Deport me!

gallery_1238284997So they’re going to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. My phone started ringing a few mornings ago, reporters wanting comments: solicitous but always with a subtext of What’s going to happen to you?

I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several days under arrest, the Egyptian was freed; police deported the Pole, who was still in agonizing pain. I heard all about it at the time, but there was nothing we could do.

Things are much worse these days under Sisi. I sometimes seem insouciant about threats in Egypt, but I’m not. iI’s just that the atmosphere of threat is general here. It affects every corner of your personality, yet it’s hard to take it personally, so wide is the danger spread. Here’s a story. Yesterday, talking with a reporter in the usual seedy Cairo café — a place I’ve always considered safe — I saw a well-dressed man at the next table listening intently. Finally he interrupted. He gathered I was interested in human rights, he said. What did I do? Did I work for Freedom House? Freedom House is, of course, a banned organization, its local office raided and shuttered by the military regime back in 2011. I said no. He added, almost enticingly, that he himself had been tortured, and offered to show me his scars. I gave him my contact information and told him to call me. That was simple responsibility – you do not refuse a torture victim anything you can give; but afterwards I cringed inside. It’s how things are in Egypt. Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Still: this story, the deportation story, went viral abroad. It’s strange because LGBT Egypt has not been in the international news much for months. When you deal with the media, you get used to its collective movements, puzzling as tidal motions when it’s too cloudy to see the moon, or the startled shuddering of gazelles racing in unison through tall grass. But other terrible things happened here recently. A man acquitted on charges of homosexuality tried to burn himself to death in despair. Police arrested an accused “shemale,” splaying her photos on the Internet. Egypt’s government threatened to close a small HIV/AIDS NGO because it gave safer-sex info to gay men. None of these got such press. The contrast is striking.

I learn three things from all this. First: our attention span isn’t what it used to be.

The world is everything that is the case, said Wittgenstein. These days we can click instantly on every fact about the world. When everything is the case, nothing might as well be; the excess of fact turns fantastic, the surfeit of reality becomes unreal. The LGBT arrests in Egypt had their moment of fame late last year, but the spotlight moves on; nothing is ever serious enough to make it halt. I’m not complaining about the press. In fact, many reporters have written about LGBT Egyptians both repeatedly and well (Lester FederBel Trew, and Patrick Kingsley have helped keep pressure up, among many others). But the attention span of news consumers, and activists among them, shrivels; and that’s a problem.

I often think of the long international campaign throughout the 1990s to repeal Romania’s sodomy law. A few Romanian friends and I started researching the fates of people arrested under the law after I moved to the country in 1992 (it was some of the first human rights documentation ever on the persecution of LGBT people). Bucharest finally repealed the law in 2001. Over those nine years the Council of Europe and the EU exerted pressure; so did international groups like IGLHRC and Amnesty; and so did activist circles from Soho to Rome. The agitation was steady, so persistent that every time a Romanian politician visited Western Europe he was sure of facing a noisy protest somewhere. It would be simply impossible to keep a decade-long campaign like that going today. Nobody has patience. These days, if the law didn’t disappear after a single summer of sign-waving, the anger would evanesce like early frost.

Consider the transient 2013 furor against Putin’s homophobia: with its boycott calls and Stoli dumps, the campaign survived all of seven months. None of its self-proclaimed leaders even remember it anymore. Abstaining from vodka for a few weeks had absolutely zero chance of making the Russian state back down. Seasonal activist infatuations are doomed. Repression doesn’t cower before fads. Change takes work, and work means the long haul.

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Dec 2013

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia (while dabbling in transphobia) in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

There is of course the well-known malady of “compassion fatigue,” a multisyllabic way of saying boredom. There’s been so much news from Egypt since the 2011 Revolution, so many twists in the plot, that even the most rapt listener gets lost. And isn’t the Middle East mixed up anyway? Six months ago, the enemy was the demon ISIS in Iraq. Now it’s the demon Houthis (who?) in Yamland or somewhere. Even the demons can’t keep themselves straight.

In fact, the confusion of cable news feeds the wiles of statesmen. “Compassion fatigue” serves a political end. Empathy, souring into self-pity about how overstrained it is, ignores inconvenient crimes. Egypt, by publicly killing “terrorists,” has planted itself on the side of the West. It’s best for all concerned to have minimal publicity about Egyptian state terror. After all, ISIS is worse — though they may have slain fewer civilians than Sisi. The Houthis are worse — though don’t they sound like they’re from Dr. Seuss? (And the distinction between being killed in Tikrit and killed in Tahrir Square may well look like the narcissism of small differences if you’re the one dead.) You might possibly remember Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Activist, journalist, poet, mother, she was murdered by security forces in Tahrir in January, while trying to place flowers in honor of the now-expired Revolution’s martyrs. A photograph of her dying in a friend’s arms broke through the wall of indifference; the story briefly travelled worldwide.

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

Last month the state pressed criminal charges. No, not against her killers. Against the witnesses who testified to prosecutors about her killing — because they’d joined an “illegal demonstration.” They could face five years in prison, for being there when Shaimaa was shot. Did you know that? No. The story’s over; we’ve moved on. It’s better you don’t know, because after all, your compassion might get tired; wiser to tend your valetudinarian emotions than defend exhausted dissidents, or the memory of those already murdered and past help.

Another lesson is: some people don’t count. Sex workers, for instance. I hate to say this, because it seems to give the Egyptian government a pass – but the idea that governments can exert moral controls at the border is not a Middle Eastern peculiarity. The US still denies entry to anyone involved in sex work. The American immigration bar on “moral turpitude” uses almost the same language as the Egyptian exclusion. Most gay Americans have no idea of this: because the American gay movement couldn’t give a shit about sex workers.

And then there are trans people. Most of the Egyptians arrested in the crackdown since 2013 were transgender. The government explicitly says it’s going after “she-males,” sissies, mokhanatheen. Nonetheless, most coverage by Western media – or by Western NGOs – talks about an anti-“gay” crackdown, as though sex were everything, gender irrelevant, and trans folk distractions from the main event.

The Egyptian arrests that got the most publicity were ones that did involve cis men: working-class clients of a bathhouse, or respectable bearded types doing the gayest of gay things in Western eyes, getting wed. In Egypt, as a colleague of mine points out, these gained extra-large headlines because they showed “perversion” at its most dangerous, infecting people like us, not just the pre-emptively anomalous. But they became poster boys in the West for similar reasons, because these were people gay readers could identify with, muscular and married, “normal.” Trans people doing sex work are neither nice nor news. Who gives a damn? Getting arrested is simply their destiny, their job.

In 2013 the Western press started reporting that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – were going to test and expel “gay” people at the border. There was a storm of stories about how dumb this was. Silly Arabs, setting up gay detectors in airports! Then it turned out the targets weren’t gay people (or Western visitors) at all. Kuwait had proposed chromosome tests for migrant workers, to determine if their genes and their IDs conformed. They meant to expel trans people coming from countries like Nepal (a major exporter of exploited labor to the Gulf) that now permitted them treacherously to change their passports. This wasn’t silly; it was scientific, and a much worse invasion of privacy than an imaginary gaydar machine.

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days.  From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days. From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

And with that, the stories stopped. Nobody cared about trans people – or poor Nepalis. The Human Rights Campaign, the US gay behemoth now going international, still claims in a recent report that the tests were meant to keep out only “gay” people. This isn’t a mere mistake; HRC knows better. But their members’ empathy, and donations, won’t get revved up for trans Nepali domestic workers. Purely hypothetical Western gay businessmen facing persecution, blond boys flying first class and unfairly driven from Abu Dhabi like Sarah Jessica Parker, are way more likely to stimulate the cash flow.

Bad migrants vs. good: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); Sex and the City 2 girls in Abu Dhabi (actually filmed in Morocco; bottom, if you didn't guess).

Bad migrants vs. good ones: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); the Sex and the City II girls in Abu Dhabi (bottom, if you didn’t guess).

And that shows a third lesson. Some people do matter. Some stories do break through. There are more important travelers than migrants or refugees. This story has legs because it implies that tourists, innocent people from the West, can be swept up in Egypt’s series of unfortunate events.

Sometimes tourists are victims of rights violations, and that must be condemned. But the most effective condemnations draw connections. What Westerners endure can bring attention to what others suffer.

In mid-2013, after the Egyptian coup, queer Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo. They were “tourists” in a broad sense, passing through on their way to work in Palestine. The paranoiac regime, which treats all real or imaginary opponents as terrorists, accused them of conspiracy. The international campaign to free them, politically astute, brought into focus the violent repression Sisi also inflicted on many others, including massacres of Muslim Brotherhood adherents. (A mark of how successfully Greyson’s and Loubani’s case illuminated Egypt’s whole human rights record was how they pissed off Canada’s equally terrorist-obsessed right wing.) And Greyson has passionately kept on doing so since his release.

On the other extreme, I have miserable memories of the embattled gay pride in Moscow in 2007. A flock of foreigners came, European politicians and minor celebrities, many hoping to garner a little publicity for the cause and themselves: get arrested briefly, spend an afternoon in jail, give a press conference. It was no more intrinsically offensive than taking selfies at Bergen-Belsen. They inadvertently drew the media away, however, from the young Russian marchers arrested at the same time, sent to jail in the Moscow outskirts with no cameras attending. They also monopolized the lawyers; the young Russians had none. I’m afraid the Moscow Pride circus is more typical of what happens when Westerners get involved than was John Greyson.

Nicholas Kristof, white-savior-in-residence at the New York Times, has written how nobody cares when he just describes foreign brown folks and their strivings. It takes a “bridge character,” “some American who they can identify with,” to “get people to care”:

It hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters … Often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection.

But it never works. Read Kristof and see: all the sympathy goes to the span itself, to the charismatic white connecting hero. Nobody’s attention makes it to the other side. Whatever happens to me, in Egypt or anyplace else, God save me from being a bridge to nowhere.

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

And here’s the heart of the matter. The context for this latest case is twofold. Egypt’s government has been cracking down on gender and sexual dissent for a year and half. But it’s also been whipping up xenophobia, fear of foreign influences, hatred of foreigners themselves. Now it’s figured out how to make those two kinds of incitement meet.

Westerners have been targets of Egypt’s xenophobic campaign, painted as conspirators against the country. Michele Dunne, an American expert on Egypt, was turned away at Cairo airport in December in retaliation for her criticisms of Sisi. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch was expelled last August. Last month the government announced it would stop granting visas on arrival to most Western visitors, requiring applications in advance instead. It was a move to keep unwanted critics out. But Egypt understands how vital its already-moribund tourist industry is, and how restricting visas might scare the last few pocketbooks away. The measure was “postponed.”

Although this deportation case dates back seven years, the way the government is publicizing it now – while it’s arresting alleged LGBT people on a massive scale – suggests they have new plans to put these powers to use. The truth is, though, that Western tourists won’t be the easiest targets. Those who’ll suffer most will be from poorer African or Arab counties, those who don’t spend dollars, whose embassies won’t lift a digit to defend them: or – still more defenseless — suspected trans or gay people from Egypt’s communities of refugees.

Some Middle Eastern states have been welcoming to refugees. Syria – though one of the poorest countries in the region – took in waves of displaced Palestinians from the nakba till now, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis after the Bush invasion. Egypt has not, on the whole, been on the hospitable side. The national identity inculcated since the 1950s is intolerant of ethnic difference and of influences from outside. The state has accommodated refugees – Sudanese since the 1990s, Iraqis and Syrians now – but reluctantly; it harasses them, denies them political rights or permanent status, and insists it’s only a transit point for loiterers who eventually must move along. And ever since Sisi took power, refugees have been vilified by state-promoted xenophobia. Syrians and Palestinians are especially singled out. But every refugee in Egypt lives in anxiety. There are plenty of LGBT folk among them. (Last fall a cohort of plainclothes security forces raided the apartment of a gay Syrian refugee I know. They searched his papers, computer, phone, and noted all the gay-related documents and photos. They didn’t arrest him. They just wanted him to know they were there.) This publicized decision will only sharpen their fear.

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

The fate of refugees in Egypt is not just abstract for me. It’s bound up with guilt. In 2003, working for Human Rights Watch, I lived in Cairo for several months. Two days after I arrived, police began arresting refugees, mostly African, in sweeping raids in neighborhoods where they clustered. Such harassment is recurrent; most were freed in days; but, covering the raids and talking to the victims, I got to know some of the community leaders. In the next months, they organized many meetings for me with refugees in Cairo, so I could hear their stories. I thought perhaps the documentation could push Human Rights Watch into reporting on the situation in detail.

Most of the people I talked to were South Sudanese, survivors of the civil war raging there for 20 years. We met in their cramped flats; in the dusty courtyard of All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, an asylum where police rarely intruded; or in rundown Coptic churches in Shobra, where fellow Christians had afforded the South Sudanese some space.

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo was and is one of the slowest in the world.  It could take UNHCR years — it still does — just to schedule an intake interview. Until the UN formally recognized them as refugees – three, five, seven years after their arrival – the displaced had no legal rights in Egypt at all; after that, they had to wait more years for the UN to resettle them in a third, safe country. Some had been in Egypt for well over a decade. Meanwhile, they endured constant harassment, joblessness, humiliation. Nobody outside the community had listened to them before. Women working for a pittance as maids told me about sexual harassment and rape. Some men sold their organs to survive. Police picked them up off the streets, beat them, ignored the UNHCR’s hapless interventions to protect them; there were stories that some refugees, randomly arrested, had been driven south and deported illegally back across the border, to Sudan and death. The waiting and fear drove some people mad. One courtly man of about fifty took me aside at a church meeting. He had been tortured in Sudan; he showed me a scar on his arm. He had many narratives of persecution, but most embarrassing now, he said was an unbearable rumor circulating all across Egypt that he had a tail. He showed me medical documents, testimonies elicited from doctors in English and Arabic, painfully certifying that he was tailless. He also gave me a typed personal statement, in English. “Among the many crosses I am compelled to Bear, in a long Journay and much Torture, the widespread libel that I am a Tail Wizard is completely Unfounded.” Others at the meeting treated him with deference, as if they envied the relief in his delusions.

I began to feel uneasy about these meetings. My presence was an implicit promise that I would do something, and there was nothing I could do. In February and March Egypt’s security state moved on to arresting and torturing hundreds of leftists opposing the Iraq war. I had to document that, and gradually my meetings with the Sudanese lapsed. Human Rights Watch, its refugee program stretched thin, never produced a report on these abuses (though in recent years they’ve documented, in harrowing detail, the monstrosities traffickers inflict on desperate African refugees in Sinai). I still think of my inability to provide some concrete assistance as one of the worst failures in my twenty-five year career, and I can’t remember it without shame.

Now there’s another basis, inscribed in law, for harassing some of them.

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Some refugees tried to speak up about their endless agonies. Two and a half years after I left, in September 2005, Sudanese started a sit-in before the Cairo UNHCR offices, demanding faster processing of their claims. The UN treated the protest with contempt; one staffer accused them of wanting “a ticket to go to dreamland.”

Three months passed; then UNHCR called in the authorities. On December 30, 4000 police surrounded and shot at the unarmed Sudanese. At least 27 died, including eight women and between seven and twelve children. Thousands were arrested; among those, hundreds who had not yet been given refugee cards by UNHCR faced deportation. The first dozen Cairo planned to deport included three women and a child. “Egypt has dealt with the sit-in of the refugees with wisdom and patience,” the country’s foreign minister said.

A Sudanese removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

A Sudanese man removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

Ten years later, this massacre is forgotten in Cairo. It never figures on the list of Mubarak’s crimes. Nobody bothers to remind UNHCR of its complicity in the killings. Refugees don’t matter.

The massacre did merit brief mention in a text that’s become a Bible for right-wingers warning about the Muslim peril. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West is a 2009 book by conservative American journalist Christopher Caldwell. Seemingly ignorant that the demonstrators were Christian, he uses the protest to press his case — distorting it, insulting the dead in the process:

3000 Sudanese camped in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo to seek refugee status. What was bizarre was that many of them already had refugee status in Egypt. So these were bogus petitioners in the sense that what they were really seeking was passage to some country more prosperous than Egypt. The sad ending to the story, though, shows that the line between “real” and “bogus” calls for help is not always easy to draw: in the last days of 2005, Egyptian riot police attacked the encampment, killing twenty-three [sic].

Bogus vs. real migrants: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

Bogus person vs. real one: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

That’s not true. Either Caldwell, who claims to be an immigration expert, doesn’t understand refugee law, or he’s just lying. I think he’s lying. Egypt doesn’t grant anybody “refugee status.” It has no national asylum procedures at all. It gives people whom the UN recognizes as refugees (the status most of the the protesters were still waiting for) a limited right to stay, but only temporarily, on the understanding they will eventually be resettled elsewhere. The dead Caldwell defames were not “really seeking” someplace “more prosperous.” They were asking the UN to do its mandated job, to find them a country that would give them the legal right to live.

