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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Graph from

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

foreign criminals chart

From the Daily Mirror, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

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

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

BP batty bwoys: Blair and Qaddafi share secrets, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inmates at the Hargeisa

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

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

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of an actual planet

Fear of an actual planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stereoscope slide marked

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

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New ISIS execution for “sodomy”: Attention, UN Security Council

These photographs appeared earlier today on a JustPaste page set up by the Islamic State’s province of the Euphrates (Al-Furat). The link has spread non-stop on Da’ish-affiliated Twitter accounts ever since. The headline on the page, and the caption under each photo, is “The execution of the judgment of God on the acts of the people of Lot.”


Da’ish announced the formation of the “state,” or province, of the Euphrates in August 2014. It takes up parts of eastern Syria and westernmost Iraq; its proclamation was meant to show the Islamic State’s contempt for the old national borders — cocking a snook at Sykes-Picot, as the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights explained at the time (more or less).  The province centers on Al-Bukamal, better known as Abu Kamal, a dusty Syrian border town of some 60,000 along the Euphrates, as well the town of Al-Qa’im across the Iraqi line. My guess is that the execution took place in Abu Kamal.

Abu Kamal in relation to Syria and Iraq. L: Map of areas of control in Syria as of July 2014 (Institute for the Study of War, US); R: Map of the Syria-Iraq border at the Euphrates River (Wikileaks)

Abu Kamal in relation to Syria and Iraq. L: Map of areas of control in Syria as of July 2015 (Institute for the Study of War, US); R: Map of the Syria-Iraq border at the Euphrates River (WikiNews)

Da’ish’s Euphrates state has long been a busy source of propaganda. Isdarat — the ISIS imitation YouTube channel — put up a glossy video today, produced by the Euphrates state, on “messages from Muslims in the lands of the unbelievers.” Another JustPaste page today posted pictures from a Euphrates-state training session about “Lessons on preaching” (or “missionary work,” or “advocacy”), apparently for confronting the great unbelieving Abroad. No specifics about the agenda, but there’s an implicit parallel between enemies without and within. Some ISIS blogs show photos from the training session and the execution together, as though the participants went straight from the tutorial to the killing.

Probably they did. Reports of Da’ish executions for homosexual acts have accelerated, with a spurt in June and July (around the time of the US Supreme Court marriage ruling, a huge headline across the Arab world), then the unconfirmed murder of nine people in Mosul on August 22, two days before the UN Security Council’s notorious meeting on the topic. There are many things we don’t know: for instance, whether the killings themselves have intensified, or simply Da’ish’s publicity around them. In late July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi forbade Islamic State groups from releasing exceptionally gruesome execution videos, apparently realizing such imagery was sullying the movement’s image. Still images weren’t covered by the ban; but each photo released now implies a certain calculation, someone in Da’ish’s chaotic structure deciding its propaganda value trumps disadvantages. The publicity itself thus politicizes death. It suggests that executing the “people of Lot” is morphing from a religious duty for Da’ish into a political tool, another mode of defying its enemies. And my strong feeling is that the Security Council’s noisy, impotent rhetoric can only make things worse.

What exactly was the point again of putting LGBT victims of ISIS under the symbolic protection of the United States, and invoking the UN Security Council to save them?  It only makes sense if there is something the US and UN can, and will, do. The Security Council has done nothing, nor are they going to do anything. America’s protean strategies on ISIS get rephrased, repackaged, and re-spun daily, but the lavish expense of words and money has no effect on anything that happens on the ground. Three reports this week indicate the depth of American uselessness. Intelligence analysts claim that senior military officials deliberately distorted their findings, to persuade Obama and those around him that the war on ISIS is going far better than it is. US airstrikes, the strategy of choice, continue to kill civilians in ISIS-controlled areas, alienating publics already primed, in many cases, to loathe and fear American action. And a $500 million Defense Department program to train 5,400 Syrians to take up arms against ISIS has only “four or five” fighters left in the field. The Obama administration talks about rescuing the gays, but it’s all publicity for a domestic audience. Those who suffer because of this self-indulgent charade are voiceless, voteless, and a long way away.

ISIS is a low-hanging wasps’ nest. Poking it with a stick is dangerous unless you have a clear plan for dealing with the consequences. This is no less true when the ones with the stick won’t be the ones stung.

Da'ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a page of the Euphrates state at

Da’ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a propaganda page of the Euphrates state at


Francisco Goya, De qué sirve una taza? (What use is a cup?) Plate 59 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), 1810-1820

Francisco Goya, De qué sirve una taza? (What use is a cup?) Plate 59 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), 1810-1820

I remembered this poem today, though what it describes seems almost forgotten. If you do remember, and have read the newspapers, you’ll understand.


Now that a revolution really is needed, those who were fervent are quite cool.

While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.

While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by name.

The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself.

Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish because they are after all just barbarians killing each other.

And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving.

It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.

And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to slaughter.

Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their sons and the debasement of their daughters.

They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves.

— Czesław Miłosz, “Sarajevo,” from Facing the River: New Poems, 1995

Enterrar y callar (Bury them and be quiet), plate 18 from Disasters of War

Enterrar y callar (Bury them and be quiet), plate 18 from Los Desastres de la Guerra 


Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”


Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

New killings: ISIS answers the UN Security Council

Iraqi News wrote yesterday that one of its sources, in the occupied northern province of Ninawah (Nineveh), told them:

[G]unmen belonging to ISIS threw on Sunday nine civilians from the top of a high building in the city of Mosul after being accused of homosexuality.”

