Paper Bird: Three years old and growing

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from giladorigami.com

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from giladorigami.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feed the bird. If you like this blog, please think about pitching in:
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Tweet for Egypt on IDAHOT: Why it’s important

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Image by Amr Okasha for http://www.correspondents.org/ar/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Cairo graffiti, November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

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

 
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Fundraiser for Paper Bird: Keep us flying!

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If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
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You gave this blog your attention, and I’m incredibly grateful. Now please consider giving a little more — $5, $10, $100, whatever you can – to keep us going strong.

When I started writing here back in 2011, I thought of it mainly as a place for my own cantankerous, informed, but often infuriating opinions. It still is. It’s become something more. Paper Bird is no parrot. It’s escaped the cage of my intentions. The site is irritant, forum, megaphone. With your constant prodding, it’s analyzed and argued about faith, fraud, fashion, debt, the inequities of global economy, citizenship, migration, militarism, and much, much, more — not to mention sex; there’s always sex. It’s told urgent stories many people would never know of otherwise.

For example:

  • This blog’s 2013 story on skinhead violence in Russia was the first to explain what lay behind neo-Nazi attacks on LGBT people. It attracted more than 75,000 readers — and shaped much of the later international coverage.
  • Our report on Mona Iraqi’s raid on a Cairo bathhouse broke the news to the world only a few hours after it happened— and still delved deep into the politics and context. It drew almost half a million readers, the majority from Egypt. It helped make this a human rights issue at home, and stoked the storm of indignation that acquitted the men five weeks later.
  • Our essay on Charlie Hebdo was read a million times on this website, and reprinted from Denmark to Brazil. People defend free speech by debate, not acquiescence – and the arguments started here.

This blog can do way more. I’m asking for your support because this is still largely a solo effort. I want to give more time; I also want the blog to become something bigger, more diverse. Your generosity can fund some of my own research and travel (and help repair my old Mac, out of commission for six months now in Cairo). If worse comes to worst, it can help pay my legal fees in Egypt. But it can also:

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

From now till June 5 – my birthday, by the way – I’ll be nudging and cajoling you to give a little to a site that gives you facts, scandals, sex, shocking pictures, snarky captions, stories of rights and wrongs, and ways to fight back. Press the Paypal button. Do what you can. Since this is a fundraiser, I’ll throw out a cliché you’d never read on the regular pages: You, faithful readers, are the wind beneath our wings.
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 With your generosity, we can make this stop.

Icons

Madonna and fanboy, I

Madonna and fanboy, I

My friend Mauro Cabral, the great trans activist from Argentina, wrote this week on Facebook:

An American journalist wants to chat with me about Bruce Jenner’s story. She wants to know if I expect this new global leadership to help trans people in my country.

I told her that, to be honest, I am not following the story.

She asks me if I have good access to Internet.

Bruce Jenner has worn the two greenest laurels American life bestows, as sports hero and reality TV star. When he comes out as transgender, in an interview seen by one-twentieth of the country’s population, surely the world must be watching. The only holdouts are in the Stone Age caves of Buenos Aires, where people communicate by smoke signals.

For Mauro, this is the old American imperialism, sure that whatever happens in the 50 states shakes the planet. But it’s not just about foisting a new “global leader” on us. For me, an American, it also reveals a naïve confidence that the way we do politics is universal. Americans have given the globe a new kind of social transformation: change without action, progress without movements, transformation in the passive voice.

It used to be that when you dreamed of transforming society, you dreamed of deeds. Revolution was a name for that kind of action. Revolutions were compendia of great acts: manning barricades or withstanding massacres, the journées of bravery and danger, the assault on the Winter Palace, the confrontations with kings. Paintings or photographs preserve the figures of that age, in static and stylized tableaus; but even under those stiff cemented poses you can feel the taut muscles still pulsing, bursting through the flatness into our time and dimensions, like the withers of great horses straining to break free. They made oaths, which mortgaged their lives to future action; they pledged their fortunes and their sacred honor, or plighted an immortal solidarity on a disused tennis court. Of course, there was a lot of talking. They spoke and spoke. But when Patrick Henry cried out “Liberty or death,” or Trotsky shouted to the sweaty soviets about the dustbin of history, the words themselves became as hard as deeds. “The words fell like hammerstrokes,” people said. They meant that in the tension of transformation everything became an act. Each syllable forged a weapon. History was not what happened, but what you made: the energy of a common workman suddenly pounded time itself into shape as if it were molten steel.

Change: Communards in Paris, March 1871

Change: Communards in Paris, March 1871

Everybody knows revolutions are over. Their time is past. Now we have Social Change. Social Change is committed by NGOs, furtively, like masturbation. Progressive donors who fund progressive NGOs working on Social Change often have something called a Theory of Change, to help decide whose change is theoretical enough to get the money. If you talk to such a donor, they may ask what your Theory of Change is. Usually they don’t expect you to have taken time off to think of one. They want to know you’ve read their website, and come with something enough like their own Theory to pass. A plausible Theory of Change might go like this. People need empowerment. This doesn’t mean appropriating anybody else’s power (or money; donors can be sensitive on this point). It means making them feel better about themselves; which means talking about rights and giving them role models. The role models are vital; power flows from their fingertips. A few celebrities can charge the world with change like electric current purring through great powerlines. They stand alone like latticed steel towers, strung together by their own strength. They do the public work, while the NGOs wank in private. Change happens so seamlessly that it never even slipped into the active voice. You can imagine trying to sell something like this to the Parisian sans culottes, or the Communards. But they lived in an age of darkness, with resources infinitely inferior to our own. Our lives touch the stars; we have satellite TV. The Theory of Change is a theory of the celebrity interview.