Caldwell is a fool, but he’s right on one thing: this is all about the bogus and the real. It’s about belonging. Egypt’s government is now deciding who belongs or not, who’s a real or bogus person. The gays are fake people, void of the authenticity and weight that might entitle them to stay.

But isn’t that how we readers, sympathizers, citizens use these stories too, to separate the wheat from chaff? We winnow the fit objects of our concern from the unwanted ones, from those whose sufferings don’t ring true because we don’t recognize ourselves in them. Tourists count, not migrant workers. White travelers count, not brown refugees. Gay, yes; transgender, no. We each mistrust the incomprehensible stranger, you as much as I do. We were all strangers once in the land of Egypt. But we forgot.

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

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Indiana: It’s more than marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Public accommodations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Religious freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Equality

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

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

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

Cover of NAACP pamphlet explaining the Civil Rights Act

Cover of NAACP pamphlet explaining the Civil Rights Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion police

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

I agree; fashion is an art. But it’s a strange one. The other arts always held out promise of escape, or at least aloofness, from the ravages of time; they gesture at a world more lasting than our fragile and fugitive flesh; from a vantage mimicking eternity, they pass judgment on our inconstancy, like Rilke’s marble statue: “You must change your life.” Fashion, though, is within time and of the moment. It feeds on the awareness that what’s beautiful this spring won’t last till next season. Impermanent in essence, it inflicts the same transience on its consumers. You merit fashion mainly in those evanescent years when you are young and thin enough to be worthy. Brightness falls from the air; Prada has no patience for middle-aged weight gain. “The grand problem,” Coco Chanel said, “is to rejuvenate women.” But of course that’s impossible. Mercurial and mutable, fashion rejuvenates only itself, yearly; it leaves the women behind.

Fashion is art for an era that believes in nothing but its own acceleration. Fashion is the Sublime indexed to inflation. As the world speeds up, moreover, it comes to resemble the fashion industry, which takes over all of life in an osmosis of mimesis; a business that runs on models, becomes the model for everything. Lately this is also true of human rights.

That’s my thought on the Dolce & Gabbana furor, which is a fable for our time. You know the basics. In an interview an Italian magazine published last week, the two living labels — gay, and former lovers too — announced they don’t believe in same-sex parenthood. “The family is not a fad,” declared Gabbana. And Dolce (they still seem to finish each other’s sentences) said, “I am gay, I cannot have a child.”

You are born and you have a father and a mother. Or at least it should be so. That’s why I’m not convinced by what I call the children of chemicals, synthetic children. Wombs for rent, seeds selected from a catalog. …. Procreation must be an act of love; even psychiatrists are not prepared to deal with the effects of these experiments.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

The outrage broke when Elton John took to Instagram: “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’ …. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.” That’s a cruel cut. And: “I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana.” D&G retaliated by calling Sir Elton a “fascist.” RIcky Martin and Victoria Beckham and other celebrities jumped in to defend him. Overnight #BoycottDolceGabbana was trending. An employee of the Peter Tatchell Foundation named Peter Tatchell called for public protest:
Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 5.16.00 AM

D&G fought back by claiming, more or less, that Twitter terrorists were trying to censor and kill them.

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Comparing themselves to the dead of Charlie Hebdo tended to magnify the anger. Still, Tatchell has also recently accused his detractors of wielding Twitter to try to murder him. Maybe the pair were bidding for his sympathy.

This whole story is pregnant, by God-given or artificial means, with implications.

First, the interview was astonishingly stupid for a couple of gay businessmen who cultivate a market niche among gay men. But it wasn’t spontaneously stupid. D & G have been trying to appeal to more conservative consumers for years. The pretext for the interview, in fact, was to publicize a project the company launched in 2013: #DGFamily, inviting people to submit portraits of ancestors, spouses, kids, to an online corporate collection. “The family is our point of reference,” the project website quotes Gabbana and Dolce. (Queer families who want to protest D & G might try sending their pictures; I don’t notice any same-sex couples in the gallery.)

This touching pictorial display was about rebranding D & G as traditional, less promiscuously trendy. When Gabbana claims “the family is not a fad” — thus distinguishing it from everything they’ve made their money on — he’s invoking a timeless realm beyond the vagaries of fashion. (“There are things that must not be changed,” Dolce chimes in, sounding like an oatmeal commercial. “And one of these is the family.”) That gives the company a tinge of permanence rather than constant newness. But he’s also lying. He’s making the family a fad; it’s part of an advertising campaign. The dynamic by which the traditional becomes the fashionable, and is sold as such, is a familiar one in capitalism. Nothing is immune to commodification, no value too solemn or secure to escape subjection to the capricious humors of the market. G and D may speak of the family as a pristine cultural unit, but they treat it as a luxury D & G product. Even the line about “synthetic” or “chemical” versus “natural” children sounds like a backhanded stab at polyester. The duo may well honestly believe in the virtues of an imaginary world where superglued mother-and-father units spawn incessantly without assistance; but it’s absurd for them to pretend this is purely a “personal view.” It’s calculated outreach to a different set of consumers. Their mistake was to mouth off too much, and anger other consumers in the process.

I'll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

I’ll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

Second: People have every reason to be outraged, most especially parents who dearly wanted children, and used the “synthetic” means — assisted reproductive technologies (ART) — the designers denigrate. But since the issue for D & G is the corporate image, the most meaningful response has been from those who ricochet images back. Parents have been posting beautiful photos of kids born through in-vitro fertilization (IVF), all over social media. It’s simple and lovely and it shames Dolce & Gabbana with a minimum of effort.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 4.57.15 AMIs it worth more energy than that, though? Cries for boycott and demonstrations seem disproportionate to the danger. If a self-styled human rights group like Tatchell’s foundation calls a protest, they must mean a human right has been violated. How? Insulting people isn’t the same as threatening their freedoms. D & G’s offensive statements will hardly make life worse for LGBT parents or their children. The designers don’t dictate laws; they don’t deepen stigma. (Alabama, where LGBT people’s families do face profound discrimination, is very unlikely to intensify its prejudices at the beck of two Italian queers.)

A real boycott, meanwhile, is a political act. What’s the purpose here? A real boycott should have demands; and no one has suggested getting anything from D & G. A real boycott should weigh strategies and targets. Scott Wooledge, a maker of Internet memes who chases all the big gay Twitter storms, had this dialogue with a skeptic yesterday; it suggests a paucity of thought and purpose.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 2.01.50 AMGot that? Remember: gays are never poor, and they shouldn’t worry about the poor. The poor are interchangeable as off-the-rack clothing. They can always earn a dollar an hour somewhere, sewing purses in 14-hour shifts to buy those ugly rags they wear.

This pseudo-boycott isn’t politics. It’s celebrity dodgeball, Elton versus the Italians. In the manner of big-name grudge matches, it also attracts celebrity wannabes like Peter Tatchell, straining to scrape up leftover attention. It’s a show of muscle-flexing too, a few folks boasting, on behalf of LGBT communities they don’t particularly represent: Don’t tread on me. But beyond that, there’s no goal.

In fact, there’s one place where condemning D & G’s statements might have some political effect: back home, in Italy. Same-sex couples enjoy no legal recognition in Italy, denied both marriages and civil unions. Single people cannot adopt children — and that also bars gay people, since even same-sex partners are legally single. A 2004 law on assisted reproductive technology severely limits its use, and prohibits it for single women or couples without legal status. On the other hand, Italy’s Constitutional Court has demanded a “protective law” for same-sex couples to confer recognition short of marriage; it has also rolled back several provisions of the ART law. Parliament ignored these judgments. There’s an opportunity to use this anti-Dolce backlash to boost campaigns for tangible, feasible change in Italy.

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

But nobody outside Italy has raised this possibility. It hasn’t crossed their minds. To follow through would take the boycott-backers a bit of research — ten minutes on Google. More seriously, it would require reaching out to Italy’s LGBT movement, hearing their advice, negotiating a strategy and message. That’s the hard part; that’s politics. And it’s much more satisfying to feel you’re a solo hero, fighting the demon designers on your own, at home, Tweeting.

And here’s another point.

Remember Russia?

Elena Klimova

Elena Klimova

On March 5, a court in Murmansk, Russia, punished an organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It fined them 300,000 rubles (around US $5000) because the group had failed to register as a “foreign agent,” the crippling label Russian law lays down for organizations that accept external funding. This came after another court, on February 12, slapped an identical fine on an LGBT group in Archangelsk, for the same crime. On January 23, a district court in Nizhny Tagil found Elena Klimova guilty of “propaganda” for “non-traditional sexual relationships,” under the famous, repressive 2013 legislation. Klimova had founded Children 404, a web project providing psychological and social support for LGBT youth. The judge denied her a lawyer and fined her 50,000 rubles (over US $800). What’s left of Russian civil society is being ground away, activist by activist, group by group.

You haven’t heard these stories, yet you have heard about Dolce & Gabbana. A year and a half ago, LGBT Russia was big news. That was when the fresh laws against civil society and LGBT speech still went largely unenforced. Yet from L.A. to London there were boycotts of Russian vodka, protests against Russian musicians, a whole hashtag storm around the Sochi Olympics. Foreigners trekked to Red Square to raise rainbow flags; celebrities like Harvey Fierstein and Elton John lamented the plight of queer Russians with Dostoevskian prolixity and pain. That lasted six months or more. Then it stopped. The same people Tweeting about Dolce & Gabbana now are often the ones who waxed loudest about Russia then; but with prosecutions under Putin’s laws launched in earnest, they’re silent. Fierstein — whose New York Times op-ed set off the 2013 frenzy — ignored the recent trials. So has Dan Savage, who back then demanded the gays swear off Stolichnaya. So has Jamie Kirchick, who became a minor star for walking off the Swedish set of Putin’s propaganda channel RT to protest homophobia. So has New York-based Queer Nation, which led many fine demos. Peter Tatchell Tweeted once about Elena Klimova’s sentence, but passed over the others. It’s deafening indifference.

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

It’s not as though Russia and Putin ceased to be headline fodder in the last year. But the Internet-fed furor over Russian homophobia was never a campaign capable of the long haul. There was never any effort to build a resilient structure, ally with other movements, or recruit students or reach into unions or explore other stories of international solidarity. There was never much strategy, just publicity. There were flash-mob attacks on labels like Stoli, which doesn’t prop up the Russian economy; there were no campaigns to get governments to stop buying Russian gas and oil, which do. There was faith that Barack Obama had some magic sway over Moscow. And there was wild over-optimism that hashtags and Embassy protests would manage, in six months, to make Vladimir Putin back down. Five days into the Stoli boycott, blogger John Aravosis exulted that they’d “pressure the most important brand of all, Brand Russia and its leaders in parliament and the Kremlin, to make permanent change on this issue – if for no other reason than to simply make us all just go away.” This assumed Putin gave a damn, or regarded Russia as a “brand.” He didn’t. When the promised quick victory failed to come, virtually everyone gave up. Energy and enthusiasm and idealism infused the campaigning; sadly, they were squandered. The laws still stand. The trials are starting. The Tweeters have moved on.

Campaigns like this try to make it look easy. They obscure the truth: that politics is not quick or solitary, that solidarity is hard. The gays have a boycott almost weekly, steady as the Two Minutes’ Hate: it’s Barilla, or Mozilla, or Brunei, or something. Few such campaigns have contributed to any substantive social change. Many don’t even try. Boycotting Dolce without a declared goal isn’t pressure; it’s self-expression. As a result, they last only as long as it takes for people to get the anger out of their systems: the noble Russian campaign was a Methuselah compared to most of them. This erodes the patience real change requires. Our political attention span is barely longer than the mayfly’s lifecourse. Look up the mayfly, people. Do some research.

Meanwhile, some corporations do terrible, material harm to LGBT people, not just dissing their relationships but colluding with their torture. They go unboycotted. What about GE and BP, which recruited for the investment summit of Egypt’s head persecutor General Sisi, and are sinking millions into a dictator’s private economy? What about the Silicon Valley-based Blue Coat Systems, which sells Sisi surveillance equipment that can record every keystroke Egyptian queers type? Where are the hashtags? Where’s the outrage?

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Through these priorities peer some of the disorders that afflict Western LGBT experience. A fascination with celebrity runs deep in gay men’s cultures. It’s partly founded in the persistence of the closet, the years of our lives that withered in concealment; the memory breeds envy of lives led in utter exposure, the unreserved nudity of fame, stars with skin and secrets open to the world like French doors. As a result, the purely verbal sins of celebrity designers matter more than the depredation wreaked by a little-known, torture-enabling CEO. And a British comedian’s directives outweigh anything a mere activist in Russia or Italy can say.

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

But there’s also the way that gays, with identities demarcated by desire, define themselves less and less as political participants, more and more as consumers. Boycotts can be useful tools to change things, but they can also feed this apathy. I wrote in 2013, and nothing’s changed: “If the gays stay apolitical, it’s because campaigns like this encourage them to think of their beliefs, values, and political actions as consumer choices.” Taking sides is picking “brands”:

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

One last fact: there’s almost no LGBT organization with any political power in North America that’s democratically run. They’re either behemoths governed by unelected boards, or the odd authoritarian one-man show. Other activists have few ways to participate except by giving money. This fosters more and more roving Lone Rangers, accountable to no one, locked outside.

You can argue the causes; but you can see the consequences. Things accelerate, and the focus goes. Human rights present themselves as immutable values, the preserve of universals in an incoherent time. Yet as abuses multiply, politics and principle — strategy and capability — play less part in deciding which rights to defend, where to concentrate concern; taste takes their place, capitulation or whim, mass gusts of emotion across computer screens like the wind bending tall grass. This month it’s Uganda; next month, Egypt. There’s no persistence; the future erodes. Conscience is the creature of fashion. You can protest Dolce and Gabbana if you like; they’ve won already. It’s their world we live in.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it's not synthetic.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it’s not synthetic.

John Kerry to LGBT Egyptians: Enjoy jail

It's so funny. Sometimes I forget who I've just been torturing: Sisi meets with Kerry in Cairo, September 13, 2014. Photo: Aswat Masriya/Reuters

It’s so embarrassing. Sometimes I forget who I’ve just been torturing. Sisi meets with Kerry in Cairo, September 13, 2014. Photo: Aswat Masriya/Reuters

I have on good authority from sources here in Egypt that US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the much-hyped “economic development conference” to be held March 13-15 in the Sharm el-Sheikh resort.

The conference is a giant attempt by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime to boster its legitimacy with an increasingly skeptical public, by showing it can entice international investors. The hopes he’s raising are all trickle-down ones, without much trickle. Most of the projects he’ll hawk to bankers and businessmen will be of no benefit to ordinary Egyptians — though they promise profits to well-placed construction and real estate magnates who made their fortunes under Mubarak’s dictatorship, and have been key Sisi supporters. Up for grabs, for instance, will be shares in this $20-billion glass-and-steel pyramid: planned as the tallest building in Egypt, and to be named after the founder of the United Arab Emirates, which is expected to make the down payment. This grotesque monument says something about Sisi’s Pharaonic dreams. To the tens of millions of Egypt’s poor, it’s a 600-foot middle finger.

The General says it's looking good. Now all we need are the slaves to build it.

The General says it’s looking good. Now all we need are the slaves to build it

The US already gives almost 1.5 billion in mostly military aid to Egypt. Kerry won’t be bearing many gifts on top of that; there’s practically no more to give. His job will be to help sell Sisi’s government to the fat-walleted but skeptical. He’s there as a PR agent.

Since Sisi’s 2013 coup, Kerry has shown little or no concern over burgeoning, brutal rights abuses in Egypt. (He’s largely ignored efforts by the US embassy in Cairo, and by Anne Patterson, assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, to keep the rollback of democracy on the agenda.) Last summer, for instance — in a callow slap in the face to Egypt’s embattled human rights activists — Kerry handed Sisi almost $600 million in suspended US military aid, along with 10 long-promised Apache helicopters, just one day after the regime mauled and arrested dozens of protesters against its draconian anti-protest law. Among those jailed (and now serving two years in prison for the crime of carrying signs on the street) were the democracy activist Sanaa Seif — daughter of the late Ahmed Seif el-Islam, Egypt’s best-known human rights lawyer — and my friend the brave feminist Yara Sallam. Political prisoners in the country now number, by many estimates, over 40,000.

The UK human rights group Reprieve has condemned the British government’s decision to join the Sharm el-Sheikh gala. “Economic development must go hand-in-hand with respect for human rights,” says Reprieve’s Maya Foa; “but while the Egyptian government presides over a wave of human rights abuses, the UK’s ‘business as usual’ approach is giving it the imprimatur of approval. …. Ministers should use President Sisi’s summit to demand justice,” she adds,”before it’s too late.” But Britain, cautiously, is only sending a junior minister to the summit. What can be said when the leader of American foreign policy himself shows up to raise money for a killer regime? It’s no surprise when the United States ignores the crimes of dictatorial allies. But when it rents out its highest diplomat as their lobbyist and PR man, that goes beyond the call of duty.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Egyptians will feel this betrayal especially harshly. Not 10 days ago, on February 27, Kerry hosted a State Department reception to anoint the first-ever US “special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons.” “Many LGBT people continue to be harassed, arrested, killed simply because of who they are or who they love,” the Secretary intoned. “That’s unacceptable. And we believe it has to change.”

