Gay hanging in Iran: Atrocities and impersonations

Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran, with the Shah Mosque at its nearer end

Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran, with the Shah Mosque at its nearer end. Photo from


Everybody on earth knows that last week a deal on Iran’s nuclear program was announced.  Everybody also knows that this apparent step toward peace launched a new stage in an old war: of propaganda. Proponents praise the possibility of a historic opening. Opponents — who include Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Republican Party — warn of disaster.  Both sides want to expand their constituencies. In Western countries, gay communities — small but politically influential — are more and more the target for just this courtship and recruitment.

The right-wing pundit Amir Taheri greeted the nuclear deal with a storm of tweets and screeds condemning it. One 140-character charge drew special attention.Taheri tweetAnyone’s first reaction would be some version of “My God.” It sounded horrible.  I wrote to Taheri asking for more information — and so, judging from Twitter, did at least three other people.

But the story quickly began to show cracks. Taheri didn’t reply to me, or anybody. I sat down that night with a Farsi-speaking friend and began searching for the story in the Iranian press: under the youth’s name, under various other key words. It didn’t turn up anywhere. I wrote to the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), a diaspora-based group of LGBT Iranian activists with which I’ve worked closely over the years. They searched the media as well and found no sign of it. They also reached out to contacts in Isfahan. On Friday morning, they told me no one there had heard of the story, either.


Taheri on Fox News

Amir Taheri lies a lot. Eight years ago, Jonathan Schwartz called him “one of the strangest ingredients in America’s media soup,” adding, “There may not be anyone else who simply makes things up as regularly as he does, with so few consequences.” An arch-conservative protege of the Pahlavis, an editor of the Tehran daily Kayhan under the Shah, he repeatedly fabricates stories about Iran to please right-wingers in his adoptive West. Most famously, in 2006 he claimed in Canada’s National Post that a new dress-code law in Iran would impose special clothes on religious minorities, including yellow badges for Jews. Many conservatives swallowed the story; even the Canadian Prime Minister repeated it. But it was a complete falsehood, and after a huge furor the National Post retracted it and apologized: “It is now clear the story is not true. … We apologize for the mistake and for the consternation it has caused.” (The Post also noted that Taheri went “unreachable” after his fiction was exposed, rather as he did on Twitter.) Undeterred, in 2008 Taheri concocted a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini, complete with a fake citation of an invented source; American neoconservative luminaries duly repeated it. In 2002, Taheri claimed that “Osama bin Laden is dead …. the fugitive died in December and was buried in the mountains of southeast Afghanistan.” The list of his duplicities goes on and on. In 1989, an academic reviewing one of Taheri’s books

detailed case after case in which Taheri cited nonexistent sources, concocted nonexistent substance in cases where the sources existed and distorted the substance beyond recognition when it was present. … [The reviewer] concluded that Nest of Spies was “the sort of book that gives contemporary history a bad name.”

Larry Cohler-Esses condemns Taheri as a “journalistic felon,” part of a “media machine intent on priming the public for war with Iran.”

There are ample grounds for skepticism about stories Taheri spreads.

But skepticism doesn’t make headlines. Propaganda’s best friend is the ambition of the press. On Thursday, a reporter for the UK-based Gay Star News also tweeted to Taheri.

Morgan to Taheri tweetTaheri didn’t answer him, either. I know this because the reporter didn’t wait for a source. About 25 minutes later, his story — “GAY TEEN, 14, ‘HANGED FROM TREE'” — topped the website of  Gay Star News, and it said Taheri hadn’t told them anything. In other words, their entire account was based on one single tweet with no evidence behind it. This tweet was special, though. The topic of gay killings in Iran has shown its passionate drawing power over a decade, its ability to keep queers clicking. GSN wanted the clicks for itself.

The reporter clearly never asked Iranian LGBT activists or groups for their take. It was more important to get the headline out there. I wrote to Tris Reid-Smith, GSN’s editor, and asked “Is this standard practice — to run a story based on a single, unsourced, unconfirmed tweet from someone who declines to answer follow-up questions?” Tris rather cannily refused to reply in writing; he wanted to talk by phone. My phone in Cairo is tapped; I declined. I wanted this on the record, but not State Security’s record. If Tris still wants to answer my question, he is welcome to do so here. GSN has since added a few sentences to its story, saying:

we should note Iranian LGBTI networks have not confirmed the story. Some critics have questioned Taheri’s reliability. … UPDATE: For clarity, GSN has noted from the outset this report has not been independently verified. Taheri is yet to reply to our questions seeking to substantiate his claims. We urge caution but feel it is in the public interest to report the claims, given they are gaining traction on social media.

Let that final sentence revolve in your mind. What defines news these days isn’t truth. It’s traffic. (I’ve saved a screenshot of GSN’s original article, prior to the caution-urging, here.)

And of course the story spread. Neoconservative propagandist Ben Weinthal tweeted it manifold times:

Screen shot 2015-07-20 at 11.35.30 AMWeinthal is a lobbyist for the right-wing, pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies. One of his jobs is to drum up support in gay communities for hardline policies against Iran. I’ve detailed some of his many misrepresentations here. His desperate drive to ensure Taheri’s tweet gets coverage suggests what the motives at work are.

I love Big Brother: Ben Weinthal appears on paranoiac Glenn Beck's TV show, February 16, 2015. Photo from Beck's website, The Blaze

I love Big Brother: Ben Weinthal appears on paranoiac Glenn Beck’s TV show, February 16, 2015. Photo from Beck’s website, The Blaze

No one should ever minimize the real, documented, and terrible human rights abuses in Iran. But credulity for suspicious stories devalues the true ones. Given Taheri’s record, and the tangled political context, there is no reason to credit this tale without corroboration.

And here’s the thing: we’ve been through this before, and learned nothing. Look at the photo GSN attached to its article.

Screen shot 2015-07-20 at 2.57.35 PMThat famous image, exactly ten years old, reverberates with misery and horror. And cynics and opportunists know it as proven clickbait. In fact, the two youths were not executed simply for “being gay.” They were convicted of the rape, at knifepoint, of a 13-year-old boy. Claims that they were gay lovers circulated widely among Western activists; but no clear evidence materialized to confirm them.

International tension shaped the context, then as now. In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President of Iran. The religious hardliner’s victory intensified foreign fears of Iran’s nuclear plans; Ahmadinejad moved quickly to quash negotiations with European powers and smear reformists as appeasers. Western conservatives stoked those fears, and rumors roiled. Immediately after the vote, a website affiliated with the Mujahedin e Khalq claimed Ahmadinejad had participated in the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. The Mujahedin is a wealthy, cultlike Iranian exile group widely despised in the diaspora, but closely tied to many Western politicians. Amir Taheri leapt in; he alleged in print that that Javad Zarif — then Iran’s UN ambassador, now its foreign minister — had joined the hostage-taking. (Another fabrication: Zarif was studying in the US at the time.) That summer, a charged, familiar storm-cloud of fact, anxiety, and speculation swirled round the subject of Iran.

On July 19, 2005, the two teenagers were hanged in Mashhad. Reports in the local and national Iranian media said clearly they had been tried for tajavoz (rape) or lavat beh onf (“sodomy by force,” or male rape); the Quds newspaper in Mashhad quoted both the 13-year-old victim and his father. Another website of the Mujahedin e Khalq, however, published a piece on the execution aimed at Western audiences, and omitted the rape charge. Almost certainly the Mujahedin pointed out the story to lone-ranger UK activist Peter Tatchell — who had a record of publicity-seeking animosity to Iran and political Islam — and proposed the “gay” angle. On July 21, Tatchell’s OutRage website blared, “IRAN EXECUTES GAY TEENAGERS,” above the pictures taken from the Iranian press. Tatchell claimed, falsely, that Iranian media had not mentioned the rape, and that the pair were originally charged with consensual sex: setting in motion a stream of fictions that didn’t stop for months.

Mr. DeMille? Mr. DeMille? Q Television films Peter Tatchell at a demo over the Mashhad case, 2005. Photo by UK Gay News

Mr. DeMille? Mr. DeMille? TV crew films Peter Tatchell at a demo over the Mashhad case, 2005. Photo by UK Gay News

WIth panic over Iran already in the air, the photos went vastly viral. If politics motivated some to promote the story, for others it was publicity.  (Doug Ireland, a gay US writer with no prior knowledge of Iran who nonetheless rode the story to a new journalistic job, told me his blog got 60,000 hits the first day he carried the pictures.) As more facts came out and the tale seemed less plausible, its proponents got aggressive: not only with doubters, but with the protagonists. Tatchell, for instance, belittled the alleged rape and suggested the victim wanted it: “It could be the 13-year-old was a willing participant.” Meanwhile, the story’s popularity led to a desperate search for sequels, for new “gay victims,” that stretched for years. Virtually any execution for rape reported in the Iranian media — even of male rapists of women — could be arrogated or mistranslated as a punishment for consensual gay sex. In a grim and grotesque irony, the quest helped produce the dead. In 2007, Tatchell intervened in the last-ditch appeal of an Iranian prisoner on death row, also for the rape of a 13-year-old. Makwan Mouloudzadeh had been framed in a village vendetta; there was no real evidence he’d had sexual relations with the child, much less any other male. Instead of maintaining Makwan’s innocence, though, Tatchell falsely alleged the child was Makwan’s “partner.” Allies of Tatchell started a letter-writing campaign to Ahmadeinjad pleading for the “young homosexual Makvan,” arguing explicitly that he was “‘guilty’ of having loved a peer when he was 13 and having sexual intercourse with him.” They incriminated the man they were trying to save. Makwan, neither homosexual nor a rapist, was hanged.

The Mashhad story survives, immune to its malign consequences. Taheri certainly knows it — he surely suspected a 14-year-old victim would make his tweet go viral. The youths’ images are memed and manipulated everywhere. Sometimes the uses are political:

CJ4bAijUYAElnNFSometimes they’re mythological figures, as if the kitsch of Shi’ite religious iconography melded with the preoccupations of San Francisco.

The Ultimate Penalty: painting by Miguel Tió

The Ultimate Penalty: painting by Miguel Tió

But they remain, always, “the sacred gay martyrs of Iran.”

An hour or two after the Gay Star News story appeared, Tatchell seized the opportunity, announcing a “vigil” to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the youth’s deaths.

Screen shot 2015-07-20 at 1.59.43 PM“On 19 July, we stand for life, liberty and love,” Tatchell said at the demo. But think what that rhetoric obliterates. If their 13-year-old victim’s story was true, what would he say about those words? Most human rights activists know that you can oppose grave abuses, like the appalling execution of children, without spinning narratives of absolute innocence or “love.” But to do that requires abjuring sentimentality, and acquiring maturity.

A deep narcissism lies pooled here. What does “never forget” them mean, when you never knew anything about them in the first place? No one has ever seriously sought to learn facts (rather than weave romances) about the youths’ lives; no one ever showed the least interest in the 13-year-old they allegedly brutalized; no one has ever tried to find their families, and hear what they think of their sons’ pictures being broadcast in this way, or inserted into a foreign story about “gayness.” The boys are silent. Their muteness is their appeal. They offer a clean field for Western political and erotic fantasies; they’ve withered to ventriloquist’s dolls for Western voices. The indignities they suffered before death have been succeeded by a further descent, the indignity of being erased in the imperial name of memory. What Tatchell wants remembered is not the murdered youths. It’s himself.


Strangely, I took two different tacks with Amir Taheri. The day after I politely asked him for information, you could have found me on Twitter writing in quite a different tone:

Screen shot 2015-07-18 at 10.19.03 PMExcept that wasn’t me. It was an account someone set up under my name about a week ago, which has been firing off tweets to Egyptians and various right-wing Westerners ever since. It says I’m a pro-Iran Islamist. It uses an old picture of me, and the inevitable photo of the hanged Iranian youth. 
Screen shot 2015-07-18 at 10.03.03 PM

The account isn’t a “parody.” Not just that it isn’t funny: it’s trying to get me arrested. It makes out that I support banned insurgent movements and want the Egyptian government overthrown. These messages it forwards to Egyptian tweeters, including government accounts.

ScottLon July 18

That one tweet could easily lead to a few decades in prison here. And the person who put my name to it appears quite conscious of the fact.

Who’s behind this thing? I have no idea. But I know who likes it. Here are the account’s followers when I checked it on July 16: 

Screen shot 2015-07-16 at 4.58.30 AM followersThe third person who’d followed the account — out of seven at the time — was “All Equal.” That’s the Twitter of Pliny Soocoormanee, who happens to be the personal assistant of Peter Tatchell, director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. How he found out about this obscure account when no one else knew of it, and why it interested him so much, is a fascinating question. I can’t imagine the answer.

The morning after I criticized the Taheri story on Twitter, the account exploded with vengeful drivel, directed at people inside and outside Egypt (the one at top went to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs):

ScottLon July 17-18But this BS is merely typical. Apparently I work for the Brotherhood, an illegal organization here:

ScottLon MB paidMy motives appear to be erotic as well as pecuniary.

