I am writing to you from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho) where I am on a one-week mission to bolster the Russian pro-family movement. … On the 15th and 16th I participated in the planning meeting for the World Congress of Families VIII, which will take place September 2014 here in Moscow. …  We dealt with logistics on the 15th and then on the 16th we visited the conference facilities.

Lively interviewed on TV by Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, President of the Orthodox Church's Patriarchal Commission on Protecting Family and Motherhood

You be the mother bear, I’ll be the father bear: Lively interviewed on TV by Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, President of the Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Commission on Protecting Motherhood and Family

Why doesn’t the WCF mention Lively as one of their leading planners? Could it be that he’s a little too notorious even for them? They’re happy to name Serbia’s Dveri, a fascist organization. They proudly tout Fabrice Sorlin, a French authoritarian thug whose extremist group, Dies Irae, draws inspiration from the neo-Nazi, genocidal tract The Turner Diaries.  But Lively alone is a bit beyond the pale.

Logo of Dies Irae

Logo of Dies Irae

Treating him this way is very un-Christian. The prodigal son in the Bible got a fatted calf, after all, which in the first century was at least the equivalent of a press release. Perhaps the WCF needs some public reminders of who their loving children really are.

There are other notable things about that list of planners. Look how Northern, how Western, how Americo-European it is. Only two representatives hail from the vast Catholic and Evangelical expanses of Latin America; nobody from Africa; and nobody from a majority-Muslim country. (By contrast, the WCF’s 2007 and 2009 organizing committees included a Pakistani group, and the former contained a Kenyan one.) Perhaps the language of demographic decline the WCF took up in recent years (with its overtones of white people must breed before the brown hordes overrun them) has yet to find an audience there.

Most striking, though, is how all these US ex-Cold Warriors met in Moscow like cardinals of the Church to organize what will basically be a large-scale worship service for the cult of Putin. It’ll be flush with Russian government support: “A special WCF Parliamentary Forum was discussed with Yelena Mizulina,” the chief sponsor of the “anti-propaganda” bill.

This Parliamentary Forum will be held at the Russian Duma on September 10, 2014.  In support of this Parliamentary Forum, Luca Volonte and the Novae Terrae Foundation have pledged their sponsorship and support to help bring pro-family MP’s from Europe and around the world to Moscow for WCF 2014.

(A pity that Putin’s defense of traditional values couldn’t salvage his own marriage, recently undone by insidious Western decadence.)

To the WCF, Russia’s government is no ordinary dictatorship: it now stands in the vanguard of Christianity. They look forward to a Godly gathering “in the Kremlin, once the citadel of Soviet power, and in a rebuilt cathedral, on the site of one the communists destroyed during one of their anti-God crusades.”

In the Soviet-era, faith and family were special targets of communist hegemony and socialist persecution. World Congress of Families VIII in Moscow next year will represent the triumph of the natural family and faith over its great enemy of the 20th Century.

Large phallic object in Kremlin will ejaculate all over Godless homosexual hordes: from Lively's blog (caption and smiley face are his!)

Large phallic object in Kremlin will ejaculate all over Godless homosexual hordes: from Lively’s blog (caption and smiley face are his)

That’s the voice of Cold War victory, as well as cold-shower Victorianism. But Scott Lively’s analysis is both more imaginative and more precise — which perhaps is why they don’t put him in the press release. He knows that Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, and the rest aren’t there to celebrate their own successes but to acknowledge Russian sponsorship, Russian power. “The Americans and the Soviets both won and both lost the Cold War,” Lively writes with admirable evenhandedness.

[T]he Americans broke the Soviet system through economic strategies and tactics.  But before they collapsed, the Soviets poisoned the United States with Cultural Marxism, promoting moral degeneracy and family breakdown through so-called “progressive“ ideology.  Today, post-Soviet Russia is re-emerging as a Christian nation, while the United States is becoming a “Gay Soviet Union.”  What a strange turn of events.

The more they hang around with Putin, the more Brown and Lively and the other fellow travellers will learn the old, straight Soviet Union hasn’t vanished. Dissidents murdered, detainees tortured, demonstrators beaten and jailed: but a little bit of Gulag is a small price for keeping birth control away.

Strange, indeed.

PS.  The WCF is also furthering Russia’s interests in the near abroad, and taking its key fascists along. They write: “Prior to the Moscow meeting, [Aleksei] Komov [head of the WCF's Russian satellite group] and WCF Communications Director Don Feder, along with Srdjan Nogo of the Serbian group Dveri (WCF’s newest Partner) and French pro-marriage activist Fabrice Sorlin, were in Kiev, Ukraine for meetings with key leaders of Ukrainian parents rights groups and members of the Rada (parliament) and a press conference on strengthening the nation’s pro-family laws.” Perhaps Sorlin led some discussions of his favored text The Turner Diarieswhich advocates using “chemical, biological, and radiological” weapons to exterminate the entire population of Asia. Once Ukraine’s pro-procreation laws are in place, this would furnish plenty of lebensraum. 

God is our master, guerrillas in our midst: Fabrice Sorlin (L) in front of a church, white-power rights (R) on front of The Turner Diaries

God is our master, guerrillas in our midst: Fabrice Sorlin (L) in front of a church, white-power fighters (R) on front of The Turner Diaries

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as you have never seen him before

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

Moving to Hungary not long after the revolutions of 1989, I spent my first few days in Budapest (hampered by my total incomprehension of the language) looking for evidence of gay life. Late one night, on a scarred and ill-lit street near Oktogon Square, I saw a lavender sign over a doorway: Sissi Panzió. I was stunned: Sissies? Pansies? Surely a slur ironically recuperated, the way my compadres back in the States were busily reclaiming queer. The formidable door was bolted. I resolved to come back and investigate this outpost of gender dissidence at a more amicable hour. Only on checking a dictionary did I find, first, that Panzió meant pension, and, second, that Sissi, far from an insult to Magyar masculinity, was the nickname of Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Josef, the penultimate monarch of the House of Habsburg.

The General is remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

The General will be remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

Even under Communism, Hungarians revered the memory of Sissi — also spelt Sisi. Unlike the other resolutely German Habsburgs, she’d learned Hungarian during her reign, endearing herself to her subjects. She also had an appealingly awful life: horrible mother-in-law, indifferent husband, suicidal son, an eventual death at the hands of a murderous anarchist on the lakefront in Geneva. Estranged from ordinary affection, she adored public adulation as she adored her own beauty; she ordered her ambassadors to report on whether any women in other countries rivalled her own charms. Her posthumous cult took the tinge of narcissism in her personality, and ran with it. Sisi’s glamorous tale, frozen in statues and reproduced in film, is ubiquitous in Hungary. 