The source, who asked anonymity, added: “ISIS militants rounded up a number of citizens in the city to see the implementation of the judgment of the so-called Shariah judge.”

I can’t call this report “confirmed,” though “confirming” Da’ish horrors mainly means finding the self-advertisements on social media. However, Tweets like these, showing at least one person’s execution, started spreading from Da’ish-affiliated accounts on Saturday night:

Daish tweets

The tweets are nearly identical: “Applying the rightful judgment on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot,” Left hashtag: #ProvinceOfNinawah. Right hashtags (roughly): #Shari’a #OurGod #Noor #ItRemains #ItSpreads #ItWillGainStrength #ByTheWillOfGod

Those photos were originally posted on August 22 on Justpaste, a site the Islamic State uses for atrocity advertising. The page says it belongs to Da’ish’s “Information office for the Province of Ninawah.” Here they are, full-size:


Caption: “Gathering of Muslims to see the judgment applied on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot”


Caption: “Applying the rightful judgment on one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot”

My guess is that either Iraqi News got the date wrong and the executions happened Saturday, or there were running executions (perhaps of more than nine people all told) from Saturday through Sunday.

If it’s true, nine people are a lot to kill. I believe it’s the the largest number that Da’ish has murdered at one time for “sodomy.” I don’t wish to read too much into furtive words, but Iraqi News‘ source seems to suggest the men were rounded up quickly upon some urgent mandate.  It’s hard not to suspect this wave of killing was a pre-emptive answer to Monday’s UN Security Council meeting on gays and ISIS — which was making headlines in both Western and Arab media fully nine days earlier.

My fear (I wrote two days ago) was that “the Security Council will only give more impetus to murder”: that ISIS, provoked by the ill-considered publicity around this move, would slaughter more people. I hope I’ll be disproven; I’d dearly love not to be right. But I’m afraid I am.

In any case, these killings show (as I suspect Da’ish meant them to show) that the Security Council can’t do anything to save lives. Which again raises the question: why bring this to the Security Council? Why take the risk, if there’s no benefit for those in danger? Before the meeting, the US promised it would “examine what kinds of protections are needed for LGBT individuals, what the international community needs to do to stop the scourge of prejudice and violence, and – related to this – how to advance equality and dignity, even in conflict zones”: as well as “the multiple political, military, and social lines of effort needed to degrade and destroy” ISIS. So far as I can see, none of this came up. “Change begins by working to stop attacks against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity,” US ambassador Samantha Power told the meeting, without any hints for how to jumpstart this in Mosul. Most states made the usual vague promises, bland and undemanding. People are still dying.

It’s dangerous to pretend we know what to do when we don’t.

The most substantive proposals to come out of Monday’s meeting were by Jessica Stern, the head of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Jessica is an old colleague, of course, and she was at her analytical best here, but notice something about her five points:

  1. All UN agencies in Iraq and Syria must have tailored LGBTI programming.
  2. UNHCR and governments must continue to act with urgency for those most in need of relocation.
  3. The Government of Iraq should remove barriers to access to direct services and justice.
  4. The Government of Iraq must respect freedom of expression and allow independent radio stations to operate.
  5. Donors must fund initiatives by LGBTI Iraqis and Syrians and by their allies. Resources should support immediate needs, like safe houses and psychosocial support, and long-term rights-based initiatives and norm building.

These are important proposals, but not one is about people living under the control of the Islamic State. They’re addressed to the UN and the Iraqi government, which don’t and can’t operate in ISIS-controlled territory. These proposals (especially the recommendation to the High Commission on Refugees to resettle victims, something that needs to be said over and over and over) will help people who escape — but not those trying to survive in the territory Da’ish rules.

So we’re left with excellent ideas for the rest of Iraq, but no solution for the ISIS killings. Nobody has a strategy for ISIS, though some governments serve up feel-good stories that give the illusion progress is being made. And promising “security” when you can’t provide it — provoking Da’ish with publicity when we have no way to deal with the consequences — may be an inadvertent invitation to murder.

Da'ish fighter in Mosul after the group seized control of the Iraqi city in 2014. Photo by Reuters

Da’ish fighter in Mosul after the group seized control of the Iraqi city in 2014. Photo by Reuters

The UN Security Council debates gays and ISIS: Why this is a bad idea

Photo from an Islamic State Facebook account: from Vice

Photo from an Islamic State Facebook account, republished by Vice

I. Questions

On August 18, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL or by its Arabic acronym, Da’ish) assaulted history. They beheaded an 82 year-old archaeologist, the resident expert on the ruins in the occupied city of Palmyra. Two days earlier, on August 16, Syrian government warplanes assaulted daily life; Assad’s pilots bombed a crowded market in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus. They killed at least 96 people; hundreds more were wounded.

Here is a Google summary of searches worldwide for “Douma” and “Palmyra” over the past week. (I’m sorry for the graphs; they’re dull when so much shiny gore is available online.)