ScottLon MBI’m also an informer.

ScottLon Morsi gays

But mostly the account just strives to identify me with vicious anti-Semitic ravings, marking the intrinsic fascism of its maker’s mind. (Fascism is the politics of a cynical, corrosive narcissism. The mark of fascism is that it imagines all other opinions are as fascist as itself.)

ScottLon antisemitism 2

The account is pretty much coeval with the nuclear deal with Iran. Its first three tweets:

His first 3 tweets

I wouldn’t pay attention to this crude fakery if it weren’t trying explicitly to incriminate me to Egypt’s government — which is arresting gay foreigners, and may not know the difference, or want to. I never cease to be surprised by the retributory malice of the Iran- and Islam-obsessed crowd, whether driven by ideology or the sheer love of headlines. They never stop.

Back in 2006, when Amir Taheri’s lies about Iran’s dress-code law were exposed, The Nation spoke to his PR agent. Accuracy on Iran is “a luxury,” she said. “As much as being accurate is important, in the end it’s important to side with what’s right. What’s wrong is siding with the terrorists.” You see? It’s us or them. Loyalty trumps truth. To expose useful lies is to take the terrorists’ side. And by that standard I am, of course, a terrorist.

Why does it matter? Because LGBT Iranians shouldn’t be exploited for propaganda. They lead lives seamed by danger, distinguished by courage; they deserve better than to be backgammon pieces, passive tokens stacked and shifted in a great-power political game. LGBT people should speak in their own voices, be masters and heroes of their own lives. That is what the liberation struggle is about.

The fact that nobody — not Tatchell, not Ben Weinthal, not Gay Star News — bothered to ask LGBT Iranian activists or groups what the truth was, or whether they wanted a demonstration, is appalling. But it’s typical. The story of Western engagement with LGBT rights in Iran has been one of occupation and ventriloquism, not freedom. It’s long past time for the sick game to stop.

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani, from

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani, from

NOTE: The fake account seems to have been taken down not long after I posted this: I don’t know whether by its maker or by Twitter (of course I complained). But, in some form or another, they’ll be back.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

The dignity of marriage: Gays on the wrong side of history

Angel of history: Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, not quite as seen by Walter Benjamin

Angel of history: Angelus Novus by Paul Klee (1920), not quite as seen by Walter Benjamin

I. Tears

Of course I cried. I cried because these nine antiquarian arbiters in funeral garb – five of them anyway, each looking about as forward-thinking and progressive as a constipated grandparent – informed me at last that I am part of this Great Community they help to govern. I cried too for the past, for all those years I never imagined this was possible, as if their words rather than repealing that suffering put it exactly in its place, just so, part of a long injustice necessary in some consoling theodicy so that justice could ultimately be done. I cried because I remembered when Bowers v Hardwick was handed down, 29 years ago. Back then five of the nine said I should go to jail, because “The Constitution does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.” It was the last day of June. I spent that Fourth of July holiday holed up in a Cambridge apartment with my queer friend Charlie Fulton, getting drunk all day because we couldn’t tear ourselves from the TV; that was Liberty Weekend, the centenary of that old welcoming statue, and there were fireworks in New York harbor and endless blather about freedom and inclusion and Reagan intoning that “someday every people and every nation of the world will know the blessings of liberty.” Except us.

Not everyone invited: Time magazine cover, July 14, 1986

Not everyone invited: Time magazine cover, July 14, 1986

I cried ten years later when they decided Romer v Evans – “A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.’ I cried eight years after that when they decided Lawrence v Texas, and told me I didn’t need to go to jail after all. Of course I cried again this time. I cried because I was tired of crying. There had been too many tears.

Too many tears; yet tears are insufficient. Marriage ought to be an adult state. You can’t just think about it from the bruised vantage of’ your youthful alienations. The gay movement in the US makes a massive fetish of childhood: bullied kids, suicidal kids, kids in desperate need of role models. Why? Not just because of others’ terrible stories but because, for lots of us, childhood is where we cried our hardest tears, suffered our deepest wounds. Yet if your wonder years were your worst, it’s because for you, it got better. Those who feel that way are the lucky who emerged alive and prospered; left home, made it to a good school, won a plum job at an NGO or the New York Times, acquired a spouse, kids of their own, a house with a deck, a dog. A rich and happy adulthood sets you apart from the unprivileged whose losses persisted longer: those in jail for sex work or in immigration detention, those rejected by landlords or lovers or their own children, those who can’t get a job or health insurance, those who die young – younger than they ever should, but not young enough to qualify as poster kids, not young enough to have the prized and perfect innocence of childhood.

The week after the Supreme Court decision, the big issue in Gay World wasn’t what we’d fight next – job discrimination? violence? It was a photo of a 10-year-old boy, crying (so the caption said) because “I’m homosexual, and I’m afraid about what my future will be and that people won’t like me.” It went viral after Hillary Clinton herself stepped in to reassure him, on Facebook, ‘Your future is going to be amazing.” This said little about the kid, or Clinton, but lots about American gay men. Their torrent of identification, a flood that obliterated questions (was the photo real? Could a 10-year-old really consent to having it posted?), came because they saw themselves as that vulnerable child, under the cracked shell of adults whose movement had just won a historic triumph. It also revealed a vision of politics. Their president isn’t supposed to be a grownup speaking to grownups, someone you negotiate or argue with; the ideal president is an indulgent parent, patting your head and crooning There, there. Such infantilization not just of selves but of a whole social movement is strange. Why should Frank Bruni, resident gay at the sober New York Times, filter his whole hazy, sentimental reaction to the Supreme Court’s ukase through “one 12-year-old boy” (“He has noticed that his heart beats faster not for girls but for other boys, and the sensation is as lonely and terrifying as it is intense”)?

This is memory politics, Proust mixed uneasily with Martin Luther King. Our rights are about more than our unhappy childhoods. They speak to our maturity, our lives now. Marriage is not just a kiss the State bestows to make it better. We are not wounded children needing solace, but adults whose lives have already taken shape. It’s in the frame of our grown-up decisions and defeats that we must measure what we’ve won, what marriage really means.

II. Recognition

The marriage man: Justice Kennedy

The marriage man: Justice Kennedy

So I turned to the decision itself. What did those nine constipated guardians say to us? When I downloaded Obergefell v Hodges, the first thing that sprang out at me, honest to God, was this footnote:

People may choose to marry or not to marry. The decision to do so does not make one person more ““noble”” than another. And the suggestion that Americans who choose not to marry are inferior to those who decide to enter such relationships is specious.

That’s a good point, I thought, and wondered how it fit into Justice Kennedy’s argument. Then I realized it was from Clarence Thomas’s dissent — responding to Kennedy’s suggestion “that marriage confers “’nobility’ on individuals.”

To agree with Thomas makes me want to scrub myself. Yet it points to a problem with Kennedy’s writing, variously condemned, even by his supporters, as “gauzy,” “vague,” or “muddled.” His verbiage is a forest seemingly uncharted by any dictionary, where terms like “nobility,” “dignity,” “liberty” roam without the taming governance of definitions. It’s like being in Jurassic Park, with large words lumbering menacingly through the undergrowth; you can take their pictures, but you can’t get close enough to find out what they mean. Non-lawyers, if they like the end result, enjoy the rousing rhetoric. Lawyers, even lefty ones, may secretly sympathize with Justice Scalia, whose scurrilous dissent said of one Kennedy sentence that “The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”

Waiter, there's a Constitution in my fortune cookie: Justice Scalia

Waiter, there’s a Kennedy in my cookie: Justice Scalia

Kennedy’s opinions sometimes seem not so much at odds with precedent as at an angle to it. Over the last hundred or so years, American law developed set ways of determining whether unequal treatment is lawful. These are the famous three levels of review: rational basis (for evaluating the intrusiveness of economic regulation, for instance); intermediate scrutiny (for discrimination claims based on gender); strict scrutiny (for claims based on race). In rational-basis review, courts are very deferential to what the state is doing; in higher levels of scrutiny, states need to show they have an “important” or “compelling” interest in classifying people – and they often fail. Kennedy’s decisions on sexual orientation mostly avoid referring to these standards at all. He resembles an autist savant who refuses to use either long division or short division, but solves math problems by staring at his knee. Maybe he’s right, but students learn nothing from the way he got there.

Animus in California: How the Grinch stole marriage

Animus in California: How the Grinch stole marriage

Instead of scrutiny, Kennedy introduces the idea of “animus”: when laws treat people differently based on pure dislike. Any restriction based on animus is impermissible. The problem is, though, that legislators and – especially – lower courts need to fit Kennedy’s precedents, and his language on “animus,” back into the standards of scrutiny they still use to make decisions. Obergefell strongly suggests that sexual-orientation discrimination should receive strict scrutiny, but as Scott Lemieux writes, “Kennedy inexplicably refuses to say so.” His reticence

leaves open the legal possibility that marriage is the only form of discrimination against same-sex people that is covered by the 14th Amendment. But LGBT people face many other types of discrimination – in public accommodations and in employment, for example – that now may have to be fought out case by never-ending case in the lower courts.

It seems improbable that those other discriminations will finally pass muster. But the lawyers who grouse about Kennedy’s vagueness will earn lots of money from the confusion; and the non-lawyers who celebrate should realize this sweeping decision is less sweeping than it could have been.

In fact, I am not sure that Kennedy is muddled. “Animus,” which flowered in Kennedy’s writing before marriage became an issue, nonetheless seems to capture something essential to the marriage struggles, and perhaps to some other contemporary forms of discrimination. If I pass an old-style law that makes it harder for black people to get jobs, it’s clear what I want: for white people to get more jobs. With the rash of anti-marriage amendments, it’s different: no one ever believed that less marriage for the gays would mean more to go around for others. It’s not discrimination that benefits anybody. The aim was solely to say to gays and lesbians, You don’t belong.

In targeting You don’t belong laws, Kennedy is constructing a jurisprudence about dignity and symbolic slights, where the intent of the legislation is crucial. This is a jurisprudence for a politics of recognition, in the terms that Nancy Fraser has made famous. Fraser drew a distinction between two visions of justice, dividing “the forces of progressive politics” into “two camps.” An older vision of “redistribution” draws on “traditions of egalitarian, labor and socialist organizing”; “political actors aligned with this orientation seek a more just allocation of resources and goods.” On the other side, the proponents of  “recognition” talk about diversity and difference. They don’t want goods or benefits; they want respect. It’s a politics more attuned to symbolic insult than material inequality. And 

the language of distribution is less salient today. … Claims for the recognition of difference now drive many of the world’s social conflicts, from campaigns for national sovereignty and subnational autonomy, to battles around multiculturalism… They have also become predominant within social movements such as feminism, which had previously foregrounded the redistribution of resources. Why do so many movements couch their claims in the idiom of recognition?

Hold that question. Enough for now that Kennedy couches his decision in that idiom: he addresses people who want not resources and benefits, but respect and solace. He largely imagines intangible rewards, hence the cloudy ungraspablity of his nouns; but his arguments are philosophically intelligible even if not always legally clear.

III. Liberty

Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Liberty, by Cesare Ripa (c. 1560 – c. 1622)

Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Liberty, by Cesare Ripa (c. 1560 – c. 1622)

Liberty is one of Anthony Kennedy’s biggest words. As he pulls out the organ-stops it swells to an anthropological attribute rather than a political value: every person’s ability not just to do things but to decide who they are.

The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.

(This is the sentence that drew Scalia’s scorn above; but if I found that in my fortune cookie, I’d be happy.) Kennedy’s most important lines, perhaps, are those where he draws an expansive picture of the ways that liberty is implicated in the intimate realm of life:

Like choices concerning contraception, family relationships, procreation, and childrearing, all of which are protected by the Constitution, decisions concerning marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.

Elevating autonomy and choice this way is powerful. It underpins what is, for lawyers, probably the most unsettling part of Kennedy’s opinion: his preference for using a substantive due process argument, rather than an equal protection one. Substantive due process is one of the most controversial doctrines in American law. It is an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that conservatives and liberals alike have used to identify rights — “liberties” — not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. For Kennedy, the liberty to marry is one of of these. The framers didn’t mention it; but surely it must be in our founding document, mute yet essential. Whereas an equal protection argument contends the state should treat everyone equally — if some can marry, all should be able to — a substantive due process approach holds, with different emphasis, that marriage is so silently fundamental no one should be denied it. Equal protection would allow a government, in principle, to deny marriage equally to everybody across the board. But if marriage is a substantive due process right, it’s inescapable: states must let people marry. Lots of lawyers mistrust this sleight of hand and the stealth freedoms it uncovers. But it’s quite consistent with Kennedy’s belief that what’s at stake in same-sex marriage – and in LGBT rights in general – is less protecting equality than respecting every person’s decision-making power.