The General in uniform: "The Sisi Cult," an exhibit in Hungary

The General in uniform: “The Sisi Cult,” an exhibit in Hungary

But I never quite understood her. Not till I came to Egypt! Not, in fact, till I read this article in Al-Ahram, the flagship of the State press. It’s a fascinating description of the military ruler, General Sisi — also spelt Sissi.

It’s clear now that in his magnanimous modesty, his self-effacing love of being loved, his mysterious bond with the people, and his romantic rise, Sisi is no ordinary dictator. Surely his name (which in Modern Standard Arabic, I’m told, means “pony” or “young rat”) is not a coincidence. Great souls stretch across boundaries of time and culture. I’m convinced this Sisi is the other one reincarnated.

A hero, big and small: SIsi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

A hero, big and small: Sisi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

You run into Sisi (the male version) everywhere these days in Cairo — portraits of him are de rigeur in shopwindows, stare down on avenues from banners, and even deck little chocolates like Hershey’s Propaganda Kisses. This too resembles Hungary and Austria, where titles like “Sisi’s Dream of Love” or “The Tragedy of Sisi” jam the bookshelves; three films in which she’s played by the equally tragic Romy Schneider (dead of an overdose at 43) spool endlessly on late-night TV.

L: The General (on the right, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, evinces fear of freedom

Sisi on film: L: The General (with hair down, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, demonstrates fear of freedom

I don’t know who wrote the op-ed below. The alleged author, “Lubna Abdel Aziz,” bears the name of an actress in her 70s, who most recently appeared in the TV adaption of the Yacoubian Building (unlike the feature film, that version demurely dropped the gay sub-story). She’s also famous for starring in several Nasser-era films where women struggle against patriarchal values, one with the very un-Sisi-esque title Ana Horra: “I am free.” How uncool! Could it be she wants to make amends for that old deviation, by showing the General how very unfree she — like the rest of Egypt — can be? Or could she have a higher ambition? Maybe she dreams of imitating Romy Schneider, by playing General Sisi herself in the inevitable movie?

Here goes: from Al-Ahram, September 17. It’s hard to believe, but yes, it’s real.

Catch the Al-Sisi mania by Lubna Abdel Aziz

The General is a looker: "Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress"

The General is a looker: “Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress”

He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendezvous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant.

Let the deaf, dumb and blind media and governments of the West say what they will, Al-Sisi submitted to the will of 33 million Egyptians in the street and 50 million in their homes, crying for salvation. The people led — Al-Sisi followed.

The General's moment of truth: "SIsi: Year of Destiny for an Empress"

The General’s moment of truth: “Sisi: Year of Destiny for an Empress”

What the West cannot comprehend is the warm affinity between people and army in Egypt, which has endured for centuries. Gamal Abdel-Nasser is a recent example, even when he ruled with the firm grip of a military dictator.

Whatever else is going on in the rest of this vast universe, this much is certain — Al-Sisi has captured the imagination of all Egyptians, if not all the world.

He popped out of nowhere — almost — and his secret ingredient was hope. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “a leader deals with hope”, and the brand of hope that Al-Sisi deals, breathed new life into our withering, perishing dreams.

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting murdered members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting dead members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Are heroes born, made or chosen? Perhaps, all of the above. William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.

The General takes what's thrust upon him: Sisi (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

What was thrust upon him: The General (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

In the full vigour of his prime, he exudes a magic charm, afforded to a select few.  His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless. He wears the emblems of his rank on his shoulders as he does the legends of his ancient land, with gushing pride. But it is the swelling reservoir of love for his Egypt and his God that sealed the deal. We responded to this love a million times over. Therefore, for those who raise an eyebrow at the portraits, flags, pins, pictures, chocolates, cups and other forms of Al-Sisi mania that fill the streets of Egypt, it is only a fraction of the love and appreciation we feel for this strong yet modest, soft-spoken, sincere and compassionate leader. It is Kismet.

The General's got charisma: L, German book cover ( "Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten"); R, Hungarian fashion show (with Princess Di)

The General’s got charisma: L, German book cover ( “Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten”); R, Hungarian fashion show ad (with Princess Di)

Shy and reserved, Al-Sisi is a man of few words and much action. We know little about the private life of Colonel General Abdel-Fattah Saad Hussein Al-Sisi, except that he is married with three sons and one daughter and he believes that is all we need to know.

The General is cultured: "Sisi, the Modern Woman"

The General is cultured: “Sisi, the Modern Woman”

He was born on 19 November 1954, to the right kind of father, in the right kind of district — Al-Gammaliya — right in the heart of the bustling city of middle-class Cairo. This is what gives him that sharp perspective into the hearts of his people, their pains, their aims, their wishes, their dreams. His father Hassan, an amiable accomplished artisan owns a shop in Cairo’s legendary Bazaar, Khan Al-Khalili, where he displays his craftsmanship of intricate inlay of mother-of-pearl and rosewood. Cultured and well-read, he owns a huge library filled with history books, and socialised with famous writers, poets, musicians, and theologians. Al-Sisi is one of seven children, four boys — a judge, a doctor, a businessman and an army general. All three daughters are married.

According to his brothers, Al-Sisi developed a love of books from their father. He was the one who saw the most and said the least. Even as a boy, they called him “the General”. There was little doubt he would join the army and make it his career, and what a distinguished career it has been. He studied in the UK in the General Command in 1977, and attended their Staff course in 1992. He spent a year in the US at the War College in Pennsylvania and became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi's life story

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi’s life story, suitable for children

He took over as defence minister in 2012, but by 30 June 2013, there was no doubt in his mind that he would do what is right. He responded to the 33 million voices clamouring in the streets. Yes, the Eagle had landed.

His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.

The General's inner life: L, "Sisi's Dream of Love"; R, "Sisi's Secret Love"

The General’s inner life: L, “Sisi’s Dream of Love”; R, “Sisi’s Secret Love”

There is almost poetry in his leadership, but the ardour of the sun is in his veins. He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side.

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, with enigmatic expression, faces the future

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, an enigma as always, faces the future

(Thanks for Liam Stack of the New York Times for pointing out the article, and hunting down that young rat or pony.)

Population panic: Homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, and the new right-wing politics of birth

"Concerning Race Suicide," centerfold from Puck, 1903. The posh upper-class people to the left are having too much fun to have babies, while the degenerate working-class mob on the right keeps the storks busy by screwing and spawning.

“Concerning Race Suicide,” demographic warning from Puck (US), 1903. The posh upper-class people to the left are having too much fun to have babies, while the degenerate immigrant working-class mob on the right keeps the storks busy by screwing and spawning.