Worldwide Screen shot 2015-08-22 at 10.25.35 PMYou see a small crest of interest in Douma at first, like a stone dropped in a swimming pool; but Palmyra’s a tsunami. And when you look up searches for “Assad” and “ISIS” last week, it’s like a local creek against the Euphrates:

Screen shot 2015-08-22 at 10.33.36 PMStrange disproportion: one death trumps one hundred, depending on who did it. ISIS has become a malignant fetish that crowds out other realities. We live in a world of manifold atrocities; but our minds, hooked like a perverse fanzine, are all Da’ish, all the time.

On Monday at the United Nations, the United States and Chile are hosting an informal meeting of the Security Council, to discuss Da’ish — and how it has “targeted one particular community with seeming impunity and scant international attention: LGBT individuals, and those perceived to be LGBT.” That’s from the US note inviting other states to the session. The meeting will “examine what kinds of protections are needed for LGBT individuals, what the international community needs to do to stop the scourge of prejudice and violence, and – related to this – how to advance equality and dignity, even in conflict zones.” And then the US and Chile “hope to discuss the multiple political, military, and social lines of effort needed to degrade and destroy” ISIS.

I interviewed dozens of LGBT Iraqis in 2009, and I’ve been in contact with scores more since. I’d never deny this is an issue of utmost urgency (just as I don’t scant the horror of an elderly archaeologist’s vicious execution). Refugees from Syria and Iraq will speak at the meeting; their voices deserve to be heard. But who’ll be listening?

Whom will this help? If you know Iraq, you have to ask: can Obama really stop the murders? I question the wisdom of letting the US and the Security Council set themselves up now as standard-bearers against these atrocities. How much is this driven by a strategy to help LGBT people, and how much by that uncontrollable tidal wave of fear and fascination over Da’ish that sweeps along governments and NGOs like flotsam, drowning every other event or context? Is there a plan, or is everybody just happy to ride the panic?

At best, the meeting will be useless. It’ll lead to that indolent repletion where people feel they’ve acted when they’ve actually done nothing. At worst, it’s going to cause more killings.

Man accused of

Man accused of “sodomy” thrown from a roof in the Syrian city of al-Taqaba in March 2015; photo collected from ISIS media by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

II. Strategy

NGOs mostly live by words; and the Obama administration shares with them a touching faith that history is made by merely talking about history. “This will be a historic meeting,” American Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told reporters last week. “It will be the first Security Council meeting on LGBT rights.”

The administration went all out in the media for the historic meeting, getting Frank Bruni to promote it in his New York Times column — “American officials involved in it arranged for me to talk” to participants, Bruni wrote. He hit the same notes:

[It’s] the first time that the council has held a meeting of any kind that’s dedicated to the persecution of L.G.B.T. people, according to Samantha Power … And it’s an example, she told me, of a determined push by the United States and other countries to integrate L.G.B.T. rights into all discussions of human rights by international bodies like the U.N.

It’s cheap to make fun of “discussions,” and the things endlessly integrated into them. Remember: “Jaw-jaw always is better than war-war,” said Winston Churchill. On ISIS, though, Obama’s strategy is to try both. He jaw-jaws about human rights, and drops bombs.

The bomb-dropping is pretty much the limit of his abilities on the military side; after the murderous mess the US already made of Iraq, there is neither capacity nor will for any on-the-ground intervention. But the bombs give the US neither control nor leverage over what happens inside territory it thinks of as distant targets. The military action is completely disconnected from the human rights talk. And History, so blithely invoked by Power, suggests the disconnect goes deeper. The massive 1970-73 US bombing campaign against Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge only made the insurgent army more radical, its indifference to human life more drastic.

Smoke rises from Kobane after a US airstrike, October 18, 2015. Photo: Getty

Smoke rises from Kobane after a US airstrike, October 18, 2015. Photo: Getty

Moreover, the bombs haven’t worked even in military terms. Da’ish is trying to build state structures in the areas it controls, but it’s quite capable of folding them up like lawn chairs, reverting to guerrilla mode, and melting into the landscape. “Skillful in dispersing their men and hiding their equipment,” Patrick Cockburn writes, they’re hard to target. As of October 2014 “The air campaign of the US-led coalition had sent out 6600 missions, but of these only 632, or just 10 percent of the total, resulted in [actual] air strikes against targets on the ground.” Where Da’ish has failed is in a war of fixed positions; digging in around Kobane made them vulnerable. There the US bombed the hell out of them — 700 strikes; 2000 bombs dropped by one squadron alone — and forced their retreat. Yet Kobane was all propaganda for Obama and Major Kong, not a real turning point. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan note that ISIS’s defeats come “mainly within enemy [ethnic or sectarian] lines rather than in its geostrategic heartlands across Syria and Iraq.” It overstretches trying to conquer Kurdish or Shi’ite areas; it wins when defending its Sunni empire.

In other words, the Obama administration has no real way to counter ISIS’s killings of LGBT people, or most other human rights abuses the group commits. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t talk about the abuses. But it’s vital not to confuse talk with the ability to act. Discussions aren’t “historic.” Change is. It’s cruel to LGBT people whose lives are at risk to celebrate so gushingly a discussion that has little chance of leading to change.