It’s this way of conceiving liberty that Clarence Thomas despises. He returns to old sources to assert a minimalist liberty as simple “freedom from physical restraint.” In its narrowest sense – he’s citing Blackstone here –

“liberty” most likely refers to “the power of loco-motion, of changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.”

“Or” – he’s in the library again – “as one scholar put it in 1776, “[T]he common idea of liberty is merely negative.” In the marriage cases, nobody kept anybody from going anywhere. “Petitioners cannot claim, under the most plausible definition of ‘liberty,’ that they have been imprisoned or physically restrained.” Nothing to see here; move along.

Isaiah Berlin: Are you telling me I am not free to smoke here?

Isaiah Berlin: Are you telling me I am not free to smoke here?

This is, in fact, a very old dispute. Thomas’ cantankerousness clarifies what Kennedy is talking about. Thomas defends negative liberty, as Isaiah Berlin classically defined it: “By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. “ A long philosophical tradition distinguishes this from positive liberty, which conveys not only absence of restraint but the capacity for action, the possession of personal power. Berlin wrote:

The “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. … I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be a doer – deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men.

The two definitions can shade into one another, but they are different. In the one, liberty is solitude; in the other it is sovereignty. In the frame of European history, negative liberty is the freedom of the freed serf or the masterless man, no longer tied to the land. Positive liberty is the freedom of the master, endowed with authority and means to work his will in the world.

Kennedy is emphatically a partisan of positive liberty. His arguments draw strength from its strengths: its concern, for instance, for what governments and societies must do to enable independent and competent choices. His opinions are also endangered by its weaknesses. Isaiah Berlin has traced better than any other thinker the paradoxes of positive liberty: the way its exaltation of human capacities can turn into a proscriptive mandate that those capacities be properly used.

Positive liberty behaving negatively: Esprit-Antoine Gibelin, Libertas Americana (1783)

Positive liberty behaving negatively: Libertas Americana by Esprit-Antoine Gibelin (1783)

Negative liberty draws a veil over what you do with your freedom; it leaves you alone, and it’s unconcerned about the consequences as long as you leave others alone too. Positive liberty, though, closes no curtains. It presupposes that, given freedom, you will act. The question of how, of what uses you propose for this enabled freedom, becomes urgent. Left to themselves, humans will do and choose different things. Yet this offends against a belief that both values and society should be rational. Shouldn’t real self-mastery, sovereignty over the self, be the discipline of choosing the right thing, not the wrong?

Positive liberty tends to collapses into monism, as Berlin says, “the faith in a single criterion”: the belief there is one overriding value people ought to be pursuing, one that redeems their power to choose by its syllogistic superiority as a choice. In this vision

the rational ends of our “true” natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however, violently our poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process … Kant tells us that when “the individual has entirely abandoned his wild, lawless freedom, to find it again, unimpaired, in a state of dependence according to law,”’ that alone is true freedom, “for this dependence is the work of my own will acting as a lawgiver.” Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it.

That way lies “the vivisection of human societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible understanding of a largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary future.”

If Kennedy’s understanding of liberty risks sanctifying certain choices over others, it is a fortuity perhaps increased by his use of substantive due process.  One reading of substantive due process doctrine is that if certain rights didn’t actually get enumerated in the Constitution, it must be because they were so fundamental and obvious that the framers saw no need to mention them. Kennedy comes very close to saying this about marriage. If a right is that basic to being American, or human, then woe betide anyone who doesn’t use it.

How much does Kennedy’s idea of liberty remain neutral about the values people choose? How much does it regress into the faith that “All values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest” – and that true liberty consists in choosing the highest?

IV. Dignity

Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Dignity, by Cesare Ripa (c. 1560, – c. 1622)

Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Dignity, by Cesare Ripa (c. 1560 – c. 1622)

Dignity is another of Kennedy’s grandest words, and nowhere more than in deciding whether the government will give gays “the basic dignity of recognizing” their marriages. For Kennedy, the greatest injustice lesbians and gays have suffered is a continuous insult to their human dignity. Over generations, he writes,

many persons did not deem homosexuals to have dignity in their own distinct identity. A truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken. Even when a greater awareness of the humanity and integrity of homosexual persons came in the period after World War II, the argument that gays and lesbians had a just claim to dignity was in conflict with both law and widespread social conventions.

And dignity is especially at stake in the state’s regulation of couples, for “There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.”

Dignity is also another word Kennedy abjures defining. Nor is it a clear term of art in US jurisprudence, though Kenji Yoshino finds that the Supreme Court has used it in more than 900 opinions, and that — predictably, in an age of recognition — “its use of the word has increased.” Kennedy is “particularly drawn to it,” Yoshino writes. “When Justice Kennedy ascribes dignity to an entity, that entity generally prevails.”

Yet, as Leslie Meltzer Henry observes, for a word so often bandied about in constitutional law, “its importance, meaning, and function are commonly presupposed but rarely articulated.” Henry considers its legal uses diverse, flexible, “dynamic and context-driven.” This is a way of saying “vague.” The vagueness allows Clarence Thomas to claim that Kennedy sees dignity solely as something the government gives you. Maintaining to the contrary that dignity is innate, Thomas heads into an already notorious peroration:

[H]uman dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. … The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

Dignity: Head of a Roman, 1st century BCE

Dignity: Head of a Roman, 1st century BCE

Kennedy’s own idea of dignity is in fact evident enough, and stands on firmer philosophical ground than Thomas. He doesn’t see it as a state endowment, but neither does he treat it as some mystic quiddity or innere Emigration that even slavery can’t strip away. Dignity is closely connected with his philosophy of liberty as choice. The question is whether it’s threatened by the same dangers: whether his reliance on the word and concept risks undermining the legal framework of freedom he is trying to advance.

Some potted history here is useful. “Dignity” comes from the Latin dignitas, itself derived from the noun decus, which means honor, glory, or distinction — and also ornament, as in medal or decoration. Another of its descendants in English is “decent.” In Latin, writes Mette Lebech, dignitas was a function of one’s status:

In the Roman Republic as well as in the succeeding Empire, Dignitas was the standing of the one who commanded respect, whether because of his political, military or administrative achievements.

To Rome, dignity marked out difference within a hierarchy, and this remained its core meaning through the Middle Ages. The notion of dignity as a quality of all humans, detached from any particular class or role, only fully emerged in the Renaissance. Its most eloquent articulation was by the 15th-century philosopher Pico della Mirandola, in his immensely famous oration On the Dignity of Man. Dignity lay in the universal human capacity to choose and change, to decide about yourself, to shift your very status on the great Chain of Being:

The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! As soon as an animal is born, it brings out of its mother’s womb all that it will ever possess. … [But to] Man, when he entered life, the Father gave the seeds of every kind and every way of life possible. He fashions and transforms himself into any fleshly form and assumes the character of any creature whatsoever.

Not, however, a dignified hat: Pico della Mirandola by Cristofano dell'Altissimo (1525-1605)

Not, however, a dignified hat: Pico della Mirandola, by Cristofano dell’Altissimo (1525-1605)

Clearly this is ancestral to how Kennedy regards dignity; and it also suggests how he links dignity to liberty. For Kennedy, liberty includes being able to choose who we are or will become, shaping our identities rather than just taking what’s given. Dignity comes when these choices can be acted on, witnessed, and recognized. This is an understanding of human dignity employed by philosophers to the present day. I often cite Tzvetan Todorov’s remarkable study of moral life in Hitler’s concentration camps; he sees dignity as the capacity to “act out the strength of one’s own will, to exert through one’s initiative some influence, however minimal, on one’s surroundings. … It is not enough simply to decide to acquire dignity: that decision must give rise to an act that is visible to others (even if they are not actually there to see it).” The univers concentrationnaire was geared and calibrated to destroy this capacity. To decide and to act on a decision in the camps often meant: to decide to die. Yet for many, preserving some small area where dignified action was possible gave life its only meaning. For some, their last act of dignity was the only one by which they would be remembered.

In Kennedy’s marriage opinion, though, dignity plays a peculiar role. “The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy,” he writes. But he doesn’t stop there. The “choice regarding marriage” isn’t neutral. The “centrality of marriage to the human condition” makes it far more than just an option. The dignity of marriage seems not to open possibilities, but to dictate one above all.

The prose is full of fulsome praise for people who decide one way rather than the other. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.” Indeed, marrying boosts your dignity: “The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life.”

From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. … Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone … Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.

And so on. It’s like Sondheim’s Company sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. With all this noise, how can any dignified person decide against marrying?

“Being Alive” from Company, sung by Anthony Kennedy and the Supremes

One can see in the contrast with reproductive rights how heavily weighted a choice marriage is to Kennedy. He calls decisions about contraception and procreation “among the most intimate that an individual can make,” and “protected by the Constitution.” These words posit procreating and not-procreating as equivalent, neutral choices, veiled by their intimacy and importance from legal and moral valuation. Indeed, the right to contraception was only established in American law through long struggles asserting it was not less dignified, not less moral or proper, than becoming pregnant. But Kennedy offers no equivalent opposite to choosing marriage. He wastes no words praising the dignity of the single life. Not to elect marriage, he says, is “to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.”

Kennedy and the concepts he uses are divided, torn. His idea of liberty as self-determination collapses back toward the belief that some decisions are better than others, because they show the self’s mastery over what is irrational and wrong. His idea of dignity is the means for the implosion: it folds inadvertently into an older sense that some life-ways are superior in their rationality and rightfulness. Dignity-as-choice melts back into dignity-as-distinction. Kennedy obfuscates the difference while keeping them shoehorned in the same word.

And this again raises the question: does the dignity Kennedy reads in marriage reflect what it means to you, to me, to the society he writes for?

V. The Wrong Side of History

Angels of history, II: Meme from Freedom to Marry, a US NGO

Angels of history: Meme from Freedom to Marry, a US NGO

Kennedy talks about liberty and choice; but backhandedly he introduces the idea that some choices are better, more dignified, more “transcendent” than others. His libertarian language jars gratingly with a uncritical and coercive adulation of one particular life decision, marriage.

Frustrating Kennedy’s incoherence may be, but it isn’t accidental. It inheres in the philosophical roots of his terminology. His idea of “liberty” is historically prone to elevating certain uses of freedom above others. Above all, though, Kennedy’s legacy is a jurisprudence of recognition. “Dignity” is essential to it; the injustices he finds especially intolerable, the animus-driven laws he condemns, deny the desires of people to be recognized in their dignity, with the identities and lives they’ve made. Dignity entails decision-making power for Kennedy. But an older, hierarchical implication keeps peeping through. And when attached to marriage the word turns invidious, augmenting the dignity of some – while leaving other choices, other relationships, rhetorically in the ditch.

The twinned themes of dignity and recognition have, through marriage, become integral to gay politics. In the US as in other countries, the whole campaign for marriage has revolved round recognition, the affirmation of dignity rather than the allocation of benefits. The financial and material aspects of marriage might be crucial to actual people, and were sometimes vital to litigation (inheritance-tax rights, for instance, were central to the 2013 Windsor decision), but were downplayed by general agreement throughout the struggle, in favor of a greeting-card emphasis on “love” and its starved aspiration for due respect. Other LGBT needs that had clear material implications or implied redistributing goods or services (employment protections, or housing rights, or palpable and particular rights of citizenship like having your ID reflect who you are) were told to wait, while a goal constructed in symbolic and immaterial terms moved to the head of the line.

This preference for symbolism is pervasive in gay life now; it shows even in small ways. It’s fascinating that the gays go gaga over Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a judge of great intellectual power but one who has largely ceded the field of sexual orientation to Justice Kennedy. It’s because, unlike Kennedy (taciturn, undemonstrative, and unfriendly to unicorns), when she leaves the courtroom she says nice things about them, and even presides over same-sex weddings. She offers recognition, which is even more important somehow than tangible victories on the bench.



I’m not so much criticizing this strategy as asking what happens next. People are already hawking their ideas for “new priorities” for the US LGBT movement (though some precipitately want to shut it down completely); but there’s little discussion about how you can wrench it back to a focus on material goals, when the whole movement has gone off in pursuit of the ghostly allurements of symbolic affirmation. And there’s little concern that “dignity” too can be a zero-sum game, with denigration as its reverse side. The respect your decisions gain can tacitly deepen disrespect for others’.

Kennedy’s inflation of marriage into a “transcendent” choice is already echoing. It gives rise to a sudden burst of judgmental Comstockery among gay people, as though a little government attention turned them all into Southern Baptist preachers (hypocrisy included). Take, for instance, this month’s reactions to the word that the black sheep of the Palin clan was pregnant again “out of wedlock.” The gays were indignant; their first week into wedlock, and already they think anybody outside it must be a crack whore. I can’t tell you how strange it feels to see this meme all over the Internet – stranger, too, when gay friends who I know have spent their nights on Grindr flaunt it on their Facebook pages:

10390032_10155708641745043_8762877488175201191_nThis moralistic misogyny should be beneath the dignity of people who recently suffered from the same censorious opprobrium. I think Neil Patrick Harris is a nice person and Bristol Palin is not. I know, though, that neither their sex lives nor her single status have anything to do with how good they’ll be as parents. And I’m as sure as I am of anything on earth that a human rights movement enlisted in the slut-shaming brigade has nothing, zero, to do with human rights any more.