We have a moral obligation to speak out against the persecution and the marginalization of LGBT persons. And we have a moral obligation to promote societies that are more just, fair, and tolerant. It is the right thing to do. But make no mistake: It’s also a strategic necessity. Greater protection of human rights leads to greater stability, prosperity, tolerance, inclusivity, and it is not a question of occasionally – always this is what happens.

Now we know: Those were just meaningless words. Most probably, more people are serving prison sentences for consensual homosexual conduct in Egypt than anywhere in the world today. Kerry, heading to Sharm el-Sheikh, shows no inclination to “speak out,” much less refrain from serving as salesman for a government ever less “just, fair, and tolerant.”

Kerry poses with Randy Berry, new special envoy on LGBT people's human rights, February 27. Photo: Department of State

Kerry poses with Randy Berry, new special envoy on LGBT people’s human rights, February 27. Photo: Department of State

New arrests of alleged trans and gay people in Cairo

Seven innocent Snow Whites: From Youm7, February 27

Seven victims: Still from Youm7 video, February 27

Some of us hoped the acquittal of victims in Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid would resonate longer than a few days or weeks; maybe prosecutors and police, humiliated by the implosion of a showpiece case, would back off from their pursuit of illusory “perversion.” But that would be unlike this government. General Sisi, dizzy with his own powers, takes each failure as an opportunity to fail better.

On February 27, Al-Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), mouthpiece of the state’s morals campaign, headlined the arrest of seven “transsexuals” (motahawiloon genseyan) the night before. The vice squad, “under the administration of Major General Magdy Moussa,” found them “forming a network for practicing debauchery [fugur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct] in Cairo.” Youm7 included video interviews with the victims, chained together in the police station. It blurred their faces — usually, it flaunts them. But a photo the news organ posted on Facebook showed two of them, up close and clearly. I won’t reprint it here. The two seemed very young (one person with a little knowledge of the case told me some of the victims might be minors, but I’ve also heard that isn’t true). One of them looked utterly terrified.

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa, from El Methaz

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa. Photo from Vetogate.com

Youm7 says that, according to Moussa, police followed the victims

through their web pages on social media, and have proof that they publish naked photos. He also confirmed that the administration has created fake webpages to follow up the activities of perverts [shawazz], which led them in recent days to organize meetings with them in a nightclub on Al-Haram [Pyramids] Road, where [they were told that] at the end of the evening they would be taken to apartments to participate in debauchery.

The truth seems different.

Haram Road: Photo by Marwan Abdelhamed

Haram Road in the Giza district of Cairo: Photo by Marwan Abdelrahman

Al-Haram Road is one of those points where the Cairo people live in confronts and copulates with the Cairo tourists see. A long strip of street stretched west toward the mauve haze where the old Egyptians believed the dead went, it carries the city’s smog out to lap at the haunches of the Pyramids. It’s a smear of lights and shabbiness like a cut-rate Vegas, full of seedy nightclubs patronized by Westerners taking a break from the ruins, and Gulf Arabs taking a what-happens-in-Egypt-stays-in-Egypt break from home. The American scholar Paul Amar has documented some three decades of political battles over the entertainment sites along the road.  Louche venues where foreigners and Egyptians mingle, they unnerve authorities by implicitly posing an alternative to a “national culture that is embodied most essentially in gender norms.” Between threats to bulldoze them, the government watches and polices the clubs and streets. (No wonder Major General Hassan Abbas, head of the vice squad’s “International Activities” division, also led the arrests — according to Youm7.) The El-Leil Casino is one of the area’s most venerable, and respectable, bars. It offers dinner and dancing, and a cabaret where some of Egypt’s best-known bellydancers perform.

The El-Leil

The El-Leil

The police grabbed the defendants there. One version I heard is that six were sitting at a table together. A transgender woman who was a police informer pointed them out to an undercover cop, who seized them. Although some of the victims may identify as trans, apparently not all do, and all were wearing men’s clothing. In the video, most of them deny that they knew each other before that night. The seventh defendant is a cisgender woman who was near their table. Reportedly she asked police what was going on, and they took her too. (Her interview on the Youm7 video seems to confirm this.)

If this is true, the Internet entrapment story may not be. Yet the police do seem intensely anxious about the Internet and how “perverts” use it. The video is salted with shots of trans women, seemingly from social-media pages. One defendant, dazed, suggests the cops interrogated him heavily about his online presence: “They took me while we were sitting and I don’t have any [Web] pages and I don’t know how to read or write.”

The story shows police increasingly bent on using the Internet — as trap or evidence — against anyone they suspect of being transgender or gay. Fears of prostitution (and its attendant exchanges across bodies, classes, borders) also simmer. The authorities say each of the victims “got paid about 3000 LE to practice debauchery” — about $400 US, the kind of price only a foreigner would pay.

Rogue journalist Mona Iraqi, of course, tried hard to exploit just such fears, latent but potent in an increasingly resentful, xenophobic country. In her last, self-justifying TV program on her bathhouse case, a month after the acquittal, she tried to “prove” the working-class hammam was a homosexual haven by citing English-language Google searches. And she still claimed that “sex trafficking” was going on there, mouthing the ominous syllables without a rag of evidence that any client had been exploited, or transported, or even aroused.

Mona Iraqi’s latest broadcast about the bathhouse raid, February 4

Yet the only bit of good news I can point to is that Mona Iraqi failed. Egypt keeps sinking deeper into authoritarian paralysis, but at least her discrediting continues; and she’s had a terrible month. In mid-February, while she was trying to pursue some sort of story on a private school, the headmaster– apparently made suspicious by her reputation — called the police and had her arrested for filming on the grounds without permission. Tarek el-Awady, a defense lawyer from the bathhouse case who has doggedly pursued her since, gleefully released the police report to the press. And a week after that, el-Awady’s complaint against her for libelling the bathhouse defendants bore fruit. Prosecutors charged Iraqi and the owner of the host TV station, Tarek Nour, with bringing false accusations against their victims. They’ll stand trial beginning April 5.

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Don’t rejoice yet, though. In addition to the problems with Egypt’s repressive law on libel (it’s a criminal as well as civil offense, incurring up to one year in prison) there’s something funny here. A scent of political scheming always hung round the bathhouse case. The fact that Iraqi’s boss Tarek Nour faces trial as well adds to the intangible suspicion. Nour is not just a broadcaster. He’s the “emperor of ads,” the immensely rich owner and founder of Tarek Nour Communications, one of the first and largest private advertising agencies in the Middle East. (His TV channel is a handy side business; he buys the ads he makes.) A slavish camp follower of the military-industrial establishment, Nour was Mubarak’s favorite media maven, doing the dictator’s ads for the one (farcially) contested election he ever permitted, as well as for the presidential campaign of Mubarak stooge Ahmed Shafik in 2012. Then he ran Sisi’s advertising for both the January 2014 referendum on a new constitution, and the presidential race later that year. So close was he to the Generalissimo that a rumor even spread last year that Sisi’s reclusive wife was Nour’s sister — apparently not true.

So why is he on trial in this comparatively trivial case? Just maybe, the tycoon disappointed the tyrant du jour. Since there was no imaginable way Sisi could lose either vote, Nour’s main job was to gin up enough enthusiasm for a legitimacy-lending turnout: and he failed. In the constitutional referendum, Nour publicly promised a 60% turnout; in fact, it was under 40%. And the presidential ballot so humiliated Sisi with its low attendance that he was obliged to keep the polls open an extra day, so that a seemly quantity of voters could be bought, bullied, or resurrected from the dead. I doubt Nour will ever serve a day in jail, but it’s just conceivable the collapse of the bathhouse case gave Sisi an excuse to remind him that poor performance carries consequences.

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

I stress: I have no idea whether that’s true. But the diversion the speculation provides, absent any real knowledge of what’s going on, itself indicates how a certain kind of authoritarianism works. Egypt today is obsessed by secrets. (Mona Iraqi’s program, after all, is called “The Hidden.”) Everybody’s searching out obscure motives, untold tales; even private life, in a surveillance state, is spectacle. Intimacies, unblurred photos, inward lives, the contents of keepsake chests and password-protected pages, are rooted up and splayed for everyone to see. But in the process everything — justice, politics, private experience — turns into entertainment, a soap opera of conspiracy stories. I’m as easily distracted as anyone. And under the show the mechanisms of power tick on undisturbed: even more deeply buried, hidden.

While we were calling people last night trying to find out what happened on Haram Road, an Arab satellite channel droned in my living room, rerunning Running Man. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the Reagan era, about a dystopian world that forces convicted criminals to fight to the death in a huge, televised, wildly popular game show. (The Hunger Games stole the idea.) Those days, nobody had dreamed of reality TV. We laughed when the evil game show host barked into the phone, “Get me the Justice Department — the Entertainment Division!” That was then. I’m in Cairo now. The joke’s here.

The open road; Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, from Fatakat.com

The open road: Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, at Fatakat.com

On death threats, trolls, and truth

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Violent transgender activists cooking up a juicy free speech stew

The center has shifted in the debate over last week’s Observer letter. What was once an argument about grave human rights abuses against trans people and sex workers has now become an argument about grave abuses against Peter Tatchell, mostly between him and him. I had no intention of writing another word on this; but then I read Peter’s self-defense. It’s headlined “Peter Tatchell: Twitter mob who vowed to kill me over transgender letter have it all wrong.”

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 5.22.20 AMThis was strange. I’ve heard warnings of “killer trans people” from Turkish police trying to justify torture; never from a human rights activist before. So I spent a few hours searching on Twitter for Tweets containing Peter’s name plus any of a thesaurus of threats (“murder,” “kill,” “beat,” “stab,” etc.). I also searched for a variety of Anglo-Saxon terms of abuse.

First finding: this “Twitter storm” was maybe not so stormy. Peter laments that “I received 4,000 to 5,000 mostly hostile comments” on Twitter, “from Saturday [February 14] to Monday [February 16].” An advanced search on Twitter uncovers all the Tweets sent to and from @PeterTatchell during February 14 – 17 (that’s one extra day). By my count — my eyes are misty– there were only 2621, of which 174 were Peter’s own. Many of the rest had nothing to do with the Observer letter. Perhaps 2000 did, over the four days.

Second finding: this “Twitter mob” was no mob. So far as I see, Peter got one Tweet that contained threatening language; it’s the one he’s cited and retweeted everywhere.

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 5.37.35 AMThat Tweet is disturbing. I’d support Peter if he reported it to the police. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a clear threat — it’s riffing abusively off Peter’s use of the “MURDER of trans people” and his implication that trans activists didn’t care enough about their own, an assertion that infuriated many. The Tweeter seems to be a nasty kid (a self-described “Marxoteen”). Somebody else advised Peter:Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.50.19 AMWhat’s also important is that this Tweet was a complete outlier. I saw no other message that could be taken as threatening (nor has Tatchell cited any). (Again, all Tweets to and from Peter during the period are here; I encourage others to analyze them in detail.) Some Tweets tried to start a dialogue, some tried to explain why others were angry, some were critical, some raised questions of identity no doubt destined to discomfit Peter, but most were civil and none were menacing. These were typical:

Tatchell trans tweets 1

Only a few Tweets used language I might find abusive:

ab Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.29.11 AM

It’s disconcerting to find several hundred Tweets clogging your notifications, but volume isn’t the same thing as violence or abuse. I generally agree with trans activist Sarah Brown, who wrote Peter:

sb Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.55.33 AMI also feel for the trans member of the Green Party who wrote:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.31.46 AMThere was no trans “Twitter mob” threatening to kill Tatchell. What is clear is that Peter turned to the media to create the belief that there was. And mainly he went to the right-wing media, because they loathe trans people anyway. On Monday Milo Yiannopoulos at the far-right website Breitbart Tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 10.42.15 AM

(A commenter below notes that Yiannopolous was one of the wannabe-jock jerks who last year fanned up Gamergate and its misogynistic, anti-feminist vitriol. He wrote “column after column slamming feminists” and “sociopathic” women gamers — making him an odd partner for Tatchell, but a productive place to seek support.)  Later that day Breitbart published its article claiming Tatchell was being “persecuted” by the “vocal, and vicious,” “increasingly shrill and intolerant transgender lobby.” On Thursday Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator upped the transphobia, warning that the “grandfather of gay rights” was under assault from “vicious, narcissistic cowards,” “self-styled queers and gender-benders” who “went berserk,” a “petulant mob of moaners … hurling abuse.” And of course O’Neill, like Peter, said they were ungrateful. Tatchell’s

risk-taking and street-fighting over 40-odd years helped to secure their liberation, to create a society in which they could live and speak freely. And how do they repay him? By tweeting their fantasises [sic] about him being murdered for being a ‘fucking parasite’.

That’s characteristic of Tatchell: when a person or group offends his amour-propre, he turns to the media to make them sorry. Using a single Tweet to discredit trans activists in general, however, shreds the claim to be an “ally.” Instead, Tatchell consciously strengthened gendered prejudices against trans people as hysterical, shrill, and dangerous. Sara Ahmed, in a thoughtful post last week that I’ve cited earlier, predicted exactly what he did:

Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. …  The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti­racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. …

Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly …: those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

And of course the opponents of trans people’s identities and rights took their cue:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 12.07.58 PMI’ve gotten a small but significant number of threats in my life. I’ve been a public voice on LGBT rights in a variety of places where the rights and their claimaints were violently despised — Romania in the early 90s, for instance, or Egypt now; threats go with the territory. Much more comparable to this kerfluffle was the flurry of opposing e-mails I got about a post on sex work a while back. Some of these raised important questions, most were no more angry than your average letter to the editor, a very few were abusive, and one — which stood out — said I should be “disemboweled”: “I want you to die in agony feeling the blood run down your thighs the way it runs between the thighs of a woman who has been raped by 27 johns in a single night …” There’s a certain kind of pseudo-human rights talk that imaginatively colonizes the experience of victimhood, like mystics meditating on the wounds of Christ. It’s distasteful, particularly when it’s used to tag you as a supposed abuser. But I didn’t assume this was representative of all sex work opponents, or radical feminists, or feminists in general, or people with Earthlink accounts, or Vermonters, or any other group identity I could have extracted from the e-mail. Now I see: I don’t dramatize myself enough. I should have run to the press with an op-ed saying, “I forgive the radical feminists who want to disembowel me.” I do forgive radical feminists who want to disembowel me. I just don’t think there are any.

One more thing. That phrase “fucking parasite” turned up amid my search results in one other place. A week before this controversy started, Tatchell Tweeted a complaint about why Muslims weren’t protesting the right things (not unlike his lament that trans people were ignoring murders of trans people). A Muslim woman responded to him. A nasty troll — prone to obscenity, misogyny, and racist browbeating — then intervened in Tatchell’s defense with a slew of Islamophobic messages. Tatchell was copied on all these; but he didn’t raise a keystroke on the woman’s behalf, neither to demur nor or to reproach the racist. He stayed indifferently silent, even at the culmination, when the guy shouted she was a “fucking parasite cunt”:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 7.45.50 AMI guess it all depends on who’s being abused.

NOTE: I’ve updated this post twice since it was published: once, to add information about a Breitbart editor to which I was directed by a commenter; and a second time to include, and explain, a link to the Twitter search results.

Help, I’m being persecuted: Hypocrisy and free speech

Trans

Trans activists in Mexico City protesting violence against LGBT people and sex workers, August 13, 2011. Photo: Alfredo Estrella for AFP

In long years of human rights work, I’ve seen plenty of hatred inculcated and discrimination enforced; but I can’t think of anyone more fitting the profile of les damnés de la terre than trans people and sex workers. Bearers of those identities (of course they often intersect) risk arrest almost daily across nine-tenths of the globe; police, if they don’t throw them in prison, can shake them down or rape them with impunity; on streets or in private places violence menaces their bodies constantly; the media mocks them, mutes them, fetishizes them, but mostly vilifies them; stigma, chasing them through life, bars them from jobs or homes or education; they die because health care systems ignore their needs; they die because people slaughter them. Why? Why are they hiding their lights under a bushel? For in fact, trans folk and sex workers are probably the most powerful people on the planet. They submit pliantly to these indignities in modesty or masochism, like Clark Kent letting bullies rough him up in front of Lois Lane; but with one flex of their superstrength they could blow us all to smithereens. Professors at world-famous universities, columnists in major newspapers, politicians, novelists, heads of NGOs all cower at the wrath of the raging sex worker with her scything fingernails, and tremble like skittish jellyfish at the earthquake clack of a trans woman’s heel. It just shows: things aren’t always what they seem.