LGBT people are used to suffering from bad science. The versions are stale by now: the I-can-change-your-sexuality cliché, the you-can’t-raise-children chestnut, the majority-of-pedophiles delusion.  A new kind of international bad science is afoot, though. It’s a Grand Theory that lets the right wing link many of its disparate but potent demons: its opposition to homosexuality and to women’s reproductive rights, its racism and its fears of immigration and Islam.

Myths about demography are the key. You can gauge something of what’s happening by the news that Paul Cameron, the lunatic American pseudo-scientist and favorite of the US religious right, will visit Russia this month. Cameron is famously extreme – so much so that even Russia Today, Putin’s pet TV channel, has made fun of him; he’s claimed that gay sex makes people “malevolent,” and urged quarantining practitioners, if not (well, maybe not) killing them.  But his mad, bad rhetoric is taking a more mainstream direction, one specifically tied to what’s happening in Russia. There’s a story here.

Is that Kirchick over in the corner? Take off those rainbow suspenders, boy! Paul Cameron on Russia Today, 2012

Is that Kirchick over in the corner? Take off those rainbow suspenders, boy! Paul Cameron on Russia Today, 2012

I. Where the US religious right failed

The connecting flight from Vienna to Budapest lasts about an hour, but sometimes that’s enough to cross to a different hemisphere. I found myself on it back in 1994, when I lived in Eastern Europe—I was returning from Albania, where I’d documented the situation of LGBT people under one of Europe’s last sodomy laws.  Sitting next to me was an 18-year-old boy from Texas, flying to Hungary to do missionary work for his church. For him, this was a passage to the legendary obverse of the Iron Curtain; for me, a foray into a geography I’d almost forgotten after I left Virginia at his age, the world of Christian fundamentalism.  When I told him I’d inhabited Budapest, that satrapy of Satan, for years, he was full of questions: Do they still put Christians in concentration camps?  Are there any church buildings left? He asked me to tell him when we crossed into Hungarian airspace, and when I surmised we had, somewhere above Visegrad, he leaned over to look down; “It’s so green,” he said. “I never knew a Communist country could be so green.” At the airport consternation seized him, and he grabbed my arm: “Do I need a passport to get in here?” Somehow he’d stowed his documents in his checked luggage back in the US, and now he had to go through passport control before he could reach the baggage claim.  I’m afraid I left him in that Catch-22. Sometimes I dream he’s still there, almost 40 now, trapped forever in a stateless limbo like a Spielberg character or the Wandering Jew; except that Jesus is by his side as consolation.

There’s been huge attention in recent years to US evangelicals’ role in exporting homophobia to other countries. What we forget is how stupid and inept they’ve often been — and how much local conditions have determined their reception.

My poor Texan friend was part of a great explosion of evangelical energy in the 1990s.  Two new fields for US conservative churches opened: the former Soviet bloc and Africa. Gorbachev and the 1989 revolutions pried the first ajar, of course. Paradoxically apartheid’s end made the second invasion possible. Most Christian fundamentalists in the US had supported the white South African regime, and were ideologically disinclined to visit its continent-wide opponents; many had telltale South African visa stamps in their passports, which made travel to much of independent Africa impossible.  Now all that was out the window. They tackled the rest of Africa with a vengeance, as if inheriting the colonial mission that the white tribe at the continent’s tip had abandoned in surrender.

Missionary disposition: Higher, boys, higher, I'm praying for you

Missionary disposition: Higher, boys, higher, I’m praying for you

In Eastern Europe, missionaries were everywhere by the mid-‘90s. I ran into them in parks (which they didn’t know were cruising areas) passing out leaflets, in railway stations (ditto) singing hymns, sharing my train compartment from Baia-Mare to Bucharest (where a family from Alabama eyed me reading David Greenberg’s The Construction of Homosexuality, and rebuffed my attempts at conversation as if I planned to use that Jew perversion to drive nails in Christ’s cross). They didn’t seem to have prepared for the trip, beyond reading the Biblical passages about Gog and Magog. They always looked disappointed. Things were too green, the openings for martyrdom too limited, and despite what they assumed were decades of enforced atheism almost everybody already had a religious tradition, and felt no urgency to change.  They longed to be triumphant emissaries of Cold War-winning America, but the America the locals wanted was Madonna and Melrose Place instead.

Only later, when I visited southern Africa, did I see the contrast. African Christianity had been a ferment of demotic, enthusiastic homegrown sects for decades. Locally powerful, they were still poor and isolated, looked down on by the mainline denominations, the Anglicans and Roman Catholics. They recognized American Pentecostals and other evangelicals as rich but sympathetic cousins, and potential sources of support.  Your average missionary got treated like the hero he wanted to be in Zambia or Uganda. Moreover, these churches (far from being refuges for the down-and-out) were often vehicles for an ambitious, entrepreneurial middle class, lending evangelical outreach a dynamic social face.

In Romania or Hungary, however, the missionary was held at arm’s length. There were few upstart  religious groups there to provide a base. The existing churches – Orthodox, Catholic, Uniate, and Calvinist – were centuries old, and believers rarely traded away loyalties they saw as key to communal identity. The prelates treated these Alabamans and Coloradans as competitors, not siblings.

All my children, I: Teoctist (1915-2007), patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, blesses a crowd

All my children, I: Teoctist (1915-2007), patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, blesses a crowd

Where the missionaries found a role in Eastern Europe, it was usually as supporting players in the older churches’ scripts.  Homosexuality was a big issue in Romania; by 1994 pressure from the Council of Europe was forcing the government to consider repeal of its sodomy law.  That year some minor American evangelical visited –unfortunately, I forget his name – to lend his hand in the Orthodox Church’s campaign to keep the law. He brought footage of the horrors of Gay Pride in the US, and Romanian TV played this for days, the lewd women in leather, the musclemen in skirts. My gay friends stayed glued to the news every evening in excitement, because nothing like had been broadcast before –  by the chaste standards of local emissions it was State-sponsored porn.  Such spectacles recurred, but they were hardly what what the missionaries dreamed of when they debouched from their planes, passports (I hope) in hand. Playing second fiddle in somebody else’s campaign was a poor substitute for the great revivals, the salvation tents, the millions won to Christ from devil faiths where priests wore dresses.

This note of unfulfilled aspirations and unwilling compromise has been consistent throughout the missionary experience in Eastern Europe.  In Africa, a figure like Scott Lively, marginal at home, was catapulted to rock-star status,  even helping to write homophobic legislation. In the old Soviet bloc, the US evangelicals have pretty much followed where others led. Contrary to their image as all-powerful manipulators, it’s taken them a long time to get the message right.