If the gays are acting blind as any right-wing pundit, it’s paradoxically the right-wingers who see clearly the multiple ways people define relationships now – even if they only invoke this variety as a drone target for their Jeremiads.

Ideal marriage (child included, dogs and pheasants optional): Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Painted by Sir Edwin Landseer (1840-43)

Ideal marriage (dogs and pheasants optional, child included): Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, painted by Sir Edwin Landseer (1843)

Consider this question: are there legal means by which the state could, and should, recognize relationships with multiple partners? The gays (and many nice, liberal supporters) wax furious if anyone suggests this might be a logical extension of the liberties in marriage: as if, having gone two-by-two into the ark, they want to hoist the gangway and let the three-way perverts drown. What’s astonishing is to see the liberals categorically deny that such relationships exist in modern societies at all. Justice Alito brought it up during the marriage hearing, trying to imagine polygamy in a contemporary context: for instance, “four people, two men and two women — it’s not the sort of polygamous relationship, polygamous marriages that existed in other societies.” The New Yorker was flatly incredulous. Such a family, its reporter wrote, is “one that exists in Alitoland” alone.

I didn’t know I lived in Alitoland. But I do know many households like the ones Alito described: the lesbian who’s bought a home (and is bringing up a child) with her current lover, her former lover, and her current lover’s former lover; the trans man – prim as your favorite uncle – who’s raised his kids with his two cis female partners; the husband who lives with his wife and his wife’s lesbian mate. You can perfectly well say these aren’t common, but you won’t know, because these arrangements tend not to turn up on census forms. It’s a strange world when a George-W.-Bush-appointed Supreme Court justice may be more in touch than the New Yorker with the way people live now.

Kennedy’s opinion, in fact, doesn’t even reflect the diversity of life choices on the Supreme Court. The pitiable, sad unmarried people whom he calls “condemned to loneliness” include two of the four justices who voted with him. A colleague of mine wonders what they really thought about this language. Probably they see it as what Scalia called “the price of a fifth vote.” I wonder rather more what Kennedy really thinks as he looks at them.

And this is what disappoints about Kennedy’s words, and the exultation greeting them. They misunderstand radically what marriage actually means in the modern world, and what made its expansion possible. Marriage has not opened to lesbian and gay couples because it is “profound” or “transcendent.” It expanded because it isn’t that any more. The marriage decision is possible because marriage means less to us, because the last scraps of its exclusionary dignity are disappearing. Marriage is becoming simply one choice among others; the rhetoric trying to reclaim its sanctity is on the wrong side of history.

Graphs show this better than prose can. Worldwide, fewer and fewer are making that transcendent choice.

Marriage rate in the United States, 1946-2010; chart by the Sacramento Bee

Marriage rate in the United States, 1946-2010; chart by the Sacramento Bee

The plunge among young US adults (aged 25-34) has been particularly steady:

Statistics across Europe show the same trend.

It’s not just the decaying West. What’s striking is that in another country I know well, highly traditional Egypt, the rate has also fallen. The decline was less stark and steady, but the marriage rate dropped from 10.8 per 1000 population in 1952, to 7.3 in 2006.

Graph from

Graph from “Marriage Patterns in Egypt,” by
Magued Osman and Hanan Girgis, at

But the fall has been more dramatic in Egypt’s two richest urban areas; in Alexandria, the figures sank to half the overall US rate. Evidently people’s economic and social independence plays a crucial role. (The customary Egyptian explanation for the decline is that economic hardships make men reluctant to marry. For a century, in fact, Cairene intellectuals have been warning about a “marriage crisis” caused by men’s ever-direr financial powerlessness. Statistics suggest otherwise. Recent rises in Egypt’s marriage rate — a 2.7% increase in 2012, for instance — coincided with severe economic dislocation. It seems plausible that some want to postpone or avoid marriage as long as they can afford their independence, and turn to its strictures as a shelter only in hard times. When they can, they choose to be single.)

Graph from

Graph from “Marriage Patterns in Egypt,” by
Magued Osman and Hanan Girgis, at

There are as many explanations for all this as there are ideologies. Right now it’s the consequences I care about. Marriage is no longer an inescapable value. It’s been demystified: an option, not an obligation. The sense that it is a choice is precisely what created the pressure to allow others to choose it.  The gays were on the right side of this historical process, in demanding that marriage be expanded; they surfed the graphs I’ve shown. The broadening of choice is something to rejoice in. But to continue treating marriage as a transcendent value rather than a contingent possibility is to stand on the wrong side.

People today are choosing and living in many kinds of relationships of care — and building new ones. The law’s challenge is to find how to recognize and protect these, because the law’s job is to look after the ways people actually live. Hieratic talk about the primacy of two-person marriage may postpone this, but can’t avoid the need. In the last decade a few documents outlined vast gaps in what the law recognizes: a detailed Law Commission of Canada report, Beyond Conjugalityand a manifesto by US activists, Beyond Marriage. The latter listed some of the “other kinds of kinship relationship, households, and families” that need protection: among them,

  • Senior citizens living together, serving as each otherʼs caregivers, partners, and/or constructed families;
  • Committed households in which there is more than one conjugal partner;
  • Single parent households;
  • Extended families (especially in particular immigrant populations) living under one roof, whose members care for one another;
  • Queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households;
  • Close friends and siblings who live together in long-term, committed, non-conjugal relationships, serving as each otherʼs primary support and caregivers;
  • Care-giving and partnership relationships that have been developed to provide support systems to those living with HIV/AIDS.

Many today may want to raise their children in a community of shared responsibilities rather than a nuclear household. Many today may want decisions about their health or death made within a circle of friends, not by a single partner. Accommodating this in law is an immanent, not a transcendent necessity.

When I call the loss of marriage’s transcendence historically irreversible, I mean that in a democratic world transcendence itself cannot be sustained. It’s curious that the donnish, tweedy Isaiah Berlin should have expounded this postmodern insight with such urgency. The philosopher John Gray summarizes what Berlin saw: that ultimate values

are many, they often come into conflict with one another and are uncombinable in a single human being or a single society, and that in many of such conflicts there is no overarching standard whereby the competing claims of such ultimate values are rationally arbitrable. Conflicts among such values are among incommensurables, and the choices we make among them are radical and tragic choices. There is, then, no summum bonum or logos, no Aristotelian mean or Platonic form of the good, no perfect form of human life, which we may never achieve but towards which we struggle, no measuring rod on which different forms of human life encompassing different and uncombinable goods can be ranked.

Gray writes that this “strikes a death-blow to the central, classical, Western tradition,” with its belief that all positive values are rationally consistent – “and, it must be added, to the project of the Enlightenment.” That may be too much. Yet to recognize the pluralism of values is to realize in the most rendingly personal way that we live in a disenchanted world. No one hands us final answers. There is no “most profound” or “highest” life-way. Some people choose the vita activa, some the vita contemplativa. Some discover more purpose in public life than private life; to some, a tennis match matters more than a job promotion. Some people locate the highest value in a single uxorious relationship, some in the migratory ecstasies of sex; some will find the value of sex in mystical union, some in its market price. For some, love is the true meaning of marriage. For some, it’s taxes.

Berlin wrote:

It may be that the idea of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilization: an idea which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognized, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no skeptical conclusions seem to me to follow. … Indeed, our very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secured in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. … To demand [such guarantees] is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow such a need to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

That rebuke to our childishness is the truth we need.

Dignity, again

Dignity, again

PREVENT free speech: For governments, it’s easy

This letter appeared in the Independent (UK) today:

We, the undersigned, take issue with the government’s Prevent strategy and its statutory implementation through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 for the following reasons:

1. The latest addition to the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism framework comes in the form of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (CTS Act). The CTS Act has placed PREVENT on a statutory footing for public bodies to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism by tackling what is claimed to be ‘extremist ideology’. In practice, this will mean that individuals working within statutory organisations must report individuals suspected of being ‘potential terrorists’ to external bodies for ‘de-radicalisation’.

2. The way that PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology.

3. However, PREVENT remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism. Inevitably, this has meant a focus on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation. For example, growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism. This serves to reinforce a prejudicial worldview that perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. PREVENT reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.

4. While much of the PREVENT policy is aimed at those suspected of ‘Islamist extremism’ and far-right activity, there is genuine concern that other groups will also be affected by such policies, such as anti-austerity and environmental campaigners – largely those engaged in political dissent.

5. Without due reconsideration of PREVENT’s poor reputation, the police and government have attempted to give the programme a veneer of legitimacy by expressing it in the language of ‘safeguarding’. Not only does this depoliticise the issue of radicalisation, it shifts attention away from grievances that drive individuals towards an ideology that legitimises political violence.

6. PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Therefore, PREVENT will make us less safe.

7. We believe that PREVENT has failed not only as a strategy but also the very communities it seeks to protect. Instead of blindly attempting to strengthen this project, we call on the government to end its ineffective PREVENT policy and rather adopt an approach that is based on dialogue and openness.

The full list of signatories is here.

PREVENT (originally Preventing Violent Extremism) is the UK’s government’s flagship program for winning hearts and minds in Vietnam keeping people from going off and turning terrorist. Repeatedly revised and relaunched, it’s one of four prongs of the country’s post-9/11 domestic strategyThe prongs alliterate in a way suggesting bureaucrats with notepads and nothing else to do: “Prepare for attacks, Protect the public, Pursue the attackers and Prevent their radicalization.” (For attackers, the latter comes a bit too late.) The “P” that’s missing is Police. LIke the others, PREVENT is about police power. It works by surveilling marginal, distrusted, and brown communities. There’s no way of measuring how well it’s met its goals, because it has no concrete goals, no benchmarks. Its great success has been the one not mentioned in the glossy pamphlets: it’s contributed to alienating Muslims from society and state, one tenable definition of “radicalization.” A system of surveillance that publicly and legally singles out a minority inevitably makes that minority more marginal, less equal participants in public life: more subjects, less citizens. As in some shadow story by Paul Auster or Robbe-Grillet, the government seeks a criminal that is itself.

Diagram allegedly explaining PREVENT strategy, by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Aside from its resemblance to the secret Illuminati symbolism on the US dollar bill, I have no idea what any of this means.

Diagram allegedly explaining PREVENT strategy, by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Aside from its resemblance to the secret Illuminati symbolism on the US dollar bill, I have no idea what any of this means.

This March, Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, told the BBC he fully endorsed the two most widespread criticisms. First, PREVENT places itself beyond bureaucratic standards of success or failure. “A huge amount of money has been spent on this. At a time when we have limited resources we really need to make sure that we measure it.” Second, it stigmatizes  the people whose hearts and minds good will it’s supposed to be winning. It’s a “toxic brand” among Muslims; counter-extremist programs  “should not be putting Muslim community in a separate box when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable young people”:

He said there was a “spectacular lack of diversity” in local safeguarding services and police forces that meant many of those involved in Prevent did not understand the communities they serve, particularly in cities such as London and Birmingham.

PREVENT has, however, built up a constituency for itself, by ladling out money. And this is perhaps its real goal: not to combat terrorism, but to cultivate support for the metastasis of governmental power. Between 2005 and 2011 alone, Dominic Casciani writes, “almost £80m was spent on 1,000 schemes across 94 local authorities,” almost none of them properly evaluated. Rivers of largesse ran to dubious “anti-extremism” groups like the Quilliam Foundation, which claims to combat terrorist instincts among benighted Muslim immigrants, even though most Muslims in the UK seem to regard it with bafflement or disdain. The money keeps Quilliam’s founder, Maajid Nawaz, in an “immaculate and expensive suit,” upscale hotels, and the occasional strip club; whether it keeps Britain safer is a different proposition.

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed by kids saying the darndest things

As with other insecure governments in repressive states, the UK regime’s response to failure has been to tighten the screws of repression. Rendering more people potential criminals makes their enemies your allies; with each opinion stamped Thoughtcrime, its opponents become your friends. The Cameron government is bidding for the gays’ support:

Children who speak out in class against homosexuality could be viewed as potential extremists under Government guidelines intended to prevent Islamist terrorism, Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, has suggested. Mrs Morgan said comments by children that they consider homosexuality to be “wrong” or “evil” could “trigger” concerns from teachers under guidance designed to help schools detect possible radicalisation.

They’ll have to put a playground in Gitmo before these people are through.

Quite a few prominent “free-speech advocates” in the UK are not signatories to the Independent letter. One wonders why.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.41.49 PMCAGE, founded by former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg, mobilizes advocacy and activism in British Muslim communities against war-on-terror abuses. HT is the nonviolent pan-Islamic group Hizb ut Tahrir. You see the problem!  A letter complaining about repression of Muslim communities was signed by Muslims, the believing kind. If only it had been restricted to Church of England vicars, like a Barbara Pym novel! But once they’ve put their greasy fingerprints on the doc, the text goes straight to hell, like Tower Hamlets. Tom Holland, who is a sort of expert on why he dislikes Islam, agrees:

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.41.21 PMThe whole point of PREVENT is: Muslims must not speak for themselves.