This, I’ve learned from the hoopla over a recent letter to the UK Observer: “We cannot allow censorship and silencing.” Signed by dozens of those professors, columnists, and leaders, it says that sex workers (whom it calls “the sex industry”) and trans people (Beatrix Campbell, the screed’s lead author, has termed them “transgender vigilantes”) are behind “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic.’” They scheme “to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.”

These tactics [are] illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.

What’s most horrifying is: some trans people and sex workers answered. They pointed out that the people behind the letter have their own history of silencing sex workers and trans people. (Just one example: Campbell herself proposes that the UK’s National Union of Students should remove trans women – who practice “cultural conservatism and anatomical violence” — from its women’s sections and services. She’s outraged that the Union’s “solidarity does not extend to women who feel unsettled by the presence of people who used to be men in women-only spaces and services.”) Saying back-at-you like that, of course, censors and silences even more. These vigilantes prove the point! Some of the letter’s signatories had to endure the monstrous indignity of people Tweeting at them. Two days after the letter appeared, the right-wing media giant Breitbart bore the headline:

The face of victimhood

The face of victimhood

Persecuted, mind you. Never mind trans people imprisoned or sex workers raped: This is what a victim looks like. The evidence? Tatchell (whom Breitbart called “an unlikely conservative hero … with his views on extremist Islam”) “received ‘100s of hate mails’” for signing the letter. That’s how the worst regimes, Egypt and North Korea and Iran, abuse their most obstreperous dissidents to break them: They send them e-mails. I’m sure Peter Tatchell tried to withstand the torture, but everybody cracks. Lest anyone think Breitbart was exaggerating these brutalities, Tatchell himself tweeted his agreement:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 4.21.06 PMTatchell says he is a human rights activist, so he must know what persecution is. Now the UN has to amend its international treaties, to ban torture, inhuman treatment, and spamming.

Cyberbullying is real. Yes, some people’s careers or livelihoods have been damaged by Twitter storms. But none of this letter’s signatories have suffered in the slightest. Tweets have not yet forced Peter Tatchell’s employer, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, to dismiss Peter Tatchell. Not everyone lets insults feed their self-pity. (I’ve faced online vitriol too. Last year, for instance, I helped organize a Twitter campaign to support Amnesty International’s emerging stance on sex work; a whirlwind of radical-feminist Tweets called me a “pimp.” I was annoyed. I wasn’t “persecuted.”) Most Tweets I’ve seen in this brouhaha were questions or criticisms, not “bullying.” Yet one trans person got attacked for “verbal violence” just for posting this:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 8.07.27 PM

As someone else tweeted to Tatchell:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 6.16.08 PM

As Sara Ahmed explained in an excellent rumination on the controversy,

The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti­racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. … We need to hear the constant stream of anti­trans statements as a “chip, chip, chip” that has violent wearing effects. Any feminism that participates in this chipping away is not a feminism worthy of that name.

Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But … those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

"All transmisogyny in feminism is a patriarchal tendency." Brazilian street poster: Photo from madmaria.org/ ?p=198

“All transmisogyny in feminism is a patriarchal tendency.” Brazilian street poster: Photo from madmaria.org/ ?p=198

Is anything about the Observer letter true? Is “free speech” under threat? The letter cited exactly four alleged cases where “transgender vigilantes” and the “sex industry” shut down speech.

FIRST: The most ambiguous incident is “The fate of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show, cancelled by Goldsmith’s College in London last month.” Smurthwaite, a stand-up comic, is also a sex-work eradicationist; she thinks prostitution should be wiped out. What happened to her Goldsmith’s gig is in no way clear. Smurthwaite says it was stopped by pro-sex-work feminists (or, as she prefers it, pimps and punters). But — I get this from her own blog — she has only one bit of evidence anybody opposed her: a message she saw on the Web, from a feminist student at another university, suggesting a picket. (It proposed a protest, not canceling the show. The moniker’s blacked out by me.)

Evidence adduced by Kate Smurthwaite of threats against her show

Evidence adduced by Kate Smurthwaite of threats against her show

In fact, the University’s student Feminist Society had voted 70-30 to co-host her show. There were no threats. The head of the Comedy Society, the student group that was her main sponsor, writes that “One [Feminist Society] member suggested a counter event for those who didn’t want to see Kate. This member assured me it wouldn’t be a picket, but just a different gathering at a different venue.” The dire warnings of disaster came solely from Smurthwaite herself (she “let the organisers know that I thought there was a risk of a protest or of people coming along to the show with the specific aim of disrupting it or arguing with me”). Meanwhile, nobody was buying tickets. The Comedy Society president says, “we were planning to go ahead with the gig until Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket … I couldn’t verify this. Up to this point we had only sold 8 tickets so I decided to pull the plug.” It’s hard to avoid suspicion that Smurthwaite, faced with an underselling show, avoided that embarrassment by arranging her own cancellation. She certainly got free publicity galore, tweeting:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 4.18.57 PM

Rupert Myers writes for the Telegraph (in an article quite sympathetic to other censorship claims):

A comedy society was going to hold an event, it received tepid response, and it decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle … “No platform” is a dangerous approach to controversial ideas … but this incident was more like “no interest.”

Smurthwaite: Bet you I have more fingers than I do audience members

Smurthwaite: I bet I have more fingers than I do audience members

SECOND: The letter says, “Last month, there were calls for the Cambridge Union to withdraw a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer.” Greer, a writer I’ve found alternately inspiring and infuriating, has strong opinions against trans women: “ghastly parodies,” she’s called them. She regards them as gay men (never mind who they might be attracted to); she’s campaigned to get a trans woman ousted from a Cambridge University women’s fellowship for not being female; she allegedly has refused to contribute to anthologies or appear on platforms if certain trans people are represented. Nobody wrote open letters about that. 

Greer back then: I like men too, as long as they're cis and safe and don't steal my clothes

Greer back then: I like men too, as long as they’re safely cis and don’t borrow my clothes

This time, the Cambridge Union Society invited her; in a special snub, they scheduled her speech at the same time as a regular drinks event held for the Union’s LGBT+ group. Students asked the Union to rescind the invitation; they declined. The LGBT+ group then set up a counter-event “to celebrate and discuss the history of trans feminism, and think through how feminism can be made more trans-inclusive.” That sounds like just the kind of “democratic political exchange” the letter signatories claim they want. At Greer’s own talk, according to the Cambridge student newspaper, ”there were few signs of protest except for a few LGBT+ representatives handing out leaflets at the door.” Greer had her platform, and urged an end to surgeries and medical treatments for trans people during transition — she denounced them as “unethical.” No one got silenced or censored here.

THIRD: Most absurdly: The letter says “the Green party came under pressure to repudiate the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read after he questioned the arguments put forward by some trans­ activists.” (What Read wrote, and later apologized for, was that trans women are “a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman.”). This is duplicitous. Trans activists didn’t react because Read’s a philosopher, but because he is a Green Party candidate for Parliament; they pressed the Greens to take a stand. As a politician, Read’s thoughts have implications. How would he and the Green Party vote on revising the UK’s inadequate Gender Recognition Act, for instance? Are political parties exempt from saying what they believe? When a Republican running for the US Senate alleged that women survivors of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant, feminists across the country demanded the Republican Party declare whether it agreed. Now the feminists behind the Observer letter are saying that was an assault on poor Todd Akin’s freedom. This is political insanity.

Candidate Rupert Read: If you feel a surge coming on, please go only to the bathroom of your birth gender

Candidate Rupert Read: If you feel a surge coming on, please go only to the bathroom of your birth gender

FOURTH: Oh, yes, “The feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel has been ‘no­platformed’ by the National Union of Students for several years.” Bear with me. One must draw breath before dealing with Julie Bindel; I’ll go there in a moment.

But consider the facts: trying to establish an evil sexworker-trans axis against free speech, Campbell and Tatchell and the rest found virtually nothing. The basis for the letter is BS. What is true is the level of sheer self-contradictory hypocrisy in their claims.

There are ample examples of this hypocrisy, but I’ll just focus on a few. One of the letter’s signatories (gay novelist Paul Burston) and one person it’s about (Julie Bindel) were among 12 gay activists who wrote a statement in 2011 that was a prime case of “no-platforming.” They demanded the East London Mosque “stop allowing its premises to be used to promote gayhate campaigns” by banning a list of speakers they helpfully provided. Peter Tatchell wasn’t party to that statement but had long campaigned against the East London Mosque. In a separate article the next day, he complained the mosque “never apologised for hosting homophobic hate preachers and have never given any assurances that they will not host them again,” though Tatchell had “publicly demanded that they do so.”

This is far severer “censorship” than those elusive proto-protests against Kate Smurthwaite that roused Tatchell’s and Campbell’s ire. These statements didn’t call for cancelling shows or lectures at a university, events where a diverse audience might take offense; they intruded on places of worship, sites particular to a community, institutions in no way obligated to represent opposing points of view. This is the kind of thing you can only advocate about Islam, because in the UK it’s known to be a public menace, requiring vigilant surveillance. Feminists complain, rightly, at the Catholic Church’s militance against reproductive rights; but imagine the uproar if they insisted that it ban all anti-abortion priests from its altars. With Islam, it’s open season.

Who's in there? The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, Whitechapel

Who’s in there? The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, Whitechapel

Their rationale for this remarkable demand was the same one the Observer letter mocks when trans people use it: These speakers make us feel unsafe. They opportunistically exploited a moral panic over an alleged burst of homophobic violence in East London, coupled with the trial of a Muslim man for putting up stickers that read “Gay Free Zone.” (Bindel and Burston dubbed his solitary stickering a “homophobic hate campaign.”) The excellent blogger How Upsetting noted that “Homophobic crime has decreased in Hackney.”

And before anyone tells you that this means nothing because it’s a huge figure nonetheless, the 47 homophobic crimes the MET reports to April 2011 in Hackney compares with 317 racist and religious hate crimes, 130 rapes and 5900 cases of “violence against the person.”

No evidence suggested a link between hate crimes, stickers, and the East London Mosque — which had condemned both. The writers virtually admitted banning the speakers would have no effect: “It is doubtful that many gaybashers are regular mosque attendees.” And many of the “hate preachers” were accused on flimsy pretexts. Tatchell’s article condemned one preacher, Uthman Lateef, as “virulently homophobic.” The joint statement gave more detail on Lateef,

who even hosted a gala dinner to highlight the Mosque’s supposed commitment to combatting homophobia earlier this year [but] is on record as saying to students at nearby Queen Mary University of London in 2007: “We don’t accept homosexuality… we hate it because Allah hates it”.

Read that again. Four years ago, he said “We don’t accept homosexuality”; but this year, he hosted an anti-homophobia event to make amends. Yet that’s not enough; he’s marked for life, and we’re going to get him banned not just from universities, but in his own community. Try doing that to Germaine Greer! This is “illiberal bullying” far beyond anything Tatchell and Burston piously decried in the Observer. Except here, Tatchell and Burston are doing it.

Hate preaching, I: Uthman Lateef

Hate preaching, I: Uthman Lateef

This censoriousness is ubiquitous in the UK, with nary an open letter against it. Earlier in 2011, for instance, Tatchell tried to no-platform “Muslim fundamentalist preachers who advocate the criminalisation of homosexuality”: “The Ibis Hotel group,” which was hosting a  Muslim conference, “should not facilitate speakers who promote homophobic discrimination and violence. They should cancel this booking.” The charge of “promoting violence” is elastic. After all, Uthman Lateef’s alleged statement “We don’t accept homosexuality” hardly incites anything specific. Even preachers who endorse the shari’a punishment of death for proven male homosexual acts (very unlikely to be enacted in the UK) are not exactly urging violence on the streets. But you have to wonder. That call is barbarous — but should only homosexuals be exempt from execution? Are we gays so special? Isn’t the death penalty always a barbarous human rights abuse? Shouldn’t Tatchell, a human rights activist, demand all death penalty supporters be barred from speaking, anywhere? That would ban Priti Patel, David Cameron’s Treasury Minister, who wants to bring back hanging. (OK, she’s brown, go ahead and ban her.) It would ban all the other Tory MPs who tabled a bill to the same end. It would ban almost every visiting US politician, from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. Tatchell and Burston should get busy writing the open letter that calls for no-platforming these people, so that Burston and Tatchell can then write the open letter that opposes it.

Hate preachers. Top: English Defense League demo against the East London Mosque (photo: Jess Hurd/Reportdigital.co.uk). Bottom: English Defense League march in Telford, August 2011 (photo: MirrorImage/Demotix)

Hate preaching, II. Top: The fascist English Defence League protests the East London Mosque (photo: Jess Hurd/Reportdigital.co.uk). Bottom: English Defence League march in Telford, August 2011 (photo: MirrorImage/Demotix)

Then there’s Tatchell’s own record. Peter dislikes criticism. (He calls it “smears.”) In fact, he thinks criticizing him is censorship. (“The real censorship is by my critics. Some of them are posting entirely false allegations, often on closed lists that do not allow me to post my side of the story.”) When people criticize him, he tries to shut them up by threatening to sue. English libel law, which until revised in 2013 put the full burden of proof on the defendant and was among the most repressive in the world, handed him a potent weapon. In 2009, he threatened to sue a small feminist press (the aptly named Raw Nerve Books) that had published one of the UK’s first anthologies on race and queerness. An article in the book, by three academics of color, criticized Tatchell’s connections with the Islamophobic right. Tatchell forced the press to withdraw the whole anthology. Humiliatingly, he compelled them to publish a pages-long “Apology and Correction to Peter Tatchell,” written by Peter Tatchell, that praised Peter Tatchell’s career in wildly adulatory terms: a weirdly narcissistic exhibition. (It’s now only available on his own site, since the press is out of business.) “A really amazing book is being censored,” another academic wrote: “Meanwhile the authors’ reputations are themselves besmirched.”

All that was left: From the old Raw Nerve Books website

All that was left: From the old Raw Nerve Books website

The same year, Tatchell went after me. He threatened to sue Routledge, which had published a peer-reviewed and factual article I wrote, critiquing claims he made about Iran. (The article is here.) Then in early 2010, I stupidly sent an email to a third party in which I wrote, offhand, that “Tatchell makes up his own facts when the existing ones don’t suit.” (That’s a paraphrase; here in Cairo I don’t have the text in front of me. It’s also the truth.) The recipient inadvertently forwarded these unwise words to Peter. Tatchell leapt on them, and, since I’d sent the offending missive from a work address, threatened to sue Human RIghts Watch. HRW was eventually constrained to sign an apology which Tatchell couched in the most sweeping terms possible, a decision to which I reluctantly assented to keep their UK work free from his legal harassment. Tatchell then used that apology to force Routledge to concede, and pulp not just the article but the entire volume in which it had appeared.

Nor did it stop there. In 2011 I forwarded to an LGBT e-mail listserve, without comment, two blog posts by other people — both mainly about the Middle East but containing critiques of Tatchell’s work. (The e-mail’s here.) The next day, one “Patrick Lyster-Todd, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy,” who was also “the acting General Manager for the Peter Tatchell Foundation,” wrote to the Dean of Harvard Law School, where I was a Visiting Fellow, with a veiled threat of libel action unless I were fired. Legal threats against smart lawyers are ill-advised, and the school told him (I’m paraphrasing here too) to bugger off. In 2013, Peter wrote to a friend of Hillel Neuer, a pro-Likud propagandist some of whose misrepresentations of Egyptian human rights activists I had detailed. Tatchell urged Neuer to take “legal action” against me. (This time the e-mail was inadvertently forwarded to me. Be careful with those keyboards, people.) Tatchell has an odd fixation on me, which is a personal issue. His use of a draconian libel law to shut down speech is not. He now hypocritically claims (in Twitterese) “I defend precious human right of free speech, except 4 violent incites.” But that’s not true. He defends precious human right when it is good 4 him. Criticize, & he will make u sorry 4 it.

There are standards. See?

1) It’s utterly wrong if trans or sex worker activists no-platform speakers with transphobic or eradicationist opinions.

2) It’s absolutely right if gay activists no-platform speakers with homophobic opinions.

3) It’s wonderful if one particular gay activist uses the law against anybody criticizing his opinions.

Sex wars: Anonymous stencil

Sex wars: Anonymous stencil

But let’s face it, these are only local hypocrisies. The great dishonesty is claiming you’re being “silenced,” while trans and sex worker activists have mostly been the ones repression stifles and gags. This history stretches back to the sex wars in feminism that raged from the 1970s. When Barnard College held a famous, feminist sexualities conference in 1982, other feminists — fulminating at open discussions of porn and sex work — charged it was a coven of child pornography, in a furious push to shut it down. Trans researcher Natacha Kennedy wrote this week:

The so-called “feminists” who wish to initiate a debate about my existence have glossed over the nature and history of this “debate.” This is a debate that has raged since the early 1970s and which quickly became violent. …  [Feminist theorist] Janice Raymond publish[ed] a book in which she suggested that people like myself should be “morally mandated out of existence.” She also helped the Reagan government to withhold gender reassignment healthcare from trans people.