All my children, II: Elena and Nicolae Ceauşescu playing parents of the nation

All my children, II: Elena and Nicolae Ceauşescu playing parents of the nation

II. Putin as educator

Which doesn’t mean they haven’t learned things.

The US right wing and the evangelicals have been learning hard lessons from Eastern Europe — and especially from Vladimir Putin and his spiritual fathers, such as Nicolae Ceauşescu.

In 2006, in a famous “State of the Nation” address, Putin pointed to a “demographic crisis” as Russia’s gravest problem. Declining population posed an existential threat, he said, proposing measures to jack up the birth rate: higher benefits, better maternity-leave pay, an astonishing packet of rewards (including a gift of close to $US 10,000) for mothers who had a second child.

Natural_Population_Growth_of_Russia

Birth rates, death rates, and population growth/loss in Russia since 1950

Russia’s birth rate had fallen precipitously since Communism collapsed, propelled downward by poverty and an uncertain future. Predictions of catastrophe were rife; Sergei Mironov, head of the Federation Council (and of a small political party focused on promoting “life”) warned the population could dwindle by almost two-thirds, to barely 50 million, within 75 years. Yet as the graph shows, the death rate was the other contributing factor. It had ticked up sharply since 1990, and stayed stubbornly high – up to 50% higher than Germany’s.  Alcoholism, smoking, poor diet, and a miserable medical system were major causes. One lesson of demographics, though, is that while it may be easier to lower the death rate than raise the birth rate (people pretty uniformly don’t want to die, whereas they may or may not want to have children) governments like talking about the latter better. However pricey maternity benefits may be, they’re usually cheaper and more popular than health care for the unwanted old. Moreover, birth rates involve and invoke moral and political anxieties – about women’s freedoms and how sexualities are deployed – that call for State exhortation and intervention. Politicians who promote progeny both stand with tradition and expand their power. They like that.

Since Putin’s speech, the birth rate has spiked substantially, rising by about 10% after 2008  – though continued economic prosperity may rival his gift baskets as the reason. Indeed, Mark Adomanis , a regional analyst, suggests that the fears around population were always somewhat exaggerated. As the chart below shows, the vicissitudes of Russia’s birth rate differed very little from what happened in the onetime Soviet satellites, and over a thirty-year period settled around an average similar to Western Europe’s.

Chart by Mark Adomanis, Forbes, 2013

Chart by Mark Adomanis, Forbes, 2013

You could argue that Russia is experiencing its own crash version of the classic “demographic transition,” where both birth rates and death rates drop, usually as part of economic development; except the former is landing rather harder than the latter. Indeed, the genuine problem remains how often Russians die, not how seldom they reproduce. The death rate has inched down slightly, and now stands at 14.1 per thousand, against 11 in Germany. But this disguises the fact that Germany’s population is older, with lives prolonged by better health care – and older people die at higher rates. The truth is, German males live an average of 18 years longer than Russian males (the difference for women is around 9 years).  An overall life expectancy of just 66 years, lower than India  , Indonesia, Egypt: that’s Putin’s real crisis.

But Putin keeps talking about the birth rate; much nicer than discussing death, and more likely to rally the Orthodox to his side. “We need to continue to save the people of Russia,” he said in a pre-campaign speech in 2011, announcing some $50 billion in “demographic projects” to encourage childbearing. It’s a bonanza for PR and for his political machine. Kremlin-sponsored youth groups organize group weddings, and strut round in T-shirts reading “I want to have three children.” Last year, Putin personally urged moms to up the household numbers:  “Demographers affirm that choosing to have a second child is already a potential choice in favor of a third … It’s important that families make that step.” This year, he summoned Boyz II Men to Moscow for a Valentine’s Day concert meant to set the mood for condom-free, procreative screwing. He isn’t just trying to seduce Russians into reproducing. There’s coercion behind the crooning. Putin is imitating Ceauşescu, who strove to make Romania great by making more Romanians. In the mid-1960s the dictator banned contraception and abortion and increased penalties for homosexual conduct, in a sweeping pro-natalist campaign. The longterm demographic impact was slight, but it massively strengthened the regime’s control over private life. This, too, may be Putin’s fantasy: State-sponsored horniness, a loudspeaker in every bedroom commanding heterosexual copulation, Barry White as Big Brother.

All my children, III: Putin with young Russian wombs, all ready for use

All my children, III: Putin with young Russian wombs, ready for use

Many non-Russian journalists and LGBT activists simply don’t understand where the recent homophobic panic comes from. To hear them talk, you’d think that a bunch of minuscule gay pride marches over the years somehow sparked Putin’s sudden, irrational decision to ban everything related to gayness. This is nonsense. There was a long buildup to the current legal moves; they grew out of the debate over the “demographic crisis.” And the crackdown started with moves against reproductive rights.

Lullaby, little fetus: Recent Russian anti-abortion imagery

Lullaby, little fetus: Recent Russian anti-abortion imagery

In response to Putin’s 2011 call for “demographic projects,” the Duma that year passed the first major restriction on abortion rights since Stalin’s death. The new law barred abortion clinics from describing the procedure as safe, and required them to devote 10% of their advertising to detailing its dangers. The initial focus on advertising is suggestive: it prefigures the later “anti-propaganda” law which would prohibit LGBT rights advocates from publicizing their cause at all. MPs have pressed for even stronger restrictions, and anti-abortion propaganda spreads. Former First Lady (and now prime minister’s wife) Svetlana Medvedeva leads the movement in cooperation with the Orthodox Church, and her vanity “charitable foundation” spearheads campaigns with names like “Give me life!” Meanwhile, the government refuses to promote contraceptive use (never popular in Russia) as an alternative to abortion. Many family planning centers established in the 1990s have closed, stripped of funding.

Simultaneously, at the UN Human Rights Council, Russia sponsored and and passed a resolution subordinating human rights to “traditional values.” It was a way of taking their anti-reproductive rights agitation abroad. At home, Putin’s bill that stopped all adoptions to the US was a retaliatory diplomatic move, but had a ready demographic justification – rescuing Russia’s precious children from an alien culture.  A Duma member warned that exported orphans might “be tortured, used for organ transplanting, or for sexual exploitation, given that there are 9 million same sex marriages in the United States.” From there it’s just a step to the bill banning any adoptions by foreign same-sex or unmarried couples. Then came the “anti-propaganda” law, protecting kids from all the blandishments of non-reproductive or “non-traditional” lifestyles.  The explanatory note to that provision describes “Family, motherhood and childhood” as “the values which provide for the continual renewing of the generations” — as well as the way the “population of the Russian Federation is safeguarded and developed. For this reason they need the special protection of the State.” Amid a political and religious panic over reproduction, that’s all the rationale you need.

