What to do about Syria

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

You would think that, having stayed in Cairo for much of the last year, I would feel closer than in New York or Boston to the Syrian catastrophe taking place only a few borders away. But it doesn’t work that way. Egypt has enough of its own problems: massacres, mass arrests, one dictator on trial, another one running for president; these aren’t as replete with murder but they fill the mind as blood fills the brain after a hemorrhage, and expunge thought. You imagine Aleppo for a second and flinch: There’s enough not to think about without not thinking about that. 

To be sure, Syria is here, in the form of thousands of refugees who have fled the killing. (The UN says there are almost 150,000 in Egypt; some estimates run double; in any case, Lebanon hosts many times that, more than a million.) But neighbors harass them, police persecute them, they stay out of sight. Many Egyptians are conscious of the influx mainly because of the Syrian restaurants that have sprung up here and there, succulent roast chicken splayed on the plate, mehshi and manakish that scarcely taste of dispossession. The food’s good; why isn’t everybody happy?

When I visited Cairo in 2011 I met and became friends with Razan Ghazzawi, the fierce feminist and Pasionaria of the resistance, who in a short time taught me a great deal about the revolution’s dreams. The war had been going on for just four months then, and already it had worn down everybody’s psyches; she’d come to Cairo for six weeks to meet Egypt’s own revolutionaries and replenish her energies, at a time when events on the Nile still seemed in the vanguard of change. Now my closest Syrian friend here is a gentle refugee who shares my house; I’ll call him Youssef. He supports Assad, not militantly but with the vague erasing nostalgia traditional to exiles, threadbare asperities who fled France with the Bourbons, beggared bourgeois on the run from Bolsheviks. He interviewed Bashar once for a Syrian paper, while Assad Senior still lived, and can go on at length about his unassuming manners. We don’t talk politics much, since I disagree with most everything he says. Still his affection for the regime — which isn’t ancien yet, rather quondam et futurusis barely political; rather it’s a memory of stability, secularism, and calm, and an amnesia about their foundations in blood. He and Razan wouldn’t abide each other if they ever met, but they have some things in common. Razan’s vision of what freedom meant was clear as if it were etched in fire, and very much a product of Syria’s splintered map: a place where people could realize their differences without shame or fear. Stability and calm were preconditions for that. Youssef’s gauzed vision of the placid days of old includes the notion that you were at liberty to be yourself then — with the unspoken caveats of privilege and discretion; but making sure everybody, not just the lucky, could live free of surveillance and enjoy the sweet seclusions of security and privacy also preoccupied the original revolutionary dream. The overwhelming violence has made their imaginations definitively incompatible. Violence breaks bodies, but it also murders dreaming.

The violence also stamps out efforts to imagine a solution. Increasingly the Syrian state’s violence is matched by the violence of political Islamists who oppose almost all the original revolutionaries’ democratic ideals. Syria has become “a magnet for jihadist recruits,” writes Peter Neumann. Like many, he blames Assad for fostering these movements, then allowing them to slip from his control. But it’s also clear that this burgeoning radicalism owes plenty to American policy, and American allies. For one thing, the United States’ left hand keeps unravelling what its right hand does. As Adam Shatz notes,”the American government is fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq, while its allies, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are arming the same Sunni extremists in Syria.”

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra ((Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

More broadly, though, every successive American intervention in the region has backfired, creating more of the violence it was supposed to stop.  And this makes it even harder for well-meaning Americans facing the Syrian horrors to figure out what to do.

The swashbuckling American military adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to counter the Russian invasion, helped create both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the former now controls large swatches of the country once again. The American incursion in Saudi Arabia in 1991, to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, helped refocus the embryonic al-Qaeda’s attention on the US, while turning it from a regional annoyance to a global franchise. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified in part by lies that Saddam Hussein supported al-Qaeda, aimed to extirpate radicalism of all kinds from the Middle East; instead, eleven years later, a significant part of Iraq’s Sunni population has been thoroughly radicalized and supports al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is now fighting in Syria, in its new incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). On top of that, the American campaign in Libya failed to build a functional state; but, like the long American involvement in Afghanistan, it stirred up a spillover of arms and fighters that destabilizes surrounding countries, from Mali to Lebanon. (Seymour Hersh maintains that the US has been sending Libya’s spare weaponry to Syria’s rebels through Turkey.) Patrick Cockburn summarizes much of this grim history of incompetence:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hardcore jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

Western interventions in the broader Middle East – from the Maghreb to Pakistan – have done nothing to stop extremism. Instead, they’ve created and spread it.

There are principled and abstract reasons for Western leftists to resist the cult of liberal interventionism. But this history furnishes a pragmatic and specific argument for opposing it in Syria. A moral consciousness, however — one not content to concentrate on the restaurant menus while ignoring the dead and refugees — still gropes for some kind of answer. It’s natural for leftists facing the naked reality of mass murder to want some scope for action, some space where the Enlightenment ideal of thought informing practice can recover its aptitude.

Hmm. Banner from the  sixth annual Marx Conference,  “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism," Tel Aviv, 2012

Hmm. Banner from the sixth annual Marx Conference, “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism,” Tel Aviv, 2012

It’s in this light that I read a new piece by Danny Postel, which is all over Twitter these days.  Its title promises “Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria.”

Postel contends that “The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising” have been “deeply disappointing.” The Left’s inadequacies “fall into three main categories:”

1. explicit support for the Assad regime
2. monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
3. general silence caused by deep confusion

But wait: there’s hope.

There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.

The writings of this vanguard “directly challenge the dominant narratives on the Left about Syria and offer a critical alternative to it.” And Postel gives us a ladder of links: “collected in one place, some of the key texts of this dissident left camp.”

To call these leftists “dissidents” is self-congratulatory. Certainly there are some on the left who support Assad, but they’re hardly hegemonic; they strike me as marginal and devoid of influence.

Just as certainly there’s a larger body of leftists who are uncertain, after military intervention seems to have proven its uselessness but no other form of action presents itself. So when an “alternative” steps loudly to the fore, a Fourth Way, one plausibly expects that it will proffer a guide to the perplexed: that it will tell the hesitant what they can do to help.

What’s notable about the “body of writings and arguments” Postel presents is that it does nothing of the kind.

I’ve read almost all the texts he links to. Few of the writers outline strategies, or offer innovative ways to assist the revolution. For the most part they just describe how they feel, a repertory of emotion that runs the limited gamut from sympathy and solidarity to moral agonizing to self-congratulation. These are legitimate sensations, but more existential than political. It would be hard to call them constructive. Is this the new pathway for the left? In fact, I think the writings Postel posts do point out something about the left, but nothing as bold or hopeful as he imagines.

solidarity-of-labour

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

Postel links to almost no proposals that are both concrete and in any way practical. I count three exceptions. The admirable Gilbert Achcar opposes intervention but urges arming the (liberal) rebels (it seems, though, that the US has been doing this covertly for some time).  Mary Kaldor invokes international law: “The first step,” also the only one she mentions, “would be to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.” She notes that, since Syria never signed on to the ICC, this requires a vote by the UN Security Council. Russia has repeatedly voted no, but “the current context might change things.” Might. It’s also possible that Vladimir Putin might hand Crimea back to the Ukrainians and retire. It’s not very responsible, however, to make this kind of outcome seem easy.

Finally, the always-brilliant Richard Falk, after painstakingly dissecting the inadequacy of existing options, calls (but not optimistically) for a renewed commitment to negotiation.

Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives.

This is glum, but realistic.

But that’s it.  Nobody else has much to propose. The 2011 open letter from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy has a lot of well-known signatories (Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky) but I don’t know why Postel thinks it “challenges a dominant narrative.”

The Campaign for Peace and Democracy expresses its deep admiration for the amazing courage shown by the people of Syria, struggling for democratic reforms in the face of horrific repression. … We stand with the people of Syria in their remarkable struggle for democracy.

The open letter, often published in the New York Review of Books, used to be a distinct literary genre among the New York intellectuals; it’s no one’s fault if it seems dated as a Baroque eclogue. “Standing with” the oppressed and slaughtered is still a noble gesture. It’s churlish, but perhaps nonetheless important, to point out that while Syrians die, the standers remain standing.

But is there a plan beyond the posture? Two years later, Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy – the CPD’s co-directors, both peace activists with long and distinguished records – produced a personal statement, of which Postel also approves. I have huge admiration for the authors, but this text leaves more questions than answers.

The fate of Syria must not be decided by foreign powers or forces … Equally, we condemn the attempts by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states to manipulate the Syrian revolution by promoting reactionary Islamist forces within its ranks … Consistent with our strong opposition to any kind of military intervention in Syria by the U.S., or other foreign powers, we also oppose providing air cover or establishing no fly zones.

All right, but what are you for?

We stand for full democracy, an independent labor movement, and complete equality for women, sexual minorities, religions and ethnic groups everywhere.

And:

We will do everything we can to support Syrian groups and individuals who share this democratic vision, and we call on people throughout the world to do the same.

But what is “everything you can”? What are you going to do?

Are you sure?

Are you sure?

In some cases, the writers wrestle tangibly with their inability to find answers, and the result can be moving. Mohammed al-Attar, an exiled Syrian playwright, confesses:

During an open debate organized by London’s Royal Court Theatre at the end of August 2011, I was asked: “How can we support the Syrian people in their revolution without inevitably serving the interests of political agendas?” I was silent for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, before tentatively replying: “I’ve no doubt that it is still possible to separate the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause from the distortions of politicians and the media.”

Much has changed since then but the same question continues to be put forward, and I have no clearer answer than that my brief and improvised one which I provided at the Royal Court Theatre.

Al-Attar’s piece is well worth reading, but it is not clear why Postel regards it not as an analysis of the trauma of political commitment in a divided world, but as a clear prescription for action.

But more often the pieces Postel praises just read like leftists exalting their own superiority to other leftists, because they have deeper moral feelings. Thus Bill Weinberg accuses the left in general of

treason against our natural allies in Syria—the secular, progressive forces in the opposition to the Assad regime, now besieged by ruthless armed actors on all sides. … Our natural allies in Syria are in this democratic resistance (not in the dictatorship!), and they will need solidarity whether the US intervenes or not.

But what are we going to do for them? We don’t know.