Theory of Change; Model for improving supply chains for community case management of pneumonia and other common diseases of childhood (also known as helping people keep kids healthy), from http://sc4ccm.jsi.com/emerging-lessons/theory-of-change/

Theory of Change; Model for improving supply chains for community case management of pneumonia and other common diseases of childhood (also known as helping people keep kids healthy), from http://sc4ccm.jsi.com/emerging-lessons/theory-of-change/

Bruce Jenner is a decent person, who wants his life to mean something; but his image, now as before, is out of his hands. “We’re going to change the world,” he told the cameras (in all the discussion of his use of pronouns, no one asked if the “we” was royal or collective). And everybody agreed. He’ll change the world by being himself, and doing it in public. The word for such a sedentary world-changer is “icon.” An icon is, of course, a religious image; it’s necessarily inert. It answers prayers through the power of our faith in it, without lifting a painted finger.

Madonna and fanboy, II

Madonna and fanboy, II

And now he’s a transgender icon, an “icon of change.” “I couldn’t think of a stronger icon,” said one trans activist in Canada. “I’m team Bruce all the way.” In a New Zealand concert, Demi Lovato “dedicated her track Warrior to transgender icon Bruce Jenner,” “an American hero.” (“This whole fame thing starts taking over and people know your name and then all of a sudden – boom – you’re in rehab,” she warned him, apparently forgetting he went through that crucifixion before she was born.) There are no iconoclasts. Even people who don’t like him don’t dispute the icons’ power. “Trans people need an icon,” one op-ed read. “But Bruce Jenner is the worst possible choice.”

Madonna and fanboy, III

Madonna and fanboy, III

These aren’t metaphors. They’re manifestoes. They offer a strategy as clear as anything in Rules for Radicals or What Is To Be Done?  The panoply of ideas that icon-worship brings has become our essential jargon: the “teachable moment,” the “national conversation,” the importance of “awareness.” These goods are the intangible benefits celebrities can give us, just as healing radiates from the icon’s frame. The politics are magical and royalist. The “awareness” is entirely about the celebrities themselves, not of material facts that lie beyond their lives. Jenner took pains to emphasize in his interview, “I am not a spokesman for the community.” And he went on to list a lot of issues the community confronts: discrimination, health care, murder. But what sticks in the memory are the “simple goals” the cameras coaxed out of him: “To have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off.”

Under the nail polish, here are some figures about other transgender lives.

  • A 2011 survey of almost 6500 trans people in the US found they were four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 than the general population.
  • One-fifth said they had been homeless at some point. Those are roughly the same figures that a 1997 city investigation found in liberal, protective San Francisco.
  • Only one-fifth had been able to update all their IDs to match their lived gender, and one-third had no matching ID at all.
  • One-fifth had no health insurance (as opposed to roughly 16% for the general population at the time). 18% had been verbally harassed in a medical setting, and 19% had been denied care because of their gender identity or expression.
  • Trans people reported four times the national average for HIV infection — trans women, eight times. Trans African-Americans were ten times more likely to be HIV-positive than other African Americans.
  • 16% of trans people overall – 21% of trans women – reported they had been incarcerated; among African-American trans people, that crested to 47%. In 2014, the US government estimated that 40% of trans people in prison have suffered sexual assault or abuse. That’s ten times the numbers among other prisoners. In California, studies of state prisons found that 59% of transgender women held in men’s units had been sexually assaulted by other inmates. 14% had been sexually assaulted by staff.
  • Of the 6500 trans people surveyed, 41% said they had attempted suicide: almost thirty times the figures for the US population overall.

Bruce Jenner can put a face on some transgender lives. But after that? A comforting face can easily hide comfortless facts. What you’re left with is a trickle-down theory of consciousness: that fame rubs off; that visibility is contagious; that Jenner has the strength to change the “national conversation” because his image was on a Wheaties box once. What is this redemptive power of breakfast? In the South, where I grew up, generations of white folks started their day eating pancakes blessed by a happy black woman smiling generously from the label: Aunt Jemima, an icon of love. It didn’t stop them from getting up from the table and going off to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Crazed-looking white people worship an iconic African-American woman whom they’re perfectly capable of killing without a second thought

Crazed-looking white people worship an iconic African-American woman whom they’re perfectly capable of killing without a second thought

The politics of icons strikes me as one of the great gifts the gay movement proffered to America as a whole: so it’s natural that trans folk too should be expected to embrace it. (Remember, “transgender people need an icon,” even more than they do IDs.) “Gay Icon” actually has a Wikipedia entry; so do “Madonna As a Gay Icon” and “Cher As a Gay Icon.” Resilience, suffering, “triumph over adversity” nearly always figure in the definitions: “It is her perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that has earned [Judy, you idiot] Garland her status as a Gay Icon.” Drug addict! Fat girl! Multiple divorcée! Or as RuPaul says:

People always ask, ‘What makes a gay icon?’ People who have been ostracized or pushed outside of society relate to other people who have their exact same qualities and personality traits. The spiritual being having to dumb down to fit in.

I disagree, though. There’s a historical confusion here. When I was a kid back in the Middle Ages, learning to read by the light of burning witches, we had “divas,” not icons. Those indeed were famous women who had suffered and survived: Judy, Joan Crawford, Callas, Billie Holiday. Gay men identified with them because they offered a pushed-to-extremity version of what pop culture (or certain corners of high culture) promised to do: provide figures so immense, so superhuman, so intense in experience and emotion that they could contain all of us, like Whitman’s pan-American ego, and redeem our subjection to our grinding daily injustices by making it grandiose, gorgeous, unforgettable. Their sufferings were infinitely direr and more stylish. There was a tragic side, but this wasn’t catharsis: it was transfiguration.

Very few of these stars ever said anything in public about gay people. If they did, it was far from sure to be supportive. (Bette Midler was one of the only players before the 1980s who openly embraced a gay audience — and gay causes. That helped keep her more a cult figure than a major star. Meanwhile, Donna Summer, last of the disco divas, supposedly told a gay crowd that “AIDS is your sin … God loves you. But not the way you are now.”) But that was fine, because their usefulness wasn’t political but personal. They were tools to forge imaginary selves, means to endure the everyday by sublating it, the dialectic as redecorated by Douglas Sirk.