Children and caregiver in a Moscow orphanage, 2013: Corbis

Children and caregiver in a Moscow orphanage, 2013

3. The new package

For some while, the US religious right has been flailing for arguments on social issues.  It’s part of a broader syndrome across North America and Europe: for societies that are increasingly secular and increasingly diverse, pure appeals to religious opprobrium have lost their sway. Just repeating that homosexuality, abortion, contraception are wrong is not enough. They’ve tried grounding their case in scientific arguments, but these are sometimes hard to grasp and easy to discredit. 

But when they look to Eastern Europe – a place where their conservatism should have fit but never quite did – they see something marvelous. There’s Putin, a powerful and successful leader, putting things together in a new package. He’s hit all the notes the US right has been straining for: morality, family, nationalism, cultural superiority, even economic independence. But he’s bolstered them with a demographic logic that‘s hard to argue down, and that links them all up in a new way.  What an exciting model!

Putin with child: I won't eat you, if there are more like you at home

Putin with child: I won’t eat you if there are more like you at home

At least since the turn of the 21st century, arguments grounded in demography have been floating around on the right wing.  The beauty of this science is that, unlike all those studies of child psychology or aversion therapy, it’s not technical or subjective. It seems mathematical, straightforward, and simple. The basic idea is this: societies that fall below a fertility rate of 2.1 – that is,  2.1 children born per woman – are doomed. This is called the replacement fertility rate, and the math is easy. To keep a society going at the same population numbers, every two parents must replace themselves with two kids. (The .1 is tacked on, more or less, to compensate for accidents of early mortality.) If you want population growth, you need an even higher rate, but 2.1 is the minimum for staying as you are.

Now, it’s actually more complicated. The replacement rate varies widely. Naturally it is higher in societies with high infant or adult mortality – 2.1 is usually accepted as a figure for developed countries, but in Nigeria or Swaziiand, for instance, replacement fertility stands at over 3.0.  On the other side, in developed countries, postponing childbearing reduces population size even if people dutifully reproduce at replacement levels. (It pushes the replacement effect into the future, so that at any given time there are still fewer people alive). Immigration, of course, compensates for lack of population growth – the right-wing demographic argument against immigration treats it almost as an unnatural substitute for fertility, as creepily wrong as human cloning. The result is, though, that countries with fertility rates below 2.1 may not actually see substantial population loss.

We need more of these: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, 1436

We need more of these: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, 1436

Still, this doesn’t change the fact that in several developed European countries, fertility has fallen far below the replacement rate. Italy reposes at 1.4 children per woman, Germany, 1.41, Spain,1.48; Russia is better but still not growing, at 1.61. (The US is on the cusp of replacing itself, at 2.06.)  It’s important to stress that this is not just a Western and Northern issue. In 2004, researchers found that half the world’s population now lived in below-replacement regions.

Below-replacement fertility is far from being restricted to the developed nations. Europe, North America and the other countries of the developed world make up less than half of the more than three billion people whose fertility is below 2.1.

Other areas included coastal China (1.5), Brazil (2.01), and Thailand (1.91). But it’s in Europe that the anxieties have been most acute. The BBC warned:

When the muscular superpower across the Atlantic continues to enjoy steady population growth [sic], old man Europe is in danger of becoming a shrivelled shadow of its former self. When will Europeans wake up to the implications of consistently low birth rates? Well, in the words of one European professor of population studies, probably not until they are all in their wheelchairs and they suddenly realize there is no one left to push.

Really? In what sense are below-replacement societies dying, “doomed”? You would think, from the apocalyptic rhetoric, that God or destiny dictated there be exactly 61.26 million Italians, and any falling-off triggers Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, there have been fewer Italians than that for nearly all history. So what’s the problem?

Contemporary right-wing analysis of demography has gone in two directions. There’s an economic approach, where below-replacement reproduction becomes a rationale for neoliberal policies. And there’s a cultural analysis, where it justifies xenophobia and racism.

Don't ask me to push your wheelchair: Elderly home in Catalunya, Spain

Don’t ask me to push your wheelchair: Elderly home in Catalunya, Spain

On the economic side, the major result of a below-replacement fertility rate is that a larger percent of the population is older.  This clearly puts strains on pensions, health care, and intergenerational relations in general, as a shrinking group of young people must help support more and more elders. One writer in Forbes, looking at Spain’s troubles (“What’s really behind Europe’s decline? It’s the birth rates, stupid”), explains they’re caused by “a change in values.”

A generation ago Spain was just coming out of its Francoist era, a strongly Catholic country with among the highest birth rates in Europe, with the average woman producing almost four children in 1960 and nearly three as late as 1975-1976. There was … “no divorce, no contraception allowed.” By the 1980s many things changed much for the better … Yet modernization exacted its social cost. The institution of the family, once dominant in Spain, lost its primacy.

You can’t get that old-time religion back, and it’s even hard to recover that old-time economics.

Essentially, Spain and other Mediterranean countries bought into northern Europe’s liberal values, and low birthrates, but did so without the economic wherewithal to pay for it. … an aging electorate is likely to make it increasingly difficult for Spanish politicians to tamper with pensions, cut taxes and otherwise drive private sector growth. 

Without a major shift in policies that favor families in housing or tax policies, and an unexpected resurgence of interest in marriage and children, Spain and the rest of Mediterranean face prospects of a immediate decline every bit as profound as that experienced in the 17th and 18th Century when these great nations lost their status as global powers and instead devolved into quaint locales for vacationers, romantic poets and history buffs. [emphasis added]

How awful. It’s hard not to draw the inference that, given low birth rates, upping the death rate a little wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Compañeros, the crisis in the pension system is now being solved

Compañeros, the crisis in the pension system is now being solved

We don’t fully know what will happen as developed countries’ populations age. First, though, we must note that high-fertility, high-youth populations also strain economies intensely, but at the other end. They demand schools and jobs, and get angry if they don’t get them. (“Arab street” is one term for this, and means: Young Arabs scare me.)  Second, while older people will at some point move out of waged, productive work, that doesn’t mean they will stop contributing to the economy — particularly if they’ve been paid enough in their lifetimes to invest, and continue investing. Meanwhile, an aging workforce will be less mobile, but more skilled – not necessarily a bad trade-off. Finally, the needs and dependency of growing numbers of the extremely old may actually strengthen intergenerational bonds of caring: a “conservative” effect that the conservatives neglect to mention. Society will change as it grows grayer, but that doesn’t point to breakdown.