Heeding these voices does not mean we have to support Obama’s intervention. But it does mean (at least) that we have to find ways to oppose it that do not betray and alienate Syrians who have for over two years been fighting for freedom and are now fighting for their very lives.

What ways? Apparently we’ll start writing a lot about our intense moral commitment, a strategy that probably won’t alienate anybody, except perhaps the few people who pay attention — but won’t help anybody either.

Then there’s Postel himself. He calls for a “New Internationalism.” This entails lots of rhetoric:

But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely can’t end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.

How do we take sides? By “supporting and sympathizing with popular struggles against authoritarianism and for human dignity.” Well, sympathizing, at least. We good leftists are not afraid to restate the tough questions; we’re just afraid to answer them.

Where does [the peace movement] stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? What is to be done?

There are no obvious, clear-cut answers to these questions … These are vexing problems. … But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a copout – and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier, to be sure — it requires more thinking, analysis, reflection, even soul-searching.

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I'll change the world later

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I’ll change the world later

Postel never tells us what is to be done, but searching our souls is, in fact, an end in itself. Marx stands inverted: we may not be able to change the world, but we can think about it. “The point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it.” Postel concludes:

What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a US military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference – all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught … But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people – who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion – prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, US-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.

We will not “make a concrete difference”; but we will express ourselves, and thus feel like the heroic internationalists of olden times. Postel seems unaware that this is not an alternative to solipsism, but an example of it. He gives no clue what you could do to end the “nightmare,” no suggestion how the “energy and effort” should be directed, just faith that we’ll be morally better if we expend it. Absent some proposal for a concrete solidarity more substantive than a warm, mushlike emotion, Postel hasn’t factored “the Syrian people” into an equation here at all, except as spectators of our own catharsis.

It’s easy to make fun of this Fourth Way, this brave alternative, which enters with a flourish of trumpets and exits with something between apology and sigh. But I don’t want to make fun. These writers are honest, and a lot of them are very smart, Postel included. Their failure to deliver what Postel promised is instructive.

The lesson they teach is that we on the left aren’t exempt from the diseases of the imperial ego. Leftists may opposite liberal interventionism, but its animating fantasies are ones to which they’re not immune. The basic idea that we in our powerful we-ness ought to be able to change the world; that our good intentions have the authority to make reality malleable; that injustice is friable before the force of our desires — that basic idea is pretty much the same, regardless of whether it’s armed with drones and aircraft carriers, or open letters and petitions. The brand of internationalism for which Postel feels such acute nostalgia was always predicated on a naive faith in morality combined with power. It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

You're sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010,

You’re sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010.

The spirit of disenchantment is more and more characteristic of our world. Geopolitics used to be so comfortably bi- or unipolar. Human RIghts Watch, where I worked, was founded in the confidence that there were few things you couldn’t fix by getting the United States government to act. Washington was the fulcrum of their advocacy for decades; this peculiar dispensation where Beijing, Moscow, and even Brasilia and Pretoria are independent actors has brought about a grating and harsh adjustment. Even for more uncompromising leftists, it was reassuring to think that opposing America could put you on the right side of most of the world’s wrongs. These days, responsibility is strewn too promiscuously around. And after Iraq, after Rumsfeld and his known unknowns, awareness of power’s limitations has become too general for comfort. Twenty years ago we were taught to say “never again” to Rwanda. But how can you cope with somebody like Alan Kuperman, whose detailed study of the Rwandan genocide found that, with utmost political will and celerity of action, the West could not have prevented more than a quarter of the deaths? The idea that our solidarity is not a cure for everything comes hard.

I hate to see moral solemnity go to waste, though. There are practical things that an earnest leftist could do about Syria, if she wants to, rather than sitting around expressing solidarity to the void.

Here are some suggestions.

1) Go to war. I’m serious. Everybody wants to be George Orwell these days, a fearless deflater of hypocrisies. Christopher Hitchens thought he was Orwell. Paul Berman thinks he is Orwell. Even young Jamie Kirchick dons the Orwell drag, though he ends up looking more like a cross between Enoch Powell and Evelyn Waugh. But if you ask these ersatz Orwells what they’ve done for their causes, they’ll sound more like Flaubert: “I stayed at home and wrote.”

Orwell didn’t. Is Syria the Spanish Civil War of our generation, a crossroads of profound moral choice? Then choose. Orwell went to Spain. So did Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Willy Brandt. So did Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim, 1937

That war is memorialized in poetry, more perhaps than any other of the twentieth century’s wars. Why? Because the Thirties really was a moment when individual choice took on a communal meaning – stopped being existential and became political.

The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled, or were afraid

– they still resonate, because history turned personal in them. That’s the burden of Edgell Rickword‘s lines, which every lefty schoolboy used to rattle off:

From small beginnings mighty ends:
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught in public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and Britain wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles.

Or there’s John Cornford, poet and Communist, killed on the Madrid front in 1936, at the age of 21. He wrote to his distant lover before he died:

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn’s near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

How different people were then! There are parts of that poem that an agonizing moralist or a muscular liberal, a fan of Hitchens or a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, might sympathize with. But they could never write the line “I am afraid of my fear” — because they’d feel it, too deeply.

I’m indulging in an excuse to quote poetry here: sentimental of me. But the poems say better than I can what I’m trying to say. Nobody on the left wants to put his own life on the line anymore. If “internationalism” requires a sacrifice, we expect the State to do the sacrificing for us. If comes to intervention, or policing, or punishing the guilty or protecting the good, the State will furnish the bodies, and they won’t be ours. When did we become so dependent on the powers we once wanted to overturn?

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Those damn fool romantics in the Thirties took things personally, instead. If their governments wouldn’t stand up and say no, if their polities or parties were run by those “Whose suave compliance sealed the fate / Of thousands left to Franco’s hate,” they stepped up themselves; they went to Spain. They took up a weapon like Orwell or drove an ambulance like Auden, they acted. “They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes. All presented their lives.” More than 40,000 people joined the International Brigades in some capacity, combat or no.

What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.

The only ones who shoulder this kind of responsibility today are the jihadists, people still used perforce to thinking of principles outside the State’s compass. The secular leftists sit at home and express their solidarity from the sofa’s safety.

Of course, even setting aside the serious and principled pacifists, there are perfectly decent reasons not to go to Syria. For one thing, governments have cracked down harshly on the jihadists who travel there and on their allies who recruit; they call it terrorism. Moazzam Begg, for instance, the heroic survivor of Guantanamo, is now in jail in the UK, charged with trying to train people for Syria. The same officials might start confusing foreign leftists with foreign jihadists, a terrible mistake since the jihadists actually do something, or might apply the same provisions for consistency’s sake. For another thing, there’s no reason on earth to think the Free Syrian Army has any use for a bunch of volunteers who don’t speak Arabic, know nothing about modern weapons, and get their medical knowledge from studying Foucault.

So maybe I should expand my point a bit. Though violence in Syria has metastasized like a cancer, the struggle in Syria is not waged just through violence. And there’s work you could support or even participate in from outside Syria’s borders. I can name just a few Syrian organizations carrying on the fight on the front of human rights: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCSyria), Syrian Women for the Syrian Intifada (SANAD); there are more. (Please add others in the comments if you like.) There are companion projects outside Syria which try to use the documentation such groups collect to raise humanitarian resources, like the #100000Names Oral Memorial for Syria. It is arduous to determine whether you can actually help any such efforts rather than getting in the way; it’s a terrible thing, the risk of realizing one’s own superfluity. That’s a danger you don’t encounter on the couch. But an individual commitment is better than an abstract solidarity.

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

2. Remember the refugee. A leftist who wants to cast off the shackles of the quotidian and go engage in meaningful action need not look for Syrians in Syria; that is one consequence of the war. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 2,700,000 Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. They calculate more than half of these are under 17 years old; 38% are younger than 11.

Those figures reflect only Syrians who have gone to the UN for assistance; hundreds of thousands more are unregistered and underground. Estimates for the total in flight go as high as 9 million, out of a total Syrian population of less than 23 million.

There is plenty to be done. A dedicated leftist might settle herself in Beirut, or in Cairo, or in Turkey near the southern border, and attach herself to one of the organizations working with refugees, whether in cities or in camps. In Egypt, Syrians face xenophobia and violence from a population propagandized into thinking they are allies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police pick them up on pretexts; some are deported. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now number 30% of the country’s population. They suffer arbitrary curfews, police harassment, physical assault.

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

And if the exhausting labor of daily humanitarian work seems overwhelming, there’s advocacy needed as well, to change the hearts, minds, and laws of wealthy nations that don’t want to let refugees in. European and American migration policy — the politics of the closed door — means there is nowhere to resettle most of these people; they will remain in unsafe countries and conditions, in semi-permanent limbo. The West would much rather pay money to keep Syrians in tents than offer them a final destination in Detroit or Turin. Sweden, the most generous European state, has taken in just over 14,000 Syrian refugees, and given them permanent residency. France has accepted under five thousand. That’s still better than the United States. In August 2013, the US agreed to resettle 2000 Syrian refugees, though later in the year the Washington Post reported that “nobody’s actually been admitted yet, since they have to go through an extensive screening process for possible terrorist ties.” Already prejudice is at play. A right-wing US website warned, “Sure most people just see refugees, but Democrats see voters …  If the Muslim Brotherhood Jihadists lose in Syria, their leaders will flee to Europe and America where they will suborn, undermine and plan acts of terror. … Obama isn’t all that interested in Christian refugees.”

All these numbers are trivial against the appalling figures of three million people externally displaced. Even the UNHCR, confronting the recalcitrance of countries unwilling to accept supplicants, has set its sights absurdly small.

UNHCR is proposing that countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission, or other programmes by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. However, in light of the growing needs of the Syrian refugee population, this goal represents only the first benchmark in securing solutions for this group. … UNHCR has called upon States to make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. [emphasis added]

That makes just 130,000 refugees the UNHCR hopes — with little likelihood of success — to resettle in the next three years, out of at least three million. Less than five percent.