Madonna and fanboy, III

Madonna and fanboy, IV

The first top-rank, A-list star I remember who publicly exulted in her gay audience was Madonna. It’s hard to recapture how, as they say, transformational it was. She was the first real gay icon: somebody who promised not just inner triumph but the hope of everyone accepting you, loving you. There was no tragedy to her: neither in persona nor in person did she suggest suffering, being “pushed outside of society.” She did her own pushing. And she evoked not identification but adoration. Loving Madonna was an affair with the unattainable; fame was intrinsic to her being, and because she was famous she was radically different from you. There could be no question of her encompassing your problems. She was beyond all that.

Madonna-In-Bed-With-Madon-401853When I was in graduate school at Harvard, there was a young gay undergrad named Alek Keshishian, dying to be famous. I didn’t know him personally; his name showed up once on the student list for a section I was teaching, but he never appeared, and later he dropped the class. For student theater, he memorably staged a rock opera version of Wuthering Heights: Cathy and Heathcliff were rock stars, trying to deal with the pressures of fame. (Alek sent invites to reviewers from all the Boston papers, and got some favorable notices. This unheard-of self-advertising roused indignation in the dining halls: student theater was supposed to be for students.) Some of the songs he used in the opera were by Kate Bush and some were by Madonna, and when he contacted Madonna’s people to get the rights he managed, through sheer pushfulness, to speak to her. She took him on as fanboy and protégé, and after that he was in Fame Heaven. Straight out of college he started filming her tours and the backstage drama, and in 1991 he directed Truth or Dare  also known as In Bed With Madonna – which became the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Its fame was transoceanic. I was living in Budapest by then, and if I mumbled half-mendaciously to somebody in the city’s one gay club that “Madonna’s director was my student,” my chance of getting laid increased twelvefold. Fame does rub off, in a long-distance frottage.

Alek never really did anything outside Madonnaworld. The rest of his career comprised music videos and the like; most recently he co-wrote a film with her, about another couple dealing with the pressures of fame, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. If you Google him, he turns up on a page called “Today in Madonna History.” His story seems to me a parable of the period: not Wuthering Heights, but Great Expectations.                      

Madonna and fanboy, IV

Madonna and fanboy, V

You cathect to icons, but in a different way from divas. Divas once summed up your life; icons are imperial beings vastly above it, who bless it just by being there. Sorrow doesn’t touch them – Kylie MInogue said that divas “usually have some tragedy in their lives, but I’ve only had tragic haircuts and outfits.” The icons aren’t the drug addicts or the fat girls made good. They’re the rich kids who picked on the drug addicts and the fat girls. They’re emblems for an era where failure is the unforgivable sin. (B. J. Whiting, the great medievalist, used to ask his Harvard students at the beginning of every year to name the Seven Deadly Sins. A few always listed poverty, sickness, and unemployment.)

The fascination with celebrity is ingrained deep in Western gay life. Partly, I think, it comes from the debilitating experience of the closet, which despite the premature triumphalism of outness still shapes our lives. The wounds of self-concealment breed a fetish for completely public selves, all crevices open to the klieg lights.

Britney got her title in a 2011 poll by the Equality Project, and promptly reclaimed her virginity from the pawnshop.

Britney got her title in a 2011 poll by the Equality Project, and promptly reclaimed her virginity from the pawnshop.

These days, we justify this star-fucking by saying that young queer kids need role models. They do; but role models they can’t speak to and can never hope to be? No lonely trans or gay youth seriously thinks he’s going to become famous as Tom Cruise or rich as Tim Cook. Children dream, but they’re not delusional like adults. They know the destinies of the stars lie beyond their grasp. Most of the hyper-successful win through inheriting looks or money, or through pure random luck in the Babylon lottery we inhabit. Their triumphs aren’t imitable. Some have real prowess, as Jenner had. (There’s an argument that Americans indulge the immense salaries of sports heroes because it’s almost the only field of American life where you can’t fake success. You either make the touchdown or you don’t – unlike corporate CEOs, who can cook the books more ways than Julia Child.) But that prowess came as much from genes as from the gym; it isn’t readily replicable, any more than you can get Oum Kulthoum’s vocal range by practicing your scales. We all bought Wheaties with Jenner’s picture when I was a kid, but we didn’t buy the line that we’d become him. Icons don’t reveal possibility. They embody inequality. It’s no coincidence that celebrity politics flowered in the Reagan era, which didn’t just cement inequality but celebrated it as US society’s vital principle.

tony

I’m not gay, but if George W. asked me, how could I refuse?

But the icon appeals in a different way to the insecure and unwanted: it makes them feel accepted by the big guys, the in crowd, the Mean Girls or Heathers or the playground bullies. Icons are about how the powerless love power. (In the UK, Gay Times named Tony Blair, the warrior god, “top gay icon” of the last 30 years. No one would dare call you a fag if you could destroy a country.) My old friend Lisa Power, a distinguished British queer campaigner, is researching how activists identify their role models. The celebrity fixation, she wrote me, is “about approval and validation, proving that popular people want to hang with us.”

She added: “One of the longstanding activists that I interviewed said, ‘Icons? In my day we didn’t have icons, we had each other.’” And that rings true. The need for icons also suggests some terrifying loneliness that all this liberation we’ve undergone has yet to repair, has perhaps made worse. We hung together more when we knew we needed each other. Now, so full of borrowed hope, we’re hopelessly alone.

Madonna and Fanboy, V

Madonna and fanboy, VI

If the gays, adoring their celebrities, played a critical part in creating celebrity politics, it has spread beyond them. Oh, how it’s spread! True, no other social movement has succumbed quite so completely to the idea that celebrities in themselves can get you justice. Most movements simply use the famous for what they can extract. But the model’s seductive, corrupting. Women’s rights campaigns in America look increasingly like red-carpet photo ops: think of all those stars reading the Vagina Monologues. The more riddled with implausibilities the cause, the more likely it is to enlist celebrities for their power to blot out doubt. Nick Kristof’s neo-feminist “Half the Sky” brand  – a book, a film, and a PR package that calls itself a “movement” — relies on Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, and Eva Mendes to help him raid brothels, humiliate sex workers, and buy women “freedom.” The paradigm of this is Kristof’s protégé, the anti-trafficking icon and master brothel-raider Somaly Mam, whose vanity foundation collected stars’ endorsements like Pokémon cards: Susan Sarandon, the inevitable Oprah, Ashley Judd and Ashlee Simpson, Katie Couric and Bill Maher. Mam was a money pit  for “celebrity philanthropy.” Even after she was caught “publicizing her efforts with fabricated, lurid stories about herself and the girls in her shelters, which sex trafficking experts say dangerously misconstrued the problem at hand,” Marie Claire, the beauty magazine, took up the cudgel to defend her. Diane von Furstenburg stands by her. Image is all.

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I played a refugee once: Jolie at the UN

For all its US foundations, moreover, celebrity politics more and more goes global. The United Nations, since the 1950s, has called on “Goodwill Ambassadors,” famous people brought in to publicize its agencies’ work. But now the truculent stars insist on being more than spokesmen; they want credit for the work itself. The moon’s pale fire eclipses what used to be the sun. Angelia Jolie has graduated from “Goodwill Ambassador” to full-fledged “Special Envoy” on refugees; she speaks at UN meetings with a Method-acting look of expertise. Alain de Botton, a celebrity philosopher, defends the primacy of celebrity activism like hers: “Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, we ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions.” Jolie, he says, is one of these directions (along with Alain de Botton). She goes to Congo or Rwanda “to help people who are in great need. But more than anything, what she does is make Africa ‘sexy.'”

In 2012, on Human RIghts Day, the UN held a panel discussion on LGBT people’s human rights, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself attending. Three activists travelled to New York to speak: Olena Shevchenko, a feminist and queer rights defender in Ukraine, Blas Radi from Argentina who had helped draft the groundbreaking bill on gender identity there, and Gift Trapence, who had bravely defended imprisoned trans and gay people in Malawi. But the main speakers were two queer-friendly performers: Latino corazón-throb Ricky Martin, and the South African pop star Yvonne Chaka Chaka, both somewhat superannuated to say the least. (One nice thing about becoming a gay icon is that your healing power can bring your dead career back to life.) The officials there spent their time fawning over the stars. Ban praised Chaka Chaka as “the Queen of Equality.” The Dutch diplomat moderating the event called Ricky Martin “the King of Equality.” (Royalty and equality, of course, are not usually linked.) The people who had actually worked for human freedom were treated as second-class opening acts, their comments cut short and their accomplishments slighted in favor of a chanteuse and a former member of Menudo. The activists felt useless. The show said nothing substantial. The UN, stealing a bit of lunar light from the stellar celebrities, got the publicity it wanted. Everyone who mattered was happy.

Madonna and Fanboy, VI

Madonna and fanboy, VII

Puzzle as you like over why celebrities dabble in humanitarianism – principles or PR? It can’t be grasped on the level of personalities. A Marxist could tell you what “celebrity activism” is, how the whole game works. It’s not a way of transforming society. It’s a way of transforming needs felt at the base into the abstract language of the superstructure: of turning anger and desperation into safe and culturally acceptable representations. The concrete, material needs that people and communities experience – for health care, jobs, access to medicines, protection from violence – are surrendered for immaterial gains on the level of “culture”: for “awareness,” publicity, “public consciousness,” “teachable moments,” “conversations.” The scraps of those needs that survive the translation are there for celebrities to turn into entertainment; your rage becomes a show, your hunger a commodity for somebody else to consume. The gains for the poor are purely ghostly, a few flickers of light. Those who get something tangible out of the game aren’t the communities, it’s the celebrities – and, overridingly, the corporate system within which they work, the machinery of capital that makes them. Profits flow up and only representations trickle down. And the nature of the system is that we are all trained to feel good about this; even the activists and malcontents among us.

This is simply how things are in the late-capitalist United States; everything material evaporates into its own signification. Or as Nancy Fraser would say, people who want redistribution of resources quickly learn to settle for symbolic “recognition,” for genuflections and formal respect, for the small satisfaction of seeing themselves in a movie — because it’s all they’ll get. There’s a limit to how much any activist can fight back against this system of images and fictions. We’re all convinced now that the only way to get any material needs met at all is to play the “cultural” game, to translate them into symbolic terms. You act nice, you tamp down your anger and your desires, and you recruit celebrities to “raise some awareness.” But we have never calculated, and may in fact be structurally unable to calculate, what we lose for a pottage of allegorical and evanescent gains: how many demands are abandoned, how many needs left unrecognized and unmet, in the distortions of this mistranslation.

Madonna and fanboy, VIII

Madonna and fanboy, VIII

Sometimes the fabric of these fictions ruptures. Of course revolutions don’t happen any more; except they do. I drive each day in Cairo through Midan Tahrir. It’s a mound of earth. The military government is digging up the central traffic island for some unexplained project, like a bomb shelter; they’ve already planted a gratuitously gigantic flagpole there, plinthed on a grotesque sarcophagal stele. It’s all to keep it off-limits, keep you from gathering, fence the people away because they fear the people; the leaders live in the lightning-fringed apocalyptic dread that opens Pilgrim’s Progress; they fear the wrath to come. The people still want bread. What happened once can happen again. And then there’s Baltimore. In Baltimore the cops kill someone, and you know your own life has a use. In Baltimore they no longer wait or want to be spoken for, they don’t believe that change comes stacked in theories like eggs in cartons, they don’t believe that justice trickles down from absconded gods in the airwaves or the clouds. They know reality isn’t raw material for reality TV. Hunger and anger won’t submit to being translated. The pain that’s actual and unseen has more power than all the images some satellite, lost in the smear of stars, can absorb.

But the rest of us survive differently. Gay politics always talked of honesty, authenticity; but what’s left? To be queer now is to be caught trying to assert your own reality in a world that is more and more unreal. You are driving down a long straight highway in a desert, through bright sun flecked with strange-angled shadows, past painted yellow mesas flat as stage sets. A wind from the obverse of the sky blows over you, and hardens the beads of sweat on your face to diamonds. The towering props that mimic stone tremble in the air like aspens. You think, I could live like this: and the wind uncombs your hair.

Madonna and fanboy, IX

Madonna and fanboy, IX

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Deport me!

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

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

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

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

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Indiana: It’s more than marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Public accommodations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Religious freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Equality

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

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

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

Cover of NAACP pamphlet explaining the Civil Rights Act

Cover of NAACP pamphlet explaining the Civil Rights Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s another point.

Remember Russia?

Elena Klimova

Elena Klimova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

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

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Kerry to LGBT Egyptians: Enjoy jail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I misremember Iraq

1369847707_4085_memoryEveryone misremembers something. We mostly draw our lives’ meaning from the private world, so we tend to misremember sex: doing it better than we did, with somebody sexier than they were. Many of my own mismemories involve the media. I’ve a vivid visual memory, for instance, of walking down a car-free Fifth Avenue around 10:15 on a Tuesday morning in September 2001, eyes numbly fixed on an billowing void at the tip of Manhattan where the south tower of the World Trade Center had been (somebody running past told me it had gone down, but I didn’t believe it); the north tower was burning alongside and then I watched it collapse, thundering down slowly while dust and smoke blossomed like a flower on fire. Except I didn’t watch that. Just before it crumbled, I turned onto 27th Street, to a hotel where some of my employees visiting town were staying; that’s why I was on the avenue — racing to make sure they were all right; and a girl rushed into the lobby and gasped that the south tower had fallen. The image of the collapse, replayed on TV for weeks, imposed itself on what I actually witnessed like a double exposure; something a camera saw for me, scrawled in a palimpsest over what I saw.

518-pjpegThings like this give me sympathy for Brian Williams. You all know: the newsman claimed repeatedly that, during the Iraq invasion in 2003, enemy fire downed his helicopter. “We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans. … Our captain took a purple heart injury to his ear in the cockpit, but we were alone.” So vivid; such grunty language; not a word true. His helicopter wasn’t hit, one way ahead of him was. Williams was safe and sound.

 Williams tells his tale on the David Letterman Show. Italian subtitles included, in case he wants to seek Papal indulgence.

I feel for his confusion. If my own memories get mixed up with what the media tells me, then what about the media’s own memories? Those talking heads are conduits for all the stories the public knows. So don’t all the stories become theirs, part not just of their talk but of their heads too? Don’t American anchormen contain multitudes, like Walt Whitman — their lives absorbing by imperial osmosis all the unused experience around them, trivial and forgettable until filmed and told? I remember (I think) a story about Lyndon Johnson, Caesar of another of our imperial wars. Setting off to Camp David, striding the White House lawn toward a line of helicopters, he headed for the wrong one. A nervous Marine intercepted him: “Mr. President, that’s not your helicopter.” Johnson draped his arm around the soldier’s shoulder. “They’re all my helicopters, son.”

What I don’t get is why this is an issue. Williams made up a story. But he was in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history. The Iraq war, written by Bush with a little help from Tony Blair and Micronesia and Poland, was a gigantic fiction, as beautifully told and expressive of the moment’s cultural mythology as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or A Million Little Pieces, or Three Cups of Tea. The reasons were fake, the goals were fake, the triumph was fake. Nothing was true except the dead people, who aren’t talking. The war countered imaginary threats and villainies with imaginary victories and valor. Williams added his embroidery in the spirit of invention. Why are the other tale-spinners turning on him now?

Authorized American history of the Iraq war

Authorized American history of the Iraq war

The story of Williams’ little story is all personal now, background blacked out: it’s not about the war or the news business, it’s about Brian Williams. This is consistent with Williams’ career, built on the purely personal trust you can repose in words escaping that imposing lower jaw. The New York Times says he 

long had been considered one of the most trusted people in not only in [sic] the news business but in the country as a whole. He was trusted by about three-quarters of consumers, making him the 23rd-most-trusted person in the country.

But where does that confidence come from? I remember (I think) reading a terrifying linguistic analysis of Iraq war TV coverage, terrifying because its prose made the analysis sound like a high-tech military campaign. (“Activating the partition, that parameter becomes the pivot from which further exploration can move, that is, we can make comparisons within the corpus on the basis of the selected parameter” …) One chapter was: “The news presenter as socio-cultural construct.” Here I brightened. My sexuality and gender are already social constructs; will Katie Couric join them? Alas, all this means is that “the news presenter creates a socially acceptable persona.” But buried in that bland description is the reality. Williams, like the modern news business, is a construct of his audience. He challenges nobody: he sensitively serves up fictions they long to see and hear.

Why is it a scandal when Williams admits misrepresenting himself, but not when NBC admits misrepresenting the world? Why isn’t the scandal that NBC’s Tim Russert said, before the Iraq war, ‘‘I’m a journalist, but first, I’m an American. Our country is at war with the terrorists, and as an American, I support the effort wholeheartedly’’?  Why isn’t the scandal that CBS’s Dan Rather promised, ‘‘George Bush is the president. As just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where’’? The belief that war journalism was about fealty, not fact, came to infect every sentence said on air. The same linguistic study analyzed CBS broadcasts during the Iraq invasion, and here are snippets to set the mood:

They [US soldiers] gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. We honour their memories and send our condolences to their families … (March 21, 2003 CBS)

Just ahead on the CBS evening news, ties that bind: fathers and sons, duty, honour, country and war … (April 1, 2003)

When President Bush sent American servicemen and women to war, the entire nation went with them … (April 4, 2003)

We dedicate this broadcast to our fellow Americans who have died fighting in the war so far … (April 7, 2003)

The scandal is journalism’s complete submission, as the “war on terror” raged, to the fantasies of patriotic allegiance.

War boy: Dan Rather doing his duty

War boy: Dan Rather doing his duty

Some of us remember this capitulation (or think we do) and we’re likely to blame government pressure. And the Bush administration did lean hard on the press. Just a month after 9/11, they reprimanded TV networks that had dared to air videos from Al-Qaeda. David Dadge, in The War in Iraq and Why the Media Failed Us, writes that Condoleezza Rice

placed a conference call with the media executives of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News Channel, and NBC. Rice told the executives that security personnel were worried at the inflammatory language of the videotapes and feared that they might contain hidden codes with which to direct other attacks on American soil. … At that point, Rice withdrew from the conference call allowing the media executives to discuss the matter on their own.

In their discussion, the media executives agreed that, in future, the videotapes would be heavily edited and greater context would be provided. … The President of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, said, ‘‘This is a new situation, a new war, and a new kind of enemy. Given the historic events we are enmeshed in, it’s appropriate to explore new ways of fulfilling our responsibilities to the public.’’

Strategic insight. Tactical solutions. Useful lies: Website of the Rendon Group

Strategic insight. Tactical solutions. Useful lies: Website of the Rendon Group

New ways! … Meanwhile, the administration had its own propaganda machine, untraceably intricate. According to James Bamford’s book on Bush-era abuses of intelligence, “a shadowy American company, the Rendon Group” was “paid close to $200 million by the CIA and Pentagon to spread anti-Saddam propaganda worldwide.”

Soon after the attacks of September 11, the company received a $100,000-a-month contract from the Pentagon to offer media strategy advice. Among the agencies to whom it provided recommendations was the Orwellian-sounding Office of Strategic Influence … apparently intended to be a massive disinformation factory.

In the 1990s, Rendon had helped create the Iraqi National Congress, the front for con-man Ahmed Chalabi to promote himself as Saddam’s successor. Come 2001, Chalabi called on a former Rendon employee — Australian journalist Paul Moran — to generate bogus news stories about “bunkers for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons research hidden throughout Iraq.” Chalabi wielded these stories to push any wavering Bush officials toward war. In other words, the administration was paying for propaganda to lobby itself.

Ahmed Chalabi, with completely inexplicable object

Ahmed Chalabi, with completely inexplicable object

Yet it’s a mistake to suppose state pressure was the main factor corrupting US media. The internal logic of news as business was what shut down their critical functions.

I remember (I think) a brief, brief window after 9/11 when some on-air independence was possible. I remember (I think) a broadcast on CBS, probably September 13 or 14, where an Afghan civilian displayed some of the devastation Clinton’s 1998 missile strikes caused. The message was that a history of violent action and reaction underlay the attacks; the implication, that Americans should also examine what their own government had done. I remember (I think) remarks on TV suggesting that the President’s September 11 speech, where he faced the camera panicked as a rabbit being fucked by a howitzer, displayed a lamentable default of leadership. These glimmers of critique shut down after Bush bestrode the ruins of Ground Zero with a bullhorn, hugging firefighters and walking tall. They shut down mainly because the proprietors of news saw, in that image of rejuvenated manhood, what sold.

Bullshit, with bullhorn: Bush in New York City, September 14, 2001

Bullshit, with bullhorn: Bush in New York City, September 14, 2001

They needed to sell. Broadcast media were besieged by the increasing popularity of cable news outlets, Fox first among them. Print media were beleaguered by the Internet and the near-impossibility of making web platforms pay. Competition didn’t cause better news-gathering. In keeping with the pattern of corporate restructuring in the neoliberal era, it prodded cost-cutting, not product improvement. Foreign news suffered most. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber write, “The time devoted to foreign coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC fell from 4,032 minutes in 1989 to 1,382 in 2000, rebounding only slightly following the 9/11 attacks to 2,103 minutes in 2002.” Cable news was even worse.

CNN by 1995 had a news-gathering network worldwide of only 20 bureaus, with 35 correspondents outside the United States—“only half of what the BBC has had for a long time to cover world events on radio and television” and “only a fraction of what the three largest international newswire services maintain on a permanent basis.”

From Network (1976): Arthur Jensen explains to anchorman Howard Beale how the business works

But if behemoths like Fox News were one kind of competition, there was rivalry from below. I remember (I think) all the laudatory screeds proclaiming blogs the new frontier of Truth — faster, fresher, interactive, untrammelled by editorial control. For “citizen media,” the citizen media told us back in 2004,

News is a conversation, not just a lecture. The story doesn’t end when it’s published, but rather just gets started as the public begins to do its part — discussing the story, adding to it, and correcting it.

The participatory ideal meant, of course, the blogger didn’t have to do her own checking or correcting. Fake facts would flood the world.

Dodging more imaginary bullets: The Village Voice on the right-wing blogosphere, 2008

Dodging more imaginary bullets: The Village Voice on the right-wing blogosphere, 2008

Back then, blogs were novel. Michael Massing wrote with astonishment in 2005 about a “technological innovation that, along with the rise of talk radio and cable news, has made the conservative attack on the press particularly damaging …. Internet Web logs, which allow users to beam their innermost thoughts throughout the world, take no longer than a few minutes to set up.… many of them are by adolescent girls writing their diaries on-line.” But some were influential, and most were conservative. One pro-blog blog speculated:

Imagine, say, the coverage of Watergate being treated in part this way. Rather than Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward being the sole storytellers, blog-influenced journalism would have had them in part leading a conversation about the scandal … I suspect that a Watergate investigation in the blog era would have come to a conclusion faster.

I remember (I think) the Nixon administration in its conceit and power, and I doubt a “conversation” would have done the trick. Unpaid bloggers would have given up, discredited or ignored. Citizen journalism didn’t usually fight the status quo. More typical was Andrew Sullivan, who thanked God for giving us George W, and famously inveighed against “terrorist fellow-travellers” and “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts.” Blogs denigrated dissent with glib, factitious certainty, while forcing a cornered mainstream media to come up with low-cost, easy stories to tell.

“A disciplined and well-organized news and opinion campaign” brought the press to heel, Massing declared, “directed by conservatives and the Christian right.” Paul Krugman, in 2004, pointed to “the role of intimidation” in silencing criticism. “If you were thinking of saying anything negative about the president, you had to be prepared for an avalanche of hate mail. You had to expect right-wing pundits and publications to do all they could to ruin your reputation.”  I remember (I think) a short essay by Susan Sontag in late September 2001 that asserted simply:

This was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions … A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened.

Sullivan answered by calling her “contemptible” and a “pretentious buffoon”; others dubbed her “moral idiot” and “traitor.” The New Republic asked, “What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common?” Historical awareness was an orphan in the new permanent now.

Terror threesome: Osama, Saddam, and Susan

Terror threesome: Osama, Saddam, and Susan

No one idealizes the hierarchical old media, but the faux-democracy of new media, where a thousand schools of thought supposedly contend, is in fact even more malleable to the market’s mandates. As war impended, the press ignored unpopular voices:

From Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel, "Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent," Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, October 2003

From Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel, “Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent,” Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), October 2003

While Williams dodged imaginary bullets in Iraq, his employers axed Phil Donahue’s talk show because, an internal network report warned, he presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The show risked becoming “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” Meanwhile, the US dropped murderous cluster bombs, and laced munitions with poisonous depleted uranium. “These important stories,” writes Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy, “became known to many news watchers on several continents. But not in the United States.”

When CBS obtained the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos, the Pentagon asked them to spike or delay the story; the network complied for two weeks. A CBS executive later explained, “We are like every other American. We want to win this war. We believe in the country.’’ When the pictures finally aired, right-wing media bayed in fury. ‘‘CBS should be ashamed for running the photos,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote: “What was gained by releasing these images now? CBS could have reported the story without the pictures.’’ (A decade later, the identical Goldberg complained that news outlets were not publishing the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons. “Running satirical pictures of Mohammed,” he intoned, “is now a requirement of news reporting — because those images are central to the story.”)

TV viewers got plenty of patriotic music, though.

MSNBC joined Fox in using the Pentagon’s own code name for the war—“Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The logos featured fluttering American flags or motifs involving red, white and blue. … Promos for MSNBC featured a photo montage of soldiers accompanied by a piano rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Then there was “embedding,” cementing friendly journalists in military units. Thrilling as Space Mountain, it kept reporters secure in the propaganda cocoon. Michael Massing devastatingly dissected the work of one embeddee, the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable. “I quickly became part of an all-American military microcosm” in Fallujah, Constable wrote, with the Iraqi enemy “invisible” and the residents “frustratingly beyond our reach.”

Local informant: Constable cradles Apache, a dog she rescued while embedded with Marines in Fallujah. Photo by Chris Borouncle

Local informant: Constable cradles Apache, a dog she rescued while embedded with Marines in Fallujah. Photo by Chris Borouncle

I strained to listen for signs of humanity in the darkened city. I imagined holocaust—city blocks in flames, families running and screaming. But the only sounds were the baying of frightened dogs and the indecipherable chanting of muezzins, filling the air with a soft cacophony of Koranic verse. … We knew people were running out of food, and we heard rumors of clinics flooded with the dead and wounded. But the few Fallujans we encountered were either prisoners with handcuffed wrists and hooded heads, or homeowners waiting sullenly for their houses to be searched, or refugees timidly approaching military checkpoints with white flags … Sometimes on patrols, people approached us reporters and pleaded for help in Arabic, but there was nothing we could do.

Massing commented:

Al-Jazeera, by contrast, had a correspondent and crew inside the city, and several times a day they were filing dramatic reports of the fighting. According to their accounts, the US bombing was causing hundreds of civilian casualties plus extensive physical destruction. As for what Constable took to be the Koranic chantings of the muezzin, Arabic speakers could tell that these were actually urgent appeals for ambulances and calls on the local population to rise up and fight the Americans. So while Arab viewers were getting independent (if somewhat sensationalized) reports from the field, Americans were getting their news filtered through the Marines.

Embedded, of course, is what Brian Williams was during his fantasy brush with death. This illumines the last key tool in the propagandization of US press: personal melodrama replaced analysis. If Al-Jazeera sensationalized the situation, US media sensationalized the individual story. There was no big picture. The war was a pointillistic canvas of feel-good or feel-frightened tales, politics and context painted over.

Still from video of special forces "rescuing" Private Jessica Lynch. Photo: AP

Still from video of special forces “rescuing” Private Jessica Lynch. Image: Associated Press

One story is still emblematic. In March 2003, Iraqi troops captured Private Jessica Lynch, a 19 year-old from Palestine, West Virginia. American officials claimed she was wounded in a heroic fight, firing her weapon down to the last bullet. US special forces rescued her eight days later from a hospital in Nasriyah; dramatic footage of the mission was broadcast worldwide.

Newsweek cover, April 14, 2003

Newsweek cover, April 14, 2003

Except, as David Dadge writes, “Lynch had not been wounded, she had not been tortured, and the raid by the Navy Seals was staged for the cameras. Indeed, her injuries were entirely consistent with a road traffic incident.” It took the BBC, not US media, to unravel the story: “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”

Witnesses told us that the special forces knew that the Iraqi military had fled a day before they swooped on the hospital. “We were surprised. Why do this? There was no military, there were no soldiers in the hospital,” said Dr Anmar Uday, who worked at the hospital. … “They cried ‘go, go, go’, with guns and blanks without bullets, blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show for the American attack on the hospital — action movies like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan.” …

The Pentagon had been influenced by Hollywood producers of reality TV and action movies, notably the man behind Black Hawk Down, Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer advised the Pentagon on the primetime television series “Profiles from the Front Line”, that followed US forces in Afghanistan in 2001. That approached [sic] was taken on and developed on the field of battle in Iraq.

Surreally, the movie that became news became another movie. Networks besieged Lynch to buy the rights to her story. CBS came in for especially harsh criticism for chasing a film deal while seeking a news interview — giving them a vested interest in not unearthing the truth. The onetime sacrosanct news division shrank to an extension of the entertainment arm. Even Lynch’s hometown newspaper objected: “The need for journalistic independence should be self-evident. Reporters have a hard enough time trying to get to the truth without having to worry about spoiling a book deal.” The military version, debunked, still became an NBC TV movie: Saving Jessica Lynch.

Based on the not-true story

Based on the not-true story

All the elements of  Brian Williams’ fable are there: danger, rescue, rhetoric. It’s as if Williams took Lynch as a pattern for his lie.

Williams himself has been central to transforming news into personal narrative. He’s expert at making himself the story, assiduously chasing celebrity. He’s vital to NBC’s brand, even the entertainment division – think his cameos on 30 Rock. The “ultra-viral supercuts of Williams’s newscasts” that his pal Jimmy Fallon sets to hip-hop tracks have “viewer metrics that rival Williams’s marquee hard news interview with Edward Snowden.” Walter Cronkite polled as the most trusted man in America (22 notches above Williams) back in the 1970s. But it’s hard to imagine him playing himself on Family Guy.

Then and now. L: Walter Cronkite reports on space exploration in the 1960s. R: Brian Williams  reports on Peter Griffin's accidental space shuttle launch.

Then and now. L: Walter Cronkite reports on space exploration in the 1960s. R: Brian Williams reports on Peter Griffin’s accidental space shuttle launch.

Williams is a Jay Gatsby for our condition, taking over a self and story nobody else was using, to compensate for the vacancy of his own. But precisely because of that you mustn’t make his fable his personal fault. What matters isn’t the man but the environment that made him, where news isn’t fact but a superior sort of fiction, a compound of inflated personalities and imagined stories, a mirror to reality TV. That should be the scandal.

The Iraq war was a turning point, when news dropped even the pretense of informing people. In fact, news about the war left them even less informed than before. In late 2003, for instance, a study found that 69% of the mainstream media audience believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11; 57% believed Iraq was closely tied to Al-Qaeda; 22% percent believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And these delusions couldn’t just be blamed on liberals’ usual bogeymen. 71% of CBS viewers held one or more of these fictions as gospel — only slightly behind Fox News viewers, at 80%.

Writing this, I’ve immersed myself again in the non-events, the fake history, between 9/11 and the fall of Baghdad, and I find it horrible anew. The years were a delirium when hardly anything you heard was true. The war was like those lost seasons of Dallas or Roseanne; like Pam, we dreamed it all, and Williams’ dream was only a segment in the greater reverie. Yet while we were dreaming, others were dying. Why aren’t we scandalized by that? They died because we could not endure opening our eyes. Estimates of “excess deaths” among Iraqis in the war years range from 100,000 (for the war’s first 18 months) to 650,000 (by 2006). Those include deaths from disease and deprivation; one figure for those who died by violence alone is 150,000. That is thirty times the mortality of U.S. troops in our violent dreamtime. Our dreams had no responsibilities. Are we awake yet? “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”

US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

I didn’t watch US news often during the 2003 war. During the months of buildup and the war itself, I remember (I think) being in Cairo, working for Human Rights Watch. I remember (I think) going to weekly demonstrations, at Sayyeda Zeinab or Cairo University, where a few hundred brave people protested the wars: students, leftists, Nasserists, Islamists. I remember (I think) cordons of Central Security police and intelligence officers around the demonstrations, helmeted, black-clad, armed, outnumbering the protesters ten to one. I remember (I think) the day the war broke out; I remember seeing Edward Said in the garden of the Marriott Hotel, gaunt and sick, amid an atmosphere too grim for me to dare approach. I remember (I think) the smell of tear gas drifting across the garden. I remember (I think) how forty thousand people gathered against the war in Midan Tahrir that afternoon, a presage of the revolution eight years later; I remember (I think) how Mubarak’s police beat them back, broke bodies, arrested thousands of leftists and tortured them. I remember (I think) spending the next week with lawyers day and night, going to police stations, collecting names and testimonies, documenting the brutality of America’s Egyptian proconsul. I remember (I think) the night that Baghdad fell. I was in the Greek Club, the ancient gathering place of Cairo’s intellectuals; a funereal somberness hung over the place, because the dictator had fled, and that should be an reason for rejoicing, but no one could see anything to come of the manner of his overthrow but violence, vengeance, division, death.

I remember they were right.

I remember something that did not happen. Late in 2002, while war talk crescendoed, I had a dream. I dreamed I was in a house somewhere on the American coast, I think in South Carolina (one of the most militarized states in the Union, fat with factories and military bases). There was a highway between the house and the grey ocean. In the dream, I heard a rumble as of something monstrous on the move; I looked out and the road was thick with a long convoy of tanks, of armored personnel carriers, of trucks loaded with anti-aircraft guns and missiles, with armaments I couldn’t even name; they thundered by endlessly, more and more and more. I asked what they were and a disembodied voice said, “They are going to Iraq.” They spent hours passing while I tried to sleep, an incessant cavalcade, as if all the destruction the world was capable of were amassing somewhere and could not be stopped. They drowned the surf under the grind of wheels. I huddled in bed, terrified. When I say that didn’t happen, I mean it was a dream; it wasn’t true. But it was more real than any of the news I saw over the long years since.

Remembering 9/11, by Pat Linse

Remembering 9/11, by Pat Linse

ISIS kills gays: A history of violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a man in a black jacket:

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

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

Screen shot 2015-01-24 at 9.03.59 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bandits are shot in the head.

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

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

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

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

The last two photographs are in a park.

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

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

The woman is stoned to death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

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

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

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

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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