On the cultural side, though, the doomsayers are even direr. Somebody has to replace all those missing Italians, and who will it be? Dark people. Aliens. Mordor. Fertility fears shade nicely into sheer racism.

The key article of faith is that declining population also means cultural decline and racial death. It’s “the end of the Italian race,” people proclaim, with pseudo-experts calculating the last Italian will be born in the year 3880. The immigrants will inherit the native earth.  “If the Italian population declines quickly, the immigrants will arrive and Amen,” an Italian demographer said.

But we cannot stop at this. I study Mayan civilization and just as I regret their disappearance, I can regret it if the Italian or European culture were to disappear.

Reproductive terrorism: Which is worse, the burka or the birth?

Reproductive terrorism: Which is worse, the burka or the birth?

Immigration and the threat of more dynamic societies with the capacity to grow: these are both staple fears of the modern right-wingers. They came to a head after 9/11, when the West felt itself facing both an overpopulated Muslim world full of anger, and the agents of rage inside our borders. In succeeding years demographic discourse started to take off. Popular post-9/11 books warned that Muslims would take over the West, if not by aggression, then through infiltration. Politicians picked up the panic. Relentless breeding in the Muslim world propelled emigration to Europe, they contended. Once there, migrants kept spawning. The result was reproductive terrorism:

Britain and the rest of the European Union are ignoring a demographic time bomb: a recent rush into the EU by migrants, including millions of Muslims, will change the continent beyond recognition over the next two decades,  … Europe’s low white birth rate, coupled with faster multiplying migrants, will change fundamentally what we take to mean by European culture and society.

“Muslim Demographics,” seen over 14 million times on YouTube, epitomizes the Muslim-birthrate scare. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana caused an uproar in 2012 by showing it at a Vatican meeting.

In his excellent book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Islam, Immigration, and the West, Doug Saunders sums up the research that debunks these war-cries. Population growth is uneven across majority-Muslim countries, but generally it’s falling. Dreaded Iran lies under the thumb of Lord Sauron himself; but the fertility rate is 1.87, and it can’t replace its orcs. Muslim migrants in Europe often appear to have high fertility, because families tend to have children soon after arrival; but the overall fertility rate across a woman’s lifetime is closer to European averages, and declining. Reliable projections show Europe’s Muslim population rising from 7% of the total now, to 10% at most. Some time bomb.

For the first half of the last decade, the demographic discourse mainly drew in neoconservatives: authoritarian and interventionist, forgiving of racism and xenophobia but disposed to a limited social liberalism. Several gay political figures embraced it, believing those multiplying Muslims were their enemies too. Peter Tatchell warned the gay press in 1995 that “Muslim fundamentalists are a growing threat to gay human rights in Britain. …There is no room for complacency. … homophobic Muslim voters may be able to influence the outcome of elections in 20 or more marginal constituencies.” Bruce Bawer, an American gay now living in Norway (and an intellectual influence on the mass murderer Anders Breivik‎) has shouted jeremiads about the Muslim threat for years, decrying “a continent whose natives are increasingly being tormented by Koran-wielding tyrants, and increasingly in flight.”

White Power: Anders Breivik in court

White Power: Anders Breivik in court

The “demographic crisis” talk only fully merged with right-wing social issues around the time of Putin’s 2006 speech.  That same year, Canadian conservative Mark Steyn published an influential essay, saying that “while Islamism is the enemy, it’s not what this thing’s about.
 Radical Islam is an opportunistic infection, like AIDS: It’s not the HIV 
that kills you, it’s the pneumonia you get when your body’s too weak to
 fight it off.”

The medicine was garbled, but the message was clear: Islam could only get you after the “progressive agenda — lavish social welfare, abortion,
 secularism, multiculturalism”— had done its work. That was “collectively the real suicide bomb.” Western politics lavished money on people’s selfish material needs, like food, but neglected “primary” concerns:

national defense, family, faith and, most basic of all, reproductive activity —‘Go forth and multiply,’ because if you don’t you
 won’t be able to afford all those secondary-impulse issues, like
 cradle-to-grave welfare…. The design flaw of the secular social-democratic state is that it 
requires a religious-society birthrate to sustain it. …

Europe by the end of this century will be a continent after the neutron bomb: The grand buildings will still be standing, but the people who built them will be gone.We are living through a
 remarkable period: the self-extinction of the races who, for good or 
ill, shaped the modern world.

Here was the culture war in demographic terms. Another prominent conservative (now close to the National Organization for Marriage) amplified his warning: her response was headed, “It’s the sex, stupid.” 

But behind the problem of the West’s below replacement fertility levels, lies the problem of sex. Babies come from sex. The modern view of sex has created the demographic collapse of the West, and the human void into which Islamic fertility is rapidly flooding. … The natural purposes of sex, both procreation and spousal unity, have become strictly optional…. I submit that this view of sex is at the root of the West’s demographic death spiral.

You can see how this fed into what Putin was saying. The “demographic crisis” can’t be countered by salving its aftereffects — giving the elderly health care, or damming up immigration. You have to fight the permissive policies that make people want not to reproduce.

Stop that. None of that here. (Engraving from Michael Maier's Symbola Aureae Mensae, 1617)

Stop that. None of that here. (Engraving from Michael Maier’s Symbola Aureae Mensae, 1617)

It’s now a steady theme of demographic alarmism that sexual permissiveness paves the away for Islamic supremacy. Steve Mosher, of the Catholic anti-abortion group Population Research International, predicted that by 2100 Europeans would serve either beneath sex-mad secular dictatorships, or shari’a-ruled ones. “Either way, believers in once-Christian Europe …  will be living under regimes that punish, even persecute, them for their beliefs.” Another conservative lamented “lack of ideals, morality, and blatant debauchery among civilized society,” which meant that “Europe will eventually belong to Arabs and gypsies.” Philippe de Villiers, a right-wing French politician and sometime intimate of Nicolas Sarkozy, declared in 2009,

The reality is that we are headed for a crossover point [chassé-croisé] with, on one side, Europe and its mass abortions, its promotion of gay marriage, and on the other, immigration en masse … Europe refuses its own demographic future … In reality, there are two weapons being used by European leaders to kill Europe demographically: the promotion of gay marriage and mass abortions. And a third: the recourse to immigration that is 80% Islamic, in order to replace the people who are no longer there.

Farther east, Aleksei Ledyaev — who heads a Latvia-based Protestant church influential across the former Soviet Union, and who’s a close friend of Scott Lively –has written: “The first devastating wave of homosexuality prepares the way for the second and more dangerous wave of Islamization.”

Here’s where the World Congress of Families (WCF) started paying close attention to Russia.