Serious leftists are prone to dismissing humanitarian work as merely palliative. They imagine it’s a bandage not a cure, an evasion of the “real” issues within Syria itself. It’s not. Work with refugees gets to the heart of how states define citizens, how they value lives, how they decide who belongs and who is cast out. Leil-Zahra Mortada, an Arab activist living in Spain, writes:

There is so much to be done. And it is not charity we are talking about, nor the corrupting relief mentality. It is radical and revolutionary work that is needed. It is stepping out of the narrow Eurocentric vision of semantics into political action. It is not only Assad and the Islamists who are killing the Syrian people, it is international systems like the EU border regime and the international relief mafias to name but a few. This is not about Syria, and this is not “just a faraway civil war”. They are dying right here, on EU borders, and they are in EU immigrant detention camps. If it is not for Syria, and out of belief in the Syrian revolution, or even in the right for every people, wether they meet our shades of color or not, to rebel, it should be out of coherence with our political beliefs. Our fight on the EU front is needed. This is a people who has risen against a brutal dictatorship, only to see that they have a whole world to overcome. A world of international meddling, whether in the form of Islamist militias, or international relief, or leftist patronization. A world of closed borders and complicit governments that once again put their profit over life. A world of apathy. This is what the Syrians and the Palestinians in Syria are facing. Questions that are not only related to Syria, but related to international and intertwined local struggles.

3. FIght for diplomacy. Finally, if, for understandable reasons, you don’t want to lobby your government for military action, you need to fight to make a diplomatic solution possible.

If you don’t believe in war, diplomacy is the only way out left. And diplomacy these days is as messy as war, though less bloody. It’s messy because that unipolar world we used to live in, convenient as it was, is gone. It’s messy because Syria has become a vast playground of the polarities, a prone place where different countries pursue and divvy up their divergent interests. Obama funnels a few arms to the Free Syrian Army; Russia and China and Iran vocally and materially support Assad; the Gulf monarchies shower largesse on the jihadists.

A place at the table: Sign from Kaffranbel, Syria, 2013

A place at the table: Sign from Kafranbel, Syria, 2013

It’s not enough, then, to push the American administration or the EU to do this or that. Pressure needs to fall as well on the oil-soaked leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on Putin and Rouhani.

It’s hard to say what, for a Western leftist, this might mean. Effective advocacy for peace would be internationalist, but not in the easy sense of announcing prefab solidarities. It would mean listening across a lot of borders. It would mean trying to acquaint yourself with what’s left of the left in Russia or Iran, or with civil societies that aren’t of the left at all, and seeing if they have any practical concern with ending violence in Syria, or even ways to speak about it. It would mean reacquainting yourself with negotiation and compromise, which are always painful. It might mean recognizing your powerlessness, which is even more so.

That path lies beyond the scope of what I’m writing here. Our left critiques power, and is abstemious about engaging with it. That’s part of its genius, and its virtue. But something more is needed now, if you’re serious about Syria, than proclaiming sympathy or oneness. A more rigorous engagement requires putting something at risk — if not your life then your self-image at least, your private drama, your unquestioned faith in your purity and your efficacy. Action is dangerous. Hannah Arendt wrote:

Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries … To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin.  It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.

This is different to but not incommensurate with what the poet said:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

"Syrian women, revolt against all authority!" Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

“Syrian women, revolt against all authority!” Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

 

Consejos sobre privacidad para subversivos del sexo. Formas de proteger tu información y a ti mismo/a.

(Originalmente publicado en Inglés el 16 de noviembre de 2013. Traducción por Fundación Triángulo – muchas gracias por su arduo trabajo!).

En la actual era de la electrónica, la privacidad es necesaria si queremos conseguir una sociedad abierta. Privacidad no significa secretismo. Un asunto privado es aquel que la persona no quiere que conozca todo el mundo, mientras que un asunto secreto es aquel que la persona no quiere que sepa nadie. La privacidad es la capacidad de revelarse al mundo de forma selectiva. (Eric Hughes, A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, 1993)

urlEl mes pasado, la policía aparentemente secreta de Vladimir Putin practicó escuchas ilegales en una reunión estratégica entre activistas LGBT rusos y ONG occidentales en San Petersburgo, y posteriormente mostró las grabaciones en la televisión como prueba de una conspiración. La verdad es que la noticia no sorprende. Lo que sí es sorprendente es que las ONG occidentales no se lo esperaran. “La vigilancia al estilo soviético”, palabras usadas durante la indignada condena, no es nada nuevo en Rusia. El antiguo aparato de seguridad soviético nunca murió. La única innovación es que últimamente, en lugar de utilizar las grabaciones para hacer chantaje o perseguir en juicio, el régimen las entrega a los medios de comunicación afines para que inicien una campaña de difamaciones. Sin embargo, todo el mundo conoce ya esta táctica: durante las protestas en contra de Putin del año 2011, “agencias de seguridad y agencias encargadas del cumplimiento de la ley filtraron vídeos granulados y grabaciones de audio a los tabloides afines al Kremlin” en una “acción coordinada del Gobierno para desacreditar y dividir a sus opositores”. Así pues, los organizadores de la reunión debieron verlo venir.

En realidad, los que trabajamos en el ámbito de los derechos sexuales a nivel internacional no siempre nos tomamos nuestros propios asuntos en serio. Damos por sentado que los políticos malos no nos tienen miedo de verdad, que simplemente son unos manipuladores u oportunistas que usan la homofobia, el miedo a los trabajadores sexuales o la misoginia para distraer de los asuntos reales con problemas inventados. No es que nos aferremos al poder, o pensemos que los gobiernos pueden ver estos asuntos como los que importan realmente. No creemos que los estados vayan a dedicar enormes recursos para reprimir la disidencia sexual, ni que vayan a hacerlo con el mismo fervor ansioso con el que aplastan los movimientos separatistas o reprimen a los disidentes políticos. Persuadidos por el hecho de que no somos importantes, menospreciamos los peligros reales. Y si en algún momento estuvo justificado, ese momento no es ahora. La enorme pasión, a veces inútil, con la que la administración Obama pretende ser el gran avalador de los grupos LGBT en todo el mundo, por ejemplo, a su vez alimenta el miedo al anunciar que estos movimientos minúsculos son en realidad agentes de otros sistemas geopolíticos, hormigueros de subversión extranjera. Y el éxito del propio Gobierno estadounidense a la hora de violar la privacidad de todos y de cualquiera solamente fomenta la imitación y la revancha.

Todo el mundo debería tener en cuenta la privacidad. Y tú deberías preocuparte especialmente si o tu vida o tu trabajo contradicen la sociedad o la ley. Gestiones una ONG o seas activista en un pueblo pequeño. Seas un homosexual que entra en Grindr desde un país donde el sexo entre homosexuales es ilegal o un trabajador del sexo que usa Gmail para quedar con los clientes. Debes analizar cómo proteger tus comunicaciones de oídos y ojos fisgones –sean tus padres, tus compañeros de habitación o la policía.

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

Desinformados sobre la información. Datos extraídos de un informe del Pew Research Center del año 2012 sobre el uso que hacen los estadounidenses de los motores de búsqueda http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Existen mecanismos suficientes para ello, pero no los usamos. Hay tres motivos amplios por los que nos mostramos reacios a ellos:

a) Son lentos. Algunos navegadores como Tor son un poco fastidiosos, y cifrar los correos electrónicos es un rollo. A ello puedo decir que, por muy pesado que sea, lo es menos que si te clausuran el grupo o acabas en prisión.

b) Venga ya, ¿por qué deberían venir a buscarme a mí? Mira arriba. Quizás ya están detrás de ti. Pero incluso si la poli aún no te conoce, hay mil maneras accidentales de llamar la atención. Imagínate que eres un concienzudo activista contra el sida y te roban el portátil. Y que, cuando la policía lo recupera, descubre ese vídeo ilegal de pornografía que te bajaste. O imagínate que eres un respetable trabajador del sexo, que uno de los clientes con quien te has mandado correos electrónicos trabaja para Human Rights Watch y que lo están vigilando y espiando constantemente en tu país. Existen mil maneras para que te puedan controlar.

c) La transparencia es una virtud. Muchos activistas de derechos humanos no se esconden del control estatal porque, según dicen, no tienen nada que esconder. Esto es muy noble, sí, pero no es factible. Quizás tú no tienes secretos, pero la gente que confía en ti, sí. Los miembros de tu organización o las personas que acuden a ti para pedir ayuda esperarán confidencialidad, y se pueden sentir traicionados si no proteges lo que te han compartido. El propietario del piso que alquilas, el chico con el que duermes, la señora que limpia la cocina… todos podrían verse implicados en un escándalo y ser víctimas de difamaciones y deshonras o acabar ante el juez. Solo tú tienes la responsabilidad de proteger a los que están a tu alrededor y a los que dependen de ti.

A continuación se explican algunos pasos para proteger la privacidad electrónica, ordenados grosso modo del más simple al más complejo. No es que yo sea un experto; he recopilado los recursos a partir de lo que he ido leyendo y usando. Si tienes alguna sugerencia, o si alguno de ellos no funciona, escríbeme a través de los comentarios o por correo electrónico. La privacidad es como el sexo seguro. No hay una seguridad absoluta, sino tan solo una protección relativa. Todos debemos evaluar nuestros propios niveles aceptables de riesgo. Y mantenerse al día de los cambios tecnológicos en los ámbitos de la vigilancia y la protección personal es vital. La mejor manera de proteger tu información es estar informado.

Cosas que puedes hacer:

calmclearcache1.  Limpia el historial de tu navegador. Los historiales guardan copias de las páginas web que visitas en un lugar llamado caché. Además, muchas páginas incorporan automáticamente a tu ordenador cierta información llamada cookie, que les permite reconocerte cuando vuelves a visitarlas. Ambas permiten a cualquier usuario que tenga acceso a tu ordenador reconstruir lo que hayas estado viendo. Conozco docenas de personas cuyas familias o cuyos jefes han descubierto su orientación sexual a través, simplemente, de comprobar el historial del navegador.

Si compartes el ordenador con otras personas, sea en casa, en el trabajo o en un cibercafé, deberías limpiar regularmente el historial, preferiblemente después de cada utilización. No es un sistema perfecto, puesto que frikis muy bien preparados todavía podrían descifrar lo que has hecho, pero por lo menos frustrarás a la mayoría de intrusos. Si quieres unas guías completas sobre cómo limpiar el historial, podrás encontrarlas aquí, aquí y aquí.