And there’s where the UN comes in. Since Da’ish captured Mosul fourteen months ago, the Security Council has grappled with a response. The UN is composed of states; it addresses itself to states; it deals with the crimes of insurgent forces mainly by asking states to act. The difficulty of state action against Da’ish is redoubled when one of the states involved, Syria, itself stands accused of war crimes. The Security Council passed a few resolutions about ISIS in the last year. In August 2014, it called for financial sanctions against Da’ish and al-Nusra (the local face of al-Qaeda). The next month, with great fanfare, at a session spangled with kings and presidents and chaired by Obama personally, it demanded that governments suppress the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS. Another vote, in February 2015, tightened the financial screws by banning all trade with Da’ish, including oil smuggling and the traffic in looted antiquities. Meanwhile, foreign recruits still stream to the Levant. And you can gauge the Security Council’s impact by the fact that Da’ish murdered Khaled al-Assad, the Palmyra archeologist, because he refused to reveal the hiding place of antiquities that would rake in a fortune on the market. The illegal trade rolls on.

Obama chairs Security Council meeting on ISIS and global terrorism, September 24, 2014, with Samantha Power behinf him looking studious, and John Kerry looking badly embalmed. Screen capture by

Obama chairs Security Council meeting on ISIS and global terrorism, September 24, 2014, with Samantha Power behind him looking studious, and John Kerry looking embalmed. Screen capture by Scoopnest

The Security Council certainly isn’t contemplating a resolution on Da’ish and LGBT people; Russia would veto it. Nor is this meeting meant to lead to one. It’s a so-called “Arria formula” meeting, named for a Venezuelan diplomat who devised the format in the 1990s: these “are very informal, confidential gatherings” permitting “a frank and private exchange of views.” Or, as one observer says, they allow the Council to “open itself in a very limited way to the outside world.” NGOs are often asked to speak; but member states aren’t obliged to attend. Since early 2014, there have been almost no Arria meetings over ISIS, perhaps reflecting the Security Council’s sense of its own impotence.

The sole concrete outcome to which this particular Arria might contribute is one that seems entirely logical on paper, though off paper it’s fantastic as a Harry Potter outtake. The Security Council could refer ISIS’s crimes to the International Criminal Court (ICC). (Neither Syria nor Iraq has ratified the treaty that founded the ICC,meaning the court has no automatic jurisdiction over acts committed on their territory. But the Security Council can vote a referral, as it did with Mu’ammar Qaddafi in 2011.)  There is mounting pressure for exactly this. A March report by the UN mission in Iraq and the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that ISIS actions “may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.” The ICC itself is eager to take up a case, any case, outside Africa (its exclusive preoccupation with that continent has led to debilitating charges of racism). Reportedly, it also wants to deal with LGBT issues.

But this won’t happen. There is certainly no question of sending LGBT killings alone to the ICC; any referral would cover a broad range of Da’ish crimes, from brutality against ethnic and religious minorities to the monstrous enslavement of women. Yet an investigation would still face huge political obstacles. Kevin Jon Heller, a professor of international law, notes that “The Security Council can’t just say that the court has jurisdiction over crimes by ISIS and nobody else. The Rome Statute is designed to prevent one-sided referrals.” In other words, a referral would open the Syrian regime to prosecution, probably along with other Syrian rebel groups. Across the border, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi government could also be liable. Russia and China would almost certainly veto any prosecution of their friend Assad. But the US and UK would also resist charges against their Syrian and Iraqi clients –“not least,” as Heller writes, “because it would provide the ICC with a backdoor to prosecuting their nationals for aiding and abetting rebel crimes,” and possibly Iraqi ones.

They all look so secular: this must be freedom! Bashar al-Assad and wife Asma vote in presidential election, 2003. Photo by Getty

They look so secular: this must be freedom! Bashar al-Assad and wife Asma vote in presidential election, 2003. Photo by Getty

If the US did endorse a prosecution of ISIS, it might be politically tainted from the start. In April John Bellinger, a onetime Bush administration legal adviser, penned a New York Times piece, which one advocate called “a compelling case for referral.” It was peculiar. Bellinger wrote:

The United States has reason to be concerned about inappropriate and politicized investigations of the United States and Israel, but the International Criminal Court still has an important role to play in investigating and prosecuting acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — all of which have reportedly been committed by the Islamic State.[emphasis added]

What? Bellinger writes almost as if a juicy ISIS trial would be a welcome distraction from any (unlikely) accountability for US abuses in Afghanistan, or Israeli ones in Gaza. His words recall how the Bush regime vehemently rejected the ICC, and indeed pressed client countries to abjure or undermine it. Under Obama, the US has been more flexible: employing the ICC against truculent states like Libya, while still maintaining immunity for itself and its allies. Such pliancy undermines both America’s credibility, and the court’s. In the — purely hypothetical — event that LGBT issues found their way into a US-prompted ICC indictment of ISIS, the contradiction with America’s exemption of itself and exculpation of Israel would be a front-and-center fact throughout the region. A polarization that implicates LGBT lives in power politics, and in the various hypocrisies of US policy, would do little for the safety of LGBT people in Iraq or Syria.

This Arria isn’t going to lead anywhere. There’s no strategy behind it. So why does the US want it now? I can tell you — in another graph.