[T]hose transphobic “feminists” who wish to debate my existence are a group that has a long and sordid history of silencing and intimidating trans people. Indeed I invariably attract quite extreme personal abuse online whenever I write something to counter what these transphobic “feminists” have written. They provide no counter-argument, no engagement with the issues I raise, just abuse and occasionally threats. And I count myself lucky, others have been threatened with legal letters from solicitors trying to shut them up, some have had letters written to their employers, trying to get them sacked, in one instance a transphobic “feminist” even tried to intervene in someone’s medical treatment.

Cathy Brennan, a US lawyer, viciously harasses trans women through her website, Gender Identity Watch: in one case, she posted online the court docket information of a person trying to change her legal gender, and urged others to lobby the judge to deny her. Another, even more sadistic radical-feminist site “monitors” and outs trans youth, regularly posting names and photos of “who is transitioning.”  Maybe these are marginal; maybe not. Their acts are more terrifying to their targets than anything Kate Smurthwaite underwent. Why isn’t Bea Campbell cooking up an open letter?

And sex workers? The harassment they face is endless. Opponents accuse anti-criminalization campaigners of trafficking, or dub them a “pimp lobby.”

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 2.51.25 AM

This month anti-sex work groups in the UK published a “Guide for Journalists Reporting on the Prostitution and Trafficking of Women,” written by (there you go again!) Julie Bindel. The book aims to discourage journalists from talking to or trusting sex worker activists: “How to identify the pro-prostitution lobby.” A recalcitrant reporter at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that “radical feminist Julie Bindel’s 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.” It’s a two-pronged media strategy: first, make sex workers invisible; if that fails, out them. Either way, you shut them up.

The whole point of the Observer letter is to bury these facts and this history. This controversy has been less about speech than about forgetting. I”m not sure anything can be learned from such an episode of erasures. But as I mulled on it, four thoughts flickered though.

First: Free speech is easy in principle and complicated in practice. It’s an absolute ideal (an ideology, I’d say, if the word weren’t so weighted): something people hold up and value and use to judge acts and situations. But everybody knows that absolute free speech — a cacophonic babel where everyone talks at once and everybody’s heard — doesn’t exist. (Twitter pretends to be that, hence some folks’ passion for it. But the point is precisely that with everyone on Twitter talking, most don’t get heard at all. And just try Tweeting if you live in Egypt and earn two dollars a day.)

There are always limitations, some necessary (climate-change denialists or creation scientists should not be attended to in University departments) and some unjust (why should a gigabyte of WiFi cost a day’s food?). We negotiate what “free speech” means in specific situations. We decide what limit we’ll contest, who we’ll pay attention to, who gets a lecture slot, who sits on a panel. And when we decide, others should be able to argue back. These negotiations always involve power. Power (“privilege” is the trendy term) is also never absolute. There are different kinds, and race, gender, knowledges, class all shape it differently. Everyone has power in some ways and spaces, and people who have a lot can always point to times and places where they have less (or more). It’s absurd to suppose that Germaine Greer has as much power as David Cameron. But it’s ridiculous to pretend that a few students protesting Germaine Greer have as much power as Germaine Greer. It’s demeaning to posit that academics and politicians and NGO heads are helpless victims in the face of street sex workers or trans women whom police freely abuse. It’s insulting to claim “persecution” because you got too many Tweets from people who actually know what persecution is.

freedom-of-speech-megaphone2Second: Universities are separate and special places for producing truth: unique sites where we negotiate what free speech means. They are not places of “democratic political exchange,” and they never have been (though there may be democratic spaces within them, the freest usually being ones students establish). People in universities spend much of their time and energy deciding who should get to speak, sometimes fine-tuning fairer procedures for decision. Then sometimes other people protest their decisions. These aren’t Platonic paradises where the free-speech ideal effortlessly becomes flesh.

Bernard Lewis as drawn by the Spectator (UK). Turks may notice the resemblance to Suleyman Demirel.

Bernard Lewis as drawn by the Spectator (UK). Turks may notice the resemblance to Süleyman Demirel.

Most obviously, faculties constantly decide what can be taught or not. No decent university will hire someone to spread creation science or Holocaust denial. The second offends a lot of people, the first probably doesn’t rouse real ire except among dinosaurs, but that’s not the criterion. Those opinions won’t get class time because they’re not true. Yet the decision about what’s true does involve power, and there are steady struggles over it. Vast Turkish massacres of Armenians during the First World War — the word “genocide” hadn’t been coined yet — are well-documented. Yet many scholars still minimize or ignore them. Bernard Lewis, the immensely powerful Middle East scholar much beloved of neoconservatives, is a genocide denier. There are probably Armenian right-wingers who would say this discrepancy is because the Jews have power and the Armenians don’t, but they’d be wrong. The problem is, rather, that the Turkish government has power and uses its weight to cover up the killings, while most European states that murdered Jews have, imperfectly, come to terms with their guilt. Many foreign historians working on Turkey succumbed to unsubtle pressure to steer clear of the genocide, because their access to institutions and archives was at stake. All this is shifting  — partly because US conservatives are far less fond of Turkey; but also because Armenian activists have pushed, pressured, and sometimes protested to get their stories (and their ancestors’ stories) heard. Truth comes from negotiating such contests; it doesn’t descend immaculate from on high. Bernard Lewis is almost 100 now, and no one wants to trouble an old man, but if in his heyday Armenian groups had promised to shout him down in public till he changed his claims, I would have applauded. That would have been an opening of debate, not a closure.

Child refugees from massacres by Turkish troops: Photo from the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in the Republic of Armenia

Child refugees from massacres by Turkish troops: Photo from the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in the Republic of Armenia

Then there’s the part of the university not under the faculties’ direct control. Student union “no platform” policies are much fought over. Several things should be clarified. These are policies of student unions, not the university administration. Students vote on them. They identify certain groups or even people whom the union won’t admit to its platforms. Their origins lie in a long tradition of working-class struggles against fascism (UK student unions are unions, after all). The National Union of Students no-platforms the English Defence League and the British National Party, but also several Muslim groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir. Its LGBT section has voted to no-platform Julie Bindel.

Anti-fascist demonstrators at Cambridge University protest outside a speech by French rightist Marine Le Pen, February 2013. Photo by  Justin Tallis/AFP

Anti-fascist demonstrators at Cambridge University protest outside a speech by French rightist Marine Le Pen, February 2013. Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP

No one — even among the advocates behind the Observer letter — seems to mind no-platforming fascists. Commentators are confused, though, over why fascists can be banned. Sarah Ditum, in an article defending Julie Bindel, claimed no-platform “was traditionally about rejecting the rhetoric of violence.” But surely the objection to fascism was less that it was violent than that it was fascism: racist, exclusionary. (Hizb ut-Tahrir is barred even though it has vowed a commitment to non-violence, and nobody on the right complained about that.)

Nick Cohen similarly contends that only ideas that “incite violence” should ever be no-platformed, anywhere. Yet – as the East London furor shows – very few who think this are willing to stick to any consistent or legal definition of “incitement”: that is, encouraging particular acts against particular people. Somebody saying “I don’t like you” is incitement enough in their minds. After all, Julie BIndel believes pornography, all pornography, incites (or is) violence. They use the incitement argument not as a heuristic tool, to winnow “good” speech from “bad” speech, but as an emotive spur, to whip up fear and anger against speech they don’t like.

In other words, hypocrisy once again riddles these arguments: No-platforming for thee, but not for me. But let’s admit two things. First, these student bans aren’t “censorship.” As trans activist Sarah Brown writes, “No platforming sounds terribly serious. In reality, it basically means, ‘we won’t invite this person to our stuff, and we won’t appear on the same platform as them.'” Having no platform at the student union doesn’t mean having no platform at all. There are other platforms in the university; there are platforms outside. Everyone has the right to seek a platform from which to speak; that doesn’t mean an absolute right to any platform in particular.

For student groups, no-platforming resolutions are a way of putting some opinions under the shadow of disapproval. I find no-platform distasteful, like most symbolic gestures. It gives people the warm feeling of fighting something, with little effort or impact at all. I think it should stop. But to confuse it with state suppression of opinion, with Iran or North Korea, is to lose all proportion.

Music to my fears: London protest against Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, over his political support for Vladimir Putin, November 2013

Music to my fears: London protest against Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, over his political support for Vladimir Putin, November 2013

Then: in our societies, groups censure or ostracise some opinions all the time. A great victory was won, in many places in the last 50 years, through the valor and vigilance of many movements. Some racist ideas became socially and politically unacceptable: not banned (though their expression is in some countries) but met with such disapproval as to disqualify you from public life. When a US politician shouts a racist slur, his career is over. Now there’s a steady struggle to bring other kinds of prejudice under the same penumbra. And gays and lesbians are at the fore, protesting and reviling. It’s like no-platforming, only played not in student unions but on larger fields. Getting the CEO of Mozilla fired because he fought gay marriage takes away a platform way bigger than Julie Bindel’s wildest dreams. Gay activists in the US, the UK, and elsewhere have militantly patrolled the limits of acceptable language and opinion. To tell trans people and sex workers that they can’t similarly fight back is, from this perspective, like saying gay rights are a settled issue, whereas their rights must stay open to debate. It’s the gays pulling up the drawbridge behind them. You’re surprised folks get angry?

I’m sometimes uneasy, even appalled about these wildfire campaigns (a clicktivist drive to fire a CEO is a diversion from fighting poverty or inequality), but they’re not “censorship.” Free speech is a struggle. Voices left inaudible (the powerless on one hand, the just-plain-wrong on another) are in constant contention with the ones behind the megaphones, to make themselves heard.

Much of the horror over who gives a lecture and who doesn’t draws on a fantasy version of how speech works. You’d think each of Earth’s six billion residents was guaranteed a speaking slot at Oxford each semester, and if one loses it, it’s censorship. It’s not. Each time a speaker is invited somewhere, it’s because somebody decided not to invite someone else. Usually these zero-sum contests are settled behind closed doors. But when a decision becomes public, the public can contest it. No university can hear all voices; the more discussion about which ones it will accomodate, the better. These arguments make that discussion open. They aren’t how free speech is suppressed. Often, they’re how it happens.

censorshipThird: What is censorship? The Observer letter leaves me hopelessly confused. Is it when you’re not invited to speak? When no one shows up when you speak? When someone protests your speaking? When somebody complains?

Censorship is none of these. Censorship is suppressing speech, usually by punitive or repressive force, with the intent to eliminate it altogether. People need to get their definitions straight. When a government closes a newspaper, jails a journalist, or passes an anti-pornography law, that’s censorship. When a person employs a draconian state law to threaten or silence speech, that’s censorship. (Peter Tatchell, with his exploitation of a grim libel law, is a censor.) If TV networks conspire to ban some opinion from the airwaves altogether, that’s censorship. Violence can be censorship. But protesting a program or demanding it be dropped is not censorship. Neither is picketing a lecture, or writing to a political party, or not being allowed on an e-mail listserve. You’re not being censored if you lose a platform and can find another: if the Guardian won’t publish you and the Independent will. The proliferating pseudo-dictionaries make it impossible to muster indignation against real censors.

Sex workers protest against violence, Vancouver, Canada, 1984

Sex workers protest against violence, Vancouver, Canada, 1984

Fourth. The one thing everybody in this controversy says is: they want more speech. Being human, they mostly don’t mean it. They want speech from those on their side, that’s all. But this does foreground the question of how we foster and further speech: how any of us, from polemicists to outside observers, can work so as to ensure that voices often relegated to silence are heard.

There is no easy answer, but I should say the beginning is: listen. And here I return to Tatchell, because what he’s written is instructive. Peter was hurt and indignant that trans people criticized him, because, as he kept saying, he’s fought for them for years. He’s right; he has. But as I keep saying to Peter — it’s one of the reasons he doesn’t like me — it’s not enough, and sometimes it’s not right, to fight for people. You have to be an ally, not a leader; to fight with them (at times, in all senses of the phrase); and you have to listen.

One reason trans people got angry at Peter in this twitter storm is that his reactions to criticism were infuriating. He patronized trans activists, accusing them of not caring about their own:

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 1.00.10 PM

He accused trans people of ingratitude:

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 1.06.26 PM

Many responded by asking what an ally is.

NOT AN ALLY

It all culminated with Tatchell claiming that he was simply a better trans activist than trans activists.

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 1.02.50 PM

One demands gratitude not from equals, but from dependents. Tatchell might want to read yet another open letter: from Hannah Arendt to the French poet Jules Romains, after he claimed — at the height of Hitler’s war, in 1941 — that he had defended the Jews and they were ungrateful. (My thanks to Rahul Rao for pointing to this letter in this context, in his fine book Third World Protest.) Arendt reminded Romains that the Jews’ struggle was not just an adjunct to his own.

You complain in fact very loudly and articulately about the ingratitude of Jews for whom you have done so much…..

What concerns us Jews in all this and what makes us blush again for the hundredth time is our despairing question: Is our alternative truly only between malevolent enemies and condescending friends? Are genuine allies nowhere to be found, allies who understand, not out of either sympathy or bribery, that we were merely the first European nation on whom ‘Hitler declared war? That in this war our freedom and our honor hang in the balance no less than the freedom and honor of the nation to which Jules Romains belongs? And that condescending gestures like the arrogant demand for gratitude from a protector cuts deeper than the open hostility of antisemites?

I want also to think about that BBC radio debate with Bindel.

Tatchell’s proud of the broadcast — he Tweeted about it repeatedly to critics. Hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine in 2007, It featured Bindel arguing that “sex change surgery” should be banned as “unnecessary mutilation.” Four respondents answered her: two well-known trans advocates — Stephen Whittle, a world-renowned expert on gender identity and the law, and Michelle Bridgman, a psychotherapist; Kevan Whylie, a clinician and expert on gender reassignment therapies; and Tatchell.

Censored? Julie Bindel: Photo by Elena Heatherwick for the Guardian

Censor me? Julie Bindel: Photo by Elena Heatherwick for the Guardian

At the end, the audience was polled, and Bindel’s perspective lost. But what remains of the debate? A recording formerly at the BBC’s site is gone. Two main accounts survive online: Bindel’s and Tatchell’s. (The two, despite their differences, are friends). Bindel wrote in the Guardian:

It was one of the most challenging and stimulating debates I have taken part in. Not because the panel or the audience conceded much to my arguments, but because I was given a platform for my opinions … I was outvoted at the end of the debate, but I felt I had done my job. All I intended to do was to ask the questions, “Are we right to support sex change surgery, and is it right to apply a surgical solution to what I believe is a psychological problem?

She quotes none of her respondents. Meanwhile, Tatchell’s account is on his website. He quotes Bindel generously, and himself at even more length. Although he refers to the other participants in passing, including the two trans advocates, he mentions nothing that they said. As far as he’s concerned, it’s entirely a debate between himself and Bindel. He headlines his version: “Transsexualism – Bindel condemns, Tatchell defends.”

There you have it. First, that’s why I feel no sorrow when students no-platform Bindel. She has no lack of platforms; anyone who has the Guardian and the Royal Society of Medicine will never lack a platform. Second: who actually won? Maybe Tatchell, in his mind, but for trans people it may be more ambiguous; he buries them in that comma between “Bindel condemns, Tatchell defends.” Their lives were at issue, but he renders their voices irrelevant, lost. Supporting people starts with hearing them: otherwise, the helping hand can become an occupying force. The storm about “silencing” and “censorship” shouldn’t whirl that lesson to oblivion.

Vanesa Ledesma, a transgender sex worker and activist, tortured to death in Cordoba, Argentina in February 2000. The painting by Tom Block is based on photographs of her mutilated corpse.

Vanesa Ledesma, a transgender sex worker and activist, tortured to death by police in Cordoba, Argentina in February 2000. The painting by Tom Block is based on photographs of her mutilated corpse.

UPDATE only for those too obsessed by this issue to sleep:  Peter Tatchell now says he has “proof” that Kate Smurthwaite was banned from Goldsmith’s.

Screen shot 2015-02-19 at 9.41.02 PM

He doesn’t. This all revolves around what Smurthwaite says on her own blog, which is confused to start with. But here’s the gist.

Smurthwaite posts just a snippet of an online chat with a member of Goldsmith’s Comedy Society, as follows. She doesn’t post the whole chat so we have no idea where this conversation went, but let’s assume this is the best evidence she’s got.

From Kate Smurthwaite's blog

From Kate Smurthwaite’s blog

Now. Here is the safe-space policy of the Student Union at Goldsmith’s. And here’s what it says:

Racism, homophobia, biphobia, sexism, transphobia, disablism or prejudice based on age, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, gender presentation, language ability, immigration status or religious affiliation is unacceptable and will be challenged.