But some non-signatories simply had better things to do. Nick Cohen, for instance — the hero columnist who defends to the deadline to the death a writer’s right to Cohen’s an opinion — spent today Tweeting about a couple of columnists fired by a provincial newspaper.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.49.36 PM

Peter Tatchell, that free-speech martyr, ignored the Independent letter. He was fighting the brutal goons of Sainsbury’s for oppressing a gay magazine.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.39.58 PM

These guys tread gingerly round Muslims when the UK government threatens their free speech, particularly if the excuse is “extremism.” What upsets them way, way more are infringements in their own little pigeonholes or professions — a journalist sacked, a newsrack missing a magazine that headlines them. Such misplaced priorities miss the point. True, states have have less power relatively in this globalizing age, and non-state actors more. But regime upon regime compensates for its impotence to superintend its economy or decide its budget by clamping down on what it can control: privacy or opinion, patrolling intimacies, gagging voices. Those are the spheres where state power rampages unmitigated and unharnessed, in London as much as Lahore. The police are the true menace to free expression around the world. The supermarkets aren’t even close. Ignoring the Ideal-Typus of evil and focusing on its marginal manifestations only abets the repression. (Conspicuously, such freedom paladins also paid no attention to the WikiLeaks release this week of horrifying documents from an EU-based Internet-surveillance company, showing its sinister dealings with dictatorships on several continents. This is where private enterprise really kicks in, selling technology to the censors and torturers. Governments’ power to monitor what you say and think grows faster than Moore’s Law, thanks to their corporate accomplices.)

For some advocates, the threat to free speech is governments jailing, silencing, torturing people. For other advocates, the threat is a student club no-platforming their friends.

I know where I stand. Do you?



The dignity of Greece

Crowds celebrate the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In one 2008 demo,

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

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

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

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

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

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

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

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

The second lesson is: democracy matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reification: Georg Lukacs in 1913

Not ready to be reified: Georg Lukács in 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he added:

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

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

Demonstrators spell out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Bindel sells her mind (not body)

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks by a white slaver

Julie Bindel is a British journalist, a fierce opponent of trans people’s human rights (they’re imitation women), and an abolitionist who wants to see sex work eradicated from the earth. Bindel is now raising money for a book she’s writing, to expose the “global ‘sex workers’ rights’ movement.” She “will outline the emergence of a powerful lobby — the sex workers’ rights movement — that works in favour of a total decriminalisation of the sex industry.” She is “planning to visit around thirty countries in order to conduct my research, taking me to the UK, the Netherlands, the Nordic region, Germany, South Africa, East Africa, North America, South America, France, New Zealand and Australia, South Korea, Turkey and India”: an itinerary curiously resembling that of the mythical white slavers of old. To fund this self-trafficking, she’s crowdfunding the project, and she’s already raised £6,773.00. She’d only asked for £6,500. All systems are go.

Bindel’s project is predictable: part of anti-sex-work eradicationists’ ongoing drive to paint all sex workers speaking out for their rights as pimps and punters in disguise. (A reporter who attended one of Bindel’s talks at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that her “presentation on ‘the politics of the sex industry’” was “a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles.”) Or, as Bindel herself exclaims — an old ally of my old friend Peter Tatchell, she shares his oracular way of dealing with opponents: Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 2.51.25 AM Bindel has the same strategy as rich and puissant abolitionist groups like Equality Now, who have urged “investigating” the paltry funding of sex worker advocacy with the zeal of prurient Mississippi congressmen ogling the Comintern. Those girls only seem to be ragtag sex dissidents; in fact they’re Stalin’s seed, a dark coven of subversives, “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man”! This myth of a monied, mighty plot by “sex workers” who are really pimps in drag is central to how the abolitionists think. They preen themselves on the heroic deeds of tiny Davids slinging at a sinister Goliath. All Bindel’s research and rhetoric, her travel and “tabloid-style personal attacks” and trolling, will be convenient tools to hide the basic fact: that sex workers’ rights groups are the least powerful part of the human rights movement, persecuted everywhere, unrecognized and underfunded, dissed and mistreated by governments and NGOs alike, even by LGBT activists who should share their goals of bodily liberty but sell their easy principles for the ignis fatuus of respectability. I don’t know a single sex worker’s rights movement in the global South that could easily muster the £6,773 Bindel ginned up in a few weeks. “Powerful lobby,” my white ass.

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

But here’s my question. Bindel offers benefits to people who give her money. Or as she puts it, “Those who pay will also have access to special rewards such as signed books, invites to a Q&A, and extra material.”

For £5 you get to “Access activity feed” (here’s my webcam); plus “early access to articles and” — lascivious, the ring of this — “extra content.” For £15 you get “right to ask questions individually.” (Talk dirty.) For £250 and more you get “All the below, plus coffee/lunch and a chat with Julie in London. You may also bring a friend.” Does Nick Kristof need to raid the premises and batter down the door, to rescue Julie from indentured slavery and a repulsive threesome? Should he bring Somaly Mam?

No, of course not. Back off, Nick. This enticement is fine, in Bindel’s book. She’s not selling sexual services, just mental ones. It’s only her mind that’s on the auction block.

You’ve got to get the value system straight. It’s not OK for women to sell sex, because sex is immensely precious, the essence of a woman, the cold gemstone set in her golden loins that establishes her value as a human being. (No wonder Bindel hates trans women; they lack the sex parts that make real women worthwhile.) It is OK when a woman sells her intellectual labors, as Julie Bindel does: because that’s just cheap, mass-market stuff you can find in any flea market in Brixton.

I’m glad I understand Bindel’s peculiar feminism now. Kapish. Let’s move along.

Flash-mob demo on International Women's Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

Flash-mob demo on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

Bird, down to the wire

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for all you’ve done over the years — your readership and cantankerous engagement have kept this blog going. If you can give a bit more, please do.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:

Donate Button with Credit Cards


The Duggars: Sex and the police

Madonna of the multiplication tables: Michelle Duggar with her newborn 17th child in 2007, surrounded by her family

Lady Madonna: Michelle Duggar with her newborn 17th child in 2007, surrounded by her family

I knew nothing about the Duggars until two days ago; and, as Karl Kraus might say, now that I know all about them I feel much less well informed. Apparently in America you can become a tourist attraction just by giving birth on schedule. Michelle Duggar did it at year-and-a-half intervals for 27 years, like a fertile Old Faithful, and she parlayed it into her own TV show. The Duggars spawned 19 children; they monogrammed the kids, all their names beginning with “J” (for daddy Jim Bob, or maybe Jesus, or the life-inciting jism); Mom has spent 144 months pregnant, 12 years of her life; they go through 16 boxes of cereal, 7 gallons of milk, and 40 loads of laundry a week. This isn’t a family, it’s a factory. They don’t give love, they produce shareholder value. Learning about them is like leafing through Enron’s glossy annual reports before the fall. The facts and figures impress, but don’t inform; their accumulation teaches nothing. Now that I’m familiar with the Duggars, I’ve diminished rather than increased my useful knowledge about the world.

Love on the assembly line: Bible before breakfast at the Duggars' dining table

Love on the assembly line: Bible before breakfast at the Duggars’ dining table

A gossip magazine made me taste, in matters Duggar, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Last week In Touch reported that eldest son Josh Duggar “was named in a police report as the ‘alleged offender’ in an underage sexual abuse probe.” It’s been nonstop furor since. Josh, 27, was a rising right-winger, a lobbyist for the wildly homophobic Family Research Council. He takes after his hardshell Baptist parents. From their Arkansas home, mother Michelle did robocalls last year opposing a local anti-discrimination law, warning parents it would allow trans people — “males with past child predator convictions” — to “endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space.” The scandal and the hypocrisy practically mandate gays and their friends to gloat.

I have no patience for the Duggars’ homilies, or for their show, which I never watched. (Their channel pulled it from the air tonight, endangering those breakfast bills but possibly forcing them to earn an honest living.) It’s the schadenfreude I question — and fear. Is demanding Josh Duggar’s head a blow for liberation? Or is it surrender masquerading as a victory? Does it give an inadvertent imprimatur to the punitive laws and the punitive state that have spent decades making LGBT people their victims? In playing along with moral panic, is it ourselves we hurt?

There’s plenty of “gleeful, gotcha-style excitement,” as Mary Elizabeth Williams calls it, out there.

Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 11.34.33 PMAnd there were a lot of unfunny jokes displaying zero sympathy for the alleged victims.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 10.00.58 AMBut what’s the truth? In Touch has now released the 2006 police report on Josh Duggar, their only evidence. It’s on their website, heavily redacted by the local constabulary. (They’ve blacked out not only names, but, weirdly, personal pronouns that are completely obvious from the context. It’s a pathetic attempt to make it seem police are protecting the Duggars’ privacy, when in fact they’re putting the ordeals of minors on display. In quoting, I’ve restored the missing pronouns in brackets where possible.)

The report is bureaucratic and boring, yet a wind of paranoia blows through it from the blanks and deletions, a window ajar on a menacing wilderness. A Victorian atmosphere of fear, silence, and suddenly forced speech cohabits with sunny split-level certainties, as though a Gothic novel had mated with The Brady Bunch. Start then with how the Duggars governed their brood. They were all homeschooled. The kids had limited contact with life outside – with what hardcore evangelicals call “the secular world.” All their curiosities and impulses had no object but each other. Sexual stimulation was an intense source of fear. The whole family had to wear “modest dress,” even in the swimming pool, as Mom Michelle explains:

[W]e felt like we needed to be covered from our neck to below our knees … [W]e don’t want to play peekaboo so that there’s a visual element that might defraud someone. For us the definition of the word defrauding is to stir up desires in someone else that cannot be righteously fulfilled.

Wholesome wear: Duggar girls model their undefrauding swimsuits

Swimsuit issue: Duggar girls model their wholesome, undefrauding swimwear

And amid this, in March 2002, one of the children told Daddy Jim Bob (as Jim Bob later told police) that Josh had been sneaking into a common bedroom and touching one of his sisters “on the breasts and vaginal area … this had occurred 4 or 5 times.” The victim herself only “remembered one time when [she] woke up and [Josh] was taking [her] blanket away, but [she] did not remember anything else.” This was definitely not righteous fulfillment. Jim Bob confronted Josh. At least two anguished family meetings followed, warning everyone about “inappropriate touching.” But in July of that year, Josh confessed to his father that he’d also touched the breasts of a girl from another family, while she was sleeping at their house, on the couch. “About 9 months later,” in March of 2003, according to Jim Bob, “there was another incident”; Josh touched one of the girls, who was sitting on his lap while he read to her. And, “sometime during this time frame,” while another daughter “was standing in the laundry room,” doing one of those 40 loads, Josh “had put [his] hand under [her] dress.”

Josh was born on March 3, 1988; this all happened when he was 14. The redactions in the report conceal how old the alleged victims were. From the details that slip through, I’d guess they ranged, when interviewed, from perhaps 10 to 16; since the police investigation happened over three years after the acts (I’ll get to that in a minute), that means they might – I stress this — have been 7 at the youngest, 13 at the oldest, at the time.

That’s a big gap. But it is also important to look at exactly what the police learned from these interviews. The children went one by one to the Springdale Children’s Safety Center, for an intimidatingly formal encounter with the cops. In each case, the report says, officers “started the interview by getting to know them”: by offering an anatomical diagram, perhaps a discomfiting icebreaker for a child.

Four of the Duggar daughters on the cover of their tie-in book

Fundamentalist fiction: Four of the Duggar daughters on the cover of their tie-in book

Start with the girl on the couch. She told police she remembered nothing except that she “half way” woke up and felt Josh “trying to take the blanket.” She “stated that [she] did not know what [Josh] had done until later,” when he “confessed that he had done some things wrong.” Josh “asked for forgiveness for touching [her] improperly” and for “having wrong motives.” The detective asked “if [she] had any worries, concerns, or if [she] was scared. [She] sad [sic] no.”

The girl guest in the Duggars’ house similarly had no memories of being touched. “It happened when [she] was asleep. … approximately three and a half to four years ago [her] parents got a phone call from Jim Bob and Michelle. [She] said they told [her] parents that they needed to talk … the Duggars came and apologized [to her. She] said that [they?] told [her] that [he] touched [her] while [she] was sleeping. [Josh] said it only happened one time.”

What the interviews do suggest is that after those family meetings, the whole clan was on sexual alert, especially though perhaps not exclusively where Josh was concerned. Police interviewed another daughter, whose story Daddy Jim Bob had apparently not mentioned to them. It’s not clear it shows abuse; it shows an atmosphere of intra-family suspicion where physical contact instantly received strict scrutiny. “Inv[estigator] Taylor asked if something happened. [She] said some thing happened a long time ago.” Josh “had touched [her] inappropriately … [She] said [he] felt bad about it.”