Screen shot 2015-08-23 at 5.22.32 AM

That shows web searches for “ISIS” and “gay,” versus “ISIS” and “women,” since the start of 2015. The gays hold their own in this surreal competition most months; the spurts come at the points when shocking photos of executions spread on the web. From a woman’s perspective there are two reasons this race is rigged against her. First, gays form a more cohesive constituency, tuning their attention spans together, unlike the diffuse concerns of feminists and other women. Then come the pictures. Even when the New York Times and Human Rights Watch publish terrible, unbearable testimonies of enslaved Yazidi women, those rouse only gentle undulations on the blue line. They lack the power of photographs, the seduction and sheen of the unspeakable seen, the visual vertigo of identification.

And look at the last spurt, the perfect wave for the gays. That came in July, when a flood of awful execution photos was released. The US government attends to headlines. A month later, Samantha Power called the Security Council meeting.

There should be no competition between women’s rights and LGBT rights. But the imbalance in Google and in the government’s response is telling. In a melancholy analysis of `American failures over ISIS, Peter Harling and Sarah Birke write that the US doesn’t have a strategy — “a set of clearly-defined interests and goals achievable with available means.” It only has a narrative: images and gestures woven into a palliative, invented story.

The US … continues to desperately seek ways not to engage seriously with the region’s problems. It has developed a sophisticated narrative about a war on terror than thinly veils the absence of a genuine strategy. …. This is a reflection of broader, deeper trends in the Western political sphere. The policy- making process is increasingly dominated by public relations, as spectacular events prompt a rush to put out statements … [these] later inspire and constrain practical measures that must be made to fit into a narrative rather than into a strategy.

There’s your Security Council fairy tale. Brave Obama, bold leadership, coalition, noble victims, historic first. It’s a beautiful story: except, of course, that US policy is being made by the photos its enemies put out. It’s also clear whose good will Obama wants: gay Americans’, not gay Syrians’ or Iraqis’. Last month, the President announced a revamp of “strategy” against Da’ish: “shifting focus to counter ISIL’s public relations machine while training local forces to sustain progress made on the ground there.” Less bombing, more hearts and minds. But whose hearts and minds?

When Samantha Power wanted to tell her story about LGBT people’s rights, she didn’t call Al Hayat, or Al Jazeera. She didn’t call any media that people pay attention to in Syria or Iraq. Neither she nor the NGOs she works with tried to “counter ISIL’s public relations machine.” She called the New York Times.

Execution of a man for

Execution of a man for “sodomy” in Mosul, January 2015. Caption: “Applying the shari’a verdict on the person who committed the greatest crime.” Photo released on Da’ish social-media accounts

III. Power

If the only problem were Obama’s need for publicity, it wouldn’t matter. I fear, though, that the Security Council will only give more impetus to murder.

“Many have asked what needs to be done about the Islamic state of Iraq and al-sham,” writes Jessica Lewis of the Institute for Understanding War, in an understatement. Everybody has a grand theory of ISIS. I don’t see why I shouldn’t too. After all, I live in a country where the Da’ish franchise operates with increasingly lethal boldness; they kidnap Westerners from neighborhoods where I do my shopping. Proximity might lend an even better claim to expertise than having an air-conditioned office inside the Beltway.

ISIS’s appeal is twofold, and it has to do with power. Lewis observes that Da’ish is both an army and a government, “operating in both military and political spheres.” As an army, it holds loyalties because it gives recruits a personal sense of power that life has largely denied them. As a proto-state, it sustains control because it uses power in ways that, however irrational from outside, seem comparatively coherent to many in the chaos of Iraq and Syria. You assert power by standing up to other powerful people — just as Da’ish’s recruits defy their childhood norms, their governments, and often their families to join the ISIS adventure. For the movement, standing up to the Security Council has no downside; the UN can’t hurt them. To continue a killing campaign that’s been publicly deplored by powerful states in far New York affirms the movement’s own claim to power. Murder says defiantly: Yes, we can. 

Man beheaded in Raqqa for blasphemy, December 2014. Photo from ISIS-affiliated social media

Man beheaded in Raqqa, Syria, for “blasphemy,” December 2014. Caption: “Applying the judgment of God upon one who cursed God.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

The public character of ISIS’s violence asserts an imaginative authority. Harling and Birke explain:

One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. … This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts.

What are these fantasies? That ISIS uses the allure of sex slaves to enlist sex-starved men has become a cliche. “Sexual repression in Muslim communities is the foremost reason behind these terrorist organizations’ popularity,” one analyst says. Sex is “a recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden,” the New York Times agrees. (Never mind that some recruits seem to be seeking sexual repression, not fleeing it.) These pop excuses ignore one of feminism’s important insights: that rape is about power, not just sex. To have a sex slave is to have a slave. Da’ish entices less with orgasms than with the delirium of ownership.

Da’ish’s displays of total power attract recruits who want to share in it. But for populations who live under the Islamic State, what makes it tolerable — even attractive — is that its authority is embodied in a legal system. The militias that plagued Iraq in its years of civil war kidnapped victims; corpses turned up days later, skulls pierced by power drills. The Islamic State reflects the rule of law, by contrast, however abhorrent the laws. The relative bureaucratic rationalization under ISIS is part of its state-building aspiration, and of its appeal.