Well, that’s pretty sweeping, except it doesn’t mean anything. There’s a huge gap between saying something’s “unacceptable” and saying it “will be challenged.” There are neither penalties nor enforcement mechanisms, so evidently these kinds of speech are discouraged, not banned, but neither is there any real obligation to “challenge.” (“We refer to our ‘Safe Space Policy’ as a concept, not as a physical document,” the physical document says.)  What’s clear in context is that the main target is things that students say to each other — offhand slurs, for instance. The idea is mainly to get students to be nice to each other. You couldn’t really use this to ban any speaker’s speech: just to ensure they get “challenged,” which could mean anything..

This is a terribly written document (sorry, “concept”). It doesn’t offer a basis for suppressing speech; it offers no guidance, period. I hope no other school has anything like it. Still, the exchange above isn’t sinister censorship. It’s comedy. You can see the poor fellow has no idea what the policy is (it neither “kinda” says you “can’t say” things nor mentions sex work). Smurthwaite immediately leaps to the conclusion that it’s a “pro-pimp” Bible, because it’s basically a blank on which she can write her prejudices, hatreds, fears. I have to say that if were a comedy society honcho, and a comic started claiming I wanted a “pro-pimp event,” I might assume this wouldn’t be a funny evening, and pull the plug.

The other bit of evidence seems to be this:

Goldsmiths4

Let’s repeat: The person who told him there would be pickets outside the show was Smurthwaite herself, as she admits. And this was entirely based on a Twitter conversation between two persons that she saw online. Nobody was threatening to close her down, nobody was threatening violence. The threats, by Smurthwaite’s own account, came from Smurthwaite.

I still find the most plausible assumption to be that Smurthwaite inflated the “protests” because she didn’t want to perform with no audience; torpedoed her own gig; and has been milking the publicity. It’s also possible that the Comedy Society just decided she was a pain in the whatever, and looked for any excuse to cancel.  If the Comedy Society didn’t want to pay for security, that’s its decision. But let’s also note that there is a right to peaceful protest, as Tatchell admits:

Screen shot 2015-02-19 at 9.57.10 PMOr does he mean: “Protest anti-trans feminists unless the host organization might get cold feet”? And if he means that, exactly whose free speech is under threat here?

One of Mona Iraqi’s victims tries to burn himself to death

Shameless I: Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad of Cairo's morals police -- responsible for numerous arrests in the crackdown -- appears on Mona Iraqi's program, February 4

Shameless I: Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad of Cairo’s morals police — responsible for numerous arrests in Egypt’s brutal crackdown — appears on Mona Iraqi’s program, February 4

One of the 26 men arrested, tortured, and ultimately acquitted in the December 7 raid on a Cairo bathhouse has reportedly tried to burn himself to death. El-Watan newspaper claims to have spoken to him yesterday in hospital. “I work in a restaurant in the Shobra district,” he told them. “I’m harassed constantly in my workplace by the words of the people and the looks in their eyes.” He said that since his acquittal his fearful family controlled his movements and tried to keep from leaving the house, that one of his brothers insisted on accompanying him everywhere he went, and that he had “no freedom.” Eight days ago, he set himself on fire.

“I am very tired,” he said. He has been confined in one of Cairo’s largest public hospitals since his suicide attempt, and he complained of neglect and mistreatment. Tarek el-Awady, one of the defense lawyers who is now pressing a lawsuit against journalist Mona Iraqi, said the man’s sufferings were due to “the narrowness of the society’s point of view.”

Shameless II: Mona Iraqi’s self-justificatory fourth broadcast about her bathhouse raid, February 4

Mona Iraqi, who led and filmed the bathhouse raid and spent weeks vilifying the “den of perversion” on her popular TV program El Mostakhbai (“The Hidden”) will not be repentant. After the acquittal, there were reports she’d be fired. Instead, on February 4, she returned to the attack on air, blasting her critics, insinuating they were foreign agents. She reiterated nonsensically that her raid was all about “sex trafficking,” or preventing AIDS; at the same time, with serene inconsistency, she pointed to “evidence” — from Google searches — that the bathhouse was a gay hangout, undercutting her repeated claim that homosexuality had not been at issue. Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad, the vice squad officer who planned the raid with her, also appeared on-air, talking about his “secret, extended investigation” of the bathhouse. The acquittal should have humiliated Hashad — the court clearly accepted the defense contention that he fabricated evidence. But he’s not disgraced, he’s an official talking head on morals. Egypt’s police stand by their woman and their man.

The episode aired only two or three days before Iraqi’s and Hashad’s victim tried to kill himself.

In Egypt today as in the region, self-immolation summons ghosts. Even with the country now clouded in official amnesia (last month the government cancelled any commemoration of the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s democratic revolution) no one can expunge the memory of how the Arab Spring began. On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, in a desperate protest against bureaucrats who had confiscated his wares and his livelihood. He died three weeks later. By then his solitary act had ignited the Tunisian revolution. Four days after his death, the dictator Ben Ali fled.

In Egypt, in January 2011, in the eleven days between the downfall of Tunisia’s regime and the outbreak of mass protests against Mubarak, at least five men set their bodies on fire in despairing homage to Bouazizi: two did so near the Parliament building. All these were acts of faith. The beacons of agony illumined the anguish of a people. They were also last-ditch expressions of a physical, personal and individual resistance, the lone body defying the state and its repressive engines. The fragile flesh recovered power in annihilation, in its refusal to obey; death was its freedom, and made it incandescent. Skin and bone were the last refuges of integrity against the system. Their consummation was its negation.

"Hommage a Mohamed Bouazizi," installation, 2012. Photo: www.efferlecebe.fr

Effer Lecébé, Hommage à Mohamed Bouazizi, installation, Centre d’art contemporain, Paris, 2011. Photo: http://www.efferlecebe.fr

The old regime in Egypt is back, and it has put a sanbenito of surveillance over everybody’s body. The small act of this man whose full name I don’t even know was not just despair. It affirms the survival and the continuity of resistance. He wasn’t weak, he was courageous, and I’m too weak to comprehend it. This morning I read some lines by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. They’re all I can say: trying, and failing, to translate a material bravery that abjures expression into the spectral inadequacy of words.

One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a bird, and will snatch my being out of my nothingness.

The more my wings burn, the more I near my truth and arise from the ashes.
I am the dreamer’s speech, having forsaken body and soul
to continue my first journey to what set me on fire and vanished:
The meaning.

— Mahmoud Darwish, “Mural,” trans. Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché’

Photograph of the bathhouse raid, December 7, 2014, posted by Mona Iraqi on her Facebook page that night. She stands at the right, filming.

Photograph of the bathhouse raid, December 7, 2014, posted by Mona Iraqi on her Facebook page that night. She stands at the right, filming.

 

Egypt’s Atrocity Investments Fair (Part one: The British connection)

Malouka Aldlouah in court; photo from Al Youm Al Sabbah (Youm 7), January 31, 2015. I tried to blur the face; Youm 7 didn't.

Malouka Aldlouah in court; photo from Al Youm Al Sabbah (Youm7), January 31, 2015. I tried to blur her face; Youm7 didn’t.

Look at two photographs. Above is Malouka Aldlouah, a 25-year-old transgender woman, in a cold courtroom. On January 31, a judge sentenced her and a friend, Aida, to six years in prison. Their crime was “debauchery,” homosexual conduct; police entrapped them in an apartment they shared. Below is Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a journalist, activist, and mother. On January 24, she tried to place flowers in Tahrir Square in memory of the Egyptian revolution’s martyrs. Police shot her. She died in a comrade’s arms.

Those photographs illuminate what it’s like in Egypt today, homes and streets patrolled equally ruthlessly, private and public life endangered. A police state shaped these women’s narratives, but the pictures tell very different stories: contempt and shame weigh unequally on them. I blurred one face and not the other, and that has to do with stigma, but also with the division between life and death. Sometimes I feel the only Egyptians who can show their faces without fear these days are the dead, who have already paid for it.

24open_cairo-master675On March 13-15, General Sisi’s regime will host an Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el Sheikh. This is a massive event, Sisi’s bid to pump foreign money into an immiserated country. To the extent the government has an economic strategy, this is it. The state hypes it furiously, and its docile press slavishly whips up hope. The meeting “is a ‘once in a life time’ opportunity to rapidly enter the ’emerging’ Egyptian market” (why those air quotes?); the “success of the summit will lead to an economic boom for Egypt, as it aims to improve the standard of living for Egyptians.” They’ve invited 3500 investors, no, 6000, from 120 countries. 1000 Saudis alone are eagerly awaited. They’re begging Russia and Germany and France to send businessmen. “30 different investment projects” will be up for grabs at the meeting, worth $20 billion — no, $15 billion (that’s down suspiciously from 42 projects heralded a few weeks ago). The government’s even lowering the currency against the dollar; it will drop 12% by the time the summit opens, making Egypt an even more fabulous bargain basement, a louche low-rent laundry for loose cash.

Roughing it: Brave Western investors at the Grand Hotel, Sharm el-Sheikh, try to locate Egypt's economic future on the horizon

Neither out far nor in deep: Brave Western investors at the Grand Hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh try to locate Egypt’s economic future on the horizon

I want to know: Who among the businessmen, and bankers, and diplomats at the Sharm summit will demand answers about Egypt’s deteriorating human rights situation? 

Sisi’s government has had a hard time attracting attendees, postponing the gathering repeatedly to bushbeat for joiners; the problem is that Egypt looks less than stable as an investment opportunity. If the poolside potentates at Sharm el-Sheikh want to see instability firsthand, it’s near — too near. Two hundred miles north of Sinai’s Red Sea beaches, a vast rebellion rages. Attacks by the ISIS-affiliated “State of Sinai” (Wilayat Sina) killed 30 to 50 soldiers on January 29 alone. The rights crisis feeds the resistance. State torture and repression, Amr Khalifa argues, are “making a dark scenario an explosive one”:

an elevation of the language of guns, APC’s and unmanned drones over that of reasoned discourse with the local population. It is a problem central to the Al-Sisi regime: the world viewed in a dual prism, either black or white, and in his universe, Sinai residents are terrorists till proven otherwise.

But Sisi’s guests can look out on wider landscapes of atrocity.

  • Police have slaughtered over 1500 protesters since the 2013 coup. A draconian law passed last year criminalizes all peaceful demonstrations. Democracy activists like Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif are serving long prison sentences merely for protesting the protest law.
  • Human rights activists can receive life in prison for taking funds from abroad.
  • More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps. Hundreds who have gone before courts face the death penalty.
  • Police hunt down other dissident identities, from accused atheists to alleged gay and transgender people. Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison, targets for savage vilification in the pro-Sisi media. Police brutalize almost all those arrested on charges of homosexual conduct; most suffer anal tests at the hands of state forensic doctors, an invasive form of torture.
Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a Cairo bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Why should companies care? Nobody really believes you can coax corporations into pious solicitude for human beings as such, above and beyond their status as workers, consumers, or raw materials for Soylent Green. There’s enlightened self-interest, though:

  • The corporate brand — symbol of “a company’s integrity, values and, most importantly, intentions” — looks less appealing if it’s dripping blood.
  • Torture and repression won’t create political stability. Mubarak spent thirty years savagely suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists; it only made them more popular, and his government less secure. How can Sisi’s persecutions succeed? He’s alienated large segments of youth and the educated; what happens when the anger at his depredations explodes?
  • International firms doing business in Egypt all have LGBT employees. Many are bound by anti-discrimination policies on sexual orientation or gender identity. How can they defend their workers’ basic safety if they don’t combat state persecution?
Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman is shocked, do you hear me, shocked that human rights violations happen

Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman is shocked, do you hear me, shocked that human rights violations happen

But foreign investment promotes political openness. Right? No. The summit has become a pretext for making Egypt even less transparent. For the crony capitalists surrounding Sisi, easing investment means eviscerating public oversight. Last April, in a move touted as creating a benign climate for foreign money, puppet interim president Adly Mansour revised the Investment Law. He barred anyone from mounting legal challenges to state contracts except for the government itself and the investor. Rejected bidders and civil society lost any legal recourse. And he made this retroactive, cancelling some 20 standing lawsuits against corrupt or dubious state deals, most filed during the brief democratic spring after Mubarak’s overthrow.

Third-party lawsuits, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), were “one of the only avenues” for the public to learn about corruption. “The level of accountability that exists is being taken away, reducing what potential for oversight there is,” a researcher for the group said. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights condemned the new “unconstitutional law that revokes the right of a citizen to appeal and entrenches the corrupt contracts through retroactive application”:

This law allows for corrupt practices to negate the rulings of Egyptian courts which had originally uncovered corruption in a number of privatisation and land sale schemes … The law has shut the door on local courts entirely, which threatens increased corruption and criminal activity that will threaten the Egyptian economy.

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Lifestyles of the rich and shameless: Fortunes amassed by Mubarak-era figures. Only the numbers for Mubarak himself are in dollars, the rest in Egyptian pounds (roughly 7 LE = $1 US at the time). Based on 2011 estimates by the US-based group Global Financial Integrity (GFI).

Egypt’s energy industry — the government’s sale of oil and gas to foreign corporations — had long bred illegality. An EIPR report found that “poor negotiation and corruption cost Egypt US$10 billion in lost [energy] revenue between 2005 and 2011″ — more than twice the country’s annual health budget.

A culture of secrecy, and a lack of accountability and public debate created the conditions that allowed these contracts to be signed. Although state entities … were mandated to negotiate in the interests of the Egyptian people, secrecy created ample room for graft and kickbacks, and allowed well-connected businessmen to manipulate contracts for their own benefit.

Now secrecy is back, bigtime. Foreign investors rewarded Sisi for the new law by easing the country’s credit rating (a spurious move given that Egypt’s securities remained “among the least liquid in the Middle East”). But the law’s main beneficiary is Egypt’s government itself, which can carry on pocketing illegal spoils. Corporations exulting in the short-term pleasures of buying public goods without public scrutiny are now locked into the costs of kickbacks and corruption. Sisi pushed the law through by decree, without a shred of democratic process: Egypt’s democratically-elected parliament had long since been dissolved. By propping up a self-destructive system that flouts accountability and insults public opinion, corporations render their own investments unsafe.

Most Egyptian human rights activists, and most Egyptian LGBT people, want foreign investment in the economy. In that sense, they want the summit to succeed. But they want investment that will help workers, the public, the poor, not just incestuous covens of cronies. They want state resources fairly priced and sold, not handed out like gift bags of swag. They want investors to support a stable and democratic Egypt, not a dictatorship tottering like an upended pyramid. So let’s look at some of the attendees at the conference. What are they going to say about human rights?

Sir Martin Sorrell in WPP's London offices, with small brown people behind him

Sir Martin Sorrell in WPP’s London offices, with small brown people behind him. Photo: Martin Argles, Guardian

1) WPP. One prominent summit speaker will be Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of the UK-based WPP Group. WPP, a media and public relations giant, is the world’s largest advertising firm. The name stands for Wire and Plastic Products; they started out making shopping carts. That’s fitting; Sorrell’s main skill is shopping. A former Saatchi & Saatchi executive, he bought the small, Wernham-Hoggesque firm in the 80s purely as a platform for buying other things. He leveraged that to purchase J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam and then everything else in the PR field. He is, as the Financial Times says, “advertising’s biggest dealmaker.”

Small and square-jawed, Sorrell looks as though Napoleon had stumbled onto the set of Mad Men. (He once sued a former employee for calling him the “mad dwarf.”) Like Napoleon, he has a history with Egypt.

On January 28, 2011, as the Egyptian revolution broke out, Vodafone Egypt joined the country’s other phone and Internet firms in shutting down service completely. Gagging the opposition’s voices failed, but drew thunderous international condemnation. On February 4, Sorrell published an op-ed defending Vodafone in The Times. Vodafone was only following orders, he wrote; it didn’t have the luxury of opening its communications pipelines to all opinions, the way international firms like Google and Twitter could. The latter offered too much freedom. By censoring more, they could help brother corporations. “They must understand that with incredible power comes incredible responsibility … You are responsible for the information that flows through” your networks. Sorrell didn’t disclose that Vodafone Egypt was a WPP client.

No signal: Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, February 2011

No signal: Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, February 2011

A few months later, a WPP subsidiary produced an ad for Vodafone Egypt that showed “Egyptians connecting with each other, feeling empowered, and joining the protests that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime. While the video makes no claims for [Vodafone] starting the revolution, it drops broad hints as it tries to ride on its coattails, that it played some role.” The ad caused outrage among Egyptians still furious at the shutdown. Vodafone was forced to pull it.

Making deals takes not just money but friends, powerful ones. (“WPP’s fastest growing client segment is still governmental,” Sorrell declared in a lecture on “nation branding,” where he praised China and Singapore as “so effective in managing their global brands.”) Friendly WPP’s Egypt business has thus been, though small, burgeoning — a “growth market,” it says. Naturally Sorrell hopes to foster his friendship with Sisi by supporting his summit.