Children of women: Sad times

Children of women: Sad times

The WCF is an offshoot of the caveman-conservative Rockford Institute, a think tank that achieved its greatest notoriety in 1989 when Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus broke relations, accusing it of anti-Semitism. Longtime Rockford president Allan Carlson left in 1997 to found the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society (these webs of interlocking groups remind one of Mafia fronts); the WCF was one of its first projects. On paper its main work is to hold irregular “World Congresses” assembling global “pro-family” advocates. In practice, as Kathryn Joyce wrote in 2008, it has been “a locus for heavyweight US conservative actors such as the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family — a Who’s Who of the American Christian right — to network with representatives from the Vatican, conservative Christians from developing nations and a smattering of Muslim groups seeking allies to fight gay and women’s rights at the United Nations.” As an anti-abortion organization with roots (through the parent Rockford Institute) in US nativist, anti-immigration, and racist tendencies, it found demographic thinking a natural match. It helped put together the 2008 documentary Demographic Winter, a horror film purporting to show humanity (with emphasis on nice white people) in numerical decline.

Demographic Winter”: Be afraid, be very afraid

Like many other US right-wing groups, the WCF benefited from the door-opening, diplomatic support of the Bush administration. As that neared its expiration with no conservative renewal in sight, though, Carlson and his Congress began casting for other sponsors. They noticed, Joyce writes, potential new fields for “extremist patriarchal ideas to bloom: in Eastern European countries new to democracy and more accustomed to totalitarian traditions and an ultranationalism born of fear, poverty and porous borders.” She quotes Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice: “When you have someone powerful like Putin talking to people in these circumstances about the necessity of Russian women giving birth, then you have to worry about it — how that could be turned into policy.”

The WCF spent years courting Putin, but the climax was a 2011 conference they organized in Russia: the “Moscow Demographic Summit,” which brought together US, European and some global South right-wing and anti-reproductive rights activists to support Kremlin solutions. The spectacle of former American Cold Warriors praising a Soviet successor regime was not without irony, but “Russia is ground-zero for demographic winter,” explained WCF managing director Larry Jacobs. “If civilization is to survive, we must … devise family-centered solutions to this global crisis in the making.” Alan Keyes, a Reaganaut and former US presidential candidate, elaborated from his Moscow hotel:

When I left the U.S. on Monday, fresh in the headlines was the New York legislature’s vote to legitimize so called ‘homosexual marriage.” That event recurred to my mind again and again as I listened to speakers who impressed upon pro-life and natural-family representatives from 65 countries the sombre facts that document the enervation of natural family life in Russia … and the threat it poses to the very survival of the Russian people as such. … none of them failed to note that abortion and the breakdown of sexual mores were among the key factors contributing to the trend toward depopulation in their country.

With the US drifting into decadence while Putin purged his decks of perverts, Keyes wrote elegiacally that “America and Russia converge as ships passing in the night.”

Look, Ma, I made it to the Kremlin: Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America speaks at Moscow Summit

Look, Ma, I made it to the Kremlin: US anti-feminist Janice Shaw Crouse speaks at Moscow Summit

Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs, and later a key sponsor of anti-LGBT legislation, praised the conference’s support for “consolidation of the family, raising moral standards, and studying all the factors contributing to a higher birth rate.” Surely much of the excitement for US participants, after three years of drought under Obama, came from feeling the warm endorsement of a powerful country. But the demographic arguments also gave the happy sense of having Science on one’s side. As Keyes intoned, “some Russians have apparently learned how to distinguish between intellectual integrity and intellectual cowardice in the application of scientific methods.”

It’s worth quoting from the Summit’s closing Declaration in detail. Significantly, it’s translated from the Russian — the main audience was domestic; but it also tried to reach beyond European constituencies. Some passages mimicked Kremlin language, echoing the “Traditional Values” resolution Russia was simultaneously pressing at the UN, with its crocodile tears for indigenous cultures:

Within next three decades, the total fertility rate will go down below the population replacement level all over the world. In reality, it can happen much earlier, thus making the whole world community face the unprecedented social and historical problem of humankind survival.

We express our deep concern about the dangers of the approaching worldwide depopulation. …. In the nearest historical period, the negative demographic trends can bring about extinction of whole peoples, destruction of States, and disappearance of unique cultures and civilizations.

But mostly it catalogued “social deviations” (including the simple refusal to marry or have children) demanding militant State intervention:

We are alarmed by the fact that the family institution is in a state of grave social crisis which consists in the destruction of universal family, conjugal and parental roles based on traditional family values; in the disruption of the reproductive function of the family; in an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, caused by the imposition of contraceptive thinking (in terms of safe sex) and destructive premarital and extramarital sex patterns; in widespread divorce; in the spreading of cohabitation without marriage; in increasing numbers of single-parent families; a wave of social deviations (abortions, homosexuality, pedophilia, drug addiction, refusal of marriage and childbearing (the child-free phenomenon), prostitution, pornography, etc.); disruption of the process of socialization of young generations; cutting of ties among relatives and alienation of different generations within one family, etc.

We call on the governments of all nations and on international institutions to develop immediately a pro-family demographic policy and to adopt a special international pro-family strategy and action plan aimed at consolidating family and marriage, protecting human life from conception to natural death, increasing birth rates, and averting the menace of depopulation.

Just like in the good old days, gathering around the icon after the pogrom

Just like the good old days, gathering around the icon after the pogrom

The WCF followed up in 2012 by formally establishing a Russian affiliate, its only branch outside the US. “FamilyPolicy.ru,” an “advocacy group,” lists the WCF as its main founder (one of the two others, the “Family and Demography Foundation,” is a Russian group also nebulously affiliated with the WCF) – though I see no evidence that it’s been forced to register as a “foreign agent” under Putin’s repressive anti-NGO law. Its President, Aleksei Komov, is a former management consultant with his finger in many blinis. Late the same year, the Population Research Institute wrote that — after Putin’s administration held “discussions with pro-life and pro-family groups” — Komov had assembled “hundreds of pro-life and pro-family organizations, together with large families and activists from all over the Russian Federation” into a “National Parents Association (NPA)” with him as CEO. These weird pro-Putin front groups keep multiplying. Meanwhile, in Slavic solidarity, the WCF trotted the super-busy Komov off to Belgrade last month, to drive protests against a planned Serbian gay pride march. (”Russians also represent WCF as goodwill ambassadors to the UN and European structures,” the organization writes.)

But most of what the WCF’s Moscow affiliate does is political organizing for Putin. And here’s a big time irony: a US extreme right-wing group is busily doing its bit to build a Russian strongman’s political machine.