A man is led to execution for “invoking magic” in a village near Raqqa, February 2015. Photo from ISIS-affiliated social media

A man is led to execution in a town near Raqqa, for “invoking magic,” February 2015. Caption: “Applying the judgment of God on a magician in the area of Al-Dbsa in the western section.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

Although its Western image is one of roving boys enforcing whims, ISIS in fact has three organized police forces: the ordinary police, the squadrons for religious morals called the hisba (seemingly modelled on Saudi Arabia’s fearsome units for promoting virtue and preventing vice), and security services to patrol dissent. Trials, in principle, precede sentences — though Sarah Birke, after interviewing refugees from Da’ish’s Syrian capital in Raqqa, says no one “was sure whether ISIS’s sharia courts actually listen to evidence … several noted that gruesome punishments are sometimes meted out on the spot to instill fear.” The organized state keeps lapsing back into expressions of personal power. And as with the Khmer Rouge, the bombs seem to bring naked violence to the surface.

Some Raqqa residents said that until the US-led air strikes, you were safe if you followed the rules, however perverse, that were posted on walls and circulated quickly by word of mouth. But the air strikes have made ISIS more paranoid and prone to kidnapping people randomly, the women told me.

Da’ish has two faces: the military movement and the nascent government. But both are power; power is their attraction.

Does anyone think that, given an easy chance to affirm its law and write its defiance of the Security Council in blood, Da’ish won’t take it?

Photo allegedly of a 27 year-old man’s hand being amputated for theft, in Da’ish--controlled Raqqa. Photo released by the Syrian group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

Photo allegedly of a 27 year-old man’s hand being amputated for theft, in Da’ish–controlled Raqqa. Photo released by the Syrian group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

IV. Security

Belief that the Security Council should be the venue for talking LGBT people’s human rights is part of the ever-growing concept of “human security.” It’s a dangerous concept. Before they buy into it, LGBT people need to ask some questions.

Historians of the “human security” idea usually trace it to the UN’s 1994 Human Development Report, which introduced the notion that “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” — from Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — were critical to global security. From there, the story goes, it was taken up by noble states like Canada and Norway, who built consensus around treating public health, food, and the environment as security concerns. No one knows yet what “human security” means — “Existing definitions,” writes Rolland Paris, “tend to be extraordinarily expansive and vague, encompassing everything from physical security to psychological well-being” — but it’s a Good Thing.

Human security: from Japan’s “Official Development Assistance White Paper 2011” at

Human security: from Japan’s “Official Development Assistance White Paper 2011” at

Human security has roots outside the touchy-feely development field, however. To adopt it as a frame for LGBT rights, or any rights, is to take on this burdensome past. Its real origins lie not in the UN but in the thinking of Cold War security experts, forced to wrestle in the 1990s with a suddenly disorderly world. New threats to governments’ power loomed — ones that were always there, perhaps, but now acquired new menace, bursting free of the bilateral structures of superpower rivalry. They elbowed out the old bogeymen, peasant insurgencies and nuclear wars. David A. Baldwin wrote in 1995:

With the end of the cold war have come numerous suggestions that resources once devoted to coping with military threats now be used to deal with such nonmilitary threats as domestic poverty, educational crises, industrial competitiveness, drug trafficking, crime, international migration, environmental hazards, resource shortages, global poverty, and so on.

Stephen Walt, in a controversial piece from 1991, argued against this expansion of the term — against “making the term ‘security’ so inclusive that it included virtually anything that might affect human welfare.” But his was a losing fight. Soon a plethora of formerly human issues were being rethought as “security” ones. The UN’s happy platitudes merely reflected a sense that to speak in security terms was the only way to get heard.

What defines “human security” is not the demilitarization of security thinking. It’s the militarization of everything else. What isn’t there a “War on” these days? Each problem’s a pretext for exceptional action. (Alex de Waal has written perceptively, for instance, about the dangers of militarized responses to public health crises.) One scholar of international relations identifies “the politics of existential threat” as the core of the new security studies.

The distinguishing feature of securitization is a specific rhetorical structure (“survival,” priority of action “because if not handled now it will be too late, and we will not exist to remedy our failure”). In security discourse an issue is dramatized and presented as an issue of supreme priority, and thus by labeling it “security” an agent claims a need for and a right to treat it by extraordinary means. ….

The gauzy concerns of human security — freedom from want and fear — blend readily into coercion, armed intervention, and emergency repression.

I'm human, what about you? Logo of the Human Security Network

I’m human, what about you? Logo of the Human Security Network

Look at the makeup of the Human Security Network, one of the international flagships for the idea. Norway and Canada launched this grouping of nations back in 1998, on the “principle that the true rights-holders in our world are not states and governments but rather the individuals for whose benefit they exist and in whose interests states are supposed to act.” Current members are Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Greece, Ireland, Jordan, Mali, Norway, Panama, Slovenia, Switzerland and Thailand; South Africa’s an observer.

What nice countries! Yet when it comes to the American war on terror, many of these take security in less-than-human terms.

Jordan, for instance, has been “a key ‘hub’ in the USA’s secret “renditions” programme,” according to Amnesty International: it jailed and tortured manifold victims en route to “black site” prisons. Ireland is a lovely place, with gay marriage to boot; but it handed Shannon Airport to the CIA, to use as a stopover in sending prisoners off to torture. Thailand hosted a secret prison called “Detention Site Green,” sufficiently awful that nearly all information about it was redacted from the recent US Senate report on torture. And democratic South Africa illegally rendered two terror suspects to torture in Pakistan, in one case handing him to CIA custody first.