This will hurt you more than it hurts me: Tony Blair offers his services to Sisi's government in performing forensic anal exams

This will hurt you more than it hurts me: Tony Blair offers his services to Sisi’s government in performing forensic anal examinations

Sorrell is also a friend to Tony Blair, who got him his knighthood, and that’s a further link to Egypt. Since July 2014, Blair has been advising Sisi on “economic reforms,” in a task force put together by the Egyptian regime’s main patrons, the United Arab Emirates. Drumming up support for the summit has been part of Blair’s mandate. Blair makes no money out of Egypt, his spokesperson claims, but that’s a technicality. The UAE are the paymasters in this intricate arrangement, and Blair already gets millions of pounds in consulting fees from that country’s sovereign wealth fund.

As one former close personal associate of Blair’s puts it, “a bargain has been struck” that “combines both an existential battle against Islamism and mouth-watering business opportunities in return for the kind of persuasive advocacy he provided George Bush over Iraq.”

Meanwhile, Blair’s onetime counsellor Peter Mandelson is also a friend of Martin Sorrell: WPP provided the starting money for Mandelson’s international consulting firm. “From WPP’s point of view the Mandelson connection gives it a degree of access to people in high places although some of Peter’s friends tend to be Russian oligarchs and financiers occupying the more exotic shores of capitalism.” Egypt is such a shore; Mandelson landed there long ago. He echoed Sorrell during the eighteen days of Egypt’s revolution, stepping up to defend Mubarak’s family kleptocracy. On February 1, 2011, Mandelson wrote to the Financial Times, claiming Gamal Mubarak “has been the leading voice in favour of change within the government and the ruling party,” and demanding a “peaceful transition” that would leave Gamal in place. Four years later Gamal is free, and his counterrevolutionary friends are back in charge. Mandelson’s powers of “access” can click in.

Blair and Mandelson in happier times: Peter primps himself while Tony plays hard-to-get

Blair and Mandelson in happier times: Peter primps himself while Tony plays hard-to-get

In other words, human rights don’t have much to do with WPP’s record in Egypt. But this sits uneasily with the firm’s Code of Business Conduct. That document declares, “We will consider the potential for clients or work to damage the Group’s reputation prior to taking them on. This includes reputational damage from association with clients that participate in activities that contribute to the abuse of human rights.” It has clauses dealing with LGBT people: not just protections against discrimination, but a promise to

give appropriate consideration to the impact of our work on minority segments of the population, whether that minority be by race, religion, national origin, colour, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or disability.

How will WPP defend its LGBT employees in Sisi’s Egypt from arrest? How do its promises fit with uncritical support for a regime that jails and tortures anyone accused of being gay or transgender?

Sorrell has a rep as a global thinker, possibly overblown. In mid-2008, as economies crumbled like damp sandcastles, he opined, “I am still not sure there will be a recession in the US and I definitely don’t think worldwide.” The next year WPP’s revenues fell 16%, and the firm took it out on the 14,000 employees it laid off. So much for prognostication. But if people look up to him for wisdom, let him put it to good use. Let him speak up about Sisi’s abuses against LGBT Egyptians and others. It’s his responsibility.

Can I help you? Martin Sorrell also displays his potential prowess at forensic anal exams

Can I help you? Martin Sorrell also displays his potential prowess at forensic anal exams

2) British Petroleum. Another featured summit speaker is Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP.  

Egypt is big business for BP. The corporation is the country’s largest oil and gas producer, in partnership with the state-run Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation; it’s responsible for 15% of the nation’s oil production. It gets there by having cordial relations with the state, which sells off oil and gas concessions to foreign corporations. In 2008 and 2010, for instance, BP bagged control of exploration in large blocks of the Mediterranean Sea.

BP concessions northwest of the Nile Delta as of 2010, from http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/

BP concessions northwest of the Nile Delta as of 2010, from http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/

It got two more blocks for onshore and offshore gas exploration (3 and 8 on the map) in a 2013 round of bidding:

Map from Littlegatepublishing.com

Map of exploration blocks up for bidding in 2013, from http://Littlegatepublishing.com/

With all these concessions, you might think BP could actually provide Egypt with energy. You’d be wrong. Shortages and blackouts have spread. Meanwhile, BP’s contracts favor the corporation heavily, at the expense of Egypt’s state and people. With one of its offshore blocks, for instance, “BP managed to negotiate a vast share of the concession profits, above the 50-50 ratio customary to most petroleum agreements, citing the complexities and depth of extraction in that particular patch of the Mediterranean Sea.”

“I’ve analyzed oil and gas contracts from Uganda, Kazakhstan and Congo, and I’ve never seen a country ripped off this badly,” said one researcher. “The Egyptian people are paying for elite corruption with blackouts, black-market fuel and a collapsing economy.” The new investment law will make it almost impossible for Egyptians to contest such concessions — giving BP one more reason for gratitude to Sisi.

There are other reasons. The activist group Platform London told this story in mid-2013:

We recently visited a small Egyptian town that fought off plans by giant BP to build a gas terminal on its land as part of an $11 billion project. Idku lies just east of Alexandria, where the Nile Delta meets the Mediterranean. We met a number of local activists, farmers and fisherfolk, who explained that Idku’s land and water has for years suffered from pollution by both nearby sewage canals and the existing BG/Rashpetco’s LNG [liquid natural gas] export plant. …

BP, having drilled for oil in the deep waters of the North Alexandria block, wanted to build yet another new gas plant on Idku’s beach. … But the community was tired of their sea being polluted by large corporations.

Empowered by the Egyptian revolution, Idku’s citizens rebelled. They launched months of street protests and social media campaigns, among them “a symbolic funeral procession and a sit-in occupation at BP’s proposed construction site in late 2011.” In 2013 BP gave in and suspended the project.

“Idku: An Egyptian town beat the odds and stopped BP.” Video produced by Egypt’s Mosireen Collective.

London Platform described all this only nine days before the coup that carried Sisi to power. Within months, the new regime passed a draconian new protest law making demonstrations impossible. By mid-2014, with the way cleared, BP announced expanded work at its existing gas plant in Idku. Bob Dudley visited Cairo to promise new investment in Egyptian gas production. Details stayed secret, but the state simultaneously agreed to pay higher prices for its own energy resources extracted by foreign concession-holders: “to fulfil a pledge to provide more attractive terms to foreign firms.” As for the investment money, Platform wrote, “the oil and gas industry is incredibly capital-intensive; the billions will go to foreign oil service companies and imported equipment and technology. Few jobs will be created, and most will be temporary – the benefits for the Egyptian people are debatable.”

This activity now prohibited by law: Protest march in Idku, with a banner reading, "No to BP. For Our Sakes." Photo by Platform.

This activity now prohibited by law: Protest march in Idku, with a banner reading, “No to BP. For Our Sakes.” Photo by Platform.

BP, then, has done pretty well off the Sisi government’s repressive measures. Yet the firm claims to attend to human rights issues. BP’s own Code of Conduct says: “We seek to conduct our business in a manner that respects the human rights and dignity of people. Each of us can play a role in the elimination of human rights abuses such as child labour, human trafficking and forced labour.” There’s even an action point: “Report any human rights abuse in our operations or in those of our business partners.” True, the document seems short of binding: “Our Code reflects a principles-based approach, where rules are not stated explicitly.” You may also notice that it is available in eight languages including Azerbaijani, but not in Arabic.

You can read our Code of Conduct whether you're from Porto Alegre or Oporto. But if you're from Cairo, خلاص .

You can read our Code of Conduct whether you’re from Porto Alegre or Oporto. But if you’re from Cairo, خلاص .

Sexual orientation is of high concern to BP, at least in some languages. There’s a history behind this. Its longtime chief, Lord John Browne, resigned under a cloud in 2007 after perjuring himself to deny a same-sex lover. Browne has since transformed himself into a gay-rights martyr. In fact, as was widely noted at the time, his exit owed at least as much to the safety and environmental disasters that plagued his tenure, all traceable to his merger-fueled mania for cost-cutting. One of his legacies, though — in addition to the despoiled Louisiana coast, a catastrophe for which his successor took the fall — is a non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT employees.

Screen shot 2015-02-03 at 3.52.25 AM“Our goal is to create an environment of inclusion and acceptance,” BP’s Code of Conduct says. (Their website illustrates that laudable ambition with this frightening picture, showing a brown woman with crazed eyes who has apparently fought her way in front of a sad white man.) “We seek to treat all employees equally, irrespective of gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.” Achieving this in Egypt might require speaking up to the government about something other than concessionary profits. Then there’s this gem:

BP encourages and supports a number of business resource groups (BRGs). BRGs are employee-networks, set up by employees for employees. The groups come together voluntarily with the goal of enhancing the success of BP’s D&I objectives by helping to foster, develop and retain diverse talent in BP.

Among these is a “BP Pride group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.” Creating such a group in Egypt would earn you nine years in prison, by my estimates (three for practicing “debauchery,” three for inciting others to “debauchery,” and three for publicizing an invitation to “debauchery”). Will BP complain?

Lord Browne, one critic says, nearly destroyed BP with “the conflict between how he actually managed the company and the public principles he claimed were the essence of BP’s corporate character.” The corporation can’t afford another conflict when Sisi starts arresting its staff. If BP cares about human rights and its LGBT employees, it should speak out at Sharm.

I don't need to use my finger: BP's Bob Dudley offers his own forensic services

I don’t need to use my finger: BP’s Bob Dudley offers Egypt his own forensic services

Both these core supporters of Sisi’s summit are British-based firms. Six weeks from now they’ll be center stage in Sharm el-Sheikh. They don’t need to flatter power to get their profits, which are secure; they do need to show whether their principles are just glossy print and verbiage. Get started.

Pumping is permissible. Humping isn't: Banner for the Economic Development Conference

Pumping is permissible. Humping isn’t: Banner for the Economic Development Conference

ISIS kills gays: A history of violence

Hands shove them forward, bound and blindfolded. Then comes the step when the stone beneath them stops and nothing is there. The photographs appall but they have the solidity of things you can see; they suggest but cannot summon the feel of one terrifying lurch in darkness when all that’s solid falls away. Death is what happens when you are there, alone, and the world disappears.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now styles itself just the Islamic State. Many Arabs call it Da’ish, an acronym (for Ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-‘Iraq wash-Sham) they prefer and the militants despise, partly because it echoes Arabic words for bearers of brutality and discord. Even in Iraq, where death dominates life, Da’ish’s violence is exceptionally uncompromising and public. An Egyptian leftist friend of mine calls it unprecedented. Plenty of political movements employ sadism (Stalin, Hitler). Some embrace it ecstatically (Romanian Iron Guardists smeared themselves with their victims’ blood and chanted, “Long live death”). But Da’ish treats absolute violence as propaganda, as entertainment. Displaying violence has become its essence, as if its ideology were a snuff film. Although it’s commonplace to say it wants to terrify (shock and awe!) the effect is to make unrestrained violence, which Hannah Arendt saw as the opposite of political life, the main feature of the public world. Da’ish’s broadcast deeds become as commonplace as campaign speeches. Western audiences, astonished at first, are now inured. The pictures keep coming, but only a few hit their target. Like these.

What do we know? According to Twitter these pictures first appeared on January 15, on the media-sharing site Justpaste.it (the post has since come down). They spread immediately. The left of each photo reads “Islamic State”; the right, “Ninawa” — Nineveh, Iraq’s northernmost province. Presumably they came from the Islamic State’s provincial media office.

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Caption: “Muslims gather to watch the application of the verdict”

Caption: "The shari'a verdict for banditry is stated in an introductory sign"

Caption: “The shari’a verdict for banditry is stated in an introductory sign”

The sign says: The Islamic State / The Caliphate in the Footsteps of the Prophet / Islamic Court – Nineveh State
Allah the Almighty said, “The penalty for those who fight God and his Prophet and spread corruption on earth is to be killed or crucified, or their hands or legs to be amputated, or to be exiled from earth. They deserve disgrace in mortal life and great torture in the afterlife.”
Verdict: Crucifixion or death
The reason: Kidnapping Muslims and stealing their money by force and in the name of the Islamic State.

Reading the statement of the shari'a law verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Ninevah against two persons who practiced sodomy [liwat]"

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against two persons who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot.” [“People of Lot” derives from the Qu’ranic version of the Sodom story; “sodomite” might be an English translation.]

Then back to the tower’s top again. First a man in a red sweater is hauled forward:

Caption:" Applying the verdict on one who practiced sodomy by throwing him from a high place"

Caption:” Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot, by throwing him from a high place”

Then a man in a black jacket:

Caption: "Applying the verdict on one who practiced sodomy"

Caption: “Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot”

Screen shot 2015-01-24 at 9.03.59 PM

Caption: “Applying the shari’a verdict on the person who committed the greatest crime”

Caption: "This is the penalty for those who encroach upon the limits Allah the Almighty set"

Caption: “This is the penalty for those who encroach upon the limits Allah the Almighty set”

Back to the square. The frames on which men hang crucified were faintly visible in the first photo. Now:

Caption: "Reading the statement of the shari'a verdict issued by the shari'a court in the state of Nineveh who robbed Muslims using the force of weapons"

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against those who robbed Muslims using the force of weapons”

Caption: "Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts"

Caption: “Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts”

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Caption: “Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts”

The bandits are shot in the head.

Caption: "This is the punishment for what their hands did"

Caption: “This is the punishment for what their hands did”

Caption: "Let them be an example to those who feel tempted to assault Muslims in the Caliphate state"

Caption: “Let them be an example to those who feel tempted to assault Muslims in the Caliphate state”

The last two photographs are in a park.

Caption: "Reading the statement of the shari'a verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Nineveh against a woman who committed adultery"

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against a woman who committed adultery”

The woman is stoned to death.

Caption: "Applying the penalty as an expiation of guilt"

Caption: “Applying the penalty as an expiation of guilt”

Beyond those bare descriptions, all’s speculation. The executions may have happened January 14, maybe earlier. The city’s probably Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, which Da’ish captured last June. The white-bearded man who lurks in several shots and supervises the stoning, looking like a vengeful garden gnome, is likely Abu Asaad al-Ansari, a well-known ISIS cleric. The death tower is tall, yellow, mostly windowless. It may be the Tameen (Insurance) Building, a 1960s relic turned at some point into government offices.

That’s it. The story went viral internationally because of the two “sodomites” thrown to their deaths — the bandits and the adulteress were inadequate to colonize attention. Yet those victims are, in the images, the most anonymous: merely bent backs, or faceless corpses. It’s worthwhile then to pause (there’s little you can do with a Da’ish atrocity but pause) and ask what we’ve seen. What do we recognize in the victims? And what do we understand about the perpetrators?

The first looks easy. Jamie Kirchick (an instant expert on Islam and other un-American things) wrote, “As a gay man, I thought, there but for the grace of Allah go I.” They’re gay; they’re like us. The facelessness actually facilitates emotion; in the absence of particular selves to see, a generalized identity sets in.

It’s good to feel that identification. Only extraterrestrials and lice embrace all humanity without exception; most of us look for specific commonalities to carry sympathy across the abstract gulfs of difference. Still, sympathy always simplifies, smoothing over alienating idiosyncrasies, bland as asphalt. It leaves things out.

Back in 2012, there was a surge of killings of “effeminate”-looking men in Baghdad. Western gay activists immediately called these “gay” killings. In fact, as I quickly found, that wasn’t true. Iraq’s Ministry of Interior and media had been inciting fears of “emos,” youth corrupted by Western styles and music and gender ambiguity. Militias, mostly Shi’ite, took up the cause, murdering dozens or hundreds of suspect young men. Certainly gay and trans* people were caught in the sweeps — the rhetoric was vague enough to vilify any men who didn’t look masculine enough, and some Iraqi queers had found an emo identity congenial. But “gay” on its own was the wrong rubric to explain what was going on.

Anti-Emo meme (in English) from Baghdad, 2012

Anti-Emo meme (in English) from Baghdad, 2012

When I said that publicly, one well-known American gay blogger wrote that I was “confusing”:

You can’t just write a blog post about violence in Iraq, especially on a gay blog, nobody cares about violence in Iraq in general — and if anything, they’ll probably shrug and say “90 deaths sounds like a typical day in Iraq, oh well.” Unless it’s violence against someone we care about — then we care. The gay angle works … I’m just not sure how we write a post saying lots of people are getting killed, stop it, with any authority, or in a way that moves people.

On one level, perhaps, he was saying I want blog hits, and I won’t get them if I can’t write about gay stuff. On a larger level, though, he was right, and even principled: You can’t make people care unless, well, there are people they care about. The gays are an organized constituency primed for caring. There’s no comparable global solidarity among bandits or adulterers. (There is, of course, an international women’s movement that combats stonings and other atrocities, but it’s stretched pretty thin.)  Yet this was an American blogger, writing for Americans, in the nation that destroyed Iraq. Surely that’s an angle; could you drum up a little compassion, or even penitence, for what your readers’ government did to another country? Maybe they can’t fix it, but they could stop their government from doing it again. The strange thing is that, even though his blog has a big American flag on the masthead, gay as a source of sympathy trumps American as a reminder of responsibility. Probably that’s because sympathy, unlike responsibility, doesn’t carry obligations.