Inv. Taylor asked what happened to [her. She] said [she] did not remember much … [She] said she was walking through [?unknown] and [he] started scratching [her] back. [She] said her clothes were on, but [he] was scratching [her] back on [her] skin. [She] said [he] pulled her shirt up and touched [her]. [She] said [she?] felt bad about it and told their parents. [She] said [she] told them that he had touched her chest.

“He touched me inappropriately” sounds like repeating a parental warning. Specifics of the touch are vague, though. After pointing to breasts and vagina on an anatomical chart, “Inv. Taylor asked if anyone had ever asked [her] to touch them or make [her] do anything she did not want to do. [She] said no.”

Arkansas modernism: The great room of the Duggar's house

Fundamentalist modernism: The great room of the Duggars’ house

Another daughter described the reading incident. “it happened once when [Josh] was reading all the kids a book.” Seemingly all the children were in the room, and the girl was sitting on the arm of his chair. “ Josh “dropped the book and ran from the room.” Another sibling, it seems, “called their parents and told them what had happened.” Josh, the interviewee says, had

touched her on the skin … [she] was sitting down and had pulled [her] dress up because it had a hole in it. [She] said [she] had pants on under the dress and [he] pulled them down. [She] said [he] touched [her] private. [She] said it felt weird.

Inv. Taylor asked [her] to point to where [Josh] touched her on the anatomical drawing. [She] pointed to the buttocks and said it happened on the outside.

This incident seems weird indeed, not least because it happened in front of all the children. It’s not clear where he touched or how. But beneath the blurred details it’s reasonably clear that any “touching “Josh did by then, even under everyone’s eyes, could incite an indefinite but collective alarm.

Finally, there’s the girl in the laundry room.

Inv. Taylor asked if [she] knew why [she] was there for interview. [She] then started to cry. Inv. Taylor handed [her] a tissue. [She] said that [Josh] did something to [her] four years ago. [She] said [she] did not remember what [he] had done exactly. [She] said all [she] remembers is that [she] was on the washing machine and [he] picked [her] up and did something to [her]. … [She] said [she] did not remember what [he] had done. [She] said he had stuck [his] hand up [her] dress, but did not remember what [he] had done.

Her tears echo with me. But why was she crying? We don’t know. Was it because she was recalling a traumatic memory? Or did the trauma stem from being forced, in an institutional setting, to revisit for police an ambiguous incident that derived part of its meaning from family division, mistrust, and fear? Was the trauma in the event, the context, or the compelled retelling?

There are many things we don’t know about these stories, and many ways to read them. Something happened. Josh confessed at the time to “improper touching” and “wrong motives”; he “acted inexcusably,” he said in his ritual mea culpa this week. But how? He was never charged with any crime. (For more on why, see the Note at the end of this post.) I can only offer one subjective view.

Clearly Josh Duggar was a troubled child: an adolescent discovering his desires in repressive confines that gave them neither legitimacy nor outlet.The gamut of possible rubrics for his reported acts runs from odious to “merely” creepy. Why, though, is everybody sure the first recourse should have been criminal law and the police? There was no penetration, no intercourse, no incest, no violence, no force. There’s no clear sign that anybody suffered trauma, or any other harm. Most of the five girls remembered either nothing, or something too vague to be categorized, much less criminalized: a palimpsest of a seemingly minor experience and its subsequent panicked redescriptions. And even the number of his offensive actions remains indeterminable. Several of the later stories could be the product of a family environment already prone to moral paranoia about sexuality, and now perpetually on watch. We know too little to decide.

Photo depicts Josh Duggan at 27. Headline describes  Josh Duggan at 14. From

Photo depicts Josh Duggar at 27. Headline describes Josh Duggar at 14. From

The media are full of pictures of portly, 27 year-old Josh with the headline Child Molester. These deliberately obscure the fact that when it all happened, he was a child. Originally the “child molester” label meant menacing adults despoiling innocents. It’s only in recent years that we’ve come to believe that innocence is under threat from the innocents themselves.

And here, I think, the Duggar story melds with deep contemporary anxieties. Judith Levine has analyzed the rise, in American popular culture since the 1980s, of “a new ‘epidemic,’ the ‘sexualization’ of children; a new class of patient, ‘children with sexual behavior problems’; and a new category of sexual criminal perpetrator, ‘children who molest.’” Forms of sexual exploration that for decades or more, in a liberalizing society, had been unproblematic or normal for kids suddenly met a sharp punitive backlash. The very economic and social freedoms that many (middle-class) children enjoyed made parents fearful. “Experts” discovered danger in ever more private, domestic, and previously innocuous actions. Kids became the darkest threat to other kids.

As Roger Lancaster reveals in Sex Panic and the Punitive State, reports of child sex abuse in the US rose from 6,000 in 1976 to 350,000 twelve years later – a fifty-eight-fold increase. Was abuse exponentially growing? Were hundreds of thousands of survivors stepping forward? Or was the country in the grips of a panic, seeking sex and imagining abuse in gestures and conduct where they’d never been seen before?  Likely, the latter. The panic was also helpful to a Reagan-era state fortifying its police powers. The pedophile in the house, Lancaster writes, “circulates fear of crime beyond the inner city and into the outer suburb. He thus fosters security measures and watchfulness in places far removed from any crime scene. He anchors the culture of control firmly within the far-flung redoubts of the white heterosexual middle-class family.”

Panic is a wave of articles: Google NGram graph of references to

Panic is a wave of articles: Google NGram graph of references to “child sexual abuse” in books published 1940-2008

Creating the child pedophile proved a particularly potent trigger for fear. Levine cites a welter of stories:

In 1996, in Manchester, New Hampshire, a ten-year-old “touched [two girls] in a sexual manner” (he grabbed at them on the school playground) and was charged with two counts of rape. In New Jersey, a neurologically impaired twelve-year-old who groped his eight-year-old stepbrother in the bath was compelled to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law, a mark that could stigmatize him for life. In 1999, the newspapers briefly bristled with reports of a “child sex ring” in York Haven, Pennsylvania, in which “children as young as 7 .. taught each other to have sex.” An eleven-year-old girl was convicted of rape.

A single mother in Long Island, New York, tracked me down in 1999 to ask for help for her thirteen-year-old son, Adam, who had been accused of sexually rubbing against his eleven-year-old sister (she had boasted of her sexual experience to her friends, who were urged by her to report him to a school counselor). Adam was arrested, handcuffed, threatened with prosecution on adult felony charges, then placed in a youth sex offenders’ program in an austere Catholic residence (he was Jewish), where he was paroled after a year on the condition that he undergo at least another year of outpatient treatment.

A grandmother told Levine how a sex-offender institution kept her 11-year-old grandson locked up, despite pleas to release him. His refusal to confess, they said, showed he was “in denial.” After four years of incarceration for demanding what he was too young to call due process, the child killed himself.

Of course children can be violent; they can abuse and rape. And abusive sex within families is real. Accusations of incest have racked families I’m close to, even related to; I know how traumatic both the stories and the consequences can be. But Duggar was not accused of incest or violence or rape: only, and ambiguously, of fondling other children. Maybe we’ll learn something – some new story, from some new victim – that limns a conclusive horror. Till then, though, we need to ask the LGBT people piling on his case why they think he should be treated as the worst kind of criminal danger – and why the brand of “sex offender,” based on stories from his fourteenth year that led to neither charges nor conviction, should irrevocably make him a pariah a decade after the fact.

It’s clear what Duggar’s critics want to see: jail time, or worse.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 10.07.21 AMPresumed innocent? Forget it. Delusionary activists confuse the police report with a court conviction; without even a criminal charge, Duggar’s guilt is “confirmed.”

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 9.57.08 AMEven supporting the guy merits prison:

So did his defenders

And Dan Savage weighs in:

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 2.51.52 AM

Just pause there. Savage wants Child Protection Services to descend with their full panoply of powers on the parents twelve years after – not on the alleged abuser, who’s grown up and doesn’t even live in the house. (Of course, police already interviewed almost half the children without parents present.) Presumably he wants the law, after inflicting its own brand of trauma on the kids, to ship them all to foster homes. Savage endorses the principle behind sex offender registries, with a vengeance: that “sex crime” accusations deprive you permanently of your civil rights, along with everyone around you. A teenage misdeed marks you for life, and your blood relations. This is a new stage in Savage’s transition from self-proclaimed “sex radical” to exponent of middle-class paranoia at its most unthinking. He takes what authorities do to gay men as a model; he just wants it done to everybody else.

The premise here is that the parents led a “cover-up.” And the basis is that when Daddy Jim Bob first heard his son might have fondled his sister – an act she didn’t remember – he should have summoned the police immediately. Here the underlying fear becomes clear: when children have problems and sex is involved, it’s a criminal matter first and above all. The law’s the best and only remedy for troubled children; the overwhelming danger they present demands the most draconian intervention. It’s all quite odd. Plenty of liberal Americans admit that our cops are racist torturers, our prisons are overpacked, our courts are warped and broken, the system runs on retributive fantasies – until they come up against a crime involving sex. Then those courts are paradigms of fairness, those brutal police our best friends; then it’s lock them up and throw away the key! And they seem almost triply eager to entrust human lives to the corrupt and unscrupulous system when the accused is a fourteen year-old child.

Crime control, as Lancaster writes, has become “the ‘pivot of governance’” in America; and sex is central to it. The specter of sexual predation dominates American culture, more dangerous than almost any other threats – economic disaster, political disempowerment, even the violent crimes we used to fear. Only terrorism rivals it. It’s a mythic, not material, peril. Innocence, Lancaster says – “a euphemism for child sexlessness” – has become the “new watchword, apparently more valued than children themselves. And offences against this childhood innocence have become a crime capable of inflaming opinion, inciting juries, and inspiring rash actions.” It’s natural that these invisible wrongs become the place par excellence where the police recover their respectability, the law its utility, the state its power. What we don’t notice is how our secular fear of sex replicates the Duggars’ religious strictures.

I challenge anybody to say, if they were Josh’s parent, the first allegation would have led them to call the police. Daddy Jim Bob alerted the rest of the family, in what seems to have been a effort to protect them. Apparently he immediately contacted the parents of the one alleged victim outside the family – appropriately: that is, he put the choice of whether or not to summon the police in their hands. All this is not a “cover-up,” though it does reflect a reluctance to send his son to prison. Where his response failed conspicuously was in finding a therapeutic solution. Jim Bob consulted his church elders, he claims; mistrusting secular programs, he sent Josh to “a Christian program in Little Rock which they felt more comfortable with.” He doesn’t seem to have considered therapy for his daughters. And the program, if it existed (the details are vague) was probably awful. If the boy derived any benefit – the accusations did stop after he turned 15 – it may have been simply from leaving home for a slightly less hothouse environment.

Reportedly, the Duggars’ homeschooling courses used materials from Bill Gothard, a Christian pseudo-educational guru whose model curricula include discussions of sexual abuse like this:

CFoory8UkAAh7mK(There’s a whole website,, devoted to people damaged by Gothard’s teaching materials; and this page offers more insight into how his minions view abuse.) If that’s true, it suggests any therapeutic response to Josh’s deeds that the Duggars endorsed might have only have added to the problem.

But paranoia about sex is not exclusive to Christian-right therapy. Neither is the replacement of rehabilitation by stigma, shame, and blame. Levine writes how, in respected programs for supposed child offenders,

the distinction between punishment and treatment is becoming more difficult to discern. A great deal of what passes for sex-offender treatment (such as an increasing number of “emotional growth” and other behavior-modification programs for misbehaving and violent youths) has been challenged as dubiously therapeutic and even abusive in itself. Moreover, unlike kids whose sentences are meted out by the juvenile justice system, those who become entangled in the mechanisms of “cure” are denied the legal protections afforded even adult perpetrators of the most heinous crimes.

One program she visited, she says, was “surely not the worst”:

But it was typical of youth sex-offender “therapy” today: steeped in conservative sexual values, behaviorist in approach, and employing classic good cop-bad cop manipulations by staff. … the practice was anything but consensual, and the rights of both children and parents were all but disregarded. The minute a child touched his neighbor’s penis or buttocks, he had been assumed devoid of moral faculties; there was simply no debating whether what he did was wrong. A patient received no due process: as long as he protested his innocence, he was “in denial” (the psychotherapeutic equivalent of “in contempt”) and could be dropped from the program that was a prerequisite of reunification with his family. Or worse: His treatment, unlike a jail sentence, could go on for years, during which he relinquished his own and his friends’ rights to privacy. Anything he said could be reported to the authorities, and in many programs he was required to furnish the names of everyone he’d had sex with.

Is this child abuse? What’s certain is that it shares with the Duggars’ ideology a deep, disabling fear of sex. The fear is turned in different directions, but it’s equally overpowering. And it’s kids who suffer.