The human face of human security is a mask. It covers mid-level states obediently following US orders — and pursuing indigenous agendas of blood and fear. Jordan notoriously will torture just about anybody to protect the state from anything. Canada, until a few years ago, imprisoned sex workers — apparently for their “safety.” And Thailand’s own security paranoia led to a military “war on drugs” starting in 2003: soldiers and cops killed almost 3000 people.

From the Caux Forum for Human Security, Switzerland

From the Caux Forum for Human Security, Switzerland

“Human security,” Rhonda Howard-Hassmann argues, has tense relations with human rights:

the broader view of human security at best repeats, and possibly undermines, the already extant human rights regime, especially by converting state obligations to respect individuals’ inalienable human rights into policy decisions regarding which aspects of human security to protect under which circumstances. … The discourse of human security is not one of state obligations and individual entitlements: it is a discourse that permits states to make choices as to what aspects they wish to protect.

The international obsession with ISIS proves her point. It’s obvious that, however skilled Da’ish is at publicizing its own horrors, the atrocities of Assad’s government dwarf those of the Islamic State. The US and its allies choose to concentrate on the latter, not the former. Parly this is driven by the headlines and the Google searches, by Da’ish’s dominance of the imagination; but it’s also a policy decision. The US believes Assad is on the wane; whereas it sees ISIS as rising, and a major security issue. This may or may not be true, but humanity is utterly at odds with security here. The US does nothing to help Syrians who are dying; and, manipulating ISIS’s death toll as a tool of raison d’état, it does little for Da’ish’s victims either.

Screen shot 2015-08-19 at 11.10.40 PMThis cynicism’s effects show up elsewhere. I live in Egypt, a country where the US has some influence; yet the Obama administration does nothing about arrests and torture of LGBT people – or any of the other human rights violations that have burgeoned under military dictatorship. No Arrias, no indignation. The contrast with Da’ish is depressing. Egypt is not a “security issue”: or rather, Egypt promotes security by torturing and killing people. Prattle about human security only weakens Egypt’s beneficent work bolstering the safety that counts, that of states in a pliant international order.

Increasingly, Western governments are taking on LGBT issues as their foreign-policy concerns, often, like the US, in a framework of “security.” It’s a good deal for LGBT NGOs based in New York or Geneva. They get recognition, and with it funding and power. It’s not always good for LGBT people on the ground who face danger. Their lives are suddenly tangled up with the politics and schemes of governments thousands of miles away. And they can be reviled, punished, killed in consequence.

Dianne Otto, a friend and a feminist scholar of international politics, has written about women’s movements’ decades-long engagement with the UN Security Council, which flowered in four Council resolutions on “women, peace, and security.” Initially critical, she has moved toward cautious optimism. Her analysis demands study by anybody contemplating the Security Council as a home for LGBT rights. She credits feminism with “disrupting the Council’s conservative gender script and prompting remarkable levels of institutional activity.” If feminists succeeded in moving the Council, though, it’s because they never surrendered to its agenda, remaining both intellectually independent and responsive to the grassroots. Their story shows “the critical importance of feminist activism outside institutional control, which can resist the ways that institutions capture feminist ideas and turn them to their own purposes.”

The difference in how diplomats see feminist advocates and how they see LGBT activists is the difference between a movement that’s politically powerful, and one that’s politically useful. Can LGBT politics evade subordination to great-power agendas, “security” frameworks, and exploitation? It’s an open question.

Da'ish executioners throw a man accused of homosexual conduct off a building in Fallujah province, Iraq, June 2015. Photo collected from Da'ish-affiliated social media

Da’ish executioners throw a man accused of “sodomy” off a building in the Al-Jazira region of northeast Syria, apparently in May 2015,. Caption: “Applying the judgment on the one who committed the deeds of the people of Lot.” Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

V. What is to be done? 

One thing that will surely be jaw-jawed in the Security Council meeting, and one area where it could lead to constructive action, is increased help for LGBT refugees from Syria and Iraq. LGBT people who have fled to other countries in the region — Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt — still face severe threats there. Two months ago in Egypt, a Syrian refugee was entrapped over the Internet, convicted of homosexual conduct, and eventually deported. The UN High Commission for Refugees has done nothing to protect other LGBT refugees in the country.

These people deserve accelerated resettlement to safe countries, and Security Council members would do well to urge that. Yet to say that LGBT refugees should be processed faster doesn’t mean they should be resettled instead of other refugees. If resettlement becomes a competition, where queers get berths and displace persecuted Christians, or Yazidis, or women, the perceived privilege can only deepen hatred of LGBT refugees. The danger is that Western governments who don’t want Syrians or Iraqis will take a small dollop of LGBT ones, then announce they’ve done their duty, and close their doors. I doubt whether the Security Council — whose permanent members, including the US, have woefully avoided their obligations to refugees — will be sensitive to this danger.

Refugee protections, though, won’t solve the situation in Syria and Iraq. International LGBT groups sometimes assume “helping people” simply means “getting them asylum.” Asylum is a vital human right; but, as I wrote two years ago, “Escape substitutes for protection. The asylum system – unwieldy, prejudiced, deeply flawed — serves as the nearest thing we have to a security plan for the international LGBT movement.” As intractable as the situation may seem, a real “historic step” would entail much more than mere discussions, and more than finding victims an escape hatch.

Da'ish members throw a man accused of

Da’ish executioners throw a man accused of “sodomy” off a building, apparently in Homs, Syria, June 2015. Photo from Da’ish-affiliated social media

LGBT people’s rights can’t be lopped from the full context of the violence in Iraq and Syria. But this means recognizing the utter failure of the “security”-based solutions the US has promoted. We invaded Iraq at the behest of our own security state. We rebuilt a security state in Baghdad, and it imploded. Another security state sprang up under ISIS (Da’ish, Sarah Birke found, imposes its will mainly “by security services, just as it was under the Baathist regime in Iraq and continues to be in Assad’s Syria”). It may implode too, or its violence may keep it going. But the US, with its CV of disasters, can do little to hasten its disappearance.

Timidly I offer one specific and one general solution — and the US can’t do much about either. Those targeted as the “people of Lot” in Iraq and Syria aren’t large populations. They need places where they can live quietly, without being “out” in any Western way, without daily state harassment, and with some protection from violence in families or communities. They need to be left alone. To get the governments to leave people alone would entail engaging with Iraqi (and Syrian) opinion on sexuality in ways that no state or international NGO has done so far, and furthering the very limited elite sympathy for LGBT victims that years of violence (especially in Iraq) elicited. It might involve finding tacit enclaves where let-alone policy was possible; parts of pacified Southern Iraq or Kurdistan could do, though such areas, already purged to extirpate diversity, would look with suspicion on Sunni or Arab migrants respectively. It’s all a long shot, but it’s also the best realistic hope for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Protesters carry national flags and an electric fan in Baghdad, August 7, 2015. Photo by Karim Kadim/AP

Protesters carry national flags and an electric fan in Baghdad, August 7, 2015. Photo by Karim Kadim/AP

More generally, the security model needs to go. Iraqis and Syrians want safety — from Da’ish, from militias, from common criminals, from bomb-mad militaries, and from the corrupt police. They also want governments that protect them from sickness and hunger. This month Iraqis are protesting, in 120-degree heat, for the state to furnish enough electricity to run air conditioners. We need to stop “integrating” welfare into a framework of security issues, and instead see security as a small part of the spectrum of welfare issues. New thinking about the state, a revival of welfare as the goal of government, must emerge from the dust and gore.

Writing just after 9/11, Giorgio Agamben described how, with welfare states surrendering to the assault of neoliberalism, governments found renewed legitimacy in fear:

In the course of a gradual neutralization of politics and the progressive surrender of traditional tasks of the state, security becomes the basic principle of state activity. What used to be one among several definitive measures of public administration until the first half of the twentieth century, now becomes the sole criterium of political legitimation. The thought of security bears within it an essential risk. A state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic. … European and American politicians finally have to consider the catastrophic consequences of uncritical general use of this figure of thought.

The catastrophe is nowhere more evident than in the Arab lands; the imported security-state model brought nothing but disintegration and death. LGBT people are among the innumerable victims. Resort to the Security Council will not help them. Securitizing rights under the aegis of foreign action only pits the victims permanently against the communities they come from. The New York discussions will continue, unstanched, unstoppable. So will the killings.

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The UN Security Council chamber. The weird mural by Per Krogh depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes, and figures in various conspiracy theories as a product of Kabbalists, Illuminati, or Satan

The UN Security Council chamber. The weird mural by Per Krogh depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes, and figures in various conspiracy theories as the work of Kabbalists, Illuminati, or Satan.

Gay hanging in Iran: Atrocities and impersonations

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

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


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

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

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


Taheri on Fox News

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

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

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

There are ample grounds for skepticism about stories Taheri spreads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ultimate Penalty: painting by Miguel Tió

The Ultimate Penalty: painting by Miguel Tió

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

ScottLon July 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

ScottLon MBI’m also an informer.

ScottLon Morsi gays

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

ScottLon antisemitism 2

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

His first 3 tweets

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

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

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

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

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani, from

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani, from

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

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

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

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

I. Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Recognition

The marriage man: Justice Kennedy

The marriage man: Justice Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animus in California: How the Grinch stole marriage

Animus in California: How the Grinch stole marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dignity: Head of a Roman, 1st century BCE

Dignity: Head of a Roman, 1st century BCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. The Wrong Side of History

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statistics across Europe show the same trend.

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

Graph from

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

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

Graph from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin wrote:

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

That rebuke to our childishness is the truth we need.

Dignity, again

Dignity, again

PREVENT free speech: For governments, it’s easy

This letter appeared in the Independent (UK) today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full list of signatories is here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.49.36 PM

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

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.39.58 PM

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

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

I know where I stand. Do you?



The dignity of Greece

Crowds celebrate the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In one 2008 demo,

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

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

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

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

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

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

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

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

The second lesson is: democracy matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reification: Georg Lukacs in 1913

Not ready to be reified: Georg Lukács in 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he added:

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

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

Demonstrators spell out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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