An image that did not go viral: US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

An image that did not go viral: US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

Context gets erased on both sides. The American gays can wield “gay” to forget they’re also American, at least in any way that implies guilt. But calling the victims “gay” and stopping with that erases the wider fears about masculinity and cultural invasion that inform the violence — obliterates what links the dead to the politics of post-occupation Iraq, and to the countless other Iraqis exiled, or injured, or killed.

Moreover, what do we mean by “gay”? It’s not self-evident. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) at first stuck the “gay” label on the 2012 killings; they retracted it rapidly, to their credit. Now they’ve issued a warning about the latest Mosul murders. They caution

in the strongest possible terms against assuming that the men identified as ‘gay’ and against assuming the men engaged in homosexual acts. ….  If the men did not identify as gay, the allegation is inaccurate and obscures the Islamic State’s motivation for publicly labeling them as such. If the men indeed identified as gay … widespread publicity potentially exposes their families, loved ones and intimate partners to harm.

They’re right on the dangers, wrong on the rest. The Islamic State didn’t “publicly label” the men “gay.” It said they “practiced the deeds of the people of Lot.” The prophet Lot in the Qu’ran preached against the things the residents of Sodom did — deeds often called liwat in Arabic, from his name; “sodomy” is a partial English equivalent. Da’ish killed the men for committing an act, not for inheriting a description. The difference matters. The American sympathy the blogger invoked demands its beneficiaries be like us, not just behave like us in bed. But Da’ish doesn’t posit a fixed, communal form of selfhood derived from “liwat.” The category “gay” means nothing to it. Sex exists for Da’ish in religious and juridical terms, as deeds, not identities.

Not your average metrosexuals: Lot's people feel the fire and brimstone, in a scene from an Arabic cartoon version of the story

Not your average metrosexuals: Lot’s people feel the fire and brimstone, in a scene from an Arabic cartoon version of the story

The idea that, deep down, Da’ish must see sex as we do is put to political purpose. Polemicist Jamie Kirchick assimilates the Mosul killings conveniently to the Paris attacks:

A thread links these atrocities to this month’s murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris, beyond the fact that the culprits in both cases are Islamist fanatics … The more salient commonality pertains to the victims, executed solely because of irrevocable traits: Jewishness and homosexuality…. In Iraq, no expression is necessary as cause for atrocity. Gay men are hunted down and killed like rats solely owing to the fact that they are gay.

Kirchick clearly knows little about Iraq and less about Da’ish. Da’ish pursues the practitioners of liwat not to eliminate a race, but to discourage what it imagines are preventable perversions. Gay men have been hunted down in Iraq not “solely owing to the fact that they are gay,” but because a general environment where masculinity is believed under threat, and cultural authenticity endangered, makes specific behaviors — the way you dress or walk, where you meet your friends, whether and how you’re penetrated — suspect or criminal. It’s exactly these “expressions,” not the identities we impute from thousands of miles away, that put victims at risk. Da’ish is deluded, the Iraqi moral panics are paranoiac, but ignoring the context and motives behind the violence makes it impossible to help stop it.

How they look or dress or walk: Video memorial for Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20 year-old beaten to death with concrete blocks in Sadr City, Baghdad on February 17, 2012

For Kirchick, though, the idea that Muslims see gays as one unchangeable collective opens the door to treating Muslims the same way. It’s us versus them. “Oppression and murder predicated solely upon their victims’ identities,” he writes, “provides [sic] ultimate clarity about the nature and intentions of radical Islam.” What this clarity is, he doesn’t say, but you get an idea from how he describes the scene: “A crowd below [the tower] gawks like spectators at a sporting event.” Check those photos; who’s gawking, or cheering the killers on? The audience looks tense, unwilling. Mosul is a religiously and ethnically diverse city which Da’ish conquered seven months ago. The militia may force the occupied population to attend executions, but it can’t compel enthusiasm. Yet Kirchick’s own prejudices steamroller Da’ish and those it oppresses into the same ersatz category: the enemies of gays. This is a clash of civilizations, in which the “irrevocable” identity of one side mirrors the monolithic irrevocability of the other. (And Kirchick’s insistence that killing gays is worse because they have “identities” — as opposed to robbers, adulterers, women — echoes Da’ish’s own deranged value system, where stealing “the money of Muslims” merits a higher penalty than simple theft.)

Killing “gays” evokes an intense response in our societies partly because there’s a prefab constituency that answers. Yet this intensity also helps obliterate our ability to perceive the actual context of Iraq, not just its multiplicity and complexity but its past. To see Iraq clearly is to see not us-versus-them but us-and-them, not just an opposition but an entanglement, the violence woven into a history with the barbarities that the US and its coalition caused. Instead, it’s versus that infuses the UK Daily Mail‘s blaring version of the murders: “While the world reacts with horror to terror in Europe, new ISIS executions show the medieval brutality jihadists would bring to the West.” You see? It’s just about us, after all, because they’re coming, they’re bringing their business here; all those page-one warnings about immigration were spot on. First ISIS takes Baghdad, then Bethnal Green. What happens on the Tigris doesn’t matter in itself. What counts is keeping a crazed Tower Hamlets mob from tossing Soho’s gentle denizens off the London Eye.

They're here: Peace, love, and understanding according to the Daily Mail

They’re here: Peace, love, and Western values according to the Daily Mail

Already this leads to the second question: How do we perceive the perpetrators? Violence based on sexuality has been a minor theme drumming through US and British reportage on Iraq ever since the 2003 invasion. (It’s tended to drown out violence based on gender, though the two are certainly related.) But how seriously it’s taken has depended, at every point, on the politics of the invading powers.

ACT ONE: Sporadic reports of LGBT people targeted for violence started emerging not long after the invasion. Ali Hili, an Iraqi exile in London, was a key source. Hili had a wide network inside Iraq; he was also corrupt and unreliable. He placed full blame for the killings on Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyid ‘Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of many Iraqi Shi’ites — and on the Badr Brigade, a militia affiliated with Sistani.  Peter Tatchell and reporter Doug Ireland both promoted HIli’s checkered career and adopted his version. The “campaign of terror is sanctioned, some say orchestrated, by Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,” Tatchell wrote.  “The Badr Corps,” Ireland intoned, “is committed to the ‘sexual cleansing’ of Iraq.”

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

There was little truth to these particular charges. When I researched inside Iraq for Human Rights Watch in 2009, I found no evidence that the Badr Brigade had been responsible for extensive attacks on LGBT people; other Shi’ite militias had taken the lead. (Sistani’s website, probably largely written by junior clerics, had once carried a fatwa calling for the death penalty for “sodomy,” but when it attracted attention he quickly took it down.) Politics, tinged with old grudges, propelled the claims. Hili was a former Ba’athist, who shared the party’s loathing of Sistani. Moreover, the Badr Brigade was also a longtime enemy to the cultlike Iranian Mujahedin e-Khalq guerrillas stationed in Iraq — and the Mujahedin had fed (false but headline-grabbing) stories to both Tatchell and Ireland in the past.

But Sistani was also the one Shi’ite cleric whom the US saw as potentially a force for “stability.” True or not, narratives that blamed him for the killings were unlikely to get much traction with a Western media that still took the coalition military forces as their main sources for Iraq events. Stories of “gay murders” stayed confined to the ghettos of the gay press.

ACT TWO: In early 2009, killings of LGBT people accelerated massively. What had once looked unsystematic became an organized campaign. I went to Iraq; it was obvious, there, that the forces of popular Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr bore main responsibility. Sadr City, the great Baghdad slum dominated by Moqtada’s movement, was the fulcrum of the violence; preachers there openly incited murder, and survivors blamed his Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi) for most of the carnage. Al-Sadr’s militia had gone underground at the beginning of the US-led counterinsurgency “surge” in 2007, and Moqtada himself fled to Iran. The killings seemed to be an bid to reassert his relevance and moral indispensability. One “executioner” claimed he was tackling “a serious illness in the community that has been spreading rapidly among the youth after it was brought in from the outside by American soldiers. These are not the habits of Iraq or our community and we must eliminate them.”

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

Moqtada was also the right criminal at the right time for an American audience. The US saw him as a prime enemy, driving Shi’ite resistance to the occupation. Blaming him was not just accurate but easy. His sinister dominance made sure the killing campaign got ample US and UK press. What helped stop the murders, by contrast, was the growing indignation of ordinary Iraqis. One Baghdad journalist wrote in Sawt al-Iraq that

In addition to death threats against any man who grows his hair a couple of centimeters longer than the Sadri standards that are measured exactly and applied harshly, there are threats against those wearing athletic shorts or tight pants … The slogan is to kill and kill, then kill again for the most trivial and simplest things.

ACT THREE: The “emo” killings in 2012 also swirled around Shi’ite-dominated eastern Baghdad, and the Mahdi Army was widely held responsible, along with a breakaway Shi’ite militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) — though Moqtada al-Sadr distanced himself from the campaign, saying emos should be dealt with only “in accordance with the law.” But this time, the Ministry of Interior, which had called for “eliminating” emos, was also involved up to the hilt.

"I" is for "Implicated": Flag of Iraq's Ministry of Interior

The Eye of Sauron relocates from Barad-Dur to Baghdad: Flag of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior

And this culpability was inconvenient for the US and its allies. Moqtada had now graduated to a force for “stability” himself. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry’s repression held the country together. Demonizing the guilty was politically difficult from the American vantage. Dozens or hundreds died in Baghdad in a few weeks — a toll comparable to the hundreds probably killed in 2012 — but the murders never drew the same international outrage: not just because emos were a vaguer target, but because the killers weren’t our enemies.

I don’t mean US or UK forces deliberately manipulated coverage of the targeted killings. (They manipulated other stories; they didn’t have time for this one.) But Western reporters relied on coalition “experts” to analyze the jumbled politics of Iraq, acquiring their prejudices with their statistics. And even the gay press instinctively trusted that our side, however grave an error the invasion was, still had a righteousness that rubbed off on its allies. Politics shaped the coverage, and some of the accusations.

We perceive the perpetrators, like the victims, largely in relation to ourselves. When our enemies murdered gays, it was clear-cut evil. When our friends stood accused, the case was merely confused. It’s a discourse about us; its ability to affect Iraq is therefore limited.

Cover of the Arabic version of Human Rights Watch's 2009 report on Iraq

Cover of the Arabic version of Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report on Iraq

Here’s one instance. IGLHRC and MADRE, the international women’s rights group, released two briefing papers on violence against LGBT Iraqis last November. They were solid work, based on a small but significant number of harrowing stories. What was striking is that both appeared only in English, with no Arabic version or even summary. Thus, while the reports included recommendations to the Iraqi authorities — ranging from the feasible (“Amend the shelter law to allow NGOs to legally run private shelters for displaced persons”) to the fantastic (“Hold militias accountable”) — those had absolutely no chance of affecting Iraq’s government, press, or public. (By contrast, Human RIghts Watch’s 2009 report on death squads was released in Arabic, and headlined in Iraqi media.) The only audience the reports aimed at was an English-speaking one; and, of course, the US and UK no longer govern Iraq. Since the reports were meant for Americans but there was little for Americans to do, the advocacy seemed to acquire a slightly surreal quality. For example, the organizations told their followers (“Take action!”) to call on LGBT members of the US Congress to “stand with LGBT Iraqis.” This was less strategy than metaphor: a way of making Americans feel they were having impact when they were having none. I don’t wish to slight the groups’ excellent research, but the missed opportunity was painful. It’s pointless to imagine changing what Da’ish does: but there is a real opening to use Iraqis’ revulsion against its brutal murders — as well as violence targeting gender and sexuality elsewhere in the country — to affect public opinion and even a few policies in the rest of Iraq. As it was, from an Iraqi perspective, the reports were the former occupiers talking to themselves.

Da’ish, of course, has now seized a place in the West’s imagination as the ultimate enemy, the perfect storm. All evils meet there. (The Daily Mail warns that ISIS terrorists will “turn themselves into Ebola suicide ‘bombs.'”) Most of the earlier (probably more widespread) violence targeting sexuality in Iraq could be traced to Shi’ite militias or the US-supported state, but that’s forgotten. The Sunni soldiers of Da’ish define homophobia.  What Da’ish does is indefensible. Except when somebody else does it.

How different is Da’ish? It’s worth asking. This little graphic from the opposition Syrian Network for Human RIghts probably undercounts Da’ish’s murder toll, but its point is valid:

PrintIt charts the deep anger Syrian revolutionaries feel: how did a few viral photos of Islamist killings overwhelm the vaster, but mostly invisible, atrocities of a secular government the US has learned to live with? Then there’s that other Islamic state: the one due south.

Punishments_FINAL-01Middle East Eye published that after Da’ish released its own code of “Islamic punishments” last December. So how exactly is Saudi Arabia better, except we call it a nation and not a “terrorist organization”? (A language, they say, is a dialect with an army. What is a state but a militia with oil reserves?) This week, we learned the UK ministry of justice has set up a commercial arm with the Orwellian name of Just Solutions International, and is selling its expertise to Saudi prisons. Will David Cameron offer the shari’a courts of Da’ish a helping hand? This week, we learned the US defense department has launched “a research and essay competition” in honor of the late King Abdullah — “a fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch,” to his “character and courage.” Will Obama also offer prizes for the best ISIS propaganda? Of course, Abdullah was a liberal and a progressive, the paid pundits say. Granted, he may have been the best of his venal, bloodstained clan: that’s like picking the most intellectual of the Kardashians. But give Da’ish a few years to sell oil to ExxonMobil. Then they’ll be “reformers.”

The real distinction between the two Islamic states’ degrees of violence isn’t severity but publicity. Da’ish, says Middle East Eye, “actively sought exposure for their brutal punishments, [while] Saudi Arabia has worked to keep evidence of their actions within the conservative kingdom.” 

Why is Da’ish so proud of its sadistic excesses? Why does it broadcast them? Because they mean success. Here, again, the history of Iraq both before and after the US invasion is a shaping fact. For at least thirty-five years, violence, unrestrained violence, has been the mark of power. Power — under Saddam, under the occupation, and under the sects and militias that fought to seize his mantle — meant inflicting violence without shame, fear, or limit. (In a different way this was also true of Assad’s placid Syria, where despite the surface calm the dictator could kill twenty thousand Islamists with complete impunity.) When Da’ish posts its snuff films on YouTube and its death porn on Twitter, they are saying: We have the power at last, we can do this without restraint, and we will have more power and kill more.

Photo of a mass killing of Shi'a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014

Photo of a mass killing of Shi’a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014

Da’ish’s flaunted success also declares the failure of two projects that dominated the Middle East for decades. It proclaims the bankruptcy of the dictators’ project of state secularism: regimes like Assad’s or Saddam’s that repressed popular politics and popular religion, to sustain a military elite’s privileges with all the violence at their command. And it puts paid to the US project of state-imposed capitalism: neoliberal immiseration of the masses, the kind Mubarak planned for Egypt or the coalition imported to Iraq, that could only be enforced by governments armed with maximum ruthlessness. Da’ish inherits their means while defying their ends. It bends their violence to its own agenda. The repressed have returned, with a vengeance.

The Egyptian leftist friend I mentioned at the oustet comes from a working-class family that supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of them stood at Rabaa during the protests after Morsi’s overthrow; some could have been killed. Now, he says, he’s frightened by how many of his relatives say Da’ish is the solution. They aren’t running off to join ISIS’s fighters (though the Da’ish franchise is increasingly an attractive banner for the insurgency in Sinai). But they no longer believe in a democratic outcome. They no longer grasp how a group like the Brotherhood could survive, let alone succeed, through the normal means of politics. Sisi is trying to follow in Assad’s and Mubarak’s footsteps, with a program whose legitimacy is the weaponry it can command. They see Da’ish as the only alternative. The known world is disappearing. There’s emptiness underfoot. Violence is the future.

A US Marine pushes corpses of Iraqi fighters, Fallujah,  Friday, November 12, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press

A US Marine pushes corpses of Iraqi fighters, Fallujah, Friday, November 12, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

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CORRECTION: The original version of this post described the acronym Da’ish (sometimes spelled Daesh) as “omit[ting] one of the ‘I’s, ‘Islam.'” This is, I’m persuaded, bad Arabic (mine), for which I very much apologize. There are two explanations floating round for why the name Da’ish offends the militants so much, and why it’s become popular among their Arab opponents. One is that it slights the Islamic character of the soi-disant state; the other is that it echoes words that mean “crushing underfoot” and “spreading discord.” The second is the important one. I’ve corrected the post, and thanks to the two readers who called me out.