The next generation; Duggar daughter describes her delivery to People magazine, while Rock Hudson looks on in alarm

The next generation; Duggar daughter describes childbirth to People magazine last month, while Rock Hudson watches, unimpressed

The other aspect of the cover-up charge is that the Duggars kept this from the press. Presumably the fact they’re on TV created obligations to their inquiring audience; their kids’ juvenile offenses became fair game like any other minor star’s misdeeds. Even hypocrites and homophobes, however, have a right to privacy. In fact, the way this case became public followed a typical, invasive trajectory for juvenile sex cases: through gossip and suburban ressentiment. In 2006, an outraged 61-year-old neighbor e-mailed Oprah before the Duggars were due to appear on her show. Her missive seemed spurred more by jealousy than concern (“THEY ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM TO BE … JIM BOB LIES TO HIS CHURCH AND HIS FRIENDS TO MAKE HIM LOOK GOOD”). Oprah’s company passed the message to Arkansas authorities. The investigation ended without charge, but local rumors about Josh continued to swirl; that prompted In Touch to file a Freedom of Information request for his police records.

There is no rational excuse for releasing these records to a gossip magazine. However, as protections for accused juveniles in the justice system have eroded, so has respect for their privacy. A 1996 survey of “Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States” by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention noted stoically that

Until recently, State laws and judicial norms were established with the understanding that the preservation of the privacy of juveniles adjudicated in the juvenile court is a critical component of the youth’s rehabilitation. Today, however, in the face of increasing public concerns over juvenile crime and violence, government agencies, school officials, the public, and victims are seeking more information about juvenile offenders.

In this case, of course, the alleged “offender” wasn’t even formally accused. There were no charges, and the case never reached a court. An Arkansas judge yesterday intervened and ordered the police record destroyed: too late to protect the privacy of any of the juveniles involved.

Back in the days: The Brady Bunch, reaching less than one-third the Duggar family dimensions

Back in the days: The Brady Bunch, reaching less than one-third the Duggar family dimensions

I’ve no interest in defending the Duggars. Their ideology repels me, and their sexual anxieties are likely to demolish all their children’s lives. But neither are they a unique, deplorable freak show, detached from the pattern of American life. Their program lured a cult following among Evangelicals, but its bizarrely distended family dynamics had a wider appeal. For decades now, American audiences have been drawn to shows depicting super-sized families: The Partridge Family (five kids), The Cosby Show (ditto), The Brady Bunch (six), Seventh Heaven, Eight is Enough, John and Kate Plus 8, plus movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and many more. 19 and Counting was by the far the biggest, but its grotesqueries suggest what the fascination is about. For the Duggars, the family isn’t just a consumption unit, the way we’ve all been trained to feel. It’s a place of production, a factory of souls. Real work is done there, and that’s how it justifies its value in a fallen world. I remember what Joan Didion wrote, visiting the industrial barons’ palaces in Newport:

The very houses are men’s houses, factories, undermined by tunnels and service railways … Somewhere in the bowels of “The Elms” is a a coal bin twice the size of Julia Berwind’s bedroom. The mechanics of such houses take precedence over all desires or inclinations; neither for great passions nor for morning whims can the factory be shut down, can production – of luncheons, of masked balls, of marrons glacés – be slowed.

There are no marrons glacés in Duggardom, but the apple dumplings carry the same idea. Everybody produced, in Duggardom. Most of the toil was exploited and underpaid, 19th-century style; the kids got 3 cents per chore. Jim Bob calculated that “all the family members combined have worked approximately 39,000 total hours building their new house” – a figure that Qatar could envy, and that helps explain how the Duggars remained so proudly debt-free. Sex, too, was chained to the wheel of labor. The “Quiverfull” version of Christian Patriarchy to which they subscribed was all about maximizing reproduction; it turned women’s wombs into production sites for manufacturing little Christians – lots of them. The Duggars harnessed desire to the assembly line. Of course this Fordist vision of the family couldn’t last; desire escaped its bonds, disastrously. But you see their appeal; they gave an answer to anomic Americans wondering why the family should survive at all.

“Family” is, of course, a word to conjure with in gay life now, as marriage equality advances. And needless to say it doesn’t mean to us what it does to the Duggars. Our socially accepted intimacies aren’t production sites but proofs, a visible demonstration that we belong. Ours is the family as spectacle. It’s where you show the world you’re respectable, as good as them.

A family meant to be watched has to be kept in line, though. Opinion, gossip, the prurient side of publicity are enforcers of conformity. They punish the recalcitrant, the outliers. (It’s no coincidence that some of the most prominent gay men in America today – Michelangelo Signorile, Michael Musto, Perez Hilton – started as or still are gossip columnists.) But beyond chastisement by headline lie more brutal forms of power. Families in the US are zones of correction. They’re less and less private, more and more subject to surveillance, more and more ruthlessly criminalized when they go wrong. The law forces “deviant” famlies to conform. And childhood is no refuge from the law. To the contrary: get ‘em while they’re young. The US has more of its youth in jails and prisons than any other country in the world.

Chart-2When gay activists rage against the Duggars and demand draconian punishments for childhood fondling, they aren’t just taking revenge for the hate the Duggars aimed at them. There’s schadenfraude, but there’s something more. Everyone should, of course, have deep concern for Josh Duggar’s alleged victims. That doesn’t require relying on the prison-industrial complex to right the wrongs. The gays are putting themselves on the side of power as it works in the US today: on the side of the jailers, the side of privacy invaded, on the side of moral panic and against its victims.

There are plenty of reminders out there of how rumor and panic coupled with police power can destroy people, Just last week, a Texas appeals court finally overturned the convictions of Dan and Fran Keller. The couple were victims of the Satanic ritual-abuse panic of the 1980s, a witchhunt that saw hundreds jailed on charges ranging from ludicrous to insane. Terrified parents and eager police induced children at the Kellers’ day care center to tell stories of “videotaped orgies, of murder and dismemberment by chainsaw, of cats and dogs tortured and killed, of shark-filled swimming pools and a mutilated gorilla in Zilker Park, of corpses dug up and desecrated … of blood-soaked satanic rituals and of day flights to Mexico, where soldiers molested them before they were flown back to Austin in time to be picked up by their parents from the Kellers’ day care.” In 1992, they were sentenced to 48 years in prison. They served 21. They were finally freed in 2013, when the only physical evidence against them collapsed: an emergency room doctor untrained in pediatric forensics recanted, admitting that the signs of sexual abuse he’d supposedly seen on a girl’s body were actually normal variations. Voiding their convictions, the appeals court still refused to find them innocent. The Kellers, now in their 70s, remain under a permanent stain.

Fran and Dan Keller embrace outside the Travis County Jail on the day they were freed, December 2013. Photo by Debbie Nathan, who worked in their defense for years.

Fran and Dan Keller embrace outside the Travis County Jail on the day they were freed, December 2013. Photo by Debbie Nathan, who worked in their defense for years.

And there are cautionary stories that, for gays, should hit closer to home. Who remembers the boys of Boise? In 1955, in Idaho’s capital. police arrested three respected citizens for having sex with teenage boys. Local media seized the story to trumpet a threat to all the city’s children. “Crush the monster,” the Idaho Statesman warned. It went national: Time magazine claimed that a “widespread homosexual underground” had “preyed on hundreds of teen-age boys for the past decade.” Police hauled 1500 men in for questioning over the ensuing weeks. 16 eventually faced charges of “lewd conduct” or “infamous crimes against nature”; courts convicted all but one. Most got sentences from five years to life in prison. No children were protected; lives were ruined.

Then there’s Arkansas, the Duggars’ home. Three teenagers — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin, 16, 17, and 18 respectively — were charged in 1993 with the rape and ritual murder of three 8-year-old boys. Suspicion started because they listened to heavy metal music. They were queer, outcast, unmanly kids, the Devil’s brood. Media and churches wove a story of Satanic ritual abuse around the killings. In five to ten hours of intense interrogation, police pressured Misskelley into confessing and fingering the others. After their inevitable conviction, Lancaster writes, “New DNA evidence … established that the teens were not present at the crime scene. Forensic analysis concludes that the grisly dismemberments were the post-mortem work of wild animals, not ritual abusers.” In 2011, they won their freedom: the Arkansas Supreme Court refused to overturn their convictions, but resentenced them to time served. They had spent eighteen years in prison, with Echols on death row.

I’m sure the Duggars endorsed the kids’ ordeal; Satan is real for them. That’s not the point. Gays need to remember how panics work. When proof and privacy, doubt and due process disappear, it’s the deviant, weird, and unwanted who suffer most. Falling for the blandishments of power, you forget the people like you it hurt.

Promo for MIchael Signorile's radio show on the Duggan scandal. Ecstatic gays seem to be dancing in the background.

Promo for Mike Signorile’s May 2015 radio show on the Duggar scandal. Ecstatic gays seem to be dancing in the background.

Note. Why did the Springdale police not press charges against Josh Duggar in 2006? The police report peters out with a detective writing that he “had not been able to locate an offence inside of the statute of limitations of three years.” In the last week, this roused Twitter outrage that the statute of limitations was so low:

Screen shot 2015-05-24 at 2.43.13 AMIt’s more complicated. In Touch, breaking the story, claimed that “The charge being pursued while Josh was a minor was sexual assault in the fourth degree,” according to “multiple sources who have seen the police report and are familiar with the case.” Other media parroted this. But it’s wrong. The police report says differently: the most serious charge it lists is sexual assault in the second degree. Under Arkansas Code § 5.14.103 paragraph 6 (available through LexisNexis), that applies if “ Being less than eighteen (18) years old, the person engages in sexual contact with a person not the person’s spouse who is less than fourteen (14) years old.” (Arkansas Code § 5­.14­.101 defines “sexual contact” as “any act of sexual gratification involving the touching, directly or through clothing, of the sex organs, buttocks, or anus of a person or the breast of a female.”) In that form, second-degree sexual assault is a Class D felony, meaning it should have a statute of limitations of three years. There’s a catch, though: Arkansas Code § 5.1.109 stipulates that second-degree sexual assault has no statute of limitations “if the victim was a minor at the time of the offense.”

If I’m reading this right, then, the police were wrong about the statute of limitations. It’s possible they just didn’t know the law. Sex law in Arkansas, as in most places, is a confusing mess: a baroque welter of legal classifications imposed on impulsive acts. There’s another possibility, though. It should have been clear to any police officer, looking at the evidence from their interviews – the edifice of stray touches and forgetfulness — that this was a very flimsy case to bring to trial. Of course, in many sex-crime cases, evidence hardly matters; rumor is enough to prosecute. It’s possible, though, that they used the statute of limitations excuse to avoid admitting that what they’d found simply couldn’t sustain a high-profile prosecution.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Paper Bird: Three years old and growing

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from

Donate Button with Credit Cards

It’s midway through this month of fundraising for A Paper Bird. Please consider giving $5, $10, $100 — whatever you can – to keep us going strong.

If you visit this site regularly, you’ll agree: it gives a bit more than most blogs do. That’s why it’s been cited, and praised, from the New York Times to the Nation

It shines light on injustice. News about the crackdown on trans and gay people in Egypt has largely spread from here: we’ve been an indispensable source for journalists and human rights activists alike, inside and outside Egypt. We helped stoke the storm of indignation that freed 26 men in the most publicized Egyptian “debauchery” trial – an unprecedented victory.

It gives you facts behind the slogans. For analysis of why ISIS murders “gay” Iraqis, or what made Putin put Russia’s activists in his sights, or what’s the truth underlying rumors from Iran — you can turn here.

It asks the hard questions. What’s the real impact when the World Bank links preventing maternal mortality to LGBT rights? How do Western leaders’ bold promises to defend queer Africans play out on the ground? What does it mean when “vulture fund” bankers support gay marriage internationally? What are the hard choices we make in fighting for free speech?

This blog is still mainly solo work. I want it to become something bigger, more wide-ranging. Your generosity can help fund some of my own research and travel. If worse comes to worst, it can pay my legal fees in Egypt. But it can also:

  • Support some of the people who have been helping with research and translation (from Russian, Arabic, Farsi,and Hindi, and more) out of sheer dedication – but who deserve something more.
  • Help bring guest writers and new voices into the blog. The writers I’d like to see are activists from the South who don’t enjoy the cushion of time and leisure that lets Westerners opine for free. They deserve to be recognized – and reimbursed.

From now till June 5 – that’s my birthday – I’ll keep cajoling you to give a little to a site that gives you facts, scandals, sex, shocking pictures, snarky captions, stories of rights and wrongs, and ways to fight back. Press the Paypal button. Do what you can. And, as always, thanks!