Aleksei Komov

Aleksei Komov

The WCF’s Russia arm is all over the place. They organize spinoffs of their Moscow triumph: an “Ulyanovsk Demographic Summit,” “also a WCF regional event,” at which “the World Congress of Families and the Ministry of Labor and Social Development of the Russian Region of Ulyanovsk signed a historic Protocol of Intent pledging to work together to support the family and provide solutions to Russia’s well below replacement fertility rate.” These help motivate cadres of conservative Putin backers in the provinces: and almost certainly they’re a cover for Russian government money to fund the WCF. The hard-working minions also support the Kremlin’s international agenda in the near-abroad, drumming up “civil society” support in neighboring countries. Even before its incorporation, the FamilyPolicy.ru boys engineered a “Saint Petersburg Resolution on the anti-family trends in the United Nations,” with 126 pet NGOS from Russia and Ukraine condemning the “destructive aims” of “authoritative international organizations.” This June, they helped steer an “International Parents Forum” in Yalta, for groups from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova. The closing declaration took up Putin’s concern with defanging rights-based criticism: “We feel anger and indignation at the fact that the most fundamental and genuine human rights, the rights of family and parents, are being destroyed under the pretext of the protection of ‘human rights’” – adding, in a dig at Western kibitzers, “We are also concerned to see that freedom of believers is infringed in some countries of Europe.”

It’s a sign of how intimately they shelter under the Kremlin’s wing that the “World Congress of Families VIII,” the next big international confab, will be held in Moscow in September 2014. It’s like a cat proudly carrying a collection of international mice to its owner Putin. Larry Jacobs of WCF central says, “We’re convinced that Russia does and should play a very significant role in defense of the family and moral values worldwide, Russia has become a leader of promoting these values in the international arena.”

4. Putin as patron of the Right Wing 2.0

Americans are taking guided tours of Moscow all the time now. Brian Brown of the US’s “National Organization for Marriage,” it’s just been revealed, travelled there in June along with French right-wingers, to meet Duma members and express support for homophobic legislation. Scott Lively, of Uganda fame, was loping across Red Square last week. The lunatic preacher and Holocaust revisionist has longstanding ties to Russia — he serves a predominantly Slavic congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts. But what’s he doing there now? From his blog:

I participated in the planning meeting for the World Congress of Families VIII, which will take place September 2014 here in Moscow.  There were representatives from several countries, all there to help the Russian planning group to ensure their conference is a success.  About half the group was from the U.S., but Mexico, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela and France were also represented.

Scott Lively at St. Basil's: My European vacation

My European vacation: Scott Lively at St. Basil’s

It’s convenient for Americans to imagine that their right-wing compatriots are somehow running the show in Russia, as they may have in Uganda — laying out the basics of hate and telling Putin what to do. It’s a version that satisfies our narcissism.

But it’s not true.

Putin’s the patron here. He’s helped bring the demographic argument to the frontlines of right-wing thought. He shows how to mesh campaigns against feminism and sexual rights with xenophobia, racism, and anti-immigrant hysteria. He’s stepping in to provide State patronage that US social conservatives lost when Bush stepped down. He has money and power, and he doesn’t take directions.

I mentioned Paul Cameron at the outset. Cameron is crazed — but his rhetoric for decades was largely driven by wild theories about the individual homosexual. In recent years, though, he’s shifted. His discourse draws more and more on demographic fears. This was clear during a Moldova lecture tour in 2008. An Orthodox priest quoted him later:

It is necessary for every woman of a nation to give birth to 2.1 children, so that that nation may perpetuate, while in the Republic of Moldova, every woman gives birth to 1.3 children. In this way, the population of Moldova will be halved in 35 years. Among the factors that have brought us to this demographic disaster, it is so-called “woman’s emancipation” …

… and so on. Some time later he produced an extended tract, “Saving Society from Demographic Suicide.” It had his characteristic, charming overreach (“Does this mean that the voluntarily childless are stealing from their neighbors? Absolutely”) but otherwise it was indistinguishable from the Russian line: birth rates, fertile women, bad abortion, bad gay marriage, and all that. This language will meet a warm reception when the man makes it to Moscow at the end of this month, at the behest of a Russian Pentecostal group. (“How to Escape Demographic Murder?” Moskovskij Komsomolets headlines his junket.) If this synthetic rhetoric can penetrate a concrete bunker of a mind like Cameron’s, it can go anywhere.

I predict these arguments from demography will spread, and that women’s movements and LGBT movements everywhere will face them. It’s bad science, but — even more than conversion therapy and they-want-your-children — it’s seductive. And it lends itself to fertile new coalitions with other fear-based movements.

Come with me to the Kremlin: Whispering sweet nothings in infant ear

Come with me to the Kremlin: Whispering sweet nothings in infant ear

True, the approach, with its Islamophobic implications, may endanger the alliances with majority-Muslim governments that US conservatives painstakingly forged against sexual rights over 15 years. But Putin’s regime is far more powerful as a patron than Pakistan or Egypt. Seen from Rockford, Illinois, losing the latter to win the former isn’t a bad bargain. True, too, the origins of the argument are Eurocentric, and may prove off-putting in Africa or Asia. But Russia, with its “traditional values” rhetoric at the UN, is already trying to position itself to lead a socially conservative bloc of States in international venues. If you were Scott Mosher or Allan Carlson or Austin Ruse, you’d trust Putin with the hard work of getting Southern countries on board. Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin has already suggested this is a global duty for Russian diplomacy: “Recent events abroad have shown us the acute nature of the issue concerning the defense of traditional values. We must assert our point of view in international discussions. After all, we’re speaking on behalf of the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens.”

In the New Right 2.0 that has Putin as patron, groups like the WCF are loud — but subordinate. They’ll make their noises, but they’ll do what they’re told. When Brian Brown or Scott Lively trek to Moscow, they more and more resemble minor Soviet-era satellite dictators, a Husák or Rákosi or Gomułka come to fawn over the top dog and do obeisance. They can strut and posture and piss over the territory back in their own back yards, but they know who leads the pack.

The population panic and the argument that demography-is-destiny aren’t new. We’ve seen them before — not least as a large component of Fascist ideologies in the ’20s and ’30s. Again these anxieties are stirring in a time of economic misery, social unrest, and fear. Again they have a Great Power propagandizing for them. And again they’ve collected a motley crew of fellow travellers, not in brown shirts but in black cassocks or suits and ties. It’s a dangerous time: not because humanity is dying out, as the woman-hating doomsayers claim, but because human values of diversity, cooperation, and understanding are yet again under threat.

Time to fight back.

Good motherhood; Cover from Frauen Warte, Nazi women's magazine, 1937

Good motherhood; Cover from Frauen Warte, Nazi women’s magazine, 1937