2. Date cuenta de que Facebook no es tu amigo. Facebook ha originado demasiados problemas como para contarlos. Pero este es muy serio.

Ve a la barra de búsqueda y escribe “Gays en [tu país]”, ya sabes, como si estuvieras buscando un grupo o una página que describan la escena local. Lo que verás es un poco diferente:

Llueven hombres interesados en hombres, y mujeres también

Llueven hombres interesados en hombres, y mujeres también

Aquí se muestra una parábola sobre la construcción de la identidad en la era digital. Facebook coge automáticamente la información del botón que te pregunta en qué sexo estás interesado (que mucha gente se toma a broma, o entiende como interés en relación a la amistad y no al sexo) y la traduce en si eres gay o no. Y lo que es más abominable: los resultados que veas no se limitan a tus amigos ni a los amigos de tus amigos. Verás una lista de todos los hombres que están “interesados en hombres” en [tu país] y que no perdieron el tiempo en configurar como privado ese aspecto particular de su perfil. Si eres gay y estás buscando una alternativa a Grindr, te conviene. Y si eres policía, en tu país el sexo entre homosexuales está prohibido y estás buscando una manera de seguir la pista, atrapar y meter en la cárcel a los culpables, también te conviene.

Estos son los resultados del motor de búsqueda Facebook Graph Search, una herramienta aterradora que echa la seguridad a la hoguera y le prende fuego. Te permite escarbar hasta la estructura más profunda de la página y extraer información de perfiles que, como tales, son invisibles para ti. A diferencia de lo que sucede con el viejo sistema de Google, aquí se trata de una búsqueda semántica: no solo toma las palabras que escribes literalmente, sino que intenta inferir lo que quieres decir; de aquí el salto de “interesado en hombres” a “gay”. Este sistema es inteligente y despreciable a la vez, y tu seguridad no le importa un pepino.

Se llama Graph Search porque la búsqueda semántica “elabora un gráfico de información para el usuario que lleva a conocimientos de diferentes formatos a crear un punto de vista general relacionado con la consulta inicial”… bla, bla. Dicho de un modo más fácil: Facebook utiliza las pequeñas informaciones de todos los perfiles, como las opciones “me gusta” o “interesado en”, para mapear los elementos comunes entre sus clientes. Facebook, sin embargo, no lo ha creado “para los usuarios”, aunque te lo venda como un modo de compartir con amor y con aquellos a los que amas y aprender cosas maravillosas de todo el mundo. Lo ha creado para sí mismo y para sus clientes anunciantes, para dividir a los usuarios según sus preferencias y ensamblar una foto de mercados diversificados abiertos a la publicidad y la explotación.

Pupila aventajada: sé lo que hiciste el último verano, y con quién © Dominic Lipinski/PA

Pupila aventajada: sé lo que hiciste el último verano, y con quién © Dominic Lipinski/PA

Un blog de Tumblr se dedica exclusivamente a destacar la información, de la más excéntrica a la más espeluznante, que puede recopilar el Graph Search. Puedes buscar “jefes de personas a quienes gusta el racismo” o “madres de italianos católicos a quienes gustan los condones Durex”. No obstante, aquellas personas que están en peligro a causa de sus vidas privadas no se ríen. El Graph Search facilita la represión estatal. Los abogados de derechos humanos deberían hacer pasar a Facebook por el aro. La búsqueda desvela, por ejemplo, 258.285 resultados para “hombres interesados en hombres en Irán”. De un modo u otro, no se ha conseguido obtener objeciones de los típicos obsesionados con la República Islámica (que, ahora mismo, están todos en Facebook buscando a “hombres en Londres a quienes gustan los hombres y leer notas de prensa”). Pero si un policía religioso emprendedor de Teheran descubre cómo el Graph Search puede ampliar el negocio de la tortura, Facebook se llenará las manos de sangre.

¿Y qué es lo que puedes hacer ? La única manera de eliminarte del Graph Search es asegurarte de que cada información de tu perfil esté marcada como “privada”. La herramienta de privacidad universal con la que podías esconder todo tu perfil ya no existe, de modo que ahora deberás hacerlo paso por paso:

a) Ve a cada uno de los ítems de la sección “Información” de tu perfil, y si hay algo que no quieres que vean los desconocidos, elimínalo, cámbialo o asegúrate de que la herramienta de privacidad limita la visibilidad a los “Amigos”.

b) Comprueba cada fotografía en la que has sido etiquetado. Si no fuiste tú quien publicó la fotografía, su visibilidad depende únicamente de la configuración de privacidad de la persona a quien pertenezca. Si no quieres que otros puedan ver o buscar la fotografía, tendrás que eliminar la etiqueta.

c) Puedes revisar todos los comentarios que has publicado en Facebook yendo a “Registro de actividad” y clicando en “Tus publicaciones” en el menú de la izquierda. Si has comentado en las fotografías o los muros de otras personas, no podrás cambiar la configuración de privacidad, pero si no quieres que nadie lea tu comentario, puedes borrarlo.

d) También puedes cambiar la configuración de privacidad para absolutamente todas las publicaciones que hay en tu muro. Clica en “Configuración” y a continuación clica en “Privacidad”. En “¿Quién puede ver mis cosas?” encontrarás la pregunta “¿Quieres limitar el público de las publicaciones que has compartido con los amigos de tus amigos o que has hecho públicas?”. Esto te permitirá convertir estas publicaciones en privadas del tirón. Otra opción te permite revisar todas tus publicaciones pasadas para el caso de que quieras decidir qué hacer con cada una por separado.

Aquí podrás echar un buen vistazo a estos métodos.

1330-550x5173. Utiliza Tor. Tor es un paquete de software descargable que incluye su propio navegador. Cuando utilizas el navegador para acceder a internet, la información que recibes o envías rebota a través de una red global de miles de repetidores (miles de ordenadores) y se va encriptando cada vez. Toda esta encriptación hace muy difícil interceptar la información en tránsito: el reenrutamiento hace casi imposible encontrar los orígenes. Así, los ojos hostiles no podrán detectar tu ubicación, ni rastrear tus publicaciones, visitas o mensajes hasta llegar a ti.

El gráfico anterior muestra cómo funciona. Normalmente, cuando Alice envía un correo electrónico a alguien o visita una página web, los que están al otro lado pueden descubrir la dirección de internet que está utilizando. Sin embargo, usando Tor, el receptor (Bob o cualquier persona en el extremo de Bob) sólo podrá ver la dirección del último repetidor o proxy de toda la red, y no la de Alice.

Edward Snowden en el exilio muestra la pegatina de su portátil, dando apoyo al proyecto Tor. Fuente: nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Edward Snowden en el exilio muestra la pegatina de su portátil, dando apoyo al proyecto Tor. Fuente: nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Tor (cuyo nombre proviene de The Onion Router, o el router cebolla, haciendo alusión a las capas de protección que el intruso debería arrancar) fue desarrollado por el ejército de los Estados Unidos, y el Departamento de Estado sigue financiando a los promotores, que trabajan sin ánimo de lucro, como una manera de dar apoyo a aquello a lo que por otro lado se opone: la libertad en internet. Pero el proyecto es tan independiente e impenetrable que, según algunos documentos de seguridad nacional estadounidense filtrados por Edward Snowden, incluso el Gobierno de este país se siente intimidado. Lo llaman “el rey de la alta seguridad” en cuanto a acceso anónimo a internet se refiere. Es un software de código abierto, lo que significa que un equipo de elfos siempre está trabajando para reparar cualquier vulnerabilidad. Como la mayoría de proyectos de código abierto, el espíritu de Tor es cooperativo y colectivo. De hecho, cualquier persona puede colaborar de forma voluntaria aportando su ordenador como uno de los repetidores de la red. Yo, no obstante, no os lo recomiendo, puesto que si el sistema se llegara a resquebrajar, podríais ser considerados responsables de los actos ilegales que hayan podido cometer otros usuarios a través de vuestro terminal.

Existen, sin embargo, tres limitaciones:

a) Tor no es demasiado rápido. El hecho de que haya tantos repetidores ralentiza el proceso de búsqueda. Además, Tor bloquea los complementos como Flash, Quicktime y RealPlayer porque pueden revelar tu dirección real. Por último, para reproducir vídeos de YouTube deberás habilitarlo.

b) Obviamente, Tor no va a ocultar tu identidad cuando inicies sesión con tu cuenta de correo electrónico u otra cuenta; sólo esconderá la dirección de internet desde la que estás escribiendo.

c) Si ya desde un principio tu gobierno sabe dónde te encuentras, todavía podría encontrar la manera de entrar en tu ordenador y conseguir la información que mandes desde él. Del mismo modo, Tor tampoco puede proteger lo que se encuentra en el ordenador o servidor que hay al otro lado y con el que te estás comunicando, sino que simplemente las transmisiones entre ellos están cifradas y son seguras. Mira el cuadro otra vez: Tor no cifra la última fase de la transmisión, entre el nodo de salida (el último repetidor) y el servidor final. Si quieres tener más seguridad deberás usar un cifrado de extremo a extremo como PGP (ver más abajo), que codifica tu mensaje desde que lo creas hasta que el receptor deseado lo lee.

A pesar de estas tres limitaciones, Tor es una herramienta esencial si quieres navegar por internet de manera anónima. Lo puedes descargar de forma gratuita aquí.

4. Encripta tu disco duro. Para protegerte debes encriptar, o cifrar, todo tu ordenador o parte de él. Si alguien, sea un hacker, un policía o un ladrón, intenta entrar sin tu autorización, no podrá leer la información que tengas guardada en archivos encriptados. La información sólo puede leerse si se tiene una clave, un código que activa el descifrado. Lo suyo está en no dar ni olvidar nunca tal clave.

Un portátil bien protegido: la información, encadenada

Un portátil bien protegido: la información, encadenada

No existe ningún sistema de cifrado perfecto. Los gobiernos, especialmente los más intrusivos y los que disponen de más recursos como los de Estados Unidos, China o Israel, se las saben todas. La Agencia de Seguridad Nacional estadounidense se gastó miles de millones en lo que llamó “un esfuerzo agresivo y con múltiples frentes para terminar con las extendidas tecnologías de cifrado”. El plan incluía un desembolso de 250 millones de dólares por año destinados a sobornar a empresas – perdón, quiero decir, “ganar activamente el apoyo de industrias del ámbito de las TIC, tanto nacionales como extranjeras, para que influencien, de manera abierta y/o encubierta, los diseños de sus productos” y los hagan así “explotables”. Es decir, que les pagaban para que pusieran trabas a los productos que luego venderían. Y es que 250 millones de dólares dan para mucha cooperación. Microsoft, por ejemplo, ha incluido entre sus políticas la de proporcionar “a las agencias de inteligencia información sobre los errores que aparecen en su tan popular software antes de hacer pública su depuración”.

Conclusión: no gastes tu dinero en sistemas de cifrado de empresas privadas, puesto que no hay manera de saber si han creado una puerta trasera a merced de los espías norteamericanos. Tampoco puedes saber si ellos ya han compartido estos portales troyanos con tu gobierno, en caso de que sea un aliado norteamericano. Y en caso de que no lo sea, quizás los espías locales de tu país ya han conseguido copiarles los atajos anticifrado: los estadounidenses son aparentemente mejores a la hora de robar los secretos ajenos que no a la hora de ocultar los suyos. De modo paradójico, si los software de código abierto son más seguros es precisamente porque todo el mundo tiene acceso al código. Si un gobierno intentara insertar software malicioso o aprovechar alguna debilidad del programa para introducirse en él, probablemente alguien se daría cuenta. Estos software, además, están “en un constante estado de desarrollo por parte de expertos de todo el mundo”, de modo que hay un gran número de mentes maravillosas arreglándolos y retocándolos a menudo.

Aquí encontrarás una lista muy útil de cinco herramientas fiables para el cifrado de documentos. Muchos expertos recomiendan TrueCrypt, que funciona con Windows, Mac y Linux y es gratuito (supuestamente es la que usó Edward Snowden para pasar la información a su disco duro). Cifra archivos, carpetas o discos enteros; oculta volúmenes cifrados para mayor seguridad, y cifra en tiempo real, o sea, cifra y descifra el material a medida que vas trabajando. Todo esto te simplifica las cosas. Si bien es cierto que puede ralentizar algo tu ordenador, tampoco es tanto. De acuerdo con un estudio independiente, “la penalización de rendimiento es bastante aceptable”. Puedes descargar TrueCrypt aquí.

5. Cifra tus correos electrónicos. Cifrar los correos es como ir en bicicleta. Es difícil de explicar para aquellos que aún no lo han probado sin parecer superhumanamente ágil o un loco (“con el culo en el sillín, empieza a mover tus piernas de forma circular y rítmica, con un movimiento que a la vez asegure el equilibrio de las ruedas, de la medida de una pulgada, e impulse el mecanismo hacia delante…”). Describirlo es muchísimo más complicado que hacerlo. Bueno, ten paciencia e intenta no sentir terror mientras pruebo de describirlo.

Las dos claves: PGP

Las dos claves: PGP

Empecemos con los antecedentes y lo más básico. La forma clásica del cifrado de correos electrónicos se llama pretty good privacy (privacidad bastante buena) o PGP, y fue inventada por Phil Zimmermann en los años noventa. El cifrado, dijo, trata “las relaciones de poder entre un gobierno y sus ciudadanos, el derecho a la privacidad, la libertad de expresión, la libertad de asociación política, la libertad de prensa, el derecho a no ser sometido a una búsqueda y captura inadmisible, la libertad de que te dejen tranquilo”. A Zimmermann le apasionaban los movimientos en contra de la guerra y las armas nucleares, de forma que creó las herramientas pensando en ellos. Desde entonces, PGP es una marca registrada, pero existe una amplia gama de versiones de código abierto gratuitas, como GnuPG o GPG (disponible aquí) u otras que aparecen en la página International PGP Home Page.

El cifrado de correos electrónicos se basa en un servidor emisor y otro receptor que comparten herramientas que les permiten cifrar y descifrar mensajes.

Estas herramientas se llaman claves. Cuando instalas un programa, te pedirán que introduzcas dos claves o series de caracteres que llevan a cabo ciertas tareas. Tú tendrás una clave pública y otra secreta. Todo el mundo puede usar la clave pública, pero la secreta estará asociada a una contraseña para que solo tú puedas activarla. Debes compartir la clave pública con tus interlocutores, o sea, las personas que quieran mandarte un mensaje cifrado deberán haber obtenido antes tu clave pública, ya que esto es lo que cifrará el mensaje para ellos. Y por otro lado tú también necesitarás la clave pública de estas personas para escribirles. Las personas que tienen PGP en sus ordenadores pueden comunicarse fácilmente mientras tengan las claves públicas de las otras personas.

Pongamos por ejemplo que Faisal quiere mandarte una nota. Faisal usará tu clave pública, que le habrás dado anteriormente, para cifrar el mensaje en un código que solo tú puedes leer. Aunque tu clave pública haya llevado a cabo el cifrado, el mensaje no es, ni mucho menos, público: esa clave está ciberrelacionada con tu clave secreta de modo que solo tu clave secreta puede descifrar lo que dice. A su vez, tú utilizarás la clave pública de Faisal para contestar, y le mandarás un mensaje que solo él puede descifrar con su clave secreta. También puedes usar tu clave secreta para firmar digitalmente el mensaje con el objetivo de que Faisal sepa que es auténtico. Es como poner un sello en las cartas tradicionales para demostrar que no ha habido alteración durante la operación.

Cartas selladas: Quodlibet, de Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665

Cartas selladas: Quodlibet, de Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665

Algunos elementos hacen este proceso un poco más engorroso:

a) Solo puedes comunicarte con personas que tengan tanto el mencionado software como tu clave pública. Es decir, que no necesitas cifrar todos tus correos electrónicos, sino solamente los más delicados, aquellos que te mandas con gente que comparte tu línea de trabajo. Algunas autoridades clave comerciales compilan directorios en línea de las claves públicas de los usuarios como si fueran guías telefónicas. No obstante, en lugar de usar estos directorios, probablemente prefieras crear un círculo de compañeros y coconspiradores con quienes vas a compartir las claves públicas. A esto se le llama web of trust (red de confianza), una expresión que consigue combinar las sensibilidades más zen y una ligera paranoia.

b) Tan solo puedes usar el cifrado PGP en los ordenadores que lo tengan instalado. Si recibes un mensaje cifrado en tu móvil, no vas a poder leerlo hasta que no te sientes frente al ordenador que contiene tu clave secreta. Si te encuentras de viaje y no llevas el ordenador, tienes un problema.

c) El cifrado PGP no funciona bien con correos web como Gmail o Yahoo (en los últimos meses ha salido una versión de cifrado de JavaScript que en teoría es compatible con los correos web, pero es bastante rudimentaria), así que quizás es mejor que uses un servicio de correo electrónico tipo Outlook. El servicio más popular diseñado especialmente para el cifrado de mensajes es Thunderbird: gratuito, compatible con Windows, Mac y Linux, y sincronizable con Gmail, puedes encontrar una presentación básica de cómo funciona aquí.

El cifrado de correos electrónicos es complicado, aunque simplemente se trata de acostumbrarse. Tiene como ventaja el hecho de proteger la información durante todo el proceso de transmisión, de un extremo al otro, a diferencia de la protección parcial que ofrece Tor. Si necesitas una descripción más detallada de su utilización, puedes encontrarla aquí y aquí.

6. Utiliza Off the Record. Millones de personas en todo el mundo han confiado en Skype a la hora de contar sus intimidades y secretos a larga distancia. Se ha descubierto, no obstante, que la corporación entrega frecuentemente conversaciones grabadas a los Gobiernos estadounidense y chino.

Off the Record (OTR), que en ingles significa extraoficial, es una alternativa segura. Se trata de un sistema, parecido en ciertos aspectos a PGP, que cifra los mensajes de la mayoría de chats. A su favor podemos decir que es mucho menos engorroso que PGP y te permite comunicarte en tiempo real. OTR no debe ser confundido con la función “No guardar la conversación” (off the record, en inglés) del servicio de chat de Google. Esta es tan segura como el propio Google, es decir, no mucho, ya que al fin y al cabo los servicios de seguridad de los Estados Unidos han averiguado cómo rastrear la información de las comunicaciones que se llevan a cabo a través de los servicios de la multinacional. El cifrado de OTR es extraoficial y te ofrece mucha protección.

La revolución no será grabada: LP Confidential

La revolución no será grabada: LP Confidential

Para usar OTR deberás descargar e instalar un cliente de mensajería instantánea, sea Pidgin o Adium. El programa Pidgin es gratuito y permite chatear con amigos de Google, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber y AIM. Adium es similar, pero está específicamente diseñado para Mac. Mientras que Adium ya lleva el sistema OTR incorporado, para el caso de Pidgin deberás descargarte también el complemento OTR.

A partir de aquí, es bastante fácil. Todo lo que necesitas es que la persona con quien quieras chatear también tenga instalado Pidgin o Adium y haya activado el sistema OTR. Este sistema te ofrece dos cosas: además de cifrar las conversaciones te permite verificar la identidad de la otra persona. Hasta hace un tiempo, esta verificación exigía intercambiar una huella dactilar, una versión más simple de las claves públicas PGP, pero las versiones más recientes de OTR te piden simplemente una clave secreta acordada previamente entre vosotros. OTR cifra los mensajes de manera casi automática: mientras habláis, los dos programas van modificando los códigos y lo que sea necesario sin que vosotros os deis cuenta.

Te deseo buena suerte, a no ser que tengas el software

Te deseo buena suerte, a no ser que tengas el software

OTR presenta otra ventaja en comparación con PGP. El software crea un cifrado especial para cada sesión de chat y lo olvida cuando esta termina. Ello significa que aunque tu cuenta OTR esté en peligro (porque, por ejemplo, alguien te ha robado el ordenador) nadie podrá recuperar y descifrar las conversaciones anteriores. Así es, esas palabras efímeras se han ido para siempre. A esto se le llama secreto-hacia-adelante, y confiere tranquilidad a las mentes olvidadizas. Por otro lado, en el sistema PGP, si alguien consigue tu clave privada podría llegar a decodificar cada uno de los correos electrónicos cifrados que tengas guardados.

El inconveniente principal de OTR es que solo permite conversaciones entre dos personas y no de grupo. En la página de OTR encontrarás información básica sobre el sistema; si quieres información más detallada, entra aquí o aquí.

Conclusión

Si queremos privacidad, debemos defenderla nosotros mismos. Debemos unirnos para crear sistemas que permitan las transacciones anónimas. Los humanos hemos defendido nuestra privacidad a lo largo de los siglos por medio de susurros, la oscuridad, sobres, sesiones a puerta cerrada, apretones de mano secretos y mensajeros. Las tecnologías del pasado no ofrecían mucha privacidad, pero las tecnologías electrónicas sí pueden. (Eric Hughes, A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, 1993)

Grandes hermanos bailando sus danzas tradicionales: Nicolae Ceaușescu y Kim Il-Sung

Grandes hermanos bailando sus danzas tradicionales: Nicolae Ceaușescu y Kim Il-Sung

A principios de los años noventa estuve dos años trabajando como profesor en Rumanía. En el apartamento donde vivía se habían alojado profesores americanos desde mediados de la década de los sesenta. Estaba lleno de micrófonos; había tantos que por las noches creía oír cómo alguien me escuchaba, por los numerosos clics, débiles como si de grillos enfermizos se tratara. Un día incluso me electrocuté al tocar un tramo de pared especialmente cableado. El último profesor Fulbright que había dado clase ahí antes de la Revolución de 1989 me contó cómo él y su mujer decidieron, durante el frío noviembre de ese mismo año, organizar una cena de acción de gracias para sus compañeros de trabajo rumanos. Les costó días encontrar un pavo en condiciones, y luego tuvieron un dilema con el relleno, puesto que las verduras eran difíciles de encontrar en el mercado. Se pasaron el día entero en la cocina pensando una solución hasta que alguien llamó a la puerta. Encontraron a un hombre pequeño, encorvado y bien abrigado contra el viento. Rápidamente empezó a hablar, y les dio a entender que algunos compañeros –bueno, en realidad eran primos, que se dedicaban al mantenimiento del piso– le habían llamado para avisarle de que había un problema que, quizás por algo de dinero, se podía arreglar. Nos señaló vagamente un coche con unas antenas que estaba aparcado (como siempre) al final de la calle. “Por lo que sé –dijo–, estáis discutiendo sobre cómo rellenar un ave. Yo os puedo ayudar. Soy taxidermista…”.

Al mismo tiempo era gracioso y no lo era. Cuando vivía ahí, el odio étnico y la histeria nacionalista todavía agitaban la ciudad. Yo, como homosexual y activista de derechos humanos que se dedicaba a visitar cárceles en sus días de fiesta, era objeto de un interés excepcional. Una vez, la policía secreta llamó a un amigo mío y le interrogó sobre cada sílaba que dijimos en la conversación que mantuvimos la noche anterior en mi salón. Le avisaron de que yo lo acabaría “reclutando para la red de espionaje de húngaros, judíos y homosexuales en contra de la nación rumana”. Ese verano, me fui un par de meses a los Estados Unidos. Un día, mientras me duchaba en el estrecho baño de la casa de mi padre, empecé a hablar solo, sin más, pero de repente paré aterrorizado. ¿Estaba repitiendo algún secreto? ¿Y si alguien me había oído? El gran alivio que sentí cuando me di cuenta de que no había moros en la costa fue como si estallara una presa detrás de mis tensos músculos. Me daba cuenta así de la presión constante e intolerable bajo la que había estado viviendo durante un año: siempre vigilado, siempre escuchado.

La era del papel: los documentos de los servicios secretos previos a la Revolución se conservan en el Consejo Nacional para el Estudio de los Archivos de la Securitate, Bucarest, Rumanía (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

La era del papel: los documentos de los servicios secretos previos a la Revolución se conservan en el Consejo Nacional para el Estudio de los Archivos de la Securitate, Bucarest, Rumanía (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

El mismo año en el que me establecí en Rumanía, en 1992, unos cuantos frikis radicales de San Francisco crearon una lista de correo electrónico que acabaría creciendo hasta convertirse en el movimiento Cypherpunk. Lo que les unía era la aversión a la seguridad del estado y el convencimiento de que la tecnología sería capaz de forjar las herramientas necesarias para oponer resistencia. De acuerdo con su ideología, tenían una fe extraordinaria en que, si el código era público y se podía compartir el conocimiento, la gente podría salvaguardar su privacidad de manera intacta.

Los cypherpunks pican código. Todos sabemos que para defender la intimidad alguien tiene que crear los programas, y puesto que uno no tiene intimidad hasta que todos la tienen, vamos a escribir. Publicamos nuestro código para que el resto de compañeros cypherpunks puedan practicar y jugar con él. El código es gratis para todo el mundo. Somos conscientes de que el software no se puede destruir y que nadie podrá cerrar un sistema tan extendido.

Los cypherpunks desaprueban la regulación de la criptografía, pues el cifrado es fundamentalmente un acto privado. El acto de cifrar, de hecho, significa eliminar información de la esfera pública. Las leyes contra la criptografía no pueden llegar más allá de las fronteras del país ni de su brazo violento. La criptografía se va a extender ineludiblemente por todo el planeta y, con ella, los sistemas de transacciones anónimas a los que da lugar.

En ese manifiesto se encuentra buena parte de nuestro mundo actual.

Las tecnologías electrónicas permiten una gran privacidad. Sin embargo, también la destruyen; por lo menos cuando los estados y las empresas las manipulan. Antes estaba seguro, llamadme inocente, de que en los Estados Unidos no se practicaban escuchas; ahora ya no lo estoy. Esa necesidad imperiosa de vigilar forma parte de nuestro hábitat, en esta tierra de nadie en la que vivimos.

La lucha entre ordenador y ordenador, ver y no ser visto, es la nueva carrera armamentística, la nueva Guerra Fría. A no ser que quieras salirte del sistema, convertirte en el nuevo Unabomber, mudarte a una cabaña totalmente incomunicada e interrogar y torturar a tus palomas mensajeras como un paranoico, debes posicionarte. Elegir las tecnologías para la privacidad es casi lo más cercano a elegir la libertad. Aunque también signifique vivir entre las murallas de las protecciones que te ofrece la tecnología. La tensión no se va.

Te estoy escuchando: Gene Hackman a la escucha en la película La conversación, de Francis Ford Coppola (1974)

Te estoy escuchando: Gene Hackman a la escucha en la película La conversación, de Francis Ford Coppola (1974)

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

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

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

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

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

pelosi wb copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Uganda maternal mortality rate, 1990-2013 (from http://www.countdown2015mnch.org/reports-and-articles/2013-report)

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

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

Statistics on maternal health care in Uganda (from http://www.countdown2015mnch.org/reports-and-articles/2013-report)

Statistics on maternal health care in Uganda (from http://www.countdown2015mnch.org/reports-and-articles/2013-report)

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

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

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

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

Marchers in Kampala, May 22, 2012

Marchers in Kampala, May 22, 2012

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

On the right: health care as a percent of overall budget (from "Citizen’s Budget: The Civl Society Alternative Budget Proposals FY 2013/14 - 2017/18), at http://www.csbag.org/docs/Citizens_Budget_FY2013_14.pdf

On the right: health care as a percent of overall budget (from “Citizen’s Budget: The Civil Society Alternative Budget Proposals FY 2013/14 – 2017/18″, at http://www.csbag.org/docs/Citizens_Budget_FY2013_14.pdf)

Who gets the money instead?

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

Uganda budget by sector, FY 2013/14 (from "National Budget Framework Paper," Ministry of Finance, at http://www.psfuganda.org/new/images/downloads/Trade/budget%20%20framework%20paper%202013-14.pdf)

Uganda budget by sector (from “The Background to the Budget, Fiscal Year 2013/14,” Ministry of Finance, p. 104, at http://www.budget.go.ug/budget/content/background-budget)

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

But the other big factor is the security sector.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Washington Consensus: Street art from Argentina

The Washington Consensus: Street art from Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is stability: Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu, 2007

This is stability: Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

GlobalEqualityFund_blog

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

oct18_global_wealth

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

Top: Wealth shares by country, 2000 (from Wikipedia; data from  http://www.wider.unu.edu/research/2006-2007/2006-2007-1/wider-wdhw-launch-5-12-2006/wider-wdhw-press-release-5-12-2006.pdf; Bottom: Wealth shares by region, 2010

Top: Wealth shares by country, 2000 (from Wikipedia; data from http://www.wider.unu.edu/research/2006-2007/2006-2007-1/wider-wdhw-launch-5-12-2006/wider-wdhw-press-release-5-12-2006.pdf; Bottom: Wealth shares by region, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mother-support

Iran: How assaulting eight women and girls can make you a “gay man” (updated)

Abandon hope: Surreptitiously taken photograph of the entrance to Lakan Prison, Rasht, Iran

Abandon hope. Surreptitiously snapped photograph of the entrance to Lakan Prison, Rasht, Iran

Note: Update at the bottom of this post

Let’s start with Washington, that pale cold city. The Washington Free Beacon is a right-wing US webzine edited by Matthew Continetti, who used to write defensive hagiographies of Sarah Palin. The zine is disarmingly blunt about its specialities: a) attacks; b) propaganda. (“At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.”) Examining its mission statement when it launched two years ago, an Atlantic critic burst into adjectives: “flawed, soulless,” “vicious and unethical.” The Beacon loves guy stuff, neocons, and wars. It actually has a reporter named Adam Kredo — who sounds like a DC Comics supervillain, particularly since his name on the website is trailed by a Twitter command: Follow Kredo0.  

They turn to me, not to you, Spider-Man. Soon I will rule the world!

They turn to me, not to you, Batman. Soon I will rule all Gotham!

On March 3, Kredo published a piece declaring that “Iran executed two gay men on Sunday for the crime of ‘perversion’…The head of Iran’s judiciary department in the northern city of Rasht announced on Sunday that two homosexual men had been executed for ‘perversion,’ which is considered a severe crime under Iran’s hardline Islamic law…  As the Western world negotiates with Iran over its contested nuclear weapons program … While Iran is known to plan and fund terror attacks across the globe …” And on and on.

Where is Rasht? It is the capital of Gilan province, not too far from Tehran as an ambitious crow might fly, but a long way by land over the mountains. Thirty kilometers south of the Caspian Sea, the city once called itself the Gate to Europe: opulent trade with Russia and beyond rumbled over its pine-lined roads. In its prison last week, executioners put two men to death. Were they gay? The rumor trade, richer these days than spices, reached America.

L: Gilan province in Iran; R: Rasht and vicinity

L: Gilan province in Iran; R: Rasht and vicinity

These stories, about gays murdered in Iran, waken questions. The stories are recurrent and they all resemble one another, without enough detail to individuate them. They’re all unsourced — usually there’s a newspaper article the writer never actually read. They have their own life and appear in locust cycles, not so much out of design as from a summer swelter of fear and xenophobia, whenever a crisis between the US (or Israel) and Iran is imminent, or wanted. I’ve seen them many times before. The repression of LGBT people in Iran is real. These stories have little or nothing to do with it.

Instead, these rumors seize the lives of distant human beings, hollow them out, and use the husks. The victims become both mannequins and messages, static and imperative like propaganda posters. They also distort the reality of death as it’s actually dealt out to prisoners in Iran. Look at the gays, they say, the “innocent” ones like us, twisting our attention away from the scope of atrocities and the other dead who aren’t assimilable or attractive.

The stories play out in entirely predictable, functional ways. For Kredo0 (adding that extra zero to his name is irresistible) it’s mainly about showing his cojones to cowardly lefties who love the Muslims.

adam kredo gay iran

For Jamie Kirchick, it’s about how Iran never changes. (On Twitter, Kirchick lathers praise on Free Beacon and its editor Continetti with the ardor of someone angling for a job — the webzine supposedly has a cushy seven-figure starting investment.)

kirchick iran copy

But basically it’s about getting the gays to stop worrying and love that bomb graph Netanyahu used to hold.

iran israel copy

Nobody bothered to check Iranian sources. But I wanted to know what the real story was. 

Here it is.

In the last week, the local press in Gilan province reported just one case of two people executed together. The two men were killed on Wednesday, February 26 (7 Esfand,1392). The story first appeared in KhazarOnline.ir the next day. (Xazar is the Farsi name for the Caspian Sea.) It’s headlined “Two corrupt Rashti men were executed for the crime of desecration of 8 women and girls.”

Two predators were executed yesterday morning (Wednesday) at Rasht Central Prison … About two years ago, the defendants locked girls and women in cars for the keeping of livestock. The public affairs office of the Gilan judiciary said the two men were executed for raping eight women and girls.

There you are. How did these rapists become “gay men”?

That’s a story in itself. It’s an Iranian game of Telephone. On Saturday (March 1, 10 Esfand) another Gilan website, DiyarMirza.ir, covered the case: “Execution at Rasht Central Prison of two accused of harassment  [آزار و اذیت].” It’s not clear why the charge has gotten vaguer and weaker-sounding in this telling. My suspicion is that concern, or pressure, to protect women victims’ honor mitigated against offering detail. (Moreover, the item is buried as a short postscript to a longer story about the execution of three other men for drug dealing — one of the most serious offenses in Iran.) The one paragraph gives the initials of the dead, and their parents’ first names.

Culture of killing, from the cradle to the grave: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Culture of killing: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

This is not a very important item. It’s not till Sunday (March 2, 11 Esfand) that it reaches Tehran, when it’s picked up by the national Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). It makes just a blip on their website, saying that “two men aged 28 and 30 years were executed today in Rasht Central Prison,” based on information from the Gilan judiciary. It gives the offense as “unlawful acts” [اعمال خلاف شرع].  You can more or less see what happened: either IRIB gave Gilan a routine call to see if they had any news, or the Gilan PR people decided to phone their executions in, but in either case they gave only a cursory account of a really negligible slaughter. It would seem, moreover, that IRIB got the date wrong. (I checked. The Gilan news sites have no report of executions after February 26.)

Late Sunday, though, the generally respected Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), which tries to draw attention to all executions in Iran, carried the story. HRANA was set up in 2009, after the Green Revolution, to disseminate news of abuses and resistance; it has essentially relocated to the US now. “According to IRIB,” they reported, “two men were executed today in Rasht Central Prison,” for “unlawful acts.” Then, because HRANA is particularly concerned with the pretexts for which Iran kills people, they try to hone in on figuring out the “unlawful acts” phrase. It

consists of acts that are prohibited by law and by Islamic shari’a law, and the penalty for them is set on the basis of the religious laws in Islam. Acts of crime and sin can be included such as: lavat [ لواط] (men having sex with men), masaheghe [ساحق] (women having sex with women), zina [ زنا] (sexual relations between men and women who are not married to one another), moharebeh (attempting to overthrow the Islamic Government), drinking alcoholic beverages, sabolnabi (cursing the prophets and the imams), theft (stealing another’s property covertly), and ghazf (accusing others of zina or lavat) – and in general acts that are opposed to shari’a. 

I see some unlawful acts here: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

I see some unlawful acts here: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

HRANA published a version of this article in English as well. That concluded by noting that “The specific charges of the 2 men hanged in Rasht on charges of unlawful acts against Sharia Law are not clear.”

But that warning went nowhere; because the next to take up the story was Iran Press News, in the United States. Iran Press News, a site dating from 2004, offers content in both Farsi and English, with a right-wing bent especially in the latter. One item in the HRANA lists of “unlawful acts” had jumped out at them. In Farsi, IPN published only a bare mention; but the headline was now “Two young homosexuals [ همجنسگرا ] were executed in prison in Rasht.”

The public affairs office of the Gilan judiciary announced that two men, aged 28 and 30 years, were executed today in Rasht Central Prison. The two men were guilty of unlawful acts … Unlawful acts as a crime in the Islamic state is usually used to suppress the execution of homosexuals. [Emphasis added]

This was the first suggestion in the whole trail that the men were homosexual; it was based entirely on the fiction that “unlawful acts” could only stand for one crime in the HRANA roster.

How did the “homosexual” version leap from Farsi to English news sites? Answer: Banafsheh Zand.

Just a few centimeters more: Cartoon by

Just a few centimeters more: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Banafsheh Zand is an Iranian exile in the US who couples far-right inclinations with a strong fetish for the gays. She’s been a regular for Fox News, Front Page magazine, and the National Review, though all seemed to inch away eventually from her extravagant insights. An immigrant herself, she pals around with racist, ferociously anti-foreigner Michelle Malkin; but she also gamely frequents Glenn Beck‘s paranoiac show to cheer for the homosexuals against Ahmadinejad. She’s a fount of conspiracy theories. Here, on the fringe Newsmax site, you can hear her descant on Egypt, only days after the military massacred a thousand civilians this summer. That leaves her unfazed; she’s still worried that Iran, through the dead Muslim Brotherhood, may overrun the country. Never mind that the Sunni Brotherhood oversaw what Amnesty called an “unprecedented level of sectarian violence against Shi’a Muslims” during its brief reign. “There are major Shi’a strongholds in Egypt,” she intones. Also, Iran has “forty thousand trained suicide bombers” planted worldwide, waiting to bust like balloons.

 I can see Ayatollah Khameini from my house: The mullahs are coming to Cairo

She’s part Scheherazade, part salesman, marketing stories. I encountered her first during the frenzy of July 2005, when GayWorld exploded over the “gay teenagers” hanged in Mashhad, Iran, and she played a central role. Peter Tatchell and Doug Ireland were devouring fictions fed to them in part by Iranian exile cultists; headlines burgeoned; and Zand was hourly calling up the offices of New York’s Gay City News, claiming she had incontrovertible proof the children were lovers and had been raped by mullahs in detention. (At the time she styled herself, uneuphonically, Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi: but Signor Bonazziwhoever he was, has since decamped into Shah-like obscurity.) Back then, and for years after, she was English editor of Iran Press News. I believe she helped found it. This time, she may have given the IPN story its “homosexuals” slant. If not, she knew how to run with it.

On the killer's trail: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

On the killer’s trail: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

The hard-right website Gateway Pundit picked up the story on Sunday evening, March 2, only hours after IPN carried it. Zand had translated the IPN text for them; their version ended, “Hat Tip Banafsheh Zand.” (They added the obligatory, morbidly exploitative photo of “Iranian gay teens” in 2005 being prepared for hanging.)

From there, it easily made its way to Adam Kredo0 and the Washington Free Beacon. Despite his title of “Senior Writer” on “National Security & Foreign Policy” for the Beacon, Kredo0 seems to have limited international experience, apart from five swell months interning at the Jerusalem Post. Zand probably overwhelmed him. He quotes her all over. “Not much is known about the two men executed over the weekend due to” — an inability to read Farsi? — no, “Iranian efforts to sweep such executions under the rug, according to Banafsheh Zand, an Iranian political and human rights activist.” “‘When people talk about the nukes, the nukes are a symptom,’ said Zand.” And so on.

So there you have it. It is, of course, just possible that there was another execution of two men in Rasht last week, and both those men were gay; it’s also just possible that those stories of eight women raped were make-believe, like Obama’s birth certificate. But it’s not likely.

By Mana Neyestani

By Mana Neyestani

Rather, everything suggests this was a heterosexual rape case that quickly got turned into a “homosexual” story — the moment it reached the US. It was reshaped deliberately, deceptively, and opportunistically, as a small stratagem to persuade US gays to mobilize in opposition to Iran, Rouhani, and any possible nuclear accord. It’s another instance of what happened in 2005: facts manipulated to rouse a constituency’s intense emotions. We haven’t absorbed much since about skepticism or evidence. Possibly the Washington Free Beacon didn’t realize they were baited. But they didn’t try hard to learn. Adam Kredo0 didn’t look for the source article, or call any Iranian diasporic LGBT groups, or speak to anyone except Banafsheh Zand. Expedient distortion and lazy journalism cooperated to deceive. By the way, I did contact the under-resourced but always resourceful Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), an extensive, reliable, and diverse network of activists centered in Canada. They hadn’t heard of the Rasht “gay” story — bad sign for its veracity — but are investigating. If those hardworking people can add, contradict me, or confirm, I will let you know.

US gays have a little bit of political power now, in the Obama era. That augurs an intensified competition to get you to take somebody’s side, to seduce you into backing bombing or demanding droning, with the illusive wiles of solidarity.

But this story is also a reminder of how neither I nor you have ever thought hard enough about Iran. The one sensible thing Kredo0 did for his article was to quote my colleague Hadi Ghaemi, of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran: describing the case of Ruholla Tavana, who faced the death penalty for things he said in a private video on his personal computer. (Kredo0 didn’t bother to call Ghaemi, just used a press release.)

This is an unbelievable act of inquisition at its worst ….The Iranian Judiciary’s insistence on the death sentence calls into question whether these sentences are politically-motivated and intended to confront the wave of international protests against the trend of ever-increasing executions in Iran.

What Ghaemi points to is that all these sentences are “politically motivated,” meant to send a message about the state to its citizens as well as external foes. There is no special status for LGBT people in Iran; they’re not “innocent victims” to be preferred to others, to the rapists and murderers we can cast off when we find the unpleasant facts of their stories. The Iranian state lives increasingly on the death penalty, and the death penalty is an extreme assertion of ownership over the limit point of everybody’s bodies and life-spans. There is no distinction. The state is saying it wants to control anything it can, and those who resist that even in the inmost crevice of private spaces can lose their lives. The casual indifference with which its officials toss off the figures and details — another two dead, “unlawful acts,” today or last week, like Don Giovanni’s thousand-and-third in Spain — suggests the degree to which the allocation of death has become an ordinary business of living. The crime (rape, murder, warring against God, sodomy, harassment) matters less than the message, which is that your existence is submissive to power, is porous.

Hanging toys: Cartoon by Mana

Hanging toys: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

LGBT people live in oppression in Iran. The constant possibility of the death penalty is part of that, though it’s been inflicted for consensual lavat only rarely in the last decade. Far more comprehensive, though, is the intrusion that the death penalty stands for: the claims of the state over life as well as death, over clothing and skin and hair, orifices and closets, bottles and bedrooms and belief; the quality of the air you breathe (intolerable in many places), the onetime plenitude of water now being drained away, the things you whisper or write that turn out to be criminal after the fact. Everybody faces those in some measure. We outside gravely mistake that situation if we think we fulfill our responsibilities by showing our solidarity with respectable people: the nice attractive gays (the young, clean, virgin ones you can write your dreams on), the secular published authors, the decent political prisoners. Resistance comes from everywhere, and the strength of the movement LGBT people are building lies in its unexpected solidarities. Resistance hides amid the secret drunks, with the down-and-out heroin addicts in Artists’ Park, who don’t want to be told what they can put in their bodies. (To read the crime pages on Iranian news websites is to see in the mind’s eye a ceaseless parade of drug users marched to execution: it’s possibly the main pretext for the machinery of killing in the country.) It rests with the sex workers who spread their legs despite divine animadversions and don’t even bother to shield their hair, with the stoned street kids even more than with the North Tehran parties, and even with the rapists who, whatever else they may have done, don’t want to die. Feeling sympathy with likeness is one thing, but solidarity can’t stop with sympathy. Our local obsession with identity is a weak distraction. It divides and detracts from the struggle against the state of death.

If you want to read one thing about Iran, read this summary of longtime human rights lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei’s advice for how to roll back the death penalty, in an Islamic state where execution is not just policy but religious precept. “Stop using slogans and save lives,” he says. Don’t deal with generalities or identities; talk about individuals and their cases. Every accused is worthy. “Nobody is born a criminal.” Every person has a story. All that matters is that the stories be true, and theirs.

"Sweet moment of release from prison in Rasht": Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian preacher imprisoned for  four years, is freed in January 2014; by joindhands on Flickr

“Sweet moment of release from prison in Rasht”: Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian preacher imprisoned under threat of the death penalty for four years, is freed in January 2014; photo by joindhands on Flickr

Note: Several friends I can’t name assisted me with research and translation here. All errors are my own. The drawings are by the remarkable Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani. Among Neyestani’s other distinctions, he’s one of the few Iranian artists of a political bent to have addressed themes of LGBT people’s oppression in his work:

cartoon 2 copyImportant Update: Ali Abdi, an Iranian-born anthropologist studying at Yale, has done his own research on this situation since I published this post, and has helpfully shared with me what he’s discovered. He did the sensible thing, and went to the website of the Gilan provincial judiciary to look for cases there. Here’s what he found:

a) The case of two men raping eight girls (reported in KhazarOnline.ir) and the case of two men executed for “harassment” [آزار و اذیت]; reported in DiyarMirza.ir on March 1 (or 10 Esfand) actually do seem to be separate ones! In fact, the execution of two men for eight rapes appears to have occurred all the way back in December. The Gilan judiciary website recounts it, dated December 19, 2013 (or 28 Azar 1392). The details are a bit different from the Khazar Online version but it certainly looks like the same basic story.

Ali caught me in one significant error: the Khazar Online story is dated 1 Esfand (February 19), not 8 Esfand as I reported. My apologies. But in any case, if the execution happened in December, why did Khazar Online resurrect it after two months, claiming it was recent? Abdi speculates that they were looking around for clickbait and hoped that “rape of women and girls” would lure readers. If so, it worked; the story is still one of the most viewed on their main page.

b) The Gilan judiciary website has a short announcement of the execution of two men on March 1, 2014 (10 Esfand); “harassment” [آزار و اذیت] is the only description of their crime. This is apparently the story that DiyarMirza.ir carried the same day. It got picked up by IRIB the following day; they substituted “unlawful acts”  [اعمال خلاف شرع] for “harassment.” It seems to me quite possible that IRIB jumbled together the rape case and the “harassment” case, each involving two executions, which the Gilan media had headlined in recent days. (Remember, the rape case was still prominent on the Khazar Online front page.) That might explain why they used “unlawful acts,” to cover the confusing multiplicity of accusations.

HRANA then took up the story, and included a list of things that “unlawful acts” might mean; their possibilities included extramarital sex, theft, blasphemy, false accusation, and lavat or sodomy. From there, Banafsheh Zand and right-wing hacks in the United States seized on the “sodomy” possibility as the only one that interested them. They started spreading their propaganda about “gay executions” to the American LGBT public. And so it goes.

Women's equality: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani (apologies, of course, to the Human Rights Campaign)

Women’s equality: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani (apologies, of course, to the Human Rights Campaign, which probably has that symbol copyrighted)

c) So what does “harassment”  [آزار و اذیت} mean? It’s not a crime in Iranian law, which makes it strange to see on an official judicial website. A quick survey of Farsi media suggests it’s commonly used for “sexual harassment” in the generally-understood sense, particularly intrusive attacks in public places which have become an issue throughout the region. However, those would probably not make a capital crime in Iran. But it also seems to be used widely for sexual assaults on minor girls, including by people in authority (see here or here). And Abdi confirms this thought. Faced with an assault against an adult woman, he writes me, officials would refer openly to “rape” (and possibly try to publicize the state’s paternal efforts at protection.) But an assault against a girl might be shrouded in euphemism: “when a minor is raped, assaulted, etc. there is a conscious effort not to bring it up.” (Ali believes this would hold for assaults on minor boys as well. This makes sense, although in the Mashhad executions in 2005, the rape of a minor boy was widely publicized as such — as lavat beh onf, “forcible sodomy“.) There is certainly no reason at all, though, to think that “harassment” is a cover for consensual male homosexual acts.  

d) I’m very grateful to Ali Abdi for his research. Updating and correcting information is a basic part of honest human rights work. This, others writing on Iran might learn. Gay City News, for one, has never published a correction on any of its messily flawed Iran reporting, (Or anything else. Even when the late Doug Ireland, in one of his last pieces for them, confused Belarus with UkraineGay City News never corrected itself.) As for the egregious Peter Tatchell, he never admits to error; instead he stirs up a storm of invective, threats, and distractions in PR blasts and social media, in the hope that the facts, like light in the ambit of a black hole, will bend themselves before his mistakes and mendacities. If these folks had just done some basic checking back in 2005, they could have spared us a world of trouble.

It is, of course, beyond rational expectation that the Free Beacon would double-check anything. You have to live in reality to recognize the possibility of error.

e) Oh, and one thing about the Gilan judiciary’s helpful site. So user-friendly, so transparent! Truly, this is reform. Indeed, when they’re posting announcements on stuff like meetings, conferences, and judicial sentences carried out, the very avatar lets you know the topic, and the result:

Gilad judiciary copy

I don’t even need to try my feeble hand at translating. Then when you do clink the link (maybe with a tingle of trepidation, like turning a doorknob in a slasher movie), atop the announcement perch the images like Poe’s raven on the bookcase, reminding one, far more powerfully than any bureaucratic lingo, what the state in its might and majesty can do for you:

ImageHandler

Words fail me.

Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

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

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

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

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

 Ahmed Spider takes on the Puppet Plot

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

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

torture abla fahita copy

Yeah. Or:

Bc-NPbTIQAAFcr2

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

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

I have three small points to add.

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

Apparently tyrannical shari'a law actually encourages women judges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

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

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

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

robertson kids copyYou know, priorities.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The warped reality therapy of Jeffrey Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

url-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bachmann copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

Baiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

Braiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.

I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia.  He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.

Here is his story.

I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah.  I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.

In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad.  There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”

There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!

So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?

I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that.  I was looking cute.

He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking.  But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.

The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.

Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.

I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.

I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.

The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.

The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported.  To me this was something good: at least I would be free.

Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert.  I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.

That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?

Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.

The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.

I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.

The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.

I was so happy that day.

But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.

But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me.  Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.

After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions.  The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex.  The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.

In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty.  The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years.  And after I was released, they deported me.

In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.

I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75.  Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo.  Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country].  From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US].  The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.

No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.

They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that.  But I don’t believe everything he said.

Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.

But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death.  It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things you can do:

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

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

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

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

Philippines copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a good overview of these methods here.

1330-550x517

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

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

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

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

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

There are three main limitations:

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

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

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

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

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

Laptop locktup: Data in chains

Laptop lockup: Data in chains

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

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

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

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

Two keys needed: PGP

Two keys needed: PGP

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

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

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

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

Sealed letters: by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665.

Sealed letters: by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665.

Several things make all this extra cumbersome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The revolution will not be recorded: LP confidential

The revolution will not be recorded: LP confidential

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

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

Good luck, unless you have the software

Good luck, unless you have the software

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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