Feed the bird. If you like this blog, please think about pitching in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards


Tweet for Egypt on IDAHOT: Why it’s important


Image by Amr Okasha for

It’s the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOT, for short). Here’s one important thing you can do. Tweet, or post on Facebook, or write on your blog with a message of support for trans and gay and lesbian Egyptians. Use the hashtags #Antihomophobia, or in Arabic #ضد_رهاب_المثلية . Or the hashtag #انا_مش_مجرم_انا_مختلف‬ — in English, it’s #‎Am_not_aCriminal_Am_just_Different‬ . Read more about the campaign here.

I’m usually sceptical of online activism: the conflation of clicks with change, the absence of any light at the end of the carpal tunnel syndrome. Twitter and Facebook, though, mean something different in Egypt. They didn’t create the Revolution — that was corporate propaganda — but they were spaces where possibilities opened. In the years of mounting discontent before 2011, when expressly political movements opposing Mubarak had mostly fragmented, dissident Facebook groups let people complain, communicate, and know the growing cyber-weight of their own numbers, During the Revolution itself, social media made news travel instantly: vital news, like which bridges were blocked, where snipers were lurking. (That’s why, on January 28, 2011, the government tried to shut the whole Internet down.) And after the Revolution, they were ways for an amorphous, acephalous movement to discuss itself, not exactly democratically but with anarchic exhilaration. (In the summer of 2011, the military rulers indicated a willingness to meet with a few activists; some ad-hoc leaders of the ongoing sit-ins in Midan Tahrir nominated a bevy of men. Women revolutionaries seized the highly public megaphone of Twitter to object, and debate the whole issue of representation.) None of this was problem-free. Dependence on virtual spaces distracted people from political organizing after Mubarak was overthrown. Tahrir activists’ inability to ally over the long term with rebellious labor movements, wildcat strikers, peasants, and others neither versed nor interested in Facebook debate was a devastating failure. This wasn’t any secret at the time: already in the summer of 2011, the famous dissident Alaa Abd el Fattah and others started organizing “#TweetNadwa,” face-to-face meetings among major revolutionary Tweeters (a phrase only imaginable in Egypt), to prise strategic discussions away from the smartphone screens. But I remember a story I heard from a leftist doctor, who helped bring some wounded young people to a hospital during the Ittihadiyya clashes in December 2012 — angry protests outside Mohammed Morsi’s presidential palace. The victims were bleeding, the emergency room nurses ignored them, and she started shouting for help. Two well-known revolutionaries stood in a corner, fixated on their smartphones. “Would you mind keeping it down?” one said. “We’re Tweeting.”

Revolutionary graffiti from Cairo: A freedom fighter wields a smartphone and Twitter

Revolutionary graffiti from Cairo: A freedom fighter wields a phone and Facebook

No: Twitter isn’t enough to change things. But it remains a start, a step. In Egypt, social media helped create alternative public spheres, which at certain points — when the regime was jailing opposition politicians in the late 2000s; when young people wanted to share their indignation at torture and corruption, as in 2008-2010 — were vital. During the Eighteen Days, when State Security went about slaughtering people on the streets, those alternative public spheres merged with the real, habitable public sphere in towns and cities across Egypt, the imaginary and the actual melding, and their accumulated strength — like a string’s vibration magnified in an enormous echo chamber — brought a dictatorship down. And now?

Public space in Egypt is shrivelling. You can go to jail for half a decade for joining a peaceful protest, and that’s if you’re lucky. If the stars align against you, police will murder you where you stand. Civil society is cowed, the press fawns fecklessly, political movements cringe and comply. You feel the contraction in smaller ways too, in the police harassment of downtown cafes and street salesmen, the message — punctuated by truncheons — that sidewalks and sociality are targets of surveillance and control. Social media are more and more important to people who still dissent; they’re places where you can still find others who either think likewise or are bold enough to argue back. After Mona Iraqi’s raid on the Bab el-Bahr bathhouse last December — a time when everybody I knew was convinced we were all going to be arrested soon — it genuinely was critical for embattled LGBT people that veteran revolutionaries, intellectuals, leftists and liberals expressed their outrage at the abuse, over and over, on Facebook and Twitter, in the only spaces left them. It meant solidarity; it told the government that its pursuit of victims and publicity had breached a barrier of fundamental decency; it gave the indispensable gift of courage. It almost certainly led to the men’s acquittal — an unprecedented retreat by a regime that tosses out guilty verdicts like confetti. It’s important this support not abate. It’s important to keep affirming, at the last extremity, the indivisibility of human rights.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

IDAHOT is essentially about the kind of public world we’re building. It was started in 2004 by Louis-Georges Tin, a French academic and activist, a sometimes difficult man but one who conceived a hugely persuasive idea. The day caught on with LGBT groups (and people) around the globe because it captured a grating dissatisfaction with the compulsory celebrations that Prides entail, the drumbeat message that everything is getting better and better and better. No, it isn’t. Hatred and violence persist. Creating specialized, carnival spaces to congratulate ourselves offers an escape but not necessarily a solution, and the more commercial demands shape those spaces — the more they’re about money and exclusion, the more you pay to party — the less they adumbrate the equal, diverse, and democratic public sphere that so many movements once had the temerity to dream. IDAHOT asked why homophobia and inequality flourish in the larger world, why public space still isn’t safe for us, and what we can do.  (Of course prejudice and violence are powerful and cruel in what we curtain off as the “private” sphere — families, homes. But we can only learn about that and respond to it adequately in a public world that’s open for argument.) Its festivities tend to feature discussion panels rather than discos. Sometimes, of course, this stifles politics as much as any Pride can. Listening to a self-appointed talking head lecture is no more intrinsically empowering than staring at a shirtless twink dancing in a cage. And if the head belongs to some droning government hack or politician, it’s not hard to figure out which to prefer. But the aspiration remains. And the question of what the public sphere should be like, and who belongs there, is crucial in a place like Egypt.

A lot is happening around the world this May 17. Take this IDAHOT video from Iranti, a South African queer activist group with a focus on visual media. It’s part of a campaign against imposed gender roles in schools — the way school policies, and school uniforms, reify kids into “masculine” and “feminine” roles. And the kids themselves speak:

Or watch this video, an interview with Kenyan activist Solomon Wambua, about families and coming out. It’s one of an extensive series produced by None On Record, an LGBTI digital media group documenting queer activism in Africa.

In Russia there’s a range of events, mostly hoping to evade the police, including rainbow flashmobs from Archangelsk to Tyumen. You can find a rundown here. (Check, too, the moving photo campaign that Russian trans activists organized for IDAHOT last year, to support depathologizing transgender identity.) And read this publication of the international Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, with reflections on freedom of expression by young queers from Romania to Nepal.

Photo circulating on Twitter, reportedly of a judge killed by gunmen in North Sinai, May 16

Photo circulating on Twitter, reportedly of a judge killed by gunmen in North Sinai, May 16

But remember Egypt, too. Tweet or post. You don’t have to be only a passive consumer of others’ activism. You can participate, in however seemingly-small a way, and help defend what public sphere remains. Yesterday the Egyptian regime, which is in love with death, sentenced the democratically elected president it overthrew to die, along with more than 100 of his supporters. A court declared that the Ultras — groups of football fans, children in their teens or youth in their twenties, whose only politics is a deep hatred of the thuggish police — are “terrorists.”  In North Sinai, already bleeding from a years-long civil war, gunmen attacked a bus carrying a group of judges to a court session, and massacred four of them. The regime loves just such deaths. This morning, the country woke to find itself in an intensified state of emergency, “maximum alert,” with ramped-up security patrolling the streets. A Tweet can’t do much against such violence, such repression: true. But it’s a small blow for space and speech, against silence. Where silence is in power, every word is precious.

Cairo graffiti, November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

No; but a Tweet may help. Cairo graffiti, November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Remembering the Queen Boat, fourteen years after

Defendants in the Queen Boat trial wait in court for the verdict to be read, November 14, 2011: photo by Norbert Schiller

Defendants in the Queen Boat trial wait in court for the verdict to be read, Cairo, November 14, 2011: photo by Norbert Schiller

The night of May 12, 2001 – fourteen years ago today – I worked in my office late. Back then I was program director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a US-based NGO. Sometime after midnight an email snapped me out of drowsiness, from someone in Egypt who called himself “Horus.” The evening before, police had raided a dance club on a boat moored in the Nile. They’d arrested dozens of men whom they accused of being gay. The stranger’s roommate was among them. He was afraid they were being tortured. He sent messages to all the human rights organizations whose addresses he could find. In the end, I was the only one who answered him.

His real name was Maher Sabry, and he effectively broke that story to the world. Police arrested thirty people on the Queen Boat on May 11, 2001, and threw them into cells with a dozen others whom they’d seized on the streets in the preceding days. They concocted a scandalous case of conspiracy, perversion, blasphemy, with obscure political motives behind it. The trial dominated Egyptian headlines for months. All the men’s lives were ruined. In the next three years, police raided parties and private homes in search of “debauchery”; undercover cops entrapped victims over the Internet; judges sentenced hundreds or thousands more to jail.

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Fourteen years have passed. Last week in Egypt, police in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh arrested a 26-year Jordanian citizen “wearing women’s clothes,” and charged the victim with “sexual perversion.” Al-Youm al-Sabbah, mouthpiece for the government’s ongoing moral panic, carried pictures, probably taken from her phone or laptop. The case went to prosecutors; it’s not clear whether she’ll be deported or sent to prison. Sharm el-Sheikh was where Generalissimo Sisi held his celebratory investment fair in March, to underwrite his brutalities with foreign money; perhaps, back then, the victim saw US Secretary of State John Kerry cruise by in a limousine. Major General Hatem Amin, head of the provincial security directorate, presided over the investigation. When Amin got his job in July 2014, he declared that one of his responsibilities (in addition to torturing alleged terrorists, which in Sinai goes without saying) would be to “finish the bridge of trust between citizens and police.” Trust is built over the bodies of the despised; this is a lesson from Sisi.

Egypt’s new rulers know how to commemorate an anniversary.

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

These banal numbers and blurred photos are about people’s lives. A 22-year-old who was arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001 told me what happened at the police station that night:

This officer who I think was a psycho came over to us. He started shouting abuse at all of us. He said to us, “I want the khawalat [faggots] to one side and the ordinary people to the other side. “ He was silent for a minute. “Of course, you don’t have any normal people, you’re all khawalat.”

Other officers came over and this officer called us out one by one. They looked us over. I was one of the first to be called out. I was well-dressed but he thought my clothes looked “girlish” though I was just wearing a tight T-shirt top, and a jacket, and pants with a little flower stitched on them, around the cuff. They all thought I was effeminate, all through this ordeal, so I was singled out for special attention. After that, he made me take my pants off to see what I was wearing underneath. … He told me, “Of course you are a khawal.” I said, of course not. And then he started beating me terribly. … He used fists and a hose. He beat me on my back with it. Over and over. I’ll never forget that.

This man, now my friend, eventually escaped to France. Another friend of mine, who lived in the provincial town of Tanta, told me how the police arrested more than eighty suspected khawalat in the city in 2002, after a gay man named Adel was murdered. They were all tortured to get information:

[One man] was hung up for four days without food or drink, by cuffs in the window … They tied [another man’s] hands and feet, and put him on a metal thing with two legs — a kind of metal sawhorse — and tied him so that he was hanging under it. He was blindfolded and naked. They attached wires to him and electroshocked him all night. They electroshocked his tongue. The next day they brought us in to him. He was lying on the floor in the office of the chief of detectives, where the torture happened. His tongue was swollen and hanging out of his mouth. I recognized his fingers and toes as they brought me in to him—there wasn’t much else I could recognize. I could barely understand him when he tried to talk. … An officer came in. He said, “Write down the names of all the khawalat you saw in Adel’s apartment in the last ten years.” He had shown him to us as a warning.

And here is the testimony of a young trans woman who talked to me last year. She and three friends were arrested in April 2014 in an apartment in Cairo, thirteen years minus a month after the Queen Boat:

The head policeman asked: “Do you have girls, weed, weapons in the apartment?” We said no. He said, “I am going to search this place.” … An informer [plainclothesman] said to the officer: “See how they look, they are all khawalat.” The officer said: “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people.”

They took us to the police station … They started hitting us in the face and kicking our legs, and touching us all over. The informers kept trying to pull my hair out. “Are these prostitutes?” the officer in charge said, and the other police said, “No, they are khawalat.”  He said, “In more than 24 years I have never seen khawalat so effeminate. Take off your clothes.” …

Another officer, when he was told we were khawalat, starting beating us violently … The officers began sexually abusing us, grabbing our breasts. One of the informers said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll put you in detention with the other prisoners.” … A “nice” clerk came and said, “They are sick people and you shouldn’t hit them.” Then he started taking a video of us.

.التكرار يعلّم الحمار  Or, as they say elsewhere: plus ça change

Egypt's finest torturers: police on duty in Cairo. Photo from Al Ahram.

Egypt’s finest torturers: police on duty in Cairo. Photo from Al Ahram.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Note: The testimonies from 2001-2002, along with many other stories, can be found in Human Rights Watch’s 2004 report